Tuesday, December 22, 2009
His first film back from hiatus was Kill Bill (2003, 2004), an epic kung-fu/revenge picture that was forcibly split into two films by the studio. The end results made me wonder how Volumes 1 and 2 were ever part of the same picture, because the two films felt so very different.
Vol. 1 was a raucous splatterfest of swordfighting and rage, while Vol. 2 was a more restrained look at the characters left standing from Vol. 1. The final showdown between The Bride and Bill is emotional, not physical, and when she takes her revenge there is real sadness in the air.
One of the unsung triumphs of the movie(s) is the soundtrack. Cobbled together from other films and even a few television series, the music in Kill Bill is different than the pop-heavy mixes of Quentin Tarantino's earlier movies. Even though I couldn't recognize most of it, the use of instrumental music accentuated the film's numerous homages. When you hear Ennio Morricone, whether you can place its exact origin or not, you're going to think of spaghetti westerns.
It was three years before we saw another Tarantino movie, but it was worth the wait. Death Proof was the second half of the double-feature Grindhouse (2007), two films shown back to back with intentionally cheesy trailers preceeding each picture. I noted on my blog at the time that it was one of the best moviegoing experiences I've ever had - and that still stands. While the first film, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, was just as over the top as those trailers were, Death Proof opened quietly by focusing on four friends just hanging out. It's a slow burn, teasing the audience with glimpses of Stuntman Mike before eventually revealing that he's not just an over-the-hill stunt driver. The car chase at end of the film was one of the most exhilarating ones I've ever seen, right on par with classics like Bullitt and The French Connection. More so, perhaps, because those movies didn't have a woman strapped to the hood of the car during their chases.
Finally there's Inglorious Basterds (2009), a movie I've already written about several times since I saw it last month. I don't know if it's my favorite Tarantino film but it's certainly my favorite of the last ten years, as the opening conversation between the Colonel and that dairy farmer was so tense I almost couldn't stand it. That extended showdown of two men talking for I don't know how long was more tense than any clash in Kill Bill or crash in Death Proof.
I suppose it's selfish of me to wish that Quentin Tarantino could work faster. In the last ten years he made three films, while during that time we've had seven Coen Brothers movies, five Christopher Nolan movies and, ugh, five Michael Bay movies! Please, Quentin, don't rush things but don't leave us hanging for six years again. It's just cruel.
This represents Part 7 in a series of 25 posts about my favorite as well as the most disappointing entertainment properties/trends of the last ten years. To Be Continued!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, December 21, 2009
Like a lot of people, I first heard of Chuck's work when I saw the movie Fight Club (1999) which was based on his 1996 novel. I didn't actually get around to reading it until 2004 though, shortly after I saw him speak at my university. I thought the book was terrific, even if I felt the movie had a better ending. I later read Survivor (1999) which was, frankly, an even better tale about the lone survivor of a cult trying to assimilate into (but ultimately recognizing the absurdity of) our society.
But those are 90s books and this series of mine is about the 00s. Chuck may not churn out books at Stephen King's pace but he's been busy in the past ten years, presumably thanks to the tremendous publicity a Hollywood movie can bring.
The first book I read after Fight Club was actually the one Chuck came to UAlbany to promote, Haunted (2005). It's a short story collection bound by a creepy main story about a group of people who attend a secluded writer's workshop inside an old auditorium. The doors are locked and the windows are sealed under the assumption that cutting themselves off from the world will allow them to concentrate on their work, but the situation quickly deteriorates as they intentionally spoil their surroundings so that the ordeal can be more dramatic. I can't say I found all of the short stories to be engrossing but most of them were superb, as was the master story about the lengths to which humans will go to draw attention to themselves. For a book about writers I suspect he was also taking a shot at reality television in tha regard.
Other books written by Chuck that I enjoyed were Choke (2001), the story of a man who pretends to do just that so people can save him, Lullaby (2002), about a poem that can kill, and Snuff (2008), a cringe-inducing story set inside the waiting room for participants in a gang-bang. I can't say I really thought much of Rant (2007), for while it was well-written the science-fiction angle just never grabbed me. I have yet to read Diary (2003) or his latest work, Pygmy but I hope to pick one of them up when I'm next in the States.
It's not easy to explain what it is about Chuck's books that I find so fascinating, but I guess it's in the details. His books are packed with little factoids, such as the recipe for napalm in Fight Club. That one happens to be false as his publisher insisted that the real ingredients not be disclosed to the public, but he's always slipping in little things like that into his stories.
Furthermore, he routinely describes things that are positively disgusting and that I would never want to contemplate let alone witness, yet his stories draw me and make me feel closer to that grime than any other writer. While I read Snuff I could picture that room as if I was standing in it, so much so that I felt like I desperately needed a shower. And I defy anyone to read "Guts" in Haunted without laughing out loud or gagging, depending on your tolerance for awful stories about masturbation.
If you've never read his work, I'd recommend either of his 90s works above as a starting point, but I'm certainly a fan now and I look forward to more. Supposedly all of his books have been optioned for films at this point (I didn't see Choke) but as great as Fight Club was on-screen, I think his stories lose their urgency in the adaptation process once his writing style is removed. It's a contradiction: his books deliver such vivid descriptions that I can vizualize myself in them and I would love to see more of his creations in theaters, yet I am aware that any film version will ultimately be compromised because it will not be delivered in his distinctive prose.
I guess that's what books are for.
This represents Part 6 in a series of 25 posts about my favorite as well as the most disappointing entertainment properties/trends of the last ten years. To Be Continued!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, December 14, 2009
WALL-E (2008): Pixar has been on a real roll in recent years, but WALL-E was a particularly remarkable achievement. This is a movie starring a barely-humanoid garbage-sorting robot with minimal vocal capacity and it manages to be more charming than all the "celebrity-voiced cute animal movies" put together. The eponymous WALL-E looks a little like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit in that he has a "head" and "arms" but tire treads instead of legs. He can't crack jokes or wax philosophically about "no disassemble" but he doesn't have to. Through pantomime and the occasional recitation of his own name, he communicates exactly what's on his mind to the audience.
WALL-E is almost two movies in one. The first is WALL-E sorting trash on our planet centuries after we high-tailed it into outer space. The second is WALL-E's encounter with a bio-seeking probe which leads him back to the robot-driven ship that initiated the search. As amazing as this sounds, laughs and tears permeate both halves of the story. While the ending may be a little too happy for the children's sake, I'll be damned if I wasn't stirred a little bit in my cold, cold heart when that musical cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey pops up during the climax.
Idiocracy (2006): Here's a movie that went criminally unnoticed in theaters, something made all the more insulting when you realize that director Mike Judge's previous feature Office Space met the same unfortunate fate. At this rate his next film will open in two theaters in North Dakota on a Tuesday night before finding a cult audience on DVD.
Idiocracy is a grand satirical comedy that shares a few traits with Woody Allen's hit Sleeper: both films center on a regular guy who wakes up in the distant future, alone in a world he barely recognizes. But while Woody awoke to an advanced society with robot butlers and orgasmatrons, Luke Wilson in Idiocracy finds himself in a world where the lowest common denominator has taken over. Famine is widespread because no one knows how to raise crops, the blockbuster of the era is an exclusively fart-driven epic called Ass and the main news source is, of course, Fox News. One wonders whether 20th Century Fox, the producers of Idiocracy, found that particular plot point offensive or good corporate synergy. Neither would surprise me.
Both Wall-E and Idiocracy take place on an Earth that has collapsed under the weight of our society's worst habits and corporate indifference to their own wicked deeds. The good news is that despite that bleak premise, both films are guaranteed to cheer you up: WALL-E for its robot love story and the eventual redemption of the human race and Idiocracy for its dead-on, hilarious take on our celebration of ignorance. Personally, I don't think an Ass-like movie is more than forty years away, tops.
This represents Part 4 in a series of 25 posts about my favorite as well as the most disappointing entertainment properties/trends of the last ten years. To Be Continued!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, December 10, 2009
I've always been a sucker for stand-up comedy (hey, I grew up in the 80s) and Dave Chappelle was certainly one of my favorites. He made frequent appearances on The Howard Stern Show and his movie Half-Baked (1998) was really funny considering it was basically a movie about smoking pot. Dave also had a habit of playing bit parts and stealing scenes in popular movies like The Nutty Professor (1996), Con Air (1997) and Undercover Brother (2002). So when I first saw ads on TV and in the subway for Chappelle's Show, I remember being really psyched. As ridiculous as it sounds, it felt like someone I knew was getting his big break after years of toiling in the shadows.
The show (and Dave) did not disappoint. Sketch comedy shows are notoriously slow starters with a low hit-to-miss gag ratio. Chappelle's Show opened strong with a lengthy sketch in the first episode about a blind member of the KKK who is completely unaware that he is black. One of my favorite lines was when he angrily denounces a group of white teens as "niggers" because they are listening to rap music. Initially confused, the boys decide he was actually paying them a compliment. The sketch played on traditional stereotypes and didn't pull any punches when it came to racial epitaphs, foreshadowing the direction the show would take.
Consider another famous sketch from the third episode, "Reparations." Presented as a newscast on the day that the United States pays out billions of dollars to the descendants of slaves, all of the jokes hinge on familiar tropes. KFC reaps huge financial rewards, tens of thousands of new rap labels are created and a friendly black weatherman is suddenly decked out in "bling" and mocking the white news anchor (both roles, of course, played by Dave in heavy makeup).
The show wasn't just slinging racial barbs around, it was actually toying with these prejudices for laughs. A favorite sketch of mine from the first season was "The Mad Real World." After pointing out how reality shows like The Real World tended to feature a single outrageous minority surrounded by white people whom lament his or her behavior, "The Mad Real World" reverses it by having a lone white man living with six black roommates. His behavior is singled out as weird from the start even though the others are absurdly confrontational and violent. In other words, when seven caricatures live together, the odd man out is humiliated no matter what he does.
The show only got better in the second season, highlighted by the now-infamous "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories" segments and an outrageous guest appearance by Wayne Brady. As its popularity soared and its new-found catchphrases began spreading across the country, the sky seemed to be the limit. When Dave signed a gigantic contract for two additional seasons of Chappelle's Show, I again felt oddly vindicated as if a friend had won the lottery.
And then...what happened? I guess no one will ever know the entire truth. Somehow Dave ended up in Africa for either a head-clearing vacation or a trip to a mental institution, depending on which magazine you believed at the time. The show went on an extended hiatus but even when Dave returned to the US, he never went back to the set. Eventually the network took what footage they had and cobbled together three pathetic "lost episodes" that were just painful to watch. It wasn't that they didn't have comedic value, it was the context that made them unwatchable.
In the five years since, I haven't heard of anything Dave Chappelle has done. The internet suggests he went back to stand-up, but is that entirely by choice? Maybe he retired, soured from the entire show business experience. Maybe he was blackballed for walking away from a $50 million payday. All I do know is that his departure stings, like having a friend move away without leaving a forwarding address.
At least we'll always have "I'm Rick James, bitch." *sniff*
This represents Part 2 in a series of 25 posts about my favorite as well as the most disappointing entertainment properties/trends of the last ten years. To Be Continued!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Futurama (FOX, 1999-2003, plus four DVD movies): I consider it a cosmic tragedy that this brilliant sort-of spin-off of The Simpsons was run aground after four short seasons while that painfully unfunny juggernaut of a show continues to amuse no one every Sunday night.
Unlike The Simpsons which slowly found its way from overly sentimental, crudely animated fluff to comic genius, Futurama hit the ground running. The premise was surprisingly simple: take a know-nothing delivery boy and catapult him a thousand years into the future. While the show was happy to make occasional fish-out-of-water jokes (i.e. Fry's ignorance that "Christmas" had been replaced by "Xmas" and Santa was now a terrifying killbot) they also allowed Fry's simplicity to let him adapt to the future in a hurry.
I don't think it's simply my love of science-fiction that got me hooked on Futurama, I think the show nailed that delicate balance between absurdist humor and genuine character development and interaction. One moment the crew of the Planet Express ship is hopping through boxes into alternate universes, the next they're reflecting on how different their lives could have been if only that coin had come up heads...or tails.
The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim, 2003-present): It's funny to me that The Venture Bros. seems totally out of place among the Adult Swim lineup of barely-animated stoner humor and FOX reruns yet I couldn't imagine it running on any other network. Many shows on AS are rated TV-M for "mature" while they are anything but; the rating simply allows them to use gratuitous violence, pixelated nudity and beeped-out curse words. The Venture Bros has its share of violence, sexuality and profanity to be sure, but it's actually presented as part of a comprehensive story that's getting more complicated by the week. I swear the fourth season premiere delivered more exposition, laughs and intrigue in thirty minutes than most major network programming, animated or otherwise.
Summarizing The Venture Bros. is probably impossible. At the heart of the story is a failed "super-scientist," his washed-out special agent bodyguard, and his delusional twins who fancy themselves detectives, adventurers or anything other than the sheltered naive boys that they truly are. The family is tormented by a madman who dresses like a butterfly while they are occasionally assisted by an oddball "necromancer" and two scientists who live in a trailer park. In short, everyone on the show is a complete mess, yet after watching an episode or two I defy you to not care about every single one of them. When a relatively minor character died at the end of season three, I was stunned and more than a little dejected. He felt more human than either of the dead doctors on House.
Millennium Actress (2001, Japan): I first heard of director Satoshi Kon when I watched the credits after his stirring, twisted thriller Perfect Blue (1997). I never would have guessed his next film would be stirring, twisted love story nor that it would actually make me cry. I'm not normally the type to do that but even on repeat viewings I have to restrain myself during the final montage.
Millennium Actress tells the tale of a filmmaker who tracks down a reclusive, long-retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara for an in-depth interview. As he sits down with her to talk about the past, he and his cameraman find themselves embedded in her flashbacks and fluctuating between Chiyoko's life story and the movies she made. It's just as disorientating as it was in Perfect Blue, only this time the technique is used to delight rather than horrify. The music is wonderful as well, particularly during the rapid-fire sequences where the characters run from era to era and movie genre to genre across Chiyoko's memories/fantasies. Much like Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress is an adult movie that is perfectly suited for animation because it allows the director to seamlessly blend together what's real and what's not.
Paranoia Agent (WOWOW, 2004): Another Satoshi Kon creation, Paranoia Agent is a thirteen-episode mini-series that originally aired on Japanese satellite TV before being horribly dubbed and shown on Adult Swim. While many characters come and go, the central story revolves around a young woman who is attacked one night by a boy with a bat on inline skates. As the police investigate, the story of Shonen Bat (literally "bat boy" in Japanese) spreads across the country. Hung onto the main story are several smaller tales of individuals whose lives are spinning out of control, only to come into contact with Shonen Bat. Soon reports of bat attacks and potential suspects dominate the public's attention.
I saw this series shortly before spending an entire year in Japan as an exchange student That experience really enhanced my enjoyment of Paranoia Agent because I saw first hand how quickly news can spread in this country. A single violent crime, diet fad or comedy punchline can captivate millions of people in a hurry. Even if you've never lived in Japan, this is an easily relatable and highly entertaining tale of media frenzy and its effects on a frightened populace. I certainly didn't see the demented twist coming.
This represents Part 1 in a series of 25 posts about my favorite as well as the most disappointing entertainment properties/trends of the last ten years. To Be Continued!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, December 07, 2009
It has been brought to my attention that not only is 2009 coming to an end, but the entire decade of the 00s will soon be behind us. I've been reading the various lists over at The Onion AV Club and Insult Swordfighting and found myself thinking "I want in on that action" so I've quietly compiled two lists of my own. Unfortunately, I am not a professional critic so I do not have the requisite experience to truly lay down a gauntlet and declare something the "best" or "worst" of anything, let alone an entire decade.
Rather, I'm going to pick out and praise fifteen things that I absolutely loved and bemoan ten things that profoundly disappointed me over the last ten years. Actually, there's a lot more than twenty-five items on my lists because many of my entries will cover two or three different media creations that share a common theme (i.e. zombies). I didn't really do much research other than confirming that something I loved/loathed actually came out in the 00s as opposed to the 90s. Looking over my collection of favorites/blights I see a lot of movies, a fair number of television shows and video games, a few books and even a website. There's no music on my list, partly because I don't know how to write about music but mostly because I've all but abandoned listening to the radio or buying CDs so my tastes have stagnated.
I take some small comfort in the realization that I had a lot more things I wanted to herald than I wanted to bury, although that's also a reflection of my amateur status. As a consumer I tend to make pretty informed choices when it comes to media, so I steered clear some truly awful films/shows/games over the years. Professional critics don't have that luxury so while they got stuck watching Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever or playing Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, I certainly didn't. Most of the "bad" stuff on my list were disturbing trends in entertainment or movies that just let me down personally. So while I'm sure there were much worse things unleashed on the public in the past ten years, I either didn't see/play/read it or I saw it coming.
Also, I'm not numbering or ranking these. I've tried to order them in a way that will make for an entertaining read so the items are broken up by medium. Otherwise there might be a whole week of video game posts which would leave a few readers cold. I suppose I've tried to save the "bigger" ones for last, but I stress that I'm not trying to come up with a "number one" anything. I just want to tell you about things I remember fondly...and things I wish I could forget.
Assuming I write and post all of these in a timely fashion (and that's a big if) this project should conclude just as 2009 wraps up. I hope you'll enjoy it and possibly sound off in the comments section. That's right, you can click the bottom of every post I make and write what you think about it, remember?
つづく...(Click here to read more)