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Thursday, Oct 19, 2006

Just turn off the set. Skip it. Go out and get a life, or find a local book club that will actually accept your multimedia made illiteracy as a personality quirk, but don’t make a date with your beloved pay movie channels this weekend. With four films that stink like a dead skunk drowned in dung, it’s impossible to recommend anything that your hard earned premium cable dollars are paying for. Between the tepid tripe of another paranormal romance to a ridiculous remake of a fright film that didn’t get it right the first time around, you’d be better served by staying up late tonight and taking in a pair of Russ Meyer’s mammary-enhanced masterworks (see below). Or better yet, turn off the tube and simply settle in with a good DVD. Even something as hackneyed as a full on Friday the 13th marathon (from the original to Freddy vs. Jason) would provide more moviemaking acumen than the dire dregs being tossed out here. For those of you still not convinced, here is what’s showing this Saturday, 21 October:


HBOJust Like Heaven

Who knew the dead were so – spunky? In this tired retread of the ridiculous RomCom subsection – the supernatural love story, Reese Witherspoon is Legally Deceased, and yet still manages to woo and win the afterlife affection of her barely alive new beau, the ragged Mark Ruffalo. Though some might consider this approach to relationships (ghost of a dead doctor falls for the dude who rents out her now vacant apartment) as something quite novel, it’s just the same old superficial spook show. If you want real invention in the tired filmic format, avoid this frazzled fluff and check out Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Once you’ve seen how truly original and affecting a romantic comedy can be, you’ll never again settle for such syrupy, saccharine slop. Here’s hoping her recent Oscar win helps Ms. Witherspoon avoid such subpar product in the future. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxStay

What has happened to the science fiction film of late? With examples as appalling as the Robin Williams waste of time The Final Cut to that lame Michael Bay boogie The Island, it seems like the speculative side of genre cinema just can’t get no respect. Further proof is provided by this excruciating Ewan McGregor effort. Playing a psychiatrist trying to decipher the rationale behind a gifted artist’s recent declaration of suicidal intent, this failed future schlock is all the more stunning when you consider Mark Foster, responsible for Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, was behind this fiasco. Call it Imitation Vanilla Sky or a drab David Lynch daydream, but this meshing of fantasy with fact is just an excuse for more motion picture masturbation from what many consider to be a gifted filmmaker. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzShopgirl

Steve Martin needs to retire. Just look at the last five films this one time cutting edge comedian has made – Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen (and it’s even dopier sequel), the pathetic Pink Panther revamp and this stab at middle aged male menopause passing itself off as a standard romantic comedy. Responsible for the script, as well as the source material at the center of this lame love triangle, Martin makes many of the same mistakes that other wannabe old coot Casanovas commit – he actually thinks people will care about his aged character’s need for human companionship. With relationships too difficult for the average viewer to navigate successfully, the interpersonal dynamics of fictional people better be fresh or fascinating. Otherwise, it’s all heartbreak and old hat. Sadly, Martin makes it seem rather rote as well. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeThe Amityville Horror (2005)

It was the book that spawned a dozen schoolyard debates. Hailed as a true, nonfiction account of one family’s battle with the forces of darkness, the legend of Amityville (and the bestseller that resulted) fueled many a ‘70s teen’s sleepless night. The original film version, starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder was marred by a blatant disregard for the narrative’s best elements, and instead, focused on things that many fans found irritating, or downright foolish. Well, in a clear case of failing the second time around, producer Michael Bay equally eviscerates the storyline, keeping only the chills for this exercise in excess. First time filmmaker Andrew Douglas makes the fatal mistake of believing that non-stop scares make for a masterpiece of macabre. Instead, he churns out a meandering mess with various haunted house histrionics that appear to have no real point. (Saturday 21 October, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 20/21 October, the choices are sensational:


Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Russ Meyer’s emblematic exploitation film is far more interested in violence than vice, but that doesn’t mean its any less effective. With one of the best girl gangs ever put on film – including the sultry Tura Satana and the ‘healthy’ Haji – you can’t beat this film for full out gal against guy gratuity. The result is a true cult gem. (2:00am EST)


Mudhoney
Made the same year as Pussycat, Meyer’s trashy Tobacco Road take is far more typical of his overall canon – an oeuvre that was more social commentary than all out skin flick. Safely within the limits of acceptable mid-‘60s censorship standards (it will be interesting to see how TNT handles the nudity), this is also one of the director’s best.  (3:30am EST)


 


Seven Films, Seven Days

For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the fourth installment of acceptable selections for this week include:



21 October - The Game
David Fincher fooled everyone by showing that the tired twist ending could still be surprising – and thought provoking – in this inventive clockwork thriller.
(Flix – 8PM EST)


22 October - Dolores Claiborne
Kathy Bates takes on another classic Stephen King character in Taylor Hackford’s excellent adaptation of the terror maestro’s experimental novel.
(Encore Mystery – 9:30PM EST)


23 October - Halloween II (Edited Version)
Edit out all the blood and guts and what do you have? Another American Movie Classics excuse for entertainment – not that this shoddy sequel needs help sucking.
(AMC – 8PM EST)


24 October -Leviathan
Right at the end of the ‘80s, sea creatures made a minor run at genre box office gold. The better of the two is this combination of Alien and aquatics.
(Encore – 8PM EST)


25 October - The Haunting
Want to see the film that killed Jan de Bont’s directorial career? Then check out this overwrought, CGI heavy version of the Shirley Jackson classic.
(TBS – 11:20PM EST)


26 October - Better Off Dead
Considered by many ‘80s film fans as one of the era’s definitive teen romps, this jaunty John Cusak starring vehicle deserves all of its aficionado affections.
(The Movie Channel – 11:35PM EST)


27 October -Strange Invaders
Both a throwback to the sci-fi of the ‘50s and a celebration of the F/X heavy horrors of the ‘80s, this forgotten film is a true forgotten classic.
(MoviePlex – 7:20PM EST)


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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the biology-based terror of David Cronenberg, Canada’s premier horror maestro.


For many, sex and sexuality is an issue best left private. It involves so many idiosyncratic and deeply personal aspects that it can cause considerable individual angst. But in the mind of Canadian macabre maestro David Cronenberg, the physical act of intercourse, and the ancillary essentials that make up eros, can be more terrifying than any monster, more horrific than any visit from a violent slasher. It all has to do with the body – as a temple and temptation, a place easily violated and poisoned by facets from without and within. In a career that has spanned three decades, several sensational films, and a genre-defying approach to narrative, Cronenberg has managed to locate the fear inside the most fundamental aspect of existence – life itself – and as a result he created a canon where being human is the most potentially precarious thing a person can do.


For some, he is a difficult auteur. His work is overloaded with ideas, plagued by invention that both amplifies and occasionally addles, his efforts. Because of his background – Cronenberg studied both science and literature in college, taking a degree in the latter from the University of Toronto before dabbling in film – his themes usually clash, creating cinematic chaos before coming together at the end. After several strange and unique independent efforts (and more than a couple of TV films for Canadian broadcasting) in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Cronenberg was desperate to explore the unnatural ideas rolling around in his head. He finally got the chance in 1975 with Shivers (released in the US and better known as They Came From Within).


With a narrative that would come to exemplify much of the director’s works – a parasite overruns an apartment building, turning the residents into lust-crazed maniacs whose goal is to infect each other – Shivers started Cronenberg’s career long march toward discovering the mysteries of sex. Acknowledging that for many, the physical act of love (or without emotion, pure carnal copulation) can be a daunting, even devastating act, the director designed his cinema to symbolize such an internal struggle via brash external means. In the case of Shivers, it was the loss of intimacy as represented by a small, squishy slug that brings on uncontrolled desire. Seen by many today as an AIDS metaphor as well as a comment on the disease spreading revolution that marked most of the Me Decade, the movie was an auspicious start to a soon to be impressive career. 


Next up was Rabid, which took the whole pornography of fear (and visa versa) element one step further by featuring real life adult film star Marilyn Chambers in the lead role. She played a woman whose botched plastic surgery leads to an insatiable desire for blood, and a small penis-like appendage jutting from her armpit. Never one to shy away from the more graphic aspects of imagery, many fright fans were repulsed by the decidedly disturbing nature of Cronenberg’s visuals. Still, Rabid was well received and after the one-off car cult action pic Fast Company, Cronenberg was back in biological territory. Using children as the source of all evil, he fashioned The Brood. Noted for taking the concept of psychosomatic illnesses to an all new, literary level, the director dissected birth, and the legacy of procreation, and inserted them into the closest thing to a condemnation of offspring this side of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.


Though he was now a considered cult filmmaker, Cronenberg had yet to matter to the mainstream. All of that would change with his next effort, 1980’s Scanners. Completing a kind of queer quadrilogy that followed terror from creation, to birth, to a kind of mutated maturity, the filmmaker established the perfect way of meshing physicality with fear, while also tapping into areas revolving around power and purpose. In this popular hit (which used the explosion of a man’s head from the film’s first act as a decided gore selling point), two adult ‘scanners’ battle for a kind of metaphysical supremacy, one arguing that the telekinetic skills he was genetically engineered with are a curse. The other, of course, sees nothing but superiority. Thanks to the bloodletting and special effects which accented Cronenberg’s complex screenplay, what could have been a geek show turned into a brave, bravura statement.


But he wasn’t done manipulating both mind and body. In his minor masterpiece Videodrome, Cronenberg considered the meddlesome effects of the media on human nature, and personal physicality, all with devastating results. Predating many of the symptoms post-modern punditry would imply were destroying the human race (TV, violence, sex, cults, religion) the director melded technology, terror and temptation to produce a kind of arch acid flashback, compete with living televisions, torso vaginas, and guns that were an actual extension of one’s anatomy. Some consider the last act where star James Woods has become a bio-sexual assassin (all thanks to a brainwashing signal implanted in a pirate satellite transmission) to be a meandering mess that looses much of what Cronenberg was commenting on. While definitely gruesome, the finale is a flawless wrap up to a story that’s surrealism sets up all the symbolism to come.


At this point, Cronenberg had arrived and was presented with his choice of projects. Scanners was a hit, and Videodrome proved he could match wits with even the wildest industry innovators. His next step threw the fanbase a substantial cinematic curve when he agreed to film an adaptation of Stephen King’s paranormal political thriller The Dead Zone. Antithetical to his whole corporeal creep show concepts, he still delivered a searing socio-political drama that resonates as realistically today as it did three decades before. It so impressed the individuals holding the option for a remake of the ‘50s insect schlock The Fly that Cronenberg was given the job of bringing the troubled project to the screen. Perhaps the perfect match of material and maker, the resulting effort would become one of horror cinema’s greatest achievements.


The Fly functions on many magnificent levels – love story, splatterfest, acting tutorial, monster movie – that to try and narrow its success to one or the other is futile. With a remarkable Jeff Goldblum giving life to one of the most difficult roles in all of fright filmmaking (man turning into a creature) and effects that added emphasis to the horror this human was experiencing, the sci-fi aspects of the narrative function perfectly as an analogy to how love impacts and changes a person. Before his relationship with Veronica, Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle was an insular and introverted man. Passion, and physical love transform the sullen scientist into a man eager to explore the possibilities of the world. Sadly one said adventure involved his teleportation device, an errant insect, and a gradual transformation into something quite grotesque.


An unquestionable achievement, Cronenberg’s creation touched a substantial genre nerve. Fright fans found it almost impossible to ignore the depth of emotion that existed between the characters, and saw the ending, a Grand Guignol spectacle of violence and loss, as one of Cronenberg’s most powerful. Few thought he could do better, but again, he baffled his devotees by delivering another amazing movie, the dualistic thriller Dead Ringers. It was a narrative that brought all his obsessions full circle. More psychological than physiological and using the almost telepathic connection between twins to tell a tale of obsession and possession, the narrative seemed like a response to all the critics who commented on the director’s own fascination with the human body and all its amniotic aspects.


At this point, Cronenberg could have merely coasted. Numerous projects came his way, many of which were Hollywood’s way of “rewarding” him for years of outsider excellence. But instead of bowing to blockbuster pressures, the filmmaker followed his heart, and attempted the near impossible – an adaptation of William Burrough’s notorious novel Naked Lunch. Instead of coming to terms with the demented descriptions in the author’s stream of consciousness screed of drugs and their use/abuse, Cronenberg fused a fictional Burroughs’ biopic with an interpretation of how such haunting, harrowing passages were prepared, and created a kind of mental Molotov cocktail. Fans hoping for a quixotic slice of pure Burroughs felt betrayed. Others argued that there were vast, varied differences between Croneberg’s Lunch and the ersatz story on the page. While celebrated today, Naked Lunch was lamented at the time of its initial release, considered disappointing in both cinematic and literary camps. 


It didn’t stop the auteur from continuing to court controversy. He brought the Broadway hit M. Butterfly to the silver screen, amplifying the homosexual angle of an already scandalous story of a French diplomat who fell in love and lived with an Asian transvestite. Next, he pushed the acceptability envelope even further by retrofitting J. G. Ballard’s brave book, Crash to fit his filmmaking ideals. So scandalous that it barely got released, the story of sexual deviants who get physical thrills from accident scenes and injury, put a preemptive halt to the director’s ascent into universal adoration. Arguably one of his best films, Crash can also be seen as penance for all the peculiarity Cronenberg placed upon his audiences.


Instead of a retreat, however, the filmmaker merely pressed on. His next big screen effort, eXistenZ was a weird, wooly trip into virtual reality, and proved a professional disappointment. Viewers apparently weren’t ready to see a motion picture mindfuck that actually was mindfucking itself. Then came the criminally underrated Spider with Ralph Fiennes delivering a devastating turn as a mentally unhinged man whose past and present seem to coexist simultaneously. In 2005, Cronenberg stunned everyone, from film critic to fervent supporter, with his Oscar caliber comment on the brutal nature of the human race, A History of Violence.


For a filmmaker used to accolades, the love this masterpiece received was outrageous. Nominated for numerous awards, and high on almost all film critic’s year end ‘best of’ lists, the story of small town America shaken by murder, and mistrust violates almost every single aspect of the filmmaker’s venereal style. Gone are the multiple references to the human form – in there place are stellar statements about the nature of evil, and how a loved one can hide their true self from even those they profess to care about. In fact, many reviewers responded favorably to the film for the very reason that Cronenberg appeared to be giving up his biological fascinations once and for all.


In fact, when looking at his upcoming projects (including a comedy -??? – and another graphic novel adaptation ala Violence) it does indeed look like he has abandoned his genre roots for good. While it wouldn’t be surprising if he never made another horror movie, fans of the creature feature art form would have a real reason to be upset. When he was part of post-modern macabre’s making, there was no one better than this crafty Canadian. The cinematic category surely misses his cruel, considered tone as well as his outstanding ‘body’ of work. 


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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006

In the music business, they are noted as artists only capable of a single significant Billboard blip. Yet in filmmaking, no matter the genre, they are barely even recognized. For some strange reason, the motion picture industry doesn’t typically categorize a moviemaker based on only one noteworthy hit or miss. Certainly there is an atmosphere of appreciation based solely on a writer or director’s last box office receipts, but that has more to do with finance and business than it does with quality or overall excellence. Many distinguished auteurs have had their fair share of commercial disappointments and yet consistently retain their timeless status when real critical deliberation is given to their efforts.


But when it comes to horror, all bets are off. So iconic in its facets that it more or less supercedes all other categorical considerations, the movie macabre is actually a very specialized motion picture form. Many have tried it, and very few have truly succeeded. This is especially true for those craftsmen who view their talent as transcending all manner of product pigeonholing. There is also a senseless, snobbish quality involved, with many directors feeling that, as an art form, the fright film is beneath them. While it could be a case of understanding their own limits, the truth is that terror has always been an unappreciated style of cinema, and this high class, haughty notion has penetrated even the most mediocre moviemaker’s mindset.


Still, some of the biggest names in the business have tried. A few have even met with massive success. But when you look more closely at the classics, the horror films that consistently make the Top 10 lists, you see that a few represent the one and only ‘hit’ that these paranormal pretenders to the throne ever created. Duplicating the criteria used when musicians are involved, SE&L has decided to celebrate those craftsmen who found a way to make their sole scary movie attempt effective. Naturally, there are some caveats. A director listed may have indeed made more than one horror film - William Friedkin also attempted the bad babysitter/tree demon debacle entitled The Guardian, while Clive Barker has made the nauseating Nightbreed and limp Lords of Illusion - and, as a matter of fact, can even claim a second, almost as substantive effort and still avoid elimination. The only other element worth pondering is the movie’s viability as a creepshow archetype. Many may argue over the titles chosen, but it’s clear that when viewed in light of the two prerequisites mentioned, these five films stand out as perfect examples of horror’s ‘one hit wonders’:


William FriedkinThe Exorcist (1973)
Without question, one of the art form’s most gratifying masterpieces as well as one of the greatest movies ever made. As much about the universal battle between good and evil as it is an unique allegory centering on the early ‘70s generation gap between parents and children, this flawless fright film would end up being Friedkin’s one and only genre success (the goofy Guardian just doesn’t count). The directorial decision to keep everything as realistic as possible, along with the idea of maintaining the theological struggle at the center of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel gave the Exorcist its horrific heft and its philosophical depth. But it was the high level of skill and invention from all involved in the production that also turned what could have been a slapdash Satanic farce into a truly terrifying experience. Nearly as effective today as it was 34 years ago, Friedkin could skip the scary movie category from now on and still be considered one of its true masters. The Exorcist is just that good.


Clive BarkerHellraiser (1981)
Similar to Friedkin’s masterpiece in its use of a standard dramatic device – in this case, the concept of adultery – as a foundation for supernatural fear, Clive Barker’s first feature film as a director is also unquestionably his best. Thanks to a clever combination of recognizable types (the unhappy wife, the clueless, cuckolded husband, the desperate daughter caught in the middle) and the creation of ‘80s cinema’s most menacing fear icons, the Cenobites, Barker pushed the limits of both the emotional and the eerie with this remarkably insightful movie. Many fail to see the sinister subtext involved – a near incestual coupling between a dead brother-in-law and a cheating spouse who will do anything, even KILL, to keep her corpse-like lover alive. With enough gore to satisfy the needs of even the most brazen blood hound, and an intellectualized approach to pain and suffering that few fright films can claim, Hellraiser deserves its place as a minor masterpiece. Too bad Barker never did better. His terrific potential shines through in every grue-covered frame.

 


Danny Boyle28 Days Later (2002)
Zombies. To borrow a line from The Simpsons, the undead are the Washington Generals of the genre film. Whenever a filmmaker, young or old, can’t figure out how to make with the monsters, they fall back on these flesh-eaters and hope for the horrifying best. While the fast-movie maniacs at the center of this story are not true cannibal corpses, Boyle borrows liberally from the overdone filmic formula to radically reinvent the seemingly stagnant social commentary. Viewing Britain as a bastion of brainless reactionaries lashing out at anything that dares disturb their self-satisfying ‘sleep’, Boyle twists the conventions of terror to show just how bleak the human spirit can become when wrapped in a blanket of pure power and/or biologically altered rage. Thanks to his inventive camerawork – this is cutting edge digital moviemaking at its very best – and a script that doesn’t shy away from the scares, what at first seemed like your standard Romero riff actually signaled a rebirth of the entire living dead ideal. 


Tim BurtonSleepy Hollow (1999)
Though he’s constantly considered a major part of the fear arena, Goth god Tim Burton has actually only made one full blown horror movie in his 20 year career, and it’s this amazing homage to the high style Hammer films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Using the Washington Irving classic as a jumping off point, and a sensational cast loaded with British and American iconoclasts – including Christopher Walken, Johnny Depp, and Michael Gambon – Burton braved the scorn of the purists by making his narrative more about the birth of criminal investigation than a faithful adaptation of the folklore favorite. Tossing in references to many of the sinister visuals from motion pictures past, as well as his own unique brand of Edward Gorey-inspired imagery, Burton gave fright fans everything they could possible want, including lots of bloody decapitations. While this eccentric director’s oeuvre has always contained nods to elements both supernatural and paranormal, this inventive and evocative effort stands as one of Burton’s best.


Stanley KubrickThe Shining (1980)
In 1968, this legendary filmmaker delivered what he considered to be the first ‘serious’ science fiction film that the otherwise slipshod genre had ever seen. Not only did the resulting epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, transform the entire cinematic category but it quickly became one of the art form’s greatest triumphs. Obviously hoping to do the same for the fright flick, Kubrick took Stephen King’s beloved third novel, stripped it of all its narrative nuances, and streamlined the story into a fright fable about fate and family. Instead of a classic, it became one of the auteur’s most argued over efforts. Some find it an excellent example of technical terror – atmosphere matched with storytelling and characterization to suggest that evil has an eternal, lasting legacy. Others just found it a slow, somber fright flick. Even with it’s elegant, eerie Steadi-cam work, the occasional bursts of over the top acting histrionics from lead Jack Nicholson, and a single definitive scare sequence involving something malevolent hiding out in Room 237, a clear consensus couldn’t be reached. While the verdict is still out for most die-hard fright fans, The Shining still stands as Kubrick’s only attempt at a classic creature feature.


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Monday, Oct 16, 2006

Wait a moment – isn’t it October? The pseudo-official start of fall? The time when the leaves are changing and Halloween-inspired horror movies are king? Well, by the looks of the local brick and mortar, the standard ploy of flooding the marketplace with as much macabre as possible seems to have stalled, at least for the moment. Sure, there are a number of no-name terror titles making their way to shelves all across the country, but the usual glut of gore and gratuity has definitely tapered off. As a matter of fact, the only fear feature worth noting this week is the otherwise awful Omen remake that significantly stunk up the Cineplex this past summer. So pure film fans, rejoice. It looks like, in a deliberate move to counter-program the kind of DVDs available for sale, more interesting examples of non-genre filmmaking are replacing the routine fear factors. It’s enough to make you believe it’s December, or sometime in mid-March. On that note, let’s look at the product waiting for your hard earned dollars this 17, October:


Billy Wilder Speaks!

*
He is responsible for many of the masterpieces that make up Hollywood’s greatest hits – films with titles like Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Sabrina, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Now, thanks to a two day interview with German journalist Volker Schlondorff, we have this telling testimonial by the filmmaker himself, describing in detail the reasons behind his decision to direct (to protect his screenplays) and how each of his many amazing efforts came about. Sure, the nuggets of information may seem slight and sort of bite size, but we rarely get to hear the masters weighing in on their oeuvre, and for those unfamiliar with Wilder’s work, this career-spanning sit-down, complete with a constant stream of clips, is an excellent primer on one of Tinsel Town’s true titans. This DVD release also contains its own digital treasure trove – almost all of Wilder’s film trailers are included.



The Break-Up

We here at SE&L don’t like Jennifer Aniston. It has nothing to do with her talent – a statement which presumes she has some – or her long running stint on that undeniably popular sitcom Friends. No, our anti-Aniston sentiments derive directly from her film catalog. A view of her IMDb resume highlights a creative canon so superficial that it threatens to be blown away by the slightest cyber-breeze. Here, she is paired with that professional pin-up for arrested adolescence, Vince Vaughn, in a tragedy that was billed as the perfect summer RomCom. Helmed by inventive director Peyton Reed, responsible for the randy retro Down with Love and cheerleader challenge hit Bring It On, what was sold as the ditzy dissolution of a perky if unhappy relationship was really a mean spirited wannabe War of the Roses. It didn’t help matters that Ms. Aniston was suffering from a bad case of post-Pitt love life syndrome. It made her hook up with Vaughn – and the movie itself – seem all the more desperate.



PopMatters Review


Clean, Shaven: The Criterion Collection

*
One of the great lost films of the last twenty years, Lodge Kerrigan’s searing and insightful look at one man’s battle with schizophrenia deserves to find an audience outside the few who’ve seen it at festivals or on long out of print VHS/DVDs. Thankfully, those prophetic preservationists at Criterion have agreed to give this experimental effort the full blown special edition treatment. Kerrigan’s approach to this subject matter is indeed unique, attempting to actually visualize the way in which the world looks and sounds to a person struggling with such a debilitating mental affliction. Unflinching in its personal and social views, highly disturbing, and stoked by an astonishing performance by Peter Greene (perhaps best known as that hillbilly rapist Zed in Pulp Fiction) this haunting, harrowing drama is not your typical Hollywood take on insanity. There’s no Best Actor bravado here, just truth in all its painful paradigms.



The Omen (2006)


Piles of dreary cinematic dung don’t come any larger than this completely misguided remake of the 1976 classic. Released at the height of the public’s fascination with all things diabolical, Richard Donner’s original is a pitch perfect exercise in tone and storytelling. Yet when you consider that this is a note for note duplication of the Gregory Peck/Lee Remick thriller, it makes you wonder about the source material itself. Luckily, the real reasons for this updated debacle are easily identified. Aside from making Damien a pesky, proactive demon – not a simple little kid with a hidden Satanic streak at his core – journeyman director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) miscasts this movie miserably. Both Liv Schreiber and Julia Stiles are far too young for their power couple roles, and when the sulfur starts hitting the fan, both appear to be looking for the nearest adult for help. Sadly, that turns out to be a scenery scarfing Mia Farrow…and let’s face, she gave birth to Beelzebub’s baby back in the ‘60s. This nominal effort is not worth any true horror fan’s time.


 


PopMatters Review


Over the Hedge
Need further proof that computer animation has more or less run its course after only a decade and a half as a vital cinematic art form? Take a gander at this demographically correct quasi-comedy and decide for yourself. Guilty of each and every cinematic pitfall that currently plagues the genre (stunt voice casting, overly simplistic storyline, far too many puerile pop culture references), this sometime clever take on suburban sprawl and the many facets of friendship just can’t overcome its highly commercialized gloss. Unlike Pixar films that always seem to find the proper note between precocious and perfection, Hedge (based on a far cleverer comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis) appears designed deliberately to force Moms and Dads to dig deep into their pockets for endless items of tie-in merchandising (and those ads featuring our characters cavorting in Wal-Mart can’t be helping the wallets much).  While not as bad as Open Season or The Wild, this CGI candy is decidedly sour.



PopMatters Review


Reds*
Only ‘70s superstud Warren Beatty could be this overly ambitious and get away with it. Taking the true story of American journalist John Reed, Western witness to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and tying it to an epic underscoring of political change and challenge in the equally erratic United States, this ersatz celebration of free-thinking and racialism was lauded upon its initial release. Believe it or not, Beatty even beat out Steven Spielberg (for a little something called Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Louis Malle (for his superb Atlantic City) for the Academy Award for Best Director. Today, what felt sweeping and romantic comes across as a little naïve and somewhat soft, and even with the stellar acting of Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton (snagging an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and Diane Keaton, Beatty is still required to carry the entire project. Thanks to the numerous hats he was wearing, it appears he may have bitten off a little more than he could artistically or pragmatically chew.


They All Laughed*
After the disastrous ‘70s streak that included Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon (Saint Jack was a quiet surprise) filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was looking for something to re-ignite his creative spark. He thought he found it in 1979 Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten. Hired as part of this light and breezy comic caper, the director and Dorothy soon became fast friends. Fate, however, would deal both a fatal blow when a jealous Paul Snider, Stratton’s sleazy manager and spouse, killed the 20 year old just after filming wrapped. This cursed the film commercially, and no studio would touch it. After a limited initial release, it sank into oblivion, leaving Bogdanovich grief stricken and exiled from Hollywood for the next four years (he would return with the well-received Mask in 1985). Thanks to DVD, this well-meaning movie now has a second chance to connect with audiences.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 17 October:


Frankenhooker*
After Basket Case, his love letter to 42nd Street and the glorious grindhouse cinema that fueled the exploitation genre, and Brain Damage, a cutting edge commentary on drug use and culture, long time cult craftsman Frank Henenlotter was looking for another sure-fire schlock concept. After seeing James Lorinz hilarious turn as a sarcastic mafia doorman in Street Trash, the director got the idea to fashion a Frankenstein style film around his cynical, snide persona. The result was this half-comedy, half-horror farce that farts in the face of Mary Shelly’s modern Prometheus. Granted, the movie grows grating when Lorinz’s “creation” - the decent looking but acting challenged Patty Mullen - starts shuffling around and eating up endless amounts of screen time, but Henenlotter’s sense of humor always shines through. While not on par with the other movies mentioned, this is still required viewing for anyone smitten with this director’s creepy crackpot camp.



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Sunday, Oct 15, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the Good vs. Evil aesthetic of Brazil’s Jose Mojica Marins.


There probably isn’t a more unique filmmaker in the genre of horror than Jose Mojica Marins. This Brazilian eccentric, a true multimedia giant in his homeland, crosses all boundaries with his films, his television work, his books, and his comics. Over the course of his nearly five decades in the limelight, he has directed dozens of movies, acting in several more, and has turned his unique approach to terror into a solid cottage industry. He’s even dabbled in art, costume and set design, special effects, and has composed the music for his films. Having created a national sensation with his first horror effort (the first true horror film in Brazil’s cinematic legacy) and its seminal character Zé Do Caixão (or as he is called in America, Coffin Joe), Marins has made Zé and his ideology into the closest thing to a god that South American cinema has ever seen.


He is either loved or hated in his mother country, viewed as a truly gifted artist or merely the man-incarnation of the onscreen demon he portrays. Theologians attack his anti-religion stance and the heretical simply don’t buy his pagan leanings. In retrospect, Marins has devised a kind of career self-fulfilling prophecy, a character so associated with him that, through osmosis or karma, he has literally become Coffin Joe. He even has taken to wearing the outrageously long and sharpened fingernails of the fictional entity and styling his beard, hair, and eyebrows after same.


True, living in a country divided by conservative censorship (the likes of which kept Awakening of the Beast from ever being shown in theaters) and intense sexuality (nude beaches, Carnivale, the obsession with plastic surgery and beauty) makes for a truly schizophrenic sensibility. And Coffin Joe is so successful because he rides the balance between both brilliantly. This is especially true in the few films we in the West have been able to view. All throughout At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967) The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) Awakening of the Beast (1970) The Black Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974) and Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978), Marins weaves his distinct ideas about dread into a magnificent phantasm of fear and faith. 


While he may be many things—philosopher, writer, scholar—Marins is first and foremost a filmmaker, one who draws inspiration directly from the history of the macabre. Marins does not work in the usual terror trademarks of monsters and the supernatural, nor is he only interested in death and dismemberment. His thematic palette revolves around ethical and religious principles, in the universal rhetoric of absolute good versus true evil. In the world of Marin’s Coffin Joe, there is only God and Satan. Ghosts and demons are a manifestation of the will of either or both. Man is the only corruptible being; there are no zombie blood drinkers or human wolves, and all slaughter is based in the sacred or the sacrilegious.


Taken at its fundamentalist foundation, Marins then develops an entire element, in this case the alter ego of Coffin Joe, who flaunts wickedness in the name of good and the desire to perfect man’s place in the hierarchy between heaven and hell. Coffin Joe terrorizes people because he confronts their belief system, challenges the powerful entity of the church, and dares to undermine conformity with his self-absorbed, autonomous mindset. Yes, he does relish the devil and his works of earthly pleasure, but the ultimate goal for Joe is man’s superiority over both God and Satan: the creation of a superbeing whose immortality will challenge the authority of the spirits. We don’t just get blood and guts, killings, or deformed beasts. We get theological discussion and battles between the primal forces of morality and sin. In fact, this is the main narrative theme that connects almost every movie this maverick has ever made. It is a testament to Marins’ ability behind the camera, as well as the bravura performance he gives before it, that these treatises somehow turn into terrifying works of horror.


Marins is also a maverick cinematic visionary, one of the few pure film artists working in the realm of the supernatural. Unencumbered by the world of films in Brazil and admittedly a complete student of the Hollywood/American motion picture ideal, Marins implicitly understands the camera’s ability to tell a story. He is obsessed with the visuals’ important place in the creation of dread and suspense. From the handwritten animated credit sequences that seem to suggest the calligraphy of a long banned book of evil, to the old-fashioned gothic garb Coffin Joe wears as an undertaker, we have striking images that immediately suggest the sinister and unnatural. Then include the fever dream depictions of hell and hallucinations (brought to broad life in vivid, virulent color), the sinister set pieces, the wild juxtaposition of metaphors, and you have a singular, specific voice - an over-the-top talent that rivals Fellini or Joderowsky.


Marins’ visual surrealism also creates breathtaking images, powerful pictures that his camera holds on until they resonate fully with the audience. Sound too is important. His movies usually contain a cacophonous chorus of music, voices, effects, screams, and dialogue to recreate the chaos when one confronts the very forces of nature and the underworld firsthand. Marins isn’t afraid to experiment, to glue glitter around ghostly images to give them an otherworldly effect, or treat his negative chemically to affect its appearance. While monochrome and color switch off within the vast majority of the visual palette offered in his films, there is also plenty of eye candy craziness. Marins knows it’s all well and good to discuss the terrors of the human heart. It is much better to see them directly, however, to understand their visceral power.


Marins also creates a truly lasting horror icon with Joe. Like Freddy Krueger, he is a three-dimensional character with a detailed backstory and plenty of individualized distinctions to make him work even outside the realm of a motion picture. Coffin Joe, Zé Do Caixão, is a complete package, a man who wears his beliefs firmly on his vest and lives them in every action/reaction to things around him. Unlike Wes Craven’s creation of the dream world boogeyman, Joe has never degenerated into a slapstick spoof spook, a stand-up comedian of cruelty. Joe is deadly serious in his beliefs and in his ways, and his abuses are all the more startling because of it. As Freddy’s deaths became more and more based around the one-liner, Zé is merely ruthless and heartless, killing for the great cause of his intellectual and moral superiority. Murder is all in the advancement of his humanistic theories. Torture is a test, not only of physical stamina, but also of character and emotional/spiritual strength.


There is also no trepidation in Coffin Joe’s actions. He is the one who inspires menace. However, deep within his mind is a subconscious cowardice, a fear of being undone by forces beyond his control. And while the movies that surround his persona can either be straightforward narratives about procreation or psychedelic dissertations on the status of society in a more permissive time, Jose Mojica Marins and his grave digging demon stand at the center, cursing God and spitting at the Devil. For Coffin Joe there is only one true ruler of the world: man. In his mind, there is only one truly superior man: himself, Zé Do Caixão.


This is why Zé is such a superior image of dread. The great theological battles are all built on the philosophical foundations of ethics. Wars between man, nature, God, and Satan make up the system under which so much of our religious morality is defined. For eons, those who challenged these belief codas were considered criminal, profane beings that didn’t understand the need for an afterlife-based dogma. After all, to admit that this world is all there is would doom everyone to a finalized death that’s really worth fearing. But if there was a greater reward on the other side, some manner of continued creation where we all go to spend our infinite soul days, then let’s protect that notion at all costs and condemn those who dare challenge it.


Jose Mojica Marins is one such deviant. He dares to look death in the face and spit on its limits. Through his character of Zé Do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, he has taken on the old-fashioned pious value ideals and argued around and against them. In man, Zé argues, is the ultimate power over nature. There is no God. Satan is a buffoon. The only true force of will in the world is the individual. Neatly wrapped up in outstanding fright films of visual magnificence and intellectual stimulation, the work of Marins proves that one of the best ways to defeat the fear of death is to challenge it head on, to tackle its twisted mysticism and to try and determine one’s own spiritual fate. The truth is, in the end, we all will pass from this realm and into something else, be it emptiness or the glowing love/hate of God’s/Satan’s grace/damnation. While his films may not save your mortal soul, they will heal and lighten your entertainment essence. That is why Jose Mojica Marins is an unheralded genius.


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