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Monday, Nov 19, 2007

The market is swarming with ‘60s music compilations for the 40th anniversary of the “Summer of Love”. The best, this 10-CD TimeLife set, captures the diversity of late ‘60s and early ‘70s music in all its glory. Trippy and funky, rocking and folky, “Flower Power” is a musical melting pot for chilling out, raising a fist, remembering good times and bad, and groovin’ to a message.  Given the current Iraq quagmire, these songs sound as fresh and relevant as when they were first committed to wax. [TimeLife.com]


Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit



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Monday, Nov 19, 2007

This smorgasbord of “minor Renoir” encompasses and summarizes his career from beginning to end; a bargain for the cinephile, expert or novice. For those who know about Renoir’s philosophical and artistic preference for extended takes and depth of field, they’ll see how experimental, how surreal, how flashily edited, how positively Eisensteinian the young filmmaker was. The earliest four films here, all silent, are vehicles for Renoir’s discovery of what can be done with a camera. [Amazon]


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Sunday, Nov 18, 2007

For the week of Thanksgiving (at least for those of us here, in America), SE&L will look back at some of the stories from earlier in the year which suddenly have renewed relevance.

In the case of the J.J. Abrams-produced mystery project, there’s an official title and a new trailer. Oddly enough, very little about the project has changed.


The big buzz building around the Internet the last two days has centered on a striking new trailer. It features people partying, having fun, all viewed through the various handheld recording devices that have swept across the post-millennial landscape (PDAs, cellphones, camcorders). Suddenly, an Earth-shaking noise is heard. The fun stops. Another massive thud. And then a horrific, otherworldly wail. People start to panic. Before long, we are tossed into a chaotic, first person POV destruction of New York City, including mandatory symbolic obliteration (poor Statue of Liberty) and some very familiar movie monster noises (Toho, anyone?). The unusual clip – no narration, no major marketing tag lines – suddenly cuts to black. On the screen, the following title cards appear: “From J.J. Abrams” and “1/18/08”.


Fans of the Alias/Lost creator, fortunate enough to see (and in some cases, unlawfully capture) the teaser as part of the Transformers theatrical preview package, immediately rushed home and searched the Internet Movie Database for some clue as to what this proposed film, code named “Cloverfield”, was really all about. Many speculated that it would be the long dormant Godzilla sequel, which made sense since Abrams was the creative force behind the Mission Impossible franchise reboot and is currently developing a Star Trek reimagining as well. So why not give the big green radioactive lizard another shot, right? Well, that rumor was quickly nixed when studious fans recognized that Paramount (the company behind the new film) does not own the rights to the character.


Others have guessed that, based on the movie it was attached to, it may be another ‘80s cartoon title (the prime suspect: a proposed live action version of Voltron). Of course, that was also immediately negated when a World Wide Web search found readily available information on said project – and Abrams name was nowhere to be seen. From another alien invasion ala Independence Day to something called The Parasite that the producer/director has been working on, the fascinating footage – and its eventual bootlegging on the ‘Net – has caused quite a stir. It’s the kind of ‘viral’ world of mouth that marketers are mad about, especially in this interconnected age when a well placed site, a MySpace page, and constant conversation on the numerous movie and fan messageboards can keep an unreleased product viable for months.


Naturally, Paramount has been playing pirate killer, removing the various incarnations of the trailer from all known potential playback portals (YouTube, etc.), though if you look hard enough, you may still be able to find the horrible, hack quality video. Their aggressiveness has lead some to argue that the studio is really behind all the ‘illegal’ activity and is using the whole controversy as a means of generating press (and it’s worked – after all, we’re talking about it here). Through all the denials and determined PR statements, one thing’s for certain – Cloverfield is no longer a non-entity. Among the many 2008 titles generating incredibly early interest (Indiana Jones 4, Speed Racer, The Happening), this still unknown effort has moved right up to the top.


Of course, this isn’t the first time that mysterious images meshed with online elements have generated major movie curiosity. As far back as 1989, when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton would play the lead role in his version of Batman, the technically savvy have spent endless amounts of time in stern speculation over movies in production and decisions (both artistic and practical) by filmmakers helming their works in progress. It’s the foundation for immensely popular websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Coming Attractions. Indeed, the fanboy and the obsessive have long known the inherent value of futile flame wars over casting, concept, and characterization. While it may not change the actual movie being made, it sure helps keep the profile high and mighty. Perhaps the best example of such a strategy remains the infamous Blair Witch Project. For almost the entire year prior to its Summer 1999 release, this minor mock documentary became the most celebrated unseen horror film of the decade. 


It all began with some secretly distributed videotapes. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wanted a little publicity for their $22,000 experiment, and knew that the growing influence of the Internet could help. As a highly believable webpage was being built centering around the movie’s mythos, the guys sent out copies to various sites. One influential individual who received a copy was AICN honcho Harry Knowles. For all his obvious self promotion, this life long film dork adored the film. In fact, it was he who started much of the “is it real, or is it fake” conjecture. His reaction was so visceral, so perfectly aligned with the response Myrick and Sanchez were looking for, that they built their entire campaign around it. It was a strategy they took to Sundance and Cannes.


Thanks to the website, and similar praise from other sources, The Blair Witch Project soon became the talk of the techs. Most of the conversation centered on the “missing” kids who supposedly starred in the film (the actors were asked to keep a very low profile until the movie was released) and how, though many claimed there was no such thing, the town of Burkittsville was indeed home to a vengeful demonic spirit. There was even an uproar over accusations of copycatting and outright plagiarism. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler were livid when they learned of the Blair Witch plot and format. It seemed sneakily similar to their effort The Last Broadcast, centering on a group of public access show producers who enter the New Jersey Pine Barrens – and never return.


Naturally, all the buildup, all the exposure both good and bad, all the preview screenings (and eventual leaked reviews) and SciFi Channel specials (one supposedly offering the true story of the child killer at the center of Witch’s narrative) lead to unbelievably high audience recognition, and when it finally found its way into theaters at the end of July 1999, it was a monster hit. Everyone, from the most avid horror fan to the mere curious onlooker, just had to see what this mysterious movie was all about. Hailed as some manner of masterwork, The Blair Witch Project has since become a unique, if nominal, genre fluke. It’s a hard film to watch in light of all that we now know about the production, and it no longer carries the ethereal impact it once had.


Yet studios saw how a carefully created package involving both online and standard tactics of marketing and awareness could generated immense interest (and larger than usual box office dollars). Warner Brothers jumped on board early, using the incredibly evocative tagline “What is the Matrix?” and a similarly named Internet address to begin the build-up for it’s proposed virtual reality thriller. The company followed suit by lobbing various rumors about the casting and storyline for their proposed late ‘90s Superman update (it backfired, more or less killing the project until Bryan Singer came along and jumpstarted it). Of course, the most recent example remains Snakes on a Plane. From the decision to dump the far more mundane Pacific Air 121 title, to the last minute reshoots that upped the film’s previously pegged PG-13 language and violence, New Line went all out catering to the WWW crowd. Some still believe it eventually cost the company (the film was only a moderate hit).


So whatever Cloverfield ends up being (our money is on a gimmicky, one note effort that will be low on spectacle and high on Witch like slacker confrontations), here’s hoping Abrams and Paramount play it smart. It is one thing to involve the rich vein of human curiosity that floods through the various dial-up, DSL, and cable connections across this country. When properly tapped into, said pipeline can produce dynamic dividends. But just like the flawed concepts of focus groups, and advanced screenings geared toward constantly remaking a movie to fit an elusive utilitarian entertainment ideal (the greatest good for the greatest number), you can pay too much attention to the untrained audience and end up killing whatever made your movie distinctive in the first place. The teaser certainly succeeded in its named capacity. It has us interested. It will be five more months before we know if there’s more to this story than hope – and hype.


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Sunday, Nov 18, 2007
by Elizabeth Fox

A flawed run through the alphabet; author C.S. Richardson delivers an intriguing symbolism, yet doesn’t derive much from it.

The End of the Alphabet

The End of the Alphabet
by C.S. Richardson
Doubleday ($16.95)


By Elizabeth Fox


The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)


From the moment you pick up C.S. Richardson’s The End of the Alphabet, there is little doubt that, at only 119 pages, it aspires to join Of Mice and Men on the list of short classic novels bursting with brilliant, heart-wrenching emotion.


To its credit, it does try pretty hard to get there. Its very concept sounds like “instant classic” material. Ambrose Zephyr, a 50-ish man leading a boring, contented life, discovers at his annual medical exam that he has an unspecified illness with no cure, and only 30 days, give or take, to live.


The news comes as a blow both to Ambrose and to his loving wife, Zipper. Attempting to come to terms with this loss of life and love, they try to satisfy Ambrose’s previously unfulfilled desire to travel by racing from one place to the next, each geographical location corresponding with successive letters of the alphabet. The names of characters, the printing career of Ambrose’s father, and the recurring appearances of books, typesetting blocks, and writing in general all highlight this alphabetical motif again and again.


Richardson’s inability to do anything with this symbolism, however, is representative of the book’s major flaw. Throughout, Richardson scatters many of the patterns, symbols, and motifs adored by literature buffs (I am one, so I can say it). In addition to the alphabet, he throws in Ambrose’s obsession with travel, the connection of the couple to Paris, Ambrose’s ability to see and smell through his imagination, and a smattering of other oft-repeated references. Yet intriguing as they are, Richardson is unable to tie these many quirky patterns into any kind of meaning. This is especially disappointing as his major topics—death, love, loss—are ripe for metaphor, symbolism, and literary analysis.


He also faces serious problems in his characterization of Ambrose and Zipper. The reader never gets much of a sense of them as people. By way of introduction, Richardson describes in detail what each of them likes and does not like, and then heads straight into the territory of vague action and generalized grief. The like/don’t like way of introducing characters worked in the French film “Amelie” because it was followed by action, reaction, confrontation and discourse—all things that informed further character development and produced complex personalities. Here, a few details do not a character make. The incomplete haziness of Ambrose and Zipper’s description means that, while their situation is infinitely pitiable, it’s hard to sympathize with them as the people experiencing it.


That said, though, there is a certain sweetness to Richardson’s novel. Perhaps it’s the many references it makes to an idyllic Paris, perhaps it’s the recollection it inspires of Mark Dunn’s wonderful Ella Minnow Pea, or perhaps it’s merely the book’s small size (an hour or two’s reading at most, and, ironically, nicely travel-size), but it does have an offbeat charm.


Richardson also infuses Ambrose and Zipper with certain endearing characteristics—he cannot stand Wuthering Heights, while it’s her favorite book; they disagree about where they first met—to provide a sketch, if not a full portrait, of an adorably eccentric couple. And while Ambrose’s death could not elicit tears from this cold-hearted reader, his last gift to Zipper brought on a sniffle or two.


So in the end, The End of the Alphabet is not a classic. Instead, it’s a flawed but sweet novel, more ordinary than extraordinary. But considering its premise—ordinary, flawed but sweet people in extraordinary circumstances—maybe that makes sense.


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Sunday, Nov 18, 2007


It remains the single most significant debate in the series’ otherwise stable history. While many consider it to be a minor, or even moot point, messageboards and fan sites still sizzle with its personality based paradox. On the one hand there are fervent admirers of stand-up legend and show creator Joel Hodgson. His sleepy eyed sense of whimsy matched by a non-threatening satiric irony made him the perfect post-modern kiddie show host. But when he finally left Mystery Science Theater 3000, the movie mocking comedy cavalcade that he had shepparded through growing pains and cable channel cultdom, he was replaced by the soon to be celebrated Mike Nelson. Longtime collaborator and head writer, the Midwestern mook took his confused Everyman shtick and launched it into the stratosphere. Before long, he was the most recognizable face the show ever had, far more mainstream than the previous personality.


Thus, the ultimate standoff was established. On one side are the faithful, the ones who believe Joel represents everything MST3K stands for. He’s the cornerstone of the classic, the reason the show exists and why it still resonates some two decades later. And yet those who support Mike argue that his substitution actually saved the series. He sat at the center of Mystery Science’s commercial renaissance, the shift from unknown quantity to noted example of the medium’s multifaceted excellence. Oh course, the question boils down to this – who is better? Is Hodgson’s culturally astute ramblings, laced with enough pop life references to strangle a steer, the true tenet of MST, or does Nelson’s nice guy numbskullery, the buffoonish set within a pure distillation of homespun humor, best exemplify the show’s entertainment essence?


While a definitive consensus may never be reached, Rhino’s latest volume of forgotten funny business, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 12, sets up an interesting dichotomy. Featuring Joel circa Season 4 (The Rebel Set) and toward the end of his run (Season 5’s Secret Agent Super Dragon) vs. Mike during his introductory phase (Season 6’s The Starfighters) and his Season 8 Sci-Fi Channel finery (the classic Parts: The Clonus Horror), this brilliant box set creates the conflict perfectly. How you respond to and revere each episode traces your wit proclivity to its point of personal origin. By the end of the unquestionably hilarious six hour slog through some of the worst movies ever made, you’ll have a better handle on your cow town puppet show preferences.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or with the human equivalent of same, Mystery Science Theater 3000 offers a rather surrealistic premise. Hodgson plays a former worker for the fictional Deep 13 Laboratories shot into space by disgruntled mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester. With the help of henchman TV’s Frank, the fey super villain subjects his orbital guinea pig to the lousiest, lamest films ever conceived. He then monitors Hodgson’s mind to see how the ‘experiment’ affects him. Of course, our hero combats the sniveling psycho by creating a collection of robot friends. Gypsy runs the higher functions on the spaceship. Crow and Tom Servo act as buffers to the bad movie mania, sitting in the Satellite of Love’s screening room and riffing away to combat the crap. When Joel escaped his fate during the mid-section of Season 5, Nelson simply replaced him as the newest test case.


With 1959’s The Rebel Set, we have one of the best examples of this premise in play. The staid little heist flick substitutes stupidity for suspense, and offers the most unlikely set of criminals this side of an episode of Dragnet. Working angles both unbelievable (a struggling actor agreeing to a between trains snatch) and beatnik (the ‘oh so uncool’ coffeehouse setting gives poets an even worse rep) it’s a stagnant, unstoppable mess. Naturally, it makes for flawless MST fodder. One of the show’s signatures remains its host segment/sketch material. Instead of quipping throughout the entire film, the picture occasionally pauses so that Joel, his tormentors, and his automaton pals can comment on what they’ve seen and extend the comedy beyond the actual meaning of the movie. Here, we get suggestions for what someone could do on a four hour layover in Chicago, how to hone one’s acting chops the “Scott Baio” way, and a discussion of unknown character actor Merritt Stone. Throw in a sensational short subject (the Canadian National Exhibition exercise, Johnny at the Fair) and you’ve got a pristine illustration of Joel-era bemusement.


For exemplary Mike, on the other hand, it’s hard to beat the diabolically dull Starfighters. Clearly crafted as a recruitment tool for the US Air Force, we watch as new pilot recruits (including one rather spineless daddy’s boy) take their multimillion dollar fighting machines up, up, and away. Endless footage of mid-air refueling commences. Deconstructing such blatant propaganda is not hard for the gang – especially when the last act revolves around something called a “poopie” suit – but the lack of anything remotely amusing or engaging does give the jokesters a run for their riffing. Again, the midpoint material is sensational, Crow and Tom taking the notion of a ‘de-briefing’ to sensational slapstick heights, while the United Servo Men’s Choir provides an acappela medley of flight-oriented catchphrases. Any film featuring future former Congressman Bob Dornan as a wussified jet trainee has its own unique entertainment inertness. But Mike proves that all facets of humor, from commercial parodies (a BBQ sauce setpiece) to old school tech tweaks (Crow tries, unsuccessfully, to merge onto the information superhighway) are ripe for rediscovery.


Of course, the movies themselves manufacture much of the mirth – especially when they play like an inadvertent spoof of the genre they’re shameless imitating. Joel’s second offering, the espionage ipecac Secret Agent Super Dragon is verifiable evidence of such poorly planned production misfires. This ersatz Bond, bumbling around like Matt Helm and Derek Flint’s bastard offspring, is about as intriguing as a bureaucratic seminar in triplicate. This typical Italian rip-off starts out sloppy, and only gets more inexplicable along the way. Centering on an international dealer smuggling drugs via auctioned artworks, there’s plenty of ripe ridicule material present. And Joel’s jesters make the most of it. Even better, we get another sensational sketch segment where Crow writes a politically correct script for his own take on the misogynistic, chauvinistic spy thriller. One of the best amalgamations of type with treatment the series ever established, it’s sad to think that there were only eight more episodes featuring Hodgson after this.


Luckily, Nelson was able to carry the comic mantle expertly. Even after cancellation, renewal, and constant fretting over the Sci-Fi Channel mandates regarding content (this is a network that now considers professional wrestling as acceptable genre subject matter), MST3K still managed to deliver undeniable comic genius. Nowhere is this truer than in the now classic take on the clone organ harvesting extravaganza Parts: The Clonus Horror. Remember Michael Bay’s The Island from a couple of years back. Same plagiarized story. Dopey duplicates kept in a utopian resort learn they are actually body part banks for influential individuals. One rebellious replicant decides to fight the system. Boredom ensues. Unlike the other three installments of the series offered herein, Parts has problems that have very little to do with the quality of what’s going on and everything to do with unclear context and continuity. Unless you followed the show from Season 7 on, you’ll have no idea who Pearl Forrester, Professor Bobo, or Brain Guy actually are. You’ll hear Crow’s new voice and wonder why the switch was made. Granted, the PBS pledge drive segments are wonderful, but the lack of perspective and place may confuse the uninitiated.


In fact, the only fault found in any of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 material is the latter versions need to maintain season-long story arcs. Sci-Fi’s suits must have slipped a substantial gasket requiring a show built around a different movie every week to develop some manner of character/narrative continuity. It’s unnecessary, and makes future syndication seem scattered – or impossible. In any case, these delightful DVDs give us an opportunity to revisit the series without having to worry about messy torrents, Nth generation bootlegs, or DVD-R scams. They look amazing, and Rhino fleshes out the films with trailers, interviews (Rebel Set star Don Sullivan) and another installment of the MST3K Video Jukebox. Many forget just how many amazing songs and music based skits the comedians created, and this third go round collects some of the best.


Yet none of this really addresses the opening concern – who, indeed, was a better show host? Joel was a jolly if slightly cynical sort who let his razor sharp observations slowly stumble and creep up on you. He wasn’t the hit you over the head type that Mike masterfully manipulated. Hodgson often played as if he knew this was all a joke, retrofitting a lifetime exposed to WGN family fare as a means of making a grander, neo-nostalgic point. Nelson gave the premise all he could, frequently letting the robots redesign his reputation into slacker, stooge, cheesehead, and chump. You could call it a perfect example of humor yin and yang, the intellectual and the inbred blissfully blundering away together – and frankly, you’d be right. One of the main reasons Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains a TV classic is this combination of heart and head, the brainiac and the balderdash. It suggests no one is better and both are best. Indeed, to argue between Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson is rather pointless. When something as brilliant as the episodes included in Volume 12 stands as validation, there’s no need to choose sides.


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