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by Bill Gibron

30 Nov 2008


In China, it’s like Halloween. The 15th night of the seventh month is reserved for the dead. Ancient tradition holds that, on this occasion, the spirits of those who’ve departed pass through the gates of purgatory and mingle with their loved ones left behind on Earth. Through ritual and respect, they are appeased and head back into the afterlife. Thus the Ghost Festival finds its folklore and a new horror anthology from Facets, entitled Visits, finds a foundation. Dealing with a specific part of the mythology centering on hungry, or vengeful spirits, four Asian directors with differing approaches provide a quartet of fright films proposing to make your spine shiver and your nerves rattle - that is, if they don’t bore you to death first.

Framed by a disc jockey promising a series of sensational holiday horror fare, the first tale, entitled 1413 centers on two young girls, a suicide pact gone sour, and the truth behind the untimely death of the unsettled specter. Waiting for Them has an unlucky in love businesswoman upset over the despondent phone calls of a friend. When she finally finds her wondering the street, she seems unusually connected to the supernatural realm. A young filmmaker hopes to capture a scary ritual known as the Nodding Scoop…and gets much more than he or his gal pals bargained for, while a psychotic security guard stalks a pretty apartment dweller, unaware of her own sinister secret in Anybody Home.

While all four films have something going for them, nary a single one stands out as special or suspenseful. They all suffer from incomplete ideas and half-baked realization of same. If one had to pick a worthwhile installment amongst the otherwise mediocre material, the final segment would score strongly. Until the last act mistake of switching the point of view from surveillance cameras to standard cinema, Anybody Home makes for some quasi—creepy silent storytelling. We never fully understand the motives of the security guard, and can only speculate as to what he reacts to once he’s inside the victims home and looking in her freezer. Of course, the entire set-up suggests something unholy and awful, but when director Ho Yuhang decides to switch gears and go back to a standard shooting style, we instantly loose interest. Add in a lengthy, unexplained flashback and a weird, anticlimactic ending, and even Anybody Home suffers.

In fact, it’s safe to say that all of Visits is stunted by a long standing, second class association with the already dead genre of J-Horror. From the obsession with suicide (1413) to the notion of pissed off phantoms taking their afterlife anger out on the living (Nodding Scoop), each episode here feels lifted from a better, more original inspiration. Even Waiting for Them, which wants to put a fresh, frightening spin on self-discovery and female empowerment treads so lightly and statically that you frequently wonder if the actors are actually moving. Indeed, this mind-numbingly dull effort argues for James Lee’s ineffectualness as a filmmaker.

Yet even when a director tries for something novel, like Ng Tian Hann and his caught on tape terror show Nodding Scoop, the conventions of the genre do him in. We need to have ghosts, girls under attack, and a clueless cad for a hero who ends up making multiple mistakes before succumbing to the spirit’s evil advances. The whole narrative is knotted around itself, unclear from the moment we learn that our novice filmmaker has hired two babes to be his on camera (and off screen) talent. While the occasional glimpses of the unhappy spook make the opening moments fun, the finale falls flat. Indeed, what we need more than anything else is a sense of clarity. We don’t mind enigmatic moments and unexplained fears. But without details - or an attempt to offer said - we become frustrated.

Indeed, Visits is an overall aggravating experience. 1413 seems to wrap up its obvious mystery before it even begins, and the red herring married boyfriend in Waiting never pays off at all. It’s the same for Anybody Home. Why take several minutes putting us through the cat and mouse of the security guards personal surveillance only to have the storyline shift over into something completely different…and underwhelming? While the sole bonus feature argues for the effectiveness of the short film format, nothing about Visits supports this theory. All four mini-features would have benefited from a longer length, as well as a few rewrites, an expansion of themes, and a revisit to the Western way of delivering the shivers. The closest we get to effective macabre is a bit of bloodshed.

Of course, it’s not Visits fault that it took nearly four years to get to American audiences. While a previous DVD version of this title was released by an unknown company back in 2006, this will be the first exposure for many to this irritating title. Since it was made, the entire Asian fright flick fad has peaked, petered out, and grown passé. It’s now the stuff of spoof, not serious scary moviemaking. Yet there are occasional attempts to revive the format, with Hollywood still working through its One Missed Call contracts before finally putting the genre to bed forever. It would be nice to say that Visits could jumpstart, or at the very least reinvigorate an already DOA medium. At this point in the game however, the type is no longer viable, and this film is far from strong enough to overcome such odds.

by Bill Gibron

29 Nov 2008


It’s said that you can’t go home again. Other maxim-mized clichés include the inability to revisit past glories and the ever popular suggestion regarding letting sleeping dogs remain within their current supine positioning. But when you’re Joel Hodgson, famed comedian and creator of the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ve already bucked one Thomas Wolfe-inspired trend. Why not take your newest version of that hilarious in-theater riff-a-thon and tackle a title that made MST famous - fans and fancy pants be damned! Thus the decision to return to the days of Patrick Swayze, catalog daydreaming, and the madcap extraterrestrial antics of an overgrown green idiot named Dropo.

That’s right, Cinematic Titanic’s last offering for 2008 is a revisit of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a crappy kid vid creation that sparked one of Hodgson’s original series’ Season Three highlights. Gone, of course, is the attempt at a new Christmas Carol (based on that other holiday favorite, Roadhouse), a discussion of off the radar TV specials (“The X-Mas that Really Kicked Ass”), and a nice bit of cool Yule logging. In its place is a racier, edgier take on the material, the CT crew finding plenty of adolescent-to-adult affronts in this uninspired space epic. Fans who were afraid of a mere recycle and unnecessary regurgitation will now have to suck it up and gauge which edition - old school or new breed - is better.

As for the film itself, we are treated to a dull little sugarplum piffle involving the angry red planet, a leader desperate to bring joy to his sullen alien offspring, and one of the kindest, dullest Kris Kringle’s on record. When King Martian Kimar sees how sad his son and daughter truly are, he goes to Chochem (Mars’ answer to a shaman) for advice.  Discovering that his kids need fun and freedom in order to thrive, Kimar comes up with a daring plan - head down to Earth and kidnap the universe’s symbol of glad tidings - the one and only Santa Claus.

With the help of henchmen Stobo and Shim, the stale stupidity of castaway Dropo and the always upset, desperate for power Voldar, the Martians find two Earth kids (Betty and Billy Foster), force them to fess up to Santa’s location, grab the jolly old elf, and head home. Once back on Mars, however, one of Kimar’s minions prepares for a double-cross, while our apple-checked champion grows bored of making toys via technology.

On any filmic scale, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is not merely horrible, it’s horrendous. It’s like watching a half-witted home movie made by people who have neither a home or moviemaking skills. Documentarian turned editor turned flop-meister Nicholas Webster proves here that working for Uncle Sam’s war effort during WWII lends little in the way of cinematic vision or professionalism. He utilizes cardboard backdrops and pipe cleaner costuming to turn his interstellar story into tired, two-dimensional dross. It’s a good thing the actors are coated in layers of baby diarrhea tinged make-up. That way, we can’t see how red faced and embarrassed they must have been. No one is safe - not John Call’s Santa, not Leonard Hicks’ Kimar…heck, not even a prepubescent Pia Zidora as a barely recognizable Martian girl with a permanent deer-in-the-headlights look on her face.

Of course, what really distinguishes Santa Claus Conquers the Martians from other, happier holiday fare is the total absence of that mandatory mistletoe movie must - Christmas spirit. Our benevolent being with a belly like a bowl full of jelly is decent enough, but refrigerator box robots, creepy old alien sages, and a villainous Village People reject with a man-love moustache and mayhem on his mind do not an engaging Noel make. While the plot is busy lapping itself, offering kidnapping after snatching after hostage crisis as a means of moving the story alone, any sense of magic and wonder slowly dissipates in a fog of failed ambitions and staid Saturday Matinee mediocrity. No wonder kids in the ‘60s went hippie. This conservative claptrap would turn even the staunchest Neo-Con into a member of the counterculture.

As with his previous comedic outing, Hodgson has often said that the cast’s ability to mock a movie is inversely proportional to how atrocious it is. The worse the outing, the better the belittling - and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is no exception. In fact, the notion that a similar selection of performers could once again pick apart this movie in equally effective fashion says as much about the Cinematic Titanic talent pool as it does Claus’ crappiness. Right from the start, we get a “haven’t we seen this before” reference, before diving right into the ridicule. Along the way, former MSTers J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl peel back the layers of lousiness inserting their own off the wall (and frequently off-color) takes. There is some very racy stuff offered this time around.

What many fans will miss, however, is the lack of holiday-themed skits, the kind of material that made something like the crazed carol “A Patrick Swayze Christmas” so memorable. This version of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians does offer one of the new series’ minor ‘movie-stop’ moments (times when someone else will ask that the film be halted so they can offer up a scripted comedic bit). In this instance, Hodgson delivers his presents for the festive season - and not everyone is happy about it. Elsewhere, we get more introductory bits between the crew and the security team, including a failed escape attempt by Trace (the key word here being “failed”). With more movie available than ever before - no commercials means no ‘editing for time’ constraints - this version of the title truly lives up to its ‘worst film ever’ classification.

Still, it’s slightly surreal to hear voices that originally eviscerated this seasonal stool sample going in for an amusement Mulligan. It must have been a tough decision, especially when considering fan expectations and potential MST cult criticism. Certain episodes of the celebrated cowtown puppet show symbolized everything that was perfect about Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a concept and a creative enterprise, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was among that noted number. Cinematic Titanic took a massive risk remaking this iconic installment, and that they succeeded so well speak volumes for their individual abilities and satiric skills. While it’s probably true that a trip back into one’s past is more problematic than therapeutic, this updated look at a piece of MST history is a retread well executed…and well worth it.

by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 2008


As part of the typical, pre-Turkey Day tradition, Hollywood is handing out a few heaping helpings of holiday weekend wonder. For the upcoming celebration of gluttony and family fellowship, the following films are in focus:

Australia [rating: 6]

That it’s not confrontational or deconstructionist may seem rebellious on paper, but blown up on the big screen for nearly three hours, Australia sure plays as purely conventional.

He’s been making movies since 1992. Yet in 16 years, he’s completed only four projects - 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 2001’s magnificent Moulin Rogue, and now the old school epic named for his native land, Australia. So why has Baz Luhrmann been so lax in his creative output? Granted, there have been a couple of setbacks (he was fast tracking an Alexander the Great pic with Leonardo DiCaprio when Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell beat him to the punch), and has rejected offers to “go Hollywood” to make standard mainstream fare. And yet his latest is so enamored of Tinsel Town’s Golden Age that MGM and Gone with the Wind should get a restraining order. This doesn’t make Australia bad, just antithetical to what we know about Lurmann’s previous patterns.  read full review…


Four Christmases [rating: 1]


Flailing like a dying fish out of water and eventually smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny.

So this is what five Oscar winners gets you? This is the result of the combined Academy caliber efforts of Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard), Jon Voight (Coming Home), and Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies)? Certainly this quintet, along with some solid satiric support from Wedding Crashers cad Vince Vaughn, and a dash of supplemental slapstick from Swingers pal Jon Favreau, could create a clever, comic Yuletide gem, right? They’ve even got Seth “The King of Kong” Gordon on their side, steering the material toward some edgier environs. And yet, with all this potential talent on tap, Four Christmases ends up a wasted, worthless excuse for holiday humor.  read full review…


Role Models [rating: 7]

Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection

Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life. This formula has been followed in several recent laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Superbad. Now there’s another name to add to the genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over. read full review…

by Bill Gibron

25 Nov 2008


Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life. This formula has been followed in several recent laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Superbad. Now there’s another name to add to the genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over.

When they end up in some silly accidental legal trouble, energy drink corporate rep Danny Donahue and his arrested adolescent buddy Wheeler are sentenced to 30 days of community service. Forced to serve their time at a local outreach center known as Sturdy Wings, each man is paired up with a troubled youth. The expected result hopes for a little mature guidance and lots of substitute parent/child quality time. For Wheeler, that means putting up with the F-bomb dropping delinquent Ronnie, while Danny must contend with a D&D obsessed nerd named Augie. Of course, no one gets along at first, our heroes making many mistakes while desperate to relate to these kids. This really pisses off the former drug addict director of the center. Eventually, everyone finds a happy middle ground of acceptance, although their bonds are tested during a Renaissance Fair battle royale. No, seriously. 

Last time we saw Paul Rudd and several members of MTV’s cult sketch comedy series The State working together, it was on the uneven but often interesting Commandment comedy The Ten. Now comes the hilarious, if half-formed, Role Models. Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection. By the end of the film, we really care about Danny and Wheeler, the former’s faltering relationship with good sport lawyer Beth (played by the currently omnipresent Elizabeth Banks), and their two underage sidekicks. And thanks to these important aspects, the filmmaker unlocks a series of ways to keep things consistently funny.

The first formidable feature is the raw raunch power of a cursing grade-schooler. Nothing is funnier - or more inappropriate - than a wee one working it, Richard Pryor style. Oddly enough, actor Bobb’e J. Thompson is more than just a sailor’s handbook of profanity. There is real pain and anger in this kid and though the novelty of hearing him swear a blue streak wears off quickly, the effect is still sensational. He is matched quip for quip by Rudd. As he did in Knocked Up, the current “FOJ” (friend of Judd) drops little atomic bombs of brilliance, either in reaction or rejoinder, keeping everything Danny does a question of taste and/or tolerance. Rudd is especially strong during the opening bits, where his dead end life as an energy drink pitch man proves almost lethal. He even has a nice running joke with Thompson (who tags him with the ultimate put-down, “Ben Affleck”).

The final fun facet is the film’s unbridled love for things just slightly outside the mainstream. KISS, about as relevant in 2008 as Uriah Heap and Foghat, become the inspired muse for both Wheeler and our quartet’s last act stand off during the role playing L.A.I.R.E. tournament. Just hearing “Detroit Rock City” blaring from a Minotaur shaped monster truck is more than enough sweet cheese movie magic. Even better, the whole Middle Earth dynamic is both celebrated and chastised, its lack of a link to reality matched evenly by how much pleasure and pride the competitors get out of the event.

So, what doesn’t work? Frankly, the perpetually scruffy Seann William Scott is too lost in his own libido to garner our sympathy. You just know the minute he sees a hot chick with a pair of come hither…eyes, he’s abandoning Ronnie to his own unsupervised devices. And Elizabeth Banks does the whole noble girlfriend part perfectly, but she’s almost ancillary to the entire narrative (as Rudd’s serenade of the KISS classic “Beth” illustrates). In fact, Role Models really doesn’t need such mainstream sentimentality. The way in which our do-nothing heroes begin to bond with their lost and somewhat fragile charges provides more than enough emotion to sustain us.

Role Models may be more sweet than satiric. It tosses off the slang and four letter slams with casual abandon, recognizing almost inherently that we will giggle at their presold shock value. But it’s the moment when Wheeler and Ronnie connect over the concept of breasts (or “boobies”, as the movie lovingly calls them) or when Danny defends Augie to his clueless parents that this film finds its voice. In fact, without the sexual references and graphic language, this would be a pleasant PG romp. But Role Models knows it takes more than heart to get Cineplex audiences interested in a contemporary comedy. So it borrows a few blue moves from the Apatow playbook. To paraphrase a classic quote, copycatting is the sincerest form of filmmaking flattery. This winning, if slightly wonky, effort has enough positives to keep the few unnecessary negatives at bay.

by Bill Gibron

25 Nov 2008


So this is what five Oscar winners gets you? This is the result of the combined Academy caliber efforts of Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard), Jon Voight (Coming Home), and Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies)? Certainly this quintet, along with some solid satiric support from Wedding Crashers cad Vince Vaughn, and a dash of supplemental slapstick from Swingers pal Jon Favreau, could create a clever, comic Yuletide gem, right? They’ve even got Seth “The King of Kong” Gordon on their side, steering the material toward some edgier environs. And yet, with all this potential talent on tap, Four Christmases ends up a wasted, worthless excuse for holiday humor. 

Unmarried yup couple Brad and Kate certainly enjoys their Christmases away from the family. Every year, they make up elaborate stories about charity work and traveling to unfriendly climes so they can get out of the mandatory Noel get-togethers. Instead, they head to exotic locales like Cancun and Fiji and enjoy a particularly cool Yule. But when San Francisco International gets fogged in, and a live news report exposes the pair’s plans, its not long before the cellphone starts to ring. Before long, the duo are heading out to visit the relatives. For Brad, that means seeing his redolent, redneck Dad (and cruel cage fighter brothers) and his May to December Mom (she married his best friend). For Kate, it’s confronting her sister’s raging biology, and a distant father who may just hold the key to her future - with or without Brad.

Flailing like a dying fish out of water and eventually smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny. It’s rotten mistletoe over a condemned homestead’s archway. In fact, it’s such an unbridled waste, such a horrifying amalgamation of inept attempted laughs that you wonder what the capable cast was thinking during the filming of certain scenes. Did Favreau and Vaughn really believe the WWE-inspired physical comedy ‘smackdown’ was going to elicit anything other than groans? Was seeing Steenburgen in full Jesus freak mode (alongside a scruffy looking Dwight Yoakim as her pastor beau) supposed to be a legitimate reason to laugh. Does referring to Witherspoon’s character as “Cootie Kate” make the sequence silly, or just stupid? And how far can the whole “kids are craven and evil” thing be pushed before it borders on abuse…for all involved?

With its anthology-like set-up (we just know we’re going to have to suffer through a quartet of these pained visits) and Gordon’s incomplete directing style, there’s always some small amount of potential in this ‘holidays as horror story’ scenario. But the minute we get to the redneck haven of testosterone and terminal b.o., all bets are off. The scenes where Duvall does his best hick trick while Favreau and Grammy Winner Tim McGraw play Deliverance is just dumb. It leads to nothing legitimate, and when Vaughn takes a fall from several feet, we wonder why his next stop was the home of Witherspoon’s mom, not the hospital. The preceding set-up is doubly dreadful. First, we have to witness our heroine fighting off brats in a backyard moonwalk, only to have that topped by a horrid Nativity pageant where Vaughn does his worst Richard Burton meets a muppet overacting.

At this point, we pray for some manner of respite from all the idiocy. On the plus side, Four Christmases delivers. On the downside, this is done by giving Spacek and her cougar character little or nothing to do. Instead of milking the possibilities of an older woman/younger man ideal, Vaughn gets all the good lines. Rattling them off like he’s making them up on the spot, we’re actually happy when Favreau turns up again to whip his brother’s butt in the board game Taboo. By the time we arrive at the Voight residence, we’re as ready as the characters to call this experience over. Luckily, we get to leave the theater. Our cast must suffer through the kind of last act desperation as inspiration that often brings the entire production to a crashing halt. Luckily, that old Tinsel Town standby - biology - comes along to save the day.

If it was anyone other than the performance powerhouses of Duvall, Steenburgen, Voight, Vaughn, Spacek, and Witherspoon in front of the camera, we might have allowed for how way below average Four Christmases is. But casting an A-list immediately elevates the expectations, and not a single actor meets them. We imagine they can make up stuff funnier than what was in the script, but we’re clearly misguided in that concept. Gordon obviously allowed his far more experienced cast to run ramshackle over his designs, with Vaughn the most egregious offender. There are instances when he goes off on stupid stream of incomprehensibleness rants that merely add up to literal minutes of laughless screen time. He is matched by Witherspoon in that she’s offered nothing remotely humorous to add. She’s the sap. He’s the uninvited guest whose long overstayed his welcome.

By the end, we just want the obligatory break-up/make-up and to be done with it. It’s rare, especially in this current rib-tickling renaissance, to find something as solidly hateful as Four Christmases. If the holidays didn’t already have you contemplating suicide, this sad excuse for something warm but witty will have you headed for the nearest crisis hotline, ASAP. This time of year is already a chore, what with the mandatory family fellowship and credit crunching consumer guilt. The last thing we need is a movie that manifests its anger in strangulated, unsatisfying ways. Apparently, when actors cash in their Oscar credits, this is the kind of crap they are given. Kind of puts their pissed off prima donna antics into perspective, doesn’t it?

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