Monday, September 18, 2006


(Real To Reel)
Canada, 78 minutes, 2006
Written by: Solomon Vesta
Directed by: Ron Mann
Cast (voices): John Goodman, Billy F. Gibbons, Anne-Margaret, Jay Leno, Paul LeMat, Matt Groening, Dick Smothers, Tommy Smothers, Brian Wilson, Tom Wolfe

For those who equate Canada’s austere documentary tradition only with such po-faced subjects as butter churning in Black Creek Pioneer Village or the emerging career of young Paul Anka, the films of Toronto-based Ron Mann must pulsate across the screen like a Rochdale College acid flashback. With “Comic Book Confidential”, “Twist”, “Grass”, and “Dream Tower” (which was all about Rochdale College!) Mann has celebrated subjects maligned, misunderstood, or just plain forgotten—unlike the PBS moppet Ken Burns, his history of the 20th century is written in the margins.

“Tales Of The Rat Fink” is his whimsical valentine to anyone whoever pinstriped a hog, airbrushed a t-shirt, or built a Revell model kit, but even the most unenlightened viewer--who may have glimpsed a certain hideous green rodent emblazoned across some mallrat’s skateboard--will be enchanted. With its breakneck pace crammed into a barely-feature-length running time, there’s so much coming at you that when it’s done, you’ll swear you smell exhaust fumes.

One-time teen art and auto shop geek Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was a true original, and arguably (but who would?) as much a founding father of American counter culture as Timothy Leary or Ken Kesey (Tom Wolfe, who praised Roth in “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”, appears here) whose body of work would comprise what J.G. Ballard has termed “invisible literature”. A “garage artist” before the term even existed; Roth saw every automobile chassis as a potential canvas. He invented the unique style of “pinstriping” paint jobs on his friend’s vehicles and would soon find his Bell, California hobby erupting into the “Kustom Kulture” craze and spawning the entire hot-rod movement.

Teaming up with Von Dutch and Bud "The Baron" Crozier, Roth’s would get crazier, incorporating monster art and more outré shapes into his pioneering fiberglass bodywork. Roth loathed Walt Disney’s safe, status quo family fare and in response created the anti-Mickey in the form of odious, snot-coloured Rat Fink, the Grand Poobah of outcasts, the renegades, and the fearlessly weird (who would eventually eclipse the popularity of his white-gloved nemesis). At a time when merchandising was a rare thing—save for the odd Viewmaster reel or Gold Key Comics tie-in—Roth spun off his unique designs into t-shirts, posters, and a series of hugely successful model kits that had his bop-eyed grotesqueries crammed into equally misshapen hotrods (“The Beatnik Bandit”, “The Outsider”, “The Drag Nut” to name but a few…).

The kick of Mann’s ephemeral spelunking is that we’re never subjected to a cold, academic clip reel interpolated with weepy testimonials—we’re always on board to share to his process of discovery. This one’s a talking-head-free zone, save for Roth’s own disembodied noggin that periodically floats in and out of the shindig like a goofy, goateed “Zardoz”. And as expected, Mann’s research crew has unearthed more rare vintage video to put YouTube to shame, capturing Roth from his earliest garage experiments, to his very public jesting as geek guru “Mr. Gasser” in TV spots and early music videos (he had his own successfully novelty act), to home movies of his public appearances right up until his death in 2001, when he was still working on new designs and yukking it up with a new generation of fans.

John Goodman voices Big Daddy in the first person and his affable, unpretentious readings compliment the largely silent archival glimpses of the man of the hour-and-a-quarter. Additional celebrity voices anthropomorphize an array of Roth’s most famous custom autos—it’s an overused motif that grates mighty fast (Mann admits he was inspired by “My Mother, The Car”!). But it’s a minor misstep and really quite sweet that Boomer icons like Ann Margaret, the Smothers Brothers, seminal Beach Boy Brian Wilson and “American Graffiti”s Paul LeMat took the time to honour such an oddball request.

A special salute must be given to the wildly-creative animated collages—based on original “Rat Fink” art--which were created in Flash by Toronto-based Michael Roberts, whose digital-DIY-resourcefulness would’ve surely impressed his subject. The Link-Wray-on-overdrive guitar licks of Toronto’s The Sadies provide suitable accompaniment.

By all accounts, Roth was extremely serious about his art and lamented the fact his creations, while profitable, reached and touched millions and yet were never deemed worthy of the respect awarded to so much of the “fine art” in museums that left him cold. But as Wolfe wrote about him: “"He's the Salvador Dali of the movement -- a surrealist in his designs, a showman by temperament, a prankster”. Even after Roth had renounced Kustom Kulture and joined the Mormons in Utah, his fans were waiting for him when he came back. No religion could hold him—he’d accidentally founded one of his own and even in death reigns supreme as the patron saint of freaks, geeks, and the too-cool-for-school everywhere.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006

Sunday, September 17, 2006


(Special Presentations)
France, 2006, 110 minutes
Written by Tonino Benaquista, Manuel Pradal
Directed by Manuel Pradal
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Emmanuelle Béart, Norman Reedus

I love a twisty, turny puzzle just as much as the next noir addict. “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Double Indemnity,” “Body Heat,” “L.A. Confidential” – these are noirs that have entered the pantheon of what are generally considered classic crime films, exploring the darkest corners of the human heart with wit and style to burn. Sad to say, “Un Crime” won’t be joining them, not if I can help it.

The third effort from Manuel Pradal (“Marie baie des anges”) lands with such a lifeless thud that by the time its machinations kicked into gear I just couldn’t bring myself to really care.

Overly long and sluggishly paced, “Un Crime” begins with, well, a crime (just one now): the murder of the wife of Vincent (permanently lank-haired Reedus, familiar to some as Scud in “Blade II” and recently seen in the brilliant John Carpenter "Masters of Horror" installment, “Cigarette Burns”). Fast forward a couple of years and Vincent is renting a seedy apartment in a bleak New York and races his Greyhound (the dog, not the bus) for income. He’s pestered by Alice (Beart) who’s convinced they’re meant to be together, if only he can have closure on his past. So Alice sets out to provide that closure, roping in taxi driver Roger (Keitel) at random to construct a solution to Vincent’s emotional inertia. Of course, it all goes horribly awry, descending into more madness and violence, all to sputter out in a rather unsatisfactory and downright baffling conclusion.

Questions cropped up in my mind as I was watching “Un Crime.” First, I couldn’t understand Alice’s obsession with Vincent: the man is an empty, brooding dullard at best, not particularly bright or interesting (even in a tragic, tortured college-poet way). I honestly thought Roger was a better guy, maybe not a great hunk, but at least honest and forthright and possessing some fire. Also, I couldn’t understand why either guy would get involved with Alice, as beautiful as she is (Beart disrobes regularly--so that's something), since everything she says and does points to some level of delusion or mental illness (in fact, one remark I overheard when the film was finished: “What a crazy b*tch!”). Last, the greatest mystery of all: why, oh why, are we still being subjected to a naked Harvey Keitel?? An open plea to future directors: keep ‘im covered, okay? For all our sakes? For what it's worth, "The Piano" was a very long time ago....'nuff said.

"Likeable" characters aren’t always essential for my enjoyment of a film, particularly those that explore the seedier side of life– in fact, some of my favourite characters in film are total misanthropes (Travis Bickle, George Taylor the astronaut, Buddy Ackerman ). But understanding them is important--just basic stuff like motivations, desires--none seemingly possessed by the ciphers on parade here. It just isn’t there in “Un Crime,” at least not in the female lead. And when a character is the lynchpin of the story, not having that just makes for a really dull two hours.

Friday, September 15, 2006


(Real To Reel)
(USA, 2006, 86 minutes)
Written by: John Waters
Directed by: Jeff Garlin
Cast: John Waters

In the mid-80s, when I was a film student here in repressed "Toronto The Good", the Ontario Film Review Board, under the leadership of the notorious Mary Brown (who was so severe she banned the anti-porn documentary "Not A Love Story" on the basis of obscenity), the film "Desperate Living" was granted a special one-time screening at a decrepit rep house, with armed guards stationed at the theatre doors in case all those naked pogo stick afficionados and the spectacle of George Stover crushed by his overweight housekeeper turned us into orgiastic maniacs.

Flash forward to 2006: that same film's director gets a standing ovation at the world's second largest film festival (in what would be his fourth appearance, at least), while the motion picture adaptation of his Broadway hit shoots across town starring the lead from "Saturday Night Fever" (which was released the same year as "Desperate Living" and was likely 1,000,000 times the hit)... to paraphrase the butler Heintz from "Polyester": it saddens me that bad taste has become so common!

(but only just a bit...)

Jeff Garlin of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" directs this concert film (of sorts) capturing John Waters’ self-described "vaudeville show" to a college crowd in New York. Long-time afficionados of the Baltimore-based provocateur will be familiar with much of the material--his love of gimmick pioneer William Castle, the yes-Divine-really-did-eat-dogsh*t account, his obsession with criminal trials--but there are some new bits here, and not all of 'em tasty--for example, I'm forever scarred having been told what the 21st definition of a "blossom" is...

Waters’ act begins with his emergence from a confessional booth, from which he steps onto a trash-hewn stage (Waters’ mere presence was once enough to generate the proper seedy aura, although he is one scary lookin’ dude in HD) to engage in some autobiographical ditties about his Baltimore childhood and his fledging years as a self-financed cinema rebel.

He makes no apologies for his early career as a shoplifter (from which he smuggled vinyl records in a special coat)—considering he’s had to pay as much as $25,000 to put some of those songs into his mainstream films, “they got their money back.”

As a youngster, he was enchanted by Cyril Ritchard’s portrayal of Barrie’s “Captain Hook” (who is part of Waters’ own “Holy Trinity”, along with the Wicked Witch Of The West and Patty McCormack’s “The Bad Seed”) and would tape his father’s neckties to his head to mimic the pirate’s characteristic locks, with the “hook” fashioned from scotch tape and a coat hanger. Initially inspired by the gimmick films of Castle (“Percepto” and “Emergo” anecdotes for those few who have no idea what he’s talking about), he discovered the homoerotic underground films of the Kuchars, Warhol, Jack Smith (“Flaming Creatures”), and Kenneth Anger (“Scorpio Rising”, “Kustom Kar Kommandos”) before teaming up with a certain corpulent transvestite in 1964 (at the age of 18) for his debut opus “Hag In A Black Leather Jacket”, in which a black man and a white ballerina are married by a Klansman, hereby setting the tone for the bulk of his creative career.

He’d go on to create what he called the “instant movie” with ripped-from-the-then-headlines “The Diane Linkletter Story”, based upon the sordid life and suicide of Art “Kids Say The Darnedest Things” Linkletter’s daughter. 1967’s “Eat Your Makeup” had Divine imagining him/herself as Jackie Kennedy in a parody of the Zapruder film, less than 4 years after the JFK assassination.

These anecdotes, certainly familiar to anyone who’s read “Shock Value”, “Crackpot” or caught any of Waters’ Letterman appearances, are a reminder of how easy it was to outrage once upon a time (providing you had willing participants and a knack for skirting obscenity laws), and how hard it is today (witness the indifference to Waters’ cuddly ode to perversion “A Dirty Shame”) when the average “South Park” installment makes the lobster rape from “Female Trouble” look tame.

Waters admits that at this stage of his life and career he’s all out of anger, and is blissfully happy. Eschewing transgression (not for long, we can hope), he spins affectionate yarns about his rep company, chiefly the late great Divine, of course, but also charter members like the better-known Johnny Depp, Traci Lords, and Patricia Hearst. That being said, his Michael-Jackson-visiting-a-burn-ward bit is so deliriously profane you can forgive that making fun of Bahrain resident Wacko Jacko seems as obvious as a Kenny Bania "ovaltine" joke.

Waters’ performance was filmed over two nights at Manhattan’s Harry De Jur Playhouse. Garlin’s direction is purely the stuff of career college Broadcast Arts 101, but it’s to his credit that he lets his engaging subject carry the show, even if he does indulge in some reverie-killing audience cutaways (IMHO, there’s nothing less funny than watching other people laugh…). It certainly ain’t much of a movie, but for fans it's a chance to experience Waters at his best.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


(Gala Presentation)
(The Netherlands/Germany/United Kingdom/Belgium, 2006, 135 minutes)
Written by Paul Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Derek de Lint

Paul Verhoeven's first Dutch feature since 1983's "The Fourth Man" shows that twenty-plus years of dodging shrapnel in the Hollywood trenches has taught him a thing or two about spinning a crackerjack yarn and put every dollar up on the screen (we'll forgive him if some of those dollars were slipped into the waistband of Elizabeth Berkley) while still sneaking in a subversive observation or two.

While allegedly inspired by "true" events, “Zwartboek” (“Black Book”) is a wholly fictional WW caper which focuses on a young Jewish woman who joins the Resistance to avenge her family's murder, only to fall in love with one of the enemy and ultimately suffer shame and ostracization from her own people. Verhoeven's works are always a bit tough to classify (which is what makes most of them so rewarding) and "Black Book" is certainly no exception, esp. considering the combustible subject matter. This one falls somewhere between Verhoeven's gritty and deliberately-paced European dramas like the scattershot "Turkish Delight" and the meditative WW2 set "Soldier Of Orange", and his splashy, two-fisted American sci-fi blockbusters like "Robocop" and "Starship Troopers"--thankfully, like the latter productions, this one has as much fun poking holes at genre expectations as it does wallowing in the sheer gee-whiz power of pure moviemaking (at $22M, it’s the most expensive Dutch-language film ever made).

We being on a kibbutz in Israel in 1956, less than a decade into its formation, where a school teacher "Rachel Rosenthal" (newcomer Carice van Houten, a real discovery) is recognized by a tourist who turns out to be her former friend Ronnie (Reijn), whom she knew in Holland during the war. Flashing back to 1944, we find Rachel (then "Stein") hiding out in the Dutch countryside with a Christian family, whose strict patriarch doesn't care for her religious beliefs but kindly offers his sanctuary all the same. A resistance worker, Van Gein, has been working on Rachel’s behalf to reunite her with her family so that they can all flee to the liberated south. But the escape down the Biesbosch is thwarted by an SS ambush, and almost everyone is massacred. Save for Rachel, whose resilience and luck take her to a job at a food processing plant, from which a resistance cell operates.

Their socialist leader Kuipers (de Lint) eventually drafts her into undercover missions that will rely as much on her feminine wiles as they will her brains and hunger for revenge. Assuming the alias Ellies de Vries, Rachel dies her hair blond and is sent into the belly of the Nazi beast to free three captured members of her group by seducing Gestapo bigwig Ludwig Müntze (Koch) with her singing voice initially, then her body (her co-conspirator and fellow agent, Ronnie, gamely enchants Müntze’s oafish right-hand Franken). She plants a microphone in Müntze’s office, from which the resistance agents can listen in on important strategic meetings. But Müntze eventually sees through Rachel’s disguise, and she admits she’s Jewish. But they’ve fallen madly in love for each other, and Muentze risks his career—and his life—to keep her safe. A rare man of humanity and sensitivity within the Third Reich, Müntze seeks to arrange a ceasefire with the resistance, despite a direct order from the Fuehrer himself.

As the war comes to a close, Rachel’s chances for revenge grow increasingly remote, as the Nazis lose power and her lover finds himself suddenly redundant, disenfranchised, and endangered. Rachel’s loyalties are questioned by her own people, who now find themselves the weilders of power and whose fury is unleashed on their prisoners in brutal degradations.

It must sound awfully dense, and while Verhoeven and co-writer Soeteman (a frequent collaborator) expect you to keep up--unlike most wartime dramas, there’s no actual vintage footage used nor narration provided for context or clarity--it all goes down as easy as a beach read, in fact, it’s hard to believe this hasn’t been based on a page-turner by someone like Robert Harris or John Altman. The idea of a “kindly” Nazi will likely upset anyone who’s still steaming over “Hogan’s Heroes”, and while I’ll admit that no one will ever mistake “Black Book” for “Salo” or even “Schindler’s List”, its often far-reaching melodrama plays out with as much bravado as brains within a complex moral gray area that may not be “The Grey Zone”, but heady stuff for what some have all to glibly dismissed as the second coming of “Shining Through”.

Verhoeven was disappointingly curt in his post-screening Q&A (Audience member: “Why did you make this film?” Verhoeven: “Why’d you come to see it?”) and offered little insight beyond that he spent several decades conceiving the script and that financing took several years to secure, and that the “darker aspects” of the Dutch national character depicted were based upon his own first-hand experiences (considering he was all of six when the events of “Black Book” took place, I would’ve liked to have heard more). Not that it matters—everything we need to know about Verhoeven is up on the screen (he’s become the living incarnation of Eli Cross, Peter O’Toole’s character from “The Stunt Man”), and while this one may skirt more “prestigious” avenues than his oft-misunderstood genre blockbusters ((it’s already being primed as the Netherlands’ official entry into next year’s Academy Awards), it’s just as fiercely indicting—and perversely celebratory--of humanity in all of its fleshy, gluttonous, metastizing hypocrisy.


(Special Presentations)
(USA, 2006, 96 minutes)
Written by: Darren Aronofsky (story by Aronofsky and Ari Handel)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Stephen McHattie

I'm here to defend Darren Aronofsky's much-jeered inner-space opera as a work of too-rare passion, realized with a painter's eye and a poet's unbridled romanticism. "The Fountain" has only screened at two festivals (Venice, and now Toronto) so far but has already earned its fair share of naysayers who seem to revel in the opportunity to take this gifted young filmmaker down a peg for his alleged crime of ambition. This intolerance is troubling—isn’t this exactly the kind of film most critics bitch that the proverbial they don’t make enough of? Experimental yet personal, intellectual but emotionally-charged, with a total disregard for conventional narrative structures and tidy resolutions--plus, it looks and sounds like nothing you've ever seen. Outside of a short subject like 'Ryan", when was the last time you thrilled to CG imagery that seemed to be the work of a single artist's vision and not the hyper-real--but curiously lifeless--product of a render farm? You may love it, you may hate it--there'll be no middle ground on this one.

Hugh Jackman (who headlines four major releases this year) plays variations of the same character in three interwoven stories that revolve around the search for immortality over a millennium. In the 16th century, he’s Spanish conquistador Tomas, sent to New Spain by Queen Isabel (Weisz, never lovelier) to bring back sap from Yggsdrasil, the biblical Tree of Life, which is said to grant eternal life. After an arduous sea voyage to Central America, Tomas survives mutiny and violent resistence from the Mayan army to find the tree secured within a pyramid, which is defended the demonic Lord Of Xibalba.

In present day, he’s now Tommy, an obsessive surgeon who has thrown himself into 24-7 experimentation to distract himself from the sorrow of his wife’s inoperable brain cancer. We find out that what we’ve seen is part of a novel being written by doomed Izzi (Weisz again), who faces her cruel fate with a mordant wit and enchantment with even the smallest pleasures of life. At Tommy’s lab, he pushes his coworkers, including empathic Lillian (Burtsyn), towards a single goal: to stop aging, and with it, dying. A breakthrough occurs when a compound extracted from a Gautemalan tree yields a promising treatment—for a monkey. Will he be able to make it work on humans in time? Izzi would rather they make the most of their time together and for Tommy to finish her story.

Centuries later (the trailer says the year is 2500), he’s bald and gaunt Tom Creo, tattooed in self-inscribed characters, traveling across a vaporous cosmos inside a clear bubble towards the Xibalba nebula, which Izzi believed to be the location of the underworld, according to Mayan folklore. Alone, but with Izzi’s guidance in the form of either spirit or memory, he subsides on nourishment from the Tree Of Life and the belief that upon arrival, they will be reunited.

“What if death were an act of creation?” Izzi asks her brooding husband at one point. It’s certainly provided to be fertile artistic ground for Aronofsky, who planned to follow up his exhilteratingly doom-laden “Requiem For A Dream” with everything from the"Batman: Year One” and "Watchman" comic book adaptations to an episode of “Lost”. “The Fountain” was initially a “go” as a multi-million dollar epic with Brad Pitt in the lead, until his A-list ticket pulled out and the production was promptly shut down (sets had already been constructed in Sydney).

Aronofsky resurrected the project as a "graphic novel" (currently out-of-print and fetching high prices on the web) with artist Kent Williams, whose syrupy paint streaks and scratchy typography hint at what could have been (the book will be reprinted in softcover by DC/Vertigo comics in time for the film's release). The story and structure are pretty much the same, there’s just more of everything: more conquistadors, more medical experiments, more cosmic bubbles, more exploding stars, and a lot of narration, which should please people who needed the Marvel “2001” comic book adaptation to figure out what was going on. Without the “anything-goes” budget, Aronofsky was forced to distill the tale down to its essence, and like his trifurcated protagonist, unearthed the heart.

Not since “The Matrix” has a mainstream release dared to beam metaphysics into the multiplex, but for many it won’t be as accessible. Whereas the Wachowskis raided Hong Kong action films, anime, and cyberpunk for their high-minded, and high-kicking ode to Jean Baudrillard and Lewis Carroll, Aronofsky’s narrative approach owes much to the unstuck-in-time careening of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and its eclectic palette (DOP Matthew Libatique shows he’s as capable of mixing styles as the versatile and consistently astounding Robert Richardson) to the vermillion-hued brutality of Goya, the foreboding stillness of Kubrick, and the pastry mindscapes of Roger Dean’s prog-rock album art, with recurring nods to Jung, Carlos Castaneda, and even Jack Kirby in his inky/cosmic “Fourth World” period.

We’ve all encountered those so smitten with their love of another (either at the top of their lungs or while bounding atop sofa cushions), that your immediate impulse is to either high-five them with congratulations or backhand them across the face--sometimes both, depending on your mood. Cinematically, this sort of grandstanding can be equally perilous, but Aronofsky has never backed away from a challenge (remember, he began his career with a black and white thriller about mathematics and the Torah), and here, he has sought to tell nothing less than the greatest love story ever.

Thankfully, he doesn’t forget that the tale is first and foremost a two-hander, and lets his leads do most of the work; often in tight close-ups (although Clint Mansell’s mournful Philip Glass-y score is wall-to-wall, just in case things falter). Showing remarkable range after careers spent largely in popcorn flicks, Jackman and Weisz anchor the extreme mode shifts and sometimes confounding exposition in an emotional realism. Who, when crippled by grief, hasn't bargained with the universe? Who amongst us hasn’t felt that rush when we’re convinced our bond could stop time, change the world, transcend flesh into something ethereal? If only we could all experience the love that Aronofsky obviously has for his craft…

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006


(Midnight Madness)
(UK/Germany, 2006, 90 minutes)
Written by: Christopher Smith and James Moran
Directed by: Christopher Smith
Cast: Tobey Stephens, Laura Harris, Danny Dyer, Tim McInnerny, Claudie Blakely

Christopher Smith has followed up his solid debut “Creep” with an uneven mash-up of horror and humour initially conceived by co-writer James Moran as catharsis for an annoying commute, which found him surrounded by preening yuppies and vacant office drones he couldn’t wait to kill off (at last, a story that defines our times!). Considering that Tobe Hooper’s bad experience in a department store lineup inspired his creation of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, it’s a shame that “Severance” isn’t more penetrating beyond the serrated blades that tear through the flesh of these hopelessly-duped Dilberts in a rote scenario that owes more to recent torture fests like “Hostel” and the “Saw” franchise than the class warfare of “Battle Royale” or the obvious granddaddy of ‘em all, “Lord Of The Flies” (a British classic, after all).

To the tune of The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”, we meet up with six members from the UK branch of multinational arms supplier Palisade Defence, en route to a weekend team-building retreat in the remote woods near the Hungarian border. When their bus route is blocked by a fallen tree, their spooked driver refuses to take an alternative road and abandons them on the spot (considering the location, there are no superstitious villagers at the inn, or an inn). Group leader Richard (McInnerny) leads his sales team through the forest: his right –hand cronie, Billy (Ceesay), yuppie Ken-doll Harris (Stephens), nerdy Gordon (Nyman), sexist stoner Steve (Dyer), outspoken Jill (Blakley), and reserved Canadian Maggie (Harris). Having been wooed with the promise of a few days at the luxurious spa of the company’s American executive, they’re understandably miffed when come upon a derelict, concrete bunker. Nothing much is left, other than some ragged bedding, rotting food, and some forgotten Palisades files in the basement chronicling the histories of some very dangerous Serbian criminals that suggest the company’s weapons explorations might extend to biological killing machines.

Making the best of it, Harris, Jill, and Steve entertain the others by spinning grisly fantasies of what horrors their squalid lodgings previously hosted, unaware that another organized team is at play nearby. When the remainder of the night hosts mysterious noises and spying figures, a decision is made to leave in the morning for the spa. Unfortunately for them, the faceless psychopaths lying in wait aren’t quite 9-5 types—night or day is prime time to enact their long-waited revenge against the morally-questionable conglomerate.

Smith’s “Creep” hardly marked the arrival of a major genre visionary, but its assured pace and rare serious tone went a long way into overcoming Horror 101 plotting and ever-escalating strains in coincidence and logic. Comparisons were made to Gary Sherman’s “Death Line” aka “Raw Meat”, but social subtext was avoided entirely in favour of a modern Grimm Fairy tale, with peroxided Franke Potente as a fiesty, George Clooney-loving Gretel trying to escape being eaten in the Black Forest, refashioned as the dark and grimy maze of the London underground, with a forgotten medical lab as its gingerbread house-of-horrors.

Working on a larger canvas (Isle Of Man locations, shot in drab hues by DOP newcomer Ed Wild), Smith’s direction is more scattershot, but he gets points for invention, especially in moments where he gets to stray from the more conventional stalk-and-slash shenanigans. The outstanding first-act bit has musings about the bunker’s history each visualized as a witty homage to the likes of Murnau’s “Nosferatu”, a “Blair Witch”-styled mockumentary, and a FHM-approved soft-core fantasy. His parody of a corporate motivational video is also bang-on—proving himself to be equally capable at horror and humour but for some reason, unable to merge them as successfully here as Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg did with “Shawn Of The Dead”.

Act Two settles for a Joe Bob-patented anyone-can-die-at-any-moment marathon of blood-splattering and plot-dependent detective work by Maggie the Canuck amidst pissed-on corpses, pissed-off Bosnian mercs, and their merciless repertoire of guillotining, garroting, flamethrowing, rectal knifing, and skin-flaying. There’s a screamingly funny gag with a bear trap that owes more to “Cape Feare” episode of “The Simpsons” (the one with Sideshow Bob, the Gilbert And Sullivan tunes, and the rakes) than the climax of “Straw Dogs”.

Thankfully, Act Three brings it all home, when the script resets to its absurdist mode with the appearance of macho Yankee exec George, whose mishap with a big-ass rocket launcher is an audacious howler (he accidentally takes out a passing jet liner, which, along with “Borat”, marks TIFF 2006 as the year it became okay to joke about 9/11), and a cheeky cavalary-to-the-rescue in the form of two buxom escorts-turned-Terminatrixes who make for the best 1-800 number ever called.

For those of us who’ve endured the vacuous, manufactured camaraderie of corporate culture and have regarded liberation from our anonymous cubicle (adorned only with company-approved personal items, of course) akin to rising up from the primordial ooze, the high-concept of “The Office”-Meets-“Deliverance” is a delicious one. But “Severance”s bland stereotypes and derivative sadism would be better served by a video game—imagine how much better you’d feel come midweek hump if you could dispatch the office Fantasy Football loser again and again during a network match. Next time out, Smith and Moran would do well to focus a little more on their human resources.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006


(Japan/USA, 2006, 131 minutes)
Written by: Katsuhiro Otomo and Sadayuki Murai, based on the manga by Yuki Urushibara.
Directed by: Katsuhiro Otomo
Cast: Joe Odagiri, Nao Omori, Yu Aoi, Reisen Lee, Makiko Esumi, Lily, Makiko Kuno

Katsuhiro Otomo, best-known as the visionary behind the manga masterwork "Akira" (the film wasn’t bad either), isn't the most prolific artist in the world, but at least he didn't wait nearly 15 years to follow-up his last effort, the underrated retro-pulp epic "Steamboy". This time out, he's helmed a rare live-action work (his second, in fact) and those expecting his meticulously-drafted constructs and dizzying orchestrated mayhem made-flesh will be surprised by "Bugmaster"s quiet musings on man vs. nature, subdued visuals, and loose, Myazakiian structure. Me—I left wondering what the Japanese word was for "huh"?

As with Myazaki’s works, this tale proposes a world in which the line between the human and spiritual realms are blurred, although most of the action (such as it is) takes place in a very tangible alternate 19th century rural Japan. It‘s there that a landslide separates young Yoki from his mother. Years pass and we are introduced to him again, now living with an adoptive mother, Nui (Esumi). The old woman is a “mushishi” (or bugmaster), an expert in controlling weird glowing insects called “mushi”, which are, as she explains it, “the phantom soul of nature that breathes inside every thing living, and dead” (one up on “The Force”, it would seem).

Now known as Ginko (Odagiri, from Kyoshi Kurosawa’s “Bright Future”), the mysterious young man sports white hair and is missing his left eye—the costs of his foster mother’s tutelage. He roams from village to village, curing various “mushi” ailments, the results of which can range from whimsical to fatal. Immediately upon arrival an inn, he is asked by its owner (Lily) to use his gifts to diagnose the ailing staff. He detects an infection by the “Wn of the Ah-Wn bug” (!), and another manifestation that causes the innkeeper’s grandaughter to spout horns and hear strange voices. He manipulates the bugs into exiting the people’s bodies, then sets off. Along the way, he also picks up a companion—“Koro” (Omori), a man trying to catch a “rainbow” serpent for his father.

Next up, Ginko makes it to the secluded house Of Tanyu (Aoi), a former bugmaster now crippled from the infection of the deadly “Tokoyami” mushi. She spends her days recording the history of these ethereal beings, but when her blood becomes contaminated by the ink , her scrolls begin to fade. She needs Ginko’s powers not only to save her life, but to preserve her chronicle of the mushi now that magic has begun to lose its place in the world, which is soon to enter a new century. Ginko discovers that it is his blind stepmother Nui who is responsible for Tanyu’s illness.

As with the “Star Wars” prequels, this one lumbers between meandering marble-mouthed exposition and meticulously-conceived CGI setpieces, but compared to Otomo’s animated works, there’s little eye-candy offered beyond the multitude of filigree’d sprites, which are obviously enough to enchant the director for 131 straight minutes and presumably, devotees of Yuki Urushibara’s popular manga (which has spanned something like 35 installments to date). Tanyu’s frenzied attempt to capture her written characters as they scatter is admittedly dazzling and illustrative of the film’s unique invention. Beyond that, it’s a lot of slow walking along picturesque forests, streams, and mountains---which could have benefitted greatly from some of that Terrence Malick-pantented narration.

Regardless of its beauty, Otomo’s adaptation--which combines three separate episodes of the series--is one tough slog, sure to tax even the most forgiving kaiju enthusiast’s tolerance for what is often diplomatically labeled “deliberate” pacing. TIFF 2006 audiences were treated to a rare “in progress” version that will hopefully undergo some changes before its official release in Japan next year.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


(Midnight Madness)
USA/Japan, 104 minutes, 2006
Written by: Dennis Bartok
Directed by: Sean S. Cunningham, Joe Dante, John Gaeta, Monte Hellman, Ken Russell,
Cast: Lara Harris, Michele-Barbara Pelletier, Tygh Runyan, John Saxon, Rachel Veltri, Henry Gibson

This horror anthology came out under the radar and from across the pond: it’s a Japanese funded production that manages to pull off what was long-promised to any loyal reader of Fangoria’s Terror Teletype but never realized: to gather the cream of genre talent for a feature-length omnibus (Carpenter, Cronenberg, Craven, Fincher were all due to unite for one combo or the other—only “Two Evil Eyes” came close by teaming Romero with Argento, and Showtime’s “Body Bags” had Carpenter aided by Tobe Hooper, Yuzna had something, too, as I recall…). Check out this pedigree of talent: Sean S. Cunningham, Joe Dante, Monte Hellman, Ken Russell, and acclaimed special-effect maestro John Gaeta. Can’t go wrong, right? Well…

Unlike most horror anthologies, this one isn’t based on any known source material (E.C. Comics, Stephen King, 80s “Splatterpunk”) but rather an original screenplay by Dennis Bartok (a first-timer, which makes the project’s genesis all the more amazing). While Bartok demonstrates more fanboy passion than imagination, he clearly possesses a supernatural ability to attract talent. Too bad his yarns fail to deliver on the essential frissons, blowing the opportunity for a Japanese/American “4 Extremes”.

Joe Dante doesn’t get a chance to top his audacious “Homecoming” segment from last season’s “Masters Of Horror”—instead, he’s saddled with the thankless wraparound story, in which he at least gets to riff on the B-pic lore he knows intimately (too bad the Dick Miller cameo is the only opportunity he gets to acknowledge his days with Corman). An elderly tour guide (Gibson) leads six VIP guests into a haunted house set on the abandoned Ultra Studios backlot, where the late schlockmeister Desmond Hacker shot his many notorious shockers. They find themselves trapped in an octaganal room like the one in Hacker's most famous film "Hysteria," which apparently allows no exit from within its Escheresque geometry. Gibson suggests to the frightened tourists that since the characters in the film confessed their own real-life terror tales in order to escape, they should do the same…

Pneumatic blond actress Phoebe (Veltri) is up first—rather, up front first, by starting with a familiar tale of woe in “The Girl With The Golden Breasts”. She was once just another aspiring actress, schlumping from audition to audition, repeatedly passed over for roles due to her modest endowments. After she springs for a boob job, her career takes off, but when her boyfriend wakes up with bite marks on his back, her resplendent rack reveals it has needs of its own. She investigates the clinic and discovers its rather predictable secret—“Dead And Buried” by way of Andy Sedaris (Russ Meyer would’ve never allowed implants). Considering this one kicked off things with the return of a major talent like Ken Russell--the master of 70s cinematic excess who’s been languishing in DTV/DIY fare for far too long--it’s a depressingly juvenile and rote effort that isn’t particularly erotic, funny, or scary (the rubbery John Carl Beuchler-quality effects smack of a Charles Band production—from the Empire International days…). Not that Russell doesn’t give all: he sustains a brisk, campy tone ala “Lair Of the White Worm” and the climax is worth the wait, in which he paints the mysterioso inner sanctum of clinic in garish, pop-art colours right out of “Lisztomania” and even appears as the mad surgeon, in drag. Clearly, he’s having fun (Russell’s career appears to be back on track, with news of the feature “Kings X”, to begin production this year).

Next up is “Jibaku”,, in which sniping marrieds Henry (Lowell) and Julia (Harris) relate their recent trip to Japan. While touring a graveyard near a Buddhist temple, they discover the corpse of a monk who has hung himself on a tree, and soon the yuppies are menaced by the ghost now intent on dragging Julia into the spirit world, first by ravishing her in dreams, then upping the ectoplasmic ante and dragging hubbie into the afterlife with her . “Friday the 13th" originator Sean S. Cunningham isn’t any one’s idea of a master stylist, but while he lacks the subtle touch to pull off the erotic intimations Bartok is going for (he’s obviously seen “Kwaidan” ), he shows some range by incorporating manga-style animation in flashbacks ala “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and letting his actors carry this Zalman King-y nonsense, especially Harris on whose lithe and frequently unclad shoulders the whole thing rests.

Veteran B-pic director Leo (Saxon) revisits his early Hollywood days with “Stanley’s Girlfriend”, when as a screenwriter in the late 50s, he (now played by Tahmoh Penikett from “Battlestar Galactica”) befriended eccentric wunderkind Stanley (Runyan), an aspiring filmmaker on the fastrack who becomes obsessed with the seductive Nina (Amelia Cooke). When Stanley leaves for a film project in Europe, Leo takes over his friend’s apartment, and the role of Stanley’s surrogate to Nina’s succubus. “Stanley” of course, is meant to be the late, great Stanley Kubrick, whom segment director Helman knew during the same era. Film buffs will enjoy the nods to “Paths Of Glory” , etc., while neophytes will be left bewildered by what is essentially a talky drama (since I consider myself in the former camp, I thought it was the best of the lot). Veteran indie icon Hellman, perhaps drawing from experience, orchestrates excellent performances and sun-baked period detail, but can’t do much with the witchy-woman angle that seems like an afterthought.

Indignant punk Nathalie (Pelletier) concludes “My Twin, The Worm’, an account of her own birth which began when her French mother (also Pelletier) married a two-timing American wine empressario and relocated with him to California, with her friend Annie as her only confident. While pregnant with his child, she contracted a strange, six-foot tapeworm, but was warned the only available treatment could kill the baby, so she carried the child to term and with it, the parasite feeding off them both. As Natalie grows, she’s forced to live with her father after he leaves her mother for Annie, all the while sensing the presence of her non-human twin, which supposedly died at the moment of her birth. This one marks the directorial debut of John Gaeta, a special effects supervisor who’s got a good eye for surreal images but thankfully doesn’t get bogged down in his tools of the trade as one might expect (his pacing is solid--perhaps working for years on the overlong “Matrix” trilogy taught him some lessons on the economy of storytelling).

The setup and structure indicate that Bartok was intent on paying homage to the Amicus anthologies from the 1970s (even if the rinky-dink production values and bleeding “Creepshow” colours are the stuff of 80s cable fare) and those who’ve seen “From Beyond The Grave”, and the E.C. adaptations “Tales From The Crypt” and “Vault Of Horror” will see the coda’s “twist” coming from the opening scene. Geeky in-jokes and the anticipation of some genre icons sharing the same bill might be enough to get fans to gather around the campfire, but can’t compensate for stories that are all hook, no tale…

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006


Midnight Madness
(New Zealand, 2006, 87 minutes)
Written by: Jonathan King
Directed by: Jonathan King
Cast: Matthew Chamberlain, Tammy Davis, Oliver Driver, Peter Feney, Glenis Levestam

The second horror film (at least that I'm aware of) from the "regional infestations from Down Under" sub-subgenre, "Black Sheep" is a considerable improvement over its predecessor, the notorious killer bunny oddity "Night Of The Lepus" (although the list could be extended to include everything from"Razorback" to "A Cry In The Dark"...). This agreeable horror-romp from neighbouring New Zealand made its world premiere at this year's TIFF Midnight Madness programme, and while it tries a little too hard to mimic the zaniness of Peter Jackson's "Braindead" (its obvious and acknowledged inspiration) it's a skillful debut that delivers on its concept seemingly ripped from Lloyd Kaufman's File-O-Fax. Once again, everyone: you can't deliberately create a cult film, but I'll give these first-timers a gold star for trying...

At the outset, we're told there are more sheep in New Zealand than humans--40 million, amazingly. It's a fact that terrifies Henry Oldfield (Meister), the youngest of two brothers who grew up in a farming family and as an adult still harbours his childhood fear of the wooly creatures (and making him the family black sheep). He returns to the old homestead after 15 years to sell off his property shares to older sibling Angus (Feeney), an oily capitalist whose childhood prank caused his younger brother's ovinophobia in the first place, and who just happens to be running a genetic engineering lab on the vacant ranch.

While the brothers bicker, enviro-activist "Experience" (Mason) and her clueless slacker boyfriend Grant (Driver) orchestrate a break-in to sabotage the illegal ops and accidentally unleash some sort of mutant lamb fetus into the flock. No good can come of this, of course: the nimble and foul-tempered mini-abomination bites a sheep, the sheep becomes infected, the infected sheep bites another sheep, and so on and so on (hey, it's a variant on counting them to sleep...). Soon the ravenous ovines look beyond their species to satisfy their newly acquired bloodlust...

With Grant now bitten and out of service and Angus intent on unveiling his breed of supersheep to a group of international investors at any cost, Oliver and Experience team up with the estate's unfettered Maori farmhand, Tucker (Davis), whose handiness with a gun comes in...well...handy to keep the baaadass flock from multiplying and eating the guests. And just when the creatures seem beatable, along comes a newly-spry Grant sporting fetching hooves and a wooly new coat...

As any loyal genre hound knows, this is the sort of high-concept nonsense that can go either way--wisely, King (who, like Jackson, hails from Wellington) has chosen to play the shenanigans straight, keeping the characters rooted in reality and letting the four legged critters chew the scenery, and anything else within range for that matter. There's certainly no dearth of the yech factor in "Black Sheep"s brief running time--spurting arteries, oozing blisters, bone splintering gunshots, and a pool of reeking offal (making the one in Dario Argento's "Phenomenon" look like a Sedona spa) with shaky-cam moves copped from the "Evil Dead" shot list.

The WETA Workshop artists, perhaps looking to relieve their carpal-tunnel syndrome after literal years of slinging pixels on the "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy and "King Kong", embraced the chance to engineer some old-school animatronic puppets and practical effects as a tribute to their founder's early goofball splatterfests. The sheep-beasts, while not terribly frightening, are inventive and fun in their various feral forms, with the climactic "were-sheep" a delirious vision like something out of a C.S. Lewis bender.

Sis boom bah!

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


(Midnight Madness)
(Spain, 2006, 96 m)
Written by: Karim Hussain, Richard Stanley, Nacho Cerda
Directed by: Nacho Cerda
Cast: Anastasia Hille, Karl Roden

Filmax’s Barcelona-based operations consistently offer the most ambitious and varied fantasy-themed productions produced today, from its Fantastic Factory Project offshoot, which has given us Brian Yuzna’s loopy franchise entries (“Beyond Re-Animator”, “The Dentist” series), Stuart Gordon’s long-waited Lovecraft adaptation “Dagon”, Brad Anderson’s pallid character study “The Machinist”, to Jaume Balagueró's very fine Ramsey Campbell adaptation “The Nameless” (their chance at mainstream success, the upcoming co-production “Perfume” directed by Tom Twyker, is due by year’s end). Now, they’ve backed award-winning filmmaker Nacho Cerda’s much-anticipated debut feature, and for fans of his “Awakening”, "Aftermath" and "Genesis" (the “death trilogy”), the result might surprise.

The film opens in the mid-60s. An ominous truck, its passengers unseen, thunders out-of-control near a small Russian village, until it smashes into a post. Locals come to the rescue and find a woman and two crying infants inside. She’s dead—from an apparent stabbing, but the children are alive.

Present day: on the eve of her 40th birthday, American film producer Marie (Hille from the intriguing UK thriller “The Hole”) returns to her Russian homeland where her mother has died of strange circumstances. She’s inherited the dilapidated family farm—that of her natural parents, whom she never knew, having been adopted and brought to the U.S. as a baby. The locals on the sparsely-populated countryside have deemed the remote property “damned”, but that doesn’t deter her from trying to learn something of her heritage. Her spooked driver leaves her behind, so she has no choice but to explore the rotting confines of her inheritance. Set within what Shirley Jackson would call “the unhappy coincidence of line and place”, the farmhouse is definitely a conduit for something angry and unresolved.

Alone and tormented by her impending middle-age and her strained relationship with her daughter, Marie endures escalating sonic assaults and unseen presences that could be real or simply imagined, until she encounters her own spectral doppelganger, damp and blank-eyed. Upon trying to flee, she encounters another strange visitor: Nicolai (Roden of “Hellboy” and “15 Minutes”), who claims to be her twin brother, summoned to the house under similar pretenses. Soon, his phantom twin materializes, too, blood-soaked and blind. “We are haunted by ourselves”, Nicolai has determined—but how? And after 40 years--why?

Cowritten with Montreal "Fantasia" cofounder Karim Hussain and the talented—and woefully underemployed-- filmmaker Richard Stanley ("Hardware", "Dust Devil"), "The Abandoned" takes its key cues from Herk Harvey's "Carnival Of Souls" and Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond" but to dismiss it as just another homage does a great disservice to the considerable skill of its director, who displays a mastery of his tools that betrays his lean filmography (not to mention commitment: he nursed his debut through eight years of development).

Not that he and his collaborators aren’t well-versed in horror traditions, nor above pushing the Percepto button from time to time (Cerda’s favorite film is “Jaws”): Marie’s journey through the Russian countryside (actually, Bulgaria) and her encounters with superstitious locals is reminiscent of Jonathon Harker’s trip to Castle Dracula in any number of adaptations, the farmhouse owes its creaking nooks and crannies to those famous houses “Hill” and “Hell”, and the ghoulish ciphers seem to have shambled right off the set of any of Fulci’s 80s shockers.

Fun stuff to be sure, but thankfully Cerda is more interested in using the longer form to craft a sensory assault of ratcheting intensity, as opposed to the Syd Field model with its safety net of trailer moments. Not that this is a twee exercise in showy art-house noodling: “The Abandoned” features one of the most punishing sound designs outside of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”—imagine Maya Deren’s “Meshes Of The Afternoon” turned up to “11” and you may be reaching for the earplugs if you can pull your fingertips from the armrest (when it eventually hits DVD, this one will be my ultimate Dolby 5.1 demo disk, neighbours be damned!). So even if you can’t relate to the characters, Cerda makes damn sure you feel their pain.

Teamed with his longtime DOP Xavi Gimenez (who’s also shot the features “Intacto” and “Darkness”), Cerda once again demonstrates that he’s the cinema’s Francis Bacon: few others could capture these rotting walls, jaundiced landscapes, sallow complexions, and liquefied flesh with such perverse beauty.

With enigmatic leads caught up in an enigmatic supernatural puzzle while exploring their enigmatic family history, the film will be a tough slog for the impatient, and for all of its handsome imagery and auditory invention, “The Abandoned”s most outstanding virtue is its lead: Hille’s performance as Marie is uniquely raw and unglamorous for any genre—definitely not your average horror heroine, neither a go-girl Ripley nor a naïve ingénue. Haunted by her own perceived failure as a mother, Marie’s empty past has affected her ability to forge an identity for herself or her daughter, with whom she has an estranged relationship--she’s as much a vaporous figure in her own world as her mysterious double. She anchors this often unnerving spook show in a rare adult sensibility and helps it to reach a coda that’s oddly poignant, even if you see the twist coming that’s as inevitable as death itself.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006


(Contemporary World Cinema)
(USA/Iceland, 2006, 107 minutes)
Written by: Larry Fessenden and Robert Leaver
Directed by: Larry Fessenden
Cast: Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Zack Gilford

Genre-bending multi-hyphenate (actor, writer, director, producer) Larry Fessenden follows up his acclaimed indie thrillers "Habit" and "Wendigo" with a timely eco-horror tale--the second of TIFF 2006 along with "The Host"!--that aims for substance over shock, but since the latter is in short supply, what results is a medicinal finger-wag that will delight Al Gore and Green Party devotees. It’s too bad that the decent cast--headlined by Ron Perlman and James LeGros as the Right and the Left, respectively--and an arduous shoot are in service of a lugubrious tract that boils (melts?) down to, essentially, "keeping watching the skies", or the demon caribou will getcha.

North Industries, with a government contract to explore avenues of “energy independence”, is preparing to drill for oil from the once-protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Anticipating public outcry, they’ve allowed eco-watchdog James Hoffman (LeGros) and his assistant Elliot (Harrold) to study the region and report on potential environmental impact as a token display of moral concern.

A witness to the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Kuwaiti oil fields, Hoffman is convinced that the unseasonably warm temps and melting permafrost are indicators of a rapidly escalating cataclysm. This raises the bristles of the camp’s impatient and “rational” team leader Pollock (Perlman), who dismisses Hoffman’s warnings as hysterical college-boy nonsense. Given that Abby (Britton), Pollack’s ex, has cozied up to sensitive Hoffman doesn’t win him any more credibility, either.

After Max, a young intern (Gilford) goes missing, he’s tracked down at the site of a two-decade old test site, nearly catatonic from an encounter with something that he can’t describe. More strange incidents occur—power outages, lapses in communication, accidents, health problems, and then, deaths. Their camp now a gravesite, Hoffman and Pollock brave the blinding white terrain for answers, their modern conveniences and naïve world-views no match for the land and its original, immortal guardians, who are supremely pissed off…

It's with red-faced embarrassment that I admit that I've never seen "Habit" or "Wendigo" (I’ll make penance with a marathon viewing of the "Demonic Toys" saga). Not that I wouldn't like to see catch up at some point--but for whatever reason, Fessenden's just never synched up on my radar.

So “The Last Winter” is my introduction to his particular oeuvre, and while I can admire the conviction of his screed, my problem with this one is that it's all noble intention. The execution is woefully lackluster: the setup and characters are as generic as any "Carnosaur" sequel (except that periodically, someone stops to make a grand speech about the environment, blah blah blah—oh, wait…), so it's not entirely unfair to peer past its campaign button high-mindedness and evaluate it on the level of a straight thriller. The script is just one tiresome polemic after another, with too many similiar scenes playing out with the same momentum.

The locations are suitably stark and foreboding, but you've got to be inept on the level of a Phil Tucker to aim your camera at the untouched Icelandic landscape and not come away with an evocative image (not to belittle G. Magni Agustsson’s otherwise fine lensing, greatly enhanced by Anton Sanko's eerie sound design). The Third Act appearance of the heretofore unseen enemy might not infuse the Kubrickian awe intended (apparently, it repeats imagery from “Wendigo”), but I thought there was a certain majesty to what hoofs it dangerously close to hooey.

Fessenden is often compared to George A. Romero, but the Pittsburgh auteur knew how to have fun even when he was venting his dissatisfaction with the world--somehow, I can't imagine Fessenden tossing a custard pie into the face of a zombie.

The transfats would probably kill it...

Robert J. Lewis TIFF 2006


(Gala Presentation)
USA, 82 minutes, 2006
Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy
Directed by Christopher Guest
Cast: Christopher Guest, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Fred Ward, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Don Lake, Eugene Levy, Christopher Moynihan, Jane Lynch,
Harry Shearer, Rick Gervais

A new film from Christopher Guest is always cause for celebration to the comedy buff who’s slid into the cold shivers while craving an “adult sized dose” (thank you, Levon Helm) of irony and old-school comic chemistry. Hell, the stuff he leaves on the cutting room floor is probably funnier than most of the pointless, run-on agony on the weekly sketch shows that overstays its welcome like a tipsy aunt trying to enunciate a “blonde joke”. With the teeth and claws of the once great SNL worn down to feeble nubs, and the National Lampoon label…well, just that…mainstream social satire has found a new voice in cheap-ass gonzo animation, with “The Simpsons” (admit it, it still scores more often than not), “South Park” (more fearless than ever) and the “Adult Swim” oddities (Dada? Or just demented?) showing no signs of softening on new subjects for merciless assassination. Thank goodness there remains some real flesh-and- blood types who can match wits with anything spawned from a Flash menu.

Taking stylistic cues from Rob Reiner’s immortal “This Is Spinal Tap”, in which he costarred and “cowrote” (such as the groundbreaking improv-experiment was conceived), Guest first targeted small-town theatre (“Waiting For Guffman”), expanded his scale to The Westminster Dog Show (“Best In Show”), and last fashioned a more formal “dramedy” with “A Mighty Wind”, set at a folk music festival. Each offered some rarely visited terrain that was mined for delirious comic gold from loose outlines given the King Midas touch by his cast of reliable pros and promising newcomers. “For Your Consideration” turns its merry pranksters loose on Hollywood, a comparatively familiar target that will definitely satisfy devotees and possibly win some new fans from amongst those who have found the (somewhat baffling) art-house cred of Guest’s previous films off-putting. “Comedy is hard”, goes the old theatrical adage, but damn these folks make it look easy…

When we first meet middle-aged actress Marilyn Hack (O’Hara) she isn’t recognized at the studio gates, even though she’s a 30-year veteran in “the biz” and is arriving for her set call on the “prestige” drama “Home For Purim”. Marilyn headlines the 1940s-set Southern melodrama--which seems destined for heavy rotation on the Hallmark Hall Of Fame--as a dying matriarch opposite fellow thespian fossil Victor Allen Miller (Shearer), for whom the role is an escape from his usual gig as Irv The Footlong Weiner in a long-running TV commercial spot. During downtime, the film’s DOP casually mentions to Marilyn that an entertainment website has cited her for an Academy Award. Of course, this alters Marylin’s resignation immediately, and while she tries to maintain an indifferent facade, it’s a fever that catches when Callie (Parker), the actress playing Marilyn’s daughter, and her husband/co-star Brian (Moynihan) are pegged for possible Oscar noms as well.

Suddenly, everyone on the lot is interested in this low-budget weepy, to the surprise of its questionably talented director (Guest, under a bizarre Krusty The Clown ‘do) and precious, enviably insulated screenwriters (Balaban and McKean)—although their situation will change in a heartbeat. The studio exec Martin Gibb (Gervais, all familiar David Brent twitches) and his spineless assistant (Miller) show up with “notes” as to how to make “Purim” more accessible by lessening the Jewish angle (wouldn’t “Home For Thanksgiving” be a better title?). Victor's inept, small-time agent (Levy) suddenly takes interest in him, and the walking ulcer of a publicist (Higgins) gets a wake-up call to way things are done in the 21st century.

Beyond the backlot, this once under-the-radar property becomes the talk of the town and the trades. A pair of snooty movie critics (Lake, Hitchcock) debate the worthiness of its cast on their syndicated show, and of course, it reaches the country’s most popular entertainment newsmagazine, where the impeccably-poised automatons who host it (Willard, Lynch) are only too willing to pay lip service to whatever current darlings have been annointed worthy of being dressed up and—of course--torn down in a public pole-dance of preening, self-righteous schadenfreude.

Guest once again assembles his rep company who, to steal a line from Springsteen, crackle like crossed wires: returning are Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Jane Lynch, Harry Shearer, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, and Guest himself—plus a few new faces. Like “A Mighty Wind”, this one relies much less on the faux-documentary style and instead plays as a more straightforward (but still improvised) showbiz lampoon owing its focus on backlot politics (and chatty, huge cast) to Robert Altman’s “The Player”--minus the venom. Fans of this subject will also smack their lips at the odd flavour shot from Herbert Ross’ “Sweet Liberty”, David Mamet’s “State And Main”, “The Big Picture” (an early scripted Guest film), and the like.

O'Hara delivers the closest thing to a nuanced, three-dimensional performance here, rendered even more unflinchingly raw when her needy, conflicted Marilyn surrenders to the plastic demands of mainstream that’s long evaded her and enters the second act botoxed and boob-jobbed like she’s fallen under the blade of Bruce Campbell’s mad surgeon in “Escape From LA”—she becomes her own walking, talking Mort Drucker caricature.

Shearer’s invigorated has-been undergoes a less radical transformation, showing off his new tooth caps on “Total Request Live” and getting the film’s best line: “The Oscar is the backbone of an industry that has no backbone.”

Few will disagree that “FYC”s highlight is the pitch-perfect parody "Entertainment Now," co-hosted by Jane Lynch and Fred Willard with dizzying aplomb. Willard, to no one’s surprise, steals the show with his hilarious—and sometimes astonishing cruel--non-sequitors, each perfectly punctuated with another glimpse of his “faux-hawk”, which gives him the look of a peroxided and leathery-tanned flying monkey from “The Wizard Of Oz”.

The other subplots are spottier, indeed, some of them seem to be devised to incorporate the returning vets at any cost: the “Ebert And Roeper” riff affords only a few minutes of screen time to Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock, and Jennifer Coolidge’s cameo as “Purim”s financier (a hefty diaper-company heiress who prefers not to be photographed from the back) is amusing (like so many of her costars, just anticipating her next line is enough to inspire chuckles) but completely perfunctory. The scope and pace here is closer to that of “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World”—now you see them, now you don’t.

For me, consumate “Oh, that guy” John Michael Higgins walks away with the film as publicist Corey Taft. His Lee Horsley grooming and “Boogie Nights”-era fashions better preserved than Ötzi the Iceman, Taft madly scribbles in his file-o-fax as if every pen stroke will keep the thaw at bay, and when caught in one of his many inane analogies, drags out his partial Native American heritage (specifically, “Chucktaw”) with a cluck with authority that will hopefully avert his obvious fractured thinking. Hopelessly analog in a digital world--he’s positively enchanted at the discovery of “The World Wide Interweb”, as if bestowing some arcane sweat lodge knowledge upon his disciples.

Guest and his cast are keen, astute observers of humanity, who, if they can be accused of sometimes pushing a joke too far, do so only in the interest of adding another dimension to their characters, and not, as some have accused, of mocking those of another (read: non-L.A.) class. If there’s anything to be taken from “For Your Consideration” other than laughter (which really, is more than enough here), it’s the pointed undercurrent that can be found in all of Guest’s efforts. The surrogate family that forms from the desire to be recognized, to leave a legacy, to be simply loved and yet somehow validated—it’s the important element that gets too easily disregarded by “ET” and tabloid junkies who blithely dismiss anyone who’s pursued a career in the arts (and god forbid they achieve success) as lucky, lazy, and a fraud.

The cut-to-the-chase-already question is: is “For Your Consideration” worthy of the esteem heaped on “Waiting For Guffman”, “Best In Show”, and (let’s face it, nothing will ever compare to “This Is Spinal Tap”)“A Mighty Wind”? Well, who cares?--it’s still funnier than 99% of other things around. “One note”, dissenters will mutter—but it’s a sublime one, beautifully sustained…

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006

Monday, September 11, 2006


Australia, 109 minutes, 2006
Written by: Victoria Hill and Geoffrey Wright
Based upon the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Geoffrey Wright
Cast: Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill, Lachy Hulme, Gary Sweet, Matt Doran, Steve Bastoni

Something wicked this way comes…again.

Officially regarded as 400 years old this very year, “Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, and amongst his most nihilistic, psychological complex, and outrageously violent (though outdone by 'Titus Andronicus"), making it a natural for the big screen. Geoffrey (“Romper Stomper”) Wright’s re-telling of “the Scottish play” set in the Melbourne underworld is, according to a quick peek at the IMDB, no less than the 46th screen version (TV or feature) to appear in cinema’s comparatively young 100 years, varying wildly from Kurosawa’s poetic 1957 fuedal Japan transplant, to Polanski’s post-Manson Grand Guignol, to “Scotland P.A.”s burger joint-set oddity, to the Hindi “Maqbool”, all the way up to a currently in-production UK version that will also stage the tragedy in the criminal fringes.

It’s “full of sound and fury” all right— after an intriguing opening suggesting a trippy Jesse Franco approach, in which a trio of alluring young witches slink about in schoolgirl outfits and desecrate crypts as they set up the scenario, the palette shifts to gritty Scorsese textures as we move to the Melbourne Docklands where two leather-clad factions settle a score in a blaze of gunfire, with Macbeth (Worthington) and his gang surviving the fireworks as the victors.

Macbeth wins the respect of his “king” Duncan (Sweet), but resents that he rewards his son Malcolm (Doran) with a higher position. Macbeth is visited by the three mysterious women who portend that one day he will assume a position of great power. Macbeth confides this in his troubled wife (Hill, who co wrote the adaptation), who is drug-addicted and crippled with grief over the death of their child. Lady Macbeth urges her husband to kill Duncan so that he can take over the crime family and fulfill the prophecy. At first reluctant, the smitten Macbeth agrees to enact her murderous plan, murdering Duncan and his guards at their home and forcing Malcolm to run. The Macbeths assume control of Duncan’s empire from his remote, heavily-monitored estate and enjoy a new luxurious lifestyle, dispatching anyone who dares question them. Soon the remaining gang members are doubting the sanity of their leader, who is so overcome with paranoia that he hires a pair of assassins to eliminate his best friend MacDuff (Bastoni), and slaughter the innocent family of MacDuff (Hulme).

While I found the performances adequate and some of the updates and anachronisms clever (“Burnmam Wood to Dunsinane” is a diesel-fueled doozy), I couldn’t disregard the damned spot of redundancy as the melodrama hit the familiar beats, albeit gamely dolled up in snazzy designer dusters and gleaming gun metal and nicotine hazes against black-and-crimson goth décor.

Wright isn’t the first filmmaker to attempt to fashion a Cawdor nostra: “Joe Macbeth” did it in 1955 (“Hey Joe! There’s blood on my hands!”) and “Men Of Respect” memorably pitted John Turturro’s “Matt Battaglia” against Peter Boyle’s “Matt Duffy” in 1991 (“No man or woman born can do sh*t to me!”). Wright’s approach is as stone-faced as his lead (perma-sulk Worthington is better suited to front an emo band than a criminal empire) and could use a bit more fun (the dishy Weird sisters, whom Macbeth beds in this one, are a welcome touch).

In the end, what gangster-or-gangsta story isn’t already “Macbeth” in one form or another? -- everything from “Scarface” to “Juice” to the latest “Grand Theft Auto” franchise cops from its parable of absolute-power-corrupting-absolutely: here’s another up- and-comer of unbridled ambition who will stop at nothing to achieve success, who eventually inherits and/or betrays his way into becoming kingpin of a criminal empire, until greed, divided loyalties, and his own paranoia bring about an epic, blood-splattered undoing.

Comparison to fellow-Aussie Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo And Juliet” will be inevitable, but given the thematic differences, not to mention those budgetary (no major studio effort this one, Wright’s was shot on HD on limited funds in just 25 days), I’ll avoid the subject completely, other than to lament that while Luhrman’s kinetic update seemed to rejoice in its outrageous, and times deliriously far-reaching, interpretations of the text and imagery, Wright’s film turns logy after a rat-tat-tat first act that owes more to Michael Mann than PBS. Granted, much of the play concerns itself with the Lord and Lady’s respective paranoiac navel-gazing and night walks, but the drama here feels constrained by the cramped sets and oddly-dutiful fidelity to the original text.

Shakespeare purists might be pleased to read along, but with all the artillery, cell phones, security cameras, and Hummers paraded out before the end of act one, honoring the nuances of iambic pentameter seems a strangely constricting conceit. For all of its brazen nudity, drug-taking, and bloodshed, Wright's "Macbeth" delivers a frustratingly stodgy take on an otherwise timeless tale that’s instantly dated by the very things the filmmakers cynically thought would make it “relevant”.

-Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006


(Special Presentations)
(Mexico/Spain/USA, 2006, 112 minutes)
Written by: Guillermo del Toro
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Alex Angulo, Doug Jones

Hyperbole abounds for Guillermo del Toro’s beguiling, profound, and utterly original “Pan’s Labyrinth”, which has already been primed for “Next Big Thing” status and will be released at year’s end adorned in the kind of critical hosannas normally reserved for your more standard Oscar-bait. I wish there was another word for “masterpiece” that carried as much cache—in a time when “masterwork” and “classic” labels are slapped on everything from a Matthew Perry dramedy to a new “Golden Girls” DVD collection, the term has come to mean precious little.

The obvious question is: is it really that good? I wish my keystrokes could type out an emphatic “absolutamente!” with the profanity-laden basso profundo bellow of its director. I can’t say I was surprised by its quality—I’ve been a long-time fan of this ever-evolving filmmaker since I first caught his debut “Cronos” in the Uptown 3 cinema back in 1993, when he spent a good hour after the screening waxing rhapsodically on the art of horror films (to a non-Midnight Madness crowd) and showing his sketchbook to anyone within earshot (An extention on my annoying autobiographical pause: I was one of several storyboard artists on “Mimic”, but while my association with the director was brief—I was thrilled to be part of his sophomore effort, which is in radical need of re-evaluation).

Wisely revisiting the conceit that made his last Spanish-language allegory “The Devil’s Backbone” a transcendent, one-of-a-kind experience, del Toro sets the tone with “once upon a time” before ripping off the gossamer wings to plummet us into man-made horrors to which any otherworldly threat pales. Opening narration tells us of a princess who fled to the human world from her underground kingdom, where she eventually met her death, and of her grieving father, who forever awaits the return of her soul.

We then move to a remote farmhouse in northern Spain in the year 1944, just after the Spanish Civil War. 12 year old Ofelia (Baquero, whose expressiveness belies the need for dialogue) arrives with her widowed and pregnant mother Carmen (Gil) to meet her new stepfather, Vidal (López, whose soulless demeanor practically alters the temperature of the theatre), a sadistic captain in Franco’s fascist Nationalist army, who regards his bride as nothing more than a vessel to bear him a son. Her new home is also a strategic base from which Vidal can weed out the remaining leftist insurgents by controlling the distribution of food and medical supplies to the surrounding villages. Refusing her mother’s wish that she address Vidal as "father," Ofelia avoids the adults, save for defiant housekeeper Mercedes (Verdu) and the kindly “Doctor” (Angulo), and immerses herself in fairy tales.

One night, a tiny fairy right out of one of her books lures Ofelia to the overgrown, stone labyrinth nearby, where she meets a horned, humanoid faun (Doug “Abe Sapien” Jones, this generation’s Kevin Peter Hall) who tells her that she’s the reincarnation of Princess Moanna, daughter of the Moon. But to become immortal, she must complete three tasks. As Ofelia sneaks away to complete each deadly challenge, beginning with the retrieval of a key from the stomach of a giant frog, then the theft of a dagger from the eyeless, cannibalistic Pale Man (Jones again), her mother’s condition worsens and the guerilla uprising—which Mercedes and the Doctor have been aiding from within--escalates into violent clashes that could obliterate both worlds…

I’ve never much cared for the term “magical realism”—it always smacked of those “Classical Music For People Who Don’t Like Classical Music” LPs, or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (or the au current “graphic novel”, which never fails to make me wince)—people resistant to genre fiction need to learn that fantasy isn’t always peurile by definition, and changing the label doesn’t mean a damn thing about its content. The film will likely be sold on the strength of its creature-feature imagery and del Toro’s past hits (the advance posters are already trumpeting “From the director of ‘Hellboy’”), but those expecting a Hensonesque pop-fable will be surprised (some delighted, others disappointed, depending on what baggage they bring) that most of the story unfolds in the “real world” of post-war Spain and a bleak struggle against oppression, so perhaps here the label is appropriate.

The violence is harsher above ground, with unflinching depictions of animal slaughter, prisoner torture (Gasper Noe will be shocked to discover that his face-smashing scene from “Irreversible” has been outdone), and child endangerment. The nuances of detail and emotional malaise betray the fact that del Toro wasn’t born until nearly two decades after these events took place. It’s a credit to his integrity as an artist that he’s a well-versed in his heritage as he is in the minutia of geek-chic.

While the film is chock full o’ monsters and CG environments, Del Toro’s presentation of surrealism is uniquely matter-of-fact—owing more to the perverse playfulness of his idol Luis Bunuel than the academics of Bruno Bettelheim--and his allegory deliberately elusive and a complete 180 from the Rod Serling show bible--not every fantasy image has a singular, symbolic meaning. Instead, he’s more interested in crafting parallel worlds shuttered by cruelty and fatalism but from which wonder can still leak through, human, inhuman, or otherwise. It’s to his maturity and confidence as a filmmaker that so far this film has bewitched, terrified, and saddened even those with little knowledge of the historical period and for whom the supernatural is ordinarily a confection.

That being said, he’s not immune to jollily concocting “cool” images (as in “way“, “super“, “ain’t it”--what have you) for their own sake. His inky compositions show the influence of comic icons Berni Wrightson, Kelly Jones, and Alex Nino, and I had incorrectly assumed “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola was involved in the monster designs, given his San Diego Comic Con promo poster (and the misshapen elegence and simple but expressive facial detail in the costumes themselves). But del Toro has said in interviews that these magnificent elementals were primarily influenced by the work of Victorian illustrator Arthur Rackham, whose work has adorned classics by Lewis Carroll and William Shakespeare. There is something endearingly “old fashioned” about this otherwise graphic and state-of-the-art film in that it looks back to a time when fairy tales were steeped in violence and terror and children’s entertainment wasn’t awash in safe, fake whimsy and easy homilies. Still, I’d expect several hours spanning several discs on how the fawn’s tattoos were created on the inevitable special edition DVD.

Working with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro for the fourth time (they began their association on “Cronos”, but “Mimic” and “Blade 2” were shot by others), del Toro’s visions are once again burnished in warm chiaroscuro hues that renders even the most macabre vision inviting (even if Ofelia does accept the faun’s challenges a little too readily, could we blame her?).

“The world isn't like your fairy tales--the world is a cruel place”, scolds a housekeeper to Ofelia, but the surface realm of adulthood is so traumatic that even her inner, childish fantasies have become polluted. Ofelia’s fears of child-eating demons and dark forests are no more shallow than the simplistic “us-or-them” manifestos from which the so-called “adults” wage war. The director’s take on fairy stories is a complex one, alternately celebratory and damning. The adults have clearly lost what Ofelia thrives on, yet her imaginative flights (such as they are regarded) do nothing to lessen the inevitability of her miserable reality—no one learns a Valuable Lesson and “happily ever after” is demented poppycock. Call it the “Uses And Abuses Of Enchantment”.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006

TIFF 2006: "BORAT..."

(Midnight Madness)
United States, 82 minutes, 2006
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer
(Story by Cohen, Baynham, Hines, Todd Phillips )
Directed by: Larry Charles
Cast: Sasha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Pamela Anderson

In a cosmopolitan event boasting the latest from auteur-darlings like Pedro Almodovar, Ken Loach, and Volker Schlöndorff , this haphazard and style-free spin-off from a British cult TV series somehow became TIFF 2006’s hottest ticket , probably because even the most staid “Paulette”-type has a secret limit as to how much pockmarked, Drano-corroded angst he/she can endure. In its own way, the gleefully incendiary “Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan” (“Borat”, folks, from here on in…) aspires to the same noble task as many of the fest’s more erudite and liberal fare: to lament our ignorance of foreign cultures, castigate the durability of stereotypes, and celebrate our similarities as good, honest planetary citizens. It’s just that your average Nuri Bilge Ceylan effort doesn’t feature a brawl between two hairy, naked men over who has the right to jerk off to Pamela Anderson.

The TIFF premiere is already stuff of festival lore: Cohen arrived in character at the rush-only Ryerson theatre, beaming atop an oxcart pulled by peasant women. Twelve minutes into the screening, the projector broke down, prompting fellow provocateur Michael Moore to offer his expertise in repairing the equipment. Ultimately, the screening was rescheduled to the next evening where it sold out again at the larger Elgin Theatre. “Borat”-mania stopped short of having it win the People’s Choice Award, but I’ll bet the many who wanted to vote for it succumbed to the guilt pang of “prestige” as they put pencil to paper.

Since then, it’s erupted into an international scandal akin to the uproar over those Danish Mohammed cartoons (but thankfully, not the violence). As of this writing, the outraged Kazakhstan Prime Minister has just flown to Washington to meet with Dubya (Cohen showed up at the White House gates in character but was not admitted—there’s something for the DVD supplement!), “Kazakhstan” tourism videos have begun airing on Canadian television in heavy rotation, and the Anti-Defamation League has issued an official statement expressing concern that the public is too stupid to get the joke.

And it’s not even out until November.

A film so fearless of extremes demands an extreme reaction—but I’m not overstating things when I say that “Borat” is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages, not to mention ever. “Good taste”, Picasso said famously, “is the enemy of creativity”, while the late deconstructionist Susan Sontag once lauded “bad taste” as good for one’s digestion. Well, I found the whole thing wildly inventive and it went down easy, even as I was wiping away tears. Take from that what you will…

Mustachioed beanpole Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) introduces himself as his country’s “sixth most famous” from the streets of his shithole village in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where the annual “Running Of The Jew” is being held. He then takes us to his shack/home, to introduce to his jealous neighbor, prostitute sister (“fourth best”!), and corpulent stone-faced wife. He’s convinced his government to finance a trip to New York City along with his producer Azamat (Davitian) so that they can document America’s culture.

Manhattanites are resistant to his overt manhandling and questionable hygiene, and his blatant sexism doesn’t impress the feminist group he interviews either. But when Borat happens upon a “Baywatch” rerun, he falls for the pneumatic charms of Pamela Anderson and decides to leave The Big Apple for California (“Pearl Harbor is there…so is Texas”) in the only vehicle he and Azamat can afford: a dilapidated ice cream truck (the reason he won’t fly is one of the film’s most outrageously offensive lines, which drew audible gasps in the screening I attended).

En route across the heartland, Borat and Azamat engage in plenty of squirm-inducing confrontations with real people that are either staged (although I’m sure the release form these people signed was vague at best), or genuine verité (the image quality changing to that of sub-camera phone is a good indication that what we’re seeing is total on-the-fly sandbagging).

A good deal of the laughs come at the expense of the South, which would play as fish-in-a-barrel laziness were it not for the fact that the real-life players in question recklessly expose their prejudices with such shameless conviction. Knowing that Cohen himself is Jewish takes some of the edge off of the un-PC shenanigans, but what’s really disturbing here is that while Cohen is joking in character, his interviewees are not. When Borat enters a gun shop to inquire about the best weapon to shoot Jews, the proprietor doesn’t waste a beat in recommending a “9mm”. At a rodeo in which he is greeted as an international guest (he’ll sing the Kazakhstan national anthem to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner), Borat informs a rancher that in his country homosexuals are hung, to which the old-timer admits is an idea long overdue. The Birmingham high-society drips who think they are coaching their guest on sophisticated manners seem more appalled by the arrival a black woman (his guest--an 800-number prostitute…) than at his lack of understanding about indoor plumbing.

And the drunken frat boys who pick up Borat in their RV (and also break his heart by showing him the Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape) must be the only Ivy League spoiled brats who have never encountered cable TV or YouTube.

Borat and Azamat eventually part ways, after a literal balls-to-the-wall spat when Borat catches his producer with his prized “Baywatch” book (stolen from a yard sale while attempting to gather “gypsy tears”). What begins as a humorous lampoon on “Women In Love”s famed wrestling scene becomes excruciating when it takes on a “They Live” length and the black censor’s box proves unable to contain the Kazak version of “tea bagging”.

Borat eventually tracks his bride-to-be down in a Virgin Megastore, where he joins the line of adoring fans so he can proclaim his love. When he lunges at her with his Kazak “marriage sack”, Pamela Anderson’s shriek is completely genuine, as is her panicked run through the parking lot where the sorry store security drones finally clue in and topple Borat to the pavement. Not to be too glib, but Anderson’s not a good enough actress to even convincingly play herself, so I’ve got to assume what we’re seeing is real (crappy cell-phone video quality again) and that she’s a terrific sport in allowing this embarrassing footage to be used.

For such a freewheeling exercise, the filmmakers have shown remarkable restrain in its running time, which, in this age when a goofball romp like “The Wedding Crashers” runs longer than Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries And Whispers”, is a too rare thing indeed. Credit must go to TV-vet Larry Charles for his expert timing and pacing, honed so well on his many classic “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes (equivalent achievements that dared to drag difficult subjects into the mainstream). And even those who will call for its destruction will marvel at Cohen’s willingness to do anything for a laugh, displaying a conviction to his character that surpasses that of Peter Sellers or any method actor of the Hoffman/Brando set.

Suffice to say that the “mockumentary” label doesn’t quite capture it: Christopher Guest’s ersatz docs are completely manufactured environments in which “reality” is a matter of style, but “Borat”—whose lead character isn’t real but his misadventures are--is an all-out guerilla blitzkrieg that will play as a wacky road trip romp for some and a damning contemporary indictment for others, with Cohen’s oblivious anti-Gump a clowning conduit to whom our worst intolerances aren’t so much ambushed as they are freely offered.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006

Sunday, September 10, 2006


United States, 2006, 120 minutes
Written by Werner Herzog
Directed by Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Marshall Bell

The prolific and ubericonoclastic Werner Herzog--does he really need an introduction?—bleeds for his art. Literally. During a recent BBC interview to promote his acclaimed documentary "Grizzly Man”, a loud pop was heard and Herzog calmly observed "someone is shooting at us". That someone was a crazed fan with a sniper rifle, who struck the filmmaker in the leg. Herzog dismissed the bullet as "insignificant" and with his wound festering, finished the interview.

One month earlier, he rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash in Laurel Canyon.

So for all you non-cineastes reading this, let me put it another way: "Chuck Norris" lives because Werner Herzog lets him…

Long obsessed with, well, the obsessed and the obsessive, Herzog is an intensely physical filmmaker who has fearlessly lead his cast and crews into remote and hostile lands to tell tales of men mad with vision—Conquistador Aguirre, rubber-baron Fitzcarraldo, slave trader Cobra Verde---who inevitably end up consumed by their alien landscapes (Peru, Brazil, and Africa, respectively). He has said in an interview that his vision of a film school would include boxing and long-distance walking on the curriculum (say, five thousand miles--from Madrid to Kiev). Herzog eschews all academic highfalutin’ in the study of his work: “Academics”, he’s asserted, “is the death of cinema”.

Analysis on the Mast and Cohen level certainly won’t be required to enjoy “Rescue Dawn”, Herzog’s when-the-hell-did-he-find-the-time-to-do-this? dramatization of his 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly”, and his most accessible film since 1979’s “Nosferatu” remake. The collision of indie vs. Hollywood sensibilities can often produce some interesting results—consider how Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy” or Guillermo Del Toro’s “Blade 2” defied their franchise labels—but it can also spawn excruciating endurance tests like Altman’s inept cartoon schtick in “Popeye” or Coppola’s embracing of his inner Bill Keane for “Jack”. “Rescue Dawn” isn’t transcendent, unfortunately, but it’s far from the “generic” and “hackneyed” (to quote but two) stab at mainstream success that many dismissed it within hours of its Toronto world premiere. Brisk and straightforward, it offers the comforting flavours of “Behind Enemy Lines”, “Uncommon Valour”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, but with a healthy dollop of Herzog’s favorite theme of environment as psychic landscape to temper the whiff of Golan-Globus’ Cannon Films and keep the matinee derring-do suitably skewed.

Dieter Dengler (Bale) is a cocky All-American go-getter who sees military service not so much as a noble cause than a chance to have fun—see the world, fly fast, blow sh*t up. Unfortunately, it’s not the best time to get shot down over Laos during his first mission as a bomber pilot where, suffice to say, his naïve world view changes mighty fast. Dengler is quickly captured by Communist soldiers and brutally tortured—an ant's nest is tied to his face, he’s dragged by an ox across a village, and nearly drowned. But when he’s offered freedom in return for signing a statement denouncing his country, he refuses ("I love America…America gave me wings.").

Dengler’s thrown into a small Viet Cong prison camp deep in the jungle where he finds himself one of six American and Vietnamese POWs. He immediately befriends sensitive Duane (Zahn) and flaky Gene (Davies), their still-keen minds betrayed by their skeletal bodies and poor health from the camp’s lack of food and atrocious sanitary conditions—a daily dose of Hell from which even sleep offers no reprieve, as each evening the men are cruelly bound to each other in rows with their feet locked into stocks.

While Gene clings to the fantasy of a rescue, Dengler starts planning an escape within days of his arrival. He memorizes the schedules of the guards, dissects the layout of the camp down to its most minute details, and exploits the strengths and weaknesses of his fellow prisoners. After months of rehearsals and delays, the men make a violent play for freedom with only their tattered clothes and whatever they could grab from the camp’s weapons store. Dengler never relents in his optimism and resourcefulness, even as the fragile physical and mental states of Duane and Gene prove to be as perilous as the jungle terrain, which in its rainy season is more treacherous than any captor.

Considering Herzog’s impassioned documentaries on Kuwait (“Lessons Of Darkness”) and religious tolerance (“Wheel Of Time”), one would assume there’s an allegorical angle at play here, but “Rescue Dawn” isn’t a terribly political film—in fact, it isn’t one at all. This didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, as I’ve always regarded Herzog more of an observer than a commentator. Rather, what bothered me more was Herzog’s curious decision to streamline his main character as well: in the documentary, we learn that Dieter (who died five years ago) emigrated to the U.S. after fleeing Germany during WW2, where he became obsessed with becoming an American fighter pilot. He’d go on to fly bombing missions over Vietnam, escape from prison (pretty much as depicted here), and win the Medal Of Honour and the Navy Cross. The real-life Dieter, a bewitching contradiction of zen-like serenity and frenzied enthusiasm, is so much more endearing than Bale’s gung-ho lug, who seems to have been born to worship frosh week and “PT 109”.

With the Viet Cong functioning as “them”--anonymous baddies with about as much depth as “Assault On Precinct 13”s (the original) gang Street Thunder--the malnourished leads must carry the drama, with stoic Bale embodying charismatic resilience (and yet another dramatic weight loss) as Dieter, and little else. Zahn, nicely nuanced in Sean Astin mode, further secures his future as a reliable character actor unencumbered by vanity or method-y indulgence. By stark contrast, Jeremy Davies must’ve wandered into the jungle right from the set of “Solaris” in what-has-become his “official” screen persona--all lank hair and squinting eyes and loosey-goosey limb movements like Charles Manson on morphine (I wonder if Herzog ever fantasized about shooting him as he did Klaus Kinski).

Herzog has always found poetry in the horrible, the apocalyptic, and the doomed, so it’s no surprise that the tense and unflinching “Rescue Dawn” is beautifully shot and scored, and perhaps destined to be no more than a future relic from a rare period in which he was not looking to subvert or deconstruct. In his intro, the filmmaker (visibly saddened by the loss of his mother that very day) lauded his subject (whose widow and son were in the audience) as an embodiment of everything he admires about the American spirit (something that will surely irk his leftist admirers) and while Herzog the accidental LA-player has given his friend a fine tribute—the remote German captured him first, and best.

-Robert J. Lewis