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by Vijith Assar

27 Oct 2008

Minus The Bear owes a reasonable chunk of their genetic code to the most forgettable of ‘90s rock, and they act like they’re acutely aware of it, desperately trying to break away from the legacy of The Nixons and Candlebox with contrived complexity: Unexpected tempo shifts, motivic changes, chopped samples, sequenced keyboards, and a generally sectional approach to what otherwise might be perfectly pleasant riff rock.

Drummer Erin Tate is jaw-droppingly flawless throughout. My analytical lobes always welcome the change of pace whenever he charges to the forefront mid-song to define the groove of whatever disjunct little section is coming up next. But the lobes where I keep the things I love always feel like they’re just being asked to pay attention to a constant stream of new and shiny things that are otherwise devoid of substance. During their performance, you can almost see how these songs were written: Every minute or so, there’s a new “Hey guys check this out” moment.

And sure, some of those nuggets are clever, but I’m not so sure about the lasting replay value of this stuff. Because once I’ve checked them all out, what then?

by Vijith Assar

27 Oct 2008

I had intended to avoid Annuals entirely during what I assumed was bound to be their awkward indie rock adolescence, but whoops, occasionally one of those little brats will turn out to be a precocious wunderkind. Let’s start with Adam Baker: He’s as competent a frontman as I’ve ever seen for his age, especially considering that he’s tethered down by guitars and a keyboard. His delivery is part yelp and part emo-whine, but the most impressive part is that he was able to write pop songs that expertly glue the six-piece ensemble together even when there are four dudes playing drums.

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2008

Some horror movies can live solely on their carefully crafted hype. Others actual deliver the goods the studio staged ballyhoo promises. And then there is Pieces. Back in 1982, distributors desperate to continue the coattail ride started with Halloween and Friday the 13th took the Spanish splatter film Mil gritos tiene la noche (“The Night Has a Thousand Cries”, roughly), renamed it, and added the intriguing tagline “You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” With a final carnival barker punchline - “It’s exactly what you think it is.” - the results were unleashed on an unwitting world.

Thanks to VHS and the thriving home video market, the sleazoid shocker became an instant cult classic. The question remains, however, does the movie match the marketing - or is this just another case of carefully chosen words speaking a heckuva lot louder than the action on the screen. Luckily, the schlock meisters over at Grindhouse Releasing have given Pieces the kind of polish that reclassifies it as a classic. Once you’ve seen the film cleaned up, uncut, and offered in startling widescreen anamorphic splendor, you’ll wonder why anyone denied (or doubted) it’s excellence before.

The storyline is dead simple. We are introduced to a young boy, tormented mercilessly by his blousy whore of a mother. After a particularly gruesome showdown, we flash forward forty years. On a small college campus, young girls are being viciously vivisected by an unseen killer. Using a chainsaw to carve up the bodies, the police are baffled by the murders. Detective Lt. Bracken (a nicely cheesy Christopher George) hopes to crack the case with a two fold approach. First, he will elicit the help of student Kendall James (Pod People‘s Ian Sera) to snoop among the student body. This BMOC knows all the angles - and the ladies.

Secondly, seasoned cop and star tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day) will go undercover as one of the faculty. This will allow her greater access to suspects like groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, with Lawrence Tierney’s voice) and the slightly fey Professor Brown (Jack Taylor). As the body count rises, Bracken grows desperate. Apparently, the murdered is making some kind of trophy out of the ‘pieces’ of his victims…and he’s almost done.

Pieces is the kind of fright film that sneaks up on you. It is really nothing more than your standard slasher effort with a chainsaw doing all the slice and dice (well, there are a couple of knife kills thrown in for good massacre measure). Director Juan Piquer Simón digs deep into his fellow Europeans bag of terror tricks and comes up trumps more times than not. The opening is an obvious homage to Dario Argento’s classic Profundo Rosso, down to the deadly dynamic between parent and child. Once we move to modern times, Lucio Fulci’s full bore gore conceit comes into play. While most of the killings occur off camera, their nasty results get full view visits. Even the ending is unrelenting, delivering not one, or two, but THREE false jolts.

Thanks to the new two disc DVD from Grindhouse, we learn a lot more about the production than previously known. Actor Smith is on hand for nearly an hour of insights, discussing his entire career but also explaining how he came to be involved in the film. As a classically trained performer, he makes a strong case for Willard’s famous alse front. Even better, Simón stands up for his actions, taking his 50 minute plus Q&A to argue psychology, scares, and his wonderful cast and crew. It’s clear that Pieces was meant as an exploitative effort. It wanted to ride the coattails of the still new slasher phenomenon. But thanks to Simón’s sensibility, and the brutality of the murders, the film more or less transcends its type. Besides, the new transfer is terrific. 

As with much of the Mediterranean macabre geared toward Western audiences, Christopher George gives his Cheshire Cat capped grin a good workout as Bracken. While not as active here as he is in such gems as City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator, and Mortuary, he provides the necessary despotic smugness that makes these movies work. Bracken has to be self assured and clueless, otherwise, the villain’s reveal gets shortchanged. Sure, we see who the bad man is almost immediately, but the cops have to fumble a bit before pulling out their pistols. Similarly, then wife Lynda Day is nothing more than eye candy, reduced at 38 to playing pseudo-paramour for the wispy lothario Sera. 

And speaking of Kendall, it is clear that Simón sees him as the calm within the monster movie maelstrom. Instantly cast off the isle of suspicion, he gets to hit on Day, act as an inspector substitute, emote over various F/X corpses, and show off his larger than average “assets” during a laughable love scene. For fans of the unflappable Mystery Science Theater 3000, seeing the musical prick Rick running around san shorts may explain his angry male animal arrogance. But as a romantic lead, he’s rather limited. According to IMDb Sera’s career was also rather short lived (Smith, who praises the performer incessantly, will be sad to hear this). What started in 1979 was soon over five years later. Google offers up a similar overview.

Even with the cast’s uneven facets, Pieces manages to work. It’s a shame that so much talent takes a backseat to naked babes being butchered. Smith, fresh from playing Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye, does little except smirk and speak like a certain Joe Cabot. Crusty Dean Edmund Purdom has to get by on clipped British courtesy and a nasty five o’clock shadow. Thanks to the dubbing - everyone’s voice is redone (even if it was their own in the end), as was the standard for most import productions - Pieces takes on an amplified sleazoid feel. We sense this is a movie that will do almost anything, including substitute actor accents, to get its gruesome point across. Oh, and one thing about the gore. It is plentiful, but clearly culled from an early ‘80s limit of realism.

Indeed, very little of this fright flick plays like an authentic police procedural. A premise is devised, a killer walks among his potential prey, Greed decade fashion victims disrobe with alarming regularity, and soon - it’s power tool time! The Georges chew up the scenery and all is right in the domain of dread. Some will scoff no matter the digital dressing. Pieces is that kind of perverse product. But don’t be surprised when, after it’s all over, you’re more than a little unnerved. It is that kind of movie - exactly.

by Mike Schiller

26 Oct 2008

I have to admit, there aren’t all that many weeks that I can say this, but this week simply belongs to the PlayStation 3.  By my count, there are two possible contenders for Game of the Year, one new edition of a casual success story, and a sequel to one of the most well-received of the PS3’s launch titles.

I can’t help but start with Fallout 3, which will of course also be appearing on the Xbox 360 and PC this week.  I simply cannot remember when the anticipation for an RPG of any sort was as high as it is for Fallout 3.  Perhaps this is a lesson in how withholding a sequel can heighten the anticipation for it.  Specifically, we haven’t seen a new Fallout game since 1998, and the first two games in the series are held in such high regard that it will be nigh-impossible for the third to even approach the expectations that have been set for it.  That said, the thing looks incredible—the sheer amount of detail in the environments has to be seen to be believed, and who doesn’t like Vault Boy?

The other one, the game that’s kept me on YouTube for hours on end looking for any footage that I haven’t yet seen, is Little Big Planet.  Sackboy is destined to be an icon.  It’s a brilliant step of marketing to make what may be the most recognizable character on the most high tech of the platforms a low-tech, burlap…thing called Sackboy.  This is like the presidential candidate with nine houses across the United States convincing a good portion of the American population that he’s one of us!  This is the sort of bold move that could fix the PS3’s image, the one that says that it’s a system that we want; it’s not an overloaded behemoth two or three years away from a true public embrace, it’s the only system taking advantage of the here and now.  Or, maybe I’m just putting too much stock in a simple, charming platformer.  Regardless, this may be the game that finally convinces me to drop the cash for a PS3.

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f course, the new SingStar game and the new MotorStorm game (gosh, Sony certainly enjoys capital letters in the middle of their words, don’t they?) are going to get run over by those big ticket items, but there’s plenty going for both.

Elsewhere?  The PC has Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, which continues the long-running strategy franchise with some big names adding cinema-style pizzazz.  The DS has a little something coming out called Ninjatown that looks like it has no shortage in quirky, fun style.  And those who like to download (and who doesn’t?) get the second edition of the Penny Arcade RPG this week as well.

What are you playing this week?  Are you going to have to pull yourself away from Fallout to play SingStar?  Are you going to have to pull yourself away from The Wonder Pets! to play Go, Diego, Go!?  Let us know, and enjoy your Halloween!

(p.s…there’s a whole list of releases and a trailer for Fallout 3 after the jump!)

by Bill Gibron

26 Oct 2008

Politics are not only social. They can be personal, or professional. They can encompass our entire life, or play a very tiny, very unimportant part in same. The inherent meaning of the term indicates a type of gamesmanship, a give and take that operates on skill, strategy, and individual sympathies. While we tend to view the opposing ideologies in terms of pro or con, black or white, the truth is far more gray. As a reflection of who we are, politics can be problematic. As an indication of who we may become, they are often precognitive and sentient. In Hector Babenco’s brilliant 1985 drama, Kiss of the Spider Woman, the concept of individual belief runs head on into the state controlled notion of control and conformity. For the two prisoners sharing a dingy Brazilian jail cell, their own principles will come to comfort them. They may also destroy everything they are.

Valentin Arregui is a political prisoner in his native land, a man marked by the government for his subversive views and violent radicalism. His cellmate suffers from a different form of persecution. As an effete homosexual, Luis Molina has been incarcerated on ‘morals charges’. As a means of escape, he makes up elaborate fantasies about fancy, fake motion pictures. One revolves around Nazis and spies. The other centers on the Spider Woman, and her wicked affections. As the tension between the two lessen, Valentin opens up about his life. Luis also begins to entrust his newfound friend. Naturally, the authorities are doing whatever they can to get their prisoners to break - and someone may have loyalties outside their own claimed convictions.

The history of Kiss of the Spider Woman is an interesting one, and the subject of several interesting featurettes on the recently released two disc DVD version of the film, now available from City Lights Home Entertainment. Since it deals with subjects both inherently cinematic (the movies) and impossible to perfectly convey (human emotion and sexuality), it must walk a fine line between the outrageous and the insular, the unknowable and the honest and obvious. It helps that director Babenco hired two amazing actors, both of whom were relatively unheralded at the time, to bring his vision to life. It’s safe to say that Spider Woman elevated the professional profile of both Raul Julia (Valentin) and William Hurt (Luis). The former was still a journeyman talent when this minor movie came along. The latter went on to win an Oscar for his work in the film, a clever combination of gay bravura and hidden pain. While Julia carries the film’s social heart, Hurt opens up the entire narrative’s bruised and battered soul.

As a novel, the 1976 work by Manuel Puig was considered ‘un-filmable’, based on the fact that the non-traditional narrative was told completely in dialogue form. While it was later adapted into a play for both stage and radio, the material appeared perfectly suited for the mind’s eye alone. And yet in one of the DVD’s added features, we learn about Puig, about his own thoughts on the book, and how Babenco managed to bring the material to life. Elsewhere, we see another unusual transformation in Spider Woman‘s legacy. Famed Broadway composers John Kander and Frank Ebb turned the tale into a musical, perhaps one of most unusual to ever hit the Great White Way. Another documentary explains the arduous task of modifying an already complex concept into a song and dance extravaganza (one that won several Tonys, by the way). In addition, there is a trivia track, a look at the role of “submissive women” in the movie, and some standard backstage overview.

But it’s the movie that remains timeless. Kiss of the Spider Woman in one of the few films that understands the communal horror and ubiquity of persecution. It plays with our sympathies only to challenge and cherry-pick them later on. There are secrets and symbols strewn throughout the two hour running time, with an additional allotment of unanswered and ambiguous turns along the way. Babenco gets lots of mileage out of the film-within-a-film ideal, as well as utilizing flashbacks to fill in necessary blanks. While it never takes away from its two character conceits, Kiss of the Spider Woman is much more than just a couple of prisoners talking. It illustrates the notion of how humans strive for dignity, and that even in the most oppressive of environments, caring and compassion can break down barriers.

Of course, some two decades-plus on, the homosexual undercurrent feels very dated indeed. Any indication of man-to-man affection is kept completely offscreen and seems dismissed quickly and compactly. Hurt could even be accused of stereotyping Luis, or making him more of a swishy, fey foil than he really is or needs to be. Of course, such an interpretation falls in line with Puig’s take on such gender realities, and the actor’s amazing mannerisms help transcend anything remotely offensive. Of course, the DVD exposes the huge onset arguments Babenco had with his lead, conflicts that apparently added as much to the performance as any high minded Method-ology. Similarly, it’s important not to underestimate Julia’s importance to the film. If Kiss of the Spider Woman were all about Luis and his love of extravagance, we’d grow bored very quickly. Instead, Valentin reminds us of the sacrifice some are willing to endure to stand by their beliefs.

There are unanswered questions, though, elements of Kiss of the Spider Woman that tend to make sense only to itself. The two narratives spun by Luis - the noir-ish thriller Her Real Glory and the oddball b-movie macabre - tend to be more disconnected than reflective of any real theme. In some ways, the bright and shiny scope infused in these fake offerings may stand as nothing more than a way of avoiding the darkness of prison. Additionally, the ending will appear overly grim to some, especially when viewed through our post-millennial mandate of justice and cinematic fairness for all. But that’s one of the great things about Kiss of the Spider Woman. It doesn’t want to deliver the standard ‘feel good’ sentiment. Instead, it wants its audience to understand the hurt and inequity, to realize that, sometimes, the bad get rewarded and the good get far too much punishment. But that’s the way things work in the world. And like the formation of the strangest of bedfellows, that’s part of the foundation of politics as well. 

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Moving Pixels Podcast: Unearthing the 'Charnel House'

// Moving Pixels

"This week we discuss Owl Creek Games's follow up to Sepulchre, the triptych of tales called The Charnel House Trilogy.

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