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Saturday, Sep 6, 2008

The notion of returning to your roots is at the core of every life crisis. Getting back to the comfort of the past, to the people who supposedly know you best and longest suggests a security that, sadly, is just not there. No, going back home in an attempt to find the same old acceptance, happiness, personal insight, and situational ease proves the oft cited maxim against the possibility of doing same. In Troubadours, a rousing indie effort focusing on this very subject, we learn that connectivity and the friendships forged in same can be just as destructive as the traumas tricking you into taking the trip back.


Art Stone left his father’s farm with big, broad shouldered dreams. But all Chicago provided was a series of dead end opportunities and a broken heart. When he catches his girlfriend in bed with another man, he finally slips into depression. At the behest of his buddy, he heads back to his parent’s property, eager to work the land and basically find himself. But Art soon runs into his old gang, a group of farm hands and menial laborers who use the world around them as an excuse to get drunk, get rowdy, and get in trouble. With his heavily religious relatives looking down their nose at him, and a new girl turning his head, Art must decide what’s important - a return trip to the city to seek his fortune, or the role of tripwire troubadour in a one horse town.


The brainchild of three outsider filmmakers - Tom Galassi, Tom Synder, and Adam Galassi - and tinged with the kind of kooky experimentalism that both electrifies and irritates, Troubadours (new to DVD from Facets Video) takes its sweet time telling a rather intriguing tale. It wants to explore how post-modern machismo has been mitigated, Fight Club style, by a society that stresses getting in touch with your feelings and a more therapeutic way of dealing with decisions. Within this collection of types - the radical, the flag waver, the nonconformist, the raging conservative - we see snippets of the way the world works circa 2008. Amidst the pain of misspent youth and a growing need for maturity, our hero stumbles bravely along, looking to understand himself by coming to terms with the people who played a part in his formation.


As Art, Tom Galassi gives the kind of performance that seems almost invisible at first. He is all reaction, letting others speak for him or even suggest a psychological path to explore. His responses color in the character nuances, allowing silence and stillness to speak volumes. Similarly, the way in which he interacts with his pals provides equally important insights. We can see how Chad’s confrontational stance protects him from outside criticism, while the fate of others rests firmly in their lost boys grasp. There is a clear undercurrent of arrested adolescence here, of boys being boys for no good goddamn reason, and when the filmmakers let the festivities go on too long, Troubadours stumbles. When they keep it to conversations, the movie often amazes.


There is also a nice use of local color here, the Southern Illinois farmland providing a nice bit of forgotten Americana. Equally effective are the insert shots of the landscape, the unique approach to capturing the countryside - almost piecemeal, if you like - giving the film a wonderful somnambulistic edge. The music also aids in creating atmosphere, though the reliance on shoe-gazing groups like My Morning Jacket and Devil in a Woodpile frequently feel like outtakes from 1994. As directors, the two Galassis and Synder tend toward intimate set-ups and random quick cuts. The upside to such a presentation is that the film feels true and very authentic. The downside is that we often experience a kind of creative whiplash. There are definitely times when it’s tough to get our bearings.


Another aspect that may cause some concern is the obvious decision to rely on improv to flesh out many of the scenes. As part of the DVD package, we are privy to outtakes and deleted scenes which show how frequently off base this material became. Still, these added features do expand the viewing experience, especially when the subject of the music comes up. Perhaps the only thing missing here is a full length audio commentary. Tom has a unique past (he was part of a regional company of the Blue Man Group), and many of his costars come from similarly interesting backgrounds. Besides, their narrator presence during the film could help explains some of the narrative hiccups and the use of certain symbols (the ringing cellphone, the monkey mask).


Still, in a genre which typically renders itself stagnant by an overreliance on self-indulgent and absorbed strategies, the open ended and loose feel of Troubadours definitely wins us over. By the time we realize we’ve just witnessed another manboy making up his mind about life, we are awash in a sea of good feelings and genuine emotion. There will be some who find this well meaning meandering to be more or less an unfocused experiment in homespun hedonism, but that’s part of Troubadours’ charm. While it may be impossible to return to your past, a fine cinematic experience out of the attempt is obviously possible. The Galassis and Synder understand this all too well.


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Sunday, Aug 31, 2008

Someone once said that all men live lives of quiet desperation. For those in middle management, said anxiety can be anything but silent. It’s never the big picture issues - the purpose of their productivity, their place within the larger corporate scheme. Instead, it’s the smaller things - petty differences, personality clashes, bumbling bureaucracy - that carry the biggest impact. So advancement is typically based on how well you maneuver the various minor concerns. Make a mistake, and it will cost you. Traverse it all successfully, and you still have to battle nepotism, the omniscient cronies, and the notion of being locked in something more or less dead end for the rest of your days. A movie like The Promotion understands this problem all too well. Too bad it doesn’t deliver the message in a consistently droll manner.


Donaldson’s Supermarket is about to open a new store in suburban Chicago, and longtime assistant manager Doug Stauber really wants the top job. While his current boss considers him a shoo-in, a recent transfer from Canada named Richard Welhner also seems up for the position. Initially, Doug’s not too concerned about the competition. He feels he has the inside track. But soon, Richard is working the coveted inside position, taking over important contacts like Pepsi. Doug, on the other hand, is dealing with the lot, and the gang of local thugs who intimidate and ridicule the customers. Corporate is not pleased with either candidate, and gives them time to shape up or ship out. Naturally, the men begin to instinctually undermine each other, doing whatever it takes to please their family and land that promotion. 


The Promotion (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is the very definition of a human comedy. Again, it’s not uproariously funny, or even laugh out loud clever most of the time. It doesn’t dial into the new “anything for a giggle” movie mystique, nor does it try to deliver mirth with over the top antics and outsized caricature. Instead, Steven Conrad’s likeable little film falls somewhere between heartfelt and hopeless. Thematically following the foibles of two men who’ve allowed their job to define their purpose, what we wind up with is an inconsistent entertainment that never ceases to stumble over moments that should simply just soar.


Some of the sequences (the abusive gang members harassing the customers) are clearly played for stock shock value. Others try to find that ironic insight that all post-millennial movies must now strive to attain. But thanks to the acting, and some interesting narrative choices, we wind up championing most of what happens. It’s not like The Promotion is out to trick us, or provide some manner of plot point misdirection. Conrad’s approach is clear - take tiny little moments, slices of every workaday existence and link them together to tell a recognizable story.


In what is rapidly becoming a New Age film genre, we are once again confronted with the ‘male alone” syndrome. Locked in a somber situation of their own making, and unable to let their partners or friends make up the difference, we get several scenes of leads Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly staring pensively off into the distance. Realizing that it’s no longer a man’s world, but forced into an instinctual need to hunt, gather, bring home the bacon, and increase their professional power, they are lost and forlorn. Even when they try to connect among each other, the pheromone scented posturing prevents any kind of asexual intimacy.


Like Fight Club predicted nearly a decade ago, the new male is really a dude, a dumb animal offshoot that tends to crap where it eats, and likes it quite a bit. Most of The Promotion is taken up with this kind of testicular one-upmanship, Doug digging Richard as he plots to put him down. We never really understand the internal motivation for such a circumstance - both men are genuinely decent and likeable - but the lure of Donaldson’s managership (and the accompanying cash) seems to drive both to distraction. While their battles make for some amusing sidebars, they never really seem to contemplate the consequences. All the brown nosing and butt kissing can’t overcome a failed drug test, or a dreaded inter-store complaint.


Part of the problem with The Promotion (and the facet that also keeps it from failing outright) is Conrad’s skill at observation. He understands the world of work, how people function as colleagues and employees. The stand offs with the Board (featuring a soulless Gil Bellows as the corporate speak executive) have a realistic ring, and when Scott and onscreen spouse Jenna Fisher discuss their privacy free apartment dwelling, we instantly recognize the repartee. But then there are times when Conrad’s scrutiny goes cheap, as when he has Reilly asking a Hispanic female cashier about her “p*ssy” sauce (it’s all part of a stock boy set up). Similarly, the gay banjo player interrupting Seann and Jenna’s closeness seems lifted from a bad SNL sketch. 


Luckily, the first time director (noted for his screenplays The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness) has that wonderful cast to keep him afloat. As a matter of fact, it’s something he acknowledges as part of the DVD’s intriguing audio commentary. Seann William Scott is truly emerging as a sharp leading man. While some of his American Pie posturing is still intact, he comes across as far less mannered here. Additionally, Fisher finds the right note as the more than willing to compromise spouse. But Reilly is the real revelation here. So internally tortured and pent up that he seems permanently constipated, his about to crack Canadian provides a uniquely engaging side to the actor. We are used to seeing him blustery and befuddled. Here, he seems to be living every mistake he ever made over and over again in his mind.


Elsewhere, the extras argue for the limited budget Conrad had to work with. While this does not excuse the film’s shrunken scope, it does explain why we don’t see more of its Midwest locale. Indeed, The Promotion is a small film, and as such, warrants equally limited expectations. If you base your potential response on what Scott and Reilly have done in the past, you’ll be bored before the first moment of comic clarity. But if you recognize that this movie wants to say something rather significant about the human experience, to showcase how some men are born to faux greatness while others are continually beaten to the professional punch, you’ll enjoy the 90 minute ride. Work may not truly define us, but it tends to make the most of its first impression. The Promotion suggests that, somewhere between exaggeration and exactness lies the reason for our desperation - quiet or otherwise. 


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Monday, Aug 25, 2008

The late Gene Siskel once said that if filmmakers want to remake a film, they should focus on the junk. Why update a classic, he argued, when there are so many b-movies and unsuccessful schlock efforts to choose from and improve on. He had a point, of course. There’s no need to make another Casablanca, or Citizen Kane - not when there are hundreds of lamentable horror titles and uneven exploitation outcasts to pick through. In a clear case of “be careful what you wish for” however, novice screenwriter Zach Chassler and outsider director Jeremy Kasten have decided to revamp Herschell Gordon Lewis’ neo-classic splatterfest The Wizard of Gore. Unfortunately, the duo completely forgot the reason the original film was so memorable.


By 1970, things were changing quite radically within the grindhouse model. Sexploitation was blurring the line between hard and softcore, and filmmakers were trying to find more rational, realistic ways to incorporate violence into their drive-in fare. One of the last purveyors of unadulterated gore was Lewis, the man responsible for starting the cinematic trend in the first place. In the early part of the ‘60s, his Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red) became the benchmark for all arterial spray to come. But by the end of the decade though, he had dissolved his successful partnership with producer David Friedman, and was trying to make it on his own. Hoping a return to serious scares would increase his profile (and profits), he made The Wizard of Gore.


It was kind of a homecoming for Lewis, and not just because he was going back to his straight sluice roots. No, at one time the director actually ran a Grand Guignol style nightclub in Chicago, and the premise for Wizard mimicked his showmanship experiences perfectly. The plot revolved around a magician named Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) whose blood drenched act gets the attention of a local TV reporter named Sherry Carson. Along with her boyfriend Jack, they attend Montag’s macabre show. In between tricks, the conjurer calls up young women from the audience, hypnotizes them, and then puts them through all manner of gruesome tortures. After it’s over, the girls seem okay. Later, they end up dying just like they did onstage.


In both its approach and execution, the original Wizard of Gore is a sleazy, surreal treat. It uses a shoestring narrative thread that allows Lewis to indulge in his ever increasing bits of brutality. The splatter set pieces are rather inventive, including a human hole punch and a tasty chainsaw attack. While the mystery of what’s happening to these young girls is part of the plot process, Wizard would rather spend the majority of its time watching Sager overact. A longtime associate of Lewis’, this on-set jack-of-all-trades in gray sprayed hair is pure ham as our perverted prestidigitator. His line delivery would be laughable if the actor wasn’t trying to take it all so sincerely. Together with the red stuff, the 1970 Wizard is some goofy, grotesque fun.


So how do Chassler and Kasten update the material? What do they do to try and breathe new life into an old hat horror show? Why, they create one of the most confusing plots ever presented in a fright film, and then populate the confusion with several quality genre names and a few naked Goth gals. If you look closely you will see Jeffrey Combs as The Geek, Brad Dourif as Dr. Chang, and former child actor Joshua John Miller (Homer from Near Dark) as coroner’s Intern Jinky. The main casting offers Bijou Phillips as a mystery girl, Kip Pardue as the publisher of an underground paper, and the fantastic freakshow that is Crispin Glover as Montag himself.


Doing away with the investigative reporting angle, the updated Wizard uses the seedy and subversive LA fetish scene to fashion a narrative involving Edmund Bigelow, a trust fund baby who uses his considerable cash to live like it’s the 1940s every day of the week. He dresses in period garb and outfits his large loft with era-specific items. He even drives a classic roadster. One night, he takes new gal pal Maggie to see Montag, and both are immediately taken by the magician’s presence and performance art atrocities. Soon, Edmund fears that the “victims” he is seeing each night onstage are winding up dead in real life. He seeks the advice of Dr. Chang, as well as best friend Jinky. He soon learns, however, that things are far more complicated (and corrupt) than he could ever have imagined.


As revamps go, the new Wizard of Gore is not without its charms. The aforementioned actors all do a wonderful job of delivering definitive turns within a very unfocused and often unflattering set-up. Glover is given the most leeway, and his “audience vs. actuality” speeches are delivered with almost Shakespearean verve. He doesn’t quite steal the movie from the others, but there would be little reason to revisit this material had Glover not been sitting at the center. Everyone else acquits themselves admirably, with Ms. Phillips and Mr. Miller earning special marks. Pardue, on the other hand, is just so strange as our purported hero Edmund that we can never get a real handle on his potential guilt or outright gullibility. Toss in some decent F/X and you’ve got a chance at some wonderfully wanton thrills.


But the shoddy script by Chassler, or perhaps the scattered interpretation of same by Kasten, lets this remake down time and time again. Stumbling over into spoiler-ville for a moment, we are supposed to understand that Montag is merely an illusion, a symbolic slave to the Geek’s murderous desires. While he’s onstage racking up the bodies, the horrific hobo with a taste for blood is using a hallucinogenic fish toxin to brainwash audiences into seeing something else - the better to go about his splattery serial killing in the back. Edmund’s propensity toward violence has made him the Geek’s latest target - he will replace the old Montag and continue on the duo’s deadly work. Naturally, our hero outsmarts the villain, deciding to take control of the show - and the slaughter - all by himself.


Now, in general, there is nothing wrong with this kind of plot repurposing. In the original Montag was just a madman, using the power of mind control and post hypnotic suggestion to destroy pretty young things. Here, Chassler and Kasten want to overcomplicate things, tossing in scenes blurring fantasy and reality so regularly that we loose track of the timeframe. Bijou Phillips is supposed to be an important catalyst to all that’s happening, and yet she’s introduced in such a clumsy manner that we never understand her overall importance. Even Dourif, who uses reams of exposition to remind us why he’s crucial to the outcome seems adrift in the filmmakers’ fixations. From the 1940s focus (which gets old very quickly) to Edmund’s constant cracking of his neck (a byproduct of the fish toxin) there are repeated elements that will drive viewers to distraction.


Yet perhaps the most disturbing thing about the new Wizard of Gore is the lack of…well, gore. Of course, the new “Unrated” DVD reportedly solves most of that problem, but at the expense of what, exactly. Why was the original edit so devoid of actual grue? Surely, the MPAA was a concern, but the set up seems more interested in dealing with Edmund’s growing dementia (and addictions), the full frontal nudity of the Suicide Girls, and the on again, off again trips into inner space than blood and body parts. Lewis only used his premise as a means of delivering the disgusting. In The Wizard of Gore 2007, the offal is the least of our concerns, and that’s not the way to approach any old fashioned splatter film.


And so the redux legacy of The Wizard of Gore sits somewhere between old school corner cutting and post-modern meddling. The original version delivers in the vivisection department. The new movie fumbles the all important garroting. In fact, it may be safe to say that, in some fictional film lab, where the best aspects of otherwise incomplete entertainments can be sectioned out and sewn together, a 70/07 Wizard amalgamation could be formed that offers both valid plot points and solid putrescence. Until that time, we are stuck with two competing if competent cinematic claims. One uses blood instead of baffling narrative to win us over. The other decides we care more about the psychological than the slippery. In either case, The Wizard of Gore deserves better. Apparently, Mr. Siskel’s advice has a few unforeseen filmic flaws to be worked out. 


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Sunday, Aug 24, 2008

One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. It would borrow greatly from D. W. Griffith and the earliest days of moviemaking while adding enough Dali-inspired strangeness to make Un chien andalou look like Underdog.


Not known for his straightforward, rational, or even coherent aesthetic, this is a man manufacturing pictures based on his own fudged up film language. Maddin makes movies locked in his own unique approach, one that apparently hasn’t aged since Keaton and Chaplin were battling it out for box office supremacy. A perfect example of what he is after comes in the form of Brand Upon the Brain!, a self-described “97% accurate” autobiography of his early life as the abused son of a tyrannical couple who run a lighthouse orphanage while manufacturing an immortality serum. Seriously.


It’s not like the plot to the film (new to DVD from the Criterion Collection) clarifies things. When a fictional ‘Guy Maddin’ receives a letter from his dying mother asking that he return to the family homestead and give the place a much needed makeover, the middle aged painter agrees. Armed with a can of whitewash, he begins to touch up the fading walls of the Black Notch Island lighthouse, where his mother and father once ran an orphanage. Slowly, his memories of the past come flooding back.


He recalls his sexually frustrated older sister, and her physical awakening at the hands of a pair of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew like detectives - Wendy and Chance Hale, otherwise known as “The Lightbulb Kids”. He remembers late night footsteps and long lines of orphans entering his father’s mysterious lab. He balks at reminiscences of his mother’s watchtower worrying, a weird telephone like device and searchlight seeking out anything remotely fun or satisfying. He even revisits his own ineffectual rearing, complete with too many intimate cuddles and his own awkward carnal confusions. 


In general, Guy Maddin is either a stone cold genius or the kind of overly arty arsepipe that gives underground cinema a bad rap. Here’s voting for the former delineation. While you’ve probably never seen a silent scream as significant as Brand Upon the Brain!, Maddin makes his freak show fever dream relatively easy to digest. Sure, we grow slightly weary of all the peephole compositions and Lumiere like dissolves, but when the end result is this engaging, it really is hard to bellyache.


Indeed, Maddin earns major brownie points for out weirding David Lynch, circumventing Ken Russell, going gonzo where Terry Gilliam is merely giddy, and working it like a combination of James Whale, Tod Browning, and The Residents. Sure, it’s all pretend pretense, dramatics cleverly concealed inside manic moviemaking symbolism. But once you get a handle on Maddin’s cinematic dialect, the iconography becomes all too clear.


While he argues for the veracity of the events in Brand Upon the Brain!, it has also been suggested that the accuracy lies in ‘psychological’ truth. That means that Maddin’s character in the film was probably not the victim of a domineering and pseudo incestual mother. Instead, we can read in between the frame count to find the reality of an artistic young boy more or less smothered by his parent’s prearranged ambitions. Similarly, Sister could not have been a nun like nuisance that explored her sexuality via illicit trysts with ‘30s era teen spies. And let’s not even mention the occasional cranium draining that father forces on her.


Instead, Brand is plainly suggesting that, in a manner most understandable, Maddin’s sibling sought fantasy and freedom in unconventional ways, and when her family discovered this, their punishments figuratively leeched the life out of her. He wouldn’t be the first to cast relatives as reprobate from Hell. Such puzzle box pronouncements are all over this narrative. From Mother’s omniscient watchdog despotism to Father’s far away and distant kind of clinical disconnect, one sees a household orphaned, without the kind of conscious center that leads to love and open understanding.


Why else would Maddin’s movie mother want the residence painted over? Part of Brand Upon the Brain!‘s significance stems from the concept of hiding from the past. Indeed, the very approach of the film makes it all so meta. Sonic themes repeat - the call of the gulls, the ding of the off shore buoy, suggesting the kind of mental soundscape that shapes our memories. Maddin also repeats certain sequences, the better to emphasis his mother’s nonstop assaults, his Father’s “foghorn” like loss, or his own fascination with Wendy and Chance - the Lightbulb Kids.


Part of the fun in this film is deciphering the clues - what does naming these characters after Edison’s invention signify? An idea? An epiphany? Illumination? What about the statement that “raging = aging”? Is it merely a clever play on words, or a sensible psychological statement applied as a nonsense rhyme? The fact that Maddin literalizes everything, giving it shape and form where other filmmakers would strive for the suggestive, means that Brand is a film that fully expects you to play along. And since he employs a cast of unknowns, we can’t rely on celebrity to aid in our appreciation


Some can consider it confusing or even self-indulgent. ‘Interactive’ would be a much better label. Brand Upon the Brain! is like an incomplete composition, requiring the input and experiences of the viewer to realize its aims. Since the tale is told both visually and via a voice over narration, we get to play a kind of storyline compare and contrast. Even better, the implied dialogue frequently countermands the images, as when Mother’s maternal cooing appears almost erotic when applied to her young son.


There is a clear acknowledgement of the power of myth within Maddin’s work, and much of the time, Brand feels like Oedipus or some other famed Greek tragedy as spun and shuttered by The Brothers Grimm. The decision to use old silent filmmaking techniques really helps. By making Wendy and Chance the spitting image of Clara Bow, while his Father fumbles around in what looks like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the homage to the artform’s past is particularly potent. It gives the fantastical, almost science fiction like format a real sense of significance.


In all honesty, Brand Upon the Brain! can best be described as a monochrome responsorial to Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s brilliant City of Lost Children. That French fable also emphasized the loss of innocence, the attempt to recapture youth, the feminine dominance of offspring and the typical ineffectual pining of the male. While the acclaimed foreign film wanted to feel like a bedeviled bedtime story, Maddin is more interested in producing a psycho-sensationalized mind play. One could easily envision this film being transformed to the stage, the various orchestration and foley choices accompanying a highly stylized recreation.


Of course, the bigger question remains - is any of this entertaining? Do we buy what this daring deconstructionist is selling, or would we be better served steering clear of his scrapbook as scar tissue? The truth is that Brand Upon the Brain! is not necessarily built for instant amusement. Instead, it sets up a subjective surrealist wavelength and wonders aloud (and often) if you’re capable of syncing up. Those who can won’t be disappointed. Those who can’t will simply shrug their shoulders and back peddle to the comfort of the mainstream. In either case, it’s a clear win for Maddin’s malarkey, and motives - not that he cares about such commercial aims.


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Saturday, Aug 23, 2008

Can context really change your opinion? Can the changing cultural or political tide turn one set judgment, especially when the item being discussed seems irretrievably linked to said shifts? Morgan Spurlock must think so. When he offered his intriguing if incomplete dissertation on the Middle East and the so-called War on Terror a few months back, it seemed like a silly slapstick take on a very serious subject. Now, in light of an election which seems poised to be decided on issues other than our commitment in Iraq and threats from Islamic fundamentalists, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? appears much more lucid and likeable. 


The DVD release (from Genus Products and The Weinstein Company) of the title bares this out, especially when looking at the bonus material offered. Spurlock adds a few supporting snippets, including an insightful interview with Shimon Peres. The Israeli President makes it very clear that peace can be brokered, but as with any negotiation, it’s a matter of compromise. And when one side sees itself as totally marginalized within the process (as is the case with the Palestinians), there’s little desire to do anything except fight back. In light of his words, the entire foundation of this film changes. Sure, it’s still a goofy journey through world politics accented by Spurlock’s sunny slacker stance. But one cannot deny the connection to our own Western worries.


It’s clear in the main set-up the movie offers. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. Young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. Again, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead this is what Spurlock learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one.


By using the impending birth of this first child as a catalyst for cutting through the political rhetoric and the international posturing, we see the personal concern and connection and though premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span. It does its job remarkably well, and is eye opening in ways both important and superfluous. But just as he did with his attack on McDonalds, Super Size Me (and to a lesser extent, his otherwise excellent 30 Days series for FX), Spurlock stuffs the cinematic ballot box. He hedges his bets, going for the obvious score vs. the insightful if complicated underpinning.


It happens almost immediately upon entering Egypt (the film is built around a multi-country tour with our grinning guide playing a terrorist-trailing Tony Bourdain). Whenever he comes upon a disgruntled group of citizens, the message is repeated like a mantra - we don’t HATE the people of the US, just their horrific, misguided, and totally out of touch government. Over and over again it is repeated: we love you, we despise your failed foreign policy. Even in occupied territories outside Israel, where the aforementioned Palestinian refugees suffer unusual and horrid hardships, few are fuming at Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. Aside from one or two obvious militants, the same sentiment is voiced over and over - population good, president bad! 


Yet there is more to Spurlock’s madness than just delivering this one note communication. Unlike so many news reports that want to cast Muslims as one big bearded bunch of Islamic radicals, Where in the World… gives faces to this decidedly foreign issue. They are no longer villains in veils and headdress. Instead, they are actual human beings (Shock! Horror!) who just want schools, drinking water, financial help - oh, and some minor sovereign recognition and democratic rights would be great as well. The whole Jihad angle is substantially downplayed, the interviewees more than willing to rag on their radicalized brethren as not “representative” of the Middle East. As stated before, this is far from a revelation.


Still, there are times when even these comments seem contradictory. As part of the bonus features, three Saudi girls discuss their concept of freedom within a segregated, paternalistic theocracy. They argue that they have choice (they choose to conform) and they suggest they could drop the Muslim mandated rituals whenever they wanted. When pressed, they admit that the trouble to do so may not warrant the reward. The lack of follow-up remains one of this film’s few stumbles. Spurlock rarely gets to the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes question. Most of the time he offers nothing but passive aggressive acceptance.


Most of the time, he doesn’t even try to contradict or add context. He just lets jerks be jerks and moves on. Both sides get it good, from party line toting students to Hasidic Jews giving the people of Israel an equally bad name. Similarly, one senses that all these pro-peace pronouncements could be easily countermanded by a look at the cutting room floor - at least beyond the limited extras offered on this DVD. Like the director he’s most often compared to - Michael Moore - Spurlock clearly has an agenda. He’s more interested in fact flagging than finding. The viewpoint he puts out in Where in the World… may indeed be his overall experience, but it’s clearly one filtered through careful editing and a specific unbalanced viewpoint.


As the magnificent strains of Elvis Costello’s reading of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” start up, as the credits roll and the people we’ve met smile kindly for the camera (even the radicals), something strange happens. Beyond all the ADD inspired graphics, the video game grandstanding, the Charlie Daniels on Demerol theme song, and the overall reliance on generics, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden becomes a very effective film. It’s as if the music (and now the DVD) makes the points that Spurlock avoids, questioning and commenting on the tenets he tries to expose. There was never a chance he would find the fiery fundamentalist. Yet somehow, Spurlock still found the truth - or at least part of it.


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