Inhuman Swill : Film

Happy Pi Day!

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My first summer job was in a cabinetry shop. I worked there all three summers throughout high school. My boss was a crusty old shop teacher whose sense of humor and store of aphorisms had stopped evolving on approximately V-E Day.

He could be one mean sonofabitch. In fact, I can't watch Reservoir Dogs without thinking about him because he looked so much like Lawrence Tierney and said things like "My way or the highway" in so similar a way.

But sometimes he would saunter up and tell a joke, deadpan, like that one with the punchline: "No, you idiots. Pie are ROUND." Then he'd allow himself a tiny smirk of satisfaction and walk away.

Stay rational out there today.

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My first R-rated movie

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The Star Chamber
Reading this edition of "The Big Question" at Hitfix.com got me thinking about the first R-rated movie I ever saw. The film itself—a Michael Douglas thriller called The Star Chamber—was not so memorable, but the circumstances around my viewing of it are, in retrospect, amusing.

When I was growing up, the LDS Church strongly cautioned parents not to let their children see R-rated movies, so that was exactly the rule my parents established for us. I followed it, too, though not always happily.

I don't remember what it was about The Star Chamber that made me willing to break that rule. Since I was close to turning sixteen, it was probably just time for it to happen. My friend David, who was a little younger than I was, kind of wanted to see it too, so he asked his parents to take us. So, it was time plus opportunity, I suppose.

(I had seen R-rated movies already, but on video at friends' houses, not in an actual movie theater.)

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SXSW Film recap

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Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing
This is long overdue, but some folks over on Facebook asked me for a recap of the movies I saw last month at the SXSW Film Conference & Festival. But first, you might be asking, what was Bill doing at SXSW Film anyway?

Nothing mysterious. I attended the SXSW Interactive Festival for the first time in 2012. Though I had a great time there, I kept seeing posters for movies I wanted to see but couldn't because I didn't have a Film badge. So for 2013 I bought the Gold badge, which gives access to both Interactive and Film.

If I go again in 2014, I might just get the Film membership. I enjoyed it that much.

I didn't get to attend everything I wanted, but here's a rundown of the four feature films I did manage to see.

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Shaun of the dead of the dead

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shaun-meta-david.jpg
UPDATE!  After this blog entry was written, I emailed the text of it to John Hodgman on a whim. A few hours later, to my surprise, I received a response. His Honor told me he would endure my "gut punches" if I disagreed with him, but that I should not ask him to answer for Martin Amis.
Dear Judge John Hodgman:

I must take great exception to your summary judgment in a recent episode of the "Judge John Hodgman" podcast, to wit, that Shaun of the Dead is a comedy only and not a horror film.

Your Honor, this opinion is, if you'll permit me, patent hogwash. If we are to accept your definition of a horror film as one designed to provoke terror and dread in its audience and to help that audience confront and process their own existential fears as their on-screen proxies battle horrors from beyond the grave, then in what way does Shaun of the Dead not meet that definition? Yes, we may be laughing at the same time, and we may chuckle wryly here and there in recognition of nods to earlier classics in the zombie canon, but that in no way reduces our identification with Shaun, Ed, and the rest of our heroes, nor does it diminish our well-justified fears for their safety or our investment in their fates. Whatever yuks may be afoot, these characters are in very real peril, and we can't help experiencing that peril along with them. Shaun of the Dead clearly manages the feat of being effective comedy and horror both, at the same time.

I am weary to my bones of the tired assertion that a thing that is one thing cannot also be another thing, particularly when the one thing is seen as high art and the other as low. I recall years ago attending a lecture by literary enfant terrible Martin Amis at the NYU library. His New Yorker short story "The Janitor on Mars" had just been named by Locus Magazine as one of the year's top works of science fiction. During Q&A, a young woman asked Amis if the publication of that story meant that he was now a science fiction writer. Amis hemmed and hawed, eventually asserting that, while he had read and absorbed copious amounts of science fiction as a youth and certainly wasn't embarrassed by that fact, "The Janitor on Mars" merely deployed the tropes and language of science fiction to a higher literary end. It was not itself, he claimed, science fiction.

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Kanab family values

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Almost exactly five years ago, I called your attention here to a brouhaha in the small town of Kanab, Utah, over the adoption by the city council of a non-binding resolution defining the family as "one man, one woman" with a "full quiver" of children. A few months later, Laura and I visited Kanab (a town founded by Mormon polygamists), where we were pleased to see many businesses opposing the resolution with "Everyone Welcome Here!" stickers in their windows.

I wish I'd known sooner, but I've just learned that there's a documentary out about the whole controversy:

Natural Family Values

I can't vouch for the quality, not having seen it yet, but you can be sure I'm ordering a copy and will watch it with interest.

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Four, no, five buffoons

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It's easy to see why Drafthouse Films (the new distribution arm of Austin's great Alamo Drafthouse theater chain) was able to snap up the rights to British TV vet Chris Morris's feature film debut, Four Lions. Probably no one else wanted to touch it. It's not a movie for everybody.

I saw Four Lions last night at a preview screening at Piper's Alley, and I thought it was the funniest movie I'd seen since, well, The Hangover. Like any number of other comedies, it's the story of a buffoonish group of losers determined to succeed at something they clearly have no talent for. What makes Four Lions different is that the something is jihad. Will you like it? That depends on how much taste you have for laughing at suicide bombings. (Mild spoilers may lie ahead.)

Omar and Waj are two would-be British-Pakistani mujahideen who get ejected from an Al Qaeda training camp for rank incompetence. Undeterred from their dreams of glorious martyrdom, they tell the rest of their goofy terror cell back home in England that they've been sent back to carry out an important mission. The antics of the group, the most volatile member of which is a loose-cannon white convert to Islam, as they bumble their way toward a series of suicide bombings are very funny stuff, laugh-out-loud stuff. But you can't help but feel a certain amount of discomfort laughing at this gang of sincere fools.

Are we laughing at stereotyped Muslims? I don't think so. We're laughing at comedic types, certainly, but as embodied by characters who are actually more three-dimensional than you might expect in this sort of movie. Along with the uncomfortable laughs, we get a look inside the rage, the faith, the yearning for community, and the yearning for glory that prods a certain type of personality into taking up a violent cause. And the self-styled jihadis are hardly the only Muslims we meet. In the course of the film we encounter a wide range of Muslims, most of whom want nothing to do with violence, and a few of whom get caught up in it anyway, in different ways.

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Tiny accomplishments

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I've been a fan of Roger Ebert's writing (as opposed to his television presence) since I first ran across it on the web, which was probably not long after the Chicago Sun-Times starting publishing his film reviews online. Which was a long time ago. As much as his insightful criticism, it was droll, tossed-off observations like this one (from his new review of Happy Tears, emphasis mine) that won me over:

[Happy Tears] takes on an eerie resonance with the performance by Rip Torn as the aging father. He was recently in the news for being arrested, at age 78, for breaking into a bank while intoxicated and carrying a firearm.

To be sure, it was late at night, he had apparently forgotten he had the firearm, and after all, the bank looked a lot like his house. Nor is senility his problem. He is now in rehab and I wish him good fortune because he is a fine actor. Ann Landers used to write about the danger signals of alcoholism. His arrest in the bank surely would be one of them. Still, to stir up such a scandal at 78 is perhaps even a tiny accomplishment, when so many his age are no longer physically able to break into banks.  [full review]

This is all by way of recommending not just his reviews and his blog, not just his continuous championing of liberalism and rational free thought, but also the new Esquire profile of Ebert, "The Essential Man," written by Chris Jones. I knew about his battles with cancer and his various surgeries, but had no idea of their extent or aftermath. Read it, and read also Ebert's own generous thoughts on the article.

I can't think of many writers so well-rounded as people, and so unendingly prolific, and that he continues to be so in the face of his health problems is not just an inspiration. It's a more than tiny accomplishment.

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The devil at the end of my bed

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I watched Paranormal Activity yesterday evening on DVD while waiting for Laura to get home from work. I found the movie deeply, thrillingly, and realistically frightening—not because I believe in ghosts or demons, but because it returned me to a time in my life when I did.

Between the ages of ten and sixteen or so, I experienced a few episodes of what I realize now must have been sleep paralysis. This occurs when the brain rouses from REM sleep but the body essentially remains asleep. You're fully awake and aware, but you can't move a muscle.

That's exactly what happened to me maybe half a dozen times that I remember. I would wake up in the darkness of my bedroom unable to move, terrified by the certain convinction that the Devil himself was holding me immobile, and that he was going to kill me. I would struggle to move for what seemed like an hour, to no avail. I would struggle to form words, to shout for help, also to no avail. I would struggle not to fall back to sleep, because I knew if I fell asleep I would die. I would silently pray to God for deliverance from my assailant, deliverance that only came when I did fall back into unwilling unconsciousness.

On one very memorable occasion, when I was an older teenager, this happened on a visit to my uncle's house in Los Angeles, while I was cocooned in sleeping bag on his living room floor. My father was in a sleeping bag not six feet away, but I couldn't make the tiniest peep to wake him up so he could save me.

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The phantom reviewer

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There's a good chance that you've seen this already, but if you haven't and you care about good, clear storytelling and you have 70 minutes to kill, you must watch this epic deconstruction of The Phantom Menace.

Aside from the pointless serial-killer subplot (seriously—the narrator of the review is supposed to be a delusional serial killer), this is a brilliant and funny dissection of why the Star Wars prequels suck so hard. It crystallized for me many of my own unfocused thoughts about the films, and gave me ten times as many new reasons to hate the them. The sequence where the reviewer asks friends to describe specific Star Wars characters is alone worth the price of admission.

Because of the 10-minute limit on YouTube content, the review is broken up into seven parts. (Part 7 doesn't always seem to play in its original configuration. If you have that problem, try this version of Part 7 instead.) Here's Part 1 to whet your appetite:

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Having watched Valkyrie recently, I've been thinking about the intersection of art, commerce and religion. I know, that's probably not the kind of discussion the filmmakers intended to provoke, but here we are. Germany started it.

Every so often a big kerfluffle flares up in the media or the blogosphere about what famous entertainer is or isn't a Scientologist, and why. Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Isaac Hayes, Beck, Chick Corea, Edgar Winter, Chaka Khan, Mark Isham, Greta Van Susteren—we're supposed to avoid giving them money so we don't inadvertently support their reprehensible "church." Leonard Cohen, Paul Haggis, Jerry Seinfeld, Courtney Love, Gloria Gaynor—once were Scientologists, but now they're on the okay list. Neil Gaiman—wait, what's the controversy with him? I'm not supposed to read him because his relatives are Scientologists?

Frankly, keeping score like this is ridiculous.

As much as I dislike Scientology, discriminating against artists because of their private beliefs is a losing game. I hate the fact that there were Crusades, and a Spanish Inquisition, and institutional coverups of child sexual abuse, but that doesn't mean I'm going to deny myself the work of Catholic writers like Graham Greene or Tim Powers, or Catholic filmmakers like Kevin Smith. Will some of the money I pay for their stuff end up in Vatican coffers? Possibly, but I'm not naive enough to think that any of the money I give or receive is pure. We live in a pluralist society. We can't help the fact that our money is going to circulate through parts of the body politic that we don't like. The only judgment we can really make is how we respond to the art, how pure and universal and human it is, how ennobling or demeaning or thrilling or dull, how free from or full of agenda or polemic.

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