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

 
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Thursday, Sep 27, 2007


The current War on Terror offers some tenuous propositions at best, perhaps the most confusing being the President’s preemptive belief that we are “fighting them there to avoid fighting them here”. While such a stance is all well and good – and guaranteed to please the sanctimonious and security minded – it fails to fully address the notion of safety for our citizenry abroad. While Baghdad has become the main battlefield, radicals are still blowing up hotels, destroying bars and discotheques, and occasionally combating Uncle Sam on his own military turf. The 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut and the 1998 US Embassy disaster in Africa proves that, while 9/11 remains a monumental tragedy in the history of our nation, fanatical fundamentalists will continue to strike at those who their twisted dogma determines deserve it.


And when they do, here’s hoping that the maverick FBI team at the center of Peter Berg’s controversial action thriller The Kingdom are called to duty. In a world no longer clearly drawn along good guy/bad guy lines, this sensational adrenaline pumper plays by some mighty black and white rules. When an American oil facility in Saudi Arabia becomes the scene of a devastating terrorist attack, our nation’s number one law enforcement agency wants to investigate. Unfortunately, the secretive Arab country has a closed door policy when it comes to outsiders participating in crime scene scrutiny.


This doesn’t stop Special Agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) from gathering a team consisting of specialists Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). With a little blackmail persuasion to the Saudi embassy, the FBI is allowed in. They are given five days, and the help of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom), to observe and then leave. Naturally, the Americans’ presence, along with the evidence they uncover, puts their own lives in mortal danger. And as foreigners on unfriendly soil, there is no guarantee of protection.


Brazen in its “all Muslims are evil” philosophy and unrepentant in showing the carnage that results from such a simplified stance, The Kingdom is like a James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration where neither party is participating. It’s manipulative, manic, and just a tad manufactured. It raises more issues than it ever wants to address, and boils all Middle Eastern culture down to a series of backwards belief systems. Granted, as in all stereotyping, there are snippets of truth here and there, and when dealing with a crime that is merely mimicking actual events that have played out before, truth is a defense to such defamatory stances. But what’s most fascinating about The Kingdom is how readily we buy into the jingoism, and how satisfying it is to see our brave men and women kick some true believer butt.


One does have to get over the hurdle of the opening atrocities, however. Without giving too much away, this pre-planned attack will shoot at single mothers, run over children, blow-up ball players and, eventually, elevate all three to something almost impossible to comprehend. The scale of this event is massive, and its impact on an audience used to only seeing the aftermath, not the actual incidents, is truly disturbing. Add to this the ineffectual CSI skills of the Saudi police (their main detecting device – beating confessions out of possible co-conspirators) and the basic mentality that what happens in the Arab world stays within the tightly wound region, and you’ve got a perfect storm of storytelling subterfuge. Indeed, everything in Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script is set up to draw a straight line between patriotism and payoff.


Viewed as liberators – at least when it comes to the facts – Jamie Foxx and his group of high profile performers are actually quite believable as crime scene experts. Each gets their own important moment of detecting denouement, with the Oscar winner for Ray running ramshackle over the double talk speaking Arabs. It’s one of Foxx’s best performances, since it’s grounded in a reality that keeps him from being a total swaggering ass. Equally good are Jennifer Garner as a kind of forensics pathologist (she scans corpses for clues) and Chris Cooper, who’s the grizzled yet game old timer who really knows his way around a bomb crater. In combination with Bateman, whose nothing more than a computer nerd novice and a potential last act plot device, we have a no nonsense bunch who’ll get to the bottom of this case. And since the narrative is structured in such a way as to demand retribution, we can’t wait for these champions to divide and conquer.


And they do so in spectacular fashion. Over the course of his career behind the camera, actor Berg has become an accomplished filmmaker. Previous efforts like The Rundown and Friday Night Lights won’t quite prepare you for the motion picture professionalism he shows here. There are several spectacular stunt sequences that rate right up there with the best the genre has to offer, and his ability to mix in shards of humanity speaks to his growing artist acumen. Splitting location work between the United Arab Emirates and Arizona, Berg gets the stifling, hot desert atmosphere down perfectly, and when our leads have to kick it into Rambo mode, the firefights and fisticuffs are just outstanding. Indeed, the ample action and unswerving dedication to ‘Islam as iniquity’ plays right into a mindset fed up with ineffectual polices and gross government negligence.


It will be curious to see if any firestorm actually occurs – though it’s clear that the lack of subtlety probably demands one. After all, if Aladdin can get dragged through the pro-PC fire for its depiction of Arabs, what will a movie that makes all Saudis (except one) suspicious actually earn? Some will argue that entertainment is not reality, and that all villains are exaggerated for the sake of cinematic drama. But there is no buffer here, not even with Barhom’s Col. Al-Ghazi as a like minded Muslim. We are supposed to see his hardworking dedication and determination, and excuse all the extremism. Just as one terrorist fails to speak for an entire populace, the well-meaning and noble cop is in no way indicative of The Kingdom’s kind. Instead, it’s all flared nostrils and anti-American polemics in caustic, copious amounts.


Yet The Kingdom is such a strong entertainment, such a substantial us vs. them example of wish fulfillment that it’s easy to ignore the many mixed messages. Basically, the film is a brutal Wild West shoot ‘em up ported over to the Middle East and given a glossy, post-9/11 reading. It will invigorate the most dormant sense of citizenship, and have you cheering in places that should give you pause. Even the ending stacks the deck in favor of the fallen. It involves a single whispered sentiment, and how its meaning can be manipulated depending on the nature of the individual offering it. After all the cheering and jeering within the audience, it’s a weird way of providing closure. Clearly Berg and Carnahan think it’s clever. They may be the only ones to understand its true meaning. Viewers may misinterpret it as a call to arms.


All of this makes The Kingdom a very curious film. It is beyond thrilling at times and accurately chilling on more than one occasion. It draws on individual instincts so primal and enigmatic that it’s almost automatic in its joy circuits, and offers fictional justice in a circumstance that demands factual fairness for all. There is no excusing the abominations visited on the peaceful peoples of the world by religious-based vigilantes, especially when their target is so random and their rationale so suspect. But The Kingdom wants to correct that corollary by making everyone evil – except the USA, that is. While it’s great for morale, it seems slightly old fashioned for a movie. It’s not the only out of date premise here, which bodes well for your overall enjoyment, if not your overall understanding.



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Wednesday, Sep 26, 2007

Since the overwhelming success of Jaws (Steven Spielberg) back in 1975, the summer has become a dramatic battleground where Hollywood studios briskly compete for the audience’s attention and hard earned dollars. During this season, we are bombarded every week with at least one movie that promises unsettling action, unearthly landscapes, and emotional bliss. Faithfully accompanying these flicks to the combat zone are their music scores, eager to reinforce on the perception of the viewer the magical worlds promised by the tag lines. Thus, this time of the year is also the best moment for soundtrack lovers to look for majestic, brooding, or melancholic music. Fortunately, three of the films released during the month of July feature alluring compositions and performances.


Music from the Motion Picture The Bourne Ultimatum [rating: 9]


The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass), which follows The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004), is the latest entry in the successful trilogy of gloomy spy flicks based on the clever books written by the late Robert Ludlum (1927-2001). While there is no contest that Jason Bourne is not as popular as James Bond, it is undisputable that the Bourne films played an influential role in the gestation of the latest Bond adventure, Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), which is by far the grittiest and most violent of the series. Arguably, a substantial contribution to the success of the Bourne movies has been their dynamic scores composed by John Powell. Perhaps the most inspired action film music in years, the soundtracks for these three films are structurally similar on their aggressive use of percussions to underscore the brutal action and brooding suspense.
Released by Decca, the soundtrack for The Bourne Ultimatum presents a generous amount of music in an extraordinarily crisp recording. Composed for full orchestra and electronics, the music places a strong emphasis on the percussions and the low strings, creating a dark acoustic atmosphere. As with the previous films of the franchise, The Bourne Ultimatum is underscored with music that perfectly highlights its unbearable tension, exotic locales, and relentless pace. In addition, The Bourne Ultimatum often reprises the two main motifs from the previous scores, which are the driving force behind the lengthy tracks “Tangiers” and “Waterloo”. Underscoring the two main action sequences of the flick, these tracks are relentless in their use of percussions and rhythm to accelerate the frenetic tempo of the images they accompany. On the other hand, “Thinking of Marie” is a meditative and melodic composition, which serves as a neat balance to the aggressiveness found in the rest of the score. In this regard, this soundtrack is an authentic acoustic tour-de-force that perfectly demonstrates why the music for the Bourne movies has become a staple of modern action film scoring. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]
Another continuing series of popular movies are those in the Harry Potter franchise. But contrary to the consistent musical structure of the Bourne films, the Harry Potter series have featured three different composers over the course of five flicks. Indeed, the legendary John Williams provided serviceable scores for The Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001), The Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002), and The Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004), while Patrick Doyle composed surprisingly effective music with overwhelming dark overtones for The Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005). Now, for The Order of the Phoenix (David Yates), the musical wand was in the firm hand of composer Nicholas Hooper. Arguably, Hooper’s greatest challenge in the scoring of this film was to follow the giant footsteps left by two of the most distinguished composers in the business. While the resulting score is not a breakthrough of musical underscoring, Hooper succeeded in creating an elegant and charming score.
For The Order of the Phoenix, Hooper composed a score for large orchestra and choir in traditional symphonic fashion. As such, Hooper appears to showcase a solid understanding of classical music structure, composition, and orchestration. For this score, Hooper cleverly balances all the sections of the orchestra to enhance the magical content of the moving image. Some of the highlights presented in the soundtrack CD include “Possession” and “Death of Sirius”, two dark passages which feature harps, high strings, and whispering voices. Equally satisfying is the reprising of the Hedwig’s theme, which was originally composed by Williams, and now can be found in “Another Story”, “Hall of Prophecy”, “The Room of Requirement”, and “A Journey to Hogwarts”. But nevertheless, the compositions feel fresh and avoid a simple re-hashing of the original. Overall, The Order of the Phoenix feels as one of those instances where the score proves to be far superior to the film itself. No Reservations Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]
While The Bourne Ultimatum and The Order of the Phoenix belong to well known franchises, No Reservations (Scott Hicks) is one of those summer flicks which are rare to see these days: it is not a sequel, nor a remake. A romantic comedy that takes place in a high brow restaurant, No Reservations mostly relies on opera arias than on an original score. For instance, the soundtrack CD includes “Celeste Aida” and “Nessun Dorma” performed by the late Luciano Pavarotti, and “La Donna e Mobile” interpreted by Joseph Calleja. As such, only a fool would dare to criticize the composition and performance of these pieces. In this regard, perhaps the only wise comment is that the music fits nicely the kitchen locale of the movie.
The CD also includes a couple of popular songs, such as the unforgettable “Sway” by Michael Buble and “Mambo Gelato” by Ray Gelato. The rather brief original music found on this soundtrack was composed by the celebrated Phillip Glass using his characteristic minimalist style. However, the only two tracks with Glass’ music are “Zoe & Kate Watch Video” and “Zoe Goes to the Restaurant”, which are very brief and quite likely to disappoint the artist’s fans. A mixed bag of goodies, the soundtrack for No Reservations ultimately provides an overall unsatisfying listening experience.

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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007


While we like to consider ourselves clued in, culturally speaking, it is fairly obvious that most of us spend our lives in sheltered consideration of the unique “underworlds” around us. For example, before comics became an edifying talking point, few people recognized the growing ‘funny book’ constituency. Competitive high school speech and debate has grown from insignificant extracurricular activity to one of the top three considerations used by colleges to determine admissions. From ESPN’s coverage of the National Spelling Bee to schools for teaching Klingon, there is an entire subterranean subculture out there, divided along particular parameters and existing within its own set of strictures and guidelines. All a documentarian has to do is break down the barriers. If he or she is lucky, they can then tap directly into the friendly fringe zeitgeist.


This is exactly what happened to Seth Gordon. When he discovered that old school arcade games – read: the pre-console titles that swept the adolescent demo back in the early ‘80s – had their own regulatory commission in charge of awarding high scores and certifying player status, he was immediately intrigued. When he stumbled across the story of Steve Wiebe (pronounced Wee-bee), an ex-Boeing employee turned school teacher who was battling to secure his status as reigning Donkey Kong champion, he found the catalyst to dig deeper into the dynamic. The result is the marvelous, masterful King of Kong, a film that illustrates one of the universal maximums inherent in competition: for every winner there is a disgruntled loser, and even the friendliest levels of rivalry will be tainted by issues of cheating, cronyism, and unbridled ego.


For those of us long out of the fun zone loop, Gordon sets up the situation. Back in the earliest phase of the Me Decade, just as games like Pac Man and Asteroids were capturing the public consciousness, Life Magazine gathered together a collection of the reigning title champions for a photo op. Among them was Billy Mitchell, a long haired hero with an amazingly high score on Donkey Kong. For decades, the record stood, becoming a bragging right for its holder and, in some ways, a significant section of his overall personal make-up. When we meet Billy in his post-millennial phase, he’s a maxim spouting restaurateur pushing his own brand of hot sauce via a slick, self-styled self-promotion philosophy. He’s an energetic example of a go-getter made good, a man who never backs down from a challenge, be it in life, or on a classic joystick machine.


That is, until Steve Wiebe comes along. Your typical hard luck story, this flummoxed family man is watching his entire life slowly slip away. Jobless, and purposeless, he decides to tackle the Donkey Kong record as a means of outside the box therapy. Perhaps, if he can beat the high score, he can reclaim a direction in life. Before long, Wiebe achieves his aims, and submits the results to the Twin Galaxies organization, an entity started decades before to authenticate video game achievement. Thus begins the battle, as the validity of the score is challenged, and Wiebe learns of the backstabbing, rules violating infighting among the various Galaxy members. Even his own association with a disgruntled nemesis of the organization throws the entire process into question. Before long, Mitchell is made to put up or shut up. His response is remarkable, to say the least.


Whether via luck, fate, or the innate ability to unearth the natural narrative in a situation, Gordon stepped into one of the most hilarious, haunting human dramas to ever be associated with an arcade game. The King of Kong does a sly job of establishing its heroes and villains, painting both Mitchell and Wiebe as admirable and, in some ways, painfully pathetic. We admire and despise them throughout the course of events, wondering how either adult can place so much importance on what is, in essence, a hollow achievement. The obsessive playing of these machines, with their repetitive actions and rote memorization, is not a question of talent as much as will. Both of our main ‘characters’ complain of a lack of respect, but the proof is in the activity, not the public’s perspective. 


Luckily, the ins and outs of Donkey Kong are breezed over to get to the real meat of this story. When Wiebe destroys Mitchell’s record outright, leaving no doubt as to who now warrants respect, the many individuals surrounding Twin Galaxies and their overall lack of transparency and established ethics is just mind blowing. About the only people who come out unscathed are Walter Day, Galaxies’ New Age leader who tries his best to maintain order inside what is, basically, the chaos of individual hubris, and his “record authenticator” Robert Mruczek, who speaks of inscrutable principles and a life spent sitting in front of his TV, screening VHS tapes to verify scores. Everyone else has an obvious agenda, a reason for wanting to keep what they have while striving to be considered fair and friendly. Yet no matter how hard they try to seem just and reasonable, we see through the facade.


Naturally, all this interpersonal angst builds to one of those classic showdowns where, in front of a filmmaker’s camera and away from all the backstage wheeling and dealing, a true determination can be made. In The King of Kong, it happens twice, and the results both times are astonishing. Avoiding spoilers, Wiebe is made to prove his mantle in person. What happens illustrates his desire to reclaim his reputation, as well as other player’s manipulation of the system. When Guinness gets involved, agreeing to use Twin Galaxies’ scores as the benchmark for their book of records, the stakes are raised significantly. And as usual, it brings out the best, and the absolute worst, in human nature - and the accompanying corruptible characteristics.


One of the most astounding aspects of The King of Kong is not the outcome, but the access. There are times when Gordon captures a situation and it is so startling in its naked criticism that you wonder how the participant involved allowed its inclusion. Mitchell gets many of these eye opening moments, and one can’t help but think he was aware of how his reactions would make him appear. It’s either a case of self-assured superiority, or blinkered brazenness. Wiebe walks a fine line as well, especially when his long suffering wife expresses her clueless connection to everything going on in sobbing disbelief. While some of the outside machinations are indeed bizarre (Galaxies’ “officials” arrive, uninvited, at Wiebe’s home and harass his family) and indicative of the perceived stakes of these fanatics, it’s the individual dynamic that speaks the loudest in this stellar documentary.


Which brings us back to the topic of subject matter. The King of Kong is proof that you don’t need Earth shattering events of cosmic import to create a compelling film. Instead, as Gordon proves time and time again, playing bystander to individual’s everyday lives can offer an entire oeuvre’s worth of possibilities. There are dozens of untold stories in this surprisingly effective film, threads that could easily be developed into their own astounding statements (Day’s desire to be a musician, Mitchell’s amazingly devoted parents). But thanks to the perfect blend given the storyline, the careful incorporation of just enough to win us over, The King of Kong doesn’t feel fractured. Instead, it’s flawless. It’s not just proof that fact is more compelling than fiction – it’s an acknowledgement that, buried beneath the standard social fabric is a wealth of untapped material just waiting to be discovered. Audiences will be glad that this director went digging.



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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007


When lists are made of the important post-modern movies, Jaws usually gets its due. It’s heralded for its breakout blockbuster novelty, and illustrative of the Tinsel Town transformation from art into artifice. Fans point to its endearing entertainment value and scholars compliment its wise decision to marginalize the monster – in this case, a wonky and unwieldy mechanical shark – for the sake of some solid suspense. But beyond the commercial and the critical, few have noted its cultural significance. While Star Wars and Halloween get all the obsessive, geek glory, Stephen Spielberg’s expert exercise in flawless filmmaking is the popular kid who can’t catch a break when it comes to lasting social and industry significance – until now.


The Shark is Still Working says it all. It’s a double edged announcement, a title reference back to a seminal statement made during Jaws’ tenuous production. It’s also the name of Erik Hollander’s near definitive documentary on the film. A masterful companion piece to the various supplements surrounding the perfect popcorn hit, it’s the smart and insightful sugar coating on three decades of fascinating fish stories. Unlike DVD extras which give us details into every aspect of the production, or a generalized historical overview, what this filmmaker wants to accomplish is something far more esoteric. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of Jaws creation, Hollander hopes to reveal how a simple silver screen adaptation of a bestselling novel became a lynchpin for a greater artistic appreciation.


Now actively seeking a distribution deal, the story behind The Shark is Still Working is divided into two halves – The Impact and The Legacy. Each section states its purpose with amiability and authority, using interviews with all living participants (including Spielberg and his quintessential cast) and testimonials from talent (Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer, Eli Roth) who view Jaws as instrumental in inspiring their passion for film. Interspersed amongst all the accolades and explanations, we meet the devoted, the long time lovers of the movie and its many merchandised variants. Using a first ever Jaws Fest Convention on Martha’s Vineyard as a central staging conceit, Hollander walks us through the initial discussions, the day to day travails, and the lasting import of what many originally feared would be a well meaning fiasco.


The first thing The Shark is Still Working reminds us of is Stephen Spielberg’s then novice status. Throughout the introductory material, meant to give context for those not born during the director’s neophyte reputation, we witness how chutzpah, matched with blind studio faith, fostered a motion picture masterpiece. The iconic filmmaker speaks frankly about his fears and his production nightmares, stating in open terms how the lessons he learned while making Jaws influence him to this day, and occasionally find him waking in a nightmarish cold sweat. Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider second the apprehension, wondering aloud how a ‘kid’ in his mid ‘20s with limited feature film experience could conceivable make a movie filmed in and around the open ocean. It’s the preparation for a series of war stories, but oddly enough, Hollander barely skirts the history.


Instead, he gives us the basics – the shark worked/didn’t work, a three month shoot gets extended to seven, Spielberg escapes to LA while second unit work finishes the film – and then it’s off to the rhetorical races. We learn how the mechanical monster and its notoriously inconsistent functionality were visualized, how Robert Shaw used his own inherent writing skills to polish the famed “Indianapolis” speech, and how a fake head and the editor’s own pool became a celebrated shock moment onscreen. Beyond the hourly battles against tide, weather, exhaustion, incompetence, and filmic fate, Hollander also explores the industry impact. No one thought the film would eventually redefine the business model, though initial test screenings suggested a modest return. Watching the project move from disaster in the making to cultural benchmark is part of The Shark is Still Working’s archeological fun.


Those of us lucky enough to be teenagers when the movie hit screens in 1975 can attest to this section of the film. From the Time Magazine cover story and numerous tie-in publications, to the numerous lampoon references, to the main movie poster, with its oversized beast about to devour an oblivious, skinny dipping female, Jaws went from book to social staple so quickly that to call it a phenomenon would be a massive understatement. Before his pal George Lucas came along to cement the status of big screen spectacle as the next wave in the artform’s advancement, this funky fish story was a clamorous cause celeb. Via montages and displays, anecdote, and actual news reports, Hollander highlights the initial impact, arguing that a kind of symbolic synchronicity between audience and artist was occurring.


As if to emphasize this bond, Carl Gottlieb’s tell all onset diary The Jaws Log is discussed at length. Considered by present filmmakers like Singer and Smith as a kind of movie insider’s Bible, we see how a quick tie-in tome suddenly stands as a constructive confessional for anyone interested in discovering just how difficult it can be to helm a Hollywood production. We are then introduced to other industry insiders like Greg Nicotero (F/X god) and John Williams (soundtrack composer extraordinaire) and listen as they list the ways – both directly and indirectly – that this movie made their careers. To see such influence being acknowledged and defended is heartwarming, especially after all the hand wringing and kvetching over the lack of logistical prowess. But then The Shark is Still Working takes it all a step further. And it’s at this point where Hollander’s point goes from salient to insurmountable. 


At Jaws Fest 2005, thousands of fans descend on the Martha’s Vineyard locations, each one bearing the amiable alms of a lifetime devoted to the film. Many sport tattoos and other celebratory body art, while a few have taken their fascination to the borders of fanaticism. We meet a man who makes a hobby out of imitating Robert Shaw’s salty sea captain character Quint, and witness as he lives out a life long dream – recreating the now infamous “chalkboard” scene from the film on the actual movie backdrop. It’s a sequence that comes dangerously close to idol insanity. Equally intriguing are the collectors, the people who’ve made it their goal to gather as much of the Jaws memorabilia available as possible. For some, a plastic cup or knock off t-shirt is not enough. For these dedicated individuals, years creating their own detailed models or lavish oil canvases remains the only way they can fully connect to Spielberg’s creation.


As sequels are discussed (and dismissed) and child actors chuckle about their place in history (there’s a monumental convention moment when the various Brody progeny from the films are reunited), the sphere of influence exacted by this film is finally understood. While it may not have a regressive recreationist society surrounding its narrative, people dressing up like Hooper and Chief Brody and reenacting their classic confrontations like a certain set of Jedi wannabes, Jaws is still cinematically significant. It stands as an important moment in motion picture history, the time when directors were finally acknowledged as the true guiding spirits of aesthetic truth. It may have been a bumpy road getting their, but as long as Spielberg was functioning, a cranky fake shark was not a big concern. The fact that, three decades later, it manages to still “work” magnificently is all that matters. 



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Monday, Sep 24, 2007


Suddenly, it’s a full blown fright night at your local B&M. Now, you’d think that manufacturers and distributors would wait until the actual arrival of October before larding the shelves with as much scary movie product as possible. But just like various department and discount stores who drag out their seasonal promotions months before the actual holiday arrives (Wal-Mart’s even doing Christmas right now, if you can believe it), the DVD companies are already crying “werewolf”. This week alone, there are literally hundreds of horror hopefuls - new direct to disc offerings battling just now making it to the medium ‘classics’ for your hard earned supernatural scratch. Certainly there are some non-genre titles peeking through the fog of fear, but with only 35 days until the ghosts and ghouls rule the roost, there’s no time like the present to pick up a few dread based delights, including SE&L’s special pick for 25 September:


A Half Dozen from Dario


While the lack of more obscure Argento titles on DVD is disheartening (Four Flies on Gray Velvet remains MIA some three decades after its blink and you missed it US release), Blue Underground is maintaining the macabre maestros digital presence by rereleasing several of his more seminal works. They include a brand new version of The Stendhal Syndrome, a revamped Cat O’Nine Tails, a revisit of Opera and another version of the Italian terror titan’s masterwork, Suspiria. When you add in the producer-only efforts Demons and Demons 2, you’ve got an excellent start to your Argento collection. Far more important to the genre of foreign horror than many will give him credit for, his recent efforts (The Card Player, Do You Like Hitchcock? ) have been pretty hit or miss. But with the Toronto Film Festival still buzzing over his latest installment in the Three Mother’s Trilogy (entitled The Mother of Tears), it’s time for a recognized renaissance. And we can thank the Big Blue U for getting the accolades rolling.

Other Titles of Interest


Black Book


Paul Verhoven returns to his Dutch roots to tell the story of a female singer during World War II who is forced into sexual servitude to survive. A Jew, young Rachel agrees to seduce a Gestapo agent in order to save a resistance leader’s son. Naturally, possible betrayal is around every corner. Praised for its personal take on the European occupation by the Nazis, it proved that there was still some art left in this director’s arch approach.

Bug


For a long time, William Friedkin was considered a has-been. With his rich cinematic history well behind him - including the French Connection and The Exorcist – and two decades of underperforming efforts (Jade, Rules of Engagement) ruining his reputation, critics didn’t expect much from this adaptation of Tracy Letts powerful play. Oddly enough, Friedkin defied the odds and elevated the material to a whole new level. It’s a terrifying, telling experience.

Eat My Dust


The history behind this inventive car chase cock-up is just as entertaining as the film itself. When Ron Howard was looking to leave behind his child star status and take up residence behind the camera, producer ‘ordinaire’ Roger Corman cut him a deal. Appear in this Charles Griffith action effort, and he could direct the follow-up. The future Oscar winner jumped at the opportunity.  The resulting pair of vehicular mayhem masterworks helped define the ‘70s for New World Pictures.


Knocked Up


It’s one of the few classic comedies to come out of the otherwise atrocious post-millennial movie dynamic. Judd Apatow, using all the clout gained from producing hits like Talladega Nights and creating a phenomenon like The 40 Year Old Virgin to orchestrate this brilliant deconstruction of human biology. As daring as it is demented, with the profound frequently clashing with the profane, it marks the point when onscreen humor went from horridly ironic back to just plain hilarious.

Next


Nicholas Cage steps back into sloppy sci-fi mode with this tale of a talentless magician who can see two minutes into the future. Naturally, the government wants to corral him to help with an impending terrorist attack. Of course, conspiracy theories and various cabals abound, and our hapless hero must navigate a series of double crosses and interpersonal pitfalls to save the day…sort of. Another reason why Philip K. Dick still can’t rest in peace.


And Now for Something Completely Different
A Triptych of Elvira Entertainment


Everyone’s favorite chesty horror host is back with another six films (two per DVD) from her Movie Macabre vaults. This time around, we get Maneater of Hydra paired with The House that Screamed, Blue Sunshine and Monstroid, and everyone’s favorite oversized turtle, Gamera with They Came from Beyond Space. Of course, the real selling point here is not the nauseating transfers of prevalent grad-Z schlock. No, it’s star Cassandra Peterson and her undeniably provocative bustline, a visual saving grace for the show’s otherwise cornball comedy. While many will argue over the sanctity of cinema, believing that all movies, no matter how bad, deserve respect instead of ridicule, there’s no denying the innate pleasures of seeing motion picture mung torn apart for the sake of some silliness. While Mystery Science Theater 3000 elevated it to an artform, Elvira laid the goofing groundwork. With these newest offerings, here’s hoping the new reality TV series based on finding an up to date replacement for the aging Goth icon does her legitimate legacy right.

 


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