Archive for January 2002

Storytelling

January 25, 2002

Almost alone among major DVD studios, New Line Cinema (a branch of Warner Bros.) has a somewhat archaic packaging habit. Aside from its insistence on the much-loathed cardboard “snapper case,” New Line likes to slap a one-word genre label on its DVD spines. This appears to be a hangover from the salad days of videocassettes, which were often labelled this way to assist the casual renter, but few other DVD producers do this. Anyway, a brief glance at the spines of several of my New Line discs confirms that The Wedding Singer is indeed a Comedy, The Sweet Hereafter is decidedly Drama, and so forth. So I had a chuckle at the expense of whoever was assigned to devise the helpful consumer label for Storytelling, the latest Todd Solondz gob in the eye of good taste, a Fine Line release distributed by New Line. That unlucky person must’ve had a few sleepless nights before settling on an ambitious two-word label: Dark Comedy.

Uh, yeah. Solondz, creator of the bitter gems Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, has never been and probably will never be anyone’s go-to guy for frothy, light confections. A successful drinking game could be founded on any one of his films: do a shot every time a scene makes you cringe or look away in embarrassment. Storytelling has more than enough such moments in its modest running time, beginning with the notorious moment in the first of the movie’s two sections, titled “Fiction,” wherein a coolly dominating black creative-writing professor (Robert Wisdom) demands that his white student (Selma Blair) speak a particularly unspeakable phrase during coitus. Solondz appears to be the sole serious transgressor in American film, now that John Waters and Neil LaBute have abdicated the title, yet he’s not interested in shock so much as the friction it creates between characters. The obscenity in his work is usually rooted in emotion, not vulgarity or sexuality.

Solondz’ subject this time is the difficulty of finding truth in stories, whether the story is true or false. Either a story really happened but feels false in the telling, or a story is manipulated in the telling to falsify it. I much prefer the first segment “Fiction,” admittedly in large part because, as a former English major, I’ve sat in that class and heard the glittering banalities that students stammer out after a classmate has offered a story for group critique. “It was really emotional,” one girl says; “I really liked your word choices,” chirps another. Solondz just drills this stuff dead center. The Selma Blair character, Vi, is dating Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), a boy with cerebral palsy, who writes and laboriously reads aloud a blatantly autobiographical story that has “painfully earnest” written all over it. Vi goes out with Marcus because he has CP and she figured he’d be “different” — i.e., not like the other jerks she’s been with, presumably. But Solondz refuses to sentimentalize: Marcus is as objectionable and neurotic as anyone else in the movie — self-pitying, using his condition as a cudgel, quick to accuse others of patronizing him but behaving in a way that almost invites it.

Right up to its (ahem) climactic shocking clinch¹ and its bitter aftermath, “Fiction” is a small masterwork — a poisonous bonbon exactly as long as it needs to be to make its point. Indeed, it’s very much like the sort of “aggressively confrontational” short fiction that might be written by Mr. Scott, the professor who so decisively overturns Vi’s “Don’t be racist” mantra to herself. By now, Solondz has heard all the arguments against himself, and he has puckishly taken many of the charges raised against his previous films and put them in the mouths of the creative-writing students. (We also hear a bit of it from the documentary editor in “Non-Fiction.”) Like the best short stories, it focuses on a minimum of incidents and expands in meaning and impact.

Inevitably, the companion piece, the nearly hour-long “Non-Fiction,” looks a bit pallid in comparison, despite very fine work by the always entertaining Paul Giamatti as Toby Oxman (named after Solondz’ regular editor Alan Oxman?), a loser who fancies himself a documentary filmmaker. Armed with a camcorder and a shaggy cameraman (in a true casting coup, Solondz got Mike Schank, of the modern-classic documentary American Movie, to fill the role), Toby sets out to capture the Reality of the Suburban Teenager Post-Columbine (his subject actually seems to change depending on the person he’s pitching to). He happens across Scooby (Mark Webber), a stoner with no ambition except maybe to, like, get his own talk show or something. Scooby is being pressured by his furiously disdainful father (John Goodman, his forehead veins throbbing) and meek mother (Julie Hagerty, as fragile-sounding as ever) to take the SATs and apply to a college; the family’s maid (Lupe Ontiveros) is politely interrogated by the youngest child (Jonathan Osser), who reveals himself to be quite the manipulative little fuck; Scooby’s closeted gay friend bashfully asks if he can go down on Scooby, and Scooby shrugs and lies back; and so on.

Little of this has much to do with storytelling, and the point Solondz makes here — that Toby will arrange the footage to make Scooby and his family look ridiculous, turning Scooby’s goal of attaining effortless fame against him — isn’t terribly fresh. (Predictably, the clips we see of Toby’s project look awful, complete with pretentious narration and a possible swipe at the breeze-blown detritus in American Beauty.) Solondz keeps the camera on Scooby looking hurt and betrayed as he eavesdrops on a screening of the footage; the audience guffaws at Scooby, much as we’ve been doing. Is this a stab at us, or is Solondz also including himself in the critique (I can’t help noticing that Giamatti has been made to look more than a little like Solondz)? Whatever the case, “Non-Fiction” feels sour and unresolved, and doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than as a companion piece to “Fiction” that will make the film feature-length. I wish Solondz had either come up with three compelling stories of equal length, or tied the two segments together somehow (Vi could’ve easily been made Scooby’s older sister in college — or, hell, maybe she is; we’re never told otherwise).

Still, even weak Solondz is stronger than most anything else around. Lupe Ontiveros, brilliant in Chuck & Buck, scores again here as a woman carrying deep sadness she can never express. The scenes between her and the perky, unconsciously insulting little boy (or is it unconscious?) are loathsome in just the right way. Giamatti gets one of those golden Solondz moments right at the start, when Toby phones a former high-school classmate he’d once neglected to take to the prom; the camera stays nailed to Toby as the woman on the other end quietly lashes him with the indifference of her tone and he just bleeds and twists in the wind. But once Solondz places his focus on Scooby (as if in capitulation to the father, who demands that “the focus is Scooby, or nothing”), Giamatti largely recedes behind the camcorder, and some of the material feels second-hand or even self-cannibalized — Solondz has laid bare the crawling things under the rock of sunny suburbia before.

There’s more than enough reason to see Storytelling, even in the less impressive second chapter, but perhaps Solondz has drawn water from this poisoned well one time too many. Maybe he needs to take a page from Neil LaBute, who now seems interested in stories beyond setting up characters and knocking them into the mud. Fellow Jerseyite Kevin Smith is expanding his horizons beyond Jay and Silent Bob, too. It may be time for Solondz to move on, unless he feels there’s even more sickness and dysfunction to sweep out of the closets of the suburbs. Who knows, there might be.

¹ Which, by the way, is shown in full in the unrated version on the DVD, but covered up with an ostentatious red box to appease the MPAA for the R-rated version — I watched the R-rated version of the scene out of curiosity, and it looks completely ludicrous, as Solondz meant it to. But Solondz has his revenge on DVD — how many people do you think will opt for the R-rated version over the unrated version on the same disc? Sadly, the VHS version is available only as the red-box version.

The Mothman Prophecies

January 25, 2002

Going into The Mothman Prophecies, I was in the mood for a solid, haunting, intelligent supernatural thriller. Coming out, I was still in the mood for one. The movie is based on a supposedly true-life case — a spectral creature dubbed the Mothman, who has bothered a lot of people, many in West Virginia, where this story unfolds. I’m reminded of Bill Hicks’ observation that aliens and other uncanny events seem to visit only rural areas; Hicks concluded that aliens were probably intergalactic hillbillies, looking for a place to “kick back and whittle some.”

Or, in the case of the Mothman, to spook people with predictions of impending disaster. For his other trick, he appears to people and messes with their perception of time. This explains why Richard Gere, as Washington Post reporter John Klein, makes a car trip from D.C. to West Virginia in just under two hours when it should take six, though it doesn’t explain why the movie ends in just under two hours when it feels like six. Klein’s wife (Debra Messing) fell prey to the Mothman in an apparent encounter with him/it two years prior; this is happy news for Gere, who gets to indulge the fantasy that he can express emotion onscreen. Klein’s car breaks down, and he finds himself on the doorstep of a gun-toting Will Patton, who freaks out because he thinks Klein has visited his home on the previous two nights. Is it the Mothman, or just a case of an overworked West Virginian falling asleep in front of a Richard Gere marathon on Cinemax?

Sanity prevails in the person of Laura Linney, who plays a cop and gets to wear one of those Marge Gunderson winter hats with the badge on the front. Linney is sufficient reason to sit through anything, including this, and her concerned tenderness towards the rattled Klein reads as a superior actor’s carrying Gere in their scenes together. Klein gets baffling late-night calls from the Mothman, who talks in one of those heavily sub-woofed spooky-guy voices (why don’t supernatural forces ever sound like Fran Drescher?) and predicts things like plane crashes and earthquakes; he leaves it to the audience to predict everything else in the movie.

Which we do. I’m more than a little mystified by the “Directed by Mark Pellington” credit on The Mothman Prophecies, since he gave us perhaps 1999′s most underrated thriller, Arlington Road. This director, it may so happen, is only as good as the script he’s shooting; on his previous outing he had a twisty, shapely little number by Ehren Kruger, but here he’s stuck with a staggeringly uneventful plot by Richard Hatem (adapting a book by John A. Keel). Eventually, the movie irreversibly becomes the default second X-Files feature film, with Gere as the fervent believer Mulder and Linney as the skeptical Scully. Klein slouches around, talking to various people who have seen the Mothman; he stops short of the next logical step, conducting an extensive and fruitless search for someone who hasn’t seen the Mothman.

The last reel or so is an embarrassment — or entertainment at long last, depending on how you look at it. Klein receives word that his dead wife will call him at noon the next day, so of course when he’s waiting by the phone at 11:55, who should call but Laura Linney with an invitation to drop by for Christmas Eve. Klein gets all stressed out because he might miss his noon call — hasn’t the man heard of Call Waiting? There follows an elaborate destruction number on a bridge, staged by Pellington (like everything else herein) in skittish fragments. What should be a tragic event, slowed down so that we feel the full horror of it, is shot and edited to make the most of the fake-looking collapsing bridge parts. The Mothman Prophecies is the most overdirected movie I’ve seen in a while; Pellington does everything stylish and clever — which is to say, pretentious — he never did in Arlington Road, perhaps because there he had a story he trusted. Let’s hope the next one doesn’t require him to work so hard, and so unsuccessfully, to rescue it.

Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter

January 15, 2002

This is the kind of movie for which beer and pizza were made. Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter boasts an exploitation premise of such purity — and follows through on it with such a sharp sense of fun — that it’s a ready-made cult movie. Lee Gordon Demarbre’s film is not trash, but it genuflects to trash — great trash, I should clarify; the breed of chintzy throwaway pulp many of us have spent too many hours watching on video. It will offend those who are offended by the very title; it will probably thrill those who take one look at the title and immediately want to see the film.

Vampires are daywalkers now, it seems; for reasons I’ll allow Ian Driscoll’s script to reveal for itself, the vamps are singling out lesbians for bloodsucking. (Why not beefy heterosexual men? Well, then you wouldn’t get the Sapphic blood-draining scenes, not to mention a couple of agreeably gratuitous lesbian kissing scenes.) Led by the powerful Johnny Golgotha (Driscoll himself) and Maxine Schreck (Murielle Varhelyi), the vampires are rapidly depleting the lesbian population of Ottawa. Enter Jesus Christ (Phil Caracas), the only man who can thwart the hordes of the undead — with the love of Christ, of course, but also with the fists and feet of Christ.

With the help of red-latex-clad Mary Magnum (Maria Moulton) and legendary Mexican wrestler El Santo (Jeff Moffat), Jesus readies his stakes and girds himself for battle. And there’s a lot of battle. Every ten minutes or so (sometimes even less), we can expect an elaborate kung-fu showdown: Jesus against voracious female vamps, Jesus against a seemingly never-ending parade of atheists, Jesus against a bunch of vampires hanging out in a bar. I was slightly disappointed that Jesus doesn’t retain the classic Jesus look throughout; early on, he gets a makeover — a haircut, shave, ear piercings, sleek new clothes — partly to blend in better, but also, I think, because a guy with long hair getting in his face and flowing garments impeding his movements isn’t going to last long in hand-to-hand.

There are even a couple of musical numbers, which are in the same what-the-hell spirit as everything else in the movie. JCVH is essentially good-hearted — Demarbre is laughing with his film, not laughing at it in the manner of a cold-blooded hipster inviting you to ridicule junk. A hairy-chested transvestite is brought in for some comedy, but s/he is also the only one who picks a bleeding Jesus up off the street and nurses him back to health. At one point, Johnny Golgotha sneers that lesbians are “deviants”; Jesus counters, in their defense, that any love is good. Phil Caracas plays Jesus seriously, but also as a regular guy with frailties (Jesus gets his ass kicked more often than you’d think). The movie’s portrait of Jesus is, in its own retro-exploitation way, reverent. He even heals the mortal wound of a violently deranged human he’s just dispatched.

The movie carries no MPAA rating, but I’d judge it a hard PG-13. The gore is obviously fake, the guts are of the farcical mad-lab school, there’s no nudity (some will be saddened), and the only real profanity appears as a gag on a T-shirt. The typical line on JCVH is that it’s a cheerful throwback to a particular type of ’70s drive-in fare; between the out-of-sync dubbing and the scratchy 8mm look, the homage is perfect. Demarbre was right to avoid shooting this on digital video, where it would’ve looked too much like a lot of direct-to-video crap. It feels wrong, somehow, for this to be on a nice DVD with extras; it needs to be on a grainy videotape with the Vestron Video company animation in front of it. I’d like to persist in the fantasy that this is really a recently unearthed 1977 movie.

Still, we’re seeing a growing number of filmmakers paying tribute to the cinematic Big Macs they wolfed down as kids. There’s Tarantino, of course, whose every film seems designed to stand alongside the bad-ass ’70s stuff he loves, and Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob may as well have been Cheech and Chong for a new generation. Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter falls into the same lovably (and lovingly) disreputable category. It has nothing in particular on its agenda except to have fun and share it. That it hails from Canada, which we Americans have been conditioned to view as the home of pensive art-house directors like Cronenberg and Egoyan, just adds to the fun. Would Atom Egoyan ever make a movie about a vampire-ass-whupping messiah? No, but Lee Gordon Demarbre would. 5

Misty Mundae: Mummy Raider

January 8, 2002

A trash-movie conflation of two hits (The Mummy and Tomb Raider), as is Seduction Cinema’s wont (though they usually only rip off one big hit at a time, making this venture unusually ambitious for them). I’d been meaning to sample the cheerfully schlocky wares of Seduction Cinema — throwback as it is to the palmy days of ’70s exploitation, when actresses thought nothing of stripping in the service of inane action/horror “plots” — and this seemed like a good start; I had hoped that, if nothing else, it might be more entertaining than Tomb Raider. Besides, look at Misty Mundae; she looks too adorable waving those guns around.

One may, if one is so inclined, discover more about Ms. Mundae via her website; her career thus far has been long on video fromage like this one (and at least one hardcore offering)¹. What she has to sell is a certain wide-eyed sweetness and a general laid-back demeanor, as if she’s not taking her job all that seriously. She also has an offhand, if lackadaisical, way with dialogue; she kind of shrugs and smiles her way through her role. Still, if you find her comely, there are worse things to watch.

Such as what calls itself a story here. Kristen (Darian Caine) has been kidnapped by neo-Nazi Dr. Humboldt (Esmerelda DeLarocca) because she knows how to revive a mummy in Dr. Humboldt’s possession. With this mummy, the Fourth Reich will become invincible (hard to see how, since the mummy turns to dust with one well-aimed bullet). So it’s Misty Mundae, mummy raider, to the rescue! Misty shoots lots of henchmen (including the director, a jack-of-all-trades who also shot and edited the video and designed the mummy make-up) and saves Kristen and her professor dad (screenwriter Bruce Hallenbeck).

That takes up a whole ninety minutes? Um, no. Because the movie only runs 46 minutes. And here’s the funny part: there’s exactly 24 minutes’ worth of story here. Literally. Because 24 minutes in, Misty and Kristen settle in for some Sapphic recreation. After a while, the forgiven Dr. Humboldt joins in (never taking off her camouflage hat). This goes on for the remainder of the 46-minute video. (Less about five minutes for the credits and a senseless recap of the film’s “highlights” to pad things out.) In this case, brevity is the soul of shit.

Oh, so it’s that kind of video. Yep. Pretty much what you’d expect from the studio that brought you The Erotic Witch Project, Erotic Survivor, Playmate of the Apes, and Gladiator Eroticus. This is one of their few products that aren’t immediately recognizable as what it is — lesbian softcore — and therefore runs the risk of being purchased by clueless moms for their kids. I find that possibility amusing (and a little scary — it only took one pissed-off Texas mom to get the Swamp Thing DVD not only pulled from Blockbuster shelves but pulled from the frickin’ market).

As a movie, it’s pretty shabby. The actresses read their lines. It’s all shot in what looks to be a warehouse. I got a chuckle out of the difference between the shots wherein Misty is actually firing live blanks (she blinks) and when she’s just aiming the gun with its muzzle offscreen and jiggling it to suggest discharge so that a gunshot sound can be looped in later (she doesn’t blink). I guess the crew needed to save money for blanks wherever they could. The music, by Audio Assembley (sic), adds the ridiculous sighing ambience of, well, lesbian softcore. Which, I repeat, is what this is; the 24 minutes before the real action are merely justification.

As softcore, it’s…eh. Never cared much for girl-girl action, since it’s so obviously staged for the benefit of lesbo-obsessed guys and very rarely shows any semblance of genuine lust or even affection. I skip-searched through most of it. The first 24 minutes are pretty skip-worthy, too, especially if you’re a lesbo-obsessed guy, in which case you’ll likely want to jump to the halfway mark to catch what you bought/rented the disc for.

¹She was pretty good in a “straight” role, acting under her given name Erin Brown, in Lucky McKee’s Sick Girl (2006).

Comic Book Villains

January 1, 2002

In Comic Book Villains, war breaks out between two rival comic-book-store owners over acquisition of a priceless, pristine comics collection. It’s an intriguing premise, and I’d say the first half of this is the best Kevin Smith comedy Kevin Smith never made. Writer-director James Dale Robinson, who later wrote the putrescent film adaptation of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, clearly knows both the trivia and the milieu: He’s been in those comics shops and heard (or possibly even joined in) the elaborately pointless debates over, say, who was more fuckable — Golden-Age Black Canary or Valkyrie from Airboy.

CBV has the kind of comedy cast you don’t see too often, either. Donal Logue, as the pipe-smoking comics purist Raymond, is cut from the same cloth as Jack Black’s vehemently music-snobbish Barry in High Fidelity (Raymond and Barry would either bond immediately or despise each other on sight). DJ Qualls, of Road Trip and The New Guy, is the film’s closest thing to a moral compass, a kid who likes comics but (unlike most of the people around him) knows there’s more to life than comics. Michael Rapaport and Natasha Lyonne, as a married couple who own the more businesslike comics shop in competition with Raymond’s (they sell Magic cards and action figures, a fact hilariously spewed at them by Raymond), are properly Rapaportian and Lyonnesque. Then there’s Cary Elwes (whose American accent, as always when he plays Yanks, comes and goes) as a macho jerk — and, we come to learn, altogether shady character — complete with a stripper girlfriend (Monet Mazur). All these people hover around a collection of mint-condition comics formerly owned by a recently deceased elder geek, now controlled by his mom (Eileen Brennan — good to see her again), who refuses to sell them.

The movie has a clearly delineated conflict, and colorful characters acting it out in a milieu we haven’t seen much outside of the last few seasons of Buffy (the Nerds of Doom) and the margins of Kevin Smith movies. (Really, I’m surprised not to see Kev’s name hooked up to this film in some executive-producer capacity. As it is, three of the actors — Logue, Qualls, and Elwes — are credited as co-producers.) Soon, however, it turns into a full-fledged Black Comedy, with arson, knifing, attempted vehicular homicide, and assorted handgun murders. It’s as if someone had turned off the laugh faucet: Once the ante is upped to violence, about halfway through, the movie becomes entirely unfunny and tiresome. And it’s because most of the characters, while mostly delusional and greedy, are also likable (due to the actors), and we don’t want to watch them go down this path — this isn’t like Very Bad Things, where the people are shitbags from fade-in. Also, the mix of violence and comedy is exceedingly hard to pull off unless (A) you’re Tarantino or (B) the violence is there from the get-go, as in Grosse Pointe Blank. Robinson doesn’t pull it off.

Will comics fans like CBV? I seriously doubt it, despite the surface details and trivia, because the movie is essentially anti-fan (and also anti-opportunist, as personified by the Rapaport and Lyonne characters, who have no great love for comics but run a shop because there’s money in it). The more a viewer identifies with the witty but sad, broke, and ultimately pathetic Raymond, the less he or she will love the movie, because it comes down in favor of the DJ Qualls character’s take on comics: they’re fun to read, sometimes valid as an art form, but a life of nothing but comics (this extends to all other forms of fandom, by the way, be it Star Trek or fantasy fiction) is hollow. After a fashion, the movie does have a sound message — but to sell it effectively, it needed to be either funnier or more serious.


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