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by Chris Barsanti

21 May 2008

Even for a preview audience, jazzed on free popcorn and the chance to catch a summer blockbuster days early, the waves of cheering and the palpable sense of sheer jubilation that went up from the crowd once the mountain in its Paramount logo did its dissolve (this time to the lowly dirt-mound home of a prairie dog), was something to behold. It wasn’t quite the roar that one would have expected from those keyed-up to see a new Star Wars flick, but it was certainly a more intense outpouring of anticipation than one sees at such box-office-stoking events. There was something else going on there besides the return of a beloved film icon whom many of us had first seen before even exiting grammar school. Maybe they actually don’t make ‘em like they used to.

In any event, the audience’s pent-up thrill upon seeing Indiana Jones first appear on screen and put on that hat (in heroic shadow of course) is quickly compounded by a clutch of tightly shot and smartly fun sequences that come rocketing out of the screen one after another. With its 1950s setting allowing Harrison Ford to act his age, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also wastes no time in digging into the era’s other obsessions: fast cars, aliens, nuclear war, rock and roll, and of course villainous Commies. It’s impressive enough that Spielberg manages to act as though it hadn’t been over a decade since he’d last directed an utter popcorn picture (The Lost World), but just as impressive is the fact that Ford coasts so comfortably through this performance it’s as though he’d barely gotten out of wardrobe from 1989’s Last Crusade. Consider this: when last we saw Indy, Harrison Ford still had Presumed Innocent, Air Force One, a couple Tom Clancy adaptations, and several late-period misfires ahead of him. But here he is, serving up haymakers to the bad guys, quipping with his smart-ass sidekick, and regularly getting the tar smacked out of him, as though not a day had passed.

Of course, nothing great lasts forever in film these days, and so the energy began to leak out of the theater. By the time the last third of David Koepp’s strangely laborious screenplay creaked into place, all the frenetic chase scenes and swiftly accumulating guest performers (Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, to name a few) couldn’t erase the feeling of tedium; much the same as one experiences when watching, say, Temple of Doom, which Kingdom of the Crystal Skull easily tops. When the film coasts into its all-too-pat finale, the applause is notedly muted, though still genuine.

Some things about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are nearly irrefutable. First, Cate Blanchett does a fantastic Greta Garbo. Second, swarms of deadly ants are possibly scarier than tombs full of venomous asps. But most important is this: the audience opened their hearts and expectations to this film because “they” (Hollywood) in fact doesn’t make them like they used to. Maybe they never did. But with moviegoers facing a grim season of pallid CGI battle-toons like The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Prince Caspian, even the problematic adventures of one Indiana Jones can feel like a rich banquet in comparison.

by Bill Gibron

20 May 2008

If art were easy, everyone would make it. Sure, for some, creative craftsmanship is second nature, like walking, breathing, or composing a beautiful sonnet. For many though, talent is trumped by time, demands, lifestyle, situation, and most importantly, money. Besides, we no longer live in a society which values the artisan as a professional. Instead, the writer, the rock star, or the painter are seen as ideologues, avoiding the constraints of society to continue on in their noble if non-practical pursuits. For Ken Vandermark, following his muse means a life of constant struggle. Between booking gigs and securing payment, he continues to hone his abilities. After all, he’s a Musician, and as such, lives and dies by the sonic circumstances he creates.

As part two in his amazing documentary series Work, Daniel Kraus delivers yet another stunning celluloid portrait. As he did with Sheriff, he takes a willing subject, sets up his cinema verite camera, and lets the story tell itself. In Ronald E. Hewitt, small town South Carolina lawman, the director found a perfect foil for all the stereotypes and standards he hoped to explore (and explode). Vandermark is equally unique in that he’s an avant-garde jazz specialist, a dada deconstructionist who follows the very fringes of an already outsider genre. We anticipate a difficult, demanding individual, someone who already feels marginalized because of the particular sound he strives to create. With both men, Kraus uncovers something much deeper.

Vandermark is not an unknown, toiling away endlessly in self-imposed exile or industry avoided recognition. Instead, he has a following both locally (in his home base of Chicago), nationally (he tours the country frequently), and even internationally (we hear about upcoming gigs in Norway and the Netherlands). Far from the starving artist, he lives quite comfortably with his wife Ellen Major. Of course, her being a pediatrician does help when the bills come around. Yet as part of this story, brought to life by Facets on a delightful DVD, we do see the man besieged - over charts for a future performance, with agents who can’t commit, with printers and CD manufacturers who tap his limited resources, with venues that offer only superficial support. Living up to the series title, being a musician is clearly ‘work’ for this tireless virtuoso.

Kraus doesn’t shy away from the aural element, either. We see several performances, and this will be the area where Musician tests even the most learned audiences’ perception. Vandermark makes a beautiful noise, a combination of dissonance and harmonics that seems random until you realize how hard it is to get such chaos to feel coherent. In a post-performance Q&A, he says something that ties directly into this. After listening to one of his favorite instrumentalists, he was blown away by the fact that this man could create four LP sides of atonal improvisation. He, on the other hand, hit the wall at five minutes. Realizing that he needed to breakdown the barriers before he could embrace his abilities, Vandermark started said inner journey. We see several examples of his success throughout the film.

The DVD version of Musician adds even more illustrations. Over one hour of deleted scenes allows for more concerts, more concerns, and more clarification. Vandermark is not a snob, believing that people who don’t “get” his approach are simply lacking in perception. Instead, he compliments those who try to meet his music halfway, while embracing the many different ways he expresses himself. One of the most effective moments in the film itself comes when Kraus uses a montage format, showing several of the over 100 albums Vandermark has released as part of his bands The Vandermark 5, Bridge 61, CINC, and Powerhouse Sound, among many others. It indicates the level of commitment the 43 year old has put toward his talent. Even better, it flies in the face of those who continue to view artists as lazy, self-indulgent, and unwilling to support themselves.

Kraus again expands his visual language, using unusual set ups and less handheld happenstance. For the finale, a stirring rendition of a composition made up of what appears to be one single note, the director lets his camera hang back, slowly moving away from Vandermark as he makes that sole sound say hundreds of interesting things. Even better, when faced with an issue at the Canadian border (it’s over the narcotic notoriety of being musicians and the numerous compact discs the band is bringing to the performance), Kraus simply stops filming. We don’t get the typical cops and contraband confrontation. Instead, Vandermark reflects on the situation long after it is over, giving it the proper weight and outlook.

Indeed, what’s best about the Work series, and Musician specifically, is that it asks us to drop our own preconceived notions of what a job entails to actually experience what it is. Kraus’ decision to avoid talking head narrative or other forced storylines may seem scattered at first, but the pieces typically add up to one enlightening set of life lessons. In the case of Ken Vandermark, we clearly see someone possessed by the power of music - how his saxophone sounds when pushed beyond the normal registers, how seven instruments all playing improvised lines can come together like a surging sonic maelstrom. As an example of filmic language, it argues for Daniel Kraus’ continuing growth. It also makes the wait for future installments (including Professor and Preacher) all the more difficult.

As with all art, however, the waiting stands as the hardest part. Vandermark will sit in his small side office, toiling over a calendar that seems to run out of available space and dates rather quickly. Yet with each addition, each highlighted event or tangential task, he moves forward. Even hunkered down in his basement, instrument in one hand, white out in the other, desperate to make sense of the aural cues clamoring in his head, he presses onward, knowing that there is no stopping without jeopardizing everything he’s done. Sure, it would be cool, or fun, or a dream come true to be a musician. Reality, however, tends to ruin that fantasy. Filmmakers like Daniel Kraus can be thanked for showing the situation for what it truly is - very hard work.



by Bill Gibron

19 May 2008

In the hierarchy of horror, Lucio Fulci usually falls somewhere between the post-modern macabre of Dario Argento and the creepshow classicism of Mario Bava. He’s not as nauseating as Bava’s son Lamberto, yet never achieved the artistic aplomb of Argento apprentice Michele Soavi. In fact, Fulci is loved more for his appreciation of violence and brutality than anything artistically substantive. From The Beyond to The City of the Living Dead, he created classic ‘double dare’ movies, the kind of gruesome, offal-filled freak outs that had fans cringing in their seats (and hurling in their barf bags). But there was an even sleazier side to the director, something clearly seen in The New York Ripper. While he still piles on the pus, everything else here is drowning in debauchery.

After a dog discovers a decomposing hand near the Hudson river, police detective Fred Williams learns that the victim had recent contact with a strange man speaking in a deranged, duck like voice. Soon, another body is discovered on the Staten Island ferry. With the help of psychological profiler Dr. Paul Davis, Williams starts to rundown a list of suspects. In the meantime, a high society woman with a penchant for rough trade and live sex shows makes intimate recordings for her perverted husband. Elsewhere in the city, a young lady named Fay has a run in with a man with two fingers missing on his hand. Suddenly, this deformed individual is the prime person of interest in the case. As Williams hunts for clues, the killer calls him, taunting him in that silly, sickening way. If he’s not careful, this New York Ripper will destroy everything he knows…and loves.

It goes without saying that if you’ve seen one Fulci giallo, you’ve seen The New York Ripper (recently rereleased on DVD by Blue Underground). As far back as his infamous Don’t Torture a Duckling, he meshed borderline boring police procedurals with momentary lapses into splendiferous gore. Fulci is the father of non sequitor sluice. Give him a standard situation - police fire on a suspect - and you’ll see the person’s head literally explode in an array of arterial ambivalence. It doesn’t matter if it fits the tone of what he’s attempting. As long as he can paint the screen red, Lucio likes. Perhaps that’s why New York Ripper is so much mean spirited fun. While the vast majority of the movie plays like a lampoon of serial killer shockers (the murderer speaks like Donald Duck with a disease), the frequent lapses into outright nastiness more than makes up for the unintentional laughs.

What’s different here though is the reliance on repugnant sexuality and decadent NY-seediness. Any film that has a main character getting a foot job inside a skuzzy dive bar, that perpetrates a horrendous vivisection on a completely nude victim - Heck, almost any Fulci fantasy that explores the corporeal with the cadaverous - is bound to throw fright fans for a loop. We expect a little T&A with our scares, but the disturbed way in which The New York Ripper delivers this material is mind-numbing. If Fulci ever wondered why he wasn’t taken more seriously, the sleazoid subtext here should have been all the proof he needed. This really is a repugnant little reject. 

It’s this deranged dichotomy that works both for and against The New York Ripper. This is a movie where half of what’s onscreen truly satisfies, while the other part seems purposefully set on destroying everything that came before. The mystery is mangled in a series of false leads, ridiculous red herrings, narrative u-turns, and any other perplexing plot pointing the script can offer. On the other hand, the performances win us over, Fulci mixing his cast between accomplished Americans (Jack Hedley, Howard Ross) and Italian imports (Andrea Occhipinti, Paolo Malco). As with most of his films, his female leads are rather weak, passive in their ability to stand on their own. Almanta Suska, as Fay, has a hard time balancing the demands of the role with the reality of the situation. She’s supposed to be a prime suspect, yet never comes across as anything other than whiny and confused.

Sadly, Fulci left us in 1996, meaning that most DVD content must rely on experts and other so-called scholars to fill in the filmmaker’s many creative blanks. That being said, Blue Underground does very little with this release, simply providing some basic information and leaving it at that. Certainly, there is someone out in the fright fan ether that can comment on how the filmmaker came to helm this particular project (he had been on an international roll ever since Zombi in 1979). While always a journeyman, Fulci did hold some particular ambitions, and it would be interesting to learn where The New York Ripper fit into these crazy career plans.

Of course, as the years go by, and as the ‘Net expands in the appreciation of the wrongfully marginalized, Lucio Fulci may yet find his place among the horror beloved. Of course, you have to get past all the cheesy comedies, weirdo westerns, and other genre jumps the director created over his decades in the industry. The New York Ripper doesn’t help or hurt his cause, mostly because blood blots out the substantial shortcomings. Still, if you really want to see what this director is all about, take a gander at his straight ahead horror romps. They are much more satisfying from a fright and filth standpoint. Films like this one are not really an anomaly. But they do underscore the reason why Fulci remains a valued, if underappreciated auteur. 



by Bill Gibron

19 May 2008

Critics aren’t perfect. They can get it wrong sometimes, even before they’ve seen a film. Case in point - Armand Mastroianni’s The Killing Hour (aka The Clairvoyant). From the name on the credits, and the movie marquee artwork, this looks like your standard Italian giallo, murder mystery tinged with just enough gore to give Argento and Fulci a run for the redrum money. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s merely an American whodunit, the efforts of a filmmaker best known for featuring Tom Hanks in one of his first roles. That film was the sloppy slasher saga Blood Wedding, later retitled He Knows You’re Alone, and its tagalong success led Mastroianni to take his talent to a much larger creative canvas. Unfortunately, he’s only able to fill a tiny fraction of the frame.

It’s 1982, and Manhattan is overrun with unsolved killings. More importantly, the murder’s MO is the same - he handcuffs his victims before doing them in. As the police search for clues, local TV reporter Paul “Mac” McCormack believes he’s found the mother lode. Taking his morning talk show in a more tabloid direction, he feeds the public a daily dose of fear and foreboding. While Detective Weeks works all the angles, McCormick does his own vigilante legwork. Both men are drawn to the claims of a young woman named Virna Nightbourne. Gifted with psychic ability, she believes she is sketching out the deaths before they happen. Naturally, once she goes public with her visions, she becomes a prime target for the fiend - who may be much closer than she thinks.

Overlong at 97 minutes and burdened with a lame stand-up comedy subplot, The Killing Hour (recently reissued on DVD by Blue Underground) is actually a pretty good serial killer caper. We get the mandatory slayings, some decent red herrings, a couple of deductive dead ends, and a resolution that tries to tie everything up in a neat, knockout denouement. The acting is universally good, with Mastroianni making excellent use of then unknowns Jon Polito, Joe Morton, Norman Parker, and established stars Kenneth McMillan and Perry King. If there is a weak link among the cast, it’s Elizabeth Kemp as Ms. Nightbourne. Aside from never convincingly delivering her own name (there seems to be a buried chuckle every time she utters it), her character is more schizophrenic than gifted with second sight. One moment she’s a mess, the next she’s flirting mercilessly with her main male leads.

Indeed, one of The Killing Hour‘s biggest flaws is our lack of sympathy for this heroine. We are supposed to see Virna as an inadvertent victim, sometimes plagued by images of death and innocent indirect knowledge. But she often comes across as a whiny waste, needy without indicating why she should be so cared for. Mastroianni never gives her a moment to shine, to stand up and show courage or consideration. She’s either sketching in some wild, automaton manner, or looking wistfully at the camera. There’s no variance here, no sequences of searing dramatics. It’s the same for the rest of the actors - these are some passive aggressive policemen to say the least - but the men manage some solid New York authenticity.

Another major misstep comes in the lack of legitimate scares. There is no real suspense here, Mastroianni simply leaps into the first three murders without any set up or sense of pace. Virna’s head games provide a few more slayings, but they convey nothing that fans of either fright or bloodshed can really appreciate. There are times when this all feels like a tepid TV movie, and it’s no wonder that this director would go on to excel in the broadcast medium. The Killing Hour is like a ‘70s era sweeps week special, down to the minor amounts of nudity and absent arterial spray. His European counterparts understand that this kind of genre junk just won’t work without ample gore. Mastroianni wants to get by on plotting and performances alone. He can’t, especially when one of our macho men is moonlighting as the world’s worst impressionist (these scenes are just horrid).

Oddly enough, this filmmaker does find more ways to succeed than stumble. There is a wonderful atmosphere present, a tone derived directly from the all New York shoot. This feels like the Big Apple in all its early ‘80s growing pains. Porn is still prevalent, as is a street level sense of sleaze. When Mastroianni shows a dimly lit dive bar, you can almost smell the urine-soaked musk permeating the room. Even better, the crime scenes play as real places in the bullet-riddled, body-strewn history of the city. When a corpse is pulled from the Hudson River, or a potential victim enters a midtown manhole, we experience the urban angst of every famed criminal case. For this reason alone, The Killing Hour is worth a look. Along with acting, it’s the film’s strongest point.

As for the DVD, Blue Underground does very little with this presentation except give Mastroianni a chance to defend himself. With company founder and fellow filmmaker William Lustig along to guide the discussion, we discover that this is one director who has forgotten quite a bit about the movie he’s made. There is lots of dead air in the conversation, Lustig trying and Mastroianni coming up short. There are some deleted scenes, none of them mandatory to the narrative, and the trailer is nothing more than the standard Madison Avenue pitch. Add in the filmmaker overview (some good information on Mastroianni’s later career) and you’ve got some unexceptional extras.

Unlike the Italian crime masters his name mimics, Armand Mastroianni is no Dario. He’s barely even a Lucio. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is very little of the Mediterranean in this wholly American moviemaker. The Killing Hour is loaded with ambition and does everything in its limited creative power to obtain those elusive aesthetic goals. While it’s well made and never totally dull, this is the kind of suspense thriller that could have used a few more trips through the typewriter before seeing celluloid. They say it’s never fair to judge a book by its cover. In the case of this DVD, the expectations brought about by the filmmaker’s name makes the eventual realization all the more unsettling.



by Bill Gibron

18 May 2008

We’ve truly become Marshall McLuhan’s worst nightmare. For us, reality television and the media is everything - nurturer, educator, entertainer, opinion former, purveyor of history and definer of myth. We no longer think for ourselves. Instead, we ‘blog’ to let the world in on our thought processes, falsely believing that the audience is doing anything more than laughing under their laptop. The news is no longer the truth - YouTube processes the raw footage editorial control and journalistic ethics censor. Of course, there’s a legitimate reason for such strictures, but in the outlaw lands of the Internet, it’s unimportant. In the World Wild Web West, it’s vigilante justice with a MySpace page.

As he has done with each of his previous Dead installments, horror maestro George Romero has used the current political and/or social clime (and his views on same) as a subtext to his zombie terrors. In Night of the Living Dead, it was the unraveling revolution of the ‘60s. Dawn of the Dead commented on the rampant consumerism of the Me Decade. The ‘80s got Day of the Dead, as a conservative militarized nation trying to take back Morning in America. Land of the Dead gave the ‘90s boom and ‘00s bust a heinous “haves vs. have nots” sheen. Now comes his latest masterpiece, a self-proclaimed reboot aimed squarely at the nu-tech age, and it’s just as brilliant. 

Diary of the Dead follows the adventures of Jason Creed, his girlfriend Beth, their film class professor, and a group of their college buddies during the shooting of an independent fright flick. As they set up sequences in a deserted wood, they get word that the world as they know it is slowly disintegrating. The dead are returning to life…and feasting on the living. As the standard order breaks down and collapses, they hop into their rundown production RV and head out on the highway. As the others try to make sense of their situation, Jason keeps his camera rolling - the better to document, as he puts it, “The Death of Death”.

Leave it to Romero to reinvent himself in such a sharp, sarcastic manner. Clearly concerned about the plugged-in yet clue-less nature of the supposedly media-savvy, his latest effort ravages the ‘www’ terrain while reminding viewers that no one gives up the gruesome gore gags better. Diary of the Dead (new to DVD from Genius Products, the Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme Division) is an old timer’s take on the way communication has cannibalized itself, how as one character puts it, “nothing is real until you see it onscreen”. By utilizing the soon to be tired first person POV that drove both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, he channels the inherent anxiety of such a limited scope. But unlike those other films, he finds a way to add something salient to the scares.

Romero is clearly a master of allegorical macabre. Sometimes, his riffs are obvious (zombies stumbling through a shopping mall). At other instances, like throughout most of Diary, he’s devious with his metaphors. There are nods to every other living dead movie he’s made, from the newscast as narrative drive of the action (like Night) to the supposed safe fortress of unimaginable wealth and material leisure (as in Dawn). We get bastard military men (ala Day) and a true sense of the disenfranchised and downtrodden being blamed and corded off from the rest of scared suburbia (like Land). In fact, Romero appears to be coalescing all that came before, suggesting that this is the real horror tale he wanted to tell.

There’s another level here that’s equally effective. As a director, Romero keeps his cast off kilter, making them appear amateurish or brash because…well, that’s what these kids really would be, given the circumstances. Turning them into well-honed thespians with a sharp handle on exactly what to do would ruin the ‘you are there’ dynamic. Sure, this is scripted, avoiding the expletive filled pointlessness of Witch‘s weak kneed trio. But Romero expertly captures the aimlessness of young people wittingly out of touch with true reality. Everything they know, everything they do, is filtered through the instant gratification of cell phones, PDAs, laptops, Wi-Fi, satellite television, and endless hours surfing the ‘Net. They practically speak in text messages. Even worse, our hero never helps the people he films. Even as they are threatened, he uses the detachment of the camera to keep from getting directly involved.

There is an additional caustic undercurrent championed here, a personal one Romero refers to constantly in the DVD extras. As part of his commentary track, he leans into the problems with progress, how it renders individuals unable to solve their own problems. Similarly, his interview segments as part of the making-of material come off as thoughtful and quite insightful. This is clearly a film about thinking for oneself, about avoiding the inevitable terror clichés to survive in a world gone wicked. Naturally, characters do the kind of things that end up causing them concern. They’ve been programmed, brainwashed by a social setup of zero accountability to believe in such slop psychology.

That this all happens within the context of a ripping creepshow cements why Romero remains a god. Between the clever kills, the ample arterial spray, and the relentless suspense (the single lens viewpoint makes us feel like part of the refugees), we are treated to a corrosive combination of blood and bleakness. Fans have long felt that Day of the Dead was the director’s darkest vision. Diary will more than likely usurp that underground angst fest. The effects work here by Greg Nicotero and KNB (along with additional help from SPIN VFX) is amazing. Heads are split open, melted with acid, and parted at the jawline. The images are startling, reminding us of how powerful onscreen violence can be when handled with artistry and appreciation.

Considering his age (he’ll be 68 this year) and the number of years he’s been making films (2008 marks the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead), it’s fascinating how George Romero can continue to bring fresh, invigorating ideas to the genre he inadvertently created four decades ago.  Even better, he keeps pushing the envelope of expression, incorporating as many current controversies and concerns into his plot points as possible. It will be interesting to see if Romero again returns to this material, especially within the context of the ongoing War in Iraq and the contemporary climate of fear we now live in (there are some minor hints of same in Diary). Like any great virtuoso, the Godfather of the zombie film has more to offer than a series of flesh-feasting set pieces. Diary of the Dead is a sparkling reflection of our troubled times - and the images in the everpresent viewfinder are not pretty.



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