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by Bill Gibron

7 Feb 2009


We are clearly a nation of classes. We hear about it everyday: the haves and the have-nots; upper, middle, lower, impoverished, disenfranchised, and all the pecuniary parameters in between; the name families and the citizenry within the so-called welfare state; those with power and those struggling to make ends meet. To ignore the financial delineation between people is foolhardy. To make too much out of it is equally pointless. There will always be rich folk and it seems we are destined to live in a social structure which fails to fully reward those who are the hardest working among us. But according to Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and economic intellectual, there’s another class to be concerned about - one we Americans thought we would never see.

Indeed, in a democracy, there should never be a hierarchy of power, or a true ruling class. Money can indeed buy you influence, but the ability of the populace to control its abuse is the premise upon which our nation is founded. And yet, in his inspired documentary dissertation on the subject The American Ruling Class (new to DVD from Alive Mind), Lapham argues that the US is gripped by a collection of familiar names, faces, and corporate facades that manipulate and micromanage ever other facet of our supposed Constitutional community. Inexplicably tied to capitalism, the desire for material gain, and the implied notion of happiness linked to both, we discover that those who want to make a difference are rare indeed. Everyone else just wants to make a dollar.

Lapham presents his thesis in a powerful, provocative manner. He takes two “actors”, turns them into stereotypical Ivy League grads (Yale), and then sets them on different paths. ‘Jack Bellami’ comes from privilege, and has a standing offer at Goldman Sachs come graduation. He sees himself as part of the overall banking/financial set-up of America. ‘Mark Vanzetti’ has more noble aspirations. While he too could instantly earn a job on Wall Street, he really wants to be a writer. He takes a year off, gets a self-described “bohemian” apartment, and waits tables during the day as he searches for his muse. Lapham acts as a guide for both progressing pilgrims, showing each the possibilities, and pitfalls, of their individual pursuits. Part of this process includes talking with and interviewing individuals - artists, politicians, businessmen, CEOs - who hope to clarify (and sometimes complicate) the multifaceted pros and cons.

During its opening moments, The American Ruling Class appears obvious. Lapham may look like a member of the Warren Buffet Appreciation Society, but he seems more ideological in his search. He constantly warns his charges that there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of riches. Instead, he counters that one should “do no harm” during said quest. Thanks to insights from Walter Cronkite, Kurt Vonnegut, and Lapham himself, Jack feels authorized to begin his rise to prominence. After all, it’s just the way things are. But for Mark, our instructor forges a much more intricate path. We see a reporter playing waitress so she can chronicle the life of the minimum wage earner (the prognosis: not very good at all). There are conversations with Hollywood heavyweights Mike Medavoy and the late filmmaker Robert Altman. Mark even gets a last minute bit of advice from folk troubadour Pete Seeger.

Yet it’s the sit down with members of an elite think tank whose main purpose seems to be setting the policy for everyone on the planet that offers the most insight. It’s Mark who gets to match wits with such powerhouse individuals as Bill Bradley, Vartan Gregorian, Harold Brown, and William T. Coleman, among others. Most seem content to be part of the upper echelon, frequently speaking in terms that some might misinterpret as derogatory - or at the very least, unsympathetic. Perhaps the worst offender is former White House Chief of Staff/Secretary of State James A. Baker. Beginning from a position that believes there is nothing wrong with using wealth as a means of obtaining and maintaining power, and then extrapolating said position out onto the rest of the world, he remains a focused figure of Reagan/Bush neo-conservatism. Even his attempts at apologies seem arrogant.

It’s this sequence that turns The American Ruling Class from a dissenter to a dinner companion. It seems as if Lapham is backhandedly trying to support the notion of giving up activism for a life in service of the all mighty greenback. There’s never a time when child of means Jack reconsiders his career arc. He has doubts at first, but the film’s narrative seems to cement his resolve. Mark, ion the other hand, gets batted around like a dead mouse in a barn cat’s paw. He’s against the kind of corporate zombie stance. He bristles at the notion of “selling out”. He argues with wealthy friends who have the trust fund to let them work for pro bono agencies like Legal Aid. But in the end, he takes Jack’s offers to join Goldman Sachs, and even with the perturbed look on his face, he appears ready to start his own potential ascension into importance. 

The mixed message really hurts The American Ruling Class, much more than the nonsensical novelty numbers strewn throughout the movie (yes, this is a musical…of sorts) or Lapham’s cryptic narration, filled with fancy, flowery prose. Documentaries are notorious for their ability to act as eye-openers, shedding light on ideas and individuals that the mainstream media seems to ignore. This film I a lot like Mark’s trip to The New York Times. On the one hand, the paper must serve the wishes of pure journalism. It must offer reportage without the benefit of bias or political position. And then there is the demand for cash flow. Sometimes, the content must meet the requirements of the commercial sector as well. The American Ruling Class apparently wants to argue both sides of the situation. But as anyone familiar with the art of debate can tell you, sitting on the fence is ultimately non-persuasive.

by Bill Gibron

5 Feb 2009


It’s a week full of worthless efforts at the local Cineplex. Who in their right mind would actually want to see Steve Martin desecrate Peter Sellers legacy? Or wallow in the shallow silliness of a self-help book turned rancid RomCom? While the other mainstream movie this week is best considered Jumper Lite, there are a couple of other choices worth pondering. Henry Selick brings us a new animated classic, while Blair Witch‘s Daniel Myrick turns the War on Terror into something literal. These are the films in focus for 6, February - beginning with the aforementioned stop-motion masterwork:

Coraline [rating: 9]

In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor.

The nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is potent. Indeed, the moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval. read full review…

Push [rating: 4]

Even with all its idiosyncratic elements, Push feels like something we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, said memory is of something far more fascinating and definitely more engaging. 

They say the most important element in a science fiction story is a strong, understandable mythology. Formulate a believable, working, and logistically logical universe where characters and creatures abide by the rules and regulations set before them and you’ve conquered a great deal of the potential problems. As a result, slip ups can be cured with ease and risks rewarded, just as long as the foundation is set and secure. In the new future shock thriller Push, we are introduced to an entirely new (if slightly redundant) race of specialized individuals, people with powers beyond those of mere mortals. Meeting them towards the middle of their real world arc, we gets bits and pieces of how Nazi experiments in psychic warfare led to an X-Men like mutant population capable of great things - and the secret society Hell-bent on controlling them. Regrettably, the aforementioned reference to a certain comic franchise isn’t the only bit of borrowing this film does. Indeed, the whole effort feels lifted from dozens of familiar - and in most cases, superior - offerings. read full review…

The Objective [rating: 7]

Still, it’s the shivers that count, and while Myrick may not make our spine tingle like he did back in the late ‘90s…The Objective is still an impressive piece of work

The genre film, by its very nature, is a bit of a cinematic chameleon. It can function as humor, social commentary, political diatribe, and in rare cases, sobering human tragedy. Coated in the usual celluloid garment of horror and/or science fiction, it takes talent and determination to traverse its pitfall-laden path. Ten years ago, Daniel Myrick made movie history of sorts by releasing his first person POV frightmare The Blair Witch Project. Along with collaborator Eduardo Sanchez, he created a night terror that functioned as a documentary, a pseudo-realistic look at fear as it happened, and a full blown web phenomenon. A critical and commercial ‘event’, the filmmaker retreated for a while, unsure of his next move. Now, almost a decade later, he’s returned with a fine film entitled The Objective. And once again, he has taken the standard scary movie and tweaked it with something different - a little speculative scope. read full review…

by Bill Gibron

5 Feb 2009


The genre film, by its very nature, is a bit of a cinematic chameleon. It can function as humor, social commentary, political diatribe, and in rare cases, sobering human tragedy. Coated in the usual celluloid garment of horror and/or science fiction, it takes talent and determination to traverse its pitfall-laden path. Ten years ago, Daniel Myrick made movie history of sorts by releasing his first person POV frightmare The Blair Witch Project. Along with collaborator Eduardo Sanchez, he created a night terror that functioned as a documentary, a pseudo-realistic look at fear as it happened, and a full blown web phenomenon. A critical and commercial ‘event’, the filmmaker retreated for a while, unsure of his next move. Now, almost a decade later, he’s returned with a fine film entitled The Objective. And once again, he has taken the standard scary movie and tweaked it with something different - a little speculative scope.

CIA agent Benjamin Keyes has been sent back to Afghanistan, a country he left ten years before, to track an unusual signature on a satellite image. It’s been one month since the horrible events of 9/11, and the US government wants to make sure that some rogue members of the Taliban aren’t hiding a loose nuke up in the desert mountains. Seeking a former source in a remote village, Keyes takes a highly specialized group of soldiers along on the mission. They include no nonsense Chief Warrant Officer Hamer, Sergeants Cole and Sadler, and Master Sergeant Tanner. They also bring on a local, Abdul, as their guide. Once out in the field, they find little relief from the ongoing battle. After an ambush leaves them injured and short on supplies, Hamer demands they return to base. But Keyes is unrelenting. He has a tip that what he is looking for is locked in Afghanistan’s notorious Hill of Bones, a sacred site that might also turn out to be this regiment’s final resting place.

The Objective is a classic suspense thriller. It plays with the audience, giving it only the information it needs to follow the occasionally confounding plotline. It provides simply drawn characters, crystal clear motivations, an environment that’s both alien and unfriendly in nature, and a finale which shines an intriguing new light on everything we’ve experienced before. Myrick, taking a noted turn toward a more mainstream motion picture dynamic here, delivers on the promise inherent in the set up. The narrative is mission oriented, and the intrinsic nature of such a storyline helps smooth over rough patches of pacing, scripting, and occasional directorial indulgences. Myrick makes some mistakes here and there, but we forgive the flaws, thanks in part to our desire to see the events come to a climax.

And it’s an interesting journey along the way. Working with an accomplished cast that really disappear into their roles, we find ourselves face to face with the hostile Afghan wasteland, and endless need for water and supplies, and a strange set of lights that seem to be following our military men. During these seemingly sedate establishing scenes, The Objective does something very sly. It establishes the conflicts and desperation that will come to define the latter part of the action. Even the minor military scenes, US armed forces fighting unseen enemies with rocket launchers and an unshakable resolve, add to the tension. Before long, Myrick has us shifting toward the edge of our seat, anticipation over what will come next filling our head with visions of death and dread.

That The Objective fails to fully deliver on said promise is one of its few weak points. Clearly, because of its micro-budget and aesthetic limitations (small cast, insular concept) Myrick cannot completely explore the ideas he’s working with. The whole CIA/UFO angle is underdeveloped, left to a series of sensationalized buzzwords. Similarly, we are dealing with a post-9/11 scenario with the war in Afghanistan only a few weeks old. Yet everything about the military operation screams “been there/done that.” Finally, the acting can be hit or miss. Jon Huerta and Matthew Anderson are very good as suspicious army men, while lead Jonas Ball earns more than a few missteps with his gravitas. Still, the script by Myrick, Mark A. Patton, and Wesley Clark Jr. (yes, the General’s son) is solid and even surprising at times.

Indeed, there’s another angle available, one that merits consideration especially in light of the actions being depicted. One could easily see The Objective as an indirect commentary on our cultural hubris and lack of understanding when it comes to our “enemy” in the Middle East. The US soldiers see diplomacy in a handful of chocolate bars, yet revert to stereotypical responses whenever their Islamic allies let them down. All engagement is “shoot first, never question ever” and once they are lost in unfriendly terrain, the camouflage comes off completely. Myrick may not have intended to make a statement about how America undermines its own efforts via a lack of consideration, sensitivity, and basic common sense. Outside of anything supernatural or beyond this world, The Objective seems intent on being critical of our nation’s inflated opinion of our own international import.

Still, it’s the shivers that count, and while Myrick may not make our spine tingle like he did back in the late ‘90s (though this critic personally loathes The Blair Witch Project), The Objective is still an impressive piece of work. It never tries to do too much and keeps within its carefully controlled elements until the last act histrionics take over. Even then, the final beat is so satisfying, so ambiguous and ambitious that it makes the whole experience seem that much more special and worthwhile. It’s hard staying relevant after onli-nation declares you and your so-called “classic” a one-hit wonder. Yet Daniel Myrick has actually made three other films since leaving the unfriendly confines of Burkittsville (The Strand, Believers, and Solstice). With The Objective as yet another example of his growth as a director, it’s clear his early success was not a fluke. This is one filmmaker who can spin the genre into any shape he wants, and come out triumphant.

by Bill Gibron

5 Feb 2009


They say the most important element in a science fiction story is a strong, understandable mythology. Formulate a believable, working, and logistically logical universe where characters and creatures abide by the rules and regulations set before them and you’ve conquered a great deal of the potential problems. As a result, slip ups can be cured with ease and risks rewarded, just as long as the foundation is set and secure. In the new future shock thriller Push, we are introduced to an entirely new (if slightly redundant) race of specialized individuals, people with powers beyond those of mere mortals. Meeting them towards the middle of their real world arc, we gets bits and pieces of how Nazi experiments in psychic warfare led to an X-Men like mutant population capable of great things - and the secret society Hell-bent on controlling them. Regrettably, the aforementioned reference to a certain comic franchise isn’t the only bit of borrowing this film does. Indeed, the whole effort feels lifted from dozens of familiar - and in most cases, superior - offerings.

Nick Gant has been in hiding most of his life. As a young boy, he saw his father killed by a government agency called The Division. Seeking out individuals who are gifted psychically, the cabal hopes to capture and experiment on each and every one. Later, Nick hooks up with tween terror Cassie Holmes. She’s a ‘watcher’, someone able to see into the future, and she needs his assistance in finding “pusher” (someone able to control the minds of others) Kira Hudson who holds the secret for tearing down the Division. Of course, there’s a catch. By taking on this task, both Cassie and Nick will die. But if they fail to fulfill their mission, they run of the risk of destroying all others like them. With Division agent Henry Carver hot on their trail, and a complicated environment of fellow shifters, stitchers, bleeders, and wipers to navigate, it will take all the special skill that they possess to save everyone.

You’ve got to give Push credit for trying. It’s almost impossible to create a complex alternative reality where everyday humans hold exceptional superpowers, where government cabals plot to capture and control these individuals, and a ragtag group of internal rebels try to overthrow…wait. Isn’t this the primer for NBC’s on again/off again phenom Heroes? Or the structure for any number of post-modern graphic novels? Apparently, when challenged for something original, writer David Bourla absconded with any number of sci-fi comics clichés and then tried to turn them into something novel and original. Yet no matter how you categorize them - sniffers, stitchers, pushers, movers - we are still stuck with individuals as gimmicks. Unless you give the holders of such skills real psychological depth, all we can do is sit back and wait for the overloaded F/X light show.

Sadly, Push doesn’t even deliver said spectacle. Instead, this is a ploddingly paced, awkwardly ambitious film that seems lifted from the middle act of a better, more buoyant franchise. UK director Paul McGuigan wants to create something both personal and pyrotechnical, hoping that the many tiny moments between his actors will blossom and grow into a narrative of epic of otherworldly proportion. He even skimps on the action, leaving all the superpowers stuff until a midpoint confrontation between Grant and his Division enemies, and a last act throwdown on a Hong Kong high rise. Maybe he thought the sparing use of these often intriguing abilities would give them more impact. Perhaps the budget dictated their rare depiction. Whatever the case, this is a movie that needs more - more operatic dramatics, more life and death drive…heck, just more action in general.

Struggling to stay afloat inside McGuigan’s brooding, often pointless pretensions are some damn fine performances. Dakota Fanning could be a live action anime heroine what with her whisper thin figure, Hello Kitty fashion sense, and fragile delivery. Even in moments of predetermined import, she’s vulnerable and distressed. She’s matched well by Chris Evans as Grant. Though given little to do except play icon, there are times when he lets down the forced façade to seem very human indeed. While Camille Belle is still lost somewhere in 10,00 B.C. and Djimon Hounsou does menace as if on autopilot, supporting players like Maggie Siff (as an evil healer) Ming-Na, and Cliff Curtis add wonderful atmospheric accents. In fact, had Push totally ignored the histrionics inherent in the genre and went with something more intricate and intimate, it might have worked.

Instead, we get wannabe chest-thumping and lots of lag time in between. Fanning’s Cassie repeats herself endlessly, doddling in her sketch pad and harping on her impending death. There’s also way too much exposition, sequences where we are given the narrative thread and overriding situational specifics over and over again. Speed is important in efforts like this. Had Wanted slowed down to explain itself fully, or Shoot ‘Em Up stop to allow reconsideration, neither film would fly. Instead, they piled on the particulars and just kept going. Push needed this same kind of urgency. This material needs mania, something you envision being better handled with particular aplomb by someone like Ringo Lam, The Wachowski Brothers, or maybe even John Woo. It’s not that McGuigan is out of his league. He’s just not playing in the same ballpark.

Big ideas like the ones posited in Push necessitate a big vision to succeed - or at the very least, characters we can cheer for, care about, and get behind. Instead, what we experience is two hours of brooding among ambient Asian backdrops…and little else. The Hong Kong setting seems odd since the storyline does very little to accentuate the locale. Only a sequence with the Bleeders (individuals with voices that can literally kill) in a fish market makes sense. In addition, recent films with similar themes like Jumper and Babylon A.D. undermine any sense of originality or freshness here. Even with all its idiosyncratic elements, Push feels like something we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, said memory is of something far more fascinating and definitely more engaging. 

by Bill Gibron

4 Feb 2009


She only appears in the last 15 minutes of the film. Her presence is, at first, rather disorienting, since we’ve seen so few adults during the course of the carnage. As she tries to comfort a distraught and very upset Alice, her almost blasé response to the concept of a killer on the loose makes her instantly suspect. Still, we’re willing to go with this well-meaning matriarch, at least, up to a point. And then Betsy Palmer, TV star from decades past, opens up her predatory pearly whites and starts telling the story of a boy…a boy named Jason, and soon we see the light. As the mother of the drowned lad, Mrs. Voorhees means business, and in her line of work (carving up teenagers), business is booming.

As Friday the 13th prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary (a new unrated DVD has just been released), and with renewed interest in the franchise sparking via a brand new up to date remake, it’s important to look back on the villain who really started it all. No, not that fame whoring lummox named Jason. He took over the splatter mantle when Mommy bought the farm near the end of the original film. No, the real badass of the entire F13 series is the unhinged lady who started it all. As Camp Crystal Lake’s cook back in the ‘50s, Mrs. Voorhees knew her handicapped son needed constant minding. When counselors decided to have sex instead, his death helped her maternal instincts go ballistic.

The entire premise of the first Friday the 13th film is the notion of hedonistic teens paying for their self-indulgent ways. When Steve Christy vows to reopen the failing family business (the camp has had more than its fair share of bad luck in the years proceeding Mrs. Voorhees first spree), he hires a bunch of pot smoking, bed hopping, beer swilling young people to help handle the proposed influx of kids. They are to spend two weeks getting the place in shape before they see the first paying customer. Ironically enough, new cook Annie is picked up hitchhiking, and in a very dramatic and suspenseful scene, has her throat cut while running through the woods.

Thus begins the body count, what all entries in the Friday the 13th franchise are noted for. During the course of this first installment, we get arrows through the throat, axes to the face, knives to the gut, and in perhaps the movie’s most memorable kill, a full blown machete to the head decapitation. It is Mrs. Voorhees who suffers said final humiliation, loosing her noggin after a knockdown drag out lakeside rumble with Alice. The two square-off in typical talking baddie/last girl fashion but what makes the entire scuffle work is the sight of Palmer, well into her 50s by this time, smacking the bejesus out of her costar…and smiling that old school Tinsel Town grin all the while.

Starting around the same time as TV came into its own, Patricia Betsy Hrunek made a name for herself in such popular broadcast fare as the Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. She also had small but important roles in films like Mr. Roberts and The Last Angry Man. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, she found work on game shows like I’ve Got a Secret. However, her most famous turn may have been as a reporter/personality for then fledgling morning show Today. Along with commercials, talk show appearances, and occasional returns to the stage, Palmer eked out a decent if indefinite career. She was a face you recognized, but you weren’t quite sure about the where and when.

Rumor has it that, desperate for a new car (and the cash to buy same), Ms. Palmer took the role in Friday the 13th, even though she considered the script a “piece of shit”. Receiving $1000 a day for a total of 10 days work, she collected her check and tried to forget her foray into fright. But her performance was so memorable, and the impact of the slasher standard so immediate, that it wasn’t long before Mrs. Voorhees became a true blue arterial spray icon. Thanks to the hulking mutant with a mashed up face and a bullish bad attitude, the woman who gave birth to a thousand slice and dice nightmares instantly begat an entire motherly mythos.

And with good reason. Palmer is electric in the original Friday the 13th, an old ham really bringing home the bacon with her unsane showboating as the marauding madam. With eyes suggestively sparkling with glints of gratuitous hate, and choppers that would make a Great White envious, she doesn’t just chew up the scenery - she takes huge, heaping helpings of backdrop and grinds them up like little children’s hearts. Her Mrs. Voorhees is unstoppable, unconquerable, and unfathomable. Sure, seeing your son die would drive any mother over the edge. But to grab a hatchet and start swinging requires a madness that not even Charlie Manson could manage in a lifetime of incoherent inner monologues.

But Mrs. Voorhees has it all figured out. Her son died at the hands of randy adolescents who couldn’t keep their Eisenhower era hands off each other, so she is going to make sure that generations of the same suffer a similar fatalistic fate. But does this really make her the ultimate horror movie badass? Does her unrepentant desire to kill off anyone associated with Camp Crystal Lake really make her the definitive illustration of wrath unraveled and visceral? The answer, oddly enough, is Hell mofo-ing YES!!! While other killers get to hide behind masks (hockey, Halloween, or otherwise), or go about their gory commerce in Darth Vader like gasps, Palmer puts on a primer for going full blown psycho and never ever stops. She’s committed while needing to be. She’s scary without losing total touch with her aims. And until Alice removes her cranium from her collar, she’s damn successfully at the fine art of splatter.

Like any legitimate legend, Mrs. Voorhees doesn’t overstay her welcome. She battles mightily, takes her machete medicine, and dies like any badass should - directly in the line of sight of her oversized ogre of an undead child. As pure evil, as the Wicked Witch of the West meshed with a spinster aunt whose long since lost her marbles, as the unquestioned inspiration for every slasher film fiend to come afterwards, Betsy Palmer’s work in the original Friday the 13th is greatness personified. While she may not like the terror tag (though she’s recently relented and started attending conventions) and thinks the entire experience was a ‘waste of time and talent’, there’s no denying the impact of her performance. Almost three decades later we’re still talking about PAMELA Voorhees, the devoted parent who took her unquestionable grief a few slaughter-filled steps too far. It’s because of Betsy Palmer that we still cringe…and care.

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