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by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009

They remain the last cinematic taboo, a sinister subject that gets bandied about once every decade or so before crawling back into the annals of scary movie manipulation to fester for a few more years. Each time it’s dragged out, audience respond with a combination of shock and indignance, wondering how anyone could taint the innocent of a child like that. You guessed it - the evil kid killer is back, an archetype made infamous by Patty McCormick in 1956’s The Bad Seed.

Since then, we’ve had grindhouse versions (Harry Novak’s The Child), post-modern rewrite (The Exorcist, The Omen) noble TV attempts (Child of Rage) and the notorious Macaulay Culkin vehicle The Good Son, each one taking the offspring and turning them into something awful. Sadly, none of them can match the latest installment in the wicked wee one horror show, Orphan (new to Blu-ray from Warner Home Video). What it lacks in scares, suspense, thrills, chills, pacing, plot development, logic, realism, authenticity, and satisfaction, it definitely makes up for in fudged up homicidal brattling…and that’s about it.

Esther is an odd child. When John and Kate first meet her at a local orphanage, she is shy and distant. Taking an instant liking to the family, the couple feels safe in bringing her into their fragile home. You see, Kate is a recovering alcoholic, and during one particularly memorable bender, her deaf daughter Maxine slipped into a nearby pond and almost drowned. John saved her life, and helped his spouse sober up. Along with son Daniel, things were starting to look up for the Colemans. Then Kate’s last pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. Thus, the decision to adopt.

At first, Esther is odd addition to the clan, but tries to fit in. She wears frilly dresses and ribbons around her neck and wrists. She draws the ridicule of her new classmates, and Kate begins to grown suspicious of her new, nosy daughter. Within a few short weeks, Esther has scared poor Maxine and Daniel into submission, and a few “accidents” have left people injured…or missing. When Kate decides to look into Esther’s past, the unassuming kid turns from polite to psychotic, doing anything she can to protect her “secret.” Suddenly, the Colemans are all in danger.

If you’re looking for a fright flick that does its damnedest to get by on contrivances, coincidences, and outright plot convolutions, Orphan is it. Existing in a parallel universe where nine year olds are adopted without much legal (or medical) wrangling, where the local branch of Child Protective Services is apparently on extended vacation, and where the prissy manipulative nonsense of an Eastern European eccentric takes precedence over common sense, supposed intelligence, and the obvious arrival of some incredibly bad luck. No one seems the least bit concerned that Esther is a cheeky manipulator, overplaying her “glad to be part of the clan” conceits to the hilt. Everyone assumes it’s an expression of happiness, even when her “Helter Skelter” maniac eyes give her away.

Even worse, parents John and Kate (how apropos) have opposite ways of dealing with this newfound affection. He thinks Esther is just peachy keen, capable of nothing more than big fat hugs and butterfly kisses. She thinks her new daughter is a demon. Such extremes make many of the interpersonal machinations between the couple hard to swallow. Every time Kate has a legitimate concern about her safety - say, when Daniel’s treehouse goes up in a blaze of lighter fluid fueled-glory (with Daniel in it), John thinks she’s nutso…or worse, back on the sauce. Even during one of the film’s most outrageous moments, he blames himself for giving off the wrong signals to Esther (rationalizing with a grade schooler - never a good sign).

And then there’s the pacing. House of Wax remaker Jaume Collet-Serra spends so much time setting things up, over an hour’s worth of handwringing and touchy feely kvetching that we wonder if Esther’s secret is that she’s just an incredible asshole. Granted, actress Isabelle Fuhrman gives good jerk, but it’s not until much later in the plot that she lets her inner Voorhees shine. By then, we’ve been lulled into a sense of scripted stupidity. David Leslie Johnson apparently created his narrative out of old fright flick beats, false scares, and one iffy reveal, telegraphing much of his purpose (beyond the ending) to anyone old enough to remember the rules of terror. Sure, we feel our pulse race when Esther removes the parking brake and sends the family SUV careening down a hill, little Maxine inside and a sequence shrouded in blacklight also works well. But to get to that material we have to slog through moments crafted directly out of the direct to video terror tome.

You really do have to buy a great deal of bullspit to believe in what Orphan is offering. No one thinks like its 2009, an era of skepticism and overreaction. Everyone is nonsensically gullible to a fault. Even the deleted scenes and alternate ending offered on the new Blu-ray release of the film fail to fill in the gaps created by an attempt at atmosphere over realism or rationality. Instead of turning Esther into Michael Myers with worse fashion sense, why not show how a young child deals with being adopted into a troubled family, her missed signals and unmet needs slowly turning into confusion, and then rage. But then we wouldn’t get the serial killer slice and dice at the end, or the overwrought “huh” of the twist.

While it’s true that some of Orphan works (good vs. evil smackdowns always have a way of satisfying our innate bloodlust), but most of it is one big schlock tease. When taken in total, Esther is a remarkable creation, something that could have functioned expertly within a much better film. But Collet-Serra style is so frustrating, and Johnson script so aggravating that we wish a studio-sponsored killer kid would show up and simply thin out a few in the crew. There is nothing wrong with bringing back the evil child for a post-millennial update and Fuhrman’s performance guarantees that she’ll have a few more cracks at making a major motion picture impact. But Orphan is not very good. At 90 minutes, it might have been amazing. At two hours, it’s tedious.

by Tyler Gould

27 Oct 2009

We posted a free download of this song earlier this month, and now there’s a shimmery video for everyone to enjoy. “Under the Sheets” has so many well-worn trappings of pop music that might otherwise be boring—the extra oomph leading up to the second chorus, the gang-singing breakdown—but the chirpy production and Ellie’s transcendent voice reaffirm these tropes’ manipulative intent: to build anticipation, to swell the emotions, to lead us around, rapt and tense, until, at long last, catharsis.

by Eleanore Catolico

27 Oct 2009

Pylon
Chomp More
(DFA)
Releasing: Out now

Legendary ‘80s post-punk outfit Pylon is set to re-release their sophomore effort Chomp, digitally re-mastered and expanded as Chomp More via DFA. The new record also includes a 7” version of “Crazy”, a “male version” of “Yo-Yo”, a remix of “Gyrate”, and the rare single, “Four Minutes”. You can download “Beep” and watch a couple live performances below.

SONG LIST
01 K
02 Yo-Yo
03 Beep
04 Italian Movie Theme
05 Crazy (Album Version)
06 M-Train
07 Buzz
08 No Clocks
09 Reptiles
10 Spider
11 Gyrate
12 Altitude
13 Crazy (Single Version)
14 Yo-Yo (Male Version)
15 Gyrate (Pylon Mix)
16 Four Minutes

Pylon
Beep [MP3]
     

by Tyler Gould

27 Oct 2009

Fan Death, the band, just put out a video for an extended mix of “Reunited” from their upcoming A Coin For The Well EP. Fan death, the Wikipedia article, describes one of the more entertaining urban legends I’ve ever been aware of, which I hope catches on stateside.

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009

Rowan Atkinson’s brilliant Blackadder franchise, consisting of four fabulous series and a couple of clever one-offs, is frequently misjudged by the press. No, not in the lists of British Best-Of, where it frequently gives other English classics like Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and The Young Ones a run for “greatest sitcom ever” accolades. And not in the arena of available talent. Along with the future Mr. Bean, we get stunning, starmaking turns from Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry as well as creative input for comic savants Ben Elton and Richard Curtis. In fact, when wedged up against those previously mentioned UK laughfests, Blackadder typically beats them all. So why is it never a true part of the pop culture discussion? Why does it take something like the sensational new DVD release of remastered episodes to get the show some significant international love?

Of course, it’s a massive hit back home, recently voted the second favorite comedy of all time - and this might explain some of the disconnect. One of Blackadder‘s major selling points is its twisting of British history, retrofitting the facts (and occasional tall tales) to turn the adventures of a conniving little cretin named Edmund, his manservant Baldrick, and the various incarnations of the man throughout traditional English folklore into sidesplitting satire. The first series, simply entitled The Black Adder sees the secret record of Richard III/Richard IV’s reign used as a backdrop for Atkinson’s seminal sneak. Blackadder II is set during the court of Elizabeth I and amplified the character’s sinister nature. Blackadder the Third finds the Regency Period utilized as a means of highlighting the relationship between the Prince of Wales and his butler, our scheming antihero. We shoot forward a century to World War I, where Captain Blackadder Goes Forth, trying to find ways of avoiding his military duty to God and Country.

As with most UK series, all four Blackadder offerings consist of six individual installments. They cover subject as intriguing as the authority of the Church (“The Archbishop”), witch hunts (“Witchsmeller Pursuivant”), baby-eating bishops (“Money”) and intoxication (“Beer”). By the third go round, we get plots revolving around politics (“Dish and Dishonesty”) old stage superstitions (“Sense and Senility”) and The Scarlett Pimpernel (“Nob and Nobility”), while the final tour of duty presents tales of pigeon murder (“Corporal Punishment”), aviation (“Private Plane”), and music hall variety (“Major Star”). In addition, the DVD set also offers the masterful Blackadder Christmas Carol take-off, the 15 minute Blackadder: The Cavalier Years set during the English Civil War, and the time travel extravaganza Blackadder: Back and Forth. Along with a wealth of bonus features (including commentaries, interviews and documentary features on the show and its impact), we get an in-depth lesson in all things silly and snide - and it’s all absolutely brilliant.

Indeed, what one takes away from such an overview is how radical and revisionist Blackadder really is. Imagine a series that poked gentle fun at American ideals and factual truisms, all for the sake of a character that is mean, neglectful, incorrigible, cutthroat, bumbling, brazen, devious, shrewd, and on more than one occasion, completely off his nut. Without Aktinson in the lead it would never work. Though he is usually the butt of the situational joke most of the time, Blackadder (in all his carnations) remains a significant comedy creation. He’s not just the man you love to hate - he’s the slimebucket you obsess over like a moonstruck school girl. There is just something so amazingly awful, so delightfully despicable about the man that you can’t help but hang on his every wicked wisecrack and/or deed. No matter if it’s aimed at royalty or a peasant, Blackadder does not suffer fools - not lightly, not bloody likely.

Though great almost from the beginning, the series did struggle a bit at first. The BBC did not like the high cost and low return of The Black Adder, and then demanded changes before the second set of shows was okayed (and even then that took nearly three years to accomplish). Aside from the casting, which saw the heroic Brian Blessed replaced by more comic-oriented actors, the character of Blackadder was altered as well. Instead of a blundering fool who seems to fall into treachery, Curtis and Elton reconfigured him as a more astute and cunning antagonist. Much of the moron material went directly to Tony Richardson, who mined the always filthy manservant Baldrick for all he could. In was also discovered that Atkinson was a master at making already idiotic people look even worse than they really were. Thus the constant state of stupidity surrounding Blackadder, from a dim Elizabeth I to an insufferably dense Prince of Wales.

By Goes Forth, the writing was so polished, the performances so honed and perfected, that the series never misses a beat. Even when dealing with a subject as tricky as war, Blackadder finds the truth and then turns it on its crazy, crackpot head. Even better, with each new generational jump, the historical elements become an indirect supporting character. Another reason the show often suffers in syndication is that many of the quips are incredibly insular, known to only those whose country is being deconstructed and/or those familiar with the eras and events. Granted, the dialogue is not all dates and declaration. The Blackadder series is sublime in its unique and complex insult strategy, a combination of scatology and dead-on satire. It’s not every show that can work a statement about feces, incest, and the failed Feudal system into a rejoinder, but that’s the beauty of Edmund and the gang.

As the DVD set points out, the series was a truly labor intensive affair. Actors had to learn to ride, wear ridiculous, epoch appropriate garb, and trust the intricacy of the scripts vs. adlibbing at will. Injuries where suffered and opportunities missed, and many have fond memories of the results if not the specific means of achieving them. During a few particularly poignant moments, several members of the cast are visibly moved by their memories of their show. Aktinson, a rather reclusive star who rarely gives interviews, uses the new bonus features to address rumors, quash misinformation, and generally make his final statement on the show, period. Oddly enough, there have been rumblings both pro and con for another series of the show. While many recent comments argue otherwise, the material here seems to suggest that, if the right subject came along, and a network was willing to back them up, there’s a contingent that’s keen to do it.

And why not - the Blackadder conceit seems to work no matter the time or place you put it in. Like most classic comedies where one character spends his or her time looking down their nose at the rest of the rabble, only to realize their as guilty of being as plebian as they are, Rowan Aktinson successfully argued for his place as one of Britain’s greatest living humorists. While his next outing, Mr. Bean, would reinvent slapstick for the post-modern age, it’s his time traveling through various phases of UK lore that will always illustrate his truest gifts. No matter the lack of universal respect, Blackadder remains a singular achievement. It’s great, because everyone involved is as well. You can’t argue with that kind of creative strategy.

 

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