August 25, 2008

(USA, 1982, Boaz Davidson)

A 1980s teenage sex comedy that plays as a tearjerker? THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN is PORKY’S made by Douglas Sirk as a teenager’s quest to lose his virginity is imagined as a Great American Tragedy. It had long been the Holy Grail of the genre — beaten-up longbox video copies regularly fetched 30 dollars plus on Ebay before the film was finally released on DVD. Attempting to cash in on the ’80s teen sex craze, Israeli movie moguls Golan and Globus brought Boaz Davidson to Hollywood to remake their local smash hit LEMON POPSICLE for American audiences, resetting it from the deserts of 1950s Israel to the deserts of 1980s Los Angeles. The 1979 feature LEMON POPSICLE, which eventually spawned seven sequels, was ripped off by PORKY’s (although it was a rip off of AMERICAN GRAFFITI), so going Hollywood was a justified attempt to cash in (even if the film, unlike PORKY’s was a box office failure). The virtually non-stop soundtrack features numerous New Wave classics including Devo, The Cars, U2, the Police, and its recurring-to-the-point-of-nausea love coda, REO “Speedwagon’s Keep on Lovin’ You.” But unlike any of its ilk this side of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, the film manages to strike a balance between the pains of uncontrollable teenage lust and the pains of unrequited teenage love. Gross-out sex antics featuring dick-measuring contests, offensively caricatured Latina nymphomaniacs and crab-infested, surly hookers are interspersed with a bizarre love triangle in which our hero Gary (Lawrence Monoson) falls for the new girl in school (Diane Franklin — better known as Monique in BETTER OFF DEAD) who in turn falls for his best friend Rick (Steve Antin). Dramatic complications ensue, culminating in the most emotionally devastating finale of any American film of its era (yes, including TERMS OF ENDEARMENT). Teenage agony and awkwardness has rarely been so wonderfully captured on film.

TRIVIA: As heteronormative as the film is (as is the entire genre), it’s interesting to note that Antin, the actor playing the film’s macho ladies man (better known for his role as Troy in THE GOONIES) eventually came out of the closet and is now an executive producer on the Pussycat Dolls reality television show (and a former boyfriend of David Geffen). Whether one can read anything into his performance from that tidbit remains to be seen (also of note that Antin played one of the rapists in THE ACCUSED.


California Dreaming

August 23, 2008

(USA, 1979, John D. Hancock)

If you’ve seen one surf film from the late ’70s, it’s probably BIG WEDNESDAY, John Milius’ pretentious epic that envisioned surfers as modern zen samurai. Although CALIFORNIA DREAMING lacks the new age machismo I found distasteful in that aforementioned film, it also lacks a decent script. Ned Wynn (descendant of the Wynn acting clan whose best known achievement to date is a memoir of growing up in Hollywood and is still a struggling screenwriter and apparently right-wing Republican), wrote the script, and while he may know the territory, having played “Beach Boy” in BEACH BLANKET BINGO, BIKINI BEACH, and HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, he doesn’t know how to write a script. T.T. (nicely played by Dennis Christopher of BREAKING AWAY fame) arrives in California from Chicago to play his recently deceased brother’s jazz music by the California ocean that the departed loved. He is soon taken in by a veteran beachcomber (Seymour Cassel) who shows him the ropes as he adapts to California beach culture. Glynnis O’Connor and a pre-Charlie’s Angels Tanya Roberts play two bikini beach bunnies. What follows is as shallow as the beach culture the film ostensibly criticizes as our newcomer learns valuable life lessons. By the time the film inexplicably shifts into melodrama at the end, I had already lost interest. Cassel’s performance is the best thing in the film. Director Hancock is probably best known for his 1971 minor horror classic, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH.

The Day of the Locust

August 23, 2008

(USA, 1975, John Schlesinger)

The Day of the Locust

John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Nathanael West’s infamous novel went largely unheralded (mixed reviews and a commercial failure) upon its release in 1975 (and was only released on DVD in 2004). While it fails to capture the grotesque satire of the great novel (“a painfully misconceived reduction and simplification” in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s harsh assessment ), it merits a second look. One could argue that Schlesinger, aided by Conrad Hall’s gorgeous cinematography, captures the corruption and decadence of Tinseltown of yesteryear as well as Polanski did a year earlier in CHINATOWN. I wouldn’t go that far, yet Schlesinger succeeds at what he does best: capturing the pathos and humanity of societal outcasts and misfits detached from reality and lost in fantasy worlds, much as he did in his two best films, MIDNIGHT COWBOY and BILLY LIAR. Donald Suthterland’s Homer Simpson may not be as memorable as Ratso Rizzo, but he is similarly tragic; awkward and ridiculous yet ultimately endearing. It’s also one of his greatest performances (or perhaps I should just go out on a limb and call it his best). The film is rounded out by a an exceptional cast that includes Burgess Meredith (who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance), Karen Black, Bo Hopkins, and William Atherton in an early leading role before he was permanently relegated to minor supporting player status in films like DIE HARD. In THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, all of the characters are minor supporting players caught up in their own Hollywood hell — their dreams of fame and glamour squashed by cruel reality. The creeping nausea and claustrophobia slowly mount to a sense of impending doom. The film’s culmination, a riot that takes place at a movie premiere, is a truly astonishing piece of filmmaking. It will leave you shaking.

The Party Animal: The best 1980s teenage sex comedy you’ve never seen

August 22, 2008

I’ll start off with an obscurity. Or at least I thought it was. When I first reviewed this film in 1999, it was largely unknown with a small cult of enthusiasts. In revisiting the review, I notice it was released on DVD in 2005. Back when I stumbled upon a used copy in a dodgy video store in Manhattan that no longer exists, the film had long gone out of print and like THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN was a sought after collector’s item for a coterie of 80’s sex comedy connoisseur. I recall used VHS copies going for 30 bucks or more on Ebay (usually with bold emphasis on the “OOP” in the subject line). I kept mine and it now sits deep in a storage closet with the rest of my video collection.

The Party Animal DVD

(USA, 1984, David Beaird)
The most impossibly incoherent of the early ’80s teenage sex comedies is also the most hilarious. Unabashedly raunchy, it makes ANIMAL HOUSE look like Full House. Too ridiculous to be offensive, the 78 minute film is haphazardly stitched together like an extended music video from the dawn of the MTV era. The improbably named Pondo Sinatra is a hopeless hick starting college. Under the tutelage of his roommate Studly, he embarks on an epic quest to lose his virginity. This time, adolescent wish-fulfillment is dressed up as Faustian morality tale (“I’d sell my soul for a piece of ass”). As for narrative, the film rejects the requisites of plot and character development, making no effort to connect several extended set-piece gags documenting Pondo’s successive failures. There’s the-enormous-vibrator-that-causes-a-blackout gag, the-Pondo-as-a-pimp gag, the Pondo-sneaking-into-the-sorority-dressed-up-as-a-girl-only-to-be-discovered-during-a-strip-poker-game-by-his-protruding-erection gag, the-punk-makeover-gag, the-fart-pills gag, and so on. And then there’s the requisite drug scene in which Pondo smokes a three-foot long joint, inhales a giant zip-lock bag’s worth of coke, swallows two bottles of uppers and downers and takes about three dozen tabs of LSD, all to the beat of 2 Tone band The Untouchables. Oh yeah, it also has one of the best soundtracks of the genre featuring other seminal punk and new wave acts like The Fleshtones and The Buzzcocks. According to the closing credits, the soundtrack also features R.E.M.’S “Radio Free Europe”, which would mark REM’s first soundtrack appearance. That said, I’ve watched the film three times and for the life of me, I couldn’t hear it anywhere. The film’s highlight takes place in a porno shop as a Marlon Brando impersonator illustrates Cold War Nuclear proliferation tactics with dildos. To say that the film might not be to everybody’s taste may be the ultimate understatement.

Revised Clarification: I couldn’t hear R.E.M.’s Radio Free Europe because according to the IMDB, the song was only featured in the U.K. video release of the film (although still apparently made it into the U.S. version’s credits. Perhaps Michael Stipe objected to the film’s content?

Strange piece of trivia: The film’s star, Matthew Causey, apparently went on to become a new media and performance theorist, obtaining a Ph.D. from Stanford University and teaching at Georgia Tech and now Trinity College in Dublin. According to an unsourced reference in Wikipedia, ” is reportedly not overfond of hearing the film mentioned.” I’m not sure why since taking a brief glance at his jargon-riddled Heidegger and Lacan influenced scholarly output, a good postmodernist like Causey should be able to appreciate his minor pop culture celebrity with its implications of the collapse between high and low culture. In fact, if you scroll down on this page of the Trinity College website, you can find a picture of Causey (at least the back of his head) speaking with none other than another of Causey’s major influences, Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is known for his incisive Lacanian analyses of pornography.

Film Reviews

August 21, 2008

I’m going to begin posting some of my old film reviews I wrote between 1999 and 2000 for a long defunct website. I recently stumbled upon them and wanted to bring them back to the public. I’ll post them one at a time in order to revisit or reevaluate the review.

Is boxed wine the new twist-off bottle?

August 19, 2008

When twist-offs began becoming more common for high end wines roughly five years ago, I remember reacting negatively to this development. The twist-off was for the barely palatable, cheapest crap. It would be embarrassing to go to BYOW restaurant with a twist-off only to have the waiter arrive with a corkscrew and realize his services were not needed (although that raises the question of a corkage, er, “twistage” fee). As this article from 2004 argued, twist-off caps for bottles of wine not meant to be aged made perfect sense and avoided issues of cork taint.

While twist-offs are now reputable, boxed wine is still a punch-line; the mere mention of proclaiming one’s appreciation for it meriting an “ironic” vintage t-shirt.

I Heart Boxed Wine

However, boxed wine appears poised to make a similar break through.

Boxed wine

Today, The New York Times published an editorial praising boxed wine as both environmentally and economically advantageous. While the economic argument might not hold much sway among wine aficionados , the “green” argument is compelling:

More than 90 percent of American wine production occurs on the West Coast, but because the majority of consumers live east of the Mississippi, a large part of carbon-dioxide emissions associated with wine comes from simply trucking it from the vineyard to tables on the East Coast. A standard wine bottle holds 750 milliliters of wine and generates about 5.2 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions when it travels from a vineyard in California to a store in New York. A 3-liter box generates about half the emissions per 750 milliliters. Switching to wine in a box for the 97 percent of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about two million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.

Why I Write

August 19, 2008

Starting this blog is ostensibly a means of compelling me to write. To write on a daily basis about anything and everything. I used to write almost every day but in the last years I’ve sunk into a kind of lethargy. Now, almost a year after submitting my dissertation, I’ve had complete writer’s block. If regularly updating this thing can keep me exercising my writing, I’ll be happy. Hopefully, this won’t sink into the graveyard of half-assed blogs, barely started before being slowly abandoned.

George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write” is perhaps the best piece I’ve ever read on the impetus to write. Self-critical to the point of self-flagellation, Orwell sets out four main purposes for writing: sheer egoism (“to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”), aesthetic enthusiasm (“Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed”), historical impulse, and political purpose. The rationale behind writing out of historical impulse (“Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”) feels a little dated in its insistence on finding out “true facts” but the rest of the essay is perceptive, especially in his analysis of the writer’s ego (see below). He argues that he was initially motivated by the first three impulses, but came to realize that only having a clear political intent pushed his work beyond “purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

Does this passage not describe most writers (as well as the writing process)?

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

George Orwell

“Because you were home:” Existential Dread in THE STRANGERS

August 14, 2008

THE STRANGERS is one of the best horror films of recent years. People I know who have seen it disagree with that statement. I see why they don’t like the film. At first glance, THE STRANGERS is a thoroughly perfunctory genre film with little pretension of being anything more than that. Bryan Bertino, the film’s director, was a gaffer who sold the script first (only the fourth he had written) and then lucked into the directorial chair. This info surprised me since the pedestrian script stands in sharp contrast to the film’s controlled direction and assured visual style. The setup provides little in the way of back story or character development. Much like last year’s mediocre snuff horror film VACANCY, we are presented with an unhappy couple on the brink of separation. Boyfriend’s proposal to girlfriend is turned down at a wedding they had just attended. He’s ready for commitment. She needs more time. A typical clichéd scenario, albeit gender reversed from the more common stereotype. As played (competently) by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, the characters are so generic I not only couldn’t remember their names, I didn’t even remember hearing them (apparently, Kristen McCoy and James Hoyt according to the IMDB). They retire to a remote cabin. The door rings. They answer it. Shortly after, they are beset by a trio of masked homicidal maniacs. No motive or explanation.

The Strangers

The film bills itself as being “inspired by true events,” in such a way resembling the Coen brother’s faux claim of FARGO. Of course, every film could make the same claim if it wanted (it would be impossible to conceive of a film not inspired in some way by some real events). The film’s loose inspiration: several people murdered in the woods with no culprit ever found. Bertino attempts to fill in the dots of this generic scenario. As opposed to examining the banality of evil – that most acts of homicide have mundane motives like jealousy and greed like crimes of passion or home invasion robberies gone wrong, Bertino employs the mythic evil of slasher films. Explaining motives for murders in films is unsatisfying as they are usually trite and uninteresting. SCREAM pointedly poked fun of the need to find a motive for the slasher killer. In THE STRANGERS, Bertino takes the theme of motiveless murder to its logical conclusion: the non-motive motive. The film’s money line is caught in the exchange: “Why are you doing this to us?” “Because you were home,” the masked killer responds before butchering the couple. In a way, the killers in THE STRANGERS resemble Anton Chigurh of the Coen Brothers’ Oscar winning, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Since NO COUNTRY is a reputable film, the Coen brothers have been credited for plumbing the depths of existential horror. Chigurh has been interpreted in numerous ways. The masked killers in THE STRANGERS are equally striking. Much like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the film offers no exit from the killers’ apparently motiveless homicidal tendencies. Yet unlike the Coen Brother’s unabashed nihilism, Bertino offers a more humanistic touch. The film’s surprisingly touching ending occurs when realizing their deaths are imminent, girlfriend gently strokes boyfriend’s hand, revealing that she’s wearing the wedding ring that she had only recently turned down. Facing death, the couple finds love. It’s a love born of terror. Now that I now there’s nothing else, and this is all there is, I can accept it.

My top ten films of 2003

August 13, 2008

Rearranging my closet, I found an old agenda (2003/2004) with a list of all the films I saw in 2003. In total, I saw 64 films in the movie theater.

Here was my top ten:

10. The Saddest Music in the World (dir. Guy Maddin) – My favorite Guy Maddin film.
9. Dogville (dir. Lars Von Trier) – In my book, Von Trier redeemed himself for Dancer in the Dark. Mometarily, at least.
8. Spider (dir. David Cronenberg) – A small film by Cronenberg but one of his most interesting with a riveting lead performance by Ralph Fiennes.
7. Ce jour-là (dir. Raoul Ruiz) – A lesser known Ruiz film featuring the prolific auteur at his most Bunuelesque.
6. Les Invasions Barbares (dir. Denys Arcand) – a return to form for Arcand
5. In America (dir. Jim Sheridan) – one of the most surprisingly touching films I saw that year.
4. Good Bye Lenin! (dir. Wolfgang Becker) – Communist chic comedy.
3. Zatoichi (dir. Takeshi Kitano) – Kitano’s best film.
2. 21 Grams (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu) – I’d be curious to revisit it since so many people I know hate it. But they also hate Babel which I loved as well.
1. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (dir. Chan-Wook Park). Still beats out Oldboy as my favorite of his films. It undoubtedly helped that I saw it at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal without any expectations.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Not a bad year in film. My runners-up were American Splendor, Sweet Sixteen, 28 Days Later, Memories of Murder, and Dirty Pretty Things.

Major films that are deliberately missing on my list but are present on most others: Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King, Lost in Translation, FInding Nemo, and Mystic River.

Films that I hadn’t seen yet in 2003 that I later saw that could have also been contenders: All the Real Girls, Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War and Unknown Pleasures.

My Worst 10 (in no particular order)
Matrix Revolutions – Enough said.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 – I still hate it more than Vol. 2 although that one could be a case of diminished expectations.
Casa de los Babys – Sayles at his most politically shallow.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Turning against Tarantino and Rodriguez in a single year)
Foolproof – I don’t even remember seeing this film but it was Canada’s attempt to make a Hollywood style heist film starring Ryan Reynolds when he was best known for Van Wilder and inexplicably executive produced by Atom Egoyan.
Spun – Was supposed to do for crystal meth what Trainspotting did for Heroin. Egads.
The Hebrew Hammer – Painfully unfunny attempt at a “Jewsploitation” film.
XX/XY – Earnest indie films at their worst;only dumped into theaters after Mark Ruffalo made it with You Can Count on Me.

Leonardo Favio

August 13, 2008

In Argentina in the late 1960s, Leonardo Favio was a major artistic figure. A rare hyphenate success – the filmmaker-singer. Today, he is seen to be one of the most important Argentine film directors of the 1960s. He was already an established filmmaker when he turned to songwriting.

Here is a video from his most famous song, FUISTE MIA UN VERANO (“You Were Mine for a Summer” from his 1968 album of the same name. The sound is not the modern folk of that period; Favio is a 1950s romantic balladeer, albeit influenced by local zamba and milonga.

The song is about seeing an ex-lover passing by while drinking in a bar. The protagonist attempts to strike up a conversation but she refuses – “perhaps another time.” Our protagonist knows she doesn’t mean this and that they will never speak again. Her rejection provokes memories of their brief summer romance.

But here’s my favorite song by Favio.

Like many Argentine artists of that era, he was exiled during the dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. He returned to the country in 1987.