dinner-for-schmucks

Just Don’t Call Me Late For Dinner

A dozen years ago there was a black comedy French film called Le diner de cons. The story is about a group of prominent French businessmen who hold a weekly dinner to see who could invite the biggest idiot. The film was popular and spun off into a theatrical version and there was a Hindi remake in 2007 called Bheja Fry. Predating the French film by another 10 years was the American independent film Dogfight. Dogfight made a paltry 300 grand, not enough to buy an average priced house today in Calgary, even after making the adjustment for inflation. Similarly, the rarely seen and very good, 1991 River Phoenix film involves a group of young marines headed to Vietnam staging a dinner in which the marine with the ugliest date wins the titular “dogfight”. There seems something especially cruel about using the pretence of hospitality to ridicule someone who is different. The inversion of hospitality, a historically sacred institution in Western society, makes for an interesting premise but doesn’t guarantee a great story…

Dinner for Schmucks is a DreamWorks 70 million dollar juggernaut comedy directed by Jay Roach of Meet the Parents and Austin Powers franchise fame. Roach has a platinum record for making popular comedies but is a not so subtle director who gives free license to his actor/comedians to chew on scenery making great characters, at the expense of story. Steve Carrell of The Office, Bruce Almighty, and The Legend of Ron Burgundy heads an all star comedy cast that includes Zach Galifianakis and Paul Rudd. It is a talent heavy film desperately in need of a straight man, or rather a team of straight men to counter the zaniness of its comedic pantheon. The story is essentially the same as the French original but more madcap and screwball and burdened with sentimental treacle and a populist pleasing ending that undermines what could have been a dark and funny film.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is an executive and career climber looking for an opportunity when after a successful deal his boss invites him to participate in a dinner for schmucks. Tim is offended by the idea and at the behest of his fiancée declines. But fate tempts Tim when the next day he meets Barry, a loser of unfathomable quality, and he invites the rodent taxidermist to the party for an easy victory. But, another idiot guest named Thurman (Galifianakis) arrives and ups the moronic ante.

Dinner for Schmucks is funny but considering the talent involved it has to be viewed as a failure. It is as if the story should be entitled A Film for Schmucks and the actors realize that they are the dupes of Hollywood studio filmmaking. Films like the Hangover have proven that R-rated material with edge can win audiences and it is time for Hollywood to take heed. Toning down material to appeal to family audiences may get more butts in the seats but the laughter ends up sounding hollow–like a forgettable sit-com’s laugh track.

paul-mccartney-is-really-dead

Paul May Be Dead But This Film Is Boring

The Last Testament of George Harrison is a feature documentary narrated by an audio recording allegedly made by the late titular Beatle. Apparently, Harrison just before his death decided to expose a massive cover-up that plagued him and his former band-mates for decades. The terrible secret is the fact that Paul McCartney died in an automobile accident back in 1966 and the remaining three Beatles conspired successfully with MI5 to cover-up the accident. Lucky for the filmmakers that they were the recipients of the mysterious recording and luckier still that it runs 100 minutes-a standard time for a film feature. But, lets not get fixated on the preposterous nature of the tape, its fun to concede the point, ignore the fact that Harrison’s voice sounds as British as Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, and enjoy the ride. The Beatles’ decision to cover-up McCartney’s death was motivated by a hysterical fear of a rash of teenage suicides that MI5 convinced them would inevitably follow the release of the news. Thankfully for Beatlemaniacs the fab three decided to share the information with true fans by using clues that were both bizarre and numerous. The clues became the raison d’etre of the band and angered MI5 so much that they put the remaining Beatles’ lives in peril-apparently killing off the other Beatles was okay even if telling the world that Paul had died wasn’t. But the Paul is dead facts grow tedious fast. Add to this the almost exclusive use of stock photos and footage in painfully edited visuals and a score that is uninspired and replete of Beatles music and the film is a ridiculous lesson in pattern recognition. The Last Testament of George Harrison would be a fun romp if only the filmmakers had put as much effort in the execution as they had in dreaming up the outrageous premise.

my-pants

My Pants

Punching the pig
Filling my pants
Drinking some milk
Smelling my hands

Sweating all night
Taking a bath
Smelling my hands
Filling my pants

Grumping all day
Farting a bit
Drinking more milk
Farting a lot

Looking real cute
Having a nap
Clenching my fists
Filling my pants

good-at-complaining

I’m Good at Complaining

This post is basically the 2010 equivalent of the practice I had as a child of bi-annually scribbling down my incoherent and frustrated thoughts in whatever journal I had received as a gift that year. Now that I’ve gained a modicum of self control, some technological wherewithal, and about 60lbs (I was HOT), I no longer have a warren of notebooks with a few of their pages marred by a jagged, tear-blurred script extolling the hardships of having an unbearable younger brother (you know which one), or a stressed out Papa, or a caustic and derisive exoskeleton, braces, glasses, a headgear…

While the problems of today pale in comparison with those of my t(w)eenage years, I feel that the relative improbability of such high density irritations merits recording. I’m going to make a list, for clarity, and to slake my obsessive compulsion for order. And because lists take up more space and are therefore more impressive.

1. Another proof of the “monkeys on typewriters” theory, I won my lab’s March Madness pool. Here is my technique: choose your winning teams based on if you a) recognize the name of the school, or failing that, the state or b) like the sound of the state/school and c) if the state/school sounds rich. This is a balancing act, because if they’re TOO rich they’ll be too snooty to have lots of…the kind of guys who are good at basketball there. Too poor and all those guys will be…locked up… in other commitments. I won free lunch. This is the grad student equivalent of, say, getting laid (for horny teens) or a raise (for parents). Horny teens and parents being, obviously, my target audience. Smugly victorious, I wore a pretty dress (the Marc Jacobs of “walking through the lunch room with it tucked into my panties fame, for all those who knew me in 2005) and rubbed my achievement in everyone’s face. We went for all you can eat sushi on trendy Queen West. Having an ungulate’s affinity for salt, I filled my little boat-thing to the brim with full-sodium soy sauce and wasabi. Blah blah blah, the entire thing ended up on my dress. I walked around the rest of the day smelling like I would pair well with raw fish…um, sex joke.

2. After sushi, the only other girl in my lab and I went SHOPPING! At LULULEMON! I was in a change room trying on a super-cute orange sports bra, contemplating back fat, when my glasses just fell off my face. Not all of my glasses- one of the arms stayed hooked to my ear, drooping pathetically, an expression of my disappointment in the chicken cutlet escaping from its too-small orange coop. Luckily, the only tape Lululemon has is double sided, so my hair kept sticking to it, like a slutty top to side boob. That night at the symphony the damn arm kept falling off whenever I got emotionally engaged and leaned forwards (I was seeing Sibelius symphonies you guys, so you know that was happening ALOT), like they didn’t know I was at the symphony and not the opera.

3. Three years ago I bought a pair of open toed Steve Madden flats, and then proceeded to wear them constantly, especially while bartending at the Queen’s Pub, where most of the time the floor is lubricated with a thin layer of alcohol or putrid mop water. LIKE YOUR MOM’S etc. The glue chose that day to finally give up on holding the sole to the bottom of the shoe, so I walked around for half the day in purgatory, sounding like a sad castanet. This is exactly as annoying as it seems it would be, so one of the post docs in my lab baptized the sole in superglue and clipped it with one of those black paper clamps so I could get home without tripping on the piece (some more).

So that’s it. Oh, and I told my Papa about the trifecta the next day and he laughed and said I must have boys falling over each other to woo me.

xoxo
V-ness
(like Venus)
(the goddess of beauty)

How-I-Lost-My-Fear-of-Being-White-in-Compton

How I Lost My Fear of Being White in Compton

It was a dry, yellow day in Los Angeles when I clomped my way up Hollywood Boulevard to tour one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural treats, the Hollyhock House. The couple that joined me was from Pittsburgh and the husband was a Lloyd Wright aficionado. I felt very artsy, cultured, and even privileged to be there. We gossiped about the late owner of the house and the architect himself as though we had visited the early decades of the 20th Century on some other vacation.

I was surprised that some rooms were tarped-off, concealing wreckage from water damage. Others had spider webs and dust clots draping the door frames and ridges.

“Times are tough,” the curator said. “But education and Medicare have to come before art. Half our citizens don’t even speak English properly.”

I was so impressed by her pragmatism. (Later I would chat with a curator for the Latin American Museum of Art, in a much different quadrant of LA, and he would say roughly the same thing.)

Several of my friends in Canada are artists, or art brats, as I like to think of them in my head, constantly grappling for funding in some bizarre frenzy of entitlement, as though because our Albertan cities are dominated by engineers and oil execs we deserve government money for flimsy art projects.

I lunched in the novelty charm of a drugstore soda fountain and decided to spend the remainder of my day in an area of the city where what the curator had said would be obvious.

I took the blue line through Compton all the way to the end, to Long Beach, by myself. I was the only white person on the train. The car was packed with strollers, saggy-assed sweat pants, nose piercings, super-sized pop sippers, gum-snapping and large hoop-earings. Preconceptions and flashbacks to Jerry Springer episodes cycled through my mind. I was terrifyingly nervous. Stomach-tight, clammy-handed, short-breathed, nervous.

I wheeled my Ipod menu to Shakira and absorbed her nasal belts for power and strength, reminding and assuring myself that I could pass for Latina if I had to.

When I disembarked a hippy on a bike informed me which direction to walk in order to hit a trendy neighborhood. A few blocks in I felt again like I was caught in a bad rap video. At a street corner, waiting for the lights to change, a man said a regular, friendly “hi”, and a car carrying a big, black woman with a cigar in her teeth slowed.

“Hey baby what’s goin’ on,” the big mama yelled out the passenger side.

To my surprise, and pride, I responded with natural ease a simple, “‘Sup.” She nodded and smiled and the car continued to roll down the street. In that moment all my fears were completely assuaged and I felt totally at home in this projecty area of Long Beach.

I had forgotten that despite the skin heads with tattoos on their necks and 50cents-in-training, doing chin-ups on anything metal and pole-like, that people are still just people. I’m not unfamiliar with being a minority – I was painted white and rosy and crammed into a too-small dress on the set of a Chinese soap opera when I lived in Hong Kong – but I am unfamiliar with being so caught up in stereotype and hype that I would feel faint at the sight of an infamous station sign, even if the sign did sayCompton.

I love LA. I love all it’s greasy Vinnys and vivacious, mouthy Laticias, and how one block you’re sipping a Venti, skinny chai latte marveling a cutting-edge installation, and on the next you’re ‘supping gangstas in wife beaters and munching tacos al pastor.

Atom-Egoyan's-Chloe-is-Creepy

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe is Creepy, Sexy… and Lousy

Living in a post-Austin Powers world unfortunately means the name Chloe evokes images of a web-footed, French child prostitute with evil progeny. Not so with Atom Egoyan’s thriller Chloe. The Canadian director’s most recent film offering, last spotted at the Toronto Film Festival in fall of 2009, is now in wide release. Touted as an erotic thriller, the film has raised a few eyebrows on account of the leads baring their souls and bodies repeatedly and exhaustively. The film is also famed as an all too rare Canadian film business success. Made with French money and filmed in Canada the 15 million dollar film has already earned its budget back in distribution deals.

Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore) is a gynaecologist, wife, and mother who begins to suspect her brilliant professor husband David (Liam Neeson) of cheating with his students. He is often aloof, absent, and secretive, moreover his permissiveness with his precocious son’s sexual behaviour unnerves Catherine. For a gynaecologist Catherine proves to be a bit of a prude, albeit a pragmatic one, at one point explaining to an anxious patient that an orgasm is “nothing magical, simply a series of muscle contractions”. When David is MIA during a surprise birthday party it is the final straw and a marital blow-up seems certain.

One day a chance encounter with Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a high class call-girl, leads to an unlikely bond betwixt the two women and an unorthodox proposal. Catherine pays Chloe to act as bait for David to see if he will stray. Apparently, Catherine is unfamiliar with the more common practice of hiring a private investigator and prefers perverse sexual entrapment. The result is as unlikely as it is unseemly with Catherine rediscovering her sexual self by way of Chloe’s dispatches that are as clinically detached and detailed as Catherine’s bedside manner.

The plot is fairly straight forward and only later after some twists and turns does the story begin to fall apart en route to a ridiculous climax that is only matched in silliness by the denouement. Julianne Moore, never an actor with gravitas, tries to alternately cry and stare her way through a film that relies too much on sex and not enough on acting. Watching Julianne Moore’s character masturbate is akin to a sea lion trying to tune a radio. Amanda Seyfried is a believable sex-pot but the film does not give her much more to work with other than her nubile body. When the film tries to get scary it fails miserably with scenes that are too silly and frequent to enumerate.

Unfortunately, during the filming Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson had a fall on a ski hill that turned fatal. To Neeson’s credit he finished the film immediately after her funeral and although his performance is not memorable he plays no culpable part in the film’s failure. Neeson deserves better than this part and it is a credit to his work ethic that the film was completed.

Chloe is a remake of Nathalie, a forgettable 2004 French language feature with an only slightly better title. Egoyan sets his film in Toronto, the screenplay announcing this fact self-importantly a dozen times, and although the film’s location manager has done a laudable job of finding some great locales the effect feel forced. Only a Torontonian would find the wet, grey, exteriors framed around boring architecture of any interest. A glass mansion is host to most of the scenes and although highly cinematic it seems preposterous and decorated by someone who thought that an academic would have flea market pulp books on his bookshelves.

Worse are the glaring continuity gaffs that include a conversation by a coffee house window where a blizzard of snow appears and disappears with each change of shot. Egoyan’s cinematographer Paul Sarossy who wowed us with the Sweet Hereafter, Exotica, and Felicia’s Journey needs a new tripod and camera assistant with clumsy, out of focus shots, that often bounce in and out of frame. The edit is a mess and the jig-saw final cut is either a result of not enough footage properly shot or incompetence.

Chloe is a rare miss by Egoyan, a director that has not only been up and until now a consistent auteur but a groundbreaker as well. Better talent, a good script, and less Toronto are needed for the Oscar nominated director with the forgivable misstep. Day players can make or break a film and shoddy camera work can’t be edited away. Egoyan needs to clean up his production team and get a better project and remember that although eroticism is thrilling by definition not all thrillers are erotic.

White-Ribbon-a-Blue-Ribbon-Effort

White Ribbon a Blue Ribbon Effort

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke makes the bleakest and most disturbing films you have ever seen. He also makes some of the most beautiful, intelligent and relevant films to flicker against the screen. Whether it is the horrifying Funny Games or the Kafkaesque Cache the Teutonic cineaste manages to challenge what he calls the “American barrel down cinema that dis-empowers the viewer”. Haneke makes films that demand genuine and, more often than not, uncomfortable cogitation.

White Ribbon is Haneke’s latest celluloid offering and it is simply sublime. The German language film won the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for two Academy Awards. The stark black and white film depicts life in Northern Germany in a small village just prior to World War I as remembered by the local school teacher. Village life is stiflingly ruled by a triumvirate patriarchy of bastards comprised of a doctor, pastor, and baron. When the puritanical pastor gives confirmation classes he provides the child students with white ribbons to remind them of the innocence and purity from which they have strayed. When accidents, misadventures, and malevolent deeds occur the story becomes a study in fear and social dynamics. It is a mystery without simple answers and the questions it produces are wild and terrifying.

The ostensible mystery story is of course an allegory on terrorism. When terrible things happen and there is no resolution, there is no justice, it erodes society and its values and it is a catalyst for future chaos. But terrorism is rooted in a cause, sometimes legitimate and sometimes not, and more often unrealized by those with power. In White Ribbon the perpetrator (or perpetrators) of the crimes is not readily apparent and seeing through the crimes to understand motivation is equally difficult if not impossible. How the events relate to the pending world war is equally troubling and intriguing.

Visually stark and stunning the painterly black and white film is a masterpiece of cinematography. Director of Photography Christian Berger has made one of the most beautifully filmed movies in black and white reminiscent of a dynamic Bruegel scene. Haneke populates the haunting landscape with perfectly cast characters most especially the ribbon wearing children. It is impossible to view this film without thinking about Ingmar Bergman and the comparison is not unfavourable.

If you are tired of this year’s three dimensional turquoise Pocahontas films that rely on technology rather than art you need to see this offering. White Ribbon is a thoughtful, brave, and hauntingly beautiful film about the nature of evil.

The-Ten-Best-Horror-Films-You've-Never-Seen

The Ten Best Horror Films You’ve Never Seen

This Halloween video stores will be swamped with patrons clamouring to be scared silly. In the finite universe of horror-cinema most will settle for a franchise fright film or take a chance on an array of current B movie offerings– but not you sweet scare-seeking cinephile. The following list of overlooked horror films, not obscure or ancient but a little off the beaten path and perhaps forgotten, will save you from a frightful night of lame gore, unmotivated zombies, horror porn, and forgettable final girls.

Sunshine (2007) – Look closely at Danny Boyle’s resume and you will find this forgotten horror sci-fi film sandwiched between 28 Days Later and Slumdog MillionaireSunshine is Boyle’s biggest budget film to date and his greatest commercial failure-but a veritable masterpiece. The film follows a team of seven astronauts, played by an ensemble cast of unknowns, en route to reignite a dying sun-and oh yeah there is a murderer aboard. Influenced and improving upon visual designs from 2001Solaris, and Event HorizonSunshine is a tour de force of filmmaking that boasts Boyle’s best cinematography. Better yet the horror is equal parts visceral and metaphysical and, in a clever inversion of our primal fear of darkness, it is what lurks in the light rather than the shadow that will really scare you.

Dead Ringers (1988)-Jeremy Irons plays the parts of two identical twin-wunderkind-gynaecologists who go madly medieval for the venereal in this Cronenberg flick. The naughty twin physicians have a nasty habit of surreptitiously tag teaming romantic partners. The implication of their amorous arrangements goes beyond perverse and creepy and well into a Freudian incest-by-proxy situation. When a woman with an anomalous reproductive system comes into their lives and breaks one of their hearts terror turns gynaecological and the film is guaranteed to horrify both genders more than a pap smear at a free clinic.

Jacob’s Ladder (1988) – In this intelligent and thoughtful psychological horror Tim Robbins is Jacob Singer a Vietnam veteran that is haunted by demons-literally. Is the cause of Jacob’s problems drugs, guilt, or insanity? Just remember that ladders go in two directions. An excellent narrative in the tradition of Ambrose Pierce, Jacob’s Ladder is unique in not only being a great horror story but also a moralist tale on the nature of fear, life and death. Not only does the film scare you but it presents a bold and nihilistic explanation as to why we experience the phenomenon of fear.

Martin (1977)-George Romero creator of Night of the Living Dead and its six zombie apocalyptic sequels is the godfather of horror film. Martin is his least known and best film about a troubled and repressed young man who believes he is a vampire. Is he a vampire or is he a seriously mentally ill youth? Either way he is one scary yet sympathetic character. Martin was made for next to nothing using Romero’s friends and family as cast members and their houses as sets. It debuted at Cannes and went on to become an art house classic.

Suspiria (1977)-Italian director Dario Argento is the best director of horror period. Suspiria is Argento’s best work and epitomizes his genius for elaborate murders, vivid colors (the last Technicolor movie made in fact), and direction that is simply sublime. In the film a young American ballet dancer arrives in Germany only to find the ballet school she is to attend is a coven. Maggots, razor wire, rabid dogs, a three alarm fire all ensue. Brace yourself for an American remake slated for 2010 with Natalie Portman playing the lead. Argento in true Italian constrained stoic style remarked that “it will be shit”.

Man Bites Dog (1990)-A documentary film crew follows a serial killer about his routine homicide business. The story goes from strange to surreal when the film crew go from observers to participants in this Belgian horror/black comedy. Beware this film is quirky but horrific and not for the faint of heart since our subject killer is both brutally violent and indiscriminate on his spree. Bizarre, horrifying, and funny–and you thought the cinema verite angle on The Office was clever.

Don’t Look Now (1973)-With a bold ending and one of the most talked about sex scenes on film in the 70s this Anglo-Italian film, adapted from a Du Maurier short story, was the Sixth Sense of its time. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are mourning parents on a working vacation in Venice–where coincidentally a serial killer is on the loose. Restrained, moving, and foreboding the film is sumptuous to the eyes, an intelligent study of grief, and features the best acting of any horror film on this list.

Frailty (2001)-Bill Paxton plays a loving dad who is instructed by God to kill people, including his two sons, because they are demons. Paxton, in addition to his lead role, directs the film that is not only a good scare but downright disturbing. Matthew McConaughey has the role of his life as one of the grown-up sons seeking help from the law to stop the murder madness. When we learn God speaks through an angel to Paxton’s character on how the killings are to be done-using a lead pipe to render victims unconscious and an axe (named Otis) to behead them-religious tolerance is quickly jettisoned by audiences in favour of the immediate safety of atheism.

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)-Here is the premise: Elvis is alive and a resident in an East Texas nursing home where an ancient Egyptian mummy is killing off the elderly residents. Bruce Campbell plays the septuagenarian pop icon and gives a great performance that is appropriately hammy and strangely believable. Ossie Davis plays Elvis’s only friend Jack. Jack believes in Elvis’s mummy sightings but then again he also thinks he is John Kennedy dyed black. Complementing the supernatural element of the story is the real horror of growing old in a culture with indifference if not silent contempt for its elders.

Braindead (Dead Alive) (1992)-Before The Lord of the Rings, King Kong,and District 9 Peter Jackson made his career on slapstick horror comedies and Braindead, one of the bloodiest films ever made, was the best of the lot. The plot involves a rat monkey bite that begins a bout of zombie mania exacerbated by patient zero’s son’s denial. Eventually a scourge of zombies and an Oedipus complex come to a head and are resolved with plenty of gore.

Dusk

Dusk

What a crazy clash of color
Is there fire in your eyes?
Orange flashes and it crashes
As around your face it flies

Orange leaping all around you
Setting fire to the leaves
From the gaps between the buildings
And playing off the trunks of trees

Through the lilting of your senses
Cacophony of motion
Orange warfare all around you
A fury of emotion

Orange sweating Orange swearing
You suck in the Orange dust
You track the Orange ball
With your Orange battle lust

And what came before the Orange
And how long will Orange last?
Trapped within this Orange instance
Your mind’s not equipped to ask

Just pass the Orange ball
And Smash the Orange ball
And Serve the Orange ball up
To the left and long
And revel in the thunder of Orange song!

And twenty minutes later, through inky blue you trudge
On a path lit by mercury to the City’s edge
And the deep blue quiets you and nothing’s quite amiss
Yet you marvel at how weird the world you live in is.

Vanity-in-the-Bonfire

Vanity in the Bonfire

Beneath that column of smoke in the distance is a building fire, an engine crew, a little piece of hell. Inside that building, impossibly hot, labyrinthine, and dark, is a firefighter crawling through ash, embers, a thousand ordinary objects displaced.

There is a recall on the radio. The rescuer starts to leave but sees another firefighter’s light bobbing and shining at him from deep in the fire. The radio crackles with news of a lost brother amongst a cacophony of confused voices. Gut check and a fleeting thought for braces, shoes, and college tuitions.

Deeper into the fire the beast roars, the smoke thickens, the heat is all. He sees the victim now, the charred and costumed quixotic fool! Their future is now certain and intertwined. He reaches for the lost soul and touches the reality of his death. It is a mirror, he is Narcissus, and all is vanity.

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