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Monday, Oct 2, 2006

I just got back from a brief vacation in Southern California. On the flight back we had a layover in Houston, during which I heard an announcement that warned that anyone making jokes about security issues could end up facing imprisonment. At first I thought this was a bit draconian and totalitarian, the TSA was going to dictate my sense of humor to me while I was in the deadness of airport space. But I also thought there was probably no need to be making jokes about security because there’s probably no chance that they would be funny. And anyone making such jokes may very well not be joking. It seems as though many dangerous situations, as they begin to unfold, seem like a joke. A homeless person approaches you, makes a request that slowly becomes a demand, and possibly you think, What are you, joking? A teenager tells you to hand over your iPod as you are walking by; it might even seem like a joke as he’s coming at you. One of my flights out to Los Angeles had to make an emergency landing (which sounds much more dramatic than it wa; it was just an unscheduled stop at the Newark, New Jersey airport) because the passenger across the aisle—a uniformed crew member from the plane’s previous trip—was having trouble breathing and seemed like he was about to die. My thought was initally that it was all some kind of joke, some kind of test, not really happening, not really spontaneous and unintentional. It may be that life is so rationalized and bureaucratized that we must regard anything spontaneous and unintentional as some kind of joke. It starts to become clear, when you travel down that path of reasoning, why you would get on the airport intercom and forbid joking around.


But then, if you were joking, and it didn’t just seem as though you were joking, then theoretically you aren’t serious about what you say, by definition, and you are announcing your harmlessness. What sort of terrorist would joke about his plan in the airport? If it can be identified as a joke, then the harmlessness of the joker is known, and the punishment is just spite for trying to puncture the illusion of protection the TSA veils the airport in. We have all seen the reports of how easy it is to defy the rules at the screening checkpoints and smuggle in contraband fluids or pass through the metal detector without removing our shoes or various other prototerroristic acts. What the TSA relies on is a humorless attitude about security, which plays out in every traveler monitoring every other traveler, studying them for signs of suspiciousness. Catching them joking about bombing a plane is not really the point, of course; sending the message that mutual suspicion and snitching over trivialities is encouraged is what is about. TSA officials perhaps hope this climate can serve a deterrent function. It’s hard to imagine who would be incompetent enough however, to be deterred, by citizens on patrol.


Also, isn’t it terroristic to show disaster films like Poseidon as the in-flight entertainment? Don’t they think passengers can make the simple analogy of air travel with boat travel? And I would like to send a special shoutout to the sadist next to me on the flight from Newark to Los Angeles. United 93 was a great choice for your portable DVD player. After the medical emergency landing and the asphixiated crewmember I had just witnessed, it really was the coup de grace. Thanks for sharing that experience with me.


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Monday, Oct 2, 2006

Though SE&L can certainly understand the anger over that crass commercial concept known as “the double dip” (read: studios endlessly re-releasing favorite films in differing DVD packages and presentations), sometimes a revamp is a clear motion picture mandate. Back when the format first arrived, several companies, clamoring for a piece of that initial product pie, put out anything they could on the digital domain, most times without concern over extras, aspect ratio or picture quality. Sure, something like Scarface has seen multiple merchandising variations, while distributors like Anchor Bay have made a mint over numerous reconfigurations of Dawn of the Dead and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. But if you look at the list of reissues clogging up this weeks pick’s for brick and mortar highlights, you will see several that deserved their major makeover. That’s not to downplay the importance of the many new releases available, but when one can own a practically pristine version of one of Hollywood’s cinematic standards, a new action hero epic seems a little lame. Anyway, here are our picks for 3, October:


Body Double: Special Edition *
Before he fell completely off track in the ‘80s, Brian DePalma delivered a pair of preeminent motion picture masterworks. Sadly, only Scarface has endured. And it’s a shame, really. Of all his Hitchcock influenced homages, Double has the most devilish combination (Vertigo meets Rear Window) of all the director’s experiments in tension. Thanks to wonderful performances by Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry and a pre-plastic surgery Melanie Griffith, and a script that stays true to most of the Master of Suspense’s subtleties, what could have been a seedy slice of copycat gratuity became a smart and savage commentary on contemporary Hollywood. Too bad a misplaced misogynist assault on the filmmaker lessened the film’s BO appeal. Thanks to this new DVD presentation – and its incredible making-of documentary – one learns of the film’s porn star beginnings, as well as how vicious the attacks on DePalma really were. Sadly, it seems they’d only be worse today.



Edmond*
William H. Macy gives another of his idiosyncratic everyman turns as the title character, a seemingly normal nebbish who is suddenly assaulted by a Dante’s Inferno like New York City. Helmed by horror master Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon and scripted by none other than Tony titan David Mamet, this adaptation of the playwright’s stage show loses little of its bite in this terrific translation. Similar in conceptualization to Martin Scorsese’s misunderstood ‘80s comedy After Hours, Mamet applies his standard slash and burn dialogue to all manner of shocking personal monologues for his lead. Indeed, some may find Edmond’s homophobic and racist rants a tad hard to take – and for those looking for some manner of redemption or understanding on Macy’s part, this is not that kind of movie.



PopMatters Review


Ganja and Hess*
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone all artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget once they’ve seen it. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive play date in the Big Apple, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut within an inch of its artistic life and re-released it as Blood Couple. Even with 30 missing minutes it did no better. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s original cut, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries, making-of documentaries and a look at Gunn’s original script, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. During a month which sees all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.



The Little Mermaid: Two Disc Special Edition*
The irony of this release is staggering. Mermaid represents Disney’s mid-‘80s effort to save its sinking animation department – a corporate entity that was recently decimated by the supposed switch to all CGI fare. And yet the House of Mouse is greeting the second DVD dip of this mini-masterpiece like a pen and ink prophecy. Granted, you can’t ask for a more effective use of the artform. Combined with Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman’s Broadway ready score and the perfect compliment of heroine and villain, this resplendent effort marked the moment when Disney realized the full power of its post-modern animation possibilities. Of course, their eventual over reliance on the facets formulated here (epic musical accompaniment, brash characterization, a winking nod to a more cynical social mindset) would bring about Pixar’s digital revolution, and the eventual decision to dump 2-D. Of course, Walt’s way of doing things mandates this package be available for “a limited time only”, so get your copy while you can.


 


Maltese Falcon: Three Disc Set *
It’s stunning when you think about it. John Huston was 35, and making his first movie ever with this definitive detective tale. He managed to wrangle a cast that consisted of a prime piece of Bogart, a sensational Sidney Greenstreet, a perfect Peter Lorre and a wholly complimentary Mary Astor. Employing a near word for word and scene by scene recreation of Dashiell Hammet’s noted novel, Huston added his own artistic touches to turn a glorified gumshoe story into some manner of metaphysical epic. Many have fawned over the feature in the years since its release, and rightfully so. This is old fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its highly polished best. This new three disc DVD, completely pimped out with commentaries, documentaries and two other versions of the Hammett classic (from 1931 and 1936) should give Falcon fans more added content than they ever imagined. When combined with the masterpiece of a movie at the center of this set, this easily becomes one of the year’s best preservationist presentations.



Point Break: Pure Adrenalin Edition
As the ‘90s attempted to take the action film in as many different directions as the box office would allow, this X-treme sports version of the typical cops and robbers routine hit a notable novel nerve with audiences. The combination of Patrick Swayze’s stealing surfer swagger and Keanu Reeves’ Valley boy FBI basics created a kind of kitschy cult chemistry, and the dude speak dialogue loaded with Zen like zaniness (“Peace through superior firepower”) still provides untold guilty pleasures - even today. While DVD versions have long been available, this new packaging promises to give us a series of deleted scenes (long a fan Holy Grail) and a collection of newly created featurettes. Sadly, Break would mark director Kathyrn Bigelow’s big budget albatross. With success came Strange Days, and her eventual fall from Tinsel Town grace.


X-Men: The Last Stand*
Okay, so Brett Ratner didn’t step in and completely destroy the mutant magic. In fact, he made Bryan Singer’s more serious minded installments look logistically lax by comparison. Sure, fans wanted to hate every frame of this final chapter in their favorite comic franchise, but Ratner just ratcheted up the action and piled on the principle characters. The result is a scattered summer blockbuster that only seems sensible when stuff is blowing up. While several of the setpieces – Jean Grey’s evil return, Magneto’s manipulation of the Golden Gate Bridge – match well against those in previous X entities, it is obvious that Last Stand‘s filmmaking was forged out of a desire to make money, not memorable motion picture mythology. Still, for the casual X-men maven, or someone not expecting a Singer level of loyalty, this is one of 2006’s better popcorn creations. And the DVD promises a collection of unused endings – just the thing to give the faithful meaningful messageboard fodder.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 3 October:


The Blood Trilogy *
While he may not have invented the concept of gore (his inspiration, the noted Grand Guignol theater in France had been around since 1897), no one before had delivered such devastating, blood slicked scares to the silver screen. Upon realizing that nudity had more or less run its exploitation course, founding filmmakers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman were looking for another financially viable cinematic approach. Claret became the cash machine for the determined duo, beginning with their seminal scarefest Blood Feast. Revolving around an insane caterer and his desire to create a flesh buffet to the Goddess Ishtar, this vivisection-fest is rife with repugnant imagery. Wanting not to repeat themselves, Lewis and Friedman Southern-fried their next nasty novelty, 2000 Maniacs. A ballsy Brigadoon revamp featuring pissed off Confederate ghosts murdering mindless Yankee tourists, it was another hefty hit. By the time of the Bucket of Blood inspired Color Me Blood Red, however, the bloom was off the grue-covered rose. Not even the still fresh innovation of seeing copious amounts of arterial juices could save the subgenre. As the roughie returned exploitation to its raincoat crowd confines, Lewis and Friedman parted company. Their corporeal collaboration remains a benchmark in the realm of horror, and with Something Weird Video providing the digital goods, you know you’re getting pristine copies of these remarkable movies.



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Monday, Oct 2, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

PopMatters Exclusive


Midlake: The Videos of Van Occupanther Pt. 2


Midlake—“We Gathered in Spring”


Artist Commentary:
The great guys at Make And Do Creative and Nora Sound delivered a very cool video to us for “We Gathered In Spring.” The animation style of Monte Python’s Flying Circus somehow works perfectly with the somber tone of the song. The contrast between the day time and night time shots through the city, overlooking the lone tree on the hill, looks incredible. This song was one of the first songs to be recorded for the album, and really helped set the tone for the rest of the record. The feelings of isolation, timelessness, and sadness are all evident in this video. We have never performed this song with an accompanying video, so I am looking forward to the next tour, where others will get to see what these guys have come up with.—McKenzie Smith


Credits:
Creative Directors: David Motter and Jeremy Eartell
Animation: Gary Hornstein


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Monday, Oct 2, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

“Sugar Hill’s early recordings possessed an aural purity that met people’s hunger for authenticity and also seemed fresh and new. There was something honest about the sounds of the banjo, dobro, fiddle, and mandolin, and the way they mixed together.”—Steve Horowitz—PopMatters feature, “Sugar Hill Records: 25 Years and Going Strong”.


Tony Rice (guitar), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Sam Bush (mandolin), Mark O’Connor (fiddle)—“Wonder Where You Are Tonight”


Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs & Friends—“Tennessee Stud”


Guy Clark—“L.A. Freeway”


Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas & Friends—“Wheel Hoss”


Sonny Landreth—“All About You”


Sam Bush and Friends—“Molly and Tenbrooks”


Tim O’Brien, Ronnie McCoury & Chris Thile—“Bluegrass Stomp”


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Sunday, Oct 1, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the critical, clinical terror of Wes Craven



While many acknowledge his contributions to the horror film, few actually consider the influence Wes Craven has had on the genre. A viable name in all things frightening, Craven is either an original, or an opportunist, depending on the overriding scare scholarship. True, during the home video explosion of the ‘80s, Craven’s canon suffered from sloppy ideas and even more slipshod execution. Between the robot ridiculousness of Deadly Friend to the serial killer as TV signal silliness of Shocker, many thought the macabre master had lost his way. But had they been paying attention, most would have realized that Craven’s clinical look at terror required a certain social or situational element to succeed. Without a contextual base in which to function, his movies frequently appeared out of step with the rest of the mainstream movie mandates.


Yet no one can deny that, every time the genre seems stuck in a ridiculous or repetitive rut, Craven comes along and substantially shakes things up.  If one goes back to his first formative smash, 1972’s seminal Last House on the Left, it is clear that this is one director who longs to play by his own unique set of rules. Using Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring as a starting point, and inserting a critical comment on the idle youth of the post-‘60s era, this repugnant rape/revenge fantasy was in direct contradiction of the fear factors infiltrating the industry. Between Hammer’s Victorian vampire epics and the creature feature based drive-in fare, horror really had no legitimate link to the real world. Last House changed all that. Along with its individually memorable tag line (“to avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…”) it hinted that fright could come in any iconic setting – including the seemingly sedate suburban home.


Thanks to its huge cultural impact, Last House legitimized the real world approach to dread, a concept that would be embraced by both conventional (The Exorcist, The Omen) and independent (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) entertainment elements. No longer was a supernatural situation required. All you needed were the realities of life amplified through the thriller/chiller ideal and – BANG! – instant homegrown horror. It was a fresh faced facet that even Craven himself would revisit later on in the decade. Focusing again on family (a favorite thematic course) and the disintegration of the American Dream, The Hills Have Eyes pushed the notion of normalized apprehension to its limits. With its contradictory clans – one civilized, one cannibalized – and snuff like approach to onscreen killing, he anticipated the growing desire for gore years before the red riot would overwhelm scare cinema.


When the ‘80s arrived, Craven again was seen as a step behind the movie macabre trends. Halloween and Friday the 13th had made the serial killing splatter fiend a new terror icon, and while studios were busy pumping out as many slasher entries as they could, Craven was going American Gothic. Deadly Blessing, his 1981 take on religion and hypocrisy barely registered among filmgoers. It was seen as too subtle, and too old fashioned, to play to a post-modern mindset. After a stab at comic book character action (1982’s underrated Swamp Thing), Craven was at a crossroads. Either he would give up genre efforts and try his hand at the typical Tinsel Town ideal or simply stop making movies all together.


But with the razor finger scraping heard round the world in 1984, Craven created what is, perhaps, the single most recognizable horror idol since the days when Universal ruled the theaters. Not only was A Nightmare on Elm Street the practical polar opposite of the slice and dice derivativeness that plagued the ‘80s creepshow, but it was a considered social observation centered around the nation’s newfound focus on the preservation of children. Not many people remember Freddy Krueger’s original origins. He was a pervert, a child molester and murderer who used his pedophilic ploys to lure the innocent to their death. His ravaged body was the result of a populace in vigilante mode, a group of parents setting him on fire to set the scales of justice back in balance. Now a vengeful spirit, Krueger created a dream world where he was the master. Utilizing the sleep of his killer’s young ones, Freddy found a way to enact his own afterlife payback on those who he deemed undeserving.


This concept of constant uncertainty, this dichotomy between threatened kids and disaffected parents was, again, part of a realism based paradigm for Craven. Sure, the situation allowed him to play with all manner of dream imagery and fantasy fears, but the heart of A Nightmare on Elm Street was a “how could it happen here” view of the sanctity of the suburbs. Nancy and the rest of her victimized pals are seen as something sacred, the precious commodity of a community that would resort to murder to protect them. Freddy’s fiendish ploys, complete with all their ‘bad touch’ connotations, were seen as the last legitimate threat in an otherwise hermetically sealed circumstance. By trading on this newfound fear, as well as the significant social shift it represented, Craven made macabre quantifiable and successfully saved the horror film from becoming an irrelevant exercise in tacky teen mass murder. Once again, he opened up the real world for possible terror interpretation.


The many cloying comic sequels to come almost undermined everything that Nightmare‘s novelty contributed. It would also cause Craven to coast for the rest of the decade. He would revisit the horror of Hills for Part 2, take on the fact-based facets of voodoo with The Serpent and the Rainbow, and deliver that problematic pair of Deadly Friend and Shocker. By the time his political allegory The People Under the Stairs was released (1991) many saw Craven as an artifact of the past, a filmmaker more or less responsible for horror’s hackneyed elements. Part of the problem was that Freddy Krueger had transformed from a killer into a comedian, a one liner spewing specter that was no longer scary. In fact, he had become so subverted as a character of terror that merchandising made specifically for tweens was flooding the market.


While many see Scream as Craven next saving salvo in the battle to preserve the motion picture macabre, it was actually his attempt at saving his Freddy franchise, New Nightmare, that set up the self-referential concepts that the later 1996 shocker would solidify. New Nightmare tried to be a kind of of the eerie, a clever combination of fear and fear filmmaking meant to comment on the effect that Freddy and his knife fingers had on those involved with his legacy. Starring Craven, actors Robert Englund (Freddy) and Heather Langenkamp (Nancy) and a hyper literate script, it was clear that most fright aficionados weren’t ready for an experimental dissection of what made the Krueger canon so compelling – and corrupt. Instead, it was Kevin Williamson’s joke-riddled irony that captured the fan base.


Many saw Scream as the final nail in the post-modern macabre’s creaking coffin. Craven had so successfully complemented Williamson’s wacky homage to horror’s past that it seemed like no future film could top its tricky terrors. And for a while, they were right. Even as the inevitable revamps came along – each one less effective in their self-styled satirical conceits - forces outside the mainstream were giving dread a much needed make over. Thanks to advances in technology, and the relative ease of DVD distribution, every film freak worth his or her scare salt decided to stop whining and make their own damn movie. The result was a real revolution, a resurgence in horror’s hipness that left many, including Craven, scrambling in the background.


Thankfully, instead of choosing to compete, Craven just continued on. The post-millennial phase of his career has seen a sloppy werewolf flop (Cursed), a few more of his patented name-attached production gigs, and the 2005 hit Red Eye. None however, had the cultural impact of his ‘70s through ‘90s efforts. While many may now feel the time to write him off has finally arrived, Craven might just have a few more shocks up his sleeves. Besides, it’s impossible to discount a filmmaker who resurrected the horror genre more times than others have successfully applied it. Without Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street and New Nightmare/Scream, terror may not have lasted into the year 2000. Wes Craven saved the cinematic category from its desire to endlessly emulate itself. And one thing is definitely for certain – this is one filmmaker who’s not through messing with the macabre. Perhaps he’s just waiting for another creative crisis to arrive


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