Eclecticism at its finest

A picture of eleganceHere’s the first part of this weekend’s updates, which will close out April and its seriously wonky weather patterns (not that summer will return us to climate normalcy in mighty hot, humid and hazy T.O.).

In tune with things gone bad is Darwin’s Nightmare, from Austrian director Hubert Sauper, who doesn’t offer any distinct POV or solutions, but assembles enough interview material to illustrate the grotesque reality of locals who can’t afford to buy the fish they’re catching for European consumption. Some have called it Euro-bashing, marking the Western World as the lead reaper and rapist of Africa’s wealth, while a closer look at the doc shows the mess is a mix of several awful events that have devastated a former farming community. Nominated for an Oscar, we review Maple's DVD, released in Canada prior to Homevision’s U.S. edition on June 26th.

Farming of a different kind is profiled in Jorge Cervantes’ how-to video, bannered as part of the High Times Growers Series, and distributed by MVD Visual. Cervantes’ Ultimate Grow DVD is a practical and straightforward production on how to build your very own growroom for premium weed. The video’s mere existence is a prime example of the weird loopholes that allow for the dissemination of information regarding the smokable bud and hash when the very act of imbibing isn’t legal - except in pockets where medicinal use under government authority & control makes it kinda possible.

Why review a how-to DVD on marijuana? Curiosity, and to see what’s actually involved in growing a plant that’s been described as a top gateway drug. Check out our review, which also explores some of the video’s subtext, Cervantes’ discretionary advice, and a few omissions that make it appear the whole endeavor is no different or affecting than growing some fancy schmancy plant with special needs in the family basement.

Another doc we’ve reviewed is Einstürzende Neubauten - Hör mit Schmerzen / Listen With Pain. Commissioned to mark the group’s 20th anniversary in 2000, it’s a short but engrossing doc of the German industrial/performance art group, profiling past and current members, and containing a plethora of rare concert, promo, and performance material, along with candid comments from roadies, and fellow musicians such as Nick Cave. (Next week we’ll follow up with a vintage Einstuerzende Neubauten short film.)

A more intriguing fusion of image + sound is Gravitas: Portraits of a Universe in Motion by Toronto Astrophysicist John Dubinski, with original music by John Kameel Farah. Parts of Dubinski’s galaxy simulations appeared in the documentary Hubble: 15 Years of Discovery, and those intrigued by the archived samples on that DVD can get the complete animation segments (plus some optional commentary, and a 3-D segment!) in Dubinski’s self-distributed DVD at http://www.galaxydynamics.org/.

There’s little doubt Dubinski and Farah have crafted works that transcend their educational and instructive intentions; each simulation is elegant in its colour and finely animated detail, and with Farah’s score, the 44 mins. of material (well worth buying) recalls the fun many Torontonians had when the McLaughlin Planetarium was still part of the museum trip that schools chartered during the seventies and eighties.

This once-beautiful building managed to educate and entertain families and adults in search of trippy space and star simulations, and like Dubinski’s technical audio commentary, which as an option on the Gravitas DVD compliments some of the segments, the words of our guide into the cosmos formed a kind of techno poetry, while eyes gazed at cool star patterns, and bodies was tilted back in cozy and cushy chairs. (Later on came Pink Floyd and laser shows, but that's another blog.)

The release of Gravitas may well trigger some fond memories of former visitors, and perhaps rekindle the push to establish a new planetarium in T.O.

The McLaughlin building was eventually disfigured by upgrades to the Royal Ontario Museum, and due to budget cuts (attributed to the mean Mike Harris regime and its disregard for local culture and education), the planetarium was shuttered, gutted, and rendered into an ugly storage and office vessel.

While the link at Wikipedia offers a brief breakdown of the once elegant building, a Google search offers more info on what was lost and is still missed by locals. Gravitas hyper-focuses on simulations of galaxy collisions, so it’s hardly a substitute, but it demonstrates how engrossing and enlightening space can be when modern technology is used with an artistic eye and a sense of showmanship – something the McLaughlin Planetarium and its staff certainly achieved during its ridiculously short lifespan.

Incidentally, those curious about the building’s interior and the Astrocentre room can actually get a glimpse of it in a 1985 ABC TV movie called Starcrossed. Deemed an el cheapo and gender-flipped version of John Carpenter’s Starman, the film starred James Spader as the human, and Belinda Bauer as the alien, with both lovers running through Toronto locations like Ontario Place, and at one point ending up at the McLaughlin Planetarium, with its giant Zeiss-Jena projector (which fleetingly looks like some super-rhinovirus).

Coming shortly: Death of a President from Maple, more music from the dwindling Buena Vista Social Club via MVD Visual, and more!


Technorati Tags: DVD Reviews

Varying degrees of horror

Exactly how it’s already April is a mystery, given January wasn’t that long ago – unless it’s the weird & wacky weather that’s made January-March one big chilly gray blur.

The latest DVD reviews have been uploaded in separate waves due to weird & wacky scheduling, but we’ve covered two of seven entries in Maple/Lions Gate’s After Dark Horrorfest box. Wicked Little Things dips into verdant Bava montages, and includes a small and odd appearance by Ben Cross as a mountain man who raises pigs to keep carnivorous moppets away from his own epidermis.

Unrest (2006) is a more interesting shocker, as its director spent time in medical school and really wanted to impress upon viewers the hands-on nature of gross anatomy class. It’s less flashy, loud, and sexy than Germany’s Anatomie/Anatomy (2000), but delivers a good measure of grossness and black humour in the final reel.

Also from Maple/Lions Gate is The Lost Room, a limited series that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel and posits some interesting special-time-continuum thingamajig ideas, though there’s some liberal inspiration from the old Twilight Zone series.

Lost Room is also an example of how tough it is to develop a show that has the potential to run a full season. The trick is to balance pacing and filler scenes within a series’ defined narrative design - something that’s been arguably more successful in limited cable shows unfettered by ad breaks and the scheduling games that’s affected some of the recent hit network series on the idiot box.

A colleague passed on this report from Entertainment Weekly regarding the “Nikki/Paulo debacle” on ABC's Lost, though what’s really of interest is the producers mirroring Fox’ 24 scheduling by airing Lost’s 4th season episodes in chronological order in January of 2008. You could see it as a vital means to set aside a swath of time so all of the writers and producers can map out a proper game plan with a hard series end-date; but the move also shows a decidedly unique shift in network programming strategy.

It began when ABC delayed airing new Lost episodes last fall for two months (or was it 20? Seemed rather long) so they could air repeats and insert Taye Diggs’ intriguing but clumsy series Day Break. NBC pulled the same stunt this year with Heroes by withholding new episodes for more than a month (or was it 10? Seemed also rather long), and now ABC's playing the same game with Grey's Anatomy, airing repeats for several weeks, and teasing viewers with lame flashback episodes of ‘past wacky moments’ as hosted by dead guy Denny.

(Flashback episodes are the ultimate el cheapo production, which Desperate Housewives and Lost both practiced in their first and second seasons, but it goes back decades. Remember when Kelly got shot in her noodle, and the rest of Charlie’s Angels sat in the hospital waiting room playing the Remember When Game? That was 50 minutes of waste-my-time footage in the episode “Let Our Angel Live.” A pioneering effort in dangling a plastic carrot in front of viewers.)

Lost’s repositioning in January '08 certainly means some of the dual viewers of 24 and Lost will be able to catch the series in straight runs, but are the rest willing to wait 7 months for their once-favourite show?

One advantage long-running series have is a backlog of shows on DVD or for download, so newbies can catch-up in time to see the latest season over the summer and fall; but for younger series, it’s a risky game: disrupt a viewing habit, and it’s possible a chunk of potential loyal viewers might not bother to return, particularly if there’s another show they’re hooked on, due to regular airings, or plowing through rental DVDs of cable shows that are even more addictive and free of 18 minutes of pure commercials. (Remember when there were only 10 mins. of ads?)

Networks may well be trying out a more unique strategy by taking hit series and airing them uninterrupted (at least those with serial sagas) in January, leaving the fall months for new and weaker series, but networks should realize a lot of viewers aren’t that patient anymore. TV on DVD means no ads; downloading shows from ‘those other places’ also means no ads, and entire seasons crunched and packed into entire seasons are downloaded not to have, but to watch, and feed viewer fixes; stretch it out for too long, and it might backfire.

Of course, an exception lies in 24, which garnered good reviews after its first season, but drew more viewers when word of mouth and the first DVD set got people hooked. Fox was super-smart in airing new episodes in order so the serial design wasn’t interrupted; that might help Lost’s writers and producers refocus and tighten the 4th season, but teasing viewers for too long with condescension is a no-no; that adversely affected 24 as well: Year 1 was Excellent, Year 2 Pretty Good, Year 3 a singular exceptional episode among Rubbish, Year 4 had a good half episode among Utter Crap, and Year 5 marked a Return to Form because the writers dumped daughter Kim and her tank tops, stopped depending on message board and fan chatter (at least that’s the assumption I’m making), and ensured CTU stopped behaving like Keystone Agents incapable of carrying a bowl of milk across an empty flat parking lot without spillage.

Less ambiguous about its focus is Cult Epics’ Cinema of Death anthology that address death in 5 potent short films: “Pig” and “Hollywood Babylon” (both directed by Nico B.), “Le Poem” (by Bogdan Borkowski) which presents in full colour the dissection of a real cadaver, the Lynchian “Dislandia” (directed by Brian M. Viveros and Eriijk Ressler), and “Adoration” (from Olivier Smolders) that took its take of murder, poetry, and cannibalism from the headlines.

Also new is Who Killed the Electric Car? which documents the shocking rewriting of automotive history by GM of its EV1 electric vehicle. (We’ll have a quartet of additional doc reviews up shortly, each addressing some outrage that’s happened in recent years.)

Coming up: Death of a President from Maple/Lions Gate, Jorge Cervantes’ Ultimate Grow DVD from MVD, film music goodies (including an interview with The Reaping’s John Frizzell), and vintage smut, but you can also check out my review of two films in Criterion's stellar Paul Robeson box, Borderline and Body and Soul, at Music from the Movies' online edition.


Technorati Tags: DVD Reviews
Copyright © mondomark