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by Bill Gibron

19 Dec 2007

When Santa sits back in his North Pole office and tallies up the boy and girl balance sheet every year, one wonders what exactly he uses as a means of measurement. It used to be that obeying one’s parents, doing well in school, and avoiding the pitfalls and problems of growing up were the essential benchmarks for a ranking of “good”, while putting a tack on teacher’s chair, pouring ink on Mommy’s rug and filling the sugar bowl with ants warranted a score of “bad” and a mandatory gift of furnace fuel. But now, in a world that excuses almost any behavior as part of the maturation process, it must be impossible to differentiate between disobedient and merely misunderstood.

The same thing applies to seasonal films. For everyone who wants nothing but visions of sugarplums and candy cane wishes, there are people who prefer their seasons greetings more mocking and satiric. Then there are a chosen few who can effortlessly manage between the two ideals, easily enjoying both the joyful and the jaundiced. Therefore, SE&L will separate its list of the best Christmas/holiday films of all time into two categories – naughty and nice. It’s the only way to cover all the jingle bell basics and make sure that everyone’s Yule is as cool as possible. While far from definitive, the undeniable delights of the divergent films featured guarantee no cinematic coal in any film fans stocking.

1. Nice: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Forget all the ridiculous remakes and stick with the sparkling and effervescent original. This terrific take on the commercialization of the season never fails to bring a smile to even the most mean, miserable face. Featuring Edmund Gwenn in a role that would redefine the personification of Santa for decades to come, this masterful little fable about belief and hope is a breathtaking combination of cynical and magical – the perfect combination of Christmas then and now. 

2. Naughty: Christmas Evil
Asking the disturbing question of how society would react to someone taking the role of Santa seriously, Lewis Jackson’s amazing motion picture assessment of one man’s descent into Kringle craziness remains a forgotten mistletoed masterpiece. In the lead role, Brandon Maggart spends his days in a toy factory, his nights making lists of the local school children. But when he finally ventures out on Christmas Eve, his moralistic intentions become confused, creating a memorable spree of Yuletide terror.

3. Nice: A Christmas Story
Few remember that Bob Clark’s now traditional cinematic treat was an unfettered flop when it first hit theaters in November of 1983. Apparently, audiences weren’t quite prepared to experience the knowing nostalgia of holidays circa the pre-War era. It took home video, and dozens of showings on Turner stations like TBS, to transform this clever comic take on holidays past into a timeless seasonal celebration. Now, devotees wouldn’t be caught dead missing a single moment of this festive familial farce. 

4. Naughty: Black Christmas (1976)
Bob Clark again, this time utilizing the holiday season for his inventive twist on the slasher film. Without the strict cinematic mandates that the genre would require throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Clark created the first subversive slice and dice, providing little explanation for the sorority attacks, and no actual resolution. With a narrative featuring eerie phone calls from a horrifying killer named Billy, this film is a perfect antidote for all the tinsel and treacle.

5. Nice: Scrooge
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has long been considered a Saturnalia standard. But of all the versions of his venerable Victorian allegory, this 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney is the most magical. Using an Oliver-esque approach to its recreation of London (read: grimy and grim) and amplifying the story’s supernatural elements, director Ronald Neame and composer Leslie Bricusse deliver a wonderfully winning effort, truer to the literary classic than any other adaptation out there. 

6. Naughty: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas
Stealing the stop motion animation crown from those loveable TV titans Rankin and Bass, Burton scripted a timeless treasure that suits both Santa and Satan quite well. As poor misguided Jack Skellington, the King of Halloweentown, tries to unravel the secrets of Christmas’ festive feeling of fun, we are treated to a world loaded with artistic marvels and inventive iconography. Perfectly suited for October or December, this is one flight of fancy that grows more and more magical, year after year. 

7. Nice: The Polar Express
Some still find this first experiment in CGI rotoscoping to be a little disconcerting – the humans do appear rather stiff and disturbing in their zombie like blankness – but no one can fault Robert Zemeckis’ Christmas Card come to life look for the film. Thanks to the 3D imagery, this movie comes alive with startling seasonal symbols and moments of sheer cinematic bliss. Like most holiday treasures, its thrills are as universal as a smile and as special as the time of year.

8. Naughty: Lucky Stiff
Another forgotten masterwork, this time centering on an overweight lonely heart that’s invited to a Christmas celebration by a red hot honey he meets at a ski resort. Oh course, she and her family are cannibals, cruising the country for fatted ‘calves’ to clean and dress for their own festive flesh feast. Starring voice-over artist Joe Alasky as the blimp, and Donna Dixon as the blonde with an eye for prime man meat, this quirky black comedy delivers nonstop laughs.

9. Nice: It’s a Wonderful Life
Like A Christmas Story, Frank Capra’s look at the fragility of the American dream was more or less ignored by late ‘40s audiences. But once TV took up its cause, and a lapsed copyright allowed unlimited home video releases, the once overlooked gem became a true seasonal standard. Featuring fine turns by Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, what some found almost anti-American 60 years ago is now viewed as the perfect piece of old school Hollywood craftsmanship.

10. Naughty: Bad Santa
Nothing illustrates our post-modern mindset toward the holidays better than this crude family film about a drunk and debaucherous Santa who uses his department store position as a means of casing joints for his annual Xmas eve robberies. Unfortunately, a chubby little gingersnap known only as “The Kid” throws our Kris Kringle crook for a loop. The result is both hilarious and heartwarming, with just enough scatology thrown in to keep the Noel nasty


by Bill Gibron

9 Dec 2007

It was supposed to be True Lies that saved the genre. As the Bond franchise continued to settle for spectacle over substance, James Cameron’s overinflated spy flick was destined to change the face of onscreen espionage forever. Turned out, it ended up being nothing more than the director’s inspired action filmmaking, and that’s about it. Even with the nuclear explosions, high rise chase scenes, and last act Harrier jet jive, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold were not the cinematic operatives the public was aching for. Instead, it would be another eight years before Robert Ludlam’s famed black ops assassin would get re-imagined to fit a post-millennial mindset. Instead of turning to bigger and badder special effects, filmmakers Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass brought the secret agent back down to earth, and in doing so, completely rewrote the rulebook on the dying aesthetic.

The resulting films - The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum, are masterworks of compact storytelling and human physicality. They offer realistic plots accented by occasional overreaching ability. In our lead, the monolithic hero Jason Bourne, we have a well trained, tripwire force of nature, capable of constantly being one step ahead of his ever-present pursuers. Yet contrary to his ingrained, almost brainwashed capability for survival, there’s a sad, disconnected man who simply wants to remember who he is. Ludlam’s greatest contrivance was the state of amnesia that Bourne finds himself in. It allows for a palpable level of realism interspersed among the fistfights, car chases, and psychologically challenged intelligence game playing.

Identity centers on Bourne, rescued while floating out at sea, unaware of who he is or how he got there. Through a course of investigation and information, he finds a link to the CIA, their elite corps of international assassins, and the possibility of massive internal corruption. Supremacy sees a Russian conspiracy trying to frame Bourne for a hit against his own people, pushing the agency to try and silence him once more. Ultimatum sees the heretofore amnesiac spy recovering his memory, realizing what he’s become, and coming face to face with the people who poisoned him so. There are dozens of subplots pulsating through each film, but to discuss them openly would ruin the revelation for those interested in experiencing the franchise fresh.

Anyone looking for careful translations of Ludlam’s work should seek out a Richard Chamberlain starring TV movie from 1988. Its Bourne is very faithful to the first novel. But in The Bourne Identity (and the subsequence films in the series), the charismatic killer is retuned to fit a more contemporary ideal. The original spy was part of a Vietnam era setting. There was backstory with an Asian family and a desire for revenge when they eventually died. Now, he’s a man lost in a world he doesn’t remember, instinctually doing a job he can’t recall. Throughout the first film, his struggle for self is offset by a failed mission, a rogue African exile, and the CIA’s need to plug any potential leaks that could compromise their illegal operations. This makes the Bourne films multifaceted as well as singular in design and direction.

So does the love story. Identity really relies on Bourne’s connection to the aimless, drifting Marie. In her, he sees a kindred spirit, a young woman who is as equally lost as he. She, on the other hand, sees a strong, silent hero who can save her from a life without rhyme, reason, or purpose. Several times throughout the first film, Bourne tries to turn her away. He offers her money (her main driving force) and freedom, yet she is captivated by the broken man in her presence. A certain maternal instinct takes over, and their one love scene is more tender and heartbreaking than erotic. Indeed, this relationship needs to be believable and potent. Otherwise, the plot machinations that surround it would seem arbitrary and without motive.

The final element mandated is the need for an outwardly benevolent but inwardly corrupt villainy. In this case, the CIA will do quite nicely. Only in the first Bourne film is there another situation worth considering (the botched assassination of angry African Nykwana Wombosi). In the sequels, we are only concerned with our hero taking on the baseless bureaucrats who want him terminated, with extreme prejudice. Between Alexander Conklin, Ward Abbott, Pamela Landy, and Noah Vosen, we have enough paper pushing precariousness to put even the most skilled agent on edge. Add to that the computer bank of trackers, grid wired to every manner of surveillance on the planet, and you create a monumental (and monstrous) task for Bourne to overcome. Of course, it’s not a matter of if he will succeed. It’s all a question of how - and at what cost.

With that, the franchise found a perfect starting point. The Bourne Identity is action packed yet personal, encompassing all manner of international intrigue while keeping the narrative squarely focused on who this character really is. Matt Damon delivers in the role, creating a believable sense of specialist and psychological sufferer. We never doubt his abilities or his angst. He’s an unlikely action hero, too clean cut and white bread to seem capable of such shocking acts. But as this series will show, Bourne is all about thwarting expectation and delivering on his promise. Director Liman lingers on moments of self-discovery, allowing Damon to dig deep into his character’s troubled soul. We never see it displayed in histrionics, however. It almost always arrives in a look, or a fleeting troubled glance.

As the object of his growing affections, the choice of Run Lola Run‘s Franke Potente is inspired. She’s just pretty enough to be alluring, just practical enough to withstand Bourne’s larger than life tendencies. She’s an excellent match for the unlikely element presented by Damon. Together, they’re like an ordinary revamp of Bond and one of his babes. Indeed, all throughout the Bourne films, we see the old school machismo and borderline misogyny of the original spy efforts constantly deconstructed and destroyed. Unlike True Lies, which saw Cameron utilizing the hoary he-man themes in a subtle, satiric manner (Jamie Lee Curtis’ striptease, as an example), Liman - and later Greengrass - simply ignored the archetypes. The result was films that felt alive and new.

It’s amazing how well Supremacy‘s new director carried on the foundations laid by Identity. Paul Greengrass was a relatively unknown British filmmaker when he took the reigns from Liman. Substituting hand held cameras for a previous Stedicam conceit, the new approach took Bourne into places the standard espionage movie would never dare investigate. There’s family life, the unnecessary destruction of same, the return of old foes and the discovery of heretofore unnoticeable new ones. It signals the end of one covert scheme and the uncovering of yet another. In between we get amazing fist fights, old school physical effects, and one of the most amazing and plausible car chases ever captured on film.

It is clear that the new infusion of vision invigorated the series. Damon is more alive than ever, his darker side clouding an already cracked interpersonal position. He’s lost everything, and with it, the will to tolerate such treatment. He is vengeance reborn, focus renewed on taking down the powers that perverted his life and stole his soul. Throughout the numerous square-offs, showdowns, and claustrophobic cat and mouse moments, we see a man coming undone, only to rebuild himself into a near robotic version of his programmed assassin self. When the results of this reconfiguration finally finish, heaven help those who get in his way.

That’s the premise for Ultimatum, the final head to head between our hero and his harried past. With Greengrass back for another go, and a plot that’s completely focused on bringing down the forces who formed this amoral spying machine, the film is nothing more than two hours of sly setup and potent payoff. Some have suggested that this is the best Bourne movie of the bunch, and they may be right. When viewed back to back, when seen as a psychological and emotional progression from cold to calm, passionate to powerless, Ultimatum becomes the fabulous finale the three part narrative has been hinting at. It’s to the productions credit that Tony Gilroy (with occasional help) stayed around to write all three movies. The consistency in tone and character he brings lends to the trilogy’s effectiveness.

The final (for now) Bourne starts up right where the last left off. A name - David Webb - has been tossed out there, and our trained killer has followed a complicated betrayal all the way to his origins at the CIA. In freaky flashbacks meant to start filling in the gaps, Greengrass shows us Bourne’s derivation. We see him tortured and brainwashed, created like a cog in a menacing and miscreant US government machine. Unlike the scenes in Supremacy where the character remembers his role in the assassination of a Russian leader, these moments are meant to finish Bourne’s portrait. They act as measures of the man, a lineage that he must suffer through and escape from if he is ever to have a life. Love has been left out of the series every since the opening of part two, but Julia Stiles returns as a determined desk jockey who wants to help our hero recover himself. It’s not a romance so much as a really clear friendship based on respect and human empathy.

The filmmakers even throw in an antagonistic turn, making Pamela Landy (a wonderful Joan Allen) into an ally for Bourne - a mother figure, if you will, for a boy who lost his entire family in a fog of calculated cold warring. With the return of a character everyone thought dead, and the arrival of yet another stuff shirt supervisor, we’re back to high tech tracing and continent crossing one-upmanship. There is an incredible sequence in Tangiers where Bourne travels across rooftops and through building windows, only to end up in a remarkably brutal dustup with another assassin. The hand to hand here is so compact, so intense in its imposed ferocity that it literally leaves one breathless.

So does a New York chase that rivals the Moscow version in scope and destruction. It’s important to note that, unlike other summer romps that relied on CGI to stage their practical stunts (Live Free or Die Hard, The Kingdom), Greengrass wanted real life action or nothing. It’s a throwback ideal, but one that plays perfectly into the Bourne franchise’s desire to deconstruct the past. It’s funny to see the latest James Bond - the daring Daniel Craig - pulling off many of the moves witnessed in Identity and Supremacy, yet when matched up against Ultimatum, Casino Royale pales in comparison. Granted, they are two birds of a slightly similar feather, but the idea that a recent upstart could compare favorably to - or God forbid surpass - the famed superspy would be heresy…until now.

The fact remains, however, that the Bourne films are one of the most satisfying collections of high octane thrills every brought to the big screen (and, thankfully, they lose little in the transfer to home vide). They celebrate smart cinema and explore the many fast-paced facets of film’s multilayered language. As detailed character studies, they are sensational. As examples of where espionage can go in a post-Cold War world, they are ideal. And let’s face it, any franchise that can turn Matt Damon from Northeast wholesomeness into international man of intrigue has to be doing something right.

In fact, there is much more to these densely packed films than can be discussed in a single feature or review. Indeed these fine films demand to be experience, to be savored for what they accomplish as well as what they avoid. In the grand scheme of cinema, James Cameron could have taken his ‘titanic’ spy spectacle all the way to the top. Luckily for us, Jason Bourne stepped in and grabbed the reigns. For sheer entertainment and excitement, nothing can beat The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. They are the new spy standard bearers and all future filmmakers need to take notice.

by Bill Gibron

5 Dec 2007

What is it about the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy that causes so much critical consternation? In some corners, the films are viewed in the proper perspective - wildly entertaining blockbusters that push the limits of spectacle and scope. In other, more perplexing views, they are unsatisfactory stink bombs, poster children for studio excess, superstar hubris, and clueless directorial overindulgence. No matter that the movies have made scads of dough - this is just the lemming like reaction to clever marketing and a manic mob mentality. Dollars do not equal aesthetics. Yet the questioning of their popularity remains. It couldn’t possible have anything to do with the films actually being good - or dare it be said, great.

But indeed they are great. With the arrival on DVD of the third (and for now, final) installment in the series, it’s interesting to look back and see where the franchise originated, and how it came to transcend the House of Mouse’s misguided merchandising scheme. It all started with the atrocious Country Bears. Disney, desperate to trade on any element of its legacy it could, decided that the next great source of motion picture magic was its well known theme park attractions. With their profile and popularity, even a lousy big screen translation was bound to generate some much needed revenue. Sadly, two of the three proposed projects were incredibly lame. After Bears’ baffling combination of live action and actors in clumsy costumes, and Eddie Murphy’s inadvertent homage to Mantan Moreland, The Haunted Mansion, no one could envision the next installment salvaging the strategy.

It had an unproven cast. The director was, at the time, best known for his commercial kiddie film Mousehunt and the hit horror film The Ring. And then there was the subject - the cinematic scourge known as pirates. The last time anyone attempted to resurrect the buccaneer, auteur Roman Polanski was helming the biggest bomb of his career. Disney apparently didn’t learn the lessons from that undeniable disaster. Yet they weren’t the first to revisit the scallywag storyline. In fact, Renny Harlin also ruined his vocational options - and his marriage - with the Geena Davis clunker Cutthroat Island. Still, Uncle Walt’s cronies persevered, They placed idiosyncratic actor Johnny Depp in the lead, surrounded him with dozens of known British talents, and took the entire company to the Virgin Islands. There, on a fully refurbished boat, the same old peg legged clichés were measured out, circling a story about ancient superstitions laced with post-modern irony.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was the result, and for many, it remains the best movie of the entire trilogy. Since it started life as a single entity, not the foundation for an actual franchise, the completeness of the narrative is hard to overlook. Depp’s brilliant turn as Captain Jack Sparrow started an outright cult, and when viewed in retrospect, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role. Still, it was a risk for producer Jerry Bruckheimer to hire the star. He was mostly known for his unusual choices in roles, not for bringing audiences through the turnstiles. Still, Depp’s dandified dance with the material made Curse of the Black Pearl commercial, and indicated the need for another installment in the series.

There are other elements worth noting in the first film, facets that reinforce its claim to classicism. The entire subplot involving Barboosa and his undead crew brought new life to an old genre, and Verbinski’s visual flair found untold tricks within the tired material. When one sees the shot of skeletal bandits crossing the ocean floor on foot, the novelty of such a sequence reinvigorates a dormant fantasy fan’s aching aesthetic. Indeed, everything about Curse of the Black Pearl was built on the old school designs of the original popcorn movie mavens. It’s Jaws jammed into Star Wars, with just a sprinkling of CGI spice on top.

The second installment, subtitled Dead Man’s Chest, tried to trump the evocative nature of the first film, and for the most part, it succeeded. Created simultaneously with the third episode (At World’s End), it marked a decision by Disney to go the bigger, badder, and broader route with the series. Everything here is larger than life - the swordfights (actors Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport have an actual standoff on top of a rotating mill wheel - as it travels through a jungle thicket. Really.), the situations, and the fatal consequences for all involved. Verbinski shows his true skills here, producing action that rivals the work of his obvious heroes (Spielberg and Lucas). Yet he also handles the smaller moments with grace and gravitas.

The masterstrokes of using Davy Jones, his ocean life encrusted crew, the haunted Flying Dutchman, and the mysterious allure of the sea may have mimicked the original’s villainous monster’s format, but the director tried to turn the combination of acting and artful effects into something almost tragic. Thanks to Bill Nighy’s marvelous performance as Jones, as well as the numerous storyline sidesteps the film provided (the ship-killing Kraken was also amazing in 35mm), made the movie one of 2006’s finest. It also mandated a finalizing piece, a movie that would make everything that came before seem small and insignificant. At World’s End became that necessary knock out blow.

Unlike the other Pirates films, At World’s End feels the most segmented. It has to deal with so many issues, so many characters, and so many arc endings, that it can’t help but appear partitioned. But when the pieces add up to something this satisfying, the knotty narrative devices speak for themselves. Sure, Keira Knightley is a tad shrewish, and Chow-Yun Fat is fine for what is mostly a cameo clip, but who cares. The epic battle in the middle of revived goddess Calypso’s maelstrom stands as one of the most amazing works of visual wizardry ever captured on film. Even better, Verbinski constantly keeps his creativity front and center. Why have a last stand showdown between Captain Sparrow and Jones on the deck of the ship when the same fight along the top rail of the Dutchman’s main mast would do nicely. Why simply repeat the same crustacean crew from Part 2? Why not add in a few new seafood scumbags into the mix?

There’s also a real emotional center this time around. Since we believe this will be the last time we ever see the Pirates crew, we lament the loss of favored personalities, and relish the destruction of the antagonists. When our heroes are in harms way, we fear for their safety, and we understand the doomed dynamic facing some of our most treasured icons. In fact, when the storm has cleared and the dead are left to travel to the underworld, At World’s End seems to stutter, if just by the smallest bit. Instead of ending on a note of defiance or depth, we get cute callbacks that tend to indicate a studio-mandated desire for future installments. If the high standards of the first three films are maintained, it’s hard to envision Disney stopping here.

Still, some will complain at length about these otherwise excellent films - and it could be a literal matter of viewpoint. No matter the set up, no matter the expensive technical traits, these films really weren’t meant for DVD. Their scale is so seismic, so completely off the cinematic charts that to try and rein them in via a home theater package is nothing short of a fool’s paradise. Trying to appreciate the slow motion descent of Lord Beckett in the middle of his ship’s destruction, or the amazing moment when we follow the Flying Dutchman down into the murky depths from a distinct POV on such a limited scale could affect anyone’s judgment. Then again, some people just hate these masterful movies for no discernible reasons but their own. It’s their opinion and their entitled to it. Time will probably alter their otherwise informed judgment.

Indeed, one can easily see the Pirates of the Caribbean films become the seafaring Star Wars for an entire generation. Like Lucas’ beloved space opera, these outsized extravaganzas with their mixture of comedy, mythos and stunt spectacle could function as the inspiration for a thousand messagaboard debates, and an entire online legacy. Thanks to the Internet, one could envision this happening sooner than later. Indeed, for some, it’s already begun. The Depp contingent have become obsessive, seeking out any and all information they can about their fated star, and minor characters like Marty and the ditzy duo of Ragetti and Pintel have their own honored corp. It’s clear that these movies have made an impact that transcends their viability as populist motion pictures. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise stands as stellar cinema. It should be celebrated as such.

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

28 Nov 2007

In Wednesday’s overview, we discussed the majesty that is the Damon Packard canon. In one ever-evolving oeuvre is insight into one man’s soul, his heart, and his intellectualized infatuation with the media that made up the filmstrip of his life. Yet without access to this material, without seeing it firsthand, it is possible to remain skeptical of Packard’s presumptive perfection. Besides, anyone who really wants to get into the inner workings of this hotwired savant needs to find themselves lost in his rampant cinematic collages. Therefore, these mini-reviews of his most meaningful movies (and short film collections) will hopefully provide perspective into one of the leading avant-garde archivists working in film. It will also argue for Packard’s place among the unsung greats in a cultural category that mistakes popularity with aesthetic success. These amazing works will never be erroneously viewed as popcorn fare. Equally important, the dull as a dirge Hollywood hit factory will never be favorably compared to art. Packard, however, can claim an inventive, near timeless air.

Anyone interested in purchasing these fantastic cinematic masterworks can contact Packard via his MySpace Page, or go to the official rating: 10]

It stands as a singular work, a piece of art so carefully conceived and executed that even in two distinctly different versions it’s a solid cinematic masterpiece. Packard poured his life into this unhinged honorarium - every movie obsession, ever TV touchstone, every film-based fantasy that found its way into the director’s internal diorama. Pasted into it was an equally shocking view of life living in LA, a narrative of daily street strut hard knocks that turned the frequent flashbacks in on themselves. Toss in the clear cult dimensions of Packard’s preoccupation with Stephen Spielberg (the original cut has an extended sequences inside the infamous ET ride at Universal Studios) and a weird sense of self-loathing (though already chubby, Packard plays himself as a fake padded elephantine presence) and you’ve got a package perfect for a think tank of therapists to study and speculate over. Naturally, this is nothing more than the filmmakers own take on the typical ABC Movie of the Week material - lost ghost gal running aimlessly through ethereal post-modern architecture - but with everything else he includes in the mix, Reflections of Evil becomes an amazing manifestation of the new millennial malaise.

Still there are those who can’t stand this seemingly self-indulgent mess. They view Packard as an aimless wannabe whose fan boy fascinations get the geeks all hot and bothered. Sadly, such criticism misses the major point. A film like Reflections of Evil is akin to jazz - it’s not the narrative notes that Packard is hitting on, it’s the remaining cinematic beats he’s purposely avoiding that are important. Like David Lynch’s sometimes indecipherable dream logic, this is one auteur that sees the rules not as a restriction, but as a way of rationalizing his otherwise outsized vision. Reflections of Evil is great because it takes risks, defies expectations, blatantly confronts apprehension, and demands that you pay attention. It’s not confusing on purpose - it’s complex because it can be. Without studios mandating demographically friendly edits or staid script streamlining, Packard is free to indulge in the kind of improvisational, atmospheric mise-en-scene that all of cinema is supposedly built around. He’s not producing commerce - he’s creating canvases. Most geniuses don’t get recognized in their own lifetime. Thanks to DVD, Packard may bypass that artificial fame claim all together.

The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary (2003)[rating: 9]

Purists prefer to think of George Lucas as a magnanimous despot, the uber unpretentious overlord of an empire built upon nothing more than good time entertainment spectacle and a USC education. So what if his Star Wars is nothing more than a collection of horse opera clichés strung together with Akira Kurosawa clarity and a devotion to dopey ‘30s serials? They never hurt anyone, and generations grew up on their motion controlled imagination. But Packard knows better. He understands that deep inside the Skywalker family legacy is a lot of loose Lucas family ends, shortcomings and dysfunctional talking points that eventually led to the less than meaningful prequels. The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary uses DVD material from the Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones release, as well as other making-of memorabilia, to forge a critical vision of Lucas as completely out of touch with cinematic reality. Workers are depicted using porn voiceover groans to emulate character concerns, their leader lovingly oblivious to the XXX footage flashing before his bearded puss. Crappy effects are celebrated, ridiculous psycho-speak (reminiscent of Alan Alda’s dissertation on comedy from Crimes and Misdemeanors) used to refer to narrative mythology and art design.

Of course, almost all of this material is faked - Packard imposing his own crafted comedy onto the otherwise typical EPK tenets of the standard DVD featurette. Lucas doesn’t come off cruel so much as clueless, a doddering old dofus who still thinks model spaceships and CGI creatures can successfully replace the movie magic of imagination, invention, and intrigue. He doesn’t understand that he successfully stunted an entire genre by focusing on silly string instead of story. Watching him look over a manqué of a proposed character, eyes glinting with computer generated possibilities, is far more satiric than having one of Packard’s fictional employees drop the F-bomb in front of the filmmaker’s supposed presence. Indeed, the brilliant move here is to have the moments of direct outrageousness. They play perfectly within the context of the story, but also highlight the real satire stuck inside the Skywalker saga’s self-styled seriousness. Some may think that The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary is nothing more than a gimmicky takedown of an already overworked target. The truth is, Packard lets the former ‘70s maverick dig his own egregious grave.

Grizzly Redux: Killer Edition (2005)[rating: 9]

Taking his outright fascination with Spielberg and the phenomenon surrounding the giant’s breakthrough motion picture blockbuster, Packard pulls William Girdler’s goofy grizzly bear rip-off of Jaws and jerryrigs it into that shark tales pristine polar opposite. With slapstick substituting for seriousness, outrageous arterial spray mimicking the modern mandate for gallons of grue, the results rival the best spoofs ever attempted. Girdler’s film is so overwrought and full of itself (the man was a naturalist, and loved the wild, and it shows in every landscape loving scene) that it’s primed for lampooning, but what Packard does is far more meaningful. As with the Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary, he plays with the populist cues within Spielberg’s film, and finds the common ground that many attempted copiers miss. The point of Redux - beyond the blatant referencing of the DVD driven directorial desire to readdress past success - is to expose cinema for what it really is: a craven bastion of unimaginative manipulators who will take any concept (rogue great white shark) and stuff it into a format that hopefully resonates, monetarily, with audiences.

In order to get the full effect of the film, one has to hunt down the Packard tweaked trailer. Taking the exact same voice over narration from the original Jaws ads, and using footage from Grizzly, the pretense is prepared. The movies are so shockingly similar that they appear to symbolically merge. It’s a similar situation with the director’s latest film, SpaceDisco-One. There, he uses Logan’s Run and 1984 in a way that make both works indivisible from each other. Even better, he saves a groan (and snooze) inducing effort by the hands of a noted exploitation pioneer and turns it into a treat. Girdler is a member of the ‘60s/‘70s passion pit posse, moviemakers who knew that all theaters needed product - and the more provocative, the more profitable. No one would ever mistake his standard operating thrillers for the sex and skin epics the grindhouse was noted for, but in Packard’s perverse view, Grizzly had all the makings of a splatter house sensation. All it needed was a little post-modern modification. His intended revamp was a way to address the distinctions - and it works wonderfully.

Damon Packard Short Film Collection Volume 1 & 2 (2005)[rating: 8]
Lost in the Thinking and Other Commissioned Works (2005)[rating: 8]
Roller Boogie III and Other Commissioned Works (2006)[rating: 8]

Described by the director as his “Poverty Years” (Reflections failed to fly on a heavily editied and reconfigured Go-Kart Films release, while Mockumentary remained understandably unreleased) the lack of financial backing combined with the sudden pressures of notoriety meant little work and even less cash. As a stop gap move, he went small, focusing his mighty imagination on investigating his 8mm past (Packard, as with most cinematic masters, made movies from a young age) as well as taking on more artsy assignments from clients of more modest means. While not officially full length films in the traditional sense (DVD allows for such compilation complications), these collections function as equally important statements in Packard’s considered oeuvre. He proves in them an innate ability to channel his considerable inspiration into almost any format - be it an outright spoof (as seen in made for public access satires of noted mainstream films), to a quick cut homage to unknown efforts from the past (like the montage highlight reel for the animated Superman serials of the ‘40s).

Indeed, each one of these compendiums is stellar, featuring such amazing mini-motion pictures as Dawn of an Evil Millennium (the proposed preview for an 11 hour horror epic), a Sage Stallone shot and narrated action flick trailer showing Packard kicking his own car’s ass, the splendid Roller Boogie remix, and the Halloween 3 inspired Thinking. Not only is this amazing imaginative stuff, but the archival value is untold as well. Packard exposes us to things we may never have known existed, like the Harvey Keitel/Johnny “Rotten” Lydon Italian made thriller Copkiller, aka Corrupt, or the equally obscure sword and sorcery effort Hundra. Some of the best stuff remains the amazing Early ‘70s Horror Trailer, the Star Trek satire, and the rough cut of the unreleased elfin fantasy film Apple (which Packard attempted while living in a tent in Hawaii for two years). It all adds up to an amazing overview of one man’s complicated cinematic psyche. It also suggests that Packard has more in common with the experimental filmmakers of the past than the dour independent directors of today.

SpaceDisco-One (2007)[rating: 10]

What do you get when you cross 1984, Logan’s Run, and a failed film production viewed from the director’s slightly arrogant perspective? The latest Packard masterwork, that’s what. Using the War on Terror, the failed information skewering of the Fox Network, and the rising media influence of the Internet as a foundation for a narrative about the mindless pursuit of purpose, this amazing feature is even less optimistic than Reflections. It argues that Big Brother has long since stopped being a threat and is now an embraceable reality, much more a part of our everyday life than concepts of personal freedom, love, and respect for human life. By recreating scenes from the seminal 1984 Michael Radcliff adaptation, with amazing work contributed by Simon Prescott (as O’Brien) and Robert Myers (as Winston Smith), we see the truth about our current cultural climate and how close to complete fascism our world really is. Sure, there are moments of chaotic self-reference (Packard can’t release anything without a sly shout out to his past work), and the standard ‘70s inserts, but thanks to the subject matter he’s working within, everything about SpaceDisco-One resonates.

In fact, it’s safe to say that time away from the medium, years spent on the fringes of financial disaster has sharpened Packard’s skills. He’s more fluent here, letting performance and words take over for visuals and celluloid stunts. Granted, there is some blatant humor as when our heroines (Stargirl 7and Francis 8 are supposedly direct descendant’s from Logan 5 and Francis 7) discuss Starbuck and the original Battlestar Gallactica, and 1984‘s Ministry of Truth turns out to be the Universal Citywalk. Additional outlandish elements (the title starship has its own roller rink), mean we get more shots of actors racing around like it’s a teen party circa 1977. In fact, one could argue that SpaceDisco-One represents the final word in Packard’s Me Decade fascination. He’s already ripped through the seminal ABC Movie of the Week, reconfigured Jaws and its much celebrated creator, took Lucas to task for returning to the scene of his cinematic mind crime, and even touched on the more obscure, outsider elements of the era. Merging disco with the post-Wars world of kiddie oriented speculative fiction fills in some necessary pop culture gaps. It also suggests that Packard is ready to move on - figuratively and literally. Where he goes next will be interesting indeed. Rest assured, this convert will be there, waiting to see what transpires. You should too.

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