Category Archives: American Independent

The Slammin’ Salmon (2009)

Director: Kevin Heffernan

Screenplay: Broken Lizard (Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske)

Best known for their 2001 comedy Super Troopers, about a group of half-witted state troopers and 2006’s Beerfest in which five friends train for a secret German beer drinking competition, the Broken Lizard comedy troupe are responsible for nearly fifteen years worth of filmmaking that has retained something of a cult following.  This past December, after four years of waiting, Broken Lizard fans were finally treated to the follow up to Beerfest, The Slammin’ Salmon.

The film takes place entirely in the fictional Slammin’ Salmon, a high end Miami restaurant owned but hardly operated by former heavyweight boxer and current moron Cleon Salmon, aka “The Champ” (Michael Clarke Duncan).  When The Champ finds himself $20,000 in debt to a Yakuza boss, he orders meek and insecure  restaurant manager Rich (Kevin Heffernan), to ensure that the restaurants’s receipts for that evening bring in the much needed cash.  Faced with either bringing in the money or having “his ass shoved up his ass” by The Champ, Rich enlists the help of the Salmon’s wait staff, promising a stay at a luxury spa for the waiter or waitress who brings in the most business for the evening.  This motivational tactic is later upped by The Champ himself to ten thousand dollars when he discovers that the receipts are not growing fast enough.  From this point onward, the story hits the same note over and over with few to no worthwhile changes.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have seen all the Broken Lizard films, with the exception of their first effort, 1996’s ill received Puddle Cruiser, and that I would consider myself a fan of their work.  In fact, Beerfest is a film that I initially hated, but now ranks as one of my favourite comedies to watch whenever I’m in the mood for something fun and easy.  However, what saved films like Beerfest and 2004’s Club Dread from simply being stupid comedies, is that their moments of stupidity actually translated into laughs.  There was a no pressure feel to their approach that was content in generally being goofy and nonsensical, whether the audience laughed or not.  The Slammin’ Salmon seems to be the opposite of that.  It grovels and pleads for laughs, throwing out everything it can in the process and amounting to a hollow, formulaic retread of the spontaneity seen in earlier Broken Lizard works.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Broken Lizard gang isn’t out to make deeply compelling and life altering cinema.  They’ve never made a pretentious film in their lives and that sort of carefree attitude is actually quite refreshing.  They’re in it strictly for the laughs, and if those laughs are provided, then things like a less than stellar story can sometimes be overlooked.  Unfortunately, as a result of the general lack of laughs, The Slammin’ Salmon fails to achieve its one and only objective.  Perhaps this change in output can be attributed to Kevin Heffernan, who made his directorial debut with Salmon, taking the helm from far more experienced and usual Broken Lizard director Jay Chandrasekhar.  Or maybe it’s a matter of the film’s single location serving to amplify the repetitiveness of the script itself.  Whatever the case may be, as a Broken Lizard fan, I would have been far more pleased to see them return after four years with the much whispered about sequel to Beerfest: Potfest.

Don’t judge.  We all need a few nice, easy laughs now and then.

-Mike

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Happy Weekend.

I was stunned today when I came across this (NSFW) clip from Orson Welles’ never-completed final film The Other Side of the Wind (circa 1972?). Certainly formally brilliant, but I’ll leave it to you to decide: is it pornographic? Misogynistic? Subversive? Genuinely erotic? Other?

I just don’t know what to think of it. It’s such a charge to the senses. Taken in its isolation from the rest of the film, the scene is almost dangerously provocative and mysterious.

The Other Side of the Wind is a satire about an old-guard Hollywood director (played by John Huston) who in the early seventies decides to make a “sex-and-symbolism” picture, in order to keep up-to-speed with the New Hollywood countercultural movement (typified by such films as Easy Rider). I have no idea where the above clip fits into the story; possibly it emanates from the film-within-a-film. Hopefully soon Peter Bogdanovich or somebody will tackle a final edit of Welles’ raw material and we’ll really be able to sort out this scene’s meaning. (Or have it complicated even further.)

If nothing else, here’s proof that Welles’ career as a director can hardly be defined by studio films like Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

How did you react to the above clip?

-Cam

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Dollman (1991)

Director: Albert Pyun

Screenplay: David Pabian, Chris Roghair

It’s comforting to know a wacky project like Dollman exists for B-movie fanatics like me, even if the film itself can’t quite live up its trailer (see previous post).

Charles Band, the impresario of Full Moon Features, conceived this story of Brick Bardo (cult actor Tim Thomerson, of Band’s popular Trancer series), a take-no-prisoners law enforcer on the distant planet Arturus, who crash-lands on Earth to find himself only thirteen inches tall. Bardo’s reduced stature does not, however, occasion the existential plight you might come to expect after such other “mini-people” sci-fi classics as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Rather, the central joke of the movie is that Bardo, a bad-ass on his home planet, remains equally fearsome as a tiny “dollman” on Earth, wiping out South Bronx gangbangers wholesale with his super-charged pistol, which looks like an accessory from a G.I. Joe figurine. That this little weapon functions as a ludicrously disproportionate symbol of phallic overcompensation is apparently not lost on the filmmakers: at one point they have the lead gangbanger (Jackie Earle Haley, in a very funny performance) attempt to steal Bardo’s miniature pistol after his own normal-sized guns prove embarrassingly “impotent” in destroying the little guy.

There’s certainly not a lot of plot progression to be found in Dollman, if that’s your thing. But the movie does have some convincing scaling effects (mostly accomplished with the use of camera angles, with less reliance on over-sized props), as well as some distinctly B-for-budget environs: construction-site rubble and austere, dingy interiors (“any-space-whatevers,” as the philosopher Deleuze might say) are virtually the only two locations utilized, alerting one to the fact that the filmmakers–aside from a brief montage of Bronx street scenes–are consciously working to set the action in underpopulated areas in order to cut costs. It is in fact this chronic avoidance of the normal hustle and bustle of city life that gives urban B-movies like Dollman that special mark of being “not-quite-official,” set at margins or in the hidden places of mainstream society and culture, and therefore, in some way, thrillingly authentic.

-Cam

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Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire (2009)

Director: Lee Daniels

Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher

Novel: Sapphire (1996)

That I caught up with Lee Daniels’s Precious late in the game (i.e. this past Monday), following its run of resoundingly successful festival appearances (major awards at Sundance and TIFF; standing ovation at Cannes) and hyperbolic critical notices (both gushy and censorious), clearly influenced my perceptions of it, and not for the better. It’s no secret that hype can be a wickedly distracting thing; but it can also tell us a lot about a film.

Oscar talk™–which Precious has been receiving since well before its domestic release last November–is high on my list of warning signs that a movie secretly has no integrity. Part of what’s so ruinous about awards season—and perhaps the very idea of handing out awards for films in the first place—is that it invites and rewards fawning: in most instances (not to say always), the films that emerge as “award-hopefuls” at year’s end are those custom-designed to flatter voters’ tastes, their sense of self-importance and awareness of “important” subjects (people like Kate Winslet and Stephen Daldry devote their entire careers to making these kinds of films). I couldn’t shake the impression while watching Precious that every “raw,” “powerhouse” moment in it was calculated to appease (liberal-minded) award-voters–perhaps because, from my vantage point mid-way through awards-season, I can see how well the film has succeeded in doing just that.

Maybe it’s unfair to place the blame on the filmmakers for the hype Precious has generated; they may have originally had only the best intentions in mind. (Besides, could the Oscars have possibly been in their sights when they debuted at Sundance?) All I can say, for my part, is that the award fever surrounding the film, and integrated into its marketing/campaign strategy (no doubt with the complicity of Lee “Monster’s Ball” Daniels), has significantly deadened the actual emotional experience of watching the film. I find it very difficult to be moved by a film when all its dramatic peaks–including the heart-tugging dialogue between Gabby Sidibe and Paula Patton, and Mo’Nique’s tearful climactic monologue–come straight out of the trailer I’ve seen a dozen times. Hyping Precious in their own right, these emotion-soaked clips have become the Oscar-jockeying equivalent of the f/x “money shots” in previews for summer blockbusters. Again, the calculation shows the more the hype grows.

Perhaps I digress. Aside from my above complaints–which all seem external (though, I think, not inconsequential) to the film in some sense–what else can I say about Precious? Most of you should know by now that the film is about an obese, illiterate black teenager (Gabourey Sidibe) from Harlem who struggles daily with poverty and an abusive mother (Mo’Nique), as well as the trauma of being raped and twice impregnated by her biological father, until education and the efforts of a kindly teacher (Paula Patton) transform her life. Being a “liberal-minded” viewer myself, I found that the film did make a lot of concessions to my particular biases, and it didn’t always feel like a ploy: I especially appreciated the film’s attempt to imbue nearly every character–even the monstrous Mo’Nique–with a measure of self-understanding and humanity (more than can be said for the potential Best Picture-winner Avatar). And it is a rare film indeed that allows you to see the beauty and inner-consciousness of an overweight, African-American female character, not to mention a film that deals so directly with incest, abusive parenting, and class and racial issues.

But (another but!), just because Precious addresses the latter issues directly, doesn’t necessarily mean it does so adequately, or responsibly. I’ll tread lightly here and reference other critics, since I’m definitely out of my area in discussing some of these topics. As glowingly as the film has been praised by some critics (Peter Travers composed a love poem or two, calling it the best film of 2009), other critics (Armond White most famously) have attacked it as racist, demeaning in its representation of inner-city black life, and particularly problematic in light of its critical standing with the majority of (white) critics.  Nikole Hannah-Jones of The Oregonian perhaps frames the anxiety about Precious best: “I am skeptical about a movie that seems so heavily steeped in black pathology, yet is so embraced by the mainstream. Of course incest and illiteracy occur in the black community, as [they do] in all communities. But with so few black dramas on the big screen, I also know ‘Precious’ presents this view in a cinematic vacuum.” You begin to see what Hannah-Jones and White mean the more Precious relentlessly piles on the un-prettiness of inner-city life (e.g., Mo’Nique’s pathetic attempt to appear presentable for a social worker by throwing on a wig and smearing on lipstick; stylized flashbacks that highlight the sweat on Precious’s father’s belly as he unbuckles himself to rape her; a late appearance by the AIDS virus). Why are so many (white) critics eating this up, without compunction? Why is Precious the only film with black themes to emerge as a contender this awards season?

The other major problem, touched on by White and several other critics, is that the film casts only light-skinned performers (Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey) in the sympathetic, kind saviour roles. This is particularly alarming given that, as Latoya Peterson points out on the excellent blog Racialicious, Patton’s teacher character is darker-skinned and wears dreadlocks in the original novel. With a light-skinned actor occupying this role, the character seems to join a long line of predominantly white teacher/saviour figures in films about inner-city education (in the same blog posting mentioned above, Peterson provides a hilarious clip from MadTV to illustrate the prevalence and ridiculousness of this phenomenon). Further compounding this problem is the film’s depiction of Precious’s shame at her own skin colour; she speaks of desiring “a light-skinned boyfriend” and even envisions herself a skinny white woman while fixing her hair in front of a mirror. I don’t doubt that a black girl could have such self-consciousness about her skin colour; I am merely troubled by the fact that the film takes it for granted that Precious desires to be white (it’s almost offhandedly treated), and never comes to terms with where this identity issue stems from (could movies like Precious, with their light-skinned angels, be partially responsible for perpetuating this self-image problem?). In the absence of any deeper reflection on skin colour, Precious’s self-hatred in the film appears as just one more element to flatter critics’ sense of “raw truth” in this telling of an African-American story.

[For a fine summary of the debates surrounding Precious, see this article.]

-Cam

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