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by Bill Gibron

2 Aug 2009

In the most controversial scene in the equally scandalous Tropic Thunder, Australian actor turned black man Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to explain to hack action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) why his performance as the mentally handicapped character Simple Jack failed to earn him any serious professional credence. “Everybody knows you never go full retard,” says the saucy Aussie, arguing that performers who cross the border from artificial into far too real become awards season liabilities. Truth, according to Lazarus, must always be tempered with a wink of and nod to the audience.

Billy Bob Thornton would probably have a bone to pick with said sentiment. For his Oscar nominated (and eventually winning) work in Sling Blade, he was 100% committed to making his slow-witted manchild Karl Childers a real, if rather bizarre, representation of a handicap gone horrifically wrong. It’s not just that this memorable man is a murderer. It’s that Karl contains so many facets of innocence and naiveté that we wonder how he ever came to kill. The answer is part of this movie’s masterful narrative drive and personality detail.

Having been locked up in the State Institution for almost two decades, Karl is deemed to no longer represent a danger to himself or others. While facility director Jerry Woolridge would like nothing more than to let him stay, the government deems otherwise. Returning to his hometown, Karl meets up with a young boy named Frank Wheatley. He lives with his mother Linda and her abusive boyfriend, Doyle. After initially taking up residence in the back of the machine shop where he works fixing appliances and motors, Karl is invited to stay with the Wheatleys. There, he learns of Doyle hard-drinking destruction of the family. Fighting the urge to remedy the situation the same way he did several years before, Karl contains himself. But all it takes is one insensitive spark to set him off, and Doyle is, if anything, predicable with said fireworks.

Arriving out of nowhere to become the buzz of 1996, Sling Blade brought then mostly unknown actor/writer/director Billy Bob Thornton to mainstream prominence. His feature length treatment of a formerly short film project propelled him to the A-list of hyphenated talents, trumping almost all the work he had done for the decade before. From 1986’s Hunter’s Blood through Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, Thornton struggled. But his co-starring and co-scripting duties on Carl Franklin’s cult phenomenon One False Move proved that there was more to this musician turned thespian than genre schlock. By the time Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade was turned into a major motion picture, Thornton had Childers down pat. Allowing the rest of his cast to be as natural and organic as possible gave the unlikely hero of this post-modern Southern Gothic a chance to be as arc and allegorical as possible.

Indeed, one has to remember that Karl represents more than evil returning to the town of its source. He’s not just some brain damaged delinquent who’s unsure of his own sinister edge. As Thornton writes him, Karl is in complete control of his faculties. He’s just slow and insular, lost in the wounded, wicked world he creates inside himself. He knows right from wrong, but he also understands that, sometimes, morality plays no part in one’s personal duty. From the killing of his momma when he was a kid to the constant threat he appears to represent, Karl is karma, humanized and humbled.

We can see the how the horrid Doyle Hargraves becomes the latest target of his internal ethical dilemma. Karl just wants to protect new found friends Frank and Linda Wheatley. But this is one simpleton who sees beyond the basics. He realizes what someone like Doyle does to people. It’s not just that he brings out the worst - this is one angry, antisocial monster. It’s a revelatory move to make the former murderer the good guy in your faraway fairytale. Frank and Linda should be afraid of Karl, but his implied cruelty is nothing compared to the nastiness they already know. Thornton never turns his creation into something horrific. Instead, Karl becomes honor, the voice of violent reason in a situation otherwise structured on clichéd concepts of loyalty and flawed gender politics.

As an actor, Thornton is terrific. He never once falsifies who Karl is. From the voice pattern to the physicality of the man, this is someone we believe can and does exist - even within the surreal dynamic he seems to inhabit. Still, as the commentary track on the recently released Blu-ray version of the title reveals, Thornton was working on the character for years. It was kind of a catharsis for him, a way to totally get lost in a personality and then running with the foreign feeling identity. Lots of actors have done it before, with or without going “full retard”, but the truth is that Thornton’s turn remains more than great. It’s iconic, that celluloid rarity destined to live on long after he’s been forgotten as a part of film.

And his eye for supporting casts is equally clever. The late great John Ritter shines as a gay man quietly maintaining his dignity in a known den of bigotry, and Natalie Canerday is equally good as the mother who must balance the needs of her kid with the kind of support someone like Doyle can represent. Robert Duval’s devastating cameo as Karl’s impoverished dad and Lucas Black’s beautiful turn as Frank finds Thornton leading an undeniably talented group of performers. But it’s Dwight Yoakum who’s the real visceral epiphany here. The honky-tonk hero, a country icon indebted to the good time vibe of Buck Owens and the streets of Bakersfield, he’s the dictionary definition of a villain. Doyle is not just a man who answers issues with the back of his hand. He’s someone who doesn’t care that this is all he’s capable of. Call it a power play or a coward’s way out, but he’s that undeniable force of fear that everyone has to contend with - everyone except Karl, that is.

With Thornton’s keen eye and Daniel Lanois’ laconic musical score, Sling Blade provides a level of dread and anticipatory suspense into what is already a classic character study. Indeed, this is one of the few multi-genre successes, working well within the categories of drama, comedy, thriller, and mystery. It’s an ensemble where one man is clearly the main focus, a tour de force where everyone gets to share in the critical praise. Thornton would go on to a rollercoaster career in Hollywood, courting success and scandal as only the truly gifted and incorrigible can. No one can take away what he did with Sling Blade. In fact, he can make a million Armageddons and a bunch of Bad News Bears and still not tarnish this terrific film. Whether or not it takes mental deficiencies too far, one thing’s for certain - Thornton triumphs in an arena where few of his colleagues have excelled. Sling Blade is the exception that defies the rule.

by Oliver Ho

1 Aug 2009

They lived on opposite sides of the planet, at roughly the same time, and never met. In their lifetimes (one is now dead) each became an acknowledged and influential master in his chosen form of storytelling, and even though their media, social contexts and biographies were worlds apart, the early work of each artist bears striking similarities: they shared a melancholy, darkly humorous, and peculiarly bleak vision of character, story, and life.

After a lifetime in manga—from being a precocious, published artist before he was 15, to becoming known as the “godfather” of an entire style of storytelling—Yohihiro Tatsumi finally gained a significant profile in the West with the publication of four books over the past few years.

Starting in 2005, Canada’s Drawn and Quarterly published three collections of Tatsumi’s short stories, representing work from 1969 to 1972, and a massive memoir that covers his life and work in manga up to 1960.

Represent a fraction of his output, the four books shed light on a fascinating genre of manga, and reveal an avenue of storytelling with connections to the greatest modern short fiction.

by Bill Gibron

1 Aug 2009

The rap against remakes is simple - it’s been done before…and usually better. So there’s no need to do it again, right? Sure, Hollywood currently tries to sidestep such suggestions by using words like “reimagining”, but the truth is, the original source material for most revamps is better, more arresting, and more interesting than their updated counterpart. This is especially true of Nature’s Grave. A virtual shot for shot redo of the amazing 1978 Australian thriller Long Weekend, this story of man vs. nature was one of the most disturbing, unsettling fright films of the last three decades. In its new, “improved” version, also scripted by Weekend scribe Everett De Roche, we have the same themes of environmentalism, ecology, and the eventual retaliation of a pissed-off animal populace. Sadly, the casting choices and name behind the lens all but sinks this redux’s potential success. After all, it was already done before…and much, much better.

Peter and Carla are a married couple who’ve been through a rather rough patch, relationship-wise. He’s apparently just broken off an ongoing affair, while she’s had an abortion, the result of her own secret sexual indiscretions. Hoping a long weekend by the sea will rekindle their love, they pack up the Range Rover and head out to parts of Australia unknown. Hoping to eventually meet some friends at a remote campsite, the pair gets lost almost immediately. After spending a night in the car, they eventually reach their destination. Right off the bat, things do not go well for our duo. She hates the wilderness and he’s too busy playing macho outdoorsman to care. Then odd things start happening. Animals start attacking. A strange shape in the water eerily floats by. Nights are filled with peculiar noises. Days are filled with confrontations and fear. Before long, both want to leave this long weekend away from the city. But nature has other ideas about what to do with these two.

Nature’s Grave violates one of the first rules of remakes - if you’re not going to be as good, or try to improve on, what came before, you really shouldn’t bother. In the 1978 original, a menacing John Hargreaves drove a dowdy Briony Behets to the point of hysterics with his flailing false bravado and cruel carelessness. While neither actor was Shakespearean in quality, the appeared real and authentic, looking like typical Australians about to have the worst extended holiday ever. In this unnecessary update, James Caviezel proves conclusively that playing Jesus Christ convincingly is his sole cinematic quality. He is bad here - slipping in and out of accents, either inert or frenzied in how he approaches a particular scene. Perhaps Urban Legend director Jamie Blanks thought that making Peter as unstable as the surrounding wilderness was a wise idea. Or maybe, Caviezel is just that limited of a performer. He sure does love walking around shirtless, however. 

Whatever the case, we never take Peter’s side here. We never feel he’s been slighted or hurt. When he is attacked by an eagle, or threatened by an unknown object in the water, we don’t hope for his safety. Instead, we pray for his death. In the original film, both characters were seen as victims first, possible provocateurs second. But with Blanks desire to tweak everything about Long Weekend for his own motives, our hero goes from complicated to criminal to just plain crazy, while Claudia Karvan’s Carla is part scream queen, part shrew. It’s a one note turn - constantly looking at her husband as a threat, this clearly troubled woman wants very little to do with anything except herself. We never really connect with her inner pain, fail to see why she would stay with this man after the history (and personal horrors) she’s encountered. And yet unlike Long Weekend, which seemed to suggest something significant between the couple, Blanks contains them within a recognizable horror/thriller mold.

As for the director himself, he fails a few of the fright flick basics. He drains all the tension out of the set-up by steering his cast into nearly comic areas of aggression. He telegraphs his dread, offering one too many POV shots of the couple setting up camp. His location is lovely, almost breathtaking in its beauty, and yet there are few extended shots which allow us to feel the scope of Peter and Carla’s isolation. We always feel like our couple is sitting somewhere in an Australian National Park, not some vast unholy wilderness. Granted, toward the end, when bodies begin to pop up and death has to be dealt with, Blanks shows why he was brought onto the project. The ending specifically amplifies the nastiness of the original. But Blanks stumbles more than he succeeds. It’s as if he was so determined to be reverential that he forgot about the reinvention.

Indeed, that’s Nature’s Grave‘s biggest problem - if you seen Long Weekend, you’ve seen this film. Nothing Blanks or Caviezel or Karvan bring to the update expands on our appreciation or enjoyment of the first film, and since writer Everett De Roche has kept each and every original plot point intact, there are no new surprises or twists. There will be those that argue that the real intention of this remake is to give fans that may have missed the movie the first time around another opportunity to see it, only this time in a “new and improved” setting. And it has been 31 years since the late Colin Eggleston unleashed his vision on a mostly uncaring world. But again, mere repetition is not going to earn you an entertainment excuses. You will live - and die - by how faithful you are to the source, or how fresh you approach is. Sadly, Nature’s Grave is neither. It wants to update the whole man vs. nature dynamic for a post-millennial age. Instead, it further fuels the always dicey original vs. remake debate.

by Bill Gibron

1 Aug 2009

In the far off, distant future, when film is no longer a question of celluloid or aluminum discs, historians will look at the Walt Disney Company with a combination of admiration and disdain. Without a doubt, no other Hollywood production dynasty has manufactured the kind of universally loved entertainment as the House of Mouse. For every minor fumble or commercial miscue, they’ve come up with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and more recently, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Their partnership with Pixar (both before and after the merger) has resulted in ten near-perfect CG cartoons and they’ve continued to mine their massive vaults as inspiration for dozens of sequels, tie-ins, and newly formed classics.

And then there is the other side of Uncle Walt’s World, a viciously capitalistic enterprise that can’t leave its legacy alone.  Sure, every other studio in town marginalizes its past by pilfering it for unnecessary remakes and reimaginings. And it’s not really fair to point to Disney as the worst of these endless recyclers. While they may be the most prevalent in looking for ways to extend their various franchises, they are perhaps the most consistent in finding fairly successful ways of doing so. Case in point: Race to Witch Mountain. Though their live action efforts have never been the company’s cure-all, it makes perfect sense to take a slighted sci-fi series from three decades before and retrofit it to the talents of human tentpole Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. While it still smacks of an accounting, not artistic decision, we really don’t mind the diversion.

The former pro wrestler plays a failed race car driver named Jack Bruno. After falling in with the wrong criminal crowd, our measured man is trying to straighten out his life. As a cabbie in Las Vegas, he is still hounded by his past, but all that changes when seemingly desperate teens Sara and Seth show up in the back of his taxi. They offer him a large sum of money to drive out into the desert. He reluctantly agrees. Thus begins what is, in essence, an extended chase where the US Government, led by the evil Henry Burke, tries to capture the kids (who are in fact, aliens), and Jack does everything in his semi-super hero power to protect them. There are crashes and explosions, special effects and lots of jokes at the expense of geeks, nerds, and anyone enamored of all things speculative and fictional. Though he’s not a brilliant director, Andy Fickman (She’s the Man, The Game Plan) keeps things moving at a genial, agreeable pace.

But this doesn’t mean that Race to Witch Mountain is memorable. Or meaningful. In fact, it’s safe to say that this is the very definition of empty celluloid calories. Since it never intends to be anything other than adolescent fodder, a means of giving the slightly more mature members of the House of Mouse demo a sound movie experience, the lack of any substance doesn’t really matter. But when taken as part of a trend, when shown to suggest nothing more than a way for an already flush filmmaking concern to continuing minting money, it can’t help but seem superficial. From its cast to its creative team, Race to Witch Mountain is not an “E” ticket experience. Instead, this is the ride you take when The Haunted Mansion line is too long and you’ve already been to The Country Bear Jamboree.

It’s not Johnson’s fault. He’s a good enough guy and is more than capable of handling the action. Sure, Jack Bruno turns from troubled ex-con to steely man of action within ten minutes of the movie starting, and we never revisit the kind of brooding self-examination the introduction suggests. But at least Mr. Rock is not Carla Gugino. Rarely has such a sexy actress had her hots turned down as harshly as they are here. Instead of playing up her attractiveness, Fickman and the gang give her a dopey hairdo and an equally annoying personality to strip any last vestiges of ‘va-va-va-voom’ from her UFO expert persona. It’s not just that Gugino is better looking than she is here - she’s smarter, more assured, and far more appealing than the whiny waste she’s forced to play.

As our alien adolescents, AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig are fine, though only the former brings anything “otherworldly” to their performance. For the most part, they are meant to look wholesome and helpless, loaded with magic extraterrestrial powers but in desperate need of an adult male to manage their journey off planet. Since the movie is nothing but derivative, it stands to reason that a Terminator-like character (known as a Siphon) would show up to mandate Bruno’s beefed-up involvement, but even that threat is contained, kept to balls of electrified fire and the occasional laser blast. As the more human villain, Irishman Ciarán Hinds is stripped of his dignity, and his accent, to play a bland bureaucrat.

Even embellished by the blu-ray experience (Disney really excels at the new home theater format), Race to Witch Mountain still feels small. It’s not meant to be epic, or broach the kind of cosmic scope that other recent sci-fi offerings like Knowing have attempted. In many ways, Fickman is making Dick and Jane’s first experience with extraterrestrials - scary without being shocking, exciting without being overwhelming. Even with the obvious nods to the ‘70s original (former child stars Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann reappear here as residents of a small California town) and the upgrade in visuals, one still gets the sense of a TV movie blown up to big screen proportions. It doesn’t undermine the efforts genial entertainment value, but hardly trying and barely succeeding are not honorable artistic badges to wear.

In some ways, it’s no longer just to court Disney as a purveyor of quality family filmmaking. Sure, they can stumble upon genius once in a while - almost always with the help of outside auteurs - but for the most part, there is very little distinction between the grist mill movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and the nominal titles taking up theatrical space in the post-millennial marketplace. Granted, Race with Witch Mountain is not Boatniks or Super Dad, but it hardly qualifies as a timeless keeper - and under the current corporate model, that suits Mr. Mickey’s men just fine. There was once a time when a ‘Walt Disney’ title suggested classicism and creative daring. Today, it’s all commerciality and accounting ink. Race with Witch Mountain is an enjoyable byproduct of such stresses. It’s as hit and miss as the minds who made it.

by PopMatters Staff

31 Jul 2009

PopMatters loved Elbow’s latest album, The Seldom Seen Kid, placing it at #9 on our top 60 album list last year. The Manchester band stopped by KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program last week to chat and play some tunes.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

'Steep' Loves Its Mountains

// Moving Pixels

"SSX wanted you to fight its mountains, Steep wants you to love its mountains.

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