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Thursday, Mar 22, 2007


It’s finally here – no, not a decent selection of first run films on your favorite premium movie channels. In this case, were talking about the arrival of Apple TV, the computer giant’s IPod-ish answer to the TiVo – or something like that. Anyway, as the hype blurs all reality on the system’s necessity and effectiveness, you can use this week’s offerings as a guide to whether you’d require something so sophisticated and/or superfluous. Not that there’s much to choose from. Of the main movie’s offered, we are treated to a noted celebrity skank’s continuing career nosedive, a decent indie drama, and a thug-lite character study featuring a famed musical phenomenon.  Truth be told, you’d be better off programming your overpriced digital VCR to focus on the outsider networks this week. The big four are mired in a mid-season malaise that is clearly affecting the choices beginning 24 March – even the SE&L suggestion:


Premiere Pick
16 Blocks


Richard Donner, whose prolific profile recently increased with the release of his original cut of Superman2, returns to the action category, eight years after the last Lethal Weapon film, and the results are uneven but effective. Bruce Willis is an aging cop set to deliver a key witness (Mos Def) to court. The title indicates the distance he must traverse. Naturally, shadow forces want to silence the stoolie, and our hero ends up caught in a crossfire of competing interest. Once the truth is uncovered, the case becomes even harder for our loyal policeman. Released in March 2006 to little fanfare and mediocre studio support, critics actually enjoyed this return to form for the one time creator of box office blockbusters. And since it already premiered on Cinemax back in January, it’s now available in a manner that may allow fans a chance to discover this genre gem. (24 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Just My Luck


There are only two words you need to know about this release, two small soundbites that will guide your love or hate of this ridiculous romantic comedy – Lindsay Lohan. If the underpants (and moral) –less one floats your entertainment boat, by all means, check it out. But if you prefer your stars to be talented, not tacky, you may wish to skip this lackluster, gimmick-ridden love story. (24 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Friends with Money


This 2006 indie drama, centering on a group of women who share similar problems with family and finance, was roundly praised for its uncompromising performances (especially that of Fargo Oscar Winner Frances McDormand). But after the awards season sheen dissipated, many found the actual narrative cloudy and cloying. Now is your opportunity to decide for yourself. (24 March, Starz, 9PM EST)


Get Rich or Die Tryin’


Trying to tap into the lucrative hip hop market, Hollywood’s trend of taking famous rappers (Eminem) and placing them in loosely autobiographical dramas (8 Mile) may have come to an end with this underachieving effort. 50 Cent creates a magnetic onscreen presence, but director Jim Sheridan can’t find a way to freshen up the film’s turgid thug life narrative. The results are both routine and decidedly dull. (24 March, Showtime, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
Stoned


It remains a stellar subject for a motion picture – the meteoric rise, and unexplained death, of the Rolling Stones’ artistic soul, guitarist Brian Jones. While many believe his passing was the work of drugs and their accompanying downward spiral, there are a few who believe that murder was the case made against the enigmatic musician. There are even those who would go so far as to push for a conspiracy and cover-up. While many have faulted this film for being one dimensional, vague, and less than conclusive, most agree that Leo Gregory’s performance as the title character is well worth paying attention to. Someday, we may have all the answers. Until then, we have this uneven entertainment to keep the tale – and the very talented and tormented man at the center of it – very much alive. (29 March, Sundance, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Glengarry, Glen Ross


There is only one word to describe this amazing movie – brilliant! Or maybe, masterpiece! Whichever you choose, there is no denying the power inherent in the performances brought to David Mamet’s award winning play. Thanks to James Foley’s no nonsense direction, and the verbal fireworks contained within the script, you have the recipe for acting excellence. And the stellar cast does not disappoint. (25 March, IFC, 10:50PM EST)

Velvet Goldmine


Johnathan Rhys Meyers is David Bowie – sort of. Ewan “Obi-Wan” McGregor is a punked out Iggy Pop – almost. Together they take center stage in Todd Haynes homage to the glam rock rebellion that linked the Beatles to the Sex Pistols as Britain’s meaningful musical trend. With equally effective turns by Eddie Izzard, Toni Collette and Christian Bale, this overlooked gem deserves a second chance. As with most of Haynes work, there is more to this decent into debauchery than meets the eye. (26 March, IFC, 10:35PM EST)

Vital


As part of their tribute to the (now dying) fad of J-Horror, Sundance summons up this uneven effort from the original Japanese cyberpunk, director Shinya “Tetsuro; The Iron Man” Tsukamoto. While all agree this is not one of his finest works, this uneasy tale of an accident victim who attends classes in dissection as a way of dealing with the death of his girlfriend has its horrifying moments. (25 March, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Outsider Option
Where the Buffalo Roam


Long before Johnny Depp perfected the fictional onscreen persona of famed author Hunter S. Thompson, Bill Murray took a stab at one Raoul Duke – and almost got it right. This intriguing abstract bio pic, complete with a monstrous turn by Peter Boyle as the lawyer/lothario Oscar Z. Acosta (here, renamed Carl Lazlo for legal reasons) expands beyond the whole ‘fear and loathing’ ideal to deal with Thompson’s battles with Rolling Stone and his infamous coverage of the Super Bowl. Some may prefer the way Depp, and Benicio Del Toro took on the depraved, doped up pair, but there is something intuitively real about the way in which Murray manipulates the material to make this larger than life figure seem very real. Until the definitive Thompson movie appears, we will have to settle for this slightly surreal exercise in explanation. (28 March, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Night of the Living Dead/The Crazies


Repeating installments from months past, TCM’s Underground (which may or may not feature host Rob Zombie, depending on if this is a REAL rerun or not) looks back at the legendary first films of zombie titan George Romero. In this case, we have his genre defining cannibal corpse epic, as well as a variation on the theme involving a town filled with chemically created madmen. Both blow away modern interpretations of the genre thanks to this director’s unflattering, cinema verite style. (23 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Blind Beast


For 1969, this was some incredibly sick stuff. Blind sculptor Michio, with the help of his conniving mother, kidnap a young woman so that sonny boy can “study” her for his sculptures. Talk about your Psycho sidetracking. Of course, things turn kinky, then craven, as lust translates into longing, and then something quite lethal. An inspirational effort in its native Japan, we can now sample its strangeness, thanks to Showtime’s specialist channel.(27 March, Showtime Beyond, 10PM EST)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Sergio Leone steps up and delivers yet another stellar spaghetti take on the overwrought Western genre, this time focusing on three gunmen out to find a hidden treasure. With a signature score from none other than Ennio Morricone, and as much stylized cinematography as a Frank Miller adaptation, it’s the kind of mindblower that just gets better with age. Removed from the John Wayne jingoism of the cinematic category, what we end up with is a landmark of moviemaking machismo. (28 March, Retroplex, 8PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007


With the anemic Eragon hitting DVD the week of 20 March, perhaps it’s time to ponder the problem with dragons. Not as mythic beasts, mind you. No, few fictional entities are as intrinsically interesting as these winged lizards. From their symbolic battle with St. George to the numerous kid vid variations of same, the fire-breathing baddie should be a sensationally cinematic being. After all, it can fly, it has all the inherent horror of a dangerous dinosaur and – as long as you believe what fantasy fiction has to offer – can help guide the naïve and unappreciated toward the coming of age they’re so desperately in need of. But when 2002’s Reign of Fire is the best your beast can get, it’s time to give the whole folklore a much needed kick in the creativity.


Actually, that’s not wholly correct. Peter Jackson gave the terrifying creatures a decent cinematic shout out when he melded them seamlessly into his epic Lord of the Rings battles, and there are many who still have a warm place in their heart for Disney’s 1981 effort Dragonslayer. Heck, even Harry Potter did a bang up job of bringing the fiend to the forefront. But thanks to fabulous disasters such as Dragonheart, Willow, and the notorious role-playing rot of Dungeons and Dragons, the rampaging reptile from tales of yore has become a snooze-inducing varmint that can’t quite decide if it’s cute, cuddly, sensible or just stupid.


Thanks to Christopher Paolini’s pathetic Inheritance Trilogy, of which Eragon is the first installment, dragons have once again found themselves on the short end of the entertainment stick. In this case, our farmboy hero becomes one of his land’s legendary ‘riders’, with an oversized Jiminy Cricket – a blue beast named Saphira – guiding him through the ins and outs of such a status. Naturally, there is a despotic king that requires overthrowing, an Alex Guinness like sage ready to test our hero’s unmolded mantle, a wispy young elf girl that needs saving, and a rebellious horde desperate for a sign that there is some salvation from their present state of persecution. Along with a sinister sorcerer who resembles a granny gone gangrenous, Eragon stinks like a pile of oversized bat guano.


But it’s the depiction of dragons in this dreck that really seals the deal. Paolini develops his own arcane mythology here, tying beast to rider in a weird, almost symbiotic way. If you kill a dragon, the human partner can live on. Kill the man, and the beast dies as well. This means that dragons, at least in this world, are not independent entities, capable of their own mindless mayhem. Instead, they are anthropomorphic weaponry, their potential majesty reduced to nothing more than a tank with wings. In addition, the narrative requires that the creature speak. Using the lamest of creative conceits – telepathy – the dragon is given a calm, cooing voice (provided by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) and, as stated before, dishes out common sense platitudes in an attempt to direct her dimwitted charge.


Gone are the ferocious sequences of unbridled carnage. Missing are the moments when man succumbs to the beast’s destructive talons of hate. In their place is the machismo version of a unicorn, a touchy feely monster with a head full of Confucius-like proverbs. It’s the same thing that happened with the Dennis Quaid/Sean Connery cock-up Dragonheart. Again, another English speaking (or make that Scottish broguing) lizard is required to guide a disillusioned knight toward a final battle against – you guessed it – a demented and dictatorial king. Seems that whenever a ruler runs ramshackle over a meandering Middle Earth backdrop, geckos with the carriage of a DC-10 have to show up to set things right. Sadly, they also seem to require the less than helpful aid of a human sidekick to complete the deal.


As a one time wonder inducing work of fiction, dragons have never really gotten the cinematic celebration they deserve. Go back as far as Fritz Lang’s Das Nibelungen, when special effects were in their infancy and even then, our scaly scallywags don’t get the merit they warrant. In the sequence where the heroic Siegfried battles said legendary lizard, the mechanized monster looks more silly than sinister. Sure, it’s a marvel of turn of the century engineering, but as a symbol of a Medieval mayhem maker, it looks like a theme park attraction about to throw a rod. Something similar happens in Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword. There, our creature is merely a mediocre flame thrower stuffed inside a pile of moldy carpet. It’s sad but true – point to any example of the dragon in the last 100 years of motion picture history and you’ll find something that’s either stunted by stop motion, mocked by miniaturization, or inert thanks to a lack of ingenuity.


For some reason, dinos had the same dilemma. All throughout their theatrical track record, they remained lumbering and ludicrous. Either actual chameleons were cast in their roles, large plastic fins crazy-glued onto their backs for that perfect prehistoric look, or Ray Harryhausen and artists of his ilk painstakingly recreated the Mesozoic era with clay, metal armature, and months working on a scaled down set. But all that changed with Jurassic Park. Suddenly, what seemed old fashioned and flat was given a new computerized luster. Though revisionist history can and will carp about the film’s flaws all it wants, no one can deny the wonder inspired by the T-Rex attack, or the superb suspense of the Raptor/kitchen rampage. Whatever its final merits, Steven Spielberg and his buddies over at ILM reconfigured the archaic creature into a new, 20th century star.


What the dragon needs is some of Mr. ET‘s filmic refashioning – and making them noble creatures with the tempting voices of a sexy superstar doesn’t count. No, the ideal story needs to be melded to the perfect director, all of it filtered through a desire for invention and creative possibilities. As noted before, the closest anyone has come is Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire. Beginning with a brilliant premise – the mistaken discovery of ancient dragon eggs in London leads, very quickly, to a worldwide epidemic of the flying killing machines – it was an effort ultimately undermined by budgetary and demographic concerns. Still, the narrative follow through was intriguing, with the wasteland elements of the post-apocalyptic world nicely contrasted with the survivors’ desire for an end to the mayhem. But again, the beast takes a backseat to Hollywood heavyweights (Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey) running around in expertly decimated art designed backdrops.


Certainly there are examples when, featured in a minor or meaningless role, the dragon has persevered. But the cruel fact remains that, as potential stars of their own fantasy or fright film franchise, the scourge of every knight and squire from Camelot to the land of Ilya Muromets, our wannabe fear factor is a dud. And thanks to pathetic examples of moviemaking mediocrity like Eragon, it’s a fair bet that it will remain a wallflower in the world of creature features. How this can happen, with all that a fire-breathing terror with the ability to soar high above the populace has to offer, is a mystery that a wizard may not be able to solve. It is obvious that, by and large, writers and directors haven’t.


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Tuesday, Mar 20, 2007


Hero worship is an understandable human trait. After all, life provides us with so many burdens that to revere another who seems to have all the answers, or at least provides hope that there are indeed resolutions out there, gives us the necessary will to continue on with the fight. This is especially true in children. Lacking the experiences that mold and manage maturity, they are almost always lost in a fog of their own naiveté. Like the simpleton satellites they are at first, they tend to gravitate towards those who they feel can protect and guide them. Usually, said individual is a person with a demeanor of authority and reserve. They appear calm and prepared, ready to address any situation that the child feels could literally swallow them whole. As reliance turns into reverence, the preparation begins for the inevitable fall. Sometimes, the tumble is gradual, learned internally over time and interaction. In other circumstances, the plummet is predicated on a single incident or idea—a misunderstanding, a glimpsed lack of control, or some unexplainable deed that defies godliness. It’s in these moments where life delivers its most devastating lessons. It demands one apply some personal perspective, and it suggests that the carefree days of youth are about to end.


Though there is a lovers’ triangle at the center of the storyline, the relationship most important in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol appears initially to be between overworked butler Baines and dotty diplomat’s son Phile. It is hero worship meshed with just a small amount of parental guidance and guardianship. Baines, represented by British legend Ralph Richardson, and Phile, as found in newcomer Bobby Henrey, create a partnership important to understanding the entire unsettled dynamic of this superb suspense-laden thriller. Told almost exclusively from the vantage point of the child and given to moments of haunting beauty, the movie’s narrow focus and streamlined story make Idol an indelible entertainment. We enjoy learning the ins and outs of the French Embassy—the snotty cleaning crew, the haughty assistants to the Ambassador. The set designs are equally remarkable turning a typical multi-story mansion in the swankiest part of London into a labyrinthine maze of mysteries. From the moment we meet Phile, his head thrust between the slats of one of the home’s many elaborate stairwells, we understand immediately that this will be a film about perspective. What we see, what we know, and, more importantly, what we don’t witness and can’t understand will be the cornerstones of everything Reed the director is striving for. And it all is premised on the relationship between servant and master’s son.


Reed goes for a realistic approach in dealing with Phile. Many films cast their narrative around children, but then go on to make the mistake of having the kids be too intelligent or too in tune with the emotions surrounding a situation. Because his parents are so distant, because he has lived in a world surrounded by keepers and intermediaries, Phile has become lost and on his own. In his world, Phile finds solace in freedom, the connection to animals (including a pet snake MacGregor), and the closeness and comfort he senses in Baines. He doesn’t understand that this older man is suffering inside. He only realizes that his best pal’s wife, an insufferable shrew walking close along the borders of madness, hates almost everything he, Phile, stands for. To her, he’s a rotten spoiled brat who has been raised to be disrespectful, demanding, and devil-may-care. Some may argue that the most important adversarial relationship is the predicament between Mr. and Mrs. Baines, or better yet, Mrs. Baines and her husband’s lover Julie. In reality, it’s how the horrible harpy interacts with Phile that marks Idol‘s most important narrative pairing. He is the catalyst for all the confusion in the household, and she is the specter who constantly reminds Phile that adult things are happening throughout his innocent juvenile realm.


It’s the notion of innocent lost, of growing up and understanding the pressures of age that’s the central theme of The Fallen Idol. Even the title suggests the shrugging off of heroes, and the eventual loss of imaginary playmates. Certainly there is an undercurrent involving lies, truth, and cheating, but it too sets inside a grander statement about the end of childhood. There are many moments throughout Idol where Reed lets Phile fall, over and over again. He does so when he sees Julie and Baines in the teashop. It happens again when MacGregor goes “missing.” Another moment has Mrs. Baines sweet-talking the lad into divulging information, while still another has her swaying over his bed, wild-eyed with jealous rage, hoping to get answers to her suspicious questions. As a result, it’s the backwards connection between Phile and Mrs. Baines that makes up the mantle of this masterful movie. What happens between them, from a dinner-table battle of wills to a telling moment of physical abuse that impacts the remaining narrative and sets the eventual tragic gears in motion. It’s not any threat to him that causes Baines to act; it’s the long simmering showdown between his sinister spouse and the household’s only child that forces his more or less emasculated hand.


Ralph Richardson is outstanding here, especially when you consider the complicated role he is required to essay. Baines must be simultaneously alert, genial, alive, dead, disheartened, sad, angry, ineffectual, smitten, lost, and mildly menacing. He has to juggle the authority of the entire household, the constant nagging of his worthless wife, an unrequited love with a gal he cannot possess, and a boy who believes literally everything that comes from his mouth. There’s a wonderful moment when Richardson and Henrey are discussing a murder that Baines supposedly committed while in Africa. As the boy presses for details, living vicariously through his adult friend’s adventure tale, Richardson is resigned and preoccupied, unable to keep the fictional facts straight. Every misstep is met with a question, and Baines manages to repair any damage to his unreal reputation in Phile’s eyes. It illustrates their relationship perfectly—needy, circumstantially abandoned child and faux father figure who can’t quite live up to the status he’s created for himself. It’s a perfect tragic teaming—a boy constantly climbing and a man laying the flimsy foundation from which he will eventually descend. It’s how those events play out that becomes Idol‘s interesting dynamic, and Reed and Greene don’t disappoint.


Reed was definitely a director with an eye for spaces. He allowed his lens to languish over his elaborate sets and locations in order to give the viewer a proper sense of the area before letting his actors exist within it. When Mr. and Mrs. Baines have their stairway confrontation, we’ve been given so many views of the area that we sense how massive—and how dangerous—it really could be. Similarly, when Phile makes his late-night escape to avoid the confrontation between the adults, we’ve already traveled down the fearsome fire escape before. During the day, it looked like an exit to excitement. But in the darkness of a dead English night, it takes on a solid, sinister import. It’s a technique that Reed will employ throughout the rest of Phile’s journey. Shown only as a small shadow against the backdrop of deserted London streets, child actor Henrey is turned into an icon of youth afraid and unsure. When he ends up in a local police station, his tiny stature becomes a perfect point of reference. He gets lost in an oversized coat (and later, a doctor’s blanket) and seeks refuge in the bosom of a blousy prostitute. All the while, we see Phile vanishing into the reality of the world outside the estate, being absorbed by the truth that he never had to deal with—until now.


In the end, what we get is a startling suspense thriller with moments of great joy and harrowing sorrow. We get to witness a world completely foreign and obscure, yet still filled with the kind of kitchen sink intrigue we expect from much lower-class considerations. Reed complicates matters by making all his characters flawed, from Baines’s interpersonal ineptitude and loose temper to Julie’s desire to defend her man at any and all costs. Even Mrs. Baines is a battleaxe with a soul, though it seems vanquished by an internal pain that forces her to brutalize and blame. All of this gets processed through Phile’s unprepared eyes, and the results are disturbing and direct. Locked in his landscape of ascending/descending stairwells, magnificent balcony vistas of London’s old-world wisdom, dark foreboding hallways, and streets loaded with shadows too deep for any child to navigate, he looks up to Baines as his ballast. With a world full of individuals dismissive of such a pesky, precocious brat, Baines represents everything missing in his life—father, strength, honesty, and goodness. All of that is shattered one night when deception drives people unprepared for its consequences to acts both disturbing and defendable. Through the hero-worshiping eyes of a boy, it’s all an unwelcome wake-up call he is ill prepared to participate in. But he must. Now that his Idol has fallen, he has nothing left but himself.


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Monday, Mar 19, 2007



It’s a pretty good week for new DVD releases – that is, if you’re not looking for viable family friendly fodder. Among the “all audience” missteps hitting the merchandising shelves are the ‘Christ our Savior is born’ boredom of The Nativity Story, and yet another computer generated cartoon that mistook processing power for entertainment. Even that sadly mis-categorized Ed Wood gets his entire G-rated output overhauled for yet another plucked-from-the-public-domain box set. But if you’re looking for standard Hollywood heft, a popular pugilist taking one more drink from the sequel cistern, and the lamest LOTR cash-in ever, there will be plenty to fleece your finances come next Tuesday. So break out the bread and peruse what’s available this upcoming 20 March, including the sturdy SE&L pick:


Blood Diamond


Here’s an example of a movie that manufactured most of its hype months before it finally hit theaters. Several high profile jewelry merchants, including the infamous industry giant DeBeers, argued that this tripwire drama centering on the illegal diamond trade in South Africa, was bound to harm their business. Unfortunately, so few people saw the final film that any possible positive/negative effects were more or less annulled. There are critics who complained – rather loudly – that Hollywood was once again placing a white protagonist (in this case, a heavily accented Leo DiCaprio) in charge of helping a reluctant black man (a far better Djimon Hounsou) battle a syndicate/rebel desire for a priceless gemstone. As he did in previous productions (The Last Samurai, The Siege) director Edward Zwick amplifies the more melodramatic elements of his narrative to avoid dealing with confrontation or controversy. The result is an ersatz thriller with more character than clarity in its final plotting.

Other Titles of Interest


Eragon


If you ever want proof that a teenager is incapable of writing a literary epic, just feast your eyes on this overwrought adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s paltry Tolkein rip-off. Relying on elements from both sci-fi (lots of sloppy Stars Wars riffing here) and fantasy (dragons away!) the results are a dull, derivative mess. No matter the books puzzling popularity, it is clear we are dealing with a lack of legitimate originality. 

Everyone’s Hero


Another CGI stumble from a year overloaded with them. It takes a lot to mess up a movie dealing with America’s previous favorite pastime – a.k.a. baseball – but somehow, this tale of a talking baseball and Babe Ruth’s favorite bat (that also speaks) makes about as much sense as Barry Bonds’ steroid excuses. All touchy feely sentiments aside, this is proof that no amount of computing power can save a shoddy storyline.

The Naked City: The Criterion Collection


Using a post-World War New York as its sensational, pseudo documentary backdrop, this subtle noir finds Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor as detectives investigating the death of an attractive model. All leads point to a criminal conspiracy involving a string of apartment robberies. With Oscars for its amazing cinematography and expert editing, this is a pristine example of the monochrome movie mystery.

Rocky Balboa


After failing to find box office fortune with efforts outside his standard comfort zone (Get Carter, Driven), Sylvester Stallone returns to the franchise that put him on the cinematic map – and actually delivers something quite special. While not as good as the original film (or as jingoistic as other installments) this is still a nice coda to a time honored character – and a superstar’s sagging career.

Re-Animator


It remains one of horror’s most honored efforts, a film that can still flummox fans with its continued popularity and praise. But one has to admit that director Stuart Gordon took H.P Lovecraft to levels previously unheard of when he created this darkly comic zombie flick. Featuring a stellar performance from Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Herbert West, and lots of goofy gore, it remains an unqualified cult classic.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film


Previously shown on Starz way back during the macabre month of October, this insightful little documentary attempts the impossible. It wants to cover the beginning, middle and leveling off of the slice and dice splatter spectacles of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Paying a little too much attention to Halloween and Friday the 13th (who are, granted, the grand old men of the genre) and not enough on the influence of exploitation (Michael and Roberta Findlay and their benchmark Flesh Trilogy fail to earn a mention) this is still a fun, fact filled romp. Especially interesting are the sequences describing the unusual merchandising that followed the fame of Freddy, Jason and the rest of the mass murderer brigade. Purists may wonder why other facets of the cinematic category aren’t covered (nary a mention of foreign horror films) while completists will complain over the lack of real depth. Still, for such a throwaway genre to receive this sort of attention speaks volumes for the staying power of horror.

 


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Sunday, Mar 18, 2007


He has the magic touch. Either that, or Hollywood is so bereft of visionaries that his ideas must be copied – in some cases, literally – in order for motion picture innovation to be captured. Of course, it’s Frank Miller that everyone is talking about – again. The celebrated comic book artist first came to the attention of film fans when his Dark Knight take on Batman was reference over and over again as the inspiration for Tim Burton’s reboot of the famed super hero. Then Robert Rodriguez did the illustrator one better, actually giving him a co-director credit on his all CGI take on the Sin City series. It was that unique post-modern noir, a combination of real live actors and carefully crafted digital backdrops that argued for Miller’s arrival as a major influence in the world of cinema.


And now 300 seals the deal. The Zach Snyder epic, telling the tale of ancient Sparta’s confrontation of overwhelming Persian forces at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is currently confounding critics, already over $100 million in box office grosses in a little less than ten days. Some are calling the sword and sandal spectacle the dawn of a new age in filmmaking, while others laugh at its ‘all style and no substance’ approach. But with Rodriguez already planning a pair of City sequels and the industry buzzing over Snyder’s boffo returns, one thing is for certain – just like The Matrix did back in 1999, Miller is destined to cast his impact over a decade or more of motion picture output. After all, you know the old Tinsel Town saying. Success doesn’t breed contempt – success breeds competition.


So as producers and suits go scurrying through the Miller catalog, looking for untapped projects to greenlight, and as the copycats prepare their own interpretations of the artist’s over the top style, we here at SE&L have a few suggests for genres that should be given the man’s pen and ink invention. In each case, the motion picture category is either stagnant, or suffering from one of its usual bouts of overdone obviousness. But by splashing a little Miller into the mix – or, by implication, following the same stylized look of his ‘graphic novels’ – an aesthetic rebirth may actually be in order. Let’s start with the most logical creative candidate:


The Horror Film:
Experts will argue that you don’t need enigmatic visuals to sell scares or suspense. Indeed, music, plotting, characterization and careful direction are all one supposedly requires to make an effective thriller. But since those other elements are in short, or seemingly unavailable supply, there’s got to be another way to reconfigure the fright film. Enter macabre ala Miller. Thanks to his exaggerated approach, especially when it comes to blood and guts, and the ability to ramp up violence until it reaches otherworldly proportions, your typical slasher storyline or undead drama would suddenly stand as a demented demonstration of fear. We’ve already seen other movies attempt such a shift. Ronny Yu’s amazing Freddy vs. Jason managed to breath life into the two dying franchises by emphasizing their inherent brutality, filtering it through a Hong Kong action ideal. And for all their goofy Goth cheesiness, the Underworld films have tried to create an alternate universe where vacuous vampires battle Eurotrash werewolves in an ongoing war of wire-fu proportions.


But it is Christophe Ganz’s astonishing Silent Hill that proves, positively, that Miller’s optical opulence can carry the creepy for an entire horror film. Based on the noted videogame series, the French filmmaker (who made a name for himself with the remarkable Brotherhood of the Wolf) applied real world terrors to his supernatural setting, resulting in a startling vision of surreal, sinister despair. Several sequences in particular, as when air raid sirens sound off to warn of the coming “darkness”, grab the viewer by the neck and refuse to let go. Now imagine such a situation augmented by Miller’s attention to depth and detail. Sin City touches on such scary movie elements. It’s clearly there when Mickey Rourke’s Marv confronts Elijah Wood’s serial killing cannibal Kevin. But that was part of an overall crime story, not a focused look at monsters and madmen. As a result, the application of Miller’s technique to something as inherently horrifying as the zombie film, or something like the Hellraiser franchise, would be outstanding (just imagine a collaboration between the artist and Clive Barker on his Tortured Souls series. Ew!).


The Western:
It’s a purely American genre, a cinematic classification that tends to wrap up the entire spectrum of morality and machismo in a few fiery gun battles. And yet the Western is deader than a Dodge City doornail, milked of all its meaning thanks to decades of overproduction and under-appreciation. Certainly, there have been attempts to revive the hoary old horse opera, wrapping it up in metaphysical meaning (Clint Eastwood’s excellent Unforgiven) or post-millennial angst (Nick Cave’s crafty The Proposition). But when it comes to straight ahead dynamics, when one looks to the black hat/white hat narratives that drove the early era of film, there is very little left of the West’s fading sunsets. Instead, we prefer our cowboy conceits retrofitted into other genres – science fiction (Star Wars), crime drama (you name it!). But if Miller was brought in to enliven the oater, to add his idiosyncratic look to all the outlaw elements, something majestic might occur. Imagine the showdowns, gun barrels glistening in the burning midday sun, bullets flying across the horizon in specialized slow motion majesty. It’s enough to get a film fan good and flustered.


The closest we’ve come, and indeed, a great place to start when considering this concept, is Sam Raimi’s pre-Spidey spectacle The Quick and the Dead. Thanks to a hot (commodity speaking) Sharon Stone, fresh off the lingering Basic Instinct hype, the Evil Dead auteur got a chance to work out all his High Noon histrionics with the visual aplomb he was noted for. His camera in constant motion, his shot selection a veritable cornucopia of new and novel angles (including one incredible ‘wounds eye view’ perspective), Raimi reinvigorated the Western by realizing the areas that needed improvement. Unlike previous revamps by maestros such as Sergio Leone, the filmmaker avoided all the psychological ramifications and went right for the gut. The results were a partial reprieve for the format, and a great example of how style can salvage even the most antique artifacts. Miller’s approach is similar – finding the places where spectacle can replace specifics - and using visuals to vault a sequence’s primeval impact. Like a spaghetti western on steroids, a Frank Miller sagebrush saga would be amazing.


The Musical:
Yeah, it may seem like an odd choice, but the one thing that is definitely missing from the post-modern showtune dynamic is vision. Present day filmmakers, unfamiliar with the old school extravaganza of the genre’s past, figure that if they merely fancy things up with bright lights, big stars, and lots of MTV-style edits, audiences will ignore the unreal situation of individuals randomly breaking out into song. But that’s not the real problem with the musical’s current hit or miss fortunes. No, what’s really missing from the mix is pure artistic heft. It’s what makes Busby Berkley’s work within the category, classic and what elevates the MGM offerings from ‘30s through the ‘50s to the status of masterworks. But look at the recent attempts at reviving the artform. Chicago was a misguided mess (forget the Oscar) while Rent and Phantom of the Opera failed to generate much interest. And let’s not even start in on Dreamgirls. If ever a musical missed the opportunity to play with images and era, it was this relatively routine interpretation of the Motown sound.


In fact, the last great big screen musical was also the last one to understand the need for a unique approach and look. While it was set in the ‘50s, and relied on a famous Roger Corman b-movie for its foundation, Frank Oz’s masterful adaptation of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors created a world wholly its own, one based in the campy kitsch of the drive-in movie melded onto the sensational schlock of the subject matter. The opening number, and unbelievably moving “Downtown”, sets the stage for the rest of the film’s super sized sentiments. In fact, Oz was so effective at selling the love story between Seymour and his sweetheart Audrey that he had to change the original, downbeat ending. With someone like Miller portraying everything, from the conversations to the choreography, we’d witness the rebirth of a genre through the lost art of visual storytelling. Even better, the artist’s inherent knowledge of what works best within a certain imagined moment would help to bring the hidden emotion and narrative undercurrents out of the songs. Lyrics demand performance and perspective to work effectively. Someone with a mind like Miller’s could easily prove how substantial this stylized interpretation can be.


It has to be said that Silent Hill, The Quick and the Dead, and Little Shop of Horrors all represent just the tip of the treatment iceberg when it comes to bringing Frank Miller’s visual acumen to the world of motion pictures. It is clear that what is required, aside from the artist’s input, is a director in sync with his unusual approach, and a studio willing to gamble a little. No one is saying the combination will be perfect – after all, there are those who look to Sin City and 300 and scoff at the idea of Miller’s brand of sketchpad simplicity. Still, for several genres that are sitting somewhere between outright death and cinematic life support, the unbelievable imagination of this arcane comic book mind could be the aesthetic salvage they so desperately deserve. If it worked for the pathetic peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, how can it not succeed elsewhere.


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