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

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Wednesday, Aug 28, 2013
There is no denying the spell cast by The Muppet Movie. You just unconsciously smile while watching it.

At the time, they were riding high, the success of their UK based series showcasing their “beyond Sesame Street” viability and both mainstream entertainment and critical cult hit. For more than two decades Jim Henson had slowly developed a dedicated following, his puppeteering skills and unique characters creating a niche in both children’s programming and irreverent counter-culture comedy as well. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to see his celebrated “Muppets” as part of late night talk shows, weekly variety hours, and perhaps, most importantly, the first season of Saturday Night Live. Henson had that rare talent to target a specific audience, whether it was teaching young children the necessary educational lessons they would require, or getting a drug-addled young adult to giggle at his or her TV screen as monster’s mashed each other.

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Friday, Jun 15, 2012
It's an acid head trip without the brain damage, a detour into a part of the '60s which believed that sight and sound could cure the world.

The Beatles didn’t want to make another movie. Help! had not been a good experience, and the introduction of drugs and studio experimentation to their career had seen them shun the main media limelight for more ‘esoteric’ pursuits. Still, they were contractually bound to the studio for one more film and there were rumblings about an animated take on the Revolver tune “Yellow Submarine.” Guaranteeing they’d be required to deliver nothing more than a cameo, the lads signed up, filmed their live action sequences, and then headed off to India…and infamy. Back in the UK, actors were hired to mimic the Fab Four’s famous voices while a crew of screenwriters attempted to turn the simply song into a solid story.

Thus, the pinnacle of motion picture pop art was born. Viewed today, it’s a silly, satisfying psychedelic piffle which thrives because of its sly subtext. At the time, it was a provocative piece of self-promotion, a cartoon classic on par with Fantasia (and, later, Italy’s Allegro Non Troppo). Trying to balance a reaction will depend solely on where you stand, Greatest Rock Combo of the 20th Century-wise. If you still adore John, Paul, George, and Ringo, assigning everything they’ve ever done to the column of “genius,” you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. The boys are present, if not wholly accounted for. Instead, if you can distance yourself from the band’s output and see the movie for what it is, you’ll come away impressed.

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Thursday, Apr 7, 2011
The Perfume of the Lady in Black will be revelation to anyone who thought they knew everything there is to know about Italian terror.

When you think of Italian horror, several seminal names come to mind. There is Mario Bava who brought the genre up to date in his native land, then Dario Argento who took said terror and ran with it to all manner of fanciful, frightening places. There’s Mario’s son Lamberto, who never saw a sequence of gore he couldn’t amplify and/or exploit, and Lucio Fulci, who fumbled around between cinematic categories before settling on his own obsession with splatter.  In between all the Ruggero Deodatos and Michele Soavis, Umberto Lenzis and Sergio Martinos, few namecheck Francesco Barilli. Granted, the noted writer/director hasn’t had hits as substantial as Black Sunday, Suspiria, Profondo Rosso, City of the Living Dead, or Cannibal Holocaust, but with his 1974 shocker The Perfume of the Lady in Black, he definitely announced himself as a possible pretender to the throne, if not royalty himself.

The film follows a young chemist named Silvia Hacherman (a very effective Mimsy Farmer). She is living in Italy and haunted by memories of her missing father and dead mother. Currently, she is dating animal anthropologist Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia) and yet finds that relationship oddly unfulfilling. One night, she meets some of her new lover’s friends from Africa. They discuss voodoo and sacrificial rights, with Roberto arguing that such human atrocities occur all over Europe - it’s just that few in the media report such outrages. Silvia scoffs at the suggestion, but over the course of the next few days, she starts to have disturbing visions. She sees a vase her mother once owned. More distressing are hallucinations involving her childhood, a sex act, and a man who is not her parent. As she slowly spirals out of control, her neighbors in the apartment building she lives in offer support. But one thing is certain - the visions are getting worse, and what they suggest is something both scary, and very, very sinister.

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Wednesday, Apr 6, 2011
Inferno is that rare entity that both defines and defends its maker, allowing all who question his place in the pantheon of horror to fully understand his ranking.

They are as old as time itself, known by many names - the fates, the muses, the graces…the sorrows. They represent the various aspects of the human condition, each one measuring out their meaning before the other grasps the dangling end and takes over. In the lexicon of life, they are destiny redefined, predetermination given a ferocious, often frightening face. Thus Dario Argento had his source material for the marvelous Three Mothers trilogy, a series of films that came to define the Italian auteur’s entire existence. Along with his take on his home country’s famed crime movies - or “giallos” - the maestro’s metaphysical examinations of witchcraft, alchemy, and sexual sorcery have legitimized (and occasionally limited) his legacy. There has never been a genre filmmaker as artistic and influential as Argento - and a film like 1980’s Inferno is a perfect illustration as to why.

After the amazing masterwork of Suspiria (set in Germany and dealing with a ballet school run by a murderous coven), Argento wanted to continue his exploration of the monstrous Mothers - Suspiriorum (‘sighs’), Tenebrarum (‘shadows’ or pain), and Lachrymarum (‘tears’) - and set out to find some new and novel way to present the second. Happening upon a book about architecture and the influence on same via belief in the supernatural and paranormal, the director decided to abandon a straightforward storyline. Instead, he wanted to explore the Mothers’ mythos, to give explanation to what fans had seen before while expanding the narrative to include even more lyrical flights of fear fantasy. The result was Inferno (now available in a stunning Blu-ray release from Blue Underground) and while not quite as satisfying as Suspiria, it rates as one of Argento’s greatest visual achievements.

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