Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Most Influential Part 3: The Stuff

Last October, during my failed 31 Days of Horror project, I had a couple of posts under the heading of Most Influential. These movies were not ranked, and I did not mean to give these movies 'classic' status, I merely meant to catalogue a few of the movies that influenced me personally. And by influenced, I actually mean influenced the way I live. The examples I gave before had to do with bathrooms and closed shower curtains(The Shining), and garbage disposals(the Blob). Click on the titles of the movies if you want to go back and read what I wrote about them at the time. My post today continues that thread. Consider this another of the missing days from that Halloween exercise.

Now, it's time for a slightly embarrassing revelation. This is something that a few people know about, and my family and friends have probably figured out by now. I have such a distaste for creamy foods(yogurt, pudding, cream-of-anything soup, mayonnaise, most salad dressings...) that it borders on phobia. This is something that's bothered me for awhile, because I could never pinpoint the source of this aversion. Aside from the obvious distasteful bodily fluids comparison. And then, about 10 years ago, I stumbled upon The Stuff, and everything was answered.

The movie, in a nutshell, is about a new dessert product called The Stuff that becomes a national sensation. Facing declining sales, several Ice Cream moguls hire a corporate saboteur to find out the secret of The Stuff. The saboteur, along with a marketing executive, discovers that the delicious treat is actually a sentient organism harvested from below ground that controls and eventually devours the consumer from within.

Michael Moriarty plays David 'Mo' Rutherford, the saboteur, and his role in this film is only one step below his Q: The Winged Serpent role in terms of originality. His 'Mo' Rutherford has a lazy drawl and goofy grin, coming across at times like a morally corrupt Matlock. He plays this completely straight and deadpan, which, as much as I like the film itself, is the highpoint of this one. Moriarty is a criminally underrated actor, altering speech patterns and body language between roles to a degree the Orlando Blooms of the world haven't yet imagined attaining. Every time I watch this film I wonder why he hasn't gotten more work. Of course, he's no model, and the interviews I've seen with him would suggest to me that he's fairly hard-headed and maybe not the easiest to work with, so that might explain things a bit. He may not be the world's greatest actor, and he certainly can overdo it, but he's always entertaining and I always enjoy his performances.

Moriarty's deadpan is required for a film this scattered and cluttered. Larry Cohen as a filmmaker is notoriously slapdash, which I do not mean as an insult. In fact the charm in most of his movies comes from how much he tries to cram onto the screen. In The Stuff, alongside that main story, we have SNL's Garrett Morris as 'Chocolate Chip' Charlie who lost his business to 'Stuffie' family members, Danny Aiello as an ex-FDA employee at the mercy of his Stuff addicted dog, a young boy escaping his addicted family, and Paul Sorvino as a right wing militia leader who leads an attack on a Stuff factory and darkens the movie considerably with random racist outbursts. The downside to all of this is that the movie does seem a little hit and miss at times, veering wildly between story lines, with an ending that feels woefully rushed. The overall tone, however, remains consistent throughout the many stories, and as I mentioned Moriarty does a fairly good job of anchoring things. The best way to experience this one is to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Don't look too closely, and you'll find a movie that at the very least tries to engage you a bit more than the average b-grade horror film.

I have to admit I never saw this one as a child, but it had this strange, influential presence in my pre-adolescence years. I knew of the film from the many previews that adorned the opening of several New World Video movies back in the 80s, and an Amazing Stories episode that I was told referenced the film. Eventually the movie achieved this mythic status, becoming more horrifying in my mind than it actually turned out to be. See, this was back before I could stomach horror movies, and I was completely unaware that the movie was supposed to be funny. All I knew was that the trailer gave me the heebie jeebies, and I haven't been comfortable with yogurt since.

Monday, July 23, 2007


The Download is, I think, going to be a regular feature on this site. Just how regular I can't say yet. It's going to be a quick note or two that I jot down, usually just a random thought that I don't feel like expanding into a full-on rant or post. And sometimes it'll just be a goofy, silly idea or two.

I've come to the conclusion that Paris Hilton's popularity has less to do with attraction(I mean, she's obviously not physically attractive, unless you count that whole 'totally attainable, could pick her up at some sleazy bar' vibe) than with making ourselves feel better. People have held her up for perusal as proof that celebrities are awful people. We want to believe that money corrupts, that wealth and fame lead to absolute soullessness. It's a great lie we lower middle class citizens tell ourselves and each other to make ourselves feel better with our lot in life. And it's a great lie the wealthy like to perpetuate because it frees them of guilt. They aren't profiting while others suffer, why, they're martyrs!

I know I sound bitter, but really I'm not. Everyone wishes they had more money, and I'm no different, but I am pretty happy with my station in life. What bothers me is the so called 'cult of celebrity'. Paying so much attention to what a vacuous little socialite brat, a truly horrid little person, does merely because she has lots of money.

Friday, July 20, 2007


With the release of Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix, I am forced to listen to friends and co-workers and in some cases complete strangers bitch and moan. Indeed, even many reviews for the movie contain the same gripes, and that is that 'it was OK, but they shouldn't have left such-and-such out.' A more common complaint is the simpler, more direct 'it wasn't as good as the book.' This is unfortunate, because a perfectly fine movie is getting short shrift because of how well it stands up to a completely separate entity; the book. Time was when I would be right alongside these people, complaining about how the movie removed my favorite subplot, or didn't capture the essence of the characters as perfectly as I'd hoped. Nowadays I like to think I'm much more enlightened, and oddly enough I owe this all to the Harry Potter series.

I was a bit late on the Harry Potter bandwagon, and Azkaban was the first movie I saw after reading all the books. Strangely, instead of being upset by the (major) omissions from the book to film transition, the film showed me how you could cut out or alter quite a bit and still make a fantastic film. Azkaban is my favorite film in the series so far, and my reasoning, when I try to boil this down to it's essence, is this; The first films were fine, if you wanted to read the book without all those pesky words. The films kept in as many of the subplots as possible, as much of the minutiae that they could manage, but missed a lot of the heart. Prisoner of Azkaban removed as much of the peripheral stuff as possible, but hit the heart dead center.

To me one of the best examples of book to screen adaptation would have to be Silence of the Lambs. Silence of the Lambs should be required reading/viewing in any film class on the subject of adapted works. The movie excises just enough, and fleshes out peripheral characters in order to give voice to what in the novel was internal dialogue. This meant the film wasn't burdened by clumsy narration or even clumsier exposition, but still maintained much of the atmosphere, information and precision of the source material. I'd also give Hannibal honorable mention, and before you stop reading, hear me out. Hannibal was not a very good movie, but keep this in mind; the book was worse. In this case the source material gave them very little to work with, including an underlining psychological explanation for Lecter that's a bit too on-the-nose, and characters that inexplicably act against everything laid down in previous books(keep in mind this was Hannibal Lecter's third outing). The movie trimmed the noxious backstory, and altered the horrid ending, and was the better for it.

I guess the trick is to know what to cut, to be able to discern when the author is going off on an unsatisfactory tangent, or when it's just not necessary to include something. Take American Psycho, for example. Now, I won't say that Bret Easton Ellis is a bad writer, since I did enjoy the novel, in an odd way(and I haven't read anything else, so I can't really judge), but never was there a book more full of things I didn't want to read about. Whether describing sexual acts in a language Penthouse editors would probably blush at, or going on for page after page about where the main character buys his bottled water, the book seemed to urge you to put it down. The movie dropped most of this, and shortened what it did keep. Most likely out of necessity; as boring as it was to read about his choice of neck tie, it would probably not translate to film any better. However, in a true moment of genius, the screenwriter took Patrick Bateman's knack for spouting off about Huey Lewis or Whitney Houston albums and tied those in with the murders committed on screen. This kept the action going, while still hammering home how absolutely empty this man was; less a human being than a collection of appetites.

Of course, inventive editing of the source material is a tricky feat to accomplish. In the Ninth Gate the three screenwriters(including Roman Polanski himself) edited so much out of the book that the movie had almost no plot. The book had several story lines running simultaneously, and more than a few mcguffins. The film pared it down to only one story(and, oddly, not the main one) and removed most of the twists. This wouldn't have been so bad if the film had been any good(actually, I did enjoy it the first time around), but in this case the gap in quality between movie and book is so large that it's hard to ignore. One good thing came of this change; I saw the movie first, and when I read the book I was still surprised by the outcome. Or perhaps I was surprised because I expected the movie ending.

A few other honorable mentions would be Fight Club, which managed to be a rarity; the film that improved substantially on the source material. Mother Night, which accomplished the herculean task of adapting a Vonnegut novel and succeeding(it's perennially in my top 5, and to contrast, check out the horrid Breakfast of Champions film). It is almost a really great movie, despite being a made for TV mini-series. It could be argued that the mini-series is the best place for adaptations, since the expanded time allows for more of the side stories to be left in, and the nature of watching a movie over several days gives you that sense of familiarity and time spent with these characters that a 2 hour movie just can't. The first half of It is a perfect example of this, utilizing commercial breaks as dramatic punctuations, and a template with which to focus on each of the characters in turn. The second half is not quite so good, although it had a lot of stuff to try and fit into 2 hours, and Stephen King has problems with endings anyway. His novels always resolve themselves too neatly, in one notable case literally having the hand of god come down and stop the action.

In the end, we fans are always going to have the book, and if the movie-going audience is content with the often watered down version on the screen, that shouldn't affect us at all. Upset that Quidditch isn't in the Harry Potter movies anymore? Read the book.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


I have nothing incredibly important to say at the moment, but I need to write. I feel like a shark; I need to keep moving, because if I stop, I won't be starting up again anytime soon. Thing is, I've been awake for three days with a running total of, if I'm generous, 5 hours of sleep. Maybe 6 if you count all the 10-15 minute naps I've taken, but I'm not even sure if I was sleeping, I only know that I have no memory for those blocks of time, I just stood staring off into space, which is something no boss likes to see. Why would I do such a thing as stay awake for 3 days, you may ask? Well, my work schedule is late night/early morning, and the time I would normally spend sleeping has been taken up by community service as I squeeze as much in as possible to meet my quickly approaching deadline.

I'm actually feeling pretty damn good. There comes a time in sleep deprivation when you reach a point of exhaustion where your synapses are all firing at once, you're wired and in tune with everything and your making all the connections at light speed. Go past that and you enter a more normal period of exhaustion. Your eyes itch and your muscles ache. Go past that and you'll be where I am now. I feel like smooth, warm molasses. I'm not moving quickly, but I'm going at a pace that feels entirely comfortable and appropriate. Following gravity down the hill. This will probably wear off halfway through our broadcast this morning, because when this period is over, there's no prolonging it.

I could have slept last night(this night? whatever), but I went to see the new Harry Potter. I don't have much to say about it, so don't worry about any spoilers here. I enjoyed it, not quite as much as part three, but still quite a bit. At times it felt a bit perfunctory, like it had less a narrative and more a desire to hit the right buttons. Still, it was nowhere near as slavish as the first two. In the midst of this sleep deprived state I went to a midnight premiere where I surrounded myself with teens(and adults, to be fair) dressed out in their favorite house colors. A place where a random woman in a black cloak and white makeup rushes out of the crowd, thrusts her wand in my face, and commands I pledge allegiance to the Dark Lord lest I suffer the Cruciata(sp?) curse. I'm almost positive I didn't imagine that.

The reason I'm feeling fine, aside from the body-chemistry high I'm on, is because I am now finally done with community service. No more slaving away in some random park digging trenches and carrying 60lb bricks across the field. No more listening to Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh or whatever neo-con fuckwit the community service supervisors are listening to. It's all done with. When I leave work this morning, I will not be going to the CWS office. The sun will be up on the ride home, and I'll have a nice soft bed waiting for me. Pure heaven. I have much to be thankful for.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Critical Mass

As I mentioned a post or two back, my pal Rik has been sounding off about film critics and criticism theory in general lately. If you didn't take the opportunity to read his blog at the time, you can follow this handy link here. I recommend you read his entries, and perhaps bookmark the page, as it's updated a helluva lot more regularly AND appeals to many of the same interests as my blog. Plus it's all around entertaining and informative. I bring this up today because he's got me thinking about how I rate movies, and rather than post a reply on his blog that would rival the original posts in length, I moved it over here. I know he checks the site out occasionally, so I'm not worried about him missing it.

On top of Rik's regular blog posts, he recently invited me over to facebook, which has an addictively fast paced movie review application called Flixster. With a lot of time to surf the web during downtime at work, I have quickly rated a few thousand films(3085 have at least simple 1 thru 5 ratings, a fair portion of those I've taken the time to actually say something about). The question this ability raises is, how do I rate a film? What criteria should I use when judging what number to give a film? Basically I went with the breakdown provided to me by Flixster, because I figured it was a pretty general platform that would be recognizable to anyone who would look through my movie ratings. The system goes like this:

5- I was Amazed
4- I loved it
3- I liked it
2- It was OK
1- I hated it

Now, I just went back to Facebook to double check I had the wording correct, and could not find confirmation that this is exactly what the numbers stand for. However, I am certain that 2, 3 & 4 are ranked as I have explained them.

This is actually a pretty loose ratings system, and a lot more subjective than even regular criticism. All any of these ratings mean is that the reviewer either did or didn't like it. However, with that in mind, I'm still occasionally shocked at the criteria most users have. For instance, too many times I've come across a distressing amount of reviews with some variation of the phrase; "I didn't see it all, but it was really (good/bad)". If you don't watch a movie from start to finish, you can't expect to impose your opinions on other people. Of course, as I said, Flixster is pretty loose, and this isn't quite on the level of even a local newspapers movie section. This is just one step above people bullshitting in their living room with their friends about what movies they've seen lately. So maybe I'm taking this a little too seriously.

Still, the question remains; what criteria should I use when I 'review' a movie on this site? Or rate it for my friends- or anyone who's interested- to see. When I began writing on this site, my critical responses to movies were basically; "I liked it. I didn't like it. I thought this scene was cool." Etc... I may have gone a bit deeper than that on certain films, but more often than not all I bothered with was whether or not I enjoyed myself. But now that I find myself putting my thoughts out there for public perusal, I feel obligated to make more informed observations. Before each of my movie posts, even for movies I've seen before, I usually make time for research. A quick trip to IMDB & Wikipedia are mandatory, with maybe a few google searches on top of that. I'll also make an effort to watch a new movie more than once, although the second time around I'll either be watching the commentary or doing something like folding laundry while the movie is on in the background. It's not a very in-depth viewing, but it does allow me to see a few things again with the entire movie in mind.

You see, unlike many critics you probably know of(Roger Ebert, Owen Gleiberman), I have no real experience in this field, and I've done no real study of film theory. Hell, I don't even have a journalism degree. A lot of my faults as a critic I can attribute to my youth, however, I'm not quite so young anymore. You could also chalk it up to plain inexperience, which I'm happier with. Indeed, as I read over these posts I do feel as though I'm improving my skills. And even if I'm not improving, I'm more comfortable with it now than I was when I began this project.

Still, that question remains; how do I rate these films? Well, on my blog site I've avoided this problem by not rating the movies at all, I simply put my thoughts down and let the reader know what I think of a film. Before Flixster I had experimented with my own rating system, one that went into negative numbers. This was an idea inspired by the massive amounts of suckitude I discovered when working my way through discount horror DVD bins. The scale would have gone from 5 to -5. A 5 would obviously be my idea of a perfect movie, whereas a -5 would be for those movies that not only suck, but suck your will to live. I'm thinking of the Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing vehicle Scream and Scream again, which seemed to dehydrate my brain as I watched it, or Manos the Hands of Fate, which was so bad not even the Mystery Science Theatre crew could make it enjoyable.

This rating system was short lived, and really only ever existed in theory, because I could never really settle upon any type of criteria. How should I judge what a perfect movie is? Has one been made yet? And if so, how long will that perfection last until the rules of the game are changed, and something even better comes along? Should I use a bell curve? Obviously not. I tend to review a film based on what the film tries to do, and try to avoid the whole 'It could have been better if it had done such and such." And besides, too many of the movies I love are films I recognise as being patently horrible, and would only recommend to friends whose tastes I was familiar with. This is the genius of Roger Ebert's thumbs up/down review style(used only on his show, he has a more gradated 4 star rating on his website); it tells you instantly if he liked it or not, while allowing his explanation to go into more specifics. Many times I've seen him give positive reviews to films he didn't seem to like much, admitting that the film succeeded in it's goals and would appeal to it's intended audience.

Generally I'm of the opinion that films, in major publications at least, should only be reviewed by people in that films target audience, because people have usually made up their mind about whether or not to see it before hearing any hyperbolic summary. This is why I tend to trust a critic like Roger Ebert, who gauges the movie against it's own criteria. And I tend to do that as well. Rik is correct in asserting that there is no objectivity in criticism, and perhaps I've been a bit too strict in my own self-imposed rule about not putting my personal life into my blog(which I've broken whenever it suited me), because you can't truly understand someones tastes unless you understand the person. Ebert(I know I keep mentioning him, but he's the only critic I read on a regular basis at this point), or whichever critic you listen to, is trusted partly because of your experience with them in the past; what films they turned you on to, what favorites of yours they shared or didn't share, etc.

So I've got that answered, or maybe I don't. I've decided to just review the movies completely subjectively, putting up my thoughts as they occur and trusting that the people who read this will understand where I'm coming from. The question I have now is; why do I do this at all? Why do I sit and review these movies when most of my friends have heard me talk about them already, or were there when I saw them? Well, I've said before that I use this site primarily to hone my rusty writing skills, and that's true... to a point. In the documentary on the 3-disc Brazil set that Criterion put out, Jack Mathews said that he views it as his duty as a critic to find great, hidden gems and share them with the rest of the world. I think that's a great sentiment, and the one that most informs what I do here. I don't pretend that I'm unearthing any hidden treasures, but I do like sharing with people, letting them in on these great things I've found. I think they're great, and I think you, the reader, would enjoy them too. Unless they're really awful, then I'm trying to spare you. It's about half egoism, half love.

Okay, maybe 60-40.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The End of an Era

This week two separate but related eras in my pop-culture 'career' have come to an end. Both ends came about from random and spur of the moment perusals of second hand stores; one for books, one for music. At local used book store Title Wave, which I don't frequent nearly as much as I used to due to outrageous pricing and a shrinking selection of books(to make room for hilarious arty magnets, of course), I came across the one Kurt Vonnegut novel I had yet to read; Slapstick. And then yesterday, on a break from my aforementioned community service I stopped in at a record store I normally can't stand(and won't advertise here), and found a used copy of Good for Your Soul, the long out of print Oingo Boingo album, and the only one I had not been able to track down at a reasonable price. Sure, I could have spent 50 bucks or more on Amazon, or gambled on eBay, but I held out hope that what happened yesterday would eventually occur.

I really got into the Oingo Boingo very late in the game, with their final release Boingo(not to be confused with Boi-ngo). This was, of course, a hair's breadth away from their disbanding in 1995, but keep in mind I was 16 at the time, which I think is a perfectly respectable age to get into Oingo Boingo. Of course, I had heard them previously, but it was before I was consciously aware of music. There was a great summer in the mid-80s, when I was 7 or 8, where I was in love with the song Weird Science and would scan the car radio endlessly hoping to catch it, and would then sing along happily to the chorus. But I wasn't aware of them as a band, I knew the song, but not who did it. It wasn't until my teens that I started cultivating anything that could be described as some semblance of taste. It was bad enough at the time knowing that they were through as a band, but I still had a fairly sizable back catalog to hunt down. As much as I wanted to gather up all of their releases, I always secretly relished having a new Oingo Boingo album to look forward to one day.

That's over now, and soon it will be over for Kurt Vonnegut, as soon as I read Slapstick. Of course I'm not too despondent. I now have a really kick ass album to listen to whenever I want, and another Vonnegut book to read and reread, but as any pop-culture collector or sleazy frat boy can tell you, the thrill of the hunt is a major part of the fun.

On a side note, I have to express some continuing surprise that Danny Elfman hasn't done anything other than film scores and classical pieces for the past 12 years. I know his composing keeps him busy, and I enjoy most of it, but it still strikes me as odd that he hasn't had the itch to sing and rock out again. I'm not asking for an Oingo Boingo reunion, I understand perfectly why he wouldn't want to do that, but I'd still like another Elfman project. Maybe a solo effort along the lines of So-Lo.

Now, Kurt Vonnegut and Oingo Boingo actually have a few things in common. Both had heydays in the 80s, both are known for their sometimes morbid, often manic, always idiosyncratic styles, and both had cameos in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School.

Since his death in April, I have been re-reading all of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, some of which have been lost or borrowed over the years. Which is why I found myself scanning the shelves for his name at Title Wave, and how I found Slapstick, a book I had somehow remained unaware of. Don't ask me how this happened, I have no excuse. Kurt Vonnegut was apparently not too thrilled with the result, giving it the grade of 'D', but even sub par Vonnegut is a worthwhile read. It's there in the pile now, but I'm saving it for last in my Vonnegut revival.

I had been wanting to make note of Kurt Vonnegut's passing a few months back, but couldn't come up with anything that I thought would be fitting. Vonnegut is probably my favorite author, and I didn't trust my own writing abilities enough to pay fitting tribute to such a brilliant man. Vonnegut fell into a class of author that, even if not stylistically comparable, puts him alongside Alan Moore and Joss Whedon in my book. Now, by that I mean this: In each of Vonnegut's books, or Moore's comics, or Whedon's shows/films, there comes a moment where everything flips in my mind. I'm going along, enjoying the ride, thinking I'm seeing one thing, and then the rug is pulled out from under me, and the ideas expand to areas I never would have imagined. I think I'm walking down a pleasant valley and it turns out it's the Grand Canyon. Moore & Whedon tend to do this with genre tweaks, adding depth to what starts out as a simple, straightforward affair. Vonnegut did this, for me, with his unceasing love for humanity.

The other day I got into a slight argument with a coworker over this. He referred to Kurt Vonnegut as nihilistic, a charge I disagree with, and I think Mr. Vonnegut would have as well. It's true that most of his books are bleak, and the tend to finish with the end of the world, either figuratively or literally, but his sense of optimism and wry enjoyment are palpable throughout. Before anything else, Kurt Vonnegut was a humane and agreeable person, a man who believed everyone deserved to be loved, even if he couldn't always practice that belief. If anything Kurt Vonnegut showed a surprising lack cynicism considering his life, which included being one of the very few to survive the firebombing of Dresden in WWII as a POW(POWs were kept in an underground meat locker and hence escaped the carnage, inspiring his novel Slaughterhouse 5). There is a sadness prevalent in all of his books, I'll admit that, but I believe in the end that he was hopeful for humanity.

In April Kurt Vonnegut passed away at the age of 84 from brain injuries sustained in a fall. It's probably been pointed out already, but it's extremely ironic that such a witty and intelligent man would eventually be killed by his own brain. Vonnegut would have said this was proof that god had a sense of humor, if he hadn't already said that about gonnorrhea.

I could end this with any number of great Vonnegut quotes, but in the interest of brevity, I'll keep this to one, that I think sums it up:

"And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is." "

Or this one... couldn't resist:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: