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Sunday, Jul 6, 2008
In the case of The Ruins, the advertising took a decidedly odd approach.

Sometimes, you have to wonder what goes on in a marketer’s head. Let’s say you have a good movie - granted, a niche genre effort, but a good film none the less. Now, you know that most critics are going to crucify it, demeaning what it stands for merely because of the type it represents (in this case, horror). And from past experience, you are aware that this kind of narrative appeals to a certain sort of audience, one that needs to be ballyhooed right up front in order to earn the maximum opening weekend returns. These movies don’t have legs, and you understand that. So it’s now or never; pile on the hype and hope for the best.


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Sunday, Jul 6, 2008

In the annals of exploitation, Bob Cresse remains more myth than man. While other kings of the grindhouse see their names celebrated as part of cinema’s history, the University of Miami educated ex-carny with a penchant for weaponry and Nazi paraphernalia stands as a singular, unexplainable enigma. A pure hustler, Cresse worked his way through the traditional Tinsel Town channels (messenger, low level executive) until he decided to go independent. Yet so little has been written about him personally that he’s become an afterthought in the conversation, a figure whose reputation suggests respect, but whose actions and accomplishments indicate something far more reprehensible.


Genre scholars have often referred to the fireplug producer as a man who never met an actress he didn’t want to whip, and his filmic fetishes - bondage, discipline, sadism, and degradation - remain the trickiest of proclivities (for Cresse, both personal and professional) to defend. Yet there is much more to his oeuvre than motion picture masochism and a flare for the extreme.


Many fail to realize that Cresse helped fuel the growing Mondo craze with his 1963 production Hollywood’s World of Flesh. Later, together with his longtime cohort and collaborator Lee Frost (together they ran the notorious Olympic International Films - motto: “Art for the Sake of Money”) they would expand on the style with Mondo Bizzaro and Mondo Freudo (both 1966). His famous feud with David F. Friedman, Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation film, led to a glorious battle of softcore wits. When the mind behind The Defilers and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood trilogy made a bawdy Western (Brand of Shame), Cresse rushed his own smut-laced oater into release (Hot Spur - 1968).


Always looking for a way to make a buck, the maverick also copied industry trends and other’s successful schemes. Back when censorship was constantly challenging the validity of sex and violence onscreen, the grindhouse guides tried everything they could to avoid persecution (and legal prosecution). One semi-successful ruse was bringing foreign films over from Sweden and France to the United States, redubbing them into English, and positioning them as high brow, arthouse fare. The air of sophistication and international distinction made the rampant nudity and adult content more palatable to those looking for prurient interests and illustrations.


Thus Little Girls entered Cresse’s life. In retrospect, it seemed like an oddly perfect fit. The mannered morality tale about wealthy young ladies losing their inhibitions away from the prying eyes of their distance, disinterested parents had a seedy subtext (the gals would end up blackmailed by a desperate club owner and her hired stud), a recognizable underpinning of perversion (we get beatings, teen lust, and some not so subtle incest), and lots of nubile, naked bodies. It was everything the raincoat crowd mandated. It also mimicked the ongoing sexual revolution expertly while offering cold hearted members of the coat and tie Establishment enough finger waving precaution to make it appear conscientious. 


The story centers on four school girls. Their kittenish curiosity in the ways of wantonness ends up backfiring when their supposed friend Bismuth sells them out to club owner Dani and her hunky employee Mike. As scenes of debauchery and degradation play out, we get innuendo and insinuation, the black and white image giving everything a definitive, monochrome morality. As with any tale of innocence defiled and principles perverted, Mike has a moment of clarity, and decides to end the extortion. Of course, it helps that he’s fallen for Elena, one of the trampy targets. In the end, it’s Dani, not her ‘students’, who pays for their crimes.


Unlike their American counterparts, Europeans frequently used sensuality and lust as reminders of social responsibility and political unrest. Little Girls reflects this by having all the parents indirectly approve of their daughters’ dirty deeds. In fact, the plans of the conniving Dani backfire when no one cares about the scandalous photos they are sent. One stepfather even decides the situation excuses his attempted rape of his own child. With Cresse supplying the voice over narration (as well as an inserted S&M sequence - more on this in a moment), we get that slightly smug, holier than thou feeling about the entire premise. While a movie like Little Girls wants to celebrate the hedonistic horniness of its heroines, it also does a dandy job of putting them right back in their supposedly underage place.


Since he merely picked up this production for distribution, Cresse had no input in how the movie was actually made. But it’s clear he used his newfound ownership interest to exercise a little editorial control. His creation of the narration aside, the movie feels overly simplified, reduced to basic plot points and lots of scenes of faux fornication. Unlike the Mondo movies he imported, elements here appear truncated, reconfigured, and purposely repositioned. When two characters retire to a movie theater for some private time, the onscreen action features a well hidden Cresse (his back and balding head give him away) giving former pin-up and Whisky a Go-Go dancer Michelle Angelo the once over. Breasts tied up in restraining ropes, there are endless shots of this model being abused, beaten, and objectified.


Many of the movie’s more scandalous moments were also right up Cresse’s alley. One of the first trysts takes place in a cemetery, half-naked heroine and her pick-up crawling out of a freshly dug grave in post-coital satisfaction. Another customer demands his paramours strip, and then slap each other silly. Perhaps the most repugnant moment occurs when a blond bimbette, described as “just over 14”, slinks up to a deviant sitting at the top of a ladder, his grinning mug and filthy slicker opened suggestively. After a few more minutes of seduction, the girl’s head disappears into the coat’s hemline. 


One aspect of Little Girls that Cresse clearly had no control over is the performances. Most of the actresses are very good, coming across like naughty versions of their new wave counterparts. At other instances, the talent takes on the air of a sketch comedy parody, overwrought emotions ruining the film’s more subtle sophisticated atmosphere. The script does take chances, hinting at pedophilia, suicide, and a last act brawl that pits our remaining victims against the callous bitch who would sell their soul (and skin) to save her business. In classic exploitation style, matters between vixen and villain are handled with brazenness and a brutal sense of comeuppance.


Had their not been the connection to Cresse, had the movie simply arrived on American shores as yet another example of international envelope pushing, Little Girls would have had little impact. But what made men like this as infamous as they were ingenious (and waving guns in the faces of deadbeat distributors doesn’t count) is the way they turned the formulaic and familiar into something filthy. Even without the added scene, this movie would have been sleazy. Cresse’s contribution strips away the veneer of propriety to show the effort for what it really is - 66 minutes of breasts, butts, and balling.


It still doesn’t explain the man, however. Maybe nothing truly can. He viewed himself as a rebel, a hard nosed ball buster of a businessman who treated his friends like fools and his competitors like casualties. Harry Novak, famed producer of such movies as Kiss Me Quick and Wham, Bam, Thank You Space Man once referred to him as a “criminal” claiming his volatile temperament frequently failed him. This was especially true one fateful day. While walking his dog, Cresse saw two men beating up a woman. Stepping in to stop the situation, he proceed to threaten them with his trusty handgun. Turns out it was a pair of policeman roughing up a local prostitute. Provoked, they shot Cresse, and then killed his canine companion for good measure. The resulting seven-month stay in the hospital depleted all of his money (he was uninsured). He would eventually die of a heart attack in 1998.


Little Girls may now appear like a blip on Bob Cresse’s professional radar, and he will probably always been known as the miscreant German commandant in Love Camp 7, or the Jonathan Winters channeling Granny Goode from House on Bare Mountain. Indeed, many of his acting turns (The Erotic Adventures of Zorro - 1972, The Pick-Up - 1968) were more memorable than his movies. As a screenwriter he was routine and as a humanitarian he was humiliating. But Cresse will always be one of exploitation’s more intriguing characters, and his participation in Little Girls is proof of his position as the genre’s unsung agent provocateur. He should be better known. Sadly, it seems like he’s destined to remain an elusive, contradictory legend. 


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Sunday, Jul 6, 2008

It’s not just iTunes or Amazon that are driving music stores out of Manhattan, it’s also the housing market which looks to squeeze astronomical amounts of money from every business there so that only nationwide chains can afford it (though even Starbucks is having trouble doing that nowadays).  The latest example is Downtown Music Gallery, a veritable Gotham institution that’s facing insane rate hikes.  Here’s a WNBC video about the story though DMG itself notes that the rent is going up to $20,000 a month (!!!), which is double the amount that the note in the story. 


What’s also kind of surprising (and somewhat depressing) is that they also note that the Times Square Virgin Megastore will be gone soon too- that’s sad not only because there’s now less reason to mill around the area but also because the store itself seemed to have the right idea by diversifying what they sold (including videos, games, clothing) to keep on top of the game.  If even that strategy doesn’t work for them, you gotta fear for other smaller music stores who are trying the same thing to stay open.


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Saturday, Jul 5, 2008

In general, there are two crucial elements to a successful spoof. One is the source material. Something has to be part of the pop culture consciousness before it can become potential lampoon material. Cult entities can’t cut it, while the overexposed tend to ridicule themselves. The balance is not perfect, but it must be maintained. And then there is the humor itself. No one is knocking the lowbrow and the scatological, but a send-up must have some modicum of wit less it wallow in mindless unfunny business. The best benchmark for such a stricture is the 1980 farce Airplane! Directed by Jim Abrahams, and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, this comedy classic found the perfect combination of material and mirth to become a prime example of parody perfection.


Since then, however, the genre has died a thousand Scary Movie inspired deaths. Specifically, a pair of sadly untalented writers named Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have become the de factor frauds in charge of the post-post modern movement in so-called take-offs. Their string of cinematic abominations includes all four of the horror-inspired joke-a-thons, as well as Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and the upcoming Disaster Movie. How they avoided getting their dumbed down, derivative fingerprints on Superhero Movie (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Dimension Films division) is a minor miracle. Sure, this bumbling burlesque is only a tad more competent than the Friedberg/Seltzer sputum purporting to be comedy, but you can tell that the people behind the scenes at least have an idea of what spoofing is all about.


Craig Mazin is an alumnus from the Scary franchises (he helped out with numbers three and four) and with the help of original parody pro David Zucker as producer, some of that incomparable ZAZ spark has found its way into the desperately DOA format. The storyline is the spitting image of Spider-man. Rick Riker, on a field trip to a science lab, gets bitten by a genetically altered dragonfly. Soon, he’s taking on the characteristics of the bug, and exploring his newfound powers while pining away for sexy next door neighbor Jill Johnson. In the meantime, dying industrialist Lou Landers partakes in a radical experiment that turns him into a kind of vampire - he must kill someone everyday in order to live. As the Dragonfly becomes a celebrated crimefighter, Landers assumes the identity of the Hourglass, and uses his insane arch-villainy to try and live forever.


Right up front, you can see the main difference between Superhero and any of the other “Movies” mentioned. This film actually has a plot, a quasi-coherent clothesline upon which all number of timely and already dated riffs can be assembled and presented. We actually get something similar to a three part story arc, Rick going through the necessary origin motions before taking on his inadvertent nemesis. In between, there are takes on Batman Begins, X-Men, comic book culture, and everything that made Sam Raimi’s blockbuster a glorified geek classic. Sure, the sexually oriented material with Happy Day‘s Marion Ross and the way to aged Leslie Nielsen barely works, more uncomfortable than comic, and the random cameos from Brent Spiner and Jeffrey Tambor are more irritating than enjoyable, but overall, the performances are part of Superhero Movies limited positives.


Another is Drake Bell. While his partners it pre-teen Nickelodeon crime - The Amanda Show‘s Ms. Bynes and Drake and Josh‘s Mr. Peck - have both gone on to major motion picture careers, the music minded 22 year old has been stuck in big screen second banana mode. Superhero Movie won’t change that status for now, but Bell is very genial as Rick Riker. He does dopey slapstick well, and his expressions offer the perfect combination of cluelessness and self-referential irony. Without Bell, this film would be an even bigger dud. That he manages to keep us engaged even as fake animals are fornicating with his leg (as well as other body parts) indicates the inherently endearing quality he brings to the role.


As part of the DVD extras, we are treated to a full length audio commentary featuring Mazin and producers Zucker and Robert K. Weiss (best known for his work on the entire Police Squad series) along with some unnecessary deleted scenes (jokes that really misfire), an alternative ending (similar to what was eventually seen, if only smaller in scope), and a collection of cast and crew featurettes. Perhaps the most interesting element here is the notion that many recognize the reputation the genre has garnered, as well as how desperate they are to keep Superhero Movie from facing the same fate. Mazin and Zucker argue over how to approach parody, while Bell describes some of the pitfalls of being an on screen action star.


Certainly there are facets of this farce that just do not work. Christopher McDonald is way too manic to be anything other than a scenery chewing goof, and the random arrival of Pamela Anderson, Tracey Morgan, Simon Rex, and Regina Hall make about as much sense as the shout outs to Barry Bonds, Facebook, and Dr. Stephen Hawking. And anyone with fond memories of real send-up masters like Mel Brooks and such ZAZ masterworks as Top Secret! will wince at any comparable comparison. For what it’s worth, Superhero Movie is just a tad less inventive than the Star Wars workout Spaceballs, while not quite as shabby as other non- Friedberg/Seltzer stupidity like The Comebacks. While the entire comedic category may still be on life support, at least Mazin and crew aren’t contributing to its demise. Instead, Superhero Movie may suggest there’s life in the old filmic format after all.


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Friday, Jul 4, 2008

Mmmm… Sociology…: In one episode of The Simpsons, an establishing shot of the Springfield Public Library reveals a desperate sign reading, “We have books about TV.” If not for the potential for cosmological implosion, many of those books would be about The Simpsons, which, after almost two decades on the air, is such a cultural phenomenon that it now informs our sociological experience as much as the other way around. The funny little badly drawn cartoon show has, in many ways, become a barometer of our collective lives, and cultural observers and academics have built a cottage industry from analyzing the show’s impact and deeper meanings.


The latest entry to plumb the rich history of The Simpsons is Tim Delaney’s Simpsonology: There’s a Little Bit of Springfield in All of Us (Prometheus Books, 2008). Delaney, a sociology professor at SUNY Oswego, is a self-described Simpsons fanatic and draws widely and meticulously from the first 400 (!) episodes of the show to illustrate concepts in sociology, a sort of guide for the uninitiated using the microcosm of Matt Groening’s universe to show how we study and understand the collective behavior of human beings. Using exhaustive examples and snatches of dialogue from the show, Delaney demonstrates how the Simpsons and their neighbors relate to each other in the home, the school, the workplace, and the larger communities of religion, sports, politics, friendship, and romance.


At first glance, the book reads rather simply, and one wonders if Delaney is only in it to wax excitedly about what a fan he is, but as the book delves more deeply into larger sociological spheres, the reader will find himself or herself internalizing the concepts without realizing it, like reading a textbook in cartoon camouflage. Delaney’s mission to achieve crystal clarity often comes across as overly simplistic or condescending—in a book written for Simpsons fans, one needn’t explain the jokes—but neither is it dry or laced with academese like other treatments of the subject have been. Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation (Perseus Books, 2005) and Mark I. Pinsky’s The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) are better, but Delaney’s Simpsonology is a fine volume for anyone intent on an in-depth study of America’s favorite freakish yellow nuclear family.


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