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Thursday, Jan 25, 2007


As the more athletic-minded members of the home audience prepare for next week’s Super Bowl, and American Idol continues to woo the schaudenfreuda set, the motion picture choices this week are actually pretty decent. Between a marvelous ‘70s scare film, a brilliant mid-‘90s documentary, and an overlooked gem from an Oscar winning director, the possibility exists for some quality small screen viewing. Even some of the ancillary picks can and do provide a wealth of watchability. For the week starting 27 January, here are your viewing options:


Premiere Pick


Jarhead


Sam Mendes must have done something in his past to deserve such a rollercoaster ride. When American Beauty hit, it was immediately embraced as a sensational, satiric skewering of strangled suburban sexual politics. What a difference a few years, and dozens of messageboard debates, makes. Mendes is now condemned for helming one of the worst Best Picture winners ever and his own award is dismissed as the result of standard Oscar overkill. All of this undermined his fine follow-up, the Gulf War epic Jarhead. Instead of embracing this latest effort as a visually stunning experiment in storytelling, it was cast aside as another example of Mendes’ cinematic meaninglessness. As a result, what should have been an acknowledged minor masterwork was poisoned by the Internet’s inane ability to turn everyone into a critic. (27 January, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices


Grandma’s Boy


The Farrelly Brothers should be flayed for what they have wrought. The gross out comedy sinks to the lowest possible denominator ever with this tale of a video game tester forced to live in his aging relative’s basement. (20 January, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


Here’s a little independent oddity – a period piece (the ‘50s) about a woman who supports her 10 kids by writing commercial jingles. Though it’s got chick flick written all over it, the presence of Juliann Moore helps soften the saccharine blow. (27 January, Starz, 9PM EST)


Dark Water


As one of the less successful adaptations of the one time fright fad known as J-Horror, there is still some wonderfully evocative filmmaking to be experienced here, thanks in part to Brazilian director Walter Salles’ deft touch behind the lens.  (27 January, ShowCase, 8PM EST)


Indie Pick


Hoop Dreams


When Steve James and Frederick Clark stumbled upon the story of basketball phenoms William Gates and Arthur Agee, little did they know their decision to follow them throughout the trial and tribulations of high school would result in pure motion picture art. But that’s exactly what happened with Hoop Dreams, one of 1994’s best films, and a definitive argument for narrative fact over fiction. As the boys are recruited to various campuses both in and outside the city of Chicago, we see the beginnings of the kind of inflated entitlement that’s destroying modern professional sports. While the outcome is more or less a given, especially in light of what we know about basketball in 2007, the way in which the duo survive their time in the spotlight is mesmerizing – and very meaningful. (27 January, Sundance, 9:30PM EST)

Additional Choices


Mona Lisa


It’s the film that brought director Neil Jordan and actor Bob Hoskins to the attention of American audiences, and with good reason. This moody thriller is a brilliant deconstruction of character and crime. (27 January, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Series 7: The Contenders


Way, WAY ahead of its time, this look at the ridiculous extremes the reality TV genre would go to in capturing audience attention is a stinging social commentary. Looks even more prophetic today than it did back in 2001. (30 January, Sundance, 7:30PM EST)

Monster


The usually stunning Charlize Theron goes the dirty and dowdy route to play notorious female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in this strangely atypical drama. There’s as much heart as homicide in this Oscar winning character study. (31 January, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option


The Other


It is safe to say that, among the movies made in that defining cinematic decade of the ‘70s, The Other is one of the best—a near-flawless example of tone and storytelling melded with wonderfully effective material and meaning. In the hands of Academy Award nominee Robert Mulligan (responsible for To Kill a Mockingbird) and adapted by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tyron from his own best-selling novel, this paranormal period piece about psychologically unsound twins takes elements of The Bad Seed and twists them into an amazing American Gothic. It utilizes the recognizable realities of an old-fashioned family in the middle of a picturesque, pastoral setting and then scans the surfaces for the ugly underneath. Eventually, we start to see the horrors hiding behind the antique old-world gentility. (29 January, Fox Movie Channel, 6PM EST)

Additional Choices


Billy the Kid vs. Dracula


John Carradine is the Count, and someone named Chuck Courtney is the famous outlaw in this bad movie bedlam from director William Beaudine. Featured as part of Rob Zombie’s TCM Underground presentations. (27 January, TCM, 2AM EST)

High Tension


Before taking over the reigns of the well-received Hills Have Eyes remake, French fright master Alexandre Aja delivered this stylish take on the old fashioned slasher film. A brilliant bit of violent cinematic slight of hand. (30 January, Showtime, 10PM EST)

May


To hear the web geeks tell it, this Frankenstein homage from The Woods director Lucky McKee has adolescent angst to spare. The simple storyline, about a girl who builds a friend out of spare people parts, should make gorehounds happy. (31 January, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jan 24, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: A pair of perverted takes on technology and extortion.

Electronic Lover (1966)



Buried somewhere deep in the heart of Manhattan, a sadistic voyeur named “The Master” sends his sibling slave (who he refers to as “Brother”) out to spy on the ladies of New York. Hoping to catch them in flagrante delicto – in other words, naked and naughty as the day is long – Brother stumbles around the city with what looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment in his hands. Turns out, it’s a high tech camera, allowing the perv to pry into the privacy of the numerous nasty girls Master has his erotica eye on. As he aims his plastic probe into the windows of his prey, our technological Peeping Tom sits back in his burlap-covered bungalow and monitors the collection of lady lumps from a screen on his room-sized computer. When Brother mucks up and messes with the image, Master shouts out long, laborious monologues, peppering his rants with various demands for more, MORE, MORE!!! When the women get wise and confront him, Master goes all moist, proving that his dysfunction is more emotional than erectile. Indeed, he is an Electronic Lover, only potent when transistors and a ‘motherboard’ are involved.


In the annals of exploitation, it is hard to find a film as outrageously bizarre as Electronic Lover. Granted, it’s not as surreal as The Godmonster of Indian Flats, and can barely hold a craven candle to Confessions of a Psycho Cat or foreign freak-outs like My Baby is Black or When Men Carried Clubs and Women Played Ding Dong, but in contrast to the rest of the raincoat canon, this creepy peeper exercise is mighty malfeasant. Besides, any movie which features a man making out with himself (thanks to a well placed wall mirror) and relying on some simulated self-service to get his repugnant rocks off is already illustrating its grand depraved delusions. The sickeningly incestual conceit between Master and Brother – he of the wealthy erotic eccentricity, the other a mute doormat who prowls around town looking for lewdness – is accentuated by the random bits of babe burlesque, each of our well-known sleaze screen queens (including Uta Erickson and Linda Boyce) exposing their epidermis for the sake of some slick exhibitionist’s wet daydream. Since most of the movie follows along the thinnest clothesline of a plot – Master wants Brother to find the realistic replicas of his nightmarish fantasy fodder – director Jesse Berger does little more than offer up various vignettes of simulated slap and tickle.


Indeed, the best parts of Electronic Lover aren’t the groovy grindhouse gals going gonzo in their bare ass brazenness. No, the moments that will have your cinematic synapses in an uproar arrive whenever Master has one of his certified nutty nervous breakdowns. Desperate to find the vice in his icky internal visions, he yells at Brother in long, hilarious harangues that sound like outtakes from a pervert’s primal scream sessions. Face scrunched up like it’s smashed against a window, eyes wide open (the better to catch the profuse sweat flowing off the loathsome lothario’s face) and mouth mimicking a grimace, Master (played by nobody Mike Atkinson) could give Rev. Jim Jones a run for his Messianic madman money. So convinced he owns the world that he feels free to spy on it, Master makes the crucial mistake that most deviants do – he lets his lust dement and destroy his life. That’s why we buy the odd living arrangements, the frequent hallucinations, and the ending that twists everything onto itself until the narrative shouts “Uncle” and finally falls apart. One of those heralded “has to be seen to be believed” efforts, Electronic Lover is a brazen bit of binary ballyhoo.


The Spy Who Came (1969)



Harry Harris is one of New York’s finest – and slimiest – vice cops. When he’s not wowing his superiors with his evidence tampering skills, he’s “pumping” his suspects for potential information. One day, after several long hours of framing hookers, Harry heads off to a local bar to drown his sorrows. There he meets a very odd young lady, so robotic in her expressions that automatons are jealous of her rigidity. Turns out she’s a plant, a way to get Harry into the hands of a drug addled Arab sheik who wants to blackmail most of the UN. Seems they have pictures of Harry humping the citizenry, and will show them to the lawman’s future bride if he doesn’t cooperate. With the fuzz on his side, the Middle Eastern madman has that much more extortion emphasis on his possible targets. Naturally, Harry agrees, and soon discovers the unholy horrors of the operation’s white slave situation. Luckily, his boss finds out about the set-up and sends in a French detective from Interpol to help break up this cabal. The rest of the movie is made up of shots of women being whipped, stripped and clipped, all in hopes of being the bait for The Spy Who Came


Unlike Electronic Lover, a film that constantly wants to remind you of the entire Master/Brother dynamic, The Spy Who Came sets up its storyline, and then quickly abandons it for more garish girlie gawking. Once we’ve established that Harry is a letch, that the Arab is insane, and that the broken down castle that acts as a hideout is really nothing more than Olga’s House of Shame minus Audrey Campbell, we settle in to enjoy what director Ron Wertheim has to offer. Sadly, it’s more of the scripted strip show routine, women baring it all for the sake of some salacious skin flicking. It starts when our entranced tart shows up at Harry’s favorite dive bar and begins seducing him. Her vacant stare must have some sort of aphrodisiacal powers, since our hero hops into bed with her PDQ. It’s only later than we learn that this is Harry’s miscreant MO. A funny scene has our villainous Arab presenting the police officer with photos of his dalliances, and actual film of his faux fornicating. No wonder he’s so willing to help out the criminal cause. Harry’s seed has been spread from one end of the Big Apple to the other.


Thankfully, the film fails to follow up on the whole UN/diplomatic immunity/international scandal plotting and instead turns into your typical episodic erotica. One of the highlights here is a sequence where a ‘sex slave in training’ is educated on how to pleasure a man. Practicing various positions – doggy, reverse cowgirl – to an instructional recording seems strange enough. Now add in her partner, a particularly bizarre looking male mannequin (complete with absent eyes and dislocated arms) and you’ve got some of the most hilarious sensual slapstick ever caught on celluloid. Our unknown actress deserves some kind of amorous acknowledgment for making feigned frigging with a wooden doll seem totally plausible. As for the rest of the narrative, it’s a deranged downward spiral into more nudity, more nonsensical plot turns, and a final action sequence that features our Arab antagonist naked, the worst armed guards in the history of criminality, and a bunch of toga wearing girls chasing a topless temptress as she tries to escape. Wow! Though the title is a tad too clever to actually link directly to the story, The Spy Who Came is still a sensational head scratcher of a film. Its purpose is as cloudy as its morals.


As they do every so often, Something Weird Video (via their distributor, Image Entertainment) unleashes these unknown exploitation gems on an already jaded fan base. Including lots of interesting supplements (trailers, archival short subjects, educational films and groovy grindhouse galleries) and the best tech specs available (in this case, 1.33:1 monochrome images and Dolby Digital Mono mixes) the leading company in taboo-busting temptations really delivers this time. Even the jaw dropping late ‘60s look at science (a surreal slice of Americana called “The Philosophy of Computing”) adds to the overall success of this strange presentation. While there are far more definitive examples of what made the skin and sin genre famous, Electronic Lover/ The Spy Who Came are two terrific bawdy brain busters. Each example of freakish flesh peddling is as crazy as it is carnal – for better and for worse.



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD of Electronic Lover/The Spy Who Came was released on 23 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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Tuesday, Jan 23, 2007


Horror films, by their very nature, function as escape in the most primal of forms. They offer a chance for an audience to sit back, relax, and allow their instinctual sense of distress to overwhelm and startle them. As the dread grows thicker and more palpable, the body begins to shed its inhibitions and warrants. By the end of the saga, with the climax pushing the blood and adrenaline through the body at an alarming rate, the entire internal circuitry is alive! Then the lights go on and there is relief. There is catharsis, release, and a dispersion of pent-up emotions and feelings. It is a kind of therapy. It is a daredevil thrill ride. It is a throwback to the very essence of our humanity.


More times than not, the fright flick is a simple statement, a competition between killer and victim, between monster and mankind, for control of who lives and who dies. Occasionally, important social topics can be tossed into the ghouls and goblins. The Exorcist is more about the growing disconnect between single parents and terrifying teen angst than channeling a challenge by Satan. Hellraiser showcases the ultimate betrayal within a marriage—a wife seeking comfort in the bloody, zombified corpse of her husband’s brother. Even something as recent as 28 Days Later wants to warn us about the poisons within—the out-of-control military, animal experimentation, human rage—more than shocking us with the living dead dynamic.


Then there are horror films that work on our psychology, playing with the possibilities and concepts we’re comfortable with, only to twist and subvert them. Directors as diverse as David Lynch, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg have all fashioned fear out of the circumvention of normal human understanding, from the disgusting dissertation on parenthood known as Eraserhead to the doctors-as-doppelgangers delirium of Dead Ringers. Yet when it comes to being the king of cranial corruption, Georges Franju has no equal. In 1959—while American movies were focusing on monsters and atomic mutations—Franju was inventing the modern mindf*ck fright film. Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage in the native tongue) is one of the landmarks of horror for everything it does, and for all the things it avoids. With the grisly story of a surgeon obsessed with restoring his daughter’s disfigured face, one would expect a gruesome, blood-soaked saga of body snatching, evisceration, and sin. But Eyes Without a Face is a far more complicated and cogent film than that. It wants to discuss issues inherent in both science and the parent/child relationship, as well as focus on forging forceful fear factors.


On the most fundamental basis, Eyes Without a Face is Frankenstein without the monster. Or maybe, it’s more of an incidental look at the creation of a modern Prometheus in parenthood. It’s definitely a tale of science perverted and ego outsized. In the cold, clinical, but still highly compassionate personage of Dr. Génessier, Franju sets up the first of several strict juxtapositions, a directorial device utilized to create both tension and torture. Here is a man well known for his charitable work, and a clinic that has a remarkable success rate with its curative powers. But there is indeed much more to this measured man of science. There is the secret chateau, the foreboding home that hides his most hideous secrets. As he heals the sick, he lies to the police. As he prescribes sedatives and salves, he’s cutting up college girls in his hidden lair. On the outside, he has the smart, serene look of a man of learning. On the inside, he is a raging torrent of disappointment and deranged desire. Between the doctor and Louise, the serene servant who also commits the most heinous of crimes, we have two villains who possess none of the necessary nemesis elements of fright films past. Both Louise and Dr. Génessier give off the aura of human empathy and settled sanity. But when thrust into the painful passion of helping the mangled Christiane regain her face, this couple becomes a study in startling contrasts. Using friendship, familiarity, and force, they befriend and then butcher young women, performing sick acts of surgery for the sake of a single goal.


The centerpiece of Eyes Without a Face is the mid-movie operation sequence, a riveting and revolting slice of slaughter that must have sent the crowds scurrying in the early ‘60s. The step-by-step, slice-by-slice removal of a young woman’s face is violent and vicious enough to make Ed Gein and his cinematic counterpart, Leatherface, extremely happy. Though it’s realized in Franju’s black and white cinematography, it still has the ability to sicken and unsettle—especially when Génessier grabs that long metal prod and starts systematically loosening the flesh from the female’s basic bone structure. By the time we close in to see the skin mask removed in an agonizingly languid take, Franju has accomplished his goal.


A basic reading of the plot would suggest some manner of mean-spirited melodrama, a soggy story of a devoted dad trying everything humanly—and inhumanely—possible to help his child. But Franju wants you to understand just what such devotion means. Though we witness the drugging, the mortifying mutilation of dogs (only suggested, not actually shown), and the laser-sharp focus on his medical objectives, we don’t really understand just how hideous Dr. Génessier’s calling really is until we watch him tear off a human face. When we learn that this is one of several attempts to address his daughter’s disfigurement, the undercurrent of alarm is enhanced. This is a man who will stop at nothing and who will do anything to restore his child. We need to see just how outlandish and extreme his methods will become. Thanks to one of the most ghastly scenes in modern movie macabre, we get the disturbing idea.


Who Dr. Génessier is and what he stands for are all part of Franju’s overriding conceit for Eyes Without a Face. As the title more or less suggests, this is a film concerned with identity and the lack thereof. The entire narrative uses the theme of identification, of who people are and what they are made of, to craft a dissertation on the importance of such a point of personal and professional reference. Looking at all the aspects of the film—the doctor who appears to be a charitable godsend, but actually spends his nights in serial killer-like mayhem; the police who make a living out of deciphering the identity of washed-up corpses, only to try and connect them to specific crimes; the housekeeper who plays both benefactor and assassin—we see that Franju enjoys the double layer of meaning within his characters and circumstances.


Everyone in the film serves double, or even triple purposes. Louise is nurse, confidante and co-conspirator. The ex-fiancé Jacques is business partner (he works with Dr. Génessier), lost lover, and aid to the police. Perhaps in Christiane and her father we have the clearest examples of cross-interpersonal purposes. Dr. Génessier feels guilt as a father, healer, surgeon, specialist, and driver (he caused the accident that disfigured his child), and uses a persona of strict gravity to hide his inner contempt. Christiane is a monster, a maiden, and a victim. She is a vital human being and a shamed shadow of her former self. She’s a reminder of the good times of the past and a constant source of criminally inspired culpability to those she lives with. It is this battle between bickering and battling human personalities and personas that gives Eyes Without a Face a great deal of its uneasy psychological weight. We never know whom we’re going to meet when a particular character arrives onscreen. And this is one of the reasons why the film is so effective in its casual creepiness.


Visuals are also very important to Eyes Without a Face. Indeed, it can be argued that this film is more of a throwback to older, silent film ideas in which imagery told the tale more effectively than words. Franju wants to create specific icons, images that will stand out and resonate beyond their moment in the film. He knows they will taint issues and individuals later on. Once we’ve witnessed the hideous handiwork of the doctor, we begin to worry for all other female characters who show up in the film. When Christiane has a sole, soft-focus moment where her real, fractured face is revealed, her deteriorating mental state suddenly comes into crystal clarity. All of her oddities, the late night phone calls and spectral-like glides around the house, start to make sense. As a masked mirage for most of the film, Christiane’s camouflaged face, a delicate and pristine creation of porcelain doll plainness, leaves an incredible impression. As we see the blank beauty and manufactured polish, we start to wonder if this entire enterprise is not some mad delusion. When she is temporarily “cured” and given a new, flesh façade, Christiane is hauntingly similar to the mask she’s been wearing. She is less than human, a nearly flawless flower that her father is desperate to preserve.


The performance by Edith Scob, a combination of grace and ghoul, is one of the most amazing elements of Eyes Without a Face. Spending most of her screen time behind an expressionless plate, she must convey all her emotion through her eyes and her body movements. Lithe, limber, and very laconic, Christiane troubles her home like a pretty poltergeist; a sad, simple shape longing to be normal again. It’s these pictographic elements that make Eyes Without a Face so memorable, moving the movie beyond the basic scare tactics of horror films.


From the surgical set piece to the clever use of a montage of photographs to illustrate Christiane’s disintegrating post-operative face, Franju was ahead of his time with Eyes Without a Face, both as a storyteller and as a visionary. In 1959, most horror films were dealing with outrageous elements and even more illogical circumstances to sell their scares. No one, save for Hitchcock, was looking at horror from a serious, adult format. But Franju obviously understands how much power there is in treating his subject with deep and abiding respect. From a narrative standpoint, his film is a study in simple construction and plotting. We see a crime at the start of the story, and then it is connected to Génessier (although not how you think). Then we move through the entire murder/mutilation angle before the third act action draws its denouement.


Directorially, Franju never cheats the audience. Everything is out in the open in Eyes Without a Face, never thrust to the background or hinted at in suggestion. Surely the film has its secrets (the experiments with the dogs are only hinted at), and obviously not all the horror is played out immediately. But what Franju is attempting is to drag the fright film out of the realm of the supernatural and the bizarre and frame it within the everyday world of contemporary France. There is never a desire to blame all the badness on spirits or demons. Franju knows that man is the ultimate evil in the world, and it is via the hand of the human that all the wickedness and destruction occurs. It is easy to blame acts of debasement and immorality on unseen entities bloated with the power to pervert. It is another thing all together to see and champion said tendency toward sin in one’s fellow man. This is what Eyes Without a Face is illustrating. We may be able to act without impunity, or a “face,” but our souls (which our eyes are the windows into) will always know our betrayal.


It is this matter-of-fact, straightforward approach in combination with horribly misguided motivations that makes Eyes Without a Face one of the classics of contemporary horror. It is a building block, a stepping-stone between the Universal idiom of beasts and baddies and the modern notions of terror around every real-world corner. It lays the foundation for numerous innovations within the genre as it utilizes old dark house Gothic parameters to meet its needs. Though some may consider it tame by the Raimi / Romero/ Argento standards of blood and guts, its mixture of the beautiful with the baneful, the gorgeous with the grotesque, is more unsettling than any overblown gorefest.


Though Georges Franju was working within a well-known format in his native France (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the famous writing duo behind Diabolique and Vertigo, crafted the crime story here) he was also attempting to expand the movie macabre, moving it out of the unreal regions of life and existence and into the concrete jungle of the actual world we live in. From its moody, magnificent look to an ending that suggests both destruction and rebirth, Eyes Without a Face is a monumental achievement in the arena of psychological horror. It shocks as it soothes, simultaneously confronting and comforting us. It is that rarity from the early part of cinema’s history, and yet it resonates more readily with a present-day audience than perhaps it did with individuals in its time. After all, back in the late ‘50s, we were mostly unaware of the evil going on right under our noses. Today, we practically wallow in it. Eyes Without a Face is a fascinating, frightening experience.


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Monday, Jan 22, 2007

WHOS MINDING THE STORE 19



It’s a battle between fact, fiction and the forgotten this week. A pair of excellent documentaries deconstruct their contentious subject matter while an Asian master battles an experimental icon for symbolic old school supremacy. Toss in a decent indie drama, a blood-drenched horror sequel, and an attempted return to action/adventure prominence by a couple of former A-listers and you’ve got the best that 23 January has to offer. To start things off, here is our clear SE&L Pick:


This Film is Not Yet Rated


It requires a certain amount of unbridled chutzpah to take on what is arguably the most powerful independent entity in all of show business, but that’s exactly what filmmaker Kirby Dick set out to do when he conceived this look behind the secret society known as the MPAA. The ratings board, supposedly ‘guiding parents in their concerns over film content’ has actually grown into a de facto censorship guild, mandating material changes to movies before providing their stamp of approval. What started out as an investigation to uncover the makeup of its membership soon became a kind of crusade – and it must have worked. New President Dan Glickman is vowing to revisit the whole G thru NC-17 dynamic, in direct response to Dick’s findings.

Other Titles of Interest


The Guardian


Kevin Costner tries to regain a little of his lost action hero sheen, and he brings Mr. Demi Moore (Ashton Kutcher) along for the derivative ride. Former frontline filmmaker Andrew Davis, he of The Fugitive fame, also tries to reclaim some critical consideration. He almost succeeds with this Coast Guard take on An Officer and a Gentleman.

Jesus Camp


How strange it is that yet another influential documentary arrives on DVD today. This mesmerizing and troubling look at Betty Fischer’s Youth Bible Camp called Kids on Fire actually resulted in the Christian indoctrination organization closing its doors. Between the near abusive brainwashing and the Crusades-like Go with God message, it’s not hard to see why.

Saw III


A rousing installment of the unlikely fright franchise, this third exercise in excess dismisses most of the first film’s twisty plot points to focus, again, on cruelly clever killing devices. The results are far gorier than anything either previous episode provided. How this level of bloodshed got an “R” is something for Kirby Dick to explain.

Sherrybaby


In what many are calling a career defining turn, Secretary/World Trade Center star Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an ex-con trying to reconnect with her young daughter. With the cloud of drugs and abuse constantly shadowing her efforts, the story becomes more than a mere formulaic melodrama. Thanks to her performance, Gyllenhaal finds the truth inside her character’s torment.


Yojimbo/Sanjuro: The Criterion Collection


After the near definitive reissue last year of his Seven Samurai, another pair of auteur Akira Kurosawa’s feudal Japan epics get a second look. Previously available from the industry’s leading preservationists, these new versions get revamped tech specs and more of that sensational supplemental splendor that keeps Criterion on the cutting edge of definitive DVD packaging.


And Now for Something Completely Different


The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 1


Many may know him for his classic Tinsel Town take down, the Grand Guignol gossip Bible Hollywood Babylon. But there is actually more to Kenneth Anger than stories about sex and scandal. A former child star, he grew up in the glare of the industry, and made his first film at the age of nine. Considered one of the gods of underground, independent cinema (along with the Kuchar Brothers), his sensationally scandalous shorts have long been unavailable to the viewing public. Thanks to Fantoma, however, this first volume in a proposed set of Anger collections promises to open his avant-garde vision to a whole new generation of fans.

 


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Sunday, Jan 21, 2007


Last week, James Cameron announced that after 10 years in post-Titanic exile (where, granted, he did produce a great many personal projects including Aliens of the Deep), he was smack dab in the middle of his next production, an ambitious sci-fi epic entitled Avatar. The storyline, rumored to center around a US solider sent to a far away planet to participate in its war, will be an ambitious undertaking, with live action elements mixing effortlessly with something the director calls “photo-realistic” CGI. In an interview with ‘Ain’t It Cool News’ honcho Harry Knowles, Cameron indicated that filming had already begun, and that he should have the initial elements wrapped up and completed by the end of this year.


Sounds like a sensational Summer of 2008 release, right? Wrong. In his talk with Knowles, Cameron went on to say that Avatar will not be arriving at your local Cineplex until sometime in 2009, if then. Apparently, the technology being used to render these amazing digital visions – extraterrestrials, space landscapes, intense battle sequences – will take that long to plan, perfect and render (they are being handled by Peter Jackson’s company Weta). Unlike other CGI, Cameron warns, the material in Avatar will be the next generation in visual effects, lifting the medium from its sloppy, Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie level leanings and more toward a successful melding of life with virtual reality. 


As the geek contingency self-flagellates over the possibilities, and the inevitable sniping starts over carefully leaked storyline and character elements, the rest of the moviegoing public will have to wait another 24 months before discovering if Cameron is the next Stanley Kubrick, or just another run of the mill George Lucas. It’s a dazzling, daunting possibility. More than anyone else, the aforementioned 2001 titan brought serious science fiction to the realm of cinematic artistry. On the other hand, Mr. Star Wars has proven that CGI can be both a boon and a burden. From using the technology to revamp his original Trilogy, to relying on it exclusively to visualize his noxious prequels, Lucas, more than anyone else (with perhaps a little help from Jackson) has illustrated the main weakness inherent in the artform.


You see, when done right, CGI is a brilliant cinematic supplement. It presses out the creative creases in complicated sequences and adds an otherworldly pizzazz that standard cinema has a hard time replicating. When used in conjunction with other elements – set design, directorial flair, narrative complexity – it can lift a film into a realm where fantasy truly meets reality and easily co-exists. But when done incorrectly, when over-utilized and brutalized for the sake of some silly desire for more, more, more (read: the Lucas technique), you end up with…well, you end up with animation. Instead of something that resembles the world around us, the artificial nature of the medium pushes us out of the experience. Our eyes and our brain know it, even if the people behind the production don’t.


One of the biggest flaws in old George’s Vader-redefining films is the reliance on digital to create all the filmic facets – sets, props, creatures, action. No matter the attention to detail provided by Industrial Light and Magic and the talented artists employed, the human mind still responds with suspicion when images look too good, when they announce their intention to trick. Take the cityscapes used throughout the prequels. They look amazing with their gravity, physics and pragmatics defying dimensions. Buildings rise miles into the air, landing platforms jutting out like impractical parking ramps. The skylines shimmer with a paradoxical presentation of awe and ambiguity. We enjoy the eye candy treat, but take very little of cinematic sustenance away. Similarly, when all manner of mind-blowing creatures are carted out over and over again, sometimes for the sake of mere variety, we feel the need to disavow the dynamic. 


That’s the problem with most current CGI efforts. From clunky beings that look worse than the earliest computer rendered experiments to obvious attempts to expand a normally nominal vista, the digital domain has turned the art of optical effects into a glorified ruse. It’s all smoke and mirrors, carefully crafted software and proprietary technology twisted into the most synthetic of cinematic styles. There are excellent examples of intricate incorporation. There are also models of meaningless modification. But the simple fact remains that a computer just cannot create the tactile, textural experience of well done physical effects.


A perfect example of a director who makes/made such an old school circumstance work, and work brilliantly, is Terry Gilliam. All throughout his breathtaking Ages Trilogy (Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) the ex-Monty Python animator and true creative genius forged fantastical wonders with puppets, perspective, miniatures, green-screen, and all manner of make-up and animatronic magic. From figuring out a way to feature star Jonathan Pryce in full atmospheric flight to rendering Python pal Eric Idle the fastest man on the planet, Gilliam conspired with his crew to create the impossible out of the practical. Students of the medium know all the tricks – the cotton matting clouds, the use of camera speed to suggest weight and heft, the application of motion control and intricate detailing to give items size and merit. In Gilliam’s talented hands, well crafted F/X aren’t fake or phony. Instead, they effortlessly merge with the overall vision the filmmaker follows, working to keep the audience locked well within the otherwise obtuse ideals.


The same goes for someone like Ridley Scott and his magnificent set of late ‘70s/early ‘80s epics; Alien, Blade Runner and Legend. As close to a perfect combination of movie and mannerisms ever created, Scott’s simple designs – to take viewers to places they’d never dreamed possible – are executed not with computers and programs, but with painstaking interaction between artists and the motion picture medium. From H. R. Giger’s definitive interstellar villain to the look of L.A. circa sometime in the far off future, the reliance on the real, not the bitmap and binary, gives these movies a richness and a realism that technology has yet to capture. Sure, Tim Curry had to go through Hell to take on the persona of The Lord of Darkness, his hours in the make-up chair challenging his patience and his health. But when the results are so resplendent as they are in Legend, when he is flawlessly lost inside the demonic dimensions of his character, it’s easy to excuse the sacrifice.


Other filmmakers like Tim Burton (with his effects style clinic called Beetlejuice) and Sam Raimi (delivering his demented Dead films without a single CGI supplement) equally established that even the cheesiest physical effect could work as long as the elements surrounding it matched the filmmaker’s motives perfectly. Even Cameron proved this with his stellar sequel Aliens. It’s impossible to imagine the movie’s climactic moment rendered digitally. It would seem silly for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character to gear up for her battle with the Queen Mother in a totally CGI robotic forklift suit. Call it reverse rejection. With physical effects, the eye sees the stunt, and starts scanning the image for imperfections. With CGI, the vision is so slick that we initially overlook its misdirection. But then the less than real aspects announce themselves, and we loose interest in the subterfuge. 


It’s the biggest problem with modern computer graphics. Unless a great deal of time and care is taken in how a sequence is staged and rendered, the difference between a cosmic clash between warring interstellar factions and a Saturday morning cartoon become almost negligible. The mind can only register so much detail before the brain is boggled and begins to turn off. Sadly, individuals in charge of today’s slick science creations forget this, and try to pack as much intricate specificity into each scene as possible. That’s why Lucas’ arguments about “improving” his original Trilogy can’t stand. We believed the films when they first arrived in theaters, their sense of optical splendor a solid emotional memory for anyone who was lucky enough to see them back then. Now, they look tinkered with, taken to unrealistic lengths by a man who believes obsessively in the power of his microprocessors.


Hopefully, Cameron won’t fall into the same self-indulgent trap. He practically wrote the book on merging the physical with the computerized in his Terminator 2 and Titanic. But with this new mandate to dump the practical and move toward the totally digital, we could be witnessing another creative crash and burn from a filmmaker who should know better. Just because audiences bought the mostly IBM made Middle Earth and all its CG creations doesn’t mean that Peter Jackson’s auteur input should be diminished. After all, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a semi-realistic rendering of sci-fi/ fantasy reality and you don’t hear fans harping over its filmmakers lack of an Oscar. No, cinematic skill needs to accompany the new tendency toward super computer creativity. The two F/X forms can live together in a kind of motion picture bliss, each one supporting and complementing the other. Maybe James Cameron is correct in taking the next two years to make sure his Avatar sets the standard for all computer graphics to come. If he fails, it will be another example of the invention usurping imagination for no good reason.


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