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Monday, Jul 9, 2007


When it broadcast its final episode on 8 August, 1999, fans feared they had seen the last of their beloved cowtown puppet show. After 10 seasons, 198 installments, and a major channel switch, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was offering up its last original take on bad movies – in this case, the Italian spy spoof Danger: Diabolik. As with all last shows, the series tried to wrap up various storylines, explain away certain elements, and end on a proper note of closure and nostalgia. While MST3K as it was otherwise known went on to last in reruns for three more years, the company behind the production, Best Brains, slowly folded up shop and dismissed any future potential projects. It did indeed seem like we’d never see the likes of Joel, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo ever again.


Fast forward to 2006. Former MST head writer Mike Nelson has been making a name for himself as a solo satirist, helping fledgling DVD distributor Legend Films sell copies of crappy public domain titles like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Thanks to his clever commentaries, similar in style to his old days on the Satellite of Love, Nelson was renewing interest in old films, while providing hope to fans that a Mystery Science revival is around the corner. Adding fuel to the fire was RiffTrax, an MP3 service started by the company that allowed Nelson, along with fellow familiar faces Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, to crack wise over contemporary movies. The popularity of these downloadable comic criticisms, hitting on such well known classics as The Matrix, Battlefield Earth, and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, proved that there was an audience eager to experience more bad movie bashing. 


Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, The Film Crew is here. Picking up almost directly where Mystery Science left off, and losing none of the previous show’s wit or audacity, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy are back, playing loveable losers working for an obsessed media mogul. Their job – provide a commentary track for every movie (bad or good) lacking same. After an online poll allowed fans to choose the first film to be tackled, the 10 July release of Hollywood After Dark shows incredible product promise. While the backstory and skit material make up a much smaller portion of the overall presentation, the quintessential quipping we’ve come to expect from these fully seasoned pros is provided in slaphappy spades. For Mystery Science devotees, this is an undeniable dream come true.


For those unfamiliar with how the process works, here is a short rundown. As a movie plays in the background, our three heroes use the hackneyed plotting, pathetic dialogue, and obtuse directorial choices as fodder for their funny business. They make jokes. They crack wise. They provide a plethora of pop culture allusions, and frequently fall into surreal, self-absorbed inferences – all in the name of mockery and merriment. During the MST days, it was a human (Mike, or series creator Joel Hodgson) and two robots (voiced by Trace Beaulieu, Corbett, and Murphy) doing the ribbing. Now, it’s in the guise of three bumbling archivists, hired by Bob Honcho (seen and hear via portrait and telephone only – Charles Townsend style) to provide his much beloved alternate narrative tracks. There are no silhouettes on the screen, no scientific experimentation subplot. Just grade-Z films and grade-A funnymen.


And Hollywood After Dark is the perfect picture to start off with. Culled from the days when exploitation could make hundreds of sow’s ears out of a couple of cinematic silk purses, strippers and Navy seamen take an unbelievably bum rap as future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan proves that even noted television stars had to get their embarrassing start somewhere. Yes, crazy as it seems, everyone’s favorite oversexed sitcom matron actually began her career in the low-rent films of the grindhouse circuit. Long before she became a small-screen staple in shows like Maude, she was churning out crap like The Grass Eater, Door-to-Door Maniac, and How To Succeed with Girls. Yet two of the films she made with journeyman John Hayes—1963’s Five Minutes to Love (originally entitled The Rotten Apple) and 1968’s Walk the Angry Beach (later called Hollywood After Dark)—represent the nadir of her reputation with the raincoat crowd. Talky, trashy, and just a little too turgid for most genre fans, both films represent over-processed scripts with nearly incoherent consideration for cinematic basics like narrative and characterization.


For its part, Hollywood After Dark is just a heist film welded to a melodrama and spiced with a pair of strip scenes to give the debauchery demographic something to sneer over. At the core is a lover’s triangle between Rue’s Sandy, Jack Vorno’s Tony, and clinical depression. Both of our leads have personas baked in hopeless melancholy and each one expresses it in a decidedly different way. Tony gets liquored up, argues with complete strangers, and sulks. Sandy sashays her fanny, gets molested on the casting couch, and teases her paramour. Together, they’re about as much fun as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald at a marriage retreat. But writer/director Hayes is obviously not out for levity and hi-jinks. He wants to sell this film as a frightening exposé, a chance to see how Tinseltown tears apart, chews up, and spits out people like Tony and Sandy every single day. Unfortunately, instead of just making a documentary about the local bus depot, he decided to forge ahead with a scattered script full of lame action scenes and half-started heart-to-hearts.


Thanks to the direct to home video dynamic, which keeps the nasty standards and practices pundits at bay, The Film Crew can take on the baser elements in the narrative – burlesque, sexual battery, criminal intent – and lay into them with equally off-color comments. There is no cursing here, but fans not used to hearing their favorite armchair critics talking about genitalia and horndogging may be thrown off a bit. Similarly, these new installments sound less rehearsed than previous MST style strafing. Murphy and Corbett frequently break up over their own gags, and there are several moments when the choice of a particular word or slightly crude comment has the gang backpeddling in obvious disbelief. Yet for the most part, this is quality old school slamming, the mockery a minute amusement we’ve come to know and love. While McClanahan is barbequed quite nicely, her co-star Vorno get’s more than his fair share of static. And it’s even worse for big league bad guy Nick (played by Paul Bruce). From his oil slicked hair to mouth full of tantalizing teeth, the guys can’t get enough of his manic mobster.


About halfway through the presentation, a standard work siren goes off, and soon the Crew is on a “lunch break”. It’s interesting that the DVD would employ such a conceit, since one thing MST3K fans will notice right off the bat is how weird the concept plays without the standard commercial break every few minutes. Back during the original series, these pauses acted like rib tickling rest stops. Not only did they give the creators a chance to offer up themed skits and songs, but the audience was allowed a moment to compose itself before the next onslaught of silliness. Here, after 30 straight minutes, one feels the need for some downtime. For their part, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett hold an “eat and meet”, where bizarre corporate spin speak substitutes for easygoing meal talk. Perhaps a tad too clever for its own good, it may be more inside than Office Space. Here’s hoping the next few installments in the series offer up less mannered material.


Indeed, Shout! Factory will be releasing future “episodes” including Killers from Space, The Giant of Marathon, and the bad movie classic Wild Women of Wongo. If Hollywood After Dark is any indication of the quality we can expect, one suspects that the Film Crew could be around for a very long time. DVD has helped redefine the rights issues that used to plague Mystery Science, and with a wealth of available public domain/easily obtainable material at their disposal, one imagines that the series is subject to the interest of the participants. Anyone who has longed to hear those mighty Midwestern voices once again violating the sacred vow of silence during a stagnant cinematic cesspool can now fully rejoice. While Rifftrax may have the marquee value, The Film Crew is coming up fast. This essential digital diversion is the answer to many a MiSTies prayers. 


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Sunday, Jul 8, 2007


While it’s never wise to rape an entire generation’s childhood memories for your own self-centered means, Hollywood still wants to be the biggest motion picture pedophile on the block. Name a cartoon and/or kiddie series – He-Man, GI Joe, The Care Bears - and somewhere, in a studio bungalow, an overpaid hack is trying to come to grips with how to re-imagine the title’s otherwise limited appeal. Perhaps no other form of filmic laziness – sequels, prequels, spin-offs – has resulted in such finite returns as live action cartoon updates. Examples like the live action Rocky and Bullwinkle fiasco, the horrendous Garfield films, and the horribly mismanaged Flintstones films have proven that – all Transformers aside – when it comes to bringing juvenilia to the silver screen, Tinsel Town is still in the zygote stages.


Now comes the most noxious example of this movie molestation yet – Underdog. Disney, not known for the gentile handling of kid vid past (Inspector Gadget), has decided to stop whoring out its own past masterworks and, instead, violate the innocent joys of the W. Watts Biggers’ television series. A staple of Saturday mornings for the majority of the ‘60s, the beloved superhero hound and his unique blend of wit and wackiness remains the perfect symbolic stepping stone between preschool entertainment and tween level treats. Putting it another way, the adventures of Shoeshine Boy, Sweet Polly Purebred, and the rest of the Underdog domain (including offshoots like Tennessee Tuxedo, Klondike Kat, and the great Go Go Gophers) helped wee ones make the transition from passive to active viewers. Biggers created characters and situations kids could invest themselves in, with just enough subtle satire to keep the parents pleased. There were even principled morals thrown in for good measure.


Of course, the best way for the House of Mouse and its corrupt creative staff to deal with updating this clear cult favorite is to literally toss out everything that made the original show stellar. However, in order to understand such a major misfire, the initial Underdog mythos must be explored. In the animated series, Shoeshine Boy was an anthropomorphic pup, working in a city of human beings as a benevolent boot black. His girlfriend was canine TV personality Sweet Polly Purebred, and together they maintained a kind of pleasing platonic romance. Whenever trouble loomed for the metropolitan citizenry, and Polly in particular, Underdog took his Super Energy Vitamin Pill and transforms into the title character. Then he would confront one of several recurring villains, including dwarf mastermind Simon Barsinister and wolf gangster Riff Raff. Speaking in rhyme and expressing a truth and justice mantra, our furry champion always saved the day – even if it took a few serialized installments to achieve victory.


In addition, each half hour episode contained supporting segments, little mini movies featuring ersatz educational and instructive messages. Granted, most of the material was couched in classic animated slapstick, the goofy comings and goings of talking penguins, Native American rodents, and – of all things – a senile geographical explorer. This helped divide up the typical Underdog adventure into several cliffhanger sections, while developing a whole new array of memorable characters for the show to profit from. None of this was done out of artistic nobility, mind you. Biggers worked as an advertising executive for General Mills, makers of fine sugar coated breakfast treats preferred by pre-adolescent appetites. All he wanted was pen and ink salesmen. But thanks to artist Joe Harris and creative team Chet Stover and Tread Covington, along with the amazing voiceover work of actor Wally Cox (a definitive turn), Underdog was much more than a cereal shill.     


So how did the geniuses over in Walt’s world decide to deal with this classic character? Did they intend to bring him back in pure 2D cell animation form, forgoing all the possible pointless pop culture updates to deliver unfettered Underdog? No, they decided to go the live action route (strike one) and make the cur champion a real dog (strike two). They then revamped his origins, removing the power pill (strike three) to forge some kind of X-Men/Hulk happenstance (dog ends up in nuclear reactor thingamajiggy – strike four?). Polly is now a pooch as well (strike…oh, who cares anymore) and our supposed hero has a human owner (grrrrrrrr!) to keep him in line. Voiced by Jason Lee (huh?) and costarring little person powerhouse Peter Dinklage as Barsinister (the only genius move in this entire gagfest), we end up with something looking like Superman with fleas, a generic action film dumbed down substantially to keep the bratlings at bay (oh, and did we mention that Riff Raff is now a Rottweiler, and apparently a rival for Polly’s affections – NOOOO!!!)


The numerous numbskull moves made by the people behind the production are nothing compared to who is helming this atrocity in the making. Thanks to a script credited to three individuals – newbies Craig A. Williams and Joe Piscatella, along with industry fixture Alan (Zoom) Rifkin – but probably touched by a dozen or so illiterate cinematic scribblers, and the dim directorial flair of Racing Stripes’ Frederik Du Chau, there is a wonderful aroma of predicated failure wafting off of this turkey. The trailer plays like every animal-oriented cliché ever conceived (jokes about gas, pee, and butt sniffing are plentiful) and the blatant CGI used to capture the critters makes the movements appear stiffer than the original cartoon’s dynamic. Like the awful robotic baby in the equally abysmal Son of the Mask, the incredibly complex movements of your basic beagle seem to baffle the multiple motherboards of the F/X techs tools.


Now, there is nothing wrong with creating your own canine superhero, giving him human qualities thanks to a freak experiment, and building an entire film out of his amiable adventures. Or simply stay with the notion of a parallel universe where animals easily coexist and speak perfect English. Oh wait, didn’t they already make that movie and call it Cats and Dogs? And didn’t it die at the box office? Granted, Disney isn’t aiming this movie at fans of the original TV show. In fact, they have obviously avoided anything that would remind viewers of their childhood chum. No, this is Underdog designed for the post-millennial age, an entity only betrothed to its own disposability, calculated to make a fast potential franchise buck before living out life in DVD stud. While the House of Mouse is downplaying future animation sequels, there’s no such mandate on live action direct to video features. That means that even if it bombs, our tick-ridden friend will be back in Underdog 2: Curse of the Choke Chain and Underdog Returns: Puppy Power!


Listen, no one is faulting Disney for trying. The business of show is a cutthroat world. Everyone is anxious to exploit product awareness, create commercial interest, and manufacture new revenue streams. Digging into the past for present day projects is nothing new (just ask one Cecil B. DeMille, who more or less remade every silent movie he ever produced), but it’s the reinvention trump card that has fans and film aficionados up in arms. See, a studio can’t just take an old icon – say Alvin and the Chipmunks – and deal directly with what made the original so memorable. No, they have to add ridiculous contemporary characteristics – how about a splash of hip hop – to mesh with the fad gadget mindset, and pray that the potential fallout and backlash doesn’t keep parents from partaking of their cinematic babysitting services (by the way, the Chipmunks dig – it’s headed to theaters this December…no kidding).


There is clearly something more to Underdog than just interchangeable super hero elements. Fansites devoted to the dog love to mention his honor, compassion and lack of ego. They enjoy the true love longings of Polly Purebred, and feast on the hissable evil of Simon Barsinister and the original Riff Raff. One woman, Suzanne Muldowney, even went so far as to turn her passion for the crime fighter into performance art. Known as the Underdog Lady, she’s made numerous appearances on Howard Stern, and even has a documentary on her life in the works. Let’s face it – people really love the original, and for Disney to dump all over it this way seems like an act of artificial arrogance. From a creative standpoint, you know they don’t enjoy this kind of commercialization, but it’s been the corporate bottom line too long to back out now. Art has long given way to cash.


So get ready for the mid-August media blitz, the pathetic promotional campaigns, the none too clever Madison Avenue tie-ins (New from the makers of Snausages – Pure Polly Sweatbreads). Star Jason Lee will joke that he made the movie for “his kids”, while messageboards will conspire to consider Scientology as the reason for his continually weak big screen choices (next up – that aforementioned Chipmunks crap). Someone will Q&A the dog, and the original cartoon will get a fleeting mention before the talking heads reset the situation by adding in carefully worded exclamations like “new”, “improved” and the most tragic of all – “update”. If ever an animated hero needed no modernizing, it’s this classic champion of the cartoon people. Bad ideas love to breed in Tinsel Town, however. And with Underdog, the cinematic sodomy continues. 


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Saturday, Jul 7, 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 week: The genre’s definitive dominatrix lights up the screen in a trio of the seediest, sleaziest exploitation epics ever created.


Olga’s House of Shame/ White Slaves of Chinatown/ Olga’s Dance Hall Girls


In an abandoned coalmine somewhere between the urban sprawl of New York City and the black lung of Butcher Holler, is Olga’s House of Shame. Really nothing more than the Teamster’s former lunch shack converted into a den of inequity and sin, it houses the white babes in bondage of the mob’s favorite dominatrix, Olga. This high cheekboned badass relishes and relies on the torture and torment of women, all in preparation for their eventual use and abuse by paying members of paternalistic society. With the help of her haberdasher turned henchman brother Nick, she finds parolees, the disenchanted, and the heavily impressionable, and before you can say Somerset Maugham, she’s got them manacled, bound with leather, strapped into homemade electric chairs, and prancing like my little pity pony around her Love Canal style estate. True, there is always an ungrateful gal or two wanting to escape the life of degradation for a slight sip of the milk of human kindness. But Olga has some inventive means of quenching the thirst for personal dignity.


Meanwhile, Peking duck and the Eastern/Oriental mindset are given a big kick in the diversity as our Olga sets up shot in the Chop Suey district and, with the help of opium and a lack of political correctness, begins her career as a provider of dope fiend hookers. That’s right, whenever you or your buddies are wondering just where to find the finest and freshest flesh feasts, you need look no further than the gone to seed supermodel Madame O and her White Slaves of Chinatown. Offering a wide assortment of society’s dregs for all manner of mistreatment, you can really get your Marquis De Sade started at this BYOBI (bring your own branding iron) establishment. Everything is offered here, from blowtorches to combs. But it’s not all electrodes and evisceration. Even Olga herself occasionally finds time for a little employer/employee interaction. Picking out one of her more unconscious chanteuses, she moves in and performs the art of seduction the only way she’s ever known how: by beating someone until they pass out.


Finally, what’s an upper class Manhattan housewife to do when she’s grown bored of the cosmopolitan highlife? Well, she can read the want ads, meet up with the slimy sleazeball Nick, and apply for a lifetime contractual position as one of Olga’s Dance Hall Girls. Helping to redefine the term “hostess” so that it requires more horizontal than vertical attention, our decidedly different looking headmistress spends a great deal of down time motivating her indentured bop queens into giving up their goodies for the sake of a sick thrill. And for the most part it works, since even a bored Suzie Housewife is more than happy to throw down the gauntlet of acceptable social behavior and expose her Bill Blass to the paying clientele. But they best be wary of making Miss O angry. She will get Greenwich Village on their hinder and beat them to a bloody pulp. Either that, or endlessly discuss the ramifications of violating contractually agreed upon terms over and over again with the ladies until their brains melt.


Get ready to be incredibly disappointed by this set of Olga films. Those who have long dreamed of seeing these urban grit girl fests in the privacy of their home, hoping they were warped and weird counterpoints to the non-metropolitan masochism of the later Ilsa series, may want a ribald recount. Bereft of even the slightest titillation factor (unless you are deep into S&M—more on this later) and poorly shot, filmed, and acted, the Olga movies offered on this Something Weird triple feature could best be described as monotonous in the most completely literal interpretation of that word. These are movies made for a sole audience, with only one main goal in mind and created from a singular premise. In some ways, the SCTV spoofing of similarly seedy concepts, with such comically precise titles as “Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Slave Chicks,” accurately captures the ludicrous laziness of these movies.


Not films, actually, since they tell no cohesive story and are filled with images and archetypes instead of characters. In fact, these cinematic explorations of sleaze function as lurid litmus test, a good gauge to your sexual proclivity. If you find any of the elaborate and carefully staged bondage material the least bit enticing, if your cabbage is tossed when you witness Olga beating a wounded wanton wench back to the stone age, or if you salivate at the sight of long, static tableaus featuring women in various stages of servitude, then you may be the perfect candidate for this trilogy of trauma. But most other exploitation audience members will, once the novelty has worn off, wonder just what the whipping post the big deal is here.



The Olga films are blueprint formations all the way. Each is exactly the same in tone and timbre. We are introduced to Olga and her occupation: white slaver to the world, provider of female pulchritude, and occasional dealer in illegal drugs. She is always associated with a “mob” or “syndicate” who bankrolls her brainwashing and bondage. She always has a less than masculine “assistant” who aids her in the finding of new flesh. And the storylines always center on locating new gals, discovering the traitors, and meting out punishment for crimes, be they actual or thought. There is a minimum of dialogue (Dance Hall Girls has more spoken words than the other two films combined times 20) and a voice-over narrator gives us the Joe Friday style set of facts for everything that is happening on the screen (our storyteller always seems to know even more than what is being shown, or could be inferred from being shown).


We then cut to scenes of women oppressed, filmed matter of factly to provide the raincoat crowd the requisite amount of raunch per second of screening. There is always some fake violence involving electricity, knives, or bizarre implements of defilement. Everything is forced and invariable, offering very little drama or filth. In reality, these films are nothing more than B&D books come to ersatz “life.” Olga’s House of Shame is probably the most entertaining (if one can find these flat visions of vice enjoyable), since it provides the most amusing voice-over story structure, plus the pear shaped asexuality of Olga’s Barry Humphries in training brother Nick. His chase of Elaine through the woods, wobbly male “pouch” in full undulation, is worth the price of admission alone.


But as for the rest of these night terror tortures, Chinatown is too prosaic to make much sense. We do learn a lot about why Asians have had such a hard time, socially, within the United States since the crass, racist comments made about life and crime in the Oriental areas of urban society are downright slanderous. For a film to try and excuse what is basically an exercise in perverted sexuality as some sort of unwanted “yellow plague” seems horribly unfair. Dance Hall Girls is decidedly different, as it offers pages and pages of dialogue. That’s right, Olga and her minions talk…and talk and talk and talk. Seems there’s not a meaningless topic that these miscast actors can’t mangle and moon about for untold moments of monotony. If you ever wondered why House of Shame and Chinatown have ix-nayed on the alking-tay the verbal Valium of Dance Hall will lull you into a sense of silence.


Even worse, all of the Olgas are slim on the skin side. While the nudity level seems to increase as the titles moves along, there is very little revelry in the reveal. It seems that nakedness is treated as an offhanded indirect result of having to persecute and mistreat women. Even when our Olgas decide to get their pre-soft core freak on and rub their prisoners for a little same sex leisure, the newsreel manner of the sequencing makes for limp biscuits all around. It’s easy to understand why these films were such a scandal in the early ‘60s; people used to seeing the nudie cutie booties of various sun worshipers scurry across the screen must have purged their petticoats upon seeing these scenes of pseudo sick sordidness and sadism. But in the light of today’s anything-for-a-jolly social mentality, it all plays out like a very special episode of Fear Factor.


Any fan of exploitation worth their heft in hedonism will definitely want to check out this mad mistress and her love of pain. But the casual fan that has only heard about the outrageous nature of these movies will be disarmed at how devoid of violence they truly are. Olga may be “possessed of a mind so warped that she made sadism a full-time business,” but the movies capturing her mental malady are quite sobering.


 


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Friday, Jul 6, 2007


The big buzz building around the Internet the last two days has centered on a striking new trailer. It features people partying, having fun, all viewed through the various handheld recording devices that have swept across the post-millennial landscape (PDAs, cellphones, camcorders). Suddenly, an Earth-shaking noise is heard. The fun stops. Another massive thud. And then a horrific, otherworldly wail. People start to panic. Before long, we are tossed into a chaotic, first person POV destruction of New York City, including mandatory symbolic obliteration (poor Statue of Liberty) and some very familiar movie monster noises (Toho, anyone?). The unusual clip – no narration, no major marketing tag lines – suddenly cuts to black. On the screen, the following title cards appear: “From J.J. Abrams” and “1/18/08”.


Fans of the Alias/Lost creator, fortunate enough to see (and in some cases, unlawfully capture) the teaser as part of the Transformers theatrical preview package, immediately rushed home and searched the Internet Movie Database for some clue as to what this proposed film, code named “Cloverfield”, was really all about. Many speculated that it would be the long dormant Godzilla sequel, which made sense since Abrams was the creative force behind the Mission Impossible franchise reboot and is currently developing a Star Trek reimagining as well. So why not give the big green radioactive lizard another shot, right? Well, that rumor was quickly nixed when studious fans recognized that Paramount (the company behind the new film) does not own the rights to the character.


Others have guessed that, based on the movie it was attached to, it may be another ‘80s cartoon title (the prime suspect: a proposed live action version of Voltron). Of course, that was also immediately negated when a World Wide Web search found readily available information on said project – and Abrams name was nowhere to be seen. From another alien invasion ala Independence Day to something called The Parasite that the producer/director has been working on, the fascinating footage – and its eventual bootlegging on the ‘Net – has caused quite a stir. It’s the kind of ‘viral’ world of mouth that marketers are mad about, especially in this interconnected age when a well placed site, a MySpace page, and constant conversation on the numerous movie and fan messageboards can keep an unreleased product viable for months.


Naturally, Paramount has been playing pirate killer, removing the various incarnations of the trailer from all known potential playback portals (YouTube, etc.), though if you look hard enough, you may still be able to find the horrible, hack quality video. Their aggressiveness has lead some to argue that the studio is really behind all the ‘illegal’ activity and is using the whole controversy as a means of generating press (and it’s worked – after all, we’re talking about it here). Through all the denials and determined PR statements, one thing’s for certain – Cloverfield is no longer a non-entity. Among the many 2008 titles generating incredibly early interest (Indiana Jones 4, Speed Racer, The Happening), this still unknown effort has moved right up to the top.


Of course, this isn’t the first time that mysterious images meshed with online elements have generated major movie curiosity. As far back as 1989, when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton would play the lead role in his version of Batman, the technically savvy have spent endless amounts of time in stern speculation over movies in production and decisions (both artistic and practical) by filmmakers helming their works in progress. It’s the foundation for immensely popular websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Coming Attractions. Indeed, the fanboy and the obsessive have long known the inherent value of futile flame wars over casting, concept, and characterization. While it may not change the actual movie being made, it sure helps keep the profile high and mighty. Perhaps the best example of such a strategy remains the infamous Blair Witch Project. For almost the entire year prior to its Summer 1999 release, this minor mock documentary became the most celebrated unseen horror film of the decade. 


It all began with some secretly distributed videotapes. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wanted a little publicity for their $22,000 experiment, and knew that the growing influence of the Internet could help. As a highly believable webpage was being built centering around the movie’s mythos, the guys sent out copies to various sites. One influential individual who received a copy was AICN honcho Harry Knowles. For all his obvious self promotion, this life long film dork adored the film. In fact, it was he who started much of the “is it real, or is it fake” conjecture. His reaction was so visceral, so perfectly aligned with the response Myrick and Sanchez were looking for, that they built their entire campaign around it. It was a strategy they took to Sundance and Cannes.


Thanks to the website, and similar praise from other sources, The Blair Witch Project soon became the talk of the techs. Most of the conversation centered on the “missing” kids who supposedly starred in the film (the actors were asked to keep a very low profile until the movie was released) and how, though many claimed there was no such thing, the town of Burkittsville was indeed home to a vengeful demonic spirit. There was even an uproar over accusations of copycatting and outright plagiarism. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler were livid when they learned of the Blair Witch plot and format. It seemed sneakily similar to their effort The Last Broadcast, centering on a group of public access show producers who enter the New Jersey Pine Barrens – and never return.


Naturally, all the buildup, all the exposure both good and bad, all the preview screenings (and eventual leaked reviews) and SciFi Channel specials (one supposedly offering the true story of the child killer at the center of Witch’s narrative) lead to unbelievably high audience recognition, and when it finally found its way into theaters at the end of July 1999, it was a monster hit. Everyone, from the most avid horror fan to the mere curious onlooker, just had to see what this mysterious movie was all about. Hailed as some manner of masterwork, The Blair Witch Project has since become a unique, if nominal, genre fluke. It’s a hard film to watch in light of all that we now know about the production, and it no longer carries the ethereal impact it once had.


Yet studios saw how a carefully created package involving both online and standard tactics of marketing and awareness could generated immense interest (and larger than usual box office dollars). Warner Brothers jumped on board early, using the incredibly evocative tagline “What is the Matrix?” and a similarly named Internet address to begin the build-up for it’s proposed virtual reality thriller. The company followed suit by lobbing various rumors about the casting and storyline for their proposed late ‘90s Superman update (it backfired, more or less killing the project until Bryan Singer came along and jumpstarted it). Of course, the most recent example remains Snakes on a Plane. From the decision to dump the far more mundane Pacific Air 121 title, to the last minute reshoots that upped the film’s previously pegged PG-13 language and violence, New Line went all out catering to the WWW crowd. Some still believe it eventually cost the company (the film was only a moderate hit).


So whatever Cloverfield ends up being (our money is on a gimmicky, one note effort that will be low on spectacle and high on Witch like slacker confrontations), here’s hoping Abrams and Paramount play it smart. It is one thing to involve the rich vein of human curiosity that floods through the various dial-up, DSL, and cable connections across this country. When properly tapped into, said pipeline can produce dynamic dividends. But just like the flawed concepts of focus groups, and advanced screenings geared toward constantly remaking a movie to fit an elusive utilitarian entertainment ideal (the greatest good for the greatest number), you can pay too much attention to the untrained audience and end up killing whatever made your movie distinctive in the first place. The teaser certainly succeeded in its named capacity. It has us interested. It will be five more months before we know if there’s more to this story than hope – and hype.


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Thursday, Jul 5, 2007


It’s overwhelmingly oppressive, and there’s no relief in sight. No, we’re not talking about the blistering July heat. We’re discussing the absolute dearth of entertainment options available for the interested audience member. Tinsel Town has a few more juicy bon mots waiting in the wings – including a beloved wizard whose fifth film opens one week from today (13 July) – and the basic broadcast networks are regurgitating old reality show faves (Big Brother) to spark excitement. But unless you missed most of last year’s popcorn movie season, the selections provided by the premium pay channels will feel like a severe case of redux déjà vu. Indeed, Saturday night will feel like August 2006 all over again what with the choices offered. Still, there’s some value here, especially the somewhat forced funny business of the SE&L selection. Indeed, you could do a lot worse for your 7 July jollies:


Premiere Pick
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby


There was a time there when supposed funnyman Will Ferrell was in danger of dropping far down the list of Hollywood humorists. After a very shaky start in cinema (A Night at the Roxbury, anyone?), the trifecta of Old School/Elf/Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy substantially shifted his big screen fortunes. But then bad script choices (Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched) threatened to unseat him once again. Turning to Burgundy’s creative team of Adam McKay (writer/director) and Judd Apatow (producer), he twisted the current fixations of NASCAR nation into a sly take on racing and the sport’s beer belly bravado. The result was a solid summer 2006 hit, a box office bonanza additionally aided by the appearance - and supporting performance - of soon to be Borat phenom Sacha Baron Cohen. Sure, some of the jokes are dumb and/or dopey, but the Method madness to the creation of this fictional hero is so detailed that you sometimes forget you are watching fiction – or Will Ferrell. (07 July, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Devil Wears Prada


Every season, a movie sneaks under the pre-hype radar and illustrates the truth about what audiences really want. In this case, they apparently required a witty, acerbic take on haughty New York couture featuring a fresh faced newcomer and a grand dame diva of the acting trade. And that’s actually what this undeniably charming movie delivered, much to their delight. (07 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

Miami Vice


You’ve got to give Michael Mann points for trying. Who else would take the important iconic elements of their own mid ‘80s TV series – pastel colors, fashion plate cool - and strip them away for a big screen revamp? Granted, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx may be enough human eye candy for the neo-nostalgic audiences, but somehow, this is more South Florida Heat than an update of Crockett and Tubbs. (07 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


An American Haunting


It was advertised as the only true case of a ghost ever killing a man, and for a while, the trade paper ruse worked. Then viewers discovered that the storyline was set in the early 1800’s, and was based on that most unreliable of evidence – the anecdotal kind. And even then, the filmmakers still screwed it up. A powerhouse cast is wasted on a paltry PG-13 spook show. (07 July, ShowTOO, 9:50PM EST)

Indie Pick
Incident at Loch Ness


With his latest fiction film – Rescue Dawn – about to hit theaters, this oddball mock doc from 2004 gives fans and the unfamiliar a chance to see another, more satiric side of famed German auteur Werner Herzog. As a favor to neighbor Zak Penn (A-list Hollywood scribe and self promoter), the director lent his considerable cult of personality to a semi-success spoof about ego, excuses and exploration. Together, Penn and Herzog play themselves, and head out on an expedition to discover the secrets inside Scotland’s most famous lake. In between are staged conversations and conflict, lots of self deprecating humor, and an ending that doesn’t really satisfy. In fact, this is a frequently one note vanity project that trades on Herzog’s calculated cool to appear more substantive and sharp than it really is. Still, with his seductive German accent and well-earned gravitas, it’s always fun to see this Teutonic titan in action – even if the results are rather routine. (10 July, IFC, 2:25PM EST)

Additional Choices
Habit


Vampires don’t get a lot of cinematic respect. Whatever made solid stars of these bloodsucking members of the undead community has long since dissolved into pools of pointlessness and stereotypical slop. So it’s a relief to champion something different within the neckbiter genre, and this amiable indie effort from 1996 is just that. It’s disturbing, sexy, and most importantly, quite original. (08 July, IFC, 10:35PM EST)

Commune


When one thinks of the ‘60s, certain concepts instantly come to mind – The Beatles, free love, flower power, and the agricultural egalitarianism of the shared living community. In this fascinating documentary, writer/director Jonathan Berman explores the real life Black Bear Ranch, and how it was centered more on philosophy than fornication. Indeed, it remains a perfect depiction of the real counterculture.  (09 July, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

Fearless Freaks – The Flaming Lips


They’ve been around since 1983, and yet like their brothers in sonic arms, Guided by Voices, The Flaming Lips continuously fall outside the mainstream music scene. Hoping to increase their popular profile, filmmaker Bradley Beesley went about creating a documentary focusing on founder Wayne Coyne, and the dichotomy between his rock and roll and real life personas. It makes for fascinating viewing. (11 July, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
Barton Fink


The Coen Brothers stunned audiences at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival with this brilliant deconstruction of Hollywood hack commercialism and writer’s block. They won the Golden Palm (the highest honor) while Joel earned the best director nod. Even star John Turturro picked up praise – and an award – for his brilliant turn as the title character. Playing a self-important New York playwright whisked off to Tinsel Town to act as patsy to the standard studio merchandising machine (his charge – write wrestling pictures), Fink finds himself locked up in a decrepit hotel, visited frequently by his loud, lumbering next door neighbor (an equally genius turn by co-star John Goodman). When the inability to create becomes too overbearing, he tries to tap fellow scribe W. P. Mayhew for help. He soon learns that a life in service of schlock can kill you – literally. Among their many masterworks, this is one of the siblings most symbolic – and satisfying. (11 July, Indieplex, 7PM EST)

Additional Choices
Curse of the Demon


Symbolism is everything in horror. Give the audience good ghouls and you’ll win them over (almost) every time. Night of the Demon (the original title before a Tinsel Town reedit) offers a floating devil head that is still creepy fifty years later. The rest of the movie is fairly ordinary, but that disembodied fiend will haunt your nightmares for years to come. (6 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter’s Cover


How desperate is the slasher film, and those who make them, to rely on a zombie pirate to provide their slice and dice delights? And how derivative is an undead buccaneer, considering the entire plot of the initial Curse of the Black Pearl installment of Disney’s blockbuster franchise? Who knows, and with something this potentially cheesy, who cares? Here’s hoping it’s so bad, it’s good, instead of just plain awful. (08 July, Sci Fi Channel, 3AM EST)

American Gothic


This long forgotten cult creepfest deserves to be rediscovered. It has Oscar winner Rod Steiger and former Munster Yvonne DeCarlo chewing up the scenery as a sinister couple, and an unsettling premise about a backwards/woods family who don’t take kindly to strangers. So naturally, a group of misguided travelers land on their doorstep. Eep! (11 July, Drive-In Classics Canada, 7:15PM EST)

 


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