Friday, February 27, 2009

Hold Me In Your Sleazy Arms: An Ode To UHF

No question that in the past 5 years or so we’ve entered a new golden age of television. The number of great programs (Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Battlestar, Curb, Peep Show, and yes, even Lost) attests to that. But classic local programming has gone away. I was reminded of that in full the other night when I happened upon a rerun of KOFY’s Dance Party. KOFY was located at channel 20 on the UHF dial in San Francisco and was owned by local millionaire James Gabbert. Channel 20 featured plenty of syndicated reruns, a staple of UHF programming, but also featured some classic, bizarre local programming as well. My favorite was Sunday All Night Movies From The Sleazy Arms. Gabbert created a dive bar on the channel 20 stage, invited local bands to play, had a resident bartender, got a beer company to sponsor the show, and then invited the public to come down to the set and party. During this melee, Gabbert served as host and presented the Sunday night movie (usually a second rate 70s drama featuring Ben Gazzara). The show alternated between the movie and hanging out with the denizens of the Sleazy Arms. It was television programming at it’s finest. It took upwards of 3 hours to get through any movie, with the bar patrons getting more and more wasted as the evening progressed. Here’s a description from the set that I pulled from the I Love This World Blog.

"Before I was allowed into the studios, I had to sign a waver saying that if I got into a drunken car wreck on my way home that it wasn't KOFY's fault. The rest of the evening was a blur. For about an hour, they handed out free beer after free beer. I drank them happily while watching a local asian mummenshanz/comedy group perform. To give you an idea: most of their "skits" involved a skinny guy wearing a giant barrel. I endured this by staring off-camera at the KOFY Kids Club set that was right next to the bar set. I also almost vomited on the fat old tramp in the spandex catsuit that Gabbert had on there every week (Dirty Carol or something?)".

KOFY became the Bay Area’s WB affiliate in 1995 and Gabbert sold KOFY in 1998 and the good times were over. The WB pulled out in 2006 and KOFY is starting to get funky again, re-running some classic KOFY program including Dance Party, a weekly dance show that ran from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. The episode I caught the other night was amazing. It was from 1992 and the people were just delightfully bizarre. They were normal people on tv. They were fat and skinny. Some were balding, some had feathered hair. Some were good looking, some were downright fugly. And clearly they had been told to “dress up.” Not sure what the dress up instructions were, but it looked like there was a run on the Salvation Army. And we’re not talking “Salvation Army-chic.” This was off the rack. Almost like a Salvation Army shopping spree where you had 5 minutes to enter the store, pick your clothes and dress yourself for your tv appearance. While watching the show it was impossible to guess if the show was from 1992 or 1982. It was just off-kilter.

At the end of the day, I guess I’m happy with all the good shows tv has to offer these days, but local personality has all but been eradicated from the tv spectrum. Maybe we should all rent UHF this weekend or watch some SCTV.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hit It & Quit It: More Movies: Gran Torino, Fanboys, Academy Thoughts

Gran Torino
Outside of the conceptually cool, but kind of boring Flags of Our Fathers, I don’t think I’ve seen a Clint Eastwood directed-movie of the last 20 years. They’ve never appealed to me. I’ve always shied away from what I expected to be self-important films filled with Hollywood bombast. Not really sure why, but with the release of Gran Torino, I was feeling that I needed to check one of these out, particularly one with Eastwood in the starring role. The fact that the film was shot in Detroit, my hometown, sealed the deal. And I’ve got to say I loved Gran Torino. It had me buzzing and blabbing about it to anyone who would listen.

Now to be fair, there’s an excellent chance I loved it for all the wrong reasons. The acting is pretty shoddy, there’s not a degree of subtlety, the script strikes me like a Sam Fuller-penned B Movie, and Eastwood seems to be channeling his inner-Sleestack. While most of the cast seems to be acting like they’re in a well-intentioned, but poorly acted Indiewood film circa 1998, Eastwood seems like he’s on the set of Showgirls, The Terminator, or Dirty Harry.

Eastwood plays the surliest of cranky old men. He hates everyone. He hates his kids, his grandkids, his pastor, and he hates the church. To the chagrin of his kids, he refuses to leave his home in the inner city and take flight to the suburbs. Problem is that his inner city neighborhood is crime ridden, and full of blacks and Hmongs, both of whom he hates. As the film progresses, Eastwood forges an unlikely and unexpected alliance with his Hmong next door neighbors, who are trying to keep their sensitive son out of the Hmong gang scene. Eastwood, meanwhile, has become a neighborhood folk hero. He’s trigger-happy and single-handedly cleaning up the neighborhood crime scene.

The film lacks any subtlety. Throughout the film, Eastwood’s eyes are shooting daggers at all those he’s contemptuous of. But it’s not enough for him to glare menacingly. He also groans audibly. It’s a bizarre sound mix choice. It’s as subtle as Lurch in the Addams’ Family groaning while he rolls his eyes. In fact, it’s the exact same deal.

Every scene, every conversation and every action hammers home one of the film’s themes. The grandkids play video games in Church. Eastwood glares. Eastwood groans. Eastwood’s son sells Japanese cars. Eastwood glares. Eastwood groans. A white kid walks around in baggy jeans and a backwards baseball cap. Eastwood glares. Eastwood groans.

When Eastwood isn’t chewing up the scenery, the film has an indie sensibility. Perhaps this is aided by The Hmong neighbors who are dodgy actors. But the film does take an indie-like look at the American Dream. It questions the suburban values of those who have achieved the dream and questions whether those on the wrong side of the economic divide can ever achieve that dream. And this gentle probing into the nature of America butts right up against Eastwood’s acting in the most deliciously, bizarre way.

Throughout the movie, Eastwood is delivering Dirty Harry and Terminator-like zingers with a monosyllabic, whispered certitude. To a bunch of thugs, Eastwood challenges, “I'll blow a hole in your face then go inside and sleep like a baby.” Fantastic stuff. Even as he enters the Hmong world, he continually calls them zipperheads, gooks, questions if they’re eating dogs and drops lines like, “Get me another beer, Dragon Lady! This one's running on empty.” It’s like a B movie extravaganza.

Again, I’m not familiar with much of what Eastwood has done in the last 20 years. But it’s like some indie director had the best intentioned debut film ready to go and somehow got Clint Eastwood to act in it, but once Eastwood was on set, he went off the rails, hijacked the movie and in so doing, made it a brilliant, cult classic. I can’t rave enough about this one.

I should start by saying I could take or leave Star Wars. I like all the original ones and never saw any of the new ones. I also had no idea this movie existed until the night before I saw it. In other words, no expectations, no vested interest. And, you know what? I liked it. Fanboys is set in a pre-Phantom Menace universe and follows a group of Ohio twenty somethings on a cross-country road trip to break into Skywalker Ranch and steal a rough cut of The Phantom Menace. It’s not earth shattering, but it was fun. It’s a comedy in the Clerks II, Apatow vein. Charming, sweet, and raunchy all at the same time. The actors seemed like they were having a blast while making it, and that goes a long way sometimes. There are some clich├ęd and underdone moments and the film suffers from “Good Looking Geek Syndrome,” but hey, I had a good time.

Your Acadmey
Each year I never manage to see more than 2 or 3 of the nominated films for the Academy Awards. Even though I saw a ton of big Hollywood movies this year, I still only saw two of the films nominated. Go figure. But I thought I’d weigh in on the best actor debate. If you believe the hype, it’s coming down to Mickey Rourke vs. Sean Penn. And what do you know? I saw both those films. And while both performances were great, I got to come down on the side of Mickey Rourke. Randy 'The Ram' Robinson was a one-of a kind character, played expertly by Rourke. And while Penn did a great job as Harvey Milk, I’ve complained loudly over the last several years about how the best actor and actress awards go to actors doing impersonations. I’m looking at you Ray Charles guy and June Carter Cash lady. No offense to them or to Sean Penn this year, but I’d rather give the nod to an actor who crafts a unique, original, never-before seen character. And that’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson as portrayed by Mickey Rourke.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Heaven Forfend! They're Remaking Slap Shot

It’s funny. I watched Slap Shot over the summer and at the time it occurred to me that if the NHL brass were smart (which they are not), they would commission a remake of Slap Shot. The NHL barely hangs on to its status as a top 4 sport and the only time the league enters the national conversation is when someone nearly gets killed on the ice. Historically, the only time hockey has really entered the cultural zeitgeist was when Team USA took gold in Lake Placid in 1980 and when Slap Shot burst onto movie screens across the country in 1977. Not that I’m advocating for a remake of a classic sport’s film, but lets face it, the only people who still care about Slap Shot are hockey fans or people no younger than 42. The youth of today don’t know from Slap Shot. From a marketing perspective, it would be a good idea to remake the one movie that might bolster interest in the sport. Right?

Well, now someone is doing it. Will this be a good thing? Probably not. It rarely pays to tamper with a classic. When I watched the movie this summer it occurred to me that if the film were made today it would be transformed for the worst.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s set in a failing, Midwest industrial city in the 70s (read Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Detroit). The people of the town have little cheer in their life and their minor league hockey franchise, The Charlestown Chiefs, starring Paul Newman as their player coach, brings them some cheer. But for the most part the team sucks. The team brings in some bespectacled, semi-moronic goons named the Hanson Brothers, who are brawling, idiot-savant hockey players and the team rebounds in a big way with every game devolving into a massive scrum of cheap shots and brass-knuckled brawl fests. The team starts winning and ticket sales soar. But the team’s fate has already been sealed. Because of the failing economy, team owners are planning on shutting the Chiefs down at season’s end. A failing Midwest city with a huge unemployed populous will never make the team a viable business entity. The other major plot point revolves around Newman’s personal life. He’s an aging athlete, semi-lothario, trying to desperately get his ex-wife to reconcile. Mid-life crisis kind of stuff.

As much as the film is a foul-mouthed comedy with heaps of juvenile humor and slapstick hockey fight antics that appeal to the pubescent boy demographic, the film is also infused with that gritty, down and out dourness so pervasive in 70s cinema. A hint of political grim reality mixed with a very adult (not sexy adult, but adult demographic) love story throws a little salt peter on the comedy. In a bizarre way it’s the perfect father/son movie. Undoubtedly the sons were probably bored by the adult relationship mumbo jumbo and political machinations, but couldn’t wait to see the Hansons, the fights, and the bad language. Slap Shot was the kind of movie that made you feel adult if you saw it when you were thirteen. It was an "R" rated movie, but you’d do anything to sneak into the theaters to see it. Comedy tempered by realism is not always a great mix, but seeing something that is clearly verboten is awesome and just heightens the experience.

I hope I’m wrong, but there’s no way in the world the remake is going to be “R” or as dour. I’ve got to imagine this is going to be a no-holds barred "PG-13" comedy aimed straight at the heart of Will Ferrell fans everywhere. How many times is someone going to get hit in the nuts with pucks, sticks, or fists? Place your bets now. Down and out, grim reality won’t be on display, even though we're entering an era of industrial decay similar to that which the Midwest was facing in the mid-70s.

The other thing that maybe a challenge for the filmmakers and the NHL is that in the 70s pro hockey and minor league hockey was riding a wave of on-ice fisticuffs. This was an era when the Broad Street Bullies reigned supreme. This is the era that fueled jokes like “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out.” Har Har. As preposterous as the fighting was, most folks watching the movie then saw some relation to the game as it was played. Well hockey in the ’00s is a different beast. Fighting still exists but it is way down compared to the salad days of the 70s. Will it matter if the movie’s hockey style bares no relation to the on-ice version today? We’ll see.

Finally, I wonder what the NHL will think. Certainly, if the movie is a success, that won’t be a bad thing for the NHL. But the NHL may end up between a rock and a hard place with this one. For years the NHL brass have been very focused on distancing themselves from the goonish brand of hockey played in the 70s. But if there’s one thing that Slap Shot succeeds in doing is glorifying the fighting and violence in the sport. Not sure how pleased The NHL will be if there’s a hit hockey movie out there that reinforces all the old stereotypes of their sport to the casual viewer and potential customer. I mean I can’t imagine they’re gonna take the fighting out of Slap Shot. They wouldn’t dare.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

RIP Lux Interior

I could go on and on about how awesome the Cramps were, but given what a fantastic live band they were, maybe the best thing to do is watch some film and remind yourself what a force this band was. If you haven't seen any footage from the Napa State Mental Hospital show or from Urgh! A Music War recently, well here ya go.