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2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film
Irreversible

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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McBain Recommends
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The Blog:
Friday, May 28, 2004
 

Raising Helen and The Gerund-Name Title Device



I haven't seen Raising Helen. Nor do I intend to, since it just looks like another trite, pandering middlebrow crowd-pleaser, not to mention its release during the often brain-dead summer months and designed as counter-programming to The Day After Tomorrow, leading to a Memorial Day weekend full of artistically bankrupt studio claptrap tailor-made to the exhausted attitudes of a bewildered movie-going public, their attention spans withered to dust by reality TV, cable news, and mindless clip shows. Like cattle they will trudge dutifully to the malls and multiplexes to slide their credit cards through machines in order to sit in air-conditioned boxes, forget their unremarkable, meaningless lives, dead-end careers, and loveless marriages so they can sit on their increasingly fatter asses, shovel popcorn into their drooling gobs with robotic arms, and hopelessly escape the outside world for two hours plus trailers.

So why this review? The title of Raising Helen gives me an opportunity to voice my dissent for an ever-growing trend in entertainment titling. It seems that everyone from cluelessly pretentious student filmmakers to major A-list artistes has deemed it necessary to use what I call the Gerund-Name Title Device. You'll see the GNTD everywhere and I really must be the only person upset with the numbing repetitiveness of it -- probably because I'm a picky language-nerd with few other better things to do. What it is is a title that begins with a gerund (that's a present participle ending in -ing for you non-nerds among my readership) and continues to the name of a person, most likely a character in said project. What makes the GNTD even worse is when the two words together combine to make a pun out of the character's name. Such is the case with Raising Helen, obviously. “Oooh, I get it! Kate Hudson is going to raise hell! Isn’t that funny that she has to “raise” some kids? And her name is Helen? I bet, in her own way, she will grow up too!”

“Meaningful” names are staples of the unimaginative film – anytime someone is named Hope or Faith (can you imagine a television show with both of those names? And if they called it “Hope & Faith” or something? What’s that, you say? Oh no…) you can count on manure in your lap. The bronze medal goes to the name Grace, which is a favorite Gerund-Name [plus pun] title candidate – cf. Saving Grace, etc. [Note: according to the IMDb, there are no fewer than 7 (seven) films entitled Saving Grace]

To be a pure entry onto the growing list of hideous Gerund-Name titles, it should be only two words long. But first and last names together still count (e.g. Being John Malkovich), as do names with prefixes or titles, such as Saving Private Ryan. (As you’ll see, “saving” is one of the most popular gerunds employed in the GNTD). Now, just because I am picking on this horrendous title fever, this growing disease of uncreative madness, doesn’t mean I dislike the films and/or shows. They can range from the terrific (Deconstructing Harry, Raising Victor Vargas, Owning Mahowny) to the truly awful (Chasing Amy, Watching Ellie). There is no discrimination, only that every one of them could have had a better title if they tried. Come on, writers. This is getting old. Grow some imagination. Stop with the gerund-name device. It’s no longer hip. It’s no longer tempting. It’s no longer interesting. It’s done. Hell, try command-adverbs – that worked for Kiss Me Deadly.

Anyway, here’s a partial list of the GNTD offenders I’ve come up with so far. This list grows weekly, so I’m always taking submissions. Post to the comments section and let’s see just how many cattle there are in the titling world – it might equal the number sitting in front of screens watching Raising Helen this weekend…


Chasing Amy
Loving Jezebel
Being John Malkovich
Finding Forrester
Saving Private Ryan
Kissing Jessica Stein
Educating Rita
Deconstructing Harry
Losing Isaiah
Saving Silverman
Drowning Mona
Killing Zoe
Regarding Henry
Teaching Mrs. Tingle
Inventing the Abbotts
Playing Patti
Saving Grace
Judging Amy
Silencing Mary
Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
Serving Sara
Wrestling Ernest Hemingway
Guarding Tess
Driving Miss Daisy
Eating Raoul
Boxing Helena
Killing Priscilla
Finding Buck McHenry
Raising Helen
Owning Mahowny
Finding Nemo
Chasing Papi
Raising Victor Vargas
Watching Ellie
Playing Mona Lisa
Avenging Angelo
Stealing Sinatra
Trading Mom
Raising Cain



Thursday, May 27, 2004
 

Question of the Week



Soon I will open up a thread for the Milk Plus Canon 1985-89 poll, but I thought I'd give people some more time to mull it over. Instead, I'll post a new "Question of the Week," concerning the end of the 2003-2004 Television Season. Though I didn't really care all that much about such big TV events as the Friends series finale (the Frasier finale was much better IMO) or the glorified karaoke of American Idol, this television season offered up two of the most compelling overall seasons I've seen in a while, The Shield S3 and Angel S5 (damn you WB!). So here is the question of the week:

What were your personal highlights (and lowlights) of the 2003-2004 television season?

Remember, this poll is open to all blog members and readers, and feel free to respond as often as you'd like.


 

Coffee and Cigarettes


Coffee and Cigarettes is made up of about a dozen short vignettes shot by writer/director Jim Jarmusch sporadically over the last decade, linked by the basic commonality of discussion over coffee and cigarettes. Some are short, some are long; some are rambling and unfocused; some have their own inner story arc; some are frivolous; a handful are hilarious; one is unexpectedly bittersweet and poetic; and some are even loosely linked through thematic threads. But the best thing that can be said about the collection is that on the whole it is a success for droll contemplation, if a minor one considering its hip minimalism and scattered production.

Which vignettes are the best most certainly depends on who one asks, though the clearest winners among the bunch-for example a back and for between Cate Blanchett playing herself and Cate Blanchett playing her not so successful and just a bit envious cousin-are impossible to dismiss. There is no way that putting the Wu-Tang Clan’s reigning figureheads Rza and Gza in the same room as an undercover Bill Murray or having Alfred Molina fawn over Steve Coogan’s career could not be highly amusing. These, among others, are Jarmusch’s more focused vignettes, and are connected through the underplayed commonality of the burdens of fame. Bill disguised as a waiter at a Turkish restaurant, both Rza and Tom Waits secretly lead of a double life as doctors, and Cate literally talking to her double about press junkets and the so-called perks of the famous underline Coffee and Cigarettes with more than simple hipster improvisation. These unified moments reveal the amusing oddity of confronting something as complicated as fame with something as simple as café conversations. The disparate split of life into daily functions (like comedian Steven Wright having to go to the dentist), the life of fame and all in between (like the Wu members jetting to the “udio" not to record but to play chess) is one that Jarmusch never elaborates on, but the film seems to offer variations on the theme in several different ways by simply confronting on person with anothe. Once connected, these more focused shorts feel more fulfilling, and their occasionally trite similarities (like lines repeated in several vignettes) are generally eased by the offhand nature of putting several more frivolous shorts amongst the obviously unified ones.

The other vignettes, often featuring actors that no one outside of the late 80s/early 90s independent circuit would recognize, are of more questionable value. But even the mediocre shorts juggle the film tonally and Jarmusch miraculously achieves a steady, contemplative rhythm to the collection despite the large period of time over which the series was shot. Sure, he could have exorcised the more frivolous sketches, in particular one with a lone Renee French carefully creating the perfect cup of coffee while reading gun mags and another with a couple of old Italians grumbling about the unhealthiness of java and smokes, but even those work by themselves in their own little way. Admittedly, put next to a sketch with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop uneasily insulting each other’s personality anything could look
inferior in comparison, but it must be said that some of the shorts don’t quite achieve poignancy they surely look the worse next to Coffee and Cigarettes' finest moments.

Unnecessary they made be, but the lesser shorts hardly bitter the taste of the film, as Jarmusch rightfully bookends the film with two completely different vignettes-beginning with Roberto Benigni inhaling espresso and questionably misunderstanding Steven Wright about taking his place at his dentist appointment and ending on a sad, sweet gem of a short with Bill Rice and Taylor Meade as melancholy poet-janitors. With its multitude of shorts, cast members, and slight variations of similar themes, perhaps the best thing about Coffee and Cigarettes is that its hip languidness. Its contemplative tone allows the perfect focal point of a similar discussion after the movie. The topic? Jarmusch’s (in)ability to center an entire film on something as mundane as a minimalist meal and simultaneously use both his famed talent and those of his collaborators (including cinematographers Frederick Elmes and Robber Muller, whose contribution to the film are questionable) to etch a picture of something deeper.


Tuesday, May 25, 2004
 
Carandiru

Despite being set in the exotic, overcrowded and now notorious Brazilian prison of the film’s title, Carandiru is really no different in content from any other jail movie. Prisoners get shanked, raped, bond, and tell their stories just like in any other jail. In fact, the only surprising element of Hector Babenco’s film is that it features an unusually strong sympathy for the prison inmates en total. This sympathy is literalized and focused by the film’s surrogate guide, a doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) who was brought to Carandiru to deal with the rampant spread of AIDs through the prison population. The physician has a perpetual grin of liberal understanding on his face, as if as a sympathetic outsider he gets these people, their crimes and the society that caused them and put them here, and the inmates instantly accept and respect him for this treatment. His view of the prison and the prisoners-charming Brazilians each residing in apartment-like cells, all colorful and reflective of each inmates’ personality-is that of the film, and in fact the majority of Carandiru’s running time seems devoted to narrative-less exposition on how good these people really are. The killer is wracked with guilt, the murders are accidental, the rapists get justly punished and most prisoners have about them a sad kind of humanity.

So it seems only inevitable that the twenty minute epilogue of the film-the reenactment of the Brazilian riot squad massacring 111 inmates after what must be the most tepid and socially conscious riot in the history of prison life-is portrayed as some sort of hyper-atrocity. As if slaughtered 111 prisoners without a single loss of life on the police side wasn’t horrendous enough, Babenco dedicates his film to sympathizing the life of inmates of Carandiru to an impossible degree, all charm, understandable pathos, and colorful Brazilian life. The real tragedy is that the film so obviously devotes itself to sparking concern and empathy in its audience that the horrendous, bloody conclusion in the film that is based on real events in fact comes off as a contrived polemic ending to a heavy-handed message-film.


 

Dusk to Dawn Trashorama #2



Like many people, I believe that trailers are one of the best parts of the moviegoing experience. (Depending on the film, the trailers might be the only memorable part of the evening.) So any company that would compile and release a large collection of trailers would automatically become a friend of mine. And when that company is Something Weird, the finest sleaze merchants known to mankind... well, dammit if I ain't first in line to see what they've come up with. The tape the following trailers were taken off is the second release in a series of nine. (Yes, I've completed the set.) These things are more fun than should be allowable by law. Let's see what we have here:

Devil Woman: Probably Filipino and probably really bad, but the trailer's a hoot. Apparently this film is all about snakes -- people being attacked by snakes, people running from snakes, people kissing snakes (seriously). There's a Medusa lady, and there is kung fu. Mostly though, it's people being set upon by snakes. The overdone narration is a highlight; at one point, the pitchman tells you to "beware of the laughter that has no sound", which is probably easier said than done. He also drags out the old "You must keep telling yourself, 'It's only a movie'" line from the "Last House on the Left" promos, which I think everyone and their mother was using at one time. Also, on the same thrilling program...

Dragons Never Die: A post-Bruce Lee chop-socky flick that, unlike most of the films that appear on these tapes, actually looks damn good. Great tagline: "Take yo' mama to see it, before someone else does!" Bonus: This is the first trailer on the tape to alert the viewer to the fact that you used to be able to see boobies in theatrical advertisements.

Challenge to Survive: A family adventure that promises "high adventure, crackling danger and soaring excitement". Unfortunately, it's based on a true story and includes lots of cute animals, which means it's probably really boring. Stars Mel Torme and William Shatner, though, which should be worth something.

The Impossible Years: "Wacky" sex comedy starring David Niven as a psychologist with a hard-to-control daughter. The film itself looks atrocious (just when you think it can't get lamer, the trailer pulls out a car chase), but it might be worth seeing just to see Niven wrap his accent around lines like "That pornographic pizza pusher!" If I remember correctly, Leonard Maltin called this the lewdest G-rated film in history.

Las Vegas Lady: Looks for all the world like a TV-movie version of a heist flick (the narrator conjures up the spectre of "Ocean's Eleven" to use as comparison, which probably doesn't speak well for the film's quality). But hey, this might be your only chance to see Stella Stevens and Stuart Whitman pair up.

The Thing with Two Heads: Ray Milland gets his head sewn onto Rosey Grier's body... while Rosey's still using it. Features a motorcycle chase that seems to go on forever and some memorably bad special effects. Why don't I own this film already?

The Italian Connection: One of the many titles attached to this Italian crime flick (I first heard of it as "Hit Men"), it looks reasonably exciting if somewhat confused. Plus it's got Woody Strode and Henry Silva. The tagline's memorable: "Miss it, and get a little round hole between your eyes."

The Outside Man: Another European actioner filled with double and triple crosses, this looks no better or worse than the others of its ilk. But dig that cast -- Jean-Louis Trintignant, Roy Scheider, Ann-Margaret and Angie Dickinson!

Car Wash: With "Soul Plane" coming out on Friday, it seems like a good time to revisit its likely inspiration. The trailer does a fine job of selling the film -- no plot, just lots of car washing, hijinx and a joke about hand jobs. Plus a glimpse of Richard Pryor.

TNT Jackson: It's got naked kung fu. Who cares about the rest of it?

Kansas City Bomber: Raquel Welch? In a movie about roller derby? Whoopie-doo! Most puzzling thing: Why is the film called "Kansas City Bomber" when it's made perfectly clear that Welch is on the Portland team?

Lipstick: The infamous rape-revenge flick starring Margaux Hemingway and Chris Sarandon at his slimiest. Having not seen the film, I have to ask: Is it really as unrepentently sleazy as it looks?

A Bullet for Pretty Boy, Jackson County Jail, White Lightning: The first of many examples of hicksploitation, and a reminder that '70s sleaze-n-cheese was HUGE in the South. "Jackson" looks like the best of the three (it appears to be a tough, violent action-drama with an early appearance by Tommy Lee Jones); "White Lightning" demonstrates why Burt Reynolds eventually wrecked his career on the shores of the Good Ol' Boy movie.

Shamus: More Burt Reynolds, but this one looks genuinely bizarre -- Burt's playing a trenchcoat-wearing private dick, and the filmmakers don't appear to have taken it too seriously (there's a scene where Burt, hiding beside a doorway, whacks an entering baddie in the stomach with a 2x4... upon which the man shakes it off and tries walking in again so Burt can club him on the head). If this ever pops up on cable, I'm taping it.

Arnold: I've wanted to see this black comedy (about a woman who marries a corpse for money) for a long, long time. Now, thanks to the thrill-spilling trailer, I don't have to. See? The spolier-laden advert isn't a new innovation!

The Devil's Triangle, The Force Beyond, The Legend of McCullough's Mountain: This is one genre that I'm glad we don't see anymore -- the pseudo-documentary about unexplained phenomena. Both trailers try to exude an air of legitimacy ("Triangle" even hired Vincent Price to narrate), but they can't hide the fact that they're comprised of 100% hooey. I wouldn't piss in these films' mouths if their gums were on fire.

The Hidan of Maukbeiangjow: Possibly the worst title for a movie ever... and the trailer sucks too. It's got two annoying guys breathlessly describing everything in the film and trying to come up with a decent title for the film while scenes from the film play underneath their yammering. So blithely incomprehensible that I kind of almost want to see it.

The Killer Elite: It's got Robert Duvall and James Caan (among others), and it's directed by Sam Peckinpah. So what the hell is it doing here?

Killers Three: Looks like a standard young-psychos crime drama, with Robert walker doing his usual thing... but wait! Is that Dick Clark holding a tommy gun? And wearing a mustache? IT IS! YESSSSSS! (And he co-wrote this tripe too!)

Roller Boogie: Oh my God, was this ever cool? At least the distributors understand what they have on their hands -- they don't let us hear any dialogue or get any idea of the plot. Instead, we're shown a bunch of images of dorks on rollerskates while Cher sings some damn thing. I think it's a little embarrassing that there was actually a time in which this could see the inside of a theater.

Teenage Graffiti, The Van: Oh boy, teen sex! Who needs a plot when you've got teen sex? "The Van" has the distinction of at least being so incompetent that the boom mike actually shows up in the trailer; "Graffiti" isn't even that memorable.

Hit Man, The Black Six: Two blaxploitation flicks -- "Hit Man" is a black spin on "Get Carter" (and looks quite good, with a memorable encounter between a lady and a mountain lion); "Six" promises a rumble between the titular badasses and 150 motorcycle dudes, but the most memorable thing is that the leads are all played by football stars -- who are billed by team as well as by name!

Sting of the Dragon Masters, Fearless Fighters: More kung-fu cinema promotion wherein we're shown fighting and not much else. "Fighters" doesn't even bother with badly dubbed dialogue, though we are shown a man catching an arrow in his teeth; "Masters" pauses from its action to let us know that Angela Mao stars in it. Naturally, I want to see both of these films as soon as possible.

Beyond the Door, The Night Child: Two "Exorcist" ripoffs released by the same company, and it shows -- both logos have the t in the word the replaced by a crucifix. "Child" even stirs up memories of the earlier smash hit "Door" by claiming that it is "beyond darkness, beyond the devil..." Beyond that, "Child" is also the better trailer of the two, wearing its "Bad Seed Goes Satanic" pitch so baldy (it even includes a shot of the kid playing the piano after a death!) that it becomes irresistible. All this, plus it has the chutzpah to twist the "Last House" tagline so it reads, "Keep reminding yourself, 'She's only a child!'" YESSSSS!

Crypt of Dark Secrets: I have no idea what this film is about, but the advertising budget must not have been high -- the "evil eye" look is achieved on a female by freezing the frame and cutting out holes where the eyes would be so they look white. And as cheesy as that sounds, it's even funnier when it gets done to a snake a couple seconds later! Uses the "you'll pay for the whole seat, but you'll only use the edge" tagline, so you know it sucks.

Asylum of Satan, The Manitou Two really bad films from William Girdler result in two really bad trailers. "Asylum" is worth seeing just because there's funky cop music underneath all the supposed "spooky" parts that ruin any effect they might have had. "The Manitou" plays it safe by never totally revealing what its title baddie is... which, trust me, is a blessing. If you knew going in that the menace was an ancient Indian shaman which has been reborn out of a tumor on Susan Strasberg's back, you'd laugh the film off the screen.

Suspiria: No wonder this flopped upon first release -- the trailer is AWFUL. It makes the film look cheesy without hinting at either Argento's masterful compositions or his stunning brutality... plus, it's saddled with a terrible rhyming couplet about an iris or something.

Torso: This, on the other hand, IS THE GREATEST TRAILER EVER MADE. It opens with the hilarious line "Producer Carlo Ponti, who brought you 'Doctor Zhivago', now brings you... 'TORSO'!" Then the title is repeated about five times in the same forecful way, while some fuzzed-out goofball guitar lick plays underneath and we're shown freeze-frames and zoom-ins on the film's murder scenes. This grand hard-sell achieves what all trailers dream of: It makes you want to see the movie... Right. Fucking. Now.

A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Four Flies on Grey Velvet: Interesting in that they seem to prove the auteur theory -- I don't need the trailer to tell me who directed these films, 'cause I can figure it out all by myself. "Hatchet" is odd, screwy and filled with zooms and primary colors (in lieu of narration or a plot description, we're given a faux-Doors tune), so it's very Bava. "Velvet" has a wrongly accused man and glimpses of insanely stylish murder scenes (one shot shows the camera following a knife down into the flesh of a victim), so it's pretty clearly an Argento effort. Most notable thing about either trailer: For some reason, on the "Hatchet" trailer, the aspect ratio changes from scene to scene!

Three on a Meathook: More Girdler nonsense, but this one deserves its own entry -- I mean, the trailer itself is silly enough, with its depictions of bloody corpses and its hysterically overwritten narration (lifeless limbs swaying in the breeze or something like that)... but then the kicker: This gruesome thing was APPROVED FOR GENERAL AUDIENCES! No wonder it's so notorious.

Carry on Camping: I've never seen a "Carry On" film, but from the looks of it they seem to have been written by people who just stopped using crayons. Seriously, this is humor at its most rudimentary. It makes Benny Hill look like Noel Coward. If someone can explain the incredible popularity and longevity of this series, I'm all ears.

Up in the Cellar: A British sex comedy, which everyone knows are the worst kind. This doesn't look any better. It's a sequel of sorts to a film called "Three in the Attic", which explains the puzzling title, but still... I would just like to note that if you're going up to get to your cellar, you have structural problems.

Devil's Angels: I don't normally get excited by biker movies, but how can I resist one where the gang leader is played by John Cassavetes? The sight of him on a hog wearing bomber glasses is absolutely priceless.

Eye of the Cat: Twisty thriller about a plan to knock off an rich disabled woman and a man with a fear of cats. Blood-smeared tabbies aside, this actually looks like it's worth seeing, with a memorable scene of the wheelchair-bound target careening down the hills of San Francisco.

Infra-Man: The earth trembles and cracks. A man in a red suit flies around and shoots laser beams. Giant robots stomp around and break stuff. I want to see this so bad it hurts.

Slumber Party Massacre: One of the most recent trailers you'll find in this set (it even has a red-band warning from the MPAA), but no less sleazy for it -- it throws out gore and nudity galore in its attempts to separate the viewer from his cash. Interesting to note that despite most reviewers' dismissal of the possible feminist intentions of the filmmakers, the signature shot from the trailer is an undeniably loaded image. There's one van killing shown that Kevin Williamson seems to have lifted for "Scream 2".

Phantasm: Shit, even the trailer doesn't know what this film's about. The narrator asks, "Is it death? Is it life? Is it this? Is it that? Is it Memorex?" and then just gives up and says "Whatever it is... um... you should see it or something." Pretty impressive way to sell a senseless movie, if you ask me.

Puss 'n Boots, Tom Thumb, Sleeping Beauty, The Brave Little Tailor, The Wonderful Land of Oz: I'll bet you didn't know these existed. And I'll bet you're happier for it. These films are part of a series of super-cheap kidflicks put out by a company called 'Childhood Productions', and they're all so tacky and ugly that I would have had nightmares had I been subjected to them as a kid. The lone exception is "Puss", which instead is the responsibility of Mexi-producer K. Gordon Murray, and it looks like the worst of the lot, with a cat costume that is the most hideous thing on two feet ever in the history of time. If there is a Hell, these movies will be an integral part of it.

Battle Beyond the Stars, Galaxina Clever of the SW boys to put these back-to-back -- "Galaxina" not only uses the same special effects footage as "Battle", but has the gall to put it right there in the trailer. (Corman sure got a lot of mileage out of the extra dough he plunked down for the "Battle" FX.)

The Love Factor: This looks like something you'd find on Skinemax -- maybe it's a lost chapter of the "Femalien" saga.

Raw Meat: I actually just saw this, and I find the trailer interesting in that it downplays the veddy Britishness of the film. Donald Pleasance is the film's best asset, and yet he's nowhere to be seen. That's a damn shame. What it does have is a couple shots of people running down murky subway tunnels, and then it hits you with "because of the extremity of the film, no additional scenes can be shown". Which is my favorite hard-sell trick ever.

The Devil's Wedding Night, The Deathmaster: Two films in which actors struggle to hide incredibly huge fake vampire fangs when their mouths are closed. And you know what? I looked and I looked, and I couldn't find the Devil in "Wedding" anywhere. I did see a vampire, though. Is the Devil a vampire?

The tape then closes out with an endless spiral hypno-thingy that has a man intoning all manner of creepy-crawly shit that could happen to you in the theater (he uses the phrase "Or you may find yourself..." so often that I expected David Byrne to show up) and a fun pre-film thing shown before "Mad Doctor of Blood Island" that implored you to drink the green-blood samples given to you at the door. All in all, this is a wonderful peek into a long-lost world of exploitation/genre salesmanship. I wish they still made movies -- and trailers -- like these.