Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Saturday, Sep 1, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This time out: Texas auteur Larry Buchanan fuels his true crime conspiracy theories with a pair of perplexing efforts.


What if Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t died at the handgun of Jack Ruby? What if the assassin in one of the most defining moments in US history actually stood trial for his crime, before a jury of his peers? Would the evidence persuade you to convict? Or would you find him not guilty or even more so, innocent by reason of insanity? That is the provocative proposition offered by director and conspiracy theory expert Larry Buchanan as he gives the most infamous killer in American memory his day in court in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Gone are the “grassy knoll” and “military industrial complex” rantings of Olive Stone and in its place are stark, cold facts. For 90 minutes, we hear a string of witnesses for the prosecution and defense, circumstantial evidence versus a plea of psychosis. Then we, the audience as jury, are given the charge and hear impassioned closing remarks from both sides. Was Oswald the President’s killer? Or was he an insane schizoid who failed to know right from wrong?



Having deflated one myth, Buchanan moves onto another, the notorious crime spree of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Using newspaper accounts, the still living eyewitness reports, and personal recollections from the family of Texas lawman Frank Hamer, we get the standard slaughter and sin narrative about this deadly duo. Personal details are revealed and sleazy tabloid gossip is fostered. All along, the efforts of Hamer to bring the two to justice are documented in near superhero revelry. It is only at the end, when we witness the death scene and autopsy photos of the craven couple, that we get a sense that these murderous monsters were even close to being human. And Buchanan jacks up the controversy factor further by giving former Barrow boy Floyd Hamilton a polygraph test—onscreen—to debunk some of the folklore surrounding the couple. Gruesome, gripping, and egregious at times, thanks to Buchanan’s digging, displaying, and reenactments, we truly experience The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde.


True Crime titles are probably the most forgotten exploitation genre, along with monster myth bashing (Bigfoot, Loch Ness) and the search for ancient astronauts (the name Sun International Pictures alone will make many a person who grew up in the ‘70s cringe with recognition). Probably no other director within this exclusive arena had more passion for the subject than Texas titan Larry Buchanan. From the assassination of JFK to the death of Marilyn Monroe and rock legends Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Buchanan has carved a niche out for himself presenting fact based dramatizations and documentaries attempting to get to the truth of some of the great urban legends of our times.



Of the two films mentioned here, The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde is probably the most cinematically interesting. Utilizing a style that would later be adopted by almost all fact film creators, Buchanan mixes modern interviews, press clippings, dramatic readings, old photos, recreations, scrapbook items, props, and stock footage to paint a low-budget Ken Burns look at rural American crime in the early 1930s. Mostly a pro-police response to the glorification of violence in Arthur Penn’s seminal Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway drama Bonnie and Clyde, The Other Side focuses on Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, picturing him as a tireless proponent of justice who wouldn’t rest until these abhorrent human abominations faced the wrath of moral society. A good percentage of the time is spent highlighting Hamer’s career and accolades, and it almost overwhelms the real focus of the film. But Bonnie and Clyde are such oddly compelling criminals (he of minimal stature and bisexual tastes, she of near dwarf proportions) that they can’t help but become anti-heroic icons. Buchanan brings a lot of new material to the table (the gay angle, the injury to Bonnie in a fire that left her crippled), but the main reason for this film is the final few minutes. Here we see vintage movie footage of the dead duo in their death car, some rather morbid morgue photos, and, most compelling, a lie detector test interview with an ex-member of the Barrow gang. Under the polygraph’s watchful needle, we learn new (and supposedly) true facts about these criminals and their crimes. The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde delivers on its title’s promise and will linger in your imagination for days.



The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, on the other hand, is a rather dry, non-dramatic courtroom recreation of an imaginary trial of the dead assassin of President Kennedy. So close to the event that it caused a stir upon first release, this movie supports the “single killer” theory forwarded by the Warren Commission and makes a fairly convincing case for Oswald’s lone involvement in the crime. Using actors as witnesses (many of who read their “testimony” off cue cards or lap notes), we get a standard prosecution of the case, complete with all the evidence that we have heard debated and berated for the last forty years: the rifle ordered by Oswald, the FBI marksman who recreated the killer’s rapid fire assault on the President with similar timing and accuracy, the Marxist agenda, and the hatred for Kennedy’s Cuba policy. Missing are any references to a second assassin, the grassy knoll, the Zapruder film (there is a mention of a “movie” to be placed into evidence, but it is quickly dismissed and we move on), or any Oswald/Ruby connection. It’s fairly clear that Oswald would have had a hard time defending himself against the mountain of circumstantial evidence and we really learn nothing new. And oddly, there is very little fire in this film about the greatest tragedy (after the 9/11 attack) to befall this nation. Except for the final moments where we get the closing arguments and a few words from the technical consultant on the film, the rest of the film is interesting, if not very compelling or exciting. Like most real life courtroom dramas, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is a rote retelling of somewhat compelling facts and that is all.


Though biased and skewed and definitely lacking in gore or girlies, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde are still wonderfully sensational stories of crime and punishment. History (or at least one version of history) comes alive thanks to Larry Buchanan’s passion for their truth (or at least his concept of it).


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Saturday, Sep 1, 2007


In a society spinning out of control, vigilantism is the public’s panacea. It provides control – no matter how corrupt – within a schism of moral decay, and offers that most fleeting cure-alls - self-described justice and decency. Those without perspective tend to question the police’s problem with citizens taking the law into their own hands, yet what these action apologists tend to forget is that it’s rules and regulations that keep a community contained. Allow those boundaries to be dismissed, or ever controverted, and the result is chaos, the exact opposite of the crime and punishment paradigm you seek to establish with your vengeance. It’s a burden carried by Kevin Bacon in his latest film, Death Sentence. Based on a novel by Death Wish author Brian Garfield, it explores the notion of going numb over the seemingly endless cycle of criminality endured as part of everyday existence, and how it turns one man into a monster.


Nick Hume (Bacon) leads a rather idyllic life. His eldest boy Brendan is a talented high school hokey star with dreams of attending college in Canada. His youngest, Lucas, is the exact opposite – bright and sensitive, and slightly out of place in the family dynamic. Nick loves his wife Helen (Kelly Preston), adores his kids, and sees himself as a happy, settled man. All of that is shattered one night when a gang initiation brings death to the Humes. Grief stricken, Nick hopes the legal system will provide the punishment he seeks. But when he learns that lawyers are merely mechanisms in a quasi-corrupt system more interested in plea deals than maximum prison time, our devastated Dad decides to take matters into his own hands. What he doesn’t know is that his intended victim is part of the deadly Darley gang. Papa Bones (John Goodman) sells illegal guns, while oldest Billy brews dope in an abandoned asylum. They’re the kind of clan that don’t take kindly to having one of their own pushing up the daises. Because of his actions, Nick now faces a Death Sentence from these ruthless murderers.


Death Sentence is a wonderfully tight little thriller, the kind of statement cinema an up and coming filmmaker needs to establish his overall eagerness to achieve. It’s clear that, after only three films, Saw savant James Wan is becoming a compelling cinematic presence. While the gimmicks of his now seminal first film still stand out, the controlled visual splendor he showed in the horribly underrated Dead Silence shows up here as well. If Saw was a film soaked in slimy greens, and Silence shades of gray, then Sentence is steeped in gritty urban blues. Even the bloodshed – and there is plenty – is toned down, tweaked to maintain an aura of desperation and dread. Wan wants to establish his own aesthetic goals, reasons why his movies matter more than other game genre selections. While there are those who dismiss practically everything he does, this is one novice filmmaker who has made finding his way a compelling cinematic exercise.


As with any story of revenge, everything rests of the reaction of the victim and the reasons for retribution. This means our characters must be clear and the acting on target. Luckily, Death Sentence contains both. Nick Hume, while slightly self-absorbed, does come across as a sympathetic subject. He’s helpful at work – though a little to concerned about balance and “everything lining up” in perfect little rows – and loving to his family. While he does miss the disconnected dimension in youngest boy Lucas, he’s a fine father figure. Kevin Bacon, whose been expanding his range as of recently, deserves a lot of credit for bringing Nick to life, and for being so vulnerable onscreen. While he’s stoic throughout most of the set-up, there are several sequences post-premise where he’s devastating. Ghostly white (again, part of Wan’s weird paradigm) and gaunt, he’s a stick of drained domesticated dynamite just waiting for the proper fuse to set him off.


Enter the Darley Gang. Filled with archetypes instead of actual characters (the doubter, the wisenheimer, the bad ass black dude, etc.) and an inconclusive criminal intent (while the initial act is part of an initiation, everything else they do seems open to conjecture), they’re nothing but manufactured evil. The notion that such blatant, bullish hoods actually exist in a world filled with sting operations, neighborhood watches, and politically mandated task forces is not totally far fetched, but it does cause one to question the competency of the movie’s example of law enforcement. Aisha Tyler is Detective Wallis, a woman who seemingly knows everything the Darleys do, but apparently doesn’t bother to prosecute them. It’s a plot hole that’s never filled. The confrontation between Bacon and the direct DA is also a little forced. While it is a State mandate to settle criminal cases vs. taking them to trial, they’d never be so open about their strategy to a grieving victim.


Since the need for payback is obvious, but the attending consequences unclear, it’s up to the performances and the presentation to get us over the narrative divides. Thankfully, Wan wastes no time in establishing main bad boy Billy as an unfiltered psychopath, a chip off of the old engine block (John Goodman is great as an elephantine ‘boss’) who needs putting in his place. His relentless pursuit of Bacon in one of the film’s signature action scenes - a wonderful return to the days of the foot chase – easily illustrates his demented drive and fury. Later, in a sinister sequence with his father, we understand what made this gangbanger turn to crime. The point where things become mega-personal, where the back and forth kills stop being about retribution and start sounding a little specious (almost as if this was a game where corpses count as wins) may test a viewer’s sense of logic, but Death Sentence isn’t really concerned about being rational. It’s way too wrapped up in parenthood’s precariousness and our own helplessness within the world to consider its creative purity.


Oddly enough, where the movie loses some of its moxie is in the otherwise outstanding finale. Bacon, loaded for bear and – through the magic of the movies – completely capable of conning and killing off a band of seasoned slayers, is far too mechanical in his manslaughter. All the emotion he showed before simply vanishes. Never once do we believe he will balk. Certainly, one of his targets may take him out, but it won’t be because our now inhuman hero will panic. No, Nick Hume turns into The Terminator somewhere around the 70 minute mark, and he never really turns back. The final shot, a smile of self-satisfaction plastered on a mangled and melting mug, is like the robotic response of someone who is dead inside. Perhaps it’s supposed to resonate the same way that Travis Bickel’s bloody finger did in Taxi Driver, but Wan isn’t out to make some metaphysical point. Death Sentence is about brute force and blame. It’s not out to address the morals or mindsets involved.


Still, this is a significant movie, a clear indication that Wan will remain a fixture in film for the time being. Granted, he’s yet to be great, though Saw’s continuing influence and success suggests otherwise, and it would be nice to see him work within a genre that doesn’t demand stunts, splatter, or suspense. But in a realm where made for cable drek stands as the mainstream movie standard, Death Sentence gives good gonzo. It consists of some less than airtight plotting, and tends to understate the obvious, but perhaps that’s better than some regressive Rambo of the suburbs stance. It definitely resides in the realm of flights of fancy and fiction, though it really wants to represent some measure of truth. Unfortunately, the lure of vigilantism is too strong – and too socially acceptable – to avoid…or dismiss.



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Friday, Aug 31, 2007


When compiling this week’s compendium of choices, a single theme kept sticking out – “Award Winning”. In fact, looking over the list, over half the films and/or filmmakers represented have Oscar, or something similar, sitting on their inner sanctum shelves. This either argues for the Academy’s broadening acceptance of fare outside the studio system mainstream, or just a freak coincidence of programming proportions. In both cases, it makes for an interesting beginning to what promises to be an equally odd month. With school starting back, the Summer season officially finished, and families falling into their familiar routines, TV reasserts its importance as a communal comfort and fixture. So don’t be surprised to see the major pay channels rest on those laurels, at least for the time being. For SE&L’s part, we will continue to seek out the more unusual offerings to challenge your motion picture palette, including our stand up suggestion, an insane satire we felt was one of 2006’s best:


Premiere Pick
Idiocracy


It’s the best movie of 2006 that no one saw – and that was on purpose. Fox, feeling let down once again by Mike Judge’s slanted satirical eye, relegated this 2004 futuristic farce to a high shelf in their direct to DVD release schedule. Then, feeling considerable pressure from the filmmaker, dumped it in a few theaters during the end of Summer 2006, signaling their overall contempt for the title. While no one deserves to be treated so, especially not the man who made Office Space and brought Beavis and Butthead into the world, Fox’s reaction makes sense…especially once you’ve seen the film. The very demographic the studio was banking on to fill Cineplex seats were the very target of Judge’s derisive skewering. A movie that makes the bold prediction that our country is getting stupider every year, here’s hoping it finds a knowing audience on home video. (01 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
X-Men: The Last Stand


Brett Ratner has nothing to be ashamed of. His installment of the famous comic book franchise was imminently watchable. If anything, he proved once and for all that Bryan Singer is one of the most overrated auteurs in all of cinema. What has he really done to warrant such praise? The geek fiefdoms opinion aside, Ratner’s adaptation of the material results in a solid action flick.(01 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Queen


The death of Princess Diana divided Britain into two long simmering camps. The first were glad to get rid of the globe trotting, royalty ruining tabloid subject. The vast majority mourned the first real perceived “person” in Buckingham Palace. This fictionalized recreation of the events directly following her passing remains a stellar motion picture. Helen Mirrem’s much predicted Oscar was very well deserved indeed. (01 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Akeelah and the Bee


2006 ended up being the year of the spelling bee, what with this film and Bee Season following up the discovery of the fascinating documentary from 2002, Spellbound. This time out, a young girl from South Central Los Angeles is taken in by a mentor and prepared for Nationals. It has all the standard feel good facets, but thanks to gritty portrayals from Keke Palmer and Laurence Fishburne, it transcends its trite trappings. (01 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Blues Brothers


There’s no real reason to go into the relative merits of this overdone SNL skit. It does represent the excess of the late ‘70s piled into the mythos created by the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. It does have the late great John Belushi in what was probably his best role. And the cameos and reliance on good old fashioned R&B for its musical numbers definitely made it an aesthetic rarity. No, the really interesting element of this movie is the massive revisionist history that has gone on over the last quarter century. This movie was a FLOP when it first hit theaters, an expensive vanity project viewed as a reason to relegate all the participants, including director John Landis, to the back of the commercial bus. It made money, but barely covered its elephantine budget. Now, in our post-millennial/messageboard mentality, it’s a comedy classic. What a difference a few years, and a million showings on cable TV, can make. (05 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sling Blade


The world first discovered the oddball pleasures of Karl Childers and his creator, writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thorton in this brilliant Deep South drama. Playing a mentally challenged man who was institutionalized after killing someone, his impending release has the head of the hospital worried. Karl is not prepared to meet the pressures of the real world. Those fears, oddly enough, are proven all too true. (01 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Far from Heaven


Hoping to channel the spirit of such Tinsel Town kitsch masters as King Vidor and Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes took his throwback retro revisionism and applied it to a scintillating melodrama dealing with interracial romance and gay love. Quite a controversial jolt for its ‘50s suburban setting. Celebrated with several Oscar nods, it remains a work of exquisite beauty and seismic social themes. (04 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Waterland


Jeremy Irons was probably hoping that this adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel would land him right back on top of the Awards season heap. Only two years after his 1990 win for Reversal of Fortune, this tale of a timid schoolteacher who uses his classroom as a confessional had all the earmarks of another strong cinematic statement. Sadly, it failed to fulfill much of its potential promise. In retrospect, it’s a decent little drama. (04 September, Sundance Channel, 11:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dead Alive, a.k.a. Braindead


Peter Jackson wasn’t always into CGI spectacle and retelling Tolkein’s literary triptych. When he started, he was a good old fashioned horror geek, and he translated his love of all things splatter into a pair of seminal scarefests – 1987’s Bad Taste and this demented zombie stomp. Beginning with a pair of star-crossed lovers, a mean spirited mother bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey, and a town’s eventual transformation into a slapstick selection of the living dead, the future Oscar winner (that has such an amazing sound to it) went all out for this blood soaked bonanza. As influential in the world of whacked out horror comedy as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 or the entire Troma catalog, the combination of gore and goofiness went over like gangbusters with fright freaks. It established the filmmaker’s ability to successfully mix genres, making him the perfect choice to bring the still amazing Lord of the Rings trilogy to life. If you want to see greatness, even in its indie embryonic stage, this is the place to start. (02 September, HD Movies, 12:15AM EST)

Additional Choices
Dementia 13/Homicidal


After a month spent celebrating the amazing movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Turner Classic Movies is back with its Underground series, and the selection this time out represents a bit of program padding. Both films have been shown before, Dementia as part of a Corman cock-up, Homicidal as a William Castle salute. Worth seeing, but not necessarily viable a second time around. (07 September, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Three Stooges Film Marathon


No, this is not a festival of their amazing shorts. Instead, these are the kid vid vehicles the aging slapstick stars helmed once TV established their rerun relevancy. Our twisted trio meets Hercules, heads off into orbit, and goes around the world in a daze. There are only three words you need to know in judging the quality of this collection of comedies – Curly Joe DeRita. That’s all. (02 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM to 1AM EST)

The Sugarland Express


During his days as a wunderkind discovery working at Universal Studios, Steven Spielberg dreamed of being a serious dramatist. Before finding himself detouring into blockbuster territory with Jaws, he delivered this action-oriented stand off between Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, and the Texas State Police. Not so much an anomaly in the proud popcorn movie papa’s canon as a sign of his amazing range and inherent directorial designs.  (06 September, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Aug 30, 2007


Rob Zombie gets it. He understands implicitly what makes horror such a potent genre for fright fans. He’s not quite a full fledged master of macabre, but he’s getting there in amazing leaps and outstanding bounds. Frankly, the grumbling from terror devotees was all but expected when it was announced that John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film, Halloween, was poised for the mandatory post-millennial remake. After all, with already in the can disasters like The Fog to reference, and Zombie’s status as a novice director (the magnificent The Devil’s Rejects not withstanding), there was cause to be concerned. Very concerned. So as the summer season casts its final lots this weekend, the lack of publicity and bifurcated buzz would suggest that all the trepidation was warranted.


Well, that’s garbage. Halloween is brilliant. It’s a stroke of slice and dice genius. It represents some of the most solid film work this growing fright night giant has ever brought to the big screen, and it argues for putting real fear aficionados behind the lens of your latest take on a tale of terror. This is not a rip off of Carpenter’s archetypal effort. It’s also not a sloppy, substandard attempt to cash in on the fanbase’s love of an original masterwork. Instead, this is a genuine and heartfelt tribute to the man who made masked killers relevant in a decade dominated by aliens, giant sharks, and existential human dramas. When it comes to other pioneers from dread’s determined past, Zombie is first and foremost a follower. His unabashed love for the monster movies that make up his novel, no holds barred aesthetic, is obvious in every frame of this brutal, shocking spectacle.


If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant a repeat – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive) and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.


With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this killer. Not to apologize for him, but merely clarify. By turning him into a flesh and blood, three dimensional person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred FBI profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death. There is also a clever mask motif which helps complicate the case even further. Michael often expresses that he is ‘ugly’ and ‘not himself’, and the face-shielding symbol is a wonderful way of reminding us of his past…and his penchant.


At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror of the slaughter sequences we witness. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of explaining and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.


When Carpenter created his film nearly 30 years ago, he was working as a journeymen hoping to branch out into the realm of the artist. He cribbed from Hitchcock and Hooper, as well as drive in titans like Bob Clark. His version of events was all about style – the extended tracking shot that starts the film, the moments where Michael and his intended victims play an apprehensive game of hide and seek among the massive shrubbery of Haddonfield. For his part, Carpenter was going for the glory as well as the gonzo, and that’s why his brilliant merging of vision and vileness still works today. Zombie’s efforts are no different. There are amazing directorial flourishes in the film, including a compelling use of freeze frame as well as an evocative moment were all movement stops except for the camera, which swings around to capture the young Michael in menacing, dead eyed mode. Anyone who says that Zombie is not a full fledged filmmaker should have their critical credentials revoked. Of course, with the way horror is routinely marginalized by the mainstream for the masses, such a sentiment is not such a surprise.


It also should be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son. As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.


Upon reflection, one has to feel sorry for Zombie. The overblown press who believes horror is nothing but entertainment excrement to be endured on behalf of an ever shrinking paycheck are going to ream him six ways to sundown. They’re going to reference the original (though it’s a guarantee most have not see it in 29 years, if ever) and call it a day, using Carpenter as a crutch to argue that Zombie should have never been handed the remake ropes. Similarly, current horror fans who consider Scream the genre’s shining post-modern moment and lack the basic context to consider anything different will complain like cowards about how ‘routine’ and ‘not scary’ this take on their hallowed hack and splat is.


In both cases, they’re missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, it was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. No, in this case, the making of a murderer and the consequences of his cravenness are what really intrigued this fan. The result becomes one of the smartest, most shattering horror films in a very long time. Don’t worry if you end up liking what you see. The wet blankets usually come around once the wool is dry. No, Rob Zombie definitely gets it. And if you do as well, then you’ll understand exactly what’s so special about this amazing movie.



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Wednesday, Aug 29, 2007


It looks like 2008 will be the beginning of a new Crusade. Thankfully, it will only be a cinematic one, not a blood-soaked battle waged between fractious warring armies under differing dogmatic flags. Creed will still play a part in it, but not in the heathen/hero manner. You see, sometime in said year, two documentaries will be vying for the hearts and minds of the faithful and skeptic, the saved and the cynical. On one side are the atheists. Bill Maher has been working with Borat director Larry Charles on a yet to be titled film exposing the fallacy that is organized religion. Hoping to use humor and a glorified “gotcha” approach, the host of HBO’s Real Time aims to undercut all fundamentalists as deluded dimwits, using a fractured fairy tale as a means of undermining the civility and safety of the entire world. 


Taking up the mantle for the Messiah, among other Christian conceits, is actor/political aid/game show host Ben Stein. The artist formerly known for calling the name “Ferris Bueller” in the seminal coming of age flick and putting speechified words into the mouth of Richard Nixon is spearheading an anti-Evolution effort entitled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Focusing on the latest attempts by evangelicals and religious activists to get Darwin out of the classroom and supplement science with a newfangled principle entitled ‘Intelligent Design’, Stein has been quoted as saying, “Big Science in this area of biology has lost its way.” He goes on to argue that, as members of academia, any idea should be open to scrutiny and debate, no matter the outcome. Of course, his cause is hoping that the result is more school boards adding the cockeyed Creationists concept to their curriculum.


The Stein film is just the latest effort by Motive Entertainment, a small independent marketing company out of Westlake Village, California, to bring God and all his glory to mainstream moviegoers. Frequently cited as instrumental in the massive returns scored by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the company (which also worked on The Chronicles of Narnia and had a hand in United 93 and Rocky Balboa as well) specifically targets niche demographics – usually centering on local churches and faith outreach programs. As a result, it has been unusually successful. Even with titles not noted for their spiritual underpinnings, founder Paul Lauer has been praised for proving that movies with a strong, positive message (with or without a basic Biblical underpinning) can generate big profits, just as long as the right non-secular salesmanship is applied.


Now, Hollywood and the holy have never been productive playmates. Religion has always been viewed as a focus group limiting ideal, appealing only to those who specifically believe, or consider faith an integral part of their life. Besides, when preachers and conservative pundits want a scapegoat for all the sin and inequity in the world, the media usually ends up the Whore of Babylon – with Tinsel Town turning the most tricks. Even well meaning movies that offer only the slightest sense of spirituality are viewed as divisive and insensitive within our mandated multi-cultural community ideal. Unless the message can be made universal without upsetting or supporting any one sect or scripture, studio suits want nothing much to do with it. It’s the kind of outright rejection Gibson received when he pitched Passion. Luckily, he had his own money to funnel into the project. It’s also a good thing that his brand of arcane orthodox Catholicism doesn’t require a vow of poverty.


It was Roger Ebert who once said that no good movie is ever too long, and a parallel rationale can be applied to faith-based films. Spirituality is never the real reason a religious oriented movie succeeds or fails. It’s the quality of the cinema containing the concerns that is of utmost importance. For all its flaws, The Passion is an amazing artistic statement. Gibson may seem goofy in the way he treats the teachings of the Good Book, but he definitely gets the ephemeral depiction right. Looking like a series of canvases right out of the Vatican’s gilded gallery, the iconography offered by the visuals is what is most important. Christianity is heavy with significant symbols, and Gibson’s direction hit each and every one. Deny its power as a drama or as dogma, but The Passion has the kind of undeniable imagery that will easily live on long after any controversy about the violence – or the vileness of the man who made it – can or will. 


It’s the same for something as speculative and questioning as Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture. When it arrived in theaters back in 1991, it was seen as a low budget stunt on the part of the man responsible for the bilious industry satire The Player. Many giggled at its mixing of scandalous sex and immovable religious fervor. For those unfamiliar with this minor masterpiece, Tolkin choose to focus his narrative on a bored and cynical telephone operator played by Mimi Rodgers. A swinger in her private life, she finds anonymous trysts and changing partners a kind of compensation for what’s missing in her life. Overhearing some coworkers discussing the return of Christ, Rogers’ Sharon tries to join in. But they make it very clear that, without a requisite Jesus-based epiphany, she will never know God. Even worse, when the title apocalypse occurs, she will be cast out and unable to enter the kingdom of Heaven.


Sharon eventually has a major spiritual awakening. She leaves her lover and ends up married to a man who agrees with her new found fundamentalism. Tragedy changes everything, however. Alone with a child to support, Sharon is convinced that the Rapture is indeed coming. She heads out into the wilderness to await the arrival of the Four Horsemen. What happens next stands as a definitive statement on the requirements of faith, and how strident and strict the concepts of Christianity and Armageddon can actually be. Posing tough questions like “how far would you go in defense of your beliefs”, it remains one of the best meditations on the nature of literal religion ever offered. While it failed to make an impression in theaters, it’s grown into a major artistic and cultural statement on video and DVD.


Where you will often find strong, supportive religious messages are in independent films. In 2002, Joshua offered up a wonderful “what if” narrative, asking the important question about how a community would react if Christ – in this case, in the form of the title town newcomer – actually did comeback. The results were evenhanded and far from preachy. Indeed, it stands as a solid entertainment. That same year, Hometown Legend used the notion of personal conviction and belief in a higher power as the means of moderating a standard sports drama. While the facets of football were fudged significantly in order to drive the plotpoints, the characters – especially Lacey Chabert’s God-fearing gal – were presented in a surprisingly subtle and skillful manner. Granted, both films are so non-confrontational in their stance on spirituality that if you blinked hard enough, you’d probably miss the evangelical message. While some may feel it follows the “Hollywood’s hidden secret” stance, the outsider arena frequently enjoys bringing The Word to those who want it in ways they least expect it. 


But once you move into the realm of the real, all bets are off. Fiction is fine as a maker of metaphors for religious meaning, but when you take on the actual tenets of faith, the converted tend to get their vestments in a bunch. And it’s not hard to see why. Recent documentaries like Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp have painted participation in organized faith in fairly large brushstrokes. The common comical conceit that all priests are pedophiles was not helped by the former film’s focus on a disgusting, defrocked pervert named Fr. Oliver O’Grady. In the case of the lamentable latter work, it was the ballsy brainwashing of young converts by Becky Fischer at her Kids on Fire summer seminars that raised a ruckus. Since so few films focus on subjects such as these (and other related topics like suicide bombers and totalitarian theocracy), the audience is given a limited, non-enlightened exposure to the material. This results in the standard social stigmatizing and the notorious kneejerk reaction.


Both Maher’s movie and Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed seem poised to significantly ratchet up this pissing match. Though he claims he will mock and marginalize everyone, the political comedian has a real Jones for the Christian conservative movement, and here’s betting they’ll be the butt of more jokes than some mainstreamed Muslim or brave faced Buddhist. Stein’s effort seems almost unforgivable. Like asking a mostly proven set of facts to share space with someone’s far flung notions of the truth, the notorious non-science of Intelligent Design is desperate to redefine the way children learn the origins of the species. As with any affront to faith, the believer has every right to be upset with science for raining on their procreation parade. But to substitute a new age amalgamation of old school Creationism is like asking for trouble.


Which, of course, leads to the real reason these movies get made. While it’s hard to see the agenda inside something like The Rapture (unless it’s to show the perils of blind faith), the rest of the films mentioned are driven by one simple desire – to convert. In the case of The Passion, Joshua, or Hometown Legend, it’s the promise that belief adds to and advances human existence. It’s the quaint “God supports those who believe in his might and majesty” ideal. In the case of Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp, it’s ‘Secularism Saves’. Rejecting at the very least the organized aspect of religion, they hope to show that they welcomed the power, and the protection, over individuals like Fr. O’Grady and Becky Fischer. Granted, it’s another of those arguments in the extreme, a dispute with no middle ground and very little room for consensus or clarity. The last thing either side wants is compromise. It would show weakness - or worse, wrongness.


Maybe Islam has the right idea. As part of an interpretation of the Qur’an and the accompanying hadiths, they restrict images depicting the Prophet Muhammad (apparently, from research, there is no outright ‘ban’). When the late Moustapha Akkad - producer of among other things, the Halloween series of films - wanted to make a movie about his religion and its international impact, he formally followed the rule. While other members of Muhammad’s inner circle and family were portrayed, the religious leader was not. It made his 1976 epic Muhammad: Messenger of God awkward, but as close to his core concept and beliefs as possible. He hoped to bridge the Eastern and Western worlds with the movie’s teachings, and educate the masses on the many misconceptions in his religion. Oddly enough, he would die in 2005 at the hands of terrorists. He was in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Amman when Al-Qaeda blew the building up. His daughter died instantly. He held on for several days before succumbing to his wounds.


Makes the oncoming clash in 2008 seem all the more meaningful…or perhaps, meaningless. 


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