So amazing and expansive was Nina Simone’s work that it is constantly being remixed, reimagined, repackaged and reconsidered. Since her return to the welcoming embrace of the ancestors, the marketplace has been flooded with no fewer than a dozen reissues and anthologies of Simone’s art. If comprehensiveness and the right balance of bonafide hits, b-side classics, and unreleased live performances are the criteria for a first-rate boxset, then the compilers and producers of To Be Free performed their job masterfully. Spanning the years between 1957 and 1993, the four-disc compilation covers Simone’s years with Bethlehem, Colpix, Philips, RCA, and Columbia Records. Included are nearly all the classics you’d play for some who has never heard of Simone, as well as unreleased material not even in bootleg circulation. By far the most exciting thing about the anthology is the DVD, an Emmy-nominated 1970 documentary enlivened by rare performances and interviews. Engrossing from start to finish, the video gives you a sense of Nina Simone as both an artist and a fearless bandleader. To those of us not fortunate enough to have caught her when she was among the living, the concert footage is a special treat.
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So long as David Sardonic, er, Sedaris, is a household name, he will forever be affiliated with Christmas. Who didn’t first come to this man’s oft-times sassy, other times outrageous satire via NPR’s broadcast of “Santaland Diaries”? This funny little stocking stuffer of a book adds six new stories to the 1998 version opening with—what else—“SantaLand Diaries”, which fans will enjoy every Christmas until their sanity has finally left them and they can laugh no more. With this book they’ll get the holiday treat they anticipate, and some new goodies, as well.
Until recently, the PopMatters Multimedia staff consisted entirely of male writers. As such, it was almost a matter of drawing straws to see who would get “stuck” with covering the various Nancy Drew titles pushed out by Her Interactive every nine months or so. From these assignments came an interesting trend, however—to a man, every single person assigned to write about a Nancy Drew game ended up enjoying it, citing it as one of the better adventure games currently being produced for the PC. The latest in the series is no different. In fact, it’s an example of just how Her is putting the increasing budget they’re getting for these games to good use; it’s the best-looking Nancy Drew adventure to date, and yet it retains the unexpectedly complex puzzling of the previous games. Its target audience may be one made up of tween and young teen girls, but Her has proven over and over again that you don’t need to be a member of that group to enjoy this game. The Haunting of Castle Malloy is as good a place in the series as any to begin discovering that for yourself.
How do you satisfy the sex and violence cravings of that notoriously knotty genre film fan on your Christmas list? Why not give him (or her) a combo memento of Kevin Smith’s sly raunch RomCom as shout out to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. This actual hockey jersey, featuring a wonderful silhouette of the undead with sticks raised in corpse checking defiance, is a great way to celebrate the holidays. Nothing says Noel like wearing a piece of motion picture paraphernalia that simultaneously suggests horror and hardcore porn, without actually offering either.
In China, it’s like Halloween. The 15th night of the seventh month is reserved for the dead. Ancient tradition holds that, on this occasion, the spirits of those who’ve departed pass through the gates of purgatory and mingle with their loved ones left behind on Earth. Through ritual and respect, they are appeased and head back into the afterlife. Thus the Ghost Festival finds its folklore and a new horror anthology from Facets, entitled Visits, finds a foundation. Dealing with a specific part of the mythology centering on hungry, or vengeful spirits, four Asian directors with differing approaches provide a quartet of fright films proposing to make your spine shiver and your nerves rattle - that is, if they don’t bore you to death first.
Framed by a disc jockey promising a series of sensational holiday horror fare, the first tale, entitled 1413 centers on two young girls, a suicide pact gone sour, and the truth behind the untimely death of the unsettled specter. Waiting for Them has an unlucky in love businesswoman upset over the despondent phone calls of a friend. When she finally finds her wondering the street, she seems unusually connected to the supernatural realm. A young filmmaker hopes to capture a scary ritual known as the Nodding Scoop…and gets much more than he or his gal pals bargained for, while a psychotic security guard stalks a pretty apartment dweller, unaware of her own sinister secret in Anybody Home.
While all four films have something going for them, nary a single one stands out as special or suspenseful. They all suffer from incomplete ideas and half-baked realization of same. If one had to pick a worthwhile installment amongst the otherwise mediocre material, the final segment would score strongly. Until the last act mistake of switching the point of view from surveillance cameras to standard cinema, Anybody Home makes for some quasi—creepy silent storytelling. We never fully understand the motives of the security guard, and can only speculate as to what he reacts to once he’s inside the victims home and looking in her freezer. Of course, the entire set-up suggests something unholy and awful, but when director Ho Yuhang decides to switch gears and go back to a standard shooting style, we instantly loose interest. Add in a lengthy, unexplained flashback and a weird, anticlimactic ending, and even Anybody Home suffers.
In fact, it’s safe to say that all of Visits is stunted by a long standing, second class association with the already dead genre of J-Horror. From the obsession with suicide (1413) to the notion of pissed off phantoms taking their afterlife anger out on the living (Nodding Scoop), each episode here feels lifted from a better, more original inspiration. Even Waiting for Them, which wants to put a fresh, frightening spin on self-discovery and female empowerment treads so lightly and statically that you frequently wonder if the actors are actually moving. Indeed, this mind-numbingly dull effort argues for James Lee’s ineffectualness as a filmmaker.
Yet even when a director tries for something novel, like Ng Tian Hann and his caught on tape terror show Nodding Scoop, the conventions of the genre do him in. We need to have ghosts, girls under attack, and a clueless cad for a hero who ends up making multiple mistakes before succumbing to the spirit’s evil advances. The whole narrative is knotted around itself, unclear from the moment we learn that our novice filmmaker has hired two babes to be his on camera (and off screen) talent. While the occasional glimpses of the unhappy spook make the opening moments fun, the finale falls flat. Indeed, what we need more than anything else is a sense of clarity. We don’t mind enigmatic moments and unexplained fears. But without details - or an attempt to offer said - we become frustrated.
Indeed, Visits is an overall aggravating experience. 1413 seems to wrap up its obvious mystery before it even begins, and the red herring married boyfriend in Waiting never pays off at all. It’s the same for Anybody Home. Why take several minutes putting us through the cat and mouse of the security guards personal surveillance only to have the storyline shift over into something completely different…and underwhelming? While the sole bonus feature argues for the effectiveness of the short film format, nothing about Visits supports this theory. All four mini-features would have benefited from a longer length, as well as a few rewrites, an expansion of themes, and a revisit to the Western way of delivering the shivers. The closest we get to effective macabre is a bit of bloodshed.
Of course, it’s not Visits fault that it took nearly four years to get to American audiences. While a previous DVD version of this title was released by an unknown company back in 2006, this will be the first exposure for many to this irritating title. Since it was made, the entire Asian fright flick fad has peaked, petered out, and grown passé. It’s now the stuff of spoof, not serious scary moviemaking. Yet there are occasional attempts to revive the format, with Hollywood still working through its One Missed Call contracts before finally putting the genre to bed forever. It would be nice to say that Visits could jumpstart, or at the very least reinvigorate an already DOA medium. At this point in the game however, the type is no longer viable, and this film is far from strong enough to overcome such odds.