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by Bill Gibron

31 Mar 2009

In retrospect, it should be no surprise when major talents collaborate, clash and crash. With each one being a giant in their own particularly way, an attempted meeting of the minds becomes something akin to planets colliding. Nothing good can come out of it, with an artistic triumph a fading reality and the apocalypse a distinct possibility. So when it was announced that George Romero, fresh off his mainstream thriller Monkeyshines, would team up with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, fright fans were overcome with anticipatory joy. The notion of what were arguably the most talented of terror titans coming together to take on the schizoid fiction of one Edgar Allan Poe seemed almost too good to be true. And when they got the opportunity to finally see the resulting project, entitled Two Evil Eyes, there worst fears were mostly realized. Not only did the directors underperform individually, but there was a sense that neither brought their best to this anemic anthology.

Divided into two one hour films, Two Evil Eyes centers on the stories “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and the legendary Poe parable, “The Black Cat”. In the first tale, a gold-digging wife and her doctor lover concoct a plan to keep her terminally ill husband alive long enough to liquidate his assets. Using hypnosis, they get the man to do what they want. One day, he dies while in a trance, and the couple panics. They put the body in the basement freezer and wait. Suddenly, they hear sounds. Apparently, dying while under the spell traps the man between life and death - and there are “others” who want to use him to cross over. “Cat” offers a crime scene photographer who’s desperate to find a new direction in his life. His live-in girlfriend, a violin virtuoso, doesn’t make things any easier for the high tempered cad. In a fit of jealous rage, he kills her and walls up the corpse in their apartment home. Too bad he trapped her favorite cat in there with her as well.

As an experiment in narrative revision and reinterpretation, Two Evil Eyes (new to Blu-ray from Blue Underground) could be called a minor success. Romero takes the tale of a dying man and his eventual transformation into a “nearly liquid mass…of detestable putrescence” and turns it into a revenge narrative complete with double crosses, noir-like nuances, and a last act bit of splatter. Argento, on the other hand, drops so many Poe references into his work (his main character is named Roderick Usher, after all) that some of the story gets lost. Still, what we wind up with is a gory Gothic barnburner including witch trial impalings, freak show feral kittens, and a finale so anticlimactic it makes us wonder why the main characters even bothered. Again, there’s a feeling that both Romero and Argento overcomplicated their often potent macabre muse. Instead of following Poe to the letter, or merely updating him to the present day, there’s a real effort to rewrite the master, which may just be Two Evil Eye‘s biggest mistake.

Of the two, it has to be said the Romero’s has not aged well. At the time, his tepid retread of a dozen crime drama clichés just couldn’t come together, the ending sparking the most controversy with its decision to skip all the suspense and supposed plot contraventions to dive directly into grue. Today, it’s merely dull. Andrienne Barbeau, so good as the bitchy shrew wife from Hell in Creepshow seems low key and laid back, so much so that when she turns on the angst, she appears off kilter. Ramy Zada is not much better as the doctor. His line readings appear lifted from a soap opera and his love scene with Barbeau exudes little or no chemistry. Tom Savini, on hand to provide the mandatory autopsy level F/X, also underperforms. The frozen Valdemar couldn’t look more fake, and the finale feels excessive for excess’s sake.

Not that Argento shows any subtly. His film opens with an homage to “The Pit and the Pendulum”, a dismembered body doing its best Black Dahlia impersonation as Harvey Keitel clicks off a frame or two. A little later on, a female head is shown sans teeth, jaw spreader exposing a mouth filled with hollow, bloody holes. Toss in the main story reveal, a surreal nightmare including a reference to fellow Mediterranean madman Ruggero Deodato, and various visions of animal abuse, and you’ve got one uncomfortable experience. Argento clearly has a hard time with his American actors. Keitel is given over to massive mood swings, playing it for laughs one moment, as loud as humanly possible the next. He’s matched in physical unattractiveness by Madeleine Porter, who gives new meaning to the term “washed out red head.”



In fact, in both cases our intrepid filmmakers fail to see the fright forest for the terror trees. They overindulge in details when the bigger picture is far more powerful. There are endless conversations in the Romero piece that do nothing except take up time, while Argento seems so Hellbent on squeezing a 90 minute movie into his allotted hour that many sequences are rushed. Subplots purposefully added don’t pay off, the inclusion of famous character actors like E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Kim Hunter doing little to lift the material. It’s not that Two Evil Eyes is bad. It’s a thoroughly watchable and occasionally entertaining experiment. But when viewing the creative convergence between the men behind Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead, you really do expect more than acceptability. 

Of course, viewing in the film in the updated Blu-ray format reveals elements lost on previous home video releases (including Blue Underground’s own 2003 DVD presentation). The 1080p image is striking - facets both unnerving (Savini’s accomplished corpses) and unrivaled (Argento’s color pallet) brought to vivid life. As for the audio, this English only production also gets a revamp. The 7.1 DTS-HD, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX all sound marvelous. Bonus features are taken from the Big Blue U’s original digital package. There are interviews with Romero, Argento, and Savini, as well as a brief snippet of Barbeau from the Document of the Dead documentary. Toss in a tour of Savini’s studio and the standard trailer and you’ve got a decent, if slightly derivative set of extras.

Oddly enough, Two Evil Eyes appears to be the tipping point in both Romero and Argento’s post-superstar careers. With The Dark Half, Bruiser, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, the king of the zombies has struggled to remain relevant. His foreign counterpart has been a tad more successful, with both The Stendhal Syndrome and the final installment of his trilogy, The Mother of Tears, reminding fans of his previous penchant for greatness. Like Grindhouse, or New York Stories, the merging of masters is almost always a recipe for oversized expectations and unceremoniously dashed realizations. Two Evil Eyes should have been much more than it is. After all, we expect more than serviceability from such astonishing terror icons. 

by Sarah Zupko

31 Mar 2009

Legendary singer-songwriter Cohen struck out on his first tour in 15 years last year. The result is the compelling new live recording, Live in London, documenting those critically acclaimed shows. The album releases today and we have also just published a rave review, giving the record an 8. Adrien Begrand says: “From the opening salvos of the gorgeous, cabaret-tinged ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’, it’s clear that he has not lost a step whatsoever, his resonant, cigarette-deepened baritone voice enveloping us, brilliantly interweaving with the dulcet tones of his trademark trio of background singers.”

by Sean Murphy

31 Mar 2009

I’ve not said much to say, in print, to this point about John Zorn for a variety of reasons, but it ultimately boils down to two very simple issues. First, there is so much to say it’s both exhausting and intimidating to consider; how to even grapple with an output like this? Second, and perhaps more significant, I’m not at all certain my best efforts would sufficiently convey how important his music is (to me, for starters) and how truly all-encompassing his sensibility has become. And that’s just in the last 12 months…

Consider his Masada songbook: 100 compositions he wrote in the early ’90s, and then recorded over the course of ten albums with the (then acoustic) Masada band, including Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums. The klezmer-meets classic Ornette Coleman Quartet vibe, too often and easily invoked as a way of describing what this music sounds like, nevertheless is an acceptably succinct summation. These tunes were covered by another working band, Bar Kokhba (which brought in Cyro Baptista on percussion, Marc Ribot on guitar, Mark Feldman on violin and Eric Friedlander on cello–all mainstays in the NYC downtown music scene), giving the compositions an augmented grandeur that keeps the material challenging (mostly for the players) and always accessible.  The Masada String Trio (Cohen, Feldman and Friedlander) also recorded and performed this material live.

by Sean Murphy

30 Mar 2009

From Sunday’s New York Times: On March 29, 1973, the last United States troops left South Vietnam, ending America’s direct military involvement in the Vietnam War.

I can’t recall the last time I watched The Deer Hunter in a single, uninterrupted sitting. I suspect, reflecting on the first Vietnam-inspired Hollywood epic (preceding the similarly overstuffed Apocalypse Now by a full year), the extensive overture is necessary not only to set the tone, but to signify, on literal and figurative (artistic) levels the last glimpse of a way of life that was about to irrevocably change. With minimal pretension (that would be saved for the movie’s third act) and effective subtlety, the elaborate, unhurried scenes depicting the plans and preparation for the big wedding illustrate a way of life that, even without the war, was almost obsolete: the steel mills and coal mines, of course, would not figure as prominently in the lives (and livelihoods) of the next generation. Less remarked upon, but equally significant is the vivid depiction of a reliance on religion and ritual that seemed much less archaic in an era when it was not uncommon for first or second generation immigrants (mostly from Europe) to comprise the (invariably blue collar) workforce. As such, the film’s first act is a document of a time that was slouching, not exactly innocently but less than fully prepared, toward the end of its own history. First there was the ‘80s and what the powers that were did to the unions, then the ‘90s and what computers meant for the majority of workers unfamiliar with the Internet.

The Deer Hunter’s second act deals with the horrors of combat and the third act with its aftermath; those are the parts that, while not as deliberate and languid as the less eventful opening act, become weighted down with their own urgency and all-encompassing compulsion to illustrate Big Truths. This is where the (inevitable?) lack of subtlety and (unfortunate) pretension sometimes suck the air out of the action on the screen. Still, the scene where De Niro skips his own homecoming party and paces nervously around his motel room says as much about the alienation and subsequent disillusionment (where he came from, where he went, where he is headed) than most films and books devoted to the uneasy homecoming Vietnam veterans endured. For an unfettered and forceful examination of this awkward chapter in our country’s history, I’ve yet to encounter a work that improves upon Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. But the single scene (from any film, and more immediately than any book) that successfully synthesizes the before and after of that war, and that era, is the brief, devastatingly beautiful scene that concludes the first part of the film: post-wedding and pre-war; no words are spoken but a great deal is conveyed. The world will soon be a different place for the friends headed to war as well as the ones who stayed behind. It is an elegy for folks who are beginning to understand that everything has already changed.

The Deer Hunter, The Last Night

by PopMatters Staff

30 Mar 2009

Rootsy singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan has teamed up with Greg Richling (The Wallflowers) and Rami Jaffee (Foo Fighters) for a project going by the moniker of The Dead Satellites. The group has released a free single “Shook Down” full of timely anger at the causes of the recent economic crisis.

The Dead Satellites
“Shook Down” [MP3]
     

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