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Friday, Sep 21, 2007


While turkeys and the resulting leftovers are still two months away, your premium pay cable channels think the weekend of 22 September is theatrical Thanksgiving. They’re dishing out a depressing collection of half-baked entrees, with nary a satisfying side dish or desert in sight. An obvious reaction to the rising importance of awards season and its continuing collection of proposed available Academy taste tempters, the main movie channels have decided to acquiesce to averageness – at least for now. While one film definitely stands out among the others, the overall pickings are less than rib sticking, and will definitely leave you hungry for more. It will be interesting to see where this kind of counterprogramming eventually goes. If the substandard showcases continue, there’ll be a mass exodus from the idiot box before long. Hopefully, some of this Spring’s bigger titles will find their way into the Saturday premiere collection. Without them, it could be a rather regressive Fall, even with offerings like this one:


Premiere Pick
Stranger than Fiction


They say that every actor wants to be a rock star, and visa versa. Truer still is the notion that every comedian wants to tackle serious subject matter now and again – even if it means the end of their solid slapstick spoils. The latest former funnyman going the quasi-dramatis route is Will Farrell, and he appears to be following in the footsteps of one James “Jim” Carrey to get there. This Truman Show like effort, in which Farrell’s IRS agent Harold Crick begins to hear a disembodied voice narrate his life like it’s a novel, flummoxed fans of his SNL style silliness, while providing diehards attracted to his big screen fare (Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory) with a reason for pause. Overall, the novelty of the narrative helps us past some of the more pat and cloying circumstances, and the supporting cast (including Oscar winners Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman) help round out a remarkable company of characters. Still, the question becomes – do the devoted want to see their jester putting on the realism, or the ridiculousness?  (22 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Black Dahlia


Brian DePalma, once a Hollywood heavyweight with his Hitchcock homage style, has fallen on some substantial hard times as of late. This LA Confidential retread, a routine reading of James Ellroy’s novel about the mysterious murder of a Hollywood starlet, is ample proof why. Instead of focusing on the compelling real life case, he goes off on tangents so surreal that even diehards couldn’t figure out his motives. The result was one of 2006’s biggest blunders. (22 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

You, Me and Dupree


If there were such a thing as crudeness copyright infringement, the Farrelly Brothers would be up to their necks in proactive litigation right about now. Still milking the There’s Something About Mary school of basic bodily humor, the siblings Russo (Joe and Anthony) use the overdone concepts of non-erotic male bonding and arrested development to create one of several reasons why Judd Apatow had to step in and save big screen comedy. (22 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Mission: Impossible III


Tom Cruise tempted filmic fate one too many times with the further adventures of Ethan Hunt and his IMF gang. The only individual who actually benefited from this non-charming third time though was director JJ Abrams. While the movie may have been a less than spectacular blockbuster, it gave the man behind Lost enough cinematic stature to take over the Star Trek franchise. Talk about failing upward. (22 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Death Becomes Her


15 years ago, audiences were agog at the brand new CGI stylings of Robert Zemeckis’ brazen black comedy, a film fashioned to take on the superficiality of stardom and the overemphasis on anti-aging. Though the physical effects were also impressive, it was the concept of combining the real with the motherboard rendered that truly impressed audiences. Even the critical community, who found numerous flaws in both the storyline and the casting, couldn’t deny the visuals’ visceral power. After all, you had Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep systematically destroying each other in a baffling biological battle royale. Oddly enough, the last decade and a half have only amplified Zemeckis’ message. And with the prevalent plastic surgery that’s now part of the cultural dynamic, the plot’s focus on an “anything for looks” ideal is even more potent. Why this one time blockbuster has ended up on the independent oriented Sundance Channel is something to take up with their staff. But as an example of how the cutting edge can remain razor sharp, this is a timeless wonder. (23 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sleep With Me


There’s a gimmick at the core of this 1994 off the radar entry – six separate writers collaborated to create the overall narrative drive. Such cinematic stunts usually don’t work, and for many, the results here were only average. Yet there are ardent defenders of this romantic drama. Be on the lookout for Quentin Tarantino as a boorish party guest who lets rip with a tirade on the obvious homoerotic overtones in Top Gun. (24 September, IFC, 10:30PM EST)

Memories of Murder


South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, got his first big exposure in the West with this sly, subtle serial killer procedural. Apparently, Asian law enforcement is ill-prepared for dealing with such systematic slaughter, and Bong infuses his film with some darkly humorous material, almost always at his bumbling policemen’s expense. While not as universally appealing as his follow-up, the monster on a rampage The Host, this is still an intriguing insight into crime in another culture. (24 September, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Pumpkin


Christina Ricci continues to polish her creative indie cred with this interesting romcom about a sorority girl who falls for a handicapped man. Life lessons are learned and horizons are broadened. For first time filmmakers Adam Larson Broder and Anthony Abrams, the biggest hurdle wasn’t avoiding cliché or maximizing character. It was getting this little seen gem any notice whatsoever. (29 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Spider Baby


It remains a strangely satisfying experiment in terror: writer/director Jack Hill hired former fright master Lon Chaney Jr., turned him into a sympathetic caregiver for a collection of craven creeps, and gave the whole thing a freak show veneer of macabre monochrome. Subtitled The Maddest Story Ever Told, no other underlying label ever did a better job of describing a yarn’s intentions. Featuring future human oddity Sid Haig as the repugnant Ralph, and Mantan Mooreland in a minor cameo role, this arguably bizarre family fright night substituted novelty and wit for nastiness and the wicked. Still, it will be hard for newcomers to forget the truly horrific ending. Paired up with another nightmare novelty from the ‘60s (Die! Die! My Darling), we’ve got one of the better double features offered by Turner Classic Movies late night film fest. Here’s hoping that a post-Halloween Rob Zombie can make an appearance as host. He single handedly resurrected Haig’s career, and his comments would be very telling indeed. (28 September, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
The War (Ken Burns)


While SE&L normally ignore TV offerings, the latest from The Civil War’s Ken Burns deserves a mention. This time, the talented documentarian takes on another country-defining conflict – WWII – and the results are reportedly masterful. One thing’s for sure – come Sunday night, the DVD player will be pushed aside for what promises to be seven nights of fact filmmaking at its finest. (23 September, PBS, Check Local Listings)

The End


Back when Burt Reynolds was the reigning box office God, he flexed his fiscal reputation on the occasional obscure effort. This remains one of his best, the story of a dying man who enlists the aid of a manic mental patient to commit suicide. This ballsy black comedy defied expectations in 1978 and stands as proof that there was more to the actor’s persona than Smokey and the Bandit. (24 September, Retroplex, 10PM EST)

At the Earth’s Core


Sometime in the mid ‘70s, American International Pictures decided that Doug McClure was an action star. Go figure. The company created a set of schlocky projects for the former TV talent, and along with The People that Time Forgot and The Land that Time Forgot, this Edgar Rice Burroughs bunk ruled the passion pits. That’s okay – no one really knows why, either. (26 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 12:15AM EST)

 


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Thursday, Sep 20, 2007


The glamorization of crime has as much to do with the mob as it does the movies. Because of its strictures that exist outside the limits of the law, the rights and duties, honors and codes becomes the art design for a million cinematic statements. Part of the relish in something like The Godfather is watching these ritualistic rationales play out, as well as sneaking a peek behind a frequently unseen curtain. But the genre itself is also a mirror, reflecting the level of sameness in, say, a South Central Los Angeles gang and a high ranking Hong Kong triad. It’s all about family, force, and the freedom to indulge in the blurry border between capitalism and corruption. In his latest mean streets masterwork, Eastern Promises venereal horror icon David Cronenberg takes the Russian mafia to task. It’s part of a bigger picture dissection of how obsession makes even the most moral individual turn.


Our story begins when midwife Anna (a wonderful Naomi Watts) stumbles across the diary of a dead girl. With a newborn baby left behind, she’s desperate to locate some manner of family abroad. With the help of her immigrant uncle Stepan, she translates a few pages of the text, and learns of the girl’s name (Tatiana), her trip from Russia, and her initial contact with a local London restaurateur Semyon (a diabolic Armin Mueller-Stahl). When she approaches the seemingly genial gentleman, he promises to get to the bottom of the Tatiana’s situation. But since Anna has a copy of the diary as well, the secrets it contains suddenly threaten the incognito mobster’s standing. He puts his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell, stealing every scene he’s in) and dedicated ‘driver’ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) on the case of reclaiming the journal, quieting anyone connected with it, and retrieving Tatiana’s baby. Even the slightest slip up could mean chaos for Semyon’s omnipresent power structure.


At first, it feels like Eastern Promises is going to revolve around an unconscionable connection between Anna and Nikolai. They run into each other several times during the opening act, and each time, there’s a growing sense of attraction and mystery between the pair. We keep waiting for the inevitable moment, the situation which allows both characters to remove their outer façade and become real, recognizable people. But Cronenberg isn’t out to explore that particular narrative thread. Indeed, many of the standard crime story motifs that have come to define the cinematic category are completely ignored by this wonderful film, making it an anomaly in an otherwise recognizable realm. Sure, there is blood, and death hangs its shingle over almost every onscreen action, but as a director, this is one artist who is looking for new canvases to compile. Eastern Promises will remain recognizable, but only partially so.


Instead of going for gratuity, Cronenberg is out to understand human arrogance. He wants to know what makes one group of people – in this case, displaced Russian hoodlums – think they can flaunt the conventions of civilized society. He does so by contrasting Semyon with his son, offering an older man of unspeakable evil with a young stud who barely has the backbone to handle the small stuff. Obviously doomed from the start, Vincent Cassell turns Kirill into a walking contradiction, a man who loves power but can’t wield it in a way that’s successful or substantive. He lucks into his tainted triumphs, and relies heavily on Nikolai to mop up his messes. Semyon, on the other hand, is cruelty covered in a fine patina of paternity. He’s like everyone’s elderly grandpa - that is, if said relative was a repulsive, irredeemable rapist. It’s to his credit that Cronenberg never lets Mueller-Stahl act on his reputation. Suggestion works much better than having all of it shown.


At the opposite end is Mortensen’s Nickolai. His is a brute that is all outer trappings, from his jet black wardrobe and Secret Service sunglasses to the elaborate tattoos that trace his horrible history of violence. We are given reason to fear this mystifying man, especially after witnessing the offhand way he handles the disposition of a corpse. Even more intriguing, you will never see a gun in Eastern Promises. Every act is tactile, requiring a knife or handy tool to tackle. When Mortensen’s character is confronted in a bath, his full frontal nude body battling with two dagger wielding hitmen, it’s more than just a homoerotic stunt. Cronenberg wants to illustrate that real men don’t need a phallic substitute (read: a firearm) to create unspeakable destruction. All they need is a sharpened blade and a will to survive. As one of the film’s setpiece splatter sequences, Nickolai’s naked clash is a classic.


But it’s also antithetical to the movie’s main point. As with most syndicate activity, insinuation and rumor is far more effective at keeping things under control than direct confrontation and destruction. It’s obvious from the moment Semyon learns of the diary. The contents do indeed worry him, but the sign of weakness amongst the other bosses is far more problematic. Like a massive game of multilevel chess, the slightest miscalculation can mean utter defeat. It’s the reason the understated Don is so mad at his son. He sees recklessness and a streak of irredeemable drunken sloppiness – elements that function in direct contrast to the strategic aims of the syndicate. It’s a model of interconnected complexity that illustrates how difficult these dynasties are to take down. But it also underlies the notion that everyone here is out for their own selfish motives. Even the supposed heroine is far from pristine.


Indeed - don’t be fooled. Naomi Watts’ Anna is no innocent here. She has her own selfish reasons for learning of Tatiana’s family, though the underpinning isn’t apparent at first. Cronenberg only hints at the pain this childless woman experiences especially as someone serving biology day in and day out while her own personal prayers go unanswered. Yet in several close contact conversations with her mother, we begin to see the truth. Without spoiling the situation, it’s clear that circumstances in Anna’s past are coloring her concern, leading all pathways directly back to her own maternal instincts. No one else in the film feels the same way, and it’s shocking the Cronenberg would introduce such a mercenary facet into this narrative. But because we keep expecting certain ‘good vs. evil’ avenues, it’s that much easier of the director to take us down an unexplored backstreet.


As a matter of fact, much of Eastern Promises is a window into a world we know little about. While pageantry and grandeur paint the Russians as much as the Italians (a major confrontation occurs during a ceremonial banquet), Cronenberg stuffs this storyline with all manner of insider details. We learn of the Yakuza-like significance of body art, what stars on one’s knees means, how slander and sexual defamation means more than a random killing, and why the collapse of communism led to such inhuman hostility. It’s intriguing material, made even more emblematic by how this director incorporates it into the subtext. Some hold a significant place in the plot. Others are asides that only come back to resonate later.


Perhaps the best thing about Eastern Promises, however, is its lack of conclusiveness. We definitely get an ending, and an epilogue wrap-up featuring a calculated character “where are they now.” But there is no real sense of resolve, no suggestion that everything is right in this one time very wrong world. Instead, the tableaus suggest change, but little in the way of finality. Roles may have changed, and situations settled, but there is still trouble brewing. One can sense it. You can even see it in a person’s slow, controlled deliberation. It’s a look that can only come from contemplating the next move. Unlike other movies in his canon, which end on a shot that suggest definiteness, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises remains an enigma. And considering the genre he’s working in, it explains crime’s continuing hold on our consciousness.


 


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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2007


There is perhaps no more detail-oriented director than Roman Polanski. All his films, from his initial landmark productions to his later misguided efforts, have concentrated on the minutia and facets of life from which epic circumstances appear to arise. Movies like Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby are not just well acted, brilliantly scripted works of creative cinematic construction, but they are carefully observed sketches of finely intricate scrutiny.


Everything is significant in a Polanski film; the setting, a character’s coat, the view in the window behind an actor, the placement of items on a desk. His moviemaking language, the importance of the camera and framing, the creation of an outside voice to generate tension and drama between the individuals onscreen is as imperative as the words they are saying and the emotions they are expressing.


When everything comes together, the technical and the emotional, there is no better filmmaker. When one is missing, however, or if both are weak, then there is no more artificial movie mind. Polanski is a student of film as a mechanical craft. He is also an artisan, a handmade creator of complex scenarios and interweaving undercurrents. Sometimes his style can substantially outweigh his substance, but he is usually able to balance both to create something magical out of a sort of cinematic geometry.


Polanski’s first full-length feature film, Knife in the Water, is a technical marvel, a masterpiece of composition and perfected camera work. It is filled with startling, glorious black and white imagery, obvious symbolism, and shots of staggering complexity and construction. At its core, it is a three person psychological drama that takes place over a period of 24 hours on a small sailboat adrift in a lake, a simple, subtle struggle between classes and emotions. Yet through its sweeping vistas and rampant artistic touches, it is also a movie of greater scope and universal platitudes.


One can look at Knife and see the start of a thousand future film projects: movies that capture interpersonal and sexual tension between lovers and strangers, spouses, and students. One can also feel the foundation for Polanski’s entire career, a series of movies that deal with untold secrets, unspoken pain, and unexpected connections. No one is who he or she seems to be in Knife in the Water.


The husband is not a brave, successful man; the wife is not a happy, contented partner; and the enigmatic, blond-haired hitchhiker is not the switchblade wielding threat he portrays. They are more than their outer face…but they are also less. Actually, the question becomes who exactly are these people and what do they really stand for? Unfortunately, Knife has little desire to address this quandary.


This is a major misstep in this film. The obvious ambiguousness to almost every event that happens on screen and the characters creating the scenarios renders Knife in the Water cold and calculating when it should be hot with untold tension. This is not a thriller in the traditional sense. We are not witnessing a true battle of wills or a deeply disturbed set of secretly acted-out agendas. Indeed, the characterization and dramatics play out like the languid day on a calm blue waterway. Issues are allowed to drift and stagnate, motives become ill defined and lazy, and the entire story sags beneath underdeveloped plot sails.


Part of the problem here is that we really don’t have anyone to identify with. The husband and wife appear content, yet there is a thread of hatred between them that only flares up once. When it does, the movie crackles and burns. Finally, we are seeing something of the subconscious. But it’s one of the few times where we experience such insight or shock.


The rest of the movie is just too vague, too sub-textual to spell out—or in some cases even hint at—the issues irritating the characters. A great deal of the dynamic between the players here has to be inferred, created in the mind of the viewer from half-heard lines of dialogue, a stolen glance or two, and most unfortunately, from a backlog of similarly structured post-Polanski storylines. If Knife in the Water is indeed a creepy, suspenseful love/hate/horror triangle between disaffected marrieds and an ingenious, insane interloper, the reason for its success as such is purely cinematic craft. Just like any summarization, we keep waiting for the real meat of the story to step forward and be recognized.


Maybe it’s better to view Knife in the Water as not about a marriage on the brink or a young man trying to unseat a dominant male. This is Communist Poland, after all, and no amount of Western allusion can dilute the fact that we are dealing with a strict class structure and sense of social composition. The youth (as this is how he is referred to in the credits) is supposed to be a scared, wild-eyed dreamer, the kind of impressionable mind the Party recruits and debases for the sake of the common good.


Krystyna is supposed to be subservient and dissatisfied with life: wives behind the Iron Curtain don’t have the liberation of America or Europe and marry more out of convenience than love or sex. And the older businessman (or bureaucrat or ranking government official) is indeed the boss, the controlling and commanding dispassionate pawn to dogma that makes the political machine ebb and flow. So there’s not much more of a dynamic that can be created or challenged. These people are doomed to fulfill their State-sponsored roles.


In interviews, Polanski’s stated desire to strip the dialogue back, to only present small, selected portions of these people’s thoughts and personas, is irreparable to Knife in the Water. Perhaps he felt his camera would fill in the blanks, but in reality, that attitude backfires and it becomes increasingly impossible to understand the individual’s motivation or if they even have any. Tension and suspense only work when we feel something is at stake, when something we care for or understand is threatened or about to be. In Knife in the Water, the characters never truly come alive for us. So, in turn, we never really care what happens.


Yet the visual scope and sense of artistic structure mostly makes up for the lack of a fully realized internal element. Indeed, you can watch this film, never once worrying about the people or the plot and simply sit back and enjoy a cinematic impressionist at work. Polanski piles on the unique angles (only Kubrick indulged in more lens and placement machinations) and faultless compositions, making the superficial facets of his film simply exquisite. He uses everything at his disposal to maintain a moody, atmospheric tone. Costumes and setting, blocking and in-frame tableaus, even a fantastically multi-faceted jazz score all combine to create a sense of dread and foreboding. It is easy to see why this is a much praised motion picture. It is probably as close to visual perfection as you will witness, the ultimate blending of the monochrome medium to light and shadow, image and presentation.


Yet one can’t help but be bothered by the vagueness, the sheer lack of specificity that runs throughout the story being told. Like the irritating bearer of information that keeps hinting over and over as to what the secret or the story really is (and eventually fails to divulge everything completely), Knife in the Water‘s all too well hidden agendas eventually grow tiresome. You want someone to rage. You want someone to lust. All this polite positioning is just not dramatic.


But perhaps Knife in the Water is not supposed to represent anything more than these hidden desires and sequestered sentiments of people under the rule of a totalitarian thumb. Setting is as important to Polanski as anything else, and Poland circa 1960 was not a wellspring of openness and experimentation. This trip on the lake is a chance to escape the complex prerequisites of a society under Soviet domination. It is these people’s brief chance to shed the images impressed upon them by the Marxist ideals. These are citizens without power, with only their place within the class configuration to preserve their identity. How they interact on the boat is perhaps how they would do so within any other social setting or Party meeting. This is not a time for in-depth personal revelation, nor is there a communal climate for such.


At most, it’s a chance to test the waters, so to speak, to barely open the door to the psyche and discover the undercurrents of discontent running through each of them. Or maybe this is all just an excuse for Polanski to create a love letter to his favorite pastime of that moment: sailing. Indeed, a boat is merely a knife in the water, cutting a swath along the glass-like stillness of the surface, revealing a small wake of what’s underneath before quickly closing back up. Just like the nick of a blade to the skin. Just like our trio of isolated souls. While far from perfect on the interpersonal level, Polanski’s first feature heralds an artist in full effect.


This is also evident from his work in short films. As part of this DVD package, Criterion collects eight of Polanski’s mini movies. They span the period of 1957-62 and cover all genres, from drama to absurdist comedy. Each movie looks fantastic with only minimal defects. The only real visual issues come with the final short, Mammals. It has a fuzzy, faded look that may have been intentional, or may be the result of age or production problems (after all, it must be difficult to film in the bleak whiteness of snow). Each one of these movies is a masterwork of form, style, and simple near-silent storytelling, even when the plots seem obtuse or illogical. Murder is a brief snippet of crime in controlled shots. Teeth Smile tells a voyeur’s tale from a wonderful, beautifully framed mise-en-scène.


Break Up the Dance is the first experiment in more long form narrative. Here, Polanski tries to challenge tone and show a happy set-up (a swanky, invite only party) followed by an anarchic ending (a gang of thugs literally break things up). Lamp is the notion of progress competing with old world ways. A new electrical system destroys a dollmaker’s shop, and the magic inside, when it replaces the reliable oil lamp therein. The aforementioned Mammals is really an allegory for the battle between man and his nature for evolutionary and social superiority. Basically boiled down to a snowbound tale of one rube forced to pull another along on a sleigh, it’s a game of one-upmanship to see who gets to play master and who gets to be subservient.


The three longest shorts, however, are also the best. Two Men and a Wardrobe tells the tender tale of a couple of jolly furniture movers who suddenly appear from out of the ocean, oversized cupboard in hand. As they move around a cityscape devolving into crime and brutality, the good-natured duo are put upon and ridiculed, refused service in restaurants, and beaten by thugs. The dichotomy between people who are different and the stubborn prejudice of the community strikes chords of instant recognition.


What is not so readily apparent is the quiet gentility in the story and the painful pathos of watching the innocent be oppressed. Equally stirring is The Fat and the Lean, a strange tale of ritualistic patterns that reveals how the ties than bind are more damaging than the ability to break free. As a sad servant tries his best to entertain and care for his obese, dictatorial master, he longs for freedom and a life in the big city, away from service and supplication. It is funny, sad, and stupid all in one big bravura cinematic performance.


But probably the best piece of moviemaking in the whole DVD package is When Angels Fall, the brutally devastating story of an old woman forced to live out her last days with haunting memories of her past as she monitors a men’s bathroom. Surrounded by bums and hustlers, urinals dripping with running water, we see a face devastated by time and fate thinking back and recalling: remembering her youth, remembering young love, remembering family, and always, remembering loss in wartime. Shifting from the black and white realities of the toilet to the faded colors of memory, it shows that Polanski, even as a graduating student from school, was a genius of visual arts.


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Tuesday, Sep 18, 2007

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, is currently playing on select dates around the country. The next screening will take place on 21 September, 2007 at the Loft Cinema in Tuscon, AZ. More information can be found by clicking here Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman will be there, in person, and there’s a chance to “Win a Date” with the noted director (along with actress Elske McCain. Addition rules of the contest can be seen by clicking


It really is a shame that the once mighty Troma trademark has been tarnished as of late. Thanks to DVD, which brought film’s tempting technological reach to the greater unwashed, wannabe Toxic Avengers have tried their hand at mimicking the blood and guts mastery of Lloyd Kaufman and the gang. Usually unable to emulate the craven cartoon qualities and joyful junkiness of the indie icon, they go for the gross and the easy arterial spray. Missing is the message, the satiric overtones, the clear love of cinema, and the devotion to art that comes from the company. In its place is a subpar substitute that has out of touch critics referencing all horror comedy by a slanderous descriptive slam. Somewhere along the line, Troma has been turned into a tag for all that is dumb, dopey, schlocky, and stupid.


Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth – or perhaps a better way of saying it is that there is more to these Manhattan movie mavericks than gore and naked girlies. Perfect proof of this maxim arrives in the soon to be released fast food freak out Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Unlike their camcorder imitators, this is a real celluloid find, a middle finger kiss off to an industry undermining its public with questionable hygiene practices and ever more suspect health concerns. Created by company honcho Lloyd Kaufman after witnessing, first hand, the rat infested foulness of a noted neighborhood franchise, there is as much politics as pus in this whacked out working stiff spectacle. Using a combination of tried and true gruesomeness, a buttload (literally) of toilet humor, a collection of clever songs, and an acerbic insight into the raging corporate machine, he makes a sensational silk purse out of a skidmarked sow’s rear. Toss in some lesbian T&A and you’ve got an exercise in excess that’s a true crude classic.


Our sorted saga begins when Arbie and Wendy, two horny high school graduates, have sex in a local cemetery. They are interrupted by the restless spirits of a disgraced Native American tribe, and afterwards, vow to remain close even as life pulls them apart. Fast forward a few months and the American Chicken Bunker, run by recovering KKK member General Roy Lee, has set up a restaurant right on top of the Indian’s burial base camp. Even worse, the company’s noted livestock atrocities have members of C.L.A.M. (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerates) up in arms. While Denny and the rest of the staff – Carl Jr., Humus, and Paco Bell – try to keep things under control for the grand opening, Arbie learns that Wendy has gone girl, hooking up with angry activist Micki. Joining the General’s team in hopes of winning back his babe, our hero comes face to beak with a collection of undead fouls, and the reanimated resolve of some pretty pissed off pullets.



Outrageous, insane, and borderline brilliant, Poultrygeist is one of the best things to come out of Troma since Kaufman gave birth to the Make Your Own Damn Movie parody Terror Firmer. It’s bloodier, ballsier, and bluerer than anything the company has ever done, and it is its first ever zombie flick. This is the kind of crackpot genre gem that gets its kicks out of wallowing in feces, tweaking Islamic terrorists, exploiting same sexiness, and undermining standard cinematic expectations. It’s a tasty throwback to the days when physical effects ruled repugnance, where gore-based gags were just as important as CGI spiked spurting. In the grand realm of grade-Z grooving, where bile and body parts match boobs and buttocks for cinematic sleazoid perfection, director Kaufman and his amiable cast of unknowns deliver on every sophomoric swipe, while drop kicking Colonel Sanders and Ray Kroc in the process. It also makes one thing crystal clear – once you’ve seen how the originators get it done, the imitators seem pretty pathetic, indeed.


No one really champions Troma’s take on terror, and that’s a shame. Certainly, it’s broad based and jocular, trying for as many snickers as scares, but there is something deeply satisfying about the way Kaufman and crew approach their projects. The scripts, usually collaborations between many motivated film geeks, tend to cut to the chase and amplify the anarchy. Smartly written and loaded with all kinds of cracks – puns, lampoons, and the proudly profane – they become the blueprints for the creation of an unmistakable horror hybrid. Poultrygeist definitely benefits the most from this brazen business model, since it has four decades to draw on. The results are like a glorified greatest hits package, an omnibus offering of everything that makes the Troma name terrific.



Some, however, have questioned the decision to include songs in this film, since the notion of a monster musical where characters constantly interrupt the flow of the fun to rev up and vocalize does have its questionable rewards. But Poultrygeist does a wonderful job of making the tunes feel like an effortless extension of the storyline. When Arbie and Wendy try to re-establish their romance during the evocative ballad “Fast Food Love”, Kaufman counterbalances the “Moon/June” sentiments with a full blown lesbian ho-down. As our paramours plead in 2/4 time, the sisters of Sappho go gonzo. Similarly, a fabulous duet between Arbie and his future self (played by a spectacularly goofy Kaufman) has the added amusement of seeing the Troma chief traipsing around in a too short skirt. Granted, many of the actors are tonally challenged, and a few of the lyrics are more wobbly than witty, but the combination really works. It’s reminiscent of another Kaufman supported entity – the brilliant Trey Parker/Matt Stone extravaganza Cannibal: The Musical.


Poultrygeist is indeed on par with the aforementioned farce, since it handles its consistently contradictory facets with fearlessness and finesse. In a mainstream dynamic that can’t conceive of how to technically go for broke, this amazing movie does so time and time again. Gorehounds, unable to get their daily recommended dose of disgusting via conservative Tinsel Town tripe, will practically plotz at the level of outstanding offal here. There are sluice soaked gags so innovative and memorable (the head omelet, death by diarrhea, implant evisceration) that they’re destined to go down in the annals of onscreen splatter. There’s hasn’t been this ludicrous level of Technicolor yawning in quite a while. Combined with the blatant bad taste witticism, the propagandized agenda, and Kaufman’s clear creative vision (mock him all your want – the man knows his audience and what makes them merry), you end up with the motion picture equivalent of punk rock – raw, dirty, and damn proud.



Of course, none of this would be possible without the dozens of volunteers and underpaid performers who give up their regular grind to provide Kaufman with a concrete talent pool. As our leads, Jason Yachanin and Wendy Graham turn Arbie and Wendy into a classic cornball couple, the kind of kids you root for as the entrails and body parts fly. Though he’s absent from the action most of the time, Joshua Olatunde’s Bunker manager Denny is a smart aleck delight. Every line he delivers sounds imported from Samuel L. Jackson’s high school resume. As with any latter day Troma movie, recognizing the occasional cameo is half the fun. One of the best here comes from porn pro Ron Jeremy. Not only is his mandatory “you’re all gonna die” diatribe a hoot, but the punchline provides a nice acknowledgement of the meat man’s late in life battle of the bulge. 


All of this makes Troma’s current crisis of confidence all the more confusing. Kaufman will claim blacklisting, and without another cogent reason for his company’s exclusion within the otherwise omnivorous media, his point is well taken. Troma can apparently be copied, referenced, and blatantly stolen from, and yet a film like Poultrygeist has to scramble for any booking it can get. Instead of being a monster hit alongside similarly styled overhyped movie macabre, this incredibly effective circus has to take a backseat to PG-13 rated retardation. As the old song says, we frequently don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone. While he’s still around, capable of making movies as wonderfully weird and wholly entertaining as this, it’s time to give Lloyd Kaufman his due. He’s a filmmaker, not a fool, and this Night of the Chicken Dead is proof of his, and Troma’s lasting legacy. It’s simply amazing.



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Monday, Sep 17, 2007


For the formerly famous or once noted, the decision on how best to promote a comeback is complicated at best. Do you rely solely on your previous efforts, or do you try and expand or even modify them for a new generation of fans. In the case of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, the one time TV icons in charge of the unquestionably brilliant Mystery Science Theater 3000, it has been fan inflexibility, not a lack of inspiration, that’s guided their post-cancellation endeavors. While providing audio only comic commentary tracks for popular blockbuster efforts (via the Rifftrax online brand), they also decided to reconfigure the old MST model. Sponsored by cult cravers Shout! Factory, the new enterprise, entitled The Film Crew, has used DVD’s wealth of public domain dung to bring in-theater quipping back from the dead. And it’s been a remarkable rebirth, to say the least.


With last month’s Hollywood After Dark release already under their belt (the Rue McClanahan stripper fiasco was a great place to start), the talented trio now take on two completely different beyond b-movies. In Killers from Space, Peter Graves is a jet pilot who somehow manages to survive a deadly crash. Turns out, aliens rescued him with the intent of using him as a spy. Their goal? The top secret times and locations of America’s nuclear tests. This is then followed by the proto peplum of The Wild Women of Wongo. In the title village, the gals are gorgeous. Unfortunately, the men are brutish and bad tempered. When a regular Greek god, muscled and well meaning, arrives from the downstream land of Goona, the girls go ga-ga. Turns out, things are the exact opposite where he lives. The guys are hot. The women are definitely not. Naturally, royal rituals and alligator gods must be appeased, even as loin clothed lovers make prehistoric cow eyes at each other.


Clearly functioning under the “not broken, no fixing” formula, The Film Crew set-up has Mike, Kevin, and Bill playing employees of the entertainment eccentric Bob Honcho. He’s a motion picture maverick who believes that every DVD, no matter how nominal, deserves a commentary track. He makes regular phone calls to his cinematic stooges, announcing their assignments and, in general, flaunting his high powered CEO lifestyle. Unlike Mystery Science, which relied on skits every 22 minutes to break up the bad movie monotony, The Film Crew offers a one time midpoint ‘Lunch Break’. There, between bites of sandwich and slurps of diet shake, the men mock contrivances within the film – be it the decision to use exaggerated body parts to suggest that said killers are actually from space, or learning how to locate Wongo on a map. 



As lifelong fans of such external monologue mannerisms will tell you, it’s the movie that makes the mockery, not the other way around. When you have something as lifeless and leaden as Killers from Space, it can try even the wittiest rejoinder’s resolve. But when overwhelmed by atrocious acting, half-baked production design, and various untenable body types draped in fur covered diapers, The Wild Women of Wongo creates a never-ending Arch Hall Jr. foundation of funny business. Both releases offer a ridiculous amount of fun, but Wongo eventually wins out, if only by a horndog hair. Whereas, in the past, the potential comedy was hindered by cable standards and family-oriented programming, The Film Crew can now let their lecherous freak flag fly.


It starts right at the beginning of the otherwise atrocious tale. Kevin Murphy decides that every action taken by the title babes mandates a seedy, suggestive, double entendre. When a battle breaks out between two of the tempting tribeswomen, it’s the sign for a series of catcalls. An embrace between the Princess of Wongo and the Prince of Goona earns a series of sexually suggestive statements, and the beefy chuck steak nature of the bodybuilder cast mandates its own level of man musk bemusement. However, the most mileage is gained out of a Dragon Temple sequence where the matronly priestess screeches that everyone must “DANCE!!!” Thanks to the open format of the digital domain (meaning nothing need necessarily be ‘rated’ by the MPAA), our satiric triptych can let their shorthairs down, so to speak. Of course, their comedy is not really that crude to begin with, but to hear them skirt around the scandalous is really a treat.



As for The Wild Women of Wongo itself, it’s like exploitation without the free flowing flesh peddling extremes. The scantily clad cast is obviously not trying for some manner of archeologically adept realism, and the storyline is Romeo and Juliet with added jungle juice. In fact, the driving force inside the nutty narrative is the notion that male chauvinism is (apparently) part of our primordial DNA. The male members of the tribe sit around and imitate a monosyllabic Homer Simpson as they berate and barter over the ladies like ranchers at a carnal cattle auction. The guys from Goona aren’t much better. They may have overdeveloped lats and too sweet pecs, but they’re backwards as well in the way of the woman. It’s the goofy XY equilibrium between know it all honeys and do nothing hunks that makes this a classic cornball comedy companion piece.


Killers from Space, on the other hand, makes Red Zone Cuba seem like The Missiles of October. The Crew does come out swinging, taking on the military industrial complex, and its apparent appreciate of smoking, for all its non-filtered farce. It’s great to hear the guys giggle as General after Major pull out a pack and light up. When a driven Peter Graves is put under Sodium Amatol, the lack of convincing unconsciousness also provides the perfect platform for laughs. But the choicest chuckling comes when our hero, trapped in an underground cavern, tries to escape. For nearly 20 minutes, he is confronted by rear projection pictures of oversized “monsters”. In reality, they are nothing more than lizards, tarantulas, and iguanas given some silly schlock resizing. As they did on the Satellite of Love, the gang gets a kick out of giving such lame F/X the ridicule rub.



As a movie, however, Killers from Space maintains its mindnumbing mediocrity throughout. This is a terribly talky film, a narrative that substitutes words for vistas unaffordable or unobtainable.  There are significant scenes of cars driving aimlessly, and when we finally meet the title terrors, they’re nothing more than unitard wearing insurance salesmen with painted ping pong balls for eyes. Perhaps an audience still in awe of all the A-bombing going on would cotton to such crudity. But decades of sophistication has rendered such radioactive retardation more stupefying than Larry the Cable Guy. Alongside the Captain Video level of extraterrestrial originality and the elephantine critters, you’ve got a literal compendium of sloppy suburban sci-fi, the kind of speculative fiction that would give Harlan Ellison agida for decades. 


As for packaging and presentation, Shout! Factory and the minds behind The Film Crew have really improved things over the Hollywood After Dark release. The bonus features on Wild Women of Wongo allow you the opportunity to see Mike, Kevin, and Bill cut a movie mandated rug. There’s also a recreation of the snarky “wink” ending to the film. The added content for Killers from Space is even more intriguing. After Murphy shows us how backwards masking was used to emulate alien language in the storyline, we are given the opportunity to watch “outtakes” from the infamous silly talk scene, with the Crew substituting their own dialogue for the scientific read outs. It’s a hilarious extra, and one that shows where this series could go, should it continue.



And here’s hoping that it does. In an arena that takes itself far too serious, which wants to award any and all product made by the hack Hollywood studio system some manner of long deserved classical status, we need entities like The Film Crew. They’re the lampoon equivalent of an uppercut to the chin, a clear comeuppance for a cinematic statement that really does nothing more than stink on ice. Cinephiles can argue over the worthwhile qualities inherent in a dumb as dirt skin epic, or a dialogue driven diatribe against nuclear weaponry, but when all is said and done, The Wild Women of Wongo and Killers from Space are nothing more than misguided motion pictures. They are poorly executed, laughable examples of celluloid as septic tank. Luckily, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett are still around to accessorize the aroma. Indeed, The Film Crew continues to make the most noxious non-entertainment utterly enjoyable. 


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