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by Bill Gibron

23 Feb 2010

You can’t blame a movie for trying. Heck, Hollywood has been striving to find another franchise as successful as a certain lightning foreheaded Harry Potter since the sprite little boy wizard wowed the publishing world with his multi-billion dollar bonanza. Again, it’s not for a lack of effort. In the last few years, we’ve seen the attempted start of such noble kid lit entities as Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events, The Golden Compass, City of Ember, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and several others. As of now, no one is championing their return - no matter how financially or artistically successful they appeared to be. 

It looks like Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak series will follow suit. While another fine attempt at merging juvenile level Goosebumps horror with full blown family film wish fulfillment, The Vampire’s Assistant (new to Blu-ray from Universal) has a double barreled barrier to overcome - and frankly, it can’t manage either one. First, in a head to head with Hogwart’s favorite, it comes up short. No matter what you think of J.K. Rowling and her tales of magic and myth, she’s a grand storyteller - and she’s been lucky enough to find filmmakers capable of taking her material and whittling it down into its important narrative beats. Since all six films made so far have been huge hits (and two more of the seventh book are on their way), Harry is a huge albatross around any potential franchise’s neck.

by Bill Gibron

21 Feb 2010

It seems almost antithetical to what Troma stands for. This maverick Manhattan production/distribution company, the brainchild of Yale classmates Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, just doesn’t seem like the kind of film force to embrace the latest in home video technology. Sure, films like The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet found their notorious niche during the advent of VHS. Indeed, many of today’s indie art devotees found their calling along the bottom shelf of many a Mom and Pop rental palace. But to now see classics like Poultrygeist “prettied up” thanks to the demands of the high def format is almost surreal. Luckily, Troma’s outsider masterworks are so good, so beyond basic reproach that no amount of 21st century tweaking can rob them of their inimitable irreverence and style - even if the company isn’t really remastering their catalog (more on this in a moment). 

When Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, few knew what to expect. Created by Gabe Friedman, Daniel Bova, and Kaufman himself, this fright flick farce built on fast food and freak side showboating rejuvenated the lame duck label that, at one time, boasted the biggest roster of cult icons this side of a John Waters’ Dreamland reunion. With rave reviews coming from all manner of outlets - including oddball love letters from Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and The Guardian - it should have been a massive Saw-sized hit. Instead, Kaufman claims conspiracy, stating flat out that theaters would not book his film because of his outsider stance and its “Unrated” status. Luckily, as with most criminally overlooked efforts, the digital format (and its blu-rated cousin) is here to save the day.

by Bill Gibron

20 Feb 2010

George Romero was a semi-hot commodity at the time. While the follow-up films, There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch failed to make much of an impression, the amazing movie that started it all, his visionary Night of the Living Dead, was rapidly becoming a midnight screening phenomenon. Asked by a distributor if he had any other ‘good’ ideas, he showed around a script called The Mad People. A massive rewrite later (the executives only liked the first 10 pages of the screenplay) and Romero had his second certified hit. While similar in theme to his previous zombie masterwork, The Crazies proved conclusively that, even on a limited budget, the director could make an edge of your seat action thriller with just enough social commentary thrown in to wake up the maudlin masses.

At its heart, The Crazies is nothing more than a movie about civilization gone psychotic. It features government conspiracies, half-assed cover-ups (it came out right after Watergate, remember), abuses of power, unthinkable horrors, taboo breaking atrocities, the stereotypical clan of survivors, and enough editorial flare and moviemaking chutzpah to literally rewrite the rulebook on cinematic action. The lack of funds seems to have inspired Romero, his need to be fast, quick, and to the point illustrated in almost every sequence onscreen. There are times when one angle just won’t do. People often exchange mere exposition within a five of six shot collection of clips. It’s as if Eisenstein went to the drive-in and came out with a tale of a small town and the experimental virus that drives the populace insane.

by Bill Gibron

7 Feb 2010

When it comes right down to it, 1971 was mired in chaos. The Beatles had disbanded, the Kennedys were either dead or hip deep in career cleansing scandal, and the civil rights movement had been usurped by a basic human need among the minority classes simply to stay alive. America took weaponry against itself, as armed youths killed their “educated” alter egos at Kent State while the “silent majority” propagandized a steadfast “love it or leave it” mentality for all to conform to. The anti-war revolution had long gone Madison Avenue and Hollywood, with rebels as well known as their targets of distrust and frustration. There was still a belief that power in the people via politics could cure the country of its present ills, even as more vital men were sent off to meet their end in the rice fields and jungles of Asia.

Years later, Tinseltown just loves to explore the extremes of both sides of the peace sign path. Artists like Oliver Stone have made entire careers out of milking the militant juices from both philosophies for all their cinematic gold. But they never seem to spend time in the middle, in the eye of this ideological storm, preferring to skirt around the outside. Only one work dared to describe the psychic shift circa 1971, to try and condense the wounded spirit of a befouled generation into words and stories. Many thought it an incoherent, self-indulgent mess. The fact that, 36 years later, it is championed as a work of rare insight and power speaks for the willingness for self-examination that existed in the early ‘70s.

by Bill Gibron

6 Feb 2010

When Swingers stumbled onto the scene back in 1996, it was championed as a brilliant piece of indie smarm. With Jon Favreau providing the script and Doug Liman directing, the cast (including then unknowns Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston, and Heather Graham) took the tale of a group of fun loving friends and, for a moment, transformed it into a one way ticket to Coolsville. While the cult didn’t last long, it catapulted the cast into the lower levels of Hollywood’s soon to be heavy hitters. In the 13 years since, Vaughn has transformed into a comedy chameleon while partner Farveau has gone on to become an A-list director, thanks in no small part to Elf and Iron Man. Now the duo are reteaming for a relationships laugher called Couples Retreat (new to DVD and Blu-ray from Universal). Sadly, it appears their sense of humor is stuck squarely in the middle of the Clinton Administration.

With their inability to have kids complicating their marriage, anal duo Jason and Cynthia are desperate for a solution. So they sign up for an exclusive couple’s retreat in a fabulous tropical locale. The only problem? In order to afford it, they have to get six more of their friends to join in. This means convincing the happily married Dave and Ronnie, the headed to divorce court Joey and Lucy, and the already single Shane (hooking up with a horny 20 year old) to come along for the therapeutic fun. Naturally, they all say “No”, that is, until Jason more or less begs. Before they know it, they’re in Eden, a gorgeous getaway that offers jet skiing, kayaking, snorkeling - and of course, endless sessions of intense analysis and soul bearing with founder Mr. Marcel. All seems to be going well until Shane’s gal pal bails, heading over to the singles side of the island for a little fun. With the rest of the group heading in that same direction, it looks like this is one marriage oasis that will result in more break-ups than make-ups.

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