(USA, 2007, 93 minutes)
Written by: David Arquette and Joe Harris
Directed by: David Arquette
Cast: Jason Mewes, Lukas Haas, Thomas Jane, Jaimie King, Paul Reubens, Balthazar Getty
It’s common knowledge that the iconographic white face of killer Michael Myers in Halloween was, in fact, a William Shatner slip mask purchased by the prop department at the 11th hour, so it’s now possible (but not recommended, John Carpenter’s film is still a classic) to re-interpret the shocker as the “booty call” of a hormonal and murderous Captain Kirk, who, having conquered all the women in the universe, turns his dilithium-powered gonads on the promiscuous young co-eds of Haddonfield, Illinois.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
(USA, 2007, 93 minutes)
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
(USA, 2007, 103 minutes)
Written by Daniel Bova, Gabriel Friedman, Lloyd Kaufman
Directed by Lloyd Kaufman
Cast: Jason Yachanin, Kate Graham, Allyoson Sereboff, Robin Watkins, Joshua Olatunde, Lloyd Kaufman
Founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz in 1974 in NYC, Troma Team Productions became notorious for its rough-hewn sleazefests like The First Turn-On and Squeeze Play and since then, the spawn of Hell’s Kitchen has spread (like a fungus, as the old joke goes) from a distribution company into a production studio, home video label, web portal, and annual film festival (Tromadance—what else?). Amazingly, Troma (the name means nothing, btw) brushed briefly with the G-rated set when its figurehead The Toxic Avenger (or “Toxie”, to friends) was spun off into a children's television series (The Toxic Crusaders) and a line of action figures. But as the exploitation market shrinks, Troma has managed to outlast the New Worlds and the Avco-Embassys and endure as the vulgarian Mecca for those who subscribe to Picasso’s adage that “good taste" is the enemy of creativity…
But as a willing customer for such titles as Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid and Stuff Stephanie In The Incinerator, I can tell you that while few card-carrying devotees of the B-circuit might admit it, the idea of Troma is often a lot better than the films they produce and/or distribute. So I’m pleased to report that for the most part--with mucho caveats mind you—Troma’s latest scurrilous pageant—the musical horror farce Poultrygeist: Night Of the Chicken Dead--is a (literal) gas and worth checking out if you've got the fortitude for this sort of thing.
It might be too much to say that Poultrygeist is one of American cinema’s most merciless deconstructions of political correctness since (Kaufman’s protégés) Parker and Stone’s Team America: World Police (which was, if nothing else, a Troma production with better film stock and a longer production schedule), but then again, everything about Troma films is too damned much—there’s a talking burrito, ass ripping, castrations, and as the title promises, hordes of rampant, carnivorous chicken mutants, one of whom, yes, does bite the head off a human (if Troma could afford Ron Jeremy for a cameo, couldn’t they have splurged a little more for Ozzie Osbourne?).
For all of the precious fluids spurted across our glazed corneas though, Kaufman shows himself to be an old-school vaudevillian throughout--who else in this day and age would put a "This Space For Rent" sign amidst a crowd of protestors like something out of a Harvey Kurtzman MAD Magazine panel? Zip and boing sound effects abound.
Billed as a musical, there aren’t really a lot of songs, and only a few are memorable, my favorites being Kaufman’s Riverdance-influenced “Longing To Live/Waiting To Die”, and the sorority-set “Slow Fast Food Love”, a shamelessly sexploitive riff on the Grease duet “Summer Nights” (you can listen to some of the soundtrack here at Troma's MySpace page). By the time the splatter goes into overdrive for the extended climax (outdoing—and outgrueing—the marathon spectacles of dismemberment from Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead and Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Til Dawn), the tunes are dropped entirely. Kaufman explained that he intended “Poultrygeist” as something more akin to Takashi Miike's Happiness Of Katakuris (Lloyd’’s knowledge of film, from Hitchcock to Stan Brakhage, is impressive).
Post-screening, after a truly pathetic audience response to a karaoke round of the Poultrygeist title song, Kaufman bounded back onto the stage, joined by the ever-present scantily clad Goth chick, a Michael Berryman lookalike (one assumes he was part of the entourage and didn’t wander in from the nearest Annex methadone clinic), and the worst "Toxie" yet seen in public (couldn't he afford a latex slip mask that fit? And where was the tutu?) for a very candid Q&A.
The shocker came when Kaufman (a Yale grad) announced that this could well be his last film. Poultrygeist was the first Troma production totally funded by Kaufman and his wife out of their own pockets, using their home as collateral. The current state of film exhibition makes it hard for even an established name brand like Troma to make money (I had long assumed Troma’s cash cow was home video). Kaufman and Herz have long been supporter of independent film, distributing titles from around the world (often with minimal re-cutting—are you listening Harvey Weinstein?) and Kaufman regularly appears in the efforts of first-timers (for free) to lend a “name” and possibly ensure them a professional deal. So Kaufman can be forgiven for shilling on the sidewalk hours before the screening, shilling in the lobby selling DVDs and soundtrack CDs, shilling on stage, and still shilling at the neighboring pub afterwards. He’s definitely the genuine article who takes his philosophy and trade literally to the streets.
Poultrygeist won’t open in New York until March of 2008, with some regional releases planned. Until then, you’ve got time to beg, plead, and threaten your local movie houses into booking it—more than ever it seems, the future of anarchic, truly independent cinema depends on your voice...
BTW, Lloyd told me to mention Toxic Avenger: The Novel, which you can order here at Amazon.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Monday, October 22, 2007
(USA, 2007, 88 minutes)
Produced by Michael Jacobs, Zach Sanders, Matt Woods
Directed by: Michael Jacobs
Back in 1993, post-This Spinal Tap and pre-Waiting For Guffman, Arthur Borman got the jump on Christopher Guest and co. and shot a hilarious “mockumentary” entitled The Making Of…And God Spoke, which chronicled the faux production of a big-budget version of “The Bible”, in which clueless schlockmeisters tried to jazz up the timeworn sermons with everything from martial arts to a “hot” Virgin Mary to guest appearances from Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno and Eve “Jan Brady” Plumb, miscalculating the size of Noah’s ark and number of Jesus’ apostles in the process…
Michael Jacobs’ new An Audience Of One is 100 times funnier, and just as equally depressing, because for the filmmaker-under-fire here, God really did speak, and to quote esteemed theologian David Gahan, displays “a sick sense of humour”. Now, turning a prying lens onto the evangelical community these days might seem like shooting fish in a barrel after the likes of Jesus Camp and Hell House, but being handed a subject like this is the closest thing a documentary filmmaker can get to a burning bush, Gabriel’s horn, or, more appropriately, the rivers boiling with blood during the final tremors of The Rapture…
In 1996, Richard Gazowsky, a Pentecostal pastor based in San Francisco (who didn’t see his first film—Disney’s The Lion King--until he was 40!) received a message from God (allegedly) telling him to spread the Word through entertainment—specifically, by forming a film production company. By putting up his home as collateral (he’d inherited the ministry from his mother, who retired when she reached 65) and raising meager funds through his congregation, Gazowsky optimistically launched “WYSIWYG Filmworks”—pronounced “Wizzy-Wig”--which stands for “What You See Is What You Get”. But not even the most devout follower could have seen this disaster coming…
“What you see is what you get” is also Jacobs’ essential philosophy behind the lens, although I’m sure that there will be many within the church-going set who will insist that the film has been manipulated in a way—as Michael Moore’s detractors invariably accuse—to make Gazowsky’s United (wannabe) Artists look as ridiculous as possible. Unfortunately, no amount of creative editing can possibly make the tongue chanting (“glossalia”) and spastic dancing look any more absurd, nor is the pastor’s painfully myopic optimism the result of any CG pixel sorcery.
Announcing that his first opus would be made exclusively for God—the “audience of One”—Gazowsky decided to take his cues from the cinematic saints Cecil B. DeMille and Michael Bay and start big with “Gravity: The Story Of Joseph”, an interplanetary retelling of the story of Joseph with a production design heavily inspired by the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (remember Denise Crosby’s spiked oven mitt?).
Incongruously deciding to shoot in the expensive and unwieldy 65mm gauge (“no one shoots in 65mm!” scoffs Jens Klein, the hapless German DOP, who joined the production after feeling the Holy Spirit at one of Gazowsky’s sermons), production begins on an Italian location in the village of Alberobello (short on costumes and set dressings, thanks to a staff of a mere two artisans). Obsessing over such ephemera as the type of lining in an alien’s cowl, and whether or not his art director can provide him with a “smoking floor” (as in a floor made of smoke), Gazowsky is indifferent to his unpaid (courtesy of Craigslist) cast and crew’s fatigue during marathon late-night shoots (the result of his own incompetence) and the bewilderment of the locals, whose Old-World skills come to the (thankless) rescue of what wouldn’t pass for an Ed Wood Jr. production.
Back in America, WISYWIG takes over San Francisco’s “Treasure Island” production facility on the promise of the still-forthcoming European funds (“Deutchbank”, Gazowsky assures). Paranoid that Hollywood will conspire to steal his brilliant vision (apparently, a spy from Warner Bros. has already been foiled!), Gazowsky blows virtual cash on a “laser” based security system and needless office renovations while not a single is driven on a set within the cavernous sound stages.
And yet, as the city votes to evict WYSIWIG from the soundstages for months of unpaid rent and electricity and the sensible ones are removed from the production (DOP Klein is fired and forced to put his possessions into storage as he faces an uncertain career future), Gazowsky steadfastly visits NAB in Las Vegas, boasting to vendors that he’s got $100M budget (although throughout the film he sometimes says it’s twice that) and ordering up the latest post production gadgets…
What’s most objectionable, and did nothing but cement my disdain for the preening media-savvy Holy Roller set, is that for all of his doughy, aw-shucks charm, Gazowsky is nothing less than a bald-faced f*cking liar, hemorrhaging funds he knows full well do not exist and deflecting any criticism and suggestion that he’s breaking the law as the work of “Satan” attempting to sabotage his holy mission. When one of his volunteer actors complains that he’s being run ragged for no money (or food, or drink, or rest), Gazowsky blithely shrugs “I’m not getting paid either”. No, but he did inherit a parish from his mother, to which desperate followers contribute sizeable amounts of cash which he can pocket tax-free. If only struggling actors had it so rough…
However, An Audience Of One is not especially an anti-religion screed—Jacobs’ problem isn’t so much Gazowsky’s or his congregation’s faith (if anything, the film reflects warmly on the empowering sense of community that heathens like yours-truly deny themselves), but rather, the dangerously blind devotion it inspires in—and often demands from—the fragile and the desperate. It is Gazowsky’s vanity that’s on trial here: At every disastrous turn, he is able to retreat to the comfort of his delusion, expecting “understanding” and favours and bending of the law to suit his own well-insulated end.
But what I found most captivating was the more pointed undercurrent that, regardless of one’s faith or lack-of, it takes a certain amount of delusion and righteous determination to want to become an artist in any medium in the first place (hell, my entire adult life has been a testament to that!), esp. filmmaking, where directing has more than once been compared to commanding an army (just ask John Milius) and the most pioneering auteurs are unapologetically ego-driven. But Gazowsky, by his own admission, has no talent for the art or patience for the craft and at every opportunity won’t allow those with the know-how to do their jobs, else risk a nocturnal visit from Max Von Sydow.
In the final scene, Gazowsky reports to his then-current congregation (who seem much smaller in number) of his latest visitation from the Almighty, who has now promised them not only a series of 47 big-budget feature films (although only two scenes of “Gravity” were ever shot), but seven television networks, an airline, resorts around the globe, and a space colony! As the image fades to the credit roll, it’s readily apparent that Gazowsky has gotten a sizeable head start on the latter. I was actually moved to pray—that these poor dopes see the light and ditch this clown like so much space junk…
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Written by: Doug Taylor
Directed by: Uwe Boll
Cast: Jason Statham, Ron Perlman, Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds, Claire Forlani, Lelee Sobieski, Matthew Lillard
What’s this? Yet another video game adaptation by a man who might well be the most hated director in the world right now? What’s this doing at a horror film festival?
TAD founding father Adam Lopez admitted in his intro that while he was concerned that some within the fan base (a fickle lot at the best of times) would feel violated, “we really liked the movie”--hence, its inclusion (in the major Saturday night slot, no less).
Admittedly, there is a lot to like here if you’re in a forgiving mood, and let’s face it, if you’ve consciously lined up for a film where an evil “Magi” named Gallian commands and army of “The Krugs”, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (which I will refer to as Dungeon Siege from this point onward) isn’t nearly as bad as you’re likely to hear—Dr. Boll (he holds a PhD in German Literature, seriously) is fandom’s fashionable whipping boy right now (Brett Ratner must be relieved), so nothing he makes is going to be given a fair shot.
That being said, no one’s going to be offering Boll “The Hobbit” either if Jackson ends up passing (but he’d probably be good for those “Sword Of Shannara” books by Terry Brooks). A perfectly competent, and, by his Q&A comments, serious-minded director, he lacks a distinctive style that after a half-dozen plus films in a variety of genres (admittedly, all revolving around the subject of videogames), you think he’d have developed a signature by now. If anything, his chief qualities are his tenacity and rare lack of ego as he goes from project to project, by now psychologically equipped to deal with the sh*tstorm of glib putdowns from the IMDB message board lackeys waiting in the wings of their parents’ basements.
Jason Statham of The Transporter and Guy Ritchie fame headlines as Farmer, a simple salt-of-the-earth whose passion in life is his turnip farm, which he runs with his wife Solana (Forlani) and son Zeph. His friend Norick (Perlman) arrives to ask if he’s considering joining the King’s army in its offense against the Krugs, Statham expresses his doubt in royalty’s ability to keep the kingdom safe. Norick admits he didn’t join either because he doesn’t like the uniforms.
Solana takes Zeph to visit her parents in a nearby hamlet, which is attacked by the Krugs, under Gallians’s command. Zeph is slain. Solana is taken prisoner.
King Konreid (a feeble and leathery Reynolds) has problems within his castle walls as well, as his idiot nephew Duke Fallow (Lillard, fopping it up) shows little leadership ability being heir-to-the-throne and unbeknownst to his uncle, is in cahoots with Gallian. The king’s advisor, Merick (Rhys-Davies, still channeling Gimli) would rather his daughter Muriella (Sobieski) stay put, instead of offering to help the crusade. Besides, she’d been romantically involved with Gallian (for reasons never disclosed) and now craves revenge.
When Farmer learns of his family’s fate, he and Norick, joined by Bastian (Sanderson) march off to rescue his wife and topple Gallian’s reign…
Dungeon Siege plays as a perfectly fine film for kids ala the 1960s matinee programmers like The Magic Sword or Jack The Giant Killer. Sure, it’s dopey and derivative, but its better made than most cynical cash-ins, offering decent FX and visuals (more scenic helicopter shots than a Duran Duran video) and completely devoid of gore, nudity, and four letter words. But at two-and-a-half hours, it’s just too damned long (Boll said that Statham felt the film was overlong by 20 minutes—he’s right!).
The casting is all over place, so predictably, so are the performances. Statham downplays his British bulldog persona as Farmer but gets in a few decent stunts (choreographed by Tony Ching of Hero and House Of The Flying Daggers). Liotta really lets ‘er rip for the people in the back row as the eeeeevil wizard Gallian, who looks like he’s raided Liberace’s wardrobe and spends most of his time cackling from within an ethereal vortex, from which he commands his flesh and blood Krug avatar (the first Wii?).
The film takes full advantage of its Pacific Northwest locations, which stand in for New Zealand just fine (although I somehow doubt the BC government will be sponsoring any “Dungeon Siege Tours” in the near future). The scope of the film is impressive, having utilized up to 800 extras and employed the services of several top FX houses, including San Francisco’s The Orphanage.
Boll flew in from Germany to introduce the TAD screening (which looked to me like a video projected work print) while on his North American tour to promote his upcoming Postal, which is, yes, his latest video game adaptation. He was surprisingly droll and funny to the initially hostile audience, who softened when his amiable nature became evident: “When Michael Madsen is drunk in Romania and can’t hold a sword, there are problems”, he explained, offering an excuse for BloodRayne. When discussing the subject of the poor reception to his House Of The Dead adaptation, he asked point blank: “What did you expect?” By the end of the evening, he’d won over just about everyone. Including me…
Last year, Boll offered to meet his fiercest critics in the ring, a challenge few pundits took him up on. But Chris Alexander of Toronto’s Rue Morgue took him on as challenger three of “Raging Boll”, and lasted all of two rounds before Boll k.o.’d him (the event will be chronicled in next year’s documentary The Maneuver In Vancouver). Alexander joined his opponent on stage after the screening, and begrudgingly admitted his newfound admiration for Boll’s good humour and old school sensibilities.
In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale”will play European markets first before being released in North American in January of 2008 (Boll has threatened an even longer cut on DVD). In the meantime, Boll’s already wrapped Far Cry and BloodRayne 2—a western sequel featuring Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid!!!
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Directed by Jim Mickle
Cast: Nick Damici, Kim Blair, Bo Corre, Ron Brice, John Hoyt
The inventive and unnerving DIY shocker Mulberry Street may seem to take its cues from 28 Days Later, but since Danny Boyle’s zombie-virus hit was the British response to George A. Romero’s very-American undead allegories, director Jim Mickle and his resourceful collaborators can be excused for taking a little something back thru Ellis Island: all is fair in love and the zombie war, it can be supposed.
Set primarily in a tenement building in Little Italy, the taut and efficient urban fable wastes not a scene, shot, or character, beginning in medias res with the outbreak of a mutating virus spread by rat bites. Of course in this vermin-infested slum, the infected, with their loping gate, runny eyes and muffled growls, can scarcely be distinguished from many of the locals who haunt the seedy neighborhood in various states of intoxication, mental illness, heat exhaustion, or existential despondency.
Ex-fighter “Clutch” (screenwriter and William Smith look-alike Nick Damici) is the building’s go-to guy, running daily to stay in shape but always willing to stop to help out his neighbours, a colorful group who include a disabled Vietnam veteran, a pair of octogenarian WW2 buddies, an attractive single mother who tends bar next door to raise her teenage son, and an aging drag-queen, who’s helping him prepare a party to commemorate the return of his adult daughter Casey (Kim Blair), recently discharged from military service in Iraq. The residents are outraged that their home, while technically condemned long ago, is due for demolition as part of the “gentrification” that’ll soon turn their neighborhood into just another pricey condo haven.
The superintendent (co-producer Tim House), bitten by the vermin while tending to some basement repairs, initiates the spread of the virus from within the building, while outside, the plague moves throughout the boroughs of Manhattan with alarming speed. Subway service is shut down, the entrances to and from the island closed, martial law declared. Battle-scarred Casey arrives by train to find that she must navigate home on foot, having left one battle overseas only to be dropped into another. And yet on Mulberry Street, life goes on for those who are largely invisible on the best of days. As the tenants monitor the news with disbelief, it’s only a matter of time before their dilapidated surroundings splinter under the assault of the rapidly growing army of the infected, who share the same dining habits (and some physical features) of their rodent carriers…
Mickle’s debut feature shows a sure hand as he bravely tackles a potentially ludicrous premise which he perfectly modulates across three distinct plot threads: Clutch and the tenants’ siege against the zombies, Casey’s dangerous trek home across a barren but threat-filled New York, and the useless coverage from a gradually dwindling local media. Shot on digital video, the low-cost (and low-res) medium infuses the piece with a you-are-there! immediacy that heightens the terror (much of the film was shot guerilla-style and without permits, although the filmmakers confessed they often lied and told officers they were either NYU film students, or working for Law And Order, which apparently carries a lot of cache!). It also conveniently provides an easier means to cover the cramped interiors of the tenement (I was amazed to learn in the post-screening Q&A that all of the dwellings were a single apartment set, redressed and repainted) and the neighboring bar that hosts a zombie attack—both actual locations (Damici admits that he rewrote the script—originally planned as much grander affair—around props and venues he knew he could get).
Eagle-eyed genre buffs will spot cameos from genre vets Larry Fessenden and Debbie Rochon.
There’s really only one detail that doesn’t work, and that’s the decision to have the zombies develop some too-literal rat-like features in the advanced stages of contagion. Such a risky conceit requires a dramatic makeup design that doesn’t turn the performers into rejects from a Sid And Marty Kroft production. Unfortunately, the wrinkled snouts and pointy buck teeth here look silly (unlike the sheep-people in Jonathon King’s New Zealand counterpart Black Sheep, which were supposed to be funny), which no amount of stage blood or chaotic shakey-cam can hide, and sometimes threaten to derail the otherwise grueling onslaught of doom (but some genre newbies might take as welcome relief).
As with the precedent set by Night Of The Living Dead, Mulberry Street eschews an easy third-act solution and ends on an appropriately bleak note, although one more piercing than most, since we’ve grown to love these characters so much (the film features one of the most engaging casts of unknowns and amateurs since Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead). Mickle and Damici have also wisely imported Romero’s headier leftist concerns: the collapse of social order, the failure of our institutions, the rise of the underclass (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the writers are also fans of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, which was also about an outbreak in an apartment building, and J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise”), and cues to the Iraq mess and the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster (but no character ever stops to lecture). Besides, when is cannibalism not a metaphor? If it ain’t about the haves and the have-nots feeding on each other, then it’s just another Resident Evil sequel, and look how that one did at the box office…
Mulberry Street has received much (deserved) acclaim during its run on the festival circuits (SXSW, TriBeCa, FantAsia, Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival), and at its TAD screening Mickle, Damici, and their returning producers announced their next effort: an adaptation of Joe. R. Lansdale’s “Cold In July”. But ultimately audiences will decide if there’s room for yet another voice in the already-overstuffed “zombie” subgenre when Lionsgate releases Mulberry Street on November 9, 2007.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
(USA/Canada, 2007, 94 minutes)
Written by: John Strysik and Stuart Gordon
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Russell Hornsby, Rukiya Bernard
Cult favorite Stuart Gordon will forever be associated with his debut film: 1985’s Re-Animator, the first decent H.P. Lovecraft adaptation (although based only loosely on the short story) since Corman’s The Haunted Palace (named for a Poe tale, but based on The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward). Fangoria junkies immediately embraced it, and Joe Bob Briggs praised it as “the first movie ever made where a principal actor loses his head halfway through the movie, but FINISHES THE MOVIE!”--and yet, Gordon was skilful enough to capture something of the New England paranoiac’s operatic misanthropy and cosmic fatalism amidst the campy tone and Grand Guignol splatter, a skill he must’ve honed during his many years in guerilla theatre as a founding member and director of Chicago’s notorious Organic Theatre Company.
Another Lovecraft pastiche followed—the kinky, pastel-hued From Beyond—before Gordon seemed to lose his way with a series of rather humdrum low-budget programmers (Dolls, Robot Jox, and Castle Freak for Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment) and the minor hit Fortress (with Christopher Lambert) that were technically accomplished but exhibited little of Gordon’s playful perversity (his underrated update of The Pit And The Pendulum, with Lance Henriksen as Torquemada, was the sole exception).
After Dagon--his long-planned adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth—failed to register so much as a blip on the horror radar, Gordon experimented with a prolific and versatile run that included a Bradbury adaptation (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit), a sci-fi actioner (Space Truckers), and more significantly, the downbeat revenge drama King Of The Ants, and a screen translation of old theatre pal David Mamet’s Edmond, a bleak existential character study that placed William H. Macy’s defeated Willy Loman-type into the urban hell of Taxi Driver. While devoid of any obvious genre trappings, Edmond, like Re-Animator, found Gordon back where he belonged, modulating pitch black humour with often excruciating violence (although who knows what path his career would have taken had illness not prevented him from directing the Disney hit Honey I Shrunk The Kids!)
Gordon’s new film, Stuck, is another outraged and outrageous urban fable, in which two lives become not so much interwined as smashed together in what might be the director’s darkest and most cynical work to date.
Lovecraft’s Old Ones plotted to teach mankind “new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom”. That about sums up the philosophy of twenty-something Brandi Helper (Suvari), a well-liked caregiver in a retirement home in—where else? Providence!--who takes her job seriously and is up for a promotion if she can proved she’s got the maturity to take on the added responsibility. But evidenced by her hideous cornrows and gaudy nails, she’s also a party-gal not so much Lovecraftian as Lohanian with a drug dealer boyfriend (Hornsby) who keeps her supplied with weed and acid.
And then there’s Tom (Rea): an unemployed, middle-aged schlep down on his luck. He hopes to land a temp job to keep his flophouse apartment, but a scheduling screw-up at the unemployment office costs him the opportunity. Evicted onto the street, he meets a kindly vagrant who offers up his grocery cart as transport for Tom’s remaining possessions. Kicked off his park bench by the cops, Tom can’t possibly sink any lower until he crosses paths with—
--Brandi, speeding home high after a night of partying. She smashes into Tom as he crosses an intersection, shattering his shins and propelling him head-first through her front windshield, where he remains stuck as she heads home in panic.
Tom, badly injured and unable to move his legs, pleads for mercy. Fearing criminal charges and the risk to her promotion, Brandi decides not to tell anyone about the mishap--after all, there are no witnesses—and goads her beau Rashid into getting rid of the body. The problem is, Tom isn’t dead yet...
Mena Suvari, who also serves as one of the producers, is clearly having a good time as an amoral skank who devolves from cement-headed club rat to homicidal harpy—another daring role for the still-young actress (not yet 30) who could’ve stuck with the American Pie franchise and instead has pursued less-flattering roles in edgier fare like Spun, Factory Girl, and Gordon’s Edmond.
Stephen Rea, taking a break from his steady gig with Neil Jordan, embodies hang-dog loserdom like no one else, so the role isn’t exactly a big stretch for this always-amiable journeyman. Still, it’s that rare actor who can maintain his dignity when he’s lodged in a windshield ass-end-up…
I’m must admit I wasn’t exactly sure what metaphor Gordon was going for here—it’s tempting to read it simply as one of the-haves-vs.-the-have-nots since dim Brandi earns enough at her caregiver gig to afford a decent car and house, and straight-arrow Tom was robbed of what seems to have been an affluent lifestyle. The wisdom-spouting hobos and ice-cold civil servants are standard movie caricatures, but it’s hard to quibble when one realizes that this oddball scenario is based, incredibly, on a true incident that occurred in 2002, when 25 year old Texan Chante Mallard struck beggar Gregory Biggs and drove home with him embedded in her windshield. She kept him in her garage for three days until he died—and is now, thankfully, serving time in prison.
Stuck is rendered in suitably grotty, grindhouse textures, all bleeding colours and harsh skin tones—an extension of the smash n’ grab, verite-style that Gordon used in King Of The Ants and Edmond—that betrays otherwise scenic New Brunswick locations (standing in Lovecraft’s preferred New England climes).
While its debut screening was enthusiastically received by the audience and local critics, no release date has been set as of this writing. Gordon plans to return to the genre with an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Thing On The Doorstep, which he’s setting up at the newly reformed Amicus Productions, best known for 70s horror favorites like From Beyond The Grave, Tales From The Crypt, and At The Earth’s Core. After the human monsters of his last three films, giant, inter-dimensional cephalopods might not seem so bad…
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Monday, September 24, 2007
(United Kingdom, 121 minutes, 2007)
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Written by: Deborah Curtis and Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book “Touching From A Distance” by Deborah Curtis
Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, Toby Kebbell, Craig Parkinson, James Anthony Pearson
I came to love Joy Division a few years after their heyday, which was in the late 70s and when I was a 13-year-old just waking up to the existence of the era’s really amazing bands. I remember listening to CFNY, Toronto’s alternative radio station, in the wee hours, getting shivers as Ian Curtis’ haunting, hollow vocals moaned out “Love…love will tear us apart…again” (watch it here). I even had a very creepy dream about him that somehow mashed up the video to that song with Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. Joy Division has lurked in the corners of my musical interest ever since.
Curtis has always been an enigma. The band only put out two albums: their debut, “Unknown Pleasures,” and “Closer,” before Curtis hanged himself at the ridiculously young age of 23. Compilations such as “Still” and “Substance” carried on the band’s name as the surviving members went on to form New Order. But in an age before music videos, before video cameras were in cel phones, before the proliferation of music networks and avenues by which bands could be interviewed ad nauseum, Ian Curtis was a bright flare that you caught in the corner of your eye before it disappeared. And only his wife, Deborah, was ever able to bring him to us as a whole human being with her biography, “Touching From A Distance”.
That biography forms the basis of Control, a moody and stirring biopic ably directed by onetime rock photographer Anton Corbijn (the band was once subjects). Actor and singer Sam Riley – who oddly enough, appears in the other movie that fictionalizes Joy Division, 24 Hour Party People, but not as Curtis -- manages to bring a dose of humanity to his role. Seeing Curtis in his day job as a fairly satisfied civil servant helping disabled people find jobs was a bit of an eye-opener given the band's often dark and ugly side. Much has been made about Riley’s eerie similarity to Curtis; he does indeed resemble the man but also brilliantly captures his unique stage presence and, as the story progresses, his ultimate despair over his life and his disabling epilepsy. Throughout the film it’s hard not to think that the combination of an already volatile personality and the heavy mixture of medications he was taking to treat the affliction was the deadly combination that led to his tragic death.
As usual, Samantha Morton is brilliant as his wife, Deborah, a woman who was clearly passionately in love with a man who she could only helplessly watch as he slipped into an abyss. In the film Deborah almost serves as Ian’s conscience, a voice trying to talk him down from the ledge, and Morton’s expressive and naturalistic acting style is note-perfect. Is she ever going to be recognized as one of the great actresses of our time?
Musical biopics seem to be a dime a dozen, but Control is one of the few that not only illuminates its subject but captures in its tone the very nature of the man. A must for fans of the band.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
(USA, 148 minutes)
Written and Directed by Sean Penn
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer
Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook
I think Sean Penn is a really good actor, a bit of a blowhard in real life, but a really, really, great director. I’m a huge fan of this previous three films, “The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard” and “The Pledge.” Each film possesses and emotional core so heart-wrenching that sometimes they’re hard to watch again – for me personally, especially the second one – but I’ve never forgotten them.
He's back with his fourth film, "Into The Wild," the true story of Christopher McCandless (played with enigmatic brilliance and energy by Emile Hirsch), a young man who, upon graduating from college, decides to give away his life savings and drop out of society without a word to his family. His ultimate goal is Alaska, where he intends to live in complete isolation. The film’s timeline crosses back and forth between McCandless’ last few weeks living in an abandoned bus in the stunning Alaskan bush and his two-year cross-country (and then some) journey.
McCandless has an almost manic idealism that does touch and inspire people on the way. He befriends a travelling hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and brings them closer together; he works at a farm for a somewhat shady good ol’ boy (a great cameo from Vince Vaughn) and brings a lonely old man (Hal Holbrook, moving and melancholy) out of his reclusive shell. But Penn doesn't gloss over the fact that there's a fair bit of self-centeredness to his decision, and portrays that through the anguish of his family – parents, played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, and sister, played by Jena Malone – at his disappearance from their lives.
McCandless’ personal journey is as much of a roller coaster as his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants lifestyle, and stunningly beautiful cinematography by Eric Gautier, making the most of America's diverse natural beauty, as well as an evocative and often rollicking score by Michael Brook, Kaki King and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, help bring it all to life. It’s at times uplifting, and then sweet and sad and ultimately tragic; it's a great complex film that's certain to gain attention come awards season.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
"The Virgin Spring" (Dialogues Series)
(Sweden, 1960, 90 minutes)
Written by: Ulla Isaksson
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson
This year’s Dialogues series was one of the most impressive since the programme’s inception, with such luminaries as Peter Boganovich, Sidney Lumet, and Lord Richard Attenborough appearing in person to introduce and discuss films and filmmakers who had an influence on their own careers.
But on Friday September 12, The University Of Toronto’s Isabel Theatre hosted a Dialogues event more intimate than most. To honour the late Ingmar Bergman, his longtime friend and leading man Max von Sydow presided over an evening to his memory, speaking candidly about their classic collaborations and focusing specifically, on their second film together, 1960’s “The Virgin Spring”, which won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
After a humid week, the weather suddenly turned thanks to the fallout of Hurricane Isabel and the ticket holders had to endure chilly winds and an incessant downpour as the event started late. The perfect backdrop for a Bergman tribute, perhaps…
The esteemed actor/director took to the stage for a brief introduction, and immediately reinforced what a commanding, even intimidating, presence he can be, even at the age of 78. But von Sydow responded to his standing ovation with humility and self-deprecating humour. But he often paused thoughtfully to find the right words when discussing Bergman’s memory--clearly, he was still struggling with the loss of his friend just this past July.
“I owe him (Bergman) so much. This is not a happy reason (to be here). No one in film and the theatre has meant more to me…my career…my professional ethics…I owe it all to him.”
“I was asked to choose a film of his—which was difficult, because I’ve been in a few!” he joked. Indeed, the seemingly indefatigable actor continues to be a familiar face to art house and mainstream filmgoers of several generations, having appeared in this past summer’s “Rush Hour 3” and with two new features premiering at this year’s TIFF: Julian Schnabel’s drama “The Diving Bell And The Butterfly” and Paolo Barzman's “Emotional Arithmetic.”
“The Virgin Spring” was based on a “(13th century) medieval ballad, and it was one of the few for which he did not write the script. It was also Bergman’s first collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, although they had met once before.”
“It is a brutal subject--it takes place in a time when Christianity hadn’t grown strong and there were a lot of pagan beliefs…set in Sweden in the early spring.”
And then, the film, still beautiful and heartbreaking with its sparse settings and characterizations and an unnerving climax of shocking physical and emotional violence:
At a remote farm in medieval Sweden, prosperous Christians Töre (von Sydow) and Märeta (Valberg), prepare their 15-year old daughter Karin (Pettersson) for a day’s journey to a nearby church to deliver ceremonial candles. She is accompanied by her adopted sister Ingeri (Lindblom), a pagan who worships the ancient Norse deities. The two become separated, and Karen encounters three nomads—two men and a young boy--and invites them to share her food. To the boy’s horror, the elder men rape and kill Karin and steal her clothing.
The criminals, seeking shelter, unknowingly come upon the home of the girl they have just murdered. Tore and Mareta discover welcome them in, feed them, and offer seasonal work. But one of the men tries to sell Mareta her daughter’s clothes. Tore locks them in, and kills all of them with a blade, including the young boy. The next morning, they are lead by Ingeri to Karin’s body. Tore promises Mareta that although he does not understand God, he will build a church on their daughter’s final resting place in his honour. As Karin is lifted, a spring suddenly flows from where she was murdered.
Von Sydow returned to the stage after the screening and took his seat beside interviewer Piers Handling, Toronto International Film Festival Director and CEO. He looked at the audience cheerily and quipped: “That was a long time ago!”
“It still moves me.”
Handling asked him to recount his first encounter with Bergman: “I was at the acting academy in Stockholm. And there was this admired new director everyone was talking about. He was doing “The Visitor”, and needed extras to play policemen. I called him at home, from a phone booth, and he answered! But all the roles had been cast. Later, at the Elisabeth theatre, I met him again. When he was at the municipal theatre—he invited me to come and perform in two plays that season. In the spring, he was offered me a role in “The Seventh Seal”, which was shot in the summer of 1956.”
“It was a wonderful time, especially for young people. They’d hire for 8 months of work, 12-15 young actors. You did anything and everything—classical, modern, comedies, tragedies. Small parts, leads. To learn acting, you must do. He’d be editing the film in the autumn while he did stage productions. He had a wonderful ability to make people enthusiastic to work with him. After four years, Bergman went to the Stockholm National Theatre, and I went a year later.”
“He (Bergman) was an extraordinary stage director, and that’s what makes him absolutely unique. His theatre productions influenced the films he wanted to make.”
“He said to me: my play—“Wood Painting”, I think—I’ll do a film based on it. There’s a clown I’d like you to play. He loved art…music. He’d ask: Did you see the Picasso paintings “A Family Of Clowns”? (von Sydow was likely referring to 1905’s Family of Saltimbanques) Then, a few weeks later, he called back: “I’ve changed my mind. There’s a knight I’d like you to play. There’s no dialogue—his tongue has been cut out. But Bergman changed it, and wrote the character dialogue.” (“Wood Painting” was the basis for “The Seventh Seal”, in which von Sydow’s Antonius Block famously plays chess against Death during the Black Plague).
And what of Bergman’s process? “He’d give you a script. Everyone would read through it. He did not analyze or instruct much. Moods, meanings, but no direct instruction during shooting. He had a wonderful capacity for “blocking”, onstage or on the film set. Very precise blocking, to find the psychological rhythm. He’d use simple physical terms: ‘warmer’, ‘colder’. But never any psychological analysis.”
“This was a very liberal approach for an actor, but I was always worried I wasn’t doing the right thing!”
“Bergman gave us the freedom to work and fantasize and carry on. Actors like to believe we have a little bit of the initiative.”
“He could make ordinary human beings of great classical characters. And he liked to joke about them--joke about his own characters and stories.”
“There weren’t many takes--complex camera moves, yes, maybe the odd required retake.”
On Bergman’s first time collaboration with cinematographer Nykvist: “Sven and Ingmar understood each other so well. Sven preferred as little artificial light as possible. No direct lights, always indirect, reflected light.”
“One day, they shot the arrival of the guys (the men who rape and kill Karin) to the farm to stay for the night. Bergman was upset with the rushes: Sven had created dramatic shadows, which he did not like and are still in the film.”
Why did he select “The Virgin Spring” for this screening? Because it represents to me everything I experienced as very valuable in the work of Mr. Bergman. The part, the story, the wide register of the performance.”
“We shot it in early spring, when the light was rather cold. There is betrayal, guilt. He was the son of a Lutheran minister, his relationship with his father was complicated, and he talked about faith so many times. The collision between heathens and Christianity is very clear.”
(Interesting that according to Peter Cowie’s Criterion Collection essay, Bergman never really regarded The Virgin Spring as one of his achievements. In fact, his own films rarely performed well in Sweden. The title is barely mentioned in his two autobiographies The Magic Lantern and Images).
“The shoot was wonderful, we had good time.” For Bergman, it was a transitional film. He had just married (his fourth time, to pianist Käbi Laretei), he had a new cinematographer, a script from another writer--he was happy at this time.”
Did Von Sydow regard himself as Bergman’s onscreen alter ego? “Yes, but most of his characters were”. He thought “Hour Of The Wolf” as Bergman’s most personal and autobiographical film—“Bergman’s horror film.”
The most difficult scene to shoot? “The hardest scene was the end scene. It is not perfect, I’m sorry to say. It was a very long take, should have been reshot, but we didn’t have the time. I had to direct myself to God, away from the camera. The emotion was impossible to express in satisfactory form.”
“There is no music in the climax—it is not needed. It allows us the time to feel in the tragedy, to experience the emotion of the people exposed to terrible tragedy. It was very courageous.”
An audience member asked if there was any repressed sexuality intended between Töre and his daughter? Von Sydow shrugged off the notion: “No, someone else came up with that.”
Von Sydow expanded humorously on the “birch tree” scene, in which Töre, having deduced that his boarders have killed his daughter, violently attempts to uproot a tree: “You know the culture of sauna in Finland and Sweden? The classical way was to whip yourself in the steam to clear out your frustration.”
“It was funny to shoot: they couldn’t find a good birch tree so they planted one—one amongst millions!--close to the farm in the middle of nowhere. And the locals were watching and thinking: we have enough birch trees!”
“Well, the camera assistant made an error and the shot came back as a silhouette. My character was not visible, just black on black. So when he came up the hill, he’s invisible approaching the tree. So the tree rocks back and forth on its own!”
“The farmers watched again as ten days later, we came back and did it all over again.”
“He would write for a performer…based on a conversation. We were prepared to the minutest detail. There was little improvisation. Quality was the most difficult thing to provide. To be true to the character. Bergman was very demanding. It was all in the preparation: Who he is. Why does he do what he does? What interests him in his life? What does he want to achieve?”
“Bergman never allowed actors to look at rushes. He let us create the character on our own.”
Another attendee inquired: Where do you go to recall Bergman beyond the cinema? Von Sydow paused thoughtfully, and responded simply “I can’t talk about that.”
Another asked if von Sydow would like to do "King Lear"? “I’ve never done it. Bergman did it in Stockholm. But not long ago, on the phone, he admitted he wanted me for the role. But now, I’m too old.”
He admitted that he'd choose Bille August’s 1987 Oscar-winner “Pelle the Conqueror” as his finest work as an actor, but clarified that he regards his 11 collaborations with Bergman as “the most important”.
“The four years of continual work with Bergman was my happiest time. It was a great school, a great academy. I was at the right place, at the right moment.”
“He spoiled me.”
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Friday, September 21, 2007
(Japan, 2007, 121 minutes)
Written by: Takashi Miike and Masa Nakamura
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Cast: Hideaki Ito, Masanobu Ando, Koichi Sato, Kaori Momoi, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura , Shun Oguri, Quentin Tarantino
By now it’s clear that there are few genres left for Midnight Madness staple Takashi Miike to subvert or deconstruct--did I say deconstruct? Disembowel might be the more appropriate term. And then sploshing around the innards until a story takes a raw, messy shape…
Arguably contemporary Japanese cinema’s most prolific filmmaker--at the very least its most consistently fearless in upsetting sensibilities (his Faber & Faber biography is aptly entitled Agitator)--Miike has merrily assaulted the crime film (the Dead Or Alive trilogy), the violent gangster saga (Ichi The Killer), the “Fatal Attraction” stalker melodrama (Audition), the prison drama (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A), the superhero yarn (Zebraman), even the musical (The Happiness of the Katakuris), and the epic children’s fantasy fable (The Great Yokai War). And Imprint, his first foray into American cable television? Banned! (and not for Billy Drago’s performance…)
With the Western having been granted its latest short-lived resurrection on North American screens this year--the festival gala The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Seraphim Falls, James Mangold’s solid remake of 3:10 To Yuma, hell, even BloodRayne 2!--how appropriate is it then that Miike’s latest (actually, his second of four films this year) dares to stare down the most American of genres? SWD is a saddle opera bonkers enough to make less-adventurous filmgoers pining for more conventional fare like, oh, Jodorowsky’s El Topo or George England’s “psychedelic western” Zachariah (costarring Don Johnson. Dick Van Patten, and The Eagles’ Joe Walsh!)…
Unable to attend the screening (he’s working—what else?), Miike provided a video introduction in which--shades of I’m Not There—the surprisingly jovial director expressed his gratitude for the long-time support of programmer Colin Geddes and the ever-loyal Toronto audience via a series of text cards.
Opening on what looks like a Death Valley campfire set designed by Waiting For Guffmans Corky St. Clair, we meet Quentin Tarantino as “Ringo”, a chatty cowpoke who, over a bowl of sukiyaki (beef stew), spins for us a yarn of "The Genpei Wars" of the 1100s, when during a gold rush the town of Yuda was besieged by the rival gangs the Genji Whites and the Heike Reds, until a mysterious “Gunman” (Ito) wandered in to set things right.
He befriends the defiant, hard-drinking Ruriko (Momoi), who runs the general store and raises her mute grandson Akira whose father—her son—was murdered by Kiyomori. He also wins the attentions of Shizuka (Kimura), the local prostitute who was once the bride of the vain, preening Kiyomori (Sato), the leader of the red-clad Heike gang who readies his followers for a violent turf war with the white-clad Genji clan, under the command of the flamboyant Yoshitsune (Iseya). The Heike have taken over the town after killing the mayor and enlisting the services of the traitorous sheriff (Kagawa). Playing each side against the other, the Gunman empowers the locals to take back their town, blasting, slashing, and bursting through any ornery cuss who gets in the way…
Yessir, it’s another bullet-ridden stampede through Yojimbo territory (and, of course, the 1966 Sergio Carbucci classic that provides part of the title), or rather, its Western remake/homage A Fistful Of Dollars. But, remember, Kurosawa based Yojimbo on the American short story “Red Harvest” by Dashielle Hammet, and since Yojimbo was remade by Walter Hill as the gangster yarn Last Man Standing—well, it’s safe to assume that somewhere along the line all of the cultural debts have officially been squared.
And if that’s not strange enough—and oh it is plenty strange—it’s also one of the wilder revisionist riffs on Shakespeare, specifically his Wars of the Roses dramas, with Kiyomori rechristening himself after Henry VI (“Hen-Ray”) and quoting it in garbled iambic pentameter (take that, Baz Luhrman!). And then there’s that hybrid rose bush…
As whacked-out as the production design and anachronisms are (A Buddhist temple next to the saloon, stetsons and leather dusters amidst samurai swords and crossbows, a Gatling gun right out of The Wild Bunch)SWD goes off the rails from the very first appearance of an Asian cowboy, who utters his knowingly clichéd lines in phonetic English, complete with affected Southern drawl (a perfectly ordinary quip like “you be whistlin’ Dixie” gains about three times the required syllables). So does the entire cast. Hell, even Tarantino soon gets in on the shtick; speaking his lines as if the English language is entirely alien to him (you can insert your own mocking one-liner of his much-debated thespian abilities here). Imagine a lengthy feature where everyone speaks Esperanto (Incubus) as delivered by the backwards dwarf from Twin Peaks, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for when and if you can ever track this one down in your neighborhood. Thankfully, the entire film is subtitled, and I “reckon” you’ll need ‘em.
Surprisingly, this is not the first of its type—in the late 50s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios conceived of the mukokuseki film with a sprawling, multi-film saga ala Zatoichi with Wataridori (Birds of Passage) which starred Akira Kobayashi as a contemporary cowboy complete with trademarked horse, guitar and bullwhip.
But while there’s little deadwood (or Deadwood for that matter), the film is far too self-referential and satisfied with its own cleverness for its own good (and ours). The film is overstuffed with clever and spectacular slapstick—and splatstick—action gags shot in Leone-patented widescreen. As with last year’s The Great Yokai War (reviewed here), SWD exhausted me by the end of the first half (and stops dead when a major character degenerates into Smeagol-mode), but regained its footing for a rousing climax—still, I couldn’t help but wonder what someone like Steven Chow could’ve done with this.
Still, while this is the kind of film that celebrates its unevenness, the presence of Tarantino reminded me that his own Kill Bill and Robert Rodriguez collaborations (From Dusk Til Dawn, Sin City, Grindhouse)—which owe much to Miike’s demented sensibility—were far more accomplished at playing fast and loose with genre conventions while remaining grounded in emotional reality even as their characters defied the laws of gravity, time, space, and whatever the hell logic is....
Sukiyaki Western Django will open in Japan this fall, but there’s been no North American release date set at this time.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Thursday, September 20, 2007
To say that Nightwatching, Peter Greenaway’s newest film, is his most accessible isn’t saying much—this isn’t like David Lynch going all G-rated on us with The Straight Story. Despite an intriguing what if? scenario about one of the world’s most famous paintings, it goes on way too long, the drama is flattened under the weight of its sober formalism, and the performances range from the laughably shrill to the hopelessly unintelligible.
We first meet the manic Rembrandt van Rijn (Martin Freeman) well into his career as Holland’s most successful artist. He lives in an opulent home in Amsterdam with his pregnant wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle), and a host of servants, with Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickje (Emily Holmes) being his favorites.
With a child on the way, Rembrandt is urged by his wife to accept an offer to paint a portrait of the 17 local merchants who comprise the Kloveniers--the Amsterdam Civil Guard--for a handsome commission. But he resists the assignment at first, until one of the members is killed by an “accidental” musket misfire and he suspects a cover up.
He immerses himself in the physics of firearms to recreate the fatal shot. Appealing to the guardsmen’s vanity, he learns that their leader, Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis), was concealing a forbidden affair with co-conspirator Willem van Ruytenburgh (Adam Kotz). He uncovers that the orphanage under the Guard's protection is a front for a child brothel.
No longer content to squander his skills and secret knowledge on a conventional military portrait, Rembrandt makes his accusations within the cryptic details of the painting itself, to send a message to the conspirators that he’s on to their hypocrisy (he even includes himself in the painting, partially visible behind Banning Cocq’s head). But the work is halted when Saskia dies and Rembrandt plummets into grief.
Nevertheless, he completes the work, and the conspirators vow revenge. To discredit him, they send a mistress to seduce and betray him. They try to blind him. Bankrupt him. Even attempt to kill his son. But the work, comprising a total of 34 individual characters, goes on to become his most celebrated work: The Night Watch, or, The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch.
The Nightwatch was such a dense and mysterious work that centuries later there’s still a lot of room for conjecture as to what it all means, and Greenaway’s theories are well-researched and make a certain amount of dramatic sense. But he’s not much of a storyteller, at least not in the three-act model, and the film’s virtues lie squarely in its art direction (it’s a highbrow companion to the living illustrations of Sin City or 300). Greenaway has never denied the influence of Renaissance painting and the Dutch Masters on his past works and here he gets to revel in it, with figures perfectly composed amidst the nuances of costume detail and architecture and meticulous lighting schemes that perfectly balance light and shadow, simulating photographically the chiarascuro technique Rembrandt modified to his own style.
But for all of his exactitude to period detail, Greenaway never creates a convincing sense of time and place. Although shot in Amsterdam, the UK, Poland, and apparently right here in Canada, the film is stage bound and hermetically-sealed, we never get a sense of The Netherland’s “Golden Age”, and Rembrandt’s environment rarely extends beyond his home’s dark interior and a rooftop balcony where he interacts with neighbouring servants on what looks like a leftover set from David S. Ward’s Cannery Row.
It doesn’t help that Rembrandt is portrayed by Martin Freeman of all people, who’s perhaps best known for his role as “Tim” in Ricky Gervais’ original The Office serials, and recently as Arthur Dent in the feature version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He’s a likeable actor, sure, and his toussled mane and facial stubble make him look as much like the famous painter as we know from his self-portraits, but Freeman never sold me on van Rijn’s lusty bravado and tortured artistic temperament.
And yet, there’s something about the film that wants you to love it—to share Rembrandt’s passion to transcend the limitations of the canvas, admire at his enlightened, progressive attitudes, titter at its explicit bedroom romps, wince at the tragedies that befall his young family, and channel your armchair sleuth at every knot twist of its DaVinci Codey conspiracy plot –but dammit Greenaway, how can I love Nightwatching when you keep pushing me away?
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD
Written and directed by George A. Romero
Cast: Shawn Roberts, Joshua Close Michelle Morgan, Jon Dinicoi, Phillip Riccio, Scott Wentworth
George A. Romero was unhappy with the State Of The Zombie Nation. His fourth installment in his allegorical horror saga, Land Of The Dead, was a return to Hollywood filmmaking, which demanded that he ensure the studio (Universal) an “R” rating (not an easy thing when the operating philosophy of the cast is “shoot ‘em in the head!”), employ “name” actors (Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo) over Pittsburgh-area unknowns, and worst of all, shoot it in Toronto, subbing for his preferred Pennsylvania climes (at least the Florida-shot Day Of The Dead was set in The Sunshine State!).
As Romero and his crew were desperately trying to make the Leslie Spit look like the Three Rivers junction, across town a remake of his 1978 second chapter Dawn Of The Dead was in production. This one was also set in a shopping mall, but eschewed social commentary for slam-bang action and dared to suggest that the recently-resurrected could be fast! Running zombies? That stuff might fly in London, but here--it was time for the founding father to seriously rethink where his creation was going.
Romero’s Dead installments have always been uniquely attuned to the temperament of their times. 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead sounded like an undistinguished drive-in programmer, but was a thoughtful examination of the gradual collapse of social order within the microcosm of a remote farmhouse, with black leading man (rare for its day) crafty enough to survive the ghouls but not a careless bullet from an overzealous militia. Ten years later, Dawn Of The Dead saw the plague move to the inner cities, and worked in some pointed (dare-I-say biting?) satire on materialism and conspicuous-consumption between Tom Savini’s outrageous Grand Guignol bloodletting. 1985’s more didactic Day Of The Dead was a response to the Reagan-era’s “might makes right” philosophy as a cure-all for the world’s problems. And 2005’s Land Of The Dead (which was conceived in the 1990s but plagued with production delays) saw human civilization rising from the chaos but doomed to repeat its mistakes.
So where to take it next? It occurred to Romero that the time was right for a reboot (Night Of The Living Dead was already remade with Romero’s blessing in 1990) to re-examine the original’s premise through today’s omniscient media. In 1968, the survivors were totally reliant on "official' sources—a single black and white television airing a local news feed was the only window to the insanity that was spreading across the nation. By 1978, the collapsing Pittsburgh cable access channel kept the experts talking and knowingly broadcasted false hope about emergency shelters to keep whatever viewers were left watching. How would America react to a zombie infestation today? Would they even believe it? Would they trust their sources or turn to the alternative media? Could citizen journalist be trusted? Would the YouTubers be content to simply tape it, mix it, upload it, and watch it as just another viral distraction?
It’s a heady concept, and a dramatically risky one—but Diary Of The Dead transcends its “Blair Witch”y hook, thanks to Romero’s ever-virile imagination and Humanist anger (mixed with a healthy dollop of Catholic outrage) that four-decades after he conceived of something called “Night Of Anubis” shows no sign of exhausting itself at the age of 67.
An off-screen female narrator, Debra (Michelle Morgan), tells us that the film we are about to see is “The Death Of Death”, a documentary that has been assembled on-the-fly from a variety of sources but is, she assures us, the absolute “truth”. When it begins, a group of film students lead by Jason (Joshua Close) are shooting a no-budget “mummy” movie late at night in the Pennsylvania woods, when they are attacked by what appears to be a real zombie, which is captured by their own camcorders. They escape in their Winnebago and return to the University of Pennsylvania campus, which has already been invaded by the undead.
The government, predictably, denies any crisis (“a virus that causes mass psychosis” is the official explanation, shades of the “Venus probe” virus offered in the original), but the underground news media and portable technology unleashes what is being suppressed. Online, a video makes the rounds of a domestic crime scene where the allegedly “dead” victims rise up and attack the paramedics and the police.
Joined by their surviving college professor (Scott Wentworth), the students take to the road to head for Jason’s opulent family home and encounter increasing numbers of the living dead at every turn. In the countryside, they help an Amish farmer secure his property. A group of African-American survivalists who were left abandoned suspect their intentions but eventually acknowledge they’re fighting for the same cause. During a run to the hospital to pick up supplies, Jason is so committed to capturing the “right” images that the ghouls almost overpower them. Debra encounters her resurrected mother. The dead are rising all right—this is no online Orson Welles hoax—and Jason appoints himself to be mankind’s last, official chronicler of its dying days…
Romero’s attempts at mock-verite are very convincing—he began his career as a documentary filmmaker in Pittsburgh before taking a gamble on features—and while Diary Of The Dead is serious-minded, it’s not all so Costa Gavras that it skimps on the stuff that keeps us coming back to these movies again and again: the flesh-eating is plentiful and gruesomely entertaining, and KNB’s makeup effects are amongst the most convincing yet realized (and there have been a lot of zombie yarns since 1968) and are greatly aided by seamless CGI substitution. And Romero’s expected black humour (he once staged a pie-and-seltzer-bottle fight amidst a zombie attack, remember?) is in steady supply, with deaf/mute Amish farmer “Samuel” being one of the more memorable encounters, as he dispatches the undead with his farm instruments and introduces himself to the camera through a chalkboard around his neck.
Celebrity voice cameos add to the fun: listen close, and you’ll hear Shawn Of The Deads Simon Pegg, Guillermo Del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, and even Stephen King, one of Romero’s best friends and a frequent collaborator.
There are obvious echoes here, of the shocking Katrina viz and the Bush administration’s supression of Abu Ghraib images and other horrors of the Iraq War (a subject that fellow genre icon Brian DePalma tackled this same year with his mockumentary Redacted, which I will also review shortly). And Jason’s commitment to capture everything at any costs, even to his friends’ well-being, rings depressingly true in light of increasingly voyeuristic footage that has been burned into the public consciousness. The hook itself is not entirely new to the genre (in Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake—which I’m a big fan of btw despite Romero’s lamentations—incorporates home video footage in its chilling coda), and some of the narration is a little too on the nose, perhaps (a problem with Day, too), but given that the film-within-the-film is created by impassioned college students, we can forgive their penchant for melodrama.
“Are we worth saving?”, Debra asks as the film closes. It’s certainly not the first time a George A. Romero character has posed this loaded question, and hopefully not the last (I think we need one of these every 10 years or so to take stock of things). Maybe next time, though, Romero will give the zombies the camcorders and let us see it from their POV—the shots won’t be as steady, but at least they’ll shut up and let the pictures tell the tale.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
(France, 2007, 83 minutes)
Written by: Alexandre Bustillo
Directed by: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Mury
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis, Natalie Roussel, François-Régis Marchasson, Jean-Baptiste Tabourin
À l'intérieur begins with a truly terrifying image--the logo of the new Weinstein Company— which means that the chances of this skilful and outrageously depraved debut feature finding an audience beyond its European borders are already screwed. Harvey and Bob were once champions of the horror crowd who will never forgive the duo for splitting up Grindhouse and buying-up-and-then-burying fine films like All The Boys Love Mandy Lane and Feast (they’ve gotten their meat hooks on George A. Romero’s Diary Of The Dead, too!—finally answering the question, “how do you kill something that’s already dead?”).
But if the bros want to atone for past sins, they could start by hyping this one into overdrive (if not, it’s your civic duty to borrow, bootleg or BitTorrent). Yes, it is French, and oui, there are subtitles, but a good 99% of the dialogue uttered in the film’s second and third acts consists of howls of anguish. Even though the title at first conjures up images of Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen (in his Bergman phase), and just because it’s from the land of meandering critics’ darlings Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc whathisname doesn’t mean it gets all Michael Haneke on us and denies us our baser pleasures. While even the most seasoned gorehound will probably encounter a moment or three where he’ll be forced to turn his head, À l'intérieur will be nothing less than excruciating to a female perspective—(what a great double bill it’d make with Dead Ringers!)--I wonder if it’s time to resurrect one of those old William Castle-type disclaimers warning pregnant women to attend at their own risk?
The film’s second image is a close up of a fetus in the womb, subtly reacting to the sound of a comforting female voice (presumably its mother) before the chamber fills with blood after a brutal impact collision.
Of course, in this era of Saw and Hostel there will be those ready to brand À l'intérieur as “torture porn”—an already tiresome label I despise in that it is inaccurate, intolerant, and born of the same knee-jerk grandstanding that befell the so-called “slasher” subgenre of the early 80s—but its European roots might muster up some cushioning art house cache. A warning to rival camps, though: gorehounds expecting nothing a parade of the red stuff might be taken aback by the film’s unique feminine fury, and those of the PBS set looking for something to “transcend its genre” will feel like they’ve been slapped around with a meat tenderizer for nearly 90 straight minutes. Its rewards are found somewhere in the middle: outrageously over the top sadism, anchored in an expertly-paced and well-acted premise that’s all too plausible.
Freshman directors Bustillo and Mury are clearly students of the 70s independent horror scene, working from a visual palette that mixes equal parts Carpenter’s claustrophobic widescreen compositions and Argento’s operatic bloodshed (the film appears to have been shot on digital video, but I really couldn’t tell for sure). Clive Barker has personally selected the boys to direct a remake of his 1986 cult classic Hellraiser, which is another domestic horror tale that could benefit from their collective keen eye and empathy for even the most monstrous motivations.
Béatrice Dalle, perhaps still best known for Beiniex’s erotic melodrama Betty Blue, creates one of recent horror cinema’s more believable and thus all-the-more terrifying homicidal nutjobs, and the suffering that obvious trooper Alysson Paradis experiences makes one think that there should be some sort of “special award” given to her come next year’s Cesars. Not being female, I’m really in no position to evaluate either character’s motivations or emotional responses, but thanks to the raw emotions and utter lack of vanity displayed by both actresses, the gimmicky scenario seemed unnervingly real with only one minor contrivance easily forgiveable.
Like the breakout French shocker Haute Tension, this is one of the most relentlessly savage thrillers to come out of anywhere. Thankfully, its third act plot twist is nowhere near as ridiculous as that of Alexander Aja’s 2003 debut, and the film ends on a more satisfying, even bittersweet, note. And while on the subject, what is it with France being the breeding ground for so many stylish and hyper-violent genre films lately? Maléfique, Frontieres, Them, Calvaire, Irreversible—if you believe that horror uniquely reflects a country’s “spirit of the age” or moment (that’s zeitgeist to you eggheads, and yes, I do...), then what the hell are these people going through that needs to be played out with such gleeful nihilism?
Once you’ve pondered the question, you’ll have to make due with the trailer (here), since the retitled Inside isn’t scheduled for North American release until 2008.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis