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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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Saturday, Mar 17, 2007


During a standard shift at the local funny farm, Dr. Widesworth consults with Dr. Godwin about a girl, named Julie. She’s been diagnosed as a “cutter”, a self-mutilator. Convinced she can add some insight, Widesworth wants Godwin’s help. Meeting with the decidedly sane psychotic, the docs become privy to Julie’s bizarre, unreal story. Seems she once did the old University thang with a group of her best friends. One day, a new girl from Hawaii showed up. Her name was Amy and she was introverted and inhibited. Naturally, Julie’s catty clique instantly classified her as a ‘loser’. When it becomes obvious that the withdrawn islander had eyes for drama teacher Mark Bernardi, the crew determines to play a joke on the Pacific princess. Unfortunately, it resulted in Amy going comatose. When Julie’s Aunt Maylea arrived to care for her, she brought along an ancient Polynesia cure. She then used an enchanted Tiki doll to avenge Amy. She believed that, only through the systematic killing of everyone involved, could her niece’s soul be saved - apparently. And thus the massacre began…


Lord Almighty, but you have to adore Tiki! Oh sure, it’s a schlock revisit to the Charles Band school of scares, with just a splash of Dan Curtis’s Trilogy of Terror thrown in for gory good measure. Writer/director Ron Ford obviously suckled on the Zuni Fetish Doll’s Movie of the Week teat for several years, resulting in this Polynesian prank that’s more marvelously tacky than a blistering bowl of rotten poi. All the characters are jerks, barely able to provoke our curiosity, and the plot is so staggeringly mechanical that we keep waiting for the creepy old guy to turn up and tell the rest of the prospective victim’s pool that they are, indeed, “all doomed!” But thanks to a perfectly satisfactory puppet assassin, as well as the unrestrained bliss of seeing said plaything track and take out a cluster of clods, this incontrovertibly non-scary homage to horror’s blatant b-movie ideals is spectacularly silly. You’ll cackle at all the logic leaps and piss-poor intrigues, while at the same time championing a little island icon with a voracious craving for bad actor body parts.


It goes without saying that our star, an ersatz actress named Jolene Smith, is extremely unappealing. Even when she’s gussied as Eliza Doolittle in preparation for her part in Pygmalion (emphasis on the first syllable, please), those shrieks you hear aren’t paranormal beings yelping at the moon. It’s viewers around the world wondering how this attractiveness-addled performer ever got a callback. While it may appear unjust to highlight such an observable visual aspect of the film, it definitely supports the homespun spirit that helps make Tiki what it is. In the hands of some veteran specialists and teeming with onscreen CGI-sores, we’d be groaning at all the dumb dialogue, retard line readings and obvious continuity errors. But by hook or by crook, our title terror makes it all tolerable. Perhaps it’s the retro recollection of Karen Black taking on that vicious little blade wielder with a yap full of fangs, or the current island-oriented model who darts across the screen, little wooden feet tapping away in full sonic mode. Whatever the reason, Ford has found a way to make the monster movie fun again. And he does it by concentrating almost exclusively on the villian.


Indeed, without our new shock symbol, Tiki would flop quicker than a family-oriented Robin Williams comedy. The little wooden wonder is the gratuitous glue that holds this otherwise middling fright flick together. The nudity is nauseating (especially a Disgusting Girls Gone Wild style lesbian sequence – ew!) and the bloodletting is awesome, but limited to just a few memorable moments. Some of the set-ups are completely uproarious (one corpulent boytoy and his equally balloonish-babe make bile-producing whoopee in a hayloft before Tiki performs his serial public service = GO! TIKI! GO!) and the climax lays the groundwork for a possible sequel, which means more of our featured fright figurine. While one lone element doesn’t usually rescue a failing genre effort, the title treat in Tiki has enough cinematic charisma to save several subpar scare films. Ron Ford deserves plenty of fright fan Frenchings for delivering on what could have been a major macabre calamity. If you want a wonderful reminder to the diabolical doll era of terror, this talented little island idol will definitely deliver the terrific Trader Vic’s goodness.


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Friday, Mar 16, 2007


300 defies description. Every attempt by mainstream critics to categorize or contextualize the film is more or less wrong. This is not some manner of anti-war propaganda piece (or worse, a pro-US boast for its Arab/Persian aggression). About the only real connection to the world of video games comes in the stylized presentation of violence which, frankly, is no more poetic than what Frances Ford Coppolla accomplished with the infamous “baptism” scene at the end of The Godfather. It is neither a historically accurate recreation of a famous battle, nor is it a slam against any specific region or peoples. What Zach Snyder has accomplished here is something quite miraculous. What he’s made—thanks in part to Frank Miller’s imagination and a ton of computer processing power—is a real Rorschach test for why people go to the movies. 


Think on that for a moment—why DO you go to the movies. To be entertained? To spend a few hours away from the family? To lose yourself in worlds only imaginable through the lens of a cinematic artist? To be moved? To laugh? To cry? As the famous one-line once said, to kiss $8.50 goodbye? Within each or all of these questions lies some element of the answer. Of all the mediums, it is often said that film is the least personal and most group-oriented. There are those who argue that horror films are scarier with an angst-filled audience surrounding you, sharing the dread. Others recognize that the mob mentality of such a communal experience renders even the most routine comedy uproarious. So it’s clear we come to film as kind of a litmus test, to weigh our opinion against that of our fellow filmgoers to determine an entertainment’s true value.


So in truth, 300 cannot work the same for all of us because it is the kind of movie that challenges the very nature of why we love, or hate, film. It takes a decidedly hoary old genre—the sword and sandal epic—infuses it with all the technological magic it can, and then sticks a fuse of fantasy straight into its belly. Once said wick is lit, the resulting fireworks either inspire or enrage you. There is no real middle ground here—people either adore or deplore this incredibly well choreographed dance with death. Far better than the highly overrated Gladiator (a true blight on Oscar’s already tenuous history) and a mighty millennia away from the pulpy peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Synder wants to turn such tales back on their origins. He wants to use celluloid to re-establish the literal meaning of such a tale’s ‘epic poem’ status.


No two words better describe this film. This is vision amplified by ability, lyricism made manly by the imposition of well-formed physiques. Make no doubt about it, the Sparta at the center of the story is a brutal world overloaded with ego, testosterone and sweat. It’s the kind of country that kills off the weak and unwieldy, even hours after they are born, and believes in such forgotten human virtues as duty, honor, and glory. It may seem overly simplistic and a tad shortsighted, but this is not the modern world. This is not a planet interconnected and constantly communicating with each other. This is the land of myths and legends, oracles and gods. This is a place of men, in all their strengths - and all their superstitions.


As a result, some may be put off with all the moralizing and mysticism. They will see the sequence where the diseased priests prophesize—with the help of their naked teenage girl Oracle—that no war can occur during the High Holy days and scoff at such a suggestion. They will see Xerxes in his fey, flouncing demeanor, face painted up like an Egyptian drag queen, and giggle at the implied femininity. They will wonder where the various monsters come from, how an executioner can look like a boss from their favorite Playstation product, and believe this a film for an entirely different generation. But the truth is that 300 is a return to the world of visual storytelling, a place rarely visited by our mainstream manufacturing plant known as the Hollywood film business.


Indeed, we have forgotten the power in images. We forget what it felt like when the Mothership first appeared over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or when Neo first realized he could defy both time and physics in The Matrix. Peter Jackson or George Lucas can overwhelm us with their ideas (and the realization of same) and yet the effects seem to fade the minute we leave the theater. This is home video’s truest legacy. As a result of such overwhelming access to any and all cinematic stimulus, we’ve lost the inherent naiveté required to really enjoy someone’s creative approach. Instead, we play a never ending game of considered comparison, wondering what that scene reminds us of, contemplating if said shot actually adds to a film’s overall narrative language.


It’s a shame our eyes are so jaded now, because lying in wait, right outside the typical and the remade, are persons ready to reinvent the old magic. They will take a sword fight between two Spartans and hundred of Persians and manufacture it in such a way that every clang of metal, every spray of blood, becomes another stroke on a grand master’s canvas. They will render even the most meaningless scene—a conversation between husband and wife, king and queen—into a stunning experiment in shadow and light. Call it an attempt to jumpstart our imagination or a metaphoric map to rediscovering our inner joy, but 300 is built for spectacle, not scholarship. All it wants to do is present a piece of the movies’ past in a new and novel light. And it accomplishes said goal amiably.


This is a rousing, reinvigorating effort, the traditional reason why people USED to go to the movies. A couple of famed critics who sadly stand as the last of a literally dying breed used to say that movies act as kind of a mental vacation. They are meant to whisk you away to places, and introduce you to people, that you wouldn’t normally visit in reality. Like 300, film is supposed to inspire awe and disregard expectations. It is its main purpose for being. But for some reason, perhaps due to their ready availability and post-modern disposable nature, we no longer value such statements. To the new moviegoer, film is fodder for endless online conversations, debates over issues that, more times than not, have very little to do with the movie in question.


But Zach Snyder steps up and asks—nay, DEMANDS—to be taken seriously as a director of sound mind and superb vision. This is a movie as sumptuous feast, an eye candy extravaganza that never once becomes overpowering or overblown. Instead, all the stunningly stylized violence fills a void usually lacking in this kind of action film—the sadistic nature of war and battle. Where once gore was avoided to keep the nobility of the heroes intact, Snyder uses it as a symbol of determination. The more blood that’s shed, the lesser the enemy’s resolve. He also accomplishes his fatalistic determination by careful, clever casting. No one would ever imagine the man behind the mask in Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera would pack on the pounds, bulk up his body, and turn into the very emblem of Spartan pride. But Gerard Butler is a stellar King Leonides, containing everything we’ve come to expect from such a character. When he makes his stand against Xerxes, determining the fate of his men, and his country, the power within his persona—and the performance - shows through. 


In addition, 300 does indeed reinvent the notion of how action accentuates and accessories a film. In something as obvious as a battle scene, where we know blows will be exchanged, it is up to the filmmaker in charge to keep us engaged and interested, less it all become a mere free for all. With his carefully controlled compositions, expert framing, and desire to deliver both the Spartan and Persian attacks in grand operatic style, Snyder gives us real insight into combat. We learn the strategies meant to conquer as well as the mistakes that lead to defeat. We also recognize where heroism and valor lie. It’s not in the remarkable moments where heads leave bodies in balletic grace, nor is it in the sequences where arms and legs are sheered away. No, where true gallantry lies is in the guts to face almost impossible odds, and laugh squarely in the face of said annihilation. And nothing cackles quite as convincingly as 300.


So complain all you want to about the lack of factual accuracy. Argue that Snyder is all style and no substance, or that his cast is made up of out of work Chippendale dancers trying to turn slaughter into something serene. But whatever you do, don’t dismiss 300 as anything less than a work of visionary expertise. While your aesthetic complaints may have merit (albeit a minor amount), from a truly technical standpoint, this is what the cinematic artform actually looks and feels like. Instead of chastising a movie for taking such a risk, we should be celebrating. It’s a shame we’ve lost that ability. Thankfully, we have electrifying efforts like these to remind us of what we are missing.


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Thursday, Mar 15, 2007


Going through the possible motion picture presentations every week, it’s fascinating to see how the premium movie channels are expanding and diversifying. For example, Moveiplex (a division of Starz) has just announced the start-up of two new services – Indieplex and Retroplex. Each one addresses what the company sees as underserved cinematic categories – in this case, independent films and classics from the past – and each one is hoping that rabid film fans will agree. It’s not an unusual move – Encore (another Starz subsidiary) has always divided up its content into mysteries, romance, westerns, etc. But as more and more outlets open up – channels devoted exclusively to foreign films, or horror – it becomes harder and harder to keep track of the options. With the big pay networks offering multiple feeds and On-Demand services as well, the choices are almost limitless. Thankfully, for the weekend beginning 17 March, one easily accessible feature clearly stands out:


Premiere Pick
Silent Hill


It’s all about the creepy in this big screen adaptation of the popular videogame series. Thanks to the brilliant direction of Brotherhood of the Wolf‘s Christophe Ganz, and the spectacular set design and F/X work of his capable crew, what could have been your standard scary movie becomes a troubling look at an (after)world gone insane. Many of the more frightening moments have very little to do with the odd assortment of monsters and mayhem that actresses Rahda Mitchell and Laurie Holden must overcome. No, the real terror lies in not knowing the rules of this particular locale, and the consequences that occur whenever an eerie air raid siren sounds, signaling the return of ‘the darkness’. It’s hard to describe how vibrant and visceral this movie is, especially in an era which substitutes blood and brutality for genuine scares. In a year of many excellent fright fests, Silent Hill stands as one of the genre’s best. (17 March, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Take the Lead


Antonio Banderas goes Mad Hot Ballroom on a group of troubled New York kids, arguing that there is no problem in life that cannot be overcome through dance. While it’s territory that’s been covered a hundred times before, something about the sight of Mr. Melanie Griffith shaking his moneymaker has an indescribable charm. If you can overcome the schmaltz, you might enjoy this feel good urban pulp. (17 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Family Stone


One of last year’s under the radar delights, former fashion executive Thomas Bezucha deconstructs the knotty connections between kinfolk with this fresh, occasionally formulaic comedy. Sarah Jessica Parker is the uptight, Type-A personality who finds herself awash in the title clan’s free-spirited spontaneity. Dermot Mulroney is her boyfriend, and the prodigal Stone. While there is much more drama here than humor, Bezucha keeps the revelations and the reactions honest. (17 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


The Devil’s Rejects


Rob Zombie taps into the long lost exploitation zeitgeist to create this superior follow up to his 2003 film House of 1000 Corpses. Less stylized than said spook show debut, and featuring some amazing moments of disturbing viciousness, this shock cinema vérité is unbelievably accomplished. Sadly, this promising terror auteur seems to be going backwards with his upcoming Halloween remake. (17 March, Showtime, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
Audition


Ten years ago, he was literally unknown to Western audiences. Then this startlingly original movie came along, and cinephiles everywhere stood up and took notice. Noted for his combination of the beautiful and the grotesque, and never sparring his audience the onscreen shivers that can come from both, the talented Takashi Miike has since gone on to become a certified cult icon. From Ichi the Killer to his banned Masters of Horror episode, Imprint, he has consistently pushed the envelope when it comes to blood and guts. That’s clearly the case here, the story of a widower holding ‘try outs’ for a nonexistent film as part of a plan to choose a new bride. To say the tables are turned on this lonely lothario is an understatement. While there are many who believe Miike merely makes geek shows, there is a lot of artistry here as well. (20 March, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Additional Choices
Boogie Nights


After Hard Eight failed to deliver anything but major critical kudos, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to fully explore his Robert Altman-esque muse with this multi-layered, multi-character look at porn through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Featuring a star making turn for Mark Wahlberg, and a momentary career rebirth for Burt Reynolds, this impressive human dramedy remains one of the ‘90s great masterworks. (18 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

sex, lies and videotape


It was the film that announced the independent film renaissance, a stunning dissection of life and love between detached, alienated individuals. Introducing Stephen Soderbergh as a director to watch, and giving the brilliant James Spader the role of a lifetime, this Cannes Film Festival winner remains a powerful, personal statement.  (19 March, IFC, 7:10PM EST)

Road to Guantanamo


It’s an odd experiment in narrative assemblage – a part documentary, part fiction film revolving around the Tipton Three, a trio of British Muslims arrested and held in the infamous American military prison for two years – only to be released, uncharged. Thanks in part to the shocking recreations, based on the testimony of the men involved, we get a window into the way in which our current government manages the so-called ‘war’ on terror. (19 March, Sundance, 10:15PM EST)

Outsider Option
Spider Baby


It had a reputation of carnival barker proportions. Supposedly lost, then rumored to be too “shocking” for release, this low budget brain bender from writer producer Jack Hill still stands as an idiosyncratic eye-opener. Featuring Lon Chaney Jr. in one of his last roles, as well as the sensationally surreal sight of newcomer Sid Haig as the repugnant Ralph, this madcap macabre touches on murder, mayhem, and that tasty taboo of the post-modern world – cannibalism. Presented as part of Turner Classic Movie’s new Underground series (though typical host Rob Zombie is AWOL thanks to present production commitments), you will not spend a better 81 schlock filled minutes in your fright fan lifetime. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore – and once you’ve seen Spider Baby, you’ll know why. This is one seriously screwed up horror comedy. (16 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


Taking on the classic (?!?) Wes Craven cannibal epic, French fright master Alexandre Aja (the wonderful Haute Tension) decided to explore the backstory of the horrifying mutants at the center of the scares. The result was one of the most startling last act confrontations in recent cinema, and a remake that surpasses the original freak show gratuity. The upcoming sequel will apparently offer more of the same. (19 March, ActionMax, 8PM EST)

Babette’s Feast


Food is frequently used as a metaphor in film – as an extension of, reason for, or substitute to living. Here, Danish filmmaker Gabriel Axel uses the title repast as a way of bridging the gap between family, religion and the past. Winner of the 1988 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it’s the kind of movie that whets your appetite as it simultaneously stimulates your emotional core. It’s indeed a meal fit for a king. (19 March, Indieplex, 11:45PM EST)

The Long Goodbye


When approached about remaking the classic Raymond Chandler story, American auteur Robert Altman felt a little uneasy. The material, in his mind, needed to be modernized and filtered through a post-counterculture concept of cynicism and mistrust. In the end, he delivered one of the ‘70s defining films, a narrative perfectly in sync with the Watergate weakened resolve of a stunned society. (21 March, Retroplex, 8PM EST)

 


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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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