Saturday, September 30, 2006

"Head Trauma," the new film from producer, director and writer Lance Weiler, was released on DVD on Sept. 26 and Weiler has avoided the sophomore curse.

Weiler and Stefan Avalos made history in 1998 when the pair produced "The Last Broadcast," the first motion picture that was shot digitally and then transmitted by satellite to theaters which used a digital projector to present the film.

What made the pair's accomplishment all so much more impressive is they did it as independents working far outside of the studio system.

While other filmmakers have tried to obscure this milestone, Weiler and Stefan made movie history. They also made a good movie, the premise of which was stolen by the producers of "The Blair Witch Project."

"The Last Broadcast" is being re-released on DVD in a new edition packed with extras on Sept. 26 as well.

Weiler is now back with his second film, which is a taut psychological thriller. Undoubtedly one of the savviest independents making films today, Weiler has been touring the nation with a theatrical release of "Head Trauma" prior to the home video release to build up a buzz among critics and fans.

He recently appeared at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, Vermont, with the film.

"Head Trauma" tells the story of George Walker, a homeless man who returns to his grandmother's house after a lengthy absence. Walker hopes to fix up the now condemned house - his grandmother has been dead for five years - and turn his life around.

It's not easy as there is a neighbor who wants the house demolished and Walker has no real resources to do the work that needs to be done.

What's worse though are the dreams he is having about a figure in a parka who clearly wants him out of the house. Walker increasingly is having problems distinguishing whether or not the hooded figure is actually real.

Anyone who has waken from a sound sleep wondering if what they experienced was just a dream will identify with Walker's situation.

The film is well directed and keeps viewers off-balance, as any good thriller should. Josh Cramer's editing and Sam Levy's photography matches the tone of the story perfectly.

Shot in an actual condemned house in Scranton, Penn., the film transcends many other current horror and thriller films by actually being about something - a man's redemption. Vince Mola as Walker is quite good in conveying the desperation of a man who yearns to be "normal" but has problems that prevent him from doing so.

Although Weiler could have added the elements that have become standard in the horror and thriller genres - sex and explicit violence - he avoids them. He opts for a clever story and a solid lead performance instead to carry the film.

"Head Trauma" shows what the potential is for independent films. In an era when bloated Hollywood films can fail to deliver the story-telling goods, Weiler proves again you don't need $50 million to make an enjoyable film.

Weiler shot "Head Trauma" on a 90-day schedule that was stretched over much of 2004. The complete production budget for the film was $126,000 - peanuts by Hollywood standards.

The film's story was inspired by a very bad car accident that Weiler had 12 years ago. His car was struck head-on by a garbage truck and Weiler spent five days in intensive care. He had very lucid dreams that he couldn't tell if they were real or not.

After spending two and half years and $1 million developing a television show for FOX only to have a new executive regime kill it, Weiler said he wanted to work on something over which he had complete control.

Based in Pennsylvania, Weiler asked city officials in Scranton if they could help him find an abandoned house that would be the centerpiece of the film. Since the city has lost 75,000 people with the closing of nearby coalmines, Weiler had many houses from which to choose.

"They were incredibly disturbing and disgusting," he said. He noted that the house he chose made the crew uncomfortable and few wanted to work in the house by themselves.

Weiler joked that working on the film "felt like head trauma."

True independent film makers - unlike those whose projects are backed by major studio boutique labels - have to "wear 15 hats," he said.

"Film making is problem solving. You're always trying to find creative ways to solve problems," he said.

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© 2006 by Gordon Michael Dobbs. These are my words alone.

Friday, September 29, 2006

New England's great state fair is in's some observations...

WEST SPRINGFIELD - The mixing of agriculture, state pride, gimmicks, gadgets, performances and corn dogs that is known as the Big E is back for its annual run and as usual the fair is its usual a blend of the familiar and the new.

This reporter spent an afternoon at the Big E looking for both the new and old and is happy to report he found both.
This year's edition posed the question whether or not martinis and state fairs are a good mixture. From the satisfied looks of the people enjoying the fair's new signature cocktail, the "E-tini," one might surmise the unlikely combination seemed to work.

Rick Hebert was behind the bar and he said the "E-tini" was a blend of locally produced V 1 Vodka, Godiva Dark Chocolate Liquor, vanilla extract, cream and chocolate sauce.

The idea behind the drink was to replicate the flavor of the popular Big E creampuff.

The "E-tini" was one of several being offered at the price of $8 and Hebert said that they were a hit with fair goers.

Some people may go to the Big E for the entertainment, while others enjoy the selection of fair food. I'm an example of taking the boy off the farm, but not taking the farm out of the boy.

The Mallory Complex is a favorite of mine with its "milking parlor" that allows children and adults like to see cows being milked to its exhibit of products made from New England wool.

I just like to wander around and look at the various animals. While I was there sheep judging was going on. The complex was filled with sheep and cows and the people were getting many of their livestock ready for the ring.

The animals in the Mallory Complex change over 13 times during the fair, so if you go multiple times to the Big E, you'll see something new there.

Other agricultural displays can be seen in the Farm-a-rama building. The displays of all that is grown on family farms had quite a few winners from western Massachusetts with Michael Pietruska of Southwick picking up third place.

I love gadgets and the Big E remains a serious gadget destination point. This year displays of wood stoves seem to be everywhere as well as various devices that pick up pet hair from furniture.

What always amazes me is the Big E continues to be one of the few places for a very old-fashioned - but effective - way of selling merchandise. The company that makes Oxy Clean has been at the fair for years and despite the fact they are selling their products in stores supported by national television commercials, they are back at the fair with an Oxy Clean detergent ball.

Their representatives do demonstrations that result in substantial sales - I saw dozens of people walking around with the detergent balls.

It's reassuring in this time, when so many exchanges between people are made through technology, to see this one-on-one salesmanship.

Now despite the promise I make to my wife every year, I couldn't resist getting something. As I've got a lot of painting to do I was intrigued by a device that rolls your masking tape onto windows and molding apparently effortlessly.

I elected, however, to buy a painting device that rolls your paint right next to molding perfectly without having to mask it. I'll let you know how it works.

I sometimes yearn for the days of 20 years ago when the fair had numerous traveling attractions from a car supposedly owned by Adolph Hitler to a wax museum on wheels to the world's smallest horse to the world's largest lobster.

Today there are fewer and fewer of these kind of features, but the best one at the fair is Bear Country. For $1, you get to see a variety of obviously contented and well-kept bears from a conservation farm in a clean and air-conditioned trailer. It's probably the best buck you'll spend at the fair.

Those attractions are part of what I call the inexplicable part of the fair: things you don't expect to see and are not quite sure why you're seeing them, but they are there.

For instance, there is one booth near the Better Living Center featuring items from Mexico and among them were rows and rows of colorful Mexican wrestling masks. Is there a demand for them? I don't know.

There was Bryan Berg in the New England Building who was building a replica of Fenway Park out of playing cards. It was fascinating in an odd way.

For $20, a company called "Dance Heads" would make you a DVD featuring three people lip-syncing to a popular song while their heads were superimposed onto animated cartoon bodies. The booth was drawing quite a few on-lookers to watch the process.

The State Buildings are always interesting because of the image each state wants to advance to the one million-plus Big E attendees. Each building has a delicate balance between industry, tourism and commerce.
Of course, I'm a partisan, so I like the Massachusetts offerings a lot because so many of them are from here, western Massachusetts. Koffee Kup Bakery, Chicopee Provisions, Wilbraham & Monson Academy, local farmers and honey producers, Atkins Farms, Shriners Hospital and the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners were among those with displays.

So the face of Massachusetts the state chooses to present at the Big E is largely our face. Well, it is the Commonwealth's best side.

The Big E runs through Oct. 1.
©2006 Gordon Michael Dobbs. My words alone.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Just how do you view other states?

Quick, take my lightning round quiz. If I say "Alabama," you would say? How about Wyoming? New Jersey? Delaware?

In my e-mail box this week was an intriguing report from Global Market Insite, an international polling organization. The company undertook an international survey of how people view each of the 50 states in terms of branding.

The poll attempts to qualify each state as if it was a product and whether or not the survey participants identify each state as a positive, well-known brand.

The surveys reports "the most striking thing about the State Brands Index is the high level of knowledge of the respondents. Looking at the responses of over 21,000 people in 16 countries to a large number of questions about the 50 states of the Union really emphasizes the power and familiarity of Brand America. Surely no other country is - or has ever been - so famous that a sample of consumers from around the world know so much about its individual administrative regions.

The survey noted that different nationalities gave high marks to different states. The British ranked New England higher. Mexicans liked New Mexico, Illinois and Utah, while the Germans liked states that had traditional German immigrant populations.

The survey's questions ranked the states on their presence in the national arena; the climate and topography; the potential for business and the potential for recreation; the efficiency of the state's government; and who lives there.

Overall, California was ranked first; Florida, second and Hawaii, third. The last states were Delaware at 47, Michigan at 48, Alabama at 49 and New Jersey in the final spot of 50.

In New England, the top state was Vermont at 14, Maine at 21, Connecticut at 26, Massachusetts at 29, New Hampshire at 30 and Rhode Island at 35.

So what does this mean? The survey's author, Simon Anholt, notes that "most interestingly it is clear that quite a few states have a genuinely international brand that could prove to be an enormous business advantage in the increasingly border-less world, if the power of those images can be properly harnessed."

So here's a challenge to our elected leaders: how do we improve the image of the Bay State? And how do we make our current image work for us?

Here's one idea: how about asking - not legislating - that every product made in the state carries a symbol denoting it was made in Massachusetts?

© 2006 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Thursday, September 21, 2006

New post at That's Thirty as well.

Two very different films are featured in this week's DVD column.

Beavis and Butt-head Do America

Ah, this film makes me nostalgic for those wonderful days in the 1990s when animation aimed at adults actually had originality and edge.

Nostalgic for Beavis and Butt-head? How long does it take for nostalgia to set in? Well "Beavis and Butt-head Do America" is 10 years old, but the decade has not dulled the film's satiric edge.

Once a staple of MTV, "Beavis and Butthead" showed what one could accomplish in limited animation given a clever concept, sharp writing and good vocal performances. B & B are two apparently unsupervised teenagers who are remarkably thick about everything else in the world except music videos. Their critique of the music they watch on MTV is as cutting as their behavior in the real world is dumb.

The premise of the feature film is to bring B&B out of their house, school and fast food jobs and into the country as a whole. When someone breaks into their home and steals their television set, they set out on a quest to find it.

They become implicated in the theft of a deadly viral weapon and are pursued by a FBI agent who orders cavity searches for everyone he encounters. They also may actually meet their fathers, although the four men are too dense to realize it.

The film is funny, although I readily admit that B&B's antics are an acquired taste.

The DVD features a pretty candid interview with B&B creator Mike Judge on the making of the film as well as a commentary by Judge and animation director Yvette Kaplan. It also has a useless bit called "The Smackdown," which features every scene in the film in which someone is getting slapped.

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Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

This 2004 Chinese film is the first production bearing the label of "National Geographic World Films," and although it is not a documentary, the story it presents is based on fact and was shot in Tibet where the real story took place.

Zhang Lei plays a Beijing journalist who comes to Tibet in 1996 to write a story on a group of civilians who are attempting to strop the poaching of the endangered Tibetan antelope that is prized for its pelts.

He gets more than just a story, though, as he is accepted in the volunteer group headed by Ri Tai (played by Duo Bujie). When the poachers murder one of Ri Tai's men, there is a new level of intensity brought to the effort to stop the poachers.

As the patrol travels further in the desolate Kekexili region, they are the victims of unforgiving weather and terrain. As they go deeper into the area, more about the group and their motivations is revealed as well.

Shot in Tibet, the film has a riveting look. It shows us a part of the world that few of us are ever going to see. Chaun Lu's direction is understated. He understands that the land and the challenges that go with it have a greater impact on the viewer than flashy editing or over-the-top performances ever could.

It's interesting to read the production journal about this film on the National Geographic web site for it ( as the filmmakers risked their health and lives making this movie in the high attitudes and the thin atmosphere of the Tibetan plains.

This is the kind of movie that is an antidote for the standard Hollywood fare that deadens our cinematic taste buds. Go rent it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A fun but very dramatized bio pic, a blast from the 1980s and a movie that will still galvinize audiences 20 years after its release are in this week’s DVD offerings.

Take the Lead

Antonio Banderas proves once again he is one of the charismatic actors working today in the film based on the life and work of dancer and teacher Pierre Dulaine.

Now the movie is only "inspired" by Duliane's groundbreaking work in the New York City schools teaching ballroom dancing. If you want to see an accurate version of Duliane's work, then rent a copy of "Mad Hot Ballroom."

If you're looking for a fun and inspirational film on which kids with behavior problems work through their difficulties thanks to the discipline of learning how to dance, then this is your movie. It's not a classic, but it is a film that is thoroughly entertaining.

Banderas not only looks the part of the soft-spoke dance instructor, but he shows he can dance as well. His young co-stars also carry off the dance duties quite well.

Although Alfre Woodward plays the role of the doubting high school principal a little too broad and the conclusion of the film is sheer Hollywood hokum, these are minor distractions to an otherwise enjoyable film.

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Tom Snyder's Electric Kool-Aid Talk Show

Deadheads and fans of the peace and love generation will want to see this new release from Shout Factory that packages several segments from Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow Show" from 1979, '80 and '81.

Snyder was a great conversationalist whose interview style could include hard-hitting questions mixed with personal observations. His long-running program on NBC came on after "The Tonight Show," and often featured guests who wouldn't be considered for prime time.

This DVD has two interviews with author Tom Wolfe, one with Dr. Timothy Leary, and another with author Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who performs four songs.

The interviews with Wolfe are pretty interesting as the veteran social observer speaks with Snyder about American society. The Leary interview is a little odd as Snyder clearly has some doubts about Leary and the role he played in make legitimizing illegal drugs.

If Shout Factory is going to mine "the Tomorrow Show" archives as it has with those of "The Dick Cavett Show," there should be many more interesting compilations.

By the way this DVD is of particular interest locally as Leary was a native of Springfield and Wolfe mentions Springfield in one of his interviews. He was a reporter for the former "Morning Union," in the 1950s.

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Body Double

Just in time to help promote the new Brian DePalma thriller, "The Black Dahlia," is one of the director's most controversial films. When released in 1984, "Body Double" angered many critics with what some people saw as anti-woman movie.

I saw the film then and haven't seen it again until the release of this DVD. It's no more misogynynistic than a million other Hollywood films. Actually it's a pretty clever collage of various cinematic styles and influences.

Craig Wasson plays Jake Scully, an unemployed actor, who gets a housesitting gig from another actor. The perk is not only the opulent house and amenities, but also the view of a beautiful neighbor who performs an erotic dance in front of her window every night.

What Scully doesn't realize is that he is being set up as a witness to a murder of that neighbor. The only person who can help him discover who the killer is a porn star named Holly Body, played by Melanie Griffith.

DePalma had made a name for himself as a latter day Hitchcock with films such as "Sisters," "Dressed to Kill" and "Blow Out." This film may be his most overt homage to Hitchcock with a little bit of "Vertigo" and "Rear Window."

The cinematic ingredients don't stop there, though. DePalma pulled a Quentin Taratino by adding a grisly murder straight out of a drive-in film. He also dabbled with "porno chic" by considering casting a prominent porn actress in the documentary on the film, DePalma wouldn't name just who in the "Holly Body" role. DePalma said that this actress did work with Griffith on her role.

With its lurid plot, significant violence and porn backdrop, "Body Double" still is a film that can polarize an audience. It's not for everybody, but if you like DePalma's work and if you've not seen this one as yet, it's well worth checking out.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

A local note here...Now through Sept. 28, Holyoke Community College is featuring an exhibit titled "Shockers" in the Taber Art Gallerty.

The exhibition features one-of-a-kind hand-painted movies posters from Ghana from the 1980s. At that time exhibitors would bring a TV and vcr from village to village to present movies. They commissioned local artists to paint these posters on cloth so they could be easily rolled up and carried from site to site.

Often times the artist had nothing more than a title to work on and they were told to emphasized those elements that would best draw in an and violence.

The collection is owned by Michelle Gilbert, a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College, and they are on sale for $350 each. If you search for similiar images on the web, you'll see an African firm selling these kind of posters from around $110 on eBay.

There will be a reception on Sept. 13 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. I'll be there!

©2006 Gordon Michael Dobbs. My words alone.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I love radio. Yes, I know I sound like a throw-back to some younger people who view it as an antiquated delivery medium for music, but it remains a medium with still untapped potential.

Generally I like a lot of the stuff on NPR because they're trying to use radio to its fullest. "Car Talk," "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," Market Watch," "This American Life," and even "Fresh Air" are pretty compelling listening.

Having spent five years doing local talk radio, I'm also a talk show junkie. Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes and Tom Hartman are my current favorites. Can't really stand Al Franken or Jerry Springer and the conservative types are merely propaganda machines for the Bush administration.

"Says You!" is another good show and it's coming for a local taping.

When this writer asked the producer of the National Public Radio quiz show "Says You!" if the program was inspired by the classic quiz shows of the 1950s and '60s such as "What's My Line?" Richard Sher laughed.

"I see it as outright theft," Sher said. "As my father said, 'If you steal, always steal quality.'"

The show, now starting its 10th season, is coming to Mount Holyoke College's Chapin Auditor
ium on Sept. 10 for a 2 p.m. taping before a live audience. It is heard weekly on 107 stations nationally, including WFCR at 1 p.m. Saturdays.

Described as a "game of words and whimsy, bluff and bluster," "Says You!" has its panelists trying to come up with definitions of words, answer riddles and bluff each other. On the "Says You!" web site ( is a daily riddle that is typical of the show's challenges. A current one is "Even though it's all showbiz, no 'Oscar,' 'Emmy,' or 'Tony' winner would ever have a shot at a 'Patsy' award. Why?"

Check out the web site for the answer.

Sher said the older generation of quiz shows featured educated witty people who came into your living room. After coming up with the idea for the game during a round of "Trivial Pursuit," he realized he could devise a game in which it was less important to know an answer than to like the answer you have.

Sher is the president and founder of Pipit & Finch, a marketing and media development company, with clients such as CBS/Westinghouse; Hearst Broadcasting; RISO, INC.; and IBM.

He said that he recorded a pilot for the show and made an appointment with the programming executive at WGBH in Boston. To Sher's amazement, the executive listened to the entire show and eight months later the program was on the air.

"It was the easiest show to bring on the air," Sher said. "Why? I don't know. Maybe people like this kind of stuff."

Sher had little trouble finding panelists because "these were people in my living room. They are friends of long-standing."

Sher will be joined in South Hadley by public radio personality Tony Kahn; television producer and writer Arnie Reisman; "Ladies Home Journal" columnist and WBZ-TV consumer reporter Paula Lyons; public television executive Francine Achbar; actor Tom Kemp; and columnist/critic Carolyn Faye Fox.

Sher had never intended to be the on-air host, but took the role out of necessity.

Known for taping in locations around Boston, Sher said that this year the show is going to Ohio in October and the west coast in the spring.

Another big change for the show is that it will be produced in half-hour and hour versions. Sher is going to syndicate the show himself and wants to offer public radio stations an option.

"This is going to be a big year for us," he said.

The show always features a musical guest and at the South Hadley taping, The Mount Holyoke College Big Band, under the direction of Mark Gionfriddo will appear.

"Holyoke Hi-Jinx," as the South Hadley show is being called, will be part of WFCR's 45th anniversary celebration and is sponsored by Merriam-Webster, Mount Holyoke College and "The Valley Advocate."

Tickets, ranging from $45 to $20, are on sale at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center box-office. Telephone: 413-545-2511 or 800-999-UMASS. Tickets also available online at

© 2006 Gordon Michael Dobbs. My words alone.

Monday, September 04, 2006

New post on That's Thirty...check it out.
I love a good horror film. It's the genre that led me into my interest - some would call it obsession - with movies.

Recent horror films have left me cold. The best one I've seen recently was "The Descent" by Neil Marshall, the director of another good monster movie, "Dog Soldiers."

The two most recent horror DVD offerings left me scratching my head and wondering what I am missing.

Final Destination Three

In the third and possibly last of the "Final Destination" series, another group of random teenagers try to out-wit fate. I have not seen the others in this series, but by the lengthy documentary on the second of the two-disc set, the producers and directors speak of the challenge of keeping the franchise true to its format, while coming up with something fresh.

Remember the game "Mousetrap" from the 1960s? Or the great wacky inventions by cartoonist Rube Goldberg? In either case an outcome takes place through the apparently random interaction of unrelated events. This is the hallmark of these "dead teenager" movies.

In the third film, a group of graduating teens realizes that Death has them on his list and they try to figure out ways to cheat fate. There is no characterization. The actors are fulfilling horror film prototypes not giving well-rounded performances.

The thrust of the film is staging these elaborate and quite gory demises. The shocks come from the unexpected quality of these deaths.

For me it's not very involving and the only real entertainment is how the deaths take place. Viewed as abstractions, they're sort of interesting as a rolling ball triggers something else that propels a shelving unit - you get the idea.

The best thing about the DVD is the animated short discussing probability. It's quite well done, as is the documentary that looks at the whole "dead teenager" sub-genre of horror film.

Silent Hill

I'm always dubious about movies based on video games as that genre doesn't seem to have too good a track record, but "Silent Hill" looked very interesting.

And the visual style achieved under director Christopher Gans - the man who directed the over-the-top horror delight "Brotherhood of the Wolves" - is impressive. "Silent Hill" oozes atmosphere and dread.

Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean play adoptive parents to a little girl who sleepwalks and has vivid nightmares. Mitchell decides to take her daughter back to where she was born, a town called Silent Hill. The town has been deserted for years because of an underground coal mine fire that still burns on, but Mitchell doesn't know that, nor does the suspicious police officer who follows her into the sealed off community.

What the two women don't understand is that they are no longer in the "real" world, but have descended to the gates of Hell because of who the little girl really is.

Although its look and action held my attention, the conclusion of the film was just a disappointment.

Look, I know that Roger Ebert will come to my office and slap me if I reveal an ending, but I'm tired of contemporary horror film in which good people suffer. What I always liked about horror film was their element of a morality play. These days the good guys get as bad a fate as the bad guys do.

What does that say about society?

© 2006 by Gordon Michael Dobbs. These are just my wrods.