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Sunday, Jun 10, 2007


I’m sure he expected vitriol. Maybe he even welcomed a little of it. Controversy sure spins the turnstiles. But nothing could have prepared Eli Roth for the advanced word on his recently released sequel to the successful horror film Hostel. One critic questioned his humanity, even going so far as to state publicly that, upon finally meeting the man, he would refuse the offer to shake his hand. Ouch! Then there are the neo-con calls for boycotts and censorship, arguing that “trash” like this only glorifies the death and defilement of young women. Granted, it’s a shortsighted argument, but a very effective one in our touchy feely mindset. You see, it’s all about the chicks, man. That’s what’s got everyone in an uproar. Stick a bunch of horny teen boys in a slice and dice slasher flick centering around an Eastern European hostel from Hell and no one screams. But change the gender dynamic, and it’s the latest example of filmmaking excess.


For many Hostel: Part II is a non-issue. It’s a horror film, fulfilling the questionable thrill seeking needs of a particularly narrow dynamic. To them, the genre itself has very little going for it artistically, and those rare films that break out of the categories mold of mediocrity to become certified cinematic classics – the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, etc. – are the anomalies in a field overflowing with filmic offal. As a result, most mainstream critics avoid it, while the marketing makes it clear that the adolescent teen demo is the target for such shock value. All in all, it is easy to dismiss, the typical carnival barking of an otherwise pointless motion picture ideal. But there is another facet to this film’s outright rejection – and it has very little to do with its effectiveness as a shocker, a splatter fest, or a social commentary. No, this aspect of the argument goes to the very heart of how people interact with their entertainment media of choice.


Looking over the isolated discussions of Roth’s return to his previous success, two main complaints arise. The first is also the most ridiculous – that all he offers in Hostel: Part II is more of the same. Anyone with half a brain and a real knowledge of what this filmmaker did in his original film would instantly deride such a preposterous suggestion. Still, by viewing both efforts back to back, we will see how incredibly sloppy such a suggestion is. The second disparagement is equally ludicrous, but goes to an issue much more culturally complex. To listen to the pundits and self-described purveyors of taste, Roth has offered up the most misogynistic film ever. He degrades women in ways that few, if any, have done before, and mixes the sexual with the sickening to further his gangrenous goals of sensationalism. Sadly, such a view ignores 50 years of moviemaking and illustrates that, in many cases, these objections are based on the source’s own desire for glory, not a realistic grasp of motion picture reality.


Let’s take the first point, shall we - that Roth is merely repeating himself. Again, that’s a completely bogus attack. The first Hostel centered on a group of teenage
boys backpacking across Europe looking for sex, drugs…and more sex. They find themselves in Amsterdam partaking of cheap booze and readily available marijuana. When the female element fails them, a Slovakian student suggests they head to an inn in his homeland. There, he says, there are hundreds of willing women, and, as Americans, they can do pretty much anything they want to them. The lure of easy companionship sends the boys to the Eastern Bloc. There, they check into the youth accommodations, meet some incredibly hot to trot honeys, and begin their descent into debauchery. Now, for those who have not seen the film, and may be eager to do so some time in the future, a SPOILER ALERT is now offered. From this point on, we will be dealing with major plot points and scare reveals.


Our three men are separated one night, with two (Josh and Paxton) waking up to wonder where their friend has gone. Turns out, he has become the first victim of something called The Elite Hunting Club. A rich person’s permutation of The Most Dangerous Game, it’s an organization that allows the wealthy to spend obscene amounts of cash in pursuit of the ultimate taboo – the taking of another human life. The factory facilities that house this horror show offer the clientele any number of death dealing options – power tools, surgical equipment, firearms, old fashioned torture devices. All the paying customer has to do is choose his personal ‘poison’ and start the slaying. Soon, Josh is kidnapped and killed, his body used by a wannabe doctor as a kind of fresh cut cadaver. Paxton investigates his pal’s disappearance, and it’s not long before he’s being sliced up by a nervous German with a chainsaw. Managing to escape, he saves an Asian girl, gets out of Slovakia, and even manages some revenge on the deviant who vivisected his friend.


Arguing the merits over the movie is one thing (this critic happens to believe it’s an important horror classic), but to say that Hostel: Part II is exactly the same is pure and utter crap. The differences are so painfully obvious that you have to believe Eli Roth sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a completely contradictory take. Sure, this time around we focus on three girls instead of three boys, but this is not where the differences end. No, this movie is purposefully out to fill in the gaps left by the original narrative, plus provide some incredibly novel twists on the whole women in peril dynamic (more on this later). Our Hostel: Part II leads are not really looking for sex and pharmaceutical thrills – they’re students studying abroad. Looking for a little relaxation outside their Rome routine, they take the advice of an attractive artist’s model named Axelle and head to a Slovakian spa. Naturally, their accommodations are the title tenement. 


Our trio is like sketches out of an archetypal coed guidebook. Beth is rich, so much so that she keeps her Dad on an allowance. Whitney is an international skank, but she also seems centered and sensitive to her raucous reputation. Lorna is the Sylvia Plath of the bunch, lost in her own world of wounded self-doubt, but capable of bursting out of her carefully crafted cocoon now and again. That we know more about these ladies is one of Roth’s new conceits. In the first film, our heroes are differentiated by size (tall, medium, muscular) and appearance (light, medium, and dark). We learn very little about their lives save for Paxton’s discussion of a young girl’s drowning and Josh’s mending of his recently broken heart. The guys have goals (lawyer and writer) but we don’t get much more meat than this. Before long, they’re ‘under the knife’, so to speak.


Similarly, before the girls are served up for their sickening purpose, we are introduced to the behind the scenes situations of the Elite Hunting Club. We learn of Sacha, the principle organizer and his connections to the corporate world. When our heroines check in, their image is immediately flashed across PDAs, cellphones and laptops worldwide. Rich individuals with a decidedly depraved outlook start a manic bidding frenzy, using the lives of these young girls like so much highly prized commodities. The winners are beyond excited. The losers are downcast and depressed. Unlike the original Hostel, which showed this killer’s club as a kind of underground den of unspeakable inequity, Roth revamps the idea, turning it into the ultimate escape for the overworked, overstressed CEO.


In this regard, we are also introduced to Stuart and Ben. The former is a slightly sheepish man with family issues. The latter is a pumped up powerbroker who believes that murder makes a man more threatening – even if only ephemerally. They have won two of the gals in our story, and are traveling to Slovakia to meet their manifest destiny. All of this material is new to the Hostel mythology. The original movie had the psychotic surgeon in training and nothing else. We learned a little about him (his love of things tactile, as well as his daughter) but there is not as big a backstory. No, Stuart and Ben come to represent two very intriguing concepts in Hostel: Part II. Without giving it all away, it boils down to what makes a man, and what eventually emasculates him.


This all leads to the most talked about element in Hostel: Part II – the death of our leads. Again, to avoid ruining the movie for those still interested, here’s another SPOILER WARNING. Unlike the first film, which offered at least a dozen on screen kills (some in very gruesome and graphic detail), this time around Roth gives us only three. Granted, another four (or five) occur, but they happen mostly off screen, without so much as a simple special effect to illustrate their dread. Only Lorna, Stuart and Axelle are shown being horrifically tortured and killed, and even then, only the first two have particularly nauseating deaths. In the case of our snooty model, she’s beheaded in a last act in-joke. Stuart has his gender literally removed when his penis is cut off. Lorna, on the other hand, becomes our first female victim, and it’s her disturbing death that’s causing all the clamor.


Quite clearly, these two movies are not “exactly” alike. They both take different routes to reach similar ends, and both are derivative of their creator’s desire to explore the premise he perfected in the first film. Indeed, the notion of a 180 degree reimagining of the original Hostel is so obvious as to be more than crystal clear. In the first, male machismo leads to hormonally charged happenstance – and death. In the sequel, female intuition constantly wins, but only as far as the dominating male Id will allow it. In the end of the original Hostel, brawn and bravery triumph. At the conclusion of the revisit, sensitivity and female cunning allow the tables to be turned. When meshed together, both Hostels become a complete whole, a look at both sides of the sexism coin and how it affects dread. If it weren’t for all the false bravado and public policy kvetching from the wannabe watchdogs, these films would be celebrated as such. In the future, perhaps they will be.


In Part Two, (scheduled for Wednesday, 13 June) we will discuss the death of Lorna, the entire “violence against women” angle, and how complaints about its blatant brutality fail to take into consideration the entire history of horror – or the other half of gender humanity.


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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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