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Tuesday
Nov172009

Bubble (2005)

When the Walls Come Tumblin' Down...

There’s a Henry Rollins joke from the late 90’s that predicted the rise of reality television. While riffing on inauthentic sitcoms like Friends, he posited that perhaps audiences really did need ridiculous escapism; after all, he wondered, who would want to watch a show called, Your Shitty Job, or Factory!? A decade later, programs about average people dot the TV landscape; Hollywood has found a way to sensationalize the unglamorous, to monetize the mundane. From scripted sitcoms about office life to series that purport to document the perils of raising eight kids, reality is the new escapism. Rollins, I think, would have been a big fan of Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble.

I love Bubble. It’s a captivating short film about life in an impoverished Ohio town that exudes authenticity in every respect, from casting to shooting style. The fact that it was made on a shoestring budget by the high-powered director/producer of Ocean’s Thirteen is a sign of both true artistry and integrity. The movie is almost perfect.

Bubble tells the story of two friends, Kyle (Dustin Ashley) and Martha (Debbie Doebereiner). They both work at a doll manufacturing plant; Kyle pours rubber into the molds that produce hands, feet, and creepy, empty baby faces, and Martha paints their cheeks with spray-on blush and sews their Sunday-best dresses. Kyle’s a soft-spoken twenty-year-old waif and Martha is heavy-set, middle-aged, and single; they’re best friends, bound by an utter lack of prospects and united in a love of small-town gossip. Martha’s world is shattered one morning when the plant manager introduces a new employee, Rose (Misty Wilkins), whose youth and beauty immediately draw Kyle’s attention.

I won’t delve further into the story because to spoil the late-film plot development would be a sin. Bubble thrives on the documentary quality of its presentation, and is an utter joy to watch; if you’ve seen the film, you no doubt find this a puzzling statement. This is not a joyous movie—it’s actually rather depressing—but you can tell by the attention to detail and the refusal to rely on cliche that Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough set out to prove that a movie could be utterly convincing and entertaining.

All of the performers in Bubble are non-actors with no previous film experience. Ashley and Wilkins come across as the real deal, directionless underachievers whose greatest ambitions involve weed and a steady paycheck. I don’t know if they needed training beyond tips on memorizing lines; I wouldn’t be surprised if they just played versions of themselves. The real find of the movie is Debbie Doebereiner. She’s a natural, and the only one of the performers who creates a complete character; granted, that’s partially by the script’s design. I was moved by her jealousy, frustration, and compassion—and, in the end, her tragic madness. It’s fitting that she hasn’t acted in anything since Bubble; she’s frozen in time here, like the Mona Lisa.

Like Soderbergh’s other recent short-form experiment, The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble takes a cinematic snapshot of a small group of characters (this film is actually shorter, clocking in at just 73 minutes). Unlike the other movie, Bubble has no fat. Soderbergh spins his story quickly through everyday dialogue and many scenes of people assembling dolls and slinking from the factory to their tract homes and back again. He packs the front end of the movie with just enough quiet, drawn out scenes to give a feel for the interminability of his characters’ existence without alienating us, and then plows full boar into the plot.

Depending on how many police procedurals you’ve seen, you may or may not think Bubble has a “twist” ending. It’s unclear what Soderbergh and Hough’s intent was with the film’s climax. Are we meant to be shocked, or is the film just meant to be appreciated as a character study? I wasn’t surprised by the revelation, but I was surprised by one character’s awakening, in the scene that closes the movie (Hint: “Oh my God.”).

I hope Steven Soderbergh makes more films like Bubble, or at least inspires other filmmakers to take up the mantle. This is the movie of a young, ambitious artist, and the fact that it comes from someone who could have long ago put that aspect of his creativity away is amazing to me. The director has brought us full circle now. From stand-up joke to mass-marketed faux “reality”, and now back to a more authentic reality (that is still a construct) produced outside the studio system, entertainment has officially eaten itself. Whatever comes next will be awesomely awful, I’m sure, but we can count on Soderbergh to keep things interesting.

Note: If anyone has seen this movie and can clue me in on the white cross motif, I’d greatly appreciate it. For the uninitiated, look for four white crosses in the early part of the film, in four different scenes. It may be a coincidence, but I’m happy to entertain any theories you might have...

Monday
Nov162009

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Blown Job

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a fascinating sketch of a movie. It appears the director had an idea for a picture about a call girl who serves high-class clients during hard economic times, but that he either didn’t have the time or the focus to create a feature-length film. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Much of the buzz surrounding The Girlfriend Experience came from its star, Sasha Grey, a young porn sensation staking her claim in legitimate showbiz. I’m happy to report that she does just fine as Chelsea, the closed-book New York prostitute who juggles sleeping with day-traders and carrying on a committed relationship with her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos). Grey will not likely win any awards for this role; her detached monotone is believable as an affected, necessary professional wall, but it could also be construed as the actress just running lines. She has a natural confidence and power over the men she acts against that works to her advantage. And in case you’re wondering, no, this movie is not an art house porn flick: Soderbergh rightly focuses on the drama and leaves Grey’s other career on Cliphunter, where it belongs.

The screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman barely fills out the lean 77-minute run-time, and Soderbergh does his best to pad the film with neat tricks like lingering on out-of-focus scenery and leaving in voiceover mistakes by Grey. These give the movie what could be called a “raw quality” by pretentious assholes, but they are designed to distract from the incomplete narrative and confounding thesis (these flaws are also aided by non-linear storytelling, the crutch of any screenwriter who is not Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan).

The story bounces between Chelsea’s gigs servicing whiny Wall Street players and Chris’s attempts to quit his job as a personal trainer at a gym in order to work at another, higher profile one. He also gets invited by one of his clients to fly on a private jet to Vegas for a weekend—which he does—but we never learn why it was so important that he go. Throw in another sub-plot about Chelsea kind of falling for one of her Johns and (maybe) breaking up with Chris, and you have a half-season of CW drama shoe-horned into a movie that tries to be about many things and risks adding up to nothing.

Despite all that, I recommend watching this movie. Like 2005’s Bubble, Steven Soderbergh took a break from big-budget, high profile labors and invested $2 million dollars and two weeks of shooting into a neat idea that he was clearly passionate about—for awhile. The Girlfriend Experience is timely in its message about global economic disaster chipping away at the luxuries of the privileged; it is also timely in its style of delivery: it’s like an elaborate Tweet that ran out of characters before getting to the point.

Sunday
Nov082009

Dead Air, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Talk Until You Drop

Throughout the movie Gremlins we hear a corny disc jockey named Rockin’ Ricky Rialto. At first he’s just ambient noise playing on people’s radios, but as the film progresses and the town of Kingston Falls is besieged by little green monsters, the DJ’s broadcasts become more sporadic and panicked. Though we never see Ricky or his studio, these intermittent audio accounts painted a vivid picture in my eight-year-old mind; they helped broaden the scope of the movie in ways that I wouldn’t appreciate until years later. I was reminded of Gremlins while watching Corbin Bernsen’s surprisingly good new zombie movie, Dead Air.

I’ll be up front in acknowledging my three strikes against the film before even having watched it. First, it was another zombie movie; I love them, but it seems we’re drowning in an undead pop cultural glut right now, with so much easy, bad media that it’s easy to forget the good stuff. From comics to movies to punk bands who take the stage with half-eaten-face makeup, I often find myself wishing this sub-genre would take a powerful shotgun blast to the face (a double-tap, in fact, for good measure). My second trepidation was Bill Moseley; I’ve been doing a lot of homework in preparation for the Crypticon Celebrity Dinner, and while I generally like Bill Moseley’s performances, he tends to be the best thing about the movies in which he appears (Repo! The Genetic Opera has the distinction of being one of The Worst Movies I’ve Ever Seen). Strike three: Dead Air went direct to DVD; not a confidence booster. Fortunately, none of these strikes mattered by film’s end.

A giddy mash-up of Talk Radio, 28 Days Later, and the television show 24, Dead Air is the story of late-night L.A. shock jock Logan Bernhardt (Moseley) who has the misfortune of being on the air during the zombie apocalypse. The film opens with a group of terrorists planting toxic canisters in the air ducts of a sports arena; as with any bona fide zombie picture, something goes wrong and the canisters are prematurely opened, gassing not only the intended target but also the terrorists. The victims experience a sickness that builds into feral rage, which keeps their bodies animated and hungry even after death. Many in the panicked populace call in to Logan’s radio show, the only one in town that hasn’t switched to the Emergency Broadcast System.

This movie has a number of things going for it. The first being that it partially updates Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio for the modern age; both films featured broken men talking about paranoia to a broken audience in uncertain times. Eric Bogosian’s performance is a tough to beat, but Moseley brings a nice interpretation to the archetype. He’s a laid back version of the ratings-mad conspiracy junky, his energy is more curious than accusatory. Another thing I like about Dead Air is that it doesn’t focus on gore effects; too many zombie stories are excuses to show people getting ripped apart in ways that out-splatter previous attempts, but Corbin Bernsen rightly ignores the rubbernecker impulse and keeps things moving. It was more shocking to me, a jaded film watcher, to not see gratuitous evisceration.

I don’t want to put this movie over too much; it’s not perfect. My main gripe is that I wish it had maintained the intimacy of its premise. We leave the studio too often, following Logan’s radio sidekick (David Moscow) as he races through town on a motorbike in search of Logan’s family. There’s also a lot of unnecessary business involving the terrorists, with Delta Force-level dialogue about honor and sacrifice. There’s a nice development where the main perpetrator breaks into Logan’s studio and demands that the DJ say something unconscionable on the air, but that’s a faint glimmer in an otherwise very broad characterization. Had Dead Air been a bit ballsier and hedged closer to the one-act play feel of Talk Radio, it might have been truly special instead of a pleasantly engaging novelty; it’s much more interesting to hear the callers go from gabbing about nothing to reaching out to the lone voice in the night who can offer comfort at the end of the world than it is to watch another monster home invasion scene.

I highly recommend Dead Air for fans of the genre that are looking for a fresh take. I’ve spent a good deal of time comparing this to other films, but it becomes unique by combining the best elements of those movies in ways you may not expect. Like Quentin Tarantino’s look into the world of hit men’s off-hours in Pulp Fiction, Dead Air answers questions about how people in the media might react to an undead uprising; it’s the flip side of the typical zombie movie trope where people are holed up in a house, trying to get news on the attacks, and believing that whoever is broadcasting it is in a safer place than they are.

Note: Over dinner last night, I asked Bill Moseley about Dead Air’s origins, and he shared a fascinating bit of trivia regarding casting. His friend, Reggie Bannister (Phantasm), referred him to the project, and Moseley initially read for the role of Gil, the DJ sidekick. Corbin Bernsen, the director, was slated to play Logan Bernhardt, but the producers thought that having a name genre actor as the star would be a much savvier move than giving the part to someone whose biggest horror credit was The Dentist. This apparently caused some tension on the set, but Moseley said he channeled that energy into his performance. It worked.

Sunday
Nov012009

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Titties!!!

Note: This morning, I received an e-mail from a reader calling himself t1tfan69_97. It is not Kicking the Seat’s policy to run guest commentary, but in the interest of shaking things up a bit, I invite you to check out the following review in its uncensored, original form.

Sup Kickseat? I checkded the new Rob Zomby movie Haunted World of el Superbesto and thot you might like a reveiw. I looooove you’re site and thot you should see this movie its off the chain fo sho. Just sos you know where i’m coming from I like all the Rob Zomby movies like Haloween and Haloween 2 and even that one with the carnival house and the bodies init; Devils Rejecs was oober lame cuz there wasnt hardly any blood or tits and there was 2 much charactersization in it.

But anywaze I saw Suberbeasto on dvd and, man does Rob Zomibe outdo himself with this one. If your into like the cartoons of the modern times like Ren an Stimpy and you like tha Cartoon Network Adult swim and all that cool shit ur gonna love EL superBeasto. It doesn’t waist time on like plots and making you get all feely and gay with getting to no the people in it cuz Rob Zombie nos that shit is strait up 4 art movies and peeple who think movies are supposed to be good all the time. Its the story of a guy whose like a loocha/Library named L. Superbeestoe and he gets tha mad pussy when he makes movies with nekkid bitches in em. Until one day his sister whose got the voice of Baby from Devils Rejecs and she only has one i and the others a patch, she shows up and is all “like, you gotta help me stop Doctor Satin from ruling the world” and look out theres nazi Zombys. So l Superbesto and the one i chick fitght monsters and they have all these monsters from others movies like Dr. Fibes and Letherface and the alien and Jack Nickels from Shining in it cuz I guess Rob Zombie likes omages to the other monster movies. But they fight dr. Satin and you know where its all going from after minit five but theres’ still like almost a hour and-a half left to go.

BUT the best part of the movie is the titties! You get to see every bitch in this movies’ tits and there all of em really big and round and they don’t move and they all look like the same perfect plastic boobs like on the really old baywatcher girl—the one with the sex tape who was on that tv show with the santa clauze back in the 90s—but you also get to see they’re asses and one of the girls—i dont remember who cuz they all kinda look the same after awile—but you get to see her fuckin beaver!!!

Theres also lots of noise and explostions and people killing and cutting and shooting and its real good, like i said it doesn’t wast your time on stories and boring parts cause it you have a whole team of animaters who went to school for a long time and got degrees and stuff youdont want them to bother with “emotions” and new things no ones ever seen cuz that’s all faggy stuff when you can see blood and explosins and Nazis (but not like the bad nazies there zombys -and hitlers head is in a jar like in futurama—but this movie makes that idea more original). Me and my friends downloaded this movie and finnished watching it before homeroom yesterday and they all thot it was fuckin awesome 2.

I read on Imdb that theres alot of famus voices in the movie like Paul Giamatti and Rosario Dawson—and its cool cuz her charcter shows her titties and I imagined it was HER titties and that was cool cuz shes usually one of those actreses whos above doing this kind of shit in real life. But if you look at all the voices in this movie you wonder if Rob Zomby had like blackmale stuff on them cuz how else could he get all these respectable peopl in this crazy fucked up cartoon?! I doubt they even red the script or whatrever.

All in all if your a fan of Zombys other movies this is something REALLY DIFFERENT cause its not as serebereal in fact if you like “good” movies you might turn it off after ten minutes. But if you like tits and talking monkeys and old jokes told by naked girls who show there bushes off while killing zombies and the devil and a robot witha penis thats a joystick, your gonna love eL SUPERBESATO!

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Friday
Oct302009

Black Christmas (1974)

Different Seasons

The Chateau Grrr Crypticon celebrity dinner is just over a week away. In honor of future plate-mate Margot Kidder, I present the following video review…

Bob Clark directed Black Christmas, Porky’s and A Christmas Story.

I love that.

Before watching Black Christmas, I had no idea how groundbreaking the movie was for the stalk-and-slash genre, or how greatly it would influence two of the most subversive and successful comedies of all time. This is an odd film, and if you look at it through the right lens, it is a brilliant (if flawed) piece of entertainment.

Cinephiles will have the most fun watching the picture simply because of all the random people who show up in it; they certainly won’t be captivated by the plot, which centers on a sorority house beset by eerie prank phone calls and a couple of murders. Olivia Hussey stars as Jess, one of the sisters, who learns that she’s carrying her boyfriend Peter’s baby; a post-2001 Keir Dullea who, at the time of filming, was almost forty years old plays Peter (an early-twenties graduate student—talk about acting). Among the other housemates are comedienne Andrea Martin and future Lois Lane, Margot Kidder—whose part consists solely of drinking heavily, near-propositioning a cop, and passing out.

About the time of the sinister phone calls, one of the girls goes missing; she doesn’t disappear so much as get suffocated by a faceless killer and stuffed in the sorority house attic. The thirty-plus minutes leading up to the murder are rather excruciating, as they focus mainly on the mundane lives of the characters; the screenplay by Roy Moore could have used a lot more cattiness—or at least some additional sub-plots to keep the interest up. Fortunately, once the police are called in to investigate the disappearance and the calls, Black Christmas really picks up steam.

It helps that John Saxon plays the main cop, Lieutenant Fuller, as essentially a pre-drunkard version of his Donald Thompson character from A Nightmare on Elm Street. He works with Jess to run a trace on the phone calls (Side Note: this movie taught me where the term “running a trace” comes from: when Jess gets a call, we cut between her, Lieutenant Fuller, and a phone specialist in a giant room, running down long rows of towers trying to locate the signal; today he could probably just download an iPhone app and be done with it). The police in Black Christmas range from serious-minded investigators (Fuller) to well-intentioned idiots who spend their time doubling over in laughter at fellatio gags or going into hysterics while trying to convince a girl to calmly leave her house. Part of the movie’s magic is the way horror and comedy flow in and out of scenes with head-scratching regularity.

As I said before, Bob Clark pioneered the modern slasher movie, but Black Christmas is a very rough template. Conventions are sketched out here that would be filled in years later by the likes of John Carpenter (Halloween), Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th), and to a lesser extent, Wes Craven (Elm Street). For example, a good stalk-and-slash movie either doesn’t waste the audience’s time getting to know a bunch of characters who have only been written in order to be creatively killed off; or the characters are so integral to the story that they are given interesting things to say or do. The sorority girls in Black Christmas are interchangeable, but are given way too much screen time between kills to bore us to death. Also, the killer in this movie is obviously Peter (Spoiler!); not only does he have the most distinctive silhouette of any of the characters, he is also the murderer by elimination (see Roger Ebert’s Law of the Economy of Characters). Subsequent slasher films know to conceal the killer’s identity via mask or twist ending; in a way, Clark does this in his film, except the twist makes absolutely no goddamned sense (I won’t further spoil the ending, except to say that it must be seen to be believed). For students of horror, this film provides great insight into how different directors can take a handful of ideas that don’t quite work and turn them into genre-defining paradigms.

Beyond that, this truly weird movie contains shots and story ideas that Bob Clark would use in his later career. The film begins and ends with an exterior of the sorority house; the end is particularly eerie as we hear a phone ringing off the hook; this shot recalls A Christmas Story, which closes on the Parker home with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” blaring on the soundtrack. They are identical endings to very distinct holiday pictures. Also, the scene in the police station where the police can’t control their laughter at a blowjob joke appears to have been cut-and-pasted right into the principal’s office scene in Porky’s that followed the Peeping Tom shower prank.

If you’re not familiar with the films and conventions I’ve mentioned here, I don’t know what kind of enjoyment you’ll get out of Black Christmas; I can only appreciate it on the level of a hundred-minute in-joke (because I can’t un-watch the movies I’ve seen). To the casual modern viewer, this might come off as a slow, goofy relic from the Seventies. But I guess that’s like worrying over whether Twilight Fans will appreciate Chuck Klosterman: you’ll either get it or you won’t. Regardless, this film needs to be seen.

Note: If you’re thinking about skipping the original and settling for the remake, don’t. I saw 2006’s Black Christmas (the day after Christmas, in an empty theatre, with my friend, Brian) without having seen the original and I can’t remember anything about it except for a scene involving meat cookies. There are many more memorable scenes in the original, though it takes half the movie to get to them.