Saturday, November 27, 2004

Devil or Angel?

I've made up my mind. I'm prouder than Aleister Crowley sinking his sharpened teeth into a new girlfriend to be one of Best Buy's "devil" customers. Yes, Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson has fallen under the Svengali spell of a marketing consultant who has advised him that actively discouraging up to 20% of the chain's customers from walking in the door will be good for the bottom line. He doesn't like people who buy loss-leader DVDs but never purchase plasma screen TVs, you see. Not surprisingly, this has created a minor backlash in the geek community, prompting ads such as this one from Dell: "At Dell, We Love All Our Customers. Even the Ones Best Buy Doesn't." Meeeow.

On the other hand, the anti-devil message hasn't percolated down the ranks quite yet, as their current Thanksgiving weekend "5 DVDs for $25" promotion demonstrates. The highly reputable news sources of the interweb would have us believe that, "To deter devils, [Best Buy] is cutting back on promotions and sales tactics that tend to draw them and culling them from marketing lists." With these goals in mind, I'd say selling popular DVD titles for $5 might be counterproductive. I was all set to take advantage of this deal myself, except that by lazily waiting until Saturday to show up at my local Best Buy at Tyson's Corner, I ended up with an unfortunate selection: it was all Joe Versus the Volcano and Boiler Room and no Blade Runner or Pale Rider. Looks like serious deviltry requires a bit more discipline. I did, however, score Donnie Brasco and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels for $9.99 each, which ain't half bad.

Monday, November 22, 2004

National Treasure (2004)

I'm going to swim against the critical tide and come out in favor of National Treasure. Yes, there are lots of action/heist movie cliches, and the pacing is uneven, but the film had some real ideas behind it as well. Reviewers seem to be focusing on the similarity to The Da Vince Code and the Indiana Jones franchise and ignoring the honest, patriotic message at the center of the film: natural rights and American exceptionalism. Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) waxes poetic about the lines from the preamble to the Declaration denouncing tyranny because he has a passion for the ideals of the Founders, not because he's wild for the Crusader/Freemason treasure. The treasure itself is a metaphor for political power. The Masons hid the treasure because it was too great for any man, even a king, to possess. If it was known to exist the struggle over it would only create more violence and death. The same is true of political power (or supreme executive authority, as the peasants would put it). Sovereign authority is too great a treasure for one man - even an enlightened one - to possess. When the American Revolution came, the treasure was hidden and the political power was dispersed.

All that said, the one thing that annoys the hell out of me about reading harsh reviews is when the reviews get the details wrong. For example, Stephan Holden's review in The New York Times: "The Knights of Templar, some of whom were Founding Fathers, supposedly left a trail of coded clues that begins on a frozen ship north of the Arctic Circle and ends in the bowels of Lower Manhattan under a crumbling system of dumbwaiters." First of all, it's Knights Templar, or Knights of the Temple, not "Knights of Templar." Second, the Founders in question were Freemasons, the inheritors of the Templar horde, not Knights themselves. Thirdly, the location under Trinity Church in Manhattan is actually a huge 200-year old shaft with a circling staircase and a massive series of mechanical moving platforms which one of the characters facetiously compares to dumbwaiters when the characters first see them. And then there's his description of the treasure itself: "...the ultimate jackpot is a subterranean nest of dusty museum tchotchkes that the movie passes off as priceless Egyptian artifacts." They aren't all from Egypt - those are just the oldest ones nearest the entrance. Also near the entrance are lost scrolls from the library of Alexandria, hardly "dusty museum tchotchkes." Sloppy.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Die Sister, Die! (1972)

This one opens with a thin trail of blood trickling off of a wrist into a small puddle on the floor, which marks the high point of actual (as opposed to dreamed) gore in the movie. Not surprisingly, the advertising promised rather more thrills than the movie itself delivered, especially in the case of the 1-sheet posters which depict an attractive young woman in a revealing red dress running in terror toward the viewer, with the tagline "Go ahead and scream Amanda - it can't help you now!" Audiences were no doubt chagrined to learn that the Amanda in question was 61-year old Edith Atwater, bearing a passing resemblence to Stephanie Cole's Diana Trent character from the British TV series Waiting for God. Thankfully, we are spared the sight of Ms. Atwater in the dress in question.

Atwater plays Amanda, a moody heiress with some love/hate issues revolving around her dead father. Her brother, Edward (Jack Ging), a would-be playboy, resents the control Amanda holds over the family finances and plots to eliminate her. He rushes to her house and feigns sadness in front of the family physician upon learning that she had tried to commit suicide (hers was the bloody wrist in the opening scene), but only as a gambit to put himself above suspicion when he actually does try to get rid of her. Makes perfect sense, right?

But for a plan as feindish as his, one needs a well-preserved 38-year old barmaid with a sordid tale to tell. So he tracks down Esther Harper (Antoinette Bower) to a steakhouse cocktail lounge, where he confronts her with her past: she was once a nurse for an elderly millionaire who she eventually married and who left her his entire fortune (remember, Anna Nicole Smith was only five years old when this movie was released). Sadly, the unnamed nonegenarian's family intervened and screwed her out the the millions, ruining her budding nursing career in the process. Clearly, she's perfect for the job, which will involve only making sure Amanda's next suicide attempt is successful, not actually killing her.

The scene is set, until Esther meets Amanda and is taken aback by her haughty sarcastic tone and emotional vulnerability. She pulls the condescending bitch act, yet is still bracingly honest. Amanda suspects a plot from the beginning and announces "Don't play games with me, Esther, I play for keeps." Nevertheless, everything seems to be going according to plan until longtime family retainer Mrs. Gonzalez spills the beans on the third sibling, an absent younger sister who was allegedly her father's favorite, but who took off for points unknown so soon after her father's death she didn't even stick around for the funeral. When Esther discovers that her bedroom, formerly inhabited by the missing sister, is still full of her clothes, momentos, and photo albums, questions begin stirring in her brain.

The standout acting really comes from Edith Atwater, who does a great job as the arrogant WASP dowager. Balancing her out is Jack Ging, who looks (and acts) like a parody of William Shatner. Antoinette Bower spends her best moments looking wide-eyed and emotionally conflicted. Of course they're all upstaged by a fantasy/nightmare sequence which involves horror effects so crude and exaggerated they would make Herschell Gordown Lewis hang his head in shame. At one point Amanda literally tears another person's head off with her bare hands, throwing it at the wall where it shatters like ceramic.

I recommend Die Sister, Die! for students of film marketing as a case study on how insanely a promotional campaign can diverge from a film's actual content and themes, and to people with a fetish for rich, sarcastic senior citizens.

Portland is Punished: No Critics Allowed

Perhaps assuming that any professional reviewer would pan it just to avoid being mocked by his colleagues, the promo team for Seed of Chucky explicitly banned all movie reviewers from a recent advance screening in Portland. A screening that was otherwise open to the public. Well, we can see where this is going, and the result was M.E. Russell's entertaining column in The Oregonian which ends with what is actually a pretty favorable review. It also reminds us that Don Mancini managed to find a role for John Waters, so now you have to go see it.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Incoming Freshmen (1979)

It's Boobapalooza '79 when the kids of Incoming Freshmen spend their golden college years partying hard and shunning bras. This aggressively shameless soft core T'n'A crowd pleaser treats us to everything from a lecture by a naked ROTC instructor to a frat party being entertained by a blues-rock band wearing goat masks. The movie advances on two parallel tracks: the main story of innocent small-town coed Jane (Ashley Vaughn) being gradually corrupted by her slutty roommate Viv (Leslie Blalock) and that of the tribulations of neurotic, sexually repressed history professor L.P. Bilbo (B.M. Culpepper). Jane starts out dedicated to her long-distance high school sweetheart, only to have her heart broken when her best friend back home hooks up with Mr. Perfect the first week of college, leaving an opening for roommate Viv to introduce her to her own boyfriend's best friend, Randy (Richard Harriman, looking very much like a young Dave Barry). At the same time Prof. Bilbo has trouble keeping his attention on his teaching as he spend more of every class mentally undressing his female students.

Events come to a head the weekend of the big football game when Viv persuades Jane that they should ditch their respective boyfriends and hit a swingin' frat party by themselves. Everybody has fun, lots of tits are shown, and morbidly obese Prof. Bilbo shows up dressed in a white suit and announces his newfound goal of getting "funky." Uber-slut character Maxine "The Machine" (Georgia Harrell), clad only in an extremely revealing gold lame one-piece looks down the pants of a delighted nerd and announces "What, all that meat and no potatoes?" before dragging him back to the nearest bedroom. The film ends with what is essentially a take-a-number gang bang in which the walrus-like history professor takes on one svelte college girl after another, culminating, in the last few seconds, with plain Jane herself. Not too worry, though - Dave Barry Jr. has managed to meet the tube top-wearing girl he had fantasized about earlier in the movie. So everybody ends up happy, in one way or another.

Incoming Freshmen has a couple of good aspects - the comedy value of the extremely dated apparel (tight jeans, bellbottoms, tall white tube socks with brightly colored rings at the top) and the thick southern accents sported by virtually every cast member, except for Jane's Dave Barry-like boyfriend. These people make The Dukes of Hazzard sound like Masterpiece Theater. The poorly-aging trashiness of the era is palpable; the scene where roommates Jane and Viv go on a double date to the local disco is so intensely 70s it could power a time machine. Recommended to fans of That 70s Show and long-term freebase addicts. Oh yeah, and to people who like tits.

Daddy-O (1959)

When cliched 50s slang meets portly, massage-loving master criminals, you know you've entered...The Daddy-O Zone. In one of the most tepid films to ever include the Eisenhower-era scandal trifecta of murder, drag racing, and dope dealing, Dick Contino plays Daddy-O, a.k.a. Phil Sandifer a.k.a. Pete Plum. He's a former circus-joining runaway who traded in the three rings for a steady gig truck driving, with the inexplicable sideline as a singer of mildly scandalous rock 'n' roll tunes (didn't Elvis make the same movie as some point?).

Goaded into a hot rod showdown by fiery sex kitten Jana (Sandra Giles), he is seen by a nightwatchman driving recklessly while not far away his best friend ("some guys have brothers - I had Sonny") is being forced off another road to his death. While he manages to correct the cops' initial theory fingering him as the killer, he does lose his job, his license to drive, and is placed on probation for his hot rodding ways. Naturally, this leaves him open for a shady job offer from the cigar-loving drug importer and all around plus-size sybarite, Sidney Chillas (Bruno VeSota). The rest involves what was clearly intended to be a Usual Suspects-level labryinth of crime drama plotting, but unfolds like someone unrolling a soggy carpet. You discover that the nearsighted meathead at the gym who wouldn't let Daddy-O empty his dead best friend's locker is - hold on there - hiding something! And yes, Bond villianesque criminal Chillas is indeed smuggling drugs into the country from Mexico. What did you think the small, valuable package that everyone wanted to get their hands on was? Did they expect us to think someone pounded the Maltese Falcon into a rectangle and wrapped it in brown paper?

The film, of course, does have its moments. Leading man Contino has an early performance on stage at a local bar where bottled beer and below-the-knee knit skirts are the rule of the evening. Singing the decided non-hit "Rock Candy Baby" he manages to perform in the higest waisted pants in film history. The belt-line of these black slacks are mere inches from his armpits - memorably parodied on the MST3K episode dedicated to this movie. Fans of restaurants that look like the food they serve will also appreciate a cameo by legendary L.A. hot dog stand Tail O' the Pup, featured lovingly in Rick Sebak's documentary tribute to ground hog anus, A Hot Dog Program. For those reasons, and for the fact that Chillas had a full-size steam room (but not a bathroom) as part of his office suite, I give 1959's Daddy-O a polite nod.