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Sunday, Nov 4, 2007


It’s that time of year again. Even though Halloween and the season of dread ended officially last Wednesday (31 October) the After Dark Horrorfest is back. 2006 saw the inaugural festival, accurately described by its subtitle as “8 Films to Die For” rule the genre box office, providing hundreds of scare junkies with a collection of creepshows they won’t soon forget. This year, a new octet of offerings is slated to give fright fans the wicked winter heebie jeebies. Running from 9 November until the 18th (one week, two weekends) the promising line-up on tap includes:


Crazy Eights (2006) – six childhood friends reunite to battle a secret from their past that’s returned to haunt them.


Lake Dead (2007) – when the relatives of a dead man return to his home, they meet up with a band of sinister psychos.


Borderland (2007) – a group of college kids run into a South of the Border human sacrifice cult.


The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007) – a young man is stuck in a parallel existence where he is murdered over and over again.


Mulberry Street (2006) - a deadly virus is turning the citizens of Manhattan into rabid, rat-like creatures.


Nightmare Man (2006) – an infertile couple discovers a demonic presence inside an ancient fertility mask.


Tooth and Nail (2007) – in a post-apocalyptic world, it’s survivors vs. cannibals.


Unearthed (2007) – a group of archaeologists disturb and ancient Indian burial ground, unleashing an ancient monster.


Partnering with AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, the macabre marathon will run on over 300 screens across the United States. For more information on After Dark Horrorfest 2007, including how to purchase tickets and all access passes to this hair-raising national event, please visit the official website at http://www.horrorfestonline.com/.


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Sunday, Nov 4, 2007


At first, many wondered if it was a weird Halloween prank. Longtime info outlet The Satellite News, the (former) official web address for all things Mystery Science Theater 3000 announced that, after years away from the format, both Best Brain Industries (producers of the classic TV series) and creator Joel Hodgson were coming back to the theater riffing roost – sort of. Jim Mallon and former show writer Paul Chaplin are resurrecting MST3K via a new site and a collection of online cartoons featuring the formidable robots – Gypsy, Servo, and Crow. Hodgson, on the other hand, is teaming up with former friends and cast/crew members Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff to create Cinematic Titanic, a DVD based update of the old talking back to the screen format. For fans of the former stand-up, it was a dream that many thought would never come true.


Oddly enough, nowhere in the publicity materials is there a mention of The Film Crew – otherwise known as Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. Now, some of it may have to do with contracts, outstanding obligations for other companies (like the Internet commentary collective Rifftrax), and some minor animosities that still exist among the participants. It could just be an oversight. While the obsessive are probably crafting conspiracy theories, using the success of the trio’s Shout! Factory releases as a motive for the uninvited’s sudden interest in returning to the medium, it’s clear that the one time cult is marching toward the mainstream respect it so richly deserved/deserves. And based on the brilliance shown in The Giant of Marathon, the final installment in the Crew’s digital quadrilogy, there’s a lot of life remaining in the old cinematic criticism gig.


For this episode, employer Bob Honcho appeals to Mike, Kevin, and Bill to create an alternate narrative track for a subpar sword and sandal epic featuring that mountain of man meat, Steve Reeves. Playing an Athenian Olympian named Phillipides, he is so well loved after his athleticism based triumph that he’s put in charge of the Sacred Guard, a group of strapping, overly defined men who wear nothing more than a snug fitting diaper. A falling out with the political powers that be, including the treasonous Theocrites and his paid whore Karis, leads our hero back to his country home – but not before he can woo and fall in love with Andromeda, the daughter of a high raking member of the Council. In the meantime, exiled leader Hippias has banded together with the Persians to take over Greece. Hoping to halt their advance, Athens calls on Phillipides for help. He gets Sparta’s support, and before you know it, loincloths are leaping across the screen as scantily clad extras beefcake it up for a homoerotic tour de force.


As a film, The Giant of Marathon is a talky, disposable affront. Steve Reeves is given the same old dubbed voice vacancy that tends to mar his entire cinematic catalog, and he’s once again paired up with women who aren’t as attractive as him. The storyline will remind viewers of 300, except with more gay overtones, and the regular sequences of man on man action (wrestling, grappling, battling) will have you instantly mulling over director Jacques Tourneur and substitute helmer Mario Bava’s proclivities. Yes, this is one of those notorious productions where the original filmmaker was fired, and a soon to be Italian maestro stepped in to pick up the hack. In this case, Bava was merely a cameraman, but when feelings toward Tourneur turned sour, the Mediterranean auteur in the making was given the go ahead. His success in completing the project led to his first credited film as a director.


The Film Crew, on the other hand, needs no rescuing. Thanks once again to the DVD format, which frees them up to contemplated quips of a slightly more sexual nature, we get a nonstop laugh-a-thon offering jabs at male genitals, numerous butt references, and a running gag concerning Karis and her less than virtuous reputation. Under Mike, Kevin, and Bill’s constant badgering, the aging Italian actress playing the part is vicariously saddled with every STD known to man. During a particularly potent section (the character is trying one last time to seduce Phillipides – though a strumpet, she loves him) the guys give her such a thorough going over that you envision the onscreen disgrace and fall that Karis goes through paralleling the pall late actress Daniela Rocca would experience could she hear their taunts. Most of the naughtiest knocks come at her and her B.C. hooker’s expense, and each one’s a classic.


Similarly, the Crew dishes out some fine funny business regarding Reeves. Stoic and as statue like as ever, the former bodybuilding champion does make the Governator look like Sir Ralph Richardson, and the script doesn’t make things better. This is one of those performances that relies almost exclusively on what the actor looks like sans shirt. Phillipides may be a wonderful sportsperson and skilled competitor, but once we see him shimmy with his fellow semi-nude Olympians, the vast majority of the action is over. We have to wait another 80 minutes before the last act battle, and then again, Reeves and his steroided buddies spend more time in the water setting up harbor-protecting spikes than flexing their quads. With his standard, dopey heroic dialogue and unflinching blandness, he’s a far too easy target for the comedians. As they did with prior Hercules-oriented epics during the MST days, Reeves gets ripped – and not in the good GNC way.


As part of the presentation of this pathetic peplum, Shout! Factory and the Film Crew do their usual bang-up job of supplementing the shortcomings. During the opening skit, Mike plays unskilled laborer to hilarious results, while during the mandatory “Lunch Break” intermission, Bill explains how the real Battle for Athens played out (it’s history as a Hellsapoppin’ food fight). Finally, at the end, Mike makes a ridiculous racist plea. It warrants a DVD bonus feature apology that’s equally unhinged and borderline bigoted (especially if you’re Norwegian). Finally, there’s a “commentary track” (about 9 minutes in length and covering various scenes in the film) where a supposed actor on the shoot, one Walter S. Ferguson (Mike in old coot mode) provides some gloriously goofy anecdotes. In combination with the jolly joyful riffing, we wind up with another post-SOL winner.


Still, the question remains, what happens now? Shout! Factory has had great success with these titles. They’ve been very popular and critically acclaimed. As much as the fans love Joel, Trace, Frank, Jim, Paul, Mary Jo, and Josh, they’ve been out of the game for a while, and seeing them pick up the MST-styled mantle at his point questions their motivation. Of course, what everyone wants is a full blown reunion, something that can work the Film Crew, the Cinematic Titanic, the new MST3K.com gang and the ridiculously resplendent modern film mocking of Rifftrax into one big comedic gathering, a return to the days when a tiny cowtown puppet show gave notorious new life to bad B schlock-busters. Whatever happens, the four films that made up the Crew’s initial output deserve a place among the best these performers ever offered. The Giant of Marathon is indeed a huge cinematic load. Thankfully, these satiric caretakers are still around to clean up the mess. 


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Saturday, Nov 3, 2007

For SE&L’s previous theatrical review of SiCKO, click HERE
For SE&L’s feature article take on SiCKO, click HERE


So, apparently, it all comes down to this – fear of not having insurance vs. fear of a massive government bureaucracy guaranteeing your health care coverage. Well being over less legislative interference, the free market up against a nation reeling from the physical/financial/social aftereffects of so many unprotected. It was the firmament that led to the creation of one of America’s largest self-regulating monoliths – and one of 2007’s best films. For most, unfortunately, the Red State reactionary view of a bloated liberal agency metering out our tax dollars like slop at a Depression soup kitchen is more than reason enough to back off. When Michael Moore proposed that the US’s already mangled managed medical conglomerate needed shaking up, he expected attacks. It’s been part and parcel of everything he’s done. But this time, his critics were out for blood.


Whether it was condemning GM for driving jobs out of small towns (Roger and Me), slamming the obsession with guns (Bowling for Columbine) or deconstructing the Bush Administration’s War of Terror (Fahrenheit 9/11), Moore is an agent provocateur disguised as Everyman, a jester as journalist, an advocate with his heart in the right place and his fact checker frequently out to lunch. And yet there is no denying the power in his bully pulpit bravado, his in-your-face confrontations and ‘what, me worry’ political presence. For most, his latest film SiCKO (now out on DVD from Genus Products) didn’t just scream for change – it practically called you a coward for thinking otherwise. But four months, and a carefully orchestrated smear campaign later, the Oscar winning documentarian has once again been reduced to his same old loveable reactionary self, labeled by those who loathe him as making up facts to forward a ridiculously narrow-minded proto-Marxist agenda. Oh yeah, and he’s fat and a liar too.


Except, almost none of that is true. Fault him for failing to provide his audiences with a 150% accurate depiction of the truth (at least in the way you see it), but SiCKO stands as one of the great big picture pronouncements ever forwarded. It’s masterful as well as manipulative, pointed without being passive. It’s easy to undermine Moore’s vision of a US wallowing in self-imposed liability denial. He deals in generalizations and obvious examples, avoiding the nuances frequently utilized to gray up a typically black and white issue. The reality that millions of Americans bankrupt their lives to simply see a doctor or seek treatment for a nagging complaint remains the film’s strongest sentiment. Then, just to make us feel worse, the director travels around the world and points out examples of nations that do a better job of protecting their people than the supposed superpower. No wonder people are pissed.


SiCKO is indeed like having a smart alecky know it all rub your face in an obvious fact and then call in his international friends to Greek Chorus its mockery. After all, when a French citizen scoffs at the concept of paying for care, or when a Brit belly laughs over the notion of needing insurance, who exactly do you think they’re laughing at? Uncle Sam may seem like a stalwart old soul, but Moore manages to find numerous captivating ways to make him feel like an enfeebled coot. The movie’s main masterstroke remains the decision to journey 90 miles south of Miami and let Cuba deal with some sick September 11th workers. It’s not bad enough that we can’t cure - or even cotton – to our unhealthy heroes, but the freedom hating Commies who’d like nothing better than to see capitalism fall are suddenly playing Florence Nightingale.


During the 18th Century when Britain was facing a growing tide against its involvement in the slave trade, members of Parliament argued that eliminating the reliance and use of indentured labor would mean the end of the Empire. Naturally, when the practice was eventually outlawed, England didn’t die. It thrived and remained a massive colonial force. SiCKO suggests something equally radical – the dismantling of a TRILLION dollar a year kingdom where the clientele is exclusive and the eventual customer frequently underserved. And those who use economics as a yoke to maintain the subpar status quo argue that eradicating this corporate cash cow would mean the end of the US. Sadly, said alarmists fail to fathom that the Federal Government already subsidizes nearly 50% of all health care anyway.


And then there’s the big bad ‘B’ word – “bureaucracy”. It’s a tough one to get around. People see the HMO catastrophe (something SiCKO does a devastating job in denouncing) and the current near crisis state, and wonder how an entity that can’t help hurricane victims in a timely manner is going to respond to someone’s reoccurring cancer. Anxiety attacks and blind panic typically occurs. Instead of agreeing with Moore that such a vicious Catch-22 cycle must stop, instead of taking his examples as heartfelt and endemic illustrations of the system’s significant flaws, the critics have labeled his efforts incomplete. Apparently, one needs to find a model that perfectly mirrors every concern that every individual has, and then anticipate ones that may come up in the future before it is considered valid.


Of course, such a scenario is impossible, if not improbable, and leads to one of SiCKO’s biggest lessons – the powerful can prevent any change by simply crapping in the already murky waters. As part of the new DVD version of the film, Moore adds seven brand new featurettes (totaling about 45 minutes in additional running time) that highlight how vicious and vicarious the reactions have been. One concentrates on the attacks by Republicans (and their noxious overuse of the word ‘utopia’), a country even better than France, England, Canada, and Cuba when it comes to health care (it’s Norway) and how community fundraising is used to bolster many an uninsured patient’s bottom line. Of course, the director can’t resist adding more fuel to the already raging inferno. There is a piece on a poor Latino man who died from a lack of insurance, and a brief snippet of a Cuban nun describing how her homeland doesn’t deny the right to religion. Man, Moore just doesn’t learn, does he?



Perhaps the most telling indictment overall of the adversaries depicted in the film and in the DVD extras is the lack of viable counter resolutions. Instead of saying “Moore is mad as a hatter, here is how you save US health care”, they call him a propagandist and a charlatan, any number of grade school level taunts and slanders, and then leave the solvency part of the debate for another day (that will never come, naturally). From the material presented, one gets the distinct impression that it’s easier to demean SiCKO’s message (and messenger) without ever once proposing a possible answer. It’s as if, by magic, the millions of uninsured will wake up one day and find a company that will cover them, the money to make the elephantine payments, and the constitutional wherewithal to avoid getting ill in the future (a business has got to make a profit, right?). Talk about your utopias.


What sells SiCKO, in the end, is its combination of warning and wit. This is a very funny, frequently flabbergasting film. It trains an informative eye on the dirty little secret that lobbyists and professional politicians don’t want you to know and then mocks their mealy mouthed retorts. There is more old boy network fornication going on between the government and the medical industry than either side would be proud of sharing, and when you see just how deep the hooks are in, you can’t help but feel like there’s nothing you can do. Of course, Moore disagrees. His numerous websites are currently set up to use this film as a stepping stone for a much larger, grass roots oriented attack on the individuals who still want the minutia to manage the discussion. What SiCKO aims to provide, beyond the occasional snicker and the wealth of heartbroken tears, is rally consensus around a single fact – the richest nation in the world does one of the worst jobs of making sure all its citizens have access to affordable healthcare. He’s not advocating socialism. He’s not out to see millions unemployed just to make sure little Johnny can get his shots for school.


No, what SiCKO wants is an end to the senseless stranglehold the medical haves constantly use against the uninsured have-nots. Even better, he wants costs put into perspective while keeping quality high. He wants people to take back the power granted to them inherently by the Forefathers and their so-called Constitution, to tell those who make policy that they work for them, not the other way around. If he has to do so in outrageous, atypical terms, so be it. If the worst an opponent can do is say that things aren’t so great in France, that care in Canada is not a day at the Great White North beach, that Americans have it pretty darn good (if and when they can get in to see a doctor) then they are missing the point. There is a bigger issue poised to pull all of us under. SiCKO – the film and the DVD – want to warn us away from confrontation and embrace change before it’s too late. Unfortunately, it may already be. 


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Friday, Nov 2, 2007


For the weekend of 02 November, here are the films in focus:


American Gangster [rating: 8]


American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details.

Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters – at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?  read full review…


Bee Movie [rating: 7]


While never as clever as it thinks it is, and lacking the internal logic that makes a Pixar project hum with indescribable brilliance, Bee Movie is still a witty, imaginative romp.

While it may seem like blasphemy to say it, the comedic allure of Jerry Seinfeld remains elusive to some of us. As a stand-up, he was merely acceptable, the kind of observational whiner that’s become something of a satiric spoof all its own. His self-named sitcom, the often described “show about nothing”, has gone from must-see TV to a Borat level of hindsight marginalizing. Even his post-boob tube work has been lamentably unsatisfactory, failing to give fans and those who never bought into the hype the brazen witticisms they once loved. Now the one time small screen icon is making the leap to silver, albeit in an anthropomorphized, CGI form. Playing the title insect in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie, he hopes to draw a more sophisticated crowd to what has been, traditionally, kid-oriented fair. He may actually succeed. read full review…


Wristcutters: A Love Story [rating: 7]


Though it goes a bit wonky toward the end and seems to travel a very long way to drive home a rather simple point, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains a wonderfully evocative experience.

Suicide is a slippery cinematic slope. Introduce it into a narrative and you imply issues you may not be willing to deal with and consequences that are next to impossible to fully illustrate. Self destruction contains too many indecipherable facets to completely capture within a standard 90 minute film. Trying to force the angst driven act into a comedy therefore seems unfathomably foolish. And yet all of these wasted days and wasted nights notions are used to intriguing effect by the Indie dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. Focusing on a paranormal plane where suicide victims go to wait out their undetermined destiny, Goran Dukic’s quirky, original effort is marred by a sense of plaintive precociousness. But if you get to the meat of his meaning, you’ll find an uplifting tale on your hands. read full review…


Martian Child [rating: 5]


Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics.

Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced – both personal and social – were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges. read full review…


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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

MARTIAN CHILD (dir. Menno Meyjes)


Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced—both personal and social—were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges.


After the death of his beloved wife, a successful sci-fi author named David finds himself in a major funk. It’s been a couple years, but he remains locked in a spiral of depression that has produced a bad case of writer’s block. Problem is, his pushy agent has promised their publisher a sequel to his recent bestseller. Adding fuel to his ‘feel bad’ fire, a local adoption agency is calling, wondering if he’s still interested in the adoption he had planned with his late partner. After a series of psychological slides, David meets Dennis, an odd little boy who believes he’s from Mars. Hiding in a box to avoid the sun, the child states, matter of factly, that he is on a mission to study humans and must complete it before being called ‘home’. David is initially taken aback. He’s sure he can’t handle such an unusual and needy kid. But as they begin to bond, the scribe realizes that Dennis is the perfect boy for him. He too felt like an outcast when he was young, and while the ersatz ET may be taking it to an extreme, David feels a solid, loving bond. Now he has to show the rest of the world the same.


Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics. It gives John Cusack a role that fits his pleasant if perplexed persona expertly, a supporting cast that sets off his performance well, and an unusual narrative conceit—a kid who thinks he’s an alien—to make its rather obvious points. As a foster child, shuttled from home to home like an easily returnable catalog item, little Dennis has every right to feel displaced and disconnected. But by using such an extreme illustration of this concept, the movie sets itself up to fail. Unless the boy is really from another planet, which itself reeks of narrative desperation, you end up with a clichéd conceit that’s predictable from the moment we see him onscreen. It will require extra smart writing and superbly skilled direction to make this potentially implosive mix work. Sadly, Menno Meyjes and his pair of novice scribes can’t deliver on said challenge.


There are moments when this movie feels like an underage version of Rain Man, Dennis driven in 15 different directions by the made-up mandates in his head. This is especially true of the mandatory custody hearing where, in order to stay with David, our anxious little boy simple regurgitates maxims his wannabe dad delivered several scenes before. We’re supposed to find it clever. In fact, it’s slightly distressing. If Dennis is only capable of communicating via the rote repetition of things he barely understands, what is going to happen if he’s never fully “cured”. Martian Child really never takes a stand on the kid’s obvious psychological issues. It merely treats them as a slightly unsavory eccentricity and leaves it at that. Even worse, David is an enabler of the worst kind, caring more for love substitute than the object of said affection. It’s only when he ‘accidentally’ kisses costar Amanda Peet that we recognize he may actually try to help the boy.


Dennis does remain the film’s main pitfall. Precociousness, by its very nature, is equally ingratiating and aggravating. There’s simply a very fine line between bewitching and beating on the brat, so you have to be careful how you approach said subject. Child actor Bobby Coleman plays his interplanetary prodigy in a lilting, feather light whisper that’s supposed to suggest fragility, but really reads as scarred and scared. With a face full of sunblock and ruby red lips jutting out from behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, he’s a pre-teen Roger Smith impersonator. His highly unusual quirks—taking photos of people, collecting artifacts from their lives (otherwise known as stealing), and fretting to the point of breakdown over idle events—aren’t really endearing. In fact, the way he holds onto them can be downright disturbing. The boy has clearly lost his grip on reality, and yet Martian Child finds this cutesy. If anything, it’s cloying.


Cusack comes across much better, if equally deprived. Substituting grief for homosexuality is a ruse that’s almost unforgiveable. In fact, it removes a crucial theme about tolerance that could have been effectively explored. Since the whole film is really focused on learning to love someone despite their implied social flaws, divesting the story of such subject matter smacks of PC thuggery. Even worse, it excises a mandatory parallel between Dennis and his Dad. Whose separation from the real world is more understandable—a grieving man (two years and counting) or a gay man? One is three hanky manipulation. The other is a Red State rallying cry.  By failing to have the nerve to address Gerrold’s preference, Martian Child makes a calculated artistic decision. It’s possible the filmmakers didn’t want to cloud the connection between parent and child by mucking things up with sexuality. An enlightened viewer can’t help but view the choice in less than noble terms. 


Of course, this isn’t the only problem the production faced. Martian Child is one of those ‘on the shelf’ specials that went through massive reshoots when the ending tested less than positively. Even then, it took almost another year before the movie made it into theaters. Clearly, the focus groups were less than impressed with the results. If you don’t mind your family drama on the decidedly ‘melo’ side, if you couldn’t care less about the real story behind this superbly saccharine schmaltz, if all you require of your entertainment is simply sketched characters, a formulaic set of obstacles, and a good cry at the end, then this film clearly delivers. Those wanting insight into the issues facing adoptive parents, especially when dealing with emotionally damaged juveniles, need to look elsewhere. This isn’t Child of Rage after all—something the movie itself makes us well aware of.



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