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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008

Leftovers and scraps from the media’s round-tables.

By Chris Justice


Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama


Quinnipiac University journalism professor Paul Janensch was right when he recently stated this in The Connecticut Post Online: “Polls can tell us what voters are thinking and who is ahead at a specific time. But polls should not be considered prophetic.” But why do so many journalists ignore this reality?


Polls raise more questions than answers. I hear the echoes now around water coolers throughout the country: “Were you polled?” “Who? Me? I’ve never been polled.” So who was actually polled? And when were they polled? What was the question? What exactly is a “margin of error”? Which political organizations fund this pollster?


Polls are useful when identifying trends in public opinion, but are damaging when they become news stories themselves. They promote instant debate ripe for sound bytes, but rarely spur thoughtful, critical analyses. As snapshots of accuracy, they are numbingly inaccurate, create more confusion than clarity, disagree with each other constantly, and direct more attention upon the pollster than the information they solicit.


Answers are moot with polls and pollsters, as John Zogby demonstrated during a recent interview with Jon Stewart. Politicians may need polls, but journalists should avoid them, especially in an era of eroding trust in our news agencies. When so much information is under suspicion, journalists must do a better job of scrutinizing the most suspicious.


I prefer people to polls. Journalists should report people’s stories and not the impersonal, mercurial speculations produced by the American polling monolith. Journalists should avoid using polling information in their leads. Polls are predictive, not prophetic. They don’t warrant the attention journalists give them.


Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.


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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008


It was all the movie business could do. Television was eating into its audience, viewers more eager to sit at home and enjoy limited entertainment on a small 12” screen vs. taking the entire family to their local 1000 seat theater. Even with superior sound, enhanced visual quality (with developments like Cinemascope and Todd-O Vision), and a larger than life overall experience, the novelty of the new living room technology was changing the cultural dynamic. Then some enterprising distributors decided to use the old roadshow roll out. Developed in the days when a simultaneous national release was virtually impossible, these special event presentations saw a film - and various accompanying attractions/actors/advertising - canvas the country, drumming up interest via the mere exclusivity of a city-to-city play date. One of the last mavericks of such an approach was Samuel Bronston, and one of his biggest hits centered on the fabled Spanish hero, El Cid.


There are actually three intriguing stories at the center of the new DVD release of El Cid. The first is the legend of the title character, a sweeping spectacle dealing with important issues like loyalty, courage, and destiny. The next is the tall tale of how Samuel Bronston, a wide-eyed Romanian employee of MGM, branched out into independent production and navigated several epic films to the big screen, El Cid included. He also was famed for using the Roadshow format to maximum early ‘60s effect. This is also the story of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who’ve used their recent split from Disney (and their signature company, Miramax) as a stepping stone toward their passion for film preservation. Dedicated to their late mother, the new Miriam Collection intends to champion forgotten efforts from the past, hoping that new generations will discover their glories. With the digital treatment of El Cid, they’ve created a product that will make both Mom and the history of cinema proud.

The myth surrounding the title character, otherwise known as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar begins as all such romanticized history does - with a wedding thwarted and an act of charity leading to charges of treason. After releasing a captured Moorish general and his men, our soon to be conqueror earns the gratitude, and undying loyalty, of his previous prisoners. Naturally, the King and his court are not happy, and Rodrigo is accused of being a traitor. As the noblemen debate his fate, he seeks the solace of his beautiful bride to be Jimena, daughter of the royal champion. Their love is undying and undeniable. But when his own father is insulted, Rodrigo challenges his lady love’s guardian to a duel. The results ruin the relationship with his fiancé forever. As the King’s newest knight, El Cid is sent to negotiate with disloyal factions in the kingdom. He eventual succeeds, and an innate ability to avoid ambush and double cross turn him into a rural icon. Soon, competitive elements within the royal family will challenge his sense of duty, and his love for Jimena…and all the while, the Moors are preparing for all out war.


Anchored by yet another stellar Charleton Heston performance and propelled by director Anthony Mann’s sense of scale, El Cid is the kind of good old fashioned filmmaking that truly satisfies the deepest inner cravings of an aesthetic starved movie buff. Lacking the usual clunky dialogue that dooms such sword and sandal period pieces, and laced with a thread of near religious allusion in its themes, we wind up with the kind of larger then life experience that makes history seem evocative and personal sacrifice the noblest of all intentions. While the story of how Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is slightly marginalized by the artform’s natural tendency to over-tweak the genre, and some of the supporting players can’t match master thespian Chuck’s mantle, we still walk away feeling drawn in by a monumental experience that does a devastating job of putting us right inside the ideological conflict at play.


Indeed, some may feel an odd sense of déjà vu as the main Moor villain - the incredibly bad Ben Yussuf, portrayed by an unrecognizable Herbert Lom - delivers his anti-enlightenment screeds. It’s all burning books, avoiding knowledge, limiting freedom, and Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism. The notion of a Muslim army overthrowing the rest of the known world via sheer brute force and insane violence is nothing new, but in our current hot button foreign policy pickle, such pronouncements seem prophetic. Some will also recognize a similar Arabs as mannered madmen ideal like the one forwarded in 300. The enemy’s misguided sense of purpose is outlandish and intense. With the exacting costumes and large scale battle scenes, Mann and his mega-sized war machinery definitely leave a big impression.


But El Cid is not all gigantic battles and a cast of several thousand. Some of the best moments are one on one, like Rodrigo’s swordfight with the father of his fiancé. It’s a perfectly paced and performed bit of stunt swashbuckling. Similarly, the jousting gauntlet sequence strikes the proper balance between dread and intended daring-do. Heston handles all his demands with aplomb, grace, and just a small amount of indirect demagoguery. Unlike his work in The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, there is very little humility in how he plays Cid. Only when confronted by his King does he ever let his guard down. Even playing against a slightly stiff Sophia Loren (who really isn’t given much to do except look stoic), there is a humble hubris percolating at the core of his character’s being. He knows he’s right - he’s just waiting for the rest of Spain to get clued in.


All of this leads to one of those amazing real life recreations, complete with a windswept seaside setting, untold extras, and enough found location legitimacy to keep the pomp palpable. It takes oversized actors to carry off Mann’s motives, and Heston is the perfect proto-idol. While not quite Latin in his looks, he is one of the few thoroughly modern actors who appear comfortable, even authentic, in outlandish 11th century garb. It’s easy to scoff at this material, to see El Cid as a throwback to the days when producers provided audiences with the pre-CGI notion of eye candy and figured that this would be enough - and in some cases, it was. But within this rather dense narrative, Mann incorporates enough Shakespearean substance to amplify the ideas projected. It makes the main character’s last act sacrifice, and the denouements surrounding it, all the more memorable.


Long unavailable on DVD - many of these bloated bits of ballyhoo became lost in a quagmire of competing rights once movies went simplistic and post-modern - the Weinsteins should be praised considerably for bringing this movie back from the home video dead. The pristine, almost perfect anamorphic widescreen image captures Mann’s magnificent framing and composition with polish and professionalism. The picture here is just amazing. Similarly, a newly struck Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix bolsters the brilliant score by Miklos Rozsa (Ben Hur, King of Kings). But the best element of this Miriam Collection release is the context. With commentaries, production featurettes and other print-based bonuses, we get a vivid picture of what it took for Bronston to bring this project to life.


On the full length complementary discussion, Bill, the late producer’s son, talks about his dad and his desire to make movies. He’s joined by Neil M. Rosendorf, historian and Bronston biographer. While the latter can’t help but overly praise the film, and link everything back to his Jewish heritage, the overall conversation provides the kind of clarity we need to understand this phase of mainstream moviemaking. Equally insightful are the documentaries, bonuses that concentrate on the movie, Mann, Rozsa, and the difficulty in preserving cinema’s past. Together with a booklet outlining the film and its famous roadshow success, we get a clear picture of what made Bronston tick - and why he choose such a large canvas to tell his tales.

The answer is obvious - in order to battle novelty, one has to be equally unique as well. The roadshow, with its event-like mentality and sense of spectacle, was a surefire way to get audiences back to the bijou. It announced an experience unlike anything they were normally used to, and promised to deliver sound and vision incomparable - especially from a fledgling medium like television. And for a while it worked, and watching El Cid some 48 years later, it’s easy to see why. By combining expert casting, lush opticals, and narratives that span the scope of all human experience, the epic promised the very essence of man’s place within the universe. In that capacity, Bronston and El Cid truly deliver. Thankfully, the Weinstein’s new DVD arm gets such grandeur as well. This new digital package is one of the year’s best.



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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008

The Scotsman puts it best: “It had to happen.” In the fine tradition of shows like Celebrity Love Island and Dancing With the Stars, UK celebs are signing up to compete in yet another lame-brained reality show. This one is called Murder Most Famous, and get this—the celebs, under the tutelage of Minette Walters, will study criminology and forensics in order to write their own crime novels. The winner will see their novel published by Pan Macmillan next year.


The competitors are a group of people The Scotsman calles “C-list celebrities”. Their names are Brendan Cole, Sherrie Hewson, Angela Griffin, Matt Allwright, Diarmuid Gavin and Kelvin MacKenzie. Famous in England, I guess.


What? I don’t even know where to begin. Shame on you, Pan Macmillan, for letting this abomination go ahead.


The news of the show comes hot on the heels of this article in The Guardian that poses the question, “are crime books easier to write than ‘serious’ novels?” The article talks about Joan Brady, a Whitbread winner, who sued the cobbler living downstairs whose weird cobbling chemicals seeping through her floor caused her to go a tiny bit mental. This new lack of brain function manifested itself, says Brady, in her abandoning her serious literary writing to pen a substandard crime novel. The fumes made her do it, she cried, and she and the cobbler settled out of court with Ms. Brady receiving quite a hefty sum.


So, according to Ms Brady, crime writing is for spaced-out dunces. It’s something a writer must be reduced to doing. But where did such thinking come from? It’s a big debate in Book World, that crime novels aren’t “real” literature, falling into the category of “genre” writing alongside horror novels, science-fiction, and romance. If you ask me, such thinking is pretty much bupkiss. Crappy crime writing is just crappy crime writing. It doesn’t mean all crime writers are lame, just the lame ones. After all, plenty of great modern literature is set in space. I think all well-rounded readers know this. So why can’t Ian Rankin shake the stereotype perpetuated by the Joan Bradys of the world?


I blame James Patterson. And crime fiction publishers and marketers everywhere, truth be told. Patterson’s books, when viewed next to Ian Rankin’s, look a bit similar. And like Rankin, his books feature recurring, damaged characters in dire need of redemption. Their books are always mysteries, a couple have been turned into movies, and all can get quite grisly. The difference between the authors is, while James Patterson blurts out five novels a year, all told in the same gimmicky, rapid-fire and ready for TV style, Rankin waits a while between stories, and writes chapters that need more than a trip to the dunny to be fully digested.


But, this, too, is well-known. So, is it a case of some writers spoiling it for everyone? I think it is. There are serious crime writers and there are hacks. Just as there as serious musicians and crappy synth-ed robot people with guitars. It’s a popularity game, and we all know it, so why is the question still coming up? Why can Ms. Brady get thousands of pounds out of a poor cobbler for doing what every author and his dog who wants instant chart success seems to be doing?


The readers don’t help, either. Or is it our new fast and loose lifestyles that mean we only have time for Patterson-sized chapters quickly scanned before lights out? The readers demand these books—remember that statistic about Mills and Boon consumers from last week? Someone is reading, so publishers are getting that product out there. It’s business. And as with anything that gets too popular, too in-demand, the quality has dropped. I remember when crime novels were by Joseph Wambaugh and Norman Mailer, epic and researched and good. Even the popcorn-y ones like Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys were more literary than anything Patricia Cornwell has shat out in past 10 years. It’s a cycle, maybe. As Pearl Jam Xeroxed a hundred times becomes Nickelback, so Norman Mailer becomes Michael Kimball. All hope is not lost, though, because while they’re lumped in with the crap, people still read Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane and Scott Turow, and the other thinking crime writers we do really need.


The Guardian‘s question is just wrong in its phrasing. It’s not easier to write crime novels, it’s easier to writer crappy crime novels.

Murder Most Famous airs on BBC2 in March. Patterson’s Double Cross was released in November. His Sail will be out in June. The paperbacks of 6th Target and Saving the World came out this month. The paperback of The Quickie arrives in April. Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Crows in out in March.


And, just for fun, Joan Brady’s latest crime novel, Bleedout is out 29 January.


 


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Saturday, Jan 26, 2008


One of the more intriguing elements of science fiction is its allegorical ability. Using a fantasy or fictional setting to comment on the current state of society has always been one of the genre’s greatest strengths. It allows the author to discuss subjects and situations that otherwise would result in controversy and/or contention. But when buffered by aliens, future shock situations, and interstellar overdrives, even the most debatable material can be dissected and discussed in a rationale, insightful manner. That’s why so many film fans lament the category’s slip into straight forward Star Wars space battling. Where once serious speculative fiction meant the free exchange of ideas, now it’s all Ewoks and heavy breathing man-machine villains.


Automatons is different. A Super 8mm home movie manufactured in the basement of a Brooklyn building, this war between competing ideologies looks like a child’s toy fair gone nuclear. Filmed in black and white, and using miniatures and other less than special effects to generate its brave new worldview, it’s the classic tale of a post-apocalyptic war between rival factions, each using superior scientific knowledge and an undying vendetta to fuel their fury. In essence, the development of robots allowed political factions (represented by the generic named ‘Girl’ and ‘The Enemy Leader’) on a planet gone precarious to split, and then start using the technology to destroy one another. Eventually, a ragtag group of survivors try to commandeer the remaining iron men and use them to end the hostilities – by annihilating the other side.

Within the context of this blank Buck Rodgers, a desolate landscape visualized via tiny handmade props, we have issues regarding national and personal security, the abuse of power, the mismanagement of science, and the blind faith in violence to resolve all issues. There are hints of the Republican desire for a new world order as well as talk of terrorism and fanaticism overruling reason and rationality. Throughout the course of the plot, as our rogue engineer tries to repair and reprogram her minions, a videolog of her famed father’s rantings (essayed with verve by Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm) play in the background, and it’s during these screeds that we learn most of the narrative backdrop – the state of emergency, the competing philosophies, the Terminator-like takeover of the machines.


Granted, filmmaker James Felix McKenney borrows a lot of his outsized ideas. There are elements borrowed from James Cameron’s classic, as well as The Matrix, Dark City, and any number of human vs. mechanism protocols. The use of grade-Z visuals adds to the disquiet, as well as the grainy, caught on surveillance sense of the cinematography. There are moments of stagnant optical ambiguity, times when we aren’t sure what we are watching and where the action is taking place. During the so-called action scenes, where minuscule monsters shoot animated ammunition at each other in an attempt to create the epic on a very small scale, we wonder if McKenney can pull it off. Once we get to the final confrontation, however, the splatter-oriented stylistic choices actually add to our dread.


There are some very gory, very Tetsuo: The Iron Man inspired deaths toward the end of the film, a collection of killings that suddenly shift our understanding of the title machines. While the wordy, whiny stand-off between the two female leaders adds little to the overall tone, watching a cardboard creature rip the limbs off a person in black blood detail is highly effective. The change of perspective is crucial to Automatons’ overall success. We want to comprehend the horrible world we are dealing with. But if we can’t have that, we’ll take the grue and its resulting reconfiguration of events. All the while, we believe the robots are just bad F/X. The craven desire to destroy comes as a weird, welcome shock.


This is not the kind of film you come to looking for great acting or insightful direction. The no name cast complements the material well, but they add very little from an emotional or creative angle. They are interchangeable, faces featured within scenes where the demons are in the sci-fi details. Also, McKenney tends to use the battle scenes as tension gathering time sucks. There are sequences of inventive composition, moments when the conflict looks like the panel from an early EC comic. In fact, a lot of Automatons recalls old school space operatics filtered through a retro, almost ridiculous conceit. But then the ‘bots bring the blood, and the message gets incredibly, incredibly mean.


For all it accomplishes, for all the imagination and “Robo-Monstervision” it employs to rise above basic camp and cult kitsch, this is a movie that will be judged almost solely on its schlock. With break-dancing extras trying to act mechanical, bodies trapped in large cardboard and tin foil mock ups, it’s hard to rise above the ridiculousness. But McKenney tries, and for the most part, succeeds. Facets Video has released this film on DVD with a wealth of extras that truly highlight the effort put into this production. The Behind the Scenes featurette illustrates the difference between the color world of digital video and the single hue aura of celluloid. We see tests for how the effects will work and overall artistic concepts for the film. While it may feel like the sloppy stumbling of a shoe-string visionary, the extras explain that there is much more to Automatons than meets the candy-less eye.


In fact, it’s safe to say that, decades from now, when cinephiles are looking through the past to find meaning in the otherwise mediocre mainstreams of post-modern cinema, something like Automatons will be rediscovered - and readily embraced. Similar to another mindboggling achievement in no-budget tone poetry - Cory McAbee’s brilliant The American Astronaut - we again have proof that serious speculative fiction can rely more on ideas than optics to make its many points. While some have suggested the film channels Dr. Who, The Twilight Zone, or even vintage Outer Limits, it’s far more original (at least ideologically) to realize such retro aims. In fact, it’s far more original than such hints of homage suggest. The “This is How Humanity Dies” tagline should be rephrased to state “This is how true speculative storylines are handled”. That’s this small film’s greatest achievement.

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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
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Scores: Cecilia
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