April 2010

Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind (2003)

Christopher Guest crafting his most commercially successful film somehow coincided with A Mighty Wind taking home an Oscar for one of its musical performances. The odd thing, though, is the fact that since the film included so many different takes on folk music, a single effort was picked out. And instead of the winner being the Folksmen, a group in the film that Guest was a player in, the duo featuring Eugene Levy, who assisted in writing the screenplay, and Catherine O’Hara were singled out.

The Misunderstood: Four Rooms

Back in 1995, no filmmaker was more lauded than Quentin Tarantino. He had just come off his game-changing success Pulp Fiction and it was assumed that anything he touched would be instant cinema gold. Such was not the case. Tarantino and three other directors teamed up to make abizarre anthology lark called Four Rooms that died both in theaters and in long-term critical opinion. As with every film featured in this column, I believe that Four Rooms doesn't deserve its reputation mostly because viewers approached it from the wrong angle and likely continue to do so. Tarantino's name hangs over Four Rooms and creates an unfair expectation that it was ever intended to be another feather in society's collective Cinema of Cool cap. In truth, it owes a lot more to a considerably less beloved film tradition: The Weird Night movie.

No Award for Avatar? No Surprise Here

It may not be fashionable to diss Cameron’s highly acclaimed (and highly paid) “masterpiece,” Avatar, but after finally seeing it, I have to say that I didn’t see anything award-worthy aside from its CGI effects, which certainly isn’t cause for Best Picture.

I really had been excited to see the film. I hadn’t been able to see it before its video release due to some family emergencies that arose, and when we finally rented the film, my husband and I couldn’t wait to see what all the excitement was about. Both of us are big Lord of the Rings fans, environmentalists, and generally love movies, so we figured this would be the highlight of our weekend.

Christopher Guest's Best in Show (2000)

Coming up with an early eighties hit and ostensibly hibernating for the next decade – or at least skirting directorial stuff – resulted in a reemergence of Christopher Guest during the tail end of the nineties. Beginning his second ascent to comedic gold with Waiting for Guffman didn’t ensure Guest a string of success. Instead, taking a brief detour through a script penned by some (assumed) Hollywood folks most likely reaffirmed Guest’s belief in his own writing abilities.

Well, writing might not be the right word.

Christopher Guest's Almost Hereos (1998)

Even the most famous artists of your generation have entered into some practice that’s resulted in a lowly, lowly product – one that’ll probably be pretty embarrassing to the principals involved during the following years. Bob Dylan released a Christmas themed album last winter and Orson Wells attempted to continue his career subsequent to Citizen Kane. There’re countless examples of missteps from some of the twentieth century masters. Christopher Guest hasn’t attained the same place in culture as the two aforementioned folks, but the director, writer and actor certainly turned in a bummer of a feature with Almost Heroes.

Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Working in film since the late sixties, one would have assumed that Christopher Guest, for all of his innumerable credits, would be one of the better known figures in Hollywood. That’s just not the case. Most of the writer, director and actor’s work has been well outside of whatever passes for mainstream. Over time, he’s contributed to some well known works, including 1984’s This is Spinal Tap. But even that feature maintains a reputation amongst an artier crowd than let’s say the Alien movies.

Richard Pryor's Jo Jo Dancer (1986)

Born in 1940, it shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone that Richard Pryor’s comedy eventually focused almost exclusively on race and the problems he encountered navigating the world as a black dude. There wasn’t any great precedence for the mode of comedy that Pryor trucked in – commercially at least.

For years there had been localized comedy and music showcases, spurring hometown talent onto small time fame. Growing up in Peoria, Il probably had a great deal to do with how Pryor ended up perceiving the world. But his leaving home to pursue a career as a performer should be pretty understandable. Who, even now, wants to spend a lifetime in a tiny town, especially if there’s a hint of racism or intolerance to speak of?

Sun Ra in Oakland: Space is the Place

A politicized class of musicians was really first completely realized to be in existence during the ‘60s. It was a decade that saw great masses of people engaged in various revolts against the government for different reasons and at different times. These organizations, though, didn’t spring up out of nowhere, fully formed and prepared to be assaulted by the police and National Guardsmen. If one desires to get all high falutin’, this whole idea of rebellion could be traced back to the American Revolution – that’d be a tenuous link, although rather easily made. Band leader, composer and pianist Sun Ra, though, began his work towards freeing black folks from a perceived tyranny in the ‘50s while living and working in Chicago.

"Dr. Who and the Daleks" (part 1)

In 1963, a mysterious time traveler called "the Doctor" (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and two of her teachers, Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) were inadvertently transported to an alien world, thanks to the Doctor's time machine (the TARDIS) malfunctioning. There, they find a petrified forest and an empty city, where they discover that they've been exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation. But before they can return to the TARDIS to escape, they are captured by the city's inhabitants - robots with domed, bumped bodies, a single eye-stalk protruding from their head, and an energy weapon built into their frame. They are the Daleks, one group of survivors of a nuclear war that destroyed the planet. Driven underground and into their robotic tanks, the Daleks have become hostile towards anything that is not a Dalek - like, for example, the Doctor, Susan and her teachers.

"Dr. Who and the Daleks" (part 2)

But then there's good! Remarkably for its time, the women of Dr. Who and the Daleks are not reduced to emotional, helpless fluffers (unlike in "The Daleks" episode, which scarred me for life with its dramatic close-ups of Susan's weeping face as she ran through the petrified jungle). True, the women here are not exactly Sarah Connor clones, but they hold their own when faced with Daleks, mutant horrors, perilous chasms and holding cells. Unfortunately, that is more than can be said for their television series counterparts, who found themselves victims of the times in which the show was developing. 

The Misunderstood: A Life Less Ordinary

When I turned 13, my considerably more hip brother took me to see Trainspotting. It only ever played at a single independent theater in a sketchy part of town in Columbus, Ohio, so beyond the sex, drugs and foreign allure of the film there was also this extra slice of illicit thrill that went into my first of many times seeing the film. This was prior to the American re-release that included a new dialogue dub that was considerably more intelligible for an audience that wasn't at all familiar with Scottish dialect. As a consequence, I didn't really understand most of what was going on in the movie, only catching every third word or so. Despite the language barrier, I knew I was watching something special, a film that was plugged in to a lot of very new, very interesting cultural movements. I wasn't alone in this. Director Danny Boyle was quickly becoming a major force in film, having almost singlehandedly revived a global interest in British cinema with the stunning one-two punch of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. His great casts, appealing darkness and stellar soundtracks posited Boyle as a wunderkind in the flood of independent films that washed over the 1990's. So, when he got a big chunk of financing from 20th Century Fox to produce his next movie, everyone was surprised to find a thoroughly bizarre romantic comedy result. That film was A Life Less Ordinary, one of the biggest flops of 1997

Planet B-Boy

“Planet B-Boy” is not your average documentary. B-Boys are the contemporary dancers whose dance moves originated from break-dancing in the 80‘s. Decades later, there has been a re-surgence in this kind of dancing and the movie follows of the lives of a few individual teams from different countries as they prepare for “The Battle of the Year”, which is the ultimate dream for most B-Boys.

Insomnia Revisited - Part I

Christopher Nolan doesn’t need to do any more convincing to get me in his camp. Every one of his films sits high on my list of the greatest films ever in the history of the last 130 years. Well, I guess that’s not entirely the case. Other than Following, which I cannot yet give an opinion because I have yet to see it, Insomnia is the only Christopher Nolan film that I’ve never had a great opinion of. It started years ago, when I first saw Insomnia. And with that, we get to the review…

Defendor

Yesterday, Peter Stebbings finally saw the worldwide release of his long-suffering, low-budget film Defendor. Like the movie's protagonist, it has been a misunderstood and isolated outcast for most of its life. The original screenplay was written in 2005 and though a number of high-profile actors were attached to the project throughout its pre-production purgatory, it failed to find a distributor or even sufficient financing. Stebbings partially funded Defendor out of his own pocket and with help from Darius Films and Telefilm Canada he finally put together the shoestring $5 million budget. Despite generally positive reviews at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, Defendor's US distributor, Sony Pictures, decided to send the movie straight to video. It saw a very limited theatrical release thanks to further backing from Darius but should more or less be considered a film that never got to cinemas.

Remembering Friday

I maintain that Yo! MTV Raps impacted race in the post-Baby Boomer generation more than anything else. It wasn’t Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer that made in-roads into suburbia and resulted in a few spoofs like CB4 and In Fear of A Black Hat, it was the Ed Lover Dance. What wide eyed, white kid could resist that? Certainly, someone along the way must have referred to all of that as a sort of new timey minstrel show. And while it could be understood that way, every afternoon folks all over the country were able to witness a music that had its roots in the ‘80s, been incubated for almost a decade, developed its own set of aesthetics – in music and language – and eventually found itself with a wide enough fan base to be incorporated into mainstream America (maybe I should have used ‘KKK’ in lieu of the ‘c’ as a tribute to Ice Cube.).

James Atlee Phillips' Thunder Road (1958)

There’s a surprising amount of cultural baggage that goes along with understanding the 1958 film Thunder Road. Firstly, the flick was something of a pet project for Robert Mitchum, who’d been attempting to suss out a narrative for a good long while prior to production being figured out. Mitchum’s penchant for playing good bad-guys (folks who break the law, but seem as if they’re on the up an up) was surely considered when all of this was being solidified. But for whatever reason, the actor found it difficult to get the screen play to where he wanted it.

Enter James Atlee Phillips (father of guitarist, singer and composer Shawn Phillips).

Work Horse Movies: Street Kings

Back in February, I was sitting in a hotel room next to an airport waiting for a pre-dawn flight across the country. My plane left the ground early enough that sleep was out of the question. I'm something of a night owl, so the idea of waking up at 4:30 AM for a 6:00 AM flight doesn't make as much sense as just staying up until 5:00. The world isn't really designed with nocturnal folks in mind, so there's not a whole lot to do in the wee hours. Thankfully, hotels come equipped with cable television. I don't know if it's the bizarre pliability of being in transit or just simple boredom, but being in hotels often convinces me to watch shows and movies I'd almost certainly skip at home. On this particular late night in February, I stumbled across David Ayer's 2008 crime drama Street Kings.

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