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by Bill Gibron

5 Apr 2009

Oh boy - here we go again.

It’s been a little less than three years since UK trickster Sacha Baron Cohen has been out of the cinematic limelight, and the world has actually been better for it. For everyone who thought his ambush comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan would reset the standard for big screen satire, the Apatow based truth is tough to swallow. Indeed, Cohen’s creative bent, which basically mandates that real people interact with his over the top, politically incorrect conceits, dissipated along with the mainstream fortunes of Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, and the rest of the similarly styled Jackass crew. And while the Brit wit has been off manufacturing his next film, the world of humor has stumbled over into frat boy bromance territory masterminded by the Freaks and Geeks guru and his FoA pact.

All of which leaves the fortunes for the upcoming Brüno (also given an unwieldy subtitle - Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt) up in the air. Taking another character from his Ali G Show and sending ‘him’ off into the straits of Bible Belt America may seem like something clever, but let’s not forget the love it/loathe it revisionism that faced the comic’s previous character from Kazakhstan. While funny, it wasn’t the full blown rewriting of the laughfest rulebook that many felt it would be. In fact, some saw this emperor as half-dressed the first time around. They continue to wonder how long it would be before the rest of the faux funny business façade would drop off and disappear.

One look at the ersatz ribald “Red Band” trailer for Brüno indicates that said designer duds are now indeed just a birthday suit. As he did with race in Borat, Cohen attempts to turn gender equity and lifestyle choice into the savage social commentary with unlikely everyday Americans (and occasional oddballs) taking the brunt of his brutalizing. Homophobia is played up, as are any issues involving masculinity, machismo, and manliness. Cohen is shown attending self defense classes, asking how the nonplused instructor would defend himself against dildos. There are also moments of man-on-man action, full frontal nudity, and the always surreal setting of fashion shows and the accompanying Weeks in both New York and abroad. Probably the most controversial moments occurs when Brüno “adopts” an African baby. As a crowd of startled individuals look on, Cohen commences to throw every racial stereotype onto the fire as fuel for the crowd’s increasing rage.

Scandal is nothing new for Cohen, or for Brüno for that matter. There have been reports during production of fights with designers, near arrests, ruined bits (mostly because of the actor’s new higher profile), and an overall inability to fool all the people all the time. Then, a little over two weeks ago, the MPAA slapped the film with the commercial kiss of death known as an NC-17. One assumes it’s for sequences like the one which has a couple of half dressed gay men “making out” in front of a group of flabbergasted rednecks. Naturally, such a judgment is being used to Brüno’s advantage. Director Dan Mazer (a Borat vet, stepping in for an MIA Larry Charles) has stated that, while he will edit the film to meet the MPAA - and studio - mandates, the “Unrated” DVD will be ‘amazingly awesome’.

Still, all of this pre-publicity (the film doesn’t hit theaters until 10 July) begs a certain question regarding content, to wit - are people really interested in seeing this kind of comedy once again? For all its oversized (and since recanted) praise and box office conquering, Borat succeeded primarily because there was nothing like it before. No one had attempted to mesh reality with fiction in such a massively mock documentary design. Sure, there was a Candid Camera type quality to what Cohen and company were doing, but they never made any bones about the individuals in the lens. The people the production interacted with were fooled, but the lack of any ‘hidden’ facet meant they were unknowingly complicit in the ruse. By the end, when the film was raking in the cash, lawsuits came, but not because the plaintiffs had an actual case. As with most participants left outside of success, they simply wanted a piece of the pie.

And yet Cohen hasn’t really tried to broaden his comedic perspective here. This looks like Borat recast in mincing metrosexual satire. Laughs are supposed to come from bigots staring bug-eyed as Queer Nation makes its musky, man-love stand. At least our Kazakhstani reporter had some old school superstitions (the entire “gypsy tears” routine) to expand its scope. One fears that Brüno won’t be able to move beyond its basic one note ideal. No matter the character’s status as a Euro-trash fashionista, there is only so much one can do with sexuality. After a while, the gags become obvious and labored. Indeed, watching the Red Band trailer, one senses that this will feel like a TV length sketch stretched to movie size sameness.

When he appeared in Tim Burton’s brilliant take on Stephen Sondheim’s majestic Sweeney Todd, many argued that Cohen was finally embracing his undeniable talents and moving beyond the ‘gotcha’ groove that brought him to the forefront of fame. Even with Brüno on the horizon, they sense the actor/comedian’s desire to break free from the self-made mold and expand his cinematic status. Here’s hoping that with the final aspect of his Ali G Show finally making it to movie screens, he’ll drop the ‘madman on the street’ shtick and really trade on his seemingly remarkable skills. In some ways, Sacha Baron Cohen is indicative of the British post-modern ideal of wit. Like Russell Brand, or Ricky Gervais, they will take a certain type and basically beat it into the ground until audiences and admen are sick of it. Brüno will truly test whether Cohen can continue on this path. Here’s betting that, come August, he’ll be gratefully going in a different direction. 

by Jason Gross

5 Apr 2009

How the hell do you square these two stories?  On one hand, as Tech Crunch points out, streaming music services are in trouble because their profits are too tiny- their costs to labels and publishers eat up most profits for them, leaving them barely able to survive financially.  On other other hand, a recent report cited by Bloomberg News, says that while teens aren’t buying much as much anymore, they are tuning into streaming music services more and more to listen.

Just to understand, the very place that consumers are flocking to are being slowly bled to death.  If and when these streaming services go under, don’t count on consumers to flock to online or offline stores to buy up music.  Yet another example of the music biz killing off an outlet that they should be utilizing better since there’s a sizable audience there already.  It’s pathetic, stupid and counterproductive.  In other words, it’s par for the course…

by Thomas Hauner

5 Apr 2009

The Presets and The Golden Filter represented opposite ends of the disco spectrum in terms of volume, tone, and intensity at this show. Disappointingly, I only caught the very tail end of Golden Filter’s set, but, from what sparse recordings I have been able to get my hands on, their disco is a nod towards the era of roller-queens and hazy, hedonistic, introspection. Which isn’t to say it was too light. Their beats were sugary but prodding, propelling their songs to desirable places.

By contrast The Presets devoted themselves to a dark, grimy, and almost painfully loud electronica. Its completely minor soaked chromatic melodies were macabre and aggressive (that would be the “Apocalypse” part of their recent release Apocalypso), but the crowd seemed to thrive on the redundancy of their structure. Thankfully Kim Moyes’ periodic live drumming added a captivating live dynamic whilst Julian Hamilton, in his levitating white blazer, proved a competent and consistent singer. In fact he was practically a young Rod Stewart on stage, running between his keyboards and center stage to strike theatrical profiles. Their best tracks were their first and last, proving that they’re apt at opening and closing shows—it was the meaty part of the set that was lost on them. “Kicking and Screaming” was a dramatic beginning as was the segue into “My People”. Ending with “This Boy’s In Love”, their best song, they then came full circle with a massive “My People” reprise. 


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.

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