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by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008

When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made From Dusk ‘Til Dawn back in 1996, critics predicted a run on genre-melding movies where established types (the crime thriller) would be married to horror archetypes (in this case, the vampire) to create some intriguing and sparkling new combinations. Sadly, no such macabre renaissance occurred. Fans went back to the surefire recipe of comedy mixed with creepshow, and no one successfully ventured back into the realm of cinematic cross pollination. Now comes Splinter, a nasty little indie splatter job that again sees two on-the-run lowlifes taking a pair of vacationing lovers hostage. What the foursome finds in the isolated wilderness is both incredibly gruesome and undeniably satisfying, especially for fright mavens desperate for a little post-modern monster mashing.

While on an anniversary camping trip, young couple Seth Belzer and Polly Watt run into some tent set-up trouble. Looking for a motel for the night, they fall prey to desperate girl Lacey and her killer boyfriend Dennis. These fugitives from the law need a vehicle, and Seth and Polly become both transporters and convenient captives. A stop off at a local gas station seems normal enough, that is, until Lacey runs into a corpse covered in spines laying on the bathroom floor. After it attacks her, she too becomes a rotting, reanimated monster. Soon Seth, Polly and Dennis are holed up inside, fighting off an onslaught of creatures who want to slaughter and consume their quarry. Even after being mangled and partially destroyed, these beings keep coming - and there doesn’t seem to be a way of stopping them.

If you can get beyond one basic narrative flaw, and a low budget dynamic which provides limited looks at our Bottin-inspired fiends, Splinter will come as a wonderful little fright flick surprise. Directed with an excellent sense of style and suspense by F/X artist Toby Wilkins, what could have been another beast with a bad attitude effort combines the best of zombies, shapeshifters, feigned victim machismo and ample arterial spray to become a minor masterwork. Sure, Wilkins still needs to work on his pacing, and spending too much time with characters who we end up hating more than indentifying with can have an adverse impact on your shivers. But when the overall effect is this gloriously ghastly and unrelenting, you just have to give in to the terror.

Of course, you will have to overcome the advanced wussiness and everpresent whine of Paul Costanzo as Seth. Playing the typical intellectual untouched by the call of nature, this know-it-all nebbish becomes as irritating as a rash once the monsters start showing up. He’s incapable of anything remotely resembling heroics and is constantly upstaged by his strong, centered gal pal. Toward the end, when the threat is becoming a bit too much, Seth grows a pair and starts showing some mantle. But until then, he is the most unlikeable character in the entire film. And for something that has to use every possible cinematic element at its disposal to overcome some definite low budget leanings, this doesn’t help.

Luckily, the rest of the cast steps up to the plate and delivers in evocative and effective ways. Shea Whigham has the mostly thankless role of playing the gun toting bad guy. Yet thanks to some last act reveals and the strength of the performance, we accept his angry young manliness. Rachel Kerbs is also a test as Lacey, but she goes ghoul so quickly that we don’t really mind the momentary lapses into dope addict antics. But it is Jill Wagner who steals the show as Polly. She’s the kind of companion who is as capable of taking a punch as delivering one. At several times throughout Splinter‘s storyline, Wagner has to stand where the men won’t venture. She does so with defiance and a Ripley-like resolve.

And then there’s Wilkins. Clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing and adding in a little of his own old school scare tactics as well, the first time filmmaker shows a real skill at making the mundane seem incredibly scary. During a pre-credits sequence, a gas station attendant is attacked by a seemingly rabid animal. Thanks to editing and shot selection, what could have been silly comes across as ferocious and quite foul. Equally disturbing is the nature of the beast. Even with bodies badly broken and brutalized, these beings keep coming - and Wilkins isn’t afraid to highlight the physical atrocities involved. Gorehounds will absolutely love him for it.

Yet Splinter is not perfect. It’s got the single location standoff down pat, and when the blood starts flowing, it can’t be beat. But Wilkins also seems stifled by the decision to downsize the scope. There is a bit too much time taken up in repetitive conversation, and financial issues keep the creature effects from being utilized sufficiently. In most cases we want more, more, more: more monsters; more attacks; more ass kicking; more action thriller mechanics. This may be the first film in which the polished professionalism of everyone involved becomes addictive - especially in light of its heavy reliance on the trappings of the genre. But money does change everything, for good and for bad. If Wilkins had a few more bucks, maybe Splinter would have suffered for it.

As it stands, this is a solid little gem that should be sought out by anyone who loved the allure of Aliens, the austerity of Assault on Precinct 13 (the original), and the moment when a member of McReady’s crew turned into a upside down spider head. While some may see it as nothing more than a small scale experiment that succeeds more often than it fails, Wilkins work behind the lens suggests something much meatier and more satisfying. With Halloween almost a full month behind us, it may seem like bad timing to try and sell a scary movie. But something like Splinter is so desperate to transcend the type that when it barely manages to do so, we have no choice but to pay attention. It’s definitely worth such a look. 

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008

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. Now, it appears, movies are the next medium to be explored. 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. They also meet another couple, 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 sun 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 turns on the moldy green cinematography and traps everyone in an ethereal “game” of going back in time and confronting your 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 about 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 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, 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. House 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.

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008

As a cinematic foundation, the Holocaust has just about run its course. Certainly there will be other examples of stellar filmmaking - i.e. Schindler’s List - that utilize the monstrous historical events, but it seems like, with rare exceptions, all the critical stories have been told. With last year’s intriguing The Counterfeiter, and numerous documentaries uncovering the most elemental and exclusive of detail, the picture, while not completely painted, definitely fills the canvas. Contextually, this makes the new drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a complicated consideration. On the one hand it does something quite daring. On the other, it offers up a contrite and sadly manipulative look at the horrific plight of six million innocent and unnecessary victims.

When his father is promoted inside the Nazi party, Bruno and his family are forced to move from their comfortable manor in midtown Berlin and out into the distant, isolated countryside. From his new bedroom window, our hero can see a local “farm”. There, dozens of people go about their daily drudgery wearing nothing but their “bedclothes.” When he asks his mother about this fact, she is livid. Bruno is never to go near the place, ever. But the kindly acts of a “servant” named Pavel, also always wearing said “pajamas”, keeps him interested. Finally, Bruno finds his way to the location. There he meets Shmuel, a little boy who informs him that where he lives is not a farm, but a prison, and soon, the pair becomes uncomfortable friends. Naturally, neither sees the tragedy that is brewing behind the scenes.

When you hear that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is going to focus on concentration camps and the German genocide of World War II from a child’s perspective, visions of Roberto Benigni’s awful Life is Beautiful instantly come to mind. While not a comedy (thank god), Mark Herman’s take on John Boyne’s novel has all the same trite trappings. We get intense suffering filtered through a family-oriented fallacy, no direct assessment of the atrocities offered, and a surreal ending in which the Nazis, not the Jews, are meant to garner our sympathies. This is not meant as some revisionist, regressive take on history’s most horrendous crime. There’s no denials here, just a literary take on the material that can’t quite survive the big screen translation.

Indeed a lot of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas appears to play better on the page then on film. Bruno’s youthful unease, his need to satisfy his sad boy curiosity, has all the trappings of a fascinating read. By the time he gets to the “forbidden” back garden, with its maze like walls and lack of a legitimate egress, you can feel the faux adventure tale looming. But Herman (best known for such interesting tragic-comedies as Brassed Off and Little Voice) takes everything so literally that all the potential magic goes missing. Even worse, once we meet up with the depressing little boy on the outskirts of the camp confinements, the movie goes flat. Bruno and Shmuel don’t really become friends. They’re more like individual objects of mutual fascination.

Indeed, the most irritating aspect of this movie is the lack of a larger perspective. Keeping things at a kid’s level may make the subject matter a little less unwieldy, but that doesn’t mean that the realities of the Holocaust need to be shunned, or at the very least, saved until the calculating, mawkish ending. Shmuel is seen as easily avoiding the guards, capable of long stretches by himself without supervision or suspicion. Similarly, Bruno can lounge outside the camp for hours on end, nary a sentry or prison perimeter inspection to be seen. Certainly there are aspects of the narrative that must be taken as fictional givens. All film works that way. But The Boy in the Striped Pajamas definitely pushes such credibility gaps.

Then there’s the basic story in general. The Nazi family, with the slightest exception of the Hitler Youth loving daughter and bound to duty Dad, are portrayed as uncomfortable in their role as ethnic cleansers. While the newly appointed Commandant never shirks from his responsibility, he does spend a few pensive moments seemingly doubting his decision. And yes, Bruno’s big sister Gretel appears poised to take up the Aryan cause at the drop of a propaganda poster. But she also is given a more normative, adolescent reason for her newfound interest in the fatherland - a blond himbo in uniform named Lieutenant Kotler. Of course, once she learns of the realities surrounding her family, mother goes from strong to strung out, desperate for some relief from the guilt and casual culpability.

Yet, oddly enough, we are willing to accept some or all of this approach until the last act contrivance that finds Bruno running around the camp trying to help Shmuel find his missing father. This is again an issue that works well within the confines of the mind’s eye, a place where anything is truly possible. But Herman has a hard time making the logistics work. It’s as if the carefully laid out characters we’ve see throughout the first 80 minutes of the movie disappear, replaced by rigid, non-reactive robots. Desperate to leave her own sort of prison, Mother makes a bid to get her children out of the area. But she then allows Bruno to slip away, suspiciously, without a legitimate motive. Similarly, when he goes missing, the camp appears to be the last place anyone thinks of looking.

At this point, even the consistently fine performances from David Thewliss (as the father), Vera Farmiga (as Mother) and little Asa Butterfield (as Bruno) can’t salvage the schmaltz. Tuned in film fans will know where this storyline is going the minute our lead decides to put on a prison uniform to help with the search. As we wait for the denouement, Herman upends 60 years of history, turning the plight of the Jews into a mechanism for Bruno’s familial comeuppance. Perhaps in print the finale felt like just war crime desserts. Here, it’s either devastating or completely inappropriate, depending on your take. It’s the same rub aimed at Benigni’s ballsy, “it’s just a game” routine. Either you will appreciate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ particular tact, or you will cringe on what it decides to exploit. Like the subject it secures as part of its plotting, there is no middle ground.

by Jason Gross

20 Nov 2008

Did you ever feel like you’re being pulled around several different directions and can’t keep track of things?  Don’t feel too bad- if you’ve spent any time online, then you’re going through this same problem as millions of others.  We’re putting pieces of ourselves all over the web now and it’s getting confusing to keep up with it.

Other than this blog, I’ve been thinking about everywhere else that I’ve been leaving my mark online.  Along with my zine, I’ve also set up little outposts in a number of social networking spaces which include, but definitely ain’t limited to…

(NOTE: You might have to sign up for accounts at these services to see any of these pages)

- Ye Wei (aka my other blog where I talk about particular albums)

- Twitter, where I find myself ‘tweeting’ more and more often

- MySpace, where I set up a place for my zine

- Facebook, which was my previous fave until I got hooked on Twitter (more about that in another post)

- Going, which I find both interesting and confusing as a social space

- Last FM, which tracks what I’m listening to

- Linked In, where I’m supposed to make business contacts

- Goodreads, where I list my favorite books and find other bookworms

In addition, there’s a bunch of services that I haven’t had time to check out yet, including Bebo, Fark, Ponce, Plaxo and…

One problem is that I’m probably signed up at other places but I can’t remember them right now.  Another problem is that I can’t always remember to go back to all of those places above to update them or just to poke around to find friends or find some info.  It gets confusing after a while to keep track of all of this.  Don’t get me wrong- I do like visiting each of these sites when I can remember it.  But then comes another problem- when are you going to find time to visit all your social destinations?  And what are you going to do when new ones inevitably come up?  You’ll want to go to those places and have to let some of your old favorites languish- for me that’s been MySpace, where I still go to regularly but nowhere nearly as much as I used to.

Isn’t that the same for all of us online addicts?  We love to explore online but we can get tangled up in this stuff too.  I usually keep a set of bookmarks to help me remember these sites but it’s still time consuming and sometimes, I’ll go weeks without visiting some of them, not because I’m bored of them but just because I’m busy at the other sites.

What I also wonder about is what we say about ourselves on these sites and what it adds up to.  I don’t have the same exact info about myself, my tastes and my interests on all of the social sites (it would look bad if you did, right?) though some of them definitely overlap.  So you basically spend time constructing these versions of your life on these sites, highlighting some things that you’re proud of and usually skipping over the embarrassing stuff.  Even if you’re registered with dozens of site, it’s still an incomplete and selective version of who you are. 

Plus there’s your ‘friends’ at each of these places- some of them are definitely friends but you know… there’s others who just meet you there and might share some interests and maybe know you through someone else but they’re not someone you’d regularly hang out with otherwise or correspond with.  Also, whether we want to admit it or not, it becomes kind of a status symbol to say that you have lots of friends on these services- we collect them like we collect books or music or other objects that say who we are and what we’re about.

So we futilely try to balance all of these persona that we’ve created while we look for friends, interests and info.  What we’re like offline though, outside of these idealized versions of ourselves is another story…

by Christian John Wikane and Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

20 Nov 2008

Thirty-five years ago, the Pointer Sisters debuted with one of the most musically eclectic albums ever to grace the pop and R&B charts. From Allen Toussaint (“Yes We Can Can”) to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (“Cloudburst”) to Willie Dixon (“Wang Dang Doodle”) to their own jazz-inflected compositions (“Jada”, “Sugar”), Ruth, Anita, Bonnie, and June Pointer effortlessly navigated a range of musical and vocal styles. The Pointer Sisters (1973) marked their first of five albums for Blue Thumb Records with producer David Rubinson before Bonnie Pointer ventured solo on Motown and the remaining trio teamed with Richard Perry for a string of memorable pop and R&B classics on Planet/RCA. Then and now, their versatility remains unparalleled.

PopMatters recently sat down with Ruth Pointer at her home in Massachusetts to discuss the incredible legacy of the Pointer Sisters. She also gave us a peek into her “trophy” room! Look for the complete interview in early 2009!

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