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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2007


There is perhaps no more detail-oriented director than Roman Polanski. All his films, from his initial landmark productions to his later misguided efforts, have concentrated on the minutia and facets of life from which epic circumstances appear to arise. Movies like Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby are not just well acted, brilliantly scripted works of creative cinematic construction, but they are carefully observed sketches of finely intricate scrutiny.


Everything is significant in a Polanski film; the setting, a character’s coat, the view in the window behind an actor, the placement of items on a desk. His moviemaking language, the importance of the camera and framing, the creation of an outside voice to generate tension and drama between the individuals onscreen is as imperative as the words they are saying and the emotions they are expressing.


When everything comes together, the technical and the emotional, there is no better filmmaker. When one is missing, however, or if both are weak, then there is no more artificial movie mind. Polanski is a student of film as a mechanical craft. He is also an artisan, a handmade creator of complex scenarios and interweaving undercurrents. Sometimes his style can substantially outweigh his substance, but he is usually able to balance both to create something magical out of a sort of cinematic geometry.


Polanski’s first full-length feature film, Knife in the Water, is a technical marvel, a masterpiece of composition and perfected camera work. It is filled with startling, glorious black and white imagery, obvious symbolism, and shots of staggering complexity and construction. At its core, it is a three person psychological drama that takes place over a period of 24 hours on a small sailboat adrift in a lake, a simple, subtle struggle between classes and emotions. Yet through its sweeping vistas and rampant artistic touches, it is also a movie of greater scope and universal platitudes.


One can look at Knife and see the start of a thousand future film projects: movies that capture interpersonal and sexual tension between lovers and strangers, spouses, and students. One can also feel the foundation for Polanski’s entire career, a series of movies that deal with untold secrets, unspoken pain, and unexpected connections. No one is who he or she seems to be in Knife in the Water.


The husband is not a brave, successful man; the wife is not a happy, contented partner; and the enigmatic, blond-haired hitchhiker is not the switchblade wielding threat he portrays. They are more than their outer face…but they are also less. Actually, the question becomes who exactly are these people and what do they really stand for? Unfortunately, Knife has little desire to address this quandary.


This is a major misstep in this film. The obvious ambiguousness to almost every event that happens on screen and the characters creating the scenarios renders Knife in the Water cold and calculating when it should be hot with untold tension. This is not a thriller in the traditional sense. We are not witnessing a true battle of wills or a deeply disturbed set of secretly acted-out agendas. Indeed, the characterization and dramatics play out like the languid day on a calm blue waterway. Issues are allowed to drift and stagnate, motives become ill defined and lazy, and the entire story sags beneath underdeveloped plot sails.


Part of the problem here is that we really don’t have anyone to identify with. The husband and wife appear content, yet there is a thread of hatred between them that only flares up once. When it does, the movie crackles and burns. Finally, we are seeing something of the subconscious. But it’s one of the few times where we experience such insight or shock.


The rest of the movie is just too vague, too sub-textual to spell out—or in some cases even hint at—the issues irritating the characters. A great deal of the dynamic between the players here has to be inferred, created in the mind of the viewer from half-heard lines of dialogue, a stolen glance or two, and most unfortunately, from a backlog of similarly structured post-Polanski storylines. If Knife in the Water is indeed a creepy, suspenseful love/hate/horror triangle between disaffected marrieds and an ingenious, insane interloper, the reason for its success as such is purely cinematic craft. Just like any summarization, we keep waiting for the real meat of the story to step forward and be recognized.


Maybe it’s better to view Knife in the Water as not about a marriage on the brink or a young man trying to unseat a dominant male. This is Communist Poland, after all, and no amount of Western allusion can dilute the fact that we are dealing with a strict class structure and sense of social composition. The youth (as this is how he is referred to in the credits) is supposed to be a scared, wild-eyed dreamer, the kind of impressionable mind the Party recruits and debases for the sake of the common good.


Krystyna is supposed to be subservient and dissatisfied with life: wives behind the Iron Curtain don’t have the liberation of America or Europe and marry more out of convenience than love or sex. And the older businessman (or bureaucrat or ranking government official) is indeed the boss, the controlling and commanding dispassionate pawn to dogma that makes the political machine ebb and flow. So there’s not much more of a dynamic that can be created or challenged. These people are doomed to fulfill their State-sponsored roles.


In interviews, Polanski’s stated desire to strip the dialogue back, to only present small, selected portions of these people’s thoughts and personas, is irreparable to Knife in the Water. Perhaps he felt his camera would fill in the blanks, but in reality, that attitude backfires and it becomes increasingly impossible to understand the individual’s motivation or if they even have any. Tension and suspense only work when we feel something is at stake, when something we care for or understand is threatened or about to be. In Knife in the Water, the characters never truly come alive for us. So, in turn, we never really care what happens.


Yet the visual scope and sense of artistic structure mostly makes up for the lack of a fully realized internal element. Indeed, you can watch this film, never once worrying about the people or the plot and simply sit back and enjoy a cinematic impressionist at work. Polanski piles on the unique angles (only Kubrick indulged in more lens and placement machinations) and faultless compositions, making the superficial facets of his film simply exquisite. He uses everything at his disposal to maintain a moody, atmospheric tone. Costumes and setting, blocking and in-frame tableaus, even a fantastically multi-faceted jazz score all combine to create a sense of dread and foreboding. It is easy to see why this is a much praised motion picture. It is probably as close to visual perfection as you will witness, the ultimate blending of the monochrome medium to light and shadow, image and presentation.


Yet one can’t help but be bothered by the vagueness, the sheer lack of specificity that runs throughout the story being told. Like the irritating bearer of information that keeps hinting over and over as to what the secret or the story really is (and eventually fails to divulge everything completely), Knife in the Water‘s all too well hidden agendas eventually grow tiresome. You want someone to rage. You want someone to lust. All this polite positioning is just not dramatic.


But perhaps Knife in the Water is not supposed to represent anything more than these hidden desires and sequestered sentiments of people under the rule of a totalitarian thumb. Setting is as important to Polanski as anything else, and Poland circa 1960 was not a wellspring of openness and experimentation. This trip on the lake is a chance to escape the complex prerequisites of a society under Soviet domination. It is these people’s brief chance to shed the images impressed upon them by the Marxist ideals. These are citizens without power, with only their place within the class configuration to preserve their identity. How they interact on the boat is perhaps how they would do so within any other social setting or Party meeting. This is not a time for in-depth personal revelation, nor is there a communal climate for such.


At most, it’s a chance to test the waters, so to speak, to barely open the door to the psyche and discover the undercurrents of discontent running through each of them. Or maybe this is all just an excuse for Polanski to create a love letter to his favorite pastime of that moment: sailing. Indeed, a boat is merely a knife in the water, cutting a swath along the glass-like stillness of the surface, revealing a small wake of what’s underneath before quickly closing back up. Just like the nick of a blade to the skin. Just like our trio of isolated souls. While far from perfect on the interpersonal level, Polanski’s first feature heralds an artist in full effect.


This is also evident from his work in short films. As part of this DVD package, Criterion collects eight of Polanski’s mini movies. They span the period of 1957-62 and cover all genres, from drama to absurdist comedy. Each movie looks fantastic with only minimal defects. The only real visual issues come with the final short, Mammals. It has a fuzzy, faded look that may have been intentional, or may be the result of age or production problems (after all, it must be difficult to film in the bleak whiteness of snow). Each one of these movies is a masterwork of form, style, and simple near-silent storytelling, even when the plots seem obtuse or illogical. Murder is a brief snippet of crime in controlled shots. Teeth Smile tells a voyeur’s tale from a wonderful, beautifully framed mise-en-scène.


Break Up the Dance is the first experiment in more long form narrative. Here, Polanski tries to challenge tone and show a happy set-up (a swanky, invite only party) followed by an anarchic ending (a gang of thugs literally break things up). Lamp is the notion of progress competing with old world ways. A new electrical system destroys a dollmaker’s shop, and the magic inside, when it replaces the reliable oil lamp therein. The aforementioned Mammals is really an allegory for the battle between man and his nature for evolutionary and social superiority. Basically boiled down to a snowbound tale of one rube forced to pull another along on a sleigh, it’s a game of one-upmanship to see who gets to play master and who gets to be subservient.


The three longest shorts, however, are also the best. Two Men and a Wardrobe tells the tender tale of a couple of jolly furniture movers who suddenly appear from out of the ocean, oversized cupboard in hand. As they move around a cityscape devolving into crime and brutality, the good-natured duo are put upon and ridiculed, refused service in restaurants, and beaten by thugs. The dichotomy between people who are different and the stubborn prejudice of the community strikes chords of instant recognition.


What is not so readily apparent is the quiet gentility in the story and the painful pathos of watching the innocent be oppressed. Equally stirring is The Fat and the Lean, a strange tale of ritualistic patterns that reveals how the ties than bind are more damaging than the ability to break free. As a sad servant tries his best to entertain and care for his obese, dictatorial master, he longs for freedom and a life in the big city, away from service and supplication. It is funny, sad, and stupid all in one big bravura cinematic performance.


But probably the best piece of moviemaking in the whole DVD package is When Angels Fall, the brutally devastating story of an old woman forced to live out her last days with haunting memories of her past as she monitors a men’s bathroom. Surrounded by bums and hustlers, urinals dripping with running water, we see a face devastated by time and fate thinking back and recalling: remembering her youth, remembering young love, remembering family, and always, remembering loss in wartime. Shifting from the black and white realities of the toilet to the faded colors of memory, it shows that Polanski, even as a graduating student from school, was a genius of visual arts.


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Tuesday, Sep 18, 2007

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, is currently playing on select dates around the country. The next screening will take place on 21 September, 2007 at the Loft Cinema in Tuscon, AZ. More information can be found by clicking here Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman will be there, in person, and there’s a chance to “Win a Date” with the noted director (along with actress Elske McCain. Addition rules of the contest can be seen by clicking


It really is a shame that the once mighty Troma trademark has been tarnished as of late. Thanks to DVD, which brought film’s tempting technological reach to the greater unwashed, wannabe Toxic Avengers have tried their hand at mimicking the blood and guts mastery of Lloyd Kaufman and the gang. Usually unable to emulate the craven cartoon qualities and joyful junkiness of the indie icon, they go for the gross and the easy arterial spray. Missing is the message, the satiric overtones, the clear love of cinema, and the devotion to art that comes from the company. In its place is a subpar substitute that has out of touch critics referencing all horror comedy by a slanderous descriptive slam. Somewhere along the line, Troma has been turned into a tag for all that is dumb, dopey, schlocky, and stupid.


Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth – or perhaps a better way of saying it is that there is more to these Manhattan movie mavericks than gore and naked girlies. Perfect proof of this maxim arrives in the soon to be released fast food freak out Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Unlike their camcorder imitators, this is a real celluloid find, a middle finger kiss off to an industry undermining its public with questionable hygiene practices and ever more suspect health concerns. Created by company honcho Lloyd Kaufman after witnessing, first hand, the rat infested foulness of a noted neighborhood franchise, there is as much politics as pus in this whacked out working stiff spectacle. Using a combination of tried and true gruesomeness, a buttload (literally) of toilet humor, a collection of clever songs, and an acerbic insight into the raging corporate machine, he makes a sensational silk purse out of a skidmarked sow’s rear. Toss in some lesbian T&A and you’ve got an exercise in excess that’s a true crude classic.


Our sorted saga begins when Arbie and Wendy, two horny high school graduates, have sex in a local cemetery. They are interrupted by the restless spirits of a disgraced Native American tribe, and afterwards, vow to remain close even as life pulls them apart. Fast forward a few months and the American Chicken Bunker, run by recovering KKK member General Roy Lee, has set up a restaurant right on top of the Indian’s burial base camp. Even worse, the company’s noted livestock atrocities have members of C.L.A.M. (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerates) up in arms. While Denny and the rest of the staff – Carl Jr., Humus, and Paco Bell – try to keep things under control for the grand opening, Arbie learns that Wendy has gone girl, hooking up with angry activist Micki. Joining the General’s team in hopes of winning back his babe, our hero comes face to beak with a collection of undead fouls, and the reanimated resolve of some pretty pissed off pullets.



Outrageous, insane, and borderline brilliant, Poultrygeist is one of the best things to come out of Troma since Kaufman gave birth to the Make Your Own Damn Movie parody Terror Firmer. It’s bloodier, ballsier, and bluerer than anything the company has ever done, and it is its first ever zombie flick. This is the kind of crackpot genre gem that gets its kicks out of wallowing in feces, tweaking Islamic terrorists, exploiting same sexiness, and undermining standard cinematic expectations. It’s a tasty throwback to the days when physical effects ruled repugnance, where gore-based gags were just as important as CGI spiked spurting. In the grand realm of grade-Z grooving, where bile and body parts match boobs and buttocks for cinematic sleazoid perfection, director Kaufman and his amiable cast of unknowns deliver on every sophomoric swipe, while drop kicking Colonel Sanders and Ray Kroc in the process. It also makes one thing crystal clear – once you’ve seen how the originators get it done, the imitators seem pretty pathetic, indeed.


No one really champions Troma’s take on terror, and that’s a shame. Certainly, it’s broad based and jocular, trying for as many snickers as scares, but there is something deeply satisfying about the way Kaufman and crew approach their projects. The scripts, usually collaborations between many motivated film geeks, tend to cut to the chase and amplify the anarchy. Smartly written and loaded with all kinds of cracks – puns, lampoons, and the proudly profane – they become the blueprints for the creation of an unmistakable horror hybrid. Poultrygeist definitely benefits the most from this brazen business model, since it has four decades to draw on. The results are like a glorified greatest hits package, an omnibus offering of everything that makes the Troma name terrific.



Some, however, have questioned the decision to include songs in this film, since the notion of a monster musical where characters constantly interrupt the flow of the fun to rev up and vocalize does have its questionable rewards. But Poultrygeist does a wonderful job of making the tunes feel like an effortless extension of the storyline. When Arbie and Wendy try to re-establish their romance during the evocative ballad “Fast Food Love”, Kaufman counterbalances the “Moon/June” sentiments with a full blown lesbian ho-down. As our paramours plead in 2/4 time, the sisters of Sappho go gonzo. Similarly, a fabulous duet between Arbie and his future self (played by a spectacularly goofy Kaufman) has the added amusement of seeing the Troma chief traipsing around in a too short skirt. Granted, many of the actors are tonally challenged, and a few of the lyrics are more wobbly than witty, but the combination really works. It’s reminiscent of another Kaufman supported entity – the brilliant Trey Parker/Matt Stone extravaganza Cannibal: The Musical.


Poultrygeist is indeed on par with the aforementioned farce, since it handles its consistently contradictory facets with fearlessness and finesse. In a mainstream dynamic that can’t conceive of how to technically go for broke, this amazing movie does so time and time again. Gorehounds, unable to get their daily recommended dose of disgusting via conservative Tinsel Town tripe, will practically plotz at the level of outstanding offal here. There are sluice soaked gags so innovative and memorable (the head omelet, death by diarrhea, implant evisceration) that they’re destined to go down in the annals of onscreen splatter. There’s hasn’t been this ludicrous level of Technicolor yawning in quite a while. Combined with the blatant bad taste witticism, the propagandized agenda, and Kaufman’s clear creative vision (mock him all your want – the man knows his audience and what makes them merry), you end up with the motion picture equivalent of punk rock – raw, dirty, and damn proud.



Of course, none of this would be possible without the dozens of volunteers and underpaid performers who give up their regular grind to provide Kaufman with a concrete talent pool. As our leads, Jason Yachanin and Wendy Graham turn Arbie and Wendy into a classic cornball couple, the kind of kids you root for as the entrails and body parts fly. Though he’s absent from the action most of the time, Joshua Olatunde’s Bunker manager Denny is a smart aleck delight. Every line he delivers sounds imported from Samuel L. Jackson’s high school resume. As with any latter day Troma movie, recognizing the occasional cameo is half the fun. One of the best here comes from porn pro Ron Jeremy. Not only is his mandatory “you’re all gonna die” diatribe a hoot, but the punchline provides a nice acknowledgement of the meat man’s late in life battle of the bulge. 


All of this makes Troma’s current crisis of confidence all the more confusing. Kaufman will claim blacklisting, and without another cogent reason for his company’s exclusion within the otherwise omnivorous media, his point is well taken. Troma can apparently be copied, referenced, and blatantly stolen from, and yet a film like Poultrygeist has to scramble for any booking it can get. Instead of being a monster hit alongside similarly styled overhyped movie macabre, this incredibly effective circus has to take a backseat to PG-13 rated retardation. As the old song says, we frequently don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone. While he’s still around, capable of making movies as wonderfully weird and wholly entertaining as this, it’s time to give Lloyd Kaufman his due. He’s a filmmaker, not a fool, and this Night of the Chicken Dead is proof of his, and Troma’s lasting legacy. It’s simply amazing.



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Monday, Sep 17, 2007


For the formerly famous or once noted, the decision on how best to promote a comeback is complicated at best. Do you rely solely on your previous efforts, or do you try and expand or even modify them for a new generation of fans. In the case of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, the one time TV icons in charge of the unquestionably brilliant Mystery Science Theater 3000, it has been fan inflexibility, not a lack of inspiration, that’s guided their post-cancellation endeavors. While providing audio only comic commentary tracks for popular blockbuster efforts (via the Rifftrax online brand), they also decided to reconfigure the old MST model. Sponsored by cult cravers Shout! Factory, the new enterprise, entitled The Film Crew, has used DVD’s wealth of public domain dung to bring in-theater quipping back from the dead. And it’s been a remarkable rebirth, to say the least.


With last month’s Hollywood After Dark release already under their belt (the Rue McClanahan stripper fiasco was a great place to start), the talented trio now take on two completely different beyond b-movies. In Killers from Space, Peter Graves is a jet pilot who somehow manages to survive a deadly crash. Turns out, aliens rescued him with the intent of using him as a spy. Their goal? The top secret times and locations of America’s nuclear tests. This is then followed by the proto peplum of The Wild Women of Wongo. In the title village, the gals are gorgeous. Unfortunately, the men are brutish and bad tempered. When a regular Greek god, muscled and well meaning, arrives from the downstream land of Goona, the girls go ga-ga. Turns out, things are the exact opposite where he lives. The guys are hot. The women are definitely not. Naturally, royal rituals and alligator gods must be appeased, even as loin clothed lovers make prehistoric cow eyes at each other.


Clearly functioning under the “not broken, no fixing” formula, The Film Crew set-up has Mike, Kevin, and Bill playing employees of the entertainment eccentric Bob Honcho. He’s a motion picture maverick who believes that every DVD, no matter how nominal, deserves a commentary track. He makes regular phone calls to his cinematic stooges, announcing their assignments and, in general, flaunting his high powered CEO lifestyle. Unlike Mystery Science, which relied on skits every 22 minutes to break up the bad movie monotony, The Film Crew offers a one time midpoint ‘Lunch Break’. There, between bites of sandwich and slurps of diet shake, the men mock contrivances within the film – be it the decision to use exaggerated body parts to suggest that said killers are actually from space, or learning how to locate Wongo on a map. 



As lifelong fans of such external monologue mannerisms will tell you, it’s the movie that makes the mockery, not the other way around. When you have something as lifeless and leaden as Killers from Space, it can try even the wittiest rejoinder’s resolve. But when overwhelmed by atrocious acting, half-baked production design, and various untenable body types draped in fur covered diapers, The Wild Women of Wongo creates a never-ending Arch Hall Jr. foundation of funny business. Both releases offer a ridiculous amount of fun, but Wongo eventually wins out, if only by a horndog hair. Whereas, in the past, the potential comedy was hindered by cable standards and family-oriented programming, The Film Crew can now let their lecherous freak flag fly.


It starts right at the beginning of the otherwise atrocious tale. Kevin Murphy decides that every action taken by the title babes mandates a seedy, suggestive, double entendre. When a battle breaks out between two of the tempting tribeswomen, it’s the sign for a series of catcalls. An embrace between the Princess of Wongo and the Prince of Goona earns a series of sexually suggestive statements, and the beefy chuck steak nature of the bodybuilder cast mandates its own level of man musk bemusement. However, the most mileage is gained out of a Dragon Temple sequence where the matronly priestess screeches that everyone must “DANCE!!!” Thanks to the open format of the digital domain (meaning nothing need necessarily be ‘rated’ by the MPAA), our satiric triptych can let their shorthairs down, so to speak. Of course, their comedy is not really that crude to begin with, but to hear them skirt around the scandalous is really a treat.



As for The Wild Women of Wongo itself, it’s like exploitation without the free flowing flesh peddling extremes. The scantily clad cast is obviously not trying for some manner of archeologically adept realism, and the storyline is Romeo and Juliet with added jungle juice. In fact, the driving force inside the nutty narrative is the notion that male chauvinism is (apparently) part of our primordial DNA. The male members of the tribe sit around and imitate a monosyllabic Homer Simpson as they berate and barter over the ladies like ranchers at a carnal cattle auction. The guys from Goona aren’t much better. They may have overdeveloped lats and too sweet pecs, but they’re backwards as well in the way of the woman. It’s the goofy XY equilibrium between know it all honeys and do nothing hunks that makes this a classic cornball comedy companion piece.


Killers from Space, on the other hand, makes Red Zone Cuba seem like The Missiles of October. The Crew does come out swinging, taking on the military industrial complex, and its apparent appreciate of smoking, for all its non-filtered farce. It’s great to hear the guys giggle as General after Major pull out a pack and light up. When a driven Peter Graves is put under Sodium Amatol, the lack of convincing unconsciousness also provides the perfect platform for laughs. But the choicest chuckling comes when our hero, trapped in an underground cavern, tries to escape. For nearly 20 minutes, he is confronted by rear projection pictures of oversized “monsters”. In reality, they are nothing more than lizards, tarantulas, and iguanas given some silly schlock resizing. As they did on the Satellite of Love, the gang gets a kick out of giving such lame F/X the ridicule rub.



As a movie, however, Killers from Space maintains its mindnumbing mediocrity throughout. This is a terribly talky film, a narrative that substitutes words for vistas unaffordable or unobtainable.  There are significant scenes of cars driving aimlessly, and when we finally meet the title terrors, they’re nothing more than unitard wearing insurance salesmen with painted ping pong balls for eyes. Perhaps an audience still in awe of all the A-bombing going on would cotton to such crudity. But decades of sophistication has rendered such radioactive retardation more stupefying than Larry the Cable Guy. Alongside the Captain Video level of extraterrestrial originality and the elephantine critters, you’ve got a literal compendium of sloppy suburban sci-fi, the kind of speculative fiction that would give Harlan Ellison agida for decades. 


As for packaging and presentation, Shout! Factory and the minds behind The Film Crew have really improved things over the Hollywood After Dark release. The bonus features on Wild Women of Wongo allow you the opportunity to see Mike, Kevin, and Bill cut a movie mandated rug. There’s also a recreation of the snarky “wink” ending to the film. The added content for Killers from Space is even more intriguing. After Murphy shows us how backwards masking was used to emulate alien language in the storyline, we are given the opportunity to watch “outtakes” from the infamous silly talk scene, with the Crew substituting their own dialogue for the scientific read outs. It’s a hilarious extra, and one that shows where this series could go, should it continue.



And here’s hoping that it does. In an arena that takes itself far too serious, which wants to award any and all product made by the hack Hollywood studio system some manner of long deserved classical status, we need entities like The Film Crew. They’re the lampoon equivalent of an uppercut to the chin, a clear comeuppance for a cinematic statement that really does nothing more than stink on ice. Cinephiles can argue over the worthwhile qualities inherent in a dumb as dirt skin epic, or a dialogue driven diatribe against nuclear weaponry, but when all is said and done, The Wild Women of Wongo and Killers from Space are nothing more than misguided motion pictures. They are poorly executed, laughable examples of celluloid as septic tank. Luckily, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett are still around to accessorize the aroma. Indeed, The Film Crew continues to make the most noxious non-entertainment utterly enjoyable. 


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Sunday, Sep 16, 2007


They were supposed to be the saving grace of cinema, the cyberspace tastemakers that provided insight into what would be a hit come theatrical release date. Via their focused devotion and frothing fanbase obsessions, they would function as broad-based barometer, a way to decipher how like minded movie maniacs would respond. Yet ever since Snakes on a Plane significantly underperformed, and Grindhouse ground to a halt, the geek has been getting its commercial clairvoyance kicked. Over the last few months alone, the potential prognostication of these messageboard/MySpace mavericks, luminaries supposedly in tune with the times, has proved to be downright deadly. And in its wake, a selection of stellar and slightly less significant films have been left to flounder.


Of course, a caveat has to be provided before plowing forward. Just because the knowledgeable nerd loves a possible project with all his mint condition action figure might doesn’t mean the movie will actually be good. With large exceptions – 300, for example – the quality of the film actually figures into the failure. In addition, any kind of cult, by its very nature, is limited in scope and design. Unless you can manage a Unification Church level of brainscrubbing, the choir will always be preaching to a smaller and smaller subsect of the converted. And yet Hollywood still rests a lot of its hope on feeding the so-called insider sites with as much pre-production pimping as possible. Rarely does it come back to bite then in the bet (the recent dork nation reject of Rob Zombie’s Halloween a clear anomaly).


Take Shoot ‘Em Up! for example. Released at the start of Fall’s frequently confusing motion picture season, it had the earnest earmarks of a surprise post-Summer sleeper. There was non-stop action, loads of gratuitous violence, a scantily clad Monica Belluci, and several deadly carrots. The characters were cardboard cut-outs of carbon copies accentuated with just enough quirk and smirk to make them viable, and director Michael Davis didn’t just bury his tongue in his cheek – he cut the damn thing off and crammed it into your craw. Yet after one week in theaters, and a less than impressive $6 million take at the turnstiles, the movie is headed for a quick take turnaround onto the DVD format. Receipts are down almost 60% in the second week, and the lack of “legs” indicates an audience that’s already climaxed on this kooky crime caper.


So what went wrong? Why is Shoot ‘Em Up! failing to make a major marketplace dent. There are two answers, really. One is a throwback to the days of the VCR. There is still a significant number in the mainstream viewership who will see a title or trailer like this, run the entertainment possibilities through their own aesthetic processor, and determine that a trip to Blockbuster (or a pre-release placement on a Netflix queue) would be preferable to battling crowds and disruptive theaters in exchange for their discretionary income. This “I’ll wait for the (digital/analog) release” has plagued the industry, and the occasional unusual movie, ever since Beta battled VHS for format supremacy.


The other factor is far more fascinating. Call it the “basement” syndrome, or the “Me, Myself, and I” ideal. In general, a geek is a geek because of their solo fixation on something. They love it because of how it speaks to them, not how it resonates with the masses. Indeed, it could be argued that popularity completely undermines the feeb. Once it’s a part of pop culture, it’s hard to feel it belongs only to you. So as long as the material is unavailable, able to be scrutinized, and scanned as part of a personal dynamic, there’s a façade of potential success. All the advance buzz and preview hype does help. But once the movie makes it into the marketplace of ideas, it begins to loose its exclusivity. And with rare exceptions, this means the fanatical will have their moment – and then move on.


Of course, there are those times when Tinsel Town tries the opposite approach. Take the case of Neil Gaiman. Somehow, overnight, he went from well loved literary figure with a few notable adaptations under his belt (MirrorMask, Neverwhere) and an equally devoted following to the latest player in the post-LOTR fantasy adventure face off. Without the prerequisite preparation for a ‘next big thing’ crowning, a version of his Princess Bride like fairytale farce, Stardust, attempted to become a major popcorn movie moment. For months prior to its August release, it was touted on numerous websites as the second coming of sophisticated adult fairy tale-ing. But after a month in theaters, the film has barely grossed $36 million, a far cry from its $65 million budget.


It’s clear that the studio suits underestimated this British writer’s popularity. But it didn’t help matters much that Matthew Vaughn’s take on the material was all mannerism and no magic. People don’t usually go to a sword and sorcery epic to see aging actors swishing around (Robert DeNiro played a closeted gay sky pirate) or noted beauties rendered butt ugly (though Michelle Pfieffer was actually very good as a crabby, craggy witch). No, they want the visual fireworks, the ephemeral eye candy that comes with the genre – and if not that, some very solid satire. Stardust had neither. Instead, Gaiman was garroted, his own unique vision undermined by a movie that skimped on both spectacle and wit. 


Even independents found themselves struggling under the lack of clear geek support. Prior to its coming to our shores, the New Zealand comedy Eagle vs. Shark was being pushed as a Napoleon Dynamite for the Kiwi cult. It even starred the up and coming actor from the acclaimed HBO series Flight of the Conchords (Jermaine Clement). Unfortunately, the movie itself was a bafflingly disorganized dramedy that took a decidedly hard line look at what were, in essence, massively marginalized human beings. Where Nappy co-writer/director Jared Hess felt a kinship with the crackpots he put on screen, Eagle creator Taika Waititi just wanted to mock his morons. Even with the evocative setting, the storyline seemed harsh and the characters more confrontational than charming.


About the only films in the last nine months that followed through on their omnipresent online anticipation came from one enlightened individual. While his name was already known to many in the motion picture bazaar thanks to certified 2006 hits Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and The 40 Year Old Virgin, Judd Apatow literally stormed the cinematic stocks in 2007 and took over the reign as comedy’s creative king. His Knocked Up was one of the Summer’s certified gems, and his production credit on the equally engaging Superbad gave the smallish coming of age farce a much needed shot of significance. And it worked. Both films remain fan favorites from the otherwise unimpressive sunshine season, and stand as examples of how nerd acknowledgment can lead to legitimate commercial claims.


But these are the rarities, the situations where artistic integrity (read: good filmmaking) meshed with Internet attention to create a cult of profitability. But it’s not really indicative of the dolt demographic’s perceived power. Indeed, both Superbad and Knocked Up got as much conventional support as they earned from the online community. No, in most cases, the fanatical come up rather short in their power to both guide and deride the similarly minded. Indeed, they are equally powerless at stopping a film’s support as they are at guaranteeing its success.


As mentioned before, Rob Zombie’s recent Halloween remake stands as a great example of their overall ineffectual stance. For months, Ain’t It Cool News was gunning for this “unnecessary” horror update. It published pundit piece after pundit piece criticizing the script (even before the film went into production), arguing over Zombie’s approach, and picking apart the casting. As time passed, the mandatory screening reviews started to appear, it was clear that Harry Knowles and his artificial (and actual) industry insiders were of one like mind. Because of their longstanding professional relationship with John Carpenter, they were desperate to undermine anything that challenged his legacy.


Now, this is not just conspiracy theorizing. While no one from the site has actually come out and stated such an intent, it’s pretty easy to infer, given the obtainable facts. Drew McWeeny, otherwise known to AICN readers as “Moriarty”, has worked very closely with Carpenter in the past. He scripted the macabre icon’s Master of Horror segments “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life” and is noted for his connection to the famed filmmaker. It’s no surprise then that McWeeny took Zombie to task in a 31 August review of Halloween that, in brief, referred to the film as “creatively bankrupt from the start”, and incessantly trashed it for nearly 3000 words. Now, there is no denying the man’s entitlement to his opinion. It’s the cornerstone of criticism. But the lack of openness (Carpenter’s name is mentioned, but never the duo’s business relationship) taints any take.


The funny thing is – it really didn’t work. While far from a blockbuster and more or less destroyed by the rest of the fractured Fourth Estate, Halloween did go on to score almost $52 million at the box office, guaranteeing Zombie another stint behind the camera. In fact, your regular movie going audiences have been much more receptive of the film than the so-called clued in, and with its microscopic production costs (approximately $15 to $20 million, by some estimates), it will surely be labeled a decent sized hit. So what does this say about the geek contingent? Are they really a powerful predictor of success? Or are they nothing more than untried tea leaves for a desperate studio system?


The answer is clearly neither. While there is nothing new about gauging fan interest in divining a product’s potential success, Hollywood has forgotten something significant about the online community. Like talk radio and any other forum for public interaction, the squeaky wheels that choose to participate are not representative of the entire population. For every lover/hater of a movie/director/actor, there’s a Nixon-esque silent majority sitting back, making up its own mind. They will ignore the love of a specific author or genre type to simply pay for what interests them. In fact, the louder the screams from the self-imposed about the importance of a project, the more likely the hype will fall on indifferent or just plain deaf ears.


Certainly, the geek will have its failures. All gamblers do. And it is sad when such a flop is fostered upon an undeserving entity (Grindhouse was great, as was Shoot ‘Em Up!). But perhaps it’s time to stop using the overtly zealous as a benchmark for bankability. It’s clear that any position they take – pro or con – still renders a title a veritable unknown quantity. Like the buzz building around a student union, or a high school cafeteria, the new ‘Net water cooler is just one factor in a film’s overall potential success. The rest of the elements tend to render the nerd a minor mirror at best. Hopefully Hollywood will remember that come creativity/concept time. It’s one thing to play to the prone. Relying on them is just a fool’s paradise.


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Sunday, Sep 16, 2007


Back before Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson unleashed Scream on an unsuspecting genre public, no one would have fathomed linking fear and funny business together. Certainly there were specific spoofs of the fright film, and some directors believed instinctually that small amounts of comedy actually aided the dread. But to essentially make the humor as important as the horror seems a filmmaking feat of impossible parameters. Too much wit, and the suspense dries up. Too much fright and the jokes appear intrusive. Heralded by ‘Net head as the second coming of satiric scary splatter, Hatcher has lots of good things going for it. Unfortunately, they do tend to serve the same old slice and dice that hasn’t been relevant since a certain Mr. Reagan left the White House.


We are greeted by your standard spookshow premise – a pair of college friends visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras decide to go on a haunted swamp boat trip. It’s not a mutual decision – Ben is trying to get over being dumped by his girlfriend, while Marcus just wants to look at as many bead-less boobs as possible. Eventually, they make it to the launch, and there, among the various archetypal tourists and mysterious passengers, they learn of Victor Crowley. A legend among the bayou people, the story goes something like this – born with a horribly disfigured face, young Victor was kept sheltered from the world by his dad. When a Halloween prank by some local kids caused their shack to catch fire, the sad child’s father tried to save him. Unfortunately, the title implement he used ended up in Victor’s skull, leaving a massive scar. Now, decades later, an undead Victor supposedly stalks the bogs, looking for victims to satisfy his sense of justice.


Now, if this all sounds very Jason Voorhees and/or Freddy Krueger to you, that’s because Hatchet is cut from the same threadbare 1980s creepshow cloth. It is clear that writer/director Adam Green is a big time hack and slash fan, a fervent believer in the cinematic staying power of blood and buffoonery. While a tad too reliant on the post-modern notion of inherently ironic quips (the characters here don’t joke as much as provide a Mystery Science like nod and wink to everything that’s going on), Green does give us some mighty fine gore. In fact, it’s safe to say that Hatchet has some of the most satisfying anarchic arterial spray this side of a Romero zombie flick. This is the kind of film where heads are pulled apart, arms are severed from torsos, and – yes – axes cleave people in two - literally. While there is an over the top nature to the nastiness, it will provide lovers of repugnant liquidity more than enough sluice.


In fact, excessive claret may be Hatchet’s sole strong point. Green’s direction is good, if a tad generic, and he stages everything like one of those Disney Channel Halloweentown titles. There is very little invention, and his stock shocks are obvious and sort of embarrassing. Similarly, his cast offers nothing but stereotyped stops. They’re decent, but stuck essaying standard fright night fools. There’s a chubby Midwestern couple that stumbles around like mashed potatoes looking for the gravy boat, while a pair of pathetic bimbos and their pseudo softcore porn producer provider resemble outcasts from a Girls Gone Mild shoot. Even our evasive chick with a vendetta and a weapon turns into a whiny tart by the time Crowley starts wielding his sharpened stick.


Granted, our Goonies gone gonzo icon is a semi-impressive heavy, the kind of killer that immediately gets us thinking back to a dozen trips to the bottom shelf of a local Mom and Pop video store. But Green doesn’t give him a lot to do. All the set-up, with its sympathetic tone and temperament, never results in this maniac being anything other than murderous. And since a great deal of the action occurs at night and in shadowy locals, we never really get a good look at his fearsome fright mask. In some ways, Green goes to such lengths to keep Crowley in darkness that we never get the eerie epiphany his appearance mandates.


Still, it has to be said that Hatchet’s homage to the goofy, gloppy vivisection-fests of two decades before has a strange way of satisfying. The self-conscious wit actually works most of the time, and the inevitability of the deaths makes the character’s personal standoff seem that much sillier. Also, the bayou backdrop provides a nice amount of local color. Even the opening trips through the side streets of NOLA – and a few funny voodoo shops – puts us in the proper, pro-pus mood. Indeed, Hatchet has to screw up big time in order to have us hating it. When you toss in the production history (it was one of the last movies made in Louisiana before Katrina devastated the area) and the good nature attempt at recreating the genre, this film fairs very well.


Still, one has to wonder if the modern horror fan is ready to return to the days of creaky cat and mouse games followed by mindless mayhem without style or finesse. Over the 30 years since the slasher discovered its sage (either Bob Clark or John Carpenter – you decide), theatrical evil has strived to remove itself from the format’s rote realities. It’s wanted to avoid the carbon copy crappiness of the endless stream of splatter to reintroduce mood, narrative, characterization, and overall creativity back to the macabre medium. Still, when you can’t offer anything cogent, you go for what’s available. Scream substituted satire. Hatchet is hoping that humor pulls it through. The grand gore quotient does elevate an evaluation, but some will see it as noxiousness for novelty’s sake. In fact, that’s a perfect way to sum up this horror hilarity – outrageousness substituting for originality. 



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