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Christian Toto

Christian Toto is the Assistant Editor at Big Hollywood. Before joining Big Hollywood, he contributed to Pajamas Media, Human Events, the Washington Times, The Daily Caller, and Box Office Magazine. His film reviews can be heard on the nationally syndicated Dennis Miller Show.
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Kevin Smith’s Red State: Horror-Porn Goes Waco

Friday, September 30th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

Red State isn’t the political jeremiad its title portends…until it is.

Writer/director Kevin Smith’s latest film can’t decide what it wants to be — a bare-knuckled thriller, a conventional horror yarn, or a government conspiracy rant.

It’s all of the above, a genre mash-up without conviction, purpose, or clarity. It’s the least Kevin Smith-like film in the comedy director’s canon, but it still can’t reverse a downward spiral that appeared to bottom out with last year’s Cop Out.

And, if Red State is any indication, he shouldn’t consider a career as a political columnist anytime soon.

The film is set in a small town where a congregation in the Westboro Baptist Church mold pickets the funerals of gays and other “sinners.”

A local school teacher tries to explain why the town must let the  crazed churchgoers speak even if what they say is uniformly wicked. It‘s a free speech thing, but no one around agrees with what they‘re selling.

“Even ultra conservatives avoid this guy,” the teacher tells her class, a line which seems to nullify any potential religious critique Smith has in mind.

Three hormonal students have more important matters in mind than some morally bankrupt church. They’ve struck up a cyber-friendship with a 30-something woman and plan to meet her for a group sexual encounter. It’s a rushed, impractical excuse to set the story in motion, but audiences can forgive plenty if the payoff delivers.

The boys meet the mystery woman (Melissa Leo), who clearly looks older than her advertised age, but they’re too horny to quibble about that or the depressing trailer she calls home.

“The devil’s right in here,” Leo’s character purrs, handing them spiked beers to quaff before the orgy commences. The drugged boys wake up in a church where they’re about to be sacrificed by a maniacal preacher named Abin Cooper (Michael Parks).

“It’s gonna get grown-up in here,” Cooper says after a long-winded sermon, ushering the children out so that a Hostel-style slaughter can commence.

Red State reaches its zenith here, as Smith’s camera shakes and shudders to capture the fear felt by the stunned young men. And Parks, a relative unknown given a pretty big spotlight, is mesmerizing as a man who can make fire and brimstone sound downright charming.

“God doesn’t love you…unless you fear him,” Parks says.

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Hollywood Love Affair with World’s Biggest Celebrity Hits Rough Patch…

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

Hollywood walked in near lock-step with Sen. Barack Obama on his quest for the presidency in 2008.

Celebrities couldn’t give an interview without extolling the greatness of The One. Director Spike Lee even declared the modern era would be measured in two distinct increments — Before Obama and After Obama.

Today, cracks are appearing in Obama’s celebrity wall of support. But he’s still got enough true believers in his camp ready to sing his praises — and line his coffers — for the 2012 presidential race. But a few are scrambling to find their receipts for the Hope and Change shopping spree.

Adrian Grenier, the star of HBO’s Entourage, used his Twitter account to share his disappointment that Obama hadn’t caused the seas to recede or other such modest campaign promises.

“COME ON @BarackObama why did you cave? Lead, don’t concede!” he tweeted, along with a link to a blog post titled “Obama Bails on Smog Plan.”

Matt Damon didn’t mince words regarding Obama during a March chat with low-rated CNN talker Piers Morgan.

“I really think he misinterpreted his mandate. A friend of mine said it the other day and I thought it was a great line: ‘I no longer hope for audacity,’” the Bourne Identity star told the host.

Even the Sundance Kid is having reservations about Obama. Robert Redford took to the hallowed cyber-pages of The Huffington Post to share his disappointment in the president.

“One reason I supported President Obama is because he said we must protect clean air, water and lands. But what good is it to say the right thing unless you act on it?” Redford writes. But he cites three recent administration decisions — “on Arctic drilling, the Keystone XL pipeline and the ozone that causes smog” — where Obama punked the Green movement.

“Like so many others, I’m beginning to wonder just where the man stands,” he laments.

Consider Grenier, Damon, and Redford the exceptions to the Hollywood rule.

A-listers like George Clooney, Will Ferrell, and Steven Spielberg have already donated the maximum amount of $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

And plenty of celebrities are still speaking of the president as if the last two-plus years never happened.

Singer Gloria Estefan refuses to be bothered by such insignificant issues as credit downgrades, raging unemployment, or choruses of “who can I blame for my failures next?”

The Latina singer held a fundraiser for Obama last year in her Miami home.

This month, she couldn‘t find the energy to blame him for the lack of progress on her key issue — immigration reform.

“I wish that the president had a lot more power than he does, but he doesn’t. This has to be something that Congress, the Senate, and the American people decide, everybody together,” she said, adding she predicts he‘ll be reelected in 2012. “I think that he’s doing a good job.”

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Let’s Give These Classic Rock Hits a Rest

Monday, September 12th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

You’re probably not an American if you don’t swear allegiance to “Pinball Wizard,” “Bad to the Bone” or “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Classic rock doesn’t get much classier than those tunes, and rock stations won’t let you forget it. And that’s the problem. I recently cancelled my SiriusXM subscription, so now I’m dependent on commercial radio for times when I don’t feel like cranking up my iPod. Classic rock radio sure is comforting, and some of the timeless songs in their repertoire duly deserve their immortal status.

But how many times can you hear “Stairway to Heaven” or “Brown Eyed Girl” before diving for the scan button?

Rock radio programmers should take a voluntary vow to leave a some rock staples off the set list for a spell. All it would take is six months without “All Along the Watchtower,” and suddenly the song will feel fresher than it has in decades.

Of course, that means falling back on deep cuts, the kind of music that strikes fear into the heart of your average radio programmer. It also could allow deejays to spin a few of their personal favorites. Who knows? Maybe audiences will find a new appreciation for unsung acts like John Hiatt and John Wesley Harding?

Some classic rock tracks don’t require any hiatus. I could hear The Kinks’ “Lola” in an eternal loop and smile from ear to ear. And any ELO song is guaranteed to make me drive at least five miles per hour faster than I should be driving. Sorry, Mom.

But some songs simply need a break. They’ve been hard at work for three to four decades. They deserve a vacation, and they’ll come back refreshed and ready to entertain us again.

 

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Straw Dogs Then … and Now

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

Is anyone shocked Hollywood remade the 1971 Sam Peckinpah classic Straw Dogs?

Heck, if they’re plotting a new version of Dirty Dancing, anything is fair game.

But Straw Dogs isn’t so easy to duplicate. The original, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as a young couple tormented by British thugs, explored screen violence in ways that made previous exploitation films seem tame. Not only did Hoffman find his inner Paul Kersey, but George’s performance during the film’s critical rape sequence shocked many viewers. George’s character seemed to enjoy portions of the forced sexual encounter, something rarely seen in movies then … or now.

Will the minds behind the new Straw Dogs replicate those conflicting emotions? Dare they even try?

The new version, from liberal filmmaker Rod Lurie of Commander-in-Chief fame, isn’t being screened for Denver-based film critics like myself. That likely means most movie scribes won’t see it until its Sept. 16 release.

The original Dogs hit theaters long before Quentin Tarantino re-set the bar on-screen violence with every new film. Is it possible to shock modern audiences, and will Straw Dogs give it that old college try?

Note: The Hoffman original just came out on Blu-ray. And while the disk lacks the usual array of extras it’s still a fine investment.

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Will Adam Carolla Get Tracy Morgan’d?

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

The king of all podcasts is feeling the heat from GLAAD.

Comedian Adam Carolla recently let loose with some corrosive comments after hearing a group wanted to see “Sesame Street” regulars Bert and Ernie get married on a future installment of the kiddie show.

“When did everybody get lumped in with the f–king gays?” said Carolla, according to The Daily News.

“When did we start giving a s–t about [transgender] people?” Carolla said, adding “pre-op, transgender, transneutral, trans fat” population needs to “shut up.”

That drew the ire of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Carolla responded with a half-hearted apology via Twitter, noting he was a comedian, not a politician.

Will that be enough to stop potential fallout from the comments? Or will Carolla voluntarily submit to the sort of re-education comic Tracy Morgan endured after saying he would stab his son if he turned out to be gay during a stand-up routine?

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The Question Details Magazine Didn’t Ask Common

Monday, August 15th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

It’s been a few months since rapper/actor Common graced the White House for a poetry evening, an invitation some conservative blogs and Fox News found a bit … odd.

After all, Common had rapped about burning President George W. Bush and has spoken out against mixed marriages. Naturally, the true villain of this nasty news cycle was … Fox News, not the man who isn’t keen on whites and blacks finding true love together.

Imagine if President George W. Bush asked a country crooner with the same bigoted beliefs over for a beer in the Oval Office?

Flash forward to this month’s new issue of Details magazine. The publication interviewed Common to promote his new book, One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Naturally, the Fox News imbroglio comes up, but does the interviewer ask him to expound on his belief that white and black people shouldn’t marry? Seems like a pretty important “detail” for a socially conscious rapper, right?

Nope. Instead, the story’s headline describes Common as “Fox News’ latest target.”

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Stop the Presses! Roseanne’s in!

Friday, August 5th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

Watch out, Mr. President. You’re about to be hit upside the head by a domestic goddess.

Roseanne Barr, the former sitcom queen and occasional talk radio scourge, announced on The Tonight Show that she’s running for the presidency.

Yawn.

Barr hasn’t been funny in over a decade. A few years ago I sampled a one-hour comedy special she recorded for one of those pay channels I no longer pony up for, and I was shocked by the lack of laughs. Some artists simply lose their mojo over time, and there’s nothing Barr has to say these days that’s remotely clever or insightful. She’s a far left type who claims to hate both parties, but she’s most famous in recent years for dressing up as Hitler and failing to entertain a single soul.

Even Bill Maher, whose pool of political wisdom draws more shallow with every episode of his HBO Real Time show, occasionally springs a great laugh line on us.

Barr’s “big announcement” made it to the front of my AOL home page, and the accompanying article tried mightily to spin the news into something credible.

“She may be able to make some noise in this election,” the article declares.

That’s today’s mainstream media for ya. No time to investigate real news but all the energy in the world to play into Barr’s bald attempt for free press.

Mission accomplished.

My bet is the late perennial candidate Pat Paulsen will pull more votes than this washed up sitcom diva.

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Trying to Create a New Catch Phrase, Failing

Sunday, July 31st, 2011 - by Christian Toto

The return of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”  is good news for those who need a “Seinfeld”-style dose of Methadone.

If Jerry and the gang starred in a show about nothing, Larry David’s “Curb” is even less substantial. That’s why “Curb” is sporadically brilliant. It picks at minor social mores until they yield comic gems.

But few shows can mint a catch phrase better than the old “Seinfeld.”

“Curb’s” eighth season, which began July 10, already delivered a near-classic episode with the recent “Palestinian Chicken.” Larry beds a hot Middle Eastern women, a friend’s affair gets exposed and several recurring characters ask Larry to say things they’re too afraid to say themselves to their loved ones. That means Larry must tell a friend’s wife that her lip-smacking routine after every sip is driving people insane and saying “LOL” is hardly the same as laughing at a funny joke.

“You’re a ‘social assassin,’” Jeff Garlin says to Larry about his gift for telling it like it is no matter the consequences.

It’s a funny line, but it feels too manufactured to really hit home. The term comes up later in the episode as well, but it’s doubtful people will start using it among friends and strangers alike. HBO still doesn’t hit as many homes as NBC, and few people live the life of a social assassin like Larry.

Which means yada yada yada, puffy shirts and Festivus have nothing to fear from Larry’s “Curb.”

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‘Criminally Underappreciated’ Graham Parker on the Road

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

A record warning label made me buy my first Graham Parker CD, but I wasn’t on the prowl for naughty lyrics at the time.

I had heard about Parker, the craggy voiced songwriter who came of age along with fellow angry rockers Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson in the late 1970s. But I knew precious little about him. When I saw his 1992 album Burning Questions at the record store – that’s a place where people once bought music from clerks who thought they were rock stars themselves — the affixed warning label gave me pause. I never had the need to rebel with dirty lyrics as a teen, and I wasn’t in the mood to start now.

But this sticker simply said, “meaningful lyrics enclosed,” so I snatched the record and headed to the checkout counter. I’ve been a rabid fan ever since.

Parker still records new music, but his early fame has all but evaporated. So when Parker hit my new home city of Denver last weekend he played at the Lion’s Lair, a dive bar that wears the label proudly. I didn’t dare venture into the Lair’s bathroom during my visit. I’ve heard the stories, and that was more than enough for me.

The house was packed as Parker took what passed for the stage, while about 75 people clapped as if it were 1978 all over again.

The bald, bespectacled singer played his early hits (“Fool’s Gold,” “Discovering Japan”) as well as tracks from a forthcoming album. He was in fine voice even if the club’s speaker system needed a booster shot, but he didn’t push himself to hit the higher notes of songs like “Temporary Beauty.” He had evidently soaked in enough local culture to lob a few medical marijuana jokes at the Colorado crowd.

The local alternative weekly dubbed Parker “criminally underappreciated” before his arrival, and I couldn’t agree more. But for one night he was just another singer belting out songs in a bar, and he looked as if he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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A Movie Too Liberal for Liberal Film Critics?

Friday, July 15th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

What if they made a pro-Palestinian movie so biased it alienated audiences AND liberal film critics alike?

Miral, out this week on Blu-ray and DVD, attracted dozens of movie patrons earlier this year en route to a $373,420 haul, according to boxofficemojo.com. Even by indie film standards that tally is embarrassing.

Audiences had little interest in the story of how a beautiful Palestinian woman (played by Slumdog Millionaire stunner Freida Pinto) learned to stop worrying and love the Intifada. But even movie critics, an almost uniformly liberal clan, decried the film’s bias and shoddy storytelling. The movie scored a pathetic 18 percent “fresh” rating at RottenTomatoes.com, one of the Web’s biggest review aggregator sites.

“How can you appeal to both sides when you tell only one side’s story?” asks Newark Star-Ledger critic Stephen Witty.

Miral does feature some haunting imagery, but it stuffs speeches into the mouths of its characters and can’t bother to mention any reason why Israelis would need military force to protect its own citizens.

The film industry in recent years has made it a habit of forcing unappealing films down the public’s throats. The anti-war screed Lions for Lambs tanked? Brian DePalma’s Redacted was seen by less than 10,000 people during its theatrical run? Let’s make Fair Game and Green Zone.

So maybe we’ll see a Miral 2: Bombs Away in 2012.

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A New Anti-War, Anti-American film … or a Spoof?

Monday, July 11th, 2011 - by Christian Toto

Writer/director John Sayles has some highly respected films on his resume, from “Eight Men Out” to “Matewan.” But his latest project feels more like a parody than an actual movie project.

“Amigo,” heading our way this August, tells the story of an American occupation of the Philippines circa 1900. And if you think it’s just an excuse to slam so-called American imperialism in general and the Iraq war in particular, give yourself a gold star.

But even knowing that doesn’t prepare you for the liberal cliches barnstorming across the screen. You have the cruel Americans personified here by Chris Cooper, the saintly locals, the scenes of innocents being squashed under the U.S. military’s thumb and the American who dares to connect with the enemy on a personal level.

It’s as subtle as a Bill Maher rant.

Maybe the trailer ratched up the anti-American elements because they know the hard-left crowd will be the only ones lining up for such a project. Let’s hope “Amigo” isn’t as cartoonish as its trailer portends.

 

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