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Saturday, Jun 9, 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 low rent exposés try to out shock everyone’s favorite suburban sleaze fiend, the amazing Joe Sarno.

The ‘60s were a literal godsend for the exploitation business. Thanks to a liberated libido, and a social acceptability to explore same, the demographic that kept the grindhouse going was sampling the twisted taboos that the genre was designed to explore. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the growing swingers scene that seemed to define the era. Beginning as part of the white flight colonization of the suburbs, the notion of bored marrieds trading spouses for the sake of forbidden pleasures had all the makings of considered cosmopolitan cool. It was a sign of sophistication as much as sexual revolt, and the overriding mantra of “if it feels good, do it” became a carnal clarion call for an entire meat and martini generation.


Perhaps the best cinematic explorer of this ribald realm was, and remains, Joe Sarno. Before moving on to softcore pseudo-porn (where he made his biggest impact), the king of conservative kink made several outstanding films, naughty narratives providing as much social commentary as abundant bared flesh. With titles like Sin in the Suburbs, The Swap and How They Make It, Passion in Hot Hollows and Flesh and Lace Sarno’s efforts saw everyday people exploring the outer regions of erotic acceptability for the thrill of something new and nasty. In addition, his distinctive style, filled with static tableaus, evocative dialogue, and languid scenes of inferred desire, became a benchmark for those hoping to match his highly charged efforts. Sadly, few could follow in his footsteps, not only because they lacked Sarno’s talent. In fact, the problem was much more complicated than mere mediocrity.


Case in point – the Something Weird Video release for June 2006. A dandy double feature, both Unholy Matrimony (1966) and My Third Wife, George (1968) want to blow the lid off the entire multi-partner paradigm of those successful explorers of the arousing. Matrimony actually uses the swinger underworld as the basis for its investigative journalism storyline, while George is merely a comedy of couplings. All digital context aside – and here we get wonderful archival and educational shorts, a collection of terrific trailers, even a sneak peek at the Florida film industry of the time – these films generally fail to fully explore the potential sizzle of the scenes they are reflecting. But what they lack in wanton wickedness they more than make up for in delightfully dated diversions.


Unholy Matrimony

After getting his behind handed to him by a hired goon, magazine editor Jim Bremmer decides that there must be more to the whole ‘wife swapping’ idea than meets the eye. He determines that there’s blackmail involved, and where there’s extortion, the ‘syndicate’ can’t be too far behind. He convinces his ace reporter Al Gentry to take on the story (with the help of a healthy $5K bonus). Bremmer wants the dirt on the couples who let boredom beget even stranger bedfellows. Of course, he’ll need a gal to go along with the ruse and, ever the gentleman, Al offers up his apparently willing paramour Janice. Things start out fine as the newly named ‘swingers’ pose for provocative photos (with Bremmer acting as position coach!), but when the first couple they contact takes things a little too far, Jan wants out! It takes a weekend at the beach before she’s willing to move on to the next perverted pair. Eventually, all risqué roads lead to an overweight Texan who uses his various inside sources to prove that your typical husband
and wife are involved in some very Unholy Matrimony.


Taking itself more seriously as a story than a skin flick, Unholy Matrimony is like a late comer to an orgy already well past its date stamp. It acts shocked at risqué antics that have long been explored (voyeurism, group gropes) and feels the need to justify its actions in the name of journalistic integrity and the people’s right to know. Granted, the blackmail angle is something rather original – more of an outgrowth of the entire notion of sex as a secret shame than actual reality - but once Al and Janice hit the road as our carnal couple, each set up is like a limp low rent rationale. Besides, there has to be a better way to flush out the criminal element in a nationwide muscle racket than getting an oily middle aged reporter and his bosomy babe to play sleaze seekers. Remember – all of this was supposed to seem novel, perhaps even disturbing, to the regular raincoat crowd. Unfortunately, like those long ago talks about the birds and the bees with your parents, the patrons probably knew a Helluva lot more than the players on the screen.


Then there’s the issue of the performances. Allan Delay, who essays our intrepid newshound, is like a bottle of vodka-laced Vitalis come to life. Hair slicked in a strange cake frosting coiffure and face apparently carved out of near-beer cheese, his smile resembles an eel’s slimy surface. More times than not, he looks more perverted than the people he’s investigating. On the other hand, the actress playing Janice is given a one note performance pattern – complain while playing extremely hard to get. At first, we figure she’s going to be a nice nubile edition to the story. Pendulous in all the right ways, the minute she drops blou we’re in mammary heaven. But she then starts the uncomfortable whining, and it’s not long before we never want to see her topless again. Besides, she signed up for a job playing swinger with a man she regularly rogers. What part of the set-up didn’t she understand? In the hands of unknown auteur Arthur John, there’s a freakish flatness to the entire proceedings. The only inventive element is a series of underwater shots during a nude poolside cavalcade. It helps to mask the mostly mediocre dialogue. As a look at elicit loving between consenting couples, Unholy Matrimony has its moments. As a pure proto-porn extravaganza, it’s missing some important bawdy beats.


My Third Wife, George

Ralph Higbee is a real sexual mess. Repressed by his domineering mother until his mid-‘40s, he’s a novice in the ways of guy/girl groovin’. When his wealthy mater finally passes, leaving him her massive estate and Florida mansion, Ralph decides to make up for all his non-erotic indiscretions. But things just haven’t turned out right. Sitting at a bar late one night, drowning his obvious sorrows, Ralph tells a couple of interested listeners about his sexual woes. First, while desperate to wet his wick, he ended up the main course in an all girl hippy pot/pill party. It really blew his mind – among other things. Then, in a stab at respectability, he married his former maid, Josephine. The only problem – she’d rather play around with her swimming instructor, and some dude dressed up like a gorilla. After her ‘accidental’ death, Ralph hitched up with his second spouse. But she was so sure he was having an affair that she hired a private eye to catch him in the act. Now on his third significant other, Ralph is miserable. His latest live-in lover is a green eyed monster. And if he’s not careful, our hero is convinced he’ll truly suffer at the hands of his Third Wife, George(?).


A real staple of the exploitation scene, William Kerwin (who plays the horny, henpecked Ralph) was a unique presence in the ‘50s and ’60s. Balancing a career as a legitimate actor with his gratuitous grindhouse efforts, he could play straight (Blood Feast) or seedy (the nudist romp Sweet Bird of Aquarius) with ease. Working frequently with the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis, he remains the perfect illustration of the leering, longing Establishment male. Even when he tried to act cool or overly sophisticated, he came across like a cartoon cocktail napkin come to life. So his presence here is a perfect panacea for what is, in essence, rather half-baked bawdiness. Helping out his brother Harry (and, from the credits, what appears to be the entire Kerwin clan), wild Willy gives the kind of bug-eyed goofball performance that’s more vaudeville than viable. Indeed, we are witness to one sloppy slapstick sequence after another. If Ralph isn’t getting hit in this hinder with a saber (during his daily fencing lesson), he’s running around like an idiot trying to capture his companions in compromising positions. In between, there’s lot of double entendres, suggestive repartee, and outright carnal come-ons. Indeed, the script could be studied for ways of suggesting sex without actually calling it same.


Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine. The minute Ralph steps into the hippie chicks den, we know we’re in for one overlong bout of fake fornication – no matter if its one girl or three. Apparently recorded without sound, we are left with Kerwin’s incessant narration to drain all the sizzle out of the sequence. There’s plenty of perky pulchritude on display, but everything in My Third Wife, George is played for laughs, not lewdness. Similarly, the sections with Josephine are all tease and very little sleaze. Actress Erika Von Zaros is capable, but the filmmaking foils her at every erotic avenue. By the time we get to the title twist, we’ve decided that it really doesn’t matter. We’d prefer to see more of slick private dick Brad Grinter (the notorious mastermind behind the killer turkey treasure Blood Freak) relaxing at the bar with an everpresent Kool in his mitts. As a comedy, My Third Wife, George is occasionally funny, but it’s diddling is far from definitive. Indeed, as with its companion piece in double feature presentation, there is more excitement in the premise than in the eventual follow through. Perhaps in the hands of big bad Joe Sarno, these movies would moan as good as they groan. But for the most part Unholy Matrimony/My Third Wife, George are second tier pseudo-smut at best.


 


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Friday, Jun 8, 2007


What do you do when the sensation of sex no longer satisfies? What are your options when the adrenaline rush and power of money (and making same) no longer fill the void? Do you simply sit back and wait for the inevitable heart attack, stress striking all viable organs until your Type-A lifestyle eventually kills you? Or do your take matters of life and death into your own hands and use all that pent up aggression as an excuse for dabbling in the darker side of life? If you’re the super-successful business types prowling around the edges of international legality and human morality in Eli Roth’s amazing Hostel Part II, you join an exclusive social club that caters in human flesh as the way to fulfill those fiendish fetishes. And Heaven help the young people being bid on as the murderous means of such psycho-erotic release. 


Roth’s original Hostel, a vision of Europe as one big urban legend and Americans as the ugly within it, continues to stand as one of the most important horror films of the last ten years. Brutal in its vision while equally effective in its subtext, it woke up a waning genre and proved that gore could be both viable and visceral. It even created its own categorical catchphrase – “violence porn” – that has come to define any film where innocents are horrifically used and abused for their value as medical commodities (Turistas) or entertainment (Live Feed). Now mutated into all manner of sensationalized labels – ‘smut snuff’, ‘gorno’ – the inherent worth of Roth’s film has been superseded by media and public perception of a young, cocky filmmaker flaunting the mainstream to make his own craven, cruel statements.


Well thank GOD for that. It’s one thing to play nice in order to keep the PC thugs in check. It’s another to offer up nonstop brutality merely for the sake of shock. The original Hostel did neither, and the new film is even better at tempting taste while staying safely in the realm of reasonable dread dynamics. You’ll be hearing a lot of outcry over the next few weeks about this so-called cinematic abomination. There will be pundits and persons directly linked to the business of show who will argue for Roth’s lack of humanity and inner childishness, but those voices will be self-serving and self-congratulating. When it comes down to it, Hostel Part II is the near perfect sequel, a money mandated continuation that actually works as a companion piece to the original effort.


After wrapping up the last loose end from the previous picture, we are introduced to three young coeds studying abroad – rich girl Beth, spoiled skank Whitney, and depressed loner Lorna. Lured to a Slovakian spa by visiting artist’s model Axelle, the girls soon travel to the far ends of the Easter block, check in to the infamous title inn, and prepare to party and relax. Of course, the audience knows much, much better, and it’s not long before the gals are being bid on like sick corporeal commodities. Two participants in such depravity are Todd and his sheepish buddy Stuart. Traveling the world looking for the ultimate kicks, the pals have shared many deplorable experiences. But this one may be the icing on their desperately distorted cake. Todd sees committing murder as a way of improving your potential business acumen and ‘aura of danger’. Stuart has a far more suspect reason for this descent into murderous madness.


Still as shocking as ever, but more polished and perceptive this time around, Hostel Part II does a rather remarkable thing. Saddled with creating a follow-up to his first film, Roth avoids an actual redo. Instead, he obviously sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a 180 degree opposite take on the subject matter. Gone are the madcap moments of sex, drugs and gore-drenched debauchery. In their place are moments of real tension, suspense amplified by a better knowledge of the sinister circumstances, and killings that are quick, aggressive and highly disturbing. While the female angle is the most obvious twist (more on this in a moment), the real revelation is the creation of the Elite Hunting Club and its collection of corrupt membership. In Hostel, we got a fleeting glimpse of the creepy clientele, most notably an American with more moxie than manners. Here, we are introduced to a network of fiends, and head honcho Sacha who can easily be bought and sold, as long as the price is right.


Even better, Roth delves much deeper into the motives of his victims. Granted, he presents the trio as supersized stereotypes from the Big Book of Female Archetypes, but our wealthy woman isn’t some mean spirited snob, nor is our happy go lucky whore completely without moral fortitude. No, it’s Lorna (essayed by Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Heather Matarazzo) who lamentably plays the role of needy loner to its typically fatalistic ends, and it is here where Hostel Part II makes its first significant statement. In an attempt to keep the spoilers to a minimum, the infamous legend of ‘Countess Dracula’ (the Hungarian “blood queen” Elizabeth Báthory) gets the kind of horrifying update that will keep tongues wagging for weeks. Combining the worst elements of male fantasy and fright film referencing (there’s a noticeable nod to Angel Heart as well) this first major murder scene is destined to go down in movie macabre as the one of the most notorious – and to some, the most noxious.


Of course, said repulsed reaction is only coming from one place, and it’s not as well meaning and high minded as the critics would have you believe. Far worse things happened to the characters in the initial Hostel, and the outcry was not this intense or outrageous. In essence, the notion of gender equity doesn’t exist in the realm of cinematic reality. Kill a beer-swilling dude with his passion in his penis and you’ll get a minor murmur. Cut the throat of a sad, depressed female adult and everyone’s inner parent comes crying. It’s a concept inherent in Roth’s redesign of the film franchise, and you know he has to love all the hand wringing and kvetching. Back in the ‘80s, girls were the notorious targets of all manner of slice and dice serial killer, and except for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, everyone took it as a gratuitous given. Now, with decades of deconstruction and pro-PC protocols, you just can’t torture and kill young women without accepting some kind of sociological payback.


Roth is way ahead of the game, giving us only one major drawn out damsel in distress sequence. The rest of the time, events happen off screen, or within a unique twist on the aggressor/victim paradigm. Indeed, all of Hostel Part II is about bucking trends. Don’t listen to the messageboards that lament that this is more of the same thing. It’s not. The gore is limited and hardly as excessive as the first time around. The terror isn’t tied to the torture scenes themselves, but what happens in and around them. The characters are more clearly drawn, developed far beyond their archetypal façade. And Roth’s direction has improved by leaps and bounds. Where once he seemed like a homemade movie maven lucky to get his basic b-movie ideas up on the big screen, he now comes across like the beaming bastard son of a dozen equally diabolical cinematic stalwarts.


Still, it will be hard to hear your own thoughts over the media din about to accompany this film. Grassroots campaigns will start, backlash will begin, and Roth will be labeled everything from a slick charlatan trading arterial spray for actual talent to a chauvinist shilling his perverted perspective to a desperately under-educated fanbase. Of course, none of this is true. If do-gooders want a collection of movies to grumble over, this critic could give them a laundry list – Scrapbook, Murder-Set-Pieces, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, plus many, many more – of deplorable efforts. While it’s true that in our current mainstream perspective, violence against women is a rightfully taboo subject, in the context of a FICTIONAL horror storyline, it’s desperately old hat. Leave it to Eli Roth to make the ancient seem appalling once again. It’s just one of Hostel Part II’s many unconventional conventions. It’s the reason why this sequel is as successful as its precursor.


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Thursday, Jun 7, 2007


Unfunny comedies. Pathetic popcorn flicks. Feel good sports flops and forgotten gems from filmmakers better known for their blockbuster efforts. That’s what’s on tap this week for those of you curious about the potential pay cable choices. As summer starts to swelter, as the theatrical release continues to dominate the entertainment dialogue, the premium pay channels are resting on their overpriced laurels, providing the barest in legitimate fair before returning to their previous position of junk, junk, and more junk. Some networks, like Showtime, have even abandoned the whole “weekly premiere” ideal to focus on their far more successful series (said channel is practically a 24 hour love letter to The Tudors right now). So if your social life is such that Saturday Night means a bowl of corn in front of the flat screen, here’s what’s waiting to perplex your pixels on 09 June, including another reluctant SE&L selection: 


Premiere Pick
You, Me and Dupree


We hear at SE&L have, for a while now, lamented the lack of decent mainstream motion picture comedy. While fans can point to the horrible hackwork of someone like Sacha Baron Cohen (can we all agree now that Borat is not groundbreaking, just occasionally funny?) or the overdone dopiness of Will Farrell (more like Clichés of Glory), the truth is that they just don’t make big screen laughfests like they used to. Case in point, this slacker shuck and jive posing as viable cinematic wit. Kate Hudson, Matt Dillon and Owen Wilson all should have known better. Indeed, spoofs about misfits and their inability to fit in only work where there is an audience able to either identify with, or root against, the problematic protagonist. In this case, Dupree is sort of a post-millennial poster boy, a man so in touch with his raging inner child that it’s like some new kind of metaphysical pedophilia. The film itself is equally uncomfortable. (09 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Poseidon


It should have been so much better. A series of stereotypical characters climb aboard a big boat. Boat gets hit by rogue wave. Boat flips over. Things go boom. People try to survive. So why is Wolfgang Peterson’s CGI heavy take on Irwin Allen’s ‘70s disaster classic so crappy? Perhaps because we could care less who lives and who dies. That’s never a successful cinematic formula. (09 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Invincible


Mark Wahlberg stars in the supposedly uplifting story of Vince Papale, a 30 year old bartender who became part of Coach Dick Vermeil’s revamp of the late ‘70s Philadelphia Eagles. While the notion of fulfilling one’s lifelong athletic ambitions can and does make for riveting big screen storytelling, this overly sentimentalized (and sensationalized) version of the tale is more ra-ra than dra-ma. (09 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


The Weather Man


Many moviegoers overlooked this excellent Gore Verbinski film (didn’t know he made films sans pirates, did ya?) for one very poor reason – the shortsighted suits at Paramount couldn’t figure out how to promote it. They tried the screwball comedy approach. They even went the way of sentimentalized schlock. But the truth is, this desperate dark satire sits somewhere in the middle of crazy and considered. It deserved better than to be marginalized by misguided marketing. (09 June, ShowCASE, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2


As part of a big fat celebration of the many martial arts, the Independent Film Channel is offering up both halves of Quentin Tarantino’s amazing homage to all things Shaw Brothers. Combining the three elements he does best – dialogue, story strategy, and directorial showmanship, the bad boy of Indie auteurism delivered on his long simmering desire to bring wild world cinema to the Western mainstream. With the unbelievable Uma Thurman in the lead (Ms. T deserved an Oscar for her tremendous work here) and a veritable who’s who of US and Asian acting names (Michael Madsen, Sonny Chiba, Lucy Liu, Darryl Hannah), Tarantino combined action with arch emotional content to weave a complex narrative of revenge, honor and motherly love. Part two is often cited as the more subtle or the pair, but that’s just because the action is amped down in favor of a conversational confrontation between Thurman’s Bride and the title icon (played perfectly by David Carradine). Some can complain about this filmmaker’s decision to cannibalize an entire culture’s movies for his own artistic ends, but when the results are this spectacular, who cares. Besides, IFC has enough examples of the real chopsocky genre on view to override the sense of filmic colonialism. (09 & 10 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Corporation


It’s a terrible given within the business world, but everyone knows that corporations are wholly and significantly corrupt. What this amazing documentary does is argue that direct dishonesty has been part of the overall business plan for centuries. Perhaps its most memorable conceit? When profiled as a “person”, these nefarious multinational entities are labeled as antisocial psychotics in their actions. (11 June, Sundance, 10:30PM EST)

Lorenzo’s Oil


George Miller, who made his name giving Max his madness, and a group of CGI penguins their happy feet, is actually a real life physician. Perhaps that’s why this unique medical drama has such a heartfelt, personal perspective. Nick Nolte’s questionable Italian accent aside, this stunner delves deep into a mysterious illness, the child challenged by it, and the parents who never give up hope. The result is both gut wrenching and spirit soaring. (12 June, Sundance Channel, 6:45PM EST)


Outsider Option
The Sadist/ Wild Guitar


It’s the Cabbage Patch Elvis himself, Arch Hall, Jr., stirring up things in a repeat from last November’s TCM Underground entry. As the featured atrocity, the boy with a thorn in his side first stars as a quick tempered killer out for standard crime spree kicks. Talk about your suspension of disbelief. Arch is hard to buy as a homicidal maniac ala Charles Starkweather. But it’s the second feature that pushes the limits of legitimate believability even further. As part of an actual push by his film producer father to make Arch both a music and movie star (both on screen and off) our pie-faced putz suddenly shoots up the charts as an overnight pop sensation. Of course, he has a hard time living the rock star celebrity lifestyle. Yeesh. While we here at SE&L would normally scoff at such a regular rerun ideal, you can never have enough Hall in one’s retro retard film diet. (08 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Humongous


Like the baffling Beast Within, this is another tale of a gal getting diddled by some manner of monstrous fiend and eventually giving birth to a murderous maniac freak baby. Naturally, a group of teens runs into the creature several years later, and few survive to tell the tale. While there are much better versions of this kind of ‘dirty little secret’ scare film, this one takes the human oddity cake. (12 June, Drive-In Classics, Canada, 7PM EST)

Gozu


Friend of both Tarantino and Roth, Takashi Miike has come to symbolize the splatter facet of Japanese cinema with his bold and bloody motion pictures. For this slightly surreal effort, the director mixes comedy, craziness, and a vanishing corpse to tell an equally strange tale of Yakuza criminals at a moralistic crossroads. Some may see it as a lesser Miike, but it plays directly into the filmmaker’s foul domain. (13 June, Showtime Extreme, 2:05AM EST)

The End of Violence


There are those who believe that it takes an outsider to accurately reflect America’s obsession with certain suspect ideas – be it sex, power or violence. But Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) may not have been the best candidate to take on big screen brutality. This overdone tale of an action movie producer whose run in with real hostility provides a late in life change of heart is heavy-handed and hokey. While the intentions are good, the follow through it significantly flawed. (14 June, Indieplex, 10:50PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jun 6, 2007


He is, perhaps, the single most important voice in post-modern minority moviemaking. Sick and tired of the way blacks were portrayed in Hollywood’s lamentable history, he set out to make his own statement about the viability of putting people of color in something other than the role of a servant or criminal. In the process, he reinvented urban cinema, starting a wave that would later be known as blaxploitation. He also gave rise to a fresh and vibrant voice – a decidedly non-Caucasian voice – within the standard cinematic ideal. And what did he get for this innovation? Was he celebrated and kept as part of the legitimate legacy of the motion picture artform? Was he rewarded with more opportunities to prove his creative and philosophical mantle? Is he currently in demand as a past master still worthy of appreciation? The answer for maverick Melvin Van Peebles is cruel and very cutting. Instead of being a celebrated star in the world of film, he’s a fading force best known almost exclusively for his usual named singular breakout hit.


Thanks to the brilliant new documentary by first time filmmaker Joe Angio, provocatively titled How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) – new to DVD from Image Entertainment - all that just might change. At the very least, individuals who only know his name because of his famous son Mario, said child’s amazing motion picture Baadasssss! or the movie that actually put Melvin on the map – 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – will learn that there remains much more to this multitalented Renaissance rebel than a simple stint behind the camera. After spending 90 mersmerizing minutes inside his individual sphere of influence, we learn of previous careers as a French satirist, a foreign filmmaker, an unlikely Tinsel Town token, a self-made musician, self taught poet, pilot, Broadway showman, impresario, porn lover, stock trader, and cabaret act. Easily a Jack-of-all-Trades and a master of many, Melvin made his name by breaking the rules and challenging convention. Sometimes, he even ignored logic and common sense to achieve his amplified ambitions.


Now nearly 75 – and looking as fierce and determined as ever – this international icon to grit and resolve is not necessarily looking to rest on his laurels. If anything, this glimpse into his personal and professional life is meant to breathe context into his career both as an important cinematic artist and an influential racial pioneer. Melvin is often considered the Black Panther movement of moviemaking, and when a former member of the radical black organization steps up to confirm how important Sweetback was to the party, the connection is crystal clear. Recognizing that son Mario did a remarkable job of explaining how and why said seminal blaxploitation pic became a cultural phenomenon, Watermelon doesn’t go overboard addressing the subject. Instead, it becomes part of an overall whole where one project or personal obsession becomes a piece in the neverending (and puzzling) myth of this incredibly complex man.


It would be easy to argue that Melvin is a master at undermining his own aims. After convincing the studio suits that he was the right man to make the race baiting comedy Watermelon Man (a slick satire starring Godfrey Cambridge as a white man who suddenly turns black overnight) he quickly became difficult, demanding certain creative controls while wasting whatever leverage he had. Then, when Sweetback went on to change the face of ethnic filmmaking, he basically gave up on cinema, arguing that he only wanted to make the movies ‘he felt like’ making. In truth, his success without the studio saw the industry purposefully avoid him. When his musical muse no longer spoke (Melvin’s sing-speak style is often cited, along with the equally influential Last Poets, as the precursor to rap), he went on to write shows for the Great White Way. Never one to compromise, his confrontational efforts were respected and praised, but acted like box office poison to the typically snobby New York theater crowd. 


Angio also argues that Melvin occasionally expected too much from those who championed his cases. While desperate and destitute in Holland (where he went after a stint in Korea as part of his ROTC scholarship commitment), he finds his short films being celebrated in France. But when a well-attended screening failed to deliver financially, he felt hurt and humiliated. It’s clear from several of the insightful interviews presented that Mr. Van Peebles has a 40 acres and a mule sized chip on his shoulder, and logically, he should. After all, as a well spoken artist who was capable of great creative leaps in any medium he choose, he had to live with the concept that skin color consistently blocked his all-important options. Whether rightly or wrongly, he chose to wear those rejections like a brash badge of dire dishonor. It made his often entertaining work seem difficult and unapproachable.  It’s to this film’s massive credit that we can crawl underneath the blustery bravado to see a thoughtful performer perplexed as to the ongoing prejudice in a supposedly rational world.


He gets a lot of help in that regard. Angio has rounded up a nice selection of connected talking heads, people who can easily speak about working with, living around and admiring the man. Children and ex-lovers, colleagues and brothers in arms do their best job of backseat psychiatry, refusing to fully categorize Melvin as a troublemaker, a troubadour, or an acquired taste. Spike Lee does an astonishing job of insinuating his influence, while several French cartoonists call their former co-worker a brilliant force of nature. If Van Peebles was looking for accolades, he certainly finds them throughout the film. But there is also a subtext of skepticism in Watermelon that really works to broaden the subjective scope. While trying to record a new song, we see Melvin in the studio. Cursing up a storm and chomping on his ever-present cigar, he is part egotist, part asshole, and all intensity. He wants to get things right, and doesn’t want to waste time goofing off.


In fact, one could argue that this enigmatic individual has been like an imaginative shark, constantly moving forward and around to avoid the death of his talent – or capture by the roving band of great white hunters looking to land him. It was a clear theme in Sweetback, and it runs like a thread throughout the entire documentary. We even see the spry septuagenarian on his morning jog, bounding around Manhattan like a man several decades younger. Similarly, during a shoot on his last full length feature Bellyful (2000), we witness Melvin rushing from set up to set up, hoping to complete his filming before some unseen force decides to close him down. Whether he is standing on the stage delivering a dopey version of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” or poised in the trading pit, battling it out with other stock exchange employees, Melvin always looks like a criminal about to get caught. He’s dead convinced that somehow the Establishment will eventually find him guilty and throw the karmic book at him.


Thankfully, Angio was around to catch him before he finally went AWOL, and while the director takes some strange stylistic chances (he wraps up Melvin’s early life as a young Chicago geek and angry ex-patriot in a surreal Citizen Kane inspired mock newsreel), he ends up delivering a nicely rounded portrait of the man. Certainly this is a slightly single-minded love letter, a blemish and all attempt at reestablishing Van Peebles name as part of the legitimate history of film. But all is not kid glove and kisses. Mario himself makes a strong case for his continued exile simply be being irascible and unshakable in his convictions and beliefs. As a matter of fact, he may be the only remaining legitimate element of the counterculture underground left standing some 40 years after the fact.


It’s great to see someone finally stepping up and giving this American original the due he so richly deserves. There is a wealth of information in How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) as well as a lot of serious and substantive food for thought. The impression one takes away from this amazingly dense documentary is that, given a different Hollywood mentality – say the pro-auteur era we are currently residing in – Van Peebles would be more important than Gordon Parks, more successful than John Singleton, and more pissed off than Spike Lee. While he was indeed his own worst enemy, he also never shirked on his perceived responsibilities or sold out to a situation that saw nothing in him but stereotypes. Like the title argues, Melvin wanted to embrace his heritage and be respected for it. He desired consideration for his basic humanity, not for what he could bring to the bottom line. He never really struggled, but he never really succeeded either. This highly recommended documentary should stand as the start of his eventual reward.


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Tuesday, Jun 5, 2007


The great debate among Godzilla fanatics goes a little something like this. On the one side are the purists, the people who scoff with sour indignation at the very idea of this venerable Japanese kaiju having to suffer through poor English dubbings, badly mangled prints, and edits mandated to make Western audiences more comfortable with the genre. For them, it’s pure untouched Toho or nothing at all. And then there are those on the side of the Saturday matinee, the generations who grew up with the whole man-in-suit ideal and embraced it as a combination of camp and cross culture craziness. In their mind, the mismatched voices and mediocre miniatures give anything Godzilla a true kitsch quality that definitely gets lost when you return to the source material. Unfortunately, DVD has only made the problem worse. Due to its inherent nature as a preservationists medium, the lovers of the original giant lizard have bemoaned the consistent release of poorly framed, faded versions of their favorite movie monster’s oeuvre.


So, how does one appease the persnickety while indulging the memories of those lost in front of a 19” ‘60s TV screen, bag of Cheetos clutched to their chest? Well, if you’re Genius Entertainment and Classic Media, you pow wow with the holders of the Japanese rights, make a deal to deliver the best Godzilla product possible, and come up with a combination disc that holds both the original Toho release as well as the mangled Americanized efforts. Making their first appearance on the digital medium as part of the heralded Master Collection, the fifth and sixth films in the Gojira franchise – Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Astro-Monster (later renamed Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) - show the scaly reptile with a prehistoric penchant for kicking creature keister as feisty as ever. They also argue for a clearly defined formulaic approach to this type of monster movie that would, initially, keep audiences clamoring for more. Eventually, such sloppy storytelling would drive the series to ridicule and ruin.


In Ghidorah, the story picks up just after the events of Mothra vs. Godzilla. The larval offspring of the giant insect have defeated our Hellbent hero and have slinked back to Infant Island, Lilliputian tenders (the then famous Japanese singing duo The Peanuts) in tow. A massive meteor shower brings a big interstellar bolder to a mountainous region outside Tokyo. A new beast named King Ghidorah springs forth, determined to wreck his own special brand of three headed menace on the populace. The cosmic anomaly also takes its toll on a potential political assassination. The Princess of some far off fictional country is almost assassinated. She is saved by the spirit of a spaceman from the planet Venus and arrives in time to warn the world about the upcoming creature chaos. Sure enough, Godzilla and Rodan are roused from their slumber, and with the help of the minute minders of Mothra, everyone gangs up to send the nasty newbie back from whence it came.


As for Invasion of the Astro-Monster, a joint American/Japanese space program discovers a new satellite traveling around Jupiter – Planet X. The two man crew of Glen and Fuji go off to explore, and soon find themselves face to face with the sunglass wearing, underground dwelling residents of this weird world. Technologically superior, the aliens have a big problem for which they require the Earthlings help. They are terrorized by an entity known as Monster Zero (actually King Ghidorah given a mistaken extraterrestrial moniker), and want help destroying it. Their plan? They will trade the ability to cure cancer (?) for Godzilla and Rodan. Seems like a win/win situation for all involved. But soon the swindled Earth men learn the truth – the X-men are actually evil, and want to use all three beasts to destroy mankind and take over their terrestrial territories. And without another supersized beastie to battle on their behalf, everyone’s doomed.


Clearly benefiting from the bigger budgets that international popularity can provide, both Ghidorah and Astro-Monster offer up the two major components of successful Godzilla films – surreal storylines and lots of special effects. To many of the uninformed, a cursory explanation of the kaiju film usually states “giant monster is awakened and goes on a destructive rampage”. But the truth is, by this time in the series, the concept of nonstop spectacle was no longer an option. Indeed, almost all the Godzilla films are parables, using current political or social problems to highlight Japan’s inner anxieties and post-war identity crisis. The first film was a clear allegory to the horrors of nuclear technology run amok. The Mothra film that predated these was linked to a heavy handed environmental message. Ghidorah has an unusual combination of peace and politics. By placing the endangered member of an unknown nation’s royal family into the role of chief spokesman for the planet, her predicament and its pro-life focus is even more severe.


Astro-Monster, on the other hand, is all about invasion. It’s the Godzilla series answer to war, about a desire to work with - not against - America this time around and defeat an enemy greater than our own. The Planet X types are pure fashionista fascists, the kind of sinister slicks who easily sway and betray. Their desire to use might (Godzilla, Rodan and Ghidorah) instead of their remarkable scientific advances (why not work those tractor beams over a few nuclear silos, guys?) plays directly into the fear of technology failing in its ultimate goal to protect and serve us, while the underlining subplot involving the inventor who has the potential defensive weapon right under his nerdy nose is another parallel to the ultimate value of knowledge and skill over power and heft. Part of the reason that film fans respond to these movies with such ardent attraction are the rather obvious themes at play. Similar to how horror defines a society and its approach to art, these films are like windows into the uneasy world of ‘50s – ‘70s Asia.


Of course, the fabulous old school rubber and balsa wood F/X are a heck of a lot of fun as well. More money meant more attention to detail, and master craftsman Eiji Tsuburaya really outdoes himself here. While campy and kind of crude, the spaceships and Planet X interiors present in Astro-Monster are pure pop art poetry. In addition, King Ghidorah is an equally impressive creation, its flailing heads looking like death-dealing chaos personified. There will be those who giggle at the model tank/plane/car/truck/ dynamic at play in the action scenes, and our creatures do possess some very odd voices (King G’s is nothing more than vibrating notes on a Hammond organ). But when you consider the near flawless recreations of the surrounding landscape, the massive explosions of dirt and debris, the relatively realistic use of water and other natural elements, the Toho kaiju films are very impressive. So what if the buildings blow apart like badly set up Lincoln logs. The combination of filmmaking and finesse more than compensate for such quibbles.


Even purists can breathe easy thanks to the relative respect these movies are given via these delightful DVDs. Preserved in their original aspect ratios with as close to a pristine print as possible, we are treated to wonderful widescreen images, vibrant colors, crystal clear detail and the original Japanese language soundtracks. In addition, a wealth of entertaining and informative extras is provided, including commentaries, biographies and original trailers. When you consider you get both versions of the title along with all the other goodies, there should be very little to kvetch about.


One would also be remiss for failing to mention what an important undertaking this is. DVDs’ lasting legacy appears to be rescuing marginalized movies from the pigeonholing chasms of popular culture. Prior to embarking on this remastered retrospective, Godzilla and his ilk (Gamera et. al.) were relegated to a kind of entertainment exile, deemed either too infantile for adults or too oddball for the wee ones. As a result, our humungous heroes have been cast aside as a dated dimension of an equally antiquated cinematic aesthetic. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When viewed through the veil of their original creators’ intentions, when comparable to their effervescent US counterparts, when contextualized by individuals who spent their lives trying to decipher the many layers of meaning buried within these oversized metaphors, any previous discrediting seems petty at best.


Still, the battle wages on. With the help of these amazing digital dossiers, perhaps one day a peace can be brokered. It will be difficult, but not as tough as trying to change 40 years of drive-in b-movie madness. Godzilla in all his forms was always much more than a science fiction schlock jockey. Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Space Monster is definitive proof of that.


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