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Friday, Jan 25, 2008


Jess Franco is the bipolar prince of soft core sensationalism. To call him duplicitous would be an understatement. He’s a moralistic deviant, the kind of craven conservative who laments the liberals as he meets his mistress for a very non-family values style rendezvous. He works in both sex and its physical (if not psychological) opposite, violence, and utilizes lush vistas as the backdrop for the most minor of intimacies. Nowhere is this dichotomy clearer than in the latest double feature from DVD distributor Blue Underground. Long a champion of Franco in all his forms, this pair of perverted treats - Eugenie de Sade and Cecilia - shows how one man can be both filmmaker and farce, slave to the salacious as well as inventive old school exploitationer.


Made in 1970, Eugenie (released under this title before a late ‘80s change by distributors) focuses on the title character, an isolated young lady living with her eccentric stepfather in a secluded European estate. She is infatuated with the man, a writer who specializes in the “science of erotica”. After being exposed to the work of the Marquis de Sade, Eugenie is ready for an awakening - sexual, philosophical, and social. Faux father is eager to oblige. He convinces her that the supreme pleasure is the giving of pain - or more specifically, the arousing and killing of unsuspecting strangers. Reluctant at first, Eugenie ends up her stepdad’s accomplice - and indirect lover. They travel all over Europe, setting up marks and making their move. First comes the seduction. Then the sensuality. And finally…the slaughter.


Though it loses a bit of steam toward the end, and can’t forgive itself for being made way before inferred incest was acceptable, Eugenie de Sade is actually one of the best movies Jess Franco has ever made. Now to many, that would be like saying that a cold glass of urine is better than a lukewarm one. Somewhere between inexplicably praised and outright hatred lies the director’s current reputation. The movies he’s made in the last 15 years have really destroyed his Euro-trash legacy. Yet thanks to DVD, which can resurrect his past successes, a whole new generation of cinephiles has found themselves under his visually opulent spell. Franco never met a castle or centuries old estate he couldn’t make the most of. Characters don’t converse in sitting rooms - they dialogue among massive old growth gardens, wide open windswept seashores, and baroque boudoirs where royalty once whispered their indiscretions.


Certainly, there are times in his films where locations are rustic and rural (Eugenie and her parent live in a modest little chalet on a snow-dappled lake), where bedrooms can be quiet and warm. But whenever a major confrontation must take place, Franco places his actors on famous French roadways, or lounging near the edge of a huge cultivated garden. The effect is intriguing, if not all together successful. We instantly recognize the filmmaker’s attempt to broaden the scope of things, to make these passions and problems more “universal” by having them set alongside or within an eye popping milieu. We buy it initially, that is, until the exchange continues. Then we hear the bad Penthouse Forum poetry in the feelings, the one too many nights with a volume of Shelley sentiments. At this point, listening to characters discuss their hormonal rages near a sparkling 15th Century fountain is more cockeyed than compelling.



Luckily, this first film has much more going for it than topiary and faux futuristic skyscrapers. The main narrative thread - father and daughter as partners in crime and carnality - works very well. Actors Paul Muller and Soledad Miranda do a very good job of selling the surreal set-up. Franco also appears as a combination confidant/detective. He catches onto the couple’s ruse rather quickly. Yet instead of turning them in, he taunts them, letting both participants know that he’s as much in charge as they are. The murders themselves are interesting, a combination of basic bump and non-gory grind. A little blood is spilled by the end, but we don’t really mind. At that point we are waiting for a little cinematic comeuppance - and Franco delivers the kind of viewer vigilantism that makes Eugenie work.


Ten years later, the same can’t be said for Cecilia. Originally released under the censorship defying Sexual Aberrations of a Housewife, we meet the lonely, insatiable spouse of a foreign diplomat. After a whirlwind romance and a couple of years of sexual satisfaction, she’s grown bored. During one of her many naked visits to the beach, she is picked up by her driver, Kan. Instead of taking her home, however, he drives to his dilapidated shack where his nar-do-well brothers rape her. Oddly enough, she finds the experience liberating, and the resulting sex with her husband fantastic. The duo makes a deal - they will have an open marriage, bedding who they want as long as they are totally honest as to the details. All works well for a while until Kan returns from a stint as a Merchant Marine. He loves Cecilia, and that outpouring of emotion threatens to destroy the couple’s freethinking agreement.


Far more beautiful in environment and performers than Eugenie, Cecilia is all tease and no release. It’s a sour, sad little film, as misogynistic as it is flagrantly feminist. One can easily hear post-modern woman cheering our title trollop, a woman who is finally being candid about her body, its needs, and the lox failing to fulfill either. Andre is a husband whose ever-changing hairstyles are far more interesting than his personality, and it’s a good thing to: Franco’s frequent flashbacks to events before our corporeal coming out need something to tell us we’ve traveled back in time. Our hero’s coiffure is as good a visual cue as any. Lead Muriel Montosse certainly isn’t offering any. She’s nude for so much of the movie - walking, sitting, calling on the servants for support - that you wonder if the production spent more than a $1.85 on wardrobe. For those who come to these films for skin, that’s perfectly acceptable. But at nearly 100 minutes in length, a little boob goes a long, long way.



Franco does try to change things up a bit. During a midpoint in the movie, Cecilia and Andre meet a pair of local performers. The female strips and seduces her teenage co-star, who also happens to be her son. They put on an elaborate dance number, she gyrates while simulating something on his thumb. He just sits there, transfixed. It’s the best moment in what is, otherwise, an exceedingly dull experience. We never care for our callous heroine, wonder why she reacts so when hygienically challenged bums violate her, and find ourselves flummoxed by all the lazy nudism. Sun-worshiping in one thing, but Cecilia takes the bare bodkin art to unheard of levels. If one had a calculator, and the time, they could easily discover the clothed to unwrapped ratio. Here’s betting it’s somewhere between 30/70 or 20/80.


That’s not the only irritating issue in Cecilia. For some reason, an incredibly flaming old queen - and such a description is actually less of a hate crime than the character himself - must flit around the fringes of the action, overly groomed eyebrows and limp wristed revelry adding untold moments of misery for an audience. He’s like Waylon Flowers and Madam genetically engineered together. Clearly, Franco thought he was stellar comic relief. Why else would he feature him so often? Never given a redemptive moment where the ‘yoo-hoo’ act gets turned down a notch, it’s eye rolling time whenever he walks into a room. Sadly, an equally catty blond bimbette is Harvey to this gray haired fool’s Firestein.


While it’s clear that both films have their issues, Eugenie is far more entertaining than Cecilia. On the other hand, if all you care about is faux fornication and palpable heavy petting, the latter really does deliver on such diddling. It’s part of the reason there’s such a debate over Franco and his films. As he says in interviews which make up the only bonus feature offered on each DVD, many of the movies he made were jobs - product that producers, distributors, studios needed to guarantee profits and international release dates. He’s not ashamed of his shill status, but he also recognizes that few can see beyond it. Films like Eugenie de Sade and Cecilia only cloud the issue. On the one hand, they represent both sides of the man perfectly. On the other, they prove why his paradoxical nature is so difficult to embrace.


Scores: Eugenie de Sade
DVD


 
EXTRAS


 
 
Scores: Cecilia
DVD


 
EXTRAS



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Friday, Jan 25, 2008

Most shocking news of the week:


Thirty five million Mills & Boon titles are sold each year worldwide. Think we have a stiff upper lip? Seven million romantic novels are sold in the UK alone ... which translates into a Mills & Boon book being put through our tills every three seconds.


Wow. That’s insane. Find out more strange facts about the Mills & Boon publishing extravaganza over at the Times Online. Their “Eight facts about Mills & Boon books” is scary. Apparently, over a thousand people write Mills & Boon books. And over a million people buy the 70+ books published every month. I had no idea the demand was so monumental. I knew the books were a bit of a publishing force (only because they crowd the shelves of used bookstores, so someone’s buying them), but this is just way out of control. I may look into this further…


The Times also has a great video interview with Stephen King about Duma Key. Check that out here. Didn’t King retire? He and Garth Brooks are giving real retirees a bad name.


Buzzy, Busy Bees by Leia Martin.

Buzzy, Busy Bees by Leia Martin.


This one’s for Leia, my favourite environmentalist / photographer. From the article, “Plant a Tree Every Time You Buy a Book” from enviro-blog, Triple Pundit:


It is a sad shame that the majority of publishers today do not print their books on recycled paper. There is no logical reason why books should be printed on virgin paper that equals 20 million trees each year. I highly encourage publishers, online booksellers, and retail stores to reconsider the environmental impact of printing books on virgin paper and partner with Ecolibris.


And the big news… the Judith Regan lawsuit is settled. AP reports: “The war is over: Judith Regan, the publisher fired in the wake of her efforts to release O.J. Simpson’s hypothetical “confession,” has settled her $100 million lawsuit with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.” Find out more here. The bottom line? No-one is guilty of anything at all. How ironic.


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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008


Untraceable tries. Boy, does it try. One can just imagine the pitch meeting presented to gullible studio suits - “It’s Silence of the Lambs meets Saw! Get a name star and high profile director and you’ve got gold!” Well, in its present configuration, Diane Lane is your main marquee draw and Gregory Hoblit, the man behind Fracture, Hart’s War, and Frequency is your Master of Suspense. Together, they conjure up a dread quagmire filled with pointless exposition, cloudy character motivations, and more than a few leaps in logic. Toss in a fair amount of geek cyberspeak and you’ve got bewilderment on top of boredom.


Jennifer Marsh is an FBI agent specializing in Internet crime. Working out of the Portland office, she tracks down cases of identity theft, fraud, and pornography. Working closely with partner Griffin Dowd, she takes her job very seriously. Her only relief from the daily horrors she sees online are her aging mother and her precocious young daughter. Thanks to a tip, Marsh stumbles across KillWithMe.com, a site showing the slow starvation of a kitten. Within days, the image changes to that of a bound and gagged man. Hooked to a steady stream of anti-coagulant, the minor cuts on his torso are bleeding out profusely. Even worse, the number of hits to the address increases the amount of medicine. Suddenly, everything adds up in Marsh’s mind - there’s a killer somewhere out there, using the World Wide Web, and all who surf it, as an accomplice to their crimes.


In a genre that’s already died a thousand mediocre movie deaths, Untraceable is not the last stab into its heart of darkness. Instead, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a blueprint, a generic outline for something that, with the right creative input, could add up to something special. There’s no denying the supposed novelty of the premise - though the classic Chris Carter series Millennium did the concept better, and more compactly, during the run of the Lance Henrickson horror drama - but the minute we see a victim strung up in a dingy basement, trap apparatus convolutedly taking his life, we know we’ve ‘seen’ this all before. Lane brings nothing new to the mix - she’s Clarice Starling as a walking wounded widow, life zapped out of her thanks to endless overnight shifts chasing teenagers with stolen debit cards. What we need is a manageable monster like Hannibal Lecter, a Jigsaw styled jokester with some panache to his passion for death.


What we get instead is a mixed up murderer who voices one intent, and then instantly reneges on it to draw our policeman into his scheme. It’s a narrative conceit of convenience, a way to work clichés plot points and personal threats throughout what is, otherwise, a one man crusade against You Tube. Indeed, without giving much away, the TMZ exploitation of everything by the media, increased exponentially thanks to rabid fanboy file sharing, becomes the source of all our villain’s ire. Apparently, had he stumbled across Cute Overload instead of Shock Video.com, a lot of semi-innocent individuals would still be downloading smut. The rationale behind the crimes is so specious, so little boy lost in their configuration, that when we meet the fiend at the 45 minute mark, we loose all hope that the film will be anything other than routine.


You can tell that director Hoblit wanted to tweak the formula, to explore the elements of a standard police procedural with the added spark of a little puzzle box torture. Lambs managed its fear factors without resorting to tanks filled with sulphric acid or cement traps surrounded by heat lamps. It used a little something called character, and the inherent intrigue in discovering the truth behind the terror to set things on edge. Here, Hoblit jumps onto a bandwagon that’s long since left the depot. Arriving really late to the ‘gorno’ party is one thing. Thinking you’re capable of being the life of such an already overdone celebration is a cinematic fool’s paradise. 


And still Untraceable plods along. After the too early intro of the killer, we see the storyline shift, chestnuts fall into place, and possible formulaic finishing moves appear. We just known Marsh or her immediate family (or friends) will be involved, and that the initial motives for the crimes will be turned so that last minute confrontations and subsequent heroics can be bolstered. Red herrings abound, from the everpresent meow of the family cat (calling back to the feline death at the beginning), to the moribund police detective whose status as staid love interest gets sidetracked for some scene of the crime inference. Even worse, it’s up to Lane to deliver more or less alone. When the biggest supporting cast member is Tom Hanks’ son Colin, it’s borderline b-movie time.


In fact, Untraceable does feel like one of those last ditch effort acting gigs by a former studio system face looking for a paycheck to save their estate. Lane’s legitimacy skyrocketed after her Oscar nod for 2003’s Unfaithful, though her nearly three decades in the business more than buffers any reputation. Older, wearing whatever problems her profession provides on her slightly craggy face, this is not a glamour shot part. But there is also a level of ludicrousness to Jennifer Marsh that begs some retrospection. The character presents questions like - why bring such horrible work home? Would you really leave key information on your computer for cyber dorks to hack? If you know all the tricks within the illegal trade, would you really let your daughter download a game from the web? And finally, with all the information you have, wouldn’t the obvious connection between the victims just jump out at you?


With a viable level of tension, with cold shivers running up and down your spine, much of this wouldn’t matter. But Untraceable just can’t deliver on its proposed fear factors. Instead, it borrows heavily from those that came before while bringing very little that’s novel or inventive to the terror table. If you don’t mind pedestrian plotting surrounded by uninteresting individuals going through the movie motions, you just might enjoy this film. There is no cruelty or creativity in this creaky cat and mouse. It’s just an uninspired combination of every crime thriller archetype ever offered. The only thing deadly about this film is how exceedingly dull it all is. 


 


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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008

He’s got billions of bucks, sports teams and his own blog but that doesn’t mean that Mark Cuban’s always right.  In his CNet column, he says that the album is kaput, citing singles sales trouncing CD sales. No arguing about that but to say that the album itself is R.I.P. is as premature as digging a grave for rock (or vinyl).  It may not have the pull it once did in the age of download but don’t tell that to the hundreds of thousands of buyers who still purchase records regardless, not to mention the thousands of artists who put out albums each year.  For a reality check, see this recent excellent interview where David Byrne and Thom Yorke discuss the continuing aesthetic value of the album. And even if you’re among the millions who prefer singles to albums now, are you really gonna give up on your old favorites in your record collection?  Plus, in the likely circumstance that a few dozen artists each put together a collection of say 10-15 great songs this year and next year and after that, are you gonna turn your nose up at these albums ‘cause Cuban told you to?  Even if it becomes a niche market, which I doubt, the album’s gonna be around much longer than Cuban himself.


But his silly prognostication is small potatoes compared to the MPAA fudging its figures about college students to turn them into scourges.  Even after getting caught saying that twice as many downloaders are out there as there really are, the not-so-veritable entertainment industry still insists that those damn students are still a threat.  Kind of sounds like the Bush administration warming us about Iran.  Maybe the MPAA will lobby Congress to bomb the Ivy League too to prevent any damage otherwise.


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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008

Animal stories from the urban jungle.

New York Rat Photo by Ksnap

New York Rat Photo by Ksnap


RATS


“In New York City, as in all great seaports, rats abound. One is occasionally in their presence without being aware of it. In the whole city relatively few blocks are entirely free of them. They have greatly diminished in the last twenty-five years, but there still are millions here; some authorities believe that in the five boroughs there is a rat for every human being.”
Joseph Mitchell. story from 1944


The Modern Library edition of Joseph Mitchell’s The Bottom of the Harbour is small enough to carry around as if it were a pocket bible. I treat it as if it were one. Joseph Mitchell was a creature running around the same kind of neighbourhoods as rats. He could be found in waterways, back alleys, saloons, flophouses. But, unlike the brown rat which was a vicious vandal, going on destructive rampages and soiling and chewing on things it never intends to eat, Joseph Mitchell’s gaze and attention was reverent. Luc Sante, who has covered the same kind of waterfronts in more recent times called Mitchell’s writing “clear and strong and rich,” writing in the New Republic that he possessed a quality “too seldom found in most writing of any sort: it is unreservedly generous.”


There are entertaining analogies in Joseph Mitchell’s story about the rats of New York: “They live to be three or four years old, although now and then one may live somewhat longer; a rat at four is older than a man at ninety.” He quoted an exterminator who said “Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth.” Mitchell has a sense of inner life of a rat: “The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can outthink any man who has not made a study of their habits. Even so, they spend most of their lives in a state of extreme anxiety, the black rats dreading the brown and both species dreading human beings. Away from their nests, they are usually on the edge of hysteria.”


Joseph Mitchell arrived in New York on Friday, October 25, 1929, the day of the stock market crash that eased in the Great Depression. He’s best known for “Talk of the Town” pieces for the New Yorker, that gathered up portraits of the city, but the profile in the Everyman Library’s collection of his journalism says that his first job was as “a kind of bottom-depths apprentice crime reporter at Police Headquarters for The World”. He was from North Carolina and frequently returned to spend months at a time in the swamplands looking for wildflowers and woodpeckers and hawks. “Once, deep in the swamp, looking through binoculars, he watched for an hour or so as a pileated woodpecker tore the bark off the upper trunk and limbs of a tall old dead blackgum tree, and he says he considers this the most spectacular event he has ever witnessed.”


Taxidermy Tasmanian Tiger

Taxidermy Tasmanian Tiger


WILD ANIMALS IN THE BRONX


Margaret Mittelbach and David Crewdson are nature writers reporting to the city desk. For the New York Times they cover wild animals in urban settings. In 2002 they wrote about an expedition they made through the Bronx.


Along with typical urban fauna like pigeons, squirrels and sparrows, the Bronx is visited by coyotes, wild turkeys, deer and the occasional bald eagle. In fact, the Bronx is so crowded with furred, feathered and finned species that the New York City Parks and Recreation Department posts a full-time wildlife manager there. Earlier this year, we had vaguely considered taking a trip to a wildlife hot spot like the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. But when we learned about the Bronx’s abundance of wildlife, we decided to save our money. A quick phone call to the Parks Department led us to David Künstler, the Bronx wildlife manager, who offered to guide us on a Bronx safari….As we neared the trail head, an Eastern cottontail rabbit hopped out of the brush and tried to hide from us in a clump of ferns. Its fur was pale brown and its ears were still rather stubby, suggesting it was a juvenile. Suddenly, we were O.K. with not having seen a coyote, which might have wanted to eat this rabbit. Though we hadn’t encountered the fiercest animal that stalks the borough, we were content to end our safari with this furry Bronx native.


New York Times. August 2, 2002


In 2005 they went to Tasmania with the painter Alexis Rockman to hunt for the (alleged) extinct Tasmanian Tiger. It’s a trip deep into the soul as much as across land.


When we first stumbled across a stuffed Tasmanian tiger at the American Museum of Natural History, we were spellbound. This killer, carnivorous marsupial was one of the most extraordinary creatures on the planet. But it hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, and most scientists considered it extinct. Undaunted we headed for the island of Tasmania in search of this elusive beast. Journeying through the island’s intoxicating landscapes, we encountered an array of odd characters: screaming Tasmanian devils, fervent tiger hunters, trickster botanists, and scientists trying to resurrect the tiger through cloning. The result of our travels is Carnivorous Nights, the story of a safari gone slightly unhinged.


Carnivorous Nights website.


Polar Bear in Nuremberg Zoo

Polar Bear in Nuremberg Zoo


HUMANS BEHAVING BADLY AT ZOOS


In Nuremberg in Germany a polar bear cub has been removed from its mother after she began to act strangely after a photographer climbed a fence to take photographs within the man-made cave where the cub had been born.


The intrusion had “probably made Vera feel that she had no secure habitat” for her cub, it added. She had begun to pace endlessly around her enclosure carrying the cub in her jaws.After the cub was separated, vets said it was strong and healthy and had been “brought up very well” by its mother before she became disturbed, the statement said.


AFP. January 9, 2008


The Calcutta Telegraph reports that a chimp began throwing rocks at people after it had been taunted in the Allipore Zoo.


The chimp kept pelting stones at the visitors for half-an-hour since 9.15am, prompting them to run for safety, ducking the missiles all the way. Fortunately, no one was injured in the brick-batting between the distant cousins.


The zoo authorities have deployed keepers around the cages and enclosures to protect the animals, but on Tuesday, they were far outnumbered by the record count of heads — 62,000 — the highest in recent years on Christmas.


“It is only normal that the chimpanzee got irritated when visitors threw stones at it. It may have chucked back a few stones, but we have not received any complaints in this regard,” said zoo director S.K. Chaudhuri. “Such incidents are quite common.”


Calcutta Telegraph.


 


elephant in Bangkok Photo by Patrick Brown for the International Herald Tribune

elephant in Bangkok Photo by Patrick Brown for the International Herald Tribune


POLITICAL ANIMALS


New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier wrote a book called The Beauty of the Beastly looking at questionably violent acts and aberrant behaviour by animals that we consider peaceful and warm and stir our hearts—dolphins, for one—and found complimentary things to say about scorpions and snakes and spiders. In a story from January 22 this year she writes about the political manoeuvres of animals.


Among elephants, it is the females who are the born politicians, cultivating robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other elephants, a task made easier by their power to communicate infrasonically across miles of savanna floor. Wolves, it seems, leaven their otherwise strongly hierarchical society with occasional displays of populist umbrage, and if a pack leader proves a too-snappish tyrant, subordinate wolves will collude to overthrow the top cur.


Wherever animals must pool their talents and numbers into cohesive social groups, scientists said, the better to protect against predators, defend or enlarge choice real estate or acquire mates, the stage will be set for the appearance of political skills — the ability to please and placate, manipulate and intimidate, trade favors and scratch backs or, better yet, pluck those backs free of botflies and ticks.


Over time, the demands of a social animal’s social life may come to swamp all other selective pressures in the environment, possibly serving as the dominant spur for the evolution of ever-bigger vote-tracking brains. And though we humans may vaguely disapprove of our political impulses and harbor “Fountainhead” fantasies of pulling free in full glory from the nattering tribe, in fact for us and other highly social species there is no turning back. A lone wolf is a weak wolf, a failure, with no chance it will thrive.


Black Sumatra Chicken

Black Sumatra Chicken


ENDANGERED FARM ANIMALS SAVED


The US Fish and Wildlife Services list of endangered animals doesn’t include domesticated animals but Jennifer Cermak wants to save endangered family farm animals.


A fourth-generation farmer with a PhD in pathology and who works by day at a biopharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Cermak owns rare farm animals that are believed to be on the brink of extinction, including Sumatra chickens, Southdown sheep, royal palm turkeys, and a Friesian horse. She is hoping her rare birds and livestock will bring what she calls “agritourism” to her 24-acre property. Her work, experts say, is crucial to keeping alive memories of America’s rural past and protecting food supplies in an era when deadly diseases like Asian bird flu threaten to wipe out segments of the food chain….The animals most in danger of extinction on Cermak’s farm are the Sumatra chickens, black birds with long tails originating from their namesake island in Indonesia. Brought by sailors to the United States centuries ago as souvenirs, fewer than 500 Sumatras exist in the country today, according to the conservancy. Another member of a rare species on the farm is Quincy, a majestic black Friesian horse whose breed was imported to the United States from Holland in the 1600s….Other endangered animals at Berlin Farms include royal palm turkeys, of which around 10,000 exist in the country, and Southdown sheep, which the conservancy recently listed as “recovering,” no longer on the brink of extinction but their numbers still need to be monitored. Cermak’s speckled Sussex chickens are among 1,000 in the United States, according to conservancy figures.


Boston Globe. John Dyer. November 1, 2007


 



 


 




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