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Friday, Oct 17, 2008

Some legends are impossible to capture on film. When an icon inexplicably becomes something to everyone, no matter the era, that personal pliability and universal appeal is as elusive to illustrate as any other kind of large scale cine-magic. For decades, the mythos of Charlie Chaplin, one the greatest silent comedians of all time, was an incomprehensible motion picture mystique. Because of the public adoration of the man combined with his undeniable skill as an actor, director, innovator, and visionary, the subject promised to be too big, the scope too massive, for a standard mainstream audience to appreciate. But Oscar winning director Richard Attenborough wanted to try. Hiring the then hot Robert Downey Jr. for his biopic on the little tramp, Chaplin offered up history as half-baked studio schmaltz. Some 15 years later, we can utilize many of its numerous charms to overcome some of the obvious creative flaws.


It is clear from the earliest days of young Chaplin’s life that he would grow up to be a complex, incomplete man. While exceptionally talented, his mother had difficulty raising both he and his brother Sidney. The boys eventually wind up in the poorhouse, creating a lifelong desire for success in the small Charlie. Eventually, their parent goes insane, and the Chaplins are left to fend for themselves. Using his extraordinary abilities as an acrobat and physical comedian, Charlie becomes a UK musical hall sensation. While on tour in America, he learns about films, and is instantly fascinated. Starting with the famed Mack Sennett before striking out on his own, Charlie takes the country by storm. Soon, he has brought his family over to help with his career, while scandal bubbled beneath the surface. As with modern superstars, his status brings scrutiny from the press, the FBI, and his fellow Hollywood heavyweights. 


Using the bookend narrative device of an elderly Charlie recounting his life to a biographer (Anthony Hopkins), Attenborough’s attempted encapsulation of his celebrated subject (offered up on a brand new 15th Anniversary Edition DVD by Lionsgate) has flashes of familiar genius. We love the moment when a stage struck Charlie learns the magic of live laughter. We relish the introduction to Sennett, the minor bit of pantomime confirming the actor’s ID to the egotistical producer. When he hobnobs with fellow motion picture personalities, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, we enjoy the celebrity camaraderie. But then Chaplin stumbles once the man’s unusual personal life comes calling. Charlie was someone who liked his women attractive, available, and often underage. It would be one of several dark clouds that would hang over, but not destroy, his megaton reputation.


Indeed, the balance Attenborough tries to create throughout Chaplin, an uneasy equilibrium between what happens on set and what occurs in the bedroom (and later, the courtroom), seems counterproductive to the story he is attempting. This is cinematic hero worship, make no bones about it, a clear endeavor to redefine the man outside of his obvious character flaws. By employing Downey, who was beginning his own downward spiral toward tabloid infamy at the time, Attenborough found a kindred spirit. Only 27, he captured all the elements of Charlie, from his free wheeling love of life and the art of creation to the more miserable moments when the world seemed to strategically target his fame. A great mimic, the actor brings many classic moments from the idol’s canon to life. Yet as with most biopic presentations, he seems as aloof and incomplete as the film surrounding him.


And as if to remind audiences of how great Downey was (he was nominated for an Oscar, losing out to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman), the new DVD set offers up a selection of featurettes which focus almost exclusively on the link between the subject and the performer posited to take him on. “All at Sea” provides a rare glimpse of the real Chaplin at home. Here, he takes a boat trip with then gal pal Paulette Goddard. “Strolling in the Sunset” is a very frank discussion about the flaws found in the film. Oddly enough, most of the criticism comes from the mouth of Attenborough himself. As if to emphasize the already obvious impact of his monumental renown, “The Most Famous Man in the World” and “Chaplin the Hero” are exercises in deconstruction, explaining the actor’s ability to maintain his mythos even in light of the controversy he caused.


Of course, the most important added content is not found on this new release. Attenborough claims that his original cut of Chaplin was over four hours long. At the studio’s behest, he went back to the editing bay and trimmed the picture down to 150 minutes. Still not satisfied, he was mandated to remove an additional quarter of an hour of what he now considers to be “crucial” material. As a result, the filmmaker is still not entirely happy with the end results. Why Lionsgate didn’t appease the 85 year old stalwart and provide the missing footage remains a mystery. Perhaps they understood the limited appeal of the film itself - it was not a box office hit upon release, and remains a movie of mixed reactions - and figured a few new extras and a polished up transfer would be good enough.


Except when it comes to Charlie Chaplin, merely average is not acceptable. Like the other silent greats who he often battles for cinematic supremacy (Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, FYI), his importance to the artform and the overall growth of the burgeoning medium cannot be underestimated. These were men who made history by actually opening up a blank page in cinema’s struggling primer and writing down the very first rules. They didn’t redefine a genre or reinvent a type. Instead, they laid the foundation for almost everything that film would become in later decades. While one would never suggest that their story is incapable of being told properly, it’s clear that Chaplin’s outsized importance can’t be reduced to a single storyline - four hours or forty hours long. Robert Downey Jr. is a significant reason why this 1993 effort is worth revisiting. Everything else feels piecemeal and perfunctory.


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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008
The images used here are from a rough DVD version of Pieces found in a local bargain bin. If and when a copy of Grindhouse Releasing's version is available, an update review will be offered

Some horror movies can live solely on their carefully crafted hype. Others actually deliver the goods the studio staged ballyhoo promises. And then there is Pieces. Back in 1982, distributors desperate to continue the coattail ride started with Halloween and Friday the 13th took the Spanish splatter film Mil gritos tiene la noche (“The Night Has a Thousand Cries”, roughly), renamed it, and added the intriguing tagline “You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” With a final carnival barker punchline - “It’s exactly what you think it is.” - the results were unleashed on an unwitting world.


Thanks to VHS and the thriving home video market, the sleazoid shocker became an instant cult classic. The question remains, however, does the movie match the marketing - or is this just another case of carefully chosen words speaking a heckuva lot louder than the action on the screen. The storyline is dead simple. We are introduced to a young boy, tormented mercilessly by his blousy whore of a mother. After a particularly gruesome showdown, we flash forward forty years. On a small college campus, young girls are being viciously vivisected by an unseen killer. Using a chainsaw to carve up the bodies, the police are baffled by the murders.


Detective Lt. Bracken (a nicely cheesy Christopher George) hopes to crack the case with a two fold approach. First, he will elicit the help of student Kendall James (Pod People‘s Ian Sera) to snoop among the student body. This BMOC knows all the angles - and the ladies. Secondly, seasoned cop and star tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day) will go undercover as one of the faculty. This will allow her greater access to suspects like groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, with Lawrence Tierney’s voice) and the slightly fey Professor Brown (Jack Taylor). As the body count rises, Bracken grows desperate. Apparently, the murdered is making some kind of trophy out of the ‘pieces’ of his victims…and he’s almost done.



Pieces is the kind of fright film that sneaks up on you. It is really nothing more than your standard slasher effort with a chainsaw doing all the slice and dice (well, there are a couple of knife kills thrown in for good massacre measure). Director Juan Piquer Simón digs deep into his fellow Europeans bag of terror tricks and comes up trumps more times than not. The opening is an obvious homage to Dario Argento’s classic Profundo Rosso, down to the deadly dynamic between parent and child. Once we move to modern times, Lucio Fulci’s full bore gore conceit comes into play. While most of the killings occur off camera, their nasty results get full view visits. Even the ending is unrelenting, delivering not one, or two, but THREE false jolts.


As with much of the Mediterranean macabre geared toward Western audiences, Christopher George gives his Cheshire Cat capped grin a good workout as Bracken. While not as active here as he is in such gems as City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator, and Mortuary, he provides the necessary despotic smugness that makes these movies work. Bracken has to be self assured and clueless, otherwise, the villain’s reveal gets shortchanged. Sure, we see who the bad man is almost immediately, but the cops have to fumble a bit before pulling out their pistols. Similarly, then wife Lynda Day is nothing more than eye candy, reduced at 38 to playing pseudo-paramour for the wispy lothario Sera. 


And speaking of Kendall, it is clear that Simón sees him as the calm within the monster movie maelstrom. Instantly cast off the isle of suspicion, he gets to hit on Day, act as an inspector substitute, emote over various F/X corpses, and show off his larger than average “assets” during a laughable love scene. For fans of the unflappable Mystery Science Theater 3000, seeing the musical prick Rick running around san shorts may explain his angry male animal arrogance. But as a romantic lead, he’s rather limited. According to IMDb Sera’s career was also rather short lived. What started in 1979 was soon over five years later. Google offers up a similar overview.



Even with the cast’s uneven facets, Pieces manages to work. It’s a shame that so much talent takes a backseat to naked babes being butchered. Smith, fresh from playing Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye, does little except smirk and speak like a certain Joe Cabot. Crusty Dean Edmund Purdom has to get by on clipped British courtesy and a nasty five o’clock shadow. Thanks to the dubbing - everyone’s voice is redone (even if it was their own in the end), as was the standard for most import productions - Pieces takes on an amplified exploitation feel. We sense this is a movie that will do almost anything, including substitute actor accents, to get its gruesome point across. Oh, and one thing about the gore. It is plentiful, but clearly culled from an early ‘80s limit of realism.


Indeed, very little of this fright flick plays like an authentic police procedural. A premise is devised, a killer walks among his potential prey, Greed decade fashion victims disrobe with alarming regularity, and soon - it’s power tool time! The Georges chew up the scenery and all is right in the domain of dread. Grindhouse Releasing, a company started by cinema schlock lover Sage Stallone, is promising a two disc “UNCUT” DVD release of Pieces come Halloween. As they have done with other splatter masterworks (Cannibal Holocaust), they assure us fans that we will experience this otherwise mistreated movie as it was originally intended. Some will scoff no matter the digital dressing. Pieces is that kind of perverse product. But don’t be surprised when, after it’s all over, you’re more than a little unnerved. It is that kind of movie - exactly.


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Monday, Oct 13, 2008

The real independent cinema, the one being championed by skylarking individuals with camcorders and a vision, has its own set of unappreciated auteurs. There’s the guiding light Godard Giuseppe Andrews, able to channel both the trailer park and toilet humor with equal imagination. Damon Packard can’t get his oversized originality out of Spielberg’s sphere of influence and the ‘70s ABC Movie of the Week, while Chris Seaver literally creams over the high concept stupidity of the proceeding Greed decade. Add in the Campbell Brothers and their meticulously crafted homages, and you’ve got quite an impressive list. However, one name needs to be added to this cinematic Mt. Rushes-more - 51 year old Warren F. Disbrow. If genius had a conservative sounding name, it would be this knotty New Jersey savant.


For many in DVD nation, Disbrow first came to geek cult fame with his remarkable Troma Double Feature Flesh Eaters from Outer Space/ Invasion for Flesh and Blood. This pair of alien invasion insanity is highly recommended to anyone looking for cinema that doesn’t cater to the normal or the nuanced. Disbrow’s broad, sweeping, erratic epics are just the tonic for a recreational existence lived in direct to video Hell. Later on, he released the demonic delight Scarlet Moon. If Disbrow was comparable to a jerryrigged genre David Lynch, this movie was Dune. The final product stands as a sensational mishmash of comedy and corpses, devil worship and dumbness. Naturally, aficionados wondered what his next cinematic step would be.


Who could have imagined it would be a combination wistful nostalgia trip and nasty slasher epic? With Haunted Hay Ride, Disbrow delivers a throwback treasure, a splatter filled festival of Fall, friendship, and vivisection. While it may not be as accomplished (or unhinged) as his other films, it does do something that few mainstream movies can claim - it shows a real passion and love of the often misbegotten genre. If anything, Disbrow is horror’s gatekeeper, a man who’s made it his career to collect and care for the many monster movie fear factors that have been tossed aside for more ‘real’ scares. Haunted Hay Ride may sound like a rejection of same, that is, until you realize that with his new serial killer character, he’s simply shifting the paradigm from the paranormal to people.



When we first meet Hate, the scarred figure in the permanently affixed fright mask (that’s right - Disbrow’s villain literally screws his metallic skull face right onto his head via a drill) is teaching his father a deadly thing or two about bad parenting. Soon, he is off to Brock Farms to torture and torment the employees and visitors to the famed title tour. Mr. Brock, an older no nonsense kind of man, can’t believe that his beloved workers are disappearing one by one. Naturally, this raises concerns about the police…and publicity. In the meantime, a pair of on again/off again lovers, along with two of their slacker buddies, take in the last hay ride of the season. Little do they know that Hate is waiting to make this the best, and bloodiest, Halloween ever.


At first glance, Haunted Hay Ride looks like an episode of the classic Scooby-Doo taken to serious, psychotic extremes. Unlike the Saturday Morning spook show from the ‘70s, Disbrow keeps the body count high and the gore plentiful. Fans of flowing bodily fluids will truly enjoy the ample arterial spray here. Some of the F/X are obviously fudged, but a few leave a lasting sense of distress. Hate also cuts a rather impressive swath. While he’s not the beefiest bad guy in the slice and dice spectrum, his unrelenting desire to kill puts him a clever “cut” above. Indeed, there hasn’t been a executioner this obsessed with slaughter since Jason faced off against Freddy.


Disbrow also does something that every fledging fright filmmaker needs to take note of. The Brock Farms location - actual working businesses in Freehold and Colt’s Neck, New Jersey -  makes a wonderful backdrop for the action. Local haunted attraction Dracula’s Domain also makes an appearance. But it’s the farm, with its lush grounds, oversized animal statues (including a few animatronic dinosaurs), and acres of wooded trails, that’s a perfect place for a horror movie. There is a real sense of authenticity, a feeling that we’ve actually walked into a family business beleaguered by a rampaging maniac. Thanks to the classic deadpan acting style of Disbrow’s dad, Warren Sr., the Brock enterprise becomes part of our recognizable world. It’s not a lonesome abandoned building or an art director’s fever dream. This helps heighten the suspense.



If Haunted Hay Ride has a flaw, it’s in its victim-ology. Of the foursome we follow throughout the 90 minute running time, none make that much of an impression. Our hero and his gal pal snipe at each other so often that we wish Hate would show up and put them out of each other’s misery, and the dunderheaded duo they chum up to (who go off on a surreal subplot involving an aborted drug deal) are practically opaque as individuals. Luckily, this is counteracted by the employees of Brock Farms. Everyone, from office staff to attraction workers come across as genial, sincere, and very, very real. When they die, we feel a twinge of unfairness. When Hate takes on the leads, we tend to lose interest.


Still, for all its minor shortcoming, Haunted Hay Ride is a great deal of retro-fun. It’s the classic case of a ‘80s Saturday Night, the “take anything” trip to the local Mom and Pop video store that produced as many gems as junk piles. With such a direct-to-video dynamic, Disbrow comes up with a near classic, a film that feels wholly original and yet simultaneously similar to everything that came before. Some will miss his old lunacy, the mixing of ideas and individual beats to create macabre that resembles nothing else in the dread lexicon. But Haunted Hay Ride is pure history, like watching a live action adaptation of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Forgive its little faults and simply enjoy someone who inherently understands the nature of the beast. Warren F. Disbrow deserves a place among other outsider auteurs. Haunted Hay Ride might just guarantee such an appointment.


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Sunday, Oct 12, 2008

Never pretend to be handicapped. Know what awaits you in Heaven. Use racial tolerance to get what you want. Never swear on television. Stay HIV positive. Never take a joke too far. Never give up on cheating. People will always find a way to ruin your good time. Kids with red hair and freckles have no souls. The world will end in 2012. These are just some of the revelations offered by Eric Theodore Cartman, the nine year old self-proclaimed wunderkind of South Park, Colorado. Along with opinions of Family Guy (“sucks balls”) and the Jews (let’s not go there), the rotund prophet want you to join his cult of comedy gold. And thanks to a new DVD set from Paramount, you too can become a member of his portly People’s Temple.


Yes, this is another of those studio compiled merchandising doorstops, meant to appease the appetite of those longing for more and more South Park box sets. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series (and you really should be by now, dammit), it centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk mountain town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), the aforementioned Cartman and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and prone to dying suddenly).


Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs./Mr. Garrison (the gang’s confused transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.



While clearly aimed at appeasing fans until a Season 12 compilation comes along, The Cult of Cartman: Revelations reminds us of why Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated anarchy stands as a certified comedy classic. Not only does the duo understand the innate charms of over the top toilet humor, but they always manage a little satiric bite along with the scatology. Additionally, South Park is almost exclusively a character driven show - albeit one where the personalities involved are slightly twisted and unusually perverted. By focusing on Cartman, especially later day Eric’s evil shenanigans, we observe how Parker and Stone push the envelope of their invention to maximize laughs while staying well within the confines of creative license.


Disc 1 begins with what has to be one of South Park‘s most amazing episodes - “Scott Tenorman Must Die”. No other animated television series could find a way to make pubic hair, a chili cook-off, peer pressure, the band Radiohead, and cannibalism work in a flawless examination of school days hazing. The last installment on the DVD, “La Petit Tourette”, tries something similar with the noted neurological disorder and Dateline’s ‘To Catch a Predator’. In between, we discover that a certain sedate sea creature writes all of Family Guy‘s abysmal scripts (“Cartoon Wars 1 & 2”), pretending to be a robot won’t help your figure out your friends (“Awesom-O”), and dying can be as big a bitch as being completely ignored by your school chums (“The Death of Eric Cartman”).



There’s even more insights on Disc 2, whether it’s dealing with the notoriously humorless “Ginger Kids”, or discovering that a simple case of “Tonsil Trouble” can lead to a cure for AIDS (the secret? Lots and lots of money). Terrorists will always undermine your “Super Fun Time” at a pioneer recreationist village, while the demands of the public and standard business models means that even having your own amusement park (“Cartmanland”) is nothing but headaches. The other two episodes of South Park included on the second DVD feature Mrs. Garrison desperate to become a man again (“Eek, A Penis!”) while Cartman himself fakes mental retardation to “win” the Special Olympics (“Up the Down Steroid”). It is here where you find the only three episodes not previously included on other digital collections (“Tonsil”, “Eek” and “Super”).


As with any random collection of series installments, fans can question the inclusion or exclusion of certain titles, and there will always be arguments over the necessity for such stopgap sets in the first place. Fox received lots of grief for putting The Simpsons out in such a scattered strategy, but since Paramount regularly releases South Park in full season packages (and relatively quickly after they’ve aired on Comedy Central),  some character specific indulgence can be forgiven. After all, without this specialized one-off ideal, we wouldn’t have gotten the amazing full length feature film version of “Imaginationland” a few months back.



As for the sole bonus feature, the tiny life lessons from Cartman himself (part of new introductory animation) are funny, if rather short. Some last no longer than a few seconds. No one is suggesting that Park provide more. After all, Parker and Stone seem content to allow each season set to arrive sans anything remotely resembling real digital extras. Instead, they offer up their own “commentary-mini” (three to five minutes max) and seem satisfied. So having these risqué one liners and profane prophecies setting up each episode is ample added content - especially when you consider the cool packaging and inclusion of a membership card/sticker recognizing your status in the Eric Theodore Cartman Society.


Together, the entire presentation explains how South Park maintains its coveted commercial and critical status. It argues for the value in all aspects of humor - from the outrageous to the subtle, the offensive spoof and the current culture of irony. While the 12 episodes provided might not be the best in the show’s history (that’s up to true Park geeks and messageboard surfers to decide), they remind us of how easy Trey Parker and Matt Stone make it look. In the past, the boys have explained how some ideas take years to foster, while others arrive during the standard production week pressures. In combination with the current political clime, and whatever spills over the TMZ tabloid transom, the duo has fostered one of the finest farces ever conceived. The Cult of Cartman: Revelations may have specious motives, but as a collection of South Park, it’s well worth the re/pre-visit. 


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Saturday, Oct 11, 2008

Symbolically, what do airplane pillows represent? Comfort at 40,000 feet? A cheap way of providing minimal relaxation to the tired traveler? A miniature facsimile of the real thing? Empty promises and little relief? As with most symbols of a crass consumer culture, the rough little puffs with their diminutive status can signify something different to everyone who comes across them. The same can be said for the latest wonderwork by actor turned complete cinematic genius Giuseppe Andrews. Taking its title from the aforementioned in-flight fluff, what we end up with is another mesmerizing look at how the marginalized manage to maintain their errant dignity while dealing with the dilemmas of an uncaring world. 


Baby Swiss is obsessed with a strange science fiction film. She fantasies about living in its futuristic ideals, and keeps a separate DVD copy in a strongbox under the house just to be on the safe side. Naturally, this drives her unattended husband to the local whorehouse, known as The City on the Moon. There, he meets up with other unhappy men and drowns his sorrows in high priced call girls. In the meantime, Baby Swiss discovers a kind of platonic love with a like minded neighbor. He is so desperate to be part of her life that he will wait outside her window. Their relationship will turn on whether she cleans the glass, or closes the blinds. And all the while, a homeless Greek chorus champions the freedom of living on the streets, unencumbered by the mindless machinations of being part of this so-called “proper society”.



Airplane Pillows is Giuseppe Andrews’ impoverished interpretation of Peyton Place, a lifetime of soap opera intrigue boiled down to 30 attention-grabbing minutes. It’s couples fighting, parents pleading with their distant offspring, lovers looking for the light in the window of their paramour’s soured soul, crime, punishment, Pope pimps, and unhappy men seeking solace in the arms (and thighs) of a paid partner’s embrace. Utilizing many in his creatively rich company, including the magnificent Vietnam Ron, Sir George Bigfoot, Ed, and the always electric Karen Bo Baron, while introducing several new intriguing faces, it’s a return to the days of sense memory surrealism and random narrative drive. You can figure out what’s going on here based on genre requirements. But Andrews always makes his movies much more than simple cinematic stereotypes.


As with any aggressive auteur, the standards of the sudser are indeed perverted by Airplane Pillows to make room for more of the maestro’s fascinating free association. In many ways, this wacky little treasure trove reminds one of David Lynch’s cult crackerjack Twin Peaks. Here, Andrews takes typical plot points like adultery, familial dysfunction, sexual satisfaction, drug abuse, serial murder, and other personal power struggles and filters them through a mindset that manufactures as many complications as conclusions. We aren’t supposed to get lost in these people’s piddling problems. Instead, when Baby Swiss explains her love of a fictional sci-fi effort, we are required to see our own idiosyncratic needs, and realize that our unusual fetishes are probably just as freaky.



Perhaps the most compelling sequences however come when two spellbinding street people discuss how happy they are to be homeless. Faces haggard and yet very human, voices straining from years living within the cosmopolitan cancer of urban smog and soot, they literally laugh at individuals who take existence as a mixture of frustration and futility. Here they are, without a care (or collection of coins) in the world, and yet their sunny optimism - combined with a little carnal trickery - mocks everything the other characters kvetch over. Every over the top narrative needs a good counterbalance and Airplane Pillows’ hobo harbingers are a perfect artistic offset.


Unlike past films, where gross out gags about bodily functions and fornication seemed to make up most of the wit, Andrews once again switches gears. Sure, we still get some scatology, but most of the humor is character driven, drawn out from interactions and ideas. Dialogue, always an important element in his films, is fleshed out in a way that challenges convention while embracing its universal needs. There are small snippets of backstory, moments when we learn about Baby Swiss’s son, a hooker’s medical scare, and other random bits of individual dimension. Yet because Andrews always has bigger picture fish to fry, the sum standing as something much greater than the often as intriguing parts.



In fact, even at 30 minutes, Airplane Pillows feels dense and compelling complex. It makes us think while playing fully on our emotional impulses. It instantly draws us in while simultaneously pushing us back, never being too obvious or too obtuse. Like the amazing artist he is, Andrews continues to show how adept he can be within the artform. Even a minor motion picture riff like this stands right alongside his more epic examinations. At one time, Giuseppe Andrews was the Godard of the Trailer Park, a celluloid revisionist working in camcorders and crazies. Today, he’s the leading light in the outsider digital revolution. Airplane Pillows proves this over and over again.


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