Sunday, October 26, 2008

Things I Lost In The Firing

I finally had to put aside the manuscript for the Cashiers du Cinemart book. I was getting too close to it and losing all sense of objectivity. The time was right to move on to another project. With nothing looming on my horizon and all of my old backup discs, CDrs, DVDrs out, I decided to start compiling just about every review that I've ever written just in case a Cashiers du Cinemart sequel is in my future.

That's when I realized something that I'm missing...

Somehow I've misplaced a year of my life. All right, that's a little dramatic. What I actually lost was all of my coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival 2005. I remember writing it, I even remember sitting in the hotel bar as I did it. Unfortunately, I can't find where I put the HTML version of the reviews and the Word version of these were a victim of my ePrize firing.

When I got tossed out on my ass, my own grand plans that every employee should have a laptop got the best of me. On my work laptop were all of my files. Sure, I backed a lot of stuff up from time to time but when you're working 80-some hours a week, regular backups tend to get lost in the shuffle. Worse, the IT department didn't feel the need to give me much more than my iTunes folder on a pair of DVDrs, omitting any copies of Word documents, HTML files, et cetera. This leaves me with a big six month gap in my life into which the TIFF 2005 files have fallen. Boo hoo!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

So You Think You Can Be President

I've not been spouting out about politics much this year. As blogs become more public/well known, I'm not too keen on any kind of professional ramifications due to my obstreperous and unpopular viewpoint. That said, I still can't resist posting this amazing mashup.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dolemite to Kick God's Ass

Rudy Ray Moore, the comedian known as Dolemite, has shuffled off this mortal coil. Best known for his foul-mouthed stand up routines, party records, strong pimp hand, and influence on the rap world, Moore starred in films such as Dolemite, The Human Tornado, The Avenging Disco Godfather, Petey Wheatstraw: The Devi's Son-in-Law, and Rude.

Moore made several unsuccessful bids for the Presidency of the United States running on the following platform:

"I'm not gonna lie to you like those other motherfuckers. I'm not promising you a chicken in every pot. I'm not coming to you with no heavy heart. I'm not promising to make every mother fucking thing perfectly clear. I'm not promising a god damn thing. But, if I am elected, you can bet your sweet ass I'm gonna legalize grass. And I'll have a constitution to legalize prostitution. You heard me right, I'm gonna be running this country as President Dolemite!"

I'm glad that I managed to catch Moore's act live twice - both times at the Magic Bag in Ferndale, MI. I even managed to talk to RRM a bit after one of the performances where I asked him about The Human Tornado and its director, Cliff Roquemore. I tried to ping Moore last week in hopes of getting a front cover blurb for the Cashiers du Cinemart book. I would like to think this is not what did him in.

Moore passed away at age 81 on Sunday October 19, 2008. Via rhymed couplets, free form verse, and dirty versions of the alphabet, Moore entertained audiences for decades. His best-remembered routine, "The Signifying Monkey," continues to echo through the world of popular culture. Without two turn tables, and only a mic, Moore rocked the world as Dolemite.

Here's a sample of some classic rhymes with Dolemite going against Big Daddy Kane:

And here's some live concert footage of Moore in action:

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Going Full Retard

Simple JackThe alleged slight of developmentally disabled individuals in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder is little more than a tempest in a teapot. Rather than making fun of retarded people, Tropic Thunder pokes fun at the films and filmmakers who've used retarded/mentally ill characters to tug at heartstrings and garner awards. The portrayal of disability has garnered several accolades from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. A brief list of Oscar-nominated films/performances over the last few years includes Shine, Slingblade, As Good as It Gets, and Girl, Interrupted.

The film-within-a-film, Simple Jack, serves to exemplify the lengths to which some actors go for Oscarbait. Rather than being offended by Simple Jack or the discussion of past performances of famous screen personae (Rain Man, Forrest Gump, I Am Sam), the real offense stems from the overwrought paroxysm's displayed in an attempt at accolades.

Along with the silver screen, retardation is prolific on the boob tube. Some of the most memorable retarded characters have been the focus of made-for-TV dramas. These melodramas teeter on the edge between abject exploitation and sublime shame.

Top Ten Full Retard Performances:

10. Ian McKellen (Walter) in Walter (1982) – While Reaganomics was tearing apart the United States, Thatcherism was slowly destroying the U.K. Consider Walter the antidote to Bill with its heart-wrenching portrayal of a man who survives against all odds. Ian McKellen shambles through the drab British streets, taking refuge with his pigeons. This was followed by Walter and June which follows similar themes explored in Profoundly Normal but without the schmaltz.

9. Tom Hulce (Dominick Luciano) in Dominick and Eugene (1988) – After turning it out in Amadeus, the future looked bright for Tom Hulce. He's turned in a few great performances after his Academy Award-winning turn as the prolific composer but has yet to recapture the verve he displayed there. With Dominick and Eugene he came close. However, his brilliant turn as Dominick—the garbage man brother of med student Eugene (Ray Liotta)—was overshadowed by another little film with a similar theme, Barry Levinson's Rain Man.
8. Leonardo DiCaprio (Arnie Grape) in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) – This early role by DiCaprio brought him deserved attention and kudos. Teetering at the brink of nimiety, the young actor goes to the brink with his whining, stammering, and constant finger movements without ever crossing the line between excessive mugging and pitch perfect performance.

7. Larry Drake (Benny) on L.A. Law – The firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak filled a quota when they hired Benny Stulwitz, a developmentally disabled middle-aged man who managed to teach the heartless lawyers a life lesson through his foibles. Eventually he was paired up with Alice (Amanda Plummer) and the two raised eyebrows and bucked convention in the name of romance.

6. Sean Penn (Sam Dawson) in I Am Sam ( 2001) – What happens when all of these retarded couples start popping out babies? Maybe something like I Am Sam wherein Sean Penn plays a mentally-challenged Beatles fan that fights to keep his daughter. Along the way, Penn has to teach uptight lawyer Michelle Pfeiffer to relax via his joie de vivre. This is one of the few tardsploitation films to garner a Bollywood remake (Main Aisa Hi Hoon)!
5. Juliette Lewis (Carla Tate) in The Other Sister (1999) – Some actors are just shoo-ins for roles as retarded people. Director Garry Marshall struck gold with two such thespians in The Other Sister in Juliette Lewis (who had already gone retard in Kalifornia, Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers) and Giovanni Ribisi (who went on to out-retard Phoebe on Friends). This loathsome film combines a "refreshing outlook of a slow sibling" with the "retarded lovers looking for acceptance" theme. In this case it's Diane Keaton who shakes her head in dismay as her on-screen sister does something to upset her uptight world. The Other Sister only helped exemplify how out of touch Garry (Exit to Eden) Marshall has gotten.
4. Mickey Rooney (Bill) in Bill (1981) – A treatise about the benefits of deinstitutionalization, this drama is a product of Regan-era idealism and self-delusion. To Baby Boomers, Mickey Rooney is known as Andy Hardy but Gen X will always remember the diminutive actor as happy-go-lucky retard William Sackter ("Bill for short!"). When Bill's released from an institution, life looks bleak until he finds a family in need of his simple outlook on life. Unfortunately, this film didn't start a wave of adoptions for the countless kicked out of group homes and institutions after social programs were gutted in the ‘80s. This was followed by a sequel, Bill on His Own, two years later. (His adoption didn't work out).

3. Shaun Cassidy (Roger Meyers) in Like Normal People (1979) – Teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy went awry in this "we're retarded and we're in love" story along with Linda Purl. The two had a rollicking good time as they slurred their lines and cursed a world that wouldn't respect their relationship.

2. Rosie O'Donnell (Beth Simon) in Riding the Bus with My Sister (2005) – The former stand-up comedienne, Rosie O'Donnell, exercised her acting chops in this Hallmark television drama with hopes of propelling herself into the ranks of "serious actress." Rosie was more believable pretending to be a heterosexual lusting after Tom Cruise on her talk show than as the developmentally disabled sibling of Andie MacDowell. Her "simple" attitude is meant to contrast her sister's harried life. Aw, how cloying.
1. Kirstie Alley (Donna Lee Shelby Thornton) in Profoundly Normal (2003) – Not since Benny and Alice has television seen such a pair of mentally-challenged and socially ostracized lovers. Kirstie Alley and Delroy Lindo drool and stammer their way through this embarrassing tale of an interracial relationship between two slow people. If you were mortified by "Fat Actress," you've may consider suicide rather than watching this film.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Double Fantasy: The Deaths of John Lennon

In what’s become a standard bit of movie synchronicity, two films that tread the same ground were premiered less than six months apart. Unlike previous Hollywood head-to-heads such as the competing Robin Hood films (Kevin Reynold’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves versus John Irvin’s Robin Hood) or volcano films (Mick Jackson’s Volcano versus Roger Donaldson’s Dante’s Peak), the two Mark David Chapman films haven’t captured many headlines or broken box office records. If anything, they’ll be lucky to sneak into the local video store after their brief runs (having both come out in Europe on DVD).

Andrew Piddington’s The Killing of John Lennon (2006) and J.P. Schaefer’s Chapter 27 (2007) were written by their directors (though Schaefer’s film gives a nod to Jack Jones’s Let Me Take You Down with an “inspired by” credit). The two films are narrated by the Mark David Chapman character to recall the first-person voice of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the book that fueled the crazed Chapman.

Chapter 27
Despite relating the same story, the two films take radically different approaches. Schaefer sets his story during the final three days of John Lennon’s life: December 6–8, 1980, which strengthens the relationship between Chapman’s and Caulfield’s trips to New York. Chapman considered his pilgrimage to New York a spiritual journey wherein he became Caulfield, writing a new chapter of Salinger’s book “in John Lennon’s blood.” As if it had already been written, Chapman feels that he’s answering his fate. He’s constantly seeing signs that confirm this “truth.”

Limiting the story to three days of “destiny” also presents parallels between Chapter 27 and the Passion Play, especially when Chapman pleads with fellow Beatles fan Jude (a distracting Lindsay Lohan) and paparazzo Paul Goresh (a nearly unrecognizable Judah Friedlander) to stay with him, recalling Jesus’s plea to Peter, John, and James to stay awake with him at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:40).

Other moments of symbolism in Schaefer’s film are a little more obvious, having all the subtlety of a Mack Truck. Chapman makes several references to The Wizard of Oz, calling himself a “tin man.” Lennon is a stand in for the great and powerful Oz living in his “Emerald City” (the Dakota), and the man behind the curtain is Chapman’s idea of the ultimate phony. Chapman perceived a contradiction when Lennon “told us to imagine no possessions, and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates” (Let Me Take You Down, page 26).

Near the end of Chapter 27, the introduction of Paul Goresh calls into question the differences between stalkers and paparazzi. More than the hunt to “shoot” celebrities, Goresh and Chapman stick to the shadows, employing similar techniques to get to their prey. This theme could have been explored more, and perhaps it was in the 100-minute cut shown at Sundance, 2007. The version released to DVD in Europe clocks in 16 minutes shorter.

As Chapman, Jared Leto gives an amazing performance. More than his physical transformation (gaining over 60 lbs.), he fully adopted the mannerisms, voice, and mood of the troubled young man. Leto conveys the sense of desperation for connection of the misanthropic assassin. Though the actor provides a sympathetic portrayal of Chapman, Chapter 27 avoids turning him into a hero. Even with the often overwrought score by Anthony Marinelli, Chapter 27 is an interesting, if not entertaining, film.

The Killing of John Lennon
“I hate the movies. They’re phony, so goddamn phony,” says Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. Other than The Wizard of Oz, Chapman isn’t much of a film fan. The Mark David Chapman (Jonas Ball) in The Killing of John Lennon would probably disagree. Despite the opening credit in Andrew Piddington’s film that “All of Chapman’s Words Are His Own,” his Chapman liberally quotes Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. Likewise, Piddington’s direction liberally quotes Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Oliver Stone, and Spike Lee.

The Killing of John Lennon skips backwards and forwards in time primarily during the first two acts. The narrative begins in September 1980 with Mark David Chapman in Hawaii. The audience sees glimpses of him working as a security guard, freaking out about his overbearing, oversexed mother (Krisha Fairchild), berating his softspoken wife (Mie Omori), hassling scientologists, and pretending to be a sniper. Chapman must be making good money at his crappy job. While he drives a shitbox car, he can afford a gun and two trips from Hawaii to New York.

The aborted first “mission” to execute John Lennon doesn’t add much to the story, but appears to be included for the sake of accuracy. Unfortunately, this care about details isn’t consistent. Two of the more obvious gaffes have a September 1980 news broadcast mentioning that the presidential election is “next Tuesday” (a few months early), and a convicted Chapman is sent to Riker’s Island instead of Attica.

The press notes for The Killing of John Lennon have an air of petulance regarding the “truth” of the film. The unnamed writer boasts that Killing has no “phony girlfriend” (a reference to Lindsay Lohan’s role in Chapter 27; playing “Betsy” to Leto’s “Travis,” as it were). Her presence helps crystallize Chapman’s misanthropy. In a narrative film, veracity should be sacrificed in respect to characterization and pacing.

Piddington’s film is plodding. Once Lennon has been shot—far more graphically than in Chapter 27, which keeps the camera on Chapman during the killing—The Killing of John Lennon runs out of steam, but remains on screen for another 40 minutes! The final act ambles aimlessly through police interviews, psychiatric interviews, and scenes of Chapman in prison, where his narration grows tiresome.

The Chapman of The Killing of John Lennon sees himself as an agent of change. He’s ending the ’60s with a .38 and helping to usher in a new era, led by Ronald Reagan. Election posters line the entrance of the library where Chapman rediscovers The Catcher in the Rye, and a Reagan stump speech plays over the opening of the film. With a Chapman more indebted to Travis Bickle than Holden Caulfield, the brief inclusion of John Hinkley Jr.’s assassination attempt of Reagan could have been interesting. Hinkley was another proponent of The Catcher in the Rye and swore allegiance to Jodie Foster after repeated viewings of Taxi Driver. With a dearth of material to keep viewers engaged, perhaps Piddington should have considered exploring the Hinkley parallels further.

If you can imagine Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) impersonating Travis Bickle, you have a close approximation of Jonas Ball’s performance as Mark David Chapman. Though his “accent” is mentioned, there’s little trace of Chapman’s Southern roots present in Ball’s vocalization. The actor is also lacking the girth, Jim Jones glasses, and unassuming politeness of the killer. This Chapman looks more like Jim Morrison gone to seed. Leto’s Chapman soars to heights and sinks to lows swiftly, often sounding like a petulant child. Ball is very even in his delivery, giving his Chapman much more of a sinister air.

The Killing of John Lennon utilizes the multi-format approach popularized by Oliver Stone’s JFK and Natural Born Killers. However, Piddington merely seems to be aping Stone’s style, adding nothing of his own. Things go from bad to worse in the third act, which not only meanders in tone, but appears to have been made as a student film and tacked on as an afterthought. The interview of Chapman by a Bellvue psychiatrist looks as if it were shot while the cameraman was asleep. Though, at nearly two hours (with half that filler), sleep is the most natural response to this sloppy film.

Chapter 27
The Killing of John Lennon