Corman, Quads and Tarts

     December 13, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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Death Race 2000

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Death Race 2000

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A close-up on the business end of a blaring trombone is the appropriate first shot of Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000, which was released in 1975 and intended as a cartoonish parody of where America might wind up if the national bloodlust eventually rebounded and intensified in the wake of the then just-completed, kinda messy Vietnam Shoving Match.; Emphasizing the grotesque at every possible turn, and indulging in as much sex and nudity as possible to keep the Schlockmeister General, Roger Corman, off his back, Bartel was countering the noisy drumbeat of armed conflict with an entertainment of equal, though intentional, ludicrousness, so it probably wouldn’t break his heart had he lived to find his prognostications a tad errant regarding most of the particulars (e.g. the United Provinces of America has yet to swallow China).; Still, substitute the Death Race with the Iraq War, which millions of non-combatants cheer from their couches nightly without fear of reprisal, making allowances for collateral damage extending to innocent women and children, and the film begins to feel marginally less ridiculous.

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Marginally.; Bartel’s film is really too garish to invite much introspection except to wonder at how David Carradine made such a convincing, butt kicking action star despite his decidedly unmuscular physique.; At a brisk seventy-eight minutes, it’s mostly just a high camp hoot that reminds viewers what a clever, catty bastard Bartel could be when clicking on all cynical cylinders.; Carradine plays Frankenstein, the reigning, government sponsored champion of the Death Race who’s earned his moniker by virtue of being pieced back together again after multiple wrecks.; Hiding behind a Phantom-esque mask concealing his hideously mangled visage, Frankenstein is actually an unscarred, fresh-faced triumph of public relations, which he keeps secret from everyone save his newly assigned navigator, Annie (Simone Griffeth), who happens to be the sabotage-minded daughter of the rebellious Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin).; His colorful competitors include the homicidal “Machine Gun” Joe VeTurbo (pre-stardom Sylvester Stallone), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), and the fey Nero the Hero (Martin “Sweep the Leg, Do You Have a Problem with That, Mr. Lawrence?” Kove).;

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Death Race 2000’s most memorable flourishes are its scoring system that rewards more points for running over toddlers and the elderly, and the modified cars outfitted with spears, gun turrets, tusks and, in Frankenstein’s case, a stegosaurus-like jagged spine.; Beneath its lunatic surface, however, resides a disgusted commentary on America’s seemingly inevitable date with fascism; though Bartel doesn’t shy away from bloodshed, he overindulges in it to further ram his point down the gullet of moviegoers looking for lurid kicks.; His revulsion was and will continue to be lost on the gorehounds, but for those who dig his pitch black comedic sensibility, honed to perfection in his 1982 masterpiece Eating Raoul, it’s exquisite savagery.

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Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s reissue is a marked improvement on the previous DVD release in terms of picture and sound quality.; The extras – a feature length commentary from Corman and Woronov, a brief making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer – aren’t worth getting excited over, but fans of the film should appreciate them.

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Murderball

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Murderball

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Back in July, I had this to say:

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“… An excellent documentary about Quadriplegic Rugby that distinguishes itself both for the unsentimental approach of its filmmakers, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, and the invigorating technique they use to tell their multilayered tale.; Fraught with all the ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies of most classic sports films,;Murderball is a bruising, emotional thrill ride that depicts Team USA’s struggle to rebound from a devastating loss in the 2002 World Championships at the hands of Team Canada.; This defeat is painful not only because it ended a decade’s worth of dominance by Team USA, but also because Team Canada is coached by Joe Soares, a former American standout who hightailed it to the Great White North in order to exact revenge on his native squad for cutting him several years ago.

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Leading the charge for Team USA is Mark Zupan, a boundlessly charismatic badass whose personality dominates, but never overwhelms the film.; That said, watching Zupan in this movie, you get the feeling you’re witnessing the birth of a movie star, something the film’s co-distributor MTV obviously picked up on, which is why, when;Jackass returns in the near future, you’ll be seeing Zupan clowning around with Johnny Knoxville and Steve O for what sounds like a particularly painful episode (I can’t wait to see what this “Wheelchair Cattle Prod Jousting” is all about).”

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Happily, the DVD release of Murderball includes this impromptu Jackass episode, which turns out to be a rowdy, oddly affectionate hang session… with cattle prods.; The best “stunt” is the “Black Eye Game”, which Zupan wins and Steve O really loses.; That the guys commit all of this insanity whilst nursing wicked hangovers following a night of heavy drinking also captured on tape renders their shenanigans doubly commendable and/or moronic.;

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The other extras are a tad more refined.; The most touching addition to the film is getting to see Keith Cavill receive his Murderball chair at the New York premiere.; The raucous commentary with the players is fun provided you’ve got the time to give it a listen (at least the film runs a fairly brief eighty-six minutes), while the Joe Soares “update;” reveals that he’s moved on to coaching Great Britain.; All told, it’s a solid DVD release for a deeply moving, though hardly sentimental documentary.

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Pretty Persuasion

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Responding to the ice cold response from domestic ticket buyers, Sony Home Entertainment has gone the bare bones route for Pretty Persuasion’s DVD; ergo, I’ll repost my positive-with-reservations review from a few months ago, and leave it at that:

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What Pretty Persuasion lacks in visual panache (it is, without a doubt, one of the most perfunctorily shot films of the year) it makes up for in acerbic wit.; Come to think of it, “acerbic” doesn’t even begin to cover the depths of this film’s depraved sense of humor, the product of its gifted screenwriter, Skander Halim.; Fortunately, despite his scabrous sensibility, Halim actually does have a conscience; unfortunately, he chooses the last fifteen minutes of the film to make this thuddingly apparent, effecting a tonal 180 that dulls the jagged satirical barbs with which the film was gleefully drawing blood only moments before.

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Of all the bad third acts to derail perfectly good/great movies this year – e.g. Batman Begins, Wedding Crashers, High TensionPretty Persuasion’s misstep is the most unexpected because you can’t understand why a writer as savvy as Halim would so willingly betray the cardinal rule of satire and punish the audience for having been entertained by his dramatized human bloodsport.; It’s one thing to leave the audience in a bad place and send them out of the theater choking on their laughter, but quite another to turn scold, especially when one has strayed this far into a minefield of bad taste.; It’s as if, at the end of Pink Flamingoes, the audience was forced to eat dog shit instead of Divine.

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With that unpleasant matter out of the way, let’s reflect on the rest of the film, which is, above caveat aside, one of the year’s funniest.; Evan Rachel Wood stars as Kimberly, a fifteen year-old Beverly Hills brat whose yen for celebrity spurs her to trump up bogus molestation charges against her imperious English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston).; Joining Kimberly in her crusade to bring down the ogling educator are her two best friends, the dim Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) and the naïve Randa (Adi Schnall).;

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The film generates much of its laughs from the shockingly hateful utterances that slip so effortlessly from Kimberly’s acid tongue.; Early in the film, as she’s giving the newly arrived Randa a tour of the school’s grounds, she imparts to her Palestinian friend one of the most racist Arab jokes imaginable.; Though feigning distaste all the way through, Kimberly’s clearly getting off on offending the poor girl.; When Randa surprisingly laughs at the punchline, Kimberly, quick as a striking rattlesnake, fires back, “Don’t laugh.; It’s insulting to your people.”;

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Unsurprisingly, Kimberly’s father, Hank (James Woods), is her equal in unbowed bigotry.; His primary target is the Jews, whom he virulently slags at the dinner table as the family digs into takeout Chinese right out of the Styrofoam containers.; Not that Kimberly is listening to his invective; she’s too busy accusing Hank’s twentysomething trophy wife (Jamie King) of having fucked the family dog.

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That’s only a sampling of how dirty Pretty Persuasion plays, and no one seems to be having a better time flopping about in the filth than Woods, whose scumbag routine hits a hysterical low when he attempts a sincere father/daughter consultation whilst dabbing the remnants of cum off his thigh.; The immensely talented Wood wisely underplays Kimberly’s shrillness to the point of near catatonia, which sets up a nice cracking of the façade near the conclusion that works even though the film around her is in complete tailspin (not to mention that the moment feels lifted from Boaz Yakin’s Fresh).;

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There are superb comedic touches throughout – Mr. Anderson’s teacher buddy, who disastrously serves as his defense lawyer, borrowing courtroom theatrics from a Brady Bunch episode is particularly inspired – and they just narrowly counteract the harm done by the film’s regrettable moralizing.; The film is probably best viewed armed with the knowledge that it’s bound to fall apart; hopefully, this is the last time Halim forces such diminished expectations.

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