Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Wednesday, Nov 15, 2006


They say time heals all wounds. They also argue that vengeance simmers like a stone in the soul. Combining to two should result in an exercise in forced forgiveness, a chance to let the calendar calm the pain and the distance of decades to erode away the desire for payback. But sometimes, the opposite happens, especially when the reason for the ache is ambiguous, and the manner in which it was administered unnecessary. There are those occasions where an individual’s own guilt is so strong, their life path so strewn with evil and amoral choices, that no amount of time could solve their rage. Instead, the need for retribution burns like a furnace, charring everything around it in a swath of sadness and madness.


This is what happens to two interconnected souls – unimportant businessman Dae-su Oh and wealthy playboy Woo-jin Lee. One has a misguided vendetta against the other. Said victim has a clear grudge against the man who he believes imprisoned him unnecessarily for 15 years. As complicated a game of cat and mouse as the cinema has ever seen, Chan-wook Park’s OldBoy stands as a monument to the Nu-Asia genre of film, and South Korea’s domination of the category in general. As part of his brilliant Vengeance Trilogy (including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) Park’s middle act marries Western ideas of violence as vindicator with Eastern elements of honor, status and cruelty. It is safe to say that both protagonist and antagonist here are equally guilty of transgressions against the other. What isn’t so clear is what payback will gain them, if anything.


This was part of Park’s design all along. In a stunning new three disc tin box collector’s set from Tartan Video, the process behind this provocative motion picture is laid bare, with the director divulging as many behind the scenes processes as possible to amplify the theme of his movie. In essence, OldBoy is part thriller, part primer on the horrors of hate. Park professes to purposefully making his characters blank and unemotional, channeling all their inner emotion into their meticulous plans for reprisal. In Dae-su Oh’s case (brilliantly essayed by actor Min-sik Choi) the years of isolation, brainwashing, hypnotism and torture have left him literally empty inside, except for a festering need to find out who kidnapped him after that late night of drinking, as well as why he’s been stashed away from the rest of the world for a decade and a half.


In the case of Woo-jin Lee, the stakes are slightly more obscure. A dandy on the outside, but unmentionably dark on the inside, actor Ji-tae Yu turns the enigmatic catalyst for all of Dae-su Oh’s problems into a formidable foe, a man building his entire life’s desire onto one easily collapsible plan of payback. In the film’s narrative Woo-jin’s house of corrupt cards can fall at any moment. Dae-su can give up his quest. The mobsters he’s working with can decide to double cross him. The use of unscientific notions like hypnosis could collide with happenstance, and truth could be unveiled without the commiserate comeuppance the man is looking for. From his palatial penthouse (purposefully designed by Park to reflect an individual making existence more complicated than it has to be), to the overly intricate plan that’s supposed to satisfy his hurt, Woo-jin is the worst kind of bad guy – focused, yet formless. With him, anything can happen…and almost always does. 


That is indeed the point of OldBoy. Park’s participation in a series of commentary tracks for this new release highlight how he carefully crafted his plot to leave questions in the audience’s mind about who’s the hero and who’s the heavy. Clearly, when considered side by side, Dae-su has the most understandable need for revenge. He’s been imprisoned, and as a result, lost to the world (including his family) for more than one complete generation. Though his life is loaded with misdeeds, he can’t fathom the crime he committed to require such an unexpected and uncompromising sentence. Still, Park wants to make sure that Dae-su is not considered completely innocent. As a matter of fact, the moments of animalistic violence used as steps toward the final denouement are meant to highlight the character’s clear proclivity toward such anti-social behavior.


It is these amazing moments, like the stunning hallway/hammer fight completed in one magnificent take (with a little technical tweaking here and there) that takes up most of the second DVD’s documentary run time. Park is a proficient director, completely capable of improvising on the spot and screwing with the cinematic paradigm to foster a furtherance of his occasionally lofty goals. All throughout the box set, we see moments where experiments are attempted, diversions are crafted, and input from the cast and crew are taken, each moving the film into differing dynamic directions. Similarly, Park professes to having a homage-heavy style, and its interesting to hear about how certain sequences – like the high school foot chase through time - were inspired by other directors (Brian DePalma) and their efforts (Dressed to Kill).


Even more intriguing, Park used varying subliminal visual cues throughout OldBoy, hoping to affect the perception of what is happening while dropping hints along the way of the connections between the characters. For example, Woo-jin Lee is represented by the color purple (which in many Asian cultures symbolized death), while Dae-su is surrounded by browns and greens (with their obvious overtures toward decay and rot). In some of the supplemental material, we see how the art direction was purposefully fashioned to exploit this ideal as well as set up secret warnings that only the most observant viewer would possible pick up. Other times, Park uses particular filmmaking styles – a documentary approach for the opening, an obvious artsy method during the incarceration and isolation material. In fact, it is safe to say that OldBoy represents a masterful competition between acuity vs. actuality. What we see on the screen can sometimes be much more important than what is actually happening between the characters. 


But because of the mannerisms he employs overall, like staging a car crash with the vehicles poised at Los Angeles and New York, respectively, part of OldBoy‘s brilliance is the way in which it gets to that final confrontation. Even more amazing, Park purposefully pulls back during the all important showdown, using unusual aesthetic choices to challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of what should occur. Fights flourish behind low, ambient music. Confrontations are lax, left unknown by choices in camera angle and framing. This is all part of the plan, a choice made by Park to prepare the audience for anything and everything. One of the more magical elements of OldBoy is that, even if you can predict everything that’s going to happen, Park is already several steps ahead, ready to thwart your most considered expectations with his mesmerizing tricks.


Oddly, the two individuals most responsible for the issues between the men - Woo-jin’s sister Lee Soo-ah and Dae-su’s gal pal, Mi-do – are more or less left on the outskirts of the story, their identity far more important than the part they play in each character’s current situation. Park argues that this was not a determined slight, one that should warrant criticism from women’s groups arguing about the downplaying of the female facets of the film. Instead, it’s all part of a bigger symbol being shuttled back and forth – the notion that anger and the need for revenge can blind people to the truth laying right before their eyes. Both actresses here are excellent, giving brave performances that require them to simulate some often scandalous situations. But neither comes across as completely compelling, either. OldBoy makes it clear that, in the realm of defending honor and seeking justice, men make all the decisions – for bad and for good.


That so much meaning can be buried inside what many might view as a Tarantino-esque excuse to overload the screen with brutality and blood argues for the artistic prowess of South Korean cinema, something that Tartan’s new box set sells very well. The third DVD in the set provides a production diary that gives us a day-by-day breakdown of OldBoy‘s filming, and it’s an eye-opener. Gone are the Hollywood mandates for superstar treatment and specialized crewmembers. Missing are the moments when personal and professional desires clash. In their place, we see plenty of hard work, long nights and intense collaborations.  Though presented without clear context or explanatory voiceover narration, this footage argues for an unseen maxim in the Asian movie business. Many fans feel that most films are fashioned out of luck, talent, and a sprinkling of magic. The truth is that experiences as exemplary as OldBoy are not the result of some wizard’s spell. They result from a coming together of creative minds all willing to work hard to forge something special.


In OldBoy‘s case, the finished product remains one of the new millennium’s best movies. And when you consider that Park produced companion pieces of equal power as both cinema and stylistic statements, his importance as a creative force cannot be undermined. One of the best things about the DVD format is that it allows for a window into a world – filmmaking – that many of us outside the business would never have an opportunity to experience. With this new three disc release (which includes an English translation of the Japanese Manga “comic” used as the foundation for the storyline), we witness the process that made this film so magnificent. While the final scene of the film may be open to interpretation, Park’s intensions are very clear. OldBoy is indeed a movie about the passage of time. But instead of healing all wounds, or lifting the stone from one’s soul, all that’s created is a path toward personal and metaphysical destruction. It’s as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.



Tartan Video‘s Three Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition version of OldBoy was released on 14 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here



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Tuesday, Nov 14, 2006


Another PopMatters review by Cynthia Fuchs


Dreams are the lies we tell ourselves when we’re asleep. They are the pictures we paint when words can’t give life to our longing. Dreams deceive and dreams demand. They are the symptoms of obsession and the co-conspirators of passion. It is so easy for us to get lost in them, to cast off the real worries of the everyday world and bask in the warming, soothing glow of our ultimate goals that we often find ourselves drowning in a flood of fantasy that’s near impossible to permeate. Call them pipe or fevered, the meanderings of a mind misplaced or the silent whispers of the secure soul, but they never fail to enrage and inspire. What we see inside them makes us drunk, the hope we harbor in them making us helpless.


Some would say that nothing great can be accomplished without dreams. It’s a rationale stemming from the creation and consideration of ideas bigger and brighter than those of the normal mind. Skyscrapers aren’t the stuff of pragmatics. An oil on canvas masterpiece cannot derive from a brain based in logic. Somewhere locked inside all of us is a secret stash of aptitude, an untapped pool of skill and talent that only dreams have access to. If they can find a way to funnel this fuel into your workaday world, the epic and the mystical are just an active attitude away. Yet sometimes, the conduit can grow greedy, sucking up everything you have until you are dry and drained. Other times, the channel can crack, leaving you without any access whatsoever. It takes a rare individual to properly manage their vision vitals, applying them when appropriate, controlling the stream to keep it clear and consistent.


Such a person is filmmaker Werner Herzog. Staunchly individualistic, answering to no one but himself, and immersed in an aesthetic that combines characters with their cinematic environments to illustrate what exists in both, there is probably no other director as closely tied to his own heroic hallucinations as he. The result has been some of the finest films ever made. There has also been great folly, and more than a few fumbles along the way. Nowhere was this decisive dichotomy clearer than on the set of his film Fitzcarraldo. Herzog has a singular vision for his story, a visual that no film since has ever dared match. What that idea was became the basis for Les Blank and Maureen Gosling’s brilliant documentary Burden of Dreams. Fortunately, the man who forged that thought makes an equally compelling example of visualization inviolate as well.


In 1976, Herzog headed to the Amazon to film his simple story of a turn of the century man of means so in love with opera that he had visions of opening a music hall in the middle of the jungle, just so Enrico Caruso could christen it with a concert. A two-time Oscar winner and the notorious lead singer of a legendary rock and roll band were hired as stars, and after months of searching, the perfect location was found. All that stood in the way was Herzog’s most ambitious idea ever. Instead of using special effects or miniatures, the director intended to use native labor to move an actual ship up and over a mountain. Five years, another lead actor, and several near-disastrous circumstances later, the movie finally made it into theaters. Like all epic achievements, how Herzog finally got his vision on the screen is the stuff of myth and legend. Documentary filmmakers Les Blank and Maureen Gosling were there to catch most of it. The result is an amazing documentary about the ache of aesthetic and the Burden of Dreams.


Anyone who knows Herzog and/or his movies recognizes that he is a man driven by vision. He has staunchly believed that every facet of a movie, from its actors to its filming, creates its own unique and individual experience. It is up to him, as the overseer of this process, to guide the divergent elements into a coherent whole. He believes that civilization will die without adequate images, and that it is up to filmmakers to craft a new visual grammar. He claims to never dream at night, but does enjoy losing himself in happy hallucination during long walks, or while traveling—potential movies and ideas playing out like plays inside his head. And he is also a man of his word. He once promised a group of actors that he would throw himself into a cactus if they all survived a particularly harrowing production. He still has the broken-off spines in his knee ligaments to confirm his commitment.


Certainly, there have been other rumors—stories of actors threatened with guns, the outrageous endangerment of cast and crew, and a dogmatic focus that occasionally borders on insanity. But it’s hard to discount the results. As a filmmaker, Herzog has helmed several outstanding examples of his mania—movies with titles like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Where the Green Ants Dream, and Cobra Verde. He has also crafted several sensational documentaries, using the same internal fire to fuel Lessons of Darkness, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and Grizzly Man. Somewhere amidst all his narratives and investigations, experiments and interpretations lies Fitzcarraldo. Based partly on the director’s desire to return to the Amazon (a favorite locale, not just for moviemaking) and several stories he heard about an actual rubber baron who was fixated on bringing art to the region, this 1982 film has a production history as colorful and disconcerting as the movie that emerged after nearly five nightmare years.


Luckily, Les Blank and his editor/assistant Maureen Gosling were there to commingle in the madness. Originally, the documentarian was hired to film Herzog making good on a bet with fellow filmmaker Errol Morris. Telling the fledgling director that if he ever got his proposed first project off the ground, he would eat his own shoe, Herzog arrived at a screening of Morris’s magnificent Gates of Heaven to consume more than just a little crow. It was during this shoot that Blank learned of the trip to the Amazon and the plans for Fitzcarraldo. Listening to the stories being circulated about what Herzog hoped to accomplish, he knew he had to sign on. The result was a true trip into the heart of darkness, a real life story worthy of Melville or Conrad. Focusing primarily on the movie’s showpiece sequence - the pulling of an actual 320-ton steamship over the top of a mountain—the soon-to-be-known-as Burden of Dreams became the motherlode of all making-of documentaries. In the short span of 95 minutes, Blank and Gosling highlighted everything that could possibly go wrong with a location shoot. They simultaneously created a fact film classic.


Burden of Dreams is more than just a cinematic study of Murphy’s Law and how it applies to moviemaking, however. It’s not just the story of an incredibly driven director and his desire to render fantasy out of the pragmatic. It definitely does deal with the clash of cultures that exists between the international creative community, the loose cannon local Central/South American governments, and the indigenous people of the Amazon basin. As a study in both its subject matter and its setting, it is exciting and evocative. But at its core, this divine documentary is an explanation and an examination. It lifts the lid off of one man’s burning aesthetic designs to see if they are, or ever were, practical in the context of motion picture production. And it proves that, even when all around you doubt and despair, one person’s pure intentions can still stay the course. Fitzcarraldo may seem a lesser legacy in the Herzog canon, but Burden of Dreams proves it was always a mythical project in its creator’s mind.


But there are also a lot of misnomers about this documentary, concepts that must be debunked and debased before really understanding what Blank and Gosling have fashioned. First of all, Burden of Dreams is not a movie about obsession. Obsession suggests an unhealthy preoccupation, a never-ending need that is near impossible to obtain and almost as difficult to quell. Though he appears determined and ambitious, Herzog is not some uncontrolled amateur, hoping to defy the odds to service his craft. Indeed, throughout Burden of Dreams we see a man struggling to keep his internal aspiration alive and kicking. Several times, as odds and elements conspire against him, as individual idiosyncrasies threaten to topple his already frail and fragile film, Herzog perseveres. His spirit may be bent, but it has not broken. Even with actors dropping out (original cast members Jason Robards and Mick Jagger left after more than a third of the filming) and rebels burning down his film camp, Fitzcarraldo is a film he must finish. It’s not a matter of obsession; it’s a matter of personal pride.


Burden of Dreams is also not a movie about passion. There is a suggestion of joy and sorrow in such a word, a notion that somehow, this amazing ardor is actually hiding a far more tempered feeling. If anything, Blank’s film focuses on that razor-thin line between obsession, passion and madness, a volatile vortex where all three exist in perfect, peculiar harmony. Herzog is very much a man of fervor when working on his films. We see him stomping through sets, leaping through obstacles, and grabbing extras, making sure they are in the proper place when the cameras roll. But he is not a fiery individual filled with untapped instability. Perhaps it’s because of his Teutonic nature, or his steadfast focus, but Herzog’s proposed passion is all internalized and indirect. Instead of arguing his point, he merely gets up and performs it. When situations seem the most grave or alarming, he simply steps up and argues for a “little less precaution”(such a zombified zeal causes the local structural engineer helping with the ship move to quit). Because he must balance all facets of the film—as any director typically does—Herzog has faith in his ability to control. It is not manic, but measured.


One thing’s for sure: Burden of Dreams is definitely not a movie about courage and fearlessness. People have often gotten the wrong impression about Herzog’s productions. They hear the boasting and the bragging, the lack of personal consideration and dismissal of tenable threats and think there is some kind of death-defying wish to how this director makes movies. In modern terms, some might call it the cult of X-cinema. But once again, this documentary dispenses with such nonsensical sentiments. Herzog states often that his movies are not crafted on the backs of daredevils or those with a reckless disregard for human safety. Instead, he points to nature as the prime culprit, an entity unforgiving and unwilling to compromise or consider. No one tempts fate or dares destiny in Burden of Dreams. Instead, there is a kind of tentative truce with the exotic elements around the production, a peace forged out of respect, not ridiculous risk taking. The only reason these people and their predicament seem so audacious to us is that we know we’d not have had the courage to stand up to the rudiments and fight. Ironically enough, the cast and crew of Fitzcarraldo recognize this as well. Theirs is an action born out of reverence, not carelessness.


And finally, no matter how it may seem on the outside, no matter what you may have heard or what is hinted at in the review, this is not a movie about ego. Sure, sense of self is at play all throughout Burden of Dreams, a steadfast notion of one’s importance and place within the motion picture pecking order (you can’t have the crazed Klaus Kinski on the set and not experience some manner of unrealistic arrogance). But many confuse Herzog’s desire to conquer nature with a hubris as high as a rainforest canopy. In truth, this documentary downplays the importance of the individual and reemphasizes the need for a mutual admiration society on set. Certainly, it’s easy to see why Herzog is pinpointed as a narcissist and egotist. He is the leader of his lunatic asylum, a man trying to pull a ship over a mountain without the aid of optical effects or show business trickery. If he succeeds, he is a genuine genius. If he fails, it’s just another marker in his book of failed folklore.


Blank and Gosling downplay the prima donna for the primitive, making the jungle the most conceited concept in the film. It’s the rapids that are laughing at Herzog as he tries to film his climatic shots. It’s the weather that is crafting the miserable mud that sucks everything in with a cement-like grip. Nature is scoffing at Fitzcarraldo, daring it to take on its tyrannical, titanic facets. It’s the planet that’s puffing its chest. Herzog and company just want to play within its precarious parameters.


So, then what is Burden of Dreams really about? Is it just the story of how a movie was made, or is there really more to the tale than the highly dramatic saga of movie-man vs. nature. At its core, Blank and Gosling have made a film about creativity at the crossroads, a movie that examines the nature of art and those who are driven to discover it. While the Amazon is given a powerful presence here—like Herzog, Blank loves landscapes and uses every opportunity possible to highlight them—this is not a travelogue, not some goofy glorified press kit about a group of neophytes tackling the impenetrable elements of the jungle. Instead, Burden of Dreams describes how a single individual, focused and assured, can wander into the most inhospitable of terrains and craft a vision—a combination of his own ability transformed and tamed by the elements themselves. In addition, the documentary illustrates how such a desire can undermine even the most malleable man. Herzog sighs that he may not make movies upon Fitzcarraldo‘s completion. It is not a sentiment born out of sadness however. It is the result of the joyless juncture that nature and dreams have tossed him into.


As for the accusations leveled against him, Herzog may not be obsessed, but he clearly knows what he wants. We witness take after take of the most humdrum sequences, the filmmaker unsettled by what he sees in the lens. His passive eagerness may be confused with Germanic frigidity, but it could also be the personality of a man who merely intensely intellectualizes everything. In Herzog’s mind, failure is the only fear. The rest of the potential problems can be overcome with professionalism and preparedness. Ego has a place, an ultimate slot at the right hand of dreams. It takes a special kind of madness to make art out of actuality—to literally move mountains to sanctify your sense of scope. When Fitzcarraldo finally arrived in theaters, the steamship steadily climbing up the Earth became a symbol for Herzog’s efforts to manage his muse. Thanks to Burden of Dreams, we realize that there was much more to said coping and control than rage, risk, and regret. There was a dream, in all its fanciful, fatalistic glory. Someone had to carry the yoke. This amazing documentary suggests that there was no better beast for such a burden than the man who forged it in the first place.


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Monday, Nov 13, 2006


It should, perhaps, be added to the list of the certain signs of seasonal change: days getting shorter; leaves turning colors and finally falling; DVD companies retrofitting previous releases and turning them into those dreaded double dip “special editions”. This week at the old B&M, the vast majority of the pickings are pimped out titles that have already been available on the digital domain in standard, sell-through form. But with the holiday buying avalanche just a few short shopping days away, studios sense a need to positively position themselves with potential gift givers – and in their mind, the best way to do that is slap on some heretofore unavailable extras on an already desirable disc. There are still a few interesting first time efforts out there, including a weird sci-fi experiment from one of cinema’s more daring auteurs, and a mediocre thriller based on one of the biggest bestsellers of all time. Still, if you need to know what happens in the extra 13 minutes added into Peter Jackson’s already elephantine remake of a known great ape classic, or what Chan-wook Park thinks of the attention his seminal revenge flick received around the world, then the second times the added content charm. In general, the possible rewards desperate for your dosh on 14 November are:


49 Up

*
The latest installment in Michael Apted’s brilliant five decades old documentary series proves that a good idea can survive shifts in personal and cultural climes to make a universal statement about the real nature of human beings. Some suggest that class and privilege have as much to do with the shocking individual transformations as inner elements like drive and determination, and of course they have a point. But this also doesn’t explain away the effect that years have on hopes, dreams, and perspective. One of the most telling attributes of all the Up films is highlighting how that age old missive “don’t dream it, be it” really doesn’t apply. Resolve can only take you so far, especially when a camera comes along every seven years and measures out your progress. With 12 of the 14 original subjects still participating, and middle age ebbing toward the twilight years, it will be interesting to see where 56 finds the cast. The paths seem awful dark right about now.



The Da Vinci Code: 2 Disc Special Edition

There are those who defend this dull, derivative cat and mouse mess as a fairly faithful adaptation of Dan Brown’s religion tweaking title. But in SE&L‘s opinion, that’s like arguing that a perfume that accurately recreates the smell of dog feces is aesthetically successful. Thanks to Ron Howard’s routine, journeyman direction, Akiva Goldsman’s atrocity of a script (someone, please stop this man before he scribes again) and the complete lack of capable characterization from leads Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, what could have been a capable thriller with a scandalous secret at the center became a vapid visualization of an already ponderous pulp novel. Let’s face it – any movie that must resort to using the excellent Ian McKellan as a guest lecturer on the obvious expositional elements of the plot is gasping for every last entertainment breath. Toss in the staid action scenes, the lack of any real surprise (the heralded “twist” was talked to death before the film even opened) and you’ve got a major misfire. For devotees and the self-flagellating only.



PopMatters Review


Forbidden Planet: 2 Disc Special Edition

*
Poised precariously between sci-fi and silliness, this imaginative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is often considered one of speculative fiction’s cinematic classics. Featuring a stellar old school cast – Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Richard Anderson and Earl Holliman – and the still impressive presence of one Robbie the Robot, the narrative weight given the project by director Fred Wilcox more than makes up for the limited success of the ‘50s era effects. Besides, the fabulous set designs and inventive electronic musical score helps sell the otherworldly elements exceptionally well. While previous DVD editions have been faulted for their lack of visual clarity, added context or just plain respect for the project, this new multi-disc package promises to provide a wealth of extra goodies. You will find deleted scenes, a documentary about the science fiction genre, and a featurette on the film’s creation. It’s enough to make even the most strident film geek jump for joy.



The Green Mile: 2 Disc Special Edition

*
Many felt that Frank Darabont stumbled a bit with this, his third adaptation of material by celebrated author Stephen King (his first two attempts being The Woman in the Room and the universally adored The Shawshank Redemption). But the truth is that the detail-oriented director got everything just right in this story of fate, faith, and fulfillment. Michael Clark Duncan, rejected as being reduced to a racially insensitive stereotype as the hulking black healer at the center of the story, actually gives an amazingly nuanced performance, providing the powerful center to what could have been a ponderous prison allegory. Add in the talented turns by Tom Hanks, David Morse, James Cromwell and Sam Rockwell and you’ve got a great ensemble cast successfully selling a truly remarkable movie. Fans have been waiting a long time for this supplement loaded DVD, with Darabont present and accounted for, ready to argue his decisions as a director in a full length audio commentary. Hurray!


 


PopMatters Review


King Kong: Extended Edition*
Now that it has had almost a year to reconfigure its relevance in the realm of cinema, Peter Jackson’s drop dead brilliant reimagining of the Giant Ape epic finally gets the full blown LOTR‘s treatment the filmmaker is famous for. While you can opt for the full blown Collector’s Edition, complete with a reproduction statue of Kong climbing the Empire State Building, this new version has so many captivating bells and whistles that fans will be hard pressed to pass this by. They include 13 minutes of new footage, including an intriguingly described “Skull Island underwater creature attack” (!), another 38 minutes of deleted scenes, and an always compelling commentary from the director himself. Some may still feel that Jackson let his love of the movie overwhelm his ambitions, providing this relatively simply story with way too much cinematic pomp and circumstance, but for SE&L’s scratch, no one makes mega-blockbusters like this confirmed Kiwi genius. Our main man did this massive monkey proud.



PopMatters Review


Maniac Cop*
Frequently dismissed as derivative of the arch ‘80s ideal of terror, William Lustig’s ode to a crazed killer peace officer is actually one of the best b-movies the era ever produced. Thanks to a stellar script by genre giant Larry “It’s Alive” Cohen, and fine performances by a cast including Robert Z’Dar, Tom Akins, Sheree North, Laurene Landon, William Smith and a baby-faced Bruce Campbell, what starts out like a standard revenge motivated slasher film becomes an intriguing thriller with plot twists and action scenes o’plenty. Making the most out of his limited locations, and a budget that keeps things on the low end of the cinematic spectacle, Lustig still gets a great deal of mileage out of this material. If you originally dismissed this movie as nothing more than another sloppy slice and dice, now’s your chance to give it another try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how solid it really is.


The Wild Blue Yonder*
Leave it to German auteur Werner Herzog to create a science fiction fantasy out of actual empirical fact. Combining found footage with a personally propagated narrative, the fascinating filmmaker is trying something completely new and experimental with this specious speculative mock up. As much about the poetry and beauty of nature as the mystery and wonder of the unexplored realms of the universe, Herzog’s message is one of inner as well as external examination. Taking NASA training films and combining them with underwater images from beneath the Antarctic ice flows, and an arcane sci-fi monologue from actor Brad Dourif (as a failed, fatalistic alien), this director hopes to combine the fantastical with the pragmatic to envision a spectacle with nothing but known quantities before the camera. For Herzog, the ocean floor is an extraterrestrial plane loaded with undiscovered delights, while the image of man conquering nature to send astronauts into orbit is as astounding an achievement as the vastness of the universe itself.



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 14 November:


Christmas Evil*
Sometimes, a sensational movie gets overlooked because of its lack of distribution. Other times, it’s the perceived problems inherent in the subject matter that causes eventual audience ignorance. Thus is the case with Lewis Jackson’s minor masterpiece, You Better Watch Out. Audiences were stunned when they learned this holiday horror film – later re-titled with the far more lurid Christmas Evil label – featured an unstable man who took the notion of “playing” Santa to uncomfortable extremes. Already angry at the mixing of the festive with the frightening, the seedy subtext involving children and random carnage made even the most magnanimous macabre fan a tad queasy. Too bad, since their ready dismissal prevented them from appreciating a truly remarkable movie. More a character study than a standard slice and dice, Jackson’s journey into the mind of a morally misguided man is an unusual artistic triumph. Besides, it’s John Waters’ favorite holiday film. You can’t ask for a better vote of creative confidence than that.



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Sunday, Nov 12, 2006


PopMatters review of Borat by Cynthia Fuchs


Just how gullible are we? As Sacha Baron Cohen’s pig and pony show continues to rake in the disposable income of an indiscriminate North American demographic ($67 million and counting), the critical community is having a literal laudatory filled field day. Rarely has the supposed scholarship of the journalistic branch been so unified in its praise. Some point to Cohen as the new Peter Sellers or the next Monty Python, others push for the British comic as a clear Oscar front runner, while others suggest that his movie is a kind of comedy revolution, a Blair Witch/Pulp Fiction like genre bender that merges reality with the ridiculous to form a new kind of radical reinterpretation of filmmaking.


But what, exactly, has Cohen done? Where is the invention in showcasing the readily apparent racism buried right on the surface of the United States social structure? Why is his ambush style approach to interviews and interaction so celebrated? It is really nothing new within the media framework. Howard Stern used to manage various foils (Stuttering John, Gary the Retard, etc.) to take the piss out of pompous, self-important individuals and the recent Jackass phenomenon argued that senseless stunt work in the name of self-serving slapstick can be intensely popular. And yet Borat seems to suggest something more than this to the rabid members of the fanbase. For them, this movie is much more than a cobbled together mock documentary. It’s a striking cinematic call to arms.


But would it surprise you to learn that this new Eastern European emperor has no clothes (his infamous nude wrestling/fight scene in the film aside)? Would you be shocked to learn that many of the movies more infamous moments were scripted and staged for the cameras? Recently both MTV and the New York Post have ‘outed’ various aspects of the Borat production, from which characters are really actors (Borat’s prostitute date) to the reality behind the various threats, skirmishes and fights featured (there were arrests, and a few ugly confrontations). While not meant to undermine what is obviously a growing phenomenon, these reports bring into perspective the power of film, and the credulity of individuals desperate to find something new and unique in an otherwise routine motion picture industry. 


Primary amongst the revelations was Pamela Anderson’s willing participation in the project, including her full cooperation in the film’s infamous finale. For anyone not instantly jacked into the entire Borat experience, this last act confrontation between the buxom Baywatch beauty and the swarthy stalker-like reporter is a seemingly blatant buzzkill. What starts out as a standard photo op meet and greet with her fans turns into a full blown, storewide chase, ending with Cohen and his co-star grappling openly in a store parking lot. For many, it’s the prankster piece de resistance, a pristine melding of Borat’s naiveté with celebrity’s harsh realities to form an intellectualized version of a Kutcher punk.


Except, none of it is real. Not a single moment. Though she claims to be “sworn to secrecy” Anderson’s camp makes it clear that the actress has a long standing relationship with Cohen (they have worked together before) and reports indicate that the two conspired together to stage the assault in front of a pair of unknowing security guards. Even more intriguing are hints that scripted elements were used, along with professional camerawork, all in an effort to make sure the scene went off perfectly. Now, for a movie that is selling itself as an off the cuff altercation between acceptable social standards and human values, doesn’t having your target in on the ruse destroy the subtext? Is comedy by entrapment still funny once you learn the victim is as complicit as the attacker?


Even worse, there are troubling reports about the factual material in the movie as well. Members of the feminist group that Cohen interviews/insults argue that they were not fully informed about the purpose and point of their conversations with the actor, and when you think about it, they actually couldn’t have been. Had they been told that a UK comedian, playing a bigoted foreign journalist, was going to sit down and ask them questions that attack the very foundation of their group’s gender-based agenda and that, even better, this material was going to be used as part of the big screen comedy in which the whole point is to deflate those with a self-important (or shockingly misguided) approach to their beliefs, how many would have said yes?


This goes to the very heart of this surreal sub-genre, an entertainment category with its roots firmly in the success of nu-reality television. Unlike Survivor, where a competition supposedly separates the winner from the losers, or MTV’s The Real World which claims to capture authentic young people in the act of being buffoons, nu-reality walks a fine line between fact and fiction, making up material as part of, and in direct response to, how certain individuals and situations respond to their surroundings. Structured like an old fashioned suspense sequence in which certain people are in on the joke (the audience, members of the cast), and arguing that what you are seeing is an accurate reflection of the truth, the nu-reality experience pretends to play fair while relying on a foundation of falsehood to get its results.


It’s a lot like entertainment entrapment, especially since in Borat Cohen is coercing the indignation and indignity out of his unsuspecting victims. The law makes it clear that individuals cannot be held liable for crimes they were more or less forced or cajoled into committing and it’s the same with Borat’s comedy. It gets bigots to expose their hatred, idiots to emphasize their cluelessness and the psychotic to show their terrifying true colors through the humor equivalent of a well-rehearsed show business sting operation. But how clever is it really, and indeed, how successful overall? Is it funny to find out that a redneck country bumpkin thinks that Jews are evil? Does it make it more hilarious that Cohen’s character totally agrees, and even amplifies the anti-Semitism?


Some will argue that none of this matters. No matter how he got the audience reaction during his butchering of the National Anthem, or how ‘staged and scripted’ certain scenes are, the reactions are the reason behind the film’s import as a shocking, scatological satire. But doesn’t that argument beg the manner in which they were achieved – and more importantly, the truth behind said responses? Would the Anthem scene work if you knew that the jeers and boos were added in later during post-production, or that the collapsing horse was merely a happy accident, not the result of Cohen’s performance? Would you care that some of the targets appear in on the joke (the driving instructor, the antiques’ dealer) and would that, then affect your subjective viewpoint on the film’s success?


In many ways, Borat is the kind of experience that demands the support of subterfuge for as long as possible. Like the Blair Witch, which tried to get pre-screening audiences to believe that it was the real final footage of a doomed documentary crew, the success of this comedy rests solely on the level of believability you have in the prank. Had Cohen merely made a frazzled foreign farce about a Kazakhstan reporter leaving his hilarious hometown for the first time, the reaction would probably be minimal, not massive. In fact, it’s the same fate the comic’s first film based on one of his well known small screen characters faced. Ali G Indahouse went straight to DVD in America, its distributor sensing that, without the crazy confrontational antics that made the TV show a success, the film faced an uphill battle at the box office. And they were right.


Like learning the trick behind a magician’s mindblowing performance, or getting step by step instructions on how a certain sensational special effect was accomplished, discovering that Borat has as much manipulated as genuine material as part of its production acts as a buffer to much of the movies’ heralded genius. Even more distressing, recent reports suggest that the people of Glod, an impoverished Romanian village with no running water or sewage, were paid a mere ₤3 each to be portrayed as abortionists, rapists, and sexual deviants in the film’s opening sequence. Tricking people who should know better is one thing. Fooling folks who have nothing is the height of moral bankruptcy.


The true brilliance behind Borat and Sacha Baron Cohen is not the resulting film. It is merely a fresh, friendly experience marred by occasional gross outs and delusions of social commentary grandeur. It is not the funniest thing to ever hit cinema, nor is it the shape of things to come – one hopes. No, the real genius here is getting people to pay for the privilege of being part of the gag itself. In the end, Borat‘s biggest success is fooling the audience into thinking that the movie is more meaningful than it is. What started out as the second coming of comedy has ended up being an expertly controlled extended shock jock joke. When all is said and done, the only ones who’ll be left laughing are Cohen and his cohorts – and you can guarantee their giggles will resonate all the way to the nearest bank.


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Saturday, Nov 11, 2006


Gillian Kaites is one of those undercover cops who only looks believable in a low-budget action picture. Long and lanky with no visible physical or law enforcement aptitude, she is still the most highly decorated member of her force. This means that within minutes of the movie’s start, she ends up weeping over the corpse of her dead partner/boyfriend/fiancé. An arms ring sting goes ka-ping when a raw rookie starts making like Starsky, and before you know it, Gillian is lost, forlorn and depressed. Taking a drive on a road to nowhere, she is harassed by a couple of creeps in a black van. Then, out of the blue, she picks up a hysterical hitchhiker dressed in a swanky evening dress (thumbing rides reached its fashion pinnacle in the mid-‘80s). The sheriff comes along and assures Gillian that the rambling runaway will be safe and sound. All he needs is a statement from her.


Before she knows it, Gillian’s been drugged, dragged into a dingy prison cell, and set upon by the sassy barracks broad, a pissed-off convict named Vicky. Soon, Gillian gets to know the “don’t drop the soap” ropes. Doc Bass comes along to give the girls “examinations,” mostly consisting of Mr. Blackwell-style beauty consultations. Mrs. Pusker, the head matron, roughs up the detainees to keep them under control. And when she’s too busy, she gets her lover/lesbian behemoth Big Eddie to do the debauched dirty work. But Warden Maxwell is the worst. Selling the sullen ladies to the highest bidder, he takes a few of the captive gals to his secret hideaway to make incredibly disgusting snuff porn. The violation of a young innocent named Sharon finally gets Gillian off her rigid rump to find a way to escape. But it will take all the detained dames to help realize this fantasy of fleeing. But since they all have a Lust for Freedom, it should be as easy as a jailhouse romance.


You only need three words to understand why Lust for Freedom is such a fantastic freak-out of a film: three simple pieces of the English language that say so very much while remaining so basic and pure. Trapped within their vowels and consonants are the tone, the timbre, and the type of cinematic sensation you’re in for. And what is this lexis of lunacy, you ask—this triumvirate of telltale phonics? Why, women in prison, of course.


That’s right, ripped from the storehouse of stalwart exploitation genres and given a 1980s hair band rebirth, Lust for Freedom is that wonderful standby of innocent babes behind bars, forced to fend for themselves and their femininity against a corrupt system of guards, hacks, henchmen, hired help, wardens, judges, doctors, and police. As old as cinema itself and jam-packed with as many examples of outrageous big house badness, nothing quite compares to a ribald, ridiculous tale of ladies locked up for no good reason. But in the case of Lust for Freedom, the fiction is taken to a whole new level of the preposterous. The Georgia County Correctional Facility is home to rape, torture, drug dealing, nude frolics, white slavery, pedophilia, and all manner of plot-padding perversions. The warden sells inmates to the local doctor, who grades his purchases on a sliding scale of his own device. (Bad overbite and split ends? She’s a 5!) The prison head also grabs some of the more unwilling members of the Gen Pop and forces them to make butt bongo bonanzas. And when the aardvarking is done, it’s time for a celluloid two-fer: sex scenes turn deadly as snuff becomes the stuff of the warden’s miscreant moviemaking.


Indeed, Lust for Freedom is so ripe with seedy shenanigans and despicable ideas that makers of autopsy porn look down on its delicious tawdriness. Conceived, created, and directed by Troma cult icon Eric Louzil (responsible for such other unexpected delights as Sizzle Beach, U.S.A. and Class of Nuke ‘em High II), this is one exploitation gambol that takes the tired conventions of the jailbird genre and pumps them full of radioactive iniquity. From the jaded Geronimo named Judd—about as American Indian as Val Kilmer and equally insane—to the bleary, booze-eyed doctor who dresses like the Colonel Sanders of snatch, this movie unleashes its demons of depravity for the entire world to gloryhole in. Who cares if Melanie Coll can’t act her way out of a wet baby wipe? And the rest of the cast appears to have gotten their acting chops (and low, throaty voices) from the Mercedes McCambridge Correspondence School of Sour Dispositions.


Lust for Freedom makes you understand instantly why films of this genre—namely gals in gulags—are so cotton-picking pleasing. One sequence in particular will have your sordid sensations high-voltaged over to 11. While two hot honeys get a little better acquainted in their cell (Sappho would be so proud), one of the warden’s henchmen rapes a dumb dope-smuggling doll at crossbow point. To top things off, Mrs. Pusker gives a potential breakout bimbo the business end of a whip. As all three scenes intercut and interconnect, the storm clouds of filth begin to gather. Soon, rains of vulgar randiness are falling all over the screen, and folks at home with a pandering proclivity for smut are a lot like Loverboy—lovin’ every minute of it. There is nothing wrong with wallowing in the den of sin that is a hilarious hunk of hoosegow hijinx. Lust for Freedom delivers in shivers.


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