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by Rob Horning

10 Oct 2009

A few days ago I confirmed for myself how out of touch I am with indie music when I took a look at Pitchfork’s albums of the decade list. Of the 200 albums listed, I’d probably heard maybe half of them, and of that half I probably actually liked about 10. I tried again to listen to the albums they are really big on (e.g., Kid A, Supreme Clientele) and was left convinced I should probably regard a high Pitchfork rating as a personal negative indicator. If Pitchfork is associated with a band when I first hear about them, I’m probably best off not bothering.

I bring this up only because I am also reading Greg Kot’s Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, a journalistic look at the music business over the past decade (it reads like a series of Fortune stories—not an insult, just an impression) in which Pitchfork features prominently. Even though I am writing at this moment for what some might consider a “music webzine,” I was pretty surprised at how influential Pitchfork is reputed to be. Some of the industry people Kot interviews makes Pitchfork sound like the financial rating agencies: “I feel the next step for Pitchfork is literally dictating to bands what to do next,” a guy in an indie band tells him. ” ‘Okay, can you just paint a little more green on that album before you release it?’ ” That would mirror the way ratings agencies told banks what to adjust in securities in order to secure AAA ratings to keep the bubble going. These were oftentimes the securities destined to become “toxic,” becoming the assets no one could value properly and no one wanted on their books.

by Bill Gibron

10 Oct 2009

Hey - novice fright filmmakers. Here’s a mandatory rule of thumb to follow when trying to deliver the shivers. If you can’t show your gore, don’t make a movie that is more or less reliant on same. If your version of the Memphis Meat Cleaver Massacre is going to feature all of its kills off-camera, perhaps you shouldn’t even bother. True, budgetary concerns can be a factor, and perhaps that best buddy of yours wasn’t the F/X wizard he claimed to be, but if you can’t unleash the sluice, you should definitely alter your cinematic intentions. Are you listening Gnaw and director Gregory Mandry? We get that you want to make a UK version of a cannibal cavalcade, a combination of The Hills Have Eyes, Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chain Saw epic, and about a billion other human meat spectacles. But no blood = no good. Sorry, it just can’t be said any other way.

Our story begins with a young girl vomiting (how prophetic). Her name is Lorrie and she is traveling to a remote cottage with her pals Jack, Judd, Jill, Matt and Hannah. They want to settle in for a weekend of partying and other illicit activities. But when they arrive at their location, their plans are quickly sidetracked. Blackstock Farm seems deserted, and while the table is spread with all manner of cakes and savory meat pies, the overall aura is dark and dreary. Things don’t get much better when creepy proprietor Mrs. Obadiah shows up. She seems overly nice, desperate to stuff her guests with all manner of steak and kidney snacks. Of course, what the visitors don’t realize is that the flesh is not prime - it’s people. That’s right, our gang has landed smack dab into the middle of an isolated butchery, Mrs. Obadiah and her sinister son harvesting the clientele for all the best cuts.

When you hear the premise and read the title, you expect certain things from Gnaw. You expect ample amounts of arterial spray, characters carved open with guts and other F/X offal spewing out all over the screen. You anticipate lots of skin snacking, villains making vittles out of the various heroes and heroines. There should be a few sequences of extreme vivisection, power tools and other unreal implements of death utilized to make mince out of the cast members. And the filmmaker should relish in the grue, providing gallons of the red stuff in a blood-infused orgy of murder and mayhem. Unfortunately, Gnaw offers none of these things. Like a Friday the 13th sequel from the good old MPAA censorship days, this is a dull little fright flick that hopes to get away with killing its constituents off screen, away from prying eyes. In doing so, director Mandry destroys his chances for cinematic success.

There is nothing else holding our attention here: not the worked up soap operatics between one incredibly jerk and the two girls who go ga-ga over him; not the nice guy destined to finish last (and perhaps, be picked off first); not the oversexed couple who can’t keep their hands off each other long enough to recognize the man in the corner with the animal carcass covering his face. Even the old lady with the bad British teeth is so obvious a red herring that her arrival should be met with a complimentary cup of cucumber sauce. Gnaw is needlessly slow, overarch in its exposition, tedious in its tendency to backtrack (how many times do we need to see Lorrie puke to recognize the early onset of pregnancy) and unable to deliver anything remotely resembling dread. In its place, we get some decent local atmosphere, a couple of clever set-ups, and a moment of two of suspense so fleeting it barely matters.

Mandry may deserve credit for doing his best with what is clearly an underwritten screenplay (by Michael Bell and Max Waller), but in a direct to DVD domain where clots and gratuity rule, offering neither is a recipe for commercial disaster. Fans who come looking for an unusual bit of bloodshed will go away angry, while seasoned gorehounds will demand their poorly spent rental fees back. Since the story set-up is so basic and borrowed from a dozen better fright films, Gnaw has to try and distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. Sadly, all it can do is wallow in its own amateurishness, going about its splatter-less slaughter in an anemic a way as possible. If this movie were any more by the numbers, it would come with a set of paints and a numbered black velvet canvas.

The digital packaging doesn’t improve matter much. Since this movie was made on that newest of interim technology - the high end video camera - the transfer retains a true homemade feel. Even the attempts at ethereal lighting and exterior ambience come face-to-face with such a set-up’s limitations. As for added content, Dark Sky Films finds ways of making even the most meaningful bonus features feel dry and uninteresting. The behind the scenes featurette does offer some insight, but its often overtaken by an inordinate amount of backslapping. The commentary from director Mandry is equally self-congratulatory. While he does recognize the movie’s limits, he also argues for the effectiveness of the various deaths. Clearly, he is watching something other than what the audience can enjoy.

Like many examples of the genre, a half-baked horror film like Gnaw demands rebuff. Even with the caveat that creep-outs, like comedy, are very personal in perspective, keeping the good stuff off the side is a scary movie no-no that only the rarest film can overcome. It takes a certain level of cinematic skill and categorical creativity to keep an audience interested once you’ve revealed your lack of splat. Gregory Mandry, while capable, just doesn’t have that level of motion picture legerdemain to offer. Instead, he drags us out into the country and leaves us there to rot, assured that he can somehow salvage the static situation. He can’t. Gnaw needed to be over the top and ultra-extreme in its treatment of the cannibal call. Even the Sawyers would find themselves snoring through this ineffectual mess. 

by Bill Gibron

10 Oct 2009

The genre film, by its very nature, is a bit of a cinematic chameleon. It can function as humor, social commentary, political diatribe, and in rare cases, sobering human tragedy. Coated in the usual celluloid garment of horror and/or science fiction, it takes talent and determination to traverse its pitfall-laden path. Ten years ago, Daniel Myrick made movie history of sorts by releasing his first person POV frightmare The Blair Witch Project. Along with collaborator Eduardo Sanchez, he created a night terror that functioned as a documentary, a pseudo-realistic look at fear as it happened, and a full blown web phenomenon. A critical and commercial ‘event’, the filmmaker retreated for a while, unsure of his next move. Now, almost a decade later, he’s returned with a fine film entitled The Objective (new to DVD from IFC Films). And once again, he has taken the standard scary movie and tweaked it with something different - a little speculative scope.

CIA agent Benjamin Keyes has been sent back to Afghanistan, a country he left ten years before, to track an unusual signature on a satellite image. It’s been one month since the horrible events of 9/11, and the US government wants to make sure that some rogue members of the Taliban aren’t hiding a loose nuke up in the desert mountains. Seeking a former source in a remote village, Keyes takes a highly specialized group of soldiers along on the mission. They include no nonsense Chief Warrant Officer Hamer, Sergeants Cole and Sadler, and Master Sergeant Tanner. They also bring on a local, Abdul, as their guide. Once out in the field, they find little relief from the ongoing battle. After an ambush leaves them injured and short on supplies, Hamer demands they return to base. But Keyes is unrelenting. He has a tip that what he is looking for is locked in Afghanistan’s notorious Hill of Bones, a sacred site that might also turn out to be this regiment’s final resting place.

The Objective is a classic suspense thriller. It plays with the audience, giving it only the information it needs to follow the occasionally confounding plotline. It provides simply drawn characters, crystal clear motivations, an environment that’s both alien and unfriendly in nature, and a finale which shines an intriguing new light on everything we’ve experienced before. Myrick, taking a noted turn toward a more mainstream motion picture dynamic here, delivers on the promise inherent in the set up. The narrative is mission oriented, and the intrinsic nature of such a storyline helps smooth over rough patches of pacing, scripting, and occasional directorial indulgences. Myrick makes some mistakes here and there, but we forgive the flaws, thanks in part to our desire to see the events come to a climax.

And it’s an interesting journey along the way. Working with an accomplished cast that really disappear into their roles, we find ourselves face to face with the hostile Afghan wasteland, and endless need for water and supplies, and a strange set of lights that seem to be following our military men. During these seemingly sedate establishing scenes, The Objective does something very sly. It establishes the conflicts and desperation that will come to define the latter part of the action. Even the minor military scenes, US armed forces fighting unseen enemies with rocket launchers and an unshakable resolve, add to the tension. Before long, Myrick has us shifting toward the edge of our seat, anticipation over what will come next filling our head with visions of death and dread.

That The Objective fails to fully deliver on said promise is one of its few weak points. Clearly, because of its micro-budget and aesthetic limitations (small cast, insular concept) Myrick cannot completely explore the ideas he’s working with. The whole CIA/UFO angle is underdeveloped, left to a series of sensationalized buzzwords. Similarly, we are dealing with a post-9/11 scenario with the war in Afghanistan only a few weeks old. Yet everything about the military operation screams “been there/done that.” Finally, the acting can be hit or miss. Jon Huerta and Matthew Anderson are very good as suspicious army men, while lead Jonas Ball earns more than a few missteps with his gravitas. Still, the script by Myrick, Mark A. Patton, and Wesley Clark Jr. (yes, the General’s son) is solid and even surprising at times.

Indeed, there’s another angle available, one that merits consideration especially in light of the actions being depicted. One could easily see The Objective as an indirect commentary on our cultural hubris and lack of understanding when it comes to our “enemy” in the Middle East. The US soldiers see diplomacy in a handful of chocolate bars, yet revert to stereotypical responses whenever their Islamic allies let them down. All engagement is “shoot first, never question ever” and once they are lost in unfriendly terrain, the camouflage comes off completely. Myrick may not have intended to make a statement about how America undermines its own efforts via a lack of consideration, sensitivity, and basic common sense. Outside of anything supernatural or beyond this world, The Objective seems intent on being critical of our nation’s inflated opinion of our own international import.

Some of this intent is discussed as part of the content on the recently released DVD from IFC Films. Myrick is on hand for both a marvelous Making-of and an insightful post-Tribeca Q&A. Both times, he confirms his desire to put politics into the film while finding a pleasant balance between various “otherworldly” elements. Director of Photography Stephanie Martin is also on hand to add her two cents, discussing the difficult shoot and the decisions on how to best render the more “mysterious” facets of the storyline. With a wonderful transfer and a lot of post-production detail, the digital package helps support The Objective‘s subtext.

Still, it’s the shivers that count, and while Myrick may not make our spine tingle like he did back in the late ‘90s (though this critic personally loathes The Blair Witch Project), The Objective is still an impressive piece of work. It never tries to do too much and keeps within its carefully controlled elements until the last act histrionics take over. Even then, the final beat is so satisfying, so ambiguous and ambitious that it makes the whole experience seem that much more special and worthwhile. It’s hard staying relevant after onli-nation declares you and your so-called “classic” a one-hit wonder. Yet Daniel Myrick has actually made three other films since leaving the unfriendly confines of Burkittsville (The Strand, Believers, and Solstice). With The Objective as yet another example of his growth as a director, it’s clear his early success was not a fluke. This is one filmmaker who can spin the genre into any shape he wants, and come out triumphant.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2009

They represent three generations of guitar godliness, axmen supreme who helped helm The Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin, U2, and The White Stripes straight to the top of the rock pops.  Each one has their own distinct style - accomplished journeyman and heavy metal monster; excessive experimenter who relies on technology to fuel his musical imagination; confirmed bluesman who can’t make heads or tails out of this reliance on science to make a joyful noise. So when all three come together to discuss their stock and trade in Davis Guggenheim’s ambitious documentary It Might Get Loud, we except a sonic summit of Olympian proportions. What we get instead are three slight biographies followed by sequences that merely suggest what such a coming together could actually achieve.

For Guggenheim, superficial context is king. We get all the well known backstories - Page as a skiffle kid in ‘50s England; The Edge pairing up with Bono in school, both inspired by punk; White working out his retro demons on any guitar he could get his hands on (including a plastic model from Woolworths) - plus a scant few things we didn’t know. Perhaps the most compelling is the notion of the man responsible for “Stairway to Heaven”, the infamous double neck guitar, and some of rock’s greatest riffs working steadily as a session musician. Page apparently played on everything - movie scores, commercial jingles, syrupy pop hits, you name it. It’s amazing to watch his eyes light up as he speaks of this time, if only because he seems so laid back and detached during most of the movie. White is also compelling in his own insular way. His devotion to the past and it’s various idiosyncrasies is so deep and so dedicated that you actually question his sanity at certain points.

The Edge, sadly, lacks anything remotely similar, except his country of origin. The “troubles” in Ireland are only invoked once, and his words are mesmerizing. The rest of the time however is spent as U2’s sonic voice runs around his old rehearsal spaces, plugs into his massive set of synthesizers and effects peddles, and piddles around on his instrument. He seems like the odd man out, the competent professional with the slightest artistic flair floundering often in the wake of his band’s international mega-success. As he argues his need for technology, as he pulls out demo tapes showing how the opening of “Where the Streets Have No Name” was built layer by layer, he makes a good case for his way of thinking. But when White can pull out a crappy old toy guitar and make it sound like a hurricane, The Edge’s approach is almost laughable.

Indeed, the biggest fallacy that befalls It Might Get Loud is that it never really does. We get snippets of the trio playing “I Will Follow” or “In My Time of Dying”, but it all takes a backseat to Page’s explanation of recording Led Zeppelin VI, or White explaining where the trademark red and white Stripes motif came from. We want to hear these guys play together, to drop the façade of their famous gigs and show us why they love the guitar. Telling us is one thing. Showing us is quite another. We smile like school kids as Page plays a vintage 45 of one of his favorite songs - Link Wray’s “Rumble” - and strums his air guitar right along with it. We also get a kick out of Edge’s impromptu reading of a Ramones track. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. We have to wait until the end credits before a well-practiced jam of The Band’s “The Weight” takes place.

It’s at this moment, thrown away while the individual cast and crew names scroll up the screen, that It Might Get Loud illustrates what it could have been. Granted, there is really nothing wrong with the material as it is presented, but expectations come when you cast about names like Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White. Indeed, why no mention of the old man’s former brush with Satanism? How about the constant calls for a Zep reunion? Why has the Edge never ventured into solo album territory? How has U2 stayed together for over three decades? And what about the whole wife/sister thing with Meg? If the Raconteurs feature so prominently in the live footage, why no mention of them either? Indeed, perhaps the biggest sin committed by It Might Get Loud is being enamored of its own star status. Instead of making the trio earn its keep, Guggenheim plays shorthand sketch artist.

Like finally meeting your hero and finding him polite, erudite, and rather drab, this documentary promises fire and brimstone and can only deliver friendliness and brotherhood. We keep waiting for the eventual fireworks, the smoke screen strum of an overamplified guitar feeding back, linking three generations to the same sound that illustrates their connection faultlessly. Instead, we bear witness to a genial garden party, complete with roadies, tech aides, attitude, ambiguities, and lots and lots of missed opportunities. Maybe it’s in the casting. Perhaps another famed musician like Paul Weller, Mick Jones, Lindsey Buckingham, or Eddie Van Halen could have been tossed into the mix, livening things up with their unorthodox styles and sensibilities. For as many differences as they proclaim, Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White seem cut out of the same cloth. Even when they don’t particular agree on how to toe the rock and roll line, the end results seem awfully familiar. It does indeed get loud at times. Too bad it’s not consistently compelling.   

by Rodger Jacobs

9 Oct 2009

“Maybe when we die, the first thing we’ll say is, ‘I know this feeling. I was here before’.”
White Noise, Don De Lillo

An incident occurred in a grocery store aisle last Sunday afternoon that brought to mind Don De Lillo’s 1985 postmodern novel White Noise.

That’s how my brain is hard wired: everything gets filtered through a literary perspective. The ongoing contamination of beef in the US meat packing industry that was recently uncovered in the New York Times, for example, brings to my mind a discussion of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle that exposed those same filthy conditions in Chicago’s stockyards and led to the creation of safety standards that we are, apparently, not adhering to 103 years later. And if you tell me that you got a GPS microchip locator implant for your pooch, I’m going to sit you down for a short lecture on dystopian novels like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. You say you’re taking a trip to beautiful coastal Monterey, California? Well, have a seat and let me tell you all about John Steinbeck and if you already know about Steinbeck then let’s talk about all the great Steinbeck-related spots you can visit on your retreat to make it a literary delight.

I would bore my friends to death, if I had any.

So I’m at the Albertson’s grocery store on Flamingo Road and Haualapia (Who-All-Uh-Pie) Road in Las Vegas. I’ve gone down the entire list she gave me when I left the house and everything is in the cart: dinner for two nights, salad, milk, garbage bags, that El Salvadoran beer that I like, a bag of Starbucks Caffe Verona coffee beans, green onions, a couple votive candles, and…shit, I didn’t get the dishwasher detergent.

I steer the cart down the kitchen supplies aisle: Playtex rubber gloves, 409 cleaning spray, Oh-Boy kitchen sponges, Windex, Windex Crystal Rain, Windex Multi-Surface Vinegar, Windex Multi-Surface Grease Cutter, Windex Outdoor Multi-Surface Cleaner.

Finally, the dishwasher detergent section; to the left of me, in the liquid dishwashing soap section (I’m buying those hardened rabbit pellet things you drop into the soap drawer), two women, obviously acquainted with each other, are engrossed in conversation. There is nothing memorable to pass on about their physical appearance because I was too engaged trying to find the cheapest Cascade or generic Cascade knock-off I could spot on the shelf to even pay them so much as a glance.

“—so, once again, I was washing my dishes at my usual time, five o’clock,” one of the ladies says, “and the sensation overwhelms me once more: I want to bake an apple pie like nobody’s business, a fresh, hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream melting all over it. I can literally smell it.”

Sounds like an olfactory hallucination, I’m thinking.

“Five nights in a row!” she continues. “Straight up, five o’clock, when I go to wash the dishes I’m struck with an overwhelming desire to bake an apple pie. And then I finally figured out what it was.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw her sweep a 13-ounce bottle of dishwashing detergent off the shelf.

“This stuff!” she proclaimed. “Jergen’s Fresh Green Apple. It is so aromatic, you wouldn’t believe it. I mean, it tricked my senses into thinking I wanted apple pie.”

I dropped the bag of Cascade into the cart and continued up the aisle, wondering if I had just been duped into watching a commercial product pitch disguised as live theater. You never know in this postmodern world.

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