Saturday, March 03, 2007

The I's Have It: IDIOCRACY and INFAMOUS

Luke Wilson (right) finds that you can't grow crops with Gatorade in IDIOCRACY, the latest comedy from Mike Judge.

IDIOCRACY
2006, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

I was eager to see this sci-fi comedy from Mike Judge (KING OF THE HILL, OFFICE SPACE) because I imagined myself in complete sympathy with its premise, so close to the bone that Fox withdrew it from theatrical release almost immediately. It depicts a dystopian future where everyone has become so stupid that the hottest movie around is called "ASS," a feature-length close-up of a bare and occasionally farting behind, which swept the Oscars, including the one for Best Screenplay. (This gag is symptomatic of what's right and wrong with the picture: one's reflex reaction is "Hey, don't give Eddie Murphy any ideas!"; on the other hand, ASS is not unlike some actual important films by Andy Warhol, so the humor doesn't linger or stand up to scrutiny if you're bright enough to know Warhol's work.) While IDIOCRACY pokes fun at symptoms already frightening apparent in our world today, it's not sharp or sharp-toothed enough to make for stinging satire, and its premise -- that intelligent people stopped reproducing while stupid "trailer trash" not only continued to reproduce but engage in unprotected sex willy-nilly with every hillbilly neighbor in sight -- makes stupidity seem a hereditary inevitability rather than an end result of today's willful dumbing-down of our culture.

Luke Wilson is likeable as the hero, an average G.I. Joe whose name actually is Joe, who is recruited along with an equally average prostitute (Maya Rudolph) to spend a year asleep in a Rip Van Winkle experiment, only to awaken through some ill-explained mishap in the year 2505. (I don't get the joke of why the only average woman the Army could find is a prostitute, unless she's intended as an illustration of the "stupid" impulse to fornicate with everyone in sight, balanced with the "smarts" to at least want to turn a profit on it.) In 2505, everyone's a blathering headbanging moron, entranced by explosions and slapstick comedy (the #1 TV show is called OW! MY BALLS!, which is pretty self-explanatory), named after the products bombarding them in advertising from every direction -- so, naturally, it takes Joe awhile to figure out that he's no longer in his own time. The premise is all the movie has going for it, and everything that happens after Joe wises up to his predicament stacks a lot of deadweight onto the trembling framework, failing to sustain interest despite running less than 80 minutes, minus the end credits. All in all, a failed opportunity to tell some bitter truths hilariously. Bring on the remake!

Toby Jones (as Truman Capote) and Sigourney Weaver (as Babe Paley) in INFAMOUS.

INFAMOUS
2006, Warner Home Video

Before seeing this Truman Capote biopic, based on a book by George Plimpton, I was under the mistaken impression that it covered the period in Capote's life after the publication of IN COLD BLOOD. Such an approach would likely have resulted in a better movie, at least a more useful one, than this ambivalent mess, which covers the same events as CAPOTE -- his research of the 1959 Clutter family slayings in Holcomb, Kansas -- but from a more pixieish angle. Written and directed by Douglas McGrath, the first act can't decide whether it wants to be a swishy fishy-out-of-water comedy or a solemn drama; likewise, the rest of the movie feels uncertain in its depiction of Capote himself, who is rendered as a shallow, yet deeply troubled and self-delusional caricature of a tortured artist, surrounded by wealthy shallow friends, incapable of keeping secrets or telling the truth, who may or may not fall in love with a murderer on Death Row -- we can never tell.

Future Bond Daniel Craig has some convincing, intense moments as Clutter killer Perry Smith, especially as he's being led to the gallows, and it's a pleasure to see Sandra Bullock portraying a real character (Nelle Harper Lee) for a change, rather than some heroine of a vehicle. I can't tell whether her portrayal is more authentic than Catherine Keener's but I liked Bullock better -- she seems more at home onscreen as a supporting actress, and she's the only other character in sight who's not at least half cartoon. Rather like the two-dimensional richfolk played by Peter Bogdanovich (a poor Bennett Cerf), Sigourney Weaver and Isabella Rossellini, Toby Jones is a slippery facsimile of Truman Capote. He gets the character, but never quite succeeds in fully becoming the person, as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in CAPOTE, but one doesn't know whether to fualt the opportunities offered, the performance, or the direction. Worst of all, while the two Capote films agree on the topic of his essential insincerity, they are frequently at odds factually, leaving the viewer at loose ends about which version to believe. Of the two films, both of which pinge dramatically on Capote's homosexuality, this one feels the more authentically gay to me, yet -- offensively -- it also seems the more shallow and untrustworthy.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Don't Be a Paste-Pot Pete!

Once again I've seen an instance of someone on another film discussion board copying the entire text of one of my postings (yesterday's) and reprinting it elsewhere, in complete disregard of my copyright notice. What is wrong with people? Do I have to make the copyright larger than the text?

Let me explain once again, for those in doubt, what should be obvious. I write for a living. I take the work I publish online as seriously as anything I write for publication. It's my property and clearly labelled as such. What I give to you -- as my audience -- is my time, not my property. These are the terms according to which I give this blog my time. Surely this is fair enough.

If you should read some information here that inspires you to spread the word, links to this page or links to individual postings are gratefully encouraged. You also have the right to paraphrase me: "Tim Lucas said such-and-such on his blog today..." But anyone who chooses instead to cut-and-paste my work should be aware that, in doing so, they are effectively stealing from me, stealing from this blog, and stealing from everyone who enjoys Video WatchBlog, because such unhappy discoveries compel me to reconsider its value to me as a pastime.

If you happen to frequent a discussion board where one or more of my past blogs has been substantially reproduced (say, more than the opening paragraph), you can be sure that my work is "on tour" without my knowledge or approval. Please do me the favor of reporting such Terms of Service abuse to the board's moderator and suggest that my stolen property be removed from their showroom windows; it doesn't reflect well on them. Feel free to link to this entry or my contact address, should they require any input from me prior to taking action. Anyone who protects and defends this blog to this extent will be helping to remind me that the great majority of my readers are actually responsible, fair-minded folk who value what I bring to this blog and want to see it continue.

Thanks,
Tim / VWb

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dark Sky's KILL BABY KILL - Cancelled?

Valerio Valeri as Melissa Graps, posing with her menagerie of dolls, in Mario Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL!

Starting late last night, I've been the recipient of several e-mails asking me this question. Here's a representative letter that arrived in my e-box late last night:

I was wondering if you knew anything about a change in status for the release of the Dark Sky DVD of 'Kill Baby Kill'? The preorder listing for it has been removed from Amazon. DVDPlanet's page now lists it as "no longer available" with a release date of 12/31/2009. Also, it is not appearing under "future releases" on the Dark Sky Films website. Has this release been cancelled?
-- Eric

Eric's letter offers several compelling reasons for how the rumor got started. I wrote back to him, explaining that I hadn't heard anything about a cancellation, but this didn't necessarily mean anything to the contrary; given the evidence he presented, I could well understand his suspicion and felt some concern myself. My involvement with the release is over and I wouldn't necessarily be informed by Dark Sky Films (at least earlier than anyone else) if something happened to bar the disc's release to the marketplace. And if something should prevent its release, I would consider that grievous news, not only for the sake of my audio commentary, but for the sake of David Gregory's return-to-Karmingen featurette with Lamberto Bava, which is so wonderful.

I wrote to Dark Sky Films in search of an answer and they responded with a brief explanation of events this morning. I've been asked not to repeat what I was told, so that's as much as I can share with you now... not much, I'm afraid. However, as of this moment in time, I have heard nothing about a cancellation.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Good Magazine Picks the Best

Graydon Carter has written an article for GOOD Magazine listing his choices for "The 51 Best Magazines Ever." Being a publisher and editor, I was engaged by his topic and my eyes promptly swept down his list like low-flying aircraft looking for, shall we say, recognizable coordinates. Alas, when I exhausted its possibilities with that glory of the printed page known as TIGER BEAT, I decided I was slumming, resumed normal cruising altitude, and flew away.

I am neither offended or surprised that Mr. Carter didn't include VIDEO WATCHDOG among his selections for the "Best" magazines (explained in a subtitle as analogous to "Smartest, Prettiest, Coolest, Funniest, Most Influential, Most Necessary, Most Important, Most Essential, etc"). In fact, I take pride in sharing his neglect with a large number of infinitely smarter, cooler, and more influential magazines -- including the very ones that inspired me to produce a magazine in the first place.

Not a single film-related magazine made the GOOD list: no FILM COMMENT, no SIGHT AND SOUND, no CAHIERS DU CINEMA or POSITIF, and certainly no CINEFANTASTIQUE, MIDI MINUIT FANTASTIQUE, CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN or FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. Evidently these have not influenced lives or our world to the extent of VANITY FAIR (which Mr. Carter edits), HIGHLIGHTS, PEOPLE, or WET.

There is no mention of THE STRAND MAGAZINE (which gave us Sherlock Holmes), ST. NICHOLAS or THE HORN BOOK. Speaking of "cool," there is no CRAWDADDY (which introduced serious rock journalism), no CREEM, no HEAVY METAL (which changed the look of science fiction cinema), nor Michael Moorcock's NEW WORLDS, the zero-ground for new wave science fiction in the 1960s. There's no reference to any of the great pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s. THE EVERGREEN REVIEW is outshone on the list by THE PARIS REVIEW, while MOJO and MUSICIAN are eclipsed by ROLLING STONE and THE FACE. This, despite the fact that Mr. Clark freely allows that neither of his choices for top music magazine has been relevant since before the introduction of the CD. Somehow I suspect that Mr. Clark's interest in music hasn't been exactly vital since the demise of vinyl.

I am tempted to describe this list as an overview of the 51 Best Known Magazines ever, peppered with just enough alternative chic items to look halfway real, and just enough dentist-office-waiting-room titles to appeal to people who don't have the time to haunt newsstands. 21 of these "best" magazines are footnoted to explain that their ranking only applies to specific short-lived periods associated with certain publishers, editors or figureheads; in other words, nearly half the list consists of what the author himself essentially classifies as failed, or at least paled, publications. Durability and continued relevance are evidently no yardstick of quality. (Curiously, while he allows that MAD and INTERVIEW haven't been the same since the demises of William Gaines and Andy Warhol, there is no such footnote for PLAYBOY, which clearly hasn't been the same since Hugh Hefner stepped down as Editor.) The irony is that Mr. Clark's preamble assures us that "magazines -- at least certain magazines -- aren't going away any time soon."

Actually, this is true enough because, if this article tells us anything, it's that -- regardless of waning quality or pertinence -- if your magazine was hot for a little while back in the 1970s, it should last on newsstands at least last as long as the generation that got its cultural bearings from it in their 20s. Especially if it's bought out, or simply sells out. And, if your magazine appeals to a well-monied generation, its chances for a long and profitable if irrelevant life are even better.

A pull-quote in this article offers what I consider an outstanding insight: "Newspapers tell you about the world; magazines tell you about their world." Alas, too many of Mr. Clark's choices read like newspapers, and some have decidedly yellowed. There's a vast difference between magazines marked by a specific personality or viewpoint, which one can visit periodically like an erudite or worldly or sarcastic friend, and magazines that truly map the worlds within our world, affecting our perceptions of the world, life, and art.

You know where I stand.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Marty Rules

Last night, Martin Scorsese claimed his long-deserved Oscar for Best Director. He received it for THE DEPARTED, which also won Best Picture, Best Screenplay (William Monahan), and Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has a long history of either failing to recognize true excellence or to honor the best of its practitioners in any kind of contemporary fashion, but THE DEPARTED is one of Scorsese's finest pictures -- ambitious in scope and detail, fiercely well-acted, and remarkably dense in its cynicism. Its two-and-a-half hours present us with a world in which there is no clearly delineated good and evil, just a hopelessly compromised bureaucratic world in which good things can sometimes happen, if only at the whim of corrupt people. Described by Scorsese as his first movie with a plot, THE DEPARTED has a particularly impressive structure -- and, as remarkable as the film itself may be, speaking as a writer, I have the feeling that William Monahan's screenplay was perhaps the more quantum achievement; it's an amazing piece of writing.

Seeing Scorsese finally win the Oscar -- and to have it presented to him by Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, a veritable three-headed lion of contemporary American cinema -- was one of many moments of requital that made last night's Academy Awards broadcast perhaps the most personally meaningful I'd seen. He didn't direct it, but Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker were largely responsible for the quality of WOODSTOCK, which remains one of the finest documentaries ever and a turning point in cinema history. When I saw MEAN STREETS for the first time, at the Skywalk Cinemas in Cincinnati in 1973, I had the feeling that I was hearing my own generation speak to me through a motion picture narrative for the first time. TAXI DRIVER, of course, is a masterpiece of apocalyptic power. RAGING BULL and GOODFELLAS -- inarguably, two of the greatest American films of their century. I'm not saying anything here that hasn't been said many times before, nor am I even scratching the surface of all he's given us, but these are the principal reasons why it was so invigorating to see his greatness properly recognized -- these, plus the fact that his moment was reserved for a time when he clearly wasn't being awarded simply for being himself, when the award was attached to a work that is in no way a minor addition to his filmography.

And then there was this moment. If any living artist was conceivably more deserving of such recognition, it is Ennio Morricone -- not only the greatest living film composer, but arguably the outstanding classical composer of the past century. The Maestro's emotional acceptance of the Oscar, and his dedication of the honor to his wife Maria, were moving to witness, all the moreso after hearing reprised snippets from his scores for THE MISSION (a landmark), BUGSY and THE UNTOUCHABLES, but it was indicative of the Academy's blindness to such matters that only Morricone's Oscar-nominated scores were prominently represented, and that the brief scroll of titles from his filmography offered absolutely no mention of his magnum opus, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. I can't help but reflect in this instance on what I wrote earlier about THE DEPARTED: if it takes the inept, uninformed gesture of people who really have no love of movies to get this award into Morricone's hand, so be it. This doesn't cheapen the artist or his recognition, and we who know better can savor the moment for what it truly signifies. When Morricone spoke of accepting the award in the spirit of the countless other craftsmen who toil throughout their lives, giving generously of themselves to cinema without ever being given similar acknowledgement, I felt that he was referring to the likes of Francesco de Masi, Carlo Rustichelli, Bruno Nicolai, and many others among his gifted colleagues who have begun to leave us.

I was just as happy to see Helen Mirren's magnificent work recognized, but I was also delighted by the approach taken by the show's producers this year, honoring not only the winners but all the nominees. While the trophy itself is obviously something to envy, it's one's fellow nominees who provide the true measure of one's accomplishment in these categories, and I would imagine that the real honor -- to any artist -- would be to be considered, for example, part of the Academy Awards' "Class of 2007" in whatever category.

My only disappointments this year were related to PAN'S LABYRINTH: why no Best Achievement in Visual Effects nomination? I haven't seen THE LIVES OF OTHERS, so I can't say that Guillermo del Toro was robbed in the Best Foreign Film category, particularly as he was the first audience member to hug the victor, but I do feel that his film wasn't quite paid the full measure of respect it was due... undoubtedly because the Academy has an allergy to fantastic cinema.

Despite this, I found the 79th annual Academy Awards to be something it rarely is: heartening. This year, it was actually about movies that I care about.