Sunday, February 27, 2005

Oscars; blah blah.

Well, every cinephile worth their salt is likely weighing in on tonight's Oscar telecast, so here's my two cents.

Overall, no huge surprises among the winners. Most people probably had the major races handicapped pretty ably (unless you had the temerity to actually make choices from your heart instead of trying to read the minds of them there academy members). I'd love to expound more profoundly on which Best Pic nominees were most worthy, except I haven't seen any of them (I know; baaad movie geek). You didn't think that you needed to actually see the nominated films to predict this dog-and-pony show, did you?

At a little over three hours (excluding the pre-show parade of red-carpet butt-smooching), it was relatively compact by Oscar-bloat standards. Chris Rock will likely arouse some controversy as a host, but he actually made me laugh fairly frequently. He gets bonus points for cracking several jokes that whizzed clean past the well-coiffed heads in the audience, and the Sandler/Rock Zeta-Jones riff made me laugh way harder than I'm comfortable admitting (on account of it was so stupid). Host-wise, Rock lacked the everyguy affability of the great Johnny Carson and the polished Tinseltown zing of Billy Crystal, but the Oscar virgin did OK to this weary watcher.

Random observations:

1) Every year, the Academy-nominated songs seem to get worse. This year, with the exception of the tolerable choral number from The Chorus, all numbers were strictly jab-pencil-into-ear-canal-they're-so- irritating bad. Hearing Counting Crows reminded me, all over again, why I've always loathed their brand of mewling Starbucks' background-music Adult Contemporary 'rock'. Speaking of irritating music, is Andrew Lloyd Webber resembling a garden mole more with each passing year, or is it just me?

2) Penelope Cruz looks like some kind of half-human, half-equine experiment gone horribly wrong. Am I the only person who finds this woman's visage truly terrifying?

3) Sidney Lumet rocks.

4) Al Pacino and Sean Penn should have been allowed to sleep off their benders before hitting the stage.

5) Most Unintentionally Amusing Nom of the Evening: The Passion of the Christ for Makeup: The Makeup Nominations are traditionally accompanied by quick clips of the artists' handiwork--unsurprisingly, such a format was scotched this year (probably due to this nomination). I'd have given up my eyeteeth to see the Oscar audience subjected to the spurting blood and photo-realistic mutilations from this christian snuff flick. Does this mean that George Romero's makeup team will get an Oscar for the gutmunchings and gore to come in the final Living Dead movie? We can only hope...


All told, Lumet's long-overdue honor and Jamie Foxx's moving acceptance speech aside, this made for one seriously unmemorable Oscar telecast. You know things are pretty moribund when Robert Mayer, winner of the Jean Hersholt Award, displays more spunk in his acceptance speech than most of the other winners. I kept waiting throughout the telecast for some surprise, some spark, and (noted exceptions aside) it didn't come.

But, yeah, I'm gonna watch again next year. God help me.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Last Geek Standing: Ultimate Film Fanatic

I was recently on a movie-trivia game show called the Ultimate Film Fanatic. It airs on Friday nights on the Independant Film Channel (check your local listings for times). A serendipitous combination of luck and just being a big old pathetic geek led me to that rarest of rarities: an actual financial reward for rampant dorkiness.

Because I'm nowhere near the opportunist that I should be, this here story is nowhere near timely. My big show (Ultimate Film Fanatic Northwest finals) aired on January 23, and I'll be making one last hurrah on the show this Friday, February 25 (I think). More than that I cannot say. Game show regulations prohibit me from elaborating until after the air date. But I'm itching to give you, dear reader, all of the scoop that is legally permissible. Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Crappy Musical of the Week: Shock Treatment

If you're a hardcore Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, no amount of outside nattering will stop you from seeking Shock Treatment, Rocky Horror's 1981 sequel.

Hell, Shock Treatment's obscurity alone served as a siren song for me. And even though I received ample premptive cautions, I had to find out, for myself, that the movie bites like a pitbull gnawing at a toddler. So, if you think you want to see it, hunt up the VHS tape (ST has yet to see a DVD issue) and knock yourself out--just remember, you've been warned...

Comparing Shock Treatment to its predecessor is like comparing a sandwich made with stale white bread, butter, and a candy cane to a messy-but-tasty chocolate mousse. It's sure different from the original, and there's a vivid red and white color scheme at the center, but what's the point?

Rocky Horror's naive newlyweds Brad and Janet Majors (Cliff DeYoung and Jessica Harper pinch-hitting for Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) have somehow found their way back into their hometown of Denton, USA and onto a TV talk show to air their marital problems. Brad ends up in a sanitarium curated by a wacky incestuous doctor/nurse sibling team (Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn, artlessly hearkening back to their Rocky Horror roles), and Janet becomes a TV star and gets pursued by Farley Flavors (also played by DeYoung), a sleazy fast food magnate who wants Mrs. Majors all to himself. Uninspired zaniness and uninspiring musical numbers ensue. The End.

In its defense, Shock Treatment does take great pains to create an identity distinctive from its cult-iconic kin, largely bypassing RHPS's mascara-smeared Broadway/Glam score in favor of a shorter, punchier, new-wave musical motif. One or two of the songs stick to the ear favorably, and Jessica Harper (an underrated actress for whom the phrase, "endearingly quirky" was likely invented) maintains her dignity as Janet (her singing ain't half-bad, neither). Bonus points to Rocky Horror mastermind/Shock Treatment majordomo O'Brien for prefiguring reality TV somewhat, too (Janet's every move is televised to an attentive TV audience, and even her family members start altering their behavior for the sake of the camera). And spot-the-actor geeks may get a whiff of amusement from seeing a pre-Dame Edna Barry Humphries, future talk show host Ruby Wax, and Young Ones Britcom yukster Rik Mayall in key roles.

But try sitting through this soggy thing and you're likely to get irritated. O'Brien's whole condescending approach at lampooning TV Americana feels slapped together; he obviously knows a lot less about his comedic target than he thinks. God knows this tube-happy moron nation deserves as many satiric kicks in the seat as it can get, but if you're gonna deride, do it well, for pity's sake. Or at least don't bore me: In the end, Shock Treatment commits the worst crime that a bad film can be charged with--it's no damn fun.

Director Jim Sharman's insistence on a mostly-unwavering red neon color scheme quickly grows monotonous, and most of the songs fall flat. The pacing couldn't be more sluggish; characters take so long to respond to one another that you wonder if (as Gene Siskel once posited) O'Brien and company deliberately wrote in the long pauses, hoping that audiences would fill in the blanks with Rocky Horror-style shout outs. For most of the movie's 81 minutes, one sentence kept rolling 'round in my head, mantra-style: Get to the fricking point.

My friend Jennifer loaned Shock Treatment to me. Jen says her husband Ray has watched it repeatedly. Ray, your masochistic streak leaves this lapsed catholic in awe.



Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Vikings: Eyegougings, Pillaging, and other wholesome fun

On the DVD of The Vikings, director Richard Fleischer provides a thoughtful, intelligent, and informative 30-minute interview on the making of this 1958 costume opus. He discusses securing the services of playwright Calder Willingham for the screenplay; the impressive attention to detail, including location shooting in the actual fjords of Norway; the set and costume designers consulting exhaustive historic tomes to get just the right authentic look to things; and the production's carpenters building actual Viking ships to the precise ancient diagrams.

Satisfying as Fleischer's background insights are, though, he fails to address key salient issues regarding the picture's content, points vital to any discerning viewer's enjoyment. As a public service to you, dear reader, I shall cover these important points, in checklist format.

Eye-gouging by a bird of prey: check.

Hand Chopped off with Broadsword: check.

Flying Arrows through Throats: double-check.

Party Game Incorporating Battle-Ax, Copious Amounts of Beer, Nordic Maid, and Nordic Maid's Braids: Check.

More Testosterone per Frame than that whimpering whelp-movie Troy has in it's Whole Nancy-Boy Running Time: Triple-Check.

No, The Vikings isn't an immersion into the mind and thoughts of an important historical figure like Lawrence of Arabia. Nor is it a testament to human freedom and the will of the individual, a la Spartacus. The Vikings, as it happens, is the most ass-kicking twelfth-century-set Western you'll ever see, and if it doesn't entertain you giddily, you best check your pulse.

The setup (narrated by an uncredited Orson Welles) basically pits captured slave Erik (Tony Curtis) against his oppressor--Viking prince Einar (Kirk Douglas)-- for the affections of Morganna (Janet Leigh). Einar, you see, kidnapped Morganna (soon-to-be-bride to King Aella, current monarch of England) at the behest of his dad, Viking King Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine). Oh, and Erik and Einar are actually half-brothers (Erik's mom was the previous queen of England and his birth-dad was none other than a pillaging Ragnar).

Are you following all of this? Nope? Don't worry. Boiled down to it's basics, we're dealing with simple Western archetypes. Curtis' Erik functions as Dashing Good Guy, with Douglas and Borgnine providing color and robust vigor as the magnetic (and not-totally-bad) Bad Guys. Throw these hombres into a reluctant alliance against the Land Baron (oops, King) Aiella, and you've got a first-rate oater in irresistable Nordic drag.

Like a lot of costume epics of the era, pure visceral and sensory joy abound. The Vikings sports eye-popping three-strip Technicolor photography by the great Jack Cardiff (Norway looks positively succulent), a robust score by Mario Nascimbene (forget about trying to detatch the irresistable theme music from your skull--it's impossible), and it moves like a shot. Fleischer wisely spends most of his non-fight-scene screen time on the furious fun of the Viking lifestyle, and if you know your history, you're doubtless aware that the Vikings partied so hard they made Ozzy Osbourne look like Joseph Lieberman. Best of all, the action setpieces fly as plentifully as English arrows. From the aforementioned Viking drinking game to the plentiful sackings and pillagings to the thrilling closing duel between Einar and Erik atop the precarious spire of an English cliffside castle, The Vikings fairly bursts with memorable setpieces. I went 20 years between viewings of this movie, and it astonished me how many of the images and key scenes stuck with me.

Engaging as all of the scenery and action is, though, the principals provide The Vikings' trump card. There's no denying the ferocious ball of energy that is Kirk Douglas as Einar. Outfighting all comers, running across the extended oars of a Viking ship like a satyr, and chewing the scenery like one of the hungry wolves that scarf down his dad, Einar's the guy's guy who dwarfs all around him, save his proud papa. And classic tough guy Borgnine's Viking chieftain combines paternal love, grizzled irrascibility, and no-bull toughness in a gloriously shaggy package. Most modern actors would be too chicken to put this much heart into this broad of a role, but Borgnine gives it 110%. When Ragnar leaps to certain death into a pit of snarling wolves (broadsword in hand), his face telegraphs so much courage and little-boy glee, it's hard not to want to leap in with him.


Saturday, February 12, 2005

Santa fights Satan; geek meets cinematic god

Enclosed are some links to other sites that I've written for.

Rob Craig's online homage to legendary producer/movie oddity importer K. Gordon Murray, www.kgordonmurray.com, is one of the finest movie tribute sites out there (and I'd say that even if he didn't feature my analysis of the Salvador Dali-on-Pixy-Stix kiddie masterwork Santa Claus on the site). Kgordonmurray.com sports serious fun for the uninitiated, but it's still exhaustive enough for geeks like me.

45 Caliber Samurai is a lovingly put-together fansite devoted to a true cinema genius, Japanese iconoclast Seijun Suzuki. Site master David Hayman's pop-art-inflected design style perfectly accents the generous screen captures, audio clips, and stills from Suzuki's subversive and singular genre flicks (plus there's a piece from yours truly amiably taking up bit space on the site, too).

Enjoy!

Friday, February 11, 2005

Welcome, Why I'm Here, Etc.



Brutally Honest Confession: For years I've written for various publications and websites, and never steered my own damn ship, writing-wise. So that's partially what this site is about: exercising my slightly-atrophied writing muscles, on my own self-indulgent terms.
Mostly, though, it's about sharing the stuff that's wrapped itself around my noggin for way too many years.

That stuff--film, music, and various forms of popular culture and arcana--makes my world go 'round. And it's a blast to share.

Ubersnobby analysis has never been very appealing to me (Hell, I've seen Bruno Mattei's schlocky gutmunch zombie opus Hell of the Living Dead as many times as I've seen Lawrence of Arabia), but at the same time, even the junkiest pop culture detritus reveals pockets of truth 'neath it's cheesy exterior. So herein lies (I hope) some fun.

We'll try to keep things zesty and brief, like a sprinkle of Tabasco sauce in the flavorless gruel of the routine. One regular feature in these postings will be Pop Culture Petri Dish 101, in which a specific topic/genre/personality recieves the Cliffs Notes treatment--introductory history, basics, essentials from that topic/genre/personality, etc. That way, you'll be able to impress a new acquaintance with your knowledge of, say, Italian muscleman movies of the '60's without having to sit through some four-dozen of them like I have (yes, I need help). Moreover, you'll get a chance to peruse somethin' new. I strongly believe that every human being who says they love movies should see at least one Italian sword-and-sandal epic, in the same way they should at least one of every genre of film in existance before departing the confines of this earth. So let this be your Whitman's Sampler of Exotic Treats that you might not have thought to taste. As Sindbad the Sailor once said, "A man who fears the unknown will someday take fright at his own backside." So, drink deep, brave souls. And have fun.

And then, of course, there'll be the obligatory reviews and opinionated blatherings so dear to the hearts of Blog readers and net surfers everywhere. Plus lists. I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for lists of anything: Ten Bests, Ten Worsts, etc. They're fun and always stimulate thought (or at least get your dander up).