Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"I promise you, things are about to get a whole shit-load brighter": BEACH PARTY AT THE THRESHOLD OF HELL

Director: Jonny Gillette/Kevin Wheatley
Starring: Kevin Wheatley, Paul Whitty, Jamie Bullock, and quick cameos from Daniel Baldwin, Jane Seymour and Tony Hale

In case Kevin Wheatley serving as both star and (one of the) director(s) wasn't enough, he also wrote the screenplay. Also, his biggest credit other than this is a recurring role on "Dirt". And if that didn't kill your interest, the fact this movie's official title includes "National Lampoon Presents" probably might.

Wait, wait, come back!

Okay, those of you that are left might be wondering, "why did you watch this movie, Mr. K?" Well, one, I'm a masochist. And two, it's a post-apocalyptic comedy.

A low-key, low-budget, poorly-executed comedy that mostly reminds me I still need to see Six String Samurai. But it has a slight charm.

The plot, such as it is, is this. In 2075, something called the Sunstroke Corporation apparently obliterated America, leaving only a few hundred thousand survivors, mostly underground. While underground, the survivors were comforted by Clarke Remington (Daniel Baldwin, basically being a low-rent version of his brother Alec), a used car salesman who convinced people he was King of America and that his half-mad, blind, albino nephew Benny (Bill English) was his sucessor. When the surviving Americans finally emerged, Tex Kennedy (our star, Kevin Wheatley, trying for a Kennedy impersonation and mostly failing) makes it his mission to let America know Benny is their king, and hopefully get the Vice-Kingship in the process. Unfortunately, he's opposed by a bunch of Satanic spring-breakers, Clarke's pyschopathic son Jackle (Lea Coco) and his mysterious advisor from the "Republic of Arizona", Marcellus St. Joan (Ted Schneider).

That's a lot to take in. Also, that really doesn't represent what the story is. It's a hell of shaggy dog story. The Sunstroke Corporation? Not mentioned after the first five minutes. What the Republic of Arizona represents (if it exists), what Benny's visions are, who killed Clarke Remington, why a bunch of spring-breakers were protected by the Devil from the nuclear fall-out, and if Tex Kennedy will actually become Vice-King are not answered either. Don't even get me started on a half-assed framing device that includes Tony Hale and a few other people pretending to be historians commenting on this film as if it were a documentary.

Now, comedies have a tendency towards rambling, disconnected narratives (though both Hot Fuzz & Shaun of the Dead prove this isn't necessary). Some movies, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, even turn this to their advantage, using the loopy and disjointed nature of the plot to make fun of the way stories about King Arthur and his knights are cobbled together from a variety of sources with a variety of different motives. At the very least, digressions in a comedy should lead to something funny. Why does Stryker's flashback in Airplane! turn into a Saturday Night Fever parody? Who cares, because it's unexpected and (more importantly) hilarious.

Now, to be fair to Beach Party, it does have a few funny moments. But way too much of the film is devoted to setting up an incredibly developed mythology that isn't funny and is clearly setting up another film. This mythology isn't even interesting enough to build up my interest in another film. It's just distracting and confusing. And not funny.

In my estimate, a good 20 minutes of exposition, mostly in the beginning of the film, are spent setting up characters and situations who don't even figure into the climax, and the last 13 are spent setting up the next film. Beach Party is only an hour and a half! You don't need to remember your Robert McKee to see the structural problems.

It certainly doesn't help that, even when Beach Party is trying to be funny, their reach exceeds their grasp. The low-budget and inexperienced actors make the movie feel like a collaboration between a college improv troupe and the film department. Daniel Baldwin is probably the best actor in the entire movie, and he's just on auto-pilot (Tony Hale and Jane Seymour are completely squandered). Most of the other performances give off that strange mix of apathy and over-acting that people new to improv display. Though at least Lea Coco and Ted Schneider go all the way into scene-chewing, and are frequently the funniest because of that.

This is a shame, because there are some good ideas in the mix. A movie set in a post-apocalypse where the survivors are incompetent assholes pretending to be tough guys is a great concept. When Mr. Jackle is trying to chainsaw an offending minion and takes five minutes to get the chainsaw started, it's hilarious. The idea that one of the new Founders ends up inspiring a holiday devoted to cannibalism, complete with cheesy patriotic commercials, is comedy gold. And a failed car salesman who ends up becoming king of (part of) New America merely because he's the most charismatic guy with a radio is an inspired character.

But throughout, Wheatley and company are trying to convince the viewer that they're ready to play in the big leagues, squandering whatever charm their laid-back approach sometimes earns. Cannibal! The Musical is only slightly less hit-or-miss, but the low-key, communal feel to the film draws you in. And the "National Lampoon Presents" label suggests a level of professionalism and polish that just isn't there. Maybe if Troma had released it, it might have done better.

As for why National Lampoon might have decided to release this film, it's probably because of the titular  Beach Party, which is about as salacious as a TV edit of American Pie, and a torture scene with a lesbianic catfight. Trust me, it sounds more interesting than it actually is.

Grade: C -

Thursday, July 22, 2010

There are no guilty pleasures...

... but there are things to be guilty over, especially once the pleasure is gone.

So I'm going through my CD collection, weeding out stuff I don't listen to any more or that I have a digital copy of already. And yikes, I forgot how many bad or embarassing CDs I own. And yes, I say this despite the fact I now admit to liking Grand Funk Railroad.

For example, I own/owned:

  • a CD by Powerman 5000
  • both Iggy Pop & Henry Rollins' attempts to jump on the funk-metal bandwagon
  • two Everclear CD (!). They didn't even have two different songs!
  • Matchbox 20's Yourself or Someone Like You (this was one of my first pop albums)
  • that Papa Roach CD that had that song about suicide on it

Most of these purchases I can blame on growing up in the '90s, but still... blech. I'm pretty sure there's even a Korn CD somewhere in there. It might be the one that Todd McFarlane did a music video for. Even more reason to be ashamed.

So, what's the most embarassing album/CD you have trouble admitting you owned?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Words for writers to live by...

Danilo Kis' A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, a sad and moving short story collection that recounts various Soviet-era apparatchiks, traitors, criminals and dissidents, ends with the tongue-in-cheek "The Short Biography of A.A. Darmolatov". The true meaning of this piece, about a minor poet who survives years of Soviet rule without getting sent to a work camp or put on trial, only emerges at the end with this postscript:

He remains a medical phenomenon in Russian literature: Darmolatov's case was entered in all the latest pathology textbooks. A photograph of his scrotum, the size of the biggest collective farm pumpkin, is also reprinted in foreign medical books, wherever elephantiasis (elephantiasis nostras) is mentioned, and as a moral for writers that to write one must have more than big balls.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I couldn't agree more...

From page 24 of Fear & Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson:

... Back to Chicago; it's never dull out there. You never know exactly what kind of terrible shit is going to come down on you in that town, but you can always count on something. Every time I got to Chicago I come away with scars.

I'm doing well these days, but that sums up a lot of how I feel about my time in Chicago. And that's why I'm moving elsewhere at the end of the summer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"There is never a moment of culture, without it being at the same time a document of barbarity"

Stolen from Frederick Spotts' Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, quoting Walter Benjamin's tombstone.

An interesting counterpoint to Arendt's Men in Dark Times, which I'm also skimming. Arendt's book is mostly a history of flawed but talented/gifted people struggling to preserve or change the world for the better. Spotts' book ends up being mostly a role call of artists, thinkers and builders who sold out to Hitler's flattering grand vision.

And Spotts is good at both at cultural journalism on the aesthetic tendencies/interests of the Third Reich on the one hand, and on the other driving home the destructive results of Hitler's own artistic aspirations. And, of course, tying those aesthetic impulses, of both the party and the leader, back to the atrocities they committed. Speer, Strauss and many others come in for very harsh words for both their crimes (towards humanity, not just artistically) and their attempts to whitewash them after the war.

The book does make me wonder if there are any in-depth studies of either the German stage or the German cinema in Nazi Germany. Neither were of particular day-to-day interest to Hitler (even if he enjoyed their works sometimes, he showed nothing of the fascination he felt towards opera) and were mostly left up to Goebbels and other administrators. The few articles I've seen on the subject (such as this fascinating one on the man who was considered the Nazi Noel Coward or anything on Gustaf Grundgens and Jew Suss) and Richard J. Evans' short discussion of UFA's propaganda films in The Third Reich at War suggest a complex relationship between the public at large, working artists, and the government. Spotts' dissection of the various competing factions that fought for control of the visual arts (as in virtually every other area of administration, when something did not have Hitler's explicit interest) is by turns darkly comic and depressing. Reading Goebbels bitchily insulting Rosenberg's artistic tastes, for example, is a discomfortingly humanizing experience.

I promise something not so heavy or weird soon.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

On politics, art and selling out...

Perhaps the most thoughtful warning comes from Hannah Arendt, speaking of Brecht's acquiesence to the Communist regime:

"For the only meaningful punishment that a poet can suffer, short of death, is, of course, the sudden loss of what throughout human history has appeared a divine gift."
- page 215 of Men in Dark Times, Harcourt, Brace and Court, 1968

Something to think about this Fourth of July weekend.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Forget it, Jake, it's Wrigleyville...

Okay, I should say: I've taken classes at iO. I was taught by some great instructors there. I met some great people there, who I'm still friends with. I might even take classes at iO West when I move out to LA.

That said.... I will not cry about the Malling of Wrigleyville. Because Wrigleyville is already a mall.

It is a mall for people from the suburbs who view a trip to the city as a chance to be assholes. It is a mall for drunken former frat-guys and their bloated female equivalents to douche-ily hit on and/or hit each other. Half the bars are faux-Irish pubs with names like Drunky O'Shannahan's or TJ McCollarpop. The only difference is that now any bars will be owned by nationally-owned companies instead of regionally-owned chains.

But what about iO, someone might cry. They're a link with history! They're an integral part of the neighborhood! They give it charm!

Other than the fact that it would be nice to not have to associate with the wretched hive of scum and villainy that are the people of Wrigleyville after every show or push through drunk suburbanites to get to class on time, I really don't think Charna Halpern, owner/manager/whatever of iO, has the moral high ground.

Because she was for blandifying the neighborhood as long as she got a primo spot. Check the date on that. January 31, 2008.

It sucks that she got cheated of her deal. And I understand why she'd want to get that sweet deal in the first place. It's hard to get space, it's harder to get more space, especially in Lakeview/Wrigleyville.

But you can't moan and cry about gentrification when you were fine with it screwing everybody except you.

This might be a bad move for Wrigleyville. This might not be a great thing for iO. But if all these new businesses crash and burn, maybe some new black box theatre company or improv troupe will move in. Or new bars and restaurants.

Wrigleyville is not a hothouse flower. It doesn't need to be coddled. If it can survive the drunken jerks & the snobs who hate them, it can survive a Target or a Best Buy.

If there's anything that needs to change, it's the way that Daley & his Aldermen just rearrange real estate & zoning for these kind of Potemkin Village projects. And Alderman Waguepack is just as much a part of that system as Alderman Tunney.