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by Bill Gibron

23 Mar 2009


As it continues to underperform at the box office, it’s obvious now that the entire Watchmen phenomenon was one magical adventure that few were prepared to meet head on - or even halfway. Audiences apparently want things spelled out for them in abject specifics, or they’ll simply meanderer down the Cineplex hall to see what Tyler Perry or The Rock is up to. Even worse, as a result of this lack of appreciation, some of the smarter marketing angles invested in by the filmmakers are now seeing their possible payoffs weakened by a less than excited public. This makes the DVD release of necessary supplements Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood that much more arresting. These provocative puzzle pieces, meant to complement and complete (for now) the faithful adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel vision now feel like afterthoughts. Too bad all postscripts aren’t this provocative.

Tales gets its EC Comics kick from an unexplored storyline from the book involving a mysterious writer, artists with a knack for creating the gruesome, and the infamous funny book they forge. Read by Bernie, an African American kid sitting on the New York City street corner where some of the later action in the plot takes place, “Marooned” (as the specific story is labeled) centers on a sunken schooner, the Captain (voiced by 300‘s Gerard Butler) and his crew left for dead. Washing up on a deserted island, our delirious sailor tries to return to his home of Davidstown. He’s convinced the sinister Black Freighter is headed there, bloodthirsty ghost pirates bent on taking the entire village - including the Captain’s wife and daughters - to Hell. Fashioning a raft made of the bloated corpses of the dead, he traverses dangerous seas. Once he arrives back home however, the horror final begins.

On the other hand, Under the Hood, a memoir written by original Nite Owl Hollis Mason, has been made over into a 60 Minutes like news special (complete with era appropriate commercials). In the book, we saw excerpts of the actual text. Here, a typical talking head named Larry Culpeper hosts The Culpeper Minute. For this 10 year retrospective, we are whisked back to 1975, before the Keene Act, before masks were outlawed, before the events in Watchmen literally change the fate of the entire world. In a series of exclusive interviews and archival footage flashbacks, Culpeper talks to Mason, original Silk Spectre Sally Jupiter, and a few more fringe characters from the surreal subtextual history of the avengers. We discover links to the McCarthy hearings, the hints at Ms. Jupiter’s assault at the hands of the Comedian, and lots of mea culpas from agent (and former husband to Silk herself), Laurence Schexnayder.

Like Alice tumbling head over heels deeper and deeper into her own special rabbit hole, Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood are destined to overfeed a fanbase already rabid for anything Watchmen related. For them, this is the final visual epiphany, the moment when the promise Zack Snyder exhibited all throughout the feature film is fully realized and expanded. Granted, the “visionary” director is not on hand to helm either project, so it goes without saying that there’s some palpable pizzazz missing. But for the most part, this daunting double feature reminds us why Moore and Gibbons are so revered, and why so few outside their skewed sphere of influence “get” their incredible accomplishment.

Indeed, to the outsider looking in, Black Freighter will feel like a failed episode of Tales from the Crypt, The Animated Series, while Hood will have little relevance if any. They’ll question the importance of these supposedly significant parts and wonder why they weren’t given a place somewhere within the features already daunting two hour plus running time. For some, the allure of Black Freighter‘s Grand Guignol anime take will be too much to take. Others will see the stilted nature of Mason, Jupiter and the others and argue that everything about Watchmen plays that way. What this means of course is that the doubters are simply jealous for being left out of the creative clique. When this material works - and it does so in any medium - it’s mesmerizing to behold.



The best moments in Black Freighter come toward the middle, when the Captain’s madness finds him talking to the decomposing head of his shipmate Ripley. As voiced by the always recognizable Jared Harris, the exchange sparkles with sinister allure. Equally endemic are the times when Hood traces the rise and rapid stardom of the original hooded crusaders. While the footage may not look “found” enough, it’s great to see these often overlooked characters getting some necessary live action due. Indeed, those suggesting that Snyder and company helm a prequel dealing with the original Minutemen are totally misguided. As Hood illustrates, there really not much more to it than a 30 minute overview can’t cover.

Sure, there’s some material missing. The lesbian inspired hate crime death of Silhouette is never even mentioned, while Dollar Bill’s demise is given equally short shrift. Black Freighter is far more true to its source, since there’s not much more to Moore and Gibbons tie-in than narration and nasty action. What would have been nice, however, is a nod to the whole underlying intrigue involving author Max Shea and artists Joe Orlando and Walt Feinberg. Their subplot helps explain Ozymandias’ plot, as well as the reasons he resorts to the scheme he eventually follows. Maybe it was left out since the movie changed the way in which the last act Apocalypse occurs. After all - no squid, no need for Shea and the gang.

As a DVD, Tales of the Black Freighter feels like a sensational stopgap between the present and the future fleshed out digital package that will surely follow Watchmen‘s release on the home video format. The only intriguing bonus feature is a fine making-of that manages to explain both the creation of these narrative complements as well as why they are important to the overall storyline. Certainly, more could have been done to make this a must-own stand alone item. Perhaps a collection of other missing elements from the novel itself, or a catalog of items from Veidt Industries (also hinted at in the book) could have been included. Of course, once the super colossal X disc special editions come out, complete with everything you ever wanted to know about Watchmen and its various interconnected facets, these qualms may be appeased.

Still, one has to wonder why Watchmen wasn’t more popular? Granted, it’s a wholly insular experience, but then again, isn’t any superhero effort? After all, it was more than just fans of a certain caped crusader that drove dollars to The Dark Knight‘s eventual box office supremacy. So apparently, this long held holy grail of comic book classicism just didn’t appeal to the mainstream loving masses - and that’s too bad. Zack Snyder’s film is a fascinating, flawed masterwork, and these ingenious add-ons make the experience all the more meaningful. If they reach beyond the believers, great. If not, the reasons why will remain a motion picture mystery for decades to come.

by Bill Gibron

19 Mar 2009


The life and uneasy times of Dalton Trumbo - scribe, novelist, screenwriter, director, and notoriously unrepentant member of the Hollywood blacklist of the ‘40s and ‘50s - are so fascinating, so full of the American Dream and its rancid, reciprocal nightmares, that it’s almost impossible to judge his art without them. For many Trumbo is the ultimate rebel, a man who stood up to McCarthy and his witch hunt heathens and suffered mightily for his art. For others, he was the unfortunate victim of a sanctimonious Senator with a mandate from an equally reactionary public. It cost Trumbo 11 months in prison (for contempt of Congress) and two Academy Awards (for Roman Holiday, and The Brave One).

Even his most important effort, 1971’s Johnny Got His Gun, was undermined by the still brewing gap between Vietnam-era patriotism and counterculture protest. By the time of his death in 1976, his work was actually being mocked and marginalized. Michael and Harry Medved even nominated Donald Sutherland’s work as Jesus Christ for one of their ultimate dishonors in the infamous Golden Turkey Awards book. But thanks to Metallica, who raised awareness of the big screen adaptation of Trumbo’s own National Book Award winner with their video “One”, a new generation of fans have grown curious about the maverick’s only stint behind the lens. Thanks to Shout! Factory and their new, near definitive DVD version of Johnny Got His Gun, a veiled motion picture mystery is finally revealed for all the world to see - and it’s a glorious sight to behold.

by Sean Murphy

15 Mar 2009


Enough good things really can’t be said about Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson, also known as The Kids in the Hall. I celebrated them, in 2007, for the Popmatters “Best of TV on DVD” feature (http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/part-3-the-new-networks), and this was as succinct a summation as I was capable of conjuring up:

The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised—and appreciated—as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced—-and, for fans, most welcome—-quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons: you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.

That works, I think. You can, and should, encourage those not-in-the-know to check them out, but it seems safe to predict that KITH will remain forever a cult phenomenon, appreciated by a discerning minority. Not unlike Monty Python, come to think of it. Not the movies, but the actual TV series: everyone loves Python and everyone ensures they get their props, but I can’t say I know too many people who have actually seen more than a handful of the actual sketches.

Speaking of the sketches, it’s an impossible, and pretty futile endeavor to attempt isolating the single skit that best represents the whole (whether it’s MP or KITH or even a shorter-lived gem like The Chappelle Show). But it’s still funny, and possibly imperative, for fans to play around with the agonizing, if ultimately unimportant distinction. There are at least a dozen serious candidates, and different KITH fans would invariably choose different ones, but that is also part of the fun. 

Bruce McCulloch

Bruce McCulloch

One skit in particular I never get tired of is “Work Pig” (from Season 4) which, unlike many of the great KITH sketches, is not a collaboration, but pretty much a vehicle for Bruce McCulloch. It has all of the elements of a prototypical top-tier KITH effort: the quirky, dark, surreal humor, the clever (and always remarkably subtle) social commentary, and mostly the rather inimitable oddball sensibility. This skit, as anyone who has seen it will know (and for those that don’t, see below), works so perfectly because its skewering of the frenetic corporate circus is timeless.

But watching it again, recently, something hit me.

This had to be made in the early ’90s because it nails all the last vestiges of the old world order: the phones, the fax machine, the suspenders, and especially the rolodex. That skit could not be set up the same way now for the simple reason that no office looks that way today. And one is tempted to think: thank God. Who needs the bad old days when you actually put people on hold not merely because you were busy but because you actually talked on the phone. Plus, what else did you have to do? No Internet to surf, no e-mail to send and receive, just…work.

But wait. That is still happening; it just happens in one centralized place: on the monitor of a ubiquitous PC. The activities he is engaging in (still called multi-tasking, one assumes) are all occurring now; they merely appear more innocuous, or unthreatening, because they are all trapped in electronic ether, they are confined to a 12 inch screen. Suddenly it’s slightly more unnerving to consider that if, like myself, it’s not uncommon for you to have more than 10 windows (various sites) along with MS Outlook, and one or more spreadsheets and/or MS Word documents, and maybe a CD playing, you are bopping around doing a million things. Here’s the thing: it just doesn’t require you to bop around. It’s all happening, in your head. And how much more intense—and damaging—is that type of information overload? It’s no wonder (if, like myself) at least once a day you open a new window to look something up and get momentaritly sidetracked (say, you see the window you’d previously opened and remember you need to finish that task or send that e-mail) and then, when you turn back to the welcome screen on for a fresh window, have no earthly idea what it was you were looking for.  We’ve been moved out of the pigsties, perhaps, but maybe the joke is on us. Possibly, people will look back at our moment in time and ask how the fuck we outsmarted ourselves into being even busier every day.

Or, like the songs says, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Like your mind.

by Bill Gibron

13 Mar 2009


There is an argument/mantra among devout fans of cinema that goes a little something like this: “Critics are so hard on and hate (insert name of favorite movie here) because they are merely frustrated filmmakers themselves and can’t do any better.” To paraphrase Woody Allen, “those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, grab a camcorder and call themselves directors.” Thanks to DVD, and the so-called digital revolution, everyone with a basic knowledge of process, a hint of inspiration, and a script/screenplay spinning around in their head/bottom desk drawer thinks they’re the next Kubrick…or if not the late, great auteur, some manner of homemade genius. For them, the motion picture is not about exclusivity. It’s about jumping whole hog into the artform before there’s even a need for their input.

For years, Paul O’Callaghan has added his celluloid two cents on the current Cineplex crop as part of radio’s outrageous Ron and Fez Show. Before that, he was a Tampa, Florida cable access star with his review/preview show Your Life is a Movie. But unlike the cliché, his recent turn behind the lens is not some random outlet for his misspent muse. It’s actually the culmination of a dream he’s been holding onto since graduating from film school in the early ‘80s. The resulting experiment in genre exposition, Gap, gives new meaning to the term “unconventional”. By taking on one of the most stereotypical scary conventions - the serial killer with a desire to record his crimes - O’Callaghan has made a remarkable accomplished and anarchic piece of post-modern social commentary.

Gap is a movie that believes in ideas. It’s a film that follows a certain philosophy. Rebuking the clueless cow-like attention span of the average individual and adding it into the already ripe disposability of our poisonous pop culture, O’Callaghan’s killer (he plays the role himself) is more of a slaughter-bent sage than a manifestation of pure evil. By making these “tapes” (similar in style to the Blair Witch/Cloverfield conceit of first person POV insight), our clearly unhinged anti-hero is creating his Gospel. With each rant, with each frightened face he showcases (and then murderers), this demon dissects the human and finds its insides stuffed with maggots, the media, and a wildly unhealthy dose of “Me First” self-absorption. O’Callaghan’s character isn’t out to purge the planet, though. In his mind, seeing the horrific fate that meets anyone this selfish and simple will hopefully wake the world from its craven, crusty sleep. All they need is a copy of his visual primer.

Gap gets this point across via several divergent means. The first is through a thwarting of traditional horror film convention. When we hear that this movie centers on a killer videotaping his deeds while sermonizing about the various social “sins” he’s addressing, a wealth of gore-laden grotesqueries come to mind. Yet Gap has very little blood. We also anticipate lots of gratuity, including rampant nudity and a certain misogynistic view of the opposite sex. This also doesn’t occur. There are scenes where a particularly ghastly set up leads to an anticlimactic “apology” from our lead. There are also times when a certain strategy gets immediately circumvented for a more “direct” approach. If these descriptions seem vague, it’s because Gap would be ruined by too much advance knowledge. It’s better to go in, unprepared, and experience what O’Callaghan has to offer.

The murders are each handled in a different manner. O’Callaghan plays with the viewer, making them guess when our star will “snap” and procure his dance with death. Some of the sequences are sadistic and quite shocking. Others are almost comical in their nonchalant, farcical flippancy. Sometimes, O’Callaghan’s speech will be more horrific than the crime. In other instances, it’s all viscera and vivisection. Gap definitely keeps the audience off guard, making them guess what’s coming around the next corner, what the next shot or situation will have to offer. It also takes its title literally. The movie’s main theme is the massive ‘gap’ between reason and insanity, life and death, understanding and isolation, wisdom and misplaced contemplation. While we’re never sure if the victims deserve their fate, we clearly see that O’Callaghan’s character thinks so.

This doesn’t mean that Gap is flawless, however. As with any hands-on project, the casting process brings a few amateurish performances to the party - and nothing ruins dread like seeing an actress trying not to laugh while under a threat. In addition, the simple set ups of O’Callaghan speaking to the camera shows very little directorial panache. While he does eventually move the lens around in a more inventive fashion, the point and shoot awareness definitely undermines O’Callaghan’s ambitions. One wonders what he would be like with a bigger budget, a broader scope, and a cast and crew that could realize it for him. Still, as an initial foray into the dark, depressing world of independent creativity, Gap has its subversive charms.

And when you learn more about the production, about the motives behind this first aesthetic attempt and where the inspiration came from, you come to appreciate O’Callaghan even more. This is a man truly open to the process, who has seen the mistakes made in hundreds of horror movies (and mainstream Hollywood hackwork in general) and decided to go in a different direction. This may make Gap difficult for some audiences to accept. In general, we like our macabre measured out in certain, recognizable chunks. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t like having our expectations circumvented or destroyed outright. We want terror, taunting, titillation, and perhaps a tell-all wrap up at the end of it. It’s safe to say that, for the terror traditionalist, Gap will be a baffling experience.

Yet if you’re willing to redefine your expectations and come in with an open mind, Gap will give your genre prerequisites a good tweaking. There are elements of exploitation, mumblecore, comedy, tragedy, experimentation, and outright ridiculousness here along with a great deal of insight into the mind of a madman and our current cultural malaise. O’Callaghan’s killer isn’t some megalomaniacal psychotic with a generic God complex compelled to do the bidding of a higher power. Instead, he’s a troubled individual seeing the world spinning out of control and hopes to impart upon it some necessary “lessons” before things totally go to Hell. Visiting the ‘found artifact’ nature of this movie indicates that the trip to Hades may be inevitable. How we get there, however, may be our only - and the film’s - saving grave. One thing’s for sure, it won’t be pretty. Then again, no attempt at personal reflection ever is.

by Bill Gibron

12 Mar 2009


Boy, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have sure come a long way since the days when they hand animated construction paper cut outs of various shapes to create their anarchic look at life in a small Colorado town. Over the last 12 seasons, the seminal cartoon series has gone from painstaking grunt work to…well, more painstaking grunt work, except this time, with computers. As part of the added content included on the latest DVD set from Comedy Central (by way of Paramount), we are treated to three separate featurettes which explain in exhaustive detail, the process from idea to on air. And those who think South Park simply springs from the boy’s borderline frat house Id, fully formed, are in for a very rude awakening indeed. In fact, this may be one of the most talent intense shows on all of television - broadcast or cable.

By this time, it’s clear that South Park’s comedy has split off into three specific forms: (1) the pop culture lampoon - taking issues and personalities within current celebrity and the media and mocking the holy Hell out of them. This is specifically true of the Spears’ spoof “Britney’s New Look”, “About Last Night”‘s Ocean’s 11 riff on the Obama/McCain election, and the spoof on take down of the High School Musical/Twilight craze (“Elementary School Musical/“The Ungroundable”); (2) the actual parodies of popular titles, as in Cloverfield/Quarantine‘s “Pandemic” and “Pandemic 2: The Startling”, the Heavy Metal mayhem of “Major Boobage”, and the memorable mistreatment of a certain iconic action figure and his latest adventure with a certain Crystal Skull in “The China Problem”; (3) and finally, the real world/little kids dynamic, where issues like AIDS (“Tonsil Trouble”), the use/abuse of the Internet (“Over Logging”) and the dilemma of fighting a girl (“Breast Cancer Show Ever”) are discussed. Toss in a look at “Canada on Strike”, a town literally screaming “Eek, A Penis!”, and life or death struggle for a “Super Fun Time”, and you’ve got 14 amazing episodes of side-splitting satire. 

For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). 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. Garrison (the gang’s 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.

Of all the previous seasons of the show, it’s safe to say that twelve is perhaps the most consistent. Sure, it offers the polarizing pleasures of something like “Britney’s New Look” (in which the shrill chanteuse shoots her own face off - and takes America by storm with this new ‘trainwreck’ look) or the “Pandemic” duo (where the only thing standing between the planet and complete annihilation by giant guinea pigs is Peruvian flute band music), but as the bonus features indicate, even these episodes are part of a process that is scattershot in name only. For months, Parker and Stone will agonize over ideas, waiting for the right inspiration to strike. Only then will they cure Cartman and Kyle’s HIV with an infusion of cash - straight cash - or turn the entire country into a desperate Dust Bowl where access to the World Wide Web is the new personal dream. Some inspirations are shelved out of sheer time factors. The breast-oriented “Major Boobage” almost didn’t air because Parker and Stone failed to realize how long it would take to render their ideas in standard pen and ink animation.

Yet all the kvetching and care really shows, from the pristine first person POV filmmaking riffs in “Pandemic”, to the allusions to cinematic rapes past in “The China Problem”. And don’t think our heroes are having second thoughts about skewering Lucas and Spielberg for turning Indiana Jones into an aging joke. On their typical “commentary-mini” tracks, the duo make it very clear that they would stand up to the Star Wars/Schindler’s List pair in a heartbeat, cursing them out for destroying a favored motion picture idol. Elsewhere, they hint at how inconsistent their memories of Heavy Metal were with the film itself, explain the natural defense mechanisms of the Cavia porcellus, and wonder out loud how Comedy Central censors allowed a shot of Randy Marsh covered in “man goo” to make it to broadcast. Indeed, when listening to these crafty creators (or their equally entertaining crew), one gets the distinct impression of artists still rabidly in love with what they do.

Of course, it comes with a price, and the boys love to lament their overwrought work schedule. Watching the behind the scenes documentary for “Super Fun Time” (divided into ‘days’ and spanning nearly 90 minutes), we begin to understand the level of hard work involved. Because it deals in dirty words and tacky toilet humor, critics assume that this stuff is equally simple in creation. But as we soon discover, there is a painstaking process of animatics, rewrites, design changes, and storyline shifts made in the days between the recording of the temp track and the actual airdate. In fact, for the Obama episode, material was being written almost immediately after the President-elect made his acceptance speech. This has also given South Park the difficult task of remaining forever timely. But Parker is quick to point out that they will take on something only when they have something to say, not the moment the news breaks. Fans, however, aren’t so forgiving.

With a genuine masterwork of a series 13 premiere (Disney’s dippy Jonas Brothers ruin Kenny’s chance at some grade school sex), and the promise of more provocation to come, it’s clear that South Park won’t be stopping any time soon. Unlike other popular animated shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy, there’s no debate over “jumping the shark” or overstaying their entertainment welcome. It seems like, even when the push the envelope and go further than most funnymen would dare venture, Trey Parker and Matt Stone maintain a kind of integrity that’s impossible to duplicate. Heck, to last in the low profile waystation that is basic cable deserves some manner of acknowledgment. As one of the few water cooler cartoons left, South Park‘s twelfth season stands as an amazing accomplishment. As with previous DVD releases, it certifies that, as long as they have the drive and the determination to keep going, Parker and Stone will remain the rebels of 2D delirium. 

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