Sunday, April 29, 2007

Killer of Sheep

dir. Charles Burnett

Jeff Larson, Baton Rouge
April 2, 2007 - 35mm/IFC Center Megamall

Samuel Johnson, the greatest critic who ever lived, once wrote, “the critic is the only man whose triumph is without another’s pain, and whose greatness does not rise upon another’s ruin.” These are damning words, but the inverse is, also, ultimately true. A critic – even one self-anointed like I am – faced with a work of art so completely successful and jaw-dropping in its execution is the loneliest of men. Unable to codify, categorize, and explain what or how the project does what it does, he always must resort to speaking in terms of mere beauty. And this is why the critic will always fail. From Plato to Bloom we have long sought to intellectualize beauty, but beauty is beauty because of its ephemeral and indefinable nature, understanding it is possible, but fully describing it is an impossible task. All we can hope for in cases where beauty smacks us across the face because of our vanity is to write words that present a mere fraction of what our experience was.

One of the frustratingly beautiful examples of this is, of course, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The film focuses on a modern day shepherd, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), and, increasingly, the sadness and desperation in his eyes. He is surrounded by his family: a wife (Kaycee Moore), who is incredibly dispirited by their increasing distance, a daughter, who sings Earth, Wind & Fire songs to her dolls and wears a sad-eyed puppy dog mask, and two sons, one who in the twilight of his adolescence is both a child – he has a thing for too much sugar in his cheerios – and becoming a man – he is desperate for money, and in Watts County, California will have that desire for quite some time. And, there’s the rub: Watts County, with its TV thieves and would be murderers, is inescapable. A quick trip to a local racetrack ends with a flat tire with no spare affordable or within reach, and a potentially funny scene centers around a group of people sitting in a car, but when one of them reaches through the nonexistent windshield for a can of beer it becomes clear the car is merely a shell. The effect is devastating, and the corollary for Stan is equally so. Halfway through the movie, when Stan, shirtless, and his wife are slow dancing in silhouette, his movements are robotic while hers are fluid and loving, and slowly become urgent, determined, and desperate. These two no longer have any escape open to them even in the privacy of their own home. A crushing blow to be sure, for the scene is one of the most strikingly arresting in the whole movie, and the outcome is the most powerful depiction of overwhelming despair I have ever seen.

But the movie is not merely concerned with gloom; there is a fair amount of glitter here as well. Interspersed between Stan’s scenes are short vignettes centering on the adventures of the neighborhood children. The immediate connection between these stories and Stan is through his daughter and younger son. At first glance these scenes seem disjointed from the rest of the movie, as if they are a particularly affecting form of navel-gazing. Mostly, in these scenes, the neighborhood children throw rocks at each other or foolishly risk life and limb, but often because this playing is so cinematically beautiful, the immediate effect is a reverence towards the moment itself. Three scenes in particular stand out from the rest. In one, the children jump between rooftops, and we see them from below, as they, like Icarus, hang in midair before landing on the next roof. In another, as seen from a train, they run alongside the tracks, and, like a bunch of would-be soldiers, toss rocks towards the camera. And, even in a quiet moment, when the kids are merely sitting on the train-tracks, the framing is so exquisite and the kids are so exuberant that when they all can’t help but look at the camera, I felt a connection, a warming inside, because, yes, this is what summer is.

To most of the critics, these images are irreconcilable with Stan’s scenes; they often cite a jumbled disjointed nature to Killer of Sheep – along with some words about Stan’s culpability, the kid’s overwhelming innocence, and the underlying social message. All of these themes are, of course, there, but even in the children’s scenes a melancholy undercurrent connects with Stan’s preoccupations. Most often the children’s games are violent in the sort of ways that children’s games are: they often involve rocks, displays of superiority, or slightly dangerous actions. Their outcome is, of course, skinned knees, hurt pride, and a healthy bout of tears. Truly, most summer games end up this way, and in Killer of Sheep the kid’s emotions are conquerable – after the tears dry and your face is salty, it’s time for an ice cream and more adventures. When we are kids these feelings disappear, but as we age the feelings behind them become vastly insurmountable and dire. We learn from our culture – books, movies, human contact – that these feelings are important, and that it’s necessary, for better or for worse, to address them. And that’s the central conceit of Killer of Sheep: Stan has reached a place where he lives in his emotions, and because of Watts county, he is powerless to address them, so he becomes a stranger, the man underground. And, to some extent the same can be said of any lifetime. There will always be histories that we can’t address, can’t correct, because to do so would destroy our sense of ourselves.

The movie begins with Stan lecturing his son on what it takes to be a man – “You are not a child anymore, you soon will be a goddamn man” – Stan tells him he must protect his sister, must stand up for himself, must ignore his emotions, and must, most of all, be strong. He son listens with a mixture of confusion and disbelief. When Stan insists that he “Start learning what life is about now, son”, it’s pretty clear that he already knows: rocks hurt, and sometimes you can’t fix, or ignore, them.

The best movies are those that present their themes concisely, but you can sense an ambiguity, a certain uncertainty, behind their insistence. The closer you look, their themes collapse one by one until you are left with a hazy picture of what it was you once saw, but of one thing you are convinced, this experience, this catharsis, has placed within you a new sense of yourself and the world around you. You slowly realize the experience you're having is not one centered around a social or political argument; it is not exploring time or space; it is not a collection of disparate, perfect moments; it is not merely about race, or class, or gender: something far more complex and unnamable is happening. You are
not holding your breath out of fear, but because you are experiencing something so wonderfully beautiful. Killer of Sheep is why we go to the movies: in short, you'll never look at things the same way again.

Bonus Song!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Final Destination Trilogy

dir. James Wong

Just like Kenny Rogers and the SATs, Death hates cheats.

Joey Devine, ALAMEDA
April 15, 2007 - DVD

The Seed.

Final Destination is a really subtle movie. In a genre as overblown and dumbed-down as the teen horror genre, Final Destination really just lets the audience figure it all out. In fact, this movie is so ambiguous you can’t even tell what it’s about until the tightly wound knot that is Final Destination unfurls itself in the final act. Take the first 8 to 10 minutes:

We are shown a copy of Death of a Salesman.

Dad says, “Live it up, Kid! You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” (Cue Ear Shattering Ominous Score)

A student reads a book about French tourism that mentions Lady Di. (Wait…isn’t she…No…She Didn’t? She’s dead right?)

Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver plays in the airport bathroom. (Actual line of Dialogue: “John Denver? Wait a second; didn’t he die in a plane crash?")

A baggage cart reads the number 666.

Oh wait. I totally lied in that first paragraph. Sorry. This movie is about as subtle as the new Dane Cook CD. (Translation for Dane Cook fans: THIS MOVIE IS THE OPPOSITE OF SUBTLE. Wait, why are you reading this? Shouldn’t you be bro-ing it up somewhere?) So, it’s not subtle, but that’s okay because it has great dialogue, right? No, actually the dialogue is really wooden and terrible; as is the acting by some person named Ali Larter and the kid who played Casper the Friendly Ghost. (I would normally give some kind of example here, but I lost my notes, and watching all three Final Destinations in one sitting has irreparably damaged my brain.) No, FD1, as I like to call it, is all about the wacky deaths and irreverent “black humor” (I put that in quotes because it is neither dark nor is it humorous). A lady gets stabbed and exploded (AT THE SAME TIME!). A kid hangs himself taking a shower. All with generally mediocre to almost-fun results. Little did we know that this little movie would lead to something so much greater.

A quick plot rundown:

Funny song plays ("Leaving on a Jet Plane"). Kids get on plane. One kid has a dream that the plane is going to explode. Kid freaks out. Various under developed characters and love interest get off plane with kid. Plane explodes. Various half characters die in over the top ridiculousness. Kid and love interest get scared. Kids think they beat death some how. Kids die in end. (Credits Roll)


Read that series of events one more time, because that is the basic formula from which genius spawns.

A quick FD1 fun fact:

On the DVD there are 3 different commentary options. Including one with just the composer of the score. (Spencer, I think you need to get on this one.)

Final Destination 2
dir. David R. Ellis

"Holy Shit! It’s Bob Weinstein!"

The Misstep.

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Alfred Hitchcock once said that the key to making a great sequel was showing the audience exactly what they saw the first time, only bigger and include only one major character from the first movie (Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I said all the kids died? Yeah, that was a lie. Ali Larter is still alive.) That’s why Psycho 2 was so great, because he followed his own instructions.


Psycho 2 is neither great nor was it directed by Alfred Hitchcock. And I made up that stuff about sequels.

The premonition part of Final Destination 2 is totally great. Highway to Hell plays. A bus full of football players screams “Pile up! Pile up! Pile up!” It is really over the top and in general, shockingly fun. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the rest of FD2. Well, actually it is really over the top, but where FD1 took itself almost too seriously, FD2 is just too goofy (okay, so that’s a lie. FD1 really wasn’t THAT serious, but please, just bear with me here). FD1 is all Bob Hoskins. FD2 is all Roger Rabbit. FD2 is a movie where a guy escapes a fire and then dies because he slips on some spaghetti he threw out the window. And another 19-year-old kid has a plate glass window fall on him, because he can’t resist the urge to chase a group of pigeons away. Even under Final Destination rules isn’t that just a little too crazy?

I hated this movie. Luckily, 65 minutes into the movie, it ended. Not because the movie was over, mind you, but because I rent movies from the local Blockbuster Video, and it came with a deep scratch across the DVD. Thank you, Weinstein Company, for contractually obligating all Blockbuster Videos to destroy all non-Weinstein movies. I could kiss your feet Bob and Harvey. I really could. So yeah, I don’t know how this movie ends. And I also don’t really care. Good Riddance.

Final Destination 3
dir. James Wong

Every fourth scene in this movie looks like this.

The Pinnacle.

I’ve got to level with you guys. I’m facing a real dilemma here. I love Final Destination 3. But I HAVE NO IDEA WHY. It’s not a good movie, I don’t think. But I also don’t love it because it’s terrible. But it’s a movie I love so much I’ve watched it 4 times this month. It is always on HBO. Final Destination 3 stars the girl from Brick that I have a crush on (Wait…Hold on…Actually I’m being told it stars the girl from Sky High who I don’t have a crush on. Sorry, I always get those two movies mixed up, you know, because they’re so similar), and someone named Texas Battle. (Or at least it says so in the credits, but I refuse to believe that there is someone out there actually calling him or herself Texas Battle). FD3 mixes the over the top ridiculousness of FD1 and the mega super A-bomb ridiculousness of FD2 into a cocktail of face burning acid that will thrill and delight!

FD3 has the greatest premonition scene in all of movie history, and that includes the movie Premonition. Let me just say it involves a bunch of kids and a roller coaster. IT IS AWESOME! People get cut in half, the roller coaster defies the laws of physics and hangs for an eternity at the top of its loop. It is amazing. And to think I’m only being half sarcastic when I write this!

Where FD3 really succeeds is in its execution. It throws away the build up to everyone’s crazy deaths that was so prevalent in the first two, and instead of building up tension using fake scares and slow mo as people turn on ovens and stuff, it lets us know how the characters are going to die using a cheap plot device. The entire movie is a race to see if the main characters can convince people not to go tanning or whatever, and when they can’t, getting there just late enough to watch their heads explode as the main characters look on in terror with blood all over them. Seriously, I would say an eighth of the scenes in this movie end with two people looking on in horror as blood splatters all over their faces. For some reason, I enjoy this every time it happens. (Funnily enough, it seems as if MTV agrees as they just premiered this show called Scarred that seems to have the same premise. Only with skateboarders and in real life.)

In the end, I think the reason I love this movie so much is for the same reason I used to love that game Mouse Trap. It’s literally like watching that game happen over and over again, only if some kind of outrageous idiot savant had designed it. In one scene, two valley girls turn the heat up in their tanning salon, which melts the ice on a soda; the condensation from the soda leaks into the box that controls the temperature on their tanning beds, frying them; the heater blows a coat rack over; which knocks a shelf on top of the two tanning beds, causing the two girls to burn to death in a tanning bed. All while the chorus of Roller Coaster of Love plays over and over again! I know it’s stupid, but it’s great stupid. I think. I don’t know what else to say, I love this movie!

So, go see Final Destination 3, but please don’t blame me if you think it sucks.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Prince, Star of Stage and Screen

Prince: a Spotlight

Somebody bring him a mirror.

Spencer Owen, BERKELEY

Bear with me here. We go through phases, my friends, and I write this smack-dab in the middle of a phase where I can't find much motivation to write about movies. I've only seen one great film that's come out in my area in 2007, and it was Zodiac, and I haven't done much home viewing either. I now present "taking it where I can get it," the "it" being that cursed motivation.

A parallel phase, although I seem to be at the tail-end of this one, is that I've been incredibly into Prince. I go deep into musicians and filmmakers, but especially musicians, to the point where someone will say to me, "Man, you are obsessed with that." To me, it makes a lot of sense. If I like something by somebody enough, I'll explore their work further and deeper until I feel like I've heard or seen enough for now. The so-called obsession lasts a relatively brief time, usually, and it can come in waves. But until the saturation point or points, it's a thorough wade through the pleasure-waters of what I imagine as "where that person is/those people are coming from." Around the release of INLAND EMPIRE, "it" was David Lynch. On New Year's Eve, I saw Neil Hamburger at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco and I was utterly taken with him for the first month of '07; Neil was "it." Last spring and summer, Steely Dan was "it" (by the way, "Deacon Blues" was in Zodiac). Some months ago, I found out about an enormous amount of unreleased Prince material, and thus "it" was – and has been, and still, to some degree, is – Prince. Don't we all have these phases, too? I guess that, the way I operate, with me it can look like an obsession. So be it.

Luckily, my phase can branch off into multimedia, because Prince isn't just a musician. He's also an actor, and ... a filmmaker! Stop laughing. He really has made two honest-to-God feature-length narratives. And check yourself: Purple Rain (1984) isn't one of them. That leaves two movies you likely haven't heard of, both directed by Prince Rogers Nelson: Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990).

The best movie among them is Purple Rain. Prince, the Revolution, and his other Minneapolis cohorts had so much damned charisma back in the day that the movie could have been just as good even if it had been directed a bit worse, but director Albert Magnoli does pull off a mid-'80s confection, and his work should be respected. Purple Rain is worth seeing, and you should really try to see it in a theater with an excited audience. I saw it at the Parkway Speakeasy in Oakland and the audience behaved exactly as I'd hoped to make it a wonderful night: laughed, shouted, shushed, sang and clapped at all the right parts. It's not just because every movie should be viewed with its ideal and respectful audience that I say this; Purple Rain is a variety show, with comedy and drama played for mass appeal, and some show-stopping musical numbers (some of which are performed live and some not – guess which!) on the stage of the First Avenue Club in Minneapolis. Prince's character, the Kid, does not convince you that he should be called "the Kid," or indeed anything but Prince. He's odd, soft-spoken, and somewhat stilted, but he's magnetic nonetheless. As my friend Jamie put it, the movie really does take place in a sort of Princeworld, so whether things make sense or not is irrelevant. It's one of those movies.

The worst movie of the three, and Prince's second (and presently final) turn at the helm of a feature, is Graffiti Bridge. It is an interesting companion to Purple Rain. Rephrased more accurately, it is interesting that it exists and what it attempts is interesting, but it is not an interesting movie. Starting in 1990, Prince's music shifted somewhat abruptly in a manner that would far more often mask his personality with things generic and flat, whether lyrically or in the arrangement and production, or both. The Graffiti Bridge project may serve sufficiently to mark the distinction between '80s Prince and early '90s Prince. His return as the Kid is disappointing; his charisma is gone, all quirks ironed out, and the songs make no splash. Morris Day and the Time, such a dynamic and breezily comical fixture in Purple Rain, make a return and barely inject some life into it; the rest of the supporting players generally pale in comparison to the sassy members of the Revolution. Another key shift: Princeworld in Graffiti Bridge isn't Minneapolis, but a sound stage at his own Paisley Park Studios, and no amount of dutch angles or neon colors can make this an appealing place.

The best phrase I can think of to adequately describe the aesthetic of Graffiti Bridge would be "mystical urban cinema." Prince wrote the script as well, and he lays the mystique and quasi-mysticism thick, with no insightful poetry to be found, only a jumble of personal spirituality that he fails to clearly communicate at any point. As for "urban," I refer both to the African-American city life aspect and the Prince-penned-and-produced black music in the film. The former rings distant and false, and the latter falls quite short. I tend to validate the existence of this project only by four of the songs from the resulting soundtrack – and they are "Elephants and Flowers," "Joy in Repetition," the top-10-hit "Thieves in the Temple" and the Time's "Release It" – and unlike with Purple Rain, nothing is gained by experiencing them in the film; they're simply decent studio recordings, no more or less.

So Prince tried to follow up Purple Rain and he failed. In between the smashing success of Purple Rain and the somewhat embarrassing failure of Graffiti Bridge, however, was a much more respectable failure in the form of his first directorial effort, Under the Cherry Moon. The third and final album by Prince and the Revolution is titled Parade, and it's just about as outstanding as the other two; a fact that even casual Prince fans might not have fully assimilated is that the full title of the album is Parade: Music from the Motion Picture "Under the Cherry Moon." The music is used in the film almost exclusively as incidental cues, yet despite the high quality of the tunes, it doesn't bother me that only one of them gets musical-number treatment (the funk jam "Girls and Boys"). Even merely as background, the songs are welcome in the movie, despite the Revolution being sorely missed as on-screen players, and despite it being a black-and-white period piece set in 1930s Paris.

No, it isn't really a period piece. It supposedly takes place in that period, but to call the dialogue and mannerisms anachronistic would be to suggest that any attempt other than pure visual aesthetic was being made to realistically evoke the era. Becky Johnston's script is often quite adequate, and Prince's Christopher Tracy character is very different than either incarnation of the Kid. He's sly, quick and talkative, and though the comedy is fairly base, he really is a pleasure to watch; he certainly holds his own as a romantic lead against the debut of future-Oscar-nominee Kristin Scott Thomas. (I find it amusing to note that in her first scene, Thomas is playing a drum set unaccompanied, and she really appears to be doing it, and competently.) He's also got a great sidekick relationship with the Time's Jerome Benton as his best friend and roommate, very playful and even a tad homoerotic.

An example of the movie's charm comes in a scene where the aristocratic Thomas is at dinner with the street-wise Americans Prince and Jerome. They're poking fun at her high-class European ways; they show her a piece of paper with "WRECKA STOW" written on it and ask her to read it. Every time she says it in her accent, thoroughly convinced that it is nonsense, they die laughing and she gets more peeved. Finally Prince prompts her: "If you wanted to buy a Sam Cooke album, where would you go?" Her answer – of course, "the wrecka stow" - sends them into fits. This is the kind of infectious good-silly that much of the film contains, the funky playfulness that Prince shows off in spades on the concert stage and finally gets to mess around with here on celluloid.

Sadly, the movie's total effect is unfortunate. The style, though more successful than the ambience of Graffiti Bridge, dead-ends for sure. By the time we're on a foggy airfield, I'm ready to wish Prince had never even seen Casablanca. Worst of all, the characters' personalities and relationships, so likable for the majority of the picture, imminently dissolve into mechanical plot resolution. If the movie had stayed together, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it alongside Purple Rain. But I find it telling that just about the best thing in Under the Cherry Moon, aside from the leading man performance Prince pulls off beautifully in all but the last act, is what the ending credits roll over: the compelling music video to the Parade album track "Mountains." (I found it on Youtube, but the quality is horrific. Rent the DVD if you want to see that. It's great, promise.)

Probably needless to say, I wouldn't recommend navigating Prince's persona through his film work. If you're gonna watch the movies he directed, wait until you've assimilated his entire musical output up through 1989, and even then I must stress that Graffiti Bridge is a real snore no matter how you slice it. But feel free to dive into Purple Rain right away. I'm not usually one to use popular success as a measure of anything but itself, but Prince became a bonafide superstar on the strength of Purple Rain, and you should be able to see why.

Friday, April 6, 2007


dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein

Innocent girl finds out she has teeth in her vagina. Comedy/horror ensues.

Guest Article!
January 25, 2007 - 35mm/Library Center Theater

Teeth is, without question, a feminist social critique masked as a B mutant-slasher-comedy. Everyone knows this, right? Like, duh. What ails me is that I seem to remember a similar tactic used in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead
where, instead of Dawn of The Dead's subtle stab at American capitalism, we are subjected to an overt allegory of contemporary American politics. I mean- you've got- okay, so there's this walled city that protects the last of the living from the zombies, right? Then there's this big fucking skyscraper filled with all the privileged white people which is sealed off from the hobo heroes who live on the streets. And Dennis Hopper's a republican. I mean, it's obvious, right? The chick's got fucking teeth in her pussy! It's like I can hear Camille Paglia saying, "Eat a dick Laura Mulvey!" Duh!

God, I wish I could fuck Camille Paglia and Laura Mulvey at the same time.

Dawn (played by an amazing Jess Weixler) is a sexually confused teenage babe who swears to be celibate until marriage. She lives in a typical American suburb that is powered by a prominent nuclear power plant (MUTANTS!!! TMNT and shit! WOO!!). And she has no idea that super-hot blonde (it's important that she's blonde) girls aren't supposed to have vagina dentata. The B-movie excuse for bad writing comes in when we realize that all the dudes are outrageously arrogant misogynists. Every male figure in this movie is deplorable, with the exception of Dawn's stepfather, who is unmistakably benevolent (aren't movie stepfathers supposed to be the ones that are deplorable? Clever!). I mean, am I crazy? Not all men are rapists! "Or are they?" Teeth asks.

It really is totally awesome when these dudes get castrated though. Love it. In fact, there is quite a bit of cock (severed or not) featured in this movie, hardly any tits, and no toothed vaginas. The sole female nude scene arrives when Dawn is alone and gazing into a mirror. She is discovering she is a woman, an empowered woman, and her attitude toward the shitty men in her life changes. This scene in particular is very affecting. Without a word, it evokes Eowyn's "I am no man." Weixler really nailed it.

Then comes the plot again. With a few more glaring cliches (maybe it's satire?) Dawn fully transforms into the super-hero Teeth prescribes her to be.

Teeth's message, albeit profound for its associated genre(s), is oversimplified with a barrage of perfunctory plot points justified by its B-horror prerequisite. Sort of like Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle's relationship to stoner movies. Teeth, with all its awesome rape scenes and uber femme fetale, occasionally (not often) made me roll my eyes and grumble. This movie is not perfect. I was sometimes bored when I should have been titillated and emasculated, and then totally desensitized! Man, I wish I could stop masturbating for a week and watch Basic Instinct.........and then smoke a cigarette, yell at my girlfriend, hang out with some dudes at a bar and then punch some fucking homo greaser in the face!

Teeth is written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein (you know, from The Wedding Banquet) and, with my reservations aside, he does an outstanding job. The Weinstein Company picked this one up at Sundance (where I saw it) and promises us they'll keep the NC-17 rating. Wait. Why is it NC-17? That's a whole other story (hint: the MPAA is run by men). In the meantime, we'll have to see if Teeth makes it back from the slaughterhouse.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Death Proof

Death Proof
dir. Quentin Tarantino

David Brent's favorite actor, Sydney Poitier.

April 4, 2007 - 35mm/AMC Empire 25

The second helping of the Grindhouse double-feature, Death Proof, successfully elevates itself above mere tribute or homage to become its very own motion picture. This is no accomplishment. This is a given. The immensely talented writer/director Quentin Tarantino deserves no accolades for making a stand-alone movie. He should receive praise for making a thrilling, exuberant, visually stunning and often elegantly paced movie.

Sydney Poitier (not to be confused with her father, Sidney) and Vanessa Ferlito play “Jungle” Julia and Arlene “Butterfly,” respectively. Faced with the difficult task of leading us through quite a hefty opening chunk of Death Proof, Julia and Butterfly mindlessly gab away about their latest sexual conquests, scheming toward further success in the evening ahead. They’re not alone, there are other girls interjecting “Oh no, you didn’t!” and so on and so forth. The oddly gripping non-stop gabathon relocates to a local Austin bar and continues on and on, blending beautifully with intermittent dancing to the jukebox from the gals and their camera-ogled, glistening, sweat-damp legs.

Our main attraction, Kurt Russell’s scar-faced “Stuntman Mike” sits at the bar, overhearing the young ladies’ ruckus, smoothly chatting up Rose McGowan’s faux-blonde. A barrage of characters are thrown out there very quickly, and due to Tarantino’s exceptional patience and tension building, the real flesh and bones of movie making, the first half hour or so play like gangbusters. He has a bag of surprises in store, delivering cut after cut of wonderful heartfelt buoyancy, as he did in his previous Kill Bill movies. Unlike Kill Bill, when Death Proof enters its second phase, this changes.

Kurt Russell hijacks the lives of those young gals with his “death proof” stuntcar in a deliriously quick rampage of nighttime vehicular homicide. Throughout this entire first section of fabulous stuff, there are little jabs in the winking eye. Quentin Tarantino’s presence as the bartender in the Austin dive is harmless and funny enough, though in this first half we get a mere taste of what is to come as far as literal, spoken movie references go. A few verbal quips quoting Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill go down, sucking us momentarily out of an otherwise gripping dialogue scene. As a result of Russell’s rampage, two Austin police officers are introduced, and I’ll be damned if Tarantino does not tap into a bit of Kevin Smith buffoonery in reintroducing Michael Parks and his son to regurgitate some chatter from Kill Bill. Mr. Parks and “Son Number One” are quick on their way to becoming the Jay and Silent Bob of Tarantino’s universe, a universe he so frustratingly shares with Robert Rodriguez.

Introducing Zoe Bell. Zoe Bell is a brave, spunky top tier stuntwoman. She doubled for Uma Thurman in the more impressively physical parts of Kill Bill, and now, in Death Proof, she doubles for herself, playing herself. She is thrown into the pot with another group of gals on hiatus from shooting a movie. They all work in the movie industry, so Tarantino lets the movie chatter fly like buckshot. From Lindsay Lohan to Vanishing Point, these gals let it all out. Unlike with the first troupe, the dialogue is in aid of name dropping, not personality building and character molding. Fantastic actress extraordinaire Rosario Dawson is part of this club, and when she has the floor the movie shines, but somehow the movie keeps coming back to Ms. Bell.

Zoe Bell is a pathetic actress. Weak actors have not prevented Quentin Tarantino from siphoning great performances in the past; just look at how great Michael Madsen is in Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill. Watching Zoe Bell deliver pages and pages of dialogue is unpleasant. During one exceptionally long discussion in a diner, Tarantino opts not to cut away as the camera floats in and out and around, solving the issue of a circular conversation without cutting. Zoe Bell’s line delivery overwhelms what could be astounding. She tops herself again with another long dialogue scene, this one without the moving camera, so her every move can be properly monitored. While being spoken to, her mind is seen working to deliver her next line with the confidence of the ham of your elementary school production of Alice in Wonderland. She is a bad, bad, bad actress.

Luckily, back comes the super-animated Kurt Russell, and this time in glorious daylight. The resulting car chase is mesmerizing, with stuntwoman Zoe Bell doing what she does best, riding on the hood of a car during a chase. It is a fantastic sequence, though it’s got nothing on the Belmondo/Sharif car battle in The Burglars, nor on any number of the chases in The Bourne Supremacy, but don’t get me wrong, it’s great. Russell brings the movie back to its senses, as he gnashes his teeth and bites into his role as a man who gets his kicks from car crashes. By kicks, I am referring to the variety of kicks had in the movie Crash.

Quentin Tarantino’s movie is wonderful, though difficult to watch when it falters, not unlike the grindhouse movies it refers to. Rather than craft an homage, he crafts a real movie, a slicker, improved variety of grindhouse picture that looks great and sounds great. He opts against the immense digital scratching up of his film print, and instead giving it a properly weathered, true to projection standards feel, with jumped frames now and again. Death Proof, like his other movies, is a profession of love, and this love cannot be articulated verbally, no matter how hard he or his characters try. When it comes to getting down to brass tacks and putting images with his exceptional non-movie related dialogue, there are few better. Don’t forget that, no matter how much stupid shit the guy says.

For your enjoyment, Berkeley's own Goodbye the Band unleashes his "Music From, Inspired by, and/or Theoretically Re-Appropriated From The Motion Picture 'Grindhouse'" EP. Give a listen to "Official 'Grindhouse' Song" below and download it here.

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Planet Terror

dir. Robert Rodriguez

Planet Boringtown. Population: Stupid Rose McGowan's stupid limp.

April 4, 2007 - 35mm/AMC Empire 25

Right at the outset of the Grindhouse double-feature, during Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, Naveen Andrews (the only half-way redeeming actor on that show nobody watches called Lost) whips out a big container of balls! Balls! This container of balls gets busted and later becomes a big bag of balls! Ewwwww, balls! Testicles in a bag, that’s so, oh I don’t know, I’m reaching for the word… GGGRRRRRRRRIINNNNNNDDDDDDDHHHHHHHOUSE. Planet Terror is not the first instance of big-budget teste-heavy filmmaking. That credit goes to Robert Zemeckis’ simply testacular Christmas fable The Polar Express, featuring Santa’s gigantic scrotum of Christmas joys and toys for the kiddies. Did I mention Planet Terror has jokes about a big bag of balls? Sometimes the balls fall out of the bag, and it’s so gross! It’s so gross I forgot to react at all, due to Planet Terror being the most powerful roofie of a movie since Mr. Rodriguez took advantage of me with Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

If Robert Rodriguez turned in Planet Terror for his homework assignment from the prompt “Grindhouse,” he would receive a D+. There thankfully has never been a grindhouse movie resembling Planet Terror in any shape or form. There are jokes about testicles, guns, dead bodies, explosions, lopped limbs and rolling heads, far more reminiscent of Michael Bay and Tony Scott R-rated actioneers than any low-budget exploitation picture. The creativity and sparse genius of many of these exploitation/genre/grindhouse pictures has a great deal to do with the restrictions of working within the limits a small budget, short schedule and a specified genre. The filmmakers of yore would have to rack their brains and creative marrow to make their pictures stand out from the deluge of work being produced on the cheap. Whether the movie falls into the “Women in Prison,” “Car Chase,” “Revenge Western,” “Zombie,” “Haunted House” or “Heist” category is secondary to what the craftsmen actually squeeze out of it. It is not enough to make a “Women in Prison” movie, there are a billion of those. It's about making the best, craziest, most visually exciting "Women in Prison" movie you can make.

With Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez works with no boundaries, save the debilitating limitation of his talent. He throws a load of crap up at the screen and every once in a while something sticks. It is bound to happen. This is a popular mode of expression. The animated television series The Family Guy is based solely on that principle, and is therefore funny 10-15% of the time. Planet Terror’s 10-15% ratio comes mostly from the strong, funny performance of Josh Brolin as Dr. Block, a few bits from Terminator star Michael Biehn and a brief appearance from the always entertaining Nicky Katt. The most unremarkable performance comes from the wooden (pun intended) peg-legged Rose McGowan. She is the hero of a story built around the concept of her stolen leg being replaced with a machine gun. Auteur Mr. Rodriguez came up with a thought (Machine-Gun-Leg!) and attempted to stretch it into an idea and finally a movie. It remains a thought, or an afterthought as one struggles to remember one memorable moment of a movie filled to the brim with unfinished thoughts doubling as “moments.” The result being repetitive jokes about balls and peg-legs, “gross-out” snippets of boiling bubbly flesh (which pale in comparison to similar moments in Slither) and a greasy BBQ restaurateur all seen through “Grindhouse vision.”

Planet Terror’s understanding of grindhouse aesthetics appears to be a movie print that has been scratched to all hell by projectionists that are more likely to be porcupines, rather than chimpanzees or humans. It is a nauseating, unnecessary effect that is very, very fakey and far from authentic or organic. I speak on this matter with experience as a projectionist with beaten up film prints. They look nothing like this. When a print overheats and burns out, there is no silly sound effect, and the movie does not continue. But hey, it’s all in the name of fun, right? Planet Terror’s computer generated scratches are an attempt to make the movie feel sleazier, but nothing can permeate Rodriguez’s slick, antiseptic green-screen playground.

Planet Terror is a visual, technical, emotional failure. It fancies itself a non-stop, heart-pounding romp, but is a self-satisfied bore. There is a funny idea now and again. I suggest you relish those moments, rather than feel guilty about enjoying the utter stupidity. After all, Planet Terror is not as egregious as 300, but it comes damn close. Balls! Testicles! Bruce Willis! Nuts!! Balls!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


dir. Jim Sonzero

It sure was nice of Sir Ben Kingsley to get all made up for this one.

Guest Article!
Joey Devine, ALAMEDA
April 3, 2007 - DVD

I hate Gore Verbinski. That fucker and his boring ass ring movie have ruined the teen horror genre. Lately, I’ve found myself perusing the new release wall pining for the days of Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer and all of those really mediocre middle to late ‘90s Scream rip offs. Instead all we get are fucking innocent blonde ladies being terrorized by fucking children and houses; and in this movie, internet savvy ghosts. That’s right, in this one Death goes High Tech! Pulse stars a who’s who of young Hollywood: Veronica Mars, That Guy With the Weird Hair from Old School, the Jewish guy from Freaks and Geeks, some dude from Lost (speaking of which, who the fuck watches THAT show?), and Christina Milian who I think I heard mentioned on TRL one time when I was drunk. So yeah, that’s the cast. Excellent, excellent cast. I’ll let the hysterical old lady from the middle of the movie explain the plot:

“They came through the computer! We heard it’s safe in the dead zones! Anywhere there’s no computers, no phones, no Wi-Fi! Anywhere they can’t come through!”

Thanks for summing that up for me, screenwriter. This movie somehow manages to be a boring Japanese horror remake mixed with crappy 28 Days Later empty streets paranoia. All leading up to a hilariously stupid race against cell phone signal bars. Read that last sentence again, because it’s not a typographical error.


Who wouldn’t want to see that? In fact I take back everything thing I’ve said, Pulse is great! Ms. Mars is a cute as a button leading lady. The choice of never properly lighting the scenes is genius. Freaks and Geeks guy is Rob Schneider in Judge Dredd-esque as the comic relief. And this movie is literally pulse pounding! (har har har)

If you want to find yourself asking questions like...

“Why doesn’t anyone turn any lights on?”
“Is Ted Raimi in Grudge or Grudge 2? "
"Did I even see Grudge 2?

“Man, are the Japanese versions just as crappy?”
“What’s worse, this or The Skeleton Key?”
"Didn't I sleep through most of The Skeleton Key?"
and most importantly, “What hath Gore wrought?”

...then by all means, see Pulse. It’s totally boring and stupid.

~Joey “Sure, I’ll contribute to your website, but only if I get to write about mediocre and crappy movies no one cares about” Devine

Sunday, April 1, 2007


dir. John Frankenheimer

Who needs 3D when you got James Wong Howe?

March 31, 2007 - DVD

In addition to being an amazing movie, Seconds has one of the great titles in film history. It implies a certain greed, or a general dissatisfaction with what you’ve been given. Even when the “second helping” is insisted upon instead of requested, it’s in the act of taking that a person’s self-interested nature reveals itself. At the same time, this movie is savvy enough to sympathize with the taker, and it aims to investigate the larger problem, which is a society that knows an individual will take everything they’re offered, and irresponsibly keeps… on… offering. When a pet goldfish eats itself to death, who’s to blame?

Whoa. But I’m getting carried away. First, the set-up. The story is one of those things that begi
n with a successful man, perhaps in his mid-fifties, who lives his life as a ghost. He and his wife sleep in separate beds, it’s awkward when they kiss, and he finds nothing very worthwhile about his comfortable existence. One day he receives a phone call from a friend he thought was dead, and he’s given vague instructions that will lead him to an opportunity to live an altogether new life, as a new man, complete with a new face, new personality, new interests, and even “a new signature!” For more, check out the trailer.

This Twilight Zone-y premise is just the beginning, though, and Frankenheimer steers t
he story through some of the most harrowingly photographed psychological set pieces I’ve ever seen (special fun note: big fans of Requiem for a Dream might be surprised when they see shots that predate Aronofsky’s cheeseball “camera-attached-to-the-character” business by almost 35 years, and do it with infinitely more success, purpose and panache). Cinematographer James Wong Howe attacks this stuff like a man unfettered, often jamming his lens so close to the features of the actors that the camera shadow jags across their face. More than once, physical instinct had me leaning backwards, thinking Rock Hudson’s forehead might smash through the screen. It’s like a latter-day Orson Welles picture (or maybe one of Larry Cohen’s cracked bits of pulp genius) in its seemingly limitless supply of funhouse angles, some of them magnificently sloppy, and all of them supplementing the movie’s surreal, manic atmosphere.

Seconds was apparently met with a lot of confusion and derision upon release, and even now is generally seen as a fairly minor, “flawed” cult film. This is insane, of course, because the movie’s an awesome success, but I think I have a theory as to why the uncertainty remains. Like The Beguiled, this film uses our knowledge about other movies and about ourselves to assume that we’ll take certain notions as a given. Take the dissatisfied middle-aged man element, for example; Seconds makes no real effort to probe the main character’s psyche and find out what, specifically, is wrong with him. Instead, we’re talking about a general, familiar malaise, and it’s with this kind of vaguery that the film asks the audience to fill in the character gaps by projecting their own minds and experiences upon him. This kind of thing makes viewers nervous—it’s getting a little too personal. Couple this with truly invasive cinematography, and suddenly Seconds is "psychologically shallow" and "overly stylized."

And let's talk once again about that style. There are two scenes in particular that come hand in hand, one after the other, which I believe earn Seconds most of this type of criticism. In actuality, these are probably the best scenes in the entire movie. The first is set at a weird kind of wine festival, and the second occurs at a cocktail party in the main character’s house. Both of them are long, essentially plotless pieces of pure movie mania; in the first, we watch a stodgy, proper man gradually lose all his inhibitions. It begins as a fairly innocuous-seeming, renaissance-style grape stomping party. Quickly, though, it evolves into a full-blown, drunken, naked free-f0r-all (I mean, full-frontal... and this is 1966!), and by the time Rock Hudson is grinning like a mental patient and screaming "YES!! YESSS!!" we totally feel the release. Interpret that as you will. In the second sequence, we watch this same man crumble under the weight of his new (and, at its core, false) personality. We watch a man drown himself in alcohol, stumble around embarrassing all his guests, and eventually hit rock bottom (ho, ho) as he realizes that no matter what he does he's the same lost and dissatisfied man as he was in his old life. Calling this second sequence "uncomfortable" would be an understatement... it's brash and ugly and insane. And it gets us exactly where we need to be, down and out and massively depressed. Because of the elation we felt in the earlier sequence, this actually kind of feels like a personal failure. It tears at us as viewers, not just at the Hudson character, and it's this kind of invasiveness that, I think, freaks the shit out of some people. It's a more advanced level of filmic interaction, but if you can deal with it and acknowledge that it's achievement is pure and direct, and that the uncomfortable feeling is just the film working its magic, then this movie may be among the most powerful you'll see.

And in the end, it all comes down to greed. This is a film about a man destroyed by accepting an offer for "seconds," and thinking that the answers to his problems lay in a different assortment of company and products. I've read some reviews (and, indeed, Frankenheimer himself has agreed with this assessment) that at it's center this is a "be careful what you wish for" sort of film. I completely fuckin' disagree, even despite the director's interpretation of his own work. This is a man who only "wishes" for something after he's told it will fix all his problems. When it doesn't, as it certainly never would, he gets blamed for the failure, and the punishment he receives is nothing short of permanent and ever-repeating. What a crushing, fantastic movie.