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by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007

P2 (dir. Franck Khalfoun)

Since the earliest days of cinema, the woman in jeopardy has been a narrative staple. From the perils experienced by Pauline to the quid pro quo of Clarice Starling’s interaction with a certain serial killer, the seemingly helpless female has been perfect thriller protagonist fodder since nitrate was first silvered. They get the audience interested, tweaking both the paternal and maternal instincts among viewers. Some have even suggested a much meaner, misogynistic explanation for such story structures. Ever since the slasher film in the ‘80s, gals have been garroted for reasons that have remained insular and disturbing. Even when eventually empowered, there tends to be a viciousness toward our heroine that’s almost inexcusable. Even in cases like P2, where our lead is obviously much smarter and more controlled than our craven psychopath, there’s a backwards blame game being played that just doesn’t seem fair.

It’s Christmas Eve, and go getting executive Angela Bridges is stuck smoothing out the wrinkles of an important client contract. In constant contact with her eager to celebrate family, and warding off the wounded pride of office lothario Bob, all she wants to do is get finished, get home, and get partying. Unfortunately, when she finally makes it to the parking garage and her car, the darn thing won’t start. Even worse, the creepy facility security guard, a guy named Thomas, keeps asking her to stay for his own personal holiday dinner. Without warning, she is suddenly kidnapped and confined. Apparently, Thomas is far from harmless. In fact, he apparently wants to be “friends” with his longtime obsession, and he’s not about to take “No” for an answer. It will take cunning and courage to escape this unhinged villain, and to make matters worse, the entire building is locked down tight. It’s just Angela, Thomas, his vicious Rottweiler, and any unfortunate bystander that gets in their way.

P2 is the perfect example of a thermostat style thriller. It keeps its superficial suspense percolating at just the right level throughout its entire 96 minutes of its running time, only stopping on occasion to let the dread’s temperature ebb and subside a few empty degrees now and then. It doesn’t go the rollercoaster route, and it’s unsure about the proper ratio of goofiness to gore. But when you’ve sat through a wealth of grade-Z genre schlock, films that wouldn’t know thrills and/or chills if they rose up from the grave and bit them in their lofty ambitions, this first time feature from Alexandre Aja protégé Franck Khalfoun is an authentic attempt at terror. Certainly it stumbles along the way, and someone needed to inform bad guy Wes Bentley that juvenilia and joking doesn’t really equal insanity, but for the most part, this by the book boo fest serves up some engaging shivers.

As they did with the fabulous slice and dice Haute Tension—Aja, producing pal Grégory Levasseur, and Khalfoun all contributed to this script—these French film geeks are out to prove that they know movie macabre. They’ve studied it, absorbed the many fright flick nuances, and found a way to tweak them just enough to bring the standard stereotypes and formulas into the cynical contemporary era. There is nothing really new here, no attempt at rewriting the rules or deconstructing the format. But sometimes a hoary old cliché can come bubbling back to life if handled in a respectful and direct manner—and this describes P2 perfectly. It’s all creepy cat and mouse for about an hour and a half, a by the numbers knuckle biter that delivers the fake shocks, the ineffectual rescues, and the last act beat down we’ve come to expect.

Part of the reason why P2 doesn’t aim (or reach) higher is its less than impressive cast. Don’t get the wrong impression—Rachel Nichols’ Angela and Bentley’s Thomas are professional and far from distracting. Each tries to bring something new to what are basically cardboard cutouts (overworked type-A corporate pawn, insane lowlife stalker), and without much success in that category, still keep us quite interested. It could have something to do with Khalfoun’s direction. There is a purposeful pace to P2, a story structure that moves determinedly through each and every marker on the horror horizon. Getting there may be half the fun, but what happens once we arrive is guaranteed to give you only the most minor amount of goosebumps.

If you’re expecting Haute Tension 2, however, or another dose of overdone gorno (got to love the studios’ bandwagon tendency with even the most mindless of movie trends) P2 will leave you rather disenchanted. What Aja did with his revisionist slasher (and what he managed in the otherwise perfunctory Hills Have Eyes remake) is clarify the potency of certain fear factors. From an unseen force of pure evil that is only glimpsed in small doses to a last act twist that was both predictable and prescient, we were guided through a geek’s official terror talking points. The difference here is that Khalfoun is clearly locked in apprentice mode. He can get away with some solid setpieces (like the fate of the aforementioned Bob), but there are times when the film appears to fade away. And since he’s not trying to bring anything new to the discussion, there’s no novelty to keep things focused and fresh.

Still, in a genre that stumbles more than it soars, where your average camcorder creator can’t figure out a way to properly dredge up the dread, P2 is perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t demand much and gives just slightly more than same in return. It does argue for Aja’s growing status as a horror maestro, and that his sphere of influence is capable, if still a bit basic. Don’t let other macabre marginalizing critics convince you that there are not some solid scarefest pleasures to be had here. They are viewing said subject through some decidedly biased eyes. Take the word of a fellow aficionado of fright—P2 is pretty decent. Not the most glowing of recommendations, but then again, this isn’t the most original of woman in peril plotlines—or motion pictures.


by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007

FRED CLAUS (dir. David Dobkin)

Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special—a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.

Ever since he was a boy, Fred had to live in the sainted shadow of his practically perfect younger sibling Nicholas. As they aged, the constant doting of their mother and the growing gregarious nature of little “Santa” finally got to his big brother. Irritation turned to ire, and when a prized possession is suddenly destroyed, Fred decides he no longer needs the Claus clan. He winds up in the Windy City, playing repo man. While his woman Wanda puts up with his issues, it’s street kid Slam that really appreciates his cynical poses. After getting arrested in a charity scam, Fred looks for someone to bail him out. Sadly, only Santa is available. He agrees to help his distant relative on one condition—he must come to the North Pole and work in his little brother’s toy concern. Initially reluctant, Fred signs on, and it’s a good thing too, since evil Efficiency Expert Clyde Northcutt has just arrived—and he’s looking to put the jolly old elf out of business.

Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas. It’s a movie steeped in mythos, overflowing with heart, and devilishly deceptive about its contrasting seasonal dichotomy. On the one hand, the narrative wants to champion a theme of “no bad children”, arguing that Santa’s outdated “naughty or nice” judgment misses the much bigger picture. Yet there’s an equally effective subtext which hints that such touchy feely pronouncements have ruined the real spirit of the holiday, a time when giving was based on your approach to life the other 364 days out of the year, not just your status as an annual gift machine. While it may not have been the intention of director David Dobkin, Fred Claus exposes the layers of fake sentiment that tends to destroy every celebration. Instead, he boils Christmas down to its iconic basics—snow, Santa, smiling faces—and then encloses it all in a veil of dysfunction which wants to mirror everyday existence. 

Oddly enough, it’s not Vince Vaughn’s Fred who’s the main culprit. He’s supposed to corrupt our silent night. Capable of playing both way big and too small, he’s just right here—angry but approachable, selfish but not completely self-centered. And Kevin Spacey’s Nortcutt is not the killjoy either. Granted, he’s the stereotypical bureaucrat that manages to stamp out the joy of such a season (he could kill a kitten’s inherent cuteness), but he’s nothing but a bully, a plot point waiting for its comeuppance. Other potential suspects include Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), the very definition of a silent shrew, and the perplexed parents (Kathy Bates and Brit Trevor Peacock) who dote on their gift giving offspring without once considering Fred’s feelings. So who’s the biggest baddy of them all in this film filled with potential problem makers? Why Santa of course.

Fred Claus’s single genius stroke is to make Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of the Christmas fixture a flailing, neurotic mess. Old St. Nick is a walking disaster, a stressed out soul who’s eating away his troubles. As a child, we see how, sometimes, Santa was misguided in his decisions. He believes he can gift issues away, and as he grows older, he keeps toys away from deserving kids because he won’t make quota if everyone gets a present. While it’s very sly and almost too subtle, Dobkin delivers a red suited symbol who’s at the end of his rope. He’s just a single bad business report from going postal—and Fred may be the fuel to start such a shooting spree. Of course, Fred Claus never careens that far over into bleak black comedy, but a great many of the gags here are definitely based in anger, desperation, and interpersonal shame.

Certainly this is not a perfect film. A tiny elf character named Willy, essayed by Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins, is about as convincing as the CGI used to render his miniature status. We know he lusts after the human sized Charlene, but his motives are really unclear. Similarly, there’s a lot of unexplored potential in the tiny DJ played by rapper Ludicris. The talented artist is more or less wasted in what amounts to an uncreative cameo. There are scenes that don’t really go anywhere (an intervention with Fred falls flat) and Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz is a weird choice for a Chicago meter maid. Her relationship with Fred is fine, but her presence in the US is never explained. Some could argue that for a funny business fantasy that intends to do nothing more than make you laugh and enliven your spirit, Fred Claus need not be flawless. But when there’s so much good material surrounding them, the miscues are more than evident.

Still, it’s hard to hate a Christmas movie that allows Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin, and Frank Stallone to riff on and rip on their far more famous siblings, and there is a wonderful montage toward the end that effortlessly captures the reasons for the season. And thanks to the bifurcated back and forth, the constant countermanding of wholesomeness with hackwork, tradition with the tainted and the tasteless, we wind up with a reflection of post-millennial holiday cheer. Some will come in expecting Bad Santa meshed with Wedding Crashers, but Fred Claus is friendlier, more away in a manger manageable than such a hard R conceit would create. This is truly a family film, albeit it one that acknowledges that you too hate the annual ridiculousness of such forced reunions. If Xmas has become a royal pain in the credit, this highly enjoyable romp knows the reasons why. Somewhere along the line, we lost the true meaning of decking the halls. Fred Claus won’t help you rediscover the significance, but it will make forgetting a whole lot more understandable.

by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007

SLEUTH (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting.

No, the real featured performer here is a typically unsung hero known as Kenneth Branagh’s camera. It zips and zings, floating around large spaces and creeping around corners. It stays stoic and stationary when needed, and flips itself over like a puppy wanting attention when the narrative needs a creative spark. Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless. While it’s hard to imagine a battle of wits between war horse Caine and stud muffin Law to be anything other than kinetic, this exceedingly uninspired update of the 1972 original provides the perfect argument for leaving old cinema well enough alone. While the previous incarnation was far from perfect, this adaptation makes it look like a classic from the Old Vic.

When our sticky narrative begins, we meet Andrew Wyke, a successful crime author. Having learned that his wife is cuckolding him with a two bit actor/ hairdresser named Milo Tindle, he invites the bloke over for a sit down. Our young stud is glad to have the confrontation. He wants the Missus all to himself. But Wyke won’t give up without a fight, and he stages an elaborate trick in which he threatens the young man. The fatal results spell doom for this rich writer’s freedom—or do they? Perhaps this too is part of another elaborate ruse meant to scare Wyke into admitting the adultery and losing his wife forever. Whatever the case, it’s clear that these two men don’t like each other. The victor will most likely be the individual that has the gumption to go all the way—even as far as prison.

There are three basic things wrong with this remake (or as Branagh has noted, ‘reimagining’). The first is the decision to dump most of Anthony Schaffer’s original plotting. Sure, the set-up is the same, the cheated on husband, the dashing if slightly dumb lover, the surreal sense of one-upmanship between the two, the elaborate plot twists and interconnect charade. But where Pinter and Branagh break from tradition is as profound as it is perplexing. First off, most of Wyke’s infidelity is out. There is a hint, but we really sense he adores his trophy spouse. Second, there’s a last act turn toward talky desperation. It’s as if, after delivering two tripwire segments, everyone decided on something hackneyed and senseless for a finale. It really reeks of a massive screenplay stumble and practically destroys all that came before. 

Next is the Act II twist. Of course, in order to discuss it, we need to include a SPOILER ALERT. When Jude Law shows up in disguise as the gruff and smelly cop, he’s about as convincing as a high schooler embodying Willy Loman. There is just too much of the charismatic actor under all the greasepaint and fake features for us to buy the flim flam. And the back and forth between Wyke and this bogus bobby seems to ‘drag’ on forever. Long before our characters uncover the gag, we are bored waiting for said shoe to drop. The final facet that fails to connect is the homosexual angle. Again, another SPOILER is mandatory. In this version of the play, Wyke invites Tindle to be his “traveling companion” around the world, describing all the non-erotic male bonding they can experience while living together and sharing a bed. Apart from sounding like a Hays Code version of same sex innuendo, the veiled references aimed at maximizing intrigue end up resulting in unsettled aggravation. 

It clearly can’t be a matter of cinematic courage. We’ve grown up a lot in the last 50 years, and Caine even engaged in an eyebrow raising liplock with a male costar before, in the like minded motion picture puzzle box Death Trap. But just like everything else in Sleuth, even the most scandalous material is measured and antiseptic. In fact, most of the movie is as devoid of color and character as Wyke’s warship gray homestead. Branagh braves a lot of possible criticism for tampering with what ended up being Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s last film. The director, noted for such Tinsel Town treasures as All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, and Suddenly, Last Summer, would have never sold his story out this way. Instead, he would have challenged convention and deconstructed the essence of Schaeffer’s opus. Branagh, instead, simply guts the beast and sets it up in a new, high tech trench for all to see.

And the view isn’t very viable at all. While some of the scenes crackle with the kind of thespian fireworks we expect from such bright British lights, Sleuth is claustrophobic and cold, more a mausoleum than an actual movie—and it’s equally strewn with the corpses of the past and their unfriendly ghosts. Perhaps if Law had been replaced with someone sturdier, say Daniel Day Lewis or Ewan McGregor. Maybe if Pinter had polished the knotty narrative to the point of a high, histrionic strewn gloss. It could be that Branagh has made the very opposite of a thriller—a movie that doesn’t fray the nerves as much as recognize their biological importance and then politely moves on. There is great tension here, but also great tediousness. During the days when Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap was the longest running show in theater history, this kind of heavy handed antagonist byplay found favor with an audience. But in a Saw born environment, to be obvious is to be obsolete.

Still, that camera carries on. It gets in close to see Law’s fake teeth and Caine’s conniving eyes. It follows action from various surveillance set-ups, giving the movements a video game like quality. It reveals secrets and hinders clues. But most of all, it announces itself as easily the best element of what is otherwise a magnificent misfire. As mysteries go, it’s mindless and quite inconsequential. As a lesson in applying lenses, Sleuth manages a bit of relevancy—if only a bit. 

by Rob Horning

8 Nov 2007

A few weeks ago the Financial Times directed its pale-peach gaze at a problem that may be widely undiagnosed in America. Under the dry headline of “Swedes face scrutiny as welfare net starts to fray” comes the story of Roger Tullgren, an unfortunate sufferer of an addiction all too familiar to anyone who was in high school in the 1980s:

To say Roger Tullgren likes heavy metal would be an understatement. The committed headbanger used to take time off work whether his boss liked it or not, to go to gigs; he also listened to music the entire time he was at work. “My friends used to ask me to say anything – just one thing – that was not to do with heavy metal, and I couldn’t,” he admitted.
The situation got so bad that, with the backing of his boss, he consulted a psychologist who concluded that Mr Tullgren was not just an ardent rock fan but was in fact addicted to heavy metal – and signed an official diagnosis stating as much.

At one of my first jobs, at a market-research firm of all places, I worked with someone like this. He used to smoke weed in the parking lot and try to carve “Slayer” into his arm with an unfolded paper clip while we made our phone calls to unsuspecting households and asked anyone who answered their opinions about cat litter. (Most were for it.) Anytime he wasn’t talking about cat litter to strangers, he was listening to metal, and when he deigned to speak to co-workers, it was about metal. It never occurred to me that he was suffering inside. In Sweden, apparently, he would have had somewhere to turn:

as Mr Tullgren was suffering from a medical problem, he qualified for income support.
The government now pays 20 per cent of his salary and he is permitted to listen to heavy metal at work and go to any gigs he likes, as long as he makes up the time later. “For me, it’s great,” said the genial and tattooed rocker.

The article plays it straight, but presumably we are supposed to be outraged by this and chalk it up to the inevitable abuses built into any social welfare program—eventually, as conservatives argue, the logic of entitlement programs leads to untenable situations like this, where one can claim any kind of absurd preference as a grievance that state is expected to address and ameliorate. People like Tullgren are exceedingly useful to demagogues, and that probably goes a long way toward assuring that people such as him continue to lurk within the social safety net. It tends to be the enemies of a system

On a related note, it was startling to see that the New York Times has jumped on the Black Metal bandwagon with a piece about Norwegian band Enslaved. Have they no consideration for poor souls like Tullgren, who literally are enslaved?

by tjmHolden

8 Nov 2007



In last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, there was an op-ed section on George Orwell.  Dubbed “Why Orwell Matters”, the section featured four writers weighing in on Orwell’s relevance to the events of today. Their main target was his “Politics and the English Language” – which was billed as ”the classic essay on the relationship between words, truth, propaganda and politics.”

That essay has been less consumed than Orwell’s subsequent dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. For those of us fortunate enough to have worked through it, (and assuming we have also kept our eyes open these past few years), we know how perceptive Orwell was concerning the manipulative machinations of those in power, especially via rhetoric and other dark arts of communication. Readers also appreciate how spot-on scary Orwell’s clairvoyance was. In the linguistic tricks of a totalitarian government like that of “Big Brother”, one not only discerns the voiceprints of Stalin or Mao, but also hears the ensuing echoes of Richard Nixon (“Peace with Honor”), Ronald Reagan (“The Evil Empire”), and especially this generation’s very own Dubya (“Compassionate Conservatism”, “The Axis of Evil”, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”).

In fact, although I wish to observe that Orwellian “doublespeak” seems to have been more a tool of Republican administrations, historically speaking, it also seems hands-down the weapon of first and final recourse for the White House incumbent. Which is extraordinary, when you think about it. After all, one wonders: “how could that possibly be . . . since Dubya hasn’t ever read a book in his life?”


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