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Tuesday, Dec 19, 2006


It is the driving energy in the Universe, much more so than anger or hate, which are irreparably linked into it. It is the emotion we yearn for from the moment we are born to the second before we die. We seem incomplete without it, wondering why we are so flawed when we don’t have it and overly blessed when we do. Love may conquer all, may be what the world needs now (or frankly, it may be all you need), and it will probably tear us apart, again. But like the song also says, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. And why is that? Why is love so fleeting and fragile? Young marrieds seem to think it’s all powerful, that it will support them through unsure times and terrible crises. The newly infatuated believe so strongly in its force that they fear they shall never feel anything like it again as long as they live. And yet we label love as a mystery, an unsure emotion fraught with numerous ancillary consequences.


Love can be so tough it leads to hate, to loathing, to great grief and infinite sadness. Yet we champion its pursuit, often doing outrageous and uncharacteristic things to obtain it. In Annie Hall, a dejected Alvy Singer fears one of the prime myths of love: it fades. Or at least, it grows stale and dormant like a lump of charcoaled wood in the dying embers of a once raging fire. Or maybe it doesn’t pass. Maybe it just grows comfortable, surrounded on all sides by a cage of familiarity. In Ermanno Olmi’s simple, subtle film I Fidanzati, we witness the effect that distance and disinterest has on two people, engaged to be married, who believe they are “in love,” but may not actually be in love with each other. Is the old saying true? Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or does it merely over-romanticize its already overstated influence?


In the story, Giovanni and Luciana are a young couple who have been engaged for a very long time. Giovanni works for a petrochemical plant in Milan, in the northern part of Italy. Recently, he has been transferred to the company’s new facility in Sicily, several hundred miles to the south. While it means a promotion and better pay, the move has placed a serious strain on his relationship with Luciana. Frankly, it was somewhat tense to begin with. There is very little trust and even less communication between the committed pair. And when Giovanni tries to discuss the move with Luciana, she seems to shut down, anticipating the worst possible outcome for the entire relocation. Reluctantly, Giovanni moves to Sicily.


There he is overwhelmed by the lack of activity and the rural climate. The loneliness and the isolation begin to take its toll. He spends his days (and occasional nights) in endless toil for the company while he wastes his free time wandering the near desolate Sicilian countryside. Fellow workers who have lived in the location for longer than Giovanni reinforce the foreign, almost alien aura of the area and its people. Giovanni writes to Luciana, but she is slow to answer. When she does, it begins a chain of correspondence that seems to re-ignite their once waning passion. The stress between the two subsides. They both feel the separation has been good for their relationship. But a casual phone call one Sunday afternoon may indicate otherwise


Olmi was a self-taught filmmaker. Before he made a single fictional work he helmed dozens of factual cinematic explorations in the field of documentaries. When approaching story, he envisioned movies as an extension of real life. His canvas and paints would be the mundane everyday world around us. Inspired by and following in the footsteps of such important Italian luminaries as De Sica and Rossellini, he utilized the neo-realist approach, even though to refer to his movies in such a fashion would be to remove essential truths from them. As the director of Il Posto and E Venne Un Uomo, Olmi believed in the concept that cinema should mirror life: a film should reflect existence back to us, allowing us to study it more carefully and profoundly. This school of filmmaking, one that allows a factual camera style to capture a fictional slice of living, was seen as revolutionary when it first hit the world’s movie screens. And it’s no wonder. A planet force-fed on the Hollywood glamour ideal of life as a perfectly costumed, immaculately made up, and flawlessly executed set of formulaic problems easily supplanted by the end of the film just was not used to seeing the plain, the normal, or the ugly living their unadorned existences as onscreen entertainment. But films like The Bicycle Thief and I Fidanzati showed that there was as much power, passion, and purpose in small stories of simple people as their was in the epic struggles of the hyper-real. Olmi and his fellow directors understood that genuineness comes in all segments/classes of society.


In this exquisite, uncomplicated mediation on togetherness versus division, we experience a story of how love lingers, fades, and is reborn within the dynamic of two people, two places, and all their characteristics. Indeed, beyond the political ideology surrounding the industrialization of the rural landscape and the obvious jabs at the craziness within corporate structures (explored in more detail in Olmi’s previous film, Il Posto) is a tale of emotions on a tight wire, with commitment, caring, and comfort hanging in the balance. Olmi goes so far as to title his film “the Fiancés,” so we understand that we are dealing with that fragile time before marriage, where an arrangement is in place, but in which the final lockstep into full-blown legal obligation has yet to occur. In modern society, we love to joke about grooms with “cold feet” and brides with “buyer’s remorse.” But I Fidanzati places us in a situation far more precarious than these last minute mental anxieties. Here, our couple is committed but potentially broken. Separation threatens to provide the catalyst to a final resolution of the relationship, for good or bad. I Fidanzati challenges the very idea of togetherness. By literally moving its main characters apart from each other and focusing on them alone, we are allowed to witness the obvious distance and inner disdain they sometimes have for one another


Harlan Ellison once wrote that he had no problem being alone. It was being lonely that he disliked. Giovanni is very much a man alone, both in his life with Luciana and his move to Sicily. As in Ellison’s statement, when he is with his fiancée, he is alone. He is misunderstood and has even strayed a time or two. The excitement and desire he once felt has been masked by the foul odor of familiarity, of knowing his partner too well. So he has turned inward, become a solitary man amongst his family and friends. Once in Sicily, though, he understands just what true loneliness is. It’s isolation and disconnection, not only from loved ones but also from personal comfort and your surroundings. It’s not knowing where you are. It’s not knowing where you will live. It’s having no roots in an area that is constantly changing its traditions and patterns. Looking for a familiar dancehall, he hears music and runs into a building, only to be met with an empty coffee shop and a loudly playing radio. Hoping to find a decent apartment, he must instead accept a room within a strange, cramped boarding house as price gouging by the locals has made finding a nice place impossible. And all the while the promised “new” job and “promotion” turns out to be more of the same thing, over and over again. Being important can placate a man forlorn. But when you are just one of several transient employees showering sparks down from the factory rafters, the barren countryside and hovel like living conditions begin to oppress and unhinge you.


Not that Luciana has it any easier from her position. For her, the separation is the worst possible situation for a woman who feels the grip on her man slipping. Distance means possibilities, enticements, and freedoms. Without her watchful eye on him, the already wandering Giovanni could disconnect himself from her completely. And even if the chance of that happening appears remote, there are all the things she may never learn or know, through the grapevine or otherwise. In Luciana, we have love without its supposed reservoir, without a place to reside and hide in. Out in the open and worn coat sleeve style, the emotion becomes far more delicate and destructible. That is why she is hesitant to answer Giovanni’s letters at first. She does not want to experience what she sees as the inevitable “Dear Jane” she is sure is just around the corner. It is also why, once she discovers how Giovanni is feeling (thanks either to his singular, lonely status or his true feelings, or both), she is so ready to reach out, across the distance, and smother her lover with tributes and promises. While this emotional exchange may be totally based in honest caring for one another, I Fidanzati provides an undercurrent of desperation for both sides. Each is trying to find either a way out of the pain and malaise that surrounds their engagement, a means of reconnecting and strengthening their union or merely a way of minimizing the pain. It may be distance that makes their feelings fortify, but it may too be the haunting, horrible feeling of really being unaccompanied for the first time in their adult lives.


Connection is the other intriguing issue that Olmi focuses on in I Fidanzati: not just unions of physicality, of touching and the embrace, but the mental and symbolic associations we make in everyday life. Almost like junkies, our characters are addicted to the feeling and familiarity of love. They seem to suffer a kind of subconscious withdrawal once it is removed. Giovanni, a confident, semi-suave cocksure player turns into a reclusive, nostalgic near child in Sicily, giddy at the sight of another adolescent smoking and spending longs afternoons playing in the surf. And like any child, after a while, he grows homesick and needy. He tries to find escape in the adult pleasure of the past (drinking, carousing) but learns that the poison of love has changed his inner workings forever. Without it, he will be lost. Same with Luciana. For her, the time without emotional support has been longer, and more agonizing. Some of it she experienced even before Giovanni. The symbols of connection constantly surround them: the dancehall, where proper ladies and gentleman exchange corporal and emotional love with complete parental and social acceptance; the beach, where family and friends gather to relax; the job, where life is spent in direct agreement/conflict with others for purely financial reasons; correspondence, where individuals share their innermost thoughts through the written word; the telephone, where voices as well as passions can be broadcast. And yet even with all these tokens and repositories of bonding, they seem only able to truly mesh in the world of words. In all others, they are awkward and cold.


From this description, it seems that I Fidanzati should be a movie loaded with brilliant performances and tour de force camera work. But oddly, this is not a movie about acting or direction. Olmi’s camera has a habit of staying on the outskirts of situations, watching them the way a documentarian would, without setup or care for compositional makeup. And in his actors, whom are usually non-professionals, he demands and captures attitude and temperament only. There is no method here, just storytelling methodology. You remember his characters more for what they represent and tell you about the circumstances surrounding them than their individualism. Giovanni is not so much a character as he is a depiction, an impression of basic, normal man; a guy filled with sexual drive, misplaced machismo and fear of commitment. Luciana is all female fickleness and fright, walking the tenuous social line of physical promise with actual fulfillment. She is all women, wanting to hold on to her man but not willing to compromise her honor to do so (especially in the very moralistic, very Catholic society of Italy where a dance is considered the only satisfactory public display of affection). Carlo Cabrini and Anna Canzi are very good in this film because they are very real, and at the heart of any neo-realistic examination of life, that is the best that they and Olmi can hope for. Olmi is not obsessed with actors projecting their inner demons onto the screen to illuminate his themes. The issues here are universal. Anyone (and everyone) could play at and project them.


I Fidanzati is therefore the story of every romance, of how everyone—no matter who they are, their social status, or their experience (or lack thereof)—understands love. Those who are truly bound in destiny will feel separation anxiety and a wealth of good feelings even during the seemingly endless moments apart. Those with less than a secure relationship may also appreciate their partner anew, glossing over the bad to merely remember the good. For some, the partnership was a sham to begin with, and distance cements the finality of the need to split up. In the case of Giovanni and Luciana, storm clouds seem to be brewing up ahead. The time in Sicily has made Giovanni aware of his truly heartfelt emotion for Luciana and he wants to reconnect with that. And through letters and postcards, the expressions of love are tender and touching. But at the end of the film, when it seems like the lovers have remembered the importance of each other in their life and are committed anew, a simple phone call betrays an inherent obstacle, a thunderstorm to deluge the fires of re-ignited love. Giovanni’s face betrays the flaw.


In the ethereal world of verse and prose, where poetic and complex infatuations can be precisely and accurately thought out, the relationship between these I Fidanzati is perfect: not without bumps, but exemplary in its purity and power. But the minute a human connection is made, when voices must conduct what the pen has perpetuated all this time, nothing much happens. Luciana appears near incoherent (based on Giovanni’s side of the conversation) and her debonair, eloquent lover a frazzled and henpecked rube. For this is the final secret divulged in I Fidanzati, a clandestine concept that many never discover until it is too late. Love does indeed fade. But it also lingers and scars, leaving one changed forever. Someone once said “love hurts.” Indeed it does.


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Monday, Dec 18, 2006


Christmas crunch time, people. You really need to stop all that present-buying procrastination and, to paraphrase a line from Total Recall, get your ass to the mall. With only six full days before a certain St. Nick is supposed to show up with many material goods to illustrate just how much you love your faithful family members, consuming, not time, is of the essence. Luckily, those marketing wizards over at DVD Central have stockpiled a few first-class titles to tempt you back into the unruly shopping hordes. Of the seven featured films discussed, at least two are major must-own offerings, with another couple completely acceptable, depending on your love of football and/or failed fairytales. There definitely is some digital dung out there too, especially in the realm of romantic superhero comedies and ridiculous remakes of past horror classics. Add in an unique animated sci-fi thriller and you’ve got something for everyone on your “buy or die” list. And with less than a week, slackers can’t be choosers, right? So break out the billfold and line up like lemmings as 19 December delights you with the following prospective giftage:


Invincible

Somehow, Hollywood is stuck in a discernible cinematic rut when it comes to sports movies – even one’s supposedly “based” on a true story. There always has to be an underdog, a cause worth fighting for, and a last act contest or confrontation that challenges the mantle and make-up of the characters we’ve watched for the last 80-plus minutes. In the case of this footnote in the career of coach Dick Vermeil during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, we see bartender/team walk-on Vince Papale live out the dream of every drunken football fan in America. Anyone familiar with the tale will tell you that in the City of Brotherly Love, where Vermeil was hired to turn around a failing franchise, those open try-outs were both a blessing and a curse. The city has never forgotten that singular season where they felt really connected to the players. Sadly, it’s a sentiment all but lacking in the multimillion dollar era of the sport.



PopMatters Review


The Lady in the Water


It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now.


 


PopMatters Review


Little Miss Sunshine

*
Ever since it hit movie screens more than five months ago, this delightfully deranged comedy/road film has really been racking up the respectability. Even at this late stage in the award season game, the story of a little girl named Olive Hoover and her desire to hold the title…title is ensemble excellence at its most satiric. Sure, our plucky heroine is surrounded by one crazy, dysfunctional family, but thanks to the amazing acting by a terrific cast – included Greg Kinnear, Toni Collettte, Steven Carell and Alan Arkin – and sound direction from the famed team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, we never once view the Hoovers as anything other than your typical post-modern mob. They wear their identifiable idiosyncrasies like brazen badges of honor. Such smart filmmaking has always been the benchmark of the independent effort and Sunshine is no different. It proves that characterization more than anything else can successfully sell any storyline.



My Super Ex-Girlfriend


Most filmmakers will tell you – casting is crucial to the success of any entertainment endeavor. Someone should have reminded director Ivan Reitman of this fact when he was filling out the cast for this feeble, unfunny flop. You’d think the man who produced Animal House and helmed Ghostbusters would know better than to stick Luke Wilson in role seemingly written for a Jack Black style of actor, or to toss Rainn Wilson in as the sidekick when all the genial performer has is a one-note Office-ready routine. Granted, Uma Thurman is a natural as the anxiety-riddled super-heroine who doesn’t take getting dumped all that well, but there is no support around her. Even Brit wit Eddie Izzard, as a criminal mastermind with a personal reason for being displeased, looks more fed up than fiendish during his brief moments on screen. With more of a spotlight on the superhero angle, this could have been good. Instead, it’s desperately dull.



PopMatters Review


A Scanner Darkly*
In blending Philip K. Dick (author of the book upon which this film is based) with the stunning computer generated rotoscoping animation he used in Waking Life, director Richard Linklater has reinvented both serious science fiction and the visual viability of 2D cartooning. Relying on that time honored plot of a super-addictive drug and the people who use and abuse it, Linklater utilizes his unusual cinematic approach to completely blur the lines between fantasy and reality, making the trials and turmoil experience by our hero – undercover cop Bob Arctor – that much more compelling. With Keanu Reeves in the lead, and a supporting company including Robert Downey Jr. Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson, Linklater follows the author’s storyline to a fault, proving that even something written in the 1970s can have cultural resonance today. Along with the trippy pen and ink imagery, Scanner becomes a manipulative mindfuck, a movie adverse to giving away its secrets and requiring an audience to really think to discover its designs.



PopMatters Review


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts*
While this devastating documentary is considered a TV mini-series (it premiered on HBO), SE&L cannot avoid a mention here, since it guarantees you will not see a better fact-based film this year. Spike Lee, who worked his moviemaking magic on the story of 4 Little Girls (about the bombing of an Alabama church during the Civil Rights movement) and Jim Brown: All America, takes on the Federal Government, George W. Bush and the lack of effective emergency relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and provides a ballsy blueprint for EVERYTHING that’s wrong with America circa 2006. Moving, infuriating and loaded with unconscionable criminality (one critic said it best when they opined that, upon seeing the film, they hoped someone would be arrested), the most shocking thing about this four hour visual essay is how unfinished and open-ended it feels. Indeed, Lee has publicly stated that he intends to continually follow-up on the New Orleans story, similar to how Stephen Spielberg used Schindler’s List for the Shoah Project. This masterful movie is a sensational start.


PopMatters Review


The Wicker Man (2006)
Neil LaBute, best known for his small, ensemble dramas like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors was definitely an unlikely candidate to helm a remake of this well regarded 1973 British occult thriller. And his decision to turn the focus away from the original’s male-dominated domain to a realm overrun by women seemed like a logical revamp move at the time. But somewhere between the idea and the execution, this film got way off base. Nicholas Cage plays a cop who investigates the disappearance of a young girl in a remote island village. He soon discovers that there is more to this place than its unusual atmosphere and pagan ways. Totally lacking in anything similar to suspense and constantly undermined by a script that makes very little sense, even LaBute’s best bet – the matriarchal society – is underdeveloped and unexceptional. Considered by many to be one of the worst movies of the year, the original cult classic needn’t worry over having its cinematic mantle usurped anytime soon.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 19 December:


The Illustrated Man*
It was one of Ray Bradbury’s most intriguing creative conceits – the story of a man whose tattoos come to life, showing the unsuspecting viewer one of the author’s many inspired and imaginative tales. With Method madman Rod Steiger in the lead, and Claire Bloom as the lady responsible for the enchanted body art, what we really have here is an anthology film wrapped up in some very intriguing linking material. Bradbury’s tales told here include “The Veldt”, “The Long Rains” and “The Last Night of the World” and many find the interpretations charming, if rather routine. Indeed, it’s odd that Bradbury is not used more often in these days of CGI and advanced moviemaking technology. His works are loaded with the kind of inventive intricacy that your average F/X whiz loves to linger over. Perhaps not as powerful as it was upon its initial release, this is still an intriguing look at one man’s meaningful literary influence, and the frequently flat efforts made from it.


 


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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006


David Lynch would like you to know that Hollywood will drive you to the brink of insanity and that it certainly cannot be trusted. In fact, it could even kill you. Not exactly a subtle way of saying “up yours” to the very industry that professes to love him while still restraining him, but it’s a clever platform from which to launch his latest, most infuriatingly challenging film, Inland Empire.


Mr. Lynch would also like to share with you his penchant for eerily billowing red velvet curtains. And maybe he harbors a pervy little “thing” for lesbian kisses. The point is David Lynch is weird. At least that seems to be the popular opinion. Generally, there is a point to his eccentricity that is simultaneously elusive and obvious: take for example Lynch’s masterful juxtaposition of the benign comings and goings of denizens of a small town called Twin Peaks with the absolute evil of a supernatural force involved in the murder of a homecoming queen. He is able to mix normal with insane quite effortlessly; Lynch is able to wring suspense out of thin air it seems. Inland Empire is the most daring leap of faith Lynch has asked his cultish audience to take: the film is savagely disjointed, more so than any other offering in the maestro’s cannon. It is jam-packed with so many little tidbits of trademark Lynch-isms that after a certain point you will either just suspend your disbelief and go with the flow or you will hate it. A compelling argument could be made either way, honestly. It all depends on you, the viewer.


Beginning with a hooker and her john making a deal in an Eastern European hotel room, Inland Empire starts out vaguely disturbing almost immediately, and continues for a totally incomprehensible three hours of mind-boggling, awesome nonsense. It somehow weaves together Polish gypsies, a woman with a screwdriver protruding from her gut, and human-sized rabbits on some sort of terrifying sitcom. It’s easy to get lost in all of the bizarre-o details that sometimes don’t really add up to anything. For example, why is star Laura Dern in a hotel room watching a gaggle of whores doing a song and dance routine to “The Loco Motion”? The answer? Who cares? It’s perverse, stupid, and enthralling. You’re not going to see this at the multiplex next to the new Mel Gibson movie and you’re not going to see Reese Witherspoon puking up a torrential amount of blood in her next starring vehicle any time soon, I bet. Inland Empire doesn’t intend to reveal any promises or any explanations. It is a relentless, bleak, and uncompromising film that demands the rigorous participation of it’s viewer’s imagination.


While he might be “weird” according to most people, Lynch is the only American director who elevates the medium to this kind of art form: one that isn’t necessarily polished or beautiful (the film was shot entirely on digital video and each scene was written immediately before it was performed), and one that provokes extreme expressive reactions. He has created his own cinematic language and signature style that is unmistakable, and with Inland Empire Lynch raises the standards he helped to set. Comparisons to everything from Lynch’s own Lost Highway, to silent German cinema and classic ‘40s film noir are applicable here. True to form, Lynch returns to the struggle between good and evil forces, and their mysterious connections to his characters, only this time he manipulates the concepts of reality and identity in an aggressive, almost menacing way that he only began to touch on in 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a movie which serves as a nice companion piece to the proceedings.


While Mulholland Drive is the sort of mystery that, while inexplicable in it’s own right (and also a damning exploration of theme of Hollywood as a brutal mistress), it can be at least partially explained with plausible theories or tidy little answers, Inland Empire doesn’t really afford it’s viewer that luxury: some things just don’t connect, and you will just have deal with it.


Characters appear and disappear without much notice (and are played by such luminaries as Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irons, Mary Steenburgen, Justin Theroux, and William H. Macy). There are wild shifts in time and reality, which when you are flashing between ‘30’s Poland and the troubled emotional life of a character played by an actress in a film within a film, gets a little perplexing. There is an absurdly long sequence in which a rusty screwdriver is wielded by more than one character in a manic, murderous way. This lends an air of ominous unpredictability to the film that feels thrilling some times, exasperating others. Surely there is some sort of connection of these seemingly random events (in the mind of Lynch), but to enjoy this film, such mundane conventions must be abandoned.


What essentially glues Lynch’s jagged pieces together is Dern’s tremendous performance. In her third outing with Lynch over a period of twenty years (beginning in 1986 with Blue Velvet and their 1990 collaboration Wild at Heart), Dern’s Inland Empire work marks a turning point in her career as an actress: she is fearlessly committed to a performance that is like nothing else you will see this year. She begins the film as a sort of innocuous, prim actress named Nikki (who lives in a cold, luxurious home, and is trying to land a dream role), and ends up as someone else entirely: a character known as “Sue”, who at one point is covered in filth and blood, laying in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard screaming “I’m a whore, I’m a freak”.


When Nikki gets the part and throws herself into her character, Dern splits her dual identity into so many different personalities that it is impossible to categorize them all: is she a hooker or an actress? Who is real, the actress or the character? Soon she unable to answer that question for herself (“Look at me. Tell me if you recognize me from somewhere”, she says at one point). Co-Producer Dern is capable of navigating all of these wild shifts and nuances with such skill and depth that is impossible to think of any other actress of her generation being capable of doing such an experimental, gutsy part. This is a performance that has some outrageous demands: grotesquerie, murderous rage, romanticism, and humor are among a tiny fraction of the multitude of tasks Dern seems to breeze through in a complicated, ferociously well-thought out performance.


Dern matches Lynch measure for measure in artistry, each of them working at top form. Their collaboration here will no doubt be dismissed by a disappointing amount of people as being typical Lynch weirdness, but if it is an atypical parade of horrifying surrealism that you’re after, Inland Empire is the film for you. His images may be positively harrowing (just take, for one example, the gorgeous black and white shot of a needle skipping on a record player), and his motives may be unclear, but if you blindly trust David Lynch to take you on an emotional artistic journey, you will not be let down. This is the only film this year to be so unapologetic in its artiness and so confident in its lack of vanity, and coming from a heavy-hitter like Lynch, it packs a powerful punch. It is unquestionably a most refreshing, nasty little change from all of the boring coherence and relentless sparkle of the holiday film season’s current offerings.


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Saturday, Dec 16, 2006


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


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


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


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


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


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Friday, Dec 15, 2006


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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