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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006

Rome: The Complete First Season [HBO - $99.98]


HBO took a huge gamble with this potentially problematic dramatic series. As periods go, Ancient Rome has always had a certain staid Hollywood approach to its production design—massive columns, ornate statuary, people parading around in pristine togas. But the producers of this revisionist version of history wanted to make the era a living, breathing place, with recognizable and realistic elements. They’ve succeeded beyond any TV fans wildest dreams. Easily taking its place with channel champions The Sopranos as mandatory viewing, the current trend towards quick turnaround releases of single season box sets means that followers can drink in the incredible designs—and delicious narrative dynamics—of this sensational series over and over again.


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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006

Playboy After Dark [Morada Vision - $39.98]


In 1959, Hugh Hefner needed a way to expand his burgeoning Playboy empire. The magazine, while successful, was still tagged as an unacceptable social pariah. Hoping to clean up his pornographer’s profile, Hefner got a local Chicago TV station to produce his “classy” variety show, Playboy’s Penthouse. Sadly, sponsors were hard to find, and after a short run, it was cancelled. Fast forward eight years, and suddenly it’s the sexual revolution. Hefner sensed a chance to retake the airwaves and created Playboy After Dark. Lasting only one season, it too became a cultural icon, a glamorized look at debauchery as a debonair lifestyle. With a three disc set of six episodes finally hitting store shelves, new generations can see just how corny – and creative – these antiestablishment shows really were.


 


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Saturday, Dec 16, 2006


Looking to seek their fortune in the Colorado territory, a group of miners follow fellow gold rusher Alferd Packer deep into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, they run into a band of scurvy trappers who steal Packer’s prized pony Liane. No longer concerned about wealth or riches, angry Al marches the mystified men farther off the well-beaten path and closer to death’s doorway. A stop-off at a local Ute Indian Reservation provides a last chance at avoiding tragedy, but Packer will not be persuaded. He eventually places his party into one Donner of a dilemma. And soon, it’s shinbones and short ribs for everyone as fallen members of the ore obsessives become bar-b-qued and fricasseed. Strangely, only Packer escapes. When pressed, he tells a wild tale of murder, mayhem, and massive helpings of man meat. It’s enough to put you off your pemmican as a Broadway-style back story leads to a tuneful trial and an even more melodious mob scene with everyone trying to determine if Al is a real life butt muncher, or just the subject of an insane song saga called Cannibal!: The Musical.


Outrageous, amateurish, guaranteed to make your toes tap, your fingers snap, and your gag reflex respond all in one sitting, Cannibal!: The Musical is the small, silly sapling from which a mighty comedy oak eventually grew. The titanic tree of unbridled, brave humor is today known as South Park and the creators of that crazy comic chaos are Matt Stone and his partner in perversity, Trey Parker. Trey is the tricky mastermind behind this musical version of the (supposed) crimes of Colorado’s most infamous flesh-eater, Alferd Packer. Anyone who has ever doubted Parker’s flourishing genius with paper cut-out cartoon characters need look no further than this ambitious, anarchic pseudo-student film to realize that he (along with Stone) were bound for bigger, longer, and uncut things. Cannibal! is filled with juvenile humor, unprofessional performances, lapses in taste and tone, and—above all—a severe drop-off in inventiveness toward the end. But it also contains classic tainted Tin Pan Alley tunes, a genuine love of gore horror films, and enough sharp, hilarious wit to outshine a few hundred Hollywood dark gross-out comedies. Cannibal!: The Musical is an idea that shouldn’t work (and occasionally heaves and lurches like a block and tackle about to fail), but thanks to Parker’s vision and his merry band of borderline student psychotics (the film was made while Trey and pals were at the University of Colorado film school), he manages to corral Cannibal‘s potential calamities and make the mess work. It is far from perfect, but it’s also entertaining, endearing, and filled with infectious, fantastic musical numbers.


This may be the very definition of a cult film. It is a movie made for a specific mindset. You are either “in tune” to its troubled, terrific manic mantra or not. No amount of big screen talkback or audience participation prop pandering will make it click. You will either “get” Cannibal!: The Musical or it will seem static, insipid, and scattered. Just like his efforts on that Comedy Central kiddie show (or the unjustly dumped sitcom spoof That’s My Bush), Parker operates from a big picture, avoiding a non-stop salvo of junky jokes to hopefully create a certain amount of depth and irony to his work. His goal always seems to be the complete deconstruction of typical cinematic and humor norms, only to rebuild them with his own twists. Many critics clamor that Parker and Stone are irrevocably stuck in an infantile world of farts, feces, and offensiveness (stereotyped Japanese men as Ute Indians?). And Cannibal! could very well be used as an example of such salacious obsessions. But in reality, it is a smart take-off on the musical format mixed with historical drama and laced with a noticeably lowbrow sense of stupid humor—and it succeeds more times than it derails. There are some forgivable lapses in character and plot development (the trappers should have had more involvement in the story) and the good-natured goofiness of the songs leave you wanting more of them (there are a couple of lost tracks—a barroom rap/funk spectacular called “I’m Shatterproof” and the cautionary choral entitled “Don’t Be Stupid Motherf******s”). Still, Parker is out to simultaneously celebrate Packer and bury him. And he does so with a little song, a little dance, and a lot of fake blood down the pants.


Surprisingly, Cannibal!: The Musical understands the strange dynamic of having characters break out into song and plays on that unreal magic magnificently. Where else would you find victims of frostbite, so hungry they are unable to move or even sit up straight, singing a joyful—if immobile—roundelay of special sentimental wishes called “That’s All I’m Asking For”? Or how about a lynch mob gaily swing choiring their way through a jubilant reading of the local riot act called “Hang the Bastard!”? The juxtaposition of traditionally non-musical moments with outrageous parodies of Great White Way standards is what marks Cannibal! (and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for that matter) a step above other attempted mismatching. Parker is a gifted writer, and along with original score arrangements by Rich Sanders, the songs are rich, resonant, and instantly memorable. Indeed, this flesh-eating effort may be the first fright flick you’ll ever find yourself humming afterward.


Some of the efforts in the sonic domain would have been better spent in the script department. Admittedly written over a couple of nights, there is a heavy reliance on Cartman and Kyle style curse word putdowns and silly non-sequiturs. But every once in a while, the cast’s comic timing kicks in and the humor is randy, robust, and rib tickling. With exceptional production values (the crew used several actual locations from Packer’s past and a perfectly recreated ghost town to provide untold realistic set design delights) and that great score, Cannibal!: The Musical is a recommended pre-success visit to a podunk mountain town filled with fledgling funny men in training. If the idea of a mock-historical western that is part Brigadoon and mostly Sweeney Todd sends your satire senses into a shiver, then Cannibal!: The Musical is the movie for you. While it may have some substandard elements, it’s still as funny and fresh as a baked potato. It’s a spadoinkle film!


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Friday, Dec 15, 2006


Is there a more misunderstood, misused actor than poor Crispin “Hellion” Glover? From the moment he took the screen in Back to the Future, playing the ultimate social outcast George McFly, this lanky human walking stick with a stilted voice and unhinged persona became an ironic icon, a star wrapped in an insane, introverted skin. He then cemented his sensationalism with The River’s Edge, playing the “dude”-spewing valley psycho Layne. By all accounts, it appeared Master Crispin was poised to become his generations’ James Dean, a twisted mastermind so lost in his own world of performance that he couldn’t help but be compelling onscreen. Instead, he just left the planet Earth altogether and vanished into his own Milky Way of the peculiar.


So it’s strange that he has recently found a small amount of acceptance as a character bad guy, playing everything from a sword-wielding assassin in the Charlie’s Angels movies to an orphanage director in Like Mike. In the meanwhile, he recorded bleak and brazenly bizarre music (his album “The Big Problem =/= The Solution; the Solution = Let It Be” is a must own exploration of one man’s misguided musical brain) and worked on literature as performance art (he has been known to take old Victorian tomes on such strange subjects as rat catching and retrofit them with new art, added text and various other artistic accents). But his true calling has and will always be as an actor, and now, thankfully, he has been given a chance to shine again. 2001 saw him star in Bartleby as the famously inert file clerk (from the short story by Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener). But it seems our cracked actor can never forget his true nature, which makes his appearance in the 2003 remake of Willard so karmic.


Willard is a darkly comic tour de force for its strange star. A cool, complex combination of classic horror film and deliriously campy craziness, it eschews standard monster movie moves for a more robust and black-hearted take on loneliness and friendship. This is not a film about killer rats as much as it is a tale of male empowerment via vermin. Indeed, the story is called Willard for good reason: the pests are secondary here. The real world surrounding our title character is far more chilling and evil. The original 1971 Willard, starring Bruce Davidson and Ernest Borgnine (and taken from Stephen Gilbert’s novel The Ratman’s Notebook) was a similar saga of a lonely young man against an antagonistic set of circumstances. But while Davidson’s troubled soul seemed the direct result of the social stigmas and battles he faced, Glover as Willard is a revelation of repression, a man whose mind has turned inside out from isolation and loss.


Glover makes the movie a constant source of cinematic joy, lending his expressive face and awkward angular frame and grin to grimace line-readings that explode across the screen in delirious, gothic goofiness. The fact that this film is also about a rogue rat with a sinister mind of his own and a few mouse-enhanced murders is merely ancillary icing on Glover’s acting cake. If you want a movie that will scare the droppings out of you, stick with the ‘70s version. If you want to see what makes a mental case tick like a tripwire, check out Glover’s groove.


Both movies are reflections of when they were made. The original Willard tapped into a generation gap protest ideal of revolution against the all powerful establishment patriarchy. Borgnine, the boorish businessman out to destroy Willard and his family one member at a time, is given his comeuppance as a metaphor for questioning and toppling corrupt authority. This new version taps into current philosophies, specifically the advent of the modern male, a socially mandated sensitive sod. Willard here is an emasculated weenie afraid of his own shadow and inner lack of outstanding virility. Challenged for living at home and still being single but also asked to perform the duties of “man about the house” (financially and emotionally), he is torn between the image society craves and the role liberation has chosen for him. Both movies are more character studies than horror films, with a strong premise of disaffection and retribution running through them.


But while Davidson’s Willard seemed determined to rid his immediate life of the obstacles and awfulness surrounding it, Glover is out to destroy the entire world, one asshole at a time. Davidson’s ratboy is reactionary, anger channeled through his pet horde of pests. Glover, on the other hand, is so passive aggressive that the moments when he explodes are shockingly volcanic, you feel the years of pain and anguish rushing out in burst of hot air and Munch’s “Scream” shrillness. Davidson may have essayed a perfect horror hybrid, a killer as misguided manchild, but Glover now owns the role of Willard. His ability to expose and exploit ennui as a means of menace and mercy is uncanny. Besides, we understand Glover’s love of his rats. There is a kinship between them, a give and take (which is manhandled and ultimately bungled by the original) that centers and streamlines the 2003 version. These mice aren’t just his unholy army; they are his true friends.


If one is looking for still deeper meaning to Willard, then it can be argued that our title hero is the ultimate victim, a desperate human null set put upon by every aspect of society. On the outside, Willard is a model of attention and dedication; he keeps his dead father’s memory preserved and present; he cares for his moldering corpse of a mother, a person so old and diseased that she seems made up mostly of tumors and infection; he’s committed to his home and its upkeep, even if its decaying façade has become more than he really can handle. He tries his best to be a model employee, a vital part in the dying machine his late father created for him. But buried beneath his bland façade is a seething core of rage so dark and black that demons avoid his glare. It’s a fury fueled with untold failures and faults. But it is also a passion born out of pain, a serial killer cravenness locked in without an outlet.


In the end, Willard is all about the raving insane ingenuity of its star. Glover is a savant of strangeness, an absolutely out of control living piece of performance art channeled inside a modernized meshing of Ichabod Crane and Charles Manson. The magical sprites that speak strange mysteries into his mid-brain are given vocal victory with every stammer and stutter in his innocent idiot performance inventory. He turns Willard into a part silent movie, part over-the-top pantomime ballet of body movements and position. If for no other reason, he is the reason to watch this movie. Glen Morgan, who along with partner/producer Wong worked on The X-Files and created Millennium and the Final Destination series, decide to amp up the arch qualities, turning Willard’s domain in to a doomed dimension of exaggeration and empathy. Thanks to their efforts, and the brilliant work of Glover, Willard becomes a rare example of cult classic as actual work of artistic integrity.


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Friday, Dec 15, 2006

When I was in a band in Tucson, we worked on many concept albums about robots from outer space destroying rock and roll and human feeling (which is the same thing). One of these was called “Power to the People of the Nations of Rock and Roll” and it featured a song my friend Mike Shallcross wrote called “Robotic Love,” which, if I understand it correctly, is about how our emotional needs can render us mechanical, contrary to the received idea that they make us more human. (My main contribution to the album was a song in which passages from the I Ching were recited over a “Memory of a Free Festival” like outro until the line “Clasp the hooves of the pink messiah” was repeated over and over again. Later on I’ll post it here if you want to hear it.) I was reminded of the song when I read this, about elderly patients in a nursing home bonding with robot babies.


Even Sherry Turkle, a scientist who has long put forward the notion that “technology is not just tools,” that technology changes the way we feel as well as the way we do things, is creeped out by this. How creeped out? Just look at this picture:

She says in the article that her research into objects designed to encourage us to form nurturing emotional bonds with them—Tamogochis, dolls, etc.— “gave me the chills.” She also admits, “I have finally met technology that upsets and concerns me.”


Here’s why, from the MIT news office release:


One of Turkle’s concerns was triggered by the effect of a sophisticated interactive doll, Hasbro’s “My Real Baby,” and of the Paro seals on the elderly. She left a few “My Real Baby” dolls (which were not a big retail hit with children) in a local nursing home, and when she returned later, she found that the staff had bought 25 of them because of the soothing effect on the residents.
“The only one who’s not happy here is the sociologist,” said Turkle, raising her hand.
That soothing response was based on a sham, she believes. “What can something that does not have a life cycle know about your death, or about your pain?”
She cited the case of a 72-year-old woman who, because she is sad, says she sees that her robotic toy is also sad. “What are we to make of this relationship when it happened between a depressed woman and a robot?” Turkle asked.


There are a lot of disturbing implications here: Human empathy is easy to simulate because it’s mainly an illusion created by looking at someone with a thoughtful expression. Not only that, when we seek empathy from others, we’re content with the illusion because we wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from the other actually understanding us anyway. Psychics seem to work this way, bouncing back things you tell them in a way that allows you to feel as though something magical has happened, some secret insight has been revealed. Horoscopes, too—they seem insightful because almost any generality can apply to our lives, but because we are so fixated on our singularity, the advice seems shockingly particular and oracular to us. We don’t want new understanding, we want the understanding we already have made strange and confirmed simultaneously. We want to be able to project and then recognize ourselves, thereby extending our scope, universalizing how we feel.


Also, it suggests the process of nurturing is less a matter of communication then it is a technical operation, a set of objective conditions that can be met by any means, human or nonhuman. And it’s not unusual to nurture something incapable of feelings. When we nurture, the object of our nurturing can be an infant, a houseplant, or book collection (which I invest with loving care by occasionally attempting to alphabetize them or group them by subject)—anything that can elicit the appropriate forms of behavior and gestures. In other words, nurturing is a reflexive gesture rather than an altruistic one. It seems plausible that the effort our culture spends investing material goods with emotional qualities abets this process, reinforcing the idea that other people need not be present to complete circuits of emotional experience. Other people’s feelings, after all are inconvenient and inefficient to deal with.


There’s more on robotic love (via Mind Hacks) here, in this interview from the Boston Globe with Marvin Minsky, an AI researcher whose most recent book argues that emotions are just another way of thinking through a problem and thus can probably be emulated by machines. This also suggests that humans themselves are machines as well:


We don’t like to think of ourselves as machines because this evokes an outdated image of a clunky, mechanical, lifeless thing. We prefer the idea that inside ourselves is some sort of spirit, essence, or soul that wants and feels and thinks for us. However, your laptop computer has billions of parts, and it would be ridiculous to attribute all its abilities to some spirit inside its battery. And a human brain is far more complex than is any computer today.



A fairly radical materialist viewpoint that dispenses with the mind/body problem—mind is the product of the brain’s processing power. (This, by the way, is how I think Battlestar Galactica ultimately ends; we find out eventually that the humans on the show never did reach Earth, but the Cylons did and we are their descendants.)


Minsky also suggests that love occurs through subtraction rather than addition:


There’s short-term infatuation, where someone gets strongly attracted to someone else, and that’s probably very often a turning-off of certain things rather than something extra: It’s a mental state where you remove your criticism. So to say someone is beautiful is not necessarily positive, it may be something happening so you can’t see anything wrong with this person.


So if you put that together with the elderly people and their robot babies, it seems that products could be designed (or are designed, or are advertised as such when they are made to be lovable) to induce this kind of forgetting, to propel this kind of screening, or tunring-off, which makes the shortcomings of others (or things) and the outside world in general less recognizable, less present, and at the same time keeps the focus more securely on ourselves, the true object of our affections.


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