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by PopMatters Staff

18 Jun 2008

Ave.To
Bahia [MP3]
     

Ave.To - Sand to the Beach

Hercules & Love Affair
You Belong [Video]

Tab the Band
Where She Was on Monday [MP3]
     

Sergio Mendes
Funky Bahia [Video]

Peter Hadar
Painted [MP3]
     

Sam Champion
Be Mine Everyone [MP3]
     

KaiserCartel
Oh No [MP3]
     

Remote Control Frequencies
The Negotiator [MP3]
     

Sanctuary [MP3]
     

Mates of State
My Only Offer [Video]

by Sean Murphy

17 Jun 2008

In the late summer of 1982, two distinct entities from outer space infiltrated planet earth. One was a prehistoric creature with the ability to kill, then imitate its prey: it could attack its victims while remaining disguised amongst them by, in effect, becoming them. The other was an unusual looking but friendly creature, a voyager from another place with god-like powers of healing, an odd voice, and an affinity for Reese’s Pieces.

Guess which one fared better?

Of course, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the hit of ’82, and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing had the famously unfortunate timing of opening two weeks later. That many people did not see it is a shame; that many critics dismissed it is typical. To be certain, it didn’t help matters that the assembled brain trust agonized over the relatively brief, but exceptionally gory special effects. Inevitably, they aged quickly—and rather poorly. While one can appreciate the attention paid to these ostensibly “scary” scenes, they are (ironically? inexorably?) the weaker moments in the film. It being a Carpenter production, cohesion and plot are occasionally undermined in ways that seem half-assed or ham-fisted. Still, after repeated viewings it manages to work on multiple levels, and despite any nitpicking it seems impossible to improve upon. The definition of a classic, perhaps, but it is something more, something more complicated than that. It is a unique and enigmatic movie; in hindsight it is easy to understand how it evolved, over time, from a cult classic to its current status as must-own DVD material (alas, no 25th anniversary deluxe edition arrived in 2007, but the existing Collector’s Edition—from 1998—is quite satisfactory): it needed time to truly find its audience.

So, aside from bad timing and a final product that feels, at times, oddly forced despite the obvious (and well documented) care and consideration that went into it, what is it that remains so right about this movie? For starters, it is to Carpenter’s credit that he assembled such a spectacular cast: virtually all of the actors make the absolute most of their relatively limited screen time, but Keith David, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and Richard Masur are in particularly fine form. As for Kurt Russell, it is amazing to recall that his role as R.J. MacReady came only a year after his testosterone-athon as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (also directed by Carpenter), making this quite the one-two punch for both men. Considerable credit must also be given to Bill Lancaster’s excellent screenplay (to read John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? is both to appreciate where the spirit of this film comes from—more so than the sci-fi classic The Thing from Outer Space that it was ostensibly updating—and appreciate how much Lancaster did with relatively little, in terms of actual plot, character development and drama).

It is, as intended, Kurt Russell’s film, but special mention must be made for the near miraculous performance of Wilford Brimley—a man who is perhaps best known as the wise-cracking senior citizen from Cocoon or as the Quaker Oats guy, or recently (and, thanks to the brilliant monkeys working around the clock on youtube, amusingly), the spokesperson with a tendency to mispronounce the most unamusing word in the English language, diabetes. As Dr. Blair, Brimley’s presence provides an austere integrity and the necessarily brainy moral grounding for events that would otherwise be in constant jeopardy of degenerating into parody. His dead-serious assessment of what is going on—before anyone else has figured things out—invests the growing unease inside the camp with a gravitas that makes it painfully clear, to the viewer, what is at stake. Later, after being secluded in a storage shed, the men visit him in a scene that manages to be sad, disturbing and comical.

One scene in particular offers perhaps the best illustration of why this movie continues to resonate, and why it was not fully successful as either a slam-bam action flick or a serious drama: Blair sits alone, at his desk, running a computer simulation of the diabolically efficient way the alien is infecting his team. In less than thirty seconds, the look on his face turns from world-weary stoicism to resigned acknowledgment of the likely consequences—for the men, and the rest of the world. Interestingly (and again, ironically?) it is probable that the impetus for this particular sequence, in addition to the obvious and necessary advancement of the plot in as succinct and clear a manner as possible, was to show-off the high-tech computer programming, circa 1982. Like the over-the-top transformation scenes, it is more hilarious than harrowing to look at the extraordinarily primitive technology, today. And yet, it worked, then, and works now, because of its stark imagery: in its way, it’s ten times more terrifying to watch the simulated organism at work, one blob on a screen capturing and assimilating its prey, than it is to watch the scattered “money shots” when the creature reveals itself.

Perfection is a word that should never be used lightly, but no other word will suffice for the wonders Ennio Morricone works, scoring this film. The name Morricone is—and should be—associated with brilliance, variety and superhuman productivity, just to pick a few obvious choices. While the list of only his very best efforts is not short, his work here must be considered amongst the top tier: The Thing would be unimaginable without it. Rather than overwhelming, or distracting the action on the screen—as film scores do with distressing regularity these days—Morricone’s music exists mostly on the periphery, in the corners and inside the shadows. Its effectiveness serves an almost opposite purpose to the handful of over-the-top alien transformations: the real horror of the story lies in the tension of not knowing, the dread of isolation and the fear of being assailed by an inexplicable enemy. Morricone subtly embellishes the otherwise silent scenes, where the only sounds are the Antarctic winds, the silence and the darkness. As the paranoia increases, strings are plucked like raw nerves, while stark, almost soulless keyboard drones mirror the growing desperation: the music exists as a wind chill factor, making everything colder and more forlorn than it already is.

And last but certainly not least: The Thing provides one of the best endings of any movie, ever. To use the word perfect, again, would seem silly, but there is no getting around it: the ending is perfect. Indeed, it’s even better than perfect, considering the pressure Carpenter must have felt to inject the type of horseshit heroic conclusion American audiences usually require. Carpenter’s decision to go with the ambivalent ending (which, actually, is truly heroic as opposed to some manufactured deus ex machina sequel-ready sendoff) very likely killed his chance at commercial viability. Carpenter knew this and did it anyway, saving both the movie’s integrity and his soul in the process. The fact that The Thing has attracted video sales ever since is wonderfully poetic justice, and confirms that you can occasionally scoff at the big studio machine and come out okay. Bottom line: Spielberg’s alien may have won the box office battle, but everyone knows that his maudlin Peter Pan wouldn’t have stood a chance at Outpost 31.

by Nikki Tranter

17 Jun 2008

I found out today that Paddington Bear is about to turn 50.

To be honest, I’m more familiar with Paddington the TV star, than the one featured in Michael Bond’s books. I still can’t haul on galoshes without flashing back to Paddington’s clunky red pair. He really was a staple of childhood, waiting to be watched at 3.30 every afternoon between Sesame Street and Chocky.

This was in the mid-80s. Turns out, Paddington has been around a whole lot longer than that. Michael Bond is still around, too, and is excited to celebrate his character’s anniversary with Paddington: Here and Now, the first Paddington book published in 30 years. Bond had this to say about the bear and his new book:

One of the very nice things about chronicling Paddington’s adventures is that although the world has changed considerably over the past 30 years, he remains exactly the same—eternally optimistic and ever open to what life has to offer.

The Telegraph talks Paddington here, and there’s a great story about the creation of Paddington Bear teddies over at Times Online.

by Bill Gibron

17 Jun 2008

In an arena where many do their job without much exposure to the limelight, Stan Winston was a God. It’s a term tossed around regularly by the geek community, but in referencing this F/X mastermind, the label definitely fit. He brought the Terminator to life, helped cement the sci-fi legacies of both Aliens and the Predator, gave Jurassic Park its non-CGI giants, and provided Edward with his scissor-hands. On the Mount Rushmore of movie magicians, he’s right up there with Smith, Harryhausen, Baker, and Bottin. And now his name is added to another, less celebrated list - those who died too young, and far too vital.

Having suffered from multiple myeloma for years, he finally succumbed to the disease on 15 June. For many, it was a total shock. Winston was not open about his health, though many in the industry did know he was battling the incurable illness. He continued to work, contributing important elements to this Summer’s Iron Man, while planning for several other projects. The best way to describe Winston’s work is ‘bio-mechanical’. While other make-up wizards found ways to imitate life, his creations took on the elements of existence, found their core of truth, and then turned them epic.

Born in Virginia, the young Winston loved anything artistic. He excelled at drawing, and enjoyed creating puppet shows for his friends. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1968 (where he studied painting and sculpture), he headed to Hollywood, looking for work as an actor. When jobs became sparse, he signed up to apprentice in Disney’s make-up department. Three years later, he opened his own company, Stan Winston Studios, and in rapid fire succession, won an Emmy for his work on Gargoyles (1973) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (which he shared with future icon Rick Baker).

Throughout the ‘70s, Winston built a substantial resume, high profile gigs as part of the production team on Roots, The Wiz, and Dead and Buried shoring up his already hefty credits. But it was the Andy Kaufman comedy Heartbeeps which brought the wizard his first Oscar buzz. Nominated for the uneven robot romp, he gained the notice of newcomer James Cameron. The directing novice was hoping Winston could create the metal machine man-assassin at the center of his radical time travel action film. The results were The Terminator, the movie that would make myths out of Winston, Cameron, and leading man (and former bodybuilder) Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After his work on the 1984 sleeper, the sky literally became the limit. Winston worked on Cameron’s update of the Aliens franchise, earned another Oscar nod for Predator, reinvented the classic Universal creatures for the cult favorite The Monster Squad, and added his touch to such marginal efforts as Leviathan, Congo, and The Relic. But it was his work on Edward Scissorhands and Terminator 2 that gained the most favor. He was acknowledged by the Academy for both (winning two statues for the latter) and it soon seemed like every horror, science fiction, or fantasy film was using Winston (or one of his many protégés) as part of their production.

Like all successful artists, he tried to branch out. He directed two feature films (the minor masterwork Pumpkinhead, and the fair family film A Gnome named Gnorm) and as a producer, he guided Wrong Turn and The Deaths of Ian Stone (among others) to the big screen. But his main passion remained make-up and special effects. Even when Jurassic Park threatened to wipe out the practical side of things with its computer generated progress, Winston found a way to make his kind of input invaluable. It was a methodology that would carry him across the next two decades.

Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are arguably his main masterpieces, films that could no exist without what Winston brought to them. It may seem hard to believe now, but everything in Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s haunted house in space was done practically. Puppets, rod animation, animatronics, costumes, and miniatures were utilized to bring this ultimate battle between man and extraterrestrial to life. More impressively, when CGI started to show promise, Winston proved it could be seamlessly integrated into the standard F/X catalog. It’s a lesson that few in the current realm of film false reality understand. 

In addition, Winston was a great teacher, and loved to interact with fans. He was always personable and generous at conventions, and contributed all he could when DVD gave technicians a chance to champion their craft. His loss is monumental for many reasons, and not just for the work we genre fanatics lose in the process. As science sweeps all the old school trades toward the trash bin, Winston reminded us of why the classical approach was, oft times, the best. He made changes work for him, never giving up or into the prevailing cultural conclusion. He was never one to quit, which helps explain how he battled cancer for so long. It also makes his passing that much sadder.

Indeed, what we lose when we lose someone like Stan Winston is an artform benchmark, something professionals envy while simultaneously striving for. With each master that passes away, a little less reality remains and another chapter in history is written. Winston’s death means that, maybe, one less excited teen decides to take up make-up instead of majoring in business, or one less filmmaker hires a practical artist and, instead, drops his dreams into someone’s overpriced laptop. While cinema has to go on without one of its giants, there is a larger issue involved.

Stan Winston was one of the few F/X regents in a realm where vitality meant viability. Now that he’s gone, it’s up to those he inspired to carry his spirit forward. It would be the best tribute of all to a man who reveled in realizing dreams. Thanks to him, our heroes are a little more gallant, our villains far more vile…and our movies a lot more magical.

by Alice Singleton

17 Jun 2008

A staple of American storytelling is the “road picture”. Characters load up the slave ship, the stagecoach, the car or the spaceship, and head out into the distant, unspoken horizon, with unresolved and unspoken issues packed into an emotional canteen like one of those fake peanut cans, waiting for some poor sucker to peel the lid back. And when that lid blows, the devastation leaves three lifetimes of self-imposed emotional imprisonment covered in permanent debris.

The Silk Road Theater production of writer Julia Cho’s Durango is the cross-pollination of a road picture and the dysfunctional tinderbox of American “familia”, waiting for that lit match that will set its eternally captive participants hurtling towards a new “normal”. How that family exists will never be the same.

“Durango” (Colorado, that is) unknowingly awaits the arrival of Boo-Seng Lee, and his two sons; high school swimming team champ Jimmy, and prospective medical school student Isaac. Boo Seng finds himself forced out of his job of 20 years. Was it his nearing the end of his middle years; his Korean ancestry preventing his “fitting in”; his following “the company rules” to a fault? Whatever the reason, he can’t articulate his shock and frustration in real time company separation, so he chooses to add one more secret to his life portfolio and browbeats his sons into taking a family trip. Eldest-son Isaac can smell the disaster wafting from the travel pamphlet his father clutches in-hand, as youngest-son Jimmy openly relishes the first “real family outing” that he’s always wished for, believing this will be an opportunity for the three to bond before Isaac heads off to medical school in the Fall.

The closet doors blow open, but few secrets walk out, as each character works diligently to hide the secrets and lies not only from one another, but also from themselves. Eminent and distant matters of sexuality, race, and manhood are purposefully and thankfully avoided as frank discussion amongst the three, but nevertheless imposing and influential on the minutest of their individual life’s decision. Shame and the fear of being ostracized by the others are the nails that keep the lid on the family tinderbox and insure there may never be a completed circle. When a few truths slip through the cracks, we see a family work in unison to restore the uncomfortable order that they’ve been used to, handily accepting the eternal distance as the consequence of family order and obligation.

Durango is not a quintessentially “Asian” piece. It’s not a period piece set in a distant land acted out by characters that are now long dead. It’s about three men of Korean extraction mushing through their lives in the new west Carlos Murillo’s provides a stripped bare nowhere to run but inward that fully compliments Marianna Czasaszar’s minimalist set design. Durango is a story of Asian-Americans in America, and reminds us that no matter how American we may believe ourselves to be—somewhere in the back of our mind’s eye, our life’s decisions (from the small and benign to those that will determine our life’s course) are made based on who our ancestors were, where we came from, expectations and perceived obligations. 

A reminder that some of us are forever tethered to “what” we are before “who” we are and what we need to become.

Durango ran May 1 – June 15, 2008. Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church Pierce Hall, 77 W. Washington.

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