Monday, July 21, 2008

Don't Call 911, It's The Bad Lieutenant

As much of a film geek as I am, I have to admit to never having seen an Abel Ferrara movie until last week when I finally saw Bad Lieutenant (1992). From a story perspective it’s pretty much what I expected. Harvey Keitel plays a really bad NYC cop. He’s doing drugs, he’s gambling, he’s doing some more drugs and then he’s gambling some more. It’s an ugly downward spiral. Throw in the rape of a nun and you’ve got a couple hours of pure grit.

I can see why this film was so captivating at the time of its release. In some respects it’s a real throwback in style and feel to the great cop films of the 70s, a genre and style that had fallen out of favor by the mid-80s. By then, the grain and the grime of 70s NYC had given way to a landscape of pastels and lush, Blue Velvety-esque colorscapes. Bad Lieutenant signals a return to a beloved era in American filmmaking. But more than just a return to the 70s, Bad Lieutenant ups the grime factor significantly by presenting a lead character on a jag of depravity far more severe than seen in the anti-heroes of the 70s. In Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino is desperate but we feel his pain and he’s loveable in a way that’s easy to love a fuck up. In The French Connection, Gene Hackman oversteps his bounds, but he has a moral compass motivating his actions. Keitel’s character in Bad Lieutenant is an anti-hero, but with little-to-no hero in him. It’s like taking a 70s movie and wringing it completely dry of its morality. Keitel is simply not likeable. He’s an out and out heel. And the movie is downright unapologetic about this.

Was it good? Tough to say? When a film is so hyped and it takes you 20 years to see it, it’s hard to live up to expectations. Interestingly, while I was watching the film, there was a minor hoodlum scuffle taking place outside my window which necessitated a call to 911. I didn’t turn the volume down on the movie while talking to the cops, and I must say it was making me nervous. The cop is asking me questions while Keitel is shaking down street thugs in a fairly hostile way. I was afraid the cop was going to ask me what the hell was going on in my house. And for some reason, I figure cops don’t like this movie none too much.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hair Today, Hated Tomorrow: VH1’s revisionist look at Hair Metal

Let me start off by saying that when it comes to hair metal, I’m no expert. When hair metal was taking over the air and video waves, I was knee deep in grunge, flying the flannel, and more concerned about hair farming. But that said, I think I know when someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes when it comes to rock and roll revisionism.

Recently, I was flying to the East Coast on Jet Blue and decided to partake in the on-flight tv entertainment. VH1 was airing their 40 Greatest Metal Songs show and I was down for the count. All told, a fairly entertaining list, with Sabbath topping the charts and respectful placement for Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. But something very suspect was going on. Whenever a hair metal band entered the list (Motley Crue, Guns & Roses, Twisted Sister), host Sebastian Bach (of Skid Row) or one of the show’s metal experts were quick to say something along the lines of, “No matter what anyone says, these guys were not a hair metal band!” Twisted Sister, not hair metal? Skid Row, not hair metal? Motley Crue, not hair metal? Huh??? In fact, according to the countdown Guns ‘n’ Roses are the band that put the nail in the coffin of hair metal. That’s not how I remember it. I thought they were the ultimate hair metal band.

What’s at play here is that in 2008 the universal perception is that hair metal is lame. Clearly, VH1 wants to distance themselves from the specter of being uncool. Kind of hypocritical given that the MTV networks rode that particular metal horse into the ground in the late 80s and early 90s. Why can’t they embrace their inner hair metalness? Why can’t they turnaround and say, “Yeah the fashions were lame, the hair volume was needlessly excessive, but some of the music was good.” Back then, I pretty much dismissed all these bands, but in retrospect some of it is not that bad. I always like watching someone karaoke to Guns and Roses and now that I’m a big fan of Rock of Love, I got to admit some of those Poison songs are kind of catchy in a pop-metal kind of way. If I can admit I like some of that stuff, why can’t they admit that it was in fact Hair Metal and not Heavy Metal?

Interestingly, in a recent issue of Spin, long time critic, Chuck Eddy ran a piece on the great songs of Hair Metal. GnR were on that list. At least someone out there is speaking the truth. Never thought that I’d champion Spin as keepers of the truth.

For a long time now I have bemoaned VH1’s ever-increasing role in defining rock history. Given their cultural reach, their Nielsen dominance and their penchant for list making, I fear that these “Greatest Hits” shows are going to define rock history for a lot of this generation. And so Thriller is always going to be the most important record/song in the history of music. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Guns and Roses, Nirvana are some of the major artists that helped shape the MTV networks and it should come as no surprise that these artists dominate the charts when the network trots out its greatest hits shows. Unfortunately for many, VHI is defining rock history with these shows and the aforementioned artists will become recognized as the most significant artists in history, not necessarily based on merit, but based on their importance in the music video sphere. Not to take anything away from those folks, but the Velvet Underground, The Kinks, The Stooges, Parliament/Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, The Ramones, Husker Du, are not likely to crack these lists. And that’s a shame.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Fire! Fire! Fire!

Nothing quite satisfies like the crackle and hum of a Tesla Coil. This past weekend I got to witness the awesome power and frenzy of a 1,000,000 volt Tesla Coil in action. So large, it was hung upside down from a crane. To further sweeten the deal, the operators unleashed a man dressed in a metal suit to conduct the thing. Purely electrifying. Later in the evening, he was joined by a woman in a metal suit. As you can imagine, she had a metal breast plate, with nipples serving as contact points for the Coil’s electric arc. Entertainment at its finest. This was all part of The Crucible’s Fire Arts Festival. The Crucible is an Oakland non-profit where people learn to weld, blow glass and do stuff with fire. Yearly they hold their Fire Arts Festival, a total extravaganza featuring performers, artwork and contraptions that spit, breathe and spew fire. All told there were over 20 installations on display plus a stage full of performers. Other great pieces included the Pyrobeat, a keyboard controlled, flame spewing pipe organ, PSWARM, a collection of homemade vehicles, buggies and bikes conjuring up the spirit of Mad Max that, given the installation setting, couldn’t go anywhere, so they satisfied themselves by rocketing 30 foot fire balls from their contraptions into the air in a chaotically choreographed and eyebrow-singeing spectacular. Other high points included the more soothing Pyrocardium, a 40-flame sculpture where people plug into the sculpture to see their heartbeat rendered in flame, and the straight up unsane Fire Vortex, a massive fire tornado. If you needed a break from flame, you could experience steam and hang out by the Kinetic Steamworks' 1920s steam engine or, if you paid an extra $50, climb into their Steampunk Tree House, a massive metal tree house spewing steam.

I suppose this is the kind of stuff that goes on at Burning Man, but I’ve never been. Regardless, this was awesome. I mean, when you get right down to it, who isn’t transfixed by balls of fire and flame? And let me also suggest, that it’s fun for the whole family. I took my seven year old son and he was mesmerized, but to be fair, he loves watching building implosions, bridge collapses and firework factory explosions on YouTube.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Flight by Sherman Alexie

Wow, what a great book! This is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. Flight is heavy and heady, yet thoroughly entertaining and funny. Alexie is a great storyteller. His writing is simple, direct and easy to read, yet he tackles deep issues. Flight focuses on a Native American teen named Zits. He’s ravaged by acne, hopping from foster home to foster home, in and out of trouble with the law and constantly at war with his inner demons. He moves down a path of increasing violence and while contemplating pulling the trigger of a gun in a bank robbery, he has an out-of-body experience and starts time traveling and body shifting. As the book progresses, Zits inhabits the body of an Indian Tracker in the 1870s, an FBI agent rousting militant Indians in Idaho in the 1970s, a mute Indian boy fighting Custer’s men at Little Big Horn, a drunk homeless Indian in the present day and more. He is thrust onto both sides of the Indian/American divide. Ultimately the book is an eye-opening look at cycles of violence and revenge and questions how they can be broken. As an abused and neglected kid, Zits faces this issue in his own life, but as he begins to inhabit the bodies of others, he is forced to grapple with this issue from a larger, historical perspective.

Interestingly, having just read books by Chuck Palahniuk and Jonathan Lethem, reading Alexie was a breath of fresh air. As mentioned in my recent reviews of Palahniuk and Lethem, I feel many modern writers get so enamored by their style and with their research, that their stories suffer. They are so busy being clever, that they ultimately dilute the power of their characters and their stories. Not so with Alexie. The story simply flows out of Zits. As a narrator he’s self-deprecating, funny, and observant. You’re rooting for him from the get go, even when he’s a total screw up. You get sucked into the story and there’s no post-modern nonsense to take you out of the moment. Alexie’s writing definitely conjures up the strong voices of literature—of folks like James Baldwin, J.D. Salinger and John Fante. Storytellers. And damn good ones.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reform School Girls: Show Us Your Panties

Not exactly sure what I expected from Reform School Girls, but for some reason I was not ready for this all-out, 80s-style, t & a spectacular. I think I was expecting The Legend of Billie Jean or Ladies & Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains. Reform School Girls, however, is kind of like Porky's but with no guys. I don’t know why, but I thought that Wendy O. Williams’ presence would mean that at least some level of class would be on display. But I guess I was wrong. What’s on display is a lot of ladies underwear of the thong variety. In this reform school, the prison outfits are nothing more than hospital scrub blouses cut just below the cooter line. The budget for Day-Glo panties seems to have been the films’ biggest expense. Well, that and hairspray. This reform school populace seem to be escapees from a Motley Crue video—hair hoppers for the hair metal generation. I won’t bother you with the plot description, cause honestly, what’s the point, but as for a late night find on cable, you couldn’t do much better.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Vegas--The New LA Chic vs. The Mall Rat and The Honky Tonk


I recently returned from a trip to Vegas where my new film Out of Print was screening at the CineVegas Film Fest. In 10 short years, CineVegas has established itself as one of the top American Festivals. Its quick rise to prominence is in part be due to its fine programming and in part due to the fact that it’s in Vegas, and who doesn’t want to go to Vegas? I believe a Gentleman’s Club was one of the fest’s sponsors. The fest takes place at the Palms Hotel, with festival guests split between the Palms and the neighboring Gold Coast. Whenever I’ve been to Vegas I’ve always stayed on the Strip and spent quality time downtown, thus taking in all that Vegas has to offer—the Rat Pack vibe of the Strip’s finer casinos, the honky tonk vibe of downtown, and the ever-increasing theme park vibe of the newer casinos on the Strip. The Palms and the Coast are in neither of these locales and they offer up an altogether different vibe. The Palms is a weird hybrid—part L.A. chic, part mall rat. For the most part entering the Palms is like walking onto the set of Entourage. The Palms is home to the kind of clubs where you have to wait in line an hour to enter and mortgage the house so you can be dressed appropriately. Since many of the fest parties were at these clubs, festival attendees could get to the head of the line and gain entrance looking like slobs. Definitely glad I got a glimpse, but never felt like I needed to stay all that long at any of these places. Though, had I stayed at the pool party long enough, I’m told I could have rubbed elbows with Britney. The odd thing about the Palms though was that while it is fancified to the max, it simultaneously has a mall rat vibe. It has a music venue, host to Stone Temple Pilots and Panic At The Disco while we were there, a food court and a multiplex movie theater. In other words, teenagers are all over the place. Truly bizarre. Across the street at the Gold Coast, the vibe was altogether different. The place just smells like 1972. Stale cigar and cigarette smoke seem to be pumped through the air vents. The gambling vibe is grim. No glitz. No honky tonk. Just a lot of dour, chain smoking Philipino men sporting poker faces to end all poker faces. I could never tell if these guys were having the time of their life or if they just lost the ranch. It reminded me of gambling at a horrid spot in South San Francisco called Artichoke Joes. My traveling companion, Ray Wilcox, and I lit out for downtown one night, which was such a refreshing change. We spent our gambling dollar at The Golden Gater. Our kind of place --rotgut vodka tonics, pink-tassled ladies dancing on pedestals in the blackjack pit, excitable dudes from Truckee plonking down bet after bet. Now that’s Vegas.

As for the fest, I got to give big props. It was a great time. Most hospitable, totally organized, great projection, and good fun. They know how to treat a filmmaker and throw good parties. As for the films, here’s what I recommend.

The Rocker. This is a major motion picture coming out soon. Like all rock and roll movies I was totally skeptical going in. It stars Rainn Wilson as a washed up rocker who gets one more chance to rock by joining his nephew’s high school indie rock band. It has all the markings of a real horror show. Wilson is channeling Jack Black from School of Rock in a painful way. Particularly bizarre given how recent that film is and the fact that Black is still alive. Wilson’s new band sounds just like the Smashing Pumpkins or some 90s indie retrograde rock band and I think we hear the same song over and over and over again. And finally, the opening scene of the film is a total rip off of my 1996 movie I’m Not Fascinating. For real! But all of that said, I was laughing throughout. I won’t stake my reputation on this film, but I thought it was pretty damn funny. The writing holds up.

Your Name Here. Bill Pullman stars as a paranoid sci-fi author who is losing touch with reality. The film is clearly an amalgamation of stories and lore behind beloved sci fi author Phillip K. Dick. I’ll give major points to the film for doing a great job of creating a time-slipping world of paranoia that is true to Dick’s writing. Now, I grant you, I was pretty tired but a lot of scenes seemed to overstay their welcome and are too talky. I think Ray fell asleep and was snoring during parts of this. The film definitely seems to crawl at times, but like I said, I may have been getting too comfortable in my seat, so I’d like to get someone else’s opinion. Definitely worth checking out for PK Dick fans.

The End. This is the doc that my film played with and I highly recommend it. It’s a doc about East End gangsters in London. These are the guys that the characters in films like Sexy Beast and Snatch are modeled after. The film was made by two sisters whose father is one of these gangsters. Dad and his buddies are the stars and these guys are able to open up because of how well they know and trust the filmmakers. Totally riveting and kind of chilling.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson


I had the opportunity to check out Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson at the San Francisco International Film Fest last month. The film opens in select cities this coming weekend and if you have the chance, I definitely recommend checking it out. Gonzo is a really inspiring film that manages to capture Thompson’s importance in reshaping the world of journalism. Given his iconic countercultural status and his copious drug intake, it’s easy to forget that Thompson made his mark as a journalist and that he was hanging out with hard hitting politicos like George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan and the like. The film draws heavily from interviews with the aforementioned and in so doing paints a picture of him that focuses on his intellect and his quest for a new type of journalism. The archival footage of Thompson from the 60s and early 70s is riveting and bears out his quest to change journalistic standards. He is sharp, focused and engaging, not the drug-addled, gun-toting lunatic he became or is often portrayed as. The film spends a good deal of time on the ’72 Presidential campaign, which I found particularly fascinating and enlightening. The film does have some minor problems. Some of the new footage shot for dramatic and poetic effect is cheesy. The use of music is horrifying. All the 60s clich├ęs are in play. I can’t remember if we heard For What It’s Worth, Street Fighting Man or All Along the Watch Tower during the 1968 Democratic Convention beat downs, but whatever it was, you could hear it coming from a mile away. But minor transgressions for an inspiring film about an inspiring subject.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk


No question that Chuck Palahniuk knows how to set-up a story. His latest novel, Snuff, is conceptually and structurally rock solid. Fading porn star Cassie Wright is on the comeback trail, trying to set the world record for greatest number of sex acts recorded on film. It’s a 600 person gangbang. But Palahniuk’s novel takes doesn’t take place under the bright lights of the set, but rather in the waiting room of the shoot. We spend the entire novel there with numbers 72, 137, 600 and Sheila, the talent wrangler. No book or movie about the porn industry is ever all that sexy or fun and Snuff is no different. The waiting room is stinky, sticky and as it turns out full of insecurity. No. 72 believes he is Cassie Wright’s child who was given up for adoption and he’s on a quest to save her. No. 137 is a has-been tv actor with a sordid, homo-erotic past who, over the course of the book, is popping an alarming amount of Viagra. No. 600 is a fading porn star in his own right. Meticulously shaved and slathered in bronzer, he has his own set of neurosis to contend with. For her part, Sheila is repulsed by all 600 men waiting their turn. She is steeped in feminist theory and is oddly suited for her job as the assistant to a porn star. It’s quite clear that things are not going to work out so well for all the participants involved. For the most part the book delivers an entertaining mix of humor and degradation, a nice combo to be certain. But, as with other Palahniuk books I’ve read (Choke, Diary), I feel that Palahniuk does not always gracefully weave his research into the fabric of his story. Instead, he often wears his research on his sleeve. Sections of the book are nothing more than a listing of factoids. No. 72 gives a dissertation in list form on prison and gang tattoos. Cassie Wright rattles off lists of celebrity beauty tips and grizzly movie star deaths. Sheila rattles off dozens of euphemisms for masturbation. In these instances I’m no longer hearing the characters talking, I’m hearing Palahniuk showing off how much he knows and how much he’s researched. All great tidbits, but not satisfactorily delivered within the context of the story. I always like Palahniuk, but I never love Palahniuk, but I’m always willing to give him another shot. I’m told Fight Club is the one to read and that’ll be the one I tackle next.