TORO! :: bull by the horns

an online compendium of culture and commentary

Archive for October, 2007

1960 via 2002

Posted by rollinsloane on 30 October 2007

Someone lamented to me the other day that the mainstream these days just doesn’t do that old school southern-fried soul. I had four words for him: “Get thee to YouTube.” Here’s why:

Yes, this is 2002. Yes, this is American Idol. But Tamyra Gray’s got chops worth digging up from the YouTube graveyard and cementing as one of contemporary pop culture’s greatest missed opportunities. She was cruelly washed out of American Idol’s first season in fourth place and I accordingly stopped keeping real tabs on pop fare. Kelly Clarkson was perhaps a better pick for the masses anyway — last I checked, she’s doing fine, and kudos for the pipes she brought to “Since U Been Gone” — but Tamyra, abysmal wardrobe aside, is the real thing. Wikipedia reports that she’s currently playing Mimi on Broadway’s way-too-long-running RENT (and the only decent part of that self-absorbed musical bloat, I’ll wager), and I can’t imagine it’s the 28-year-old’s last bit in the spotlight.

Eventual Idol winner Jennifer Hudson may have somehow managed to bungle her way into an Oscar for Dreamgirls (and HOW?), but Tamyra’s rendition of “And I’m Telling You (I’m Not Going)” has Hudson way beat. It’s worth pointing out that this particular number was a ballsy song choice for a singing contest elimination round, but hey, brassiness never worked against the other Idols any.

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‘a civil action’: maybe a little light on the latter

Posted by rollinsloane on 30 October 2007

You know what’s a great feeling? When you’re at the video store, and you’re stumped for inspiration, and you pick up an old John Travolta movie that looks like all sorts of typical:

acivil1.jpg

and then you sort of perk up at a catchy opening shot, and find yourself chuckling at a cynical opening monologue:

It’s like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth more than a living severely-maimed plaintiff. However, if it’s a long slow agonizing death as opposed to a quick drowning or car wreck, the value can rise considerably. A dead adult in his 20s is generally worth less than one who is middle aged. A dead woman less than a dead man. A single adult less than one who’s married. Black less than white. Poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down at his prime. And the most imperfect, well in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all.

and then first scene plays sharp instead of maudlin and then the titles kick in over a great blues jam (‘Hard Workin Man’) and finally, suddenly, like a great character-actor role call, the names start scrolling — James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, John Lithgow, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall. You mean I get to watch Tony Soprano wrangle with Hollywood’s best Nixon (Dick is waaaaaay more convincing than Anthony Hopkins’s Nixon), TV’s Monk, Magnolia‘s Donnie, Lt. Cl. Bill Kilgore and 3rd Rock‘s Dr. Dick? Even two hours of a too-serious Travolta (just look at that stone-cold poster shot) are worth such a line-up.

I followed with the warm contentment of a full belly as Travolta patiently went through the familiar procedure of the commercial legal thriller, step-by-plodding-step: sick children, big business, false starts, tough legal-genius opposition. Small firm vs. big corporation. Honor vs. money. Steven Zaillian‘s by-the-book script is a textbook example of plotting expertise. It’s even based on a true story; Erin Brockovich with a man.

Watching Travolta suit up as a smart-aleck lawyer-turned-do-gooder in that suspiciously cape-like Boston overcoat (superhero, much?), I couldn’t help but reflect on a recent column by the AV Club’s Noel Murray on the dismissive snap judgment of contemporary movie reviewing. The piece targets the tendency of film critics to forget the movie middle-ground. Critics declare a new release to be either “great” or “disappointing,”…overlooking qualities that might make a movie worth watching a few years on, after it’s been removed from the withering spotlight to a more suitable venue.”

A more suitable venue? You mean, like the comfort of my own living room, when I’m dog-tired after a long day and ready for some quality mindless drivel to take the reins of my imagination for a little while so I don’t have to? Yeah, A Civil Action is perfect in this mother’s hug of a venue. And in a few years, when I’m dog-tired and once more ready for a quality legal thriller, I’ll reach for Michael Clayton then, too.

But I want more from the recent. I want reinvention, subversion, transcendence. I want my contemporaries to pick up the familiar skeletons of Hollywood’s stand-by genres and Picasso them into brand-new configurations. When I walk into my local cinema and plunk down for the latest that filmdom has to offer, I want something fresh, something that is 2007 and not a decade-spanning genre. And contemporary film reviews are responsible for getting butts in those 2007 seats. Of course critics are responsible for saying “typical” or “brilliant” at the time — they’re not responsible for 2010 or 2015 or 2045 rentals.

Movies and music alike are uncommonly blessed in that even their most mediocre productions find an audience. There’s something deeply satisfying about a well-done genre piece. If I’m in a historical romance mood, I’m not turning to the critics. I’m heading to the video store and finding something Meryl Streep or 80s or both (1981’s French Lieutenant’s Woman, uncommonly good, by the way), and I’m watching those final credits roll happily.

Film critics aren’t reviewing for the future. They don’t have to predict whether or not some contemporary film will soothe the nostalgic urge of next decade’s renter. Murray may blame the movie-release “hype machine that pushes critics to decide immediately whether something we’ve just seen is an all-time classic. (Because according to the hype machine, if it’s not an all-time classic, why bother?),” but isn’t that what award-season and contemporary hype should be about? Honoring the best of our time? A solid genre piece will garner reviews that declare it solid, not white-hot. Watchable, not must-see — if it’s truly a solid genre piece, you’ve already seen its ilk anyway.

I was drawn to A Civil Action by the recent hyperbolic praise of Michael Clayton, a solid genre piece fielding some you-must-be-kidding Oscar praise. Congratulations, writer-director Tony Gilroy. You paid attention in film school. You studied up. You, too, can produce an A-list legal thriller, complete with sinister corporate villain, strong supporting cast, big-name star and, yes, some tragically sick kids. You even threw in a few humanizing twists — opposition lawyer Tilda Swinton is as insecure as she is ambitious! Nice. But I left thinking, yup. Good legal thriller. And you know what, Noel Murray? I wish the critics had clued me in.

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this halloween, something to really fear

Posted by rollinsloane on 28 October 2007

In December of 1995, the editor-in-chief of French Vogue suffered a heart attack so massive it rendered him almost entirely immobile. Jean-Dominique Bauby would spend the next year and a half (his last) as a living vegetable, able only to blink his left eye. Thankfully, he managed to eek out a short account of his time incapacite, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a literary memoir (“Of Life in Death”) that ends all too soon. His simple, lyrical narrative voice leaves you wishing he had been equally articulate about his more mobile time in life, when the Paris high life and management of big-name magazine occupied his full attention. Here are a series of brief snippets, moving and horrifying in turn, that demonstrate the sharp bleakness of Bauby’s humor and the detailed observation of that lone eye:

In the past, it was known as a “massive stroke,” and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move.

*

I have known gentler awakenings. When I came to that late-January morning, the hospital ophthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock. Irrational terror swept over me. What if this man got carried away and sewed up my left eye as well, my only link to the outside world, the only window to my cell, the one tiny opening of my diving bell? Luckily as it turned out, I wasn’t plunged into darkness. He carefully packed away his sewing kit in padded tin boxes. Then, in the tones of a prosecutor demanding a maximum sentence for a repeat offender, he barked out: “Six months!” I fired off a series of questioning signals with my working eye, but this man — who spent his days peering into people’s pupils — was apparently unable to interpret a simple look. With a big round head, a short body, and a fidgety manner, he was the very model of the couldn’t-care-less doctor: arrogant, brusque, sarcastic — the kind who summons his patients for 8:00 a.m., arrives at 9:00, and departs at 9:05, after giving each of them forty-five seconds of his precious time. Disinclined to chat with normal patients, he turned thoroughly evasive in dealing with ghosts of my ilk, apparently incapable of finding the words to offer the slightest explanation. But I finally discovered why he had put a six-month seal on my eye: the lid was no longer fulfilling its function as a protective cover, and I ran the risk of an ulcerated cornea.

*

Nowadays [the hospital] tends to concentrate more on the sufferings of the aged, on the inevitable breakdown of body and mind; but geriatrics is only one part of the picture I must paint to give an accurate idea of the hospital’s denizens. in one section are a score of comatose patients, patients at death’s door, plunged into endless night. They never leave their rooms. Yet everyone knows they are there, and they weigh strangely on our collective awareness, almost like a guilty conscience. In another wing, next door to the colony of elderly and enfeebled, is a cluster of morbidly obese patients whose substantial dimensions the doctors hope to whittle down. Elsewhere, a battalion of cripples forms the bulk of the inmates. Survivors of sport, of the highway, and of every possible and imaginable kind of domestic accident, these patients remain at Berck for as long as it takes to get their shattered limbs working again. I call them “tourists.”

*

I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.

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someone finally said it — the truth of ‘top gun’

Posted by rollinsloane on 28 October 2007

Courtesy of John over at The Movie Blog, here’s an old clip of Tarantino at some party revealing the true underlying meaning of Top Gun. His penetrating analysis will surely come as a shock to no one, but at the very least he makes it official.

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finally, some decent campaign coverage

Posted by rollinsloane on 28 October 2007

colbert

Amid the muck that is presidential campaign coverage, it’s nice to see one candidate get a thorough analysis. Megan Garber over at CJR has turned in an excellent piece on new Republican/Democrat hopeful Stephen Colbert:”

“As far as Campaigniness ‘08 goes, it’ll be interesting to see how far Colbert takes the “run”—and how far the media will go in running along with him. Thus far, he seems to be going out of his way to make clear that it’s a joke. (At a book-signing event in New York this week, Colbert responded to the crowd’s cheering of his dual-ticket run: “I hope you all enjoy losing twice,” he said.) Still, as Colbert writes in I Am America (And So Can You!), “It is time to impregnate this country with my mind.” With the media’s help, he seems to be doing just that.”

Garber insightfully comments on the brilliance of Colbert’s political move and the bizarre swooning of the media he mocks. My only question: who’s his running mate?

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a recent bit from the bard of the cornfields

Posted by rollinsloane on 27 October 2007

Garrison Keillor is increasingly becoming the living embodiment of Americana nostalgia. Raised in the conservative farm country of Heartland Christianity, the writer-humorist-radio host continues to cherish and poke fun at his prim 50s youth. 2002’s Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 is a winning addition to the his on-going chronicles of a fictional small-town Minnesota community, narrated by 14-year-old wannabe writer Gary (author stand-in, much?) whose sexual awakenings/longings/confusion reads like a pint-size Philip Roth.

roth

+

superbad

X

cornfield

This little snippet is the teenage poetry of narrator Gary’s beloved cousin Kate, a rebel against the sexual restrictions of her religious family. It’s a simple bit, but we here at TORO! believe in preservation at even the smallest level. There’s some concluding narrative to give a dose of Keillor’s wry voice.

soliloquy:

death is easy like taking a bath
with an electric fan and waving hello to god
you could die like walking in front of a bus
or jumping into the big blue air or into the lake
or doing almost anything
you could die by living in minnesota
and forgetting your scarf
or remembering your scarf and it catches on the axle and strangles you
god is love but
he doesn’t necessarily drop
everything and go save you
does he

Miss Lewis was horrified. She told Kate she was a very sick girl. She sent the poem home to my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Sugar, and it scared them silly. How could Kate say such crazy things? And putting an electric fan in the bath? Where did she come up with something so grisly? And why wasn’t god capitalized?

“It’s only a poem,” said Kate. She pointed out that a soliloquy is a speech to one’s self and that it wasn’t her talking, it was the person in the poem. Nonetheless, Sugar hustled around and locked up all the knives and razor blades and small electric appliances, and hid the rope and the garden hose.

 

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our dim future; a comment board revelation

Posted by rollinsloane on 27 October 2007

Maybe my previous post on the obvious senility of Roger Ebert was a little harsh. After all, I suppose it’s relevant to keep in mind who his film-review-reading audience is — perhaps the fine folks commenting on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift‘s metacritic comment board. Here, the film critic of the future, inspired by Ebert’s lowered standards and forced into democratic judgment by the job’s shrinking population, responds.

Ashley F. gave it 2: Tokyo Drift did NOT have the potential of “The Fast and the furious” or “2 Fast, 2 Furious. ” In my opinion this movie could have been done much better. This movie bored me to tears, it’s really a disappointment. The first two movies kept me on the edge of my seat, and kept me talking all week. Tokyo Drift is a let down and a fake. For example there are hardly ANY races in which the prize is the car, this movie makes me sick and I want to vomit all over the TV when its on.

OMG Ashley I was totally talking all week about the others too. I dont ever want to actually vomit on my TV (gross! lol) but your totally right, there are never any races in which the prize is the car, for example they win a girlfriend instead.

Justin gave it a 2: This movie isnt that good. I dont know why they had to change the main character of Paul Walker. They were doing such a good job with Paul and once they chagned it to the new guy, it totally messed up the whole thing they had with Paul.

They are so annoying when they change stuff aren’t they Justin? Changing the actor does totally mess up the vibe they had with the first actor but contract negotiations are such a bummer, lol!

salman k. gave it 9: The movie was deinitely better than the 2nd one.the new environment in form of tokyo was brilliant.thankgod the lead hero was changed.the storyline was stronger than the 2nd movie too and the surprise vin diesel intro was just priceless. the drifting technique was a great change and the whole drag racing fiasco was put to an end.good job guys.

hey Salman u might want to talk to my friend Justin because he totaly thought Paul Walker was a better lead hero so maybe you guys can race over it, lol. the drifting thing was definetly a cool addition but not as awesum as vin diesel!

Pedro M. gave it 9: I think this movie is the best of “The Fast And The Furious” trilogy. It was a great idea to get a main actor with a texan language accent, for example. I also think it’s great the way this movie crushes some “movie clichés”. The cast is great, having the gorgeous Keiko Kitagawa included. Also, the American Muscle cars are something that makes worth to watch this fantastic movie.

hi Pedro what was your favorite ‘movie cliche’ they crushed? that all the japanese people could speak english language great?, because that definetly was cool for me. or maybe that the texan hero gets the girl in the end and makes peace with his father and decides not run away from his probelms (so not cool), or that there’s a funny cameo? or maybe that literally all the girls were smookin hot, which was awesom too. what’s a cliche?

dale l. gave it 10: Briliant film couldn’t of made it more rialistic. The story line was better than all other fast and furious. killing the seans friend was bad and it sort of made the story line go a bit down hill. well done to the makers succesfull film.

your totealy awesum two, dale!

[I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by spell check.]

Posted in filmdom, long hard look, riddle me this | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

oh, ebert, give it up already

Posted by rollinsloane on 27 October 2007

Look, I hate to point out the increasingly senility of the aged. Really, I do. The elderly can be so sweet. But Roger Ebert is only 65, and if you’ve got the cahones to release a book called Your Movie Sucks, you’d better be ready to bring proof of your Pulitzer Prize-lauded critical eye to the table

.roger ebert’s your movie sucks

Exhibit A: Ebert’s 2006 review of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Let me put this movie in context: 34% approval rating on rottentomatoes, 46 out of 100 on metacritic. Ebert’s take? “The racing scenes in the movie are fast, and they are furious.” What an eye for detail.

Ebert’s problem isn’t that he’s wrong, per se. It’s just that his powers of observation are obviously dulling with his taste and, dare I say it, eloquence. “What’s interesting is the way the director, Justin Lin, surrounds his gaijin with details of Japanese life, instead of simply using Tokyo as an exotic location. We meet the sumo wrestler, who will be an eye-opener for teenagers self-conscious about their weight.”

Another witticism just dripping with authorial panache: “One nice touch happens during the race on the mountain road, which the kids are able to follow because of instant streaming video on their cell phones.”

Pulitzer Prize, ladies and gents. Pulitzer. For Criticism.

Ebert goes on to save his best analysis for last.

“Lin is a skillful director, able to keep the story moving, although he needs one piece of advice. It was Chekhov, I believe, who said when you bring a gun onstage in the first act, it has to be fired in the third. Chekhov might also have agreed that when you bring Nathalie Kelley onstage in the first act, by the third act the hero should at least have been able to kiss her.”

Not a peep against the blatant sexism of this movie. Far from it — Ebert wants a clinch, and trots out poor dead Chekhov to make his point.

One year later, Ebert hasn’t been getting any punchier. His glowing review of the solid-not-awesome Michael Clayton is a uninforming pile of one-sentence softballs: “Naming the film after Michael Clayton is an indication that the story centers on his life, his loyalties, his being just about fed up.”

If I want to know if it’s raining outside, I know who to call.

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marcie’s idiot pick of the week: the fast and the furious, tokyo drift

Posted by rollinsloane on 27 October 2007

This evening, for reasons not even time could ever possibly tell, my much-beloved but obviously glue-sniffing roommate Marcie brought home the cinematic travesty that is The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and suggested we all hunker down for a popcorn fest. With her penchant for studly jawbones (provided here by Friday Night Lights‘ Lucas Black) and apparent disdain for thinking, Marcie is the target audience for this car racing spectacular. Me, I actually like movies – this constitutes slumming to the ultimate degree. But it had Tokyo in the title. I watched.

Boy gets in trouble with cops for illegal street-racing. Boy flees to Tokyo. Boy gets in trouble with Japanese mafia for more street-racing. Lots of squealing brakes and revving engines ensue; freshman writer Chris Morgan isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel (pun totally intended) with this little dramatic number. But he and director Justin Lin do achieve some degree of cinematic significance — I haven’t seen females so reduced to accessories since I stopped watching rap videos.

A race is not a race, apparently, unless the drivers have a comely sexual conquest at stake, and a plot device that rolled my eyes in Rebel Without a Cause sure isn’t winning any more points in 2006. Someone get Maureen Dowd on the phone immediately. Even the strange glee of watching Lucas out-race the oldest Home Improvement brother was soured by the caricature cheerleader who blatantly put herself on offer as trophy cup. Our leading lady, the improbably named Neela, is given the typical teen-movie trappings of girl-power: a minimal knowledge of cars, dark hair, the status of being official girlfriend to these modern gangsters instead of mere moll. But the difficult past that supposedly makes up her backstory (mama worked a hostess bar! ) is downright head-scratching when every other woman on display is a socially-accepted escort-for-hire.

I mean, I hate to be a sopping wet blanket here. Of the characters that the filmmakers deigned to decently flesh out (ie. the male ones), there were some notables:

  • Sung Kang, as a do-gooder thug, who’d surely be in greater leading man demand were Hollywood not so insistent that Asians stick to niche roles
  • Bow Wow, formerly L’il (always in my heart), who acquitted himself quite neatly as the Amusing Sidekick
  • Brian Tee, as insecure asshole bad guy (he practically enslaves Neela!), who, with a sculptured face of deeply exaggerated villainy, will gradually age into a terrific go-to baddie

Posted in filmdom, Japan, long hard look | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

now this is what I call modern dance

Posted by rollinsloane on 26 October 2007

This, ladies and gentlemen, is modern frivolous pop culture at its very finest. Sure, Dancing with the Stars is a cheesy bastion of celebreality — but when it comes to NFL legend Emmitt Smith, you have to ignore the sparkles and focus on the smoothness. Damn if the man don’t move like butter.

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