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by Bill Gibron

5 Apr 2009

As a rule of cinematic thumb, in the CG genre, there’s Pixar…and then there’s everyone else. Or sure, some studios - Fox, Dreamworks - can claim massive commercial success, and the occasional bit of visual inspiration, but when you weigh the aesthetic qualities of, say, an Incredibles or a Ratatouille against the purely for profit marginalizing of Monsters vs. Aliens or Ice Age, the creative differences are staggering. For some reason, the San Francisco based company recently purchased by Disney for a massive amount of money just can’t do anything wrong. Even their lesser works (at least, in the eyes of some cynics) like Cars and A Bug’s Life beam with imagination and novelty. It would be nice to say that Universal’s recent attempt at capitalizing on the computer for making its cartoons - an adaptation of the children’s book The Tale of Despereaux - was as good as something like Finding Nemo or Wall-E. Instead, it’s merely a small step above other fairy tale attempts like Shrek, or Hoodwinked.

In the kingdom of Dor, soup is everything. There is even a yearly celebration of all things broth and stew. But when a visiting rat named Roscuro accidentally frightens the Queen to death, the King bans all soup and all vermin. For some reason, this causes his entire country to suffer under relentless dark clouds and endless, agonizing drought. Even his usually jovial daughter, Princess Pea, longs for happier times. In the meanwhile, Roscuro finds himself exiled to the dungeon, where he takes up with the rest of the rat population. He eventually meets a little mouse named Despereaux Twilling who, unlike the rest of his kind, doesn’t scurry or cower in the presence of people. Curious to a fault, this tiny critter with the massive ears and a giant heart befriends the Princess. He promises to help her. But when an ugly servant girl betrays her Highness, the rats decide to get even. It is up to the unlikeliest of heroes to help.

Like the title character in the story it tells, The Tale of Despereaux (new to DVD) is a noble effort that more or less manages to create a kind of instantly likable post-modern fable. Unlike previous narratives set in those mystical lands “once upon a time”, Kate DiCamillo’s yarn is all about bravery, loyalty, courage, and forgiveness. If it wasn’t set inside a visually striking cartoon realm, we’d swear we were watching some clichéd After School Special. With an interesting vocal cast including the good (Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman), the bad (Matthew Broderick, Tony Hale) and the just plain weird (Dustin Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Christopher Lloyd), co-directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen try desperately to make this universe appear pulled from an intricate hand scrolled manuscript. The colors are washed out and tinged with gold, the character design drawn directly from old Victorian sketches and full physical exaggeration.

And for a while, it works. We get drawn into the details of Dor, sit astonished at the intricacies of the similarly styled Mouse and Rat Worlds. We marvel at the framing and composition, enjoying the forced perspective of seeing everything from a tiny rodent’s point of view. Sure, we sometimes have to overlook some less than articulate movement on behalf of the characters (the film was rushed into production, with only two years to complete it), and there are times when the facial work is so realistic it’s almost scary (this is especially true of Robbie Coltrane’s grieving jailer Gregory). Yet just as we are prepared for something seminal, just as Fell and Stevenhagen appear poised to deliver something really epic, The Tale of Despereaux remembers its ‘educational’ themes and resorts to retelling them over and over again. It doesn’t help that narrator Sigourney Weaver is on hand to hammer them home as well.

Besides, Broderick’s onscreen doppelganger isn’t much of a main subject. He seems passive and unwilling to participate until the end, allowing aspects of the story to shift wildly out of sync before jumping in to join the fun. Instead, Despereaux is rather self-indulgent, his supposed non-conformist bent meant to hide what appears to be a rather arrogant streak. And since Broderick’s voice is as meek as the kind of animal he’s essaying, things grow even more “mousy”. Kids will adore his cute, cuddly body and big, billowing ears, and adults will find little wrong with this G-rated fare (aside from a decidedly dark turn once Despereaux is sent to Ratworld to be “eaten”). But when you sit down and compare it with other efforts currently flooding the family film market, this is one tale that just can’t hold its own.

Then there is the subplot involving the slightly deaf servant girl who’s jealously fuels the final act’s manipulative mechanics. Expertly voiced by Ullman, she’s still an obvious plot device used to manufacture unnecessary sympathy and a villainous patsy. Indeed, we wonder what she has to do with the story initially, that is until Weaver works us over again with one of her proverbial passages that just scream “important”. But when she ends up being a quasi-antagonist, brainwashed by Roscuro to take the Princess hostage, everything starts to fall apart. Oddly enough, anyone who is a fan of DiCamillo’s book will probably wonder if anything is left of the original. A quick glance at the tome’s narrative indicates significant departures here - clearly to keep the wee ones from having to experience anything like death, fear, anger, or despair.

Indeed, with its minimal bonus features and all-empowerment narrative, The Tale of Despereaux is like a new age version of a great Grimms idea. It neuters anything that could have made the movie memorable and instead goes for wholesome goodness and gold-lined imagery. That’s not to say that the results are bad, just occasionally boring. Unlike its perfectionist peers at Pixar, or the mass marketing mantras of Fox and Dreamworks, Universal wants to have it both ways. They will take a title that offered it own unique and complicated take on the qualities that make a hero and dressed it up in PC pronouncements and the best of touchy-feely intentions. Again, you will be entertained during the relatively brief running time. But like the moviemaking maxim says, there’s the best, there’s the bad, and then floating somewhere around in the middle is the bearable. The Tale is Despereaux is more than that - but not much more. 

by Bill Gibron

4 Apr 2009

It’s unique among fundamentalists - the decision to take Christianity into arenas where it previously could find little or no purchase. After all, musical mediums like punk and hip-hop would seem antithetical to giving God (and his celebrated son, JC) his due. And yet all throughout faith-based music, genres are retrofitted to provide a Good Book provenance and potential profitability. It also happens a lot in more “popular” entertainments. There’s religious comedians, religious cartoons, religious cooking shows - even religious sitcoms in which belief is as much a character as the wacky neighbor or the suspicious landlord.

Now, it appears, movies are the next medium to be explored. No, not the typical Passion Play recreations, or Revelations inspired End of the World. Instead, various heretofore untapped genres are being tweaked to take on all aspects of faith. Take the work of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Both are noted writers of Christian fiction specifically aimed at the horror audience. When the latter’s solo serial killer effort Thr3e was made into a semi-success film in 2007, it looked like the floodgates were unleashed for literal stories of good vs. evil. Oddly enough, the adaptation of Peretti and Dekker’s collaboration, House avoids most of the religion for standard scares - and suffers because of it.

Jack Singleton is a writer who can’t get over the death of his young child. Stephanie Singleton is his rising country singer/songwriter wife, and the person he blames for his daughter’s drowning. While on their way to a marriage counselor, they come across an accident. The local sheriff directs them to a shortcut, but soon our couple is hopelessly lost. Stranded after a run-in with some random debris, they make their way to a rural mansion/motel run by Betty, her suspicious son Pete, and the mysterious maintenance man Stewart. There they also meet psychologist Leslie Taylor and her businessman boyfriend Randy. Unfortunately, everyone soon discovers that a killer named The Tin Man is in the area, and he has one small request - a dead body before the son rises, and everyone else will live. Without the sacrifice, they all will die.

Like most movies where belief makes up a good percentage of the narrative rationale and resolution, House has a very hard time with its dogma. No, it doesn’t fudge faith to fit some eccentric approach to God. But it does lack the bravery to put the Big Guy out there and up front. Under the guidance of stylish journeyman Robby Henson, what could have been a dark and demanding meditation on forgiveness and the power of Christ instead plays like a limp episode of Friday the 13th: The Series. There are moments of intriguing atmosphere and the performances support the attempted suspense and dread. But when you want to make a movie about angels battling demons for the souls of some obvious sinners, do we really need so much faux fright film finagling? Peretti and Dekker are trying to use the genre as a means of making a bigger point. Apparently, someone forgot to inform the rest of the production.

It’s a common problem with Christian entertainment. The balancing act between beating people over the head with the power of the Messiah and the need to tap into that secular pile of mainstream cash creates quite the dilemma. House talks a good game at first. We get foreboding, foreshadowing, and flashbacks that offer disturbing (if clichéd) character conflicts. The trio of twisted innkeepers come across as Addams Family odd at first, with only their true disturbing intent coming across later on, and while we don’t particularly like the quartet of guests shacked up for the night, the narrative doesn’t dwell on their selfish, senseless indulgences. Heck, we even buy the whole “Tin Man” element of the story, up to a point.

But once House goes Saw, meaning once it emphasizes the moldy green cinematography and traps everyone in an ethereal “game” of going back in time and confronting their past, the movie goes off kilter. The drowned child storyline has some initial intrigue, even if it is filmed in an annoying, ‘greenscreen as dreamscape’ manner. Here, Herman isn’t too obvious in his aims. But when Leslie is given over to her Something About Amelia rants regarding a pedophilic Uncle and the “pies” he brought as seduction aids, we lose all patience. It’s not because House hamfists this material. Instead, the notion of childhood sexual abuse is turned into a trick, a gimmick to get us to the next sequence of supposed scares. It feels manipulative and mean. 

The same is true regarding the introduction of trapped “child” Susan. We know she’s not real, the film treats her as a fiction, and yet Jack is so desperate for a daughter substitute that he’s willing to risk everything to protect and defend her. The random Satanic symbols mean nothing to him. Nor do the moments when Betty, Pete and Stewart go brimstone and start spewing black smoke. His obsession with the gloomy Goth girl is so disorienting (and so beyond the boundaries of basic horror movie survival norms) that we begin to doubt our interest. When the Tin Man finally arrives, in the persona of one Michael Madsen, the expected showdown never materializes. Instead, there are a few scripture-ish invocations, some semi-successful CGI, and that’s it.

And again, that’s the biggest problem with films like House. When you place God against the Devil and ask for them to bring it on, Big Willy style, the results need to be as apocalyptic as that sounds. Or if you can’t afford an F/X epic, at least be honest with your commercial constituency. Audiences will buy almost anything as long as it is proffered with a far amount of polish and determination. Here, Herman tries for something spectacular, and then pulls back, fearing a fundamentalist backlash. Light banishing dark just ain’t gonna do it. We need the literal flames of Hell licking at the fence posts of the Pearly Gates, and House just can’t handle this. Instead, it turns tail and runs. Up until this point, it’s an above to only average journey into terror. Once religion gets pushed into and then back out of the picture, the movie can’t man up - and that’s a shame.

by tjmHolden

4 Apr 2009

I had an interesting exchange the other day, the fallout from publication of the most recent installment of ReDotPop. The substance of the dispute is less important than the fact that there was a dispute at all. And why? Because at root was a basic assumption by a couple of readers who responded in the vein that I was a particular (kind of) person: one they thought I must be based on the words that they read on the screen. The only thing is that I really wasn’t that person they were making me out to be (even though I had truly employed those words that led them to that viewpoint). They read the column, took my words at face value, ran with it, got (justifiably exercised)—and there we had it: the makings of a first class verbal joust, an ideational brouhaha, a comedy of erroneous supposition.

It led to a Catch-22, of sorts, which I will explain below. Nothing real profound, as Catch-22s go; rather, a sort of low-grade writer’s dilemma. But, at a more important level of concern: a puzzle in (constructing and defending) identity.

But for now— here’s the thing: for these readers, how would they ever know that I wasn’t the person that the words suggested? How could they? After all, I had invoked those words from which the inferences derived. Constructed and published those sentences my own self, under my own banner. Shouldn’t I be accountable for what appeared after I pressed the “Submit” button?

 

by Bill Gibron

3 Apr 2009

When a novice becomes enamored with the post-modern preamble known as exploitation, their usual route in begins with a group of seminal figures. Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, Kroger Babb, Doris Wishman, Barry Mahon, Bryon Mabe, and Andy Milligan took the genre and ran with it, introducing subjects and storylines to the motion picture artform that mainstream Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a ten foot, well greased and dipped in antibiotic pole. One of the most prolific was producer Harry Novak. Not only did he make his own mark in the realm of sin and skin, but he introduced hundreds of foreign and underground titles to the market as well. One of his most notorious remains Danish import Dværgen. Retitled The Sinful Dwarf, Novak hoped this completely corrupt tale would become a classic. In some ways - he got his wish. Unreleased for decades, it’s become the stuff of lewd legend.

Young newlyweds Peter and Mary are desperate for a place to stay. Unfortunately, they have very little money. Luckily, former nightclub chanteuse Lili Lash as a boarding house that’s cheap, cheap, cheap. Unfortunately, it’s a front for a diabolic scheme involving kidnapping, drug smuggling, heroin addiction, prostitution, and other immoral acts. Overseen by her undersized dwarf son Olaf, Lash spends her days in a drunken stupor, entertaining her equally inebriated friend Winnie. At night, men visit the various victims they have chained up in the attic, these naked, nubile girls forced into unspeakable acts of white slavery to keep the Lashes in the lap of…well, near poverty. When Peter is forced to find work to supplement his failing writing career, he leaves Mary alone with the crazed clan. Sure enough, she becomes the next target of the Lash business model, a piece of meat to be traded like any other available whore.

There’s a moldy old maxim in exploitation that goes a little something like this - if you’re going to give potential audiences a title so titillating it overwhelms the entire notion of grindhouse gratuity, you better deliver on your implied debauchery. On the plus side, The Sinful Dwarf tries to live up to its lurid moniker. We get several shots of star Torben doing his best little person perversions, and the rest of the film offers nothing but nonstop nastiness. If you’ve never seen a raincoat crowd-pleaser before, get ready. This movie makes the basement pit sequences in Pink Flamingoes seem tame by example. Thanks to Harry Novak, that notorious cinematic entrepreneur of excess and erotica, worldwide audiences got a chance to appreciate this unhinged Danish dementia - and now, finally, it finds its way onto home video. The digital format is ill-prepared for such salaciousness.

Granted, The Sinful Dwarf will seem very familiar to anyone with a previous knowledge of the genre. It follows the exploitation recipe to a form-fitting (and breast enhancing) “T”. There’s so much nudity here that male members of the demographic get little time to reload, and the blatant misogynist tone is take to extremes in both the edited hardcore sequences as well as the moments when drunken old dames Lili and Winnie get their gin-juiced groove on. Director Vidal Raski certainly knows how to satisfy his proposed audience’s prurient needs. There are so many shots of star Anne Sparrow in clingy, mammary enhancing garments that he could be working for Maidenform - and that’s just when she’s dressed. The rest of the time, the camera never leaves her swollen, heaving ‘talents’.

As for the rest of the cast, they are caught somewhere between porn and implausibility. Since they are kept drugged up most of the time, their character’s escape appears impossible. Yet anyone with common sense can see that a group of semi-conscious sex slaves can easily beat up one crippled, cane-reliant dwarf. Even better, when Lili shows up to put the smack down, she’s usually so lubed up on Beefeaters that she can barely walk erect. Yet these women simply lay there, full frontals giving the camera the performance of a lifetime. When Raski gets down to the diddling, it’s borderline offensive in its realism. Those in the know understand that this XXX feature was carved down to get a more commercial release. Yet there’s enough blatant innuendo to keep censors up at night.

In fact, the most horrific thing about The Sinful Dwarf is how “tame” it is compared to other offerings from the era. At this point in exploitation, the Findlays were heading over to Snuff-ville, David Friedman was working on the soft to hardcore transition, and Deep Throat was making smut socially acceptable. Here, all we have is bargain basement depravity dressed up in human oddity histrionics. Critics have mentioned that the movie suffers from a lack of Torben, and it’s true. He’s by far the most intriguing character (elderly female winos aside) and he offers a unique and rather disturbing onscreen presence. The fact that he was the host of children’s shows in his native Denmark speaks a lot about his acting prowess. Still, we could tolerate much more ‘midget’ in this out of bounds effort.

There will be some who find this all too tacky and filthy to endure, a wretched experience without a speck of redeeming value or validity. Others will view it all through a cynical gaze that comes from decades of being desensitized to such seedy, slimy sleaze. Though it could probably never live up to its notorious nomenclature, The Sinful Dwarf is an excellent example of the extremes some filmmakers would go to in achieving a kind of kink immortality. Similar to the myth surrounding such previously unknown quantities as A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine and Year of the Yahoo, we once again find ourselves adjusting our expectations in light of reality. Come to this film expecting the worst and you’ll be gravely disappointed. Enter with a knowledge of all things grindhouse, and you’ll discover a genuine junk joy.

by Jason Gross

3 Apr 2009

With album sales continually tanking, artists are getting more and more creative about how to get fans to shell out for their releases and it’s not just the Radiohead/NIN freebie-or-pay-what-you-want models. It’s a bunch of new models where fans get extra for paying extra.

Here’s how iTunes made the announcement of the exclusive goodies that they were giving away with the new Depeche Mode album:

“Get new music and special bonus content from your favorite artists delivered as soon as it’s available with the purchase of an iTunes Pass. The first iTunes Pass includes Sounds of the Universe, the upcoming new album from Depeche Mode, plus extended singles, remixes, videos, and more, which will be released over the next few months. Buy an iTunes Pass today and the band’s new single “Wrong” plus the Black Light Odyssey dub remix of “Oh Well” will begin to download immediately.”

Sounds good, right?  But then comes the fine print. “Pass contents are subject to change without notice.”  Ouch. So, what does that mean?  Well, you probably find out after the fact. Also, you’re told “This pass is active and it is scheduled to end on June 16, 2009.”  What happens on that date?  Is all the material still available to you after that date if you’ve paid up before then?

Even with these caveats, it’s still enticing to fans, even if the material has already started leaking out. What will be interesting to see is the sales figures that Apple logs for this promotion.

This kind of bonus idea to give the fans a little more for their purchase is definitely catching on. No Doubt is offering a deal where if you buy premiere seats to their shows, you get to download their whole catalog. It’s a nice idea but wouldn’t the fans who were paying for the top dollar seats already have their whole catalog?  Maybe some other nice little extras would have been in order. Again, the proof will be in the sales figures that they’ll see for these primo seats.

Even indie heroes Sonic Youth are getting in on the deal. If you pre-order their upcoming Matador debut, you get a bunch of goodies from Rough Trade shops, Other Music and additional outlets, including: “stream of the album before release date, a limited edition live lp from a sonic youth gig in battery park nyc, an exclusive poster contained inside the vinyl and additional exclusive mp3’s.” 

For purchase bonuses though, good luck trying to beat drummer Josh Freese (Devo, A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails). His extensive list of bonuses come with various prices, including $10,000 for his car, $20,000 for a round of golf and $75,000 which gets JF joining your band, a limo ride, five songs about you, lasagna and more! Gwen and Thurston aren’t offering that up now, are they? (P.S. JF sold the golf date)

And just think of the future possibilities with other releases and bonuses offered. Bono waxing your car. Springsteen fixing your roof. Neil Young unclogging your john. Jay Z mowing your lawn. Lil Wayne delivering you a pizza. Kenny Chesney getting leaves outta your rain gutter. Taylor Swift running errands for you. Finally, our favorite superstars can make a real impact in our lives and all we gotta do is buy their albums or show up to their shows. Seems like a fair trade off, doesn’t it?

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