My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 1

This month I will be looking at my favorite moments in movies. These are not necessarily the best ever in films, but they are my personal favorites. In no particular order, here we go:

1) Let Me Out (Young Frankenstein, 1974, dir. Mel Brooks)

Gene Wilder is at his best when he goes from calm to frantic in a split second. His red-faced blue blanket tirade from The Producers is a gorgeous moment. This one however goes up there as one of my all time faves. Wilder as the nephew of Victor Frankenstein shines. In this scene we see him go from calm, to manic, to desperate, and finally to confident in his macabre heritage.

2) Mike Yanagita (Fargo, 1996, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Two actors here who deserve a lot more credit. Frances McDormand won the Oscar for her role of Marge Gunderson, but this scene also showcases the chops of Steve Park. Park is able to create a three dimensional character in a single scene of this film, its amazing what he does. Its hard not to imagine the life of Yanagita after watching this. A powerful example of what happens when good writing and acting are paired up.

3) Oh, Are They? (Rushmore, 1998, dir. Wes Anderson)

The film that really broke Anderson out and still one of his best. Max Fischer (Schwartzmann) turns a post opening night dinner into a farce when his love interest invites her male nurse friend along. Would be nice if Anderson tried to go back to his more comedic roots, not that his current work is bad.

4) Binary Sunset (Star Wars, 1977, dir. George Lucas)

It’s a short scene, but it says a lot. The dual suns reinforce the alien nature of this world, the lighting sets the perfect tone as Luke Skywalker stares out across the vast landscape of Tatooine, and the music gets across his desire to explore. Simple and perfect.

5) Come Play With Us, Danny (The Shining, 1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

A perfect horror movie scene. The music and cinematography are in perfect unison and there isn’t much more to say other than, experience the scene yourself.

DocuMondays – We Live in Public

We Live in Public (2009, dir. Ondi Timoner)
Featuring Josh Harris

Josh Harris is much smarter than you. He is also likely more insane than you, as well. This documentary by director Ondi Timoner (also behind the great docu DiG! about the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols) follows a near prophetic vision of the internet and privacy that was unleashed from the mind of the aforementioned Josh Harris. The ideas he would present, for himself an experiment born out of curiosity, would shape the concepts of social networking and cultivation of user information as a commodity. The way Facebook works now is indebted to the research of Harris, a man who is unknown by the very executives whom run companies that wouldn’t exist without him.

In 1980, Josh Harris was a low level researcher in New York City. He attended a conference where the idea of computers being networked globally was being discussed and from this he began to think of how this could completely change the way people run their lives. He founded Jupiter, a company focused on surveying to gathering information on how people would use the internet. From there he developed the concept of public chat rooms which he sold to Compuserve. He was the first to think of making the internet a replacement for television and started Pseudo TV, back when streaming video was a blocky nightmare. Investors liked the idea but by 1999 Harris had become bored and was behaving in a more increasingly erratic manner. His next venture was a piece of performance art/social experiment where around a hundred people signed up to live in a subterranean village Harris built.

Before they could join though, they had to undergo extensive psychological testing, not to ensure their stability in the community but to help feed periodic interrogations that would be held during their stay. Everyone slept in Japanese style pods which had both a television and a closed circuit camera. Every channel was simply another pod. The bathrooms, showers, dining room, entertainment venues, simply everywhere was wired with cameras. The psychological effect it had was at first detachment by the citizens of the village and then a air of insanity took over. The experiment was busted on Jan. 1, 2000 after rumors spread that it was a Heaven’s Gate type cult. At this point, Josh and his girlfriend at the time set up cameras all throughout their loft and launched a 24 hour stream of every facet of their life online. This experiment culminated in Harris physically assault said girlfriend on camera when she refused to have sex with him.

From there he fell victim to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, left New York City and ended up buying an apple farm. He tried to reinsert his “brand” into the current online climate but was met with executives of social networking sites who had no idea who he was. Harris is shown as being incredibly detached from others. His mother was on her deathbed and, instead of physically visiting, he recorded his message to her and mailed the tape, which arrived too late. His most formative experiences seem to have been bonding with virtual families via the television of the 1960s and 70s. Gilligan’s Island was a highly influential element in his life and he seems to transpose both the character of Mrs. Howell and his own mother onto a bizarre personality he would some times take on called Luvvey.

Harris ideas about people willingly giving over their information and their privacy has come true in the form of the 24 hour tweet culture we’re experiencing. He mentions that Warhol was right about the fifteen minutes of fame, however, he add people want that fifteen minutes every day. The documentary is an excellent examination of how we got to a moment where identity and privacy are typically forfeit when it comes to online culture. Through Harris’ insane experiments we can see that it is not so much about the technology as it is about a distance our culture has taken on in relation to each other, long before the internet.

The Summer Blockbuster: 1996 – 2009

What marked the difference between the blockbusters of the 1970s and 1980s and the 1990s and 2000s were digital special effects. For the first two decades the focus was on practical special effects, as the B-rate science fiction films these blockbusters were inspired by used. When you saw a spaceship zipping through the sky there was a physical model of the ship built and there was usually a matte painting of some sort and through the use of green screen the two elements were combined. As unreal as the scene was all its elements were something tangible. The move to computer generated effects is marked as beginning with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This began a regular tradition of James Cameron being on the cutting edge of film technology.

By 1996, CG effects were old hat. Films from that year included Independence Day and Twister, both of which are remembered more fondly for their special effects than their acting. Independence Day used practical effects for its alien villains and CG for its air battles, while Twister had real actors in real environments but completely CG twisters as well as a CG cow being carried away by it. On the other hand, 1996 saw the first Mission: Impossible film which primarily used practical effects for the majority of its story. These were followed by pictures like Men in Black and The Lost World, one of which began a franchise and the other which continued one. The trend in this period would be to establish franchises using original, and more commonly already established properties from comics and television. The mindset behind anchoring yourself to a franchise was safety. Trying a new formula out meant risk, and risk could mean financial failure. So studio followed the motto of “go with what you know”. This was seen in how franchises like Pirates of the Carribean, The Matrix, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Shrek have become perennial summer movies.

Before the end of the 1990s though, another director established himself as guaranteed box office during the summer: Michael Bay. His movie Armageddon followed many tried and true tropes. There were established actors, up and coming young talent, familiar character actors, a “rah rah” America plot, and lots of explosions. Bay’s name would become a common one on big summer movies, in particular the current Transformers franchise, which while commercially successful is reviewed dismally by critics. It doesn’t seems to phase Bay though, as he keeps churning at the same type of films and following his established formula to a tee. Another name to rise to prominence as a season favorite was Pixar. Pixar was a computer animation studio that, while part of the Disney family, retained much of its creative independence and is almost the anti-Michael Bay. Bay paints in broad strokes while Pixar is incredibly detail oriented, making sure to populate its worlds with minutiae and causes their films to truly breathe. It was Finding Nemo that put them on the summer blockbuster scene, and this was followed by The Incredibles, Cars, Wall-E, and Up. Up achieved a feat very few summer blockbusters can, it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Hollywood’s obsession with clinging to the familiar hasn’t always given them typical movies and some times we see old favorites deliver something unexpected. Steven Spielberg played with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park for awhile but switched gears to release Saving Private Ryan, an R-rated brutal portrayal of D-Day. The film works alongside Schindler’s List and the earlier Empire of the Sun as a sort of World War II trilogy. All three were quite unexpected from the man who created the blockbuster with Jaws. In the 2000s, Spielberg switched gears and aesthetics once again to tackle classic science fiction stories. He directed A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds, all of which employed a harsh light and not quite as heartwarming look at life as his previous work. Spielberg was joined by Lucas who returned in 1999 to his Star Wars franchise with The Phantom Menace. Audiences were incredibly split on the film and its follow ups: Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. This time around the Star Wars universe felt very sterile and absent of the life it previously possessed. With the conclusion of this third trilogy, Lucas seems to have once again retreated to the world he was able to build for himself.

The end of 2000s closed out with very familiar faces on the screen. There was a reboot of the Star Trek franchise, a new Harry Potter, a new Transformers, a new Pixar film, and a second film based on the books of Dan Brown. Hollywood is firmly dug in to produce tried and true concepts, with the occasional allowance of a new idea. Just recently reboots of the Spider-Man and Planet of the Apes franchises have been announced and some of 2010s most anticipated summer films have been sequels to successful franchises and rebootings of old ones (A-Team, The Karate Kid).

The Summer Blockbuster: 1986 – 1995

Coming out of the mid-80s, if you had money invested in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas you were probably incredibly rich. They had success after success, not just in their own films, but in those of directors they were producing and supporting. However, there would be an odd dip that occurred in the remainder of the 1980s. A few film franchises would rise to prominence, Lucas’ stock would plummet, and Spielberg would attempt to try out some non-science fiction and fantasy films.

While science fiction flicks made big box office they also cost big budgets to make. It’s no surprise that many studio attempted to go with smaller budget films and these typically focused on “rah rah” crowd pleasers are mixtures of action and comedy. The Karate Kid franchise was one of those “rah rah” type films that aimed dead center at kids and young adolescents. You have a young man, bullied at school, who is taught how to fight by a wizened karate master. He’s able to overcome the bullies through beating them up. You also had the first three films of the Lethal Weapon series which raised Mel Gibson to prominence and managed to pull in big audiences on a fairly small budget, something studios always like to see. Along with Lethal Weapon, there was Beverly Hills Cop I and II, which vaulted the already popular Eddie Murphy into an even higher level of celebrity. Even today, if you notice every summer seems to have one Eddie Murphy film (this year’s is Shrek 4).

There was also use a big name actor to sell the film, rather than a premise. In 1986, Tony Scott’s Top Gun was released and took Tom Cruise, who had appeared in quite a few films before then, most notably Tony’s brother Ridley’s Legend, to stardom. Top Gun works as both a star making vehicle and a “rah rah” America movie. Tom Cruise’s Maverick leads his flight unit take on North Koreans flying a fictional style of fighter jet on par with the American F-14s. Despite the implausibility that North Korean would ever be able to compete with the US Airforce, the film was a huge hit and a high selling soundtrack. Tom Hanks was the other actor to make his way up to super stardom during the 1980s. Penny Marshall’s Big was his breakthrough, a simple story of a teenage boy who becomes an adult after making a wish. Budget-wise this was an incredibly cheap film to make. No real special effects and no actors who were huge names, at the time. What made the film such a great success was the honest charisma Hanks brings to all his roles. There are few actors that handle a film so naturally. Hanks would be attached to many more summer movies to come, most notably Sleepless in SeattleForrest Gump, and Apollo 13 and  both films that went against the Spielberg/Lucas formula for a blockbuster.

But you can always rely on certain films being a success based on the name attached to them in the director’s seat. James Cameron, unlike Spielberg, didn’t produce a prolific amount of work but it seemed that he didn’t need to to become notable. Cameron made non-summer movies The Terminator and Aliens which set him up for Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Character-driven films weren’t Cameron’s strong suit and he relied a lot on technology, particularly new types of computer generated effects not yet seen by the public. His T-1000, the liquid metal villain of T2 was a huge shift in special effects driven film making. However, his next film, True Lies would be a non-CG focused film with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis fighting Middle Eastern terrorists.

At the end of the day though, you could always rely on familiar names, be it director or franchise to fuel a successful movie. Spielberg put out the third Indiana Jones film at the end of the 1980s and established a new franchise with Jurassic Park. Jurassic was a type of film that really overtook pop culture in 1993 in a way it would be hard for a single film to do now. It was one of the last pre-internet media fueled movies and was in theaters from June of ’93 all the way to October of the same year. Disney also came to the forefront for the first time as a major summer draw. It seems like an obvious company to make summer blockbusters but they had never done so. They got their legs wet with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, both Holiday season releases. Nothing compared to the success of The Lion King. It was a reworking of Hamlet, an odd piece of source material for a summer movie, but it worked. Audiences went again and again and since Disney has had a picture in the running every summer, though now its CG Pixar features.

Next: Batman, Spider-Man, and Star Wars

Asian Cinema Month – Hard Boiled

Hard Boiled (1992, dir. John Woo)
Starring Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung

A man leaps through the air in slow motion, wielding twin semi-automatic pistols. Carnage ensues. This is the trademark of Hong Kong action director John Woo, who managed to pretty much invent his own sub-genre of action movies. These are stories where black and white are clearly defined, heroes are wise-cracking bad asses, and the villains are most definitely villainous. This was my first foray into the world of Woo, I skipped his Mission: Impossible sequel and shied away from Face/Off. So, after twenty years of hype, how did I find the master actioneer?

Hard Boiled is the tale of two men. Officer “Tequila” Yuen is a cop dedicated to bringing down the Triad gun running ring plaguing Hong Kong. Tony is a cop deep undercover who is the apple of crimeboss Hoi’s eye. Tony is recruited by upstart gangster Johnny Wong to take out Hoi and control crime in the city. Tequila and Tony end up reluctant partners in a crusade to bring Wong to justice. Along the way they form a rivalry over the same woman and end up indebted to each other. Also thrown into the mix is Mad Dog, Johnny Wong’s super hitman with a clear sense of honor in his profession.

Hard Boiled has an interesting problem. Barry Wong, the screenwriter died halfway through film, while he was still writing the screenplay. So Woo and his production staff had to cobble together some place for the film to go. Knowing this, it makes up somewhat for the rather random directions the picture goes in its latter half. There’s also the fact that the character of Tony started out as an incredibly sociopathic character, going so far as to poison baby’s milk. The actor wasn’t too comfortable with playing a character like that and convinced Woo to make him more likable. Alongside this is a very uneven love story between Tequila and fellow officer.

What the film does well is the way it tells its story. Woo is amazing when it comes to framing shots and setting up elaborate sequences that turn normally dull shoot outs into ballet performances. Several times Woo chooses to drop the typical camera shots and go into first person or into some unexpected tracking shot that slowly reveals information to us. He’s also influenced greatly by some unexpected sources, in particular Francois Truffat. If you’ve seen The 400 Blows, than you will recognize that same ending zoom in, freeze frame technique used here a handful of times. It surprisingly works and its impressive that Woo was thinking about such “arty” fare when composing a Hong Kong crime movie. Like I said before, Woo was inventing his own genre at this point in his career.

It’s nothing spectacular. The weak story definitely hurt the film, but there are a number of interesting set pieces, in particular a mob-owned hospital the last half of the film takes place in. The film make use of practical special effects via explosions in way CG just can’t ever mimic. A fun film that hearkens back to an era of uber violent and gaudy over the top crime movies.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Nil By Mouth

Nil By Mouth (1997, dir. Gary Oldman)
Starring Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse

I didn’t plan it this way, but Nil By Mouth is the perfect co-feature for yesterday’s Harry Brown. Both films take place in the government funded estate housing and focus on some of the harsh and brutal realities of life there. While Brown goes for a more Death Wish, hyper-violent tone, Nil By Mouth is a documentary-like look at the people Harry so eagerly murders. The film’s violence is not constant but comes in explosive and jolting moments. Every thing orbits around a single act of violence that takes place in the middle of the picture.

Ray (Winstone) is an ox, a violent brute of a man who is having his second child with Valerie (Burke). He maintains a disinterested relationship with her, going out at night with his mates, ingesting all sorts of drugs, drinking copious amounts of booze, and soliciting women at seedy strip clubs. When Valerie stays out to play pool with friends, Ray explodes. Also living in this war zone is Billy (Creed-Miles), Valerie’s brother and Janet (Morse), Valerie’s mother. Billy is a heroin addict who is constantly borrowing money from his mom and sleeping on a roulette wheel of couches. Janet is a helpless figure, standing back and watching her children’s lives decay and, in Billy’s case, driving him to drug dealers’ houses so he can score.

The most obvious element that carries the film is Ray Winstone. I’ve seen Winstone in films like Sexy Beast and The Proposition and in both of those he plays more of the simmering, muted type. Here he is like a British Jake Lamotta, exploding but never in a showy way, more of a man who has never seen men react anyway other than with violence. There’s a moment in the film when he has a conversation with his best mate Mark and talks about how unloving his father was. This monologue lays it out on the table that these men exist in a cycle of brutality. Why should we expect them to know how to show affection or control their rage when they have never seen a man do so, and when they live in a world where you prove yourself through the violence you inflict on others.

Not to be overshadowed is Kathy Burke as Valerie. Burke knows how to tap into the working class up bringing of her character. Valerie knows that her safety is dependent on Ray’s presence. She overlooks his nightly outings and has a pretty strong suspicion he cheats on her with other women. Their relationship has come to the point where she simply doesn’t care. She is pregnant with their second child and states that she wanted to have another child, but didn’t want to find a different father. There’s no love for Ray, he’s just there. And Ray is with her so he has an anchor point to return to at the end of the night.

The film is soaked in profanity, but that is an accurate depiction of this world and the natural grammar of the place. I was reminded of Mike Leigh’s films about the English working class and how often they are cited as “brutally true to life”. They really have nothing on the grim reality of Oldman’s directorial debut. It’s not an easy film to watch. The accents are thick and require the American viewer to play close attention, and the subject matter is not pretty. However, we have to see the full view of these people so that we don’t slip into the Harry Brown mentality.

Asian Cinema Month – Eat Drink Man Woman

All this month, in honor of Asian Heritage Month, I will be looking at some major films from the contemporary Asian cinema canon. While the term “Asia” can refer to areas as diverse as the Middle East, India/Pakistan, and the South Pacific, I will be focusing mainly on films out of China, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. In the future I definitely plan on having a month devoted to Middle Eastern cinema….maybe not so much India, just not a fan of their pictures, too many crazy musicals.

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, dir. Ang Lee)
Starring Sihung Lung, Kuei-Yei Yang, Chien-lien Wu, Yu-Wen Wang

Mealtime is a proven way of bonding with others. Whether its over a campfire, at a booth in a diner, or around the family dinner table, the act of breaking bread with others unites people in a very beautiful way. Even many animals hunt and dine together in packs, with somewhat of an understanding of the bonding that occurs when they do. Ang Lee presents the story of how food and the act of eating cobbles together a group of disparate people into a family.

The film is set in Taipei, Taiwan and focuses on Chu, the partiarch of a family made up of three daughters. Chu’s wife died years earlier and now his three daughters live at home with him, each feeling the burden of watching after their obstinate and independent father. Every Sunday, Chu prepares a lavish feast of traditional Chinese cuisine, much more than enough for this small group. Chu has also unofficially adopted his middle daughter’s old schoolmate and her daughter. As the story progresses, his three daughters begin to find men with whom they contemplate leaving home for. In many ways, this story is a variation of Fiddler on the Roof, very much about family and tradition.

I really liked this film, much more than I anticipated. I’ve been sort of back and forth with Ang Lee (didn’t care for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but love Brokeback Mountain) so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this picture. I think Lee is best when he is dealing with small, character driven stories. The family surrounding Chu are very complex and real. There are no easy solutions and no acts of serendipity. The high drama you would expect from a Hollywood version of this tale is non-existent, yet there are emotional stakes. Chu has lost his sense of taste and so the act of preparing this meal has a deeper meaning to it. The eldest daughter is also a wonderful chef, but no thanks to Chu. He makes sure the kitchen is off limits to his children, so she learned from Chu’s best friend and fellow chef when she was a child.

The way Lee films the cooking sequences is an example of a director at their peak. Everything about the methodical ways Chu prepares his dishes and the care he puts into them is absolutely apparent. The flavor of the dishes comes through the screen somehow and you can feel the steam coming off the dumplings and rich flavor of the stews and steamed fish. If you were putting together a list of films about food, this one definitely make it high on the list.

There honestly wasn’t much about this film I didn’t enjoy. It’s a little over two hours, yet I was so engaged by it I never felt like checking the timecode to see how much was left. I was completely absorbed in the world and especially the characters Lee was presenting. While he has gone on to make bigger budget films, my hope is that Lee can always remain close to his early roots, making films that found their wonder in people, rather than effects.

Wild Card Tuesday – The Last Days of Disco

The Last Days of Disco (1998, dir. Whit Stillman)
Starring Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Mackenzie Astin, Chris Eigeman, Tara Subkoff, Matt Keeslar, Jennifer Beals

If watching the burgeoning yuppies of early 1980s Manhattan sitting around vapidly waxing philosophic about the inanities of their lives doesn’t sound appealing to you then you may want to skip this film. Despite its title its not at all about disco really. Its about a generation of people who came of age in the 1970s and are focused on self-gratification and the hierarchies and status related to social life in New York. Another of way of looking at it, and how director Whit Stillman was thinking when he made the film, is that this is contemporary take on the comedy of manners genre.

The protagonists of the film are Alice (Sevigny), a recent college grad and an assistant publishing editor and Des (Eigeman), the employee of a disco club which bears a more than passing resemblance to Studio 54. Alice balances a tenuous friendship with snarky roommate Charlotte (Beckinsale) and ending up in awkward social situations with immature men. One of these men is a manic-depressive FBI agent (Keeslar) who becomes a part of a sting on Des’ nightclub which has been funneling cash to a Swiss bank account and failing to report millions the IRS. The characters meander through the film, talking in a completely artificial manner and nothing really seems to happen.

It’s apparent that Stillman’s work (Metropolitan, Barcelona) had a profound impact on the filmmaking of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Stillman’s characters aren’t so much people as they are roughly painted facsimiles of humans who carry on in conversations peppered with Tarantino-esque pop culture references. One character explains that the reason why so many of his own generation are environmentalists is because of the 1958 re-release of Bambi in theaters. Another conversation involves how Lady and the Tramp teaches women to pursue the bad boy and is at fault for a multitude of bad relationships in their generation.

The characters are dull as hell though. They barely even qualify as characters, as Stillman loves introducing a new and even quirkier one as the film progresses. Yet we get nothing past their surface eccentricities and Stillman struggles to manage any sense of a narrative. He tries to create a partial drama with the illegal business practices of the nightclub but even when the arrests go down all parties involved seem aloof and uninterested. The first hour of the film has potential but the second goes off the rails and becomes a chore to wade through. Much like the decade it highlights the start of, its incredibly shallow with nothing to really say.

DocuMondays – Kurt and Courtney

Kurt and Courtney (1998, dir. Nick Broomfield)
Featuring Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, and a cast of thousands…of junkies

I was thirteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself, and honestly the front man for Nirvana existed on my periphery. The whole grunge scene has never been a music genre I enjoyed, I’m more of a 90s BritPop fan (Oasis, Blur, The Verve). But I can understand why the movement was so big, as it was a big deviation from the musical norms of the time. This docu, by Brit filmmaker Broomfield seeks to stir up some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death and in the end isn’t really about Kurt or Courtney, but about famewhoredom.

What stands out most about the film is the shoddiness. Made on the cheap, the documentary is narrated by Broomfield who doesn’t do much to play the neutral observer, but pretty much interjects his personal opinions throughout. That doesn’t make the film any less fascinating though, especially with its parade of “friends” of the Cobains. In particular, one young woman who takes Broomfield to a club where Kurt performed during his early days, and whom talks with expertise about seeing the Cobain couple shoot heroin. She promises Broomfield photographic evidence, and when he returns to her apartment later she is anxious and befuddled and has a million excuses as to why she hasn’t been able to provide the photos. The woman is incredibly reminiscent of how Courtney Love is described throughout the documentary.

Broomfield pursues some wild leads, including the claim by S&M band member El Duce that Courtney offered him $50,000 to kill Kurt and “make it look like a suicide”. A less reliable source you couldn’t ask for. There’s Courtney’s former private investigator who now has “scientific” evidence that the amount of heroin in Kurt’s blood made it impossible for him to handle the shotgun. However, Broomfield provides actual scientific evidence proving that it is possible, to which the investigator simply ignores. The most awful of Broomfield’s interviewees is Courtney’s father, a man writing and publishing books condemning his daughter for the murder of Kurt in what he explains as a way to keep in touch with his daughter.

Broomfield reasonably comes to the conclusion in the film’s epilogue that Kurt most likely did commit suicide and that Courtney didn’t pay anyone to kill him. What the documentary revealed to me was that at the end of the day both people came from incredibly messed up homes where a strong parental presence was absent. Kurt seems like a very personable, intelligent guy in some of the interview archival footage, and Courtney seems like a sad woman who made a habit of latching onto local musicians in the hope of grooming them into the next Sid Vicious, as a compliment to her Nancy Spungeon. The person you feel the saddest for is poor Frances, their daughter, whose childhood couldn’t have been an easy one.

Kurt and Courtney is currently available to view on

Hypothetical Film Festival #11 – Ernest Saves the Film Festival

Yes, it’s a film festival dedicated to one of the greatest thespians of the late 20th century: Mr. Jim Varney aka Ernest P. Worrell. KnowhutImean?

Ernest Goes to Camp (1987, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, John Vernon, Iron Eyes Cody, Gailard Sartain

The Ernest character got his start as a pitchman for various local businesses in the Middle Tennessee and Kentucky areas. Eventually there were a series of straight to video skit compilation films that made way for this first theatrical endeavor. Ernest is a camp handyman, who wants to be a counselor. He gets his chance with a group of juvenile delinquents which leads to a series of slapstick sight gags. Meanwhile, an evil mining corporation wants to buy and shut down the camp to get to a rich vein of the fictional petrocite underneath it. Ernest rallies the juvies together for a big showdown with the corporate head, where our hero displays the Native American combat skills he learned along the way. A great start to the Ernest franchise.

Ernest Saves Christmas (1988, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, Gailard Sartain, Billy Byrge, Douglas Seale, Oliver Clark

Arguably the high point of the entire Ernest franchise. In the same way The Godfather, Part II outshines its predecessor, so too does the first Ernest sequel trump the original. A jack of all trades, Ernest is now a cabbie working in Orlando, Florida who happens to pick up an old man from the airport claiming to be Santa Claus. It appears Santa is in town to name local children’s television host Joe Curruthers as his replacement. Joe of course doesn’t believe and is duped into starring in a Xmas themed film which betrays his ethics as a role model for children. The film actually has a very interesting meta-commentary on what Hollywood producers try to do to children’s films like this one, by interjecting foul language or gory violence to appeal to older audiences. The one thing about the Ernest films is they never sold out on their trademark live action Looney Toons feel.

Ernest Goes To Jail (1990, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, Gailard Sartain, Billy Byrge

This is my personal favorite out of all the Ernest films. Here our protagonist works as a bank janitor who is a double for death row inmate Felix Nash (also played by Varney). Ernest ends up in prison with Nash on the outside with plans to rob the bank. Two things makes this film phenomenal: Gailard Sartain and Billy Byrge as Chuck and Bobby, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Ernest’s doofy Hamlet, and Ernest gaining magnetic superpowers during the jailbreak sequence. The Ernest franchise amped up the similarities to Pee Wee Herman in this film as well, with Ernest owning a home filled with Rube Goldberg-like devices.

Ernest Scared Stupid (1991, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, Eartha Kitt, Billy Byrge

Meant to be a Halloween companion piece, Scared Stupid was shot in the Nashville, Tennessee like all the previous films (except for Saves Christmas). Ernest is a garbageman tasked with cleaning up the land owned by a strange old woman. Through a series of mishaps, Ernest releases a group of trolls that have cursed the land and finds out the old lady is a sorceress. The film’s plot gets a lot more complicated than it deserves to be and makes it one of the weaker entries in the Greater Ernest Oeuvre. It is also hurt by the absence of Gailard Sartain as Chuck, yet keeps Bobby and gives him a new partner. They needn’t have bothered. The series goes downhill from here…

Slam Dunk Ernest (1995, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, Kareem Abdul Jabbar

Two films were released before this one (Rides Again, Goes To School) and they were lackluster. This picture isn’t great compared to the first few films but was one of the last highlights in a dying franchise. Ernest is laundry worker, employed by the Charlotte Hornets, who dreams of becoming a pro-basketball player. He’s visited by an angel (Jabbar) who gives him magic shoes that make Ernest a phenom. Of course Ernest dominates with the shoes, realizes the importance of teamwork and ends up scoring without the magic shoes. Hoorah! This was to be followed by the woefully racist Ernest Goes to Africa and the final Ernest in the Army.