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Monday, Apr 21, 2008


Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era. Looking over titles like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, it’s hard to deny his import. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama seemed a very long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.


It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan - or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store - and wife - were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers.


Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine. 


Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (new to DVD from Image Entertainment and THINKFilm) is kinetic. It is dynamite laced with electricity, a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement. It’s about greed and the lack of money, morality and the lack of ethics, love and the lack of commitment. It takes standard human foibles and amplifies them to the stuff of glorified Greek tragedy. With amazing performances, pitch perfect direction, and a story that crackles with flawless mechanical timing, we wind up with another stellar example of that solid suspense subgenre - the dark double cross. In a year that’s seen the equally exceptional Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men, Lumet’s return to glory stands right along side them. It’s depressing and daring, showing that even six decades in, this heralded director is not about to go softly into that good night.


This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy - a strip mall jewelry store - all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired of living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.


Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.


Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned by basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.


The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.


And as the DVD points out, much of this was the direct result of Lumet’s creative input. The original script (which the director calls ‘wonderful’ in the included commentary and featurette) did not have Andy and Hank as brothers. Instead, they were just friends. Lumet purposefully altered that dynamic. Other subplots were removed completely, including one revolving around Andy and his kid. All of this was done to tighten up what Lumet considers a rip roaring ‘melodrama’. The rest of the cast discuss the classification, but once the director offers his definition of the term - “heighten reality with a true sense of over the top dramatics leading to tragedy” - everyone agrees with the categorization.


It all makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away. 


 


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Monday, Apr 21, 2008
In part 3 of L.B. Jeffries' series, he takes a look at the role that plot plays in our gaming experiences.


Continuing with our outlining of the three variables of a video game (player input, plot, and game design), we next come to the question of how to assess the story in a game. Rather than indulge in the mass sea of back story and plots at surface value, let’s talk about what the story in a game actually is: stuff you have minimal control over. You can’t change the back story. You have a limited number of choices concerning the plot’s outcome. You generally don’t get to pick who you associate with. The story in a video game is where player input finds meaning, and yet it is the very thing you cannot affect.

At the 2008 Game Developer’s Conference, during Ken Levine’s lecture about plot in games, an audience member stood up and complained that they hadn’t wanted to kill Andrew Ryan in Bioshock. Disregarding the fact that killing Ryan was a brilliant commentary on extremist ideologies and questioning authority, it begs the greater question of whether or not this was even a problem. Bioshock would’ve been a much weaker game if it hadn’t been for that scene, and Ken Levine himself has admitted that after the third act the game’s story pretty much goes downhill. So given that the Andrew Ryan uncontrollable sequence was the best part of Bioshock in terms of the story, what are you supposed to say to someone who didn’t like it? At what point do you stop and say, “No, this is what you should be doing and if you don’t like it then stop playing”? What are the merits of forcing a player to do something in video games because that’s what the story says to do?


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Monday, Apr 21, 2008

Many thanks to Sasha Frere-Jones for posting what has to be one of the funniest satirical riffs about women in music that I’ve ever heard.  Erykah Badu is one of music’s most inspiring musical figures for me, in part, because she remains oblivious and impervious to musical fads and the pressure for seasoned artists to reinvent themselves.  There will never be “Honey” the Hot Chip Redux.  With the proliferation of bands who throw together singles and blow up based on a few myspace demos, it’s refreshing to see such a painstaking craftswomen meticulously mold something that still aspires to the much maligned and increasingly elusive category of “art”.  You can pretty much read her satirical statements in this video as line for line refutations of all the criticism directed at her.  I like that Badu can be powerful, sexy, difficult and sophisticated without doing, as she puts it, “ho” shit.  Not to mention, as evidenced by this video, she has the big picture, in all its grotesque proportions, on point.


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Monday, Apr 21, 2008

The first nice day of spring—this past Friday, in New York City—always makes me feel suspicious and somewhat put upon, threatened. I’m supposed to be too overjoyed about it; instead I end up thinking about crowds and sweat and exposed skin I wish weren’t exposed and a general mindless air of following the orders of the sun. This may be the inevitable consequence of city life, or New York City life, where every palpable shift in the zeitgeist feels like a contrived trend to be resisted.


But here’s further evidence that people should feel lucky not to live in Manhattan. After work, I found myself in Union Square and happened to witness an event being staged there where a bunch of people wore their headphones and danced to music on their iPods in what was billed as a “silent rave.” I found this to be crushingly depressing, an all-too-perfect symbol of the way isolation and rote individualism is colonizing what is left of public space, and how even ostensibly group-oriented activities must be eviscerated from within by a self-regard that’s presumed to be primary. Let’s all get together and dance, but not to the same music—we’ll just all watch each other perform the writhing ritual of self-projection and serve as one another’s audience. That way we can reinforce that public space is just where you go to be under the microscope, where you can surveil and be surveilled as opposed to sharing any experiences or exchanging any ideas. The headphones preclude the expectation of social exchange, which can make civic participation so irritating. The “silent rave” lets you simulate community without the noisome bother of belonging to one.


Like “flash mobs,” that peculiar form of performance art where people just show up and clog the flows of commercial life with their mere being, the silent rave seemed to be a vague gesture toward participation in something by people who must lack the ingenuity to come up with something more rigorous for one another to do than simply showing up. It’s low-impact participation with a vague subversive intent that’s not directed at anything in particular. They are not protests, which must seem pretty strident and would require overt commitment to a particular political view. Instead, they feel like marketing stunts, they feel promotional. It all reminded me of the models who are hired to hang out in front fo Abercrombie and Fitch on 5th Avenue.


But I don’t know what the silent rave is promoting. iPods? A generation’s general commitment to gadgets? To mediating themselves through technology? To being apart together? Back in the old days, I imagine people sat together in parks without headphones and shared the same sensory environment. Now they can be “together” without cramping their style or compromising. That’s progress, I guess.


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Sunday, Apr 20, 2008

For more information on this amazing movie, please visit the new Repo: The Genetic Opera website (click here)


Darren Lynn Bousman is a man possessed. Calling from Los Angeles, where he is putting the final touches on his latest film, the man behind the Saw franchise’s successful sequels wants to get a message out. “Everyone talks about being sick of what’s out there - sick of the sequels. Sick of the PG-13 Japanese horror remakes,” he says. “They want originality. They want something different.”  Enter his newest project - Repo: The Genetic Opera. A futuristic tale centering on designer organ transplants, post-apocalyptic corruption, and live on stage vivisection, the director is excited, and wary of his revamped rock show. “It’s been a hard thing - It’s been the biggest struggle of my life getting this movie made,” Bousman adds. From talking to the talented 29-year-old, it has also been his lifelong dream.


As a kid in Kansas, making horror movies was never his ambition. “Growing up, I came from a theater background”, he offers. “It was a classic story - I was a dork in high school, I really didn’t fit in anywhere.” As with most creative types, the stage set him free. “I got involved in theater,” he admits, “and everything changed.” After taking part in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Bousman’s was bitten - and his new goal was clear. “It was the first kind of experience into something creative - it was amazing and it changed my life…because I became addicted to the music.” Indeed, the notion that emotions and psychological underpinning could be expressed via song struck him as a vital and important epiphany.


“I think the thing about musicals is…if you look at music and what it does to you…or what it does to a society…it is the thing that it is crucial to our life.” He goes on to clarify, “Whether we’re working out and listening to our IPod, whether we’re in a car listening to music, or we go to parties and music is the backdrop, music is an extremely important component.” The link to motion pictures soon became clear when he watched the film version of Superstar in preparation for the play. “Movies are also important like that. I mean, what do we do on the weekends? We go see the new movies that opened on Friday night. When we go on dates, we watch movies.”


The effect was personal and profound. “I was immediately in love”, he recalls, “I watched (Superstar) again and again, and again and again. It was like…I had never seen anything like it.” Thus began a fascination, a fetish if you will, with the genre. It’s a joy that has quickly gone from appeal to an outright obsession. “I collect musicals now”, he adds, the glee in his voice rather obvious. “I have some of the most obscure things, things people have never heard of. Musicals from foreign countries…it’s just amazing.” So when the chance came to move out to Hollywood and begin his career, Bousman only had one ambition in mind.


“I got into the entertainment business to direct a musical”, he admits. “I didn’t come out here to do Saw. I didn’t come out here to do horror films.” Yet that’s exactly what happened. Somehow, a script he was attached to entitled The Desperate got noticed by the studios as being very similar to the surprise Sundance hit, and soon he was collaborating with co-creator Leigh Whannel on the second installment of the influential terror title. Yet even after two more movies, the concept of directing a musical continued to intrigue him. “Music has always been a driving force in my life” the director confesses, “When a musical is done correctly, when you combine movie’s visuals with the music, it triggers emotions that are not normally felt. Music has the power to make people cry, to get excited.”


Oddly enough, when it came time to adapt Repo: The Genetic Opera into a feature film (it was originally a stage play, and then a 10 minute short film that functioned as kind of a resume reel), his previous success had no influence on studio interest. “I knew we had a great script”, Bousman points out, “and I knew music was going to elevate it to a whole other level and it was my chance to pay homage to the movies that I loved - Superstar, Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Forbidden Zone.” Sadly, few would listen. “My present reputation didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.” It sounds almost surreal when you consider the success of his three Saw installment. “Me making this movie was like coming in as a first time filmmaker,” he laments.  “Even today, it’s a constant battle to get this movie out there.”



In fact, with its unique premise and wall-to-wall singing (“That’s what it is - songs from beginning, middle to end” he explains), Bousman clearly anticipated some difficulty. “It’s not Saw. It’s not The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s kind of a hybrid of all of my favorite moments from movies, or all my favorite types of movies.” Yet not even festival previews have earned the film a potential release date. “We did an early, early screening of it from a workprint cut about two months ago”, he states. “Every review has been glowing, and I’m so lucky and so excited that we’re able to do that, yet even the good reviews aren’t helping my cause right now.”


Some of this can be chalked up to the narrative. Repo centers on a dystopic society where a disease has caused a global plague of organ failures. Enter Geneco, a biotech company that takes advantage of the awful situation to provide transplants - at a price. Of course, those who fail to pay end up as part of the Genetic Opera, a stage show where the final act is the repossession of the unpaid entrails. Yet Bousman understands the inherent “weirdness” of the project, and believes that, if marketed correctly, it could find its audience. He recognizes the problems, though. “The way I like to describe Repo,” he says, “Someone tells you ‘let’s go to a steak restaurant’, and then they take you in and give you sushi. People are immediately going to be upset. They’re going to say ‘wait a minute, this isn’t steak’ and they’re going to hate it.”


“I think right now, the problem with this movie is that people are thinking of it as meat and potatoes. It’s not. It’s sushi.” He adds, “I think the problem they are having is that they have to think outside of this box before they see this movie. Viewers have to go in knowing its going to be sushi.” Bousman tried to address some of the concern through casting. This, however, caused its own issues. “I had names thrown at me like (Jon) Bon Jovi, and Harry Connick Jr. a lot of names that are safe. And I said, ‘of course, that’s who you want me to cast’.” But the director would not relent. “That’s what normal people would do,” he argued. “But that’s not this movie. This movie is outside the box. And the casting reflects that.”

As part of his eclectic group, Bousman hired Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, Paul Sorvino, Bill Mosley, Anthony Head, and Alexa Vega. While the names may seem random, there was a strict method to the filmmaker’s madness. “The movie is crazy,” he explains, “and I wanted to make sure the casting was crazy as well.” He also took the inherent fanbase from each actor into consideration, from the classical diva-dom of Brightman to the outright media whoring of Hilton. He recognized that horror geeks would flock to see Mosley, while Sorvino offered the mainstream crime drama crowd. There was also the Spy Kids contingent - via Vega and Head’s undeniable Buffy link. The results speak for themselves, as Bousman states. “The casting in my mind could not be any more perfect. Each one of them is amazing in their roles.”


And this was important to Repo‘s success. “This movie had to have real cred. It was a major battle that we fought, credibility.” In fact, the director understood both the upside, and the downside, of going with such an idiosyncratic company. “If Bon Jovi had been brought in, first off, his audience is a very specific audience. And they are not going to respond to this type of movie.” By offering up a wide-ranging selection of known names, Bousman believes he’s kept potential audiences clued in. “(Repo) is such a spectacle. The movie is so out there. I wanted to make it a spectacle to watch as well.”


The unusual look of the film also played directly into this ideal. “It’s a cross between ‘50s propaganda art and a really twisted, macabre fairy tale,” he admits, “I love it. It’s dark and depressing.” But in keeping in line with the disinformation approach, Bousman made sure to tap into the form’s underlying ridiculousness. “There’s something so macabre about propaganda’s message,” he notes. “What it’s promoting is horrific, and yet you have a smiling person with a thumbs up on it.”  Luckily, he found an old collaborator who agreed with this approach implicitly. “I wanted it to have a specific look. The DP (Director of Photography) - Joseph White - was amazing. He was the DP on one of my first short films and I was glad he could come back and do this.”



All of which feeds directly into Repo‘s into what Bousman views as the film’s undeniable relevance. “It’s very timely right now,” he points out. “I live in Los Angeles and when you walk down the street, no one looks like people anymore. They all look manufactured.” By applying the designer label pop culture crassness to people’s insides, as well as their outsides, the director feels his film offers a clear cautionary warning. “The whole thing is - people want perfection in the way they look. I do too,” he admits. “They are taking it to extremes now. No one wants to put in the work. And so Repo asks us to look at what we are doing to our bodies, manufacturing ourselves to meet some ridiculous standard.”


He points to a perfect illustration of this idea within the film itself. “Paris Hilton’s character is great. Her name is Amber Sweet and Amber is constantly undergoing some major plastic surgery procedure,” Bousman chuckles. “Every time we see her in the movie, she changes her appearance.” Again, the filmmaker is firm in his philosophy. “It’s about the absurdity of it all, and then what happens when we take it to the next level - manufacturing ourselves from the inside out,” he argues.  “What happens if and when we can replace our heart, our lungs, our kidneys, our spines. What if we can replace our eyes. That’s what it is. It’s happening right now. Every time you go outside and walk down Rodeo Drive, people are looking more and more absurd.”


Yet even with a surreal if saleable cast and a very contemporary set-up, Repo sits, awaiting a release. For his part, Bousman is confused by the delays, “It’s not what’s in theaters now,” he states, “Repo is that thing that everyone’s been craving. It’s ballsy. It’s risky. And it will never find an audience unless the studios are willing to embrace it as different.” By starting a new, amazingly dense website (Click Here), by getting out and giving interviews and making personal appearances, he hopes a grass roots effort can build up around the film, a calculated cult that will show the suits a need for wider distribution.


But there’s a catch. “You cannot compare it, it is physically impossible,” Bousman argues. “Again, this isn’t Saw. I dare you to compare it to another movie.” He also knows that “unique is not necessary marketable.“I’m guilty of it. I’ve done three sequels back to back to back.” He goes on to add: “And my next movie after this is a remake. This is my rebellion, my chance to do something completely different. If you give the audience something different, they will find it and they will embrace it. They are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. They don’t want to be shoveled the same cookie cutter machine made movies.”


And thus, the current call out and passionate product pitches. Bousman, however, definitely realizes what he’s up against. “Repo‘s a hard pill to swallow. It takes a good fifteen minutes for you to understand. There is no talking. There is no spoken dialogue in this movie,” he explains. But he hopes that, by getting the word out, he can convince those in charge to give the film a chance. “My goal right now is to inform people of what the movie is, because you need to know what it is prior to going in and seeing it,” he points out. “The reason we did it was to start informing people about what the movie is they are going to see. You can’t go into this movie blind. It will fail.”



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