Wednesday, February 28, 2007

An Open Letter To The Producers of America's Next Top Model

Dear Ken Mok and Tyra Banks,

You idiots!

First, let me say that I am in awe of your show. Since my girlfriend introduced me to the show last season (I'd never watched before because I sort of assumed she'd get mad at me for watching something about hot babes walking around without pants on but, to my surprise, no she digs it more than I do), I've become a full-fledged ANTM junkie. I greatly enjoyed tonight's 2 hour premiere for season eight, until you guys made a crucial, foolish error.

You kicked off Kathleen.

Look, you and I both know she wasn't going to be America's Next Top Model. Her pictures weren't good, she couldn't work the runway, her fashion sense was iffy, and her hair could best be described as a "mo-'fro" (a mohawk afro). You were well within your rights to eliminate her in a few weeks once the other, more talented contestants began to develop into stars (like, I'm guessing, Cassandra or Samantha). But kicking her off after the first show? Madness. Absolute madness! Easy money fell in your lap and you threw it away. Clearly you hadn't seen the footage from the two episodes that aired tonight before you kicked her off; if you had, you would surely have known what you were giving away. Booting Kathleen at the first elimination is like discovering the richest gold mine in the world and immediately dynamiting the entrance to the cave.

At least we had the two episodes; two episodes, I might add, where Kathleen, a 20-year-old with a helluva Brooklyn accent, dominated all of the confessional segments because everything out of her mouth was comedic gold. Were you listening to her at the girls' first photo shoot (where the models had to pose for a politics-related pic)? Kathleen got the "anti-fur" photo and when asked about it she remarked, "I've got the anti-fur photo, but I'm actually pro-fur because it makes you look HOT!" When the topic arose again in front of the judges and Twiggy asked Kathleen to expound upon her position on the issue she said, "Well I don't think you should kill an animal for its fur, but if it's already dead, then I don't see why you wouldn't take its skin and make a coat out of it." An honest, albeit incredibly stupid and hilarious, answer, and when Twiggy and you, Tyra, tried to explain to her that, no, animal furs are not made from previously deceased livestock she refused to believe you, "Why not?" she protested. "People die naturally all the time! Animals too! Why not just make the furs that way?" Kathleen firmly believed that the fur industry should simply wait out their skin suppliers and maybe I'm the stupid one, but I think that idea is kind of brilliant.

Okay, so she didn't get the idea behind the photo shoot, but at least she admitted it ("I know, right? I didn't get it!" I think were her exact words). You chose to kick Kathleen off and I'll agree that her picture reflected her uncertainty about her task, but it was no worse than the picture by dead fish Natasha (who walks the runaway like a drag queen...and not a good drag queen) or plus sized Diana (who is very pretty but a black hole of personality). Surely you would have been well within your rights and smarts as judges to vamoose either of those two duds and kept the highly entertaining Kathleen around, at least for a few more rounds. C'mon, look at Top Design. They do that crap all the time because they know these people make great television and that's why we watch. As long as the best two or three wind up in the finale, we HOPE the crappy but entertaining people last as long as possible. Because that IS reality teleivision: crappy but entertaining.

I'm not going to boycott or anything; I'm too pathetically addicted not to watch (especially for this season's Melrose, Renee, who wants to be tough but can't stop crying anytime anything happens, and for Jael ,who sounds like a frat dude who just took a huge bong hit every time she speaks). But c'mon — Kathleen would have been so entertaining. But you had to go and close down the mine early. Now we'll never know what riches were still inside, waiting to be discovered.

Yours in obsessive viewership,
Matt Singer

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M.I.A. - Bird Flu

M.I.A. posted a video for her new song "Bird Flu" on her MySpace page. Anchored by a loop of an agitated chicken squawk, it's a galvanic and wildly original track. The Sri Lankan born, London raised artist has an album due out on Interscope in June, and from this it sounds like it could trump the already superb Arular, released in '05 (and whose influence has seeped into the Top 40, in the guise of Nelly Furtado and Fergie).

The song is influenced by a dance craze originated in the Ivory Coast. At a nightclub in Abidjan, DJ Lewis invented what he called the "Bird Flu" dance in order to "bring happiness to the hearts of Africans, and to chase away fear" after a strain of the virus was discovered in the country. The dance involves flopping around like a dying bird, to be less than descriptive. There are plenty of examples on YouTube if you'd like to see an example - the cutting is too quick in M.I.A.'s video to get a real sense of it.

Thanks to Sia Michel's Playlist in the New York Times for the heads up.

This Week on IFC News...

I've got my review of Black Snake Moan, and you can also read Alison Willmore's interview with director Craig Brewer. Alison kind of dissed on Brewer in The IFC Blog not too long ago and he actually contacted her; turned out he was a reader and a fan so he was like, "Yo, don't dis on me." So the two sat down to discuss his work:

Making a movie is a very vulnerable thing, especially in my situation — I'm not doing "Grudge" sequels, I'm letting everybody know, hey, this is from me. I'm not Sam Jackson, I'm that crazy girl at the end of the chain. She's very much alone, she's always been alone, and even though he does this thing that, symbolically, oh my god, he's chaining a woman up against her will, he really is the only person in her life who's not wanting something from her.

I've also got a interview this week; I talked to director Cam Archer about his new IFC First Take film Wild Tigers I Have Known:

I'm one of the few filmmakers who would actually discourage someone from seeing my film. [laughs] I think that film will definitely have a greater life on DVD, but there's something to seeing a film in a theater that is really pretty fucking awesome. It's the way to see a movie you're really interested in. And "Wild Tigers" being in theaters is just so surreal; I always just thought it would end up being on DVD-Rs that college and high school students would be passing to each other in the hallways. At least I hoped for as much.

And on this week's podcast, Alison and I work through out post-awards season hangover, own up to our picks and mistakes (okay, mostly my mistakes, cause I suck), and I tell you all who should be the next host for the Oscars. It's a good choice too; the best, I'd say. I dare you to disagree.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Film Comment Selects: The Wedding Director, 13 Lakes, Ten Skies

The Wedding Director (2006)
Last year I was introduced to Marco Bellochio with two stateside releases, of My Mother's Smile (a.k.a. The Religion Hour) (2002) and Good Morning, Night (2003). I preferred the former, a conspiratorial look into the process of Catholic canonization, as Sergio Castellito skeptically confronts his mother's impending sainthood. A moody piece about airbrushing the fatal flaws of deceased loved ones, it created a suffocating atmosphere where cute school teachers are Catholic spies and the only man Castellito can trust is his half-crazed murderer of a brother. Good Morning, Night was a nuanced drama re-enacting the 1978 kidnapping and murder by the Red Brigades of Aldo Moro, president of Italy's center-left Christian-Democratic party.

The Wedding Director is decidedly a lesser accomplishment, although it has its pleasures. An absurdist comedy with shades of 8 1/2, it follows Castellito's famed film director after he runs off to Naples following an accusation of sexual molestation at an audition from one of his actresses. Once there, he stumbles his way into a job; that of filming the wedding of a princess, and a rather enigmatic one at that. She speaks in flirtatious whispers and coy glances before running off without explanation. It goes without saying that it's an arranged and unwanted marriage, and that Castellito falls rapturously in love.... The director is thrust into a florid melodrama of his own making, and the self-reflexive jokes come fast and obvious. The rest of the film becomes a descent into Castellito's and Bellochio's fanciful imagination, a variety of surreally comic vignettes strung together without really cohering, the quality of each varying wildly. One peak is the story of another director who fakes his own death in order to win a year-end award; another is the opening wedding sequence, where the bride's train becomes a death trap of snapped heels and bruised knees.

It's a failure, but a rather enchanting one.

13 Lakes
(2004) and Ten Skies (2004)
James Benning's two avant-garde nature films hold as much tension and mystery as any mass market potboiler. The films consist of 13 and 10 ten-minute static takes of their respective subjects, with the sound recorded on site (although it is not necessarily synchronous). The images shift and shudder in unexpected ways, as the eye traces the exhaust from a microscopic jet plane or the subtle undulations of ice on Lake Superior. This is not to say one's attention is riveted throughout - they are made to let the mind wander - one can take them in leisurely or rigorously, but they always manage to arrest your gaze in the end. Anyway, you should read Michael Anderson on these, he's thought longer and deeper about these works. Here he is on 13 Lakes at Senses of Cinema, and on 10 Skies at Tativille.

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A classic moment from the Independent Spirit Awards

I'm doing a piece on the Spirit Awards for IFC and watching old clips from the ceremony on IFC's Brightcove player. This one kind of blew my mind. I wish the Oscars were this drunk.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

"Hi, I'm the Oscars. Have you seen my entertainment value? I seem to have lost it."

Though I was pleasantly surprised to see all those awards for The Departed right at the end, I have to say that this evening's Oscars left me really disappointed. I know every year people say the show sucked but I'm typically not one of those people. I dug Chris Rock at the Oscars. I loved Jon Stewart. Ellen Degeneres left me feeling a little flat. I enjoyed her gag with Marty, trying to pass him a screenplay, but her schitck seemed a little one note ("Golly gee, how'd they let me in here?" Ya got me sister...).

The rest of the material wasn't much better, though kudos to a killer song from Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly (written by Marc Shaiman, Adam McKay, and Judd Apatow) sending up the lack of Oscar love for comedians (though Little Miss Sunshine would later shock me by capturing a Best Original Screenplay statue). I also loved Tom Hanks' line as he was corralled by backstage host Chris Connelly; his "That's right Chris -- LOTS more fun!" was so hilariously over the top and snarky I couldn't tell if they'd rehearsed it that way or he was just genuinely annoyed that he had to talk to that guy. That was the only moment I rewound to watch twice.

Michael Mann's well-edited piece on "America in the Movies" was fairly authoritative given its time limitations, and put together with a lot more wit and intelligence and a lot less pretentiousness as these sorts of things typically are. For evidence of that, see the other montages on the same show; the one about writers didn't even seem to feature that many movies. They must have shown Shakespeare in Love and Barton Fink fifteen times in that thing. Where was the love for Sullivan's Travels? The Player? The Front? Sideways? The Third Man?

Otherwise: feh. Last year the Academy Awards had interpretive dance (including one for Crash that infamously included faux groping); this year, they had a bunch of acrobats twirl around behind a big white screen and come together to form, whatever, a shoe or a gun. Uh, why? Then they wonder why the show runs long...

In happier, more name-dropping-related news (I know, I'm a tool), here's me at the Spirit Awards chilling with Elliott Gould. He claimed to be a fan, that he had just seen me on IFC shortly before arriving at the awards. I am firmly convinced the man is lying. But the man is from California Split so any compliment from him, even a fallacious one, is a good one. I would have even settled for my favorite line from CS: ""What do I have to say? The man is bad. He's a complete asshole. We all know that, right?"

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Happy Oscars

The Oscars: class all the way. This is the opening from 1989, starring Snow White and Rob Lowe. It's truly astonishing. (via Jim Emerson's Scanners)

Good luck on your Oscar pools everyone. I'm betting my future on "Binta And The Great Idea" for Short Film: Live Action.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

White Dog (1982)

Samuel Fuller's White Dog is the final film he made in America, and it stands with Park Row (1952) and The Big Red One (1980) as the most personal of his works. It doesn't draw from his life experience as the latter two do (as yellow journalist and WWII dogface), but his emotional investment in the material is just as strong - some of his most powerful imagery is contained within White Dog, in part thanks to the rich color photography of Bruce Surtees, the regular cameraman for Don Siegel in the 70s.

The film is known mostly for the controversy surrounding it. Paramount refused to release it after a firestorm arose about the presumed racist content. It tells the story of a stray dog picked up by a struggling actress (Kristy McNichol). She soon discovers that it is an attack dog, one specifically trained to attack blacks. She takes it to a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield), who is obsessed with deprogramming one of these "white dogs", having failed to succeed in previous attempts.

Seeing it today, Paramount's fears seem absurd, as it is stridently anti-racist, the dog's actions being presented as a horrific perversion of nature. Fuller's dog is an innocent creature twisted into a monster by the sins of humanity - making the film a close relative to Bresson's masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). The final shot makes the relationship between the two films concrete - and it's a stunner.

As emotionally devastating as it is, it's still a Fuller film, its enraged tone a far cry from Bresson's Olympian calm. There's a lot to treasure here, not the least of which is Burl Ives' performance as Carruthers, the owner of the Hollywood animal trainer facility. He's introduced throwing darts at a cardboard cut-out of R2-D2 ("That's the enemy!"), and maintains a fatherly bluster throughout. Paul Winfield is superb as the obsessed trainer who refuses to simply kill the animal; in rehabilitation he sees a way to the eradication of racial hatred. In this dogged (and doomed) idealism, he comes to resemble, in J. Hoberman's words, a black Captain Ahab.

*I saw it at Film Forum, and the audience was awful, laughing at everything, from McNichol's outfits to a pivotal scene of Winfield feeding the dog a hamburger. Such derision ruined the truly funny scenes for the rest of us. You know, those who actually prefer engaging with works of art rather than reducing everything to camp. It's easier to feel superior, I suppose, but I just wish they could leave it for films that actually deserve it or court it, like Crash (2005) or Snakes on a Plane.

Anyway, to cleanse my palate, here's Fuller's cameo in Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965):

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

YouTubeArt: Orson Welles Reciting Moby Dick

In 1971, on a break from acting in Claude Chabrol's Ten Days' Wonder, Welles started filming scenes for an intended one-hour adaptation of his 1958 stage production Moby Dick-Reheased. Started in Strasbourg, he continued in his home in Orvilliers, with his cinematographer Gary Graver improvising the look of being at sea with a broken mirror and a splash of water. The above is a snippet of the surviving 22 minutes, which were reconstructed by the Munich Film Museum, and which I was lucky enough to see during Film Forum's Welles retro in '05.

I cribbed all of the above info from Joseph McBride's invaluable book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, which describes the astonishing amount of work Welles produced in the later years of his life...all of which is caught up in legal limbo due to the jerry-rigged financing Welles had to construct since Hollywood wouldn't support any of his projects.

Also on YouTube: a clip from his final feature The Other Side of the Wind, which has never been released (but Peter Bogdanovich says a deal with Showtime is in the works); and a clip of Welles reciting a monologue from The Merchant of Venice.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Q: Is It American Idol Finale Night Already?

A: No, but with LaKisha Jones's performance it sure as hell looked like it.

Remember her face, because I think she is your next American Idol. She brought me to tears.

Melinda Doolittle, Stephanie Edwards, and Sabrina Sloan almost took down the house this evening--each of them were outstanding, soulful, smooth, a joy to watch and listen to; but then came LaKisha and everything was different. Simon said he was tempted to tell the other 23 contestants to book their plane tickets home after she sang.

The boys should be pretty afraid right now. Last night was sheer boredom, with only a slightly good performance from Blake Lewis (aka the beat boxer) who took a chance on Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know", while the rest sang flat, off-key, and with no charisma. I thought Chris Sligh (who has been a favorite of mine the past few weeks) was going to trip over his own feet when he danced to a dull rendition; Phil Stacey sounded frighteningly like Clay Aiken (that is so 4 seasons ago); and the sweetheart of the competition, Sanjaya Malakar, looked like he was sleepwalking. On the flipside, A.J. Tabaldo had enough bounce to be a cruise ship singer, and Paul Kim has got to put his shoes back on.

Tonight the ladies were competitive, energetic, and fun; plain and simple, this is what Idol is about. I must say that I'm feeling a little bad for Antonella Barba who had had some so-called "dirty" pictures posted of her on the internet, which don't amount to much more than a silly snap of her peeing, and another drinking a Bud Light. Google the pics if you want, but you'll be underwhelmed. Jordin Sparks is merely 17-years-old; she had a shaky start, but pulled through with some major power, and a lot of soul. Watch for her, I think she'll give LaKisha some competition. But there are two runners-up for the evening, Melinda Doolittle and Sabrina Sloan (who happens to be a friend-of-a-friend). These two gave me shivers. But LaKisha made me cry. If this is what the girl's got in store for the first show of the season, Christ, I might faint when I see what happens on the real finale night.

Results show tomorrow! The bottom two girls, and bottom two boys will leave the show.

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Music and Lyrics (2007)

There's a movie coming out this week called Gray Matters; I reviewed it in the new issue of IFC News. Its writer/director professes a love of 1940s movies and claims her intent with Gray Matters is to reinvent those sorts of films for a modern audience. She falls a bit short of her noble goal, but a film out this week called Music and Lyrics succeeds where it fails. I'm not saying Hugh Grant is Cary Grant...okay I'm sort of going to say that and everyone is going to laugh at me and give me a wedgie in blog comment form...but H. Grant's part, that of washed-up pop star Alex Fletcher, would have made a fine role for C. Grant in his middle-to-late years. I see Audrey Hepburn in the Drew Barrymore role (Sorry Drew, not going to make that comparison. Not in the same league, though you're quite adorable in this and most films).

Alex Fletcher was in an 80s band called Pop that looks like Wham! and sounds a bit like A-Ha and Duran Duran; their big hit was called "Pop Goes My Heart." Alex was really "the other guy" in the band — when the better-looking, more talented Colin was convinced by his entourage that he was better-looking and more talented he quit the group and went solo. Without his creative partner, Alex floundered, a musician without a lyricist, and eventually turned to making a living by playing sad gigs at amusement parks and high school reunions. As Music and Lyrics begins, Alex is at his lowest point: he can't even keep a gig at Knott's Berry Farm (and his manager, a genial Brad Garrett, warns he can't play bar mitzvahs — 13-year-olds have no idea who he is).

Another actor might have played Alex as a loser and a mope, but Hugh plays him like Cary would: as a quick-talking charmer who uses the skills he had as a pop star to keep himself shut off from his own feelings. In to his life walks Drew Barrymore's Sophie Fisher, a replacement for the girl who regularly comes to water his plants. Without getting into too many further details, Alex gets in a once-in-a-lifetime shot at a comeback, writing a new song for the hottest act in the world, a vapid blonde named Cora (a shockingly good Haley Bennett) and after some convenient happy accidents, Sophie becomes his new lyricist. Cue the flying sparks, both creative and sexual.

There was a period there was Hugh Grant got sick of playing charming British dudes, or perhaps the audience got sick of seeing Grant playing charming British dudes and Grant got wise; maybe it's a combination of the two. But for a while there — About a Boy, American Dreamz, The Bridget Joneses — he was out to tweak himself a little, show some range where before there seemed to be none. He played lazy, he played angry, he played asshole, and he did them all quite well. Indeed, there was still something quite charming in all of the more flawed characters he played. Music and Lyrics is Grant back in old-school mode, with his star power's wattage off the charts.

Hugh Grant will never be Cary Grant. Never. But... (stay with me...) he may be this generation's next best thing. Like his nominal predecessor (though unlike Archie, it's his real name), Hugh can do funny or serious, and he's great with that screwball-style of quick dialogue (though Barrymore, who barrels into the film like a hypochondriacal tornado, might be even better). He can make things funny with a gesture or a smile, and he always brings the best out of his female co-stars, a big reason, I imagine, why so many huge actresses have worked with him. Again, Cary Grant could have played the part better. But not that much better.

Barrymore is good too, better than I expected really; one scene that finds her confronting an ex she hasn't gotten over (played by Campbell Scott, who does more in one scene than some actors do in whole movies), and he gets her flabbergasted and she plays it real and funny at the same time. When Scott writes her off, Barrymore manages to cry without crying and laugh without laughing; it's really quite a remarkable feat of facial and nasolacrimal dexterity. Her character is underwritten but Barrymore's sheer presence fills in the backstory for us, she brings it to life.

Two more brief points (I'm gushing a little too much — I liked it, but not this much). First, this is a movie about pop music and so it's essential that the songs sound like real ones that could be #1 hits. This is a stumbling block for plenty of music-centric movies (like Grant's American Dreamz, for instance). Here, they really work; a few are quite hummable, due in large part to the role of composer on the film being filled by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger. Second, a movie that features biggest pop star in the world needs to fill the role in a way that a)makes us believe the actress could be a huge pop starand that b)also makes fun of the whole notion of big pop stars. And Haley Bennett (with help from the screenplay by director Marc Lawrence) accomplishes both. She looks, moves, and sings like a legit Top 40 teeny bopper (Shakira, who gets name checked, is a clear target of the satire), and in the dialogue scenes she portrays vapidness to perfection, not so much ditsy as entirely and wholly without thought. Plenty of people have played dumb memorably, I don't know that anyone has ever played insipidness with such precision.

It's worth seeing. It's a good date movie. It's funny. It's sweet. It's light. It's cheesy, but not too cheesy. It's a romantic comedy that does not stink.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Film Comment Selects: Retribution (2006)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa hasn't had a film of his released in the states since his two wonderfully quirky 2003 releases, Bright Future and Doppleganger. 2005's Loft popped up at a few festivals (including '06's Film Comment Selects) but soon disappeared from the international marketplace. According to Derek Elley at Variety, it was a DV-lensed horror film about a romance novelist haunted by a mummy. Sounds like a return to his genre roots, albeit an unsuccessful one (although still tapped for a remake, according to Elley).

I'm happy to report that Retribution, while firmly in the J-Horror ghost film genre, stands up to Kurosawa's high standards. The soulfully sullen Koji Yakusho (cleansing the stink of Babel) is Yoshioka, a violent homicide detective who questions his sanity when all the evidence from a recent drowning murder points to himself. Soon similar drownings pop up across Tokyo, deflecting suspicion from Yoshioka, but there's the matter of a spectral woman in a red dress...

The strength of Retribution lies in its impeccable compositions (he's fond of frames within frames here, of doorways and the false frames of mirrors), and in turn how these compositions induce a sense of decay that transcends the central ghost story. Every shot contains a puddle or artfully composed audio of water dripping - all of Tokyo seems about to be drowned. This idea is far more frightening than the woman in red (although I expect Riona Hazuki's inexpressive porcelain doll features to haunt my dreams for a few nights), and expertly put across.

It's Japanese title, Sakebi, means The Scream, and it's no lie. If you have sensitive ears, I'd stay away from this one.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Jonas Mekas: 365 Films

I'm a bit late on this, but glad I found it eventually: Jonas Mekas has a project. He's posting a new short film every day in 2007. The day it is posted it is free to download, after that they cost a modest $1.99. I mourn for all I've already missed, such as shorts documenting Ornette Coleman in studio, Ken Jacobs showing off his Nervous System projector, and endless other curiosities. You should rush over there today, though, as the short shows Jonas playing around with children's toys on the set of Scorsese's Departed, followed by an impressionistic glimpse of the scene where Ray Winstone burns down an apartment. Beautiful smoke!

There are a raft of other videos available for download: including shorts by Jim Jarmusch (starring Tom Waits!), Ken Jacobs, Kenneth Anger, Hans Richter, and tons more by Mekas. These cost a bit more at $5.99, but I think I'll soon buy the Jacobs film, "Pushcarts of Eternity Street", which just screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival - so I figure what I saved on plane fare justifies the monetary indulgence.

Mekas was one of the pioneers of the diaristic style taken up later by jokers like Nanni Moretti and Caveh Zahedi, exemplified by the wonderful Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972). It's the only film I've seen by him, so this website project is a gift from the cinema gods, as I've always adored his Village Voice column, a platform for unbridled enthusiasm and scorn. As J. Hoberman and many others have noted, his Voice work was a forerunner of our modest blogs. We owe him at least $1.99.

Also! He has an exhibition at PS1 going on right now! It's entitled "The Beauty of Friends Being Together Quartet". Along with a suite of films, look out for this:

"the exhibition also includes 40 portraits of friends selected from individual film frames, 40 stills from footage of New York City, and his recent 40 films made as an introduction for the podcast project 365 Films – one sequence shot each day of the year (also available on"

So we can all catch up on the 365 project. It's Mekas Mania!

Announcement: Fresh Looks!

Our beloved friend Alberto Zambenedetti is organizing a film festival at NYU relating to Italian or Italian Amercian experience. He's looking for film and video submissions, so click on the above photo for all the juicy details.

YouTubeArt: Fred Astaire on the Oscar Levant Show

Above is a remarkable bit of video from 1958: Fred Astaire as a guest on the Oscar Levant Show. Oscar was a film composer (most famous tune, "Blame it on My Youth" (1934)) and occasional actor, appearing in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and The Band Wagon (1953).

In this remarkably informal clip you'll see Levant play Bach, crack jokes, and accompany Astaire on "You Can't Take That Away From Me".

(discovered on Bird Lives)

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Film Comment Selects: Exiled (2006)

Johnnie To is a master. There's no more doubt in my mind after seeing Exiled, the second film this prolific HK director made last year (the other, Triad Election, the sequel to '05's Election, opens at Film Forum on April 25.

Screening as a part of the eclectic Film Comment Selects series at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center, it's a tightly scripted action film centered around the friendship of four gangsters. It's a pseudo-sequel to 1999's The Mission (a must rent for me now), containing the same cast playing different characters.

Mark Olsen's description in the press notes compares the film to both Leone and Peckinpah, and I'd have to agree with him. The ritualistic action sequences that favor grand operatic gestures over realism are pure Leone, while the fatalistic attitude of a group of men whose moral codes are passe in the modern age is derived from Peckinpah, while the final shootout is a direct homage to The Wild Bunch.

But enough about the past...the film is bracing from the start, as To is a brilliant crafter of opening sequences (see the astonishing long take that opensBreaking News for a further example). Two duos descend upon a humble corner house. In succession they knock on a woman's door, looking for a man named Wo. In the exact same shot-countershot set-up, the woman disavows Wo's existence. Then, in a high angle crane shot, we see the two groups relax in a nearby public garden. Their leaders, Simon Yam and Anthony Wong, share a cigar. Everyone lights up. Then a blue moving truck rumbles into view, and they wordlessly descend upon it, staring at the man inside but allowing him to enter. A cowardly cop drives up, only to be driven off by the pinpoint shooting of a aluminum can sitting near his feet. Yam and Wong follow Wo up the stairs, setting up a classic Leone-esque standoff that begins the story proper.

What's amazing about this opener is how much story and character information is dispensed without saying a word. The woman's stubborness is deepened as the film progresses, eventually becoming a central element. The cop shows up throughout the film, a self-consciously comic counterpoint (he retires at midnight!) to the pistol opera happening around him. The cigar lighting belies a deep friendship between Yam and Wong that is explored and problematized through each succsessive action sequence. The blue truck becomes an escape vehicle, which then breaks down - another motif repeated throughout. The aluminum can returns in the final shootout as an ingenius way to time the quickness of the battle. The economy and grace of his storytelling is astounding (and I've only mentioned a few of the patterns he introduces), especially considering that he produces two films a year.

And it's all anchored by Anthony Wong's face (sitting, above), one seemingly forged for the cinema - with drooping jowls, cavernous pockmarks, and perpetual sunglasses. His stonefaced charisma introduces a note of comic tension into every shot he's in - making Exiled a very funny film among it's many other virtues. He's a brilliant comedian, something which I noticed in the otherwise drab drag racing hit Initial D.

And oh those action sequences. Flowing curtains, doors flying end over end, the unexpected uses of tarpaulin, and luxuriant slow-motion caused some dumbfounded grins to perk up my non-cinematic visage.

Exiled was picked up by Magnolia Pictures, but no release date has been set, as far as I can tell.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

American Idol Week 5: Your Top 24!

Hollywood week was really hurried along this year. Idol upped the editing big time, condensing four days of tryouts and tears into a mere two hours and over two evenings. That's both good and bad news. On the one hand, we don't have to fret about the loser contestants grating our last nerve (i.e. Amanda: "...God rewards good people..." and "We can get any guy back home."). Then again, it is completely great to indulge in the petty arguments during late-night group rehearsals that are sandwiched between a lot of un-tactful flirting in the hotel hallways. For better or worse, it's jolly fun to watch tired 17-year-olds negotiate song choice and choreography. But I'm over it because now we've got our Season 6 family, and we get to start voting.

I should be more honest; rarely do I vote until the crucial, final weeks. I know I should be more active in the process, "get out the vote" if you will, but damn, dude, it can take hours redialing the hotline for the right contestant (and the phone battery gets bleeding hot next to your head.)

Anyway, there is a hot bunch out there for us to hear in the coming weeks, which are made even hotter by the absence of Perla, the Shakira wanna-be, who was plain obnoxious. Very much unlike the beat-boxer guy named Blake, who kicked up a slammin' group audition with 3 other fellas that had Paula on her feet for an ovation. More good news came as funny man Chris cruised to the next round, and when we were introduced to a girl named Leslie Hunt who, despite her awkward manner, already sounds pro.

Signing off for now. Watch out for the boys as they perform live next Tuesday.

Matt's Comics #2: "Staple Me, MY DEADLY!!"

This story is pretty much true, except for the parts where the stapler talks. The band-aid you see on one of my fingers is where the thing really got me (and bad...I lost a lot of blood...which may be part of the reason I began imagining the stapler was talking to me...)


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Oh, and...

...happy valentine's day.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

If there is a jauntier movie about a man defending himself against charges of murder than Witness for the Prosecution, I haven't seen it. There are literally hundreds of movies like this, where "innocent men" in the wrong place or the wrong time endure a nightmarish trial with their very lives hanging in the balance. Most are dramas, many are melodramas, some are suspenseful, plenty are overly mopey. Billy Wilder, genius that he was, made a comedy about a man on the steps to the gallows. Incidentally, Wilder would later remake The Front Page into another comedy about an innocent man awaiting execution, but that's more from the perspective of the newsmen reporting the story, not the man whose head is being fitted for the noose.

Based on a Agatha Christie short story and, later, a play for television (starring Edward G. Robinson) and the stage, it is, in the classic Wilder style, a slyly funny movie about a deadly serious subject. The immortal Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid, an aging barrister still recovering from a heart attack, hounded by an oppressive nurse (Else Lancaster) who won't let him smoke and drink and do his job as he's accustomed to ("If I'd known you'd talk so much, I wouldn't have woken from my coma," he tells her in one of their more pleasant exchanges). He's barely been back on the job an hour when a case falls in his lap: Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of killing an old rich widow and he claims he's innocent. Sir Wilfrid interrogates him, blinds him with light from his monacle, and so believes him. But Leonard's German, former cabaret singer wife Christine (vintage Marlene Dietrich) cooly informs the lawyer that she will say what her husband wants because she indebted to him but that she is, in fact, still married to a man in Germany, and that she is, in fact, not entirely certain of her husband's alibi.

You can see the rough outline of the play: the first half largely takes place in Sir Wilfrid's office, the second half in a British courtrooom. The second half is certainly little heavier than the first, but Wilder (or perhaps Christie, I guess) keeps things light even during the darker moments. One of the witnesses against Vole is his alleged victim's housekeeper, who's hard of hearing, and Laughton's brilliant cross-examination of her exposes her malady simply by modulating the tone of his voice to very funny effect. As the witness steps down, she protests that's she's demanded a hearing aid from the state but still hasn't received one. She asks for assistance in the matter from the judge, who replies, "My dear madame. Considering the rubbish that is being talked nowadays, you are missing very little."

I want to, but I won't discuss the great, great ending of the film which includes the sort of shocking, wild plot twists (yes, multiple) that tons of movies try to do (most recently, the wretched Smokin' Aces) but can't pull off. The movie has at least four good twists, three of which come flying fast and furious in the final scene. It's an ending good enough to give you whiplash.

I watched Witness for the Prosecution in the early hours of Valentine's Day, and it seems like an oddly appropriate choice, especially for those out there who like to remind us that this isn't much of a holiday and that it's largely promoted and maintained by greeting card manufacturers and flower wholesalers. Beneath the comedy and the story of Vole's trial, Witness is about the relationship between Leonard and Christine, about the sacrifices one spouse will make for the other, how deep love goes, and how, ultimately, it's basically impossible to tell how someone really feels about you until they save your life or stab you in the chest. And by that point it's to late to do anything about it.

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The Hot Rock (1972)

A gem about a gem, The Hot Rock is the sort of film that inspired Steven Soderbergh to make a bunch of movies about funny, likable, slightly inept thieves. I know this because the internet told me so, but it was pretty obvious while I was watching this movie, which I had never heard of before and watched on a complete lark because it co-starred George Segal and it was from a period (the early to mid 1970s) when, in my opinion, George Segal was the balls.

I absolutely loved this movie, and that is probably due, in part, to the fact that I'd never heard of the picture and didn't have high expectations for it and it also starred Robert Redford who I always think I'm going to hate in every movie he's in. Of course, then he charms me in every movie he's in and I remember that's why he's one of the biggest movie stars of the last half-century: specifically because he can charm everyone into liking him. Likable bastard, making me like him. Why can't he play a leper or a guy who eats puppies?

So The Hot Rock is one of the two films Soderbergh watched as research for the Ocean's pictures (The other, awesomely enough, is Ghostbusters. Soderbergh is so cool he hurts me and my lameness). He pretty much borrows everything, from the milieau of location-heavy comedic heists to the camraderie of the thieves, and what he didn't use for Ocean's Eleven he took for Twelve which is arguably even more Hot Rockian in its construction. I love both Ocean's, but The Hot Rock is maybe a little better, a little funnier, a little more satisfying, a little more organic, and I would guess that Soderbergh, cool as he is, would agree with me.

Redford plays John Dortmunder, freshly released from prison (just as Danny Ocean is at the start of Eleven) and ready to score. He's picked up from prison by his brother-in-law Andrew (Segal), who was part of the reason Dortmunder was in the clink in the first place. He doesn't want to trust Andrew but he really can't resist, especially when Andrew's got a honey of an assignment picked out: an African ambassador to the United Nations (Moses Gunn, giving both regal and sinister with equal aplomb) wants a rare gem that's being displayed in the Brooklyn Museum. He could go through diplomatic channels but he's pretty sure that won't work and even if it did, it takes too long, so he hires Arthur and Dortmunder to steal it.

Without ruining too much, the heist is relatively early in the film and it goes both well and poorly; they steal the gem but they lose it too, so they've got to recover it, which means another heist, and so on. The movie is full of inventive schemes; and, really, inventive schemes are the best parts of heist movies. You present an impossible objective and you watch your heroes figure out a way to make the impossible possible. It's the best part, except most heist movies have one good scheme; this one has like six. I'm not a math guy, but I think that, mathematically, that makes The Hot Rock six times better than every other heist movie ever made.

Call me biased, but I'm sorry; I simply cannot not love any movie that involve priceless human excrement, guys climbing walls with ropes like the Adam West Batman TV show, and Zero Mostel playing a shyster. Here he's the lawyer to one of Redford's gang, and Zero, in full-on Max Bialystock mode, steals every damn scene. Has any human ever played despicable as lovably as Zero? He was like the Hulk of lovable assholes: the jerkier Zero get, the more likable Zero get!

Along with The Hot Rock, my favorite Redford picture is The Sting. What is it about the guy that makes him so good at playing desperate con men? He's like an adonis — his hair is so perfectly tossled in The Hot Rock it looks like he just stepped out of a shampoo commercial — so why does he play scumbags so well? And Segal; well I've already established that Segal is the balls, but here's a great example. He has almost no jokes in the movie, but everything he says and does is funny. He plays a similar character to the one I love from California Split: both are sort of losers who put up good fronts, he doesn't let you see their desperation but you can sense it behind their laugh and their cool-dude sunglasses. I also want to point out the other two members of the gang, Ron Leibman and Paul Sand, who aren't big stars (I didn't know either one until I looked them up on IMDb and realized I'd seen them each in a bunch of stuff) but who hold their own with Redford and Segal wonderfully. Leibman is the wheelman who proclaims he can drive anything and then gets that boast put to the test when the boys shove him behind the stick of a helicopter. Sand is the explosives expert and the best impressionist and actor in the group and he has several memorable transformations.

In a better world, The Hot Rock would be revered and it signature catch phrase, "Afghanistan bananastan!" would be known the world over. But this is not that world. In this world, you've got to DVR it when it plays AMC at 6 in the morning. I advise you to do the same. Ocean's Thirteen's coming out this summer and you need to know where Soderbergh's stealing all his tricks from in advance.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

From the 'Chuck Norris Is Awesome' Files...

From Chris' Invincible Super Blog

Ninjas with laser guns versus Chuck Norris' fists? Please...ninjas, unless your laser guns shoot Chuck Norris fists, you are going down. Without having read it, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is the third greatest comic book of all time (after Amazing Fantasy #15 and NFL SuperPro #1.

Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos was made by Star Comics, an imprint of Marvel that was a big deal in my youth; they made all of Marvel's comics of licensed properties from toys and cartoons. Their comic of Silverhawks was totally airwolf, and I had way too many issues of their long-lived ALF comics.

Coincidentally, Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos airs occassionally at like 5 AM on Adult Swim. And it is totally amazing, even though they only made five episodes of it.

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Be Cool (2005)

Be Cool isn't as bad as people said when it came out (37% on Metacritic, 29% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it's not much better than people said either, and it's not even in the same league as its predecessor, 1995's Get Shorty. I'm a huge Get Shorty fan, but the widespread hatred of its sequel by both critics and audiences convinced me to stay away, and I never saw the film in theaters or on DVD. But hey — it was on cable television last night and I have DVR and no life.

John Travolta returns as shylock-turned-Hollywood-producer Chili Palmer, but Get Shorty writer Scott Frank and director Barry Sonnenfield are M.I.A. (they're replaced by Peter Steinfeld and F. Gary Gray, respectively). In the first film, Chili was an endearing hero; he was a criminal, for sure, but he had some very likable qualities. He was completely unintimidated by guns or threats of violence but he was totally starstruck by Hollywood and moviemaking; in a very memorable sequence he casually beats up his nemesis' stuntman/bodyguard (played by a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini) and then whispers incredulously as he walks away that he can't believe he just met a stuntman. By the time Be Cool begins, Chili is a jaded Hollywood vet, and the twinkle in his (and Travolta's) eye is gone. He's still hard to intimidate but without the innocence to counterbalance it, he just comes off as laconic to the point of not caring about anything. Travolta and a truly wretched hairpiece (which approximates his 'do from Get Shorty, only this one's shiner and doesn't move in a stiff wind) sleepwalk their way through a plot involving Chili's first foray into the music biz.

Get Shorty was fairly faithful to the original Elmore Leonard novel; Be Cool is significantly different than its source. That's not a bad thing in principle, but Gray and Steinfeld's changes are rarely for the better. Harvey Keitel's character, a record executive named Nick Carr, is beefed up into the main protagonist, but Keitel is completely out of his depth — his performance is so inauthentic it's hard to image Keitel had read the part, or listened to music, or learned exactly what a music exec does before the cameras rolled. Leonard's Raji was an angry black pimp; Gray and Steinfeld's is Vince Vaughn acting like a black stereotype, and the results are a lot less funny than they probably sounded on paper, although Vaughn does have a few genuinely funny moments with his gay bodyguard Eliott, played by The Rock in a performance that gleefully skewers his wrestling/action hero persona. In the novel, the character of Edie, the widow who Chili helps out, was a relatively minor role; here she's played by Uma Thurman and becomes Chili's key sidekick/love interest, mostly, I think, so Uma and Travolta can get back out on the dancefloor to recreate their far more memorable pairing in Pulp Fiction. The film's big heavies? Cedric the Entertainer and Andre 3000 from Outkast. Get Shorty was genuinely funny, but it had an air of menace as well. Dennis Farina was a legimate menace (or at least the character he played was, I'm sure Mr. Farina's a standup guy), and plenty of characters were brutalized or bumped off over the course of the picture. Cedric and Andre aren't scary, they're comic relief in a movie that's already a comedy. No stakes and a hero that doesn't seem to care about anything equals a pretty dull story.

Which is a shame, because individual moments in Be Cool do stand out. Vaughn and The Rock drop some gems ("Twinkle, twinkle baby"). The first scene, with James Woods and Travolta and a really good joke about f-bombs in movies, kills. And Steven Tyler is absolutely hilarious, albeit unintentionally, doing a terrible impression of himself, talking business with Chili and Edie at the Staples Center during a Lakers game (Kobe just chills out by the scorer's table for some camera time). Steven's memory even seems fuzzy -- when he thinks Chili wants him to be in a movie he demurs, "I'm not he kind of the musician that's had to do stuff like that he says," a cheeky joke, I guess, about the fact that he's doing it in Be Cool. I guess life on the road completely erased Wayne's World 2 from his memory. Maybe Steinman never saw it.

All in all, pretty meh, but man this is an awesome picture:

In an unrelated story: PITCHERS AND CATCHERS REPORT TODAY. The calendar says winter, but the gods of spring are out. I can't wait.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

This Week on IFC News...

In honor of Valentine's Day, termites Matt and Rob (plus Termites-in-spirit Alison and Michelle) talk about their favorite un-sexy sex scenes. Here's a sample from R.'s piece:

They whisk each other away to Havana on speedboat fumes, gropingly do the salsa, and (cue the angsty Chris Cornell ballad) furtively hump under latticed shadows at a seedy hotel. It's all Hollywood handbook seduction — lots of dead-eyed stares and sensitive cheek grazing, but no hint of idiosyncrasy or humor — that is, nothing identifiably human. At least Tubbs (Jaimie Foxx) gets a cute premature ejaculation joke in his scene of amor.

Also, I've got two new reviews, of the Serbian film Grbavica, about women trying to survive on their own after the Bosnian war, and the French film Days of Glory, about North African soldiers remarkable sacrifices during World War II. It's a good week for political docudramas:

So to say that "Days of Glory" is perhaps more important than it is good, or to note that it is a uniquely French experience (just as, perhaps "Glory" is an American one) does not matter. The movie has already changed the world for the better and is now as much a part of history as a retelling of history. At that point, everything else is pretty much gravy.

And on the IFC News podcast, Alison and I discuss the career of Nicholas Cage. And remember, you can now subscribe to the IFC News podcast on iTunes. So now it really is a podcast, not just a sound file you can stream.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Tazza: The High Rollers (2006)

The second highest grossing film in South Korea from '06 (behind only The Host) was Tazza: The High Rollers, and it's easy to see why. A glossy genre piece with stylized performances, a knotty but lucid plot, and a breezy jazz score, it's pure entertainment.

It would be impossible to list all the twists of the plot, but let's just say it's about a gambling addict, Go Ni, who steals his sister's alimony payout and blows it all on a hwatu game. He then vows to win it all back, and runs away from home to learn from one of the three greatest hwatu players in all of Korea, Pyeong. Soon Go leaves Pyeong for the beautiful Madam Jeong, owner of a particulary boisterous gambling house/brothel. She's played by Kim Hye Soo in a smoldering performance that transcends the predictable femme fatale arc of her character. And so on.

It's based on a popular comic strip, which possibly explains the density of incident in it's 2 hour 20 min. running time. What's shocking is how swift it moves, as each new character is given their own idiosyncratic tic, and from scene to scene it can move from bedroom farce to violent gangster flick. And none of it seems forced. A small miracle, really.

Tazza runs through February 15 at the ImaginAsian Theatre.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Technology provides me yet another way to waste my time

The new household computer came with this groovy program called Comic Life that lets you make your own comic book pages using their assortment of templates, panels, word balloons, etc. It's really easy to use, and with the webcam that also came in the computer I am now Matt Singer: THE GREATEST COMIC BOOK MAKER IN THE ENTIRE APARTMENT (until Mel tries to make one).

I give you, my first masterpiece:


Friday, February 09, 2007

Termite Games: Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects (2005)

Pretty much the only video games I have time for at this stage of my life are the ones based on the comic books of my youth, which are also the comic books of my immature adulthood. Basically if the game has Spider-Man in it, I have to play it. And so I rented the awkwardly titled, awkwardly constructed and awkward-to-play Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects.

Essentially, this is a fighting game that lets you (and a buddy, if you're the sort of nerd that has other nerd friends) beat the crap out of each other as an assortment of Marvel heroes and villains, along with a roster of characters created by Electronic Arts specifically for the game. Most of the EA characters are thinly veiled doppelgangers of the Marvels; for instance you've got some doof named Hazmat, formerly Dr. Keith Kilham (!!!), who injected himself with five different untested vaccines to survive a chemical attack by terrorists and eventually turned into a green guy who swings around on lines and crawls on the walls just like Spider-Man. Solara is basically a female version of The Human Torch, Johnny Ohm has electricity powers like Storm, Brigade is a big tough guy like The Thing, and so on. Paragon, who is sort of the focus of the story (more on that in a second) is not only a rip off of one of the Marvel characters (Wolverine) but also of the Top Cow character Witchblade, who she looks like almost exactly.

Look, I'm all for a game where I can play as a whole mess of characters and though I'd rather play with established guys I know, I'm not against the concept of these "Imperfects" (though their name sure says it all, doesn't it?). But by showing a total lack of creativity in "original" characters, by piggybacking off the Marvel guys that are already playable in the game, you're basically cutting the amount of different playable guys in half. And would you rather play as the real Spider-Man or the crappy guy you've never heard of that acts just like him and looks like Ecto Cooler colored ass? Exactly.

Though the characters are somewhat lacking (the full Marvel roster tops out at ten: Thing, Wolverine, Elektra, Daredevil, Storm, Venom, Spider-Man, Human Torch, Iron Man, and Magneto), the fighting's pretty good. The characters' moves are somewhat limited but they're well-animated, and attention has been paid to their unique attributes and styles. For my money, a few of these characters — particularly Daredevil, who's a karate-fighting, billy-club-throwing badass — have never been better represented, or fun to play as, in a video game. Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty enjoyable to land in one of the seven different arenas and pummel some poor Imperfect into submission. Most of the in-game artwork is by Jae Lee, and man do I loves me some Jae Lee comics. The character design is pretty good too, though most of the women are alarmingly whored up. Here's Storm, who has worn some pretty slutty outfits in comics, but never anything this bad:

Can you imagine trying to stop an alien invasion wearing nothing by a thong? What happens if someone shoots you in the butt? Should that be EXTRA protected instead of less well-protected than normal? Yikes. She is going to catch a cold dressing like that. A cold, and possibly herpes.

Anyway, the game's creators make only a couple of characters available when you pop the Marvel Nemesis in for the first time; the rest you need to unlock by playing the odious "story mode," and here is where the game really begins to stink. First off, calling it "story mode" is generous; if this shambolic collections of cutscenes assembled seemingly at random were a comic, it would certainly the worst comic ever made in the history of the world. From what I could gather — and some of this is probably conjecture — a well-dressed but eeeeeevil scientist whose skin is covered in lacquer named Niles Van Roekel wishes to create a new army, and so creates the Imperfects. Meanwhile, simultaneously, a loose collection of Marvel's heroes (the ones listed above) stumble onto an alien invasion of Earth. Their plan? To wander around between the same seven locations (there's only seven different levels remember), punching every alien they come across. Eventually either they'll punch all the aliens back to their home planet or they'll die. TREMBLE IN ANTICIPATION GAMERS!

Since progressing through the story unlocks the characters (most of the good ones too, like the aforementioned Hornhead, plus Iron Man and Thong Song Storm), you're sort of beholden to trudge through to the end, meeting the faceless, generic villainry head-on. You're not even allowed to select the hero you want to use; each hero is assigned to certain levels, and after you clear those, you'll pick up the adventure with a different guy. That's good when you get to a character who kinda stinks (like, say, Venom), but that means when you're using a character you really enjoy, you'll eventually have to put him down to replace him with a character who kind of stinks (like, say, Venom). Each time you beat all of a hero's missions you'll have to play as an Imperfect and defeat the Marvel hero, turning them eeeeeevil. Cause, you know, a ballet dancing woman who can create earthquakes with the giant syringes on her hands called Fault Zone could totally beat up The Human Torch.

Occassionally, your forward progress stops so you can play "training" levels with a Van Roekel experiment gone wrong named Paragon ("DAMN YOU VAN ROEKEL!!! DAMN YOU TO HELL!!"). She's basically the perfect Imperfect, and at the end of the game, the Marvel characters are completely abandoned, so that you can fight Van Roekel in his BAD GUY ROCKET ARMOR OF DOOM (TM) as Paragon. You do, he sucks, you kill him, and the game is over. There is no resolution for the Marvel characters, who, last we saw, were mostly mind-controlled and eeeeeeevil. As game resolutions go, this one's about as satisfying as a hard kick to the babymaker.

It's pretty frustrating; to really enjoy the fun part of the game you have to survive the masochistic tortures of the boring first player mode. Reading about the game online I see EA's planning a sequel to come out later this year. I am not looking forward to that. But you know I'll play it. It's bound to have Spider-Man in there.

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Nashville Star: The Greatness of Angela Hacker

See that lady right there? That's Angela Hacker. She's one of the contestants on the fabulous reality television program Nashville Star (hosted by Jewel, who should really quit singing and become a host full time. She offers constructive criticism and actually seems to care about the contestants). I adore Angela. Her voice crackles with warmth, and then she belts out the chorus and it breaks your heart. Goodness. Every week she's even better, and the episode tonight, where the contestants sing their original tunes, she was sublime. It was a breakup song ("Losing You Was Not A Total Loss") filled with the kind of bittersweet humor that can only be called wise. It's not up on YouTube yet, but I suggest you watch it on the official site when they pop it up there.

So Nashville Star has another star to place next to Miranda Lambert (whose album Kerosene is one of aught five's best).

Angela Hacker is a 29 year old single mother from Muscle Shoals, Alabama (and if she loses to that punk David St. Romain I will weep).

Thursday, February 08, 2007

American Idol Week Four: San Antonio Goes Auditioning and The Best of the Rest

If you thought you saw egos flare during the past four weeks of American Idol auditions, please remember that Hollywood week is just around the corner. The whole lot of golden ticket holders from the summer auditions are bound to be on their best or worst behavior--but nowhere in between. Hollywood contestants are going to forget their lyrics, embarrass themselves with ridiculous dance moves, or party the night before the audition that will (or will not) take them to the top 24 of this year's season 6. It's going to get ugly. Simon, and even Randy and Paula do not fuck around by Hollywood time, because they know that whomever they pick they gotta listen to for the rest of the season (or at least until they get voted off.) But this remains in the future.

Two days ago San Antonio would have bored us to death if it weren’t for some serious production values from the show's producers. With only a few contestants that stood out, and the "other door" joke that was starting to wear a little bit thin, Idol producers gave us a whole segment of "other door" mishaps. The "other door," of course, is the locked left door that angry/happy/sad contestants slam into as they skip (or stomp) out of the auditioning room. Realizing how hilarious it was to hear Simon utter "other door" after every other tryout fell into that push bar, the producers made a whole segment of "other door" crash highlights. It's like the blooper reel of audition room exits. Who knew?

I liked San Antonio, though, because it was ripe with southern manner. People say sir in Texas. This happened last week in Birmingham, too, and they even say it to Simon. (Last week in fact there was a highlight reel of "yes sirs" and "thank yous" in response to the judges' harsh criticisms.) As I've said before, audition season is very much a lesson in manners, and it was a relief to see at least one portion of the population leave the audition room with grace, not swears.

Then again, not all of them were so sweet. My favorite was the bunch that asked Ryan of Simon's nationality: "Where's he from, French?" Yes, "French," ladies and gentlemen. After Ryan told them he was actually British the matter proved itself even more ignorant: "He can go back to British!"

God bless America.

Also about San Antonio: Simon arrived in a new oversized pair of aviator shades. I hadn't seen those before. They must be new. Much shinier than anything I've seen on him before. I am starting to notice how top-heavy Simon is as well. His chest and arms are really disproportionately large to his lower torso and legs. Judging by the spring in his step, it also looks like he walks on the balls of his feet, and not heel-to-toe. Someone's going to have achilles tendonitis!

The Rest of the Best on Wednesday night did not give us much to shout about. It was a highlight show of audition season’s best and worst contestants, but we had pretty much seen them before, at least in brief sound bites from previous shows. Paul Kim, however, did shine through The Rest segment with a blazin’ voice and attitude. Good lookin’, too. He’s marketing himself as the first Asian Idol, and I think that just might score him some votes. Assuming that he makes it past the Hollywood round. Which brings me to…

Next Week: The Hollywood Round! Find out who will be your Top 24!

This week’s mentions: Paul Kim, Jimmy McNeal, Ashlyn, Baylie Brown.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Female Trouble (1974)

John Waters' Female Trouble looks like shit, but it has the best defense for looking like shit of any crummy looking movie in history. The film is about a troubled woman named Dawn Davenport (Divine) who, over the course of the movie, goes from delinquent teenager to deranged mass murderer. A great deal of her transformation is engineered by Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce) who run Baltimore's most exclusive hair salon (the fetishes than inspired Hairspray were already bubbling beneath the surface, you see). The Dashers are obsessed with beauty but, as they find Divine to be the most beautiful woman on Earth (especially after her face gets splashed with acid), theirs is a somewhat idiosyncratic view of glamour. So the movie isn't ugly: it's beautiful in the same way that Divine's hideously scarred face is.

Female Trouble shows Waters in the transition from gonzo filmmaker to one of suburban America's most underappreciated satirists. The plot is still speckled with freakouts — I think my favorite would be Dawn's absurd stage show which includes bouncing on a trampoline and then sitting in a vat of fish which she proceeds to shove down her throat, in her crotch, and at the audience — but there's a much better and much funnier story here than in Pink Flamingos. The acting is better too, though some vintage posters online advertise — some might say threaten — performances from "THE PINK FLAMINGOS GANG" as if they were going to come to the theater with knives and molatov cocktails.

Dawn's metamorphosis is slow and organic and it begins when her parents don't get her cha cha heels for Christmas. Nice girls don't wear cha cha heels they reason, but Dawn, who's already shown her wicked ways by eating an enormous submarine sandwich in the middle of high school English, has had enough. She trashes her parents' Christmas tree, beats them up ("Not on Christmas!" her dear mother cries as she gets throttled) and storms out of the house. Dawn hitches for a ride and is part-sexually-assaulted, part-driven-to-ecstasy by the grungy scumbag who picks her up; in a classic Waters touch, Divine plays both roles in and out of drag. Knocked up and without any money or a man (she delivers the baby herself on her couch, cutting the umbilical cord herself with her teeth!) she tries to be a good mother, but it's just not her style. "I've locked her in her room, I've beat her with the car aerial. Nothing changes her. It's HARD being a loving mother!" she moans. Poor Divine. Soon she's fallen in with the Dashers, and after the acid in the face and liquid eyeliner in her veins, she is well on her way to unleashing her true, crazed, beauticious potential (Divine is particularly good in the role, especially by the end of the film when Dawn seems legitimately and certifiably insane).

He's derided for his complete lack of technical skills and that's fair (to a degree), but Waters has never gotten his due as a genuinely talented writer. For my money, few alive craft funnier dialogue than Waters, a fact I think gets overlooked because a lot of times the outlandish characters reading the lines overshadow what they're saying (or perhaps audiences are just too disgusted to pay close attention). Female Trouble's quote page on IMDb is a great read and really showcases Waters' grim sense of humor. Dawn's husband Gator (Michael Potter) shames his Aunt Ida (Edith Massey, the "egg lady" from Pink Flamingos) by daring to reveal his dark sexual secret: he's straight. She pleads with him to be gay; she'd be so much happier if he was, "The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!" she cries. If anything, Waters' storyline about celebrity and beauty (inspired largely by the Manson family, who Waters was fascinated by) is even more potent and hilarious today. Dawn Davenport was the prototype for the crazy reality TV star. She would have auditioned for American Idol, proudly stunk of the joint, punched Simon in the face, and then crapped on the floor.

Yeah so the movie looks like shit. So what? Hell in Pink Flamingos they ate shit, so why even attempt to gussy the proceedings up? During his midnight movie period, the lack of a visual style was equal parts defense mechanism (to keep the "neuters," as Waters would later name them, away) and provocation. The content is geared to shock, dismay, and upset; the terrible camera work is all part of it. Why would Waters want to look like every other movie anyway? The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Blogging: The Beginning

My big piece on IFC News this week is a feature on bad prequels, which is sort of redundant: just about all of them are bad. In it I give a little context for the latest wave of new prequels (including this week's Hannibal Rising) and break down five different "classic" prequels. Here's a sample, click over for the rest.

"Missing in Action 2: The Beginning" (1985)

Prequel to: "Missing in Action" (1984)

Plot Summary: In Vietnam at an indeterminate time after 1972, Col. James Braddock (Chuck Norris) and a platoon of American soldiers are imprisoned and tortured at a barbaric Viet Cong prison camp. Years later (i.e. in the first movie), Braddock will return to Vietnam, rescue more American P.O.W.s left behind, and get revenge on his captors.

Reason Why It's Not a Regular Sequel: Braddock already returned to Vietnam once to save American soldiers. Doing it again might make him look ineffectual. And if there's one thing Chuck Norris is not, it's ineffectual.

Relatively Necessity of Prequel: High. The Braddock of the first "Missing in Action" is traumatized by his captivity in Vietnam; this film offers the opportunity to see why.

Most Shocking Revelation: Events and even people don't seem to match up between the two "M.I.A."s. In the original, Braddock meets his old torturer, Colonel Vinh. But in "The Beginning" he's tortured by a guy named Colonel Yin. Things get even more confusing in the third film in the series (the first sequel, technically speaking) "Braddock: Missing in Action III." Though "The Beginning" depicts years of imprisonment stretching well past the end of the Vietnam War, "Braddock" shows Chuck Norris at the fall of Saigon in 1975, where he's also got a wife. So he was combat shocked, imprisoned for years after the war ended...while also serving elsewhere and getting married. Pick a side Norris, we're at war!

Least Shocking Revelation: That even though Braddock claims to be mentally scarred by his imprisonment in "Missing in Action" he actually seems pretty cool with everything in "The Beginning." In fact, when he gets the opportunity to escape, he hangs around the camp and kills every single Vietnamese soldier in the area rather than simply fleeing.

Waiting For the Check To Clear: Chuck Norris, but in fairness to Chuck, that Total Gym thing I've seen on TV looks totally awesome.

One Scene That Sums It All Up: During his forty-minute escape that's really more of a systematic execution, Norris gets to beat up Colonel Yin, first in a kung fu fight, then by exploding him. So he's already blown up the man who he will later return to Vietnam to face. Again, Chuck Norris is totally awesome.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Kuchar Bros.

I made my way to the Millenium Film Workshop for the first time tonight, and if you claim to love film, you need to stop by. A cathedral for DIY filmmakers for over 30 years, the Workshop offers classes, equipment, and screenings to cinema-mad New Yorkers on a budget.

Tonight I saw new works from the Kuchar Bros., Mike and George, two avant-icons who have been perfecting their camp aesthetic since the Workshop opened. Let's say straight up I prefer George to Mike. George's films, recently at least, are diaristic, showing him taking care of his aged mother, attending film festivals to receive twinkling awards, and taking glorious dumps.

But back to the workshop for a second. The theater is housed in what looks like an old high-school gymnaisum, with the pleather seats raked up a slight incline on a red-painted wooden foundation. I would've been content just to sit there and absorb the various creaks and hums of the old building in place of the films. The place reeks of cinephilia - the folks who screen here and work here do it for love - as there's clearly no monetary recompense. It's a liberating feeling, really.

Anyway, the highlight of the evening was Temple of Torment, George's mash-up of voyuerism, Mother Angelica, Spanish soap operas, and a visit to take care of his mom and other old friends of his. It's alternately painful and hilarious, alternately dressing his skeletal mother to go outside, and choosing between reading the Talmud and watching the gay porn Beefcake DVD (he goes for the Talmud). Only a man with great reserves of love could so off-handedly speak of releasing the breaks of his Mom's wheelchair and let her roll onto the highway. We never believe him because of the tenderness with which he treats her - the humor is so clearly a protective mechanism it becomes even more moving - while still retaining its hilarity.

Mike was on hand to introduce his films, campy epics of nude young men, bewigged prophets, and sentimental odes to joy. His peak was with Lady Fortescue's Nephew. A 12 minute film inspired by the perfumed Victorian curiosity he found at a used bookstore, which held flowery prose on one side and an elaborate nature still life on the other, it's a simple melodrama of a lost boy and writers' blocked aunt, redeemed by the scent of flowers and the rejuvenating power of youth. Lots of superimpositions. I call it fun.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Speaking of the Ranger

Lord knows I don't come 'round these parts often enough. I'd like to post more often but in all honesty I'm intimidated by the two-headed monster known as Singer-Sweeney. It's one thing to mop the floor with Singer in a karaoke competition...another entirely to challenge him in cinephilic knowledge.

Anyway, as a faithful reader of Termite Art I was inspired to post after reading the entry on Chuck Norris. The above video (found on Wonkette) is a tour-de-force of awkwardness, and makes me wish Mr. Norris had Tony Snow's job.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Currently Coming Soon at a Theater Near You

The following are the trailers I saw at the theater this week when I saw Babel/Smokin' Aces. Each link takes you to a site where you can watch the trailers yourself.

Shooter — a story that could only happen in the movies. Mark Wahlberg plays one of the five best snipers in the world, recruited to help stop an assassination that only he or the four other dudes who shoot real good could do. This is, in all regards, dumb. The only reason you'd need Wahlberg's character is to frame him, which is exactly what Danny Glover's character does. Wahlberg's character's supposed to be smart and tough and resourceful, but if he went to the movies once in a while he'd know he's totally getting hosed here. The rest of the movie has him on the lam trying to prove his innocence while shooting people (it's in the title after all) from very long distance.

The trailer rather blatantly tries to sell the picture as The Bourne Identity meets The Fugitive. For all I know the producers sold Paramount by telling them it'd be Bourne Identity meets The Fugitive so this is quite certainly intentional.

Reign Over Me — This is the curious picture in which Adam Sandler grieves over a family he lost during 9/11. Interestingly, the trailer makes no mention of that event: though it's quite clearly set in Manhattan, and we know Sandler has lost his family, the exact cause isn't given. Obviously, Sony doesn't think that's a great selling point for the movie.

It's still kind of ridiculous to me that Adam Sandler, the guy who once punched out Bob Barker in a celebrity golf tournament, is now our most sincere and unironic sentimentalist; even his last crowd-pleasing comedy, Click, was a completely heartfelt and, at times, oppressively mushy ode to familial bonding. In this one he gets to play a guy whose lost that all-important family bond and who becomes a bit of a mental patient. With a big mop of messy hair, he kinda looks like a really mopey Bob Dylan. Don't think twice, movie audiences, it's all right.

Hot Fuzz — From the guys who did Shaun of the Dead comes a movie by the guys who did Shaun of the Dead. Not as immediately appealing a premise (star Simon Pegg plays a disgraced cop sent to a sleepy town where he thinks a serial killing spree is underway) and I'm half sure I've seen this movie before and it starred Robert De Niro and maybe Eddie Murphy and was completely terrible. But whatever. These guys did Shaun of the Dead.

Zodiac — At last a new movie from David Fincher and it's...a period Se7en. Or at least, that's what the trailer sells it as. Still unsure whose head will wind up in the box at the end of the movie, or the full meaning of the enigmatic image on the poster. But it's got a good cast and Fincher's presence, and he made Alien 3. And other movies that were actually good.

Ocean's Thirteen My guess is a lot of people will think "Another one?" — after the poorly received Ocean's Twelve (which I actually liked almost as much as the original) Soderbergh and company have probably outstayed their welcome. But I couldn't be more pleased; particularly because of the addition of Al Pacino, an ideal casting choice, and the apparent lack of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was an unquestioned damper on the last one. Everybody else is back (except Julia Roberts apparently) including composer David Holmes, whose swaggeringly cool music is an absolutely vital (but often overlooked) aspect to the series' success.

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