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by Bill Gibron

12 Oct 2008


Never pretend to be handicapped. Know what awaits you in Heaven. Use racial tolerance to get what you want. Never swear on television. Stay HIV positive. Never take a joke too far. Never give up on cheating. People will always find a way to ruin your good time. Kids with red hair and freckles have no souls. The world will end in 2012. These are just some of the revelations offered by Eric Theodore Cartman, the nine year old self-proclaimed wunderkind of South Park, Colorado. Along with opinions of Family Guy (“sucks balls”) and the Jews (let’s not go there), the rotund prophet want you to join his cult of comedy gold. And thanks to a new DVD set from Paramount, you too can become a member of his portly People’s Temple.

Yes, this is another of those studio compiled merchandising doorstops, meant to appease the appetite of those longing for more and more South Park box sets. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series (and you really should be by now, dammit), it centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk mountain town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), the aforementioned Cartman and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and prone to dying suddenly).

Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs./Mr. Garrison (the gang’s confused transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.

While clearly aimed at appeasing fans until a Season 12 compilation comes along, The Cult of Cartman: Revelations reminds us of why Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated anarchy stands as a certified comedy classic. Not only does the duo understand the innate charms of over the top toilet humor, but they always manage a little satiric bite along with the scatology. Additionally, South Park is almost exclusively a character driven show - albeit one where the personalities involved are slightly twisted and unusually perverted. By focusing on Cartman, especially later day Eric’s evil shenanigans, we observe how Parker and Stone push the envelope of their invention to maximize laughs while staying well within the confines of creative license.

Disc 1 begins with what has to be one of South Park‘s most amazing episodes - “Scott Tenorman Must Die”. No other animated television series could find a way to make pubic hair, a chili cook-off, peer pressure, the band Radiohead, and cannibalism work in a flawless examination of school days hazing. The last installment on the DVD, “La Petit Tourette”, tries something similar with the noted neurological disorder and Dateline’s ‘To Catch a Predator’. In between, we discover that a certain sedate sea creature writes all of Family Guy‘s abysmal scripts (“Cartoon Wars 1 & 2”), pretending to be a robot won’t help your figure out your friends (“Awesom-O”), and dying can be as big a bitch as being completely ignored by your school chums (“The Death of Eric Cartman”).

There’s even more insights on Disc 2, whether it’s dealing with the notoriously humorless “Ginger Kids”, or discovering that a simple case of “Tonsil Trouble” can lead to a cure for AIDS (the secret? Lots and lots of money). Terrorists will always undermine your “Super Fun Time” at a pioneer recreationist village, while the demands of the public and standard business models means that even having your own amusement park (“Cartmanland”) is nothing but headaches. The other two episodes of South Park included on the second DVD feature Mrs. Garrison desperate to become a man again (“Eek, A Penis!”) while Cartman himself fakes mental retardation to “win” the Special Olympics (“Up the Down Steroid”). It is here where you find the only three episodes not previously included on other digital collections (“Tonsil”, “Eek” and “Super”).

As with any random collection of series installments, fans can question the inclusion or exclusion of certain titles, and there will always be arguments over the necessity for such stopgap sets in the first place. Fox received lots of grief for putting The Simpsons out in such a scattered strategy, but since Paramount regularly releases South Park in full season packages (and relatively quickly after they’ve aired on Comedy Central),  some character specific indulgence can be forgiven. After all, without this specialized one-off ideal, we wouldn’t have gotten the amazing full length feature film version of “Imaginationland” a few months back.

As for the sole bonus feature, the tiny life lessons from Cartman himself (part of new introductory animation) are funny, if rather short. Some last no longer than a few seconds. No one is suggesting that Park provide more. After all, Parker and Stone seem content to allow each season set to arrive sans anything remotely resembling real digital extras. Instead, they offer up their own “commentary-mini” (three to five minutes max) and seem satisfied. So having these risqué one liners and profane prophecies setting up each episode is ample added content - especially when you consider the cool packaging and inclusion of a membership card/sticker recognizing your status in the Eric Theodore Cartman Society.

Together, the entire presentation explains how South Park maintains its coveted commercial and critical status. It argues for the value in all aspects of humor - from the outrageous to the subtle, the offensive spoof and the current culture of irony. While the 12 episodes provided might not be the best in the show’s history (that’s up to true Park geeks and messageboard surfers to decide), they remind us of how easy Trey Parker and Matt Stone make it look. In the past, the boys have explained how some ideas take years to foster, while others arrive during the standard production week pressures. In combination with the current political clime, and whatever spills over the TMZ tabloid transom, the duo has fostered one of the finest farces ever conceived. The Cult of Cartman: Revelations may have specious motives, but as a collection of South Park, it’s well worth the re/pre-visit. 

by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2008


Symbolically, what do airplane pillows represent? Comfort at 40,000 feet? A cheap way of providing minimal relaxation to the tired traveler? A miniature facsimile of the real thing? Empty promises and little relief? As with most symbols of a crass consumer culture, the rough little puffs with their diminutive status can signify something different to everyone who comes across them. The same can be said for the latest wonderwork by actor turned complete cinematic genius Giuseppe Andrews. Taking its title from the aforementioned in-flight fluff, what we end up with is another mesmerizing look at how the marginalized manage to maintain their errant dignity while dealing with the dilemmas of an uncaring world. 

Baby Swiss is obsessed with a strange science fiction film. She fantasies about living in its futuristic ideals, and keeps a separate DVD copy in a strongbox under the house just to be on the safe side. Naturally, this drives her unattended husband to the local whorehouse, known as The City on the Moon. There, he meets up with other unhappy men and drowns his sorrows in high priced call girls. In the meantime, Baby Swiss discovers a kind of platonic love with a like minded neighbor. He is so desperate to be part of her life that he will wait outside her window. Their relationship will turn on whether she cleans the glass, or closes the blinds. And all the while, a homeless Greek chorus champions the freedom of living on the streets, unencumbered by the mindless machinations of being part of this so-called “proper society”.

Airplane Pillows is Giuseppe Andrews’ impoverished interpretation of Peyton Place, a lifetime of soap opera intrigue boiled down to 30 attention-grabbing minutes. It’s couples fighting, parents pleading with their distant offspring, lovers looking for the light in the window of their paramour’s soured soul, crime, punishment, Pope pimps, and unhappy men seeking solace in the arms (and thighs) of a paid partner’s embrace. Utilizing many in his creatively rich company, including the magnificent Vietnam Ron, Sir George Bigfoot, Ed, and the always electric Karen Bo Baron, while introducing several new intriguing faces, it’s a return to the days of sense memory surrealism and random narrative drive. You can figure out what’s going on here based on genre requirements. But Andrews always makes his movies much more than simple cinematic stereotypes.

As with any aggressive auteur, the standards of the sudser are indeed perverted by Airplane Pillows to make room for more of the maestro’s fascinating free association. In many ways, this wacky little treasure trove reminds one of David Lynch’s cult crackerjack Twin Peaks. Here, Andrews takes typical plot points like adultery, familial dysfunction, sexual satisfaction, drug abuse, serial murder, and other personal power struggles and filters them through a mindset that manufactures as many complications as conclusions. We aren’t supposed to get lost in these people’s piddling problems. Instead, when Baby Swiss explains her love of a fictional sci-fi effort, we are required to see our own idiosyncratic needs, and realize that our unusual fetishes are probably just as freaky.

Perhaps the most compelling sequences however come when two spellbinding street people discuss how happy they are to be homeless. Faces haggard and yet very human, voices straining from years living within the cosmopolitan cancer of urban smog and soot, they literally laugh at individuals who take existence as a mixture of frustration and futility. Here they are, without a care (or collection of coins) in the world, and yet their sunny optimism - combined with a little carnal trickery - mocks everything the other characters kvetch over. Every over the top narrative needs a good counterbalance and Airplane Pillows’ hobo harbingers are a perfect artistic offset.

Unlike past films, where gross out gags about bodily functions and fornication seemed to make up most of the wit, Andrews once again switches gears. Sure, we still get some scatology, but most of the humor is character driven, drawn out from interactions and ideas. Dialogue, always an important element in his films, is fleshed out in a way that challenges convention while embracing its universal needs. There are small snippets of backstory, moments when we learn about Baby Swiss’s son, a hooker’s medical scare, and other random bits of individual dimension. Yet because Andrews always has bigger picture fish to fry, the sum standing as something much greater than the often as intriguing parts.

In fact, even at 30 minutes, Airplane Pillows feels dense and compelling complex. It makes us think while playing fully on our emotional impulses. It instantly draws us in while simultaneously pushing us back, never being too obvious or too obtuse. Like the amazing artist he is, Andrews continues to show how adept he can be within the artform. Even a minor motion picture riff like this stands right alongside his more epic examinations. At one time, Giuseppe Andrews was the Godard of the Trailer Park, a celluloid revisionist working in camcorders and crazies. Today, he’s the leading light in the outsider digital revolution. Airplane Pillows proves this over and over again.

by Bill Gibron

10 Oct 2008


October continues its mishmash of film and genres. Along with kid vid effort City of Ember and horror romp Quarantine, here are the films in focus for the weekend of the 10th:

Body of Lies [rating: 6]

Anchored by an amazing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and little else, Body of Lies limps along for over two hours, never amounting to more than a decent, if derivative nailbiter.

Ridley Scott used to make daring, original movies. No matter the subject matter - outer space alien invasion, magical sword and sorcery adventure, revisionist Roman peplum - he’d place his visionary signature on every frame of film. Sure, he dabbled in pseudo realism, taking on the crime genre with Someone to Watch Over Me and a female facsimile of the buddy picture with Thelma and Louise. But when his name was attached to a project, we expected something innovative and outsized. Yet with his latest, Body of Lies, we get nothing more than a journeyman thriller. Even with a big named cast and intercontinental setting, Scott simply shows up and sets things in motion. The results are uninspired, to say the least.  read full review…


The Duchess [rating: 3]

Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined.

There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.  read full review…


The Express [rating: 5]

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy.

Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the mainstream, which sees allegories in all manner of athletic competition, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. As the latest in a long line of race related travails, the history here is loaded with confrontation, outrage, and acceptance. But even with a strong handle on the situation with segregation, the movie can’t manage to overcome its predetermined purpose.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008


Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the mainstream, which sees allegories in all manner of athletic competition, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. As the latest in a long line of race related travails, the history here is loaded with confrontation, outrage, and acceptance. But even with a strong handle on the situation with segregation, the movie can’t manage to overcome its predetermined purpose.

When he was young, Ernie Davis learned to run. It was a necessary survival skill in a small town where segregation and racial hatred ruled. Later, as he grew, Davis learned to use said talent to become an All American athlete. When colleges came calling, he had two choices - the University of Football, otherwise known as Notre Dame, or upstate New York school Syracuse. With an undeniable legacy left behind by a graduating Jim Brown, Davis soon found himself under the tutelage of no nonsense coach Ben Schwartzwalder. After an uneventful Freshman year, the newest Orangeman soon becomes a national name, leading his team to a National Championship and the first ever Heisman Trophy for a black player. Success in the NFL seemed certain - that is, until something unexpected came along to shatter his dreams.

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy. With trailers that give away one major reveal, and a narrative which foreshadows the final plot twist, this is an amiable if predicable portrait. Directed by Gary Fleder (Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) with all the faked flash of a Tony Scott knock-off, we understand almost immediately where this story of struggle is going. Davis is introduced as a decent little kid picked on horrifically by a band of bullheaded boy bigots. Within seconds, his fleet footed abilities are revealed, and soon the shift is away from prejudice and onto pre-college success. When Dennis Quaid enters the picture as Ben Schwartzwalder, the equally pigheaded coach from Syracuse, we sense a confrontation ahead.

But in one of the few surprises in this otherwise routine biopic, our fabled football sage isn’t a raging extremist - unless you’re talking about football. Then, Schwartzwalder is as old school as George Halas and Vince Lombardi. His is a hard work and waste nothing ethic, the kind of aggressive approach that made Jim Brown into a legendary figure in the NFL. We see the fabled running back as he readies to play with the Cleveland Browns, and his active recruitment of Davis is one of the film’s few sparkling sequences. Otherwise, Brown is held up as a kind of compare and contrast with his protégé. Big Jim gets the concept of social isolation and fights to rise above it. Ernie is as sincere as his name suggests, shocked when faced with separate drinking fountains and restricted hotels.

Part of the pleasure within The Express is watching Schwartzwalder and the team respond to the growing controversy caused by their newest recruit. At first, there is lots of contention and chest puffing. One player in particular makes it his personal cause to give Davis nothing but ethnic oriented grief. But as he starts shining, and by example bringing the team into the national limelight, the differences cool. Soon we see a united front against the ridiculous laws and ways of a pre-Civil Rights South. A trip to Texas for the National Championship game is especially illuminating, since almost everything that happens both before, during, and after the contest speaks volumes for the misguided way of America circa the ‘50s. Had there been more of this material, The Express would play like a leatherheaded Malcolm X.

But Fleder knows that audiences won’t indulge in a film that spends most of its time in controversy and anger. So The Express offers up some moments of minor romance, and the typical non-erotic comedic male bonding that sports tend to mandate. In the lead, Rob Brown makes a convincing Davis. Not required to do more than play proficiently and look iconic, the Finding Forrester co-star fits the bill. Much better is Omar Benson Miller as the larger than life lineman Jack Buckley. Like an overprotective father to Davis’ ill-prepared novice, he’s a gentle joking giant and jester. Some ancillary support comes from Charles S. Dutton (as Davis’ ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ Grandpa) and Soul Food‘s Darrin Dewitt Henson as Brown.

As for Quaid, he’s the film’s toughest fit. While Schwartzwalder was in his late ‘40s when Davis first stepped onto the Syracuse campus, his big screen reflection feels too young for the part. Quaid can give convincing curmudgeon, but his boyish good looks keep getting in the way. Even when Fleder gets in close to accentuate the star’s crow’s feet, the 54 year old’s sunny disposition belies his (and the character’s) age. Besides, we expect more sour mash sass from a man who took a small university and built it into a strong athletic contender. Quaid tries to gruff up his gumption, but it never comes across as organic. And in a film which needs that strong outer source, Schwartzwalder is an incomplete core.

With an ending that attempts to balance triumph with tragedy and a feeling of incompleteness overall, The Express ends up being more and less of the same simultaneously. Anyone with even a minor degree in narrative predictability can see where all the nose bleeds and blurred vision is going, and the link to the classic 1971 weeper is undeniable. Besides, if we didn’t already understand Davis’ place in sports history, his lack of professional stature still wouldn’t be so surprising. When it sticks to the issue of race and how the Syracuse players responded to same, the movie makes us think. The rest of the time, however, The Express suffers from the same creative cruise control that has long since sunk the spotty sports genre.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008


There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.

Though she longs to be with her sexy school chum Earl Grey, Lady Georgiana Spencer is promised to the dour William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, by her scheming mother. As a marriage of convenience and financial windfall, both households triumph. The Duke gets a Duchess to bear him an heir, while the Spencers align themselves with noble lineage. Almost immediately, Georgiana learns her frustrating fate. The Duke is a desperate lover, a horrible conversationalist, and a wanton womanizer. After befriending the fallen Lady Foster, our heroine soon discovers her taking up with her husband. Pursuing Grey, Georgiana becomes an outrage. But her popularity, founded on a love of gambling, fashion, and politics, keeps her favor with the masses. Even as she enters into an uncomfortable ménage a trios with Foster and her spouse, she finds ways to pursue her more ‘private’ passions.

Maybe it’s the casting of Keira Knightley. It could be the compromise of having TV director Saul Dibb behind the lens (apparently, he wasn’t the first choice). Maybe it’s the mediocre allusion to modern times. Clearly, we are supposed to see this Spencer as a pre-dated carbon copy of a certain Candle in the Wind - aka Princess Di. Whatever the rationale, however, The Duchess can’t help but be a massive bore. While others are keening for Oscar noms all around, audiences can expect another helping of half-baked Harlequin romancing draped in the kind of unbelievable beauty of an era unnaturally ornate. Few films reflecting the period play realistically with the obvious issues of disease and hygiene, and it’s a fair cop to argue that viewers don’t want such authenticity. But by prettying up everything, the production removes whatever teeth the tale had to offer. 

Knightley is also a problem here, putting on the pout she perfected while playing pirate for the last few years. Unlike Atonement which allowed her a much larger emotional range, The Duchess demands she be happy or sad, nothing more. Even in sequences where the dimensional arc should be much broader, Knightley offers little nuance. Things aren’t much better for costar Ralph Fiennes. As the dour, glum Duke of Devonshire, his character is more constipated than anything else. We are supposed to see the sadness behind the manor-born, to understand that he is simply playing by prescribed rules laid down after centuries of wealth and ritual. But Fiennes fails to find any spark. He’s so subtle as to be almost inert.

It is Dibb, however, who draws most of our ire. While the locations chosen have all the necessary pomp and circumstance, the spectacle seems to be missing. Crowd scenes feel claustrophobic, while lush interiors are underlit and frequently misused. You can hear the filmmaker defending himself: “this is a film about people, not places.” But part of the allure with such subject matter is the wish fulfillment fantasy of revisiting the days of the decadent, the dandy, and the unctuous uppercrust. For a film founding its narrative on such a supposedly scandalous lady, The Duchess is cloying and conservative. Even the sex scenes, and there are a couple, keep things direct and decent.

Dibb also demonstrates little insight into human nature. Again, it could be the timeframe being referenced, but dramatic license does allow for a few post-modern moments of clarity. When Georgiana confronts William and Lady Foster over their affair, the scene should sizzle. Instead, it’s rendered routine and matter of fact. However, when the Duke gets to gloat over his knowledge of his wife’s trysts with Grey, it’s handled in a much more bombastic manner. One could argue that Dibb is simply staying within the paternalistic power base of the epoch, giving Fiennes the freedom Knightley would never have. But again, this is fiction, not a fully factual recreation. Give your actors some room to breath, or suffer the stifled, uneven consequences.

Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined. Aside from the lack of a clear contemporary context (the Diana element isn’t even mentioned), one gets the impression that all this plays better on the page, where imagination and inner vision can compensate for the limits of the players onscreen. Someone once said that the further you go back into the past, the more similar to science fiction your effort becomes. That’s because the relationship to the modern world is so alien and arcane. The Duchess wants to draw parallels to the present by suggesting that people in the past were just the same as you or I. And maybe it’s true. After all, the conclusion being delivered here is that, no matter the century, affairs of the heart are often quite boring.

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