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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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EXTRAS


 
 
Scores: Cecilia
DVD


 
EXTRAS



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Friday, Jan 25, 2008

Most shocking news of the week:


Thirty five million Mills & Boon titles are sold each year worldwide. Think we have a stiff upper lip? Seven million romantic novels are sold in the UK alone ... which translates into a Mills & Boon book being put through our tills every three seconds.


Wow. That’s insane. Find out more strange facts about the Mills & Boon publishing extravaganza over at the Times Online. Their “Eight facts about Mills & Boon books” is scary. Apparently, over a thousand people write Mills & Boon books. And over a million people buy the 70+ books published every month. I had no idea the demand was so monumental. I knew the books were a bit of a publishing force (only because they crowd the shelves of used bookstores, so someone’s buying them), but this is just way out of control. I may look into this further…


The Times also has a great video interview with Stephen King about Duma Key. Check that out here. Didn’t King retire? He and Garth Brooks are giving real retirees a bad name.


Buzzy, Busy Bees by Leia Martin.

Buzzy, Busy Bees by Leia Martin.


This one’s for Leia, my favourite environmentalist / photographer. From the article, “Plant a Tree Every Time You Buy a Book” from enviro-blog, Triple Pundit:


It is a sad shame that the majority of publishers today do not print their books on recycled paper. There is no logical reason why books should be printed on virgin paper that equals 20 million trees each year. I highly encourage publishers, online booksellers, and retail stores to reconsider the environmental impact of printing books on virgin paper and partner with Ecolibris.


And the big news… the Judith Regan lawsuit is settled. AP reports: “The war is over: Judith Regan, the publisher fired in the wake of her efforts to release O.J. Simpson’s hypothetical “confession,” has settled her $100 million lawsuit with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.” Find out more here. The bottom line? No-one is guilty of anything at all. How ironic.


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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008


Untraceable tries. Boy, does it try. One can just imagine the pitch meeting presented to gullible studio suits - “It’s Silence of the Lambs meets Saw! Get a name star and high profile director and you’ve got gold!” Well, in its present configuration, Diane Lane is your main marquee draw and Gregory Hoblit, the man behind Fracture, Hart’s War, and Frequency is your Master of Suspense. Together, they conjure up a dread quagmire filled with pointless exposition, cloudy character motivations, and more than a few leaps in logic. Toss in a fair amount of geek cyberspeak and you’ve got bewilderment on top of boredom.


Jennifer Marsh is an FBI agent specializing in Internet crime. Working out of the Portland office, she tracks down cases of identity theft, fraud, and pornography. Working closely with partner Griffin Dowd, she takes her job very seriously. Her only relief from the daily horrors she sees online are her aging mother and her precocious young daughter. Thanks to a tip, Marsh stumbles across KillWithMe.com, a site showing the slow starvation of a kitten. Within days, the image changes to that of a bound and gagged man. Hooked to a steady stream of anti-coagulant, the minor cuts on his torso are bleeding out profusely. Even worse, the number of hits to the address increases the amount of medicine. Suddenly, everything adds up in Marsh’s mind - there’s a killer somewhere out there, using the World Wide Web, and all who surf it, as an accomplice to their crimes.


In a genre that’s already died a thousand mediocre movie deaths, Untraceable is not the last stab into its heart of darkness. Instead, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a blueprint, a generic outline for something that, with the right creative input, could add up to something special. There’s no denying the supposed novelty of the premise - though the classic Chris Carter series Millennium did the concept better, and more compactly, during the run of the Lance Henrickson horror drama - but the minute we see a victim strung up in a dingy basement, trap apparatus convolutedly taking his life, we know we’ve ‘seen’ this all before. Lane brings nothing new to the mix - she’s Clarice Starling as a walking wounded widow, life zapped out of her thanks to endless overnight shifts chasing teenagers with stolen debit cards. What we need is a manageable monster like Hannibal Lecter, a Jigsaw styled jokester with some panache to his passion for death.


What we get instead is a mixed up murderer who voices one intent, and then instantly reneges on it to draw our policeman into his scheme. It’s a narrative conceit of convenience, a way to work clichés plot points and personal threats throughout what is, otherwise, a one man crusade against You Tube. Indeed, without giving much away, the TMZ exploitation of everything by the media, increased exponentially thanks to rabid fanboy file sharing, becomes the source of all our villain’s ire. Apparently, had he stumbled across Cute Overload instead of Shock Video.com, a lot of semi-innocent individuals would still be downloading smut. The rationale behind the crimes is so specious, so little boy lost in their configuration, that when we meet the fiend at the 45 minute mark, we loose all hope that the film will be anything other than routine.


You can tell that director Hoblit wanted to tweak the formula, to explore the elements of a standard police procedural with the added spark of a little puzzle box torture. Lambs managed its fear factors without resorting to tanks filled with sulphric acid or cement traps surrounded by heat lamps. It used a little something called character, and the inherent intrigue in discovering the truth behind the terror to set things on edge. Here, Hoblit jumps onto a bandwagon that’s long since left the depot. Arriving really late to the ‘gorno’ party is one thing. Thinking you’re capable of being the life of such an already overdone celebration is a cinematic fool’s paradise. 


And still Untraceable plods along. After the too early intro of the killer, we see the storyline shift, chestnuts fall into place, and possible formulaic finishing moves appear. We just known Marsh or her immediate family (or friends) will be involved, and that the initial motives for the crimes will be turned so that last minute confrontations and subsequent heroics can be bolstered. Red herrings abound, from the everpresent meow of the family cat (calling back to the feline death at the beginning), to the moribund police detective whose status as staid love interest gets sidetracked for some scene of the crime inference. Even worse, it’s up to Lane to deliver more or less alone. When the biggest supporting cast member is Tom Hanks’ son Colin, it’s borderline b-movie time.


In fact, Untraceable does feel like one of those last ditch effort acting gigs by a former studio system face looking for a paycheck to save their estate. Lane’s legitimacy skyrocketed after her Oscar nod for 2003’s Unfaithful, though her nearly three decades in the business more than buffers any reputation. Older, wearing whatever problems her profession provides on her slightly craggy face, this is not a glamour shot part. But there is also a level of ludicrousness to Jennifer Marsh that begs some retrospection. The character presents questions like - why bring such horrible work home? Would you really leave key information on your computer for cyber dorks to hack? If you know all the tricks within the illegal trade, would you really let your daughter download a game from the web? And finally, with all the information you have, wouldn’t the obvious connection between the victims just jump out at you?


With a viable level of tension, with cold shivers running up and down your spine, much of this wouldn’t matter. But Untraceable just can’t deliver on its proposed fear factors. Instead, it borrows heavily from those that came before while bringing very little that’s novel or inventive to the terror table. If you don’t mind pedestrian plotting surrounded by uninteresting individuals going through the movie motions, you just might enjoy this film. There is no cruelty or creativity in this creaky cat and mouse. It’s just an uninspired combination of every crime thriller archetype ever offered. The only thing deadly about this film is how exceedingly dull it all is. 


 


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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008

He’s got billions of bucks, sports teams and his own blog but that doesn’t mean that Mark Cuban’s always right.  In his CNet column, he says that the album is kaput, citing singles sales trouncing CD sales. No arguing about that but to say that the album itself is R.I.P. is as premature as digging a grave for rock (or vinyl).  It may not have the pull it once did in the age of download but don’t tell that to the hundreds of thousands of buyers who still purchase records regardless, not to mention the thousands of artists who put out albums each year.  For a reality check, see this recent excellent interview where David Byrne and Thom Yorke discuss the continuing aesthetic value of the album. And even if you’re among the millions who prefer singles to albums now, are you really gonna give up on your old favorites in your record collection?  Plus, in the likely circumstance that a few dozen artists each put together a collection of say 10-15 great songs this year and next year and after that, are you gonna turn your nose up at these albums ‘cause Cuban told you to?  Even if it becomes a niche market, which I doubt, the album’s gonna be around much longer than Cuban himself.


But his silly prognostication is small potatoes compared to the MPAA fudging its figures about college students to turn them into scourges.  Even after getting caught saying that twice as many downloaders are out there as there really are, the not-so-veritable entertainment industry still insists that those damn students are still a threat.  Kind of sounds like the Bush administration warming us about Iran.  Maybe the MPAA will lobby Congress to bomb the Ivy League too to prevent any damage otherwise.


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