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4/10/2004 02:18:39 PM

The 13th Philadelphia Film Festival began on Thursday and I’ve managed to fit 8 screenings into my schedule this year, including The Best of the 48 Hour Film Project, for which our film Lunch Break has been chosen!

My first film of the fest was last night’s Danger After Dark opener Haute Tension (High Tension).

Ostensibly filling a time-honored serial slasher mold, Haute Tension opens in familiar territory: College roommates Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) drive out to an isolated farmhouse for a vacation with Alex’s family. Before long, a sadistic killer (Phillipe Nahon, a suitably creepy French version of M. Emmet Walsh) shows up and gets down to the nasty business of redecorating the house with its inhabitants’ blood.

Many a talentless filmmaker has interpreted a similar script with predictably lifeless results (no pun intended), but Haute Tension trumps its would-be peers by cultivating very effective, genuine suspense and a consuming cloud of dread throughout. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that was frightening in quite this way since the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Unfortunately, the film is a little too clever for its own good, and amidst the slicing and dicing, it manages to puncture its own plot in a number of places, all in an apparent attempt to justify basking in genre clichés that require no justification. Director Alexandre Aja’s yearning for that elusive third dimension is admirable, but his chosen M. Night Shyamalan tactics only muddle an otherwise exquisite retelling of that simple tale of deranged murder we all know and love.

Still, this is one tense and seriously grisly motherfucker of a horror movie, with an outstanding lead performance by De France.

4/1/2004 12:11:03 PM

Spaceboy Music got the new Tortoise album, It’s All Around You, nearly two weeks ahead of its release date, so I did too. I like it, and I expect to like it more as I listen to it more, but there are no great departures from the oft-imitated Tortoise sound to report, and nothing noteworthy about this newest assemblage of ambling, polyrhythmic post-rock that wasn’t already made noteworthy on one of the band’s previous outings. That said, the album’s package design and the new Tortoise web site are fantastic.

The packaging is a full-color high-gloss digipak that defies the minimalism of the equally brilliant layouts of Tortoise albums past. The heavily saturated composite photo on the cover is all focal point, and arranged with the typography in such a way that there is no front or back, up or down. It truly is All Around You.

The new Tortoise web site is simple, clean, and elegant, with a wealth of information that is easy to navigate. An in-depth history of the band is finally available, as well as a comprehensive list of all the projects each member is involved in. Each section’s header is a different interactive Flash piece based on the band’s varied album art, and the sections’ colors follow suit, offering variety but still maintaining a cohesive uniformity. Hats off to the parties responsible at Candystations.

Meanwhile, in another hemisphere of the cultural map, I saw the new Dawn of the Dead last night and it was actually pretty enjoyable. George Romero’s distinctive vision of apocalypse culture survives reasonably intact, though the original film’s zombie/consumer subtext is abandoned, reducing the story’s shopping mall setting to a practical concern. Additionally, any interest given to characterization is purely utilitarian, generally more concerned with each character’s individual approach to destroying and/or becoming zombies than their particular humanity (and indeed, in this world, even the most helpless civilian is a sharpshooter). But while Romero’s version is clearly superior in all aspects, the remake is still a tight little action/horror flick. The wild, caffeinated nu-zombies bring a fresh immediacy to the undead dilemma (as they did in the impeccable 28 Days Later), and cameos by Dawn alumni Tom Savini and Ken Foree help keep it rooted in tradition.

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