Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Game Done Changed

David Mills, writer of Homicide: Life on the Streets, NYPD Blue, The Wire, and the upcoming Treme, has died at the age of 48.

The Cribbster remembers this gem from Mills delivered to journalism students seeking advice on writing: "I don’t know. . . uh. . . It’s a little like fucking: You do it more, you get better at it. Other than that there’s not much else I can say.” Check out David Mills' own blog, Undercover Black Man. It is definitely worth a read. Forty-eight is far too soon to go, but thank goodness for the work he has left us and thank goodness for DVDs. Mills changed the game with television, and he was one of the few who changed it for the better.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lil' Scarface

A home video has surfaced of elementary school children making liberal use of the word "fudge" in their play adaptation of the violent climax of Brian De Palma's Scarface. That is premise, anyway. The piece itself is a clever-ish put on.

I would add "obviously," but apparently not everyone is in on the joke. In fact, I find the funniest thing about the video to be the outraged comments it has elicited. "Yes - I have kids - and this is R-Rated material - someone has a screw loose big time - idiots," opines bapwebdesign, while beachkween delivers the impassioned type-scream, "NO WONDER KIDS ARE MESSED UP TODAY AND THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO END - THE PARENTS AND TEACHES OF THIS SCHOOL SHOULD BE SHOT - WTF???" Even the artistic community itself takes exception to the piece, as antoniotheartist offers, "Those kids could have has as much fun doing a play about WALL-E." Indeed.

Geoff Boucher outed the video as the work of Jonas Akerlund, the director most recently behind Lady Gaga's stunning "Telephone" video. Even without the director's name floating around, the video has several tells: the uploader cindymomof6 joined four days prior and has only uploaded the play video and "favourited" three humourously earnest Christian message videos; the complete silence of the supposed families in the audience as the bizarre action unfolds; the video's mere existence.

For whatever reason Akerlund seems to have taken a run at Michel Gondry territory. So why the dip into the viral pool? The Gaga video is the most high profile project he has done in years, so maybe he is ramping up for promotion of a big feature following his dead-in-the-water Horsemen film of last year. Akerlund has always had a great eye, but so far he has been unable to sustain that for a full movie. Hopefully he can capitalize on his recent success to turn out a great feature. Sure, a sequel to the overwrought drug tragi-comedy Spun may seem like the worst idea ever, but just imagine this: "And the Oscar goes to... CGI Brittany Murphy!" Call me, Jonas.

EDIT: TMZ is reporting that the video was actually done by Marc Klasfeld. He directed The LA Riot Spectacular, a comedy about the aftermath of the Rodney King beating starring Snoop Dogg. Yes, that exists. Try not to bust a gut watching the trailer. Also, writing about the same stuff as TMZ? I am garbage.

You can watch Scarface School Play after the jump.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

Steve Pink | 2010 | 100 mins | USA

The experience of watching Hot Tub Time Machine was a strange one. As a former John Cusack devotee who wasn't crazy about his work in the '00s, I expected to find this entertaining but at the same time a bit cringe-worthy. I was worried that the comedian-stacked cast and Snakes On A Plane-ish funny but maybe ironic but maybe just literal title would not actually add up to an awesome comedy. And yet, I found myself laughing out loud consistently throughout.

Adam (John Cusack), Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson) play three old pals whose glory days of '80s teendom are behind them. Adam's a jerk whose girlfriend has just left him. Lou's a full blown alcoholic who hasn't outgrown his party animal behaviour. Nick is a failed musician who works in some kind of puppy salon. In an attempt to revive their friendships and their sad lives, the three estranged best friends (accompanied by Cusack's nephew Jacob, played by Clark Duke) head to their old vacation haunt, a ski resort by the name of Kodiac Valley, where a drunken night in the hot tub lands them back in 1986. How and why? It's got to do with some spilled drinks, but really, does it matter? While the three 40-somethings (now back to being their teen selves) relive the good times, Jacob tries to ensure that his own birth doesn't get erased by their time traveling shenanigans.

I'm sure the arguments about whether Hot Tub Time Machine is able to live up to its own hype will continue for a little while longer. Here are three good reasons to go see it in the meantime:

1. Rob Corddry. As Lou, the Mötley Crüe-loving total fuckup of the friend group, he manages to be simultaneously hilarious, completely pathetic, and strangely attractive. He's magic.

2. The cameos. Crispin Glover as the one armed bellboy provides the film with some really enjoyable recurring gags, and a big time comedy veteran is surprisingly endearing as the hot tub repairman. Both might have been kind of lame but are funny and sweet instead.

3. The ski patrol villains. A shout-out to the world of '80s jock vs. geek teen flicks, this crew of well coiffed cool guys think our time traveling heroes are hiding something, and they're hell bent on stopping them. They're even named Blaine and Chaz, as any ski dudes should be.

Bonus points for a guy in a bear suit who keeps randomly popping into the action.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Runaways

Floria Sigismondi | 2010 | 109 min | US

A rough, all-girl rock group fronted by a blonde lolita. Money in the bank, right? The band's life was short, but a year after forming they were headlining shows with Cheap Trick and Van Halen as opening acts. A year after that they were on a world tour and recording a television special in Japan. They released three studio albums before breaking up in early 1979. The Runaways were a cultural milestone, not that you would know it from watching The Runaways (aside from its few "big in Japan" moments).

The Runaways focuses primarily on the relationship between guitarist/ singer Joan Jett and singer Cherie Currie from their first meeting until Currie eventually drops out of music when drugs take too great a toll. Currie's family life also has some screen time, and Jett is shown kissing different girls. I was surprised that Dakota Fanning not only turns in the first decent performance of her young career, but she does a terrific job as Cherie Currie. Kristen Stewart is also good, and slightly more involved as Joan Jett than her usual scowl-acting allows. Unfortunately, the talented Alia Shawkat plays "Robin," the composite bassist, but is left completely line-less due to legal threats.

The Runaways best functions as a Music Delivery System and Nostalgia Generator, which it performs to perfection. When in clubs, jam spaces, and on stage, the movie is thoroughly captivating. I say that with the exception of ham-fisted scenes of the band "jamming" out a hit tune in a couple minutes of riffs and lyrical free styling that turns out magically. I always find such scenes painful to watch. They are the laziest of shortcuts and you don't have to have a gold record to feel how false they ring.

Floria Sigismondi has shown that she has an inspired flare for visual storytelling. We see moments of it in The Runaways, but Sigismondi seems bored when the story is about something other than drug use or performance. The result is a collection of memorable music videos strung together by vague scenes of a band imploding. So much energy is expended presenting the band's drug use it comes at the expense of portraying the recording of their albums, which gets one short scene, or the reception of those albums. Since the movie covers such a small window of time it is ridiculous for it to glaze over huge events in their career. That disinterest extends to the character summaries at the end of the film. While Currie, Jett, and producer Kim Fowley are all given the "where are they now" treatment, Lita Ford, Sandy West, and the myriad bassists are ignored. That is silly and inexcusable.

All this complaining may create the impression that I hated The Runaways. I did not. I enjoyed watching it, though it left much to be desired even while I was watching it. At its essence it is little more than an improved take on Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. That may or may not be enough for you. The Runaways is good, but I wanted more than good.

However, if the music isn't really what you're after anyway, the superior youth debauchery vehicle starring the real Cherie Currie is Adrian Lyne's Foxes. I cannot recommend that movie enough.

Bodyguards & Assassins [Shi yue wei cheng]

Teddy Chan | 2009 | 139 mins | China / Hong Kong

At the Asian Film Awards which wrapped mere hours ago in Hong Kong, the two top acting awards went to veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi and Hong Kong heartthrob Nicholas Tse, who played Master Li and his kindly rickshaw driver, respectively, in Bodyguards & Assassins, Teddy Chan's star studded historical epic. Loosely based on real events, the film looks beautiful but ultimately lacks the serious ass kicking needed to make it a truly fun ride.

The tale is set in 1905, and Sun Yat-sen is on his way to Hong Kong (then a British colony) to plan a revolution to overthrow the crumbling Qing Dynasty in China. Revolutionary Chen Shaobai arrives in Hong Kong a few days before Sun's arrival, to meet Li Yue-tang (Wang Xueqi), a businessman who's been helping to fund the cause. As Sun's arrival draws near, a convoluted sequence of events forces Li to throw full support behind the revolutionaries, rallying a group of men including his rickshaw driver (Nicholas Tse) and a mysterious beggar (Leon Lai) to divert the assassins so that Sun can enter Hong Kong, meet his cohorts and leave safely. While this motley crew tries to protect Sun, Li's young wife has hired Sum Chung-yang (Donnie Yen), a man with whom she has some history, to tail the group and protect her husband. Simon Yam also briefly appears as an exiled Qing General living in exile and disguised as the leader of an opera troupe.

There's a lot of set up, many characters to follow and several side plots (such as the rickshaw driver's touching romance with the lame daughter of a local photographer), so the talk-to-action ratio is a bit out of whack. However, when Master Li's son Li Chongguang is chosen to act as the decoy for Sun Yat-sen in an elaborate rickshaw and foot chase through the city streets, the kung fu finally begins, and it's pretty good.

It's clear from the start that this is the sort of epic blood bath that might end well for "history" but not for any of the individuals involved. As the action escalates, Donnie Yen unsurprisingly has the best fight choreography, and Leon Lai has the most impressive scene, as he battles a whole team of hook and chain wielding assassins with nothing but a deadly black iron fan. The film has had its theatrical release in Asia, and seems unlikely to land on the big screen in North America anytime soon, but look for it on BluRay - the DVD is already out.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Before and After

Aldo van Eyck was a Dutch architect who put children's needs at the centre of his urban renewal projects. Between 1947 and 1974 he designed over 730 playgrounds while working in Amsterdam, taking cues from humanist ideals and cultural tradition.

The photos above are from van Eyck's The Playgrounds and the City. The book was a catalogue for an exhibition celebrating his work called Design for Children held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. On March 16th van Eyck would have turned 92 years old.

Thanks to the playground design blog Playscapes where I first spotted the images.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How Can You Just Walk Away From Me?

"i love this song i been doing this song at karaoke for over 20 years it reminds of my ex husband i watched him left me when i was pregnate we divoced since then its been 8 years now he has not contacted myself or his daughter."

Massive track. The video for Phil Collins' "Against All Odds" was a promo single for the 1984 film of the same name. The movie was a dog directed by Taylor Hackford, but at least it provided us with a great video that nicely survives as a short on its own, and shows off a dashing young James Woods to boot. Think of it as a not so embarrassing precursor to the big budget junk heaps of celebrity cameos that would rise on music television in the years following.

And if you have not yet heard it, episode 339 of the world famous radio program This American Life, "Break-Up," is compulsory listening. In the first segment, writer Starlee Kine and Phil Collins discuss break-up songs, and Mr. Collins songs in particular. it's a heartbreaker of a report (x 2!) which took me right back to university-era love-horrors. You can stream it from the TAL site here.

Stay together, Phil fans. We are dying.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The homeless can be handsome too...

When Vivienne Westwood unveiled her homeless chic collection (pictured above) in mid January of this year, the internet was rife with Zoolander jokes. After all, the film successfully spoofed the bizarre and tacky concept with the "Derelicte" campaign nearly a decade before she came up with it.

Now, the "homelessness is stylish" thing has reached a new level of absurdity with a homeless Chinese dude who is being written about by The Independent (which called him "starkly handsome"), and The Huffington Post (which calls him "the poster boy for homeless chic style" but admits that he "is reported to seem mentally disturbed"). The internet has dubbed the guy Brother Sharp, and various photos of him have been circulating everywhere from to for about a month.

A man who is both attractive and homeless at the same time. Unheard of off the runway until now!

Wait, what?

In yesterday's HKMDB Daily News a piece likened Chinese American musician and first time director Wang Lee-hom to Brother Sharp because of his kooky vagrant chic on set:

Incidentally, Wang is reported to be directing an inspirational youth comedy called Love Notices/Love Announcement, starring himself and Joan Chen, but that's neither here nor there.

A social worker in Ningbo (a port city with a population of over 2,000,000) who's trying to protect Brother Sharp's identity was quoted in one of the articles as saying "Homeless people are vulnerable. It is incorrect to use them for entertainment purposes." You don't say! Meanwhile, someone has created a Facebook page for him. Does it kind of make you want to laugh and barf at the same time? It does me.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Old Spice

Hello ladies...
"We're not saying this body wash will make your man smell like a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, but we are insinuating it."

Shortly after reading Aaron's post about the Miller High Life ads, my colleague Mark showed me this new Old Spice TV commercial, created by the Wieden & Kennedy agency in Portland, Oregon.

The hilariously written commercial is based on the premise that dreamy actor (and former NFLer) Isaiah Mustafa is "the man your man could smell like" (but sadly, isn't). In it, he mesmerizes you (the lady) into believing your man could smell like him, instead of like lady-soap, by being incredibly suave. Though the action moves from a bathroom to a boat to a horse on the beach in less than 30 seconds, the entire thing is cleverly shot in a single take, on real sets (no green screen or anything).

A guy from Twit.TV was so taken with the commercial that he sought out the two young bucks from the ad agency who came up with the concept. You can view the interview and find out how they did it here.

The commercial debuted during the Olympics and has since developed quite a YouTube following, and New York Daily News has written an article about it. To be honest, I'm quite chuffed that an ad campaign can still make such an impression, with the media as well as the public. That seems rare these days.

Old Spice has been riding the "old-man-ish and therefore not hip but actually the hippest" wave with their commercials for a while (see the Bruce Campbell commercial for a typical example), but they have really hit their stride with this one.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The High Life

The attempted brand rejuvenation of Miller High Life over the last couple years has resulted in some incredible work. The above images by Saatchi and Saatchi New York won the Gold Press Lion at Cannes International Advertising Festival in 2009. More details on the Innovations campaign and an additional image are available here.

Last year also saw several High Life ads directed by Errol Morris, and they are far and away some of the best ads I have seen in years. The Morris films feel more like documentary shorts similar to his Gates of Heaven or Vernon, Florida features than they do advertisements, which is what made him such a perfect choice. I don't how much control Morris had over the pieces, but they feel very much like his own.

Of course, utilizing an old smoky-voiced narrator and grainy period stock trades mercilessly on Americana imagery and the resurgence of more traditional concepts of "manliness," but High Life is one of the few brands that can actually get away with it. Nothing about the ads seem forced. Partner that identity with the humour and eye of a man like Errol Morris and the result is smart, warm, and funny. Click through to watch some videos after the jump.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Get To Know Your Rabbit

Brian De Palma | 1972 | 91 mins | USA

If you're a fan of Brian De Palma, his name might conjure up some hits - Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, or my personal favourite, Blow Out (the suspense filled Conversation-meets-Blow-Up-ish film starring John Travolta and John Lithgow). If you're not a fan, you might just think "that guy makes hackneyed psychological thrillers" and leave it at that.

And yet, love him or hate him, almost no one thinks of the bizarre 1972 Tom Smothers vehicle Get To Know Your Rabbit. In fact, the comedy was his first studio picture, an absolute catastrophe from which Warner Brothers removed De Palma's name & which was shelved for two years before a small release with little fanfare or promotion. De Palma was forced to retreat into independent filmmaking after his nasty studio experience, licking his wounds while making the Hitchcock-inspired Margot Kidder / Siamese twin thriller Sisters.

Perhaps because the film was such a failure, De Palma never really returned to the slapstick genre he dipped his toe into with Get To Know Your Rabbit. And yet, somehow, seeing this obscure little number has had a strong effect on my perspective of the man's oeuvre. Somehow, I can't quite think of him in the same way anymore.

Tom Smothers stars as Donald Beeman, a young executive who's sick of the rat race and decides to throw it all away in order to pursue his dream: touring the country as a tap dancing magician. Donald doesn't even bother to officially resign, he just leaves his job, his disapproving fiancée, and his ultra-mod apartment, and starts taking tap dancing magic lessons from Dell'Assandro (an impressively imposing-yet-bumbling Orson Welles).

Donald moves into a sleazy motel, perfects his act, goes on tour and even strikes up a new romance with Terrific-Looking Girl (Katharine Ross). Unfortunately his old boss (John Astin, a.k.a. the original Gomez Addams) isn't ready to give him up so easily. He hounds Donald so persistently that he ends up becoming a bum himself, only to rebuild his empire by getting into the tap dancing musician business as well.

The absurd plot twists in Get To Know Your Rabbit make little sense, and the film is full of non sequiturs and odd digressions. In one scene, Donald and a man he meets in his hotel appear to be competing for the attentions of a woman, until we realise the guy is an obsessive bra salesman who wants to find the perfect fit for her, and takes Donald to be his bra-selling competition. Scenes such as this one (or the one with the piano tuner who's taking clients who don't own pianos) don't go anywhere, but ultimately that doesn't matter. The absurdism makes it funny, and the "shove your corporate alienation up your you-know-what" message comes through clearly enough.

In 1973, Vincent Canby said, of Get To Know Your Rabbit, “It reinforces my expectation that De Palma will one day make a really fine American comedy.” I kind of hope he's right.

And now back to our regularly scheduled blogging...

Well, here's the verdict. I am terrible at predicting short films, screenwriting, sound and costume. Otherwise, I did ok with 13 correct guesses (aka the obvious categories that everyone guessed):

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Animated Feature: Up
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Cinematography: Avatar
Best Director: The Hurt Locker
Best Documentary: The Cove
Best Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Visual Effects: Avatar

I usually enjoy the Oscars even when they're kind of boring and excessively long (as a kid, it was an amazing excuse to stay up late, waiting with my mom for the best picture to be announced), so generally speaking I have very little snark for the awards. Of course they're not about "best" or even "good" cinema, but really, does anyone think that anyway? I watch for the outfits, the musical numbers and the embarrassing speeches, and I have no shame about that. They surgically removed all the fun this year (interpretive breakdance, really?) so I can honestly say that my favourite part of the show was Neil Patrick Harris' song & dance number. That's a sad fact.

I only have three other comments:

a) Anyone currently comparing Avatar to Citizen Kane in any way, is probably brain damaged.
b) The John Hughes montage made me tear up a bit. I didn't think it would, but it totally got me.
c) The ladies who are near, or over, the age of 60 (Helen Mirren, Sigourney Weaver, Kathryn Bigelow) looked really good. The ladies in their 40s (Sandra Bullock and Demi Moore in particular) need to lay off the knife.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Is it too late for Oscar predictions?

I'm watching the pre-show right now, and experiencing profound dissatisfaction with the dresses I've seen so far (Sarah Jessica Parker is particularly gruesome in what is apparently Chanel, and Charlize Theron's boob-roses are ridiculous). Well ok, Kathryn Bigelow (pictured) is a super-babe, Helen Mirren looks classy, and Tina Fey can't help being hot.

As I watch the parade of fashion, I'm overcome with regret for not having put my predictions down anywhere at all that I'll be able to point to after the fact to say "I called that" or "boy was I wrong". So, here they are for posterity, and we'll see how well I do. Full confession: many of my predictions in the lesser categories are random guesses fueled by half a bottle of Merlot, but I always trust my Oscar night intuition. I used it two years ago at an Oscar party with friends and ended up winning the pool, so, fingers crossed?

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges (though I hope for Jeremy Renner, who really deserves it)
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock (I think she can't actually act, but I have a gut feeling she'll get this guy)
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Animated Feature: Up (My vote is for Fantastic Mr Fox, though)
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Cinematography: Avatar
Best Costume Design: Coco Before Chanel
Best Director: The Hurt Locker
Best Documentary: The Cove
Best Documentary Short: Rabbit à la Berlin
Best Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Original Score: Fantastic Mr Fox
Best Original Song: "Down in New Orleans" from The Princess and the Frog
Best Animated Short: French Roast
Best Live Action Short: Kavi
Best Sound Editing: Avatar
Best Sound Mixing: Avatar
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Best Original Screenplay: Inglorious Basterds

Post script: I'm watching with my mother, who so far has commented that Jeff Bridges sounds "like he's lost all his teeth", Sandra Bullock "looks awfully old" and one of the red carpet interviewers "needs a breast reduction". This is going to be an awesome Oscar night!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Strangers on a Page

Another round of "behind the scenes" Alfred Hitchcock cartoons from Tim Hensley via Blog Flume. I put the last three strips up over here. I'm loving these, and Hensley has said he plans to do at least another three in the series. Looking forward to them.