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by Bill Gibron

3 Dec 2007


For the most part, exploitation films of the ‘50s-‘70s sold their wanton wares with the usual raincoat crowd components: skin and sin. Your typical overworked white male, bloated from a capitalist combination of liquor, beef, and shame, didn’t require subtlety or cinematic shadings in his erotic entertainment. He wanted bare bodkin and plenty of it.

Violence was also a viable way of getting the grindhouse gang in the mood, since beating a broad for no damn good reason apparently aided the sexual inadequate suburbanite in dealing with his depressed, defensive deviance. Yet, believe it or not, music was also used as a way to spike the common corporeal cavalcade. As part of the genre’s cracked kitchen sink approach, anything was fair game: even the occasionally off-key pop song.

Sometimes, the inclusion of a tainted tune was done as a favor to a friend. Musicians — or their mafia-backed managers — usually had some investable money lying around, and for a little quid pro quo, a play-for-pay scenario was neatly arranged. In other instances, the music was treated as added production value. Many exploitation films could not manage true mainstream talent (no known celebrity was going to go gratuitous for the sake of a slim payday), so bolstering the soundtrack seemed like an ingenious way to make the movie more conventional than its otherwise carnal attributes would indicate. And then there were those nutty outsider auteurs who believed that any narrative facet they fancied — including a totally inappropriate musical number — was par for the perplexing course.

As a result, a great many of the classics in the exploitation genre contain misguided musical numbers; songs guaranteed to get both your toes tapping and your gag reflex responding with equal aplomb. Since there are so many examples to choose from, SE&L will concentrate on the crème de la crap, the evil earworms that, once heard, are destined to dull your brain forever. In reverse order, we begin with:

#10: “Do the Jellyfish” from Sting of Death (1965)
How do you perk up your lackadaisical monster movie about a killer invertebrate? Why, call on a washed-up Neil Sedaka and enlist him in creating the latest dance craze. Director William Grefé was no dummy. He was well aware that the same drive-in demographic that would flock to his passion pit-proof production about murderous man-of-wars also loved that rebellious rock and/or roll, and he set about adding the necessary stomp to his otherwise worthless schlock. Unfortunately, Neil was yet to have “Love Will Keep Us Together” or “Bad Blood” in his sonic arsenal. Instead he dreamed up this obnoxious poolside production number that hoped to rival the ‘Monkey’. Sadly, it made ‘The Freddie’ seem graceful.

#9: “The Next Time” from Blast-Off Girls (1967)
Herschell Gordon Lewis suffered from a similar sense of salesmanship as his fellow filmmaker Grefé. While crafting this obvious rip-off to a certain Fab Four’s ‘difficult day’s evening’, someone should have told the exploitation emeritus that his featured act should actually be able to sing and play. The Faded Blue, a kind of New Christie Minstrels on cough syrup, appeared as the The Big Blast, and they tried to pass off the failed four-part harmony of this disturbing drone as a solid Summer of Love hit. It didn’t work. Not even a cameo from Colonel Harlan Sanders himself could sell this finger-licking flop.

#8: “Yipe Stripes!” from Teen-Age Strangler (1968)
A killer is stalking the adolescents from a local high school. So what do they all do to keep themselves safe? Why, they gather around the local soda shop and watch a barefooted bimbo (Stacey Smith) shout out a song about vertical (or horizontal) lines. Though the movie is far more memorable for a nutzoid nerd named Mikey who keeps whining incessantly over his brother’s felonious fate, this otherwise minor musical moment was a nice bit of additional aural apocalypse. After likening herself to The Beatles and Peter, Paul and Mary, our bee-hived babe climbed on the food counter and attempted to wail a wacky salute to style. All we got was a rockabilly retread that should have been defense enough to any killer’s homicidal urges.

#7: “It All Comes True” from Year of the Yahoo (1972)
It’s really tough to pick just one song from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Face in the Crowd rip-off, what with real life professional hick harmonizer Claude King supplying the plentiful in-concert cornpone. While his ode to “Wicked Welfare” was a hilarious hambone anthem, this epic bit of balladry as balderdash won out in the end. As he learned the truth about the political machine manipulation behind his ‘honest man’ Senatorial candidacy, King stepped up to the podium for one last impassioned plea to the electorate. Like “Cat’s in the Cradle” cooked in corn squeezings, this drippy ditty was the very definition of democracy in action. Our hero lost the vote, proving that the system does work.

#6: “The Female (is More Deadly Than the Male)” from Satan in High Heels (1962)
When a cut-rate carnival stripper steals her junkie husband’s financial stash and flakes off to New York, one envisions a typical, tragic hard luck story. But it’s the Big Apple that better get ready to run. Stacey Kane gave new meaning to the word ‘bitch’. She apparently studied at Beelzebub’s Studio for Method Meanness. After gaining employment as a nightclub singer, she proceeded to undermine the entire establishment. When she wasn’t bedding her boss, she was teasing his tripwire son (poor lesbian manager Pepé didn’t even get a second look). As if to accentuate her wickedness, Ms. Kane put on a schoolmarm’s version of dominatrix gear and belted out the aforementioned admonishment. The riding crop rim shots seal the sonic scourging.

#5 “My Birthday Suit” from Jennie: Wife/Child (1968)
Remember that obnoxious novelty song “Shaving Cream”, with its “almost said ‘shit’” conceit? Well, “My Birthday Suit” was a lot like that fecal fluke, except not quite as clever… nor as intelligent in its humor, either. Director James Landis had to find a way to jazz-up his otherwise ordinary Southern Gothic about a miserable old farmer, his far too young bride, and the brawny hired hand giving them both the big eye. His solution was simple: allow the audience to hear the internal monologue of the characters, and capture said thoughts in song! Thus we get this noxious nod to nudity. And what compelled our title character to sing this silly chantey? Why, she was skinny-dipping, of course.

#4: “Hot Nuts” from Too Hot to Handle (1950)
Granted, it wasn’t an outright original. It was as basic Burly-Q as they came. But that doesn’t mean the song is any less memorable. Since it was a full blown theatrical review captured by a single camera situated in the front row, Too Hot to Handle had to rely on it’s performers to provide the thrills. And aside from the plethora of pulchritude presented by the strip tease “artists” (ah, the good old days of aesthetically acceptable clothes removal) we got the fantastic Jean Carter, doing her best innuendo-filled funny business. Like a less rude Rusty Warren, Ms. Carter crooned a personal testament to the audience’s trouble with enflamed filberts… piqued pecans… charred cashews…burning balls, all right — and the results were resplendently risqué.

#3: “My Own Robot” from Swamp of the Ravens (1974)
Similar to how Grefé decided that his horror needed some hummable hokiness, Spanish moviemaker Manuel Caño realized that his zombie-filled necrophilia fest also required a little show tune support. The result was a subplot revolving around a Don Ho-like lounge singer, whose sole big hit was apparently a piece of pop poetry about worshipping a deceased automaton. And in case anyone thinks something was lost in the film’s eventual translation into English, the android was right on stage with him. It even sang a solo verse! So Caño clearly intended it to be some sort of mangled metaphor. He even insertsed an experimentation scene, complete with bloody beating heart, inside this otherwise cheery supper club sonnet about the dangers of loving technology a little too much.

#2: “You Can’t Fart Around with Love” from Roseland (1970)
One of the rare occasions where a song was seminal to the storyline, this ode to the odiferous nature of affection represented a pivotal plot point in Roseland. As our hero, a self absorbed singer with a one time promising career, sought LSD treatments for his poverty-row porn addiction, we flashback to the event that mangled his entire upward mobility. Appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show (quasi-convincingly realized in memory-enhancing monochrome), our crooner created quite a stir with his production number to poots. While the rest of the film was a flesh-filled freak-out with rampant religious overtones, this single song made this problematic parable a genuine grindhouse gem.

#1: “A Heart Dies Every Minute” from Doctor Gore (1973)
Nothing says rampant, bloody vivisection better than a bearded Roy Clark wannabe busting out a ballad belaboring the loss of a lover. Like Bigfoot with near perfect pitch, our meaty mountain of a musician, otherwise known as the beefy Bill Hicks, took us away from the sinister slaughter of the title character to remind us how affection is like a fatal itching in the blood pumper. Director J.G. Patterson, Jr., a one-time production assistant to Herschell Gordon Lewis, decided to make his own gore epic about a madman medico hoping to create the perfect woman. As he went about removing the necessary parts for his mistress mock-up, Hicks delivered a steakhouse performance worth witnessing over and over again. Even our title character agreed. It’s the music he listened to while preparing for a date… with the electric chair!

by Bill Gibron

2 Dec 2007


It’s time to call out the carnal color guard and get the bugler to blow a rather trashy and tawdry Taps. After nearly seven years celebrating the best of exploitation, Something Weird Video has parted ways with chief home theater distributor Image Entertainment. It was a split fans long felt was coming. Where once a regular schedule of releases would offer between 24 and 36 titles in a year, 2007 saw five. Even more telling, directors the Seattle based company used to champion - Joe Sarno, Doris Wishman - were suddenly finding new homes at places like Seduction Cinema. To drag out the “whore-y” old cliché, a change was definitely in the wind. To continue the truisms, it marks the end of an era.

Ever since its inception as a fan-oriented tape trading collective (back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s) SWV has marched to its own dare to be bare drummer. Head honcho Mike Vraney took his love of the actual grindhouse (not the reimagined version being propagated today) and channeled it into a solid cinematic cause. He wanted to rescue and preserve as many of these fascinating film artifacts as possible. In addition, he wanted the input from as many of the still living participants as possible. Making important connections with such powerful producers as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, Vraney saw his private collection swell from several dozen to several thousand.

Originally, SWV stayed within the VCR marketplace. Cassettes were cheap, and the low end technical specifications meant that many of the age and damage issues surrounding a title could be ignored. But when DVD became the rapidly evolving film fan format, the company faced a dilemma - remaster all their titles, or be selective in what they released. Working with new partner Image, Vraney decided that every Something Weird disc would fulfill two functions. First, it would offer the best possible print he could find (by this time, he had access to many original negatives), but more importantly, each release would act as volume in an overall exploitation encyclopedia. Commentaries from creators would be added, when possible. Sans said supplement, short films, archival publicity material, and other contextual elements would be provided.

The first few releases - the infamous Blood Trilogy from Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman’s work with the wonderful anatomical anomaly Chesty Morgan - would be considered bare bones by today’s SWV standards. Usually containing nothing more than a trailer or a discussion with the filmmakers, these first DVDs began an important process. Ever since hardcore pornography stole its audience, exploitation has been marginalized as moviemaking for the lecherous lowest common denominator. Rightfully described as a genre geared toward nudity, naughtiness, and the more notorious aspects of existence, said categorization allowed prudes and pundits to turn the trendsetters into nothing more than incredibly savvy smut peddlers. But the truth is far more revelatory.

What most movie historians fail to fully recognize is that exploitation gave the filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s a model for the post-modern movement. Where standards and practices kept certain “undesirable” facets off the silver screen, the truly independent producers and directors were pushing the very limits of acceptability. While the mainstream watched in amazement, the grindhouse took on censorship, community standards, the MPAA, the government, and the US Supreme Court. It was the exploitation kings who got nudity declared “not inherently obscene” and that challenged local organizations who tried to dictate what could and could not be shown. They paved the way for the frank, honest depiction of life - warts, wantonness, and all. And for their efforts, they got critically keelhauled, diminished as disgusting sleaze for the dirty minded.

No matter if the assessment was accurate or not, exploitation was more than simulated sex and overly aggressive violence - and Something Weird understood this. They fought to maintain the integrity of their product, even deciding to withdraw certain titles when Image suggested certain ones were “unfit” for general consumption. The company never once thought it was going to turn the forgotten legacy of the past into something celebrated in the present, but for the most part, they were convinced that preserving these early efforts provided insight and instruction to those born too late to experience the genre first run.

Over the course of its mainstream marketing - SWV now offers DVD-Rs of almost everything in their massive, multifaceted inventory - the company resurrected the careers of fallen idols Lewis, Wishman, Joe Sarno, Barry Mahon, Bethel Buckalew, and other unknown directors. It also reintroduced Friedman and Novak to contemporary audiences, explaining how important their efforts were in championing unusual and provocative productions. Sure, some of the films were nothing more than tired titillation attached to equally turgid storylines. Others explored the differing cultural dynamic - hippies, drugs - that was slowly changing the shape of society. With their filmic finger consistently placed on the pulse of an expanding motion picture demographic, exploitation also expanded merchandising, advertising, and other financial aspects of the industry. There was definitely more to the grindhouse than T&A.

Yet time and the growing trends within the format were not kind to SWV’s mission. Since most of the films were ‘loaned’ to the company (Vraney had issues with copyright and ownership from the start), holders of the property often looked for green pastures when it came to releases. While Image claims brisk sales (they will keep all Something Weird product in print for now), it was obvious that the glut of available titles on DVD would eat into the various niche providers. But SWV faced an additional problem - the limited availability of recognizable names. While their catalog contained thousands of unheralded gems, those that would translate into profit became few and far between.

Still, the company’s heritage should be celebrated. In fact, film fans should rally in support, hoping that Vraney finds another partner to help him spread the word. It was through his efforts that proto-classics like Year of the Yahoo, Murder a La Mod (Brian DePalma’s forgotten foray in the perverse), and She-Man were finally found, and the company’s international network of archivists and historians have uncovered more and more members of the “lost forever” alumni. Some may call them the Criterion of Crap, but Something Weird has more in common with that famous aesthetic watchdog than many would realize. They remain the seedy standard bearer.

For now, anyone looking to continue their old school arthouse addiction can call up the company’s website (http://www.somethingweird.com) and order up any number of tantalizing titles. There’s also Image’s back catalog, and that distributor has been very good about cutting prices and creating economical box sets of SWV’s product. Still, it won’t be the same…the anticipation of wondering what new notorious wonder Vraney will unleash next…the speculation on what special features will be offered…the chance to hear Roberta Findlay dish on her dead husband, or listen to Friedman regale Vraney with tales of the original exploitationers - the 40 Thieves. Granted, this could be a very premature burial, but it’s still sad to see the company that made the grindhouse a post-millennial institution walking away from the standard business pattern.

We here at SE&L salute the efforts of Mike Vraney, Something Weird Video, and the distributor Image Entertainment. Over the course of their time together, they have created some of the finest, more informative, and downright fun DVDs in the format’s equally short history. Where else would you find an entire two disc collection devoted to the theatrical spook show presentation, or a massive collection of goofy burlesque films? Who else would give the goona-goona movie the same respect as the kitschy b-movie monster? Years from now, when perspective is more objective, the work of this important cinematic sanctuary will be rightfully celebrated. For now, all we can do is reminiscence, and say “So long, Something Weird.” It’s been a great ride - one many a film fan will remember for the rest of their exploitation filled lives.

 

by Bill Gibron

2 Dec 2007


In retrospect, it does feel like the beginning of the end. For most of the decade, the fresh perspective offered by a growing set of filmmaking mavericks was reshaping the stogy cinematic ideals. Risks were the creative norm, and this one played like the biggest daredevil stunt ever. In an era still smarting over the ambiguities of the Vietnam War, the leading motion picture provocateur - multiple Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola - was headed to the Philippines to re-envision the conflict via an analogy to Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness. A long dormant project of his independent production company Zoetrope, Apocalypse Now would be the director’s ultimate artistic statement. In the end, it became much, much more. 

Perhaps the greatest behind the scenes documentary ever offered on the making of a movie, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides acute aesthetic insight and personal perspective into what, for most of the cast and crew, would be a descent into motion picture madness. Long missing from the DVD format (for reasons that become clear on this new digital presentation from Paramount), it stands as a Holy Grail gratuity for fans and scholars of the Godfather auteur’s troubled career. Indeed, those looking to rationalize Coppola’s eventual fall from grace - it’s a bumpy road from The Conversation to the Robin Williams waste Jack - saw all they need in the maelstrom of megalomania that seemed to surround this troubled shoot. From the replacement of one leading man to the near death of another, Now remains the director’s answerable albatross.

Beginning with the late ‘60s formation of Coppola’s self-started Zoetrope Studios, one of the most amazing things about the original concept for Now remains how ambitious it was. With friend John Milius scripting, and pal George Lucas directing, the production envisioned a bizarre kind of ‘guerilla’ guerilla shooting style. They wanted to insert themselves along with the actual troops, creating the film within the actual war playing out around them. And they actually got Warner Brothers’ interest. Though they eventually balked at the proposed technique, the studio sent a strong message to the brash young guns - this idea had potential. It was a predestination that would drive everyone involved over the near decade it took to realize said vision.

From another perspective, Hearts of Darkness also stands as the ultimate violation of trust. When Now was finally greenlit (back-to-back Academy Awards can change a lot of soured suits), Coppola hired his wife, Eleanor to head up a small documentary team. UA wanted some footage to use in their pre-release promotional campaigns, and being a photographer herself, her husband gave her the job. Who knew that the 12 week shoot would blossom into months, that private conversations between the couple (taped for inclusion in Eleanor’s diary) would become public knowledge, and that during the making of Apocalypse Now, Coppola would turn catastrophe and ego into a modern masterpiece. It set the foundation for all the mythologizing and criticism to come.

In these days of multi-disc DVD presentations, packages that strive to illustrate every minor moving making element with microscopic detail, one forgets how shocking Hearts of Darkness was. Backstage drama was, in 1991, an aspect of the medium usually left to magazine features, tell-all books, and the occasional film festival anecdote. Most productions weren’t proud of the rifts and ridiculousness that went on during a shoot, and it was rare when anything that did happen warranted further reflection. Even with laserdisc illustrating the appetite for this kind of insight, a mechanism for capturing and creating this material wasn’t firmly established. In many ways, Eleanor was ahead of her time. She could see what Now was doing to her man, and wanted to have a record of it…just in case he didn’t come back from the edge. How outsiders George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr came into possession of this material is a story for another day. How their award winning documentary was hijacked by a legacy sensitive auteur is very much at the center of this recent release.

Over the last few years, as Paramount has prepared various digital incarnations of Apocalypse Now, fans have wondered if Hearts of Darkness would be offered as a supplement. It is, after all, the yin to that bravado spectacle’s yang. Yet even when the supposed ‘final word’ on the film was presented - under the less than truthful title The Complete Dossier - this film was nowhere to be found. Rumors swirled that Coppola, angry about the secret wiretapping by his spouse and the eventual release of all of the material to the media, was purposefully holding off on the rights to Now footage. Without it, Hearts was sunk. To make matters worse, both Hickenlooper and Bahr have claimed strong arm tactics from the filmmaker, pointing to parts of this new, stand-alone disc as evidence of Coppola’s disdain for what they did.

On the surface, this seems to be a lot of meaningless chest-thumping. The wonderfully restored film still has the no budget production standards that Eleanor was forced to deal with, but the rest of the image is cleaned up and appealing. The actual makers of the movie are nowhere to be found however (they were ‘not invited’ to participate), but both Coppolas are present and accounted for. On the commentary track provided, Eleanor decides to wax nostalgic, discussing the time, the skyrocketing celebrity achieved by her spouse, and the numerous behind the scenes anecdotes that make these contextual additions so special. But it’s her husband’s conversation that’s the most telling. For Francis Coppola, it’s time to set the record straight.

You’d think that a man with as many awards as he has, who has significantly challenged film classicism with his demanding, endearing early films, would have a little thicker skin than the defensive dermis he exposes here. While begging for both perspective and circumstance, he makes it very clear that Hearts turns frequent fits of anger, frustration, and black humor into signs of inflated selfishness. Even worse, he feels used by individuals who’ve coattailed his creative genius for a sensationalized story. Still, even when he’s defending the film, you can tell that something about Hearts continues to rattle the director. It’s almost as if he’s attacking the exposure of any movie “magic” - whether it be how certain effects were achieved…or the creative element’s emotional turmoil.

It’s a contradiction that the Coppolas try to re-explore with Eleanor’s “new” documentary (though again she did not direct Hearts - she only provided the material) focusing on her husband’s latest film, the supposed return to form Youth Without Youth. Following her older, mellower spouse around Romania as he kvetches, jokes, swoons, and contemplates, it’s the love letter his wounded spirit supposedly needs. At 68, Coppola remains a larger than life presence on set, carrying most of his undeniable mythos in every action, each remark. Unlike Hearts, there are few flame-ups. Instead, we see the same spark that drove Now to its eventual status as an undeniable masterwork being muted by age, approach, and ambition. In fact, while it’s clearly meant to be a pliant portrait of an aging idol, the oddly named Coda is actually a con. The real Coppola is the manic, idealized dough boy, giggling almost insanely as he describes his movie as not being “about Vietnam. It IS Vietnam.”

Statements like these, some thirty years later, don’t really need the forced reinterpretation that the new Hearts of Darkness DVD demands. When the film was released in 1991, it was an epiphany. It was an “I told you so” moment. Just because fans and film buffs believed Coppola was an out of control madman doesn’t diminish what he accomplished. If anything, such a warts and all approach humanizes someone who, for most of his life, loved to view himself as above the fray. If the one time post-modern giant would simply embrace his flaws and fall in love with his art all over again, returning to the big picture romanticized ranting about the Philippines government, his leading man’s heart condition, or his own fragile sanity, perhaps we’d be celebrating the newest canvas from this cinematic master. Unfortunately, it still feels like the ‘70s celebration of film found its last legitimate entry with Apocalypse Now. Hearts of Darkness explains the reasons for this all too well. 

 

by Bill Gibron

1 Dec 2007


When Fox finally put Futurama out of its constantly pre-empted prime time misery, fans were flush with recognizable disgust. The network had never done right by Matt Groening’s brilliant Simpsons follow-up, and the constant schedule changes had left audiences little room to grasp the intricacies and details of the sublime sci-fi series. Almost instantly, the rumors began. With the DVD season sets selling so well, would the studio salvage the show ala Family Guy, hoping the retail popularity would translate into ratings? Or better yet, would another company come along and take over completely. Oddly enough, neither occurred. Out of production since 2003, Comedy Central recently announced it would bring back the award winning animated sitcom - but on some intriguing new terms. Groening and the gang would produce four direct to DVD “movies”. After their release, the cable network would chop each one up into four individual ‘episodes’, thereby bringing back 16 new installments to impatient devotees everywhere.

Now, the first one is here and it was well worth the wait. Subtitled Bender’s Big Score, and featuring the return of all the original characters (including some you thought the show was through with), this revamped version of the Futurama premise remains true to its tenets. For those unfamiliar with the show, a lonely 21st century pizza boy named Philip J. Fry accidentally winds up cryogenically frozen. A thousand years go by before he’s revived. Looking up his only living relative - Professor Hubert Farnsworth, a senile old scientist who’s his distant nephew, 30 times removed - Fry gets a job with the scientist’s interstellar delivery service. He works with Turanga Leila, the one-eyed ship captain, who along with Bender Rodriguez, an automated bending unit, spoiled rich intern Amy Wong, stumbling staff doctor John D. Zoidberg, and resident bureaucrat Hermes Conrad try to keep the company afloat. Living in New New York, Fry has a hard time adjusting. Luckily, his friends are around to keep his spirits up.

After leaving viewers hanging at the end of Season 4, this unusual update is a classic reminder of the show’s cartoon chaos theory. When intergalactic Internet scammers managed to undermine the entire economy of Earth - including the recently revived Planet Express crew - lovable robot Bender becomes a time traveling agent of theft for the aliens. By using an encrypted code found on Fry’s butt, the automaton can open up continuum voids and walk right into them. From there, it’s just a matter of heading into the past and grabbing as much loot as possible. Of course, this creates a paradox - two identical beings cannot occupy the same time and space as each other. We soon learn that the duplicate is doomed. As everyone on the planet is rendered penniless, comely Cyclops Leila falls for Head Museum worker Lars. He seems like the perfect guy for her, much to Fry’s chagrin.

While purists may balk at another time travel tale (the creators have often commented on how the obsessives typically whine about the various physical and metaphysical contradictions involved) the use of such a setup, in conjunction with the masterful explanation of the staff’s return, lead to one of the best Futurama outings ever. The initial jabs at the mindless “Box Company” that ‘cancelled’ Planet Express’s contract is priceless, and the effortless manner in which the series reintroduces and reincorporates characters back into the mix is amazing. Even quite cult faves like Scruffy the Janitor, Hermes’ wife LaBarbara, and the all powerful Hypnotoad find their way into the narrative. While it seems rather odd that this seamless cinematic presentation will eventually be divvied up into four self-contained episodes (Groening has promised to preserve the overall arcs as well), the fact remains that, as with previous works by these animated anarchists, when this show sizzles, it burns hotter than a distant sun.

The ability to juggle several stories has often been a Futurama trademark, and the main ones here are all wonderfully realized. There is real emotion in Leila finally finding love, and the resolution is both heart-rending and lifting. Similarly, Bender’s transformation into a totally compliant time thief results in some stellar moments of satire (he brings the Mona Lisa back half finished, claiming that Da Vinci might not make it to “The Last Supper”). Hermes’ accident gives this often forgotten paper pusher a wonderful dilemma to overcome. Toss in the aliens, the last act space battle, the constant references to other sci-fi signposts, and the solid voice acting (Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Katie Segal remain a masterful comic trio) and you’ve got a flawless stand alone package that perfectly preserves everything that made the series a woefully unappreciated gem.

Bringing the series back via DVD is also a genius move, since it allows for all the context and concerns voiced by Groening over the years to finally be addressed. The full length audio commentary is a delicious dirt dishing overview of the entire Fox debacle as well as the production problems the renewed episodes had to overcome. Several of the cast members are on hand, and they lend a level of geniality and wit to what is already a very funny discussion. The various featurettes and bonus elements also add to our enjoyment. We get more Al Gore (always a welcome reference riff), an actual scholarly lecture on the numerous math based in-jokes and ideas used in the series, a collection of character designs and sketch galleries, some delightful deleted scenes (including a visit from the Robot Mafia), and an actual episode of the wildly successful 31st Century sitcom, Everyone Loves Hypnotoad. After viewing it, you’ll see why it’s so popular.

With three more films on the way, and the entire company back for however long the haul remains, it’s a safe bet that Futurama will finally find the notoriety (and niche) it deserved before Fox buried it for more and more football. Reruns on Adult Swim/Cartoon Network have done fabulously well, and when that contract expires, Comedy Central can be counted on to amplify the show’s already impressive profile. It’s just a shame that we had to wait four long years before Fry and his fellow futurists could make a return. It’s clear that creativity was not a significant factor in the final determination to end the show. When someone doesn’t appreciate your efforts, why waste time trying to impress them. The fans wanted more Futurama, and the DVD movie Bender’s Big Score delivers exactly that. And as Professor Farnsworth would say, that’s “good news” indeed.

 

by Bill Gibron

29 Nov 2007


For the weekend beginning 30 November, here are the films in focus:

The Orphanage [rating: 8]

Bolstered by cinematic atmosphere so ripe you can practically pick it and eat it, The Orphanage is a deliriously delicious creep out.


It’s safe to say that, before Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish horror (and its Mexican counterpart) were reserved for the famed Paul Naschy and his old school ilk. It was all religious symbolism and mannered moralizing. But thanks to the bigger picture boos presented by this cinematic NeoWave (which includes Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a whole new world of artistic innovation has opened. It’s been a real entertainment epiphany. Del Toro has even moved into the role of mentor, guiding the work of others into the movie mainstream. Thanks to his vision and approach, we now have the magnificent movie The Orphanage. Combining classic haunted house motifs with a real sense of sentiment, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona has delivered a stunning work of wonder. It signals the continued influence of the Hispanic aesthetic on the frequently failing fright flick.  read full review…

Midnight Eagle [rating: 6]

Like a series of subplot ships slowly meandering downstream to a final narrative focal point, Midnight Eagle has to be one of the most languid political thrillers ever conceived.


It’s curious to note the continuing influence of Western filmmaking on the usually idiosyncratic foreign cinema. Instead of incorporating or exploiting Hollywood’s hackneyed entertainment principles, some countries simply embrace them without exception. Japan has maintained a wonderfully oblivious take on American moviemaking over the last few decades. They still enjoy the power of giant monsters and an amplified level of acting. Over the last 20 years, thanks to the advances in technology, more cross culture cooperation has, sadly, led to more and more Eastern films feeling like warmed over Tinsel Town junk. Take Midnight Eagle. This two hour plus work of international intrigue wants to emulate the overproduced popcorn product that clogs up the summer Cineplex. Luckily, it’s much better than most of the malarkey considered marketable by our own studio suits. Sadly, it also suffers from some unusual aesthetic choices.  read full review…

Redacted [rating: 4]

So obvious in its intentions that it screams ‘teenager scamming for the car keys’, Redacted fails to fully embrace the proposed genius of its premise.


Yes, we’re still at war. No, the apparently addled Congress, given a midterm mandate to end the military presence in Iraq as soon as possible, has been so far unable to make a single significant stride in that direction. Democracy both here and abroad is failing, lost in a fog of formless opinion, uninspired protest, and a collection of calculated talking points (like ‘fighting them there so we don’t have to here’). And what is Hollywood’s answer to all this acknowledged atrophy? Why, they come up with one lame ‘war is unnecessary Hell’ workout after another. The latest to line up and take its critical lumps is Brian DePalma’s wildly mediocre Redacted. Instead of returning the also-ran auteur to his glory days, this mean-spirited mess is destined to further his already substantial fall from cinematic grace. read full review…

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