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Saturday, Oct 27, 2007

Although they are not fully under control, the wildfires are becoming more manageable. This has allowed more and more residents in these here parts to return to the natural rhythm of things. And, being late October, this means metric measures like this:




That’s right. ‘Tis the season. For all kids—good and less than—time to go a-haunting.


In preparation for this annual rite, to try to peer inside and fathom the thing that is All Hallow’s Eve, I took a neighborhood stroll. It being years since I’ve partaken of the American version of this event—the one where “the invisible veil that separates this world from the realm of the dead supposedly (becomes) permeable,” where we seek to guide the wandering dead through the shadows, and steer them to a place of mental and spiritual rest. And here is what I found . . .


I wonder if this looks anything like the haunted bogs and balconies and ballastrades around you, wherever that may be.


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Saturday, Oct 27, 2007


While it’s unfair to over-generalize them so, the Italians were once the kings of copycat genre films. From the Exorcist inspired Beyond the Door to the Zombi 2/Zombie/Dawn of the Dead entanglement, the routine ripping off of Hollywood horror was, at one time, the foreign fright flick’s sole reputation. Thankfully, home video came along and opened up the doors of motion picture perception. Soon, for every example of blatant bootlegging, we got dozens of delirious, original efforts. This doesn’t mean that the tendency toward mimicry totally left the industry. In fact, filmmakers like Lucio Fulci still traded on previously delivered dread to make their movies. A perfect example of this is 1987’s Ænigma. Nothing more than a 90 minute combination of better scare subject matter, there is still no denying this perplexing paisan’s way with a camera. As an artist, Fulci is admirable. As a macabre maestro, he’s downright aggravating.


Poor unattractive Kathy – she’s the butt of every cruel joke at the exclusive St. Mary’s College. When the in-crowd gets together and hooks her up with the resident lothario – muscled gym teacher Fred – it seems like the answer to her prayers. Of course, the whole date is nothing but a cruel joke, and the resulting embarrassment sends Kathy into a hasty retreat…and her personal collision with an oncoming car bumper. One coma later, and the school is back to snickering over the stunt. As she lies dying, Kathy prays to live on, and sure enough, her ‘spirit’ possesses the college’s new girl, a sly slut named Eva. The offspring of wealth and snobbery, the newbie is out to have any hunk she can manhandle. Yet, all of a sudden, wherever Eva goes, death follows. Students and faculty systematically suffer fatal accidents or previously unknown terminal physical conditions. Of course, it’s just Kathy, with the help of her slow-witted yet sinister mother. They’re getting revenge for the child’s persistent vegetative state. A middle aged sleazebag neurologist may be the only one able to stop the slaughter – that is, when he’s not scoping on the student body.


If you took the concept of Carrie, married it to the circumstances of Patrick, ladled in copious amounts of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and seasoned it all with a generous helping of fake Euro-trashing of iconic American locales (in this case, a badly rendered Boston), you’d have Ænigma in a nutty, infectious shell. Burdened by many of the subpar cinematic facets (lame scripts, bad cinematography, budgetary restraints) that came to exemplify his last years as a director, this plagiaristic potboiler is comatose nerd revenge at its most arcane. The aforementioned list of narrative references is really unfair to what Fulci creates here. While it’s true that he borrows liberally from the premises that preceded this descent into girl’s school schlock, his unique take on the material, filled with inappropriate doctor/patient canoodling, a green ghoul zombified heroine, and ultra-sloppy dubbing, remains an intriguing failure. We hope the man notorious for pushing lumber through ladies’ eyes, drilling holes through heads, and having the undead routinely show up in places they’re not welcome will continue his exploratory entertainment surgery. What we wind up with instead is peer pressure as paranormal surreality.


Let’s face it – you have to love a movie that has a character named Crazy Retard Mary as a major plot point. As the brain-addled maid for the snooty St. Mary’s College in Sicily…sorry, Massachusetts, this disheveled woman is picked on, scandalized, and metaphysically brow beaten. Seems anything that goes wrong in the institution – rooms are messy, grades are low, random undergrads are turning up dead – Crazy Retard Mary is to blame. It’s not grand enough that she is constantly referred to in such a non-PC manner, the prissy witches walking around campus treat her torment as a birthright. Fulci really does go overboard with the ‘cash equals cruelty’ routine (no matter how true it may be). From the opening prank that sets up the story to the last act showdown between our psycho student and her former roommate, Ænigma can best be described as trust fund tramps gone gonzo. Unlike fellow Mediterranean filmmaker Argento, who used the privileged skirts at his upper crust dance academy as mere murder fodder, Fulci clearly identifies with gender equity bullying.


Those looking for the director’s standard blood bathing will be highly disappointed, however. Aside from a headless torso that apparently turns up in every room in the dorm, and a cartoonish scar worn by the unconscious Cathy, the rest of the film is unfathomably clotless. In its place are deaths so deranged that only a master of mass murder could consider them clever. A beefy gym teacher is strangled by his mirror reflection while another student is smothered by…snails. That’s right, slimy, slow moving snails (and, naturally, our victim fails to struggle throughout the entire escargot ordeal). In other instances, a baroque painting comes to life before a marble statue slams a gal, while another takes a swan dive out of her third story dorm room window. Perhaps the best bit of supposedly scary nonsense has our possessed babe Eva beating her roommate with a yellow jacket. After trashing her closet, she grabs the coat and starts flailing. It’s like a male fantasy pillow fight without the jiggle jollies. Between this slicker slasher sequence, and the hilariously bad miniature work used to show Kathy’s spirit “floating” above her school, Ænigma is a glorious goof. 


Perhaps the most perplexing element of this film is its last act decision to drop the paranormal and go with perversion. American actor Jared Martin, who was 44 when the movie was made, is seen making out and fornicating with gals over half his age (this is college, so we’re dealing with 18 to 22 year olds here). There is a weird vibe of inappropriateness generated throughout his scenes. Even the movie references it a couple of times, which is oddly self-referential for a story selling sex and violence. Granted, his costars aren’t exactly jailbait in the looks department, but the notion of much older men manipulating younger women does come across as incredibly sleazy. Without the typical grue, minus the man’s ocular fixation and way with supernatural showboating, Ænigma feels like second tier Fulci. It is indeed indicative of much of the man’s latter career. Unlike other filmmakers of his ilk who seemed capable of generating nothing but novelty throughout their life, the patron of pus was a journeyman first, an auteur a decided second. Ænigma is actually pretty effective in a few instances. Sadly, it’s completely laughable most of the time.


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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

Two scary scenarios to ponder.  Hal Crowther’s Stop the Presses article in Independently Weekly points out


“How the Internet might replace the newspaper as a source of information is never explained by those who assure you that it will,” cautions Russell Baker. “At present about 80 percent of all news available on the Internet originates in newspapers. ... No Internet company has the resources needed to gather and edit news on the scale of the most mediocre metropolitan daily.” “The Internet,” he concludes, “is basically an electronic version of the 10-year-old boy who used to toss the newspaper on the front porch: an ingenious circulation device.”


And it’s been that way for years now.  But while we increasingly rely on the Net, we don’t realize what a precarious state it might be in. Check out Lawrence G. Robe’s Routing Economics Threaten the Internet. Here he explains that the technical structure of the Internet isn’t suited to the demands that we’re placing on it now.  Robe has some solutions to the problem but the fact is that we’re hanging 21st century technology on a system that’s forty years old now and needs updating. The thought that while we pour more and more the time and effort all of us pour into the Net (i.e. this blog and millions of others, all the social networking we do, etc..) and that it’s well-being is threatened ain’t a comforting thought.


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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

SAW IV (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman)


It’s interesting how the Saw series has progressed since James Wan and buddy Leigh Whannel came up with their punk rock homage to Alfred Hitchcock and ‘80s horror. While Part 2 was nothing more than a puzzle box of gore, Part 3 gave audiences (and fans in particular) a nice bit of closure to end things proper. So when Saw IV was announced (a more or less certainty since each installment more than makes its budget back), the question for those in the know was – where could the franchise possibly go? The main character is dead, several of his cohorts on both sides of the law have also kicked the proverbial bucket, and Whannel specifically fashioned the last installment to tie up as many loose threads as possible. So how does this latest sequel deal with such narrative roadblocks? By taking things sideways and backwards, to be exact, broadening the movie’s mythology while laying the foundation for all future films to come.


As the movie opens, Part III has just ended. Jigsaw is indeed dead, and during his autopsy, a tape is found in his stomach. It indicates that the games are not over – in fact, they have only just begun. Almost instantly we meet dedicated cops Rigg and Hoffman. Investigating the death of fellow officer Kerry, who met her end at the hand’s of a deadly rib spreading device, they recognize that Jigsaw must have had help with his crimes – and Amanda was too petite to do the job. This means another accomplish is out there. Obsessed with catching this self-proclaimed ‘scientific terrorist’, Riggs is soon embroiled in the madman’s latest complicated puzzle. Meanwhile, FBI agents Strahm and Perez are called in to oversea the case. Their focus is Jigsaw’s ex-wife, a drug clinic director named Jill. While she may not have information on the continuing crimes, she can definitely shed some light on what made this one time celebrated civil engineer into an unhinged man obsessed with death.


If the original Saw was the kernel of a potential terror universe, Saw IV is, by this time, a series of satellites and lesser celestial bodies bound together by some of the best bloodletting in modern macabre. Call this the “fill in the blank” film, a movie made to specifically address the minor issues still hanging from the previous three installments. While Wan and Whannell didn’t leave too much to work with, new screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (fresh from the Project Greenlight sleeper Feast) flesh out ancillary characters and simultaneous situations while going the prequel route to give returning actor Tobin Bell some intriguing origin scenes. Yes, Saw IV shows us how John Kramer cracked, and the reasoning is pretty intense. His goofy demonic doll is also explained, as is the pig mask and Jigsaw’s mechanical and monetary abilities. Without giving much away, he was a wealthy eccentric, obsessed with moral order and Eastern philosophy, who suffers such a devastating personal loss that he turns on a society he sees as not appreciating life. The devil, as usual, is in the details.


The secondary storyline brings back Swat team leader Rigg (a peripheral person whose been in the last two installments) as the latest catalyst in the main craven cat and mouse, and it’s a tad less successful. Like most of the movie, hints are dropped as to why this policeman is placed inside these brutal, efficient murder machinations, but the connections are cloudy and unclear this time around. In essence, obvious deviants and drug heads are presented to the peace officer in hopes that he will learn the “real” way of helping. Like Donnie Wahlberg’s Eric Matthews, it’s a lax lesson in patience and paying attention. Still, without these vile vignettes, we wouldn’t have many of the saga’s sensational splatter setpieces. It seems like, just when you thought the Saw gang had explored every possible way of folding, spindling, or mutilating the human body, the next sequel comes along and amplifies the sluice.


There is incredibly nauseating stuff here. Jigsaw’s autopsy is an over the top exercise in surgical swashbuckling, while the first few games are fantastically gruesome. Of particular note are moments as when our killer originates his automated tortures (it involves a dope fiend, a trick chair, and a spring loaded face gate made up of butcher knives – tasty!) and a couple connected by large rods penetrating both their bodies. It will be interesting to see how much more graphic the deaths will be come Unrated DVD time. As with the recent release of Saw III, director Darren Lynn Bousman always has some added atrocities up his sleeves. How the MPAA said “yea” to what’s already there is amazing in and of itself. It has to be noted that, unlike previous installments that he’s helmed, the filmmaker goes a little goofy here. Every game sequence is handled with shaky camera jerks and oddball editing beats. While it definitely gives this movie a different style, it can hinder some of the suspense.


In fact, Saw IV is much more of a police procedural whodunit than your typical slice and dice serial spree. The plot definitely wants to add further finishing moves on top of what Whannell did last time, and there are more clues and connections than in any edition since the first. This will definitely drive some audiences bonkers. The last thing you want from a horror film is a mandatory need for prior knowledge of personnel and context. This is not a sequel that can be enjoyed by people who’ve never seen the Saw films, and the casual viewer will definitely feel a sense of who/what/where/when/why whiplash. In fact, it’s pretty clear that this is a movie made exclusively for the obsessive and the fanatical. And let’s not forget the mandatory twist at the end. It’s the kind of reveal that takes a moment to sink in, one of those ‘hold on a minute’ instances that ask you to remember what you witnessed before and how it plays into the overall storyline. It’s not that the movie is complicated. Instead, it’s playing a trick on you, and some people don’t like being purposefully played with.


There are also some handy unanswered questions, issues left open and available for Saw V and VI (both already greenlit by Lionsgate). For example, someone gets puppet shrapnel in their face. They are not dead, though they are never addressed again. Someone with a connection to the crimes is given no explanation for their participation. During the first game, we see someone who is never properly introduced or explained, and several ancillary individuals are left stuck in the status quo, obviously positioned as pawns for placement later. Still, those smitten with this particularly potent scary movie monopoly will definitely enjoy Saw IV. It ranks third of the four movies made (Saw and Saw III besting it easily). By this point in the legend, we clearly know how Jigsaw works, what he hoped for with Amanda, and how his apprentice ended up violating his own rules for her own selfish gains. Where everything goes from here should be interesting – if not necessarily iconic. The original Saw series is officially DOA. Long live the new blood breed.



 


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Friday, Oct 26, 2007


For the weekend of 26 October, here are the films in focus:


Lust, Caution [rating: 8]


While some will feel his previous works better illustrate his gift of film, Lust, Caution creates an unmatched statement of cinematic wisdom all its own.

Ang Lee has had an amazing career behind the camera. Seemingly unphased by sudden shifts in subject matter, he’s tackled everything from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), ‘70s relationships (The Ice Storm), Civil War strife (Ride with the Devil), mystical Chinese wire-fu mythos (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and full blown Hollywood popcorn fare (Hulk). He even owns an Oscar for bringing a solemn, sensitive touch to the gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. Yet aside from Tiger, and his first few films, Lee has seldom focused on his Asian heritage. Indeed, some have suggested that he purposely avoids it in order to not be stereotyped by the Hollywood studios. It really shouldn’t be a concern. Even when he decides to work in his native land, as with this year’s exceptional Se, jie (translation: Lust, Caution), his vision and attention to detail set him far above any limits wrongfully inferred from his nationality.  read full review…


The Darjeeling Limited [rating: 8]


Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest.

Wes Anderson makes cinematic novels - episodic, heavily reliant on subplot and subtext, and filled with quirky characters that seem to work best when fully plotted out on paper. Indeed, films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou have often been accused of being better in bits than as a sum of all their perculiar parts. Part of the problem is audience perception. They’re used to seeing people as pawns, cogs in a mainstream mechanism moving robotically from setpiece A to denouement B. Another is aesthetic inconsistency. Within Anderson’s brilliant flourishes are occasional moments of lax detail. While his work has been potent, and very provocative, few could call it perfect – until now. The Darjeeling Limited is an Anderson epiphany. Finally, within the context of a single storyline, the writer/director has found a flawless premise and three equally ideal characters to carry it across. read full review…


Lars and the Real Girl [rating: 7]


Avoiding cliché while exploiting the obvious comic possibilities of a man’s obsession with a ‘anatomically correct’ love doll, Lars and the Real Girl is a satiric, sentimental jewel.

Though we like to think of ourselves as enlightened and progressive, there is still a part of our inherent human make up that hates to see people alone. From the meddling matchmaking imported from many an immigrant’s old country culture to the current computerized claims of electronic harmony, we function under the foolish belief that individuals aren’t complete until they’re paired up and procreating. Equally disturbing is how readily we dismiss someone’s personal preference, no matter how unusual or outside the considered norm. While some affections can’t be supported, others offer nothing more than shelter from the social storm. Lars Lindstrum suffers from such well-meaning misconstructions. His brother and sister-in-law just want him to be happy. But finding said bliss with a life-size sex aide is another issue all together. read full review…


Saw IV [rating: 7]


If the original Saw was the kernel of a potential terror universe, Saw IV is, by this time, a series of satellites and lesser celestial bodies bound together by some of the best bloodletting in modern macabre.

It’s interesting how the Saw series has progressed since James Wan and buddy Leigh Whannel came up with their punk rock homage to Alfred Hitchcock and ‘80s horror. While Part 2 was nothing more than a puzzle box of gore, Part 3 gave audiences (and fans in particular) a nice bit of closure to end things proper. So when Saw IV was announced (a more or less certainty since each installment more than makes its budget back), the question for those in the know was – where could the franchise possibly go? The main character is dead, several of his cohorts on both sides of the law have also kicked the proverbial bucket, and Whannel specifically fashioned the last installment to tie up as many loose threads as possible. So how does this latest sequel deal with such narrative roadblocks? By taking things sideways and backwards, to be exact, broadening the movie’s mythology while laying the foundation for all future films to come. read full review…


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