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Hotter Days, Cooler Movies

11 May

[For Part One of the Dan Swanky’s Summer Movie Celebration feat. Steed, go here.  Now, we’ll move to July & August:]

July

The Amazing Spider-Man – July 6

Basically Spiderman 3D, this is a reboot of the Spiderman franchise just a few short years after Tobey Maguire moped his way through the wildly uneven Spider-Man 3.  This time around, Eduardo Saverin takes a break from throwing laptops around and steps into the Spidey costume, and he’s paired up with some solid supporting actors in Emma Stone, Denis Leary, and Rhys Ifans.  At first glance, this seems like Spider-Man could just add on to the superhero overkill of the summer, but this one looks like it has a welcome indie edge to it – the director is Marc Webb from 500 Days of Summer, and the most recent trailer was sporting a Glitch Mob banger.

The Dark Knight Rises – July 20

The biggest movie of the summer.  Anticipation for this one started after the credits rolled on The Dark Knight four years ago, and have only gotten bigger since.  Rises is the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s masterful Batman trilogy, and by all indication, things are going to get dark and intense, real quick.  Early reports of the movie have described it as being similar to a horror movie, which sounds amazing.  The only reservation at this point is that the trailers and marketing materials seem to be giving too much of the plot away – the most recent one seems to be telegraphing a poetic yet grisly end for the Caped Crusader.  Hopefully that won’t ruin any surprises.

The Watch – July 27

Initially, The Watch looked like another glossy and expensive high-concept comedy, with big-name comedy stars dumbing down their humor in order to appeal to a broader audience.  The plot sounded silly in the worst way – a neighborhood watch group led by Ben Stiller, Vince Vaugh, and Jonah Hill have to protect their neighborhood from an alien invasion.  And then a red band trailer was released, and trepidation turned to anticipation.  The movie looks to be going in the hard-R direction, which is the best decision they could make.  When you’ve got Vaughn, Stiller, and Hill sitting around and talking shit to kids in between extended riffs on alien jizz, then you’ve got the potential for a great summer comedy.

STEED:

Savages – July 6

“There was a period of my life several years ago, which I’m not entirely proud of, when I spent a lot of my time developing my own little grass business.  The funny stuff.  Everything was organic and I catered mostly to the local soccer mom/stay-at-home dad community.  Would do a lot of minivan drops, stuff like that.  Anyways, during this time I had grand dreams of building my own little empire, complete with a gorgeous vixen by my side and a grand waterfront estate.  Savages pretty much sums up what I was aiming for, minus the nasty little Mexican cartal drama, and it’s a movie I’m looking forward to identifying with.  I can definitely see my ruggedly handsome self in the Tim Riggins role.”

Ted – July 13

“So a few weeks ago I was spending a nice little Sunday afternoon at the casa.  It was one of the first hot days of the year, so while my roommate Jasper was out mowing the lawn, me and the other roommate Steve were sitting on the porch finishing the keg from the night before.  You’ve got like a 36-hour window on those things, y’know.  But anyways, so we’re sitting there enjoying our High Life and the smell of fresh-cut grass when Steve suddenly says Oh Shit.  I say, What Steve, and when I turn to look at him, I notice that my whole body suddenly feels great.  I Forgot These Are The Acid Cups, Steve remarks, with a distinct lack of regret in his voice.  Oh, I said.  40 minutes later, I wandered back inside to get a fresh beer and saw that our Fathead of Shawn Kemp had walked off the wall and was now sitting on the couch enjoying a cold brew.  Awesome, I thought, and I sat down to join him.  We spent the whole afternoon watching the NBA playoffs, joking around, and generally just being great buddies.  When it came to about dinner time, we dapped it and he left.  It was a great time.  I’d imagine Ted is kind of like that.”

August

The Bourne Legacy – August 4

The Bourne movies with Matt Damon got better with each new installment, and while it might be tough to top the last one, Bourne Legacy looks pretty promising.  Jeremy Renner plays intensely troubled Badass pretty well (see: The Hurt Locker) and the direction/writing of Tony Gilroy should supply some mind-bending suspense elements.  This isn’t a total reboot of the franchise either – many of the same supporting actors from the prior films are reprising their roles in this one, and it will be interesting to see how the story is continued.  Fingers crossed for an epic Renner-Damon glare-off followed by a throwdown session in the climax.  Loser, if not dead, has to date Julia Stiles’ character.

The Campaign – August 10

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis easily stole the show at the 2012 Oscars with 2 short minutes of tuxedos and cymbals, and they make their movie debut together this summer as rivals campaigning for the same political position.  It’s easy to get expectations too high when two of the funniest people in the world get together, so this will have to be pretty good not to disappoint.  One thing going for it is that Zach seems to have co-opted several mannerisms from his brother Seth to play his Campaign role.  Hopefully Seth will show up for the press rounds or at least the premiere.  Let this tide you over until August.

STEED:

The Expendables 2 – August 10

“Sometimes dreams come true.  Like when I’ve spent all of my movie-watching life having fitful dreams about seeing the incredible physiques and menacing scowls of Stallone, Schwarzenneger, Lundgren, Statham, Li, Willis, and Rourke come together on one screen, and then one magical summer night two years ago, it happens.  I spent most of the first Expendables with tears of joy in my eyes and a pint of Jack in my hands, and opening night of this one won’t be any different.  Especially now that we’ve got Chuck Fucking Norris and Van Damme joining the party.  I may or may not be organizing a chopper envoy for the drive to the theater, followed by a session at the tattoo parlor after the movie.  Email me for details.”

Hit and Run – August 24

“Written, directed, and starring Dax ‘Punk’d’ Shepard.  Enough said.  Ticket purchased.”

Premium Rush – August 24

“I’ve been getting into extreme mountain biking lately.  There’s an urban MBX (my term, TM) park near my house, filled with all kinds of crazy objects to jump over and speed around, and I’m almost ready to go on it.  I bought a trail-ready bike a few weeks ago and have been riding it extreme-style every other day to the MBX park.  I post up there at the top and watch all the MBX bros crush the trail, taking notes on their techniques and lingo.  After a while of this, I’ll make loops around my neighborhood, hopping over curbs and honing my techniques.  It’s a slow process, sure, but practice makes perfect, and pretty soon I’ll be able to own that MBX trail.  Then I can rub it in my neighbor Timothy’s smug little face.  But, yeah, basically I understand the dudes in Premium Rush.

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Hot Days, Cool Movies

8 May

Summertime at your local movie theater is a season marked by huge stars, lavish budgets, and lots of loud noises.  With schools out and temperatures ranging from uncomfortably warm to oppressively hot, the easy distractions and cool A/C blasts of the multiplex are an enormous draw all across America.  Movie studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to fill those multiplexes with all the big stars, shiny effects, and loud noises that the months of May – August can handle, and their efforts are rewarded with enough box office sales and merchandising tie-in revenues to keep the whole routine humming year after year.

It is easy to point to the summer movie season as a perfect example of everything wrong with Hollywood and America today – enormous sums of money spent on hollow excesses simply for the sake of making even bigger sums of money on the back end.  And there is some truth behind that.  A cynical truth, though, and bringing cynicism into the summer movie season can prevent someone from enjoying the great potential behind some of these blockbusters.  If done right, a huge summer movie can represent some of the best things that the medium of cinema can offer –  namely an escape from the mundane realities of everyday life, and the chance to see wild twists of imagination made ‘real’ on the big screen.  Summer can offer the chance to check your worries and stress at the door, and escape into worlds of pure entertainment.  There is nothing wrong with just being entertained for a few hours out of your otherwise busy week.

The Avengers kicked off the blockbuster season last week with a small fortune in box office receipts, and it has gotten us in the blockbuster mood here at Dan Swanky’s.  We sat down and picked out some films from the next few months that have us all-out excited, or at least genuinely intrigued, for what awaits in the cool dark of the theater.  And to add a different perspective, we also got our resident blockbuster aficionado Steed to give us some picks of his own.  Enjoy Part One.

May

The Avengers – May 4

The Avengers is an example of how to make a blockbuster the right way.  Director Joss Whedon manages to pull off a story that remains true to the essence of the comic books while also achieving a broader appeal, and he does it behind strong characters that don’t get lost behind the massive scale of the special effects.  It’s tough to stay grounded and nuanced while pulling off scenes with aliens, Norse gods, and lots of spandex, but Avengers manages to do that while also celebrating the awesome action potential that comes from having superhero legends sharing the big screen for the first time.

The Dictator – May 18

Sascha Baron Cohen continues his trend of playing crude characters with funny accents in The Dictator, and it’s tough to tell from the early trailers if this will be a return to brilliant Borat form, or a continuation of the mild disappointment of Bruno.  Regardless, any movie that brings together comedic talents like Cohen, director Larry Charles, and John C. Reilly is worth the benefit of the doubt.  Hopefully there are plenty of batshit crazy and filthy jokes waiting behind the currently tame trailer.

Moonrise Kingdom – May 25

Wes Anderson returns with another coming-of-age tale (presumably) soaked in warm colors, ethereal indie rock songs, and sharp-tongued youngsters.  You can go into an Anderson film with a strong idea of what you’re going to get, and you’ll end up being mostly right – but he can also hit you with emotionally charged scenes of beauty when you least expect it, and is always wholly unique.  Moonrise could be a welcome change of pace among the special effects melee of the summer landscape.

STEED:

Battleship – May 11

“Let’s run this one down:  Aircraft carriers.  Aliens.  Guns.  Tim ‘Riggs’ Riggins.  Liam ‘Taken’ Neeson.  Brooklyn Decker.  Explosions.  This one had me standing in line from the top.  Then the newest trailer dropped in front of Avengers this past weekend, and things were ratcheted up.  I blacked out from the sensory overload, and when I came to a few seconds later, I was at half-mast and lying in the aisle.  Ticket already purchased.”

What To Expect When You’re Expecting – May 18

“Confession: I’m a sucker for baby humor.  No, not humor meant for babies to laugh at – humor that is made up of babies doing funny things.  Babies reacting to things they clearly shouldn’t be reacting to?  Babies crawling around and stirring up innocent mischief?  Gets me every goddamn time.  This movie looks like it’s got all kinds of baby vs. stupid human interaction, and I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a Wednesday afternoon.”

June

Prometheus – June 8

This sci-fi action/horror/mind-bender looks to be one of the cooler movies of the summer, complete with a mysterious plot, creepy alien action, and a great cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, Idris Elba, and Charlize Theron.  And that’s on top of the fact that it’s directed by Ridley Scott in his rumored return to the Alien universe; the early glimpses of the trailers look like there are plenty of the same ‘horror movie in space’ touches that made the first film so great.  In another connection to Alien, Fassbender is playing an android in this one – there are unconfirmed reports that he actually begins the film as a sex robot and that this could be a Shame-in-Space situation.  Stay tuned.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – June 22

This is one of those movies that has the potential to be the perfect ‘turn off your mind and be entertained’ summer offerings.  The concept (spelled out in the title) is borderline absurd – but so what?  Timur Bekmambetov is a director who knows how to craft stylish and inventive action sequences, and he’ll be offering up plenty of badass Abe Lincoln v. Vampires ax fights.  If the movie doesn’t take itself seriously and focuses on just having a good time, then this could be a great late-night summer movie.

Magic Mike – June 29

We’ve talked about this before, but we’ve been looking forward to Magic Mike ever since hearing the logline.  In a story based partly upon his real life, Channing Tatum is a male stripper whose mentor is Matthew McConaughey.  This alone sounds somewhat iffy, but when the kicker is that Mike is directed by Steven Soderbergh, things could get weird, in an awesome way.  Soderbergh is a very good director, and his approach to this particular story will be very interesting.  Plus, McConaughey’s role means that we get to see David Wooderson follow his calling to be a male stripper.

STEED:

Rock of Ages – June 15

“Make sure you put down that I’m not a musical fan.  I’d much rather see someone fight their way through a movie’s plot instead of singing and dancing about.  But when the music is all rock classics from golden gods like Journey, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Bon Fuckin’ Jovi, and the main guy is Tom ‘Maverick’ Cruise?  Then sign me right up.  I’m definitely looking forward to getting out my old denim and bringing a few tall boys to the opening weekend of this baby.  Hopefully I’ll bring it back to the Van Halen show a few years ago and get a little something going in the back row.  We shall see.  We shall see.”

That’s My Boy – June 15

“Well, it looks like the June 15 weekend is going to have to be a double feature for yours truly.  I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the Sand-man’s last several movies, and with this one we finally get to see him in some hard-R glory.  No more dancing around that salty language, Sand-man, just let it fly.  I’m not too sure who this Andy Samberg broheim is, but he looks like he could have some potential and I’ll give him a shot.  As long he doesn’t get in the Man’s way.  I don’t want anyone stepping over those baby-talk lines I love so much.  I’ve got a feeling that like Grown Ups, I’ll be making some return trips to the theater all summer long for this one.”

Part Two covering July and August coming soon…

The Keg’s Back There

4 Apr

With American Reunion hitting theaters this week, the various faces of East Great Falls Class of ’99 have been popping up on TV and billboards all over the place.  There are probably many out there who hit American Pie fatigue shortly after the credits rolled on the second one, and the sight of Jim, Finch, Oz and Co. with a few years’ of mileage on them is not really a welcome one.  But personally, while it is a bit disconcerting to see what a decade has done to Ms. Suvari and Ms. Reid, the familiar images  of these characters strikes up a fondness normally reserved for old friends.

I’m sure most everyone has a few pieces of pop culture that happened to come about at a particularly important or memorable point in their lives – be it a movie, book, song, etc.  And for whatever reason, that slice of entertainment paired with a fond memory and never really escaped you after that.  The artistic merits of your personal cultural talisman can be questionable, and that’s not the point.  There are plenty of other deeply felt and profound films or songs that can be cherished and pointed to as truly your ‘favorites’.

You can put as many high-minded books and foreign films on your shelves as you want – the more prominent the better when that intriguing new neighbor stops by looking for some eggs.  But when it comes down to it, there is often a faded DVD sitting around somewhere on your shelf that has been carried along to every apartment you’ve ever lived in – waiting to be played in the case of a truly shitty day or just because you hadn’t seen it in far too long.  Here at Dan Swanky’s, one of those discs happen to be American Pie.

The original Pie found its way into my cinematic heart due in large part to its release coinciding with my stumbling transition from bright-eyed elementary school kid to hormone-fueled teenager.  I remember distinctly the first day I saw the movie, which is not something I can say for a lot of other films.  It was some weekend when I was 12, and while over at a friend’s house, he surreptitiously mentioned that he had a VHS copy of American Pie.  For a kid still grappling with the parental units over access to anything past a PG-13 rating, this was akin to someone sliding a Playboy and a pack of Camel Lights across the table.  I had heard of the movie’s raunchiness through various schoolyard networks, and being able to watch it was a thrilling rush in that manner unique to forbidden childhood activities.  On the drive back home in the family car afterwards, I felt as though I had just done something wrong – and I wasn’t in the least bit sorry.

The movie definitely did not disappoint when it came to offering up a theretofore unseen world of high school parties and sexual misadventures.  The casual depictions of hooking up were both entrancing and confusing – I knew I wanted to take part in all of this consensual fun, but I also had no idea what was going on at many points.  Of course, in the prideful chest-puffing way of adolescence, my friends and I loudly laughed at every part to show that we ‘got it.’  But I was definitely not entirely clear on the whole chain of events leading to scenes  like Tara Reid shouting out her arrival plans while Courtney Love growled along on the soundtrack.  All we knew that it looked fun, edgy, and grown-up.

As someone poised on the doorstep of high school and its teenage experiences, I was in a bit of impressionistic state, to say the least.  And American Pie arrived with a bundle of impressions, offering up an idealized image of high school full of debaucherous keg parties and sexually adventurous foreign exchange students.  I didn’t entirely buy into this image, but I bought in enough that I was mildly disappointed when high school did not, in fact, turn out to be like East Great Falls High.    That disappointment didn’t taint the movie, however, and as high school realities carried on, Pie became a familiar and welcoming reminder of the idealism and exciting newness of that 12-14 year-old range.  We were all looking forward to the nonstop fun awaiting with high school parties and their attendant high school girls.  The movie has come to represent a simpler, stylized vision of high school that never, and could never have, existed; it is still enjoyable to live the dream vicariously through Jim and the crew.

Set apart from my own personal experience and looked at on its own merits, there are several other reasons American Pie has remained an enjoyable movie for this long.  By using Jim’s viewpoint to tell the story, the creators presented a character that was easy to sympathize with as he endured some pretty universal high-school experiences.  In the original movie, Jim just wants to get laid, and he’ll do what it takes to get there.

The “Nadia” sequence, in which Jim falls all over himself to hook up with the beautiful foreign exchange student, is a great visual example of his endearing, misguided quest.  (The scene is also a visual time capsule of the late-90s teen experience: chat rooms, Blink-182 song AND cameo, bleached tips, puka shells, Shannon Elizabeth, Perfect 10, etc.)  He’s awkward, sincere, and ultimately doesn’t really go through any groundbreaking transformation at the end, like a lot of other fictional protagonists.  His story feels natural, and by extension, the movie resonates deeper than most of the other teen sex comedies that have come along since Pie.

As with many other movies you can have an unabashed soft spot for, there are of course some unfortunate aspects of American Pie that there’s no getting around.  The acting in the original is all over the place, ranging from high points like Seann William Scott’s career-launching Stifler performance to the Mena Suvari/Chris Klein blank stare contest.  That’s the price you can pay for having a bunch of relatively unknown teens headline your movie.  And the franchise has not had the greatest aging process – the raunchy edge of the first movie seems a lot tamer by now, and there have been some significant cases of diminishing returns with the sequels.  The spate of Band Camp spin-offs also don’t help with the franchise’s reputation for just being another major studio cash cow.

But all of that goes by the wayside when the first funky strains of generic porn music open up the first scene of American Pie.  At that point the smile goes on and doesn’t come off for the next two hours.  Sometimes, that’s all you’re looking for in a movie.

A Different Kind Of Cinematic Excellence

22 Mar

The Theater.  At first, second, and third glance, it is an unlikely place for memorable cinematic experiences.  It was impossible to move in your seat without a high-pitched creak echoing out against the faded walls.  The floors were constantly sticky and you always had to be ready to lift your feet up at moment’s notice to allow spilled drinks to flow by underneath.

After about 20 minutes into the movie, the first empty bottle would fall over; that familiar clinking would sound out at least a few more times before the credits rolled.  There was a Coke-colored splatter just slightly visible on the bottom right hand corner of the screen, presumably the result of someone’s lobbed soda.  Every now and then, a disinterested teenage usher would walk down the aisles and jiggle a flashlight halfheartedly.  It was ostensibly to keep things under control, but they’d only bother you if you happened totake a pull from your wine bottle right in front of them – at that point they’d just make you throw it out before returning to your seat.

In terms of beverages, the best ‘personal’ drink options were either 40ozs (High Life is a local favorite) or the Pan Flute.  The Pan Flute is a 3-pack of 24oz beer cans that conveniently comes wrapped tightly together.  It vaguely resembles the Peruvian pan flute, but a vague resemblance is all it took for the name to catch on with the local college crowd.  The Pan Flute easily slips under a zipped-up hoodie or under the crook of your arm so that no one is the wiser as you slip past the box office.  The 24oz threesome is also much more than enough to keep you feeling alright throughout the whole movie.

You couldn’t just see any new release at The Theater.  There was an art to picking your spots.  There were some movies that would be ruined if seen there, some that would be alright but not really worth it, and then some that begged to be seen there.  At no other theater was there the same mixture of location, clientele, and environment.

The Theater was situated right in between campus and student apartments, and was also in a somewhat run-down neighborhood.  When you went to a movie, you were most likely going to find a varied crowd with a decent proportion of them inclined to partake in some kind of partying.  The Theater’s managers weren’t running too tight a ship, so there wasn’t much oversight going on.  You could count on enjoying yourself with some recreational beverages as long as you kept it in moderation.

This was a place best suited to enjoying some cold beers and a movie, with an audience that would largely be doing the same.  So you wanted to find a movie that would both supplement and be supplemented by this kind of ‘open-minded’ environment.  Some genres that turned out to fit this category well were broad comedies, ‘pot movies,’ mindless action flicks (but none that relied on huge amounts of special effects, because the grand scale of those would be lost on the drink-stained screen and shaky-at-best sound system), and most of all, horror movies.

It is this last type of movie that The Theater seemed tailor-made for.  There is something about watching a ridiculous horror movie on a dingy theater’s scratchy screen that feels akin to a classic moviegoer experience.  The super-intense, thematically profound horror movies are not the kind of horror we’re talking about here.  No, these are the slasher movies, the teen screams, the grindhouse creature features that inspire fits of frightened laughter and knowing groans with every crazy ‘kill scene.’

I came to horror, or specifically these particular brands of horror movies, later than I came to appreciate many other film genres.  For a long time, I was a bit too grossed out or disturbed by the randomly gratuitous violence in these movies.  But as I entered college – and not inconsequentially moved into the Theater’s neighborhood – I began to see the greatness potential in this horror canon.  Not great in terms of artistic merit and thoughtful filmmaking, but great in terms of the way these movies can become visceral events and communal experiences in a way that few other genres can.

Shortly after being introduced to The Theater, a few close friends and I spent one long summer introducing ourselves to the old-school horror movie catalog.  This involved spending many humid nights going through frosty six-packs and living vicariously through the doomed characters on-screen.  Talking (yelling) at these movies, in relative moderation, is an essential part of the viewing experience.  You can laugh at the ridiculousness of the 80s-era teen parties, or the absurd ways in which the killers take down their victims.  The nature of the action on screen moves the viewer to become more than just a passive spectator; few other types of movies can allow you to run the gamut from yelling, laughing, groaning in disgust, or cringing in fear in under two hours.

While it is highly enjoyable to watch these movies from the comfort of your own living room, it can be a much richer experience to venture out with some friends and beers to a venue that accommodates the lively atmosphere resulting from a horror showing.  The Theater provided that exact kind of venue, and I remember one particular viewing experience that stands out in memory as a shining example of the best things both The Theater and horror movies have to offer.  It was a drizzly night in early Spring, and the Friday the 13th remake had just hit theaters.  While this movie was critically panned and may seem wholly unremarkable on the surface, it was an exciting development for some of us in the area.

As part of our aforementioned Horror 101 summer, my friends and I had discovered the many joys of the old Friday The 13th series.  The original Friday The 13th was a bit more serious and straightforward than some of the other cheesy horror movies – there were legitimately unnerving and intense sequences, and the producers seemed intent on crafting a quality film experience.  But the original also laid the groundwork for the recurring motifs that would make the following sequels such great summer night horror material:  the good-looking but hilariously stereotypical teen protagonists, the incredibly dated style sense, the idyllic summer camp/cabin setting, the copious amounts of drugs, drinking and sex, the cartoonishly indestructible villain (Jason), and the creative yet often absurd death scenes.

We covered Friday 1-4 that summer, and watched as they got broader and dumber with each installment.  Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Viewing each one was a chance to drink, laugh, be disgusted, and sometimes, be a bit scared.  From hallmark moments like the inexplicable wheelchair death scene in Part 2 to the blatant gimmickry of the 3D effects in Part 3, the series never disappointed.  As strange as it is to say about movies concerning menacing killers, we developed a sincere fondness for these films over the course of the summer.  And it was due to this twisted fondness for the Friday movies and their brethren that we were excited to see the remake’s showtimes go up on The Theater’s haphazard Coming Attractions display.

Say what you will about the Friday The 13th remake – the crass, cash-in motives behind its creation and its lack of relative originality or quality as a piece of filmmaking cannot really be refuted.  But the real reasons we had to go see the movie at The Theater had nothing to do with the critical criteria placed on most films.  Instead, it had everything to do with us getting the opportunity to watch this trashy update of one of our favorite O.G. trashy horror movies, in an environment where the crowd experience would be almost as fun as the actual movie.  Where we could slip our Lite Pan Flutes under our sweatshirts on a rainy, dull night and head into a movie we could laugh at, groan at, and which got better as the beers got emptier.

There is something inherently comforting, almost like a borrowed nostalgia, about hearing the projector whir and the film crackle in a rundown theater with a teen slasher movie onscreen.  And while this seems like an elusive experience in today’s luxurious super-multiplex world, we managed to find and live it out at The Theater.

Sure, we would have probably preferred the original Friday or maybe some other vintage 80s classic on that screen – but we got what we came for.  There was plenty of gratuitous teen stupidity, drinking, pot smoking, sexing, and creative Jason slasher action to keep us entertained for two hours.  And there were plenty of other groups in that audience with a similar mindset and liquid accompaniment, which provided the kind of big communal watching experience that wasn’t possible in the living room.

There were no pretensions anywhere in the whole experience, from the shabby carpet in the lobby to the cracked seat covers to the cheap beer everyone smuggled in.  By the time the credits rolled and we moved back out into the night, we had a contented and pleasant buzz that was only partly due to the now-empty Pan Flutes.  It was one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time.

For all the incredible, well-crafted, and visually-stunning films I’ve seen at high-quality theaters since then, I still find myself missing that shitty old Theater more times than I care to admit.  That kind of experience will be hard to duplicate again.  At least I can still hope to look forward to more long and hazy horror movie nights this summer.

T.J. Lavin’s Masterpiece Theatre: Episodes Five/Six

2 Mar

[Our ongoing Swanky coverage of The Challenge: Battle of the Exes.  For an introduction, go here.  For the episodes: OneTwoThree, Four]

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The story of Jekyll and Hyde presented a very literal view of the difference between one man’s civilized and good side, and his crazed and dangerous side.  Dr. Jekyll was a mild-mannered scientist during the day, but due to an experiment gone wrong, his twisted and dark desires turned him into the wild Mr. Hyde at night.  There aren’t any scientific disasters going on during this Challenge season (yet), but the past two weeks have seen several contestants start to lose the battle with their inner Hyde.

Every season on the Challenge is a long and grueling process for the contestants, with the physical and emotional stress only increasing as the weeks go by and the smell of the prize money becomes stronger.  Adding a group of hard-partying quasi-celebrities for whom stability is a variable to this pressure cooker situation is like putting a gas can next to a bonfire.  You might get by for a little bit without incident, but sooner or later that fire is going to melt the outside of that can, and something’s gonna blow.  The first few weeks on Challenge seasons can be relatively tame as most of the people can hold their shit together, but there is always a point when gas cans start to melt, and sanity takes a backseat to the fireworks.  Battle of the Exes has reached that point.

Camila signaled the Hyde shift early on in Episode Five by casually flipping her crazy switch to On with several tequila shots and a few black censor bars.  She had been pretty quiet all season up until this point, but quickly made up for lost time by tossing furniture, leveling death threats, and telling her partner Johnny: “you don’t know anything about Camila.”  Camila’s Dr. Jekyll side has appeared to regain control for now, but her lack of caring about past outbursts and Brazilian passion present a volatile situation for Mr. Johnny Bananas going forward.

Once Camila started up the crazy train, other contestants with proven Hyde records began to lose their grip on self-control.  CT is well-known for his darker side, so it wasn’t necessarily a big surprise when he and Diem dissolved into a glassy-eyed shouting match that is decidedly not good for future team chemistry.  Cara Maria and Abe (who may just be in Hyde-mode all the time) had some crazy conversations about ‘painting all day’ in their love nest outside of the show, but unfortunately the imminent full nudity meltdown scene we all knew was coming will have to be postponed, as they were sent home in Ep. Five.  The best example of losing the battle with your darker side, however, came in the form of Paula and Ty’s romance.

We mentioned this earlier in the season, but Paula’s offhand remark about having a boyfriend was a clear signal of imminent danger for said boy.  Paula has been decidedly calm so far this year, in comparison to breakdowns in seasons past, but her grip on self-control has begun to loosen considerably in Ty’s arms.  There were storm clouds on the horizon in Ep. Five, when Dr. CT implored the new couple to “knock one out real quick” before a competition, and it was clear where this was headed by the time Paula was saying “boyfriend” like it was a bad word in a language she didn’t even know.  By the end of Ep. Six, the two had thrown all decency out the window and appear primed to take both of their partners down in flames with the Most Unhealthy Relationship Ever.  Dark sides are emerging all over the Challenge house, and the weeks ahead should prove to be full of emotional gas cans finally igniting.

Liner Notes

Ty and Paula’s softcore porn act on a bunk bed in a room full of other contestants inspired a thought of how this show is the most twisted and debaucherous summer camp you’ve ever seen.  Everyone’s in a group out in the middle of a forest, food is brought in so that there are group meals every day, there are regular activities in the forms of physical challenges, people wear colored shirts with their names on them, there are fleeting romances, and everyone sleeps cramped in rooms with twin bunkbeds.  If anyone would like to actually start an Adult Summer Camp like this, preferably with T.J. as Camp Director, we would like to submit our names for Summer 2012, and we prefer top bunks.

Johnny’s Come-On of the Week That Makes You Squirm:  The Bananas man doesn’t miss a beat when he goes straight from talking strategy with his partner to asking her if she wants to “conserve water in the shower.”  Literally no change in the tone of his voice, no pause from his previous train of thought.  We’re still not sure how she was able to say no.

With comments like “Not too often am I impressed with everyone,”  T.J. is becoming more and more like an emotionally distant group Dad that everyone is desperate to please.  Some might need (more) therapy when this is all over.

A Truly Delicious Oscar (Mayer) Recap

27 Feb

It was no coincidence that, on the same day as the 84th annual Academy Awards, arguably the biggest celebration of scripted entertainment, I crossed paths with the number one symbol of processed food, the Oscar Mayer Weiner Mobile. My love of processed meat (beef kosher) stretches back to a time when David Hasselhoff referred to himself as a serious actor and Daryl Hannah was still riding the Wall Street wave into another role in a made for TV movie.  This passion for chopped bits of something that at one time was alive is very similar to the American public’s obsession with the Academy Awards; no matter the grossly overt commercialization or the inherent lack of substance, the voracity at which this plastic-like product is consumed is astonishing. The 3-hour injection of pizzazz is designed to shock the mind and body, almost more so than the very films that it is in place to honor. If I did not know better, I would think that this yearly parade of pomp is nothing more than a publicity beacon aimed at deepening the pockets and strengthening the ego’s of those who so are desperately in need of both. But, thanks to many personal late night appearances at karaoke bars across the state of North Carolina, I understand the need for recognition when a masterpiece is created, and I fully support the Academy and its pursuit in furthering the cinematic arts.

No Academy Awards is complete without a walk down the red carpet. This year’s Oscar for the best velvet performance goes to none other than Sacha Baron Cohen, who, on multiple occasions in the past week, has taken international diplomacy into his own hands. Although Baron Cohen was cautioned to keep it civil, his imaginative persona of “The Dictator” did strike in full force and his target was none other than Carson Daly’s arch nemesis, Ryan Seacrest. I enjoyed watching Mr. Seacrest numbly ponder his impending response, while also questioning if the ashes on his body were actually authentic human. If you missed the video, check it out below.

After an hour of watching hot celebs strut their stuff on the red carpet while being yelled at by a crowd that rivals the Cameron Crazies, the real show finally kicked off with a song and dance by the host, and our favorite city slicker, Billy Crystal. To be honest, I was indifferent to his performance, but I also did not like Ghost Rider 3D, so my opinion is void. However, I am fairly in tune with the beat of the drum that is hipster culture, and if the Academy wants this Converse wearing consumer to view its precious award ceremony next year, it better move Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis to the top of the list for next year’s hosting duo.

The night continued in usual Oscar fashion with tributes to industry icons, a jaw dropping performance advertisment for Cirque Du Soleil and a much needed comedy bit from our favorite super hero, Robert Downey Jr. The two films that stole the night, The Artist and Hugo, deserved the awards they received and only left a bitter taste in the mouth of George Clooney, which was promptly removed by Stacy Keibler’s tongue. Overall, the show gets a B, however it would have been a C, but I only remember seeing Justin Bieber’s face one time, and that automatically adds some extra credit points.

T.J. Lavin’s Masterpiece Theatre: Episode Four

17 Feb

[Our ongoing Swanky coverage of The Challenge: Battle of the Exes.  For an introduction, go here.  For the episodes: One, Two, Three]

The Art Of War

Secret meetings, tentative alliances, public betrayals.  If mastery of these elements is the key to political success in today’s society, then there are some Challenge veterans who should seriously consider running for their local government office.  The constant maneuvering and manipulation of relationships is a central component of every Challenge, and this week’s episode of Battle of the Exes gave us the first taste of this season’s particular brand of political mischief.

Johnny Bananas was at the forefront of the scheming this time around, which shouldn’t be a surprise.  He’s a successful vet, and has learned how to pull the strings in his favor.  He may not be particularly subtle, and it’s yet to be seen how this particular game works out for him, but he is definitely a formidable force in the House Politics that every contestant must survive.

It’s unclear if Johnny has studied Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” prior to every season, but we sure have, and this week’s episode has led us to examine how Sun Tzu’s timeless principles can be applied in the cutthroat world of The Challenge.

The philosophy of battle strategy put forth in “The Art of War” is broken down initially into five basic factors.  For any Challenge Warrior striving for that prize money, this is a good place to start.

1)   Climate/Timing:  Sun Tzu spoke specifically about the actual weather changes, but these particular principles can be applied to The Challenge in the way contestants should monitor the momentum swings in the house.  For all the pre-game alliances someone may have going into a particular season, they can’t totally control aspects of the game such as challenge victories and simple accidents.  These uncontrollable events can shift momentum from team to team or person to person, and a skilled Challenge Warrior should be able to recognize these shifts.  Timing is crucial when you’re deciding whether to make a bold move, or lay low and wait.

 2)   Moral Ethics:  Few and far between.  Move on.

 3)   Terrain/Ground:  Tzu refers to these in literal terms, discussing the importance of your geographical location on the battlefield.  For The Challenge, this can pertain to the knowledge of your current status in the house hierarchy.  There can be many factors behind who is currently the ‘power team’ or ‘power player,’ such as dominance in physical challenges or pre-existing alliances, and for a newcomer it can be difficult to fully comprehend the unspoken rankings at any given moment.  But even though unspoken, these power positions are very real, and can affect who faces elimination every week.  Knowing where everyone stands can be a huge asset for a Challenge Warrior as they attempt to pull strings and climb to the top.

 4)   Leadership/Command:  This aspect of the “War” philosophy reasons that success on the battlefield is greatly dependent on the strength and wisdom of the person or persons in leadership roles.  For all the craziness going on in the world of The Challenge, there are still some intelligent and capable competitors whose track record of success reflects the importance of these qualities in the game.  Especially in a game like Battle of the Exes, where there are all kinds of situations with potential for emotional breakdowns, having a clear head and the willpower not to black out every night will take you far.

 5)   Methods:  Tzu emphasized that no matter what methods one uses in war, they should always be effective and efficient.  For a Challenge Warrior, this should mean that you have the freedom to bring your own personal style to the game, but if you want to get far, you’re going to have to keep things consistent and under control.  Contestants who have had success in the past have done it with different styles – Kenny’s unmatched egotism, Wes’ near-pathological dickishness, Laurel’s unhinged aggression – but they’ve all shared a confidence in their strengths are and a dedication to their initial gameplan.

Liner Notes

There’s no way that  the small-town bars the contestants get ferried out to every week are prepared for what’s coming their way.  At full strength, this group’s substance ingestion is fearsome, and the destruction they leave in their wake would put some rowdy frat houses to shame.  Some quiet owner of a local Dominican Republic bar probably jumped at the chance to host some “celebrities” from MTV for a few nights, and they got a Category 3 slurricane as a result.  Here’s to hoping they were properly compensated for the several weeks of cleanup duty they likely pulled.

At one point, Paula mentions that she ‘cannot’ (those quotes are intentional) hook up with Ty because she has a ‘boyfriend’ (those are too).  Now, Paula seems like a very nice person who means well.  But I would pay $10-15 to see and speak to her boyfriend, just to gauge what his game is.  He must be okay with open relationships, right?  Or has never seen MTV before?

We sincerely hope that CT is currently holding auditions for his new speed metal band Dome of Nagging Gremlins.

T.J. Lavin’s Masterpiece Theatre: Episode Three

9 Feb

[Our ongoing Swanky coverage of The Challenge: Battle of the Exes.  For an introduction, go here.  For the episodes: One, Two]

The Fighter

We can’t choose our family, and for better or worse, we’re connected to them throughout our life.  The trials and tribulations that go along with having a dysfunctional family were a central part of “The Fighter,” in which boxer Micky Ward’s professional hopes are almost permanently derailed by the actions of his family, particularly his brother Dickie.  Even though Dickie’s flaws nearly become fatal for Micky’s career, Micky could never truly shake Dickie from his life, and their fates are permanently intertwined.  Which leads us to Battle of the Exes.

Episode Three emphasizes that the contestants’ partners are their family in the game – you can’t choose them, you can’t shake them, and they could very well bring you down.  There are Dickies all over the Challenge house, barely keeping their demons and issues at bay, while the Mickys keep fighting and hoping that their partner’s flaws won’t prove fatal.  So far, two players have been unceremoniously cut from the game solely due to their partners (one of them literally) slipping up.  And one of the strongest contestants of the season, Leroy, was felled this episode in a final Dome challenge that was a perfect visual representation of one partner holding the other back.  This season is as much about surviving your teammate as it is surviving the other teams.

The teams that are still standing by the end of Episode Three are by no means out of the woods when it comes to dealing with their weak links.  A short breakdown of the Micky/Dickie dynamics of the remaining contenders, in no particular order:

CT=Micky.  Diem=Dickie.  A close one, as CT’s past has indicated that he could be sent home at any minute for attempting to snap someone in half.  But CT seems to have his shit together for now, while Diem is one Masshole crack away from breaking down when it matters most.

Cara Maria=Micky.  Abe=Dickie.  Even though Cara Maria isn’t as strong physically and can occasionally burst into tears, Abe is beginning to swing back and forth between calm and insane intensity with more frequency.  If I were a contestant, I would pick the bunk farthest from his, and that’s not a good sign.

Emily=Micky.  Ty=Dickie.  Emily is clearly more stable emotionally than Ty, and she might very well be able to challenge him physically.  Ty continues to remind us of a petulant tween who’s constantly one comment away from a tearful and violent tantrum.

Mark=Micky.  Robin=Dickie.  These two veterans have stayed mostly out of the spotlight for now, so there hasn’t been much insight into their dynamic.  But based on the past, Robin has been more than willing to oblige the cameras with tears- and alcohol-fueled meltdowns that can prove costly.

Dunbar=Micky.  Paula=Dickie.  This is a no-brainer.  As much as she has seemed calm for the first part of this season, we have seen far too much of Paula Walnuts to think that she’s gone away for good.

Rachel=Micky.  Aneesa=Dickie.  Rachel has been one of the most level-headed people in the game to this point, and she seems to be the constant to Aneesa’s variable.  We’ve already seen Aneesa help Leroy patent the “sit-on-my-face” dance move, indicating that she’ll find love wherever she pleases, and she seems primed for at least one vocally violent confrontation before her time is up.

Johnny=Micky.  Camila=Dickie.  Johnny is a hardened Challenge veteran, and he knows all the tricks of the trade by now.  He’s reliable to take care of his shit.  Camila has kept it together so far, but she has shown in the past that she can care more about proving her point or protecting her pride than winning a Challenge.  Johnny will have to watch out for her.

Tyrie=Dickie.  Jasmine=Dickie.  We’ve tried looking at this from every angle to see which one of this team could be the Micky, and it just doesn’t work.  They’ve already come to blows in the first episode, and if this were real life instead of the Challenge, dual restraining orders would have been issued a long time ago(if that’s legally possible).  Tyrie seems to be calmer than Jasmine on average, as she seems on the edge of a meltdown at all times, but directing the phrases “You punch like a bitch,” and “Kiss my black ass” at your female partner does not merit a Micky label.  Could two Dickies take this Challenge down?  It’s definitely an unconventional method, but stranger things have happened.  Stay tuned.

Liner Notes

Last week, we bestowed the Swanky stamp of approval on Leroy, and it turned out to be the kiss of death.  We’re sorry, Leroy.  Going to take a break from the stamps of approval for a bit.

Speaking of Leroy, the mid-commercial interlude scene in which he’s giving CT a haircut was the best moment of the episode.  At the very least, the producers need to start work on a “Leroy and CT’s Barbershop” web series right now.  Having those two bullshit with each other and then clowning on new guests every week would be amazing.  We would say at least put them on a team next season, but that would just be unfair for everyone else.

T.J. threw a ‘hang-loose’ sign at the end of the Dome, so we urge you to take his advice and we’ll see you next week.

T.J. Lavin’s Masterpiece Theatre: Episode Two

3 Feb

[Our ongoing Swanky coverage of The Challenge: Battle of the Exes.  For an introduction, go here]

Gladiator

“And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”  So proclaims Russel Crowe, as Roman warrior Maximus, in the film “Gladiator.”  And so proclaimed Vinny, with much less eloquence and much more grunting, in Episode Two of Battle of the Exes.  Now, what Vinny did to Mandi on the dance floor was deplorable, and should not put him on the same heroic level of Maximus, by any means.  But for the sake of our tenuous connection here, we are going to put that aside and look at the bigger picture.  And the picture in Episode Two was one of Vinny exacting his clumsy vengeance on Wes, even if it cost him his own Challenge ‘life’ in the process.

Maximus made true on his promise for revenge by killing the slimy Commodus, but he did so at the expense of his own life.  Commodus was responsible for the death of Maximus’ family, and although it was a long and arduous journey, Maximus was finally able to get the powerful Commodus in a weak position, and killed him on the Coliseum floor.  In this episode of Battle of the Exes, the mighty Wes, responsible for taking out Vinny and many other contestants over the past several challenges, finally found himself in a position of weakness.  Once the garishly tattooed combo of Sarah and the Big Tan Baby locked up their status as the deciding Power Couple of the week,  Baby made it well known that he had a personal score to settle with Emperor Wes.  But as with Maximus, revenge was going to come at a high cost.

This episode saw the first ‘going-out’ segment of the season, and we all know by now that this means poor decisions are on the horizon.  Self-control is not a common trait among Challenge stars, and alcohol-soaked dance floors in tropical countries have been the downfall of many a past contestant.  Vinny, showing us a nightmarish alternate version of Jersey Shore, fell on his own gladiatorial sword by boorishly ripping off Mandi’s top and stumbling off into the night.  After this point, Vinny’s fate was sealed, but T.J. (he’s pulling all the string here) allowed him to stay long enough to take Wes down with him.  Shortly afterwards, T.J. showed up with a delightful smirk and Vinny was booted from the house,  unfairly taking Sarah with him.

As Maximus’ vengeance was finally realized on the sands of the Coliseum floor, so too was Vinny’s, as Wes was left gasping for air under the Dome, staring at an early exit.  The saga of Wes and Vinny is probably not over, as it seemed that Wes was eager to introduce Vin to ‘his boys’ and ‘an alley’ somewhere in the outside world.  Hopefully this won’t actually happen and leave them both in prison, as their bumbling showdowns in future Challenges should prove entertaining.

Liner Notes

With his performance in this week’s episode, Leroy is coming on strong as a Challenge powerhouse, both in physical challenges and in social dynamics.  The dance move in which he basically has Aneesa sit on his face would be more than enough for a memorable episode performance, but he was also able to throw in an excellent wide-eyed reaction to Naomi’s urgent and well-thought-out assertion that they should sleep together, for competition’s sake.  Leroy has the Swanky stamp of approval.

He may be somewhat under-the-radar for now, but the seeds for a CT meltdown are quietly being sown, and hopefully we will get to see them flower this season.  Diem seems to be pushing every button that CT has, and the CT I know is not going to take this forever.  He acted calm this week when Diem pretty much shut down the competition to prove some kind of point (that she sucks?) but his competitive juices had to be boiling.  Keep an eye on the CT meter, because it’s starting to rise.

T.J. Lavin’s Masterpiece Theatre: Episode One

26 Jan

[Our ongoing Swanky coverage of The Challenge: Battle of the Exes.  For an introduction, go here.  And now we know that Vinny keeps his shirt on in the pool]

808s & Heartbreak

Comparing a show about ex-lovers to a breakup album seems pretty obvious, but if the shoe fits, we’re going to wear it.  Kanye’s 2008 album, “808s & Heartbreak” was an emotional and personal piece of work.  The skeletons from his recent breakup are strewn all over minimalist productions and haunted vocals, with the occasional burst of bravado breaking forth in a particular verse or beat.  The album was uneven, but it was a deeply felt, unique, and quality work from a visionary artist that helped to usher in a new style of hip-hop [hey, Drake] and pointed towards the great things to come.  The messy pieces of lovesickness in “808s” laid the way for the passionate expansiveness of “A Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” much like the uneven parts of Battle of the Exes’ first episode point towards greater things.

TJ Lavin’s line in this episode – “You like money more than you hate each other” – sounds like it could have come straight from Kanye’s discarded lyrics pile.  Episode One had many of the ‘twisted love gone bad’ themes expressed in “808s”.  There was the weird, darkly sexual union with Abe and Cara Maria, who now both look like they work the “Pirates of the Carribean” ride on breaks between seasons.  There was the angry, don’t-fucking-touch-me attitude with Jasmine and Tyrie; any kind of non-violent ending for these two would be a borderline miracle.  The infatuation with porn stars shines bright with Dustin and Dunbar, the latter of which, incidentally, looked to be the second coming of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man while walking that honey plank.  And then there was the ‘I tend to sleep with the closest person in my vicinity, and you’ve happened to be that person at several times, so I guess let’s just bone some more’ union of Wes and Mandi.  Most of these people have probably lived out a few Kanye verses in their lives, and Battle of the Exes is all the better for it.

Episode One definitely had its slow points, and mostly laid the foundation for many of the storylines that should lead to emotional and physical  fireworks in the “Dark Twisted Fantasy” portion of this season.  The producers seemed to put the most emphasis on the Diem-CT relationship, indicating that could be headed for a sorely-needed CT meltdown in the near future.  Meanwhile, Wes’ aggressive strategy nearly got the best of him this year, but he was gifted a final showdown with quite possibly the least-appealing pair in Challenge history, Red-face and What’shername, and thankfully sent them home to irrelevance.

The muted, catchy, uncomfortable, and promising sounds of “808s” hang over Episode One, and while better things are on the horizon, it was still worth the time.