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by Bill Gibron

30 Nov 2008

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.

by Bill Gibron

29 Nov 2008

It’s said that you can’t go home again. Other maxim-mized clichés include the inability to revisit past glories and the ever popular suggestion regarding letting sleeping dogs remain within their current supine positioning. But when you’re Joel Hodgson, famed comedian and creator of the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ve already bucked one Thomas Wolfe-inspired trend. Why not take your newest version of that hilarious in-theater riff-a-thon and tackle a title that made MST famous - fans and fancy pants be damned! Thus the decision to return to the days of Patrick Swayze, catalog daydreaming, and the madcap extraterrestrial antics of an overgrown green idiot named Dropo.

That’s right, Cinematic Titanic’s last offering for 2008 is a revisit of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a crappy kid vid creation that sparked one of Hodgson’s original series’ Season Three highlights. Gone, of course, is the attempt at a new Christmas Carol (based on that other holiday favorite, Roadhouse), a discussion of off the radar TV specials (“The X-Mas that Really Kicked Ass”), and a nice bit of cool Yule logging. In its place is a racier, edgier take on the material, the CT crew finding plenty of adolescent-to-adult affronts in this uninspired space epic. Fans who were afraid of a mere recycle and unnecessary regurgitation will now have to suck it up and gauge which edition - old school or new breed - is better.

As for the film itself, we are treated to a dull little sugarplum piffle involving the angry red planet, a leader desperate to bring joy to his sullen alien offspring, and one of the kindest, dullest Kris Kringle’s on record. When King Martian Kimar sees how sad his son and daughter truly are, he goes to Chochem (Mars’ answer to a shaman) for advice.  Discovering that his kids need fun and freedom in order to thrive, Kimar comes up with a daring plan - head down to Earth and kidnap the universe’s symbol of glad tidings - the one and only Santa Claus.

With the help of henchmen Stobo and Shim, the stale stupidity of castaway Dropo and the always upset, desperate for power Voldar, the Martians find two Earth kids (Betty and Billy Foster), force them to fess up to Santa’s location, grab the jolly old elf, and head home. Once back on Mars, however, one of Kimar’s minions prepares for a double-cross, while our apple-checked champion grows bored of making toys via technology.

On any filmic scale, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is not merely horrible, it’s horrendous. It’s like watching a half-witted home movie made by people who have neither a home or moviemaking skills. Documentarian turned editor turned flop-meister Nicholas Webster proves here that working for Uncle Sam’s war effort during WWII lends little in the way of cinematic vision or professionalism. He utilizes cardboard backdrops and pipe cleaner costuming to turn his interstellar story into tired, two-dimensional dross. It’s a good thing the actors are coated in layers of baby diarrhea tinged make-up. That way, we can’t see how red faced and embarrassed they must have been. No one is safe - not John Call’s Santa, not Leonard Hicks’ Kimar…heck, not even a prepubescent Pia Zidora as a barely recognizable Martian girl with a permanent deer-in-the-headlights look on her face.

Of course, what really distinguishes Santa Claus Conquers the Martians from other, happier holiday fare is the total absence of that mandatory mistletoe movie must - Christmas spirit. Our benevolent being with a belly like a bowl full of jelly is decent enough, but refrigerator box robots, creepy old alien sages, and a villainous Village People reject with a man-love moustache and mayhem on his mind do not an engaging Noel make. While the plot is busy lapping itself, offering kidnapping after snatching after hostage crisis as a means of moving the story alone, any sense of magic and wonder slowly dissipates in a fog of failed ambitions and staid Saturday Matinee mediocrity. No wonder kids in the ‘60s went hippie. This conservative claptrap would turn even the staunchest Neo-Con into a member of the counterculture.

As with his previous comedic outing, Hodgson has often said that the cast’s ability to mock a movie is inversely proportional to how atrocious it is. The worse the outing, the better the belittling - and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is no exception. In fact, the notion that a similar selection of performers could once again pick apart this movie in equally effective fashion says as much about the Cinematic Titanic talent pool as it does Claus’ crappiness. Right from the start, we get a “haven’t we seen this before” reference, before diving right into the ridicule. Along the way, former MSTers J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl peel back the layers of lousiness inserting their own off the wall (and frequently off-color) takes. There is some very racy stuff offered this time around.

What many fans will miss, however, is the lack of holiday-themed skits, the kind of material that made something like the crazed carol “A Patrick Swayze Christmas” so memorable. This version of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians does offer one of the new series’ minor ‘movie-stop’ moments (times when someone else will ask that the film be halted so they can offer up a scripted comedic bit). In this instance, Hodgson delivers his presents for the festive season - and not everyone is happy about it. Elsewhere, we get more introductory bits between the crew and the security team, including a failed escape attempt by Trace (the key word here being “failed”). With more movie available than ever before - no commercials means no ‘editing for time’ constraints - this version of the title truly lives up to its ‘worst film ever’ classification.

Still, it’s slightly surreal to hear voices that originally eviscerated this seasonal stool sample going in for an amusement Mulligan. It must have been a tough decision, especially when considering fan expectations and potential MST cult criticism. Certain episodes of the celebrated cowtown puppet show symbolized everything that was perfect about Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a concept and a creative enterprise, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was among that noted number. Cinematic Titanic took a massive risk remaking this iconic installment, and that they succeeded so well speak volumes for their individual abilities and satiric skills. While it’s probably true that a trip back into one’s past is more problematic than therapeutic, this updated look at a piece of MST history is a retread well executed…and well worth it.

by Rob Horning

28 Nov 2008

WFMU’s Tom Scharpling has said it’s the live version of “Porcupine Pie” by Neil Diamond. Komar and Melamid did a pseudoscientific survey and produced this song. But while I was shopping in the Salvation Army in Quakertown today, I think I heard something that beats all comers for sheer awfulness. Any Christmas song made after 1970 is bad, and it seems like they start playing them on the radio around Halloween, which is way too soon. I guess to fill the extra airtime now devoted to Christmas music, they have to play such atrocities as “Christmas Shoes” by Alabama. Maybe everyone knows this horror-show song, but once the children’s choir began singing, after the verse about how the little boy at the shoe store said of his apparently dying mother, “And I want her to look beautiful If mama meets Jesus tonight,” we had to flee to keep from vomiting all over the sweater rack. It seems criminal that this manipulative, maudlin record can generate a revenue stream for anybody. And when it is playing in a retail context, it’s beyond unforgivable. And to think we had thought nothing could be worse than “Mary Did You Know” which had been playing on the radio before. I felt ambushed and violated. I wanted to nettipot my ears with rubbing alcohol. My holiday spirit will not soon recover from that one-two punch of failure. Can anyone think of anything worse than these two songs?

by Rob Horning

27 Nov 2008

Should we be thankful for the economic turmoil? Recently Drake Bennett wrote a speculative essay for The Boston Globe about what life in the U.S. might be like if a new Depression really took hold. He makes it sound like an anti-consumerist paradise:

two of the basics of existence - food and clothing - are a lot cheaper today, thanks to industrial agriculture and overseas labor. The average middle-class man in the late 1920s, according to the writer and cultural critic Virginia Postrel, could afford just six outfits, and his wife nine - by comparison, the average woman today has seven pairs of jeans alone….

I wonder about this comparison, since we now have so many new social contexts that invite different rules about what dress is appropriate. Because I don’t have to wear a suit to work, I have only one. I have about five nice shirts and maybe five pairs of pants that are not shabby or casual. Maybe we have more casual, disposable clothes—a way of chewing up our accursed share. But we probably don’t have much more than people from the 1920s did in the way of adult clothes. Beyond a certain point, more clothes is more clutter, creating unnecessary optional paralysis. (Then again, I am an advocate of the stealth uniform.)

Bennett continues:

If we look closely, however, we might see more former lawyers wearing knockoffs, doing their back-to-school shopping at Target or Wal-Mart rather than Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch. Lean times might kill off much of the taboo around buying hand-me-downs, and with modern distribution networks - and a push from the reduce-reuse-recycle mind-set of environmentalism - we might see the development of nationwide used-clothing chains.

These already exist, especially if you regard Goodwill and the Salvation Army as franchise for second-hand-store brands. And I’ve been to Savers from Seattle to Phoenix to Providence to Montreal. The thrift infrastructure has been building up for years, but it is premised on other people not valuing their belongings and giving them away for nothing. When people replace perfectly useful things with new versions out of a sensitivity to fashion or a burning itch to spend, this is even better for thrift stores. But such luxury spending would be cut first, if we are truly rational about cutting back. The fashion cycle could, in theory, slow down. People may suddenly discover all this extra use value in goods they might otherwise have discarded, and only the truly worthless junk would make it to Savers. So it may be that second-hand stores thrive in flush times and stand to be depleted in a downturn, from an initial surge of customers and then a drying-up of quality donations. (In other words, I would no longer be able to find a vintage IBM buckling spring keyboard for $6.)

Bennett addresses the return to use value as it relates to technology.

In general, novelty would lose some of its luster. It’s not simply that we’d buy less, we’d look for different qualities in what we buy. New technology would grow less seductive, basic reliability more important. We’d see more products like Nextel phones and the Panasonic Toughbook laptop, which trade on their sturdiness, and fewer like the iPhone - beautiful, cleverly designed, but not known for durability. The neighborhood appliance shop could reappear in a new form - unlicensed, with hacked cellphones and rebuilt computers.

The underlying idea here is that gadgetry fulfills our need to express our identity more than anything else. The alleged functionality improvements usually prove detrimental, at least initially, as reliability is surrendered to style. Bennett cites anthropologist Grant McCracken’s “surging vs. dwelling” explanation of consumer behavior:

the difference, as he wrote recently on his blog, between believing that the world “teems with new features, new things, new opportunities, new excitement” and thinking that life’s pleasures come from counting one’s blessings and appreciating and holding onto what one already has. Economic uncertainty, he argues, drives us toward the latter.

The impact of a depression, then, will be gauged in terms of how expansive our identities can become. Consolidation, “dwelling,” is a matter of retreat to more traditional self-definitions—family, religion, etc.—what McCracken dubs “homeyness” and what others would call domestic suffocation. On the other hand, “surging” is embracing the material richness of capitalism as a means to do some freelance self-fashioning along lines dictated by our dreams, or more likely, by what seems to be endorsed in the larger world of mass media. This subjects us to various forms of media manipulation, but at least we are fooled into thinking we are autonomous.

So, the danger in a depression now is not so much that people will starve but that we will be deprived of the usual consumerist tokens we have come to depend on to express our identity. We won’t be able to afford to spend on brand distinctions and will in effect feel declassed. Chances are we wouldn’t get “homey” or immediately snap into those virtuous behaviors I occasionally tout as replacements to consumerism—being more active and creating things for ourselves, etc. More likely we just feel disoriented, transformed from a somebody into a nobody without the trinkets that grant us self-knowledge, the things we are accustomed to that let us make manifest and material what we want to believe about ourselves. We would have to learn to make those things for ourselves, and this would be a painful adjustment.

Consumerism lets us participate in a far vaster world than our household by sharing the brands and designs that function as a language of distinction. It’s one thing to buy a set of designer measuring spoons at Target and feel classy, another altogether to try to make something equally as polished, with the same immediately apprehensible ability to serve as a social signifier. The spoons tell people you have never met just what you are trying to be; the homemade knickknack speaks a private, most likely incomprehensible language. The sphere into which we can project our identity contracts. Enter domestic suffocation.

Much of a modern depression would unfold in the domestic sphere: people driving less, shopping less, and eating in their houses more. They would watch television at home; unemployed parents would watch over their own kids instead of taking them to day care.


There’s no guarantee that this would be transitional—that the isolating retreat from a society grounded in the shared ability to spend won’t totally unhinge us and that a richer vocabulary of selfhood would eventually emerge to supplant brands and hype and gadgets and gear and whatnot. But that’s the wager in praising the sunny side of economic stagnation.

by J.M. Suarez

26 Nov 2008

Undoubtedly, the word used most often when describing Pushing Daisies is whimsical, an apt choice to be sure. The series revolves around Ned’s (Lee Pace) ability to bring living things back to life (with conditions), including childhood sweetheart Chuck (Anna Friel). However, Pushing Daisies is more than pure whimsy, it is: a drama of long-lost family members and secrets, a mystery-of-the-week, a sweet and strange love story, and a very funny series—thanks in large part to a wonderful supporting cast headed by Chi McBride and Kristen Chenoweth. For those who enjoy their television shows to be a little off-center, Pushing Daisies is highly recommended.


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