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by Bill Gibron

28 Oct 2008


In the world of horror, you either “get” Lucio Fulci or you don’t. After starting his career in Italian cinema as a genre jack-of-all-trades (moving from comedies to westerns to musicals), he found himself hated by his homeland when he made the scathingly anti-Catholic Don’t Torture a Duckling (which hinted at the whole “priest-pedophile” issue years before it made headlines). It took almost a decade before Zombi 2 (or as we here in the States know it, Zombie) refurbished his box office clout, turning Lucio into one of the most recognizable international brand names for excessive gore epics.

Zombie was followed by The City of the Living Dead (AKA Gates of Hell), a notorious bloodbath featuring young women vomiting up their guts and a man getting an industrial drill thrust through his head (all witnessed in loving close-up). Toward the end of his career, he was accused of repeating himself (The House by the Cemetery) or creating low budget, incoherent junk (House of Clocks, Cat in the Brain). Right in the middle of it all was the film that many consider to be his masterpiece, the often misunderstood and named The Beyond (or The Seven Doors of Death or And You Will Live in Terror: The Afterlife). It combined the guts and grue of Fulci’s newfound fondness for flesh rendering with a hyper-stylized visual flair and somber, sullied southern overtones.

In the film, Liza Merrill inherits a dilapidated hotel in Louisiana from a distant relative and moves from the big city to the Big Easy to start anew. When one of the workmen helping to refurbish the place has a horrible accident, it seems to portend terrible things to come. A plumber named Joe is attacked and killed in the basement, and a long dead corpse is discovered. Joe’s wife dies of an accidental acid bath to the face. Then Liza runs into a blind girl named Emily who warns her about the inn’s haunted past. More gory accidents occur.

Soon it is learned that sixty years before, a warlock named Schweick lived in the lodge and occupied room 36. The hotel was apparently built over one of the seven gateways to hell, and the strange sorcerer was either working to keep it closed…or trying to find a way of opening it. With the help of a local doctor and an ancient book, Liza must discover the truth about the “doors of death” and face down evil before the dead walk the Earth and plunge the planet into a nightmare world of malevolence.

Over the twenty or so years since its release, The Beyond has developed a loyal and loud cult following that champions this film and voices its frustration at the horrible hack job it is usually available in. For a long time, the only way to see this Fulci flick was to rent or buy an abysmal, pan and scan full screen edit job with the strangely suggestive title The Seven Doors of Death. Minus most of its slaughter, a good five minutes of mood setting prologue, and rendering the already jumbled film even more disjointed with random cuts, Seven Doors was the stupid remnant rabid Fulci fans had to dig his or her claws into. Now thanks to Grindhouse Releasing, who provide the film a new DVD package, a whole new generation of horror mavens can discover what so many have pined over for so long.

The Beyond is indeed brilliant. It is also an incoherent, messy combination of Italian terror and monster movie grave robbing that is saved by its bleak, atmospheric ending. It is a wretched gore fest sprinkled with wonderfully evocative gothic touches. It has more potential than dozens of past and present Hollywood horror films, getting better with multiple viewings as familiarity lessens the startling goofiness of some of the dialogue and dubbing. It is a film that is far more effective in recollection than it is as an actual viewing experience.

As with all pathways to a Roman roundelay, all Italian horror roads lead to zombies: slow, dull witted, seemingly nonchalant members of the living dead who are more sedate than scary. Indeed, Fulci is not out to make his flesh eaters visions of cannibalistic evil. In some ways, the reanimated corpses in The Beyond are like plot point speed bumps, ambulatory path blockers that mandate the characters maneuver around or circumvent them in order to advance the storyline. They are never menacing, never seen munching on arms or even breaking a sweat.

The ocular obsession of Italian filmmakers are another issue altogether. Speaking of peepers, Fulci does have his own unique fixations, fear fetishes if you will, that get overplayed and exaggerated in The Beyond. He must have had some blunt trauma to the eyeball at some point in his life, or a desire to deliver said, since he is absolutely obsessed with removing the gooey sight orbs from out their slushy sockets. Ghouls poke them out, spiders chew them up, and random acts of fire burn and blind them.

And then there’s the gore. If there is a chance to feature the inner workings of the human body in all their claret giving grisliness, Fulci will provide untold moments of chests bursting open, guts flowing like Vesuvius, and wounds gaping like waterless goldfish. A gash is not just a cut; it’s an open pipeline to the human circulatory system. When something bites or bashes someone, it causes untold internal hemorrhaging that always finds some way to spray out and spill all over the surfaces.

As part of this new DVD set, Grindhouse gives us insight into the entire production. Those who own the previous Anchor Bay-distributed edition may recognize a couple of these intriguing added features, since it was Grindhouse who handled the original restoration and pulled together the ample bonuses. There is an anecdotal commentary track featuring stars Catriona MacColl (Liza) and David Warbeck. They loved their experience on the film and working with each other and Fulci (apparently, not all actors have the same response) and their narrative is filled with jokes, insights, and honest reactions to the movie. There is also a rare onset interview with Fulci (engaging), a lost German pre-credit sequence shown in full color (nasty!) and liner notes from horror journalist Chas. Balun. They provide a plump set of supplements, especially for those new to the film.

In truth, all The Beyond  wants to do is wallow in lurid disgust until the organs offend you with their over-the-top gore and then add a scene or two of inspired visual poetry to offset the smell. Fulci is going to beat you over the head with the clots and sideswipe you with the sinew. Fellow foreigner Dario Argento creates dream imagery we can relate to, attaching the nightmares of childhood into the real world reality of adults to disturb and unarm us. His hallucinations may seem as intangible as Lucio’s, but somehow he manages to fuse tone and texture together to create a truly unnerving experience. Fulci is all about the fester, the feel and pong of rotting flesh. Once you’ve sampled The Beyond‘s repulsive stew, he kicks back and regroups until it’s time to serve another heaping helping. Of course, Fulci and his fans are always sated.

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2008


Some horror movies can live solely on their carefully crafted hype. Others actual deliver the goods the studio staged ballyhoo promises. And then there is Pieces. Back in 1982, distributors desperate to continue the coattail ride started with Halloween and Friday the 13th took the Spanish splatter film Mil gritos tiene la noche (“The Night Has a Thousand Cries”, roughly), renamed it, and added the intriguing tagline “You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” With a final carnival barker punchline - “It’s exactly what you think it is.” - the results were unleashed on an unwitting world.

Thanks to VHS and the thriving home video market, the sleazoid shocker became an instant cult classic. The question remains, however, does the movie match the marketing - or is this just another case of carefully chosen words speaking a heckuva lot louder than the action on the screen. Luckily, the schlock meisters over at Grindhouse Releasing have given Pieces the kind of polish that reclassifies it as a classic. Once you’ve seen the film cleaned up, uncut, and offered in startling widescreen anamorphic splendor, you’ll wonder why anyone denied (or doubted) it’s excellence before.

The storyline is dead simple. We are introduced to a young boy, tormented mercilessly by his blousy whore of a mother. After a particularly gruesome showdown, we flash forward forty years. On a small college campus, young girls are being viciously vivisected by an unseen killer. Using a chainsaw to carve up the bodies, the police are baffled by the murders. Detective Lt. Bracken (a nicely cheesy Christopher George) hopes to crack the case with a two fold approach. First, he will elicit the help of student Kendall James (Pod People‘s Ian Sera) to snoop among the student body. This BMOC knows all the angles - and the ladies.

Secondly, seasoned cop and star tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day) will go undercover as one of the faculty. This will allow her greater access to suspects like groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, with Lawrence Tierney’s voice) and the slightly fey Professor Brown (Jack Taylor). As the body count rises, Bracken grows desperate. Apparently, the murdered is making some kind of trophy out of the ‘pieces’ of his victims…and he’s almost done.

Pieces is the kind of fright film that sneaks up on you. It is really nothing more than your standard slasher effort with a chainsaw doing all the slice and dice (well, there are a couple of knife kills thrown in for good massacre measure). Director Juan Piquer Simón digs deep into his fellow Europeans bag of terror tricks and comes up trumps more times than not. The opening is an obvious homage to Dario Argento’s classic Profundo Rosso, down to the deadly dynamic between parent and child. Once we move to modern times, Lucio Fulci’s full bore gore conceit comes into play. While most of the killings occur off camera, their nasty results get full view visits. Even the ending is unrelenting, delivering not one, or two, but THREE false jolts.

Thanks to the new two disc DVD from Grindhouse, we learn a lot more about the production than previously known. Actor Smith is on hand for nearly an hour of insights, discussing his entire career but also explaining how he came to be involved in the film. As a classically trained performer, he makes a strong case for Willard’s famous alse front. Even better, Simón stands up for his actions, taking his 50 minute plus Q&A to argue psychology, scares, and his wonderful cast and crew. It’s clear that Pieces was meant as an exploitative effort. It wanted to ride the coattails of the still new slasher phenomenon. But thanks to Simón’s sensibility, and the brutality of the murders, the film more or less transcends its type. Besides, the new transfer is terrific. 

As with much of the Mediterranean macabre geared toward Western audiences, Christopher George gives his Cheshire Cat capped grin a good workout as Bracken. While not as active here as he is in such gems as City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator, and Mortuary, he provides the necessary despotic smugness that makes these movies work. Bracken has to be self assured and clueless, otherwise, the villain’s reveal gets shortchanged. Sure, we see who the bad man is almost immediately, but the cops have to fumble a bit before pulling out their pistols. Similarly, then wife Lynda Day is nothing more than eye candy, reduced at 38 to playing pseudo-paramour for the wispy lothario Sera. 

And speaking of Kendall, it is clear that Simón sees him as the calm within the monster movie maelstrom. Instantly cast off the isle of suspicion, he gets to hit on Day, act as an inspector substitute, emote over various F/X corpses, and show off his larger than average “assets” during a laughable love scene. For fans of the unflappable Mystery Science Theater 3000, seeing the musical prick Rick running around san shorts may explain his angry male animal arrogance. But as a romantic lead, he’s rather limited. According to IMDb Sera’s career was also rather short lived (Smith, who praises the performer incessantly, will be sad to hear this). What started in 1979 was soon over five years later. Google offers up a similar overview.

Even with the cast’s uneven facets, Pieces manages to work. It’s a shame that so much talent takes a backseat to naked babes being butchered. Smith, fresh from playing Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye, does little except smirk and speak like a certain Joe Cabot. Crusty Dean Edmund Purdom has to get by on clipped British courtesy and a nasty five o’clock shadow. Thanks to the dubbing - everyone’s voice is redone (even if it was their own in the end), as was the standard for most import productions - Pieces takes on an amplified sleazoid feel. We sense this is a movie that will do almost anything, including substitute actor accents, to get its gruesome point across. Oh, and one thing about the gore. It is plentiful, but clearly culled from an early ‘80s limit of realism.

Indeed, very little of this fright flick plays like an authentic police procedural. A premise is devised, a killer walks among his potential prey, Greed decade fashion victims disrobe with alarming regularity, and soon - it’s power tool time! The Georges chew up the scenery and all is right in the domain of dread. Some will scoff no matter the digital dressing. Pieces is that kind of perverse product. But don’t be surprised when, after it’s all over, you’re more than a little unnerved. It is that kind of movie - exactly.

by Bill Gibron

26 Oct 2008


Politics are not only social. They can be personal, or professional. They can encompass our entire life, or play a very tiny, very unimportant part in same. The inherent meaning of the term indicates a type of gamesmanship, a give and take that operates on skill, strategy, and individual sympathies. While we tend to view the opposing ideologies in terms of pro or con, black or white, the truth is far more gray. As a reflection of who we are, politics can be problematic. As an indication of who we may become, they are often precognitive and sentient. In Hector Babenco’s brilliant 1985 drama, Kiss of the Spider Woman, the concept of individual belief runs head on into the state controlled notion of control and conformity. For the two prisoners sharing a dingy Brazilian jail cell, their own principles will come to comfort them. They may also destroy everything they are.

Valentin Arregui is a political prisoner in his native land, a man marked by the government for his subversive views and violent radicalism. His cellmate suffers from a different form of persecution. As an effete homosexual, Luis Molina has been incarcerated on ‘morals charges’. As a means of escape, he makes up elaborate fantasies about fancy, fake motion pictures. One revolves around Nazis and spies. The other centers on the Spider Woman, and her wicked affections. As the tension between the two lessen, Valentin opens up about his life. Luis also begins to entrust his newfound friend. Naturally, the authorities are doing whatever they can to get their prisoners to break - and someone may have loyalties outside their own claimed convictions.

The history of Kiss of the Spider Woman is an interesting one, and the subject of several interesting featurettes on the recently released two disc DVD version of the film, now available from City Lights Home Entertainment. Since it deals with subjects both inherently cinematic (the movies) and impossible to perfectly convey (human emotion and sexuality), it must walk a fine line between the outrageous and the insular, the unknowable and the honest and obvious. It helps that director Babenco hired two amazing actors, both of whom were relatively unheralded at the time, to bring his vision to life. It’s safe to say that Spider Woman elevated the professional profile of both Raul Julia (Valentin) and William Hurt (Luis). The former was still a journeyman talent when this minor movie came along. The latter went on to win an Oscar for his work in the film, a clever combination of gay bravura and hidden pain. While Julia carries the film’s social heart, Hurt opens up the entire narrative’s bruised and battered soul.

As a novel, the 1976 work by Manuel Puig was considered ‘un-filmable’, based on the fact that the non-traditional narrative was told completely in dialogue form. While it was later adapted into a play for both stage and radio, the material appeared perfectly suited for the mind’s eye alone. And yet in one of the DVD’s added features, we learn about Puig, about his own thoughts on the book, and how Babenco managed to bring the material to life. Elsewhere, we see another unusual transformation in Spider Woman‘s legacy. Famed Broadway composers John Kander and Frank Ebb turned the tale into a musical, perhaps one of most unusual to ever hit the Great White Way. Another documentary explains the arduous task of modifying an already complex concept into a song and dance extravaganza (one that won several Tonys, by the way). In addition, there is a trivia track, a look at the role of “submissive women” in the movie, and some standard backstage overview.

But it’s the movie that remains timeless. Kiss of the Spider Woman in one of the few films that understands the communal horror and ubiquity of persecution. It plays with our sympathies only to challenge and cherry-pick them later on. There are secrets and symbols strewn throughout the two hour running time, with an additional allotment of unanswered and ambiguous turns along the way. Babenco gets lots of mileage out of the film-within-a-film ideal, as well as utilizing flashbacks to fill in necessary blanks. While it never takes away from its two character conceits, Kiss of the Spider Woman is much more than just a couple of prisoners talking. It illustrates the notion of how humans strive for dignity, and that even in the most oppressive of environments, caring and compassion can break down barriers.

Of course, some two decades-plus on, the homosexual undercurrent feels very dated indeed. Any indication of man-to-man affection is kept completely offscreen and seems dismissed quickly and compactly. Hurt could even be accused of stereotyping Luis, or making him more of a swishy, fey foil than he really is or needs to be. Of course, such an interpretation falls in line with Puig’s take on such gender realities, and the actor’s amazing mannerisms help transcend anything remotely offensive. Of course, the DVD exposes the huge onset arguments Babenco had with his lead, conflicts that apparently added as much to the performance as any high minded Method-ology. Similarly, it’s important not to underestimate Julia’s importance to the film. If Kiss of the Spider Woman were all about Luis and his love of extravagance, we’d grow bored very quickly. Instead, Valentin reminds us of the sacrifice some are willing to endure to stand by their beliefs.

There are unanswered questions, though, elements of Kiss of the Spider Woman that tend to make sense only to itself. The two narratives spun by Luis - the noir-ish thriller Her Real Glory and the oddball b-movie macabre - tend to be more disconnected than reflective of any real theme. In some ways, the bright and shiny scope infused in these fake offerings may stand as nothing more than a way of avoiding the darkness of prison. Additionally, the ending will appear overly grim to some, especially when viewed through our post-millennial mandate of justice and cinematic fairness for all. But that’s one of the great things about Kiss of the Spider Woman. It doesn’t want to deliver the standard ‘feel good’ sentiment. Instead, it wants its audience to understand the hurt and inequity, to realize that, sometimes, the bad get rewarded and the good get far too much punishment. But that’s the way things work in the world. And like the formation of the strangest of bedfellows, that’s part of the foundation of politics as well. 

by Bill Gibron

25 Oct 2008


Can a DVD alter your perception on a film? Perhaps the bigger question is, should it? When you walk out of a theater, disappointed or elated, should the home theater experience three to several months later alter that initial reaction? Aren’t first impressions the most honest? Or are they just the most immediate? When it opened in August, Larry Bishop’s backhanded compliment to ‘60s exploitation - Hell Ride - seemed several chopper chicks short of a zombietown. It was a film that attempted to bridge the cavernous credibility gap between legitimate cool and faked cool. Executed produced by Quentin Tarantino and created by old school drive-in vet Larry Bishop (Wild in the Streets, The Savage Seven), it was yet another contemporary tap into the original post-modern movie ideal. In the end, it seemed like a hit or miss waste of time. But on the digital format, the added features argue for a solid sum greater than its often underwhelming parts.

Back in ‘76, biker Pistolero promised the soon-to-be-murdered Cherokee Kisum that he would protect a key to a safety deposit box. The contents - supposedly untold amounts of drug money - were for her son, Comanche. Now, over four decades later, an older Pistoler leads the vagabond gang known as the Victors, along with his right hand man The Gent. When member St. Louie is killed by the rogue renegade 666’ers, led by the notoriously unsane Billy Wings and The Deuce, he vows vengeance. He also hopes to locate the last two keys so that Comanche (now part of his crew) can earn his birthright and satisfy the age old vendetta. Of course, any action against the 666’ers will upset the status quo, and that means an end to beer and babes and the beginning of an all out motorcycle holocaust.

Right from the very first image, Hell Ride (new to DVD from Genius Products and The Weinstein Company) comes off as a Devil’s Rejects reject. Unfortunately, you quickly realize that Rob Zombie was much more in tune with the exploitation ethic than wannabe Mahon Larry Bishop. Soon, the QT nods start pouring in, staid amalgamations of spaghetti westerns, Asian crime dramas, and overworked schlock motifs. About 40 minutes in you’ve had enough. You can’t stand the back and forth posing, the hopscotching homages, the lack of anything remotely looking like a linear narrative or dimensional character. It’s at this moment when cast and crew make their stand, demanding that you accept them, or simply ignore their over-earnest motion picture pastiche outright and move along. If you can handle such a head on aesthetic collision, you just might enjoy the last act.

But if you don’t, Hell Ride will seem like a literal journey into Satan’s gaping maw. It will test your bare breasting faculties and push the very limits of your need for unnecessary posturing. There is no acting here, just useless channeling of personas past, and when he can’t think of anything clever to convey, writer/director Bishop simply tosses out a few Leone riffs and calls it a day. There are so many mock meaningful close-ups, uses of zoom and soft focus falderal that you swear Guy Madden had discovered the ‘60s and was updating his canon of D.W. Griffith-inspired artiness. Processed to purgatory and back in post-production, the movie tries to super saturate some depth into what is, in essence, a nostalgia borne out of boredom. This is about as ‘grindhouse’ as the similarly styled (and named) films released by QT and his buddy Robert Rodriguez early last year.


Of course, when you hear the commentary track included on the DVD, you realize that everything complained about was a purposeful aesthetic choice. Joined by cinematographer Scott Kevan, Bishop goes all out. He defends every oddball idea, every line of hyperbolic dialogue and insane moment of directorial derring-do. He really believes in this film and his approach, and it’s a determination that bleeds over into the five featurettes included. Each one argues its point perfectly, making the lesser elements of Hell Ride seem like strokes of unbridled budding genius. When viewed through these particular perspectives, the incoherence and amateurishness feels almost epic. That’s the revelation that the contemporary home theater format can provide. In a theater setting, we are shut off from the process. Here, the chutzpah is self-evident.

Indeed, if you can stomach Bishop’s onscreen bravado, if you can get behind his cut and paste imagination, you will definitely enjoy this Ride. There are certain scenes that spark with untapped potential. Michael Madsen’s Gent takes on Eric Balfour’s Comanche in a one-on-one bar fight that discovers some heretofore untapped humor. There is another hilarious moment when a sheepish Dennis Hopper asks a biker babe for a joint (his face is classic). Sure, for every segment that gets you smiling, there’s one like Bishop’s “fire” based stand-off with his ‘old lady’, the lovely Cassandra Hepburn. The duo tosses so many conflagration entendres at each other that you can actually count the ones that ‘burn’, and the many that merely irritate. Some of this film feels like it would read better on the page. Besides, trying to mimic the crudity of the past is no longer clever.   

Indeed, this is Hell Ride‘s biggest problem. Very few filmmakers can accurately recreate the look and feel of ancient b-grade drive-in fare. Zombie is one. The Manson Family‘s Jim Van Bebber is another. Not only do they capture the visuals, they understand the off the cuff, on the run nature of how many of these movies were shot. To suggest that this can be done in some geek’s laptop is ludicrous. Besides, Bishop should know better. He was around when this kind of cinema ruled the subculture, and even acted in a few famous examples. Here, he seems to be looking through digital rose colored glasses. Everything plays like a flashback - albeit one told in a terrific, flashy style that tries desperately to hide how cornball the motoring and machismo really are.

All one can do is submit to Hell Ride‘s ridiculousness and simply allow the movie to make up its own creative logic. You might actually find that you like Bishop’s Birdman of Razzmatazz personality (he’s all grumbles and Van Dykes). If you don’t mind wallowing in excess that never achieves the T&A bounty the narrative suggests (sadly, this is not the Unrated edit fans were hoping for), you could find yourself fooled. Had he simply made a standard biker flick, a post-modern update of an old fashioned raincoat crowder, Larry Bishop’s ambition might be more acceptable. But combining 2008 with 1968 (or ‘78) just won’t work, and by the time you’ve surrendered to Hell Ride‘s biker chic surrealism, you’ll realize what a true waste of time it’s been. Luckily, DVD provides a much more profound experience.

by Bill Gibron

24 Oct 2008


It’s a staple of the cinematic form, drama’s go-to position when anything outside biology becomes unobtainable. In fact it’s such a stalwart that the independent movement has been milking it for over a decade, hoping it will grab the attention of the often-indifferent mainstream. Families in freefall as a motion picture type has been around since talkies gave voice to its collection of characters, but in the post-modern world, relations between parents and children, siblings and each other, and any newcomer to the kinship have been turned into something similar to a gonzo Greek tragedy. With the rare exception, these narratives revolve around the uncompromising pain our loved ones inflict on each other and us, while struggling to suggest sentiments more universal and profound. Rachel Getting Married gets most of this ideal dead right. But how it gets there becomes a big part of the film’s overall critical failing. 

Kym is the typical black sheep of her smug Northeastern family. A wild child teen model, she’s now a raging drug addict whose intoxicated antics led to some devastating, deadly results. On leave from rehab, she’s returning home to participate in her sister Rachel’s wedding. After first, everyone is wary of her prickly presence, including her overprotective father and sis’s suspicious friend. But as she warms up to her future brother-in-law’s best man, a fellow former junkie himself, and makes various scenes in public, the pain she’s hiding begins to slip through. Then her distant mother arrives, her decision for divorce derived directly from Kym’s inexcusable actions. As tempers flare and secrets emerge, it’s clear that everyone here has been affected by our highly stung heroine - and her inability to face up to the responsibility of same. Of course, their hands are far from clean.

Rachel Getting Married is Ordinary People turned inside out. It’s Shoot the Moon, Georgia, and dozens of lesser examples of familial dysfunction filtered through every cultural celebration on the planet. While it marks a return to familiar territory for cinematic schizophrenic Jonathan Demme, it contains elements that make you wonder why he came back in such an artistically questionable way. Perhaps after squandering his Oscar and Indie cred on such slight efforts as Beloved, The Truth About Charlie, and The Manchurian Candidate (the last two unnecessary remakes), he decided to rediscover his cinematic muse. But while the script he uncovers is more than solid (here’s hoping that Sidney Lumet’s daughter Jenny gets the Oscar nom she so richly deserves), and the performances he draws on exceptional, Demme’s own ideas appear to purposely undermine his efforts along the way.

Indeed, there are two facets of this film that threaten to overwhelm everything entertaining and endearing about the interpersonal problems on display. First, Demme employs the new fangled gimmick - the handheld shakey cam - to suggest a kind of An American Family documentary dynamic. As we watch talented actors pour their hearts out in conversations that crackle with abject realism, the cinematography acts like it’s got the shakes. There are perhaps two steady shots in the whole film. Otherwise, this is Cloverfield with monstrous people problems in place of an oversized extraterrestrial city killer. Quarantine wasn’t this unsettling, cinematically. It’s as if Demme watched The Blair Witch Project and any number of its crappy clones, and said “that sounds like fun.” Unfortunately, the stunt stifles some of the movie’s more memorable emotions.

Besides, the argument that this process gives the film a more authentic feel is high minded hogwash. Arguing documentary style suggests all fact directors are incapable of controlled camerawork. Sure, a more verite approach would support such a gross overgeneralization, but what we see in Rachel Getting Married is nothing short of a small screen interpretation of some clearly non-theatrical conceits. Directors need to look away from their video playback once and a while and realize that what they are creating will wind up 40 feet high in some neighborhood Multiplex. It’s as if everyone employing this device has given up on the moviegoing experience and relegated their film to the home video format of choice.

And then there is the almost cartoonish multiculturalism. On the one hand, Demme should be praised for taking such a color-blind approach to this material. Unlike Robert Redford’s Oscar winning walk through suburban Chicago psychosis, there is no clear connection to anything Caucasian. Kym and Rachel are certainly suggestive of the majority, but everyone else, from the African American fiancé (and his eclectic brood) to the various Asian, Hispanic, and indeterminate friends make an impression about the globe circa 2008. But then Rachel Getting Married goes overboard, bringing every manner of tradition and ritualized ethnicity to the table. We get glimpses of India, pieces plucked out of Peru and the rest of South America. The reception even dabbles in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe before settling in for some nice, normative USA jazz. But the troubles talked over deserve a more focused approach. Half the time we feel like we’re locked in a hot button version of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?

And yet, Rachel Getting Married is so smartly written and expertly acted that we can easily forgive Demme’s directorial skylarking. Anne Hathaway, given the thankless job of making the perpetually whiny Kym seem tolerable, turns her into the noblest of needy offspring. At first, we wonder why the character constantly obsesses on her “me, me, me” mantra. Then we meet Bill Irwin’s dithering dad and - even better - Debra Winger’s Mary Tyler Moore style bitch mother and everything clicks. Both represent the worst aspects of so-called “perfect” parents - absenteeism, indifference, negotiating instead of directing. Both performers are fine, but Winger stands out as the kind of nurturer who clearly has limits. Elsewhere, Demme populates the film with an idiosyncratic collection of cameos. Everyone from Fab Five Freddy and Robin Hitchcock to Roger Corman make an amiable appearance.

In fact, had Demme done away with the trickery and taken this material more seriously, had he avoided the attempt to be au courant and simply staged the movie the way he did with previous classics like Something Wild or Melvin and Howard, we would be looking at an overall awards season frontrunner. Instead, Rachel Getting Married will be acknowledged for its cast, and for a screenplay that cuts out the clichés typically associated with the fractured clan genre, and that’s it. One cannot stress enough how remarkable certain individual moments are in this movie. Several scenes literally take your breath away with their heartbreaking intensity and raw nerve pain. But then the lens goes wobbly and we’re once again aware of the individual in the director’s chair. While taking an audience out of the moment is not the biggest cinematic crime, Demme turns it into something serial. Unfortunately, it costs his film dearly. 

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