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by Bill Gibron

1 Mar 2008


All great auteurs, no matter the era, find themselves dabbling in science fiction at least once in their career. Lang had Metropolis. Godard gave us Alphaville. Kubrick cemented his reputation with the resplendent 2001: A Space Odyssey while Truffaut took Ray Bradbury’s allegorical classic and turned it into his own version of Fahrenheit 451. The reasons behind such genre experimentation are obvious - speculative cinema is based in ideas, images, and the careful consideration of both. It’s the very set-up that a moviemaking maverick yearns for. It tests not only their storytelling mantle, but the very limits of their imagination. Post-millennial movie god Giuseppe Andrews understands this all too well. That’s why Schoof, his look at a world gone insane under an evil alien influence, resonates as yet another in his growing list of trailer park masterworks.

As our narrator tells us, a force named Schoof began its rampage of Earth in a slow, subtle manner. First, her wheelchair bound grandfather began endlessly circling the parking lot outside his mobile home. Next, her mother and father have a senseless fight over whether or not there are cowboys in their vacuum. Brother is bonkers, climbing palm trees in his underwear and tirelessly jumping over Christmas tress. And another neighbor believes he is being chased by a humongous hamster. As situations in society deteriorate, the local news picks up on the story. They show a man having an affair with a children’s doll, and a homeless philosopher mumbling about the apocalypse… or maybe not. In the end, it will take a scientist, a willing test subject, and a group choral, to save the galaxy.

Staying in the crazed, comedic vein he firmly established with Orzo, Andrews’ amazing Schoof is like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World meshed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s like a movie long version of the scene in Wild at Heart where Freddie Jones offers his high pitched warning about how “pigeons spread diseases”. Utilizing a Hellsapoppin style to place us directly into the middle of a worldwide meltdown, it’s clear that, as his interests grow, so does this filmmaker’s style. Gone are the static shots where characters merely recite dialogue directly into the camera. In their place are ludicrous action scenes, complex tracking shots, and a much greater emphasis on character interaction.

Indeed, Schoof is one of the few Andrews’ films that provides a cohesive family unit. Vietnam Ron and Karen Bo Baron are the squabbling marrieds, their crackerjack conversations a study in marital strife. The director and his partner, Marybeth Spychalski, are the offspring, and they provide a lot of the visual humor. If he’s anything, Andrews is brave. He will gladly appear partially nude as long as it satisfies a cinematic ends - be it comedy, or something more complicated. Spychalski has been the ‘staright man’ in so many of these movies that it’s great to see her branch out into the more surreal and strange elements of the narrative. With the growing presence of Sir George Bigfoot, Tommy Salami, and the iconic Ed, along with returning superstars such as Ron, Walt Dongo, and Miles Dougal, this is one of the best Andrews casts ever.

And just when you thought he couldn’t surprise you with his unsane concepts, along comes this story’s psycho sci-fi angle. Granted, the extraterrestrial take-over is gloriously goofy most of the time (they are after maple syrup, supposedly), but it does allow for a more freaked out free form flow to the events. Similarly, by making the resulting malady personal and individual, Andrews gives his performers room to expand. There’s a clear parallel here - as with many of his movies, Schoof clearly reflects the growing ludicrousness of society, a situation that sees any issue blown way out of proportion before a single rational thought is applied. In the last act scientist character, a man of intelligence and logic, we get the veiled attempt at redemption - and the resulting laugh when even he gives up on the brain scrambling signal.

But make no mistake - this is not some outsider artist’s take on Stephen King’s Cell or the recent indie fright flick The Signal. Instead, Schoof is meant as a gagfest first and foremost. Once you get beyond the shoot from the hip comic coating, however, there are intriguing elements o’plenty. What other moviemaker today would offer up abortion (including the near blasphemous image of a blood stained hanger), cannibalism, adultery, and rectal dysfunction as part of an interplanetary crisis. Clearly, the big picture concerns of one’s place within the cosmos are being regularly eclipsed by the seven deadly sins - plus five. If anything, this is Schoof‘s most important message…and it’s most disturbing.

Then there is the ending - one of the most engaging and inventive the director has ever created. Without giving much away, it utilizes another Andrews singalong classic to suggest - Life of Brian style - that any tragedy can be skirted or diverted by a little literal human race harmony. It’s a treat, the kind of capper that keeps a fan coming back for more. It’s also an indication that Andrews is in full command of the cinematic medium. The language is no longer foreign to him. Instead, he’s so fluent he can mess with it all he wants - be it a bizarre set of dream sequences, or a Mitch Miller musical moment.

As he continues to expand as a visionary, as his pallet of potential premises reaches well toward infinity, Giuseppe Andrews continues to amaze and inspire. Over the course of the last few months, he’s given us the amazing Americano Trilogy, the stellar Garbanzo Gas, and the full blown laugher Orzo. Now, he readily walks into the realm of the unknown and the fantastical to realize even more of his remarkable creative aims. Schoof doesn’t purport to have any futuristic insights, or pretend to prophesize the shape of things to come. As with all the films in this director’s career defining oeuvre, we are witnessing the marginalized and the fringe falling even further outside the bonds of normalcy. That someone champions their cause is reason enough to love this man’s work. That said films stand as works of unique, underground art is the icing on the cinematic cake.

 

by Bill Gibron

29 Feb 2008


“To Be Continued…”

Three words that literally drain all hope out of a horror fan. Whenever that title card arrives at the end of a fright flick, one of two things is for certain. First, the previous movie was so lightweight and lame that the makers couldn’t find a way to end it. Instead, they simply went with a sequel and skirted the issue. The second scenario is even more ‘scary’. In this case, the talent behind the camera is so ambitious, so convinced of the epic nature of their narrative, that one mere movie can’t hold all the brilliance. For them, a single outing barely broaches the subject. In fact, we could be looking at several installments. While it may seem like a spoiler, Automaton Transfusion uses the abovementioned phrase at a crucial juncture in its plot. But it does so for a rather unusual third reason. In this instance, it just wants to let the audience catch its blood-drenched breath.

The storyline here is simple…dead…simple: at a local high school, three outsiders (Chris, Tim, and Scott) try to avoid getting beaten up by jocks while hitting on all the hot honeys. Viewed as slackers and stoners, the trio retreats to a punk rock show in a nearby town. In the meantime, the popular crowd heads to a remote house for a big time kegger. What all of them fail to realize is that a zombie outbreak is occurring - right under their adolescent noses. Locals are going loony for human flesh, with classmates attacking teachers and residents resorting to acts of carnage and cannibalism. When Chris finally realizes what is going on, he has only one concern - save his cheerleader girlfriend Jackie and get to his dad. Sadly, both goals may be next to impossible to achieve. The dead are alive - and very, very hungry.

While filmed on the cheap with an obvious half-a-shoestring budget, Automaton Transfusion (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company, Genius Productions, and Dimension Extreme) is only concerned with one thing, and one thing only - GORE! Lots and lots of gore. Slimy sluice and plentiful human juices. While not the most claret covered production in the history of homemade moviemaking, Steven C. Miller sure knows how to paint the screen red. Thanks to some staggeringly original work on the part of Rick Gonzales and his make-up department crew, and a no holds barred, cut to the chase cinematic style, this movie is literally one disgusting death gag after another. Heads are pulled from torsos, entrails ripped from same. Limbs are chewed off with hyperactive abandon, while eyes, faces, stomachs, and other fine fleshy bits are gouged with wanton gratuity.

In fact, if you look carefully, it is clear that Miller wants to riff on every major zombie film - or similarly styled undead romp - from the last forty years. The party local resembles Romero’s Night, while a big city attack and creature wail remind one of Day. Our fiends are fast movers, like the Zach Snyder Dawn remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and our heroes wield all manner of makeshift weapons ala Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Dead Alive. There’s even a Fulci homage, a taste of Raimi, and a last act denouement that simply reeks of John Carpenter. Put them all together and you’ve got a greatest hits package of terror takes - and that’s good, since Miller is going to make do with action set pieces only.

That’s right, Automaton Transfusion doesn’t mess around. It doesn’t waste a viewer’s time with unnecessary exposition, intricate characterization, or subtle social subtext. Instead, it gives us the standard high school cardboard cutouts, tosses in a generic love story and formulaic friendship, and then starts the vein draining. Within four minutes of the film starting (and some of that is credits), Miller has us deep in the thick of things. Necks are being torn open, bodies coming back to life in a local morgue. It’s not long before rampaging ghoul gangs are carving up the countryside, their insatiable appetite for offal driving them to more and more heinous atrocities.

Such an approach leaves the filmmaker open for criticism, but he doesn’t really seem to care. On the accompanying bonus features found on the DVD release, Miller makes it clear that budget, time, and talent issues mandated that Automaton Transfusion be as streamlined and sleek as possible. A full length commentary track discusses the production problems, the camera cheats (an ‘abandoned’ highway still has visible cars reflected in a main vehicle’s side panels), and the decision to expand the narrative. There is also a collection of deleted scenes which show how far the filmmaker actually wanted to push things. The Behind the Scenes featurette offers insights for other independent auteurs, while a short called Suffer or Sacrifice illustrates Miller’s ambitions. Together it treats a movie that apparently needed massive work in post to look halfway cinematic (the herky jerky shooting strategy of the image and over-editing doesn’t help) into a creative call to arms.

But none of this alleviates the sting when those three little words appear on the screen. Even at a brisk 75 minutes, Automaton Transfusion doesn’t earn the additional right of continuing forward - at least, not yet. When the military man shows up at the last minute to start his seemingly endless explanations, we wonder why Miller just didn’t manufacture a payoff. We would buy it, even if he simply killed everyone off. But clearly this director believes he has more to say on the subject - or even better, that a quick video sale, the resulting influx of cash, and a smidgen of notoriety will result in a bigger budget. And if that, in turn, results in more of the rabid red stuff, we gorehounds will be more than ecstatic. As long as there’s a possible return on our macabre investment, we’ll suffer through any continuation. We’ll definitely be banking on blood once Automaton Transfusion: Contingency rolls around. 

 

by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2008


For the weekend beginning 29 February, Leap Day, here are the films in focus:

Semi-Pro [rating: 7]

Semi-Pro may look like recycled Will Ferrell, outrageous personality and all, but there is an attention to detail and a surreal ‘70s splash that makes it all work.


Will Ferrell seems to have fallen into a groove as of late. Ever since Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, his pure comedies have developed their own unique universes, worlds where the actor and his crack team of costars can play and pretend. In Talladega Nights, it was NASCAR. In Blades of Glory, it was the surreal stage of competitive figure skating. Now comes the solid Semi-Pro, a movie that perfectly mimics the debauchery and malaise of the 1970s in all its leisure suit loving, animal fur wearing, pop culture vulgarity. While not as immediately outrageous as his other onscreen turns, Ferrell fulfills the promise of the ultra-wacky premise, delivering another collection of crudities, gaffs, and expletive laced plot twists.read full review…

Penelope [rating: 5]

Resembling the kind of tale Aesop might spin after one too many vats of homemade ouzo, Penelope plods along on a desire to endear. All it really does is infuriate.


The trend towards “adult” fairytales has got to stop. In the last few months alone, we’ve had the stale saccharine slop of August Rush, the sword and snooze dullness of Stardust, and the one step from stupid Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. The notion of juxtaposing the whimsical against the mature is not a new one. Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton practically wrote the rulebook on such cinema. But the current movement in such storytelling seems to push the extremes of both dynamics. When the material is serious, it’s downright dark and frequently disturbing. And when it’s fanciful, it’s like potent, pixie stick laced candy floss. Now comes Penelope, a self-esteem allegory masquerading as Cinderella with a snout. Sadly, instead of exploring the far reaches of the subgenre, it sinks directly into the maudlin middle. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief

The Other Boleyn Girl [rating: 4]

British royal history has enough black marks against it - it definitely doesn’t need this one. Crafted from Phillipa Gregory’s well regarded novel, and penned by Oscar nominee (for the excellent The Queen) Peter Morgan, The Other Boleyn Girl bobbles much of its potential. Most of the blame falls directly on the shoulders of TV director turned feature filmmaker Justin Chadwick. Not only did he hire the completely miscast leads (two Americans - Scarlett Johansonn and Natalie Portman - and one Australian - Eric Bana) as his battling noblewomen and the iconic King trying to bed them both, but he places them in a 16th century setting that’s too clean and too generic to engage our interest. Not even the typical bed hopping and political skullduggery are entertaining. Instead, The Other Boleyn Girl just sits there, going through its bodice-ripping routine like an adult education literature class discussing a Harlequin romance. While the ‘women as chattel’ message might inflame some post-modern mentalities, the overall film will likely cause more ennui than uproar.

by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2008


Will Ferrell seems to have fallen into a groove as of late. Ever since Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, his pure comedies have developed their own unique universes, worlds where the actor and his crack team of costars can play and pretend. In Talladega Nights, it was NASCAR. In Blades of Glory, it was the surreal stage of competitive figure skating. Now comes the solid Semi-Pro, a movie that perfectly mimics the debauchery and malaise of the 1970s in all its leisure suit loving, animal fur wearing, pop culture vulgarity. While not as immediately outrageous as his other onscreen turns, Ferrell fulfills the promise of the ultra-wacky premise, delivering another collection of crudities, gaffs, and expletive laced plot twists.

It’s the middle of the Me Decade and ABA basketball is dying. While the other franchises pray for a merger, the Flint Michigan Tropics and their player/coach/owner/former soul star Jackie Moon is having a ball. Sure, his team sucks, and attendance is more than lousy, but he is living his dream. Unfortunately, many of his players don’t share his outsized optimism. They feel their hope of playing professional sports slowly slipping away. When he learns that the NBA will only take four teams, Moon convinces the league to let the best record decide who goes. With his last place Tropics consistently stinking up stadiums around the country, he needs a ringer to help increase his chances. In walks Monix, a former Boston Celtics star whose career has seen better days. With his skills and experience, Moon hopes to capture fourth place. Teammates like Clarence “Coffee” Black aren’t buying the effort, however.

With a collection of period piece beats that perfectly emulate the era of Watergate and wavering morality, and a story that sticks to the standard sports underdog dynamic, Semi-Pro may seem pointless, especially to the culturally clueless. Back before the game was a Jordan and Kobe cavalcade of rock star like sports icons, the American Basketball Association attempted to enliven a seriously struggling sport. With its emphasis on offense and flash, and tendency toward tacky self-promotion (they were in direct competition with the far more established NBA), the 12 teams that made up the two competing conferences gave the three decade old guard a run for their money. An eventual merger in 1976 brought four new teams into the fold, and it is within this last act of negotiated desperation that Semi-Pro is set.

Of course, many will wonder what such a perspective brings to the film, especially when it is humor, not history, that’s important…and it’s a fair question. But what the ABA backdrop adds to Semi-Pro is a sense of inevitability, a reason for the characters to feel at wit’s end throughout the entire story. This helps sell the occasionally outrageous antics that would otherwise overpower everything. First time director Kent Alterman definitely has his work cut out for him here. Not only does he have the expectations of every Ferrell fan on the planet, but there are some die-hard fans out there that will be watching for some manner of ‘fictional’ accuracy (if such a thing is possible). Luckily, much of Scot Armstrong’s script seems to have skirted such struggles, allowing for far more effective improvising from the cast.

And it’s a strong group of performers. Woody Harrelson has been outside the mainstream for the last few years, but his turn as the over the hill Monix is a real return to form. Newcomer Andre “3000” Benjamin is also very believable as the Tropics breakout star, Clarence “Coffee” Black, while current comic sidekicks Rob Corddry, David Koechner, Will Arnet, and Matt Walsh make a nice collection of satiric satellites. There are a couple of wonderful, off the wall surprises as well. Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley shows up as Dukes, a pothead who wins a $10,000 Tropics contest, while Tim Meadows steals his only scene as an injured player who lets go with an unfortunate racial epithet. Together, they generate the kind of genial crassness that carries this movie beyond the standard humor hi-jinx.

Of course, Ferrell is the focus for much of the film, and it’s odd that he’s never given much to do except play the fool. There’s no family issue for him to deal with, no outer circle or sphere of influence working their way inward. Instead, he’s set up as a joke machine, a cartoon creation limited in scope and structure. Heck, he doesn’t even get the girl - Harrelson is rewarded with a relationship with underwritten co-star Maura Tierney. This may cause some in the demo no small amount of consternation. If this is a Ferrell vehicle - and it really doesn’t play like an ensemble, no matter the size of the cast - we want his antics to be more or less front and center. In Semi-Pro‘s case, they are more like slightly to the left.

Still, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had within the confines of these peculiar surroundings. Sports fans may scoff at the various stats, skills, and shots taken, but the end result remains a clever take on the material. Besides, any film that can channel The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and Kansas City Bomber can’t be all bad. Semi-Pro may look like recycled Will Ferrell, outrageous personality and all, but there is an attention to detail and a surreal ‘70s splash that makes it all work. Like a crass Christopher Guest, this former SNL superstar has a way of making even the most unusual environ funny.The old peach basket bop - and its high flying ABA makeover - will never be the same.

by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2008


The trend towards “adult” fairytales has got to stop. In the last few months alone, we’ve had the stale saccharine slop of August Rush, the sword and snooze dullness of Stardust, and the one step from stupid Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. The notion of juxtaposing the whimsical against the mature is not a new one. Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton practically wrote the rulebook on such cinema. But the current movement in such storytelling seems to push the extremes of both dynamics. When the material is serious, it’s downright dark and frequently disturbing. And when it’s fanciful, it’s like potent, pixie stick laced candy floss. Now comes Penelope, a self-esteem allegory masquerading as Cinderella with a snout. Sadly, instead of exploring the far reaches of the subgenre, it sinks directly into the maudlin middle.

Plagued by a bizarre family curse, little Penelope Wilhern is born with a pig’s features - muzzle, ears, slightly porcine chin. According to legend, only the love of one of her own - read: a rich blueblood - can break the spell. So, ever since her teens, Mother Wilhern has been trying to marry her off. Unfortunately, all the men who see her run screaming. One even takes his story to the press, and the resulting scandal embarrasses his wealthy father. Desperate to clear his name, he hires a paparazzi with a connection to the Wilhern clan to help. Their plan? Find a down on his luck aristocrat to woo Penelope, and when the time is right, snap her photo. As luck would have it, gambling addicted Max is willing to help. But when he learns that their target is a wonderful girl, not some horrible monster, his cooperation becomes questionable.

Resembling the kind of tale Aesop might spin after one too many vats of homemade ouzo, Penelope plods along on a desire to endear. All it really does is infuriate. This is the kind of movie that believes pitching all its performances somewhere between cartoonish and caterwauling results in a sense of reverie. When undersized actor Peter Dinklage is the best thing about your otherwise overwrought parable, something is wrong with this motion picture. While it’s not bad in a Larry the Cable Guy, remade J-Horror film kind of fashion, first time filmmaker Mark Palansky underachieves in a spectacular manner. Clearly devoid of the creative vision that sparks real movie magicians to their level of imagination, he merely lets the marginal script by Everyone Loves Raymond staff writer Leslie Caveny sink them both.

The first major flaw in this film is Penelope herself. As played by Ricci, she’s a sensible gal with a great personality, pretty eyes, and a slightly swinish nose. There is no attempt to make her ugly - either in façade or philosophy. She’s an unfortunate innocent who has used her malady to see beneath the surface of most everyone she meets. Yet in any Beauty and the Beast story, we need a monster - if not literally, figuratively. Penelope‘s narrative instead goes for standard villainy: a photographer with a grudge; a madwoman of Chaillot mother; a wealthy moron who believes our heroine to be a horror; a dour and dense father. Max is not a good guy so much as a welcome relief from all the mustache-twirling treachery.

It doesn’t help that Catherine O’Hara (as one hideous harpy of a mom) and Simon Woods (as the stunned suitor) use over the top as a benchmark for further acting histrionics. Both are so arch and mannered that you’re not sure whether to slap them…or slap them. Of course, a fairy tale isn’t a bastion of subtlety, but why allow a couple of stars to subvert everything you’re doing. It’s clear what Penelope could have been whenever Dinklage, Ricci, or James McAvoy’s Max is onscreen. They bring a kind of realism to this material that makes it palatable. Without their presence, we are stuck in a situation where nothing seems valid. It’s just fakery on top of fabrication. Sadly, some of the acting makes it even more counterfeit.

Palansky’s direction also doesn’t help. Clearly inspired by the work George Miller did on Babe: Pig in the City, the novice draws a multicultural, intercontinental portrait of Penelope’s world. The metropolis she lives in resembles several urban centers, while characters speak in a combination of accents (mainly between British and American). This contrasting conceit, probably used to keep the material ethereal and timeless, grows tedious after a while. Fairytales need some kind of foundation - a firm mythos, if you will - to keep the allusions sound. Without it, we begin to get lost, or worse, ask questions that don’t pertain to the narrative or the characters. Aside from clear factual fallacies (how, exactly, does one’s carotid artery end up in their nose?) and a lame denouement, the lack of such an underpinning really ruins this film.

Yet Penelope is not a complete disaster. There is a nice chemistry between Ricci and McAvoy, and the second act appearance of producer Reese Witherspoon as a disgruntled courier who befriends our heroine offers some funny moments. And there are times when the earnest quality of Penelope’s dream to be normal touches our own sense of self. But this is not the quirky feel goof farce the marketing would have you believe, nor is it a shockingly original take on the standard ‘once upon a time’ material. Instead, Penelope is as mixed as the motives of the entire Wilhern family. On the one side are a failed father and a shrill mom. On the other is their darling daughter and her optimistic worldview. Somewhere in the middle lies this lox of a movie.

 

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