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Thursday, May 22, 2008


Uwe Boll is no longer just a filmmaker. He’s become a cultural icon of the whipping boy variety. Granted, he’s earned every inch of his horrid hack status. Anyone who has sat through Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, or his recent In the Name of the King understands this. But to totally dismiss him as Ed Wood’s Teutonic twin does both men a massive disservice. After all, Mr. Glen or Glenda was working with a no budget handicap. Boll makes his cinematic affronts with the full faith and credit of his homeland’s moneysaving tax laws. Postal is his latest videogame based endeavor. As a motion picture, it’s garbage. But as a statement of the rest of the film loving world, it’s a gloriously tasteless middle finger.


In the tacky town of Paradise, the Dude lives an awful life. His obese wife spends her days spouting epithets, her nights cheating on him. At his job, his boss is a dick and all around him the world if falling apart. Unable to take it anymore, he decides to join up with his cult leader relative, the drug addled sex fiend Uncle Dave. Together, they plan on robbing a local amusement park. Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda cohorts are plotting the very same thing. Their eventual confrontation will result in massive bloodshed, lots of freshly killed corpses, and more than a few ethnic and intellectual slurs, just to keep things politically and personally tense.


Any movie that starts off with an extended riff on the terrorist attacks on 9/11 is either bucking the pro-PC trend, or as misguided as a Bush Administration missive. Yet Postal does indeed offer a pair of Islamic hijackers arguing over the number of virgins they’ll each receive when they meet their maker, followed unceremoniously with a World Trade Center view of the impending crash. If that kind of ‘irreverent’ shock value gag gives you giggling goosebumps, you’ll adore Postal. It plays directly into the most toilet bowl basics of the biggest arrested adolescence, making Mad Magazine (or perhaps, its lesser knockoffs like Crazy) look like the Harvard Lampoon by comparison. This is the kind of film that believes random farts are funny, that sees racial and social insensitivity as a proud papa selling point.


Leave it to the man who still thinks minor console titles from 10 years ago make viable source material to suddenly discover Farrelly like gross out humor. Postal positions itself as a raging political satire, supposedly arguing against the War on Terror, America’s fundamentalist religious views, the ticking time bomb status of white trash, and any other obvious target you can point to. But instead of eviscerating each and every one with the sharp knife of satire, Boll brings a blunt piece of movie metal and simply stabs blindly. One minute, a stateside Osama is having a big time policy pow-wow with buddy George Bush, the next, little kids are being picked off one by one, squibs sprouting bloody bullet holes in their Garanimals.


Indeed, Postal is THAT kind of movie, one that substitutes rancor for real wit, that utilizes splatter when a few script rewrites would have worked much better. To call the film ballsy would be a slam at testicular fortitude. To call it crass would give insensitivity a stain it could never recover from. Yet there is a level of pot-smoke induced ludicrousness here, a ‘late night when there’s nothing else watchable on cable’ conceit that gives this film a sheen of semi-likability that’s hard to ignore. In the right frame of mind, this might actually seem - dare it be said - funny? All of us have guilty pleasures piled up in our inner movie warehouse, marginalized efforts like Ultraviolet, Brain Donors, or Lucky Stiff. It appears Postal is ‘gunning’ for acceptance into that often uncertain arena.


Typical of his current casting ideal, Boll overloads the frame with a number of recognizable, if not necessarily famous faces. Zack Ward, otherwise known as Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story, is our unnamed hero, the trailer trash everyman who ends up going the title temperament. He makes for an interesting lead, but not much else. On the other hand, confirmed funnyman Dave Foley is forced to rely on full frontal male nudity to earn his taboo-busting paycheck. His cult leader character is never, EVER funny….EVER! Various supporting players like J. K. Simmons, Verne Troyer, and Seymour Cassel wander aimlessly, their dialogue delivered in ‘hurry up and pay me’ spurts. Boll himself even shows up as the owner/operator of a German-themed concentration camp themed amusement park built with Nazi gold. Ha.


And speaking of the much maligned director, the good doctor is clearly having a blast belittling everything he can. Since he’s more or less capable of doing anything he wants (no studio controls his actions), he takes a haphazard Hellsapoppin’ approach to spoofing. Pacing is also a problem here, especially since Boll overloads the top half of the movie with mindless scatology. After a while, all the poo and pee jokes begin to sound (and stink) alike. The scattered violence will make gorehounds unhappy, since Postal appears to be dialing back the offal in favor of more idea-based grotesqueries. By the end, we’re desperate for some massive arterial spray. All we get is a minor vein draining allotment.


Still, Postal is bound to get messageboard tongues wagging. It will be the dividing line between Boll apologists and those who remain appalled by his oeuvre. It’s not the cinematic stool sampling of his previous creative canon, but it definitely doesn’t deserve the praise it’s been getting inside the online critical community. Somewhere between a cult conversation piece and an assault on one’s intelligence, Postal proves that some filmmakers are destined to remain forever locked in their already established reputations. To call this the best film Dr. Uwe Boll has ever made is faint praise indeed. Sadly, it may also be the truth. 



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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Icons earn their status by never changing. What they represented the moment they gained said mythos remains steadfast and sturdy, with only occasional minor alterations along the way. This is why it’s never wise to revisit a symbol, cinematic or otherwise. The moment you do, the carefully constructed barriers you built around the legend start to shatter. Unless you’re out to really revise (or even implode) the idol, what was once beloved is never quite the same. For many, this is exactly what happened when George Lucas decided to go back to his Star Wars universe. Well established - and beloved - characters like Darth Vader and Yoda were systematically reconfigured to fit a new, and not necessarily complimentary, ideal.


The good news is that everyone’s favorite action adventure archaeologist, Indiana Jones, manages to make it unscathed through this fourth installment of the long dormant franchise. Even with the massive passage of time - it’s been 19 years since Last Crusade saw our hero ride off into the desert sunset - Harrison Ford and his famed fedora are rock solid. Sadly, the rest of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not so secure. Swinging wildly between popcorn pomp and cornball circumstance, this mostly unnecessary sequel tries to update the character by bringing him into an ‘I Like Ike’/Red Scare timeframe. Yet for every element of obvious nostalgia - both internal and external - there’s an ancient astronaut plotline that gets in the way.


In the middle of the Nevada desert, Indiana Jones and his British spy sidekick George “Mac” McHale have been captured by Russian agents. Brought to Area 51, the baddies want the famed finder of antiquities to locate an object he retrieved as part of a mission for the government in Roswell. Under the steel-eyed guidance of psychic researcher, Irina Spalko, Jones locates the artifact. Soon, he’s back at the University of Chicago and under scrutiny by the FBI. When a young thug named Mutt Williams approaches him about his mother, Marion, and a mentor/friend named Professor Oxley, Jones finds himself headed to the Amazon. There, he hopes to locate one of the fabled Crystal Skulls, a relic with a link to the Lost City of Gold. Oddly, enough, Spalko and her crew are there as well, looking for the same thing. This won’t be the only surprise for the aging archaeologist, however.


Here’s the biggest problem facing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - and it’s not Shia LeBeouf playing a ‘50s era juvenile delinquent with a boarding school education. No, the main problem facing our famed archaeologist is that this third sequel is, yet again, NOT Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, it never had a chance. It can’t be as fresh as when that 1981 gem first fired moviegoer’s action imagination. It can’t replicate the novelty of bringing the ‘30s/‘40s era serial into the post-modern film world. It doesn’t have the kind of cosmic import that drove the original narrative (Commies don’t make good Nazi substitutes) and it can no longer get away with being a really good romp. No, what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s audience mandates is nothing short of a bigger, badder, broader, more ballistic and bombastic take on their favorite part-time grave robber, and not even the majesty of Steven Spielberg can fulfill those unreasonable requests.


Nor can the narrative’s inherent wistfulness satisfy said cinematic itch. Seeing Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood Williams is a treat, but her entrance is handled clumsily, given little chance to resonate. Similarly, the opening sequence at Area 51 (where we eventually learn the Ark of the Covenant was taken) recaptures the prior installments’ magic, but it quickly peters out the minute the FBI shows up and declares Indy a Red. In fact, a lot of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like an old jalopy, starting and stopping, racing and then stalling until it can get into a settled sense of story. Yet the script (by David Koepp, with direction from producer George Lucas) is too enamored with its genre-jumping tendencies to stay grounded. One moment we’re back in butt kicking territory. The next, it’s the X-Files circa 1959.


Still, Spielberg is not one of the greatest moviemakers of the post-modern era for nothing, and his undeniable brilliance brings Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back from the brink time and time again. The opening sequence shifts seamlessly from a familiar backdrop to an amazing moment with a mushroom cloud. It stands as one of the director’s most masterful stunts. Similarly, a motorcycle chase through a crowded university campus has the old fashioned zing we’ve come to expect from the series. Certainly there is very little the auteur can do with page after page of expositional muck, but thanks to the evocative cinematography of longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, we love looking at the conversational backdrops. Even the finale, filled with enough CGI to choke a Jedi, gets by on the standard Spielberg shimmer.


Not everything works out as well. For all his UK bluster, Ray Winstone’s character is ill defined and rather pointless. He’s a conflict catalyst, that’s all. Equally problematic is John Hurt as Professor Oxley. While he’s always a welcome addition to any film, he’s stuck supplying the odd moment of forced insanity funny business. Perhaps the most disconcerting though is the wasted opportunities surrounding Cate Blanchett and her cool KGB dominatrix, Irina Spalko. One thing Indy villains never lack is a clear cut motivation, be it greed, god-like powers, or everlasting life. Here, the Russian’s plan seems unclear, and even worse, slightly ridiculous. We never see Spalko really use her supposed power, and the ending does little to confirm her ability of authority.


Yet none of this will really matter to an audience primed to revisit an old franchise and friend. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is clearly a movie geared toward anyone under the age of 30 who memorized every moment of their Raiders VHS. It’s not out to revamp the series of say something significant about the aging of an action icon (Ford’s ‘maturity’ is the butt of some jokes, nothing more). By harkening back to the first film, Spielberg spends its goodwill wisely. Even Lucas’ madcap story suggestions aren’t quite as lame as all that mindless midi-chlorian business. When it was first announced that Indiana Jones was coming back, the mix of anticipation and trepidation was understandable. To paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, it’s hard to go home again. Thankfully, this return leaves our hero unharmed. 



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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Even for a preview audience, jazzed on free popcorn and the chance to catch a summer blockbuster days early, the waves of cheering and the palpable sense of sheer jubilation that went up from the crowd once the mountain in its Paramount logo did its dissolve (this time to the lowly dirt-mound home of a prairie dog), was something to behold. It wasn’t quite the roar that one would have expected from those keyed-up to see a new Star Wars flick, but it was certainly a more intense outpouring of anticipation than one sees at such box-office-stoking events. There was something else going on there besides the return of a beloved film icon whom many of us had first seen before even exiting grammar school. Maybe they actually don’t make ‘em like they used to.


In any event, the audience’s pent-up thrill upon seeing Indiana Jones first appear on screen and put on that hat (in heroic shadow of course) is quickly compounded by a clutch of tightly shot and smartly fun sequences that come rocketing out of the screen one after another. With its 1950s setting allowing Harrison Ford to act his age, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also wastes no time in digging into the era’s other obsessions: fast cars, aliens, nuclear war, rock and roll, and of course villainous Commies. It’s impressive enough that Spielberg manages to act as though it hadn’t been over a decade since he’d last directed an utter popcorn picture (The Lost World), but just as impressive is the fact that Ford coasts so comfortably through this performance it’s as though he’d barely gotten out of wardrobe from 1989’s Last Crusade. Consider this: when last we saw Indy, Harrison Ford still had Presumed Innocent, Air Force One, a couple Tom Clancy adaptations, and several late-period misfires ahead of him. But here he is, serving up haymakers to the bad guys, quipping with his smart-ass sidekick, and regularly getting the tar smacked out of him, as though not a day had passed.



Of course, nothing great lasts forever in film these days, and so the energy began to leak out of the theater. By the time the last third of David Koepp’s strangely laborious screenplay creaked into place, all the frenetic chase scenes and swiftly accumulating guest performers (Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, to name a few) couldn’t erase the feeling of tedium; much the same as one experiences when watching, say, Temple of Doom, which Kingdom of the Crystal Skull easily tops. When the film coasts into its all-too-pat finale, the applause is notedly muted, though still genuine.


Some things about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are nearly irrefutable. First, Cate Blanchett does a fantastic Greta Garbo. Second, swarms of deadly ants are possibly scarier than tombs full of venomous asps. But most important is this: the audience opened their hearts and expectations to this film because “they” (Hollywood) in fact doesn’t make them like they used to. Maybe they never did. But with moviegoers facing a grim season of pallid CGI battle-toons like The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Prince Caspian, even the problematic adventures of one Indiana Jones can feel like a rich banquet in comparison.


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Tuesday, May 20, 2008


If art were easy, everyone would make it. Sure, for some, creative craftsmanship is second nature, like walking, breathing, or composing a beautiful sonnet. For many though, talent is trumped by time, demands, lifestyle, situation, and most importantly, money. Besides, we no longer live in a society which values the artisan as a professional. Instead, the writer, the rock star, or the painter are seen as ideologues, avoiding the constraints of society to continue on in their noble if non-practical pursuits. For Ken Vandermark, following his muse means a life of constant struggle. Between booking gigs and securing payment, he continues to hone his abilities. After all, he’s a Musician, and as such, lives and dies by the sonic circumstances he creates.


As part two in his amazing documentary series Work, Daniel Kraus delivers yet another stunning celluloid portrait. As he did with Sheriff, he takes a willing subject, sets up his cinema verite camera, and lets the story tell itself. In Ronald E. Hewitt, small town South Carolina lawman, the director found a perfect foil for all the stereotypes and standards he hoped to explore (and explode). Vandermark is equally unique in that he’s an avant-garde jazz specialist, a dada deconstructionist who follows the very fringes of an already outsider genre. We anticipate a difficult, demanding individual, someone who already feels marginalized because of the particular sound he strives to create. With both men, Kraus uncovers something much deeper.


Vandermark is not an unknown, toiling away endlessly in self-imposed exile or industry avoided recognition. Instead, he has a following both locally (in his home base of Chicago), nationally (he tours the country frequently), and even internationally (we hear about upcoming gigs in Norway and the Netherlands). Far from the starving artist, he lives quite comfortably with his wife Ellen Major. Of course, her being a pediatrician does help when the bills come around. Yet as part of this story, brought to life by Facets on a delightful DVD, we do see the man besieged - over charts for a future performance, with agents who can’t commit, with printers and CD manufacturers who tap his limited resources, with venues that offer only superficial support. Living up to the series title, being a musician is clearly ‘work’ for this tireless virtuoso.

Kraus doesn’t shy away from the aural element, either. We see several performances, and this will be the area where Musician tests even the most learned audiences’ perception. Vandermark makes a beautiful noise, a combination of dissonance and harmonics that seems random until you realize how hard it is to get such chaos to feel coherent. In a post-performance Q&A, he says something that ties directly into this. After listening to one of his favorite instrumentalists, he was blown away by the fact that this man could create four LP sides of atonal improvisation. He, on the other hand, hit the wall at five minutes. Realizing that he needed to breakdown the barriers before he could embrace his abilities, Vandermark started said inner journey. We see several examples of his success throughout the film.


The DVD version of Musician adds even more illustrations. Over one hour of deleted scenes allows for more concerts, more concerns, and more clarification. Vandermark is not a snob, believing that people who don’t “get” his approach are simply lacking in perception. Instead, he compliments those who try to meet his music halfway, while embracing the many different ways he expresses himself. One of the most effective moments in the film itself comes when Kraus uses a montage format, showing several of the over 100 albums Vandermark has released as part of his bands The Vandermark 5, Bridge 61, CINC, and Powerhouse Sound, among many others. It indicates the level of commitment the 43 year old has put toward his talent. Even better, it flies in the face of those who continue to view artists as lazy, self-indulgent, and unwilling to support themselves.


Kraus again expands his visual language, using unusual set ups and less handheld happenstance. For the finale, a stirring rendition of a composition made up of what appears to be one single note, the director lets his camera hang back, slowly moving away from Vandermark as he makes that sole sound say hundreds of interesting things. Even better, when faced with an issue at the Canadian border (it’s over the narcotic notoriety of being musicians and the numerous compact discs the band is bringing to the performance), Kraus simply stops filming. We don’t get the typical cops and contraband confrontation. Instead, Vandermark reflects on the situation long after it is over, giving it the proper weight and outlook.


Indeed, what’s best about the Work series, and Musician specifically, is that it asks us to drop our own preconceived notions of what a job entails to actually experience what it is. Kraus’ decision to avoid talking head narrative or other forced storylines may seem scattered at first, but the pieces typically add up to one enlightening set of life lessons. In the case of Ken Vandermark, we clearly see someone possessed by the power of music - how his saxophone sounds when pushed beyond the normal registers, how seven instruments all playing improvised lines can come together like a surging sonic maelstrom. As an example of filmic language, it argues for Daniel Kraus’ continuing growth. It also makes the wait for future installments (including Professor and Preacher) all the more difficult.


As with all art, however, the waiting stands as the hardest part. Vandermark will sit in his small side office, toiling over a calendar that seems to run out of available space and dates rather quickly. Yet with each addition, each highlighted event or tangential task, he moves forward. Even hunkered down in his basement, instrument in one hand, white out in the other, desperate to make sense of the aural cues clamoring in his head, he presses onward, knowing that there is no stopping without jeopardizing everything he’s done. Sure, it would be cool, or fun, or a dream come true to be a musician. Reality, however, tends to ruin that fantasy. Filmmakers like Daniel Kraus can be thanked for showing the situation for what it truly is - very hard work.


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Monday, May 19, 2008
It's DVD week here at SE&L. Each day from now until Sunday, we will be looking at some of the latest releases on the format, as well as some unusual or independent off-titles that you may have missed. Reviews will be updated sporadically, so check back often to see what we have to offer. Previously: George Romero invents the zombie film with his 1968 epic Night of the Living Dead Romero updates his vision, brilliantly, with the lo-fi wonder Diary of the Dead An American Whodunit with a Psychic Twist - 1982's The Killing Hour (aka The Clairvoyant) Today: Lucio Fulci gives us another example of his goofy gore noir - 1982's The New York Ripper


In the hierarchy of horror, Lucio Fulci usually falls somewhere between the post-modern macabre of Dario Argento and the creepshow classicism of Mario Bava. He’s not as nauseating as Bava’s son Lamberto, yet never achieved the artistic aplomb of Argento apprentice Michele Soavi. In fact, Fulci is loved more for his appreciation of violence and brutality than anything artistically substantive. From The Beyond to The City of the Living Dead, he created classic ‘double dare’ movies, the kind of gruesome, offal-filled freak outs that had fans cringing in their seats (and hurling in their barf bags). But there was an even sleazier side to the director, something clearly seen in The New York Ripper. While he still piles on the pus, everything else here is drowning in debauchery.


After a dog discovers a decomposing hand near the Hudson river, police detective Fred Williams learns that the victim had recent contact with a strange man speaking in a deranged, duck like voice. Soon, another body is discovered on the Staten Island ferry. With the help of psychological profiler Dr. Paul Davis, Williams starts to rundown a list of suspects. In the meantime, a high society woman with a penchant for rough trade and live sex shows makes intimate recordings for her perverted husband. Elsewhere in the city, a young lady named Fay has a run in with a man with two fingers missing on his hand. Suddenly, this deformed individual is the prime person of interest in the case. As Williams hunts for clues, the killer calls him, taunting him in that silly, sickening way. If he’s not careful, this New York Ripper will destroy everything he knows…and loves.


It goes without saying that if you’ve seen one Fulci giallo, you’ve seen The New York Ripper (recently rereleased on DVD by Blue Underground). As far back as his infamous Don’t Torture a Duckling, he meshed borderline boring police procedurals with momentary lapses into splendiferous gore. Fulci is the father of non sequitor sluice. Give him a standard situation - police fire on a suspect - and you’ll see the person’s head literally explode in an array of arterial ambivalence. It doesn’t matter if it fits the tone of what he’s attempting. As long as he can paint the screen red, Lucio likes. Perhaps that’s why New York Ripper is so much mean spirited fun. While the vast majority of the movie plays like a lampoon of serial killer shockers (the murderer speaks like Donald Duck with a disease), the frequent lapses into outright nastiness more than makes up for the unintentional laughs.

What’s different here though is the reliance on repugnant sexuality and decadent NY-seediness. Any film that has a main character getting a foot job inside a skuzzy dive bar, that perpetrates a horrendous vivisection on a completely nude victim - Heck, almost any Fulci fantasy that explores the corporeal with the cadaverous - is bound to throw fright fans for a loop. We expect a little T&A with our scares, but the disturbed way in which The New York Ripper delivers this material is mind-numbing. If Fulci ever wondered why he wasn’t taken more seriously, the sleazoid subtext here should have been all the proof he needed. This really is a repugnant little reject. 


It’s this deranged dichotomy that works both for and against The New York Ripper. This is a movie where half of what’s onscreen truly satisfies, while the other part seems purposefully set on destroying everything that came before. The mystery is mangled in a series of false leads, ridiculous red herrings, narrative u-turns, and any other perplexing plot pointing the script can offer. On the other hand, the performances win us over, Fulci mixing his cast between accomplished Americans (Jack Hedley, Howard Ross) and Italian imports (Andrea Occhipinti, Paolo Malco). As with most of his films, his female leads are rather weak, passive in their ability to stand on their own. Almanta Suska, as Fay, has a hard time balancing the demands of the role with the reality of the situation. She’s supposed to be a prime suspect, yet never comes across as anything other than whiny and confused.


Sadly, Fulci left us in 1996, meaning that most DVD content must rely on experts and other so-called scholars to fill in the filmmaker’s many creative blanks. That being said, Blue Underground does very little with this release, simply providing some basic information and leaving it at that. Certainly, there is someone out in the fright fan ether that can comment on how the filmmaker came to helm this particular project (he had been on an international roll ever since Zombi in 1979). While always a journeyman, Fulci did hold some particular ambitions, and it would be interesting to learn where The New York Ripper fit into these crazy career plans.


Of course, as the years go by, and as the ‘Net expands in the appreciation of the wrongfully marginalized, Lucio Fulci may yet find his place among the horror beloved. Of course, you have to get past all the cheesy comedies, weirdo westerns, and other genre jumps the director created over his decades in the industry. The New York Ripper doesn’t help or hurt his cause, mostly because blood blots out the substantial shortcomings. Still, if you really want to see what this director is all about, take a gander at his straight ahead horror romps. They are much more satisfying from a fright and filth standpoint. Films like this one are not really an anomaly. But they do underscore the reason why Fulci remains a valued, if underappreciated auteur. 


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