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Sunday, May 18, 2008
It's DVD week here at SE&L. Each day from now until Sunday, we will be looking at some of the latest releases on the format, as well as some unusual or independent off-titles that you may have missed. Reviews will be updated sporadically, so check back often to see what we have to offer. Previously: George Romero invents the zombie film with his 1968 epic Night of the Living Dead Romero updates his vision, brilliantly, with the lo-fi wonder Diary of the Dead Today: An American Whodunit with a Psychic Twist - 1982's The Killing Hour (aka The Clairvoyant)


Critics aren’t perfect. They can get it wrong sometimes, even before they’ve seen a film. Case in point - Armand Mastroianni’s The Killing Hour (aka The Clairvoyant). From the name on the credits, and the movie marquee artwork, this looks like your standard Italian giallo, murder mystery tinged with just enough gore to give Argento and Fulci a run for the redrum money. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s merely an American whodunit, the efforts of a filmmaker best known for featuring Tom Hanks in one of his first roles. That film was the sloppy slasher saga Blood Wedding, later retitled He Knows You’re Alone, and its tagalong success led Mastroianni to take his talent to a much larger creative canvas. Unfortunately, he’s only able to fill a tiny fraction of the frame.


It’s 1982, and Manhattan is overrun with unsolved killings. More importantly, the murder’s MO is the same - he handcuffs his victims before doing them in. As the police search for clues, local TV reporter Paul “Mac” McCormack believes he’s found the mother lode. Taking his morning talk show in a more tabloid direction, he feeds the public a daily dose of fear and foreboding. While Detective Weeks works all the angles, McCormick does his own vigilante legwork. Both men are drawn to the claims of a young woman named Virna Nightbourne. Gifted with psychic ability, she believes she is sketching out the deaths before they happen. Naturally, once she goes public with her visions, she becomes a prime target for the fiend - who may be much closer than she thinks.


Overlong at 97 minutes and burdened with a lame stand-up comedy subplot, The Killing Hour (recently reissued on DVD by Blue Underground) is actually a pretty good serial killer caper. We get the mandatory slayings, some decent red herrings, a couple of deductive dead ends, and a resolution that tries to tie everything up in a neat, knockout denouement. The acting is universally good, with Mastroianni making excellent use of then unknowns Jon Polito, Joe Morton, Norman Parker, and established stars Kenneth McMillan and Perry King. If there is a weak link among the cast, it’s Elizabeth Kemp as Ms. Nightbourne. Aside from never convincingly delivering her own name (there seems to be a buried chuckle every time she utters it), her character is more schizophrenic than gifted with second sight. One moment she’s a mess, the next she’s flirting mercilessly with her main male leads.

Indeed, one of The Killing Hour‘s biggest flaws is our lack of sympathy for this heroine. We are supposed to see Virna as an inadvertent victim, sometimes plagued by images of death and innocent indirect knowledge. But she often comes across as a whiny waste, needy without indicating why she should be so cared for. Mastroianni never gives her a moment to shine, to stand up and show courage or consideration. She’s either sketching in some wild, automaton manner, or looking wistfully at the camera. There’s no variance here, no sequences of searing dramatics. It’s the same for the rest of the actors - these are some passive aggressive policemen to say the least - but the men manage some solid New York authenticity.


Another major misstep comes in the lack of legitimate scares. There is no real suspense here, Mastroianni simply leaps into the first three murders without any set up or sense of pace. Virna’s head games provide a few more slayings, but they convey nothing that fans of either fright or bloodshed can really appreciate. There are times when this all feels like a tepid TV movie, and it’s no wonder that this director would go on to excel in the broadcast medium. The Killing Hour is like a ‘70s era sweeps week special, down to the minor amounts of nudity and absent arterial spray. His European counterparts understand that this kind of genre junk just won’t work without ample gore. Mastroianni wants to get by on plotting and performances alone. He can’t, especially when one of our macho men is moonlighting as the world’s worst impressionist (these scenes are just horrid).


Oddly enough, this filmmaker does find more ways to succeed than stumble. There is a wonderful atmosphere present, a tone derived directly from the all New York shoot. This feels like the Big Apple in all its early ‘80s growing pains. Porn is still prevalent, as is a street level sense of sleaze. When Mastroianni shows a dimly lit dive bar, you can almost smell the urine-soaked musk permeating the room. Even better, the crime scenes play as real places in the bullet-riddled, body-strewn history of the city. When a corpse is pulled from the Hudson River, or a potential victim enters a midtown manhole, we experience the urban angst of every famed criminal case. For this reason alone, The Killing Hour is worth a look. Along with acting, it’s the film’s strongest point.


As for the DVD, Blue Underground does very little with this presentation except give Mastroianni a chance to defend himself. With company founder and fellow filmmaker William Lustig along to guide the discussion, we discover that this is one director who has forgotten quite a bit about the movie he’s made. There is lots of dead air in the conversation, Lustig trying and Mastroianni coming up short. There are some deleted scenes, none of them mandatory to the narrative, and the trailer is nothing more than the standard Madison Avenue pitch. Add in the filmmaker overview (some good information on Mastroianni’s later career) and you’ve got some unexceptional extras.


Unlike the Italian crime masters his name mimics, Armand Mastroianni is no Dario. He’s barely even a Lucio. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is very little of the Mediterranean in this wholly American moviemaker. The Killing Hour is loaded with ambition and does everything in its limited creative power to obtain those elusive aesthetic goals. While it’s well made and never totally dull, this is the kind of suspense thriller that could have used a few more trips through the typewriter before seeing celluloid. They say it’s never fair to judge a book by its cover. In the case of this DVD, the expectations brought about by the filmmaker’s name makes the eventual realization all the more unsettling.



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Sunday, May 18, 2008
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This weekend I finished Clare B. Dunkle’s By These Ten Bones (2005), which was nominated for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award in 2007. I usually leave a book near where I keep my snacks at the library so I have something to peruse while I consume some late-morning energy. Although this selection is usually made from freshly returned books whenever I need something new, as often as not I don’t finish the novel at hand because it fails to sustain my interest. Last time I went looking for something new, a patron was good enough to return this gem.


Dunkle’s tale, set in northern Scotland perhaps several hundred years ago, when communities were sparse on the ground and pagan customs and superstitions coexisted with budding Christianity, is enthralling. A tiny close knit community is forced to face a shadowy evil in its midst, and the bravery of Maddie, a young girl with more of an open mind than most of her fellows, is crucial to saving the lives of her family and those she loves most.


A page turning story with vengeful witches, cures for a werewolf, a demon said to live in the nearby loch, and dense rolling fog to hide the true doings of the lot (if they really exist) – this little book has something for everyone. The tale is tight enough to hold the interest of anyone who enjoys young adult fiction with a gothic tendency, while any middle school student with an interest in bumps-in-the-night or even (gasp!) love will keep reading as well.


Have you been known to visit the library and take a look at recent returns in order to discover something you might otherwise have missed?


Tagged as: clare b. dunkle
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Sunday, May 18, 2008

It pains me to chide an artist/writer that I admire and a publication that I feel the same way about but both Carrie Brownstein and the L.A. Times owe the Grateful Dead an apology.  Brownstein wrote about and the L.A. Times reported on (in a blog post) how supposedly the Dead didn’t want her to include “Friend of the Devil” in an online mixtape unless the band was subject of a story that she would do. 


Turns out that ain’t the case.  The band itself didn’t ask for any of that.  Their label, Rhino, did.  That’s a big distinction. 


LAT did correct that later but as you know, the correction is usually forgotten more quickly than the initial story (which turns out to be the wrong story)- note that the headline to the LAT blog post that reported the story still has the Dead making the request in the headline.  Brownstein and LAT have a powerful platform as they’re easily able to connect with a lot of people thanks to their rep and as such, they gotta be more careful about who they point fingers at in a story like this. 


As for Rhino, I respect them a lot for taking up the slack of a lot of labels who let material fall outta print but this was kind of a boneheaded request to make of Brownstein.  As the LAT post notes, the Dead ain’t exactly hurting for recognition, even today.  Also note that in the comments to the LAT posting, along with some shots at Brownstein, some other commentators question the Dead organization itself for the way it’s run.


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Sunday, May 18, 2008

I’m a sailor peg
And I lost my leg
I climbed up the topsails
I lost my leg
I’m shipping up to boston
(whoa oh oh)


The Dropkick Murpheys, Shipping Up To Boston

The great thing about Internet Society is that one can pursue a peripatetic lifestyle and not really have to have left home. Well, at least figuratively. Sure, maybe for simple things, like locating “Almond Joy” candy bars, you actually have to get up and out—go to a specific place—but for many of the most important things in life, nowadays, no matter where you hang your flight bag for a few hours, you can arrange it so that it appears as if you haven’t really escaped the coop. Perhaps some of you are tempted to wonder: “but doesn’t this defeat the whole purpose?” To which I can only utter two words: NBA playoffs. Two words sufficient to conclude any arguments with any locally-sympathetic argumenteurs. For others, it might be major cultural productions such as World Cup soccer or even the latest installment of American Idol. Productions, we once used to believe were confined to one particular geographic place (probably because we once actually experienced them as such—and probably only yesterday), but now no longer are. Because of our increasing spread-out-edness, the need for more of “what is over there”, away from where I currently am, now exists. And, thanks to the web (and a network of enterprising wonks who share similar passions) there is a solution: many geo-specific mediated productions are now part of the simultaneous global cultural stream. For peripatetics, our globally-organized cultural stream. Which explains why, although I am currently beyond US borders, I can still watch my very own Lakers on their inexorable path toward the finals (woo-hoo) in real time. Every trey in transition, double-team splitting pick and roll, and flyswat out of bounds. Every Kobe Bryant pirouette, Pau Gasol jersey pop, Phil Jackson scowl, and Lamar Odom left-handed jam. The reason I can perform this metaphysical magic is due to a website which apparently originates in Spain called “Zapateirodot-com; thanks to links they have posted in their “televisiones gratis en directo” page (and thank goodness for two years of high school espanol!), I can log in from—wherever in the world I might be—and catch Stateside hoops mysteriously lifted from feeds to American viewers via TNT, ESPN and ABC. I’m sure that this isn’t precisely how the three and four-letter acronyms above wish their universes to be, but I am enough of an addict to admit that, when it comes to getting my roundball fix, I don’t really care. If you are still reading, then perhaps you are the same way.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

It’s DVD week here at SE&L. Each day from now until Sunday, we will be looking at some of the latest releases on the format, as well as some unusual or independent off-titles that you may have missed. Reviews will be updated sporadically, so check back often to see what we have to offer.

Previously:
George Romero invents the zombie film with his 1968 epic


We’ve truly become Marshall McLuhan’s worst nightmare. For us, reality television and the media is everything - nurturer, educator, entertainer, opinion former, purveyor of history and definer of myth. We no longer think for ourselves. Instead, we ‘blog’ to let the world in on our thought processes, falsely believing that the audience is doing anything more than laughing under their laptop. The news is no longer the truth - YouTube processes the raw footage editorial control and journalistic ethics censor. Of course, there’s a legitimate reason for such strictures, but in the outlaw lands of the Internet, it’s unimportant. In the World Wild Web West, it’s vigilante justice with a MySpace page.


As he has done with each of his previous Dead installments, horror maestro George Romero has used the current political and/or social clime (and his views on same) as a subtext to his zombie terrors. In Night of the Living Dead, it was the unraveling revolution of the ‘60s. Dawn of the Dead commented on the rampant consumerism of the Me Decade. The ‘80s got Day of the Dead, as a conservative militarized nation trying to take back Morning in America. Land of the Dead gave the ‘90s boom and ‘00s bust a heinous “haves vs. have nots” sheen. Now comes his latest masterpiece, a self-proclaimed reboot aimed squarely at the nu-tech age, and it’s just as brilliant. 


Diary of the Dead follows the adventures of Jason Creed, his girlfriend Beth, their film class professor, and a group of their college buddies during the shooting of an independent fright flick. As they set up sequences in a deserted wood, they get word that the world as they know it is slowly disintegrating. The dead are returning to life…and feasting on the living. As the standard order breaks down and collapses, they hop into their rundown production RV and head out on the highway. As the others try to make sense of their situation, Jason keeps his camera rolling - the better to document, as he puts it, “The Death of Death”.


Leave it to Romero to reinvent himself in such a sharp, sarcastic manner. Clearly concerned about the plugged-in yet clue-less nature of the supposedly media-savvy, his latest effort ravages the ‘www’ terrain while reminding viewers that no one gives up the gruesome gore gags better. Diary of the Dead (new to DVD from Genius Products, the Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme Division) is an old timer’s take on the way communication has cannibalized itself, how as one character puts it, “nothing is real until you see it onscreen”. By utilizing the soon to be tired first person POV that drove both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, he channels the inherent anxiety of such a limited scope. But unlike those other films, he finds a way to add something salient to the scares.


Romero is clearly a master of allegorical macabre. Sometimes, his riffs are obvious (zombies stumbling through a shopping mall). At other instances, like throughout most of Diary, he’s devious with his metaphors. There are nods to every other living dead movie he’s made, from the newscast as narrative drive of the action (like Night) to the supposed safe fortress of unimaginable wealth and material leisure (as in Dawn). We get bastard military men (ala Day) and a true sense of the disenfranchised and downtrodden being blamed and corded off from the rest of scared suburbia (like Land). In fact, Romero appears to be coalescing all that came before, suggesting that this is the real horror tale he wanted to tell.


There’s another level here that’s equally effective. As a director, Romero keeps his cast off kilter, making them appear amateurish or brash because…well, that’s what these kids really would be, given the circumstances. Turning them into well-honed thespians with a sharp handle on exactly what to do would ruin the ‘you are there’ dynamic. Sure, this is scripted, avoiding the expletive filled pointlessness of Witch‘s weak kneed trio. But Romero expertly captures the aimlessness of young people wittingly out of touch with true reality. Everything they know, everything they do, is filtered through the instant gratification of cell phones, PDAs, laptops, Wi-Fi, satellite television, and endless hours surfing the ‘Net. They practically speak in text messages. Even worse, our hero never helps the people he films. Even as they are threatened, he uses the detachment of the camera to keep from getting directly involved.


There is an additional caustic undercurrent championed here, a personal one Romero refers to constantly in the DVD extras. As part of his commentary track, he leans into the problems with progress, how it renders individuals unable to solve their own problems. Similarly, his interview segments as part of the making-of material come off as thoughtful and quite insightful. This is clearly a film about thinking for oneself, about avoiding the inevitable terror clichés to survive in a world gone wicked. Naturally, characters do the kind of things that end up causing them concern. They’ve been programmed, brainwashed by a social setup of zero accountability to believe in such slop psychology.


That this all happens within the context of a ripping creepshow cements why Romero remains a god. Between the clever kills, the ample arterial spray, and the relentless suspense (the single lens viewpoint makes us feel like part of the refugees), we are treated to a corrosive combination of blood and bleakness. Fans have long felt that Day of the Dead was the director’s darkest vision. Diary will more than likely usurp that underground angst fest. The effects work here by Greg Nicotero and KNB (along with additional help from SPIN VFX) is amazing. Heads are split open, melted with acid, and parted at the jawline. The images are startling, reminding us of how powerful onscreen violence can be when handled with artistry and appreciation.


Considering his age (he’ll be 68 this year) and the number of years he’s been making films (2008 marks the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead), it’s fascinating how George Romero can continue to bring fresh, invigorating ideas to the genre he inadvertently created four decades ago.  Even better, he keeps pushing the envelope of expression, incorporating as many current controversies and concerns into his plot points as possible. It will be interesting to see if Romero again returns to this material, especially within the context of the ongoing War in Iraq and the contemporary climate of fear we now live in (there are some minor hints of same in Diary). Like any great virtuoso, the Godfather of the zombie film has more to offer than a series of flesh-feasting set pieces. Diary of the Dead is a sparkling reflection of our troubled times - and the images in the everpresent viewfinder are not pretty.



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