Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bottle Rocket -- The Criterion Collection

I don't want to turn this blog into a site where I simply review all the new releases that catch my eye; the stuff I write about has to be stuff I care about in some way.

(Admittedly, it's taken me about a year now to realize that very fundamental fact of blogging!)

And it was so nice to have two of my favorite films of all time released in Criterion Collection editions on November 25, 2008.

Chungking Express was the first film and Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1995) is the second.

I can recall reading about Bottle Rocket about a year before I saw the film. I think it played in only one theater in D.C. and the Washington Post review mentioned something about Owen Wilson's Dignan being like a demented Eddie Haskell, or words to that effect. That stuck in my head.

My friend rented the laserdiscs of both this film and Swingers in early 1997 -- that was in the days where there was a real lag time between a theatrical release and a home video release, especially a release on the laserdisc format. He taped both for me and I think I watched Swingers first.

I liked Swingers but thought it was a bit obvious and overrated in many ways -- I subsequently liked Vince Vaughn a lot more later in stuff like Made (with cinematography by Christopher Doyle of all people!) or Old School or Swingers or last week's release of Four Christmases which, admittedly, is not a masterpiece but which had this Vince fan laughing quite a bit.

But when I popped in the VHS tape of Bottle Rocket I had to stop it within about 10 minutes as I was just laughing so hard and enjoying the film so much that I didn't want to ruin the film -- I wanted to stretch it out and enjoy it for an even longer time than it's 91 minute running time.

The first scene with Future Man (Andrew Wilson) had me crying with laughter.

And, after the heist, when the "gang" buys fireworks under Dignan's direction, I was cackling like an idiot.

I am one of the few Wes Anderson fans who thinks his subsequent films are never as good as his first while I know there are some fans who love Rushmore and hate Bottle Rocket.

And I'm sure it's almost impossible to watch this film for the first time now since Owen Wilson has essentially done similar shtick in numerous, lesser Hollywood films to lesser effect. Luke Wilson also has done his share of Hollywood crap.

Still, the film delivers for me and each time I watch it, I find some new detail that makes me smile or laugh in a new way.

And, as Scorsese and others have noted, the film is largely devoid of cynicism. There is irony aplenty but little cynicism.

I would add that it was also very refreshing to find an American indie film in the mid-1990's where the characters were not discussing pop culture like in a Tarantino film (I'm glad Anderson ditched the Starsky and Hutch conversation seen in the short).

The Film

The picture is ridiculously clear, with colors that seem even more vibrant than before; I can only imagine how great the upcoming Blu-Ray version will look! The commentary with Anderson and Owen is funny and genuine without being overbearing.

The Extras

The "Making Of" is quite funny without trying very hard to be for some reason. Andrew Wilson is even funnier now than as Future Man in the film.

The Deleted Scenes offer a glimpse into the further adventures of the crew which would have added a lot of different moods to the action for this viewer.

And the original 13-minute short that started this all is fascinating -- it looks great for one thing -- no more You Tube-level postings of this thing! -- and it shows how the Dignan character was much more of a typical criminal without the unique and innocent spin that Owen Wilson finally brought to the character.

The other extras, including the Murita Cycles short, illuminate further aspects of the inspirations behind the world of Wes Anderson.

I direct a lot of venom at the Criterion Collection but, really, it's the people that just blindly buy the DVDs without really caring about the films behind the numbers on the spines of the releases that are the problem.

With this release, the Criterion Collection folks have finally rewarded a certain kind of geek. And we are very happy.

Details on the DVD from Criterion are here.

Photos from the Little Banana site which looks suspiciously like the old Lawn Wranglers site -- a site that I found at work one day in 1998 that got me to thinking that I wasn't the only person out there who deeply loved this film.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning...and autographs

I rewatched -- and thoroughly enjoyed -- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) last night and it made me think of an anecdote.

I'm not much for autographs anymore; despite meeting loads of bands during my record store career, I was never much for the autograph thing. I saw a lot of people who acted as if the singer or musician was just there to sign something like a robot. Once they had their autograph, these people would mutter "Thanks" and slink away.

I, on the other hand, was much more interested in meeting the bands. I was also a decent bullshitter: accidentally meeting Kurt Cobain in early 1990 and telling him how much I liked Bleach when I actually hated it; padding out sales figures that I reported to CMJ to ensure that better "promos" were sent to me by the major labels.

I was happy meeting Lenny Kravitz when he was just starting, took delight in being politely greeted by the Indigo Girls even while they bitched to their staff about all the little things wrong with their sound system, and that kind of thing.

I am happy that I got to meet and talk with Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses -- even giving her a book of Rimbaud's -- without even asking for an autograph.

And very, very grateful that I got to go to an intimate dinner with The Blue Nile, who were on a promotional, non-performing, tour in 1990. And I had much, much more to talk to the band about than any of the handful of people there at the dinner table from A&M Records; I think I monopolized them but maybe I did them a service by keeping them away from the label flunkies who were not the fan I had been for five years already.

Which is a long way to get to my anecdote about good autographs to have.

I'm not much for autographs but I have this book autographed by: Val Guest, Veronica Carlson, Virginia Wetherell, Jimmy Sangster, Caroline Munro, and Freddie Francis.

A crop of the photo of Caroline Munro with me and my friend. This was in June, 1997, at the convention under discussion, in Timonium, Maryland, outside Baltimore.

It was at a sci-fi/horror film convention outside of Baltimore in 1997. I also met Forrest J. Ackerman there as he manned his booth and ate a Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza. That was like seeing the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz (1939); Ackerman was a god to me as a kid as I bought Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine whenever I could and hoped that my mom wouldn't cut out all the gory pictures (which wasn't as bad as Spielberg's mom as she supposedly destroyed his issues!).

So as I made my way down the table, getting my book signed. I tried to think of something to say to Sangster and Francis. I can't quite remember what I said to Sangster but I do recall that when I got to Francis I mumbled something about his cinematography on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), in particular, the carnival sequence.

I guess he'd been asked a lot about Cape Fear (1991) or The Innocents (1961) and I was trying to go for the less obvious; despite being a panel of Hammer Studios luminaries, I was asking about a non-Hammer film.

Anyway, Mr. Francis looked completely baffled. Maybe he was hard of hearing? I repeated my compliment and he actually had to pause and think back, saying something like: "Oh, oh, right. The Albert Finney picture."

So, what was one young man's treasured vision of post-war England was another man's job.

Get the film: it's probably the best of the kitchen sink films -- less pretentious than Look Back in Anger (1959), less depressing on the whole than The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner (1962).

And while A Taste of Honey (1961) is quite good, it's a bit more than simply an "angry young man" drama.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) is a fascinating, quick-moving slice-of-life in post-war England. It's a class study. And it's a romance.

And every glorious black-and-white frame of the film is a work of art even if Freddie Francis didn't quite remember shooting it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"From Despair to Where?"

With the news early this week that Richey Edwards had finally been declared dead after almost 14 years, my mind drifted back to my one and only trip to Wales.

I was in England for almost three weeks for work in early 2000, a trip that was rapidly souring me on all the things that I had loved about England only a year earlier.

The only bright spot of this working trip had been one night when I had gotten lost walking around Croydon in the rain. I had money for a cab but was trying to save my my money for more CD's -- not that I had seen any cabs where I was -- and I finally stumbled into the first establishment I could find: a pub, naturally.

But it was a great pub. It was as if someone had read my mind and given me a brief glimpse of the England that I loved; it looked vaguely like the bar in Fawlty Towers (!) for a very quick and easy reference point.

And as I sipped my bitter in that pub with the train-motif, amidst a bunch of older British guys, I felt a bit out of place; I was this sweaty and wet American who had obviously just kind of wandered into the place, lost and looking for my way back to my hotel.

But, almost nine years later, my bitterness about the "working" part of my trip to England is forgotten now that I remember that 20 minutes or so I spent lifting my glass in that pub, savoring the kind of "Englishness" I always loved.

Now, on to Wales.

Since I was in England working, I didn't have a lot of time to spend travelling around. A year earlier, in 1999, my friend and I had spent our vacation seeing London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Wolverhampton (that one only for a concert).

And, now, I was determined to see Wales since it was the only ethnic heritage I could claim as my own.

I can't trace my ancestors back to the pilgrims like someone I once worked with.

And it's really boring being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in the American suburbs so I kind of clung to the fact that I'm only four generations removed from something else: Wales, in this case, with my mom's father's grandfather probably being the first off the boat from Wales with the very common Welsh name Davies (good luck playing Alex Haley with that).

So my friend had come over to enjoy England again since I had a free room in Croydon. And I was determined to make it to Cardiff if only for a day.

And it was only for a day -- my birthday, actually -- and we got there late on Saturday, March 4, 2000 riding a National Express bus, me listening to the latest Oasis CD on my Discman.

My first impression was that Cardiff was a bit like Baltimore with a castle. Take that as an insult or a compliment as you see fit. We hit the pubs, expecting to hear Welsh bands being played like the Manics and Catatonia but we only heard Shania Twain and, I think, one Stereophonics song as they were still a bit new at the time even for their home turf.

Then, hung over the next morning, we had breakfast at a Burger King within sight of a castle on suddenly clean streets that only hours before had been covered with broken bottles and vomit. And then we caught a bus and headed back for London.

Not much of a trip but at least I had gone there once on what was largely a very personal symbolic trip.

I didn't try to retrace Richey's footsteps, or lay a wreath at his home or something. No, I just wanted a sense of where so many great bands that I loved had come from.

I did suddenly feel the weight of history in Liverpool when passing the school where Lennon and McCartney met and I suddenly realized how real the Beatles were -- not just magical cartoon Englishmen in "Yellow Submarine."

And I know some people probably look up every Morrissey reference in Manchester.

But in Cardiff I just wanted to breathe the air and walk the streets and, somehow, I feel like that was good enough for a start.

And it's not simply the Welsh bit that made me want to be there; there are deeper reasons that I locked onto the Manics -- I can't imagine anyone going to Cardiff because the Stereophonics were so inspiring -- but those are things I can post about later.

A few photos

The castle is the sometimes mocked Cardiff Castle which is a bit disconcerting to see upon stumbling out of a hotel room, a bit hungover, early on a crisp March Sunday morning.

In this photo, I think our bus was on the main Severn Bridge going back into England and the pictures are of the Second Severn Crossing.

This photo below was taken right as we were getting on the bridge from Wales for England with the end of Wales on the right there, near where the spot that Richey left his car and left this world?

(And, yeah, the two bridge photos aren't great *but* they were taken from inside a moving bus using a cheap, disposable camera so, all that considered, they're not that bad.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Can't Entirely Hate Wal-Mart

As much as I hate the rise of the "big box" stores and the death of small independent retailers of all kinds -- but especially music and video stores -- I can't entirely hate Wal-Mart.

And the reason for my epiphany? I saw a copy of Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song on DVD in their racks!

Now let's think about this for a minute: Wal-Mart, a chain that will not carry unedited rap CDs is carrying what was an X-rated film upon its initial release. A film that is pretty much the antithesis of the Disney/Hannah Montana/Owen Wilson demographic of most of the crap on Wal-Mart DVD shelves.

Is this a case of a big, bad ("baadassss?") corporation co-opting the counter-culture (well, a past counter-culture)? No.

Have things progressed to the point that this film is now longer shocking? Probably not. I think most suburban moms would be a bit surprised if they were to watch the film.

(A sidenote is the rise of Wal-Mart exclusively hawking AC/DC's newest CD; Maybe I'm an old man saying this, but I can recall when AC/DC were actually a bit dangerous -- or at least convincingly pretending to be dangerous. Rock is safe, now, and rap -- unedited rap, especially -- is still too dangerous for Wal-Mart to sell.)

I was a bit speechless upon seeing the film in there.

After all, Blockbuster still won't carry the unrated version of Lust, Caution or any version of Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

I first heard of this film on one of Siskel & Ebert's "guilty pleasures" shows on their old PBS "Sneak Previews" program.

I was a fat, geeky 13-year-old and thrilled that Ebert chose "Infra-Man" which I had seen at the drive-in on its first release run in the United States. And I *think* that it was Siskel who chose Sweet Sweetback. This link expresses some similar thoughts.

(I always liked his reviews better, for what it's worth. And there are many, many films I sought out as I got older based on my memories of a Siskel rave.)

I wrote to the duo once around that era (1979) and I got a form letter back but it was still thrilling to me at the time.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thankful for You Tube - Rosita!

Wow! I never even knew that this Kenickie spin-off ever made any videos for their one "hit" from their only EP!

Emmy-Kate Montrose and Marie DuSantiago (on lead vocals) from Sunderland, England's Kenickie! My heart grows warmer just hearing this again!

ROSITA Santa Poca's Dream

Monday, November 17, 2008

Green Arrow: Year One

I guess it says something about my boring life or my busy work schedule but the most exciting thing I did all weekend was read the hardcover collection Green Arrow: Year One by Andy Diggle and artist Jock. I know they are the creative team behind The Losers but I've yet to pick up that title.

I have a bad habit -- or a narrow focus -- of sticking to mainly the superheroes that I grew up with.

And Green Arrow, Oliver Queen, is definitely a character that I can remember "playing at" in my grandparents' backyard.

Though I was probably too young to read the seminal issues with Speedy's drug addiction, I can vaguely recall being aware of the Dennis O'Neil/Neal Adams era of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow title. The art in some of the reprints did jar some memories loose.

I think the overly liberal Oliver Queen seemed to fit in with my sensibilities, having been raised in a liberal Democratic household (hell, who wasn't a lib Dem in that Watergate era?).

And my love of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood probably pointed me in the Arrow's direction as well -- or maybe the Arrow pointed me to Errol?

But now I'm pretty lazy about keeping up with the DC Comics continuity and am a bit unaware of how Green Arrow: Year One fits into the larger DC Universe.

Still, it was a fun read with artwork vaguely reminiscent of Frank Miller's run on Marvel's Daredevil in the 1980s which I did read firsthand.

Green Arrow: Year One is cinematic in its depiction of Oliver Queen's origin story -- it is a bit like Batman Begins in that the superhero that the main character becomes is almost secondary to the larger story of that character's development as a person.

There are a few things I didn't like in this volume -- namely, more of the actual hero would have been nice! -- but I did enjoy what the creators were trying to do by stripping everything away and getting to the essence of the character in as simple a fashion as possible.

You can get the nice, slim hardback from Amazon, among other places.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Good News About The Captain

I am still a tiny bit apprehensive about it, but there is good news about the upcoming -- 2011? -- Captain America film. Superhero Hype and Newsarama are both reporting that Joe Johnston will be directing the Captain America film.

Johnston worked on Raiders of The Lost Ark and did some conceptual sketches for Star Wars that I recall from one of the first Star Wars books I purchased back in 1977. And he directed The Rocketeer which was pretty good.

Hopefully the Captain America film will be similar in tone to that -- maybe a bit more serious.

I -- like a million other fanboys -- can envision a great Cap film set in World War 2 that ends with Cap presumed dead only to be thawed out of the ice in modern times in The Avengers film.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This Blog's Only Political Post

When I started this blog, I thought I would briefly touch upon politics but quickly realized that the last thing this world needed was another political blog; Stick with Josh Marshall or Andrew Sullivan.

But the significance of today is such that I can hardly avoid commenting on it.

And I should add that I always think of things on two levels: my ideal and my reality and, obviously, Barack Obama satisfies both in many ways.

Frankly, I never dreamed this day would come and it says something about how much Bush ruined this country that we have the Democrats set to sweep into power in such a fashion.

(It goes without saying that it's probably a comment on race in this country that Barack is not even further ahead than he already is; Fear is the only thing keeping him from having an even more impressive lead-- still, he's doing better than Hilary Clinton ever would have. And none of that is to diminish his masterful, amazing campaign.)

So, for the inner liberal in me, yes, Obama is a bit more centrist than I would prefer.

But he ran a perfect campaign and seems a sensible, moral man.

Even the choice of Biden as running mate which seemed a mistake at the time now seems a stroke of genius that accidentally, pre-emptively countered McCain's choice of Palin.

So, even if Obama turns out to be a boring President, he will still be a symbolic success that will help this country win back goodwill from the rest of the world.

If he doesn't close Gitmo pretty soon into his first year, then you'll hear me start to complain!

Monday, November 3, 2008

"If I Can't Dance..." - Sophie

Sophie Ellis-Bextor performs one of my favorite tracks from her last album in a clip I didn't find until today:

Sophie Ellis-Bextor
"If I Can't Dance"

Her new Rimmel London ad with her (?) new single playing in the background:

And making of the same ad: