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by Jason Gross

23 Nov 2008

Today’s the day that no one thought would come- Chinese Democracy is finally out now.  You can go to the GNR MySpace page to decide if the wait was worth it. 

IHMO, it wasn’t unless you like over-flashy guitar that makes you miss Slash and enjoy Axl’s voice being submerged instead of being utilized as the great scream machine it is (at least until the middle of the thing).  And for the handful of good melodies around, they’re more than balanced out by the soggy ballads.  I’d take anything else in their back catalog over it.

Their label will soon find out if it was worth the millions of dollars that they invested in it but don’t be too surprised if they can’t recoup the dough from the album sales.  Granted, it was a canny move to get it sold through Best Buy but there’s no way that they’re gonna sell as many copies as Appetite For Destruction and I doubt that they’re gonna outsell Lil Wayne or the Eagles for this year either.  Mostly likely, Axl is gonna have to haul whoever is in GNR now around for a tour and try to sell enough merchandise to make up for it.  They don’t have any dates scheduled yet but rest assured that his label’s breathing down his neck to take his act on the road.

But you also realize this occasion means that Dr. Pepper now has to make good on its promise that it surely regrets making earlier this year: one of their sodas for everyone in the States, barring Slash and Buckethead (though Axl promised to give his soda to the later) if GNR finally put out their album this year.  Needless to say, they made the offer when they were fairly confident that Axl wouldn’t come through but he finally did (maybe he was goaded on by them), so now they’re stuck.

If you go to their website today, you can download a coupon for a free soda that you can redeem at any store that accepts it until next February.  First, you have to get to the site though and it’s clear that they weren’t ready for the traffic they got.  Here’s some of the error messages that their site spit out earlier today:

“The paging file is too small for this operation to complete.”

“The specified CGI application misbehaved by not returning a complete set of HTTP headers.”

“Service Unavailable.”

“Insufficient system resources exist to complete the requested service.”

“The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again.”

“Not enough storage is available to process this command.”

What you have here is kind of a greatest hits of server breakdown messages.  And even after you get into the site, you still have to sign up for the soda coupon and rest assured, their server isn’t ready for that either—I’ve tried a number of times and my browser just keeps timing out.

Makes them look kind of bad now but rest assured that they’ll have a notice up tomorrow saying “We’re thrilled with the response we got!” instead of “We weren’t prepared to have that damn album come out and have to make good on our promise!” 

Of course, people love to gooble up free stuff and this stunt was good publicity for them but it’s hardly gonna turn America into a nation of Pepper drinkers.  Most people will just go back to the other crappy drinks that they guzzle down after this.

As for me, if I do get my coupon, I’m gonna cash it and send my soda to Slash.  He deserves it and I’d wager that he’s not bummed that he isn’t on the new GNR album either.

by Bill Gibron

23 Nov 2008

For fright fans, Dario Argento’s career as a movie macabre master started going downhill right after the release of his spectacle splattefest Opera. With the advent of videotape, and the steady release of his past efforts onto the format, a whole new audience was appreciating his work, and Hollywood was starting to take notice. Invited to America to continue his career, he made the interesting anthology entry based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes, and helmed a US based thriller entitled Trauma. Neither film was a hit, and Argento was angered by issues of studio interference and MPAA censorship. He had been burned back in the ‘70s when companies such as Paramount and Fox decided to distribute truncated versions of classics like Suspiria. Now, he needed a project to propel him back into the good graces of his always agreeable European constituency – and a book by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini seemed to hold the answer.

Dealing with a subject described as “art enchantment” - a surreal fugue state where individuals feels emotionally overwhelmed and personally connected to paintings, sculptures, and other aesthetic works – this ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ seemed to be the perfect idea for a film. Of course, it would take some tricky special effects to realize his goal, and Argento needed an actress he could trust to take on the grueling, slightly gratuitous lead. He envisioned a woman who was young enough to play the ingénue, sturdy enough to pass for a cop, and complex enough to handle the several personality changes that occurred throughout. Even worse, this performer would have to lay herself bare during a trio of tawdry rape scenes. With an air of oddness that only Freud could successfully decipher, Argento flummoxed convention and hired his 21 year old daughter Asia. Long a fixture in the film world, this would be her most demanding role to date.

And thus cameras rolled on the icon’s big creepshow comeback, a psychological thriller that took both parts of that label all too seriously. A strange combination of police procedural (Asia is Anna Manni, a policewoman on the trail of a serial rapist), character study (after suffering at the hands of her subject, Anna starts to slowly unravel), and exercise in exploitation (women are brutalized and butchered by this maniacal blond sadist), the results divided even the most ardent aficionados. Some saw it as a return to past glories. Others argued that, while decent, it forewarned of worse things to come. Indeed, in the next decade, Argento would release four more career confusing efforts – his overdone and sexualized Phantom of the Opera take, a good giallo called I Can’t Sleep, the static CSI statement The Card Player, and a weird homage to a long time idol entitled Do You Like Hitchcock? So oddly enough, The Stendhal Syndrome appears as his last legitimate offering, a movie mythologized all the more by its odd home video treatment.

Somehow, Troma got a hold of this film, and released it way back near the beginning of DVD. The 1996 package was pretty good, containing a commentary by the director, an interview with the filmmaker, and lots of company come-ons. Fans frothed however, citing the fair to middling transfer and the overall lack of respect offered by the infamous B-movie factory. Over the last 11 years, they’ve hoped that a company like Blue Underground would salvage this forgotten film and bring it back to the state of semi-respectability it so richly (?) deserves. Those prayers were answered back in September of this year. The Big Blue U indeed stepped up and delivered a two disc digital package that illustrates the best that the medium has to offer, while questioning the extent to which businesses will invest in context for the fans. Now, a Blu-ray version of this title is available, and it too begs the question of product vs. pitch. 

If the film had been more endemic of Argento’s lush, luminous style, the lack of all format support would be unconscionable. But Stendhal stands as a decidedly different effort for the director, a movie made up of particular movements, each one attempting to address a different aspect of a woman’s destructive descent into madness. Viewed in parts, we see the suggestion that rape reduces a female to a series of onerous questions. There is doubt of self, doubt of sexuality, and doubt of safety. All three of these misgiving are illustrated here, as daughter Asia goes from confident cop to psychological mess in the span of two event filled hours. The transformation is both physical and mental. At first, Anna Manni is a long haired brunette, a capable officer working a high profile case. Post attack, she cuts off her overflowing locks and takes on a more tom boyish persona. Finally, after a terrifying confrontation in a water main, our heroine becomes a femme fatale, long blond wig providing a post-modern noir nod.

Within each section, Argento hints at the horrors going on in Anna’s head. Initially, everything revolves around the title issue. The use of then new CGI to realize the symptoms of the syndrome is unique and, though dated, gives the visuals an excellent otherworldly quality. Asia also does a good job of expressing the emotional distress that surrounds the problem. When she swoons over a classical canvas, we believe the delirium. She is also a brave actress, allowing herself to be very vulnerable and physically ‘open’ during the rape scenes. Actor Thomas Kretschmann (who would later rise to notoriety in big budget films like Blade II and Peter Jackson’s King Kong) is an amazing villain – the kind of debonair demon that you can easily see as a smooth talking psychopath. The interaction with his victims is noxious, and he really helps establish the lasting effects of his horrific crimes.

The second phase takes us through a denial of femininity, as Asia goes guy to try and hide her pain. This is a very interesting segment, one where Argento pulls back on the dread to deliver some drama and dark humor. When a previous paramour makes a pass at Anna, she responds with belligerence and foul-mouthed dominance. Equally, when boxing with an old male friend as part of a workout, her love of physical brutality is obvious. All throughout the first two acts, we sense a rematch with out rapist, and long for the moment of mandatory cinematic comeuppance. As a director, Argento toys with us, leaving us guessing right until the very end as to how this confrontation will play out. Even after it’s over, we still wonder if there’s not more to the story. As with most works by the Italian maestro, a climatic moment usually triggers another tangential terror.

Which brings us to the third phase in Anna’s story. Feeling slightly more empowered, and working through the leftover trauma with her specious therapist (a real red herring if ever there was one), we see an attempted reclamation of her beauty and allure. The long headdress is initially shocking, since it tends to hide most of Anna (and Asia’s) inviting ethnicity. This is crucial in understanding where the character is headed. The color of the wig, the newfound lust and desire, the overwhelming possessiveness – all of these facets are supposed to provide subtle insight into the shifts our lead is experiencing. Since he’s a master of pacing and paradigm, Argento lets issues lie, creating tension by building on both expectation and the unanticipated. Even after the denouement, when we learn just what’s been going on in Anna’s head, our director is not done. We watch as our fractured female is swept up in a sea of men, the patriarchy once again arguing for its role as protector and provider of the species.

As a result, it’s hard to call The Stendhal Syndrome “horror”, though it definitely deals in dreadful things. This is more like a literal psychological thriller, a film that rises and falls by the sinister and sick psyche of its characters. As it moves from element to element, as it references Argento heroes (there’s a lot of Hitchcock here) and establishes its own inherent greatness, we sense the struggle inside the director. For over three decades, he was viewed as a fantasist and fabulist, someone placing the surreal inside the scary to create a kind of dream theater of nightmare novelty. But Argento got his start making standard crime films, giallos that mimicked the mean-spirited narratives of the yellow covered pulp novels the genre took its name – and inspiration - from. To be pigeonholed because of his rare artistic flourishes was unfair, and yet all throughout this film, such flashes also appear. The contradiction would soon cause his canon to crash.

Oddly enough, the new Blu-ray DVD doesn’t go into a lot of perspective or overview. Instead, Argento appears and discusses the production – including how uncomfortable he was directing daughter Asia. The author of the book which inspired the director – psychological consultant Graziella Magherini - explains the Stendhal Syndrome while F/X guru Sergio Stivaletti talks about the confusing world of computers. We also hear from AD Luigi Cozzi and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Their anecdotal insights help us understand how hard it is for Argento to complete a project. Apparently, forces both normal and unexplainable are against him. As for the long debated technical aspects of this release, this latest Blu-ray release is outstanding. Grain is minor, with an enormous clarity of detail. It too carries over the filmmaker’s original vision, and is presented ‘uncut and uncensored’.

Some may complain about the sound situation, however. The original DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track is available in both English and Italian, but neither the 7.1 DTS-HD and 7.1 True HD has an alternate option. Fans of foreign films hate when studios forgo the native language of the filmmaker in order to cater to a less informed fanbase, but in this case, the decision is mostly understandable. Argento typically hires a multinational cast, so while his movies are made in Italy, his actors are versed in several tongues. Picking just one does a disservice to all. Even then, he usually films in English, even if performances begin in various ethnic takes. Whatever the case (research indicates an original Italian track), the expanded sound is amazing. There is a spatial clarity and attention to aural detail that can’t be ignored. And of course, Ennio Morricone’s amazing score is accented perfectly.

Still, it’s hard to fully fathom where The Stendhal Syndrome resides inside Dario Argento’s reputation. Many will marvel at the avant-garde aspects of this feature and wonder why the director ditched them for a hoary old period piece (Phantom) the next time out. Some will see it as a misogynistic mess, a film that forces females into the role of subservient sickos who can’t suppress their inner whore long enough to avoid the suffering. Gore fiends will enjoy the novel kills, including the slo-mo bullet time, and Argento’s directorial flourishes still mandate attention, even within this far more realistic setting. Either as signature or stumble, art or atrocity, there is no denying that as a filmmaker, the man responsible for brining Italian terror to the mainstream remains an important cinematic fixture. Thanks to the efforts of Blue Underground, his legacy will remain intact, if not necessarily indestructible.

by Rob Horning

23 Nov 2008

More of my friends are finding the time to get on Facebook, prompting various nostalgia trips as people from the past reconnect. This seems benign enough, but it’s a little strange that the technological means makes possible a relationship that everyone involved in was happy enough to abandon to the mists of time. It’s like Facebook has more at stake in that revived connection than the individuals reconnecting do—and maybe that’s true.

Actually, this seems like the essential bargain Facebook presents us with. It will facilitate our illusions of friendship and connection by making such social contact nearly effortless and highly insulated. We can broadcast gossip about ourselves and present ourselves in a flattering light and make contact with people we had forgotten about just by going to the site. It maintains our friendships for us by storing a configuration of the network of all the people who have ever mattered to us while exempting us from that particular effort that we had already, in fact, stopped bothering to make.

So we get friendship without the trouble of having to put effort into the relationships. It’s friendship rendered convenient through technology, and the convenience to a degree denatures the original significance—isn’t the substance of relationships ultimately anchored in the effort we feel ourselves putting in? (Or am I simply mystifying the ideal of working at things?)

In exchange for making our social lives more convenient, Facebook seizes the right to transform our sociality into commercially useful information, turn our relationships into market research and use that data to anticipate and shape our future selves with the ads it calculates that we should be presented with. It manages our friendships and then processes the data interrelationships to guide the process of how we subsequently develop our identities through its site. Since it is mediating our friendships, and in effect making the effort for us, it is also directing what the fruits of that effort will be, supplying the framework through which friendships develop and making itself the very medium of friendship.

At that point, Facebook succeeds into making friendship a consumption product, and itself as the service provider. The other friends we have through it, on the other side the screen, are the product it marshals for us. And our consumption of Facebook, rather than the actual experience of friendship with all the effort that would otherwise require, now shapes our personalities—in accordance with the commercial goals it has set out for ourselves. In that way, it isolates us more by promising to mediate our connections with the rest of the world. It deprives us of the option to make more effort, and make our social efforts more meaningful. Is this too pessimistic?

by Chris Catania

23 Nov 2008

It hasn’t been a good week for Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins, or the hometown fans. And the emotional train wreck that I feared I was walking into on Saturday night never happened. I never even got in the door.  Instead, as I approached the Auditorium Theatre, I discovered a twist in the Corgan drama that I didn’t expect. I encountered a venue posting that every concertgoer fears.

Like the other fans who stood starring at the posted note, I didn’t have the luxury of learning via the web or my complementary email Ticketmaster alert that the sold out show was postponed until December 8th “due to illness.”

Since I wasn’t going to be able to do the review, and neither Corgan nor his music was going to be doing the talking, I decided to let the fans have a voice tonight and let them express their momentary melancholy and unfortunate sadness.

It was sad to watch fans as they approached the venue door and see their faces switch instantly from hopeful bliss to anger and disappointment. I felt the same disappointment, but I really wanted to know how other fans felt and have them tell me exactly how they felt when they read that note.

Standing out in the freezing cold, I commiserated with fans, as they willingly expressed how they felt about the postponed concert. I was even more disappointed when they told me their stories and dashed expectations of far travels (Indiana and Kentucky) and wasted hotel room costs and vacation time.

Representing the general consensus of all the fans I spoke with, here’s what a few fans had to say.

Where are you from Donald?

Lexington, KY.

How do you feel about that note on the door?

It fucking sucks. We came all the way from Lexington, KY. We drove six hours! How can they play last night but they can’t play tonight? How sick was he? You’ve got to be kidding me! I always thought [Corgan] thought he was way bigger than he really was. He thought he was Eddie Vedder and he wasn’t.

I turn to Donald’s friend Larry.

You all came together?

Yes, I’m here to see it for her. [pointing to his girlfriend Stephanie] She’s been waiting to see them for fifteen years.

What do you think about that sign over there Stephanie?

[sighs]I’m just devastated. I’ve been waiting to see them since I was fifteen.  I’ve been waiting my whole life to see the Smashing Pumpkins. We paid a hundred ten dollars a seat. [she looks back at the note on the door and her drops head into her mittens].

Are you guys going to come back on the 8th?

Hell no! We all took off work to come here and now it’s a complete waste. We want a refund!

I turn and ask another fan.

Hi Brad, Kirsten; where are you guys from?

We’re from Bartlett. We got a hotel room for tonight at the Fairmont for $200.00. We’ve never seen [the Smashing Pumpkins] before and always wanted to. It’s pretty disappointing to spend money on a hotel room and $65 on both tickets all for nothing. I guess we’re going to go hang out with the tourists for the night at the bars on Rush and Division St.

Are you going to come back on the 8th?

Yeah, we’re forced to. They were great back in the day and it seems like [Corgan] is full of himself right now. My wife had read a blog this week about some fans shouting at him during one of the other shows so I wasn’t quite sure what was going on with him. We would have gone and watched the Christmas lights on Michigan Ave if I knew about this shit.

by Bill Gibron

22 Nov 2008

Living down a legacy can be hard. For Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it’s almost impossible. Long before there was South Park, Comedy Central, Team America: World Police, and the millions of dollars with the success of same, the University of Colorado students went off on a Spring Break jaunt to make a movie. The result was the wildly ambitious and decidedly dark comedy Alferd Packer: The Musical. That was 1993. When no other company showed interest in releasing and/or distributing the film, Troma Entertainment came to the rescue. Since then, there has been an uneasy alliance between the camps. And with the release of the excellent 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition DVD, the duo once again become the focus of one company’s continuing commercial sustainability, and their own incomplete past.

The story for this wild musical ride is oddly compelling - and based on real events. Looking to seek their fortune in the Colorado territory, a group of miners follow fellow gold rusher Alferd Packer deep into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, they run into a band of scurvy trappers who steal Packer’s prized pony Liane. No longer concerned about wealth or riches, angry Al marches the mystified men farther off the well-beaten path and closer to death’s doorway. A stop-off at a local Ute Indian Reservation provides a last chance at avoiding tragedy, but Packer will not be persuaded. He eventually places his party into one Donner of a dilemma.

And soon, it’s shinbones and short ribs for everyone as fallen members of the ore obsessives become bar-b-qued and fricasseed. Strangely, only Packer escapes. When pressed, he tells a wild tale of murder, mayhem, and massive helpings of man meat. It’s enough to put you off your pemmican as a Broadway-style back story leads to a tuneful trial and an even more melodious mob scene with everyone trying to determine if Al is a real life butt muncher, or just the subject of an insane song saga.

Outrageous, amateurish, guaranteed to make your toes tap, your fingers snap, and your gag reflex respond all in one sitting, Cannibal!: The Musical is the small, silly sapling from which a mighty comedy oak eventually grew. The titanic tree of unbridled, brave humor is today known as South Park and the creators of that crazy comic chaos are Matt Stone and his partner in perversity, Trey Parker. Trey is the tricky mastermind behind this musical version of the (supposed) crimes of Colorado’s most infamous flesh-eater, Alferd Packer. Anyone who has ever doubted Parker’s flourishing genius with paper cut-out cartoon characters need look no further than this ambitious, anarchic pseudo-student film to realize that he (along with Stone) were bound for bigger, longer, and uncut things.

Cannibal! is filled with juvenile humor, unprofessional performances, lapses in taste and tone, and - above all - a severe drop-off in inventiveness toward the end. But it also contains classic tainted Tin Pan Alley tunes, a genuine love of gore horror films, and enough sharp, hilarious wit to outshine a few hundred Hollywood dark gross-out comedies. Cannibal!: The Musical is an idea that shouldn’t work (and occasionally heaves and lurches like a block and tackle about to fail), but thanks to Parker’s vision and his merry band of borderline student psychotics (the film was made while Trey and pals were at film school), he manages to corral Cannibal’s potential calamities and make the chaos work. It is far from perfect, but it’s also entertaining, memorable, and filled with infectious, fantastic musical numbers.

This may be the very definition of a cult film. It is a movie made for a specific mindset. You are either “in tune” to its troubled, terrific manic mantra or not. No amount of big screen talkback or audience participation prop pandering will make it click. You will either “get” Cannibal!: The Musical or it will seem static, insipid, and scattered. Just like his efforts on that Comedy Central kiddie show (or the unjustly dumped sitcom spoof That’s My Bush), Parker operates from a big picture, avoiding a non-stop salvo of junky jokes to hopefully create a certain amount of depth and irony to his work. His goal always seems to be the complete deconstruction of typical cinematic and humor norms, only to rebuild them with his own twists. Many critics clamor that Parker and Stone are irrevocably stuck in an infantile world of farts, feces, and offensiveness (stereotyped Japanese men as Ute Indians?). And Cannibal! could very well be used as an example of such salacious obsessions.

But in reality, it is a smart take-off on the musical format mixed with historical drama and laced with the noticeably lowbrow sense of stupid humor - and it succeeds more times than it derails. There are some forgivable lapses in character and plot development (the trappers should have had more involvement in the story) and the good-natured goofiness of the songs leave you wanting more of them (there are a couple of lost tracks - a barroom rap/funk spectacular called “I’m Shatterproof” and the cautionary choral entitled “Don’t Be Stupid Motherf******s”). Still, Parker is out to simultaneously celebrate Packer and bury him. And he does so with a little song, a little dance, and a lot of fake blood down the pants.

Surprisingly, Cannibal! The Musical understands the strange dynamic of having characters break out into song and plays on that unreal magic magnificently. Where else would you find victims of frostbite, so hungry they are unable to move or even sit up straight, singing a joyful - if immobile - roundelay of special sentimental wishes called “That’s All I’m Asking For”? Or how about a lynch mob gaily swing choiring their way through a jubilant reading of the local riot act called “Hang the Bastard!”? The juxtaposition of traditionally non-musical moments with outrageous parodies of Great White Way standards is what marks Cannibal! (and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for that matter) a step above other attempted mismatching. Parker is a gifted writer, and along with original score arrangements by Rich Sanders, the songs are rich, resonant, and instantly memorable. Indeed, this flesh-eating effort may be the first fright flick you’ll ever find yourself humming afterward.

The question then becomes, should fans once again dip into their W. Bush Administration tapped wallets and spring for yet another DVD version of this title? The answer, oddly, depends on how much you love the movie and your completist need to see now mega-famous superstars feign interest in a movie made 13 years ago. Parker and Stone appear in new interviews, and both seem slightly disinterested in revisiting their history. Of course, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman is there to lighten things up with his irreverent Q&A style. In the end, we get some quality information. Elsewhere, a new commentary features some stars from the film, and it’s as chaotic and crazed as the now infamous “drunken” track featuring Parker, Stone, and some pals doing shots. Both are offered and provide a combination of anecdotes, riffs, and curse-laden cutdowns.

Sprinkled liberally across both discs are a host of deleted scenes. Some are fascinating; some seem like cutting room floor fodder. In addition, there are a few Behind the Scenes featurettes showing us how different F/X were achieved, as well as the oddball production path the film took. Finally, the DVD contains a look at a local production of Cannibal! The Musical. It seems that, every year, amateur theater companies put of versions of the film, with varying degrees of success. We even see one show where Lloyd Kaufman made a stand-up style cameo as a judge. Overall, the 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition of this film offers enough new material to spark the interest of even the most casual lover of Cannibal!‘s craziness.

Yet one still walks away wondering how long this first taste of fame will continue to haunt the boys. As the first release in Troma’s planned “Tromasterpiece Collection” (complete with clever PBS-style logo), the import of Cannibal! The Musical cannot be understated - not to Parker and Stone, and definitely not to the company who came to their rescue. The edgy agreement between the two means that there will always be a place in the corporate cornerstone for another digital version of this hilarious, half-baked gemstone. And when the results are as winning as these, the men behind South Park really shouldn’t care. Sure, all of this can seem like the stalker-esque girlfriend who won’t take the hint post-breakup, but first love is always the strongest, and most unwieldy. That’s a perfect description of Cannibal!‘s unique charm, and Troma’s treatment of same. 

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