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Wednesday, Mar 14, 2007


Even 45 years after he first appeared on motion pictures screens, James Bond remains an elusive entertainment icon. Scholars and critics have spent inordinate amounts of page space contemplating why this stalwart symbol of the Cold War, with his debonair demeanor, laser like libido and government issue licensed to kill, is still considered a viable hero. While producers have made sure that the face of the franchise has changed with the changing times (perhaps one of the most unique marketing ploys in motion picture history), the character’s resolve has remained steadfast and undeterred. Bond is wish fulfillment made flesh, danger and intrigue experienced vicariously through the magic of film.


Perhaps this is why the recent “reboot” of the series, Casino Royale, was met with so much initial resistance. People like their traditions untainted, maintained in the same stoic form that they had decades before. Film fans are even worse. Working within the confines of the so-called ‘artform’, they mistake the constants within a series for the inherent creative element and balk at any suggestion of manipulating or removing same. A perfect example was the casting of Daniel Craig as 007. While his look was definitely a radical departure from the “dark and mysterious” manner of the character (though not as seismic as the Sean Connery/Roger Moore shift), the obsessed feared that Craig was destined to fail in two key areas – moving the series into the 21st Century while preserving all the mandates from the past.


Their fears were unqualified, and Casino Royale is the reason why. A sensational action film in the purest sense of the genre, the 2006 version of the famed British spy has been overhauled and deconstructed, returning to author Ian Fleming’s original concept for the M16 agent. Purists praised the refusal to bow to popular PC pronouncements, bringing the he-man back to his casual sex stratagem. Others enjoyed the renewed brutality, instilling this fierce fireplug of a Bond with less of the black tie elegance previous incarnations lived by. In Craig, the character has rediscovered his roots, illustrating the cutthroat realities of a life in secret service of God, Queen, and Country. Not only is Casino Royale the best 007 feature in quite a long time, but it betters many of the stylized attempts of recent that have tried to reconfigure the tired action genre.


In the hands of Martin Campbell, the man responsible for the last major Bond revamp (1995’s GoldenEye, when fan favorite Pierce Brosnan made his remarkable debut), Royale overcomes a couple of narrative deficits to make the mythical man its own. The plot, involving terrorists, a money-laundering maniac who literally weeps blood, and a decisive game of…poker (it was baccarat in the book) can be quite knotty at times. Indeed, our hero moves around from country to country so quickly in the first hour of the film that we wonder if his recent change to “00” status came with frequent flyer miles. Similarly, the card game that makes up the last act catalyst to the narrative is an interesting, if anticlimactic suspense spectacle. You know you’re filmmaker understands this fact when he stops the contest cold more than once to introduce another adrenalin rush of action.


In previous installments of the series, these stunt-loaded set pieces were the most memorable element of the entire film. In fact, more fans remember the various chase scenes (down snow-covered mountains, within shark-infested seas) than they do the assorted intricacies in the plotting. Here, Campbell perfectly melds spectacle with the storyline, delivering one stellar eye-popping thrill after another. The opening foot chase, with its bows to “free running” (or parkour, as its often called) and vertigo-inspiring heights is terrific, as is an attempt to stop a bomber in the Miami airport. The finale, featuring a Venetian building slowly sinking into the canals, is a tad too League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to stand-out, but Campbell handles the histrionics in ways that still continually astound the viewer.


Even in the quieter moments – and there are several – the director understands the pressure he is under. His is the job of delivering Bond to the post-9/11 world, to create an image that will hold up under both political and personal scrutiny. One of the ways he accomplishes this is by thwarting expectation. While there are two very sexy ladies for 007 to play off of (and with), both Eva Green (as a British Treasury agent) and Caterina Murino (as Solange, the wife of a Bahamian bad man) are eye candy in name only. Indeed, it is Bond himself who is the sex appeal. Seen shirtless, water cascading off his immaculately toned torso, or tied-up, nude, for a sinister torture session, it’s our hero who is objectified. As a result, it deflates many of the criticisms surrounding the character. It’s hard to complain about his womanizing when it’s 007, not the gal, whose supplying most of the onscreen gratuity.


Still, such a position requires careful and considered casting, and this is Casino Royale‘s greatest artistic triumph. There is not a single moment where Daniel Craig doesn’t own the screen. Anyone who saw him in the criminally underrated Infamous (where he played Perry to Toby Jones’ effete Truman Capote) or Steven Spielberg’s amazing Munich recognized that this was an actor to watch. But James Bond is more than a role – he’s a religion, the kind of cinematic symbol that instills a special sense of satisfaction in his devotees. Under-perform, as one Timothy Dalton did, or fail to meet the constituencies rabid requirements (Roger Moore from about 1977 on) and you end up losing that last bit of motion picture leeway – the benefit of the doubt. Craig had more than just the role to reject him. Blond, far more “common” in his appearance, his was to be a journeyman Bond, a by the bootstraps sort of bloke who suddenly finds himself in Her Majesty’s secret service.


And it’s just the sort of shock to the system the series needed. For decades now, critics have clamored that, if Bond wished to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving world, he needed to get away from his tailored suits and shaken martini mandates. Many have even argued that the only way to do this was to allow big name directors – filmmakers with their own unique styles like Quentin Tarantino, John Woo or even Michael Bay – to take over and frame the franchise. In their minds, an actor couldn’t create the kind of change necessary to make such an old world artifact relevant again. But in Craig, and indeed, in Casino Royale itself, we realize the flaw in such an argument. True, the movie is about 20 minutes too long, and playing poker for such incredibly high stakes seems so plebian. But thanks to Craig’s onscreen magnetism, and Campbell’s care behind the camera, the movie manages to maintain its impressive power.


It’s the same with the recent DVD release. For a film with such a broad, overreaching scope, Royale loses very little on the small screen. Perhaps its because Campbell’s approach is more inside out than visa versa. His action sequences always provide enough spatial and pragmatic logic to avoid confusing or simply losing us. Similarly, there are very few of the stuntman hiding long shots that work against our involvement in the cinematic melee. There will be those who bellyache over the paltry selection of extras (you’d figure a film as important to the franchise as this would warrant something more than a standard behind the scene doc and an EPK style look back at the Bond girls) and wonder about the lack of overall context, but they would be missing the much bigger picture. In an era where action is defined by size, style and CGI, to bring back a character whose name alone inspires visions of old school stodginess, is a massive entertainment risk. But that is perhaps why James Bond remains so enigmatic. Somehow, he succeeds, and Casino Royale is proof positive of such stellar staying power.


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Tuesday, Mar 13, 2007

Are movie stars really artists? The Industry seldom subordinates commerce for the sake of craft. In the medium of the moving image, it’s difficult for both the filmmakers and audience not to get caught up in precisely that - image. Physical beauty is magnified, charm and style is worshiped from a distance. But how much of the star’s appeal is really related to talent?


Similar to the situation in Hollywood, what separated Indian movie stars from serious actors was theatrical training. The Indian drama is a nexus of ancient Vedic sagas, medieval Persian tragedies, and contemporary morality plays. The “true artists” of the ‘40s and ‘50s toted their stage makeup, personal dressers, and could speak in flawless Urdu diction so Persianized you could weave carpets out of it. The actors who make up this list include the great traditionalists and the bold innovators. All fall subject to duty of Bollywood commercialism, the occasional fluff movie, the gratuitous publicity campaigns and commercials - who in show business doesn’t nowadays? But watch them closely and you’ll see the kind of unflinching concentration and inwardness that comes with the best of screen acting.


Prithviraj Kapoor, the looming patriarch of the Kapoor performing dynasty, was the first popular star to have an “art” appeal. A longtime thespian, he took to cinema in the late ‘40s and his career was marked by a string of historical hits, playing larger-than-life figures such as Alexander the Great and The Mughal Emperor Akbar. Always placing his love of classical theatre before the commercialization of cinema, Prithiviraj set the standard for acting in period films, as well as the quality of the way those films were made. In the ‘60s, Prithviraj’s son Shashi Kapoor carried on his father’s theatrical tradition. He played the introspective leading man in early Merchant-Ivory movies, the anguished professor in The Householder, the self-involved playboy in Shakespeare Wallah and the frustrated movie star in Bombay Talkies. In an industry where movies are made quickly, cheaply and in bulk, both Prithviraj and Shashi Kapoor held out for the cerebral parts, often incurring the disdain of the seasoned producers who ran Bollywood. But their movies are all some of the most well-crafted in all of Indian cinema, and the father and son team star make a stunning pair of thespians.


If anyone really paid a price for their nonconformist vision, it was actor/director Guru Dutt. Dutt was Indian’s first auteur, a great creative control freak like Orson Welles whose involvement in every aspect of the picture satisfied his unyielding perfectionism. His 1959 film, Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers) was, like Citizen Kane was for Welles, both his swansong and his undoing. The film was an autobiographical look at the power of the movie industry and the precariousness of celebrity in a world where illusion and fantasy mean everything. It was a startlingly frank look at the life of movie stars and directors, and its two protagonists, the anguished married director (Dutt) and his ingénue (Waheeda Rahman), shocked audiences because of their depiction as adulterous, but sympathetic characters. The film flopped, leaving Dutt devastated.  He did go on to make a few more movies, notably the romantic fairy-tale Chaudvin ka Chand (Full Moon) and the epic Brideshead Revisited-style family saga Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Wife, and Servant). But years of alcohol and drug addiction caught up with him and in 1964 he died of an overdose at the age of 39. Dutt’s premature death is heartbreaking to cinephiles; one can only imagine what else he might have made had he lived longer.


Shabana Azmi is the only woman in this group for the simple reason that out of all the actresses that have graced the screen in Indian cinema, she is the only one who never once acted for the camera. She has always believed in the quality of the material and the strength of her performance rather than relying on her physical appearance alone. Like Susan Sarandon and Jane Fonda, Azmi is willing to take risks at the expense of her career and her choice of roles challenge the conventional stereotypes of Indian women: the resilient, daydreaming seamstress in Muzzaffir Ali’s postmodern Cinderalla story, Anjuman (The Congregation), the bored trophy wife growing into her own sense of self after divorce in Arth (Value) and her most complex role, the quietly suffering wife trapped in a stifling arranged marriage who turns to her daughter-in-law for affection and ultimately, physical love in Deepa Mehta’s Fire.  Azmi values the impact she can make as a celebrity in challenging the complacencies of her audience, and her films show us the real India, the hypocrisies underneath the gold and glittering lights.


Every once in a while a movie star makes a complete transformation in his screen personality. Aamir Khan went from the teen playboy of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s specializing in bubblegum romances to a brooding, thought-provoking actor. It’s like Zach Morris evolving into Ralph Fiennes. But even more than a gifted actor, Khan is a born impresario, bringing talented actors, directors, cinematographers and composers together to create some of the best films to come out of India in the last ten years. Lagaan, the rousing cricket epic of poor villagers vs. arrogant British aristocrats, signaled the birth of the new Aamir Khan and was India’s first massive cross-over hit. Khan’s subsequent films, The Rising and Rang de Basanti, are deeply patriotic studies of the loss of heritage due to colonial oppression, bereavement, and the hope of reconciliation. As he grows older, Khan seems to be verging into Warren Beatty territory - incessant political commentary. But the quality of his acting is far superior to his contemporaries and, along his gift for making great movies, come together into something to be admired and enjoyed.


Contrary to public opinion, many Indian actors are fairly intellectual. They’re well read, believe in the power and truth of narrative, and want desperately to do bold and innovative films. But then, somewhere along the line, their vanity overtakes them. They become preoccupied with the flattering camera angles and what their fans want, and then they become just another movie star. All the stars detailed here have resisted their vanity. That’s not to say they don’t have any because all actors do, but that they’ve put it aside for the sake of the story and the character. And if that’s not what real acting is all about I don’t know what is.




Shashi Kapoor, in Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram, early ‘70s



Prithviraj Kapoor, in Mughal-E-Azam, ‘60s



Guru Dutt, in Kaagaz ke Phool, late ‘50s



Shabana Azmi, in Ankur, early ‘70s



Aamir Khan, in Sarfarosh, early ‘90s


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Monday, Mar 12, 2007


It’s almost here – the Summer movie season is just a mere eight weeks away. Time to drop as many of 2006’s late arrival titles on the unsuspecting DVD audience as possible. Once a certain spidered man starts slinging his webs around the 6th of May, the suits inside the studios will be concentrating on how well their would-be blockbusters are doing at the Cineplex, not how many copies of last year’s lamentable romantic comedy they’ve sold. So be wary when traveling to your favorite home theater depot. Interspersed among the timeless classics and new-fangled franchise efforts are a boatload of bullstuff, all aiming to drain away the last of your yet to be determined dollars. So choose wisely as you walk the aisles this 13 March, and try to avoid the elephantine hype surrounding our SE&L selection for this week:


Casino Royale


It seems like, every few years, spy film fans go through the James Bond jitters, Either they’re fed up with Roger Moore’s aging aimlessness, or angry that longtime producer Albert “Chubby” Broccoli can’t keep the one man they feel was perfect for the role (Pierce Brosnan) from bolting to bigger and better things. The latest row was over the casting of British blond himbo Daniel Craig as the new, post-millennial 007. The only glimmer of hope inside this otherwise dismissed bit of hiring was the promise that this version of the classic UK agent would be a “real return to form” (meaning a creative call back to the days of Sean Connery). Sure enough, this kinetic update delivered the best Bond movie in a long time – a legitimate action film with heart and head to match. Craig may still have to win over the Ian Fleming faithful, but at the box offices, he’s more than renewed his character’s license to kill.

Other Titles of Interest


The Burmese Harp: The Criterion Collection


As one of two classics by Kon Ichikawa to be released by DVD’s definitive preservationists, this story of a WWII Japanese platoon who sing to keep their spirits up represents war at its most insidious. Instead of focusing on death and destruction along the battlefield, Ichikawa follows the fallout of battle on man’s inner strength and resolve. The results are dark and devastating.

Fire on the Plain: The Criterion Collection


The second Ichikawa film from Criterion focuses on the ravages of combat from the psychological outward. When a group of Japanese soldiers are trapped in a Philippine’s jungle, the stress of waiting for death drives them insane. Some even resort to murder and cannibalism. As strong an anti-war message as you are likely to find anywhere, this amazing film fits perfectly into the company’s creative dynamic.

The Holiday


It’s a shame that Nancy Meyers isn’t a more skilled filmmaker. She had a great idea here, and a certifiably star-driven cast. Just the thought of Jack Black hooking up with Kate Winslet had stocky guys all across the world celebrating in vicarious triumph. Unfortunately, most critics found this routine romantic comedy to contain more hackwork than humor…or heart…or hope.

Shortbus


Here it is – John Cameron Mitchell’s notorious follow-up to his madcap musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Following the failing fortunes of a bunch of beleaguered New Yorkers, Mitchell made the unprecedented decision to ignore the MPAA and show all the sexual acts in their full blown, X-rated reality. What you wind up with is a surreal cinematic experiment, a character study that suddenly breaks into hardcore porn honesty.

Volver


While other foreign filmmakers seem to mellow and wane with age, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar is only getting feistier and more confrontational. For his latest look at women on the verge of interpersonal freefall, he casts Penelope Cruz in a story of ravaging emotional erosion. So successful was the combination that Ms. Cruz became the first Spanish actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Open Water 2


It’s quite the motion picture pickle – how do you make a sequel to a film where both of the main characters died in the end? Easy - avoid everything that the first movie stood for, and strike out on your own; borrow the name for some instant audience recognizability and hope no one in the fooled fanbase hollers “FOUL!” That’s what the makers of Adrift did when they discovered that the lame-os over at Lionsgate were picking up their effort for direct to DVD release. This German joke of an aquatic horror film is so illogical, so laced with ridiculous decisions by both the characters on screen and the creative team behind the lens that the individuals responsible for the original ‘you are there” sharkfest ought to consider an immediate injunction. The only thing this stupid storyline has in common with the 2003 hit is the vastness of the ocean – that’s it.

 


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Sunday, Mar 11, 2007


Something must be terribly wrong with Terry Gilliam. Either that, or he drank the Kool-aid on his own hype a few films ago. Back in 2005, the director was desperate. The Toronto Film Festival trounced all over his latest effort, a queer adult fable based on the book Tideland, and no distributor was willing to take on the impossible task of marketing the movie. With a narrative that focused on a little girl lost in a fatalistic fantasy world of her own making, and disturbing elements that included nods to underage sexuality, brutal drug use, and human fallibility, it appeared as if no one would be willing to stand up for the stranded artist. Gilliam even took to the streets, following the film around during its limited theatrical release to pony up publicity for his orphaned effort.


Now, a mere three weeks after THINKFilm’s released the title on DVD, Gilliam is fuming. Strike that – he’s uncharacteristically livid. The controversy doesn’t center on censorship, or some manner of mandated cuts to the content of the story. No, the ex-pat Python is upset over how the film was transferred over to the digital medium. It’s a gloriously geeky mess, the kind of nerd obsessive nonsense that gives the Internet and its struggling journalistic reputation a wonderfully weird wedgie. You see, Tideland was filmed in Super 35mm, and the resulting image was framed and composed for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio release. But beginning with its pitch for Oscar attention, THINK has purposefully reconfigured the film. The reports vary, from a 1.78:1 Academy screener, to the 1.85:1 version that hit stores 23, February.


Now, if you believe Gilliam, his cinematographer (and good friend) Nicola Pecorini and the investigators over at film ick (your basic UK blog) THINKFilm deceived the auteur. They prepared the DVD version without his consent, ported over most of the bonus material from the Region 2 release (which supposedly maintains the 2.35:1 aspect ratio) and made it appear that the director approved of the new pictorial proportions. In a pair of press releases, Gilliam has gone on record as renouncing the Region 1 DVD, and has even gone so far as to tell his American fans to boycott the disc. Pecorini goes a little further, stating that “nothing” about the THINKFilm release warrants consumer consideration. It all seems so very odd.


Remember, this was a man who, up until the mid-part of last year, couldn’t get a single significant studio to release his fractured fable. Listening to the audio commentary as part of the DVD (as well as his discussion of the post-production problems as part of another bonus feature), you hear a man mad as his status as a cinematic pariah. In truth, almost NONE of the reasons Gilliam is given over to a reputation as “difficult, demanding, excessive and eccentric” have to do with his own actions. Aside from bragging on Brazil (his 1982 masterwork) to the point of pissing off Universal, the rest of his problems stem directly from acts of God, location and forces outside his filmmaking. Indeed, he mentions that his last dust-up – a battle with the Weinsteins over his poorly received Brothers Grimm – had nothing to do with what happened on screen. It was merely part of the package of being in the motion picture business.


But the issue with THINKFilm is different, at least from these rumored reports. This is a matter of principle, pure and simple. Gilliam agreed to have the company release his movie, remembering that they should abide by his creative and aesthetic wishes. Basically, they couldn’t take Tideland and re-edit it, recolor the sky or brighten the darker moments. Back when The Descent hit DVD, fans were flummoxed by the ability to see more of the action in New Line’s remastered transfer. Cries of filmic foul were raised, since many believed director Neil Marshall’s hide and seek suspense conceit was being purposefully played with for a home theater audience. Turns out they were wrong. Marshall always had his visuals lit for ease of visibility. It was the crappy theaters and under-trained projectionists around the country that failed to fully illuminate the film’s many underground fights.


For Tideland, it appears that the only real concern is over aspect ratio. Listen to any of the ardent defenders of Gilliam’s “original vision” and they will tell you that the difference between 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 is top to bottom, as well as side to side. Mathematically speaking, taking a narrower image and broadening it means more information is revealed above and below. In addition, in order to avoid some technical elements that may have existed outside the frame (boom mic, crew or camera shadows, etc.) some companies zoom in on the image, losing a little of the compositional information on all four sides. In the opinion of the fanatical, such a situation undermines Gilliam’s original intent. It also destroys all of the carefully controlled creative strides made by cinematographer Pecorini. What many wondered prior to the recent reports was (a) was 2.35:1 the original aspect ratio?, and (b) was Gilliam aware/did he approve of the change?.


The answers are now obviously “yes” and “Hell No!”. From a purely practical standpoint, THINKFilm’s DVD release of Tideland in Region 1 is incorrect. It offers a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that’s absolutely stunning, but does indeed represent a retrofitting of the film’s OAR. Since it is so based in the symbolic and visual, relying on images to explore many of Mitch Cullin’s more disturbing ideas, fans of the film feel betrayed by such a situation. In fact, some are even suggesting that potential viewers will be put off of the film because, while viewing its complex and occasionally corrupt storyline, they will be missing many of Gilliam’s lush optical nuances. Such a stance fails to take into account the movie’s resounding dismissal at the hands of critics during its THEATRICAL run, or the praise this particular DVD has received from those unaware of the OAR scandal.


In reality, Tideland is a difficult movie to champion or chastise. It sits somewhere between a failed masterpiece and a brilliant bomb. It contains elements both personal and peripheral that threaten to undermine its acceptability (including a Tennessee Williams type turn by Jodelle Freland as an underage antebellum Southern surrogate) and really adds up to very little in the end. Unlike the rest of Gilliam’s creative canon, Tideland represents the director at his most disassociated. Similar to the lead character, Jeliza-Rose, he too is trapped in an unwieldy world of his own making. And now it seems that he’s ready to rebuke yet another studio for screwing with his efforts.


Consider this: THINKFilms was touting Tideland for Oscars back in November. Press releases went out to all critics groups with the standard ‘For Your Consideration’ rot, and free screeners were made available. As part of that DVD, Gilliam gave a surreal ironic introduction (a piece that prompted many an admirer to question his cinematic sanity) and then the full length feature was presented – in a 1.78:1 transfer. Now, if THINK really thought Tideland had a chance at Academy gold, why did they undermine their artist (and, in turn, his hardworking crew) so? Though he probably doesn’t care about such self-congratulatory backslapping, why didn’t Gilliam complain then? Was it because he knew he had no chance at Year End glory? Or was it a case of out of sight, out of mind?


In defense of the DVD, it doesn’t look like Tideland is missing much in the visual department. Only a comparison between the two transfers (Region 1 and Region 2) will settle the story once and for all – and that’s just what we’ll attempt to do in Part 2 of this discussion. In the meantime, we are stuck wondering how something like this can occur, especially in a day and age where every online film fan has a forum to ridicule and rail against a shoddy motion picture package. It worked when Pan and Scan was threatening to turn the digital medium into a graduated VCR. It worked when colorization raised its repugnant head a couple of years back. Studios frequently feel the wrath of the cinematic faithful when films are released minus key scenes, lines of dialogue, or removed musical cues. So, is the Tideland story a legitimate slighting of a moviemaking genius? Or is it just a product pitching ploy. We’ll have to wait for an Air Mail delivery from the UK to find out.


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Saturday, Mar 10, 2007


There are a couple of distinct advantages to being a homemade moviemaker – that is, someone guiding their own cinematic career with a group of friends, a camcorder, and an unquestioned desire to create. The first, naturally, is pure aesthetic liberty. Basically, you can do whatever the Hell you want, however the Hell you want. Feel like combining genres in contravention to everything they teach about narrative and tone in film school? Go right ahead. Need to have slapstick humor combine with slimy scare tactics? Be my – or make that, your own – guest. In essence, want to follow your own merry muse wherever and however it takes you to the land of inferred entertainment? Like the old sports shoe slogan said – GO FOR IT!


The second benefit is a little more elusive. It only appears when someone with a significant point of view, or clear artistic conceit, takes a chance behind the viewfinder. You see, with most wholly independent films, there is more copycatting and past film referencing than wholly spontaneous and original ideas. If our basement Bertolucci fancies himself a horror maestro, you can bet that zombies, vampires or serial killers – the triumvirate of terrors for novice auteurs – will play a major part. On the other hand, if this so-called low rent Renoir wants to explore the realm of comedy, it’s more than a safe bet that the humor will be less analytical and far more anal – both literally and figuratively. So it takes a rare talent to traipse around inside such a potential set of pitfalls, knowing how to avoid said dangers as well as how to save yourself once you do slip and succumb.


Justin Channell is such a moviemaking anomaly. Born in 1987 (making him a whopping 20 years old) and currently serving as the webmaster for the Troma Films fansite, Tromatized!, this knowing neophyte wanted to find a way to turning his love of horror and humor into a successful narrative combo. Along with his partners in motion picture crime, Joshua Lively and Zane Crosby (Channell writes and directs, while his buddies act onscreen and occasionally contribute to the scripts) he has turned the world of the living dead and the bloodsucking basics of Dracula’s domain into the post-modern equivalent of an Abbott and Costello romp. With Lively and Crosby as his cinematic comedians, and working within the clear confines of a classic old school team (Josh is the straight man, Zane is Mr. Zinger), Channell proves that, with motivation, and some hands-on moxie, you too can create cinematic gold.


The trio’s first film together, the incredibly effective Raising the Stakes, found Lively and Crosby taking on teen angst and inhuman immortality. The storyline featured the pair as two unhappy nerds who mistakenly believe that, by becoming vampires, they will instantly achieve campus coolness – and looks from the ladies. Naturally, the plan backfires (they still get their asses kicked, even as members of the undead) and all manner of hilarious hackneyed hijinx ensue. With an obvious love for all things South Park (the dialogue cribs quite a few catchphrases from the classic TV series) and a reliance on the retarded to amplify the anarchy, this genial jokefest helped put Channell and his chums on the outsider map.


After providing a segment for the hilarious scare spoof Faces of Schlock Volume 2 (the zombie baby lark A Fetal Mistake), Channell immediately leapt into his next project, the cannibal comedy Die and Let Live. This time, Lively and Crosby play college age slackers who enjoy intellectual repasts at the local coffee house. It also offers them the opportunity to ogle the brainy babes who stop by for the occasional hot cupper. Lively’s character, Benny Rodriguez, has the hots for a gal named Stephanie, and he’s desperate to impress her. He goes so far as to beg Crosby’s Scotty Smalls to hold a poolside keg party in hopes of getting a hook up. Never one to reject a liquor-based soiree, Scotty makes the mistake of telling a few unwelcome buddies, and before you know it, Benny’s plans for an intimate evening have turned into a typical adolescent booze binge.


Even worse, there’s been an outbreak at the local medical testing facility, and a virus with the ability to raise the dead has been released. As Benny, Scotty and their pals pour down the pints, the local corpse population is stirring from their graves, and looking for people to munch on. Naturally, a series of confrontations occurs, with Benny trying to ward off Stephanie’s old boyfriend (a jock joke lummox named Andrew) while the zombies discover the smorgasbord of inebriated idiots to satisfy their corrupt cravings. It will take a miracle – or the unbridled bonding power of some dolphin-shaped ‘best friend’ necklaces – to save the day.


Expanding on the formula he founded for Stakes, Channell chooses the best elements of the time-honored teen comedy and fuses them into a sly Shaun of the Dead dynamic. He never tries to oversell the scares, and indeed, frequently uses the homemade gore to wonderful comic effect. His ease with the material, the excellent conceptualizing of how to handle both the casual conversations and the blood and guts set pieces argues for a filmmaker wise beyond his meager years. Channell also understands his macabre, and enjoys the outright referencing of previous fright flicks as part of his production design. He even casts Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman and former company creative mind Trent Haaga in successful cameo roles.


But the movie really belongs to Lively and Crosby. In fact, Channell could simply dump the amiable arterial spray and use the duo as the next generation of rib tickling comedy teams. Borrowing less from their media influences, and creating a wonderfully wittiness that’s all their own, these chums and collaborators off camera come across as lifelong companions on. Crosby alone has some amazing comic timing, never flinching or failing a joke. Lively is also adept at turning his occasional ironic quips into stellar asides. You can see how good they are when compared to the rest of the amateur cast. While the costars’ lack of performance grade is nobody’s fault (this is no budget filmmaking after all), Lively and Crosby could become indie film icons, the Clerks for a post post-Kevin Smith generation.


So, with all this talent on tap, and a few fine features under their belt, what’s the downside to all this craft and creativity? Well, Die and Let Live has yet to find distribution on DVD (at least, as of this date) and both Raising the Stakes and Faces of Schlock Volume 2 are both self-circulated titles. Channell continues to play the festival circuit, hoping audience reaction – which is almost always favorable – will drive up interest in a legitimate release. Such is the tradeoff in the wonderful world of filmmaking beyond the fringe. You can make or do whatever you want, with the final product representing the best that you and your friends have to offer. But the question then becomes, will anyone ever see it? In the case of Justin Channell, Josh Lively and Zane Crosby, it’s just a matter of time before they’re outsider idols. Until then, they get the benefits, and detriments, of being homemade heroes.


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