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Sunday, Nov 4, 2007


At first, many wondered if it was a weird Halloween prank. Longtime info outlet The Satellite News, the (former) official web address for all things Mystery Science Theater 3000 announced that, after years away from the format, both Best Brain Industries (producers of the classic TV series) and creator Joel Hodgson were coming back to the theater riffing roost – sort of. Jim Mallon and former show writer Paul Chaplin are resurrecting MST3K via a new site and a collection of online cartoons featuring the formidable robots – Gypsy, Servo, and Crow. Hodgson, on the other hand, is teaming up with former friends and cast/crew members Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff to create Cinematic Titanic, a DVD based update of the old talking back to the screen format. For fans of the former stand-up, it was a dream that many thought would never come true.


Oddly enough, nowhere in the publicity materials is there a mention of The Film Crew – otherwise known as Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. Now, some of it may have to do with contracts, outstanding obligations for other companies (like the Internet commentary collective Rifftrax), and some minor animosities that still exist among the participants. It could just be an oversight. While the obsessive are probably crafting conspiracy theories, using the success of the trio’s Shout! Factory releases as a motive for the uninvited’s sudden interest in returning to the medium, it’s clear that the one time cult is marching toward the mainstream respect it so richly deserved/deserves. And based on the brilliance shown in The Giant of Marathon, the final installment in the Crew’s digital quadrilogy, there’s a lot of life remaining in the old cinematic criticism gig.


For this episode, employer Bob Honcho appeals to Mike, Kevin, and Bill to create an alternate narrative track for a subpar sword and sandal epic featuring that mountain of man meat, Steve Reeves. Playing an Athenian Olympian named Phillipides, he is so well loved after his athleticism based triumph that he’s put in charge of the Sacred Guard, a group of strapping, overly defined men who wear nothing more than a snug fitting diaper. A falling out with the political powers that be, including the treasonous Theocrites and his paid whore Karis, leads our hero back to his country home – but not before he can woo and fall in love with Andromeda, the daughter of a high raking member of the Council. In the meantime, exiled leader Hippias has banded together with the Persians to take over Greece. Hoping to halt their advance, Athens calls on Phillipides for help. He gets Sparta’s support, and before you know it, loincloths are leaping across the screen as scantily clad extras beefcake it up for a homoerotic tour de force.


As a film, The Giant of Marathon is a talky, disposable affront. Steve Reeves is given the same old dubbed voice vacancy that tends to mar his entire cinematic catalog, and he’s once again paired up with women who aren’t as attractive as him. The storyline will remind viewers of 300, except with more gay overtones, and the regular sequences of man on man action (wrestling, grappling, battling) will have you instantly mulling over director Jacques Tourneur and substitute helmer Mario Bava’s proclivities. Yes, this is one of those notorious productions where the original filmmaker was fired, and a soon to be Italian maestro stepped in to pick up the hack. In this case, Bava was merely a cameraman, but when feelings toward Tourneur turned sour, the Mediterranean auteur in the making was given the go ahead. His success in completing the project led to his first credited film as a director.


The Film Crew, on the other hand, needs no rescuing. Thanks once again to the DVD format, which frees them up to contemplated quips of a slightly more sexual nature, we get a nonstop laugh-a-thon offering jabs at male genitals, numerous butt references, and a running gag concerning Karis and her less than virtuous reputation. Under Mike, Kevin, and Bill’s constant badgering, the aging Italian actress playing the part is vicariously saddled with every STD known to man. During a particularly potent section (the character is trying one last time to seduce Phillipides – though a strumpet, she loves him) the guys give her such a thorough going over that you envision the onscreen disgrace and fall that Karis goes through paralleling the pall late actress Daniela Rocca would experience could she hear their taunts. Most of the naughtiest knocks come at her and her B.C. hooker’s expense, and each one’s a classic.


Similarly, the Crew dishes out some fine funny business regarding Reeves. Stoic and as statue like as ever, the former bodybuilding champion does make the Governator look like Sir Ralph Richardson, and the script doesn’t make things better. This is one of those performances that relies almost exclusively on what the actor looks like sans shirt. Phillipides may be a wonderful sportsperson and skilled competitor, but once we see him shimmy with his fellow semi-nude Olympians, the vast majority of the action is over. We have to wait another 80 minutes before the last act battle, and then again, Reeves and his steroided buddies spend more time in the water setting up harbor-protecting spikes than flexing their quads. With his standard, dopey heroic dialogue and unflinching blandness, he’s a far too easy target for the comedians. As they did with prior Hercules-oriented epics during the MST days, Reeves gets ripped – and not in the good GNC way.


As part of the presentation of this pathetic peplum, Shout! Factory and the Film Crew do their usual bang-up job of supplementing the shortcomings. During the opening skit, Mike plays unskilled laborer to hilarious results, while during the mandatory “Lunch Break” intermission, Bill explains how the real Battle for Athens played out (it’s history as a Hellsapoppin’ food fight). Finally, at the end, Mike makes a ridiculous racist plea. It warrants a DVD bonus feature apology that’s equally unhinged and borderline bigoted (especially if you’re Norwegian). Finally, there’s a “commentary track” (about 9 minutes in length and covering various scenes in the film) where a supposed actor on the shoot, one Walter S. Ferguson (Mike in old coot mode) provides some gloriously goofy anecdotes. In combination with the jolly joyful riffing, we wind up with another post-SOL winner.


Still, the question remains, what happens now? Shout! Factory has had great success with these titles. They’ve been very popular and critically acclaimed. As much as the fans love Joel, Trace, Frank, Jim, Paul, Mary Jo, and Josh, they’ve been out of the game for a while, and seeing them pick up the MST-styled mantle at his point questions their motivation. Of course, what everyone wants is a full blown reunion, something that can work the Film Crew, the Cinematic Titanic, the new MST3K.com gang and the ridiculously resplendent modern film mocking of Rifftrax into one big comedic gathering, a return to the days when a tiny cowtown puppet show gave notorious new life to bad B schlock-busters. Whatever happens, the four films that made up the Crew’s initial output deserve a place among the best these performers ever offered. The Giant of Marathon is indeed a huge cinematic load. Thankfully, these satiric caretakers are still around to clean up the mess. 


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Sunday, Nov 4, 2007

By Trudy Rubin


The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Americans’ perceptions of Iraq are molded by scenes of horrendous violence; few get to see the bravery and humanity of Iraqis living under hellish conditions.


So I wish millions could have watched the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) present its 2007 Courage in Journalism award this week to six Iraqi women journalists who have risked their lives in the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. (Brave Mexican, Ethiopian and Zimbabwean women journalists were also honored.)


But the ceremonies could not be televised or photographed, because, if the Iraqi women’s faces were seen back home, they or their families could be targeted by terrorists for having worked with Americans. The husband, 5-year-old daughter, and mother-in-law of one of the women, Ban Adil Sarhan,
were shot dead for just that reason, and she is now living in America; another of the awardees is in hiding, and all are under threat.


I know all six because I work with the McClatchy bureau when I visit Baghdad (the McClatchy-Tribune wire distributes my column). So let me tell you a bit about Sahar Issa, who accepted the award for the group.


Sahar is a woman of immense dignity and composure, her English excellent and soft-spoken but with a quiet passion underneath. When I worked with her in Baghdad in June, I couldn’t comprehend how she persevered.


During this conflict she lost her son, who was caught in a cross-fire while riding his moped on the street. She also lost her brother. She struggles to care for her family in 110-degree heat with two hours of electricity a day and little water, waking at night to fan her children. Each day when they go to school, she worries they might not return.


Earlier this year she had to go to the morgue to find her nephew. Women are often sent to the morgue rather than men, because the men are in more danger. She, the boy’s mother, and an aunt had to search bare-handed through body parts to bring home the remains.


And yet, she decided during this war to work as a journalist, a profession that exposes her and her Iraqi colleagues to even greater peril, especially if they work with Americans. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 121 Iraq journalists have been killed on duty since 2003. Yasser Salihee, a member of the Baghdad bureau (then run by Knight Ridder) was killed in 2005.


I asked Sahar this week why she took the risk. “It means so much to me,” she replied quickly. “Not a lot of people in America know Iraqi society. It makes wrongdoing (against us) easier. We have to speak out ... to demonstrate to people who may affect decisions (about our lives) that we are human beings - that Ali is like John.”


Along with the rest of the McClatchy bureau’s Baghdad staff, Sahar writes the Inside Iraq blog (www.mcclatchydc.com/iraq). The feedback convinced her that Americans know little about Iraq. They don’t know, for example, that Iraq once led the Arab world in women’s education, before wars, international sanctions, and the American occupation set women back. Both she and her mother are university graduates. Those gains, she says, are now being reversed by religious parties.


She also wants Americans to understand that sectarian strife in Iraq is not really over religion - but over political power.


To correct such misconceptions, she is committed to journalism. “No one will do it for us,” she says. Is she frightened? “I am scared silly. I am at tremendous risk.” Her kids are proud of her, but when she left for America, her son said, “Mother, don’t be photographed.”


At the award ceremony in Washington, CNN’s Zain Verjee asked Sahar how she deals with fear. “Every day could be my last,” she said. “I try not to dwell on it. Living in fear has become quite commonplace in Iraq and not just for journalists. We go out to visit relatives, to school or the store, not knowing whether we’ll come back. I’ve been in situations on the way to work where I thought I had said my last prayer.”


What Sahar didn’t say is that the courage of Iraqi journalists - female and male - is crucial to American correspondents who depend on them to get to places where Americans can no longer go. “They are the backbone of the bureau, my eyes and ears when I can’t get out,” says Leila Fadel, theLebanese-American McClatchy bureau chief in Baghdad, and no mean example of courage herself. “They are our guide to the streets of Baghdad, and so often they never get recognized for what they do.”


Sahar wants to stay in Iraq, but other Iraqi journalists working with Americans are finding the danger is too great. It is shocking so few have been able to get asylum. America owes the brave journalists who have helped us every assistance. The IWMF should be congratulated for giving their
courage the attention it deserves. (You can read more about all six Iraqi women and the other honorees at http://www.iwmf.org/courage/awardees.php.)


___


ABOUT THE WRITER
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia
Inquirer.


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Saturday, Nov 3, 2007

Having already cut his teeth as an illustrator for the ne-plus-ultra of American nonfiction comics, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Josh Neufeld would already be considered a dead-on solid choice for the right guy to do an epic graphic treatment of Hurricane Katrina. Add to that the fact that not long after the hurricane slammed through the Gulf Coast, Neufeld spent three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi, Mississippi, soaking up stories of the storm and its aftermath (which he blogged and then collected as a self-published book, Katrina Came Calling), and you have what seems to be a perfect match. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is Neufeld’s webcomic, published by one of the more exacting online magazines, SMITH, lives up to its promise by being the exact kind of knowing and humane document the victims of Katrina well deserve—and the rest of us need. Parceled out in a dozen installments a month at a time (it’s now up to Chapter 7, “The Bowl Effect”), A.D. follows five real people, and their assorted relatives and friends, through the buildup to Katrina, and what they went through after.


While the webcomic format is an attractively democratic one, requiring hardly anywhere near the resources that physical printing does, there are some limitations here. SMITH‘s previous comic, the justly acclaimed Will Eisner-nominated war satire Shooting War, benefited from the jaggedly episodic structuring, packed as it was with dramatic close-ups and sharp angles. Neufeld’s more graceful construction may in fact look better on the printed page once some publisher wises up and puts it out there (Shooting War was picked up by Grand Central for publication this month). That being said, Neufeld makes good use of the expanded abilities offered by the web, embedding appropriate links, like to the National Hurricane Center’s archived site for a particular date, and even sticking in MP3s at critical junctures in the story. For all this new media construction, though, Neufeld never lets the format take over from his elegantly elegiac story; all of which is taken, by the way, word-for-word from accounts of the people it depicts. And somehow, even though there’s of course no question about how things will turn out, Neufeld keeps you coming back, month after month, to see not necessarily what happens but who it happens to.


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Saturday, Nov 3, 2007

For SE&L’s previous theatrical review of SiCKO, click HERE
For SE&L’s feature article take on SiCKO, click HERE


So, apparently, it all comes down to this – fear of not having insurance vs. fear of a massive government bureaucracy guaranteeing your health care coverage. Well being over less legislative interference, the free market up against a nation reeling from the physical/financial/social aftereffects of so many unprotected. It was the firmament that led to the creation of one of America’s largest self-regulating monoliths – and one of 2007’s best films. For most, unfortunately, the Red State reactionary view of a bloated liberal agency metering out our tax dollars like slop at a Depression soup kitchen is more than reason enough to back off. When Michael Moore proposed that the US’s already mangled managed medical conglomerate needed shaking up, he expected attacks. It’s been part and parcel of everything he’s done. But this time, his critics were out for blood.


Whether it was condemning GM for driving jobs out of small towns (Roger and Me), slamming the obsession with guns (Bowling for Columbine) or deconstructing the Bush Administration’s War of Terror (Fahrenheit 9/11), Moore is an agent provocateur disguised as Everyman, a jester as journalist, an advocate with his heart in the right place and his fact checker frequently out to lunch. And yet there is no denying the power in his bully pulpit bravado, his in-your-face confrontations and ‘what, me worry’ political presence. For most, his latest film SiCKO (now out on DVD from Genus Products) didn’t just scream for change – it practically called you a coward for thinking otherwise. But four months, and a carefully orchestrated smear campaign later, the Oscar winning documentarian has once again been reduced to his same old loveable reactionary self, labeled by those who loathe him as making up facts to forward a ridiculously narrow-minded proto-Marxist agenda. Oh yeah, and he’s fat and a liar too.


Except, almost none of that is true. Fault him for failing to provide his audiences with a 150% accurate depiction of the truth (at least in the way you see it), but SiCKO stands as one of the great big picture pronouncements ever forwarded. It’s masterful as well as manipulative, pointed without being passive. It’s easy to undermine Moore’s vision of a US wallowing in self-imposed liability denial. He deals in generalizations and obvious examples, avoiding the nuances frequently utilized to gray up a typically black and white issue. The reality that millions of Americans bankrupt their lives to simply see a doctor or seek treatment for a nagging complaint remains the film’s strongest sentiment. Then, just to make us feel worse, the director travels around the world and points out examples of nations that do a better job of protecting their people than the supposed superpower. No wonder people are pissed.


SiCKO is indeed like having a smart alecky know it all rub your face in an obvious fact and then call in his international friends to Greek Chorus its mockery. After all, when a French citizen scoffs at the concept of paying for care, or when a Brit belly laughs over the notion of needing insurance, who exactly do you think they’re laughing at? Uncle Sam may seem like a stalwart old soul, but Moore manages to find numerous captivating ways to make him feel like an enfeebled coot. The movie’s main masterstroke remains the decision to journey 90 miles south of Miami and let Cuba deal with some sick September 11th workers. It’s not bad enough that we can’t cure - or even cotton – to our unhealthy heroes, but the freedom hating Commies who’d like nothing better than to see capitalism fall are suddenly playing Florence Nightingale.


During the 18th Century when Britain was facing a growing tide against its involvement in the slave trade, members of Parliament argued that eliminating the reliance and use of indentured labor would mean the end of the Empire. Naturally, when the practice was eventually outlawed, England didn’t die. It thrived and remained a massive colonial force. SiCKO suggests something equally radical – the dismantling of a TRILLION dollar a year kingdom where the clientele is exclusive and the eventual customer frequently underserved. And those who use economics as a yoke to maintain the subpar status quo argue that eradicating this corporate cash cow would mean the end of the US. Sadly, said alarmists fail to fathom that the Federal Government already subsidizes nearly 50% of all health care anyway.


And then there’s the big bad ‘B’ word – “bureaucracy”. It’s a tough one to get around. People see the HMO catastrophe (something SiCKO does a devastating job in denouncing) and the current near crisis state, and wonder how an entity that can’t help hurricane victims in a timely manner is going to respond to someone’s reoccurring cancer. Anxiety attacks and blind panic typically occurs. Instead of agreeing with Moore that such a vicious Catch-22 cycle must stop, instead of taking his examples as heartfelt and endemic illustrations of the system’s significant flaws, the critics have labeled his efforts incomplete. Apparently, one needs to find a model that perfectly mirrors every concern that every individual has, and then anticipate ones that may come up in the future before it is considered valid.


Of course, such a scenario is impossible, if not improbable, and leads to one of SiCKO’s biggest lessons – the powerful can prevent any change by simply crapping in the already murky waters. As part of the new DVD version of the film, Moore adds seven brand new featurettes (totaling about 45 minutes in additional running time) that highlight how vicious and vicarious the reactions have been. One concentrates on the attacks by Republicans (and their noxious overuse of the word ‘utopia’), a country even better than France, England, Canada, and Cuba when it comes to health care (it’s Norway) and how community fundraising is used to bolster many an uninsured patient’s bottom line. Of course, the director can’t resist adding more fuel to the already raging inferno. There is a piece on a poor Latino man who died from a lack of insurance, and a brief snippet of a Cuban nun describing how her homeland doesn’t deny the right to religion. Man, Moore just doesn’t learn, does he?



Perhaps the most telling indictment overall of the adversaries depicted in the film and in the DVD extras is the lack of viable counter resolutions. Instead of saying “Moore is mad as a hatter, here is how you save US health care”, they call him a propagandist and a charlatan, any number of grade school level taunts and slanders, and then leave the solvency part of the debate for another day (that will never come, naturally). From the material presented, one gets the distinct impression that it’s easier to demean SiCKO’s message (and messenger) without ever once proposing a possible answer. It’s as if, by magic, the millions of uninsured will wake up one day and find a company that will cover them, the money to make the elephantine payments, and the constitutional wherewithal to avoid getting ill in the future (a business has got to make a profit, right?). Talk about your utopias.


What sells SiCKO, in the end, is its combination of warning and wit. This is a very funny, frequently flabbergasting film. It trains an informative eye on the dirty little secret that lobbyists and professional politicians don’t want you to know and then mocks their mealy mouthed retorts. There is more old boy network fornication going on between the government and the medical industry than either side would be proud of sharing, and when you see just how deep the hooks are in, you can’t help but feel like there’s nothing you can do. Of course, Moore disagrees. His numerous websites are currently set up to use this film as a stepping stone for a much larger, grass roots oriented attack on the individuals who still want the minutia to manage the discussion. What SiCKO aims to provide, beyond the occasional snicker and the wealth of heartbroken tears, is rally consensus around a single fact – the richest nation in the world does one of the worst jobs of making sure all its citizens have access to affordable healthcare. He’s not advocating socialism. He’s not out to see millions unemployed just to make sure little Johnny can get his shots for school.


No, what SiCKO wants is an end to the senseless stranglehold the medical haves constantly use against the uninsured have-nots. Even better, he wants costs put into perspective while keeping quality high. He wants people to take back the power granted to them inherently by the Forefathers and their so-called Constitution, to tell those who make policy that they work for them, not the other way around. If he has to do so in outrageous, atypical terms, so be it. If the worst an opponent can do is say that things aren’t so great in France, that care in Canada is not a day at the Great White North beach, that Americans have it pretty darn good (if and when they can get in to see a doctor) then they are missing the point. There is a bigger issue poised to pull all of us under. SiCKO – the film and the DVD – want to warn us away from confrontation and embrace change before it’s too late. Unfortunately, it may already be. 


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Friday, Nov 2, 2007


For the weekend of 02 November, here are the films in focus:


American Gangster [rating: 8]


American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details.

Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters – at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?  read full review…


Bee Movie [rating: 7]


While never as clever as it thinks it is, and lacking the internal logic that makes a Pixar project hum with indescribable brilliance, Bee Movie is still a witty, imaginative romp.

While it may seem like blasphemy to say it, the comedic allure of Jerry Seinfeld remains elusive to some of us. As a stand-up, he was merely acceptable, the kind of observational whiner that’s become something of a satiric spoof all its own. His self-named sitcom, the often described “show about nothing”, has gone from must-see TV to a Borat level of hindsight marginalizing. Even his post-boob tube work has been lamentably unsatisfactory, failing to give fans and those who never bought into the hype the brazen witticisms they once loved. Now the one time small screen icon is making the leap to silver, albeit in an anthropomorphized, CGI form. Playing the title insect in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie, he hopes to draw a more sophisticated crowd to what has been, traditionally, kid-oriented fair. He may actually succeed. read full review…


Wristcutters: A Love Story [rating: 7]


Though it goes a bit wonky toward the end and seems to travel a very long way to drive home a rather simple point, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains a wonderfully evocative experience.

Suicide is a slippery cinematic slope. Introduce it into a narrative and you imply issues you may not be willing to deal with and consequences that are next to impossible to fully illustrate. Self destruction contains too many indecipherable facets to completely capture within a standard 90 minute film. Trying to force the angst driven act into a comedy therefore seems unfathomably foolish. And yet all of these wasted days and wasted nights notions are used to intriguing effect by the Indie dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. Focusing on a paranormal plane where suicide victims go to wait out their undetermined destiny, Goran Dukic’s quirky, original effort is marred by a sense of plaintive precociousness. But if you get to the meat of his meaning, you’ll find an uplifting tale on your hands. read full review…


Martian Child [rating: 5]


Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics.

Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced – both personal and social – were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges. read full review…


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