Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
      ( 12/07/2005 03:12:00 PM ) Bill S.  

BRUNO CRUCIFIED – The thirteen-part Argentinean mini-series Epitafios recently reached its grimly unhappy conclusion on Latin HBO/Video on Demand, and for the record, I found the completed series to be a really good, but not great, serial killer thriller that ventured a mite too closely into Se7en-upmanship in its final act to be completely satisfying. If the difficulties in maintaining a steady low-key feeling of dread over thirteen hour-long episodes weren't completely surmounted, the show succeeded more often than not. Still, recommended for those who thought the Tarantino episode of C.S.I. didn't quite go far enough . . .
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Tuesday, December 06, 2005
      ( 12/06/2005 10:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HARRY – Speakin' of old movie comedy (as we were with Monday's Harold Lloyd post), I'd be remiss if I didn't plug The Third Banana's lengthy blog examination of Harry Langdon's swan song movie comedies: poverty row pics that are generally treated in histories of the silent comedy greats with "and then he made a buncha crappy movies in the forties before he died." Though still a relatively new blog, Banana is quickly staking its turf with these loving, yet critical, considerations of lesser known comedies . . .
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      ( 12/06/2005 10:54:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ME BEING MILDLY INDIGNANT – Skimming 'round the poli-blogs the other day, I came upon a pair of postings about Joe Dante's Master of Horror entry: both were rabidly critical, yet neither one had actually seen the show. What they were responding to was a Village Voice article on its unveiling at an Italian film festival. These kinds of faux critical teevee/movie pieces never cease to peeve me. If you expect me to spend time reading your politico/critical screeds, then I expect you to do the work and watch the frigging thing first!

Make no mistake, I don't begrudge anyone their right to avoid something that they don't wanna see: life's too short to waste with entertainments you personally find unpleasant. But I'd also argue that if you are gonna put on the mantle of cultural or political critic, then your adoption of that role requires you to, y'know, actually look at the work you're criticizing. Throwing spit-wads at an unseen work is the act of an intellectual candy-ass.
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Monday, December 05, 2005
      ( 12/05/2005 02:49:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"BESIDES, I ALWAYS GET A JOB MONDAY!" – Recently took advantage of a Sunday night showing on TCM of a set of Harold Lloyd comedies, an event designed to connect with New Line's newly scrumptious DVD boxed set of Lloyd silent classics, to record three of the man's features. (Would've recorded more if I'd remembered the movies were on, but, thankfully, a trip to Jog's blog kept me from missing the whole set.) The offerings I snagged were The Freshman, Why Worry? and Speedy. I'd only seen the first once before – as part of a college film society program back in the early seventies, if memory serves – so I was curious to see 'em.

Watched Speedy (1927) over the weekend, and now I definitely want a copy of the boxed set. The last of Lloyd's silent features, the comedy concerns Harold "Speedy" Swift, a New York City sports fan who is in thrall to the Babe Ruth-led Yankees (the big man himself has an amusing cameo in the film.) (A comic precursor to Jimmy Fallon's character in Fever Pitch, perhaps?) Harold's in love with the comely granddaughter of Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff), who runs the last horse-drawn trolley in the city. But granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy) tells our hero that she can't get married until she's sure her granddad is well provided for. Since the trolley business is a losing proposition – and "Speedy" seems incapable of keeping a job longer than a week – we're not precisely sure how that is gonna happen.

As script contrivance would have it, the vice president of a railroad conglomerate, looking to a citywide contract, wants to buy Pop Dillon's line. When Harold convinces him to reject the railroad's low-ball offering, the greedy capitalist hires a group of thugs to stop the trolley from running. Per Pop Dillon's contract with the city, as long as the horse-drawn car runs once every 24 hours, he still has the city route. Our hero takes over the route and – with the aid of the neighborhood shopkeepers and an ass-biting mutt – he thwarts this dastardly plan by ensuring that the trolley keeps a-runnin'.

Like I say: a fairly contrived plot. Just 'cause our bespectacled hero is able to successfully get the trolley running once is no real reason for the railroad veep to give up trying to run Pop Dillon out of business, but, of course, he does. Too, several major plot points – Lloyd "just happening" to hear about the plot against the trolley when he ducks into a phone book at Yankee Stadium, for instance – stretch past even the loosest standards of movie comedy. But the funny stuff is so strong (a sequence where our hero has an unsuccessful stint as a NYC cabbie is particularly fine) and the inventive funny chase climax is so wonderfully filmed, that the story itself is largely irrelevant.

And to my eyes, the film's most charming section is unrelated to the main plot, anyway. In it, Harold and his best girl take an ultra-crowded subway to Coney Island (some funny seat-stealing scenes here), and, thanks to a lot of great location shooting, we get a fine sense of the ocean-side amusement park as it must've been in 1928. (The only disappointment: though we see Harold and Jane do a variety of rides and games, our young couple-in-love don't visit any of the side shows that were flourishing on the Isle of Coney.) The twosome's day together ends as they ride back into the city in the back of a moving van. While sitting among the furniture, they create a faux domestic scene that's sweet without being cloying. A tricky balancing act, actually, but it's something Lloyd pulled off with geeky aplomb . . .
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Sunday, December 04, 2005
      ( 12/04/2005 09:41:00 PM ) Bill S.  

TOO BAD BUDDY HACKETT'S DEAD – Is it me or does the idea (and execution) of a sentimental holiday episode of The Dead Zone(!) – complete with homeless orphans and a crazy old coot who thinks he's Santa Claus – feel like something Bill Murray's Frank Cross would concoct? I'm bettin' this puppy truly gave Stephen King the chills . . .
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Saturday, December 03, 2005
      ( 12/03/2005 10:08:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"BRAIN-DEAD ZOMBIE DISSIDENTS!" – "Homecoming," director Joe Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm's pissed-off political pie-in-the-face aired on Showtime's Masters of Horror last night (and is available this a.m. as a part of the Video on Demand option). A proudly angry sledgehammer anti-war satire, the story concerns a high-priced political consultant named David Murch (Jon Tenney) who publicly wishes on a cable news show to a grieving Cindy Sheehan type that her son would come back "because I know he would tell us all how important the struggle is. . ." At the urging of a Karl Roveian figure named Kurt Rand (Dante regular Robert Picardo, basically doing the same heartless suit he played in Gremlins 2), the unseen Texas-voiced president incorporates Murch's "wish" into his re-election campaign speeches. Within forty-eight hours, the fallen soldiers from this unnamed overseas war start crawling out of their their coffins – not to eat brains, but to vote.

The script (based on a story by Dale Bailey) is proudly unsubtle, but that's largely what makes it work. In a media world where even the broadcast of soldiers' coffins is considered a transgressive act, bringing 'em back as articulate zombies is an act of gonzo polemics, pure and simple. Focusing on a trio of conservative political figures only marginally less cartoonish than their real-life counterparts' public personas (Thea Gill's leggy right wing pundit, Jane Cleaver, is the stand-out here), Dante & Hamm are commendably merciless railing against the cynicism and hypocrisy of the political class. When asked if she believes all the hard-line b.s. that she includes in her anti-liberal diatribes, Cleaver's character notes that, "You say whatever it takes to win." To Cleaver and Rand, what they do for a living is a competition void of any heartfelt human consequences – when Murch and the president attempt to put on a mask of genuine concern, it rightly blows up in everyone's faces.

But to hell with the show's political themes, the big question is: is it scary? Not particularly, though Dante (who wrote criticism for horror fanzines before he started out writing and directing for the Corman Factory) has always been more a horror parodist than a straight-out shockmeister. (The Howling is his one exception, though even that had its winking moments.) "Homecoming" contains some of Dante's trademark homages – a scene in a cemetery designed to recall the opening to Night of the Living Dead, the names of well-known zombie directors appearing on tombstones – though they aren't as plentiful as you might expect. Compared to some of the other MoH entries ("Jennifer," for instance), the gore is fairly minimal, though we do get to see some severed zombie limbs and rotting faces. The violent comeuppance that Picardo's Rand receives is appropriately brutal, however.

Still, the moments you remember from "Homecoming" are the grimly comic ones: Rand/Rove looking at a captured zombie and blandly stating, "Not to be premature, but I'm thinking supernatural;" the administration's opportunistic attempts to politically take advantage of the rising soldiers (when they first start appearing, they're treated as divine signs of support for the war; later they're demonized by the same religio/political pundits); Cleaver/Coulter noting that "I always liked guys in uniform, but with, like, some skin." When the zombies first appear, it's in a hangar at Dover Air Force Base and you can practically feel Dante's fierce joy at being able to show a facsimile of the war dead coffins that our "responsible" news media has kept from sight. If horror is about anything, it's about imagining those things that we're told to ignore. In that sense, then perhaps "Homecoming" is as much a horror story as any of the entries in Masters of Horror.

UPDATE: Steve Bissette has a thoughtful critical post on Dante's offering at his blog, which he follows with an extended consideration of a film that appears to've been an influence on "Homecoming": Abel Gance's J'accuse.
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Friday, December 02, 2005
      ( 12/02/2005 03:26:00 PM ) Bill S.  

NOTHING DISAPPEARS ON THE INTERNET – Looking at my counter stats this afternoon, I see that a comment to one of Atrios' posts about the histrionically-concocted War on Christmas has sent some blog readers to my 2002 list of Top Ten List of Christmas Song (with a follow-up post here.) Just pulled the CDs out this afternoon, so I'll probably be playing all these songs over the weekend. Not a one of 'em has let me down yet . . .

As for the so-called "War" on Christmas, I think it's a load of hooey. But, then, I rather favor the thoughts of that loony leftie Tom Jefferson on the matter – who believed that religion is "solely a matter between a man and his God" and that "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." – so clearly my judgment is thoroughly suspect on this matter . . .
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      ( 12/02/2005 02:12:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"CAN YOU PICK A FAVORITE COLOR FROM A THOUSAND SHADES OF GRAY?" – Gotta tell ya if I wasn't already attuned to the pop glory and splendor that's the Pernice Brothers, I probably would've taken a pass on the band's newest release based on its title. Discover A Lovelier You? Sounds like the theme song to a convocation of Avon salesladies . . .

Sappy title or not (it, thankfully, goes to an instrumental), Discover is the kind of sparkly disc pop-rock junkies like meself crave beyond all reasonable measure – and don’t get near enough to suit us. A melodic blend of Pet Sounds Beach Boys (that title instrumental is firmly in the tradition of "Let's Go Away for A While") and Black Vinyl Shoes, the album features guitar-based pop at its most effervescently melancholy. In his ability to blend gorgeous music with succinct evocations of an often angst-y life, singer/songwriter Joe Pernice is the creator you'd always hoped Morrissey would be if the guy could, you know, actually sing and mebbe read a book or two.

Like the Go-Betweens' Forster & McLennan – or New Pornographer A.C. Newman – Joe P. is the kinda pop savvy smarty-boots capable of composing a song about one of Michelangelo Antonioni's early movies (or a waltz tempo love song that name-checks Scolley Square whores and O. Henry) and making 'em so dropdead lovely that even a listener who doesn't know their Red Desert from their L'Avventura is enraptured by the sonic beauty. Why "Dumb It Down"? Joe asks in a song that could almost be an anti-declaration of intent – and an army of happy pop-nerds loudly cheers the sentiment.

Pernice's merry band of New Englanders – hidden brother Bob, guitarist Penton Pinkeron, bassist Thom Monahan, and newcomers Patrick Berkeley and James Walbourne – are adept at keeping their leader's subdued and lovely songcraft vibrant. Whether it's the waltz-tempoed "Sell Your Hair" (the "Gift of the Magi" indebted track);r the Latin-tinged "Say Goodnight to the Lady;" a country-fied "Subject Drop" done in duet with Beantown songstress Blake Hazard or a more Bongos-styled exercise like "There Goes the Sun," these guys couple craft and spark so smoothly that it's easy to miss what Pernice is singing about: death on an icy Massachusetts road, the difficulty of maintaining a relationship in these color-coded times, the even more insurmountable task of "trying to be a better person." Add Pernice's Brother Records croon to the package, and it's pure Power-Pop Paradise.

This has been a darn fine year for new pop-rock releases, and Discover A Lovelier You is one of its high points. In a holiday season besmirched by kitschy country pop and AmerIdol teevee spectaculars, a disc like this is even more of an emotional life-saver. "My faith in life's unbroken," Pernice sings in "Saddest Quo," one of the album's splendiferous highlights. Keep comin' out with albums as wonderful as this, Joe, and my faith in pop will stay intact as well . . .
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      ( 12/02/2005 07:37:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC – Ziggy Stardust eyes Xander Cat as the latter picks some hand-scattered Whiskas off the living roomcarpet. In less than five seconds, the dog'll chase the cat out of the room . . .

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

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Thursday, December 01, 2005
      ( 12/01/2005 06:51:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"YOU CAN TAKE A PICTURE OF SOMETHING YOU SEE" – As part of our ongoing half-assed annotation of Coldplay sonic TV guest shots, we have to note last night's C.S.I.: New York, which in addition to featuring the band's "Talk" in its concluding montage also snuck the song's sparkling guitar hook onto Detective Danny Messer's cell phone. Way to blend the tunery and Xmas-time product placement, Bruckheimer Productions!
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      ( 12/01/2005 06:03:00 AM ) Bill S.  

S'LONG, MAXINE – Was saddened this a.m. to read of the death of comic actress Wendie Jo Sperber after years of battling breast cancer. Best known as the real-female buddy who kept Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari's secret in the TV show Bosom Buddies, she was an appealing plus-sized performer who frequently was miles above her material (Bachelor Party, Moving Violations, the lamentable Fox fat chick sitcom Babes). When given something worthy of her talents, Sperber made it more than her own. Times when the material was up to her level: Buddies, the Beatlemania comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand and as the jitterbugging Maxine in 1941 (her scenes are among the best in that variable big-budget comedy). She also had a limited part as Marty McFly's sister in the Back to the Future franchise even if she wasn't given much of anything to do. One of the last roles I remember seeing her in was memorably as a cancer patient on Murphy Brown, though I see from the IMDB that she appears to've been a recurring character on 8 Simple Rules. . . for Dating My Teenage Daughter.

Like Conchata Ferrell and Lesley Boone (among others), Wendy Jo was a BBW actress whose size frequently relegated her to secondary player role. But for those of us who loved her, she was often the only reason to watch some otherwise dismal movie or teevee comedy. I'll miss being charmed by her unexpected presence in some pretty darn dismal teevee & movie comedies . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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