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by Bill Gibron

16 Jul 2009

It’s a film criticism cliché - remakes suck. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, taking an already established film and “updating”/“reimagining” it, for whatever reason, routinely turns up junk. In recent years, it was Asian horror films that received some unnecessary Westernization. One Missed Call my Eye! Now, Tinsel Town is casting an even wider international net. With the announcement that Cloverfield‘s Matt Reeves is taking on the English version of the Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In, perhaps we should go back to last October and see how successful Sony’s remake of [REC] was. Wait, you never heard of [REC] ? Really? Well, that’s not surprising. For some reason (read: clear commercial competition), the studio sat on the brilliant Spanish production, giving it a lukewarm festival like release schedule before hiding it away. Clearly they were waiting until Quarantine, their take on the material, had its day in the cinematic sun.

With the release this week of [REC] on Region 1 DVD - again, held up for some unknown ($$$) reason - we can do a little compare and contrast. But first, a couple of caveats. To be on the up and up, this critic liked both films. Actually, that’s not right. He ADORED [REC] , finding it one of the creepiest films of the last few years. Oddly enough, he appreciated what Quarantine tried to do with the material. While not always successful, it definitely stands on its own. Secondly, this discussion will be inundated with spoilers. Spoilers, Spoilers, SPOILERS!!! So if you want to experience one or either of these films without knowing the many plot contrivances and twists, go check out [REC] and Quarantine first and then come back to this piece. Only then will you fully appreciate the specifics we will be dissecting, beginning with:

The Story


First, both [REC] and Quarantine make the wise decision to not “pretty up” their storylines with unnecessary subtext or pointless subplots. Each movie gives us the same set up (reporter tagging along on a routine fire call) and takes it to its logical, logistical ends. Certainly, the effectiveness of how it manages this straightforward narrative device is one of the crucial differences between the two.  While it plays like a virtual shot-for-shot recreation of [REC] , Quarantine does contain elements that try (some successfully, some not so) to expand on the original idea. One of the Spanish spook shows many delights were its menacing inferences, from the standard zombie machinations to the horrific demonic possession material at the end. Quarantine goes for (SPOILER ALERT), “mutant rabies strain”. Similarly, the remake discharges all of the original’s religious overtones to expand on the whole “animal” angle. Quarantine also adds a couple of unique kills - one featuring a video camera, another involving an infected dog. All in all, however, it’s the same basic movie. 

The Characters


The biggest difference between [REC] and Quarantine is how each film handles its cast. For directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, there was a drive toward anonymity. There was a real desire on their part to use the (mostly) unknown quality of their performers to sell the reality of what was going on. As a result, they picked individuals like Manuela Velasco - some notoriety, but not enough to stick out in her native land. Naturally, when Hollywood cranks up its remake machine, they have to pepper the personalities with recognizable (or at least quasi-recognizable) actors. That’s why our lead is played by Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter, or why the fireman she follows are Jay Hernandez (of Hostel fame) and Johnathon Schaech (perhaps best known for That Thing You Do). While they attempt to override their celebrity with some halfway decent turns, the production clearly mandates more screen time for all of them. That’s why we get elongated sequences inside the firehouse, and the budding (if quickly tossed aside) sexual advances. [REC] views its characters as fright fodder. Quarantine is looking to pad some up and comers slight resumes.

The Actors


Oddly enough, the application of real thespians into this found footage conceit does Quarantine a grand disservice. While Hernandez actually helps in the heroics department (giving us a viable victim to root for), Ms. Carpenter is so over the top and fake that we wonder how anyone would ever take her seriously. As with most horror heroines, her character substitutes fear for common sense, leading to actions that would probably get her killed within the first five minutes. Unlike Angela Vidal, her Hispanic counterpart, she falls apart almost immediately, forgetting the story and her position as a member of the press. Similarly, the residents of the American apartment complex are all vying for screen time, preening and preparing when they should just be reacting. The best part of [REC] is how authentic the obviously fake situation feels. This is because the Spanish cast was kept in the dark, limited in how much they were told about what was going to happen. Such an approach makes the original play as real, something Quarantine has to work hard at - and that’s never a good thing. 

The Direction


For John Erick Dowdle, who along with his brother Drew came up with the so-so found footage film The Poughkeepsie Tapes a few years back, Quarantine represented a substantial step up. They were helming a Hollywood film for the first time, and recreating a favored foreign fright film at that. One would expect a few novice jitters, but for the most part, Dowdle does a great job. He doesn’t abuse the hand held element, going gonzo with shaky cam chaos. He even gives his shooter some onscreen time, making the “manual” aspect to the filming that much more important. For Balagueró and Plaza, there is no such need for added affectations. Instead, they want to treat this material as up front and formal as possible. When Angela screams about securing the camera, it’s because it is there to record the truth, not add some kind of cinematic “style” to the experience. As a result, [REC] feels like a newscast gone horribly wrong. While equally effective, Quarantine does have just the slightest twinge of cinematic self-indulgence.

The Gimmick


This is where [REC] runs roughshod over its Tinsel Town twin. Even though it’s obvious that both films are trying to copy real life, only the original succeeds as a shocker. The set-ups work better, the over the shoulder reveals and diminished peripheral vision functioning better than say, random shocks and sudden looks in the lens. In fact, almost every set-piece sequence (the falling fireman, the textile factory attack, the little girl transformation, the last ditch escape to the penthouse, the discovery of what’s inside) is handled better by [REC] than in Quarantine. Most would chalk this up to the work of cinematographer Pablo Rosso who really did handle the duties as Angela Vidal’s cameraman. He understands both the overall big picture of what Balagueró and Plaza want to accomplish while seamlessly fusing into the film’s premise. Never once do we see “Pablo”, nor is he a player in this particular drama. He is merely a member of the media, doing his job and hoping not to get killed in the process. His efforts make the found footage of [REC] look flawless. Quarantine, on the other hand, suffers from being too fussy and flashy.

by Diepiriye Kuku

15 Jul 2009

Please play more Michael Jackson. He is an original humanitarian. Michael Jackson was more than a pop star; he defined modern popular music. It’s basic ignorance that leads anyone to continue to discredit the way this artist lived. Fans, and anyone else listening to the words written, composed and performed by Michael Jackson would not be so greedy, angry and stupid of the sort that leads us to destroy the planet and divide people.

Earth Song, Heal the World, and of course, We are the World. This man clearly propagated ‘love’ as the way forward. This nation desperately needs to reconcile with Michael Jackson and come to terms with the fact that we created a monster. In spite of the self-mutilation, abuse of credit and addiction to “consumerism,”—you know, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll—we cannot deny that he was an apt mirror of this society. As a pop star, Michael Jackson mirrored the iconic status the United States enjoys in the world- and embodies the unreconciled contradictions as well.

I’m startin’ with the man in the mirror.
I’m asking him to change his ways.
And no message could have been any clearer:
If you wanna make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself, and
Make that change.

by shathley Q

15 Jul 2009

Light, and sound, and Christmas.

In the concluding chapter of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ Lawless, the heist is finally on. But who are you rooting for?

There is seemingly no end to the supply of bad guys.

The stickup gang is filled with types you wouldn’t want over for Christmas dinner. Gray the stickup man, Nelson the muscle and Mallory femme fatale passing herself off as the shill. They work as a gang, or as Brubaker eloquently puts it, ‘As uncomfortable together as any other dysfunctional family… Dependent on each other for survival and security whether they liked it or not’.

Working his way into the gang’s trust is the tough guy and lead of the story Tracy Lawless. He’s ‘a guy who can drive’ when the gang need someone to drive. He’s also man responsible for killing Davey the group’s former driver. But for Tracy, an Army specialist deployed to Iraq now on Unauthorized Absence, infiltrating the gang is a matter of revenge. His brother Ricky, erstwhile leader of the gang was betrayed and eventually murdered by one of his own. Tracy is in town to settle the score. And supporting cast are making moves of their own. Sebastian Hyde the crime-boss looking to appear legit, Chester his muscle intimidating even Gnarly the tough-guy bartender, and Jacob the cartoonist turned counterfeiter.

Far from a single, simple panel in a chase sequence, Phillips provides readers with a map of the machinations and manipulations going on. The panel itself provides two separate layers of interference; the driving snow and the flashing lights of the squad car. It’s easy to lose track of the 70s muscle car, the Dodge Charger, as it careens through the panel. As with the light and the snow, readers of Lawless don’t always understand what they’re seeing. Tracy’s third-person observations made in caption boxes act as the layers of light and snow do, misdirecting readers’ attentions. And just as the sound FX project beyond the panel, there are times when even Tracy moves beyond readers’ view.

By the time of the chase depicted in this panel, Tracy has already discovered the identity of his brother’s killer. They’re in the car with him, he’s helping them escape. But why would he do that?

by Kirstie Shanley

15 Jul 2009

Though the four-piece instrumental band Explosions in the Sky is no stranger to Chicago, this show was made special because it marked their tenth anniversary together as a band. Over the past decade, throughout the band’s five studio albums and consistent touring, they’ve perfected their experimental sound and their ability to turn it into a massive shared experience. It’s difficult to find many other bands of this genre that can match their sonic energy in a way that both adeptly acknowledges a gentle calm brightness and at other times a loud chaos. Like most of their song titles, their music accepts a sort of hopefulness that feels empowering and utterly complete.

Playing a gorgeous 90 minute set, Explosions in the Sky forgoes banter and instead lets each song seamlessly crash and evolve into the next, creating a sense of new wonder for each performance. Guitarist Munaf Rayani is the spokesperson for the band and typically makes a humble statement at the beginning and end of each performance about how much the band appreciates the audience and how special it is for them to perform. This time, he added a special note at the end that he hopes the band is together forever with the vast wall-to-wall audience in boisterous agreement.

Though guitar and pedal effects create a huge portion of their sound, Chris Hrasky’s drumming allows the songs to reach new levels of tension. The band plays with very little foreground light on their faces and bright beams of background light that spotlights the audience more than what is happening on stage. Munaf Rayani is the most animated of the three guitarists, often swirling his guitar around the Texas flag draped over the speaker cabinet for his amp.

Similar to many of their individual songs, their set began with a serene calmness and built slowly into a powerful crescendo of epic proportions. The audience provided a passionate response, throwing hands up in the air, clapping spontaneously during the songs, and cheering wildly for more. Highlights of the set included: “The Birth and Death of the Day”, “Catastrophe and the Cure”, “The Only Moment We Were Alone”, “Memorial”, and “Your Hand in Mine”.

With their alternating tumult, reeling guitars, and shimmering sense of dreamy grace, it’s difficult to not see some similarities to bands of the shoegaze genre. The band is often classified as post-rock though, and perhaps they take the elements of shoegaze to a new level. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of removal from time and space when they are playing and imagine a strange sort of postmodern wasteland where you’re bound to see a few ghosts. In the midst of the struggle, there seems to be hope for redemption and recovery. Perhaps Explosions in the Sky is this generation’s answer to My Bloody Valentine when the words would only get in the way.

by Chris Barsanti

15 Jul 2009

At what point did the Harry Potter film franchise become a race against repetition? In J.K. Rowling’s series of popcorn-munching fantasy-lite page-turners, the cycle of familiar events is something that helps power them along. Without the susurrus of new classes, new teachers, school holidays, and the rising and falling of friendships and crushes humming in the foreground, the books would have been lost beneath a crashing din of Rowling’s hyperactive plotting. As fantastical fictionalizing of the dreary retread of school years that march one towards adulthood, the books’ magic was rarely about exploration or discovery, but rather about circling the wagons of home and hearth against the darkness outside. Repetition, in the correct dosage, helped reinforce the sense of normalcy and protection that progressively shriveled from book to darker-hued book.

In the film series—which helped instantly transform the books into just another widget in the corporate multimedia entertainment platform before they could really take on an imaginative life of their own—those same guideposts of repetition become less reassuring, though, than they do overbearing. It’s a fascinating thing, as an audience, to watch a young cast grow through the years in tandem with their quickly maturing characters. It becomes less so to watch them undergo the same kind of trials and tribulations from one film to the next.

In film number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the threatening overtures of the Dark Lord and his wraiths of doom are gathering swiftly. Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, where new security procedures have been put into place, the students go about their business, albeit more nervously than usual. A round of thwarted romance sweeps through the trio of Ron, Hermione, and Harry, aiming to provide some lovesick cheer amidst the gloom. Where director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves go wrong almost from the start is in how they decide to toggle back and forth between the two spheres of dangerous dark-fighting and high school angst, with the latter seeming to get much more attention.

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