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by Bill Gibron

3 Oct 2009

If America is currently up shit creek, Michael Moore has the reactionary roadmap for how we got there. Don’t be surprised if the conclusions piss people off - being called a money-grubbing amoral jackass readily raping the working poor and vanishing Middle Class of this once great country would be enough to anger even the most insensitive corporate lout. Like his previous films, this is not a question of taking sides. Moore may not have all the facts on his side, but his points are so cogent that to argue them seems futile. After all, how exactly do you respond to a bank that bets on the deaths of its employees with secret life insurance policies or raiders who demand government bailouts only to use said cash for whatever their avarice laced hearts desire?

These are the kinds of gnawing, jaw constantly on the floor kind of questions the documentarian asks in his latest sermon on the motion picture mount - Capitalism: A Love Story. Focusing on the recent economic fiasco that has left millions out of work, dispossessed, and more or less lost for a next step, the Oscar winning pundit takes on the title philosophy, debating its relationship to the needs of 95% of the populace. As with many stories like this, Moore begins by arguing that 1% of our country controls more wealth and fiscal power than the other nine-tenths of us combined. He then puts on his shoulder shrug façade, wads up his worked up resolve, and wanders the bleakest of all wasted landscapes - the Midwest - to follow the sickening stories of foreclosure, corporate criminality, and slick Republican partisans who agreed that such a set-up was the peachiest of deregulatory ideals.

Moore definitely paints a compelling picture. Then again, he always does. This is someone who knows that you don’t win over audiences with in-depth discussions about Wall Street speculation or pronouncements from Harvard educated economists about hard to define ‘derivatives’. Instead, he finds the stories that matter, that make the greatest impact, and then links them back to his main thesis that Capitalism is a self-supporting swindle aided by decades of deliberate propaganda. It was the bill of goods sold by the people in power post World War II. It was the conceit that, when balanced with a sense of the public welfare, promoted the US into the superpower stratosphere. But when Ronald Reagan came to power and ushered in his free market ‘Morning in America’, Moore contends that the need for economic equilibrium was tossed aside in favor of the profit margin, the bottom line, and Gordon Gecko’s personal mantra - GREED!

Nearly three decades later, these rotten roots have produced some incredibly sour and downright poisonous fruit. As Capitalism: A Love Story argues again and again, the government is controlled by special interests - in this case, most of the board members from major Wall Street trading firms have been or currently are heading up important federal agencies and cabinet posts - and their goal remains to screw the little guy for the sake of those with mansions. Anything they could do to earn a buck off the back of the worker was seen as part of the cutthroat American dream. But Moore illustrates that said strategy did little except overfeed the fat cats. As CEO wages and bonuses skyrocketed, workers income and union influence were static, or strangled into submission.

Because they offer extremes in order to prove their points, Moore’s movies are often chastised by those who wish to undermine his impact. But Capitalism: A Love Story, provides some of his most profound mind-blowers yet, situations and set ups that should cause even the most loyal lover of all things supply and demand to sit up in shock. Amid all the ‘Death Peasant’ insurance policies (Wal-Mart used to take them out on their “associates”), underpaid airplane pilots (pulling down a whopping $16K to $20K a year), and proud property vultures (realtors and agents who ‘swoop’ in and buy up homes for pennies on the dollar) there are stories that both disgust and depress. One of the best involves a private juvenile detention center in Pennsylvania that saw two judges accept kickbacks from the company based on the number of teens they placed in their facility. That’s right - men sworn to uphold the law were treating 15 year olds who were caught smoked pot, fighting, or using their right of Free Speech to sentences of several months - all so that the tax payers could foot the highly overpriced bill and they could get paid.

Another undeniable affront revolves around the connection between those subprime mortgages we’ve been hearing about for the last 12 months, the corrupt companies that conned people into buying into these usurious contractual time bombs, and the Senators, Congressman, and high ranking Washington officials who benefited by turning a blind eye to such con artistry. A whistleblower type who used to work for Countrywide produces a list of FOA - Friends of Angelo - meant to signify important VIPs who got sweetheart loans from the company, all because they were pals (or political pawns) of CEO Angelo Mozilo. As the who’s who of DC despots is read, Moore draws a damning conclusion - this is no longer the representative democracy the Constitution once crafted. The post-modern America is a wholly owned subsidiary of dozens of power drunk multinationals who don’t care if people are employed. As long as someone, somewhere is slaving away at the inventory that will make them mega-millionaires, jobless rates (and any moral concern over same) are moot.

Because it’s so wildly entertaining, because Moore is basically a clever carnival barker at heart (“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up and see a bunch of Chicago factories workers fight the Bank of America Man…and WIN!”), Capitalism: A Love Story becomes a fabulous financial freak show. Around every corner is another accounting oddity, from bonuses based on bailout money to the Bush Administrations complicity in calling for such an emergency cash flow measure a few weeks before the 2008 election. One Congresswoman, a feisty female spitfire from named Marcy Kaptur, agrees with Moore’s assessment that such an act was tantamount to an economic coup d’etat. At some point, voters no longer mattered and campaign contributions and lobbyists did.

While Moore’s suggestion that wholesale democracy would be a better form of free enterprise, his examples don’t quite drive home his point. Still, you’d figure after 20 years we’d have figured it out. In Roger & Me, a then unknown documentarian warned us that the rest of the country was headed toward the same fate as his hometown of Flint, MI. With Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore is finally proven right - and it’s not a very pretty or fitting conclusion. 

by Bill Gibron

3 Oct 2009

If DVD has done anything, and frankly this applies to the entire realm of home video, it’s the introduction of foreign and outsider cult figures to an otherwise clueless commercial audience. Names like Jose Mojica Marins, Sonny Chiba, and Chow Yun-Fat went from literal unknowns with a small, devoted demographic following their films to overnight format icons. The availability of their movies, and the Internet’s capacity to spread said obsessive love around, turned the tide away from the typical Tinseltown twinkies and back toward these undeniably unknown quantities.

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic entries into this hallowed who’s-who is Paul Naschy. Known in his native Spain as the country’s Lon Chaney, his numerous horror films have cemented his status as a menacing, mercurial macabre presence. Yet until the advent of VHS, you had to wait for the local late, late show or Saturday shock theater rerun to see some of his work. Now Troma Entertainment treats us to one of his most unusual, a boisterous bodice ripper with supernatural overtones known originally as La Orgía de los muertos. Retitled The Hanging Woman for its US release, this slick supernatural sudser offers the multitalented actor in a solid supporting role. But even when he’s not the lead, Naschy simply dominates the screen.

In a small Scottish village, the death of a nobleman sends his relatives scrambling. His new wife wants everything. Unfortunately, his daughter stands to inherit everything. When the young woman turns up dead (hanging from a cemetery tree, thus the title) local law enforcement thinks it’s suicide. Evidence later implies she was murdered. When an unknown heir shows up, a nephew named Serge Chekov, the constable considers him a suspect. Soon, however, it’s apparent that darker forces have taken over the household. The widow dabbles in black magic. The doctor in residence reanimates the dead. And a perverted graverobber named Igor appears to hold the answers as to why the town is plagued by such undeniable evils.

Imagine Dark Shadows with nudity and you’ve got a pretty good idea of The Hanging Woman‘s allure. This Gothic soap opera, overloaded with plot and resulting onscreen exposition, is so manipulative and melodramatic that when something startling comes along (Naschy’s character is a grimy little scumbucket who takes pictures of - and occasionally fraternizes sexually with - the dead) that it throws everything for a loop. Director José Luis Merino tries to maintain a tone of seriousness and suspense, but the storyline is so scattered and moves at such a stumblebum pace that it’s almost impossible to feel anything other than confusion. Still, you have to give The Hanging Woman credit - it definitely offers up some fascinating tidbits among the less memorable material.

The whole zombie subtext works because Merino keeps them off camera for most of the movie. When they arrive, they provide a sickening spectacle in all their rotting corpse corruptness. Similarly, the witchcraft angle is also intriguing, since it suggests more is going on than what turns out to be a rather straightforward whodunit. But the best thing about The Hanging Woman is the performances. Everyone here is excellent, from Stelvio Rosi who resembles a lost member of the Moody Blues in his Serge Chekov regalia to the dishy Dyanik Zurakowska, who may not have much in the cleavage department, but sure puts on an alluring front. With other evocative turns by the performers in perfunctory roles (policeman, flustered city official), Merino makes his material work.

Naschy, however, is the key to everything. He’s not just a supporting part of the story, he’s an aura, a magnetic personality permeating every facet of the film. We understand early on that Igor is part of some bigger plan, that his love of the dead is being exploited by someone who understands his needs. Even the wicked widow dresses up like a recently interred body to get him into the boudoir, her confidence, and her bed. From the threat he presents to authorities to the last act reliance on his prowess as an unlikely alibi, Naschy owns The Hanging Woman. When he’s on camera, we are mesmerized by his obvious charisma. When he’s off, we wonder when Igor will return to the plot. While there are better movies that illustrate his undeniable superstardom in his oeuvre, The Hanging Woman is a great way to see how one actor can singlehandedly lord over an entire period piece production.

Troma earns extra points for providing us with another movie as part of this newly released DVD. While not starring Naschy, it too is from Spain and features Dyanik Zurakowska as a young woman who promises her lover that they will always be together - even after death. Entitled The Sweet Sound of Death, this morose monochrome effort from 1965 offers an interest contrast to Hanging Woman‘s more lurid color conceits. Troma also tricks out the disc with numerous added features. There’s an interview and commentary with Merino (in Spanish with subtitles), a new Q&A with Naschy, a talk with Ben Tatar (who specialized in dubbing foreign films into English) and a career overview tied to this film entitled “Paul Naschy 101”. Add in a few trailers, a photo gallery of vintage lobby cards, and a decent set of tech specs, and The Hanging Woman disc provides all the necessary digital context to clarify Naschy’s legacy.

While not a classic, The Hanging Woman definitely has its high points. It’s got some great locations, a splash of sinister finesse, more than a few ripe red herrings, and a performance by Naschy that’s not to be missed. But like most cult figures who are just finding their footing in the nu-media realm, there are dozens of better examples of the actor’s work to be discovered. Companies like Troma are definitely thanked for finding these often rare releases and putting them out for appreciated fans to fuss over. But just like the canon of Brazil’s Coffin Joe, whose decade long career has been reduced to a half dozen DVDs, Paul Naschy deserves a broader cinematic perspective. Of course, the hope is that a release like The Hanging Woman will spark further interest in the amazing macabre icon. As with many who’ve seen home video inspired interest, he definitely deserves it.

by Nikki Tranter

2 Oct 2009

Today caps off this year’s Banned Books Week, the one week wherein reading rebels celebrate their right to read whatever they desire. The American Library Association runs the campaign to bring awareness to those books frequently challenged in school, libraries, and retail outlets, and promotes intellectual freedom in those sacred book places.

In 2008, 661 titles were disputed somewhere in the United States, titles including The Prince of Tides, The Lovely Bones, and even Winnie the Pooh. Sex, violence, race relations, and ani-Christian messages are the reasons most cited when books are challenged or stolen from schools and libraries. The good stuff, of course.

This article at NYTimes.com mentions a case in which a Maine patron stole It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book about Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health from his local library due to its “amoral, abnormal contents”. The patron is to be tried for theft. (Abnormal?)

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2009

At this point in the critical game, does Pixar and its premiere franchise, Toy Story, really need defending? Do you really need another writer waxing in a wholly self indulgent manner about how John Lasster and his love of all things play produced the impetus for a literal cavalcade of creative genius? One would imagine that anyone under the age of 20 would have these movies memorized, repeated VHS to DVD viewings cementing an unquestionable love for Woody, Buzz, and their gang of kid-friendly tchotchkes. Now the latest hi-tech craze - the better than real life gimmick known as 3D - is being used to reintroduce the classics to a brand new under-aged demo. Frankly, it’s unclear whether these technological marvels need further scientific sprucing up. They were already so great to being with.

By now, the plots of both films are more or less rote. In Toy Story, Woody the cowboy grows concerned that his place as favored amusement will be usurped by clueless spaceman action figure Buzz Lightyear. While trying to one up each other, they both wind up in the clutches of the cruel next door neighbor, the vicious bully Sid. In Toy Story 2, Woody is stolen by a collectibles geek who wants a complete set of the Wild West character’s merchandise to sell to a museum in Japan. Buzz, along with a few of Andy’s other playthings, set out to rescue their friend, unaware of the dangers, and dilemmas, they will face along the way. Each movie is made with the utmost of care, both brimming with imagination, adventure, and sequences of show-stopping visual acumen. The first effort is quaint in its wistful nostalgia. The second amplified everything to new levels of emotional heft.

It’s hard to hate what Pixar did with these two films. Even in light of their far more accomplished masterpieces of late, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 contain the creative genes that spawned a very special family film empire. Without the experimentation and push to better their craft, without the various miracles uncovered in both approach and artistic accomplishment, there wouldn’t have been a Finding Nemo, a Wall-E, or an Incredibles. Pixar has always used its short films and features as a way of improving the platform, of defining new ways to render tricky real life elements like hair, fur, and human faces. Toy Story shows these initial baby steps, from Andy’s awkward façade to Sid’s scary demon like designs. While the toys are captured in near flawless finery, the rest of the narrative facets feel like works in progress.

Toy Story 2 is where it all came together, however, from the cartoon concept of people to the discovery of sympathy and strong emotional ties. The cowgirl doll Jessie gets a solo sequence (the song “When She Loved Me”) so touching, so unbelievably moving in its one special Summer loveliness that it almost threatens to overwhelm the entire movie. That’s the power of Pixar, the undeniable strength they’ve managed to tap into throughout the last decade or so. That’s why they’ve gone ten-for-ten in the masterpiece department. And yet it’s crucial to understand Toy Story and Toy Story 2‘s role in such reverence. Had they not been hits, had audiences believed that CG was just a fad that couldn’t completely kill off their love of hand drawn animation, we might not be having this discussion. Indeed, many studios have tried to duplicate Pixar’s opulent eye candy approach, but the results have been more Robots than Ratatouille.

That’s because movies like Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are about more than fanciful visual wizardry. This is a company that has always believed in character first, narrative second, and the spellbinding strategies of dimensional drawings last. That’s why this two week special engagement rerelease and the recent news that next year’s Toy Story 3 will be in 3D may give purists pause. After all, like anytime a classic gets fiddled with, adding something that was there are the start suggests a desire to second guess history. One thing needs to be clarified up front - nothing has been done to these films in general. No “new shots” have been inserted and old techniques haven’t been “updated” to match the undeniable smoothness and splendor of films like Up. No, all that’s been added is another dimension, a depth of field and sense of scope that definitely accents the novel nature of this presentation.

But the question remains - is it necessary? Some critics seem to think that any improvement, even with the complete support of the filmmakers themselves, is some form of cinematic sacrilege. Of course, arguments over original intent tend to fall away when the actual director is doctoring up their seemingly “imperfect” past project. But in the case of taking Toy Story and Toy Story 2 into the realm of 3D appears like a clever commercial ploy - and not much more. There is no way the realistic feel of the cinematic experience can be recreated on home video - there is no HD way to bring the Real system to your living room - and the two color approach is just as lame as it was when horrors were uncovered in a ‘50s wax museum. So the only way to experience this new Pixar ploy is to plop down your dosh for a double feature. Even with the wonderful Intermission material (complete with jokes, trivia, questions, and basic Disney brouhaha), the ends don’t necessarily justify the means.

That’s because the 3D is only a minor upgrade onto what are already considered cartoon marvels. Both films don’t need additional bells and whistles to work - they got by marvelously without the newfangled filmmaking stunt. Sure, this past Summer’s sensation Up introduced the world to Pixar plus another dimension and the results were resplendent, and when you first see Andy’s room, artifacts strewn about in a perfect tactile reflection of a real child’s playground, the added element works well. Somewhere long the line, however, the need to spruce up every old work of wonder may outweigh the true necessity for same. When viewed through such cynical prisms, the Toy Story double feature feels like a profit making plot. When passed through a more aesthetically pleasing set of sensors, the movies maintain their magical, mystical quality - technical tweaks be damned. 

by Tyler Gould

2 Oct 2009

If I were a sentient scarecrow and I were so ineffective that crows had no qualms about perching on my shoulders, I would probably be knotted with anguish and existential despair. The delightful Maxwell Sorensen-directed video for the title track from These United States’ Everything Touches Everything depicts a more devil-may-care farm appliance, who chooses instead to throw caution to the wind and rock out with his sworn avian nemeses. The song is big, both in its chunky, delicious chords, its finger-mashing treatment of the piano, and its unbridled enthusiasm, as the band sings, “it is breathtaking just to be here”. The video could not be more fun. It just couldn’t.

But wait, there’s more! These United States have just announced a bunch of tour dates with Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, which you can find after the jump.

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