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by Bill Gibron

21 Oct 2008


Why is The Last Broadcast a better film than its unholy spawn, the insipid Blair Witch Project? How come it manages to be coherent, suspenseful, funny, and fresh while Witch remains loud, abrasive, confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying? It could have something to do with the overall approach. The Last Broadcast is a mock documentary, an attempt by an outsider to interpret and extrapolate on the “found footage” of some deadly events in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Witch is a wobbly “you are there” presentation of the actual material discovered during an investigation into the disappearance of a filmmaker and her friends. Both employ plenty of POV perspectives, although one substitutes swear words for actual conversations.

Yet in the end, Witch is a one-joke movie, a gimmick that once given away is not easily re-experienced and appreciated. In the case of Broadcast, filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler have found a way to incorporate the same menacing mood and unexpected story twists without losing us in Gen-X jerkdom and pointless aural thrills. Besides, Witch only has one scene going for it—and it arrives right at the very end of the movie. Broadcast almost unravels when it shifts to showcase its finale. Yet between the two, this fake-fact film is more industrious and inventive, leaving the Burkittsville bunch wallowing in its wake.

As hosts of the popular cable access program Fact or Fiction, Steven “Johnny” Avkast and Locus Wheeler are used to the unusual. But when their tie-in Web site turns up a request to do a show on the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the so-called “Devil” that supposedly lives in them, the two hosts end up getting in way over their head. Hiring a technology expert named Rein Clackin, who claims to be able to pick up paranormal sounds with his recording equipment and bringing along a supposed psychic named Jim Suerd to “get in touch with the spirit world,” the duo proceed with their plan to broadcast live from the middle of this eerie remote location. They hope to put an end to the monster myths once and for all.

All preparations appear to run smoothly, but as they approach the campsite, Jim becomes disoriented, threatens Rein, and runs off. As the show starts, Jim sequesters himself nearby, chatting on the computer. The others proceed with the investigation. The next day, everyone’s dead—except for Jim. Naturally, the police think the ominous loner killed his comrades, but documentary filmmaker David Leigh believes otherwise. It is his goal to expose the truth about what happened that night deep in the New Jersey woods. He will figure out what happened during this Last Broadcast, hoping that the facts will clear Suerd and lead to the real killer—whoever or whatever it is.

Naturally, the next question is why The Last Broadcast isn’t as successful, or even more so, than its blockbuster brother. The answer is actually quite simple. When placed up against the ersatz realism of the adventures in disorientation of Heather, Josh, and Mike, Broadcast appears cold and distant. We never get to know Steven and Locus and more or less fail to find a reason to root for Jim Suerd, the fame-whoring pseudo-psychic who may or may not have murdered his fellow cable-access adventurers.

No, the real thrust of this far superior film’s force is in its clever and consistently creative storytelling. Witch went one way, and one way only—follow three people into the woods and watch what happens. Broadcast uses that same dynamic, then fleshes it out with backstory, humor, standard documentary interviews, and eccentric character twists to take us out of the actual moment, only to redirect our attention and place us right back in the middle of these murders. It’s a wonderfully inventive method of keeping the story fresh and free from the stagnancy that can come with such an approach. We get caught up in the mystery first, then find reasons to hang onto the individuals involved.

Once successfully removed from its copycat cousin (While there is no real proof of plagiarism, the Blair Witch gang does admit to seeing this movie before setting out to make their own), what you end up with is a wildly entertaining experience that uses subtle thrills and undeniable chills to tell an excellent story of arrogance unhinged and dangers undetected. The Last Broadcast believes in the effectiveness of its narrative and never once tries to pull any punches or fake any fear. When it wants to be goofy and gratuitous, it is. When it hopes to be strange and unexplainable, it is as well.

In fact, there are very few things that Broadcast is not. This is the rare movie that appears to achieve all of its goals instantly and honorably, never going for the cheap trick or the obvious element. It is so expertly constructed, so flawlessly built out of facets we recognize from all over the genre map, that when they finally come together toward the end, we never once doubt their effectiveness as a source of shivers. Because of its snuff film-like realism and its desire to tell its scary story honestly and realistically, Broadcast builds up a lot of gonzo goodwill—and it needs it. The conclusion takes a track that many won’t see coming, and even more may find it antithetical to what the movie was originally striving toward.

That would be a shortsighted interpretation of what occurs. If anything, The Last Broadcast is one of the few films to anticipate its imitators and offer up its own intriguing commentary on their overall modus operandi. When you realize that someone other than the Blair Witch crew is manipulating the events to create the on-camera “scares” we see, the brilliance of Avalos and Weiler’s ending becomes clear. Instead of going for a supernatural slant or a direct link to the obvious suspects, Broadcast takes on the notion of perception—why we follow certain stories and what we eventually get out of them. When the denouement is made (in a wonderfully effective montage sequence), we bristle at the brashness of such a reveal.

Then, as the wrap-up begins—both figuratively and literally—we get the opportunity to reflect on all that’s come before. It paints the entire story in a totally different light, one that suggests more than the movie ever sells, and illustrates how effective an approach like this can be. Since major cinematic elements (such as acting or production value) are not really necessary here, The Last Broadcast has to get by on the success of its storytelling alone. In that regard, it is masterful. It creates an impression far more lasting than some frightened fellow momentarily glimpsed in a basement corner.

by Bill Gibron

20 Oct 2008


The Man Himself

It’s about time that the urban comedy landscape got its shit together. It seems like every few years, another supremely talented mofo is set up to take the high hat of humor and wear it proudly. For a while, Dave Chappelle got the chapeau. He did the best he could with it, slanting the satirical brim ever so slightly until the brain inside started to sizzle and slide under the weight of sudden fame. One quick trip to South Africa later, and the crown is looking for a new king.

Previous mirth merry men of color included Chris Tucker (who traded it in for a great deal of kung fu phoniness) Martin Lawrence (who took the “you so crazy” concept of his comedy act literally) and that misplaced Buckwheat wannabe Eddie Murphy. Actually, the SNL artist formerly known as funny has donned and doffed the cap of cleverness so many times that it has a permanent dent where his always bruised ego seems to fit perfectly.

But apart from Richard Pryor, whose genius usurps practically everything it touches — even Gene Wilder — the sad truth is that since one righteous brother gave up the title of funniest man on film, the world of the inner city jokefest just hasn’t been the same. Instead of looking for someone with this man’s style and stamina, or picking through the stand-ups for the next big thing, they should simply acknowledge his greatness and give up looking.

Like Little Richard — except without all the wannabe drag queen dreariness — he was the originator, a party record pioneer who turned his novelty-based fame into a string of films that forever fractured the world of blaxploitation. While audiences in the ‘70s were lining up for more of those sweet Sweetback’s black man’s revenge fantasies, one sanctified soul man wanted to make people laugh…and laugh some more. He also created one of the most singularly original characters in the history of the genre. The main man he made was named Dolemite, and the brazen bravado bringing him to life was none other than Rudy Ray Moore.

Frankly, all modern minority comics, as Spike Lee once said, can kiss Rudy’s rather ample rump—TWO times! Moore was, and remains at 68, a master, a randy rappin’ fool who occasionally spoke in verse (part of a comedy tradition of saucy poems), peppered his presentation with all manner of catchphrases, and practiced a kind of crackpot kung-fu that had shortsighted Shaolin monks scratching their bald heads in defensive skills disbelief.

One trip through his original oeuvre (not counting movies where he made cameos, or worked in a less than superstar capacity) provides glimpses into a guy whose personality was all about fun and fuckin’—hopefully both at the same time. He only got medieval when the man — or some other manufactured version of the cancer known as the Caucasian — came down on him. Then the prerequisite pull top can of Me Decade whoop ass was opened up on anyone who didn’t see eye to eye with this sub-genre Superfly.

Moore’s first film was Dolemite. He played the title role, a street hustler framed by a bunch of crooked cops for being black and badass. While in the slammer, pimp provocateur Willie Green takes over. With the help of an oversexed Mayor named Daley, Green aims to overrun Dolemite’s club (almost all blaxploitation films revolved around nightclubs). With the help of Queen Bee and his kung fu karate kicking biz-nitches, our man Moore shoots shit up and repeats rhyming material from his stand up act. In between there is some sloppy sex, misguided martial arts, lots of ladies dressed in polyester nightmares, and a character known as the Hamburger Pimp, whose kind of like Popeye’s Wimpy, except with a mumbling problem and a severe chemical addiction.

Moore was different than his genre counterparts in that he wasn’t looking for a moral in his movies. Unlike his prosperous progenitor, who constantly queried over the bottom line and above-title billing, Moore wanted to have a good time and give the predominantly urban audience what they wanted - sex, slang and lots of butt whipping. Keeping completely within said formula, Moore delivered his next film The Human Tornado. Returning again as Dolemite, this pseudo-sequel is just plain strange. When he’s caught in bed with a racist sheriff’s wife, the mighty Mite is on the run. He heads to L.A., where he learns his favorite spot (again with the nightclub), Queen Bee’s ultra happening Total Experience, has been overrun by the mafia. Mr. Cavaletti even has Dole’s dames providing some carnal curb service.

Revenge is a little more complicated this time around. Dolemite first hits Cavaletti where it hurts—in the spouse. Posing as an erotic art salesman, our hero humps some info out of Mrs. C., and then heads off to find a spooky old ghost house where the mob is holding some of his la-dies. He throws down more pseudo-judo hand signs, beats up an old woman in bad voodoo make-up, and even comes back to life when the bigoted sheriff supposedly shoots him dead. He’s unafraid to look the fool (new generations should take note) Dolemite is part conqueror, part dumbbell here. Between the opening stand-up comedy routine (Moore’s act and onstage demeanor are priceless) to Mrs. Cavaletti’s naked black muscleman sex fantasy sequence, this is one amazingly messed up movie.

Perhaps the most supreme example of this Hellzapoppin’ humor chutzpah is Petey Wheatstraw (the Devil’s Son-in-Law). Though it begins on a very somber note (Petey and his pals are killed in a gangland assassination over — you guessed it — a nightclub) things quickly turn twisted when Petey makes a deal with the Devil. He will marry Satan’s mutt-ugly daughter if the Fallen One performs a little afterlife CPR. Suddenly, things are back to normal, except along with a new lease, Petey has also swiped Lucifer’s wishing stick just to be a betrothed bastard. As he runs around the ghetto granting favors, Beelzebub sends demonic minions up from Hell to help Petey keep his word. But the amazing Mr. Wheatstraw has other plans. He’s going to screw Legion over, and continue his regular earthbound routine.

This may just by Moore’s masterpiece, a surrealistic sensation where nothing makes much sense, and we abso-friggen’-lutely like it that way. Today’s comedy cats would never think of featuring the ferociously un-PC mugging of Leroy and Skillet, a scene where a man slinks away in disgrace after crapping his pants, or a Benny Hill style fast cranked session of oral action with several Satanic sex-pots as part of their plot. That’s what makes this freak show fright fantasy is unlike any movie — blaxploitation or otherwise — that you’re likely to see. Moore would do anything to amuse. Petey Wheatstraw has race-based humor (when Petey’s mother gives birth, it’s a watermelon that arrives first), some strange social satire (all the weird wishing stick stuff acting like wealth-driven welfare) and some downright peculiar ideas (Satan looks like Booker T. Washington with a bad barber).

Yet after Petey, something happened to Moore’s muse. Suddenly, our stubby stand-up stud had an inexplicable and unexplainable desire to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, social consciousness just didn’t jibe with his juke joint jive. While The Disco Godfather is not a complete waste of time (it does contain a couple of Moore’s more memorable catchphrases, including the classic dance floor come-on “put your weight on it”!), it does meander where Tornado and Wheatstraw soared. Since the main theme here is drugs (Moore’s Tucker Williams is a crusading local NIGHTCLUB DJ who looses a nephew to ‘dust’) there is lots of preaching and screeching. Narcotics are even envisioned as an outlandish female demon, and Moore has his own standoff with the wasted witch.

Though the title suggests Michael Corleone leaving Las Vegas for the bright lights of Studio 54, The Disco Godfather is just not endearing. Moore is no good when he is playing semi-serious, and his acting goes from amusing to mannered—especially when trying to dive into the drama. Instead of extended his range, it ended his reign as a box office champion. He made occasional cameos (in flops like B*A*P*S*) and even tried the direct to video market with a What’s Up, Tiger Lily? style redux of an old martial arts movie (which he then dubbed Shaolin Dolemite). Sadly, today he is nothing but a footnote, a throwaway line in a stupid House Party film.

Still, it’s hard to deny what Moore accomplished. He was fiercely autonomous, making the movies he wanted the way he wanted. Yes, he occasionally slipped into the role of a stunt man for his own crap karate moves. Certainly, the self-penned love ballads he inserted in the score were as saccharine sweet as anything tickled out of Barry Manilow’s ivories (Tornado‘s “Miss Wonderful” is an amazingly arch treat). And honestly while he may have been a ladies man, Moore was a tad too plump to be pulling off his clothes to knock boots with the babes. Yet Moore’s films endure because they are funny, and filled with a kind of clever racial irreverence. The “Man” might get miffed when they see that all the villains are lily-white louses, but Moore’s movies were equal opportunity indicters.

There truly is no modern version of Moore. The closest anything comes to his style of no-holds barred brazenness can be found in, of all places, the tent revival as Christian comedy plays of Tyler Perry. Madea is nearly the next best thing to a contemporary Dolemite, even down to the collection of quotable lines. Both characters satirize and polarize the black experience, using wholly idiosyncratic means to get their message across. Both trade in stereotypes, minstrel mannerisms, and an unapologetic frankness that causes the audience to focus on not only what they are seeing, but also what it says about them as a subject. Moore was that important link (one that Richard Pryor was just starting to explore on film) between the party record mystique of vulgarity-laced laughter and the mainstreaming of minority comedy. Everyone who came after him benefited from his unyielding desire to do whatever it takes to entertain an audience—value and virtue be got-damned.

So take your Rocks and your Tuckers, hang onto your Murphys and your Chapelles. Rudy Ray Moore was first, and he was the best. There is more peculiarity, more profanity, and more outright pleasure to be gained from a trip into the Dolemite dimension than in any combination of big budget urban excuses. It is nearly impossible not to be entertained, or fall in love with, this brave, brilliant, and boldly bawdy brother.

by Bill Gibron

19 Oct 2008


Has another filmmaker had the same amazing meteoric rise from novice to name as Peter Jackson? A mere 21 years ago he was an unknown Kiwi geek who had spent four years making his own monster movie. A quick sale at Cannes and his alien cannibal comedy was a glorified cult smash. But consider where he was in 1999. With only six feature films under his belt, and limited commercial cache to show for it, New Line named him the guide for their all important Lord of the Rings franchise. Three epics, billions of dollars, and a trio of Oscars later, Jackson is now a monumental moviemaking figure, an example of talent trumping the standard studio thinking. Looking back at 1987’s Bad Taste now, it’s clear that this was a director worth watching. But it’s also clear that, within his limited budgetary purview, there was more ambition than ability. 

The entire town of Kaihoro, New Zealand is missing, and its up to the Astro Investigation and Defence Service to figure out why. While Derek determines the extent of the damage, Barry explores the deserted city. He is attacked by a zombie and barely escapes with his life. Frank and Ozzy phone in, explaining they will be delayed in providing backup. In the meantime, Derek watches over a captured creature, hoping to determine their extraterrestrial flesh eating motives. An accident puts the mission in jeopardy, and when a charitable collector named Giles comes to town, he is kidnapped by the fiends. Turns out, aliens have indeed landed, and they intend to use Earth for some nefarious culinary aims. It is up to our foursome to put a stop to the plot, to save Giles, and keep the rest of the universe from experiencing the Bad Taste of Crumb’s Crunchy (Human) Delights.

Revisiting this film after almost two decades reveals something very interesting - not only about what Jackson managed to accomplish, but with regards to that other rarified element, selective cinematic memory. Fans fondly remember Bad Taste as being an over the top splatter fest loaded with blood, bile, and body parts. In the windmills of one’s ever mottled mind, it was an action packed farce, denim clothed zombies carving up the community while oddball government agents pass ironic judgment on the entire proceedings. With a last act that loses sight of the sluice and a gonzo gross out sense of humor, it was the first real film dork delight…

…except, none of this is really true. Like most myths, the legend of Bad Taste has been expanded (and exploited) to fit the gore lovers revisionist nostalgic needs. Compared to Jackson’s brilliant Braindead (known to most as Dead Alive), this first film is relatively sedate. The arterial spray is evident, but slyly spaced out over the longish 90 minute running time. Similarly, the Kiwi genius has been funnier. Bad Taste is not as clever or cutting as Meet the Feebles, and lacks the consistency of his lauded later works. Finally, the film is not as frightening as one recalls. The final fifteen minutes is taken up with an extended gun battle which grows redundant after a while. Indeed, much of the movie plays exactly like what it is/was - a weekend workout among a bunch of schlock supporting fanatics.

It’s a situation that stands repeating - Bad Taste is not a classic. It’s not even the best example of this kind of cracked carnage. Instead, like most first efforts, it’s the foundation for a filmic type, the natural extension of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead dementia filtered through a legitimate horror fan’s fancy. Jackson is a noted student of the scary, able to wax wonderfully about everything from early Universal frights to the most obscure foreign fear factors. Bad Taste relishes that referencing. Rumor has it that Jackson fashioned it as a tribute to Tom Savini and you can see other noted homages throughout. Again, this doesn’t make the movie a milestone, just a smart, sometimes special experience.

It’s fun to watch Jackson in the unusual mode of actor, and a clean shaven one at that. As Derek, the head of Astro Investigation and Defense Service, he is almost unrecognizable. Talking in a high pitched accent that gives his entire demeanor a wimpified gloss, he’s hilarious and hopeless at the same time. When he puts on the familiar facial hair to play tongue tied alien Robert, it’s back to the human hobbit we know and love. The rest of the cast, made up of mates, chums, and other local well wishers, offer nothing more than glorified line readings, if that. Only a couple went on to pursue a career in film after Bad Taste. So this is clearly a homemade effort, a combination of desire and unbridled gumption given over to frequent fits of brilliance and, sadly, boredom. Viewed within the confined of contemporary splatter, Jackson’s jaunt is almost inert.

In fact it’s hard to champion long sequences of walking and worrying, the amazing New Zealand landscape providing the only real interest. Even more frustrating is the lack of continuous action. We don’t expect a film from 1987 to be Shoot ‘Em Up, but the lack of unbroken energy does undermine things. Once we get into the alien stronghold, things pick up immensely, and there’s no denying the effectiveness of Jackson’s handcrafted F/X (he even baked his monster masks in this mother’s oven). But then the guns come out and Bad Taste shifts into creative cruise control. Watching extras flail wildly as they are riddled with squibs is one thing. Seeing it for several similar minutes feels like padding.

As a way of looking at Peter Jackson Version 1.0, the man who would later evolve into a myth, Bad Taste is a telling template. It offers up many of the things he would later explore in his creative canon, while suggesting that something happened along the way to significantly amplify his game. Watching any number of his recent films - from Heavenly Creatures to Return of the King - argues for Taste‘s treatment as a fluke. It’s as if Chris Seaver went from making Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker to The Dark Knight in the span of a decade. When legend slams head on into the truth, the pile up is never pretty. Luckily, Bad Taste is better than such a collision suggests. It’s also rather underwhelming.

by Bill Gibron

19 Oct 2008


Stuart Gordon’s career as one of the post-modern masters of the macabre happened quite by accident. As a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in the ‘60s, the self-described radical spearheaded controversial productions with his notorious company The Screw Theater (whose main objective was to stage shows that would force the audience to leave). He would later go on to form Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, and seemed content to pursue combustible live performance. In fact, when it was suggested that the H.P. Lovecraft tale “Herbert West, Re-Animator”, would be an interesting project to pursue, the lifelong fan originally thought about doing it live. When that idea was scrapped, a TV script found its way to an interested producer. Reimagined as a film, and the rest, as they say, is splatter comedy history.

Yet Gordon is more than just body parts and black comedy. While many of his films have stayed within the blood and gore genre, he’s dabbled in sensationally schlocky science fiction (Robot Jox, Space Truckers), fantasy (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit), and intense urban drama (his adaptation of David Mamet’s Edmond). Horror is just one of the many caps this creator wears. Now comes the delightfully disgusting thriller Stuck (new to DVD from Image Entertainment). Based ‘loosely’ on an infamous real life case in which a young woman ran down a homeless man with her car and left him to die positioned in her windshield, Gordon finds yet another opportunity to take a typical genre and thwart its conventions. In this case, he takes a nail-biting thriller and turns it into a sly, substantive social commentary.

Brandi Boski is a collection of contradictions. As a nurse’s assistant in an old folks home, she loves her patients and cares for them with a sincerity and devotion. It doesn’t go unnoticed by her stickler boss. But when the working day is done, this girl just wants to have fun - ecstasy-fueled, rap music-inspired, club and bed hopping fun. With her African American drug dealer boyfriend Rashid by her side, it’s a headlong hop into full blown hedonism. On the day she learns she may be up for a big promotion, Brandi really ties one on. That night, her DUI driving meets Thomas Bardo, a recently evicted, at the end of his rope ex-professional. He flies into her windshield, getting stuck in the process. Instead of dying, however, he is badly, badly injured. In a blind panic, Brandi simply drives home and puts her damaged car in the garage. She can’t let a little thing like a mangled human ruin her chance at career advancement - or personal gratification.

Stuck is the kind of film you’d expect from Stuart Gordon. It defies convention as it finds unusual ways to make its many captivating and insightful points. For those familiar with his blood and guts grandstanding only, there is ample accident-based arterial spray, and there is a darkly humorous cloud covering everything that Brandi, her beau Rashid, and a desperate Bardo does. Sure, the first fifteen minutes of the film finds actor Stephen Rea putting on a nerdy drawl as his life systematically crumbles around him. The upwardly mobile Brandi meeting the downwardly spiraling Bardo is the perfect cinematic set-up. It provides both players with a reason to react, and a motivation for their eventual actions. Where Gordon decides to take everything next is why he’s considered one of the medium’s most outside and outrageous thinkers.

At first, the symbolism in Stuck is rather sketchy. Mena Suvari, her hair braided in some dated ‘wigger’ cornrows, plays Brandi like a beat-happy culture-robbing lightweight. She just wants a paycheck, a partner, and to party. Bardo is a typical post-modern white male - unimportant, powerless, and disposable. Rashid is the balance between the two - successful but for sketchy reasons, a bad-ass who turns tail whenever trouble rears its lifestyle stealing head. As a threesome, we see contemporary populism captured in all its pale perfection. Our heroine turns out to be cutthroat and ruthless, wanting nothing to interfere with or steal her status. In her mind, it’s all Bardo’s fault. Her man talks a good game, but literally can’t deliver the death blow. And caught between the two is the victim, the former paternalistic heart of our once structured society, now left to rot in the windshield of a vehicle like so much meaningless road kill.

But Gordon doesn’t stop there. While Bardo is trying to make an escape, there are neighbors who discover (or almost redirect) his predicament. One is a self-absorbed homosexual who is so concerned about the blood on his shirt (thanks to his pet Pomeranian who accidentally discovered the garage crime scene) that he ignores the more obvious question - where did such grue come from? The other is an immigrant family who, after discovering Bardo’s dilemma, fails to act because of their own illegal status. The iconography is obvious - here is the white man, once powerful, now unable to escape the grips of women and the strong minority men who now intrigue them. He’s figuratively fractured her well placed glass ceiling, and she responds like a serial killer. Sadly, the only fringe elements that could or would help have their own majority made issues that keep them distant and insular.

It would be nice to hear if Gordon purposely sought this approach, or if it was an organic result of the careful casting. Sadly, Image’s DVD offers little in the way of added context. Aside from a standard trailer, there’s nothing else. For a movie like Stuck, it seems a commentary would be mandatory. Gordon does a good job with these full length feature narratives, and one imagines he would fill in the blanks that some of the script purposefully leaves out. Granted, a lot of what he wants to say here is fairly self-evident. Suvari’s hairstyle, Rea’s unrealistic voice, the opening sequence where Brandi must clean up after a soiled and filthy old man (a WHITE man), and the constant hammering of the decency along the fringes (Bardo is initially befriended by a fellow homeless man in the park, much to his surprise), makes Stuck more than suspense.

Oddly enough, the dread ends up being the least important element in the entire film. We get the typical cat and mouse, Bardo finding ways to improve his lot (a cell phone, random tool-based weaponry) while Brandi and Rasheed plot and argue. We never feel the film will do something completely unexpected and fail to wrap things up in an action packed denouement. It’s just a matter of who will win and who will pay for what they’ve done to the other. If you’re coming to Stuck hoping for another dizzying dose of Stuart Gordon splatter, gore mixed with a goofball sense of humor, you may be disappointed. This is not From Beyond retrofitted to a modern suburban setting. Instead, this maverick moviemaker has decided to discuss the current state of society circa the new millennium, and in that regard, Stuck is very special indeed. If you get the message, you’ll respect the movie. Even if you don’t, you still have to admire the man. Stuart Gordon will always be an enigma. Something like Stuck suggests he’ll never change. 

by Bill Gibron

18 Oct 2008


Just like other fine arts - of conversation, of letter writing, of human compassion - debate has been downplayed and demonized by modern society. We don’t like dissent. Instead, we enforce compromise, or even worse, claim that disagreement is something unfair or “Un-American”. Even our political candidates shun the once important intellectual exercise, instead opting for prepared questions and talking point laden speech/statements. Television, the great wasteland of McLuhan fame, has become the last bastion of anything remotely resembling discourse, and even then, it’s usually reduced to punditry vs. perturbing on the idea scale. Lewis Black’s newest TV venue, Comedy Central’s Root of All Evil, wants to advance the cause of discourse, and within its limited purview, it definitely does.

Using a mock trial format, Black introduces two famed ‘advocates’ (read: noted comics from the world of stand-up) who argue over which is worse - Oprah or the Catholic Church, Beer or Weed, for example. Like extended onstage riffs, the talent takes their position, and using quips, jabs, and other humor-based briefs, they try to convince the judge (the host) and the jury (a studio audience) of their position. Black asks questions to trip up the speakers, and something called “The Ripple of Evil” is also discussed. The attending crowd is asked to vote, Black reads their opinion, renders his verdict, and sentences the loser. Among the already mentioned conflicts featured on this Season 1 DVD (from Paramount Home Video) are YouTube vs. Porn, Donald Trump vs. Viagra, Las Vegas vs. The Human Body, Kim Jong-IL vs. Tila Tequila, American Idol vs. High School, and Paris Hilton vs. Dick Cheney. 

For a long time now, Comedy Central has tried to come up with a successful comedian clash format. The most interesting was Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, a proposed companion piece of sorts to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. During its run, four stand-ups would battle it out over current issues of the day. Quite contentious - and entertaining - the show didn’t last long, mostly because of problems with production and topicality. Now we get Root of All Evil, and in some ways, it’s even less successful. Not that the show isn’t funny, engaging, irreverent, or controversial. In fact, it’s one of the best examples of the format. But with the focus on popular culture, and some clear interference from the network, Black and company are missing a golden opportunity to become the McLaughlin Group of mirth.

Frankly, for all his current stature, Black should be bigger. Outside of his Comedy Central co-star Stewart, and his slightly less exacerbated twin Bill Maher (whose Real Time has a hand in Evil‘s production) he’s one of the rare voices on the meaningful issues of the world. He’s like Mort Sahl stricken with Tourettes, a clever political satirist who never seems to get the respect he deserves. Granted, his attacks sound more like rants than reasoned arguments, but when you cut out all the curse words and sideways references, he’s right on target. If anything, Root of All Evil gives him a half hour platform to magnify his popularity. But when the company paying your bills nixes certain ideas (Comedy Central rejected a first season showdown between Scientology vs. Disney), your ability for an individual showcase is limited.

Still, the show is very good at taking down its intended marks. Highlights include Patton Oswalt’s flawless deconstruction of Dick Cheney (“He’s the leader of the free world, and the world has never been less free.”), Andy Kindler’s vivisection of American Idol (“calling it a ‘guilty pleasure’ is just another way of saying ‘I’m dead inside…’”) and Oswalt, again, on YouTube (”…and while we were all laughing (at online videos), we invaded Iran!”). Sometimes, the takes are rather obvious (beer = bad judgment) or overdone (“At least when you hang out with cokeheads, they only have one theory…what if we could get some more coke.”). Yet within the context of the show, almost all of it works. And you’ll be surprised at how serious the comedians take their charge.

Indeed, one of the show’s more compelling elements is the adherence to the format and the desire to be persuasive. Sure, this is really nothing more than well-prepared comedy bits strung out over a legal theme, but there are times when you can tell that the performers have forgotten about being funny and are really trying to make a salient point. Black sets the tone, opening the show with a patented screed and statement, and throughout the proceedings he drops in little bilious bon mots. It helps that his first season cast is so capable. Along with Kindler, and Oswalt, Greg Giraldo, Paul F. Thompkins, Andrew Daly (the series’ unsung hero) and Kathleen Madigan manage to make the most of their time. Still, there is an inherent flaw in the overall presentation. Sometimes, a subject is so ripe for ridicule that we, the home audience, can come up with equally clever insights. When the comics don’t completely deliver, Root of All Evil appears to underachieve.

Still, for what it manages to accomplish in the name of entertainment, Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil is an intriguing, often insightful offering. It dares to challenge conventional wisdoms while dragging spurious social topics through the satirically-slung mud. It may not be the best situation to platform the talent involved, and the areas of interest tend to stay within the easily recognizable. Yet with real debate a dead proficiency, and the media’s desire to make everything a clash - of cultures, of concerns, of commerce - there is something quite satisfying about Black and his buddies. While they may not be able to resurrect the artform, they always make us laugh. And in today’s troubled times, that might be what matters most.

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