Sunday, June 29, 2008

Be Kind, Check this Out

I don't know if BE KIND, REWIND was screwed over by the marketing department or if director Michael Gondry was making a point about the way we brand movies. What I do know is that a movie with Jack Black, Mos Def, and an extraordinarily wacky premise isn't supposed to turn out as a loving treatise on the importance of community.

Quick summary: Mos Def works in a video store where Jack Black (who becomes magnetized in a great scene involving ingenious camouflage) accidentally erases all of the videotapes. Because no one carries VHS anymore, they can't replace the tapes. So they do the only logical thing: they remake the movies themselves with an ancient camcorder and a process they term "Sweding." They begin with GHOSTBUSTERS and by the end, they have Sweded over 200 movies, including ROBOCOP, KING KONG, THE LION KING, and, DRIVING MISS DAISY. The community comes to like the Sweded films better than the originals and a phenomenon is born.

Everything about this film screams unconcerned about whether people actually come to see it. Jack Black, Mos Def, and all the rest treat the movie as a kind of love letter to both film and to community. They have the aura of artists who so truly love the material that they are doing this for free, and the result is an electric kind of chemistry that shouldn't work, but manages to defy all logic and does anyway. A movie that includes Jack Black's magnetized urine shouldn't be lovely and touching, but is.

Gondry, who also wrote the script, turns Hollywood stereotypes on their heads throughout the picture. When Danny Glover's video store (which only carries VHS) is on the brink of demolition by a developer, every other movie ever made would have portrayed the developer as a money-hungry Texan who has no sympathy for the people and culture he's displacing. Gondry treats the character as a sympathetic man who is truly trying to improve the quality of life of the people of Passaic. Mia Farrow's character, an old lady that is the impetus for their movie-making (she's the one that wanted to watch GHOSTBUSTERS) is a beautiful woman that cares selflessly for the young black men of the community.

Race, although always present in the film - the three main stars of the Sweded movies are white, black, and Hispanic - is never discussed directly, but wonderfully and hilariously shown in context, such as during the filming of DRIVING MISS DAISY where Jack Black is the Jessica Tandy character to Mos Def's Morgan Freeman. When Jack shows up in blackface to play Fats Waller - he figures he's the right man to play him since he too is fat, Danny Glover takes him outside gently to discuss the problem. We don't hear the reprimand, but we do see it in what may be the best scene of the movie.

BE KIND REWIND ends with a scene out of a Frank Capra film, a scene just short of sappy, but so lovely that both Janna and I had the beginnings of tears in our eyes. Overall, the movie is a paean to interconnectedness. It's a simple film with a small budget that is more than the sum of its parts. It's a sort of anti-HAPPENING for me. Rather than liking it less and less the more I think about it, I like and admire BE KIND REWIND more and more.

4 and a half magnetized drops of urine out of 5.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

What's the news from your bed?

A few updates for you:

1. I use ellipses way too much.
2. This is completely self-indulgent. I mean, this is totally, wholly, egotistical on our part. I know this. But it's so much darn fun. The hamster, Myles, and I have started a new blog where we do nothing but review movies. Check it out - it's boss.
3. Benjamin loves him some Blue's Clues. Amazing. Steve (and Joe, I reckon) have helped raise all three of my kids.
4. There is some big news on the horizon. We hope. Should be happening in the next week or two. Cross your fingers for us. And say a prayer or ten.
5. Do you have to be married for, like, 30 years to renew your vows? Cause I love my wife a whole lot. She's groooovy. And she puts up with me getting tired and going to bed at ten o'clock.
6. The new Ben Shive record is jawdroppingly gorgeous. Go to The Rabbit Room and buy it. It's worth the ten bucks - seriously, what's ten bucks anymore, an extra value meal from McDonald's? Go buy "The Ill Tempered Klavier."
7. I bought this great book from the used bookstore this week. It's called Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who by Frederick Buechner. Awesome.
8. I am officially a Tennessee state certified commercial C3(turf grass and ornamentals) pesticide applicator. As my mom says - "Every mother's dream."
9. I really want to go see WALL-E this weekend. Have you seen the reviews?
10. This one's from Laney, "I love you, world."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

It's All (not) Happening!

Eberto the Pirate says "Arr, there be spoilers ahead. These be dangerous waters. Mind your spinnakers!"

THE HAPPENING - A Tale of Trite Shite

"Class, welcome to Great Directing 101. This week, we're discussing the concept of denouement. Now who can tell me what denouement means? Steven? Marty? Wilder? Clint? Oh fine, Alfred."

(class groans, murmurs of "teacher's pet" abound)

"Professor Kubrick, it means the final resolution of the intricacies of a plot, as of a drama or novel."

"Good, good, Alfred. Now, let's discuss examples. M Night, can you give me an example of the proper use of denouement? M Night? Has anybody seen M Night? Dang it. This'll come back to bite him one day. Ok, let's move on. Joel, Ethan, can you give me an example?"


Oh, THE HAPPENING. How I wish thee had not been a bad movie. How I wish that you had lived up to thine wonderful opening scenes. Those bodies falling like raindrops,the calm of shoving a knitting needle through a jugular, the idyllic, foreboding images of nature. The first five minutes or so were excellent. Then Marky Mark opened his mouth and everything began to fall apart.

I wonder if Marky Mark was thrust upon M Night, or if M Night chose Marky Mark. Either way, it turned out bad. He simply can't carry a movie. He has one emotion - incredulity. Fortunately for him, it helped in some scenes - that was the required emotion. But incredulity can only carry you so far. The unfortunate part is that Jon Leguizamo was excellent, if wasted. His role is far too limited, as if M Night didn't want him stealing scenes from Marky Mark. Zooey Deschanel is wonderful, of course, and her bright blue eyes dominate the screen.

I do think, though, that THE HAPPENING could have survived Marky Mark. But the story is really the low point of the film, and not even Zooey's eyes can save that. It's almost as if M Night (who my boss at work calls "Midnight" as if the M stands for Mid) came up with the concept and figured that the kinks would just get worked out along the way - "An ending? Don't bother me with details!"

Here's the plot in a nutshell: People start committing suicide en masse, and no one knows why. Marky Mark, his wife Zooey, and their buddy's young daughter attempt to flee from New England to escape what's HAPPENING. They progress in smaller and smaller groups until they are alone and assured that they too, will die. (SPOILER) They don't. Everyone lives happily ever after. What was killing everybody? You guessed it, the plants. The plants are mad that people are mistreating the earth, so they start killing folks (actually, getting people to kill themselves). We find all of this out in a third act that lasts all of four minutes - very reminiscent of Speilberg's crappy WAR OF THE WORLDS. In fact, the whole of THE HAPPENING is reminiscent of WoTW. So much so that Stevie might want to check out some plagiarism lawyers.

Oh, M Night can still build suspense. There are some excellent, tense scenes. They effects are nice - a guy gets run over buy a riding lawnmower, etc. There's a really great scene involving three individual suicides with the same gun.

M Night's strength has always been that he's an excellent storyteller, but I'm afraid he's lost his mojo. The movie really feels like a student assignment - "Do a film about global warning. Make it a metaphor." 2 Marky Marks out of five.

(Sorry Kevin)

Friday, June 13, 2008

A (Day)Dream Show

There's this charitable organization called Letters to Santa. They do some really cool stuff for underprivileged kids, or something. I'm not really interested. What they do that is awesome, though, is that every year they have a living room benefit concert with Jeff Tweedy. They record it and it ends up online somehow (something to do with vacuum tubes, I think). And then those recordings find their way magically on my computer where I can lovingly enjoy them.

But here's the best part. The format of this thing is that Jeff goes around the room to each person and lets them request a song. That's the set list. Each person chooses their favorite and he plays it. Ridiculous.

So I was spreading fertilizer a few days ago and listening to the show and daydreaming about what I would choose if Jeff picked me. I'm so indecisive though, everyone would get mad at me for taking too long to make up my mind (Should I pick When the Roses Bloom Again? How about Hummingbird? Candyfloss? Via Chicago? Summerteeth? I can't decide!! Janna, just pick for me."Ok, honey. Heavy Metal Drummer, please, Jeff.")

So here's my question for all of you. Which performer, and which song?

(Myles, if you say King's X, I'll scream.)

Here's my real answer:

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Something New, and Still Really Old, Under the Sun

(note: the sister review of this fine feature film can be found over on the hamster's site)

(another note: some of this review should be a bit, um, graphic. Fortunately, I've tastefully removed any possibly offensive terms and replaced them with the word "Chewbacca." If your curiosity gets the better of you, click the link. But don't say I didn't warn you.)


If I told you that the movie I'm about to review concerns a centuries-old, cross-cultural, mythological phenomenon that has roots in Egyptian, Greek, Christian, Native American, and African folklore, would that make me seem scholarly? Professorial, even? 'Cause it does come from those traditions. Really. I promise. Look it up.

I've seen lots of horror movies and I've seen lots of blood and guts and pretty much every conceivable way of killing some poor Hollywood schmuck. But this is a first. I can sit through SAW and HOSTEL without flinching. I can watch Freddy Krueger invade the nightmares of unsuspecting teens with nary a bad dream of my own. But this, this myth called Chewbacca, this is the hardest to watch. This made me look away.

Throughout the history of our vast world, patriarchy has always been the status quo. Men have always held the power. Owned the land, made the money, voted the votes. That's where the root of this Chewbacca myth comes from. It's a story where the script is flipped, a feminist dream. Men become the victims, the helpless ones. In a situation where they believe the power is theirs, they find in one quick, sickening second, that they are powerless. And a bit lighter.

TEETH is a cautionary tale for boys. Remember that time in middle school where the boys are separated from the girls and each gets to watch a "special video?" I don't remember the video we watched 20-some years ago, but I know this: TEETH should be required viewing for all pubescent boys who are considering becoming "active."

Our heroine, Dawn, a high-school age girl who trumpets celibacy to young people everywhere, saying things like, "That's what the ring is all about. The way it wraps around your finger - that's to remind you to keep your gift wrapped. Wrapped... until the day... you trade it in for that other ring. That gold ring. Get it?", has come to realize that perhaps there is something that is... let's say "unnatural" down there. Through no fault of her own, she is forced to confront this... umm, mutation. Her first victim is a fellow save-it-for-later fellow she genuinely likes, who decides to get a little too frisky and ends up as crab food. Then there's the perverted OBGYN who loses a few fingers and, hilariously, writhes on the floor screaming, "Chewbacca! It's real!", but won't tell the doctors what actually happened to his hand.

When she discovers that she can, in fact, control her... um... gift, Dawn comes to realize the potential she has, not only the potential to defend herself from sick and unruly boys, but also the ability to be pro-active. To punish stupid fellows who think first with head #2. She becomes something of a feminist superhero, or, at least, vigilante. Her mission (and by the end of the movie, we believe that she has chosen to accept it) is to destroy those males who would use their superior physical strength to take advantage of the "weaker" sex.

It's a moral tale in the vein of the slasher films of the '80s. Just like Jason chopped up the campers at Camp Crystal Lake (and on a cruise ship, and, oh yeah, in space - I'd forgotten about that one) for sins as varied as fornication, pride, and gluttony (or just being the funny guy), Dawn enacts justice on the predators in her town. It's really a tale of the evils of sexual exploitation of women. Every guy who gets... um... shortened, absolutely deserves it. The moral of this morality play is this: Treat women as objects and suffer the consequences. The horrible, terrible, life-altering, gruesome consequences.

TEETH owes as much to the '90s teenager movies - CLUELESS, HEATHERS, BRING IT ON, etc. as it does to Jason and Michael Myers. The teen caricatures are typical - the geek, the bully, etc. It's campy (the good kind), smart, and biting (ha!). It's really a B-movie that lives above its means. Some of the effects betray the budget, but that's forgivable. Mostly it's a lot of wince-inducing fun.

Husbands, don't show this to your wives. They might get ideas.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Joy Like a Fountain

There was this book I read and loved,
the story of a ship.
who sailed around the world and found,
that nothing else exists;
beyond his own two sails,
and wooden shell,
and what is held within.
- Bright Eyes

I am an extremist. Janna tells me this all the time. I either love something or it's absolute dreck - not much lives in between. But, I can say for certain that I have reserved the following statement for only two novels in the past ten years. The first is A Prayer for Owen Meany, the second is Peace Like a River. The statement is this: "This is my favorite book."

I finished Peace a month or so ago. I've wanted to write a review of it ever since, but I've held off, mainly because, if I'm being honest with myself, I don't know how to do it justice, despite that Bachelor's degree in English Lit that I purloined back in '99. But, with some encouragement from The Hamster to start talking about literature again, here goes.

I read a lot. Like, more than anyone else I know. In the past week I've finished at least two, maybe three novels (actually, on further review, I think it was four). I probably read at least a hundred books a year. I'm not trying to brag (or as Shaq would say, I'm not trying to be bragadocious). It's just that I can read anywhere, regardless of what's going on around me. I can read and watch TV at the same time. I usually have at least two, sometimes more, going on simultaneously. I read my favorites five, ten times over.

But when I started Peace Like a River, all of that went away. Like the Bright Eyes quote above, there was no other existence than me and the boat I was in. A boat I shared with Jeremiah, Reuben, Swede, and Davy Land. I felt like young Bastian in The Neverending Story, simply disappearing into the novel.

The story is simple. A family in Minnesota in the '60s undergoes a family tragedy of sorts that serves to both bind them together and pull at the fragile seams of their lives. It's a story told from the point of view of an adolescent child, who is just beginning to understand love, all kinds: the love of a father for his sons, the love of a sister for her brothers, the protective love of a big brother, even lust for the opposite sex.

But more than anything, the novel is, for me, an examination of the nature of faith. Not simply faith in Christ, although that's definitely part of it, but a larger faith. As Reuben watches his father, Jeremiah, struggle through raising three children alone, he sees a man who is profound in his faith, so much so that he bears as much resemblance to Peter, James, or John as to the elementary school janitor that he is.

And perhaps the fact that faith is at the core of the story is what lends it such a childlike quality, almost naive in its worldview. It's not a story where everything turns out alright in the end, but there are no lasting tears for what's been lost. It has an innocence that's akin to To Kill a Mockingbird and characters that are as rich as John Irving's. And magic... oh yes, there's magic.

It's difficult for me to muse on an intellectual level about the merits and faults of this one, because it affected me on such an emotional and personal level. I proclaimed it my new favorite immediately upon finishing the last page, and the more I've thought about it and discussed it in the weeks hence, the more I am confident in my proclamation.

My affection (strange how affection and affected are so close) for the novel lies in the details, like in this story about a revival at church. Reuben and his crush, Bethany Orchard, sneak away to the church kitchen for a snack, where she begins to cook pancakes for the two of them. When the smell finds its way into the sanctuary, here's what happens:

Therianus-dequayas-remorey-gungunnas, a man called out, plus a paragraph or so more. I'm not making fun; the language was complicated and musical, an expression outside human usefulness. Expectant silence followed. The Reverend Johnny surveyed the room. At this moment I noticed that the smell of our pancakes - Bethany's and mine, and they'd been good ones - had floated upstairs, a fabulous smell. It occurred to me we might get into some small trouble for using the kitchen during service.

Then Reverend Johnny spoke up. "Does anyone have the interpretation? Who's hearing the word of the Lord tonight?"

Nobody said a thing.

Johnny Latt persisted. "Someone's fighting obedience tonight! Speak up, for no prophecy goes untold. Joe, is it you?"

And Joe, a bull-shouldered patriarch whose shirt stretched wet across his back and who looked to be in deep communication with the Almighty, rose without hesitation and gave it a shot. "O my sons and my daughters, how I love thee! How I wish to provide for thee! Yea, I long to surround thee with delicious smells, heavenly smells! How gladly will I sit thee down in my banquet hall, for beauteous are the cakes therein! Oh, golden is my syrup! And unto me shall gather the hungry from every nation-"

What a shame Swede wasn't there. She'd have adored that prophecy who knows what commentary she'd have whispered in my ear?

Even though I didn't grow up in the '60s, or in Minnesota, there is a feeling of familiarity with the Land family. Just like Jeremiah welcomes even the undesirable door-to-door salesman into their home for dinner, you, the reader, are welcomed in to the Land clan.

I guess that's where the brilliance of the book lies. Just like with Harper Lee's Finches, the reader becomes a de facto member of the family. Relation becomes instantaneous, not something you have to work at. Empathy is not difficult, not forced, because these people are people you wish were your flesh and blood, people you want to sit down for breakfast with. Maybe having been an adolescent boy once upon a time helps. Maybe having sisters, maybe being a person of faith. Maybe just being a member of the human race is good enough.

Please read this. Please?