Friday, September 29, 2006

RIP Mr Nelson

News came late on Tuesday evening about the death of professional golf legend Byron Nelson at age 94. The next day, his passing was unjustifiably marginalized by the diva-esque dramatics of another local professional athlete (whose name I won’t even bothering mention, but not because I’m bitter, but because I’m a staunch Tennessee Titans fan). Sad. Lord Byron Nelson will be missed both as a presence in the golf world and for his unwavering support of local Dallas athletics.

The remarkable aspect of Nelson’s career is thoroughly documented in print. the PGA website sums up his career in retrospect with the fact that his records set within the golf world in 1945 sum up a truly remarkable season. That year, he won 18 tournaments, capturing 31 of 54 events during the years of 1944 and 1945. He won a total of 52 events in his career, winning Major Championships in 1937 (Masters), 1939 (US Open), 1942 (Masters) and 1940 and 1945 (PGA).

Compare that with the scratching and clawing that Tiger Woods has done this year by winning 5 in a row, and that feat stands as an even greater accomplishment, especially when one takes into consideration the rudimentary construction of equipment and balls in his day.

My own experience with Nelson was a little personal. His PGA tour event, the Byron Nelson Invitational, occurs every spring here in Dallas. About 7 years ago, I attended the tournament and made it my first ever professional golf event. A good friend and I wandered around for a couple of hours and then grew weary of the inconsistent views on various holes. We made our way to the eighteenth fairway and found ourselves a spot on the side of the fairway about 275 yards from the tee box and approximately 150 yards from the expansive eighteenth green. Not only did we have a perfect view of 90% of the golfers as they drove the ball down the fairway (about 10 feet from Tiger when he stuck it in the rough and about 20 feet from Phil Mickelson) but we could peer up the fairway and, with binoculars, see the tent that Lord Nelson and his wife called home for those 4 days, perched ever so preciously off the back of the green in clear view of the days action. Of course, it was customary for the golfer to finish his round, exit the green and immediately pay his regards to Lord Nelson up in his make shift skybox. The respect and emotion of the players as they shook his hand and spoke a few words was palpable. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see. The event was also memorable for me because I was hit in the forearm by a golf ball from player Ben Crane, and had a 3 foot view of the shot as he played his second shot (alas, I was not on TV). He would finish 2nd in the event. Still, even a shot in the body with a golf ball doesn’t out weigh the memorable tradition that comes with being part of an event sponsored by the good will and good graces of such an enormous personality within the world of golf.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Out There Video

The joys of DVD are wild and varied. Between companies like Blue Underground and Anchor Bay, long lost cult classics are seeing the light of day. Another upstart video production company, Tartan Video continually dazzles the market with releases that alternate between Asian gems (known as Asia Extreme) to American grindhouse experiments. Within the last eight months, Tartan video has released films onto commercial American shelves (i.e. Blockbuster video) that expose visions from internationally recognized auteurs like Chan Wook Park and Takashi Miike. But the real niche of Tartan video is the odd surprise from lesser known gems, such as Kelvon Tong's "The Maid" and Kong Su-Chang's "R-Point". Tartan video also seems to own the distribution rights to a majority of Kim Ki Duk's work. Though I'm not a fan of Duk's usually obscene and intellectually challenged ouevre, the opportunity to hold this negative opinion of this Korean filmmaker is, in itself, largely due in part to the surprising availibility of his work. How can one expect to carry any opinion about something without ever having the opportunity to view it? That's the real advantage given to cinema lovers from Tartan video- love it or hate it, at least they're one of the few distribution companies giving audiences glimpses at the alternative.

As mentioned above, Tartan video doesn't limit itself to Asian oddities. In it's vast catalog also exists a variety of lost classics, either due to rights, content, or the lack of a viable audience outside of New York's Times Square. Probably the most indispensable release from them within the last year was Victor Janos "Last House On Dead End Street". Filmed and released (barely) in 1977, this grindhouse classic came and went. Generally regarded as the film of a madman, the director's name, Janos, never appeared on another film. Some people believed the story and images were based on fact. Some of the film's porn loops, interspersed throughout the film, may have been actual images from this director's own snuff film. The truth was that "Last House On Dead End Street" was financed independently from Roger Watkins, a porn producer who worked up into the 80's. The bottom line is that the film itself- a host of bad acting, stark brutality and poor editing- ingrained all that was nasty and vile about the American grindhouse cinema. It represented the opposite of traditional American film- financed, produced and marketed to the lowliest common denominator of the movie-going public and dumped into theaters in certain red light sections of large cities. Now seen, largely, as the fore runner to the independent movement of the late 80's and early 90's, a majority of these films truly didn't deserve a release. But the ones that survive, such as "Last House On the Left", now employ a home on smaller labels such as Tartan video. Once again, whether you decide to rent and give into the unrelenting nastiness on the screen is your own choice, but it's gratifying that it's there if you wish to.

If anyone senses a theme here, it's that I hold a fairly democratic view on things. More options, for better or worse, can never be a bad thing. When you look over the catalog of companies like Tartan or No Shame, which dedicates its release slate to an even higher degree of esoteric films than Tartan, one can't help but feel alive over the possibility of viewing choices outside the mainstream. Whether grindhouse or Italian crime films are your bag, baby, the option is there. Unlike niche markets or art house cinemas that dot the landscape in ever-growing minorities, at least 80% of my movie watching now occurs on DVD. This is not due to a lack of good 'new movies' as so many of the public loves to decry. I live within 10 miles of 2 art house theaters, but the choice of trudging out in traffic, paying eight dollars and having someone knee me in the back or spill popcorn on me pales in comparison to the small pleasures of lining up titles in my Netflix queue and discovering a new talent like Jun Hwung Jan's sci-fi head splitter "Save the Green Planet" or savoring the ugliness of the Paul Morrisey/Warhol "Blood For Dracula" and "Flesh For Frankenstein". That just sounds much better. Right? And all of the mentioned titles are available from Tartan. Check them out.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


The Black Dahlia

There's a frustrating dichotomy to the cinema of Brian De Palma. His films, often visually arresting, sometimes fall short due to his overheated passion for cinematic mythologies. The glorious failures of his career succumb to an outdated sense of cinema that don't play well in modern multiplexes. The best of his career, “Carlito’s Way”, “The Untouchables”, “Blow Out” and “Obsession”, survive due to a number of anomalies- respectively the sheer presence of Al Pacino, the noble set piece of a train station and a Canadian bridge, the precise tension of the thriller narrative juxtaposed with bravura editing, and ripe sexuality blown to excessive proportions. Whether De Palma is channeling Hitchcock or not, he’s a modern filmmaker deeply in love with a style and a voice that long ago left the aisle. And that’s probably why his latest, “The Black Dahlia” feels like a mis-fire. Everyone is playing it straight, as if this really were 1947. Scarlet Johansson fairs a lot worse than the male leads (holding a cigarette ever so daintily, and saddled with some of the film’s worst dialogue) and De Palma is never able to hold a steady tone throughout. The final fifteen minutes veers wildly into ‘camp’ territory, feeling much closer to the acidic finale of “Sunset Boulevard” than the 120 minute thriller that has come before it. De Palma wants to create a 2006 film reincarnated from the black and white noir world of the 40’s, and the film itself suffers from his wild impulse to copy the past. There are several inventive ideas here though- namely the 360 degree crane shot up over a building, lingering on a body in a grassy field, a woman walking by and discovering the body and back around the alley onto a car in which the film’s two leads, Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart, sit. De Palma hasn’t lost his flair for the technical, but some heart and emotional investment in the characters becomes stale. And, I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t mention the work of Mia Kirshner here as Elizabeth Short. Her role is no more than 10 minutes of screen time, composed in grainy black and white images from a screen test she supposedly shot before becoming Los Angeles’ great unsolved mystery, but her performance brims with sexuality and warmth. If you don’t know who she is, I beg you to check out her early Canadian films, Exotica and Love and Human Remains. But be warned, I saw her first. I certainly intend to dedicate some space to her in an upcoming article. Perhaps "The Black Dahlia", much like De Palma's recent "Femme Fatale", will grow on me with time. There's a madness at work here- the way the actual murder becomes a subtext for perverse (unspoken) love triangles and deep-seated insecurities between Hartnett, Johannson and Eckhart.... the way sexual impulses, both homosexual and heterosexual, seethes throughout every frame... the introduction of a Hollywood family that grows weirder with each passing minute....confronted with this upon a first viewing can be a harsh experience when one halfway expects a policier thriller mixed with that keen De Palma flair for long tracking shots and hidden glimmers of suspense. Instead, things get very screwy and, maybe, that's what De Palma wanted. Knowing that, next time maybe I can sit back and enjoy the retro ride for what it is.

Dead Man's Shoes

I've only seen one other film from director Shane Meadows, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that his latest, "Dead Man's Shoes" has kindled an interest in seeking out his other 3 works. Starring Paddy Considine, he plays a soldier who returns home from the army and systematically begins to track down 6 men from the neighborhood who absused his mentally challenged brother. That's all to the plot. Director Meadows infuses nothing with great style, eliciting a dominating performance from Considine. Just watch the hatred brewing beneath the surface when one of the men he's hunting comes up to him on the street and they have a casual conversation. Considine exhibits great presence throughout the entire film and even though the ending feels like a letdown after the mood of the first 80 minutes, "Dead Man's Shoes" is a terrific little movie. It also boasts an outstanding and atmospheric soundtrack from bands such as Aphex Twin, Smog and The Earlies.

Half Nelson

Garnered with strong reviews since playing at Sundance back in January, Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" is one of those 'independent' type movies that usually gets praised for its incendiary topic (drug abuse) while maintaining a visual scheme full of handheld photography and artsy editing. Well, "Half Nelson" has all of that but the film succeeds exceptionally well in part due to the performances of Ryan Gosling as a teacher struggling with addiction and the 13 year old student who finds out about his heart of darkness. The key to the film's acceptance for me, though, lies in the untypically impressive performance of 13 year old Shareeka Epps, a young actress who doesn't do too much, yet creates an aura of realism about her presence throughout the film. Gosling plays a teacher in a Brooklyn high school and moonlights as a crack addict, trading meaningful relationships for a bar stool on a nightly basis. He also coaches the girl's basketball team and one night after practice, Drey (Epps) finds him smoking crack in the locker room. What follows could be easily dismissed as uncertain or ill-fated melodramatics, but Gosling and Epps make it work. There's a moment towards the end of the film where teacher and student meet in a very disturbing point in both their lives, and the scene works due to the honesty displayed from both actors. In fact, this is a film that understands the importance of building naturalism slowly- the way Gosling interacts with his students, the way a visit to a family dinner signals so much about the past and where we come from, and the disregard that we fling ourselves into when an old flame returns engaged to someone else- these are all great moments in one of the year's very best films.


The second vintage murder mystery taking place beneath the luminous Hollywood sign in 2 weeks, Allen Coulter's directorial debut surrounds itself with classy acting and elegant cinematography, but it's ultimately lifeless. Adrien Brody plays Louis Cima, a private detective attemtping to determine whether the death of Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck, fresh off his "huh?" win as best actor at the Venice Film Festival for this performance) in 1959 really was suicide. Though the film rolls out several plausible examples, it eventually ducks all these possibilities and resigns itself to play it safe where Hollywood legend is concerned and emphasize the hopelessness of its two male characters- one already lost and the other (maybe) saved.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Short Cuts


Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” is not subtle satire or black comedy- it’s a fairly exaggerated yarn that intends to lambaste everything from corporate sponsorship to the rapid mutation of redneck families. And, while the film comes off as inept some times in look and tone, Judge strikes some pretty decent jokes along the way (such as a vending machine that shoots out food and says “here comes your giant ass fries” and then “for twenty bucks extra, do you want a giant ass taco?”) Luke Wilson plays Joe, an average military man who’s chosen for a special experiment due to his above average “averageness” and lack of family who’ll miss him. Maya Rudolph is a hooker who gets paid for her services. They think the army is planning on hibernating them for a year to test out the feasibility of preserving life. Things don’t go so well. The experiment is abruptly shut down and they’re left frozen for 500 years and when they awake, the world has dumbed-down dramatically and Joe and Maya become the smartest people on earth. The President is an ex porn star and WWE wrestling figure while society has degenerated into leaving huge piles of garbage around, and creating media that supply man’s basic needs- food and sex (such as a Masturbation channel and the idea that water is only found in toilets and the drink of choice is a Gatorade-like drink because “it has electrolytes!”) Like I mentioned earlier, Judge hits some striking moments with his humor throughout the film, but the presence of Dax Shepherd as Joe’s accomplice along the way brings things down dramatically and Maya Rudolph seems to be reaching in a lot of her performance. In “Office Space”, the acting was spot-on, creating vivid characters that arched the story along in unsuspecting and generous ways. In “Idiocracy”, Judge relies on the outrageous themes to overshadow the human element, and it wears out its welcome pretty fast. This isn’t a disaster, just a disappointment.

The Wicker Man

Another disappointment… oh hell who am I kidding- we all knew this one was bad. Neil Labute’s “The Wicker Man” enticed me by the fact it could present some unsettling moments and somehow enrich the bland 1973 film of the same title, but this was even worse than I imagined. I’ll say this once. I do not get Nicolas Cage. I can’t think of a single performance since his off kilter turn in “Peggy Sue Got Married” and his marginal stint in “Bringing Out the Dead” that I’ve liked. He seems false, unsure of himself in every performance. I scratched my head over enormous praise lauded him in films like “Adaptation” and “The Weather Man”, and wanted to close my ears every time he spoke in “World Trade Center”. Here he plays a California highway patrol police office lured to the Pacific Northwest by an ex-fiance who claims to be missing her daughter in a hippie-like commune. Sure…. I’d fly out there right away too. People start dying, Cage starts to go a little nutty and he yells at a woman via gunpoint to “step away from the bike!” And not a motorcycle, but a bicycle. Things get even worse when he puts on a bear costume and begins to run around the country side looking for this little girl. It’s awful I tell you. “The Wicker Man” is the type of film that movie-goers dread- it has little intelligence and even less care for giving the audience anything striking or original.

The Illusionist

Probably the best film of this little bunch has to be Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist”, boasting an all star cast of Edward Norton as the “magician” Eisenheim and Paul Giamatti as the chief inspector determined to uncover the supposedly naturalistic devices of Eisenheim’s tricks. Filmed with great care and beauty by Dick Pope and scored by one of my favorite composers, Philip Glass, “The Illusionist” builds terrific suspense out of a complex little story. Even though it eventually telegraphs its conclusion, the journey is highly enjoyable and Edward Norton and Giamatti display great chemistry

Friday, September 08, 2006

Nike Maria Sharapova

With Maria in the Open finals, I thought I'd post this great commercial that gets me everytime I see it. Nike creates some of the most entertaining commercials- well right behind all the Sportscenter commercials. Enjoy. And god is she pretty.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Season 5- Curb Your Enthusiasm

With the amount of blockbuster television shows produced by HBO each year, it could be easy for a 30 minute comedy to slip through the cracks against the more epic-themed and dramatically composed character pieces of “The Sopranos”, “Rome” and “Deadwood”. But “Curb Your Enthusiasm” hasn’t been lost, but widened and grown in popularity with each new season on HBO. This is one of my favorite shows ever produced. Each episode is written with precision and wit, where one little line of dialogue in the first 2 minutes will almost certainly come into play (often with potentially disastrous results) in the last 2 minutes. Writer and star Larry David has an uncompromising knack for creating plotlines that snake around themselves and come full circle in hilarious and unpredictable ways. I’ve heard friends and critics say Larry’s character in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (if you can call it a character since Larry plays himself as himself) is an asshole… and that encompasses so much of what works for the show. Larry continually takes shots at himself and very rarely does anything work out for him. The latest season pits Larry in some of the more conflicting situations of the show’s history, giving him a search for his possible real parents (the theory being that he’s adopted) and placing himself amidst a moral quandary, one in which he must decide whether to give his friend, Richard Lewis, a life saving kidney transplant. The mileage out of both of these subplots is gradually tightened into a season finale that is so brilliant, I won’t even give you a tease as to what happens. See it for yourself. And if the above poster doesn't tell you that Larry David has a supreme sense of humor about himself, then you don't get it.