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by Sean Murphy

30 Mar 2009


From Sunday’s New York Times: On March 29, 1973, the last United States troops left South Vietnam, ending America’s direct military involvement in the Vietnam War.

I can’t recall the last time I watched The Deer Hunter in a single, uninterrupted sitting. I suspect, reflecting on the first Vietnam-inspired Hollywood epic (preceding the similarly overstuffed Apocalypse Now by a full year), the extensive overture is necessary not only to set the tone, but to signify, on literal and figurative (artistic) levels the last glimpse of a way of life that was about to irrevocably change. With minimal pretension (that would be saved for the movie’s third act) and effective subtlety, the elaborate, unhurried scenes depicting the plans and preparation for the big wedding illustrate a way of life that, even without the war, was almost obsolete: the steel mills and coal mines, of course, would not figure as prominently in the lives (and livelihoods) of the next generation. Less remarked upon, but equally significant is the vivid depiction of a reliance on religion and ritual that seemed much less archaic in an era when it was not uncommon for first or second generation immigrants (mostly from Europe) to comprise the (invariably blue collar) workforce. As such, the film’s first act is a document of a time that was slouching, not exactly innocently but less than fully prepared, toward the end of its own history. First there was the ‘80s and what the powers that were did to the unions, then the ‘90s and what computers meant for the majority of workers unfamiliar with the Internet.

The Deer Hunter’s second act deals with the horrors of combat and the third act with its aftermath; those are the parts that, while not as deliberate and languid as the less eventful opening act, become weighted down with their own urgency and all-encompassing compulsion to illustrate Big Truths. This is where the (inevitable?) lack of subtlety and (unfortunate) pretension sometimes suck the air out of the action on the screen. Still, the scene where De Niro skips his own homecoming party and paces nervously around his motel room says as much about the alienation and subsequent disillusionment (where he came from, where he went, where he is headed) than most films and books devoted to the uneasy homecoming Vietnam veterans endured. For an unfettered and forceful examination of this awkward chapter in our country’s history, I’ve yet to encounter a work that improves upon Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. But the single scene (from any film, and more immediately than any book) that successfully synthesizes the before and after of that war, and that era, is the brief, devastatingly beautiful scene that concludes the first part of the film: post-wedding and pre-war; no words are spoken but a great deal is conveyed. The world will soon be a different place for the friends headed to war as well as the ones who stayed behind. It is an elegy for folks who are beginning to understand that everything has already changed.

The Deer Hunter, The Last Night

by Diepiriye Kuku

29 Mar 2009


Despite exploiting Hollywood’s time-honored race-baiting, and employing ‘other’ hating tricks- the fallen hero wears black, gels his hair like a sissy, sways his hips to funk and works it out in beatnik jazz scenes - Spider-man III does manage to offer a timely critique of the socio-political world that characterized those times. As the ensuing election proved, Americans were indeed fatigued of their own arrogance and propensity towards global domination. Arguably, these sorts of films helped pave the way by building awareness of the need for, and utility of coalition and dialogue, which are so central to the new administration.

Hidden beneath the more superficial narratives is the superhero’s mortal alter-ego Peter Parker’s rejection of a ‘normal’ life however romanticized by the aged widow. Spidey prefers to be a hero. Or, is it that we really do need to reject the Mary Magdalene, the savior’s wife. Must our heroes be ascetics?

“Revenge,” Aunt May cautions young Peter Parker, “is like a poison. It can take you over…turn us into something ugly.” Our protagonist had gloated in the now trademark cowboy slogan We got ‘em after his alter-ego’s alter-ego (the dark-suited Spider-man), acted as judge, jury, and executioner of his uncle’s alleged murderer. In the earlier Spider-man entries, our hero deals out capital punishment to the sand demon Flint Marco, AKA the Sandman, a criminal on the run for general crimes, and especially for widowing Aunt May and slaying the unlikely hero’s only patriarchal figure- the benevolent Uncle Ben. Yet the issue here is Spidey’s self-righteous mandate to defeat the axis of evil, which, like writer David S. Goyer’s Batmans (2005 & 2008) and arguably the newer Harry Potter’s Order of the Phoenix, only emerges in response to the hero’s arrogance.

Summer 2007’s blockbuster sequel asks the audience to sympathize with Uncle Ben’s killer, who became criminal impulsively under duress from poverty and finding a way to secure life-saving medical care for his withering young daughter. We are shown a lengthy scene of Flint gently caressing his sickly offspring, resisting the distraught mother’s accusation that the Sandman is a common criminal along with ensuing connotation that he is a bad person, all of which transpires in front of their daughter. His image has been demonized and demoralized. What seems an increasing and urgent trend in these trying times is that just like in the film John Q. Moviegoers are asked to ponder who’s ultimately responsible for the societal destitute that gives rise to such desperation in the face of such opulent wealth, such as the sort found in the film’s other villain.  Interesting that filmmakers choose health care to resonate with mainstream audiences. Our health care system is premised upon an individual’s ability to produce wealth. Yet without any cash to begin with, living and eating well is itself a challenge, not a right, which, like our economy, wrecks havoc around the world. Only those with wealth may survive, LITERALLY.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” repeats Uncle Ben in Spidey’s visions. Visually, the filmmaker almost over emphasizes the ghostly nature of Uncle Ben as Peter Parker/Spider-man recalls the fateful night of the patriarch’s untimely death in Spider-man. It is a testament to the holiness of his words, like God entrusting Jesus to communicate with humanity- go forth and save ‘them’ for they know not how sorely they sin. In our cinematic fantasies we believe that we will be saved by a super-being who can walk on water and, perhaps, change water into wine, or at least live beyond reproach like an ascetic. Again, the Jesus/Oedipus narrative gets repeated here in all too convenient ways. Uncle Ben and Aunt May don’t have their own kids, so their parenting young Spidey is almost immaculate, and unsurprisingly the couple are portrayed as such. Ben appears in Spidey’s mind like divine inspiration, like God speaking directly to his son the savior. And poor May is just a weeping old woman whose heart is pure, and forgiving- worthy of adoration one supposes à la Mary. And for Hollywood’s sake, romantic love is threaded through.

Aunt May is steadfast in her convictions even when her young savior reveals that her husband’s violent death has been violently avenged. Do we feel any safer with capital punishment? Aunt May says no to our leader, our modern martyr. It is the classic Oedipus triad where the son can only come to terms with his humanity by realizing his father’s omnipotence through his demise. The (almighty, infallible) father must exist however ethereally. Consequently, he cannot exist on this planet, cannot be shown to be near humanity, if the ideology of patriarchy is to exist: We must have faith in there being one perfect man, that he is white and wise. To fulfill all of this He cannot walk amongst us, otherwise He would in some way face his own fallibility and humanity, therefore He must at some point perish, and His son must be super, if we are to all persist in the belief in the highness of man, and here I additionally cite Superman and ethereal visions of his parents, and a similar narrative in Superman Returns. In other words: our belief system is reduced to God with a big “G”, and patriarchy with a big “P”.

“Well, miss Vale”/“Ever dance with the devil in the pale moon light?”
“I always ask that of all my prey”/“I just like the sound of it”/(screams)

Resolution to this conflict arrives when Peter Parker finally heeds his Aunt’s advice: to place his ego behind the needs of other. Notably, this is just as the Sandman had done, albeit initially through criminal tides. Facing loosing his friend, Spider-man put aside his ego and asked for help. He allied himself with friends old and new to defeat his own arrogant, self-righteous, vengeful ego, which had spread and taken an even more insidious form: Venom. Spidey’s arrogance caught up with him when his enemies decided to take sides with one another. Alongside the Sandman, there’s Venom, who came to being due to the scorn of mutual arrogance and competition. To reiterate, Venom and Spidey, as well as Sandman and Spidey came to blows over money and power, too. Their egos raged over money and (power over) pussy. The two villains teamed-up and threatened Spidey’s only friend.

The real battle was resolved when Spider-man’s own consciousness was raised, the internal battle over the famous tagline about responsibility and power. Only when he sheds his mean, funky, hip black persona can he re-ally himself with friends in order to prevail, and save his city from the menace.  Guess where this redemption will take place?

Crowds will sit perched on their seats for the final showdown- so action ridden is the scene. After having suffered from his own follies, isolation and arrogance, our hero learned the value of coalition building, Spider-man demonstrates the most powerful attribute accumulated from all of his great power: Forgiveness. Interestingly the internal struggle took place in a religious place of worship, where the most compelling social commentary of the film went down. In this scene our protagonist’s new archenemy enters church, and at the pulpit on bended knee, in the most ardent and heartfelt, he manner whispers this prayer: God, please kill Spider-man. Is even God against ‘our’ enemies? Isn’t the same God with them? Isn’t this the modern day Crusades.

Strengthened with the power of vengeance, Peter Parker/Spider-man breeds his own enemies, much, without much conjecture, like America’s arrogance fed Al Qaeda. Irrespective of one’s socio-religio belief system, praying for the death of another cannot sit easily.

Compassion triumphs in this flic, where even Spidey and his patriarch figure’s murderer come to peaceful terms, each finally able to see the other’s humanity through finally accepting their own. Like in real life, such arrogance and self-righteousness only succumbs to its own match. Rarely are we introspective enough to question our own beliefs and arrive at our own (in)humanity unless provoked. Yet, in Spider-man III, even the bad guys aren’t so bad if we can just see beyond our own egos. What’s more, it friendship, rather than romantic love, than conquers all.

by Bill Gibron

27 Mar 2009


One of the great things about art is its ability to make you see the common and the familiar in a totally different and unique light. Painting puts a stylistic impression on the world, while music translates ideas and feelings into sound and sonic expression. Film is perhaps the most endemic of the many formats. It allows for the greatest combination of facets, plus is relies on reinvention and reinterpretation to stay fresh and alive. This is exactly what happens to the horror film in Ben Rivers deconstructionist delight Terror! As part of Provocateur DVDs new Experiments in Terror 3, this brilliant breakdown of the standard fright flick is so radiant, so drop dead eye-opening in what it says about the genre, that it should be required viewing for all scary movie buffs.

As they have in the past, the Experiments in Terror series collects unusual and outsider examples of sinister short films from around the world. Past participants have been Damon Packard, Bill Morrison, and J.X. Williams. This time up, we are treated to six sensational examples of avant-garde artistic invention. Williams shows up again with the Christmas themed Satan Claus, while famed underground legend Mike Kuchar conjures up the mummy mania of Born of the Wind. Rivers’ Terror! costars with Jason Bognacki’s The Red Door (more of a trailer for an upcoming feature than a full blown film), Carey Burtt’s toyland expose of The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase, and the silent film fascination of Marie Losier and Guy Maddin’s Manuellle Labor. Add in Clinton Childree’s It Gets Worse and a pamphlet describing each offering, and you’ve got a killer compendium - both figuratively and literally.
 


It all starts with the animated atrocities of insane maniac Chase, a real life criminal who believed he was a vampire. Inspired by Todd Haynes and his Barbie doll based Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Burtt using basic stop motion techniques and some careful framing to tell the sensational story. There are moments of high comedy and sequences of unsettling psychological damage on display. By using the innocent items associated with youth, Chase’s crime become more compelling - and disturbing. Similarly, the black and white turn of the century cinematic techniques displayed by Losier and Maddin, as well as Chidree, change the entire nature of the horror film narrative. Both feel like malformed comedies, humor derived from death, birth, and the mutations that accompany each.

Elsewhere, Williams works his magic on the Mexican kiddie classic (and Mystery Science favorite) Santa Claus. Taking a subplot involving the rich boy and his inconsiderate parents and turning it into a tale of devil worship and demonic possession - with a little Profundo Rosso thrown in for good measure - we wind up with a wicked Yuletide treat. Even Kuchar manages a bit of bedevilment in his typical homage hysterics. This 1964 farce features the standard company from the underground icon and a plethora of his peculiar motion picture style. There’s high camp, over the top sexuality, significant gore, and a last act reveal that’s so outrageous it hurts.



Oddly enough, the only outing which lacks true impact is Bognacki’s Red Room. There are hints of incest, abuse, spirituality, and murder in this music heavy promo. Just as things start to sort themselves out, we get that most dreaded of creative con jobs - the tag “to be continued”. In fact, much of this prostitute vs. John vs. phantom presence plays like a music video for a forgotten ‘90s Goth act. All we need is Marilyn Manson showing up with a jaw spreader in his craw and we be rockin’! This is not to downplay Bogmacki’s talent - the material looks fantastic, and the post-production touch of placing an animated scar across the ghost’s eyes really works. Too bad it’s all in service of something insignificant and incomplete.

But everything here, no matter its value, is raised several substantive notches by the inclusion of Rivers’ genius dissection of modern fright. Terror! takes several recognizable films - everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween to City of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th to showcase the standard cinematic stereotypes and formulaic filmmaking techniques involved in manufacturing fear. We get the simple set up, the shot of feet stumbling in the dark, the unexpected reveal of the villain, the last girl struggles, the inept desire to explore the unknown, the sudden shocks, and most significantly, the gruesome, gory end game. This last facet is the most fascinating element in Rivers’ routine for many reasons - many of them very telling indeed.



Like pornography, horror’s unwholesome relative, there is a definite desire on the part of scary moviemakers to start out somber and build to a climax. All throughout Terror! , we anticipate the killings to come (especially once the individual films reveal themselves) and then spend nearly 20 minutes waiting for the payoff. All the while, the normal beats that keep us on the edge of our seats become delayers of our gratification. As Rivers randomizes the edits, drawing us closer and closer to the blood orgasm to come, we truly want the relief - and when it comes, it’s almost sickening in its satisfaction. Of all the films made about fear and the movies that monopolize said emotion, this is one of the very, very best.

And that’s par for the course when it comes to Provocateur and its itinerary of titles. One should simply sit back and expect the unexpected, whether it’s action figures and crayons creating blood-drinking dread or a famed filmmaker using his love of antique Tinsel Town for a fabulous play on words. No matter the age, ability, or aspirations, all of these ‘experiments’ succeed in showing that talent in any form - feature length or substantially shorter - can lift even the most mediocre of overdone genre. Horror definitely fits into such a mangled category. For all the good work done, there are thousands of genuine junk piles. This trip into terror is significant for many reasons, the least of which remains their artistic integrity. Like all good masterworks, they mean as much in retrospect as they do in reality.

by Bill Gibron

27 Mar 2009


It’s a part of life we generally don’t think about - mostly because it reminds us of our own morality, and because of the gruesome nature of the business. For most, we didn’t even know it existed. Yet every time a crime occurs, every time a person, famous or forgotten, takes their own life or that of another, someone has to come along and clean up the mess. No, the police don’t do it, and local law enforcement doesn’t typically provide post-investigation housekeeping under the “serve and protect” slogan. Someone has to come along and dispose of the debris and make something civilized out of an event horrific. For the characters in the new indie comedy Sunshine Cleaning, working the post-mortem detail is kind of a happy accident. Unfortunately, it’s about the only joy these individuals, or this movie, manages to harbor.

You see, Rose is a single mother raising a confused and complicated kid named Oscar. She was once the head cheerleader in high school. Now she’s a maid working for the same classmates she used to hang out with. She also maintains a relationship with BMOC turned married police officer Mac. He has promised a divorce, but his ever increasing family seems to suggest otherwise. Desperate to raise enough money to send her son to a fancy private school, Rose decides to get into the business of mopping up crime scenes. Mac helps her with a few connections, and local supply clerk Winston shows her the ropes. Rose then hires on her troubled sister Norah, and together they begin their death-based endeavor. As the jobs get messier and messier, the girls are reminded of the pain they experienced when their mother committed suicide. Another tragic accident will have them questioning their commitment to the business, and each other. 

Sunshine Cleaning is a slice of life carved so thinly it can barely stand up on its own. Without the amazing support of actors Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, this minor microcosm of New Mexican fringe dwelling would fall apart from outright narrative apathy. While many would have you believe this is some amazing indie treasure, sitting right along side Little Miss Sunshine and Juno as grrrl power gems, in reality, this is navel-gazing non-action that only perks up when the obvious is avoided and the truly unusual is explored. This is a movie with many intriguing elements: the burgeoning relationship between Rose and supply store clerk Winston; the tormented past of the girls’ mother; little Oscar’s obvious emotional problems. Yet director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley keep meandering back to material we don’t care about. As a result, the film feels like a lost opportunity.

Even the premise gets underplayed. Crime scene clean-up has got to be a very demanding, very high stress, and very disturbing job, no matter how desensitized you become to the carnage. The sights, the sounds, the significance would be the override theme of any story centering on it. Sunshine Cleaning does pay lip service to the meaning of going from maid to residential mortician, but it’s not enough. Adams talks about “being connected”, while Blunt is more prosaic about removing the last vestiges of a human being from the Earth. Of course all of this based around their own parent’s suicide, but the reality of their reactions remains mute. Only once, where Rose sits and comforts an elderly woman who just lost her husband, does the movie have the kind of emotional impact we’re looking for. The rest of the time, this job simple exists for its inherent quirk value.

As do many of the side characters. Alan Arkin’s presence will remind many of his Oscar winning work in Little Miss, though his flim-flamming figure father here is very poorly defined. So is former football player/boyfriend/police officer Steve Zahn. There is an entire movie to be made about the post-high school downfall of both Mac and Rose, something hinted at during our heroine’s ill-fated reunion with her ex-classmates at a baby shower. But just like the logistics of situations, Sunshine Cleaning pulls back on the personal reigns as well, leaving us frustrated and wanting much, much more. There’s also too much grandstanding obviousness, as when Norah goes “trestling” - which is nothing more than an excuse for getting drunk, climbing a train bridge, and crying as her past washes by in locomotive fueled flashbacks.

This is a movie unsure of its symbolism, unaware of what to do with Winston’s one armed model making, or Oscar’s obsession with binoculars. There is a CB radio that acts as a conduit to the characters’ desire to communicate with the other side, but for the most part, Jeffs makes a joke of such searching. And then there is the last act reveal. In essence, without giving much away, a character creates a situation that he or she could have stepped up and offered early on. It would have probably solved a great many problems for everyone involved, and taken the burden of business acumen away from those unfamiliar with such real world needs. But yet, the script waits until the last ten minutes to pull this plot point out, manipulating the audience into a false sense of affection while creating complicated narrative entanglements that never come loose.

Still, Adams and Blunt make this a brisk, breezy two hours. The chemistry they offer and the performances they deliver act as a buffer for Sunshine Cleaning‘s many misgivings. Had the oddball been tossed aside in favor of more family strife, had the unnecessary subplots been shorn of their overall import, had things been simplified to suggest legitimate desperation instead of the manufactured movie kind, we’d appreciate the effort even more. But sans all these suggested changes, what we wind up with is a pleasant experience marred by little lasting impact. As with many movies that come out each year, Sunshine Cleaning begs the question of whom the intended audience is. Lovers of art house fair will probably feel shorted. Mainstream moviegoers won’t appreciate the overeager eccentricity. The result is a wash - not the best way to judge a potential entertainment.

by Bill Gibron

25 Mar 2009


Stephen King has said that he’s often shocked by people’s initial reaction to him in person. Since he creates horrific nightmares of blood curdling and spine chilling terror, tales that traumatize the very marrow in your bones and scar the substance of your soul, fans assume that he is an equally dark, diabolic person. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, whether or not his imagination holds such demonic thoughts. Making people frightened is merely his job, as it is for writers like Clive Barker, or filmmakers like Wes Craven or Dario Argento. They all suffer from a contextual confusion which suggests what they create is the same as who they are.

Lucio Fulci clearly felt a similar sense of personal misrepresentation. As the man infamous for putting more arterial spray than art on the silver screen, the mind behind such blood-soaked epics as Zombi, The Beyond, and City of the Living Dead was, by 1990, in the twilight of his career. And yet even during these final, inconsistent years, a new fanbase devoted to his guts and grue dynamic were clamoring for more. In the mesmerizing meta-experience, Cat in the Brain (released as Nightmare Concert internationally, and back on DVD from Grindhouse Releasing), the glorious goremeister takes said reputation as a splatter savage and literally turns it upside down and sideways. The results speak volumes for how we watch scary movies, and how we view those who make them. 

While working on his latest film, Fulci finds himself slowly coming unglued. At his usual lunching spot, a suggestion of steak tartar makes him physically ill. Upon returning home, a gardener with a chainsaw causes him concern. Convinced he is losing his mind, he visits Professor Egon Schwarz, a psychiatrist with a knack for hypnosis. As part of the proposed cure, Fulci will let himself be “put under”. Unfortunately, Professor Schwarz is a psychopath who wants to go on his own sinister killing spree. Tricking Fulci into thinking that he himself is committing the crimes, the maniac medico begins murdering hookers with unhinged abandon. All the while, our flustered filmmaker experiences visions from his past films, disgusting, gruesome hallucinations that convince him he’s a monster.

Cat in the Brain is either the laziest excuse for a movie ever made by a true Italian giant, or one of the most unusual and unique films ever crafted by a fading cinematic icon. By utilizing clips from movies he either directed or produced, including The Ghosts of Sodom (1988), Don’t Be Afraid of Aunt Martha (1988), Touch of Death (1988), Bloody Psycho (1989), Escape from Death (1989), Massacre (1998), and Hansel e Gretel (1990), Fulci fashions a formidable tale of personal torment and professional assessment. Convinced he is nothing more than a cinematic circus geek, the filmmaker puts himself in the place of his audience and stands in revulsion over what he sees. To witness a man who makes atrocities for a living play at being equally insulted by their outright repugnance is a bit disconcerting at first. It’s like watching your favorite chef gag on his own cooking.

But Fulci knows that’s how we’ll react, and he keeps driving home the point to make sure it sticks. There are disturbing murders - including a couple involving Leatherface’s favorite power tool - that are simply nauseating in their cruelty. At other instances, we laugh as holdover actor Brett Halsey (he’s featured prominently in the clips) plays lethal lothario, killing various women with a combination of sadism and satire. In fact, the material that’s the least effective here revolves around Professor Schwarz and his wide-eyed, over the top sense of slaughter. When actor David L. Thompson puts on his murder’s mug, we’re not sure if he’s crazy, or just advertising the dentist who polished those sparkling pearly whites. It’s as gratuitous as the Nazi orgy sequence which goes on for far too long.

As a result, it would be easy to consider Cat in the Brain to be self-indulgent, self-centered, and self-aggrandizing. This is Fulci paying tribute to his forgotten legacy, the later period films long after The Beyond, Zombie, and The House by the Cemetery created a firestorm of loyal fans. Indeed, many of the movie reference will be completely foreign to even the most dedicated lover of the Italian icon. Still, there’s no denying the man’s way with special effects. While some of the sequences seem dated by today’s standards (Fulci even rejects an eyeball gag which he professes still fails to look “real” to him), the brutal natural of their visual aggression cannot be denied. Sure, the bodies look like latex and stage blood, but what Fulci does to them is beyond belief.

As part of the new DVD from Grindhouse Releasing, we get a chance to hear Fulci defend himself in a rare and very revealing interview. The man is very open about his career and very candid about his work within the genre (i.e. - would people go to his films if he made comedies, he wonders out loud). There is also a chat with actor Halsey that’s a lot of fun, as well as a look at Fulci’s appearance to the 1996 Fangoria Weekend of Horrors. Just watching him bathe in the warmth of his frenzied fanbase is reason enough to check out this intriguing featurette. Toss in a wealth of additional content, including a few more Q&As, a bunch of stills and poster art, the original theatrical trailer, and a collection of liner notes penned by Antonella Fulci, novelist David Schow, and director Eli Roth, and you’ve got a wonderful digital presentation of a complicated, controversial film.

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