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by Bill Gibron

29 Feb 2008


“To Be Continued…”

Three words that literally drain all hope out of a horror fan. Whenever that title card arrives at the end of a fright flick, one of two things is for certain. First, the previous movie was so lightweight and lame that the makers couldn’t find a way to end it. Instead, they simply went with a sequel and skirted the issue. The second scenario is even more ‘scary’. In this case, the talent behind the camera is so ambitious, so convinced of the epic nature of their narrative, that one mere movie can’t hold all the brilliance. For them, a single outing barely broaches the subject. In fact, we could be looking at several installments. While it may seem like a spoiler, Automaton Transfusion uses the abovementioned phrase at a crucial juncture in its plot. But it does so for a rather unusual third reason. In this instance, it just wants to let the audience catch its blood-drenched breath.

The storyline here is simple…dead…simple: at a local high school, three outsiders (Chris, Tim, and Scott) try to avoid getting beaten up by jocks while hitting on all the hot honeys. Viewed as slackers and stoners, the trio retreats to a punk rock show in a nearby town. In the meantime, the popular crowd heads to a remote house for a big time kegger. What all of them fail to realize is that a zombie outbreak is occurring - right under their adolescent noses. Locals are going loony for human flesh, with classmates attacking teachers and residents resorting to acts of carnage and cannibalism. When Chris finally realizes what is going on, he has only one concern - save his cheerleader girlfriend Jackie and get to his dad. Sadly, both goals may be next to impossible to achieve. The dead are alive - and very, very hungry.

While filmed on the cheap with an obvious half-a-shoestring budget, Automaton Transfusion (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company, Genius Productions, and Dimension Extreme) is only concerned with one thing, and one thing only - GORE! Lots and lots of gore. Slimy sluice and plentiful human juices. While not the most claret covered production in the history of homemade moviemaking, Steven C. Miller sure knows how to paint the screen red. Thanks to some staggeringly original work on the part of Rick Gonzales and his make-up department crew, and a no holds barred, cut to the chase cinematic style, this movie is literally one disgusting death gag after another. Heads are pulled from torsos, entrails ripped from same. Limbs are chewed off with hyperactive abandon, while eyes, faces, stomachs, and other fine fleshy bits are gouged with wanton gratuity.

In fact, if you look carefully, it is clear that Miller wants to riff on every major zombie film - or similarly styled undead romp - from the last forty years. The party local resembles Romero’s Night, while a big city attack and creature wail remind one of Day. Our fiends are fast movers, like the Zach Snyder Dawn remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and our heroes wield all manner of makeshift weapons ala Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Dead Alive. There’s even a Fulci homage, a taste of Raimi, and a last act denouement that simply reeks of John Carpenter. Put them all together and you’ve got a greatest hits package of terror takes - and that’s good, since Miller is going to make do with action set pieces only.

That’s right, Automaton Transfusion doesn’t mess around. It doesn’t waste a viewer’s time with unnecessary exposition, intricate characterization, or subtle social subtext. Instead, it gives us the standard high school cardboard cutouts, tosses in a generic love story and formulaic friendship, and then starts the vein draining. Within four minutes of the film starting (and some of that is credits), Miller has us deep in the thick of things. Necks are being torn open, bodies coming back to life in a local morgue. It’s not long before rampaging ghoul gangs are carving up the countryside, their insatiable appetite for offal driving them to more and more heinous atrocities.

Such an approach leaves the filmmaker open for criticism, but he doesn’t really seem to care. On the accompanying bonus features found on the DVD release, Miller makes it clear that budget, time, and talent issues mandated that Automaton Transfusion be as streamlined and sleek as possible. A full length commentary track discusses the production problems, the camera cheats (an ‘abandoned’ highway still has visible cars reflected in a main vehicle’s side panels), and the decision to expand the narrative. There is also a collection of deleted scenes which show how far the filmmaker actually wanted to push things. The Behind the Scenes featurette offers insights for other independent auteurs, while a short called Suffer or Sacrifice illustrates Miller’s ambitions. Together it treats a movie that apparently needed massive work in post to look halfway cinematic (the herky jerky shooting strategy of the image and over-editing doesn’t help) into a creative call to arms.

But none of this alleviates the sting when those three little words appear on the screen. Even at a brisk 75 minutes, Automaton Transfusion doesn’t earn the additional right of continuing forward - at least, not yet. When the military man shows up at the last minute to start his seemingly endless explanations, we wonder why Miller just didn’t manufacture a payoff. We would buy it, even if he simply killed everyone off. But clearly this director believes he has more to say on the subject - or even better, that a quick video sale, the resulting influx of cash, and a smidgen of notoriety will result in a bigger budget. And if that, in turn, results in more of the rabid red stuff, we gorehounds will be more than ecstatic. As long as there’s a possible return on our macabre investment, we’ll suffer through any continuation. We’ll definitely be banking on blood once Automaton Transfusion: Contingency rolls around. 

 

by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2008


For the weekend beginning 29 February, Leap Day, here are the films in focus:

Semi-Pro [rating: 7]

Semi-Pro may look like recycled Will Ferrell, outrageous personality and all, but there is an attention to detail and a surreal ‘70s splash that makes it all work.


Will Ferrell seems to have fallen into a groove as of late. Ever since Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, his pure comedies have developed their own unique universes, worlds where the actor and his crack team of costars can play and pretend. In Talladega Nights, it was NASCAR. In Blades of Glory, it was the surreal stage of competitive figure skating. Now comes the solid Semi-Pro, a movie that perfectly mimics the debauchery and malaise of the 1970s in all its leisure suit loving, animal fur wearing, pop culture vulgarity. While not as immediately outrageous as his other onscreen turns, Ferrell fulfills the promise of the ultra-wacky premise, delivering another collection of crudities, gaffs, and expletive laced plot twists.read full review…

Penelope [rating: 5]

Resembling the kind of tale Aesop might spin after one too many vats of homemade ouzo, Penelope plods along on a desire to endear. All it really does is infuriate.


The trend towards “adult” fairytales has got to stop. In the last few months alone, we’ve had the stale saccharine slop of August Rush, the sword and snooze dullness of Stardust, and the one step from stupid Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. The notion of juxtaposing the whimsical against the mature is not a new one. Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton practically wrote the rulebook on such cinema. But the current movement in such storytelling seems to push the extremes of both dynamics. When the material is serious, it’s downright dark and frequently disturbing. And when it’s fanciful, it’s like potent, pixie stick laced candy floss. Now comes Penelope, a self-esteem allegory masquerading as Cinderella with a snout. Sadly, instead of exploring the far reaches of the subgenre, it sinks directly into the maudlin middle. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief

The Other Boleyn Girl [rating: 4]

British royal history has enough black marks against it - it definitely doesn’t need this one. Crafted from Phillipa Gregory’s well regarded novel, and penned by Oscar nominee (for the excellent The Queen) Peter Morgan, The Other Boleyn Girl bobbles much of its potential. Most of the blame falls directly on the shoulders of TV director turned feature filmmaker Justin Chadwick. Not only did he hire the completely miscast leads (two Americans - Scarlett Johansonn and Natalie Portman - and one Australian - Eric Bana) as his battling noblewomen and the iconic King trying to bed them both, but he places them in a 16th century setting that’s too clean and too generic to engage our interest. Not even the typical bed hopping and political skullduggery are entertaining. Instead, The Other Boleyn Girl just sits there, going through its bodice-ripping routine like an adult education literature class discussing a Harlequin romance. While the ‘women as chattel’ message might inflame some post-modern mentalities, the overall film will likely cause more ennui than uproar.

by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2008


Will Ferrell seems to have fallen into a groove as of late. Ever since Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, his pure comedies have developed their own unique universes, worlds where the actor and his crack team of costars can play and pretend. In Talladega Nights, it was NASCAR. In Blades of Glory, it was the surreal stage of competitive figure skating. Now comes the solid Semi-Pro, a movie that perfectly mimics the debauchery and malaise of the 1970s in all its leisure suit loving, animal fur wearing, pop culture vulgarity. While not as immediately outrageous as his other onscreen turns, Ferrell fulfills the promise of the ultra-wacky premise, delivering another collection of crudities, gaffs, and expletive laced plot twists.

It’s the middle of the Me Decade and ABA basketball is dying. While the other franchises pray for a merger, the Flint Michigan Tropics and their player/coach/owner/former soul star Jackie Moon is having a ball. Sure, his team sucks, and attendance is more than lousy, but he is living his dream. Unfortunately, many of his players don’t share his outsized optimism. They feel their hope of playing professional sports slowly slipping away. When he learns that the NBA will only take four teams, Moon convinces the league to let the best record decide who goes. With his last place Tropics consistently stinking up stadiums around the country, he needs a ringer to help increase his chances. In walks Monix, a former Boston Celtics star whose career has seen better days. With his skills and experience, Moon hopes to capture fourth place. Teammates like Clarence “Coffee” Black aren’t buying the effort, however.

With a collection of period piece beats that perfectly emulate the era of Watergate and wavering morality, and a story that sticks to the standard sports underdog dynamic, Semi-Pro may seem pointless, especially to the culturally clueless. Back before the game was a Jordan and Kobe cavalcade of rock star like sports icons, the American Basketball Association attempted to enliven a seriously struggling sport. With its emphasis on offense and flash, and tendency toward tacky self-promotion (they were in direct competition with the far more established NBA), the 12 teams that made up the two competing conferences gave the three decade old guard a run for their money. An eventual merger in 1976 brought four new teams into the fold, and it is within this last act of negotiated desperation that Semi-Pro is set.

Of course, many will wonder what such a perspective brings to the film, especially when it is humor, not history, that’s important…and it’s a fair question. But what the ABA backdrop adds to Semi-Pro is a sense of inevitability, a reason for the characters to feel at wit’s end throughout the entire story. This helps sell the occasionally outrageous antics that would otherwise overpower everything. First time director Kent Alterman definitely has his work cut out for him here. Not only does he have the expectations of every Ferrell fan on the planet, but there are some die-hard fans out there that will be watching for some manner of ‘fictional’ accuracy (if such a thing is possible). Luckily, much of Scot Armstrong’s script seems to have skirted such struggles, allowing for far more effective improvising from the cast.

And it’s a strong group of performers. Woody Harrelson has been outside the mainstream for the last few years, but his turn as the over the hill Monix is a real return to form. Newcomer Andre “3000” Benjamin is also very believable as the Tropics breakout star, Clarence “Coffee” Black, while current comic sidekicks Rob Corddry, David Koechner, Will Arnet, and Matt Walsh make a nice collection of satiric satellites. There are a couple of wonderful, off the wall surprises as well. Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley shows up as Dukes, a pothead who wins a $10,000 Tropics contest, while Tim Meadows steals his only scene as an injured player who lets go with an unfortunate racial epithet. Together, they generate the kind of genial crassness that carries this movie beyond the standard humor hi-jinx.

Of course, Ferrell is the focus for much of the film, and it’s odd that he’s never given much to do except play the fool. There’s no family issue for him to deal with, no outer circle or sphere of influence working their way inward. Instead, he’s set up as a joke machine, a cartoon creation limited in scope and structure. Heck, he doesn’t even get the girl - Harrelson is rewarded with a relationship with underwritten co-star Maura Tierney. This may cause some in the demo no small amount of consternation. If this is a Ferrell vehicle - and it really doesn’t play like an ensemble, no matter the size of the cast - we want his antics to be more or less front and center. In Semi-Pro‘s case, they are more like slightly to the left.

Still, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had within the confines of these peculiar surroundings. Sports fans may scoff at the various stats, skills, and shots taken, but the end result remains a clever take on the material. Besides, any film that can channel The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and Kansas City Bomber can’t be all bad. Semi-Pro may look like recycled Will Ferrell, outrageous personality and all, but there is an attention to detail and a surreal ‘70s splash that makes it all work. Like a crass Christopher Guest, this former SNL superstar has a way of making even the most unusual environ funny.The old peach basket bop - and its high flying ABA makeover - will never be the same.

by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2008


The trend towards “adult” fairytales has got to stop. In the last few months alone, we’ve had the stale saccharine slop of August Rush, the sword and snooze dullness of Stardust, and the one step from stupid Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. The notion of juxtaposing the whimsical against the mature is not a new one. Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton practically wrote the rulebook on such cinema. But the current movement in such storytelling seems to push the extremes of both dynamics. When the material is serious, it’s downright dark and frequently disturbing. And when it’s fanciful, it’s like potent, pixie stick laced candy floss. Now comes Penelope, a self-esteem allegory masquerading as Cinderella with a snout. Sadly, instead of exploring the far reaches of the subgenre, it sinks directly into the maudlin middle.

Plagued by a bizarre family curse, little Penelope Wilhern is born with a pig’s features - muzzle, ears, slightly porcine chin. According to legend, only the love of one of her own - read: a rich blueblood - can break the spell. So, ever since her teens, Mother Wilhern has been trying to marry her off. Unfortunately, all the men who see her run screaming. One even takes his story to the press, and the resulting scandal embarrasses his wealthy father. Desperate to clear his name, he hires a paparazzi with a connection to the Wilhern clan to help. Their plan? Find a down on his luck aristocrat to woo Penelope, and when the time is right, snap her photo. As luck would have it, gambling addicted Max is willing to help. But when he learns that their target is a wonderful girl, not some horrible monster, his cooperation becomes questionable.

Resembling the kind of tale Aesop might spin after one too many vats of homemade ouzo, Penelope plods along on a desire to endear. All it really does is infuriate. This is the kind of movie that believes pitching all its performances somewhere between cartoonish and caterwauling results in a sense of reverie. When undersized actor Peter Dinklage is the best thing about your otherwise overwrought parable, something is wrong with this motion picture. While it’s not bad in a Larry the Cable Guy, remade J-Horror film kind of fashion, first time filmmaker Mark Palansky underachieves in a spectacular manner. Clearly devoid of the creative vision that sparks real movie magicians to their level of imagination, he merely lets the marginal script by Everyone Loves Raymond staff writer Leslie Caveny sink them both.

The first major flaw in this film is Penelope herself. As played by Ricci, she’s a sensible gal with a great personality, pretty eyes, and a slightly swinish nose. There is no attempt to make her ugly - either in façade or philosophy. She’s an unfortunate innocent who has used her malady to see beneath the surface of most everyone she meets. Yet in any Beauty and the Beast story, we need a monster - if not literally, figuratively. Penelope‘s narrative instead goes for standard villainy: a photographer with a grudge; a madwoman of Chaillot mother; a wealthy moron who believes our heroine to be a horror; a dour and dense father. Max is not a good guy so much as a welcome relief from all the mustache-twirling treachery.

It doesn’t help that Catherine O’Hara (as one hideous harpy of a mom) and Simon Woods (as the stunned suitor) use over the top as a benchmark for further acting histrionics. Both are so arch and mannered that you’re not sure whether to slap them…or slap them. Of course, a fairy tale isn’t a bastion of subtlety, but why allow a couple of stars to subvert everything you’re doing. It’s clear what Penelope could have been whenever Dinklage, Ricci, or James McAvoy’s Max is onscreen. They bring a kind of realism to this material that makes it palatable. Without their presence, we are stuck in a situation where nothing seems valid. It’s just fakery on top of fabrication. Sadly, some of the acting makes it even more counterfeit.

Palansky’s direction also doesn’t help. Clearly inspired by the work George Miller did on Babe: Pig in the City, the novice draws a multicultural, intercontinental portrait of Penelope’s world. The metropolis she lives in resembles several urban centers, while characters speak in a combination of accents (mainly between British and American). This contrasting conceit, probably used to keep the material ethereal and timeless, grows tedious after a while. Fairytales need some kind of foundation - a firm mythos, if you will - to keep the allusions sound. Without it, we begin to get lost, or worse, ask questions that don’t pertain to the narrative or the characters. Aside from clear factual fallacies (how, exactly, does one’s carotid artery end up in their nose?) and a lame denouement, the lack of such an underpinning really ruins this film.

Yet Penelope is not a complete disaster. There is a nice chemistry between Ricci and McAvoy, and the second act appearance of producer Reese Witherspoon as a disgruntled courier who befriends our heroine offers some funny moments. And there are times when the earnest quality of Penelope’s dream to be normal touches our own sense of self. But this is not the quirky feel goof farce the marketing would have you believe, nor is it a shockingly original take on the standard ‘once upon a time’ material. Instead, Penelope is as mixed as the motives of the entire Wilhern family. On the one side are a failed father and a shrill mom. On the other is their darling daughter and her optimistic worldview. Somewhere in the middle lies this lox of a movie.

 

by Bill Gibron

27 Feb 2008


After their profitable partnership dissolved, after their once amicable relationship started to fray (in part thanks to lawsuits, misunderstanding, and miscommunication), director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman were desperate to prove they could go it alone. Both knew that the exploitation game was still the most important genre in all of cinema. It was where the medium was truly testing the limits of its aesthetic. It was also where the easy money was. A little gore, some T&A, and a fine living could be made. Before coming back together to make Blood Feast 2 in 2001, both men made several sensational pictures. Unfortunately, when the time comes to write their bios, the same THREE films take front and center.

Yet there are many amazing movies as part of this duo’s individual oeuvres that get unfairly overlooked. While few have had the impact of Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red, they definitely deserve an equal amount of attention (and in the case of Color, much more so). Consider this list as a beginner’s guide so to speak, a starting off point for a further perusal of the considered works of two exploitation giants. While they are not the only names among the founding members of the genre, Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman are truly artists among the raincoat rabble. Our overview starts from the production end of things:

From David F. Friedman

The Defilers 1965


The first true “roughie”, an exploitation subgenre that focused on violence as much as sex, this craven bit of carnality remains Friedman’s confirmation he could hack it without Lewis. Two spoiled men kidnap a gal and make her their perverted plaything. Unrelenting in its brutality and corporeal cruelty.

A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine 1966


Friedman discovery Stacey Walker is the only reason to watch this otherwise routine ‘bad girl gets her eventual comeuppance’ drama. She primps and preens across the black and white screen, her Baby Doll like innocence swamped in gallons of sleazoid slime. Everything else is by the book and routine.

She Freak 1967


Using his status as an actual carnival owner to reimagine Tod Browning’s Freaks, Friedman digs up a deliciously seamy look at love and betrayal on the Midway. Much of the story stays the same, but with late ‘60s sexuality taking over, we get a healthy dose of dementia.

The Erotic Adventures of Zorro 1972


There’s much more than swashbuckling in this scandalous take on the Hispanic hero. Featuring the unflappable Bob Cresse as a corrupt officer, and a bevy of California beauties, this is the kind of softcore sex spoof that Friedman fell into late in his career. It stands as one of his best.

Johnny Firecloud 1975


In light of the success of Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack character, Friedman found his own way to celebrate growing Native American awareness. The result was this action packed tale of bigotry, bravery, and the most irredeemable white people ever. Jack may have started the war, but this amazing artifact ended it.

From Herschell Gordon Lewis

Blast Off Girls 1967


Like A Hard Day’s Night gone gangrenous, Lewis lifts the lid off of rock and roll corruption and finds a talentless bunch of wannabe musicians and a cameo by Colonel Harlan Sanders? Let’s face it - any film with a character named Boogie Baker (who everyone pronounces “boo-gee”) has more moxie than most.

The Gore Gore Girls 1972


Strippers are being slaughtered and it’s up to a fey private dick to figure out whodunit. Featuring classic moments including the ground hamburger butt (complete with salt and pepper), the plain and chocolate milk giving nipples, and gratuitous Henny Youngman. It’s enough to make you scream…with deranged delight!

The Gruesome Twosome 1967


The local wig shop needs inventory, and guess who supplies the samples? Why, it’s the girls from the nearby college campus. Another in Lewis’ hilarious string of gore comedies, this one note nasty is far funnier than frightening. Even the blood is a little less festive than before.

How to Make a Doll 1968


Hoping to trade on the growing promiscuity of the sexual revolution, the Godfather of Gore decided to go robot. When a nerdy scientist realizes he’ll never get a real girl, he decides to build one. The results are like an outtake from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In…only crazier.

Jimmy the Boy Wonder 1966


A rare non-exploitation spin for Lewis, this heartwarming family film has a horrid child actor in the lead, the producer’s wife as the singing female star, and enough sloppy psychedelic missteps to give the wee ones nightmares. The story centers on a boy who can stop time. He should have halted it before production began.

Just For the Hell of It 1968


Juvenile delinquents run ramshackle over a small Florida town, wrecking all kinds of ‘baby into garbage can’ havoc along the way. Really nothing more than a series of smash and grab set pieces supplemented by droning dialogue about all things antisocial, this stands as one of Lewis’ most unhinged efforts.

She-Devils on Wheels 1968


Female biker babes, riding hard and partying harder - that’s the premise to one of the ‘60s greatest grindhouse classics. The scene where the gals pick over the male members for their evening’s pleasure is a glorious goof on the long running battle of the sexes. In fact the whole narrative is one long feminism/chauvinism chopper tirade.

Something Weird 1967


Hoping to do something with LSD and ESP, Lewis lumbered into a crackpot combination of witchcraft, psychics, and supernatural possession. Toss in some acid, and the title speaks for itself. It stands as a benchmark in the director’s solo work, an ‘anything for a dollar’ drive that saw him finally returning to terror. 

The Wizard of Gore 1970


Montag is a magician whose splatter show acts somehow come to life hours after the performance. Unlike his later horror comedies, Lewis takes this material very seriously, and the resulting grue is quite disturbing. While Ray Sager’s sprayed gray hair is rather unconvincing, the rest of the film is unrelenting in its desire to disturb.

Year of the Yahoo 1972


An election time favorite, this outsider view of the political process is as vital today as it was 35 years ago, perhaps even more so. A country bumpkin singer is tricked into running for the Senate by a group of corrupt campaign chiefs. Oddly enough, his rube hick humility strikes a chord with the public.

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