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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Project M: The Comeback King

Well, if you guessed that the title reference was to John Travolta, you win the bonus round here at TMT and your prize is a hearty congratulations.  It turns out that Doug is a huge Travolta fan – I mean, who isn’t?  But Doug apparently harbors a deep and abiding love for John Travolta and announced, as he handed me Pulp Fiction, that he had seen that movie several times in the theater just because he was so excited that Travolta was back.  So it became evident that I was in for some quality time with John Travolta.  After some humming and hahing, Doug ultimately assigned me one example of Travolta at his peak, Saturday Night Fever, and, of course, his big comeback film, Pulp Fiction.  I had already watched and liked Pulp Fiction so it was a safe bet, but I had never seen Saturday Night Fever.  There was, of course, a reason for that.  A movie about disco and a guy who really likes to dance to disco?  The men’s fashions alone are enough to turn my stomach.  It’s like somebody actually set out to design a Sarah repellent.  But Doug loves it and has often claimed it “defines the decade” so I decided to give it a chance.

I’ll say this for Fever, it wasn’t what I expected.  I had somehow managed to go my entire life without finding out that the movie had an actual plot and wasn’t just John Travolta dancing his way through a decade.  There’s overarching racial stereotyping, substance abuse, date rape, and unintentional death to enjoy as well. I want to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and so I reference racial stereotyping when, in fact, the movie features flat-out racism, but I’ll chalk that up to the development of the message that Fever made concrete through Tony’s epiphany towards the end of the flick that everyone just wants to find somebody else to “dump on” and a stupid superficial reason is as good as any other to do so.  For those of you who, like me, managed to make it your entire life without discovering Saturday Night Fever’s plot, the movie follows Tony, played beautifully by Travolta, as a 19-year-old boy living with his parents, grandmother, and little sister, and working in a hardware store, but he lives for the weekend when he gets to go to the club and dance his heart out.  His local club is hosting a dance competition and the prize is $500.  Initially, Tony is practicing with a young woman, Annette, who is completely infatuated with him, but soon discovers a better partner, Stephanie, played by Karen Lynn Gorney.  He dumps Annette and starts practicing with Stephanie, on whom he has more than a little crush.  As I said, there’s a lot of drug use, some territorial feuding, sexual assault, and the movie culminates in the death of one of Tony’s friends, but that basically covers the plot.

The dance practice scenes were priceless.  Think Girls Just Want to Have Fun or even Dirty Dancing.  But, whereas I liked many of the characters in Dirty Dancing, I didn’t actually like any of the characters in Fever except Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr., a Catholic priest who has quit the priesthood.  The best scene in the movie is when Tony brings Frank to the club and shows off some of his moves.  The look on Frank’s face is proud and happy; the look of a big brother who sees his little brother doing something he absolutely loves and he makes Tony promise he’s going to do something with his dancing.  That scene perfectly illustrates Tony and Frank’s greatest fear; that they’ll never get away, they’ll get stuck in the same life that their parents and neighbors and everyone they know is leading.  Fever tries hard to comment on pretty much every social issue that might have faced a young person in the 70s from drug abuse to unintentionally knocking up one’s girlfriend and packs it all into a movie about dancing.  It’s ambitious and makes for a pretty grueling movie-watching experience that had me thinking if Saturday Night Fever defines the 70s, I’m glad I wasn’t born until the 80s.

As I said, I had already seen Pulp Fiction, but, and I never thought I’d write this phrase, Pulp Fiction served as a nice reprieve after the grim unfun that was Saturday Night Fever.  The title is pretty much self-explanatory and the film is pretty much pure fun, with a few “oh God!” moments.  The one moment in the film that had stuck with me during the 15 years since I first watched Pulp Fiction was when John Travolta has to stab the giant needle into Uma Thurman’s heart and I had definitely built that up in my head.  Now, at my ripe old age, it was not nearly as disturbing, but I remember watching Pulp Fiction the first time in my friend’s basement and being absolutely traumatized by that scene.  You cannot find fault with a single actor in the entire film, they all perform perfectly.  The plot, while difficult to explain succinctly so I’m not gonna bother, is not difficult to follow, and the quick non-linear vignettes make for a fast paced and engaging popcorn flick.  Since this post is focused on Doug’s man-crush, John Travolta, I will say this, he was outstanding as Vincent Vega, muscle for an L.A. mobster.  (SPOILERS!!!)  I had totally forgotten how Vincent dies in the movie and I was oddly sad to see the end of the character that accidentally shot a guy in the face, causing all kinds of trouble earlier in the movie.  My only consolation was that, due to the non-linear storytelling that Quentin Tarantino employs, Vincent was not gone from the movie.  Travolta’s scenes with Uma Thurman’s Mia were outstanding and we get to see Travolta break it down on the dance floor almost twenty years after his turn in Fever to great effect.  I’ll have to thank Doug for getting me to watch Pulp Fiction once again.  With 15 or so additional years of perspective, I think I enjoyed re-watching it even more than my first viewing and keeping a special eye out for Vincent Vega made the film all the more enjoyable.

 
 

Project M 1992–It Might Say Wayne’s World But It’s Really Buffy’s

Project M 1992–It Might Say Wayne’s World But It’s Really Buffy’s

We’re going to take our first shot at Project M, and to do so we take a trip through the Sarah movie collection, for two movies straight out of 1992. Twenty years ago was a pretty interesting transitional year for movies. Eastwood signed off on the Western with Unforgiven, Tarantino hit the scene with Reservoir Dogs, Altman skewered Hollywood with The Player, and Jordan gave us one of the all-time screen surprises with The Crying Game. Add in Glengarry Glen Ross, The Last of the Mohicans, and Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth and now you’re talking about a year that borders on classic status.

But we’ll leave the breakdown of that list to the people who really know what they’re doing. For Project M, we go down another road and take a look at Wayne’s World and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Full disclosure as we get started. Wayne’s World I’d seen a few times, but with Buffy I come in completely fresh. And because I’d seen Wayne’s World enough times, my reaction to it ended up being pretty muted compared to how I reacted to Buffy.

What Wayne’s World will always have going for it is just how much fun you can tell everybody had with making it. The movie ended up making straight cash in the long run, of course, but you could tell that Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey knew they were playing with house money being allowed to make an entire movie out of their Saturday Night Live characters. The gags weren’t really funny just because they were overly clever in and of themselves. They were funny because Meyers and Carvey told you with the wink of their eye that they were supposed to be funny. And Rob Lowe in one of his first roles sort of skewering his own persona was just as wink, wink in the relish he put into playing the ridiculous “bad guy”. Watching the movie again, it’s a little surprising how few laugh out loud moments there are. But despite that, the overall tone of the movie is just so feel good that you can’t help coming away with a smile. The now iconic car ride Bohemian Rhapsody lip synch is worth the price of admission alone.

It’s sort of hard to imagine a movie like Wayne’s World getting green lit these days, which is really too bad. Teenagers of today would likely laugh at it, but not so much with it. In the age of sarcasm and snark that we live in, it’s hard to see a movie with a cast just having fun for fun’s sake like in Wayne’s World getting over.  But it’s worth another look, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of the comfort food that passed for entertainment 20 years ago.

As for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I come to the party 20 years late. But seeing Buffy for the first time two decades after it came out, this was a delicious watch on so many different levels. I really don’t know where to start with the breakdown, but let’s begin with the cast. There are a metric ton of “That guy was in this movie?” moments. Ben Affleck, Seth Green and even the great Ricki Lake appear uncredited in bit roles. Hillary Swank and Natasha Gregson Wagner are on the scene as a couple of Buffy’s friends. I’m sure everyone remembers the short lived but brilliant Fox dating show Studs? Come on, you know you watched it. Well, you’ll be happy to know that the show’s host, the affable Mark DeCarlo, plays the basketball coach in Buffy. By the way, check out DeCarlo’s true talents here…  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MebNrb5pLjA. Even The Punisher himself, Thomas Jane (the guy from Hung for the ladies) has a small role as Luke Perry’s mechanic boss. We haven’t even gotten to the main cast, but you can already see that Buffy was an early petri dish for the growth of many of Hollywood’s greatest thespians.

For my money, though, the best part about the cast comes at the top of the bill. Kristy Swanson. Luke Perry. Rutger Hauer. Donald Sutherland. Paul Reubens. David Arquette. Imagine with me for a moment that in the intervening 20 years since Buffy came out there was no Buffy TV show mania, no Angel as a sequel to Buffy. All we have to remember Buffy by is the classic film from 1992. Naturally, to mark the 20th anniversary of said film the SyFy Network would be putting together a made for TV remake to mark the occasion. It would air on a Saturday night right after one of their giant snake movies. Who do you get, though, to star in such a venture? Take a look at the names above one more time. Who better to get to reprise the work of Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens and David Arquette in a campy SyFy remake of Buffy The Vampire Slayer than Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens and David Arquette? Each and every one of their respective careers is positioned perfectly at this point for this stroke of genius to come to fruition. Somebody get them on the horn immediately. Conference call for a first script read through and we are ready to roll.

Buffy’s screenwriting credit went to hero to fan boys and girls everywhere, Joss Whedon. Whedon was not completely happy with the way the film went, apparently, and went on to do the Buffy  TV series and Angel follow up, as well as Firefly and the Firefly movie Serenity. What I really would love to know is how much of Whedon’s original script appeared in the movie. Because Buffy, in many ways, is a straight knockoff of Teen Wolf. Before we go any further, let me make it clear that when it comes to light, late 80s to early 90s teen fare that lets you eat your popcorn in peace and uses being a paranormal being as a parallel for the difficulty of fitting in in high school, you couldn’t pick a better movie to copy than Teen Wolf. So, let’s take a look at the similarities.

A main character (one a female vampire slayer and one a male teen wolf) that isn’t completely comfortable with his or her powers at first but slowly learns to embrace them and use them for good? Check. The main character being involved in a love triangle where the person they think they want turns out to not be right for them, even though they are blind to it for a while and it takes a while for them to realize who really is true to them and accepts them for who they are? Check. Basketball as a central plot device, complete with those with the powers of the supernatural (wolf or vampire) in each film being spectacular at basketball? Check. A key scene taking place at a high school dance where the main character comes to ultimate terms with his or her true self? Check. The romance working out in the end? Check. Heck, even a van surfing scene in both movies? Check. I could go on, but I think you get the drift. Joss Whedon went on to an awesome career, but in the beginning with Buffy it appears he took not just a little from Teen Wolf.

But that’s not to say that Buffy doesn’t stand on its own as an individual entertainment, because it most certainly does. You’ve got the perfect mix of intentional camp with some of the actors trying a lot harder than the material really called for, resulting in more fun in the form of unintentional camp. Kristy Swanson as Buffy, I thought, was brilliant. She was camp in exactly the places she needed to be camp, straight when she needed to be straight, and even brought a pretty authentic physicality to the character. In the intentional camp camp (see what I did there?), you’ve got Rutger Hauer, Paul Reubens and Donald Sutherland, who are clearly having a ball with the one off roles they’re given. Rutger Hauer, in particular in the closing scenes, appears to be high on the material, or possibly something more. Sutherland has the best line of the movie when he says “I train girls” (slimy pause) “to be slayers.” Sutherland also channels his inner Mr. Miyagi and shows off his surprising athletic ability when he puts Buffy through her paces in an inspired Karate Kid like extended training sequence. Sutherland even sweeps Buffy’s leg at one point, teaching Buffy a valuable lesson in preparedness and self-defense. I’m sure this scene got under the skins of both Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, but Buffy is nothing if not shamelessly derivative.

In the comically taking things too seriously camp are Luke Perry and David Arquette. Arquette was basically harmless in his role, but his constant squinting and posing to try to mimic the Luke Perry method acting techniques made it appear that the former WCW world champion was always one step away from needing to use the facilities. Perry, though, holds the key to Buffy rising from harmless chuckle territory to high camp classic 20 years later. This guy was selling it hard every second of this movie. While Hauer, Reubens, Sutherland and, honestly, even Kristy Swanson seemed to recognize the light fare they were dealing with and were probably all getting high together out behind craft services, I am picturing Perry taking daily meetings with the writers and director in order to perfect his character, which he seemed to never come out of. It’s really hard to determine whether Perry just acted like that 24/7 during the entirety of his life during the 90s or was simply in some sort of perpetual character mode, but his squinting, whispering, soul patch sporting and posing throughout Buffy was iconic in its representation of his personal brand of 90s cool.

My favorite scene in Buffy (well, except for the scene where they had Kristy Swanson randomly holding a huge chunk of ice while wearing a paper thin t shirt for reasons that quickly became apparent) was all Luke Perry swagger. It takes place during the climactic fight scene when Buffy cleans house of all the remaining vampires in town, including Hauer as the mack daddy captain vampire. The scene takes place at a high school dance. Buffy has once and for all been dumped by her dimwitted jock boyfriend because the boyfriend has been waiting long enough for Buffy to put out but Buffy has her standards. And, on top of that, she is facing a pressure packed showdown with Hauer and his vampire cronies. Perry has been on the edge of landing Buffy for most of the movie, parlaying his rebellious, on the knife edge persona of mechanic by day, getting drunk by night and hanging out at under 18 clubs trying to score high school girls with a touching sensitivity to Buffy’s being “different” that belies his hard edged exterior and is completely endearing to Buffy. As the vampires overrun the dance and Buffy prepares for battle, Perry shows up to woo her and his look is one of the greatest in film history.

In order to uphold his biker cred, Perry naturally comes in wearing a biker jacket (but no helmet, because what kind of a pansy wears a helmet). Except this is no ordinary jacket. I’m not real good at describing men’s fashion, but this was pure couture, a combination leather biker jacket with a Members’ Only flair. It featured strategic quilting, assorted snaps and a gigantic collar. And it was kind of puffy, possibly even partially filled with down. A truly special wardrobe choice for what I’m sure Perry was planning to be a special evening. Anyway, it was cold outside and Perry had no real vampire fighting bona fides, so Perry’s contribution to the final vampire battle was to accidentally rip the bottom of Buffy’s skirt off and then offer her his jacket so she could stay warm when she went out to fight the vampires while Perry stayed inside, danced and fought a little. When Perry went to hand Buffy his jacket, though, we quickly realized that his fashion sense was not limited to outerwear. It’s still a little unclear to me why a tough guy biker from the wrong side of the tracks would be wearing what Perry was wearing underneath the jacket, but maybe he was being represented as such a bad boy that he could pull off anything. Regardless, he was rocking the poofy white shirt straight off the back of Jerry Seinfeld, overlaid by the most precious 90s polka dotted, quasi paisley-ish vest (complete with lapels) that I think I’ve ever seen. This was a man that came prepared to get the girl or, if that failed, to serve punch and hors d’oeuvres to the assembled teens.

And, in the end, after the girl single handedly vanquishes the vampires, Perry of course does get the girl. It all felt so good, and so right, as Buffy drove the stake through the heart of Rutger Hauer and then hopped onto the back of Luke Perry’s miniature motorbike and rode off into the sunrise. I can’t get across enough how much I enjoyed watching Buffy. I actually feel lucky that I never watched it up until now. It allowed me to enjoy it in full camp mode, without the perspective of seeing it when it first came out. It really felt like Buffy sort of represented the end of a fun, feel good era, sort of one of the last of the harmless popcorn comedies in the style of the mid to late 80s. But Buffy is also important as a bridge to the more serious minded, slightly more thoughtful (though not always less campy), better written vampire and paranormal material that emerged in the mid-90s and continues right up until today. Buffy is a forgotten classic and one that definitely deserves 85 minutes of your time on a rainy Saturday afternoon or evening, as well as its place as a forerunner to the slightly conflicted but still ass kicking, girl power heroines of the last 20 years.

 

 
 

Announcing Project M (for Movies, not Murder)

So when Doug and I were getting this whole blog thing off the ground, we discussed a variety of different movie “projects” we might undertake.  Doug suggested that we should somewhere, somehow talk about some of our favorite movies.  The challenge was making sure that such a project was still fun and interesting for you, our dear readers.  We talked about a “Top Ten” list, but neither of us could nail our favorite movies down to just ten so we talked around in circles, as Doug and I are known to do until I was hit with a little inspiration; what if we reviewed each other’s favorite movies?  Well, we talked some more because, as you can probably tell, talking movies is one of our favorite things to do, before Doug made a counter proposal; what if we challenged ourselves to come up with recommendations from our own movie collections that we thought the other might enjoy, but that also represented our favorites?

Eureka!

We think we may have hit upon something pretty awesome here; a project that will allow us to view some of our old favorite films through new eyes, introduce us to some new “classics” and provide me with plenty of ammunition for future teasing of Doug.  I, of course, am mainly hoping for the latter, but, who knows, maybe I’ll discover some new favorites in the process.  So stay tuned as Doug and I prepare to review and discuss the finer points of our favorites from Heat to Dogma to Saturday Night Fever to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  You may just discover some new favorites as well!

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Project M, Reviews

 

Red State, the Horror, the Horror

I should preface this review by saying that I have a deep and abiding love for Kevin Smith born mostly out of my love of DogmaDogma is also an example of what Kevin Smith has already tried to do, combine humor with a social and faithful message.  He generally doesn’t delve into politics, but with a movie named Red State, you know he isn’t going to be able to avoid it.

I’ve heard Kevin say that Red State grew out of his reaction to watching footage of an interview with Fred Phelps (of Westboro Baptist Church fame) that his friend, Malcolm Ingram did for a documentary called Small Town Gay Bar.  Mr. Phelps expressed his usual homophobic and hateful opinions about gay men and lesbians and Kevin was, apparently, left wondering what happens if you take a Phelps – like character and push him to the next level, or four or five extreme levels beyond that.  To paraphrase Agent Joseph Keenan, played by John Goodman in Red State, what if you made Phelps into a doer not a talker?  Well, the answer for Kevin Smith is you land in the middle of a horror movie in which a cultish church lures gay men and curious teenage boys to their doom.  The story is actually sort of convoluted, or more accurately, relies on a lot of happenstance to hang together, but basically we start with three teenage boys being kidnapped by the Five Points Church.  By luck, or chance, the boys earlier sideswiped the Sheriff’s car and the Sheriff sends a deputy out to find the boys.  The deputy locates the car on Five Point’s property and just as he’s about to leave, after being convinced by preacher Abin Cooper that his granddaughters are the culprits and he will pay for repairs, one of the boys escapes and there is a shoot-out inside the church.  The deputy calls it in before he is shot by the preacher’s son-in-law.  It turns out, the preacher has dirt on the Sheriff so rather than call in the shooting, the Sheriff, just happening to see a notice from ATF hanging on the wall regarding the Five Points Church, calls the feds and makes some kind of weapons complaint.  ATF charges in the next morning attempting to execute a search warrant.  Things go wrong – I won’t ruin anymore details – but let’s just say, the perhaps bumbling – or perhaps calculating – Sheriff instigates a shoot-out and the bodies pile up.

Certainly, Red State is gorey and Doug would probably need some sort of exfoliation process after watching it, but it also drives right past “horror” and lands in what I can only call the grotesque, in a “theater of the grotesque” sense.  Theater of the grotesque isn’t really my forte, but it led to “theater of the absurd”, you know Beckett and Stoppard and people hanging around in garbage cans for no apparent reason, the point of which is to express, well, pain.  Red State also reminded me of commedia dell’arte where political and other characters in the social hierarchy were represented by clowns wearing grotesque masks and plots were pushed to the extreme in an attempt to demonstrate hypocrisy and the self-indulgence of society, but without necessarily calling any single person out.  Theater of the absurd does something similar, but usually with a tower of babel type scenario where no one is able to communicate with anyone else, reason gives way to anarchy and everything ends in silence.  Red State is similar except that you start to think everyone will be silent in the end only because they will all be dead.  Agent Keenan attempts to hold onto his reason, but briefly flirts with irrationality to somewhat disastrous effect.  Smith does allow the Agent to return to himself and, when he does, something like salvation is achieved.  Kevin Smith seems to be commenting on the role that religious zealotry plays in society as well as the interaction of religion or faith and politics, but he doesn’t suggest that one side has it right.  Certainly, the ATF agents and Sheriff are bumbling and clownish, while the preacher and his “family” are bizarre caricatures and there are some strange veiled references to “domestic terrorism” all to get, I think, at the idea that if this is what the government is, should they have the kind of power the Patriot Act and other new security measures give them which is interesting to explore.  But really, the commentary isn’t on any of that.  It’s about extremism; it’s about what happens when every rationale, moderate instinct we have is overcome, whether by faith or by orders, or by something else entirely.  It would be easy to leave it at that, but I prefer to drill one level deeper, given the current political climate, and  give Kevin Smith major props because he seems to have anticipated where the level of dialogue in this nation was headed.  Ultimately, Red State holds up one of those fun house distorting mirrors to the national debate and reflects back at us what happens when we stop being able to just have a conversation.  It was an ambitious thing to attempt and a startling way to attempt it.

That being said, I did not like or enjoy this movie, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to.  It seems to me that the flick was deliberately designed so that one could not like it.  There were almost no likeable or even sensible characters in it and on the few occasions that someone tried to be sensible, the depth or seriousness of the situation was glossed over.  John Goodman’s Agent Kennan is left as pretty much the sole voice of reason and the violence in the movie makes it sort of uncomfortable.  That is probably the point.  The one real chuckle I got out of the film was a throw-away line from John Goodman during an exchange with his second in command, played by Kevin Pollack and just as Kevin Pollack is about to respond (SPOILERS) he takes one in the eye.  It’s interesting to note that Kevin Smith has said that he isn’t really good at directing action or violence sequences and in order to pull this movie off, he looked to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers for inspiration.  The violence is therefore very stylized and not exactly realistic.  It is still jarring, but I’m not really one for horror movies, and I didn’t find Red State too much to handle.  If you’re very squeamish though, you might want to give it a miss.  Given what he set out to do, I have to give Kevin Smith credit for the idea of the movie and even for some of the execution, but the way that the conflict, particularly John Goodman’s internal conflict, in the movie was glazed over seemed a little disjunctive.  To be fair, I think maybe Smith only had one other option; leave out that conflict entirely and make the movie more of an Inglourious Basterds all-out-bloodbath which might not have fully achieved the message he wanted to get across.  The movie is worth watching for a couple of reasons.  First, the concept is just so interesting that it’s worth seeing how Kevin lets it play out.  Second, the stylized violence is sort of peculiarly fascinating and just seeing it for how the movie is shot is worthwhile.  Lastly, the movie was made without studio support and was made available to the fans via the internet.  It never had a wide theatrical release and, as I understand it, was only screened on tour with Kevin there to discuss the film with the audience.  I am dubious about labeling the film this way, but Red State becomes almost a “study” in satire, horror, and violence that could probably only be achieved by a filmmaker skirting the regular system and simply trying to bring a somewhat insane idea to life.  So on my rating scale of “I want my money and two hours back” to “worth the full price ofadmission”, rating Red State is made easy by the fact that it is already out on DVD and it is worth the rental so check it out and see what Kevin’s mania does for you.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2012 in Reviews

 
 
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