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Friday, Feb 22, 2008


At this point in its cinematic history, the zombie has been reduced to a journeyman horror workhorse. In a genre that once saw it as a frightmare superstar, rabid fanboy love (and the accompanying desire to show such affection via homemade imitation) has reduced your standard cannibalistic corpse into a hackneyed terror tenet. Gone are the days when the novelty of the creature could carry an entire film. Now, if there aren’t CGI hordes of these flesh craving fiends defying logic and physicality as they sprint across the screen like undead athletes, fright fans groan in disapproval. It will be interesting to see how they greet Jorge Grau’s 1974 old school scary movie The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, there’s a lot here that a new fangled macabre maven could love. There is also a great deal to test their post-modern patience. 


While on his way to a holiday in the country, antiquities dealer George has his motorcycle totaled by inconsiderate driver Edna. They strike up a bargain - she will take him to his cottage, if he will first let her visit her sick sister. Lost along the way, they seek directions from a local farmer. He is in the process of using a newfangled government device that kills bugs and other parasites via radioactivity. What they don’t know is that the machine also resurrects the dead. Edna is attacked by a strange man, and when they arrive at her sibling’s, the crazed woman is screaming about the death of her husband. Of course, the conservative police inspector doesn’t believe a word of their story. He thinks the duo are murderous hippies ala The Manson Family, ready to turn his lush part of England into their own killing fields. It will take more than a few hysterics to convince him there’s something more sinister going on. The reanimated bodies tearing up the hospital may be all the proof anyone needs.


If you’re looking for the missing link between George Romero’s zombie epics and his splattery Italian copycats, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue might just be that absentee connection. Combining the American ideal of suspense and social commentary with the Mediterranean love of all things gross and gory, Spanish transplant Jorge Grau was given a simple mandate by this eager backers - create a commercially viable color rip off of Romero’s 1968 black and white Night. With a long list of credits including recent genre efforts Penalty of Death and Bloody Ceremony (both from ‘73), the filmmaker was provided a hefty budget and the run of Cinecitta Studios. With some location work in England, and the growing emergence of Italian special effects, Grau gave his audience more than they bargained for.

Indeed, the main thing you notice about Manchester Morgue is the anti-counterculture screeds from American actor Arthur Kennedy. Attempting a passable Irish/Scottish brogue, and looking like your typical Establishment goon, the former Hollywood star repeatedly rails against, hippies, drugs, youth, long hair, non-conformity, and anything else that comes into his button down mind. He is backed up by some local bureaucrat that uses his preoccupation with the occult to accuse the newly arrived city slicker suspects of Satanism. It’s a weird juxtaposition. On the one hand, you have the typical zombie dramatics - dark night, groaning and heavy breathing, the sudden appearance of a reanimated corpse. But by placing the blame squarely on our hero and heroine, Grau gives his movie a touch of necessary realism.


There is also a staunch pro-environment message here as well. The radioactive bug zapper, its five mile range bringing the recently deceased back to life, is part of a multilayered look by Grau at that time tested standby, man vs. nature. At the beginning, when George is riding around London on his motorcycle, we see shots of nuclear power plants and dirty, decaying buildings. This is not the slick, high tech city circa 2008. Instead, Manchester Morgue suggests a metropolis dying under the influence of crass corporate and industrial practices. There’s even an overheard radio broadcast later on that supports such a view. Our lead also loves to chide the workers running the big red atom smashing pest controller. His shouting matches over the effect on the land - and later, the local corpses - provide the film with a solid bedrock of beliefs.


But for most horror fans, it’s gore that delivers the most perverse pleasure, and Manchester Morgue doesn’t disappoint. While you have to wade through 80 moody minutes to get to the sluice, Grau gives in to our basic bloodlusts. We get axes to the head, disemboweling, lopped off breasts, several bites to the neck, and enough walking ghouls to infect even the most cynical fan with a good case of the heebie jeebies. When you combine this material with the film’s already pea soup thick tone, it becomes a very unsettling experience. Like most great fear flicks, we get the distinct impression that anyone can die at any time. And since Kennedy is simply jonesing to deliver a little conservative comeuppance to the two ‘long hairs’ he feels are responsible, we get double the threat.


But The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is really centered on style and approach. Grau doesn’t give in to the temptation to merely imitate Romero. He avoids the documentary dynamic that made Night so memorable, and instead seems to channel a great deal of Hammer’s horror ideal. Similarly, the film is not fully Italian. Instead of completely painting the cinematic canvas red, this director explores character, hot button issues, and religious symbolism as a way to make his monster mythology more believable. There are oddball elements interspersed here and there - the opening London travelogue with the occasional mysterious figures in the background, the notion that the zombie can “create” members of their killer brood by the application of blood to the eyelids - but since Grau keeps everything else grounded, we buy their overall non-believability.


Thanks to Blue Undergroud’s exceptional new transfer (bright and basically flawless) and attention to added DVD content (we get interviews with Grau, star Ray Lovelock and F/X artist Gianmetto De Rossi), The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is poised to be rediscovered by a new generation of terror aficionados. And it definitely deserves the chance, if for no other reason than to show how the entire subgenre changed and mutated to fit the current social and political clime. Instead of feeling dated, as some ‘70s films find themselves, there’s a timeless quality to what this movie accomplishes. By looking to the past while focusing on the present, Grau gives us an experience to contemplate for decades to come. It’s a dark and very disturbing vision. It also proves that, when done right, zombies can still be the creepshow kings. It’s a lesson many post-millennial moviemakers could definitely learn. 



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Friday, Feb 22, 2008

After an impressive start, by:Larm kicked into high gear on Friday, and the entire evening, for this writer anyway, couldn’t have been more eclectic, ranging from a performance that redefines the word “intimate”, to four nutty girls and a balalaika, to the kind of scorching jazz that would make Wynton Marsalis have a coronary, to galloping old school metal, to the triumphant return of Norway’s indie darling.


Hanne Hukkelberg

Hanne Hukkelberg


Norwegian singer-songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg made North American critics’ heads turn with her debut Little Things (including us here at PopMatters), and built on that momentum with last year’s dreamy Rykestrasse 68. Unfortunately for those of us stuck on the west side of the Atlantic, that critically acclaimed follow-up wasn’t released domestically, something Nettwerk is determined to rectify with the imminent ‘08 release of the record as well as a major US tour next month. So, to whet our appetites, Hukkelberg’s Norwegian prepresentation took a dozen or so of journos and music reps out to Oslo’s Propeller Studios for a quaint little showcase performance, where she and her four bandmates squeezed into a tiny, deathly quiet room with the rest of us for a gorgeous selections of songs from the new(ish) album. Whether it was the asthmatic wheeze of an accordion being pulled. the sustained chime of a Tibetan singing bowl, the innocent strains of a toy piano, or Hukkerlberg’s own tender voice, it made for an extraordinary experience that only enhanced the quiet power of the record.


Katzenjammer

Katzenjammer


Back at the festival, the one venue that had some of us wary was the VG Teltet, a gigantic white tent set up smack in the middle of Younstorget square, but jaws collectively dropped upon entry, as the carpeting, drapery-like roof, light rigs, and big lounge area with couches would have you believe you were anywhere but outside in the middle of downtown Oslo. And it was here that one of the bigger surprises of the week happened, as the female foursome Katzenjammer came out and made jaws drop. Part Nordic folk, part energetic pub tunes, part country, these young ladies came off as a cross between the Dixie Chicks and Gogol Bordello, each ridiculously talented member trading instruments between songs, moving from piano to mandolin to a gigantic bass balalaika that was taller than any of them, and the charismatic bunch won over the big crowd instantly. [player]


In Vain

In Vain


A few blocks away at the cleverly-arranged Rockefeller club, bands were busy trading off sets with finely-tuned precision, punters dashing form the main venue to the much cozier “annex” and back again in between sets. Norway’s In Vain offered a respectable mix of blackened death metal, doom, and prog and local faves Sahg, a band for whom Black Sabbath’s “Hole in the Sky” is the Rosetta Stone (I mean that in a good way) sounded near flawless, the strong tenor voice of singer/guitarist Olav Iversen bringing to the band the kind of added dimension that trendier American counterparts the Sword desperately lack. However, it was jazz trio the Thing that was the best of the lot, who channeled the neo-beatnik cool of Morphine with a much more aggressive element than the sorely-missed band ever did, using pedals, pitchshifters, and a laptop to take the saxophone-bass-drums trio into some exciting territory, sounding both avant-garde and primal. [player]


Ida Maria

Ida Maria


Around the corner at Sentrum Scene, an enormous crowd awaited native daughter Ida Maria, who went into 2008 riding a big wave of hype following her performance at CMJ last October and now has the British press drooling all over her, this without an album that has yet to be released. Thanks to blogs and filesharing, though, the audience on this night knew the words to such faves as the lightly shuffling “Louie”, the somber “Going to Hell”, and the raucously catchy “Better When You’re Naked”, their enthusiasm responded in kind by Ms. Maria, who flung herself all over the stage, crashing into mic stands and band members, writhing on the floor, whipping her top off. It was during the brilliant “Oh My God”, one of the best tunes of 2007, that the entire exhausting night came to a head, a final explosion of energy that had us walking, heavy-legged back to our hotels to try to recuperate enough to withstand one more night. [player]


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Thursday, Feb 21, 2008


For the weekend beginning 22 February, here are the films in focus:


Be Kind, Rewind [rating: 9]


At its core, Be Kind, Rewind is a brilliant dissection of the effect the video cassette had on the concept of movie fandom and its lasting impact of cinema in general.


There’s a strange sort of feeling that comes over a person when they stumble across another’s love letters. Of course, there’s the inherent curiosity of seeing how someone else expresses their emotion. But there can also be a small amount of discomfort, especially when the individual invaded bares their soul so completely. This will probably be the reaction most moviegoers have to Michele Gondry’s magical masterwork Be Kind, Rewind. Those looking for a riotous comedy featuring a fully unleashed Jack Black should probably wait for the comedian’s next high concept project. In this French filmmaker’s personal paean to the ‘80s and home video, everything - including the performances - is in service of his passionate, very personal vision.read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


Vantage Point [rating: 5]


When a movie has to rely on a series of cinematic stunts to achieve its ends, the convolutions are bound to undermine the ambitions - and that’s exactly what happens in Peter Travis’ around about political thriller. Using the attempted assassination of a US president at a massive world terrorism summit (and an additional suicide bombing) as the grist for a ‘keep ‘em guessing’ bit of conspiracy theorizing, this TV director can only trade on a single glorified gimmick. The event here is replayed at least eight times, viewed from as many personal perspectives as possible, providing snippets of truth and indirect clues along the way. While the concept seems competent in theory, the execution is spotty and uninspired. Every time we think we have a handle on all the back stabbing, uneasy alliances, and double crossing, Barry Levy’s script takes an illogical shortcut, using unbelievable coincidence and contrivance to get all the actors in the same space at the same time. While the performances are uniformly good, and the last act car chase gets the pulse pounding, the overall effect is dizzying. Like a terminal case of déjà vu, Vantage Point appears destined to repeat its problems over an over again. And then it does.


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Thursday, Feb 21, 2008


There’s a strange sort of feeling that comes over a person when they stumble across another’s love letters. Of course, there’s the inherent curiosity of seeing how someone else expresses their emotion. But there can also be a small amount of discomfort, especially when the individual invaded bares their soul so completely. This will probably be the reaction most moviegoers have to Michele Gondry’s magical masterwork Be Kind, Rewind. Those looking for a riotous comedy featuring a fully unleashed Jack Black should probably wait for the comedian’s next high concept project. In this French filmmaker’s personal paean to the ‘80s and home video, everything - including the performances - is in service of his passionate, very personal vision.


In a rundown section of Passaic, New Jersey, Mr. Fletcher owns a mom and pop video store. Specializing in video tapes, he soon realizes he may have to modernize - especially with the city threatening to condemn his building and put him out of business. Leaving his likable clerk Mike in charge, the desperate man heads off on a fact finding mission. He has only one mandate - keep the loose canon crazy man Jerry out of the shop. Seems the manic mechanic believes the electric company is scrambling his brains. After an aborted mission to sabotage the utility, Jerry is magnetized. When he enters the store, all of Fletcher’s inventory is erased. Hoping to stave off disaster - and the boss’s personal spy, the nosy Mrs. Falewicz - Mike gets Jerry and dry cleaner employee Alma to help him recreate all the movies lost. He will then use these “sweded” versions of the films to keep the enterprise afloat. Hopefully.


Be Kind, Rewind, is the sort of movie you have to step away from for a moment - especially in light of the creative conceit that appears to be driving the narrative. When you learn that the main thrust of the film will focus on the ‘recreation’ (or ‘sweding’, as the script calls it) of classic ‘80s films - Ghostbusters, Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy, etc. - you expect that material to be golden. And it really is, Gondry relying on his typical homemade special effects aesthetic to mine amazing satire out of the spoofs. But once you realize how these knockoffs are made - from memory, without screenplays or copies of the films to work from - you begin to see the director’s designs. There is indeed much more to this movie than a series of pointed parodies. At its core, Be Kind, Rewind is a brilliant dissection of the effect the video cassette has had on the concept of movie fandom and its lasting impact of cinema in general.


It all begins with the premise: two semi-slackers - one, a determined video store clerk with artistic ambitions; the other, a technologically tuned-in cynic who sees the mainstream as manipulative and evil. Together, they become an independent force for film, taking iconic motion pictures and processing them through their own pop culture blender. It’s like watching the onscreen birth of Quentin Tarantino and Ain’t It Cool News simultaneously. Even better, the resulting movies become so meaningful to the clientele, so part of who they are as an audience and a community, that they rally around the guys when trouble strikes - in this case, Sigourney Weaver in a wicked cameo as a copyright touting studio suit. Everything that home video did to the medium - the ready accessibility, the collector’s obsession, the direct connection, the self-righteous self importance - becomes part of the thematic landscape that Gondry explores. It’s like an analog trip in the way-back machine.


And he does so in a more straightforward, less surreal manner, than ever before. Working from his own script, the filmmaker finds the perfect balance between the odd and the ordinary, taking outside issues (Fats Waller, jazz rent parties, the history of Passaic) and juxtaposing them against Mike and Jerry’s adventures in moviemaking. Unlike previous films, where Gondry was forced to battle with elements of magical realism, the fairytale, and the downright bizarre, he gives himself the freedom to explore both the real and the unreal world, to wander through a specific universe peppered with as much imagination and invention as the slightly sci-fi realms he’s worked in before. 


Gondry also has yet another amazing cast to help him. Mos Def’s Mike is the heart of Be Kind, Rewind. He provides the motivation to make us care, along with the vision to keep us involved. Taking point is Black as the brain addled Jerry. Walking a very thin line between endearing and aggravating, we buy most of what the character presents only because the film finds a way to keep his whimsy cheery and in check. Danny Glover and Mia Farrow add skilled, old school flavor as Fletcher and Falewicz, respectively, and former MTV fave Kid Creole does a delightful job as the manager of a local ‘Blockbuster’ style store. But the real discovery here is Melonie Diaz. While she’s worked consistently in smaller budgeted films, this is one of her first mainstream roles, and she’s great as the direct and dictatorial Alma. Without her guidance (and fiscal gifts), our heroes would be nothing but unheralded hacks.

But when it’s all put together, when Gondry’s subversive message about the way VHS revised our perception of film finally finishes, Be Kind, Rewind becomes a celebration of cinema as both a medium and a message. From the subtle references to other like minded films (the ending is so Cinema Paradiso that Giuseppe Turnatore should be flattered…or filing a lawsuit) to the original use of post-punk DIY spirit, this is an artist assembling his greatest hits in hopes it will resonate with an already jaded demographic. The biggest hurdle this fine film will have to face is a know-it-all audience that sees too much of themselves in Mike and Jerry. While Gondry definitely champions their wide-eyed wonder, the ending suggests that belief will have to succumb to business as usual. With ads selling the story as a nonstop collection of moronic remakes, there will definitely be some buyer’s remorse.


But unlike the bloated blockbusters from two decades ago, there’s a subtext to this movie beyond a single oversold gimmick. Be Kind, Rewind is as hilarious as it is heartfelt, a fully formed film, not a simple set-up for a collection of copies. And when you consider the history of videotape, how it turned a dying medium into a potent, and profitable, cultural signpost, the parallels here become all the more significant. Years from now, when scholars are ruminating on movies that accurately reflected the inherent issues within the artform, Gondry’s greatness will be revealed. Until that time, be brave and take a gander at this man’s outspoken adoration for the format that changed everything. Forget HD. Ignore DVD. The VCR was perhaps the most important filmic force since sound and color - and Be Kind, Rewind understands this all too well. That’s why it’s such a smart, sensational film.



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Thursday, Feb 21, 2008

Yeah, that’s the first thing that hits you when you plunk your weary jet-lagged feet in Oslo. The rumors are true, this is one expensive city.


But music geeks are certainly getting plenty of bang for their buck, erm, krone, here at By:Larm, Norway’s annual showcase of the best in Scandinavian indie music. The fest got underway in earnest Thursday night, a ridiculous number of bands playing at 30 different venues, all within walking distance in central Oslo. It’s not as if the surprisingly energetic little city needed to get even nuttier at night, but folks have definitely taken to the fest, nearly selling it out, the sound of rumbling PA now lurking around every corner as bands try to win over the media and most importantly, the fans.


Lykke Li

Lykke Li


If there was one show everyone was looking at on Thursday, it was budding Swedish pop star Lykke Li at the trendy, cozy Blå club, just across the river from the equally hip Grunerløkken neighborhood. Her excellent debut album Youth Novel debuted strongly in Sweden, thanks to her two fabulous singles “Little Bit” and “I’m Good, I’m Gone”, and she proved to be even more charismatic than the record lets on, as she and her remarkably versatile backing band tore through an ebullient 45-minute set, the aforementioned tracks going over hugely with the crowd of 350, and even tossing a fun verse and chorus of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It”.The magnetic 21-year-old, who draws comparisons to Robyn but utilizes a much broader musical palette, is set to have a big year, and with a South By Southwest showcase on the near horizon, the buzz in North America is only going to get louder. [player]


Shining

Shining


Meanwhile, Norway’s Shining is starting to make waves among fans of metal, progressive rock, and post rock, the jazz-influenced 2007 album Grindstone one of last year’s buried treasures, and if Lykke Li was endearing, Shining was absolutely ferocious, their fusion of saxophone, clarinet, math metal, and Battles-style prog sounding transcendent in the confines of the immaculate sounding theater Sentrum Scene. The album was already impressive, but after witnessing it firsthand, this writer has a new favorite band. [player]


Alog med Sheriffs of Nothingness

Alog med Sheriffs of Nothingness


Biggest surprise of Thursday, though? Easily experimental quartet Alog med Sheriffs of Nothingness, who preceded Shining’s raucous set with a chilling blend of Kronos Quartet-style violins, bowed saw, laptop-triggered IDM, and the kind of tightly executed improvisation that warrants a comparison to Can. [player]


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