Archive for May, 2013

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I’m sure that if you’ve been following my —ahem! — “byline” both here on my own site and over at Through The Shattered Lens in recent days, it’s become painfully obvious that I’ve been on some sort of massive “Generation X” nostalgia trip lately, but rest assured, I think I’m pretty well cured of it and am more than ready to get back to yammering on about the kind of flicks we normally talk about around here.

How can I be so sure of this, you may wonder? Well, last night I watched 1994’s Reality Bites on our local cable on-demand menu (oh, and in case you were wondering why I didn’t provide any DVD/Blu-Ray specs for either of the Before films, or why I won’t be doing so for this one, either — now you know), and if there’s one thing — and I stress it’s only one thing — this movie’s good for, it’s for readily disabusing ex-slackers of any romanticized notions of our past.

Not that nostalgia is, in and of itself, all that bad a thing —- at least in limited doses. After all, reminiscing about one’s wasted youth makes for a nice change of pace from contemplating the state of one’s wasted adulthood. But honestly — if either myself, or any of my friends, were even half as self-absorbed, shallow, preposterous, and downright annoying as anybody in this flick is, it’s amazing that no one older and wiser decided to shoot any of us dead when we were 22, because we certainly would have deserved it.

Notice I used the carefully-chosen words “anybody in this movie,” rather than calling any of them proper characters, because they aren’t — the roles written by screenwriter Helen Childress are merely disjointed stereotypical collections of bog-standard “Gen X” tropes that are about as interesting and “authentic” as a Goo-Goo Dolls or Matchbox 20 album. Consider :

Winona Ryder plays Lelaina Pierce, a recent college grad trying to get her TV pilot project off the ground, who’s torn between two “romantic” interests — guitar-strumming “soul of a poet” dreamer Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke ), and not-as-cheesy-as-he-seems-at-first cable network producer Michael Grates (Ben Stiller , who also directed this mess — and of all this film’s sins, launching this almost pathologically unfunny, untalented cretin on the road to Hollywood superstardom is perhaps its greatest). She’s joined in going nowhere fast by her kinda-sluttier-than-you’d-at-first-expect best friend/roommate Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), who’s only here to sweat the results of an AIDS test, and amateur cameraman pal Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), who’s here to check the box marked “gay character included,” and together they try to navigate their way through the early-90s social landscape of noted slacker capital Houston, Texas. Renee Zellweger turns up in an early and largely pointless part, and the genuine talents of the likes of John Mahoney, Swoosie Kurtz, and the great Joe Don Baker are completely wasted in dull-as-unbuttered-toast “parents (and other older people) just don’t understand” roles.

If it all sounds vaguely insulting and aggressively uninspired, that’s because it is. I mean, my friends and I were capable of devising some pretty insipid ways to waste time when we were that age, but having rooftop sing-a-longs of “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?” and playing Good Times-themed drinking games didn’t even cross our dying-for-something-to-keep-us-preoccupied minds.

Still, I think it’s fair to say that the most perplexing thing about Reality Bites is how completely out of touch with its own subject matter it seems. Stiller was still in his late 20s or early 30s at the time, and Childress was an “X’er” herself, yet the whole thing plays out like a movie that was made by 50(at least!)-year-olds who were trying to cobble together a story based on what they’d heard the younger (at the time, mind you) generation was like. The only thing missing is a “who would you rather fuck, Ginger or Mary Ann?” conversation.

Anyway — sure, I’m still looking forward to Before Midnight. Who in their right mind isn’t? But I think I’ve had my fill of memory lane for awhile. Frankly, even imagining that I may once have been anywhere near as unbearable as any of these spoiled troglodytes is just too depressing a prospect to spend very much time considering.

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When I got back to the US after spending 18 or so months abroad in 2005, Before Sunset had already come and gone from theaters the previous year, and to be honest, my first reaction to it was to be a bit perplexed by the whole idea. “Never saw that one coming,” I thought to myself — but I knew I had to see it. Yeah, as I said last time, I couldn’t really picture any other ending for Jesse and Celine apart from one where they absolutely had to have met up again six months later and lived, as the saying goes, “happily ever after,” but here we were, nine years down the road, with the real (well, okay, not “real” — it is a movie, after all — but you know what I mean) story of what came next. Fortunately for me, my very good (to this day) friend with whom I had seen Before Sunrise had missed this one in the cinemas, as well, so just a few days after getting settled back into my house, with almost no furniture in place, and my TV and DVD player only having been hooked up a matter of hours earlier, we kicked back and did a little marathon viewing session of both films back-to-back.

The first thing I was taken aback by was how much of an emaciated meth-head Ethan Hawke looked like this time around, and Julie Delpy looked to be bordering on “unhealthy thin” status as well, but no matter — for the next hour-and-a-half or so we were back in their lives, and they were back in ours, and even if everything wasn’t gonna be perfect, it was all gonna be good enough.

Which isn’t too bad a summation of Before Sunset as a whole, with one added caveat — “good enough” can be pretty damn beautiful in its own way. Jesse’s an author know, touring Europe to promote his new book, an obviously-autobiographical account of two strangers who meet on a train, spend an evening in Vienna, and fall deeply, passionately, and completely in love. Then never meet again. Or maybe they do. The novel’s ending is deliberately ambiguous.

Sound familiar? Anyway, on the last night of his tour he happens to be giving a reading/signing in Paris, and Celine shows up. They have just enough time, it seems, to grab a cup of coffee before he’s on a plane back home, and the motif of “stolen time” that they should never have had in the first place that runs through the first film is definitely pressed even further this time around, as events unfold very nearly in real time and every minute our two long-separated lovers spend together is one that pushes the envelope of their “real lives” even further out of shape.

I have to be honest — on first viewing this ultra-compressed time frame gave things a very rushed feel that I wasn’t terribly “in to,” but  I’ve subsequently grown to appreciate its utility as a story-telling device more and more. Jesse’s got a wife and son back home, but it’s a sham marriage where they’re both just going through the motions, while Celine, who now does some sort of unspecified work for an environmental organization,  has a boyfriend who works as a photojournalist and is basically gone all the time. She couldn’t make it back to Vienna to meet him all those years ago because her grandmother had just died, while Jesse showed up and couldn’t find her, even going so far as to post missing persons flyers around town in hopes of tracking her down. And that “missed meeting” has informed and shaped the course of their lives every bit as much as the time they actually did meet.

Once again,  Richard Linklater’s superbly subtle eye ensures than the camera is in exactly the right place for maximum dramatic impact with every shot, but giving the proceedings an even more naturalistic flow here is the fact that there’s no Linklater/Karen Krizan script to be read — rather Hawke and Delpy were allowed to “get in character” and create their own dialogue for these people they knew so well. It works like a charm, and the whole thing feels like nothing so much as an expertly-filmed conversation between two old lovers that unfolds as they hurriedly stroll through the streets of Paris. Every second counts. Every word counts. Ever movement and expression counts. Everything counts. Even if it’s delivered with the more practiced nonchalance that most of us acquire as settle into what life is rather than dream about what it could be.

With both characters now in the early 30s, those possibilities of which I speak have narrowed considerably compared to last time around, but I think that’s the whole unfolding theme of this entire series — learning to find a place for dreams, and for love, in a world that whittles away the chances at achieving both as the years go on. A search for beauty and truth and meaning by projecting our hopes and ideals into visions of a world that we wished existed inexorably giving way to a life where we can still, hopefully, search for — and maybe even find — beauty and truth and meaning in a world that already exists.  It’s painfully obvious that both Jesse and Celine have never really “moved on” from their one magical night together, and that they’ve both dreamed of an existence where they were able to meet again ever since. Jesse’s stumbled into a responsible “family man” life simply because he saw it as all that was on offer anymore, and Celine’s carefully walled herself off from real emotional connection with others simply because it all hurts too much when they inevitably leave. Both are hopelessly infatuated with a memory, yet torn apart by it at the same time,  and are  now presented with a very rare opportunity in life — the chance to rekindle that memory, actively, in the present day, and maybe — just maybe — build on it. They both share the unbreakable bond of one moment in time that’s authored every moment since. And now, finally meeting again after all these years, wouldn’t ya know it — they’re in a hurry.

Imperfect circumstances for two people leading imperfect lives that have largely been a series of imperfect reactions to one perfect evening. Celine’s completely neurotic, Jesse’s completely resigned to his fate, and yet — the spark is still there. Their time together here is often painful, argumentative, and decidedly uncomfortable, but it all feels so almost unbearably authentic that you can’t help but become just as swept up in it as you were by that night in Vienna.

All of which leads to an ending you can’t help but love, despite the enormous complications you know it will present to both of these characters’ lives. Linklater is obviously trading in reversals with Before Sunset from the outset — showing us still-frame shots of where our couple will go at the beginning rather than showing us where they’ve been  at the end, and swapping out talk of what they want their lives to be with a litany of regrets over what their lives have become, but whereas their first meeting was a luminous evening capped off with a separation, their second is a rocky, tenuous, long-delayed and frankly even a bit faded afterglow that Jesse purposely blows off his flight home to stay in. This is no longer an idealized memory, or a painful reminder of what might have been — this is here. This is now. This is real life with all its flaws and foibles and tragedies and responsibilities. And these two are in in together.

As with all things as we get older, moments of revelation and life-altering decisions become more subtle and unpronounced in their execution, but their impact is every bit as real. When Celine tells Jesse “you’re going to miss that flight,” and he replies “I know,” it’s not tinged with the momentous import of every new character revelation we enjoyed in their first outing, but it sure does resonate at least as much as any of them, if not moreso. These people are grown-ups now. Their actions matter. And our reactions to them are consequently more complex and nuanced. “Dude, you’re fucking your life up big-time here” is answered by “but you’ll be fucking it up even more if you leave.” I was, and still am, elated by his choice, despite its implications, and am eagerly awaiting the next chapter in this story with a burning interest I haven’t felt for any other film in years. Before Sunrise left me in love with an idealized vision; a dream. Before Sunset left me in love with the real world and all the possibilities that still exist within it.

I take a look back at Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s classic romance series for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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Folks who only “know” me from my online and (occasional — in fact, too occasional for my tastes, but that’s another matter for another time) print writing are probably going to be surprised by what I’m about to admit : the summer movie I’m most looking forward to here in 2013 isn’t Man Of Steel or Star Trek Into Darkness or Iron Man 3 or The Lone Ranger or any of that. Nope, friends, the one I absolutely can’t wait for — hell, pathetic as it sounds, the one I feel, at this point, that I’m flat-out living for is Before Midnight, the third collaboration between Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke that marks their next — and hopefully not last — look into the lives of my personal favorite couple in cinematic history, Jesse and Celine.

How much do I love these flicks? So much that…

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My assault on the summer blockbusters continues over at Through The Shattered Lens —

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I’m not sure one can entirely, or even adequately, separate how one feels about Marvel’s latest bloated billion-dollar blockbuster, Iron Man 3, from how one feels about their last one, The Avengers — excuse me, Marvel’s The Avengers — since Joss Whedon’s flick has been positioned, story-wise, as a thematic and consequential lead-in to director Shane Black’s first crack at the cinematic exploits of Tony Stark and his super-suit. After all, it’s Stark himself who solemnly informs us that “nothing’s been the same since New York,” and the events he “endured” there are supposedly the catalyst for a new, darker, more somber and “mature” phase of his life that’s now begun.

Right off the bat, then, you’ll have to forgive me if I just don’t “buy in” to that whole scenario. I know, I know — I’m one of only about ten people on the entire planet who…

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My annual assault on the summer blockbusters begins over at Through The Shattered Lens!

Through the Shattered Lens

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There are those who have argued online — and in print, as well, I’d imagine — that once you cross the invisible threshold from merely “liking” a recurring or serialized entertainment property/artistic venture (I’ll leave you, dear reader, to decide which of those categories the Star Trek franchise falls into) into becoming a full-fledged “fan” of it that you’re basically fucked, because while “liking” something means you appreciate it for what it does, being a “fan” of it means you like it for what it’s already done, and are quite happy to just have the folks behind it serve you up more of the same. Hell, you might even get pretty upset if they don’t!

I’m not sure I’m willing to go so far as to agree with that sentiment in its entirety — many fans of various works of genre entertainment actually appreciate being offered something new…

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It pleases me to report that my home state of Minnesota recently became the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage, and gay and lesbian couples will be free to say “I do” beginning on August 1st of this year. There were many celebratory shin-digs, large and small, thrown to commemorate this historic moment, and there will be even more if whack-job congresswoman Michele Bachmann follows through on her promise to move to a more socially retrograde region of the country, and it’s certainly no stretch to imagine  that there have been plenty of movies playing, at least in the background, at many of these joyous get-togethers. But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that director Larry G. Brown’s 1972 Crown International gay-biker flick The Pink Angels wasn’t among the viewing choices on offer at any of them. Call it a hunch, if you will.

Not that the film itself is especially offensive, mind you, even though most (though not all) of the characters are stereotypical “swishy” ’70s queens rather than the leather-clad “bear”types you’d probably expect to be a bit more representative of the reality of the homosexual motorcycle-enthusiast community. It would likely be quite a reach to describe this flick as being in any way a respectful treatment of its lurid-at-the-time subject matter, sure, but at least our titular Angels are depicted as being, by and large, decent, fun-loving guys who just want to be left alone to pursue their livesi n their own way, and the bad guys are the authority figures and gay-bashing, overly-macho hetero  Harley-heads who are out to rain on our (for lack of a better term) heroes’ parade.

Still — it’d giving it far too much credit to describe this film as a monumental leap forward for gay rights and/or tolerance in general, either. So what exactly are  we talking about here, then? Well, weird as it may sound to say this about a movie centered around gay folks made in the early years of the so-called “Me Decade,” The Pink Angels seems to have no political or social agenda whatsoever! But that’s just part and parcel of a larger issue, really — that being that it seems to have no clue what sort of flick it wants to be on any level, and Brown and company were quite obviously just winging things from the get-go and willing to settle for, well, whatever they ended up coming up with.

All of which means, of course, that’s this is an absolutely fantastic watch from start to finish — even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Or maybe because it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

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The “plot,” to the extent that such a thing can even be said to even exist here, revolves around our erstwhile flamboyant protagonists making their way out to Los Angeles (from where it’s never stated) in order to attend a drag ball, and along the way they have a fancy roadside picnic, raise hell at a hot dog stand, get hassled by the cops, get hassled again by some of their straight freewheelin’ counterparts (led by B-movie stalwart Michael Pataki and future Grizzly Adams star Dan Haggerty) run afoul (from a distance) of a bumbling military General, pick up hitch-hikers, try on dresses, and generally engage in pointless tomfoolery just because — hey, they can. Throw in some bargain-basement wannabe-surrealism, a lame-ass pseudo-funky/pseudo-folkish soundtrack, uniformly bright and sunny cinematography, and the general “making this shit up as we go along” ethos of Easy Rider, and you’ve got a recipe for one thoroughly entertaining, always-engaging cinematic disaster.

Of the six principal players, John Alderman stands out as scruffy, rough-and-tumble leader Michael, Tom Basham takes a memorable turn as the ultra-effeminate David, Bruce Kimball does nicely as hulk-with-an-overly-sensitive- side Arnold, and Henry Olek is all kinds of stupid fun as the supposedly British, wanna-be-Oscar -Wilde-in-leather Edward, but it’s all such overtly campy and OTT stuff that you can’t fairly single out anyone as doing a “better” job than anyone else, I suppose.

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And then there’s  that ending. Now, according to someone on IMDB who claims, at least, to be this film’s executive producer — one Gary Radzat — what they were really going for here was some kind of “cinema verite” thing, but director Brown was batshit insane, couldn’t keep things in order, and neglected to film a final reel altogether! So they had to get everybody back together and shoot some kind of conclusion (under whose direction the supposed Radzat never says), since CIP had picked it up, sight unseen, for distribution, and what they came up with was shockingly downbeat, even tragic, absolute “bummer” that, sure, at least ostensibly brings together the various strands of the impromptu “story” that had been left dangling and didn’t seem to be destined to meet up in any way, shape, or form, but that completely turns the light-hearted atmosphere established in the first 70-or-so mutes on its ear for no apparent reason other than a kind of ruthless-outta-nowhere expediency.

In other words, it’s fucking perfect.

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Let’s be honest — anyone who wants to watch a flick that fits anything like a standard definition of “competent,” or that even has anything vaguely recognizable as a point,  will have checked out of this one at about the 15-minute mark. Those of us still left standing by the time they need to put a wrap on things are pretty much willing to take anything the filmmakers serve up and just go with it. Sure, it’s a shocker to have such a crash-and-burn (not literally, mind you, but it may as well be) finale tacked onto an essentially harmless — and formless — romp, but hey, nothing  else about the proceedings makes any sense up to this point, either, so why start now ?

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So — what are you waiting for? Grab Mill Creek’s 3-disc, 12-movie Savage Cinema DVD bargain pack  (where it’s presented with a nicely-remastered widescreen picture, pretty damn good mono sound, and no extras) and give The Pink Angels a go right now. It’s quite literally unlike anything else ever made — which doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s actually any good, but is still pretty much the highest compliment I can think of to bestow upon anything.

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Honestly, with the absolutely harrowing news that’s come out of Cleveland over the last few days, you’d think — perhaps even hope — that I’d have the good sense and just plain human decency to not go anywhere near legendary exploitation producer David F. Friedman’s 1971 softcore sex-slave sleazefest The Big Snatch right now, but since I’ve never really been noted for my sense of timing —

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I suppose the fact that no one involved in the actual making of this film wanted their real names to be associated with it probably tells you everything you need to know right off the bat (check the credits for hilarious pseudonyms such as “Jim Nasium”and “Mary Goround”), doesn’t it? Shot for a paltry $11,000 in Southern California by co-directors Byron Mabe and Dan Martin (who mas moonlighting from his gig as an L.A. county sheriff’s deputy and billed himself as “Ronnie Runningboard” in case his bosses ever got wind of this thing), The Big Snatch centers around the hare-brained scheme of two truck-driving yokels (ringleader Bart, played by a guy calling himself “Harry Chest,” and dim-witted sidekick Momo, played by a guy calling himself — well, “Momo”) to kidnap five beautiful young co-eds and turn them into their own personal low-rent harem. The  gals spend a pretty good chunk of the flick stuck inside a drained-out swimming pool,then they all get raped in turn (“rape” in this case being portrayed as a series of largely listless softcore dalliances featuring plenty of full-on nudity and simulated pseudo-penetration), a bit later one of the ladies tries to escape and has her panties yanked down before being tied down, spread-eagled,  to a revving car engine that’s had its radiator cap removed (the infamous “steamed clam” scene you may have heard about), and then the industrious gals actually do manage to  effect an escape en masse, whereupon they immediately strangle Momo to death before twisting and crushing  Bart’s cock with a pliers and then tossing him down onto a dirty old mattress and “gang raping” him for about the final 30 minutes of the film, although I have no idea how his “junior member” was even supposed to be functioning by that point.

Anyway, that’s what happens when you refer to women as “pigs” and order them to call you “master,” I guess.

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It it all sounds pretty rancid and sleazy, well — it is. But it is fun to see future sexploitation semi-starlets such as Peggy Church, Jane Tsentas, and especially incomparable Russ Meyer stalwart Uschi Digard in early roles, and the truly atrocious “acting” is a hoot to sit back and absorb. Beyond that, there’s nothing much on offer here — the camerawork is all pretty straightforwardly haphazard (if that makes any sense), the revenge factor is decidedly dialed down since the rapes were portrayed as being an enjoyable experience for them women, and the whole thing’s quite obviously just a flimsy excuse to get some uniformly very good looking ladies to debase themselves for what had to have been an undoubtedly paltry paycheck. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — we all know that people will do anything for money, but it’s what they’ll do for no money that’s truly amazing.

Even for a “roughie,” this is a pretty mean-spirited affair, and even for a cheapie, its production values are astonishingly low, but I gotta (shamefully, I assure you) admit — as a curious memento of a largely-forgotten cinematic age, The Big Snatch makes for some strangely compelling — if crushingly, achingly dull — viewing at times. Which is hardly the same thing as me actually recommending this film, as I hope you’ll agree. If you’re foolish enough to attempt to take this flick seriously, you’ve gotta put aside not only your sense of what’s good and bad, but also what’s right and wrong. But who says you’ve gotta take something seriously in order to fully absorb what it’s all about? I’m not going to go so far as to say any of you good people will actually enjoy what’s on offer here, and chances are you’ll find yourself as flat-out bored during the “sex” scenes as I was, but there’s a certain amount of bravado on display here by our anonymous-at-all-costs filmmakers for even thinking that they could get away with making something like this in the first place that’s, while certainly far from admirable, at least interesting to witness.

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And if witness it you must, you’ll be glad (I guess) to know that The Big Snatch is available on both VHS and DVD-R from, you guessed it, Something Weird Video. It’s presented full-fame with mono sound, neither of which are very good (which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, quite appropriate), and the only “extras” to speak of are a smattering of trailers for other SWV titles. All in all,  bare-bones release for a bare-bones movie with a very bare-bones “idea” behind it. But shit, since the bare breasts are all anyone cares about here, I guess it all works out. Just please don’t go getting any ideas from this thing , I beg you.