Wednesday, October 24, 2007

TAD 2007: "The Tripper" Review

(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.

In David Arquette’s directorial debut, a bevy of libidinous youths are pursued by a slow-moving killer who sure looks a lot like late president Ronald Reagan, but the resemblance here is purely intentional. Arquette, perhaps inspired from his appearance in Wes Craven’s popular slasher pastiche Scream, has conceived a loopy horror homage (cowritten with Darkness Falls’ Joe Harris) that pits a forest full of modern-day hippies (apparently there are such things outside of Lenny Kravitz videos and the “Burning Man” festival) against a vengeful faux-Ronnie who would rather dispense of dissenters with his bare hands than call in the National Guard. In The Tripper, “Bloody Thursday” gets an extension…

Sometime in the late 60s, televised images of Vietnam and the burgeoning counterculture flicker across the blank expression of Gus, a young boy. In the next room, his terminally ill mother is doted on by Dylan, her poor but loving husband. Dylan takes the boy with him to his job at the local forest, where a group of protestors have chained themselves to a large redwood to protest the industry that Dylan relies on to pay for the care of his ill wife. After a squabble, Dylan pulls a gun on them, but the local police intervene. Quiet Gus erupts in action and comes to his father’s aid by taking a chainsaw to the peaceniks’ leader. Gus is taken away, kicking and screaming.
Present day: Four youths are on their way to the "America Free Love Festival” weekend bash in Northern California: George Bush supporter Joey (Kevin Smith regular Mewes, hardly stretching here), his anti-Republican girlfriend Linda (Thomason), and stoner couples Jack (Heath) and Jade (de la Huerta), and Ivan (Haas) and Samantha (King). Arriving at a campsite near the venue, they immediately have a run in with the local rednecks, who give chase before a showdown in the local diner, where a now-adult Gus (Nelson) pounds some manners into the thugs.

Of course, Gus’ father is now a crazy old coot who has lived in the woods in the decades since and warns the kids to stay away, even setting lethal traps for anyone who dare disturb his precious forest. When a hippie/nudist is found dangling and gutted, stoic and by-the-book sheriff Buzz Hall (Jane) decides to take no chances and shuts the concert down, much to the chagrin of oily Mayor Burton (comedian Rick Overton) and flamboyant concert promoter Frank Baker (Reubens), who have their own crooked deal going.

Within her circle of half-baked friends, only Samantha keeps her head clear, and becomes aware that the concertgoers are being dispatched by a single individual, who sports a Ronald Reagan mask and swings a mean hatchet. As Hall and his deputy investigate Dylan’s homestead, they discover much history about Gus’ obsession with The Great Communicator, but can they build a case in time before another fatal axe blow is dealt?

Although set in present day, The Tripper owes its style and sensibility to two ghetto genres of yesteryear: the 1960s drug/counter culture exploitation flick ala Corman’s The Trip and Psych Out, and the low-rent slasher yarn of the 80s like The Burning or Don’t Go In The Woods. For a novice, Arquette displays imagination and skill by utilizing various film stocks, inventive angles, garish lighting effects that range from Creepshow to Ken Russell (not to mention Oliver Stone’s multimedia sensory assault Natural Born Killers), and effective use of locations (the fine cinematography is by Bobby Bukowski)—although it’d take a major no-talent to screw up a ready-made, living soundstage of ominous trees, rotting bark, mist, marsh, and consuming shadows.

It’s not a complete parody in the Thursday The 12th”/”Pandemonium sense, although Thomas Jane’s squared-jawed sheriff, like Tommy Smothers’ diligent Mountie, is always one step behind. Paul Reubens (who, coincidentally, played Smothers’ assistant in Soles’ early 80s spoof) tears into his brief role as a showboating Bill Graham type, but his scenes seem to come from a different movie entirely.
Arquette cameos as one of the rednecks, as does his brother Richmond as Jane’s useless deputy, and his wife Courtney Cox, as an animal lover who gets a bit too close to her cause and literally bleeds for it.

Star Thomas Jane also co produced the film, along with 30 Days Of Night author Steve Niles (and Jane’s visage is used as Cal McDonald for Niles’ current “Criminal Macabre” series from DC/Vertigo).

The gore is explicit and surprisingly brutal, given that The Tripper also strives to be satiric and topical as it spills the red stuff in quantities far greater than what could be considered “trickle down”. The political undertones of the film are just sort of there—I was never exactly sure what was being lampooned, as Arquette’s script dishes out as much contempt for dim, wayward youths as it does for the suit-and-tie conservatives that would love to see every last one of them slaughtered. The film is full of bile for Reagan’s phony “old values” posturing and a key plot point hinges on when, as Governor of California, he approved the release of thousands of mental patients back into communities to save costs. But leftist icon Robert Kennedy is also a target, too. And then there’s the pet pig named George W. Perhaps Arquette’s platform is completely nonpartisan and a clarion call for anarchy—which gets an A for ambition but makes it damned hard to muster up any empathy for one side or the other.
Still, it’s funny to see the Reagan maniac—whose mask makes him look like a homicidal Spitting Image puppet (although somehow less frightening than the one in Genesis’ “Land Of Confusion” video)--deliver a messy axe blow and quip “Just Say No” or remark “It’s Morning In America” as he regards his latest victim (what, no “We Begin The Bombing In Five Minutes”? or reference to Ronnie and Nancy’s occasional dabbles with the Ouija Board?). There’s an amusing bit with jelly beans—Reagan kept a bowl to judge a man’s character--and yet, the references don’t add up to much other than shading.

The Tripper is one of those low-budget, under-the-radar movies you get the impression was a lot of fun to make for all involved—and thankfully, most of it translates into an enjoyable viewing experience for the committed horror fan as well. But considering the ambition and pedigree of talent involved on both sides of the camera, it’s as quickly forgotten as just another empty campaign promise.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

TAD 2007: "Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead" Review

(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.

Hopeless nerd Arby (Yachanin) and his white bread wannabe-girlfriend Wendy (Graham) celebrate their last night of high school together dry-humping in the Tromaville cemetery, coincidentally right on top of where the ancient Tromahawk Tribe have been buried. They’re interrupted by a masturbating serial panty sniffer (oh, you cry, not that plot again!), who inadvertently helps resurrect one of the centuries’ old corpses, whose disembodied finger makes Arbie’s passage to manhood all the more memorable by lodging itself in his rectum.
Assuming you’re still with the film, and this review, we cut to a year later. Arby, stuck in Tromaville to take care of his mentally-retarded father and blind mother (both never seen), returns to find the graveyard has been paved over to host a franchise of the Southern-based “American Chicken Bunker” fast food chain. An array of leftist protestors has blocked entrance to the restaurant, and Arby is surprised to find that his true love Wendy has joined up with CLAM (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerations). To spite the dogma of Wendy and her girlfriend Mickey D (Sereboff), Arby accepts a job with the restaurant as a “counter girl”. His manager is the militant Denny (Olatunde), and his dubiously-qualified coworkers include the effete Paco Bell, hillbilly hick/bestiality enthusiast Carl Jr., and radical Muslim Humus, who wears a birka with her ACB uniform.

On the first day of business, a crazed man barges into the restaurant (porn icon Ron Jeremy—no Kevin McCarthy) to warn everyone in the restaurant that the spirits of the Tromahawk tribe will enact vengeance for disturbing their sacred burial ground. The franchise’s greedy owner, General Lee (Watkins—having seemingly studied under Foghorn Leghorn), has arrived from his latest cross-burning to MC the Grand Opening and laughs off any suggestion of disaster. Even after--for reasons never 100% fully explained--a suspicious but otherwise unnoticed batch of noxious green eggs show up, which become an added ingredient of the chain’s daily menu and are immediately inhaled by the loutish patrons.

The first, a morbidly-obese glutton (Troma regular Joe Fleishaker, who appears to have doubled in size since his turn as the Mayor in the years since The Toxic Avenger and has somehow managed to stay alive), gives birth to the first of the film’s many forms of rampaging man-fowl in the men’s room. It’s a scene that starts off disgusting and manages to outdo itself with such outrageous excess than even the most jaded devotee of bathroom humour will feel bludgeoned by its conclusion (you’ll thank Kaufman’s wife for insisting on the usage of those rapidly multiplying “censored” banners—I won’t say any more).
Assuming, again, that you’re still with me—Arby encounters “Old Arby” (Kaufman), an almost spectral backroom dweller who warns the youth to ditch this career and aspire to more in life, or he’ll be stuck behind the counter forever. But as the spirits manifest themselves in increasingly monstrous (and ridiculous) forms, it’ll be a long time before Arby and co. get out of the restaurant at all.

It's forever the Reagan Era in Tromaville, evident by the grainy film stock (which does nothing to beautify the Buffalo, New York locations), rinky-dink synth score that sounds like it's performed on a Casio keyboard, visible edits, dodgy ADR, and geysers of blood, bile, and purple slime. But the sensibility is definitely current, and the satire targets 21st century hot buttons as the Morgan Spurlock and Eric Schlosser indictments of the fast-food industries (the characters are named after fast food chains), post-9/11 hysteria, increased societal splintering and political/sexual/ethnic “tribalism”, and even the Abu Ghraib scandal. The Photoshop’d stills of a hooded chicken being marched on a dog leash are probably the funniest thing I’ll see on film this year (I asked Kaufman if the Lindy England photos were public domain, to which he shrugged and remarked: “I sure hope so!” Could Poultrygeist get Redacted…?).

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

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2007: "An Audience Of One"

(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

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2007: "In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale"

(Germany/Canada/USA, 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

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2007: "Mulberry Street"

(USA 2006)
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