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by Bill Gibron

25 Nov 2008


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.

After her husband toddles off to the mythic title country to settle up on a bad land deal, Lady Sarah Ashley decides to head Downunder herself to see what’s going on. It’s the late ‘30s, right before Japan enters World War II and threatens the entire Pacific Rim. Upon arriving, Lady Ashley learns of her spouse’s death, the dire situation on her ranch, Faraway Downs, and the only possible solution to her problems - a cattle drive across miles of untouched outback. Hiring a handsome rapscallion named “The Drover” (a man her husband relied on to manage the enterprise), Lady Ashley succeeds in saving her land.

But then she is faced with two more major problems. One concerns beef baron King Carney, his corrupt future son-in-law Neil Fletcher, and the duo’s desire to claim her property. The second surrounds a half-caste aboriginal boy named Nullah, Lady Ashley’s growing affection for the child, and a government mandate which requires the lad to be taken to an island mission for training as a servant. It will take all her resolve, and her budding relationship with The Drover, to prevent personal and professional disaster.

Somehow, we expect more from Baz Luhrmann. While Australia is a movie with ambitions as large as the island continent itself, its Tinsel Town greatest hits approach keeps it from being the larger than life experience the filmmaker fancies. Granted, when you’re channeling everything from Margaret Mitchell to King Vidor, you’re naturally going to stumble upon some spectacle, and there are times when Luhrmann lulls us into a sense of clear imaginative complacency. But with its partially porcelain casting, dependence on an aboriginal approach to magical realism, and a last act narrative that piles on the false endings, what should have been stellar is merely amiable and acceptable. You will definitely love a great deal of what you see. Problem is - it has very little aesthetic or artistic nutritional value.

One can only thank the moviemaking gods that original Drover choice, Russell Crowe, bowed out of this project early on. His burly, beer swilling smirking would have ruined this film’s ersatz romantic chemistry. Beside, Hugh Jackman is a much more satisfying male lead. He brings a real sense of adventure and machismo to the character, so much that we really never care that he’s all six pack pretty boyishness and little else. Drover does have many of the movie’s strongest speeches, and hearing Jackman “go native”, accent wise, is well worth the ticket price. Sadly, Ms. Kidman is not. Though Luhrmann tries everything in his art box design powers to bring some ordinariness to the unwarranted A-list wax figure, he can’t coax a convincing performance out of her. At first, she’s merely awkward. By the time of her transformation into a woman of significant means, she’s shrill and overtly maudlin.

That just leaves doe-eyed dreamchild Brandon Walters as Nullah to carry us through, and he more or less does. With a face so sweet it could cause sugar to sour, and a demeanor that mixes his aboriginal roots with just the right amount of mainstream movie mannerism, he’s the single best thing in a film that should have several dozen such standouts. It takes someone of significant talents to avoid making a nonstop sonic reference to The Wizard of Oz‘s “Over the Rainbow” into a saccharine, syrupy statement, and yet Walters works it like the secular “Amazing Grace” it’s become. If Kidman had been replaced with, say, Naomi Watts, and Luhrmann had been convinced to pile on, not purposefully avoid, his previous visionary somersaults, Australia would truly soar. As it stands, we get a fine film frequently undermined by its own unobtainable aspirations. 

And it’s all clearly Luhrmann’s fault. When he gives Jackman a “Clark Gable” moment during a fancy dress ball, or merges old school melodrama with references to outback mythos, we enjoy the revisionist reverence. But we want more of that Moulin majesty, that eye candy craziness that argued that anything could happen and probably would. The frequent montages, used to highlight instances of sex and violence, are not without their charms. But when your previous film flaunted grunge masters Nirvana as part of a turn of the century French dance hall drama, we should be wowed, not waiting to be so. By the time he gets to the CG heavy attack on Darwin (done up in complete Tora, Tora, Tora style), we welcome the novelty, no matter how uniformly fake it all looks.

With narrative threads frequently falling by the wayside, unresolved, only to see a half hearted attempt at an intertwining later on, and a feeling that no one is ever really in danger, even with evil staring our heroes directly in their flawless faces, Australia underwhelms. It’s still a very good film, albeit one marred by our desire to make it something more. If you simply stop kvetching and give in to Luhrmann’s latest inspiration, ignoring a few obvious flaws along the way, you’ll be whisked off to a land of enchantment, wonder, and occasionally solid visual virtues. But for his fourth film in 16 years, we anticipate something more from Mr. Moulin Rogue! 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.

by Farisa Khalid

24 Nov 2008


Every era of affluence has an account of what has gone wrong amid the wealth and decadence: Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, Evelyn Waugh scathing portrayal of the aristocrats of 1930s London in Vile Bodies (see Stephen Fry’s sly 2006 film version, Bright Young Things), Jacqueline Susann’s lurid 1960s potboiler of celebrity, pills, and fornication - The Valley of the Dolls, and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman novels, brutally exposing the nastiness underneath the glitter of 1980s Manhattan. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, is a look into India’s emerging, formidable fashion industry, which like the world of designers and models anywhere in the world, is as exploitative and mercenary as it is seductive.

The film centers on Meghna Mathur (Priyanka Chopra), a determined, ambitious girl from Punjab, who defies her parents and scrapes and saves to get to Mumbai to become a model. Aided by her spirited, scream-queen friend, Rohit (a memorable camp performance from Ashwin Mushran) she spends hours in line at agencies, touts her glamour shots to scouts, and hustles to network among the designers, show coordinators, and sleazy businessmen of industry. As Meghna climbs the greasy pole, she watches the successful supermodels from backstage, the leading diva among them Sonali (Kangana Raut), a porcelain skinned Dresden doll with a cold haughtiness behind the eyes.

Meghna learns from seasoned, cynical agents and C-list models, that the only way to get her foot in the door is a wealthy patron. Meghna takes up with the CEO of a major modeling agency, Mr. Sarin, and becomes his mistress.  A luxury high-rise apartment in Mumbai’s exclusive Bandra soon follows as does a succession of shows and advertising contracts. Predictably, the ascent to success alienates her from her friends and family (there’s a relevant scene, where Meghna’s provincial, religious aunt throws her out of the house for modeling lingerie in a magazine).

Echoes of Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter and Susann’s Valley of the Dolls are redolent in this Horatio Alger story of a young woman from the provinces and her relentless mission to succeed, only to fall into addiction and self-doubt. Meghna’s moral compromise serves as a way to explore the way vulnerable young women, desperate for fame, expensive clothes, and independence (a luxury for many women in India), stumble into all sorts of abusive relationships for advancement, only to be shafted when they pass their 20s.  The emptiness of celebrity, the meaningless behind the flash and the glamour is what Bhandarkar is aiming at here: fashion as a sleek disposable commodity, easily digested then easily forgotten.

Some strong actors shine: Priyanka Chopra proves she has a talent of tapping into a character, where she evolves from a callow small-town girl who winces when she drinks wine to the world-weary bitch the public envisions supermodels to be.  Samir Soni as a closeted gay designer drifting into compromise gives a sensitive, adept performance, the tragically underused actress, Kitu Gidwani (who shined in Earth 1947) dazzles the screen whenever she briefly appears as an arch, sophisticated agent, Mugdha Godse as a gravely-voiced veteran model, and Kangana Raut as the damaged beauty, brings depth to the clichéd role of a self-destructive model.

Seeing Fashion, it’s sometimes easy to forget that India as a developing country, with nearly a half of the population living below the poverty level of less than a dollar a day, and nearly 150,000 people illiterate.  Many women have no access to birth control or income-earning potential, and subject to arcane customs of arranged marriages and dowries.  So, to see the women in this movie, independent, financially and sexually, is an image of a different India. India’s middle and upper classes are consuming goods at an unprecedented rate.  The film’s sponsors include Sunsilk shampoo and Jimmy Choo, a reminder that even a film about exploitation and abuse in the fashion industry can be used as a two-hour ad for high-end products. Fashion is an entertaining look at one of the paradoxes of India - an inability to reconcile wealth with poverty, like the lithe, designer-clad socialites who shop at the Dolce and Gabbana boutique, whose oversized sunglasses block out the crippled beggar and ragged child huddling outside the store.

by Bill Gibron

23 Nov 2008


The bad movies. That’s all anyone ever wants to talk about. Manos. Mitchell. The audacity of taking on a pseudo classic like This Island Earth. The creative constitution it must have required to endure the aesthetic horrors of Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Mancho, or Attack of the The Eye Creatures. But there remains so much more to Mystery Science Theater 3000 than Arch Hall Jr., Coleman Francis, and Merritt Stone. As a matter of fact, one of the first things critics latched onto where the sensational skits, in between bits that often commented directly on the film being shown. Yet there were also times when the material was merely “inspired” by the work being presented, said muse mutated into wit that transpired the sloppy celluloid circumstances. It’s these boffo blackouts that deserve reconsideration and concentration. SE&L, confirmed MiSTies, will highlight 10 of the best forays into funny stuff the Satellite of Love and its occupants ever attempted. 

There are a couple of caveats when diving into this list. First, we purposely avoided anything where music was involved. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was famous for its satiric songs, and trying to pick 20, let alone 10 would have been impossible. Therefore, only atonal humor will be discussed. Also, we’ve also stopped the reflection at Season 7, the non Sci-Fi Channel version of the series. There’s no real reason for such a barrier, except that more people are familiar with the updated concept of the show, and some of the older material needs its day in the sun. Finally, supporting characters like Dr. Clayton Forrester, Dr. Lawrence Erhardt, TV’s Frank and the Mole Men have also been excluded. They’ll get their moment sometime in the near future. With all the stipulations in place, let’s begin in chronological order:

Crow’s Thanksgiving from K03: Starforce: Fugitive Alien II

Back when the series was still being broadcast across actual antenna airwaves by local Minneapolis station KTMA, a special holiday edition of the show featured this fabulous history lesson from everyone’s favorite “bird dog thing”. From the pilgrims arriving in a van and taking turns “starving”, to the Indian’s spraying their guests with mace (don’t ask), the robots get the spirit of the occasion, if not the factual certainties. An important discussion, if only for finally explaining the connection between Turkey day and the reason people start Christmas shopping the day after.




Sidehackiing Terminology from 202: Sidehackin’

As with any new sport, descriptive phrases and jargon are mandatory. They help reporters explain the action and bolster color commentators ability to earn ESPN highlight reel airtime. For this Ross Hagen rehash of every competition oriented cliché ever conceived, Joel and his automated pals provide such expressive lingo as the ‘Hickory Dickory Die’, ‘Fruitful Snootful’, and the ‘Tension Envelope’ routine (popularized by Nutsy the Clown). It’s enough to knock competitive darts, Ninja Warrior, and all other non-mainstream athletics off the pop culture radar.




Klack Foods Commercial from 211: First Spaceship on Venue

Anyone old enough to remember single company sponsorship in television will smile at this remarkable riff on Kraft and its long-form infomercial breaks that championed their various faux foods and cheese spreads. Here, a spot-on Tom Servo (channeling Ed Herlihy) describes how Klack Industrial Saladoos-based snack and snippets can be used to make mouth watering family favorites like Skin Mittens, Cooter Cakes, and the traditional Gut Whistle Pie. Just don’t forget the Flesh Button dressing, or a heaping platter of Creamy Crust Puppies. Now that’s fine eatin’.


Crow vs. Kenny from 302: Gamera

After an onslaught of giant monster madness, Crow can no longer stand the whiny goody two shoe-ing of everyone’s favorite short-panted pint size. So he lets his aggressions out in the most fruitless display of childish chiding possible. Taking the opportunity to do the same, Servo joins in. Joel tries to help his pals have a more positive perspective on the friend to all oversized beasties. It only lasts for a little while before the bile begins rising all over again.



Winter Sports Cavalcade from 311: It Conquered the World

It’s icy chills and snowbound thrills as Joel and the ‘Bots describe the frostbitten pleasures of training, Alpine style. We experience the gory goodness of the latest craze - speedskating combined with kickboxing. Then there’s cat snapping, where kittens are taken to absolute zero and cracked like Turkish taffy. And let’s not forget “shi-ing” which is also referred to as playing ping-pong or badminton with a Barbie doll frozen in a bucket of ice. And you thought snowmobiling and hokey were the best things about the months of November to February (or August to May, if in Minnesota).

 

Catching Ross from 315: Teenage Caveman

Ross Allen was a well known animal trapper who violated several ethical, moral, and PETA inspired values with his raping of the Florida Everglades. As protest, Tom turns the tables on the great blight hunter, subjecting him to many of the same humiliating outdoor tortures that Allen himself employed to make his living. With Joel along for visual illustration (he uses a small action figure to simulate the pain being inflicted), we get the kind of pointed payback that only a fire hydrant like puppet and a stand-up comedian trapped in space can dish out.



Art Therapy from 507: I Accuse My Parents

Hoping to gain some insight into how his robot pals think, Joel asks them to visualize their own fantasy families. For Tom, it’s a portrait of his father, Gigantor, and his two moms - Haley Mills and Peggy Cass. For Crow, it’s an oversized deadly dynamo of a dad, who combines homespun wisdom with lasers that fire out of his chest (“pyeww, pyeww”). Of course, Gypsy only envisions a world filled with nothing but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea‘s Richard Basehart. Why? To quote the cast: “I dunno.”

 

Chick Flick Fight (Really Femmie Movies) from 517: Alien From LA

A post-apocalyptic Kathy Ireland inspires this brilliant breakdown of Mike and the gang’s feminine side. Over the closing credits of this crappy film, Tom chides Crow over his copy of Places in the Heart and his complete Sally Fields collection, while the little gold guy gives his human buddy a Six Weeks, Dying Young, and Irreconcilable Differences combo. Between a Herbert Ross festival, Savannah Smiles, and the mere mention of Madame Sousatzka, there’s not a male chromosome left in the Satellite of Love. Just remember to quote freely from Rich and Famous and everything will be okay.



Ingmar Bergman Tells a Joke from 617: The Sword and the Dragon

The late, great Swedish filmmaker is lovingly spoofed when Mike and the ‘bots take a break from this horrible foreign fantasy film to offer up a moody monochrome gag. Though there is probably no more than a page of actual dialogue, the entire skit is filmed at a pace that makes snail’s nervous over how slow it proceeds. The payoff is well worth it, however.




The Edge of the Universe (2001 Spoof) from 706: Laserblast

This was it - the supposed end of the series. Comedy Central had failed to renew the contract, and even worse, a typical season of episodes (12 to 24) was reduced to seven. So how do you send off the greatest TV show ever? Easy, you mimic the greatest film ever. This classic 2001 lampoon, complete with pointed visual cues and recreations of classic moments, left fans free associating for days. It’s all here - including a final image that summed up how special Mystery Science Theater 3000 was to fans and cinephile’s worldwide.

by Bill Gibron

23 Nov 2008


For fright fans, Dario Argento’s career as a movie macabre master started going downhill right after the release of his spectacle splattefest Opera. With the advent of videotape, and the steady release of his past efforts onto the format, a whole new audience was appreciating his work, and Hollywood was starting to take notice. Invited to America to continue his career, he made the interesting anthology entry based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes, and helmed a US based thriller entitled Trauma. Neither film was a hit, and Argento was angered by issues of studio interference and MPAA censorship. He had been burned back in the ‘70s when companies such as Paramount and Fox decided to distribute truncated versions of classics like Suspiria. Now, he needed a project to propel him back into the good graces of his always agreeable European constituency – and a book by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini seemed to hold the answer.

Dealing with a subject described as “art enchantment” - a surreal fugue state where individuals feels emotionally overwhelmed and personally connected to paintings, sculptures, and other aesthetic works – this ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ seemed to be the perfect idea for a film. Of course, it would take some tricky special effects to realize his goal, and Argento needed an actress he could trust to take on the grueling, slightly gratuitous lead. He envisioned a woman who was young enough to play the ingénue, sturdy enough to pass for a cop, and complex enough to handle the several personality changes that occurred throughout. Even worse, this performer would have to lay herself bare during a trio of tawdry rape scenes. With an air of oddness that only Freud could successfully decipher, Argento flummoxed convention and hired his 21 year old daughter Asia. Long a fixture in the film world, this would be her most demanding role to date.

And thus cameras rolled on the icon’s big creepshow comeback, a psychological thriller that took both parts of that label all too seriously. A strange combination of police procedural (Asia is Anna Manni, a policewoman on the trail of a serial rapist), character study (after suffering at the hands of her subject, Anna starts to slowly unravel), and exercise in exploitation (women are brutalized and butchered by this maniacal blond sadist), the results divided even the most ardent aficionados. Some saw it as a return to past glories. Others argued that, while decent, it forewarned of worse things to come. Indeed, in the next decade, Argento would release four more career confusing efforts – his overdone and sexualized Phantom of the Opera take, a good giallo called I Can’t Sleep, the static CSI statement The Card Player, and a weird homage to a long time idol entitled Do You Like Hitchcock? So oddly enough, The Stendhal Syndrome appears as his last legitimate offering, a movie mythologized all the more by its odd home video treatment.

Somehow, Troma got a hold of this film, and released it way back near the beginning of DVD. The 1996 package was pretty good, containing a commentary by the director, an interview with the filmmaker, and lots of company come-ons. Fans frothed however, citing the fair to middling transfer and the overall lack of respect offered by the infamous B-movie factory. Over the last 11 years, they’ve hoped that a company like Blue Underground would salvage this forgotten film and bring it back to the state of semi-respectability it so richly (?) deserves. Those prayers were answered back in September of this year. The Big Blue U indeed stepped up and delivered a two disc digital package that illustrates the best that the medium has to offer, while questioning the extent to which businesses will invest in context for the fans. Now, a Blu-ray version of this title is available, and it too begs the question of product vs. pitch. 

If the film had been more endemic of Argento’s lush, luminous style, the lack of all format support would be unconscionable. But Stendhal stands as a decidedly different effort for the director, a movie made up of particular movements, each one attempting to address a different aspect of a woman’s destructive descent into madness. Viewed in parts, we see the suggestion that rape reduces a female to a series of onerous questions. There is doubt of self, doubt of sexuality, and doubt of safety. All three of these misgiving are illustrated here, as daughter Asia goes from confident cop to psychological mess in the span of two event filled hours. The transformation is both physical and mental. At first, Anna Manni is a long haired brunette, a capable officer working a high profile case. Post attack, she cuts off her overflowing locks and takes on a more tom boyish persona. Finally, after a terrifying confrontation in a water main, our heroine becomes a femme fatale, long blond wig providing a post-modern noir nod.

Within each section, Argento hints at the horrors going on in Anna’s head. Initially, everything revolves around the title issue. The use of then new CGI to realize the symptoms of the syndrome is unique and, though dated, gives the visuals an excellent otherworldly quality. Asia also does a good job of expressing the emotional distress that surrounds the problem. When she swoons over a classical canvas, we believe the delirium. She is also a brave actress, allowing herself to be very vulnerable and physically ‘open’ during the rape scenes. Actor Thomas Kretschmann (who would later rise to notoriety in big budget films like Blade II and Peter Jackson’s King Kong) is an amazing villain – the kind of debonair demon that you can easily see as a smooth talking psychopath. The interaction with his victims is noxious, and he really helps establish the lasting effects of his horrific crimes.

The second phase takes us through a denial of femininity, as Asia goes guy to try and hide her pain. This is a very interesting segment, one where Argento pulls back on the dread to deliver some drama and dark humor. When a previous paramour makes a pass at Anna, she responds with belligerence and foul-mouthed dominance. Equally, when boxing with an old male friend as part of a workout, her love of physical brutality is obvious. All throughout the first two acts, we sense a rematch with out rapist, and long for the moment of mandatory cinematic comeuppance. As a director, Argento toys with us, leaving us guessing right until the very end as to how this confrontation will play out. Even after it’s over, we still wonder if there’s not more to the story. As with most works by the Italian maestro, a climatic moment usually triggers another tangential terror.

Which brings us to the third phase in Anna’s story. Feeling slightly more empowered, and working through the leftover trauma with her specious therapist (a real red herring if ever there was one), we see an attempted reclamation of her beauty and allure. The long headdress is initially shocking, since it tends to hide most of Anna (and Asia’s) inviting ethnicity. This is crucial in understanding where the character is headed. The color of the wig, the newfound lust and desire, the overwhelming possessiveness – all of these facets are supposed to provide subtle insight into the shifts our lead is experiencing. Since he’s a master of pacing and paradigm, Argento lets issues lie, creating tension by building on both expectation and the unanticipated. Even after the denouement, when we learn just what’s been going on in Anna’s head, our director is not done. We watch as our fractured female is swept up in a sea of men, the patriarchy once again arguing for its role as protector and provider of the species.

As a result, it’s hard to call The Stendhal Syndrome “horror”, though it definitely deals in dreadful things. This is more like a literal psychological thriller, a film that rises and falls by the sinister and sick psyche of its characters. As it moves from element to element, as it references Argento heroes (there’s a lot of Hitchcock here) and establishes its own inherent greatness, we sense the struggle inside the director. For over three decades, he was viewed as a fantasist and fabulist, someone placing the surreal inside the scary to create a kind of dream theater of nightmare novelty. But Argento got his start making standard crime films, giallos that mimicked the mean-spirited narratives of the yellow covered pulp novels the genre took its name – and inspiration - from. To be pigeonholed because of his rare artistic flourishes was unfair, and yet all throughout this film, such flashes also appear. The contradiction would soon cause his canon to crash.

Oddly enough, the new Blu-ray DVD doesn’t go into a lot of perspective or overview. Instead, Argento appears and discusses the production – including how uncomfortable he was directing daughter Asia. The author of the book which inspired the director – psychological consultant Graziella Magherini - explains the Stendhal Syndrome while F/X guru Sergio Stivaletti talks about the confusing world of computers. We also hear from AD Luigi Cozzi and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Their anecdotal insights help us understand how hard it is for Argento to complete a project. Apparently, forces both normal and unexplainable are against him. As for the long debated technical aspects of this release, this latest Blu-ray release is outstanding. Grain is minor, with an enormous clarity of detail. It too carries over the filmmaker’s original vision, and is presented ‘uncut and uncensored’.

Some may complain about the sound situation, however. The original DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track is available in both English and Italian, but neither the 7.1 DTS-HD and 7.1 True HD has an alternate option. Fans of foreign films hate when studios forgo the native language of the filmmaker in order to cater to a less informed fanbase, but in this case, the decision is mostly understandable. Argento typically hires a multinational cast, so while his movies are made in Italy, his actors are versed in several tongues. Picking just one does a disservice to all. Even then, he usually films in English, even if performances begin in various ethnic takes. Whatever the case (research indicates an original Italian track), the expanded sound is amazing. There is a spatial clarity and attention to aural detail that can’t be ignored. And of course, Ennio Morricone’s amazing score is accented perfectly.

Still, it’s hard to fully fathom where The Stendhal Syndrome resides inside Dario Argento’s reputation. Many will marvel at the avant-garde aspects of this feature and wonder why the director ditched them for a hoary old period piece (Phantom) the next time out. Some will see it as a misogynistic mess, a film that forces females into the role of subservient sickos who can’t suppress their inner whore long enough to avoid the suffering. Gore fiends will enjoy the novel kills, including the slo-mo bullet time, and Argento’s directorial flourishes still mandate attention, even within this far more realistic setting. Either as signature or stumble, art or atrocity, there is no denying that as a filmmaker, the man responsible for brining Italian terror to the mainstream remains an important cinematic fixture. Thanks to the efforts of Blue Underground, his legacy will remain intact, if not necessarily indestructible.

by Bill Gibron

22 Nov 2008


Living down a legacy can be hard. For Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it’s almost impossible. Long before there was South Park, Comedy Central, Team America: World Police, and the millions of dollars with the success of same, the University of Colorado students went off on a Spring Break jaunt to make a movie. The result was the wildly ambitious and decidedly dark comedy Alferd Packer: The Musical. That was 1993. When no other company showed interest in releasing and/or distributing the film, Troma Entertainment came to the rescue. Since then, there has been an uneasy alliance between the camps. And with the release of the excellent 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition DVD, the duo once again become the focus of one company’s continuing commercial sustainability, and their own incomplete past.

The story for this wild musical ride is oddly compelling - and based on real events. Looking to seek their fortune in the Colorado territory, a group of miners follow fellow gold rusher Alferd Packer deep into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, they run into a band of scurvy trappers who steal Packer’s prized pony Liane. No longer concerned about wealth or riches, angry Al marches the mystified men farther off the well-beaten path and closer to death’s doorway. A stop-off at a local Ute Indian Reservation provides a last chance at avoiding tragedy, but Packer will not be persuaded. He eventually places his party into one Donner of a dilemma.

And soon, it’s shinbones and short ribs for everyone as fallen members of the ore obsessives become bar-b-qued and fricasseed. Strangely, only Packer escapes. When pressed, he tells a wild tale of murder, mayhem, and massive helpings of man meat. It’s enough to put you off your pemmican as a Broadway-style back story leads to a tuneful trial and an even more melodious mob scene with everyone trying to determine if Al is a real life butt muncher, or just the subject of an insane song saga.

Outrageous, amateurish, guaranteed to make your toes tap, your fingers snap, and your gag reflex respond all in one sitting, Cannibal!: The Musical is the small, silly sapling from which a mighty comedy oak eventually grew. The titanic tree of unbridled, brave humor is today known as South Park and the creators of that crazy comic chaos are Matt Stone and his partner in perversity, Trey Parker. Trey is the tricky mastermind behind this musical version of the (supposed) crimes of Colorado’s most infamous flesh-eater, Alferd Packer. Anyone who has ever doubted Parker’s flourishing genius with paper cut-out cartoon characters need look no further than this ambitious, anarchic pseudo-student film to realize that he (along with Stone) were bound for bigger, longer, and uncut things.

Cannibal! is filled with juvenile humor, unprofessional performances, lapses in taste and tone, and - above all - a severe drop-off in inventiveness toward the end. But it also contains classic tainted Tin Pan Alley tunes, a genuine love of gore horror films, and enough sharp, hilarious wit to outshine a few hundred Hollywood dark gross-out comedies. Cannibal!: The Musical is an idea that shouldn’t work (and occasionally heaves and lurches like a block and tackle about to fail), but thanks to Parker’s vision and his merry band of borderline student psychotics (the film was made while Trey and pals were at film school), he manages to corral Cannibal’s potential calamities and make the chaos work. It is far from perfect, but it’s also entertaining, memorable, and filled with infectious, fantastic musical numbers.

This may be the very definition of a cult film. It is a movie made for a specific mindset. You are either “in tune” to its troubled, terrific manic mantra or not. No amount of big screen talkback or audience participation prop pandering will make it click. You will either “get” Cannibal!: The Musical or it will seem static, insipid, and scattered. Just like his efforts on that Comedy Central kiddie show (or the unjustly dumped sitcom spoof That’s My Bush), Parker operates from a big picture, avoiding a non-stop salvo of junky jokes to hopefully create a certain amount of depth and irony to his work. His goal always seems to be the complete deconstruction of typical cinematic and humor norms, only to rebuild them with his own twists. Many critics clamor that Parker and Stone are irrevocably stuck in an infantile world of farts, feces, and offensiveness (stereotyped Japanese men as Ute Indians?). And Cannibal! could very well be used as an example of such salacious obsessions.

But in reality, it is a smart take-off on the musical format mixed with historical drama and laced with the noticeably lowbrow sense of stupid humor - and it succeeds more times than it derails. There are some forgivable lapses in character and plot development (the trappers should have had more involvement in the story) and the good-natured goofiness of the songs leave you wanting more of them (there are a couple of lost tracks - a barroom rap/funk spectacular called “I’m Shatterproof” and the cautionary choral entitled “Don’t Be Stupid Motherf******s”). Still, Parker is out to simultaneously celebrate Packer and bury him. And he does so with a little song, a little dance, and a lot of fake blood down the pants.

Surprisingly, Cannibal! The Musical understands the strange dynamic of having characters break out into song and plays on that unreal magic magnificently. Where else would you find victims of frostbite, so hungry they are unable to move or even sit up straight, singing a joyful - if immobile - roundelay of special sentimental wishes called “That’s All I’m Asking For”? Or how about a lynch mob gaily swing choiring their way through a jubilant reading of the local riot act called “Hang the Bastard!”? The juxtaposition of traditionally non-musical moments with outrageous parodies of Great White Way standards is what marks Cannibal! (and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for that matter) a step above other attempted mismatching. Parker is a gifted writer, and along with original score arrangements by Rich Sanders, the songs are rich, resonant, and instantly memorable. Indeed, this flesh-eating effort may be the first fright flick you’ll ever find yourself humming afterward.

The question then becomes, should fans once again dip into their W. Bush Administration tapped wallets and spring for yet another DVD version of this title? The answer, oddly, depends on how much you love the movie and your completist need to see now mega-famous superstars feign interest in a movie made 13 years ago. Parker and Stone appear in new interviews, and both seem slightly disinterested in revisiting their history. Of course, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman is there to lighten things up with his irreverent Q&A style. In the end, we get some quality information. Elsewhere, a new commentary features some stars from the film, and it’s as chaotic and crazed as the now infamous “drunken” track featuring Parker, Stone, and some pals doing shots. Both are offered and provide a combination of anecdotes, riffs, and curse-laden cutdowns.

Sprinkled liberally across both discs are a host of deleted scenes. Some are fascinating; some seem like cutting room floor fodder. In addition, there are a few Behind the Scenes featurettes showing us how different F/X were achieved, as well as the oddball production path the film took. Finally, the DVD contains a look at a local production of Cannibal! The Musical. It seems that, every year, amateur theater companies put of versions of the film, with varying degrees of success. We even see one show where Lloyd Kaufman made a stand-up style cameo as a judge. Overall, the 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition of this film offers enough new material to spark the interest of even the most casual lover of Cannibal!‘s craziness.

Yet one still walks away wondering how long this first taste of fame will continue to haunt the boys. As the first release in Troma’s planned “Tromasterpiece Collection” (complete with clever PBS-style logo), the import of Cannibal! The Musical cannot be understated - not to Parker and Stone, and definitely not to the company who came to their rescue. The edgy agreement between the two means that there will always be a place in the corporate cornerstone for another digital version of this hilarious, half-baked gemstone. And when the results are as winning as these, the men behind South Park really shouldn’t care. Sure, all of this can seem like the stalker-esque girlfriend who won’t take the hint post-breakup, but first love is always the strongest, and most unwieldy. That’s a perfect description of Cannibal!‘s unique charm, and Troma’s treatment of same. 

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