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Tuesday, Mar 4, 2008


When it happens, it’s rather unsettling. In debate, we call it “squirreling”. In society, it’s known as being ‘out of step’ or ‘rebellious’. It’s never easy being the odd man out in any critical consensus. We all know the feeling of championing a band or artist who others hate, and visa versa. Yet in the world of film reviewing, such an outsider stance often results in feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. There’s also a sense of seniority at play, a deference to those who’ve done the job longer than others. The old guard gets the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, while the newer members are viewed through a novice scrim of suspiciousness.


It is a rare occurrence, but the examples are very telling indeed. Last month, Be Kind Rewind premiered. Michel Gondry’s love letter to home video and the DIY spirit of the new medium technology was uniformly undervalued by critics, many complaining that the story seemed shallow and scattered. Yet to these supposedly trained eyes right here, Rewind was genius. It extolled the value of VHS while proving that film becomes a social language all its own. During the public/press screening, you could literally feel the shrinking sense of perspective. While others in the journalist’s row scoffed and shifted in their seats, one or two of their number were transfixed - and taken in - by Gondry’s efforts.


Or take the upcoming Funny Games. A near shot by shot remake of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name, this twisted tale of a wealthy family brutalized by some very unusual killers is as smarmy and smug as it is distasteful and vile. It has nothing but contempt for the audience, purposefully tosses convention to the window, and more or less acts as an egotistical deconstruction of the whole thriller genre. Some have really connected with this film, calling it brave, bold, and masterful. But at the private screening held for press, there was only one critic who felt the same.


You could tell which one it was. He laughed at all the lame observational satire and seemed to connect with the confrontational style Haneke was preaching. During the more static bits, when bored viewers (like yours truly) looked around for some manner of diversion, you could see the man enraptured by what he was seeing. As the credits rolled and the group wandered out, the comments were harsh:


“Reprehensible!”


“Atrocious”


“Just plain bad”


“Pointless! Just pointless.”


“A repugnant piece of sh*t”


And circumventing the bile, making his way past those who wanted an additional moment with the monitor to express their disgust, the odd man out successfully skirted detection. Days later, at another event, a random comment about Funny Games elicited a sigh from said individual. Clearly, he ‘got’ what Haneke was supposedly selling. The rest were, apparently, just grumpy stuffed shirts.


Being the filmic freak can make you feel that way. This past year, the remake of Halloween and JJ Abrams experimental Cloverfield both struck massive love/hate chords with audiences. From this reviewer’s perspective, both films were excellent. This didn’t mean that he was praised for his honesty or challenged on his choice. No, most of the feedback was downright rude and abrasive. Profanity laced missives were the norm, as were blatant challenges to one’s credentials. Since a critic lives and dies by his or her opinion, such attacks are routine. But it’s interesting to see how many premise their putdowns on the sole basis of having a differing or direct opposite judgment than there’s.


Dealing with one’s peers doesn’t make it any easier or different. Around Oscar time, a conversation about The Savages started up (as an outgrowth of Juno‘s predetermined Academy win). Many in the room found it thought provoking, intense, sadly funny, and moving without being overly dramatic. They argued their case well, supporting their positions with actual evidence of dialogue remembered, specific scenes, and how close to home the film finally hit. Yet this critic was on the outside looking far, far in. He was harangued for not finding Laura Linney ‘amazing’. He was questioned as to why he thought the scripting was weak (answer: it didn’t seem real). And he was routinely disputed as being outside the mainstream in this regard.


It takes a certain type of stamina to do this week after week, to watch one mediocre Hollywood hack job after another with only your wits and your writing skills as a buffer. You recognize immediately upon liking or disliking a movie that you’ll be up against a certain consensus and may indeed find yourself walking a certain belief corridor by yourself. There’s no doubt that a critic has to develop a resilient spine, a keen wit, and a Helluva thick skin. It’s impossible to survive otherwise. Just the hate email alone would be enough to undermine even the heartiest sense of scholarship. Remember, most journalists came into film because it was a passion - something they studied either as a curriculum or as a fan. There’s no real tendency to shoot from the hip, even when they may want to.


On the other hand, most opposing viewpoints come from passion. They are perfectly appropriate and still highly irrational reactions. Funny Games wasn’t bad because it blatantly revised the way we are supposed to look at violence on film. It had major directing, acting, and scripting flaws as well. Yet sometimes, those issues are absent in the “squirrel”. For them, the link is so thoughtful and profound that all the other problems seem petty. How many times have you read a review where a critic clearly says “Factor ‘X’ was so powerful that it helped get the audience through Faults ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’?” That’s the magic and mystery of movies at play.


Certainly there is a sound guilty pleasure in being the odd duck, the squeaky wheel amongst the Kool-aid consuming rabble. Take Borat, for example. At the time, everyone thought of it as the second coming of cinematic comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen was being anointed as the new mock-doc king, and his work was actually being offered for Awards consideration. In more than one piece, yours truly took both the film and the actor to task, suggesting that he was really just an emperor pretender with a new set of snarky clothes. A little over a year later, the backlash has equalized the original praise. Now, what seemed dull witted and worn out has become somewhat prescient and pretty much on the money.


Still, that doesn’t make it any easier. During the press screening for No Country for Old Men, there were several audible groans when the still considered controversial ending finally played out. Several in the select crowd actually went so far as to suggest the film was ruined by the unconventional finale. It’s an argument that still, rages all across messageboards and fansites. Yet the Coens went on to capture several Academy Awards last month, an unscientific suggestion that perhaps some in the voting pool got their approach. That won’t silence the reviewing rebel - and perhaps it shouldn’t. It’s important to remember this, however - critics don’t purposefully buck the trend just to be different. Everyone’s opinion is valid, even if it’s not on the same page as yours.


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Monday, Mar 3, 2008


From time to time, SE&L will step back and let the Tinsel Town marketing machine do what they do best – tantalize and tease us with clever coming attraction previews and trailers. The five films focused on this time around represent some highly anticipated future outings, including the latest from cinematic stalwarts like M Night Shyamalan, Mike Meyers, and Kung Fu Hustle‘s Stephen Chow. Every few weeks, we’ll take a break from casting our critical eye over the motion picture artform and let the shill do the talking. And of course, once they do open in theaters, you can guarantee we will be there, deciphering whether the come-on matches the context. In any event, enjoy:


The Love Guru
It’s more Austin Powers’ style wackiness as Meyers portrays an Indian shaman trying to save the career of a professional hokey player. Standard hijinx ensue.



CJ7
Hong Kong God Chow turns family friendly with this ET like tale.



The Happening
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and only the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable knows what’s on tap.



Baby Mama
Tina Fey takes a break from 30 Rock to offer her own satiric take on superwomen and the desire to have it all - including a surrogate kid.



Midnight Meat Train
The Clive Barker tales gets a stylistic spin. Looks like it could be a solid genre winner.


 


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Sunday, Mar 2, 2008


Everyone wanted their moment. Everyone wanted their time with the masters. On an unusually cool Florida night, with a wind whipping around the Channelside Theaters reception area, two exploitation icons sat, waiting to greet their fans. It was magical, the kind of high profile appearance that turns Tampa from a backwater cultural burg into an outpost along cinema’s historic highway. When the Gasparilla Film Festival announced that Blood Feast, the 1963 gore epic would be part of their itinerary, some movie snobs scoffed. After all, we’re talking about a 45 year old cheapie that earned its reputation on notoriety, not name talent. But when it was also disclosed that producer David F. Friedman and director Herschell Gordon Lewis would be on hand to reminisce about their infamous film, the connection became clear.


For those unfamiliar with those names, Friedman is the acknowledged ‘Mighty Monarch’ of the exploitation arena, a producer who had a more than influential hand in taking the taboo busting genre from the grindhouse to the arthouse - and back again. His partner in crime was Lewis, a Chicago based maker of advertising and industrial films who quickly learned that the real money was in pandering to the prurient interests of an audience. Getting their start in nudist camp films, the guys quickly learned that anyone could feature topless females cavorting around lush tropical backdrops. They needed something new and different. With his fascination with Grand Guignol, Lewis suggested gore. Instantly, the pair traveled to Florida, concocted a bizarre Egyptian ritual narrative, and Blood Feast was born.


Now, nearly five DECADES after they literally created the first splatter film, they were back in the Sunshine State, and reveling in the overwhelming accolades that never came their way eons ago. Friedman, 85 and in slightly failing health, stood and greeted his admirers, while Lewis, 79 and as spry as ever, sat at a table and held court, just like any member of royalty would. Among the throng waiting were fanatics, geeks, punk rock devotees, and the occasional gob-smacked critic. Hands clasped DVD covers, worn trade paperbacks, souvenir barf bags given out for the screening, and some highly unusual mementos. One young man, a fledgling F/X artist who was inspired by Feast, brought his metal make-up kit. After the standard star-struck approach and the exchange of personal pleasantries, he got Friedman and Lewis to sign his case. 


From the outside looking in, these exchanges seemed slightly selfish. With both men clearly feeling their age, it was oddly uncomfortable to watch their fans swarm and monopolize their space. Some would stand for a second or two, happy for a signature and a quick digital snap. Others, however, needed to explain themselves, to clarify their passion for Freidman’s films or Lewis’ later productions in obsessive detail. As others waited for their equally important moment, these home video vampires stood their ground. Certainly the guests of honor never showed it, nor did the festival handlers, but there was an invasive atmosphere that made some of the exchanges uncomfortable to watch. There is a mythos surrounding these men that mandates a certain level of respect. For some of the Kevin Smith wannabes in the crowd, it was more about their perspective than those being honored.


Still, fandom breeds a certain level of entitlement, and the rarity of the appearance definitely brought out that facet. But there were also high levels of admiration, and some clear moments of inspired reverence. A few in attendance held copies of Friedman’s definitive biography A Youth in Babylon, praising a clearly moved man for his enlightened narrative on the history of exploitation. Lewis found himself signing everything from old VHS copies of Feast to ultra-rare Laserdisc versions of the film. Even soundtrack CDs, released since the advent of home video, found their way into the mix. Couples calmly asked for photos while one clueless attendee turned to a group standing nearby and asked, “Who is Herschell Gordon Lewis?”


It was that kind a night, an event where the age old adage about never meeting your heroes bore both legitimacy and ludicrousness. For anyone who’s heard Friedman and Lewis on DVD commentary tracks, or has been lucky enough to see one of their few taped interviews, meeting them in person is like déjà vu all over again. Their voices remain the same - a clear combination of a well lived life and pure carnival barker showmanship. While they look much older, the same glint appears in their eyes, faces literally lighting up the minute someone mentions Lewis’ work in marketing (where he truly made his name) or Friedman’s connection to the carnival (he still comes to Florida every year to attend the industry convention in Gibsonton).


Before they knew it, the theater was ready to show their film. Promises of a pristine print from San Francisco quickly turned out false. Instead, a relatively ratty copy of Blood Feast gave viewers a scratchy, slightly out of focus look at the classic. Even in 35mm, the audience knew it was a lark. As Lewis would later say in the hilarious post-screening Q&A, they laughed in all the right places. There were audible gasps during the gore, and more than a few Mystery Science Theater 3000 like riffs. Every once in a while, a keen observer could hear Lewis and Friedman talking, their recognizable voices responding to something they saw on the screen. There was applause at certain points and a clear sense of satisfaction when it was all over.


Local St. Pete Times film critic Steve Persall, instrumental in getting Feast shown at Gasparilla, led the post-screening interview. While they searched for a working microphone, Lewis stood up and proudly announced that they both could ‘project’, and from that moment on, the genuine lovefest began. As a fount of undeniably entertaining stories, both men mesmerized the crowd. They told of how a concrete sphinx outside the Suez Motel on Miami Beach inspired their plot, and how Kansas City banned the use of the word “Blood” in film advertising - which made showing In Cold Blood quite difficult. There was a singalong (Lewis leading the audience in a stirring rendition of the Two Thousand Maniacs theme song) and a last minute slasher gag that went horribly wrong.


After the aborted effect, a feigned throat slashing that saw more fake gore on Lewis than his intended victim, the remaining fans starting moving toward the men. On the screen above was a symbolic splash of grue, leftover from the effort. As it trailed down the stark white scrim, workers hurried to wash it off. Yet the imagery was undeniable. Here were two octogenarians, life spent in pursuits both in and outside of exploitation, being celebrated for finally placing ample arterial spray onto celluloid. Even in 2008, they can’t help but leave their imprint everywhere they go.


A little Windex and elbow grease finally cleared off the claret, but few will forget the magical evening spent with two true artform pioneers. The grindhouse gave mainstream movies the chutzpah to move beyond studio system mandates - and it was men like David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis who took all the risk. It’s about time they were rewarded - and on this one Tampa evening, they definitely were. 


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Saturday, Mar 1, 2008


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


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



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


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



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


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



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


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


 


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Friday, Feb 29, 2008


“To Be Continued…”


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


 


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