Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

11 Mar 2009


Of all the supposed masters of macabre, Wes Craven has been the most prolific…and practical. He constantly makes movies, even if fans refuse to take him or his latest titles (Vampire in Brooklyn, Cursed) seriously. He’s also been a shrewd businessman, making sure that he keeps control over almost everything he’s done. That’s why, along with John Carpenter, you see so many of his past “glories” being recast for current audiences. As part of the horror remake craze, Craven has seen The Hills Have Eyes redux become a 2006 hit, and he’s got several more projects in the pipeline - Shocker, The People Under the Stairs, even a new version of his ‘80s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yet messageboard fever has been furious over the proposed plans to take on his most notorious film, The Last House on the Left. Some see it as the ultimate form of sacrilege. Others - with a much clearer memory of the original - wonder what all the fuss is about.

With the Craven approved update arriving in theaters this Friday (13 March), SE&L is going to step up and guide you through the major changes and narrative twists that the new version of The Last House on the Left has to offer. While nominal in most cases, those contemplating a Friday evening trip to the Cineplex may be interested in knowing the score. Be warned though - there are MASSIVE SPOILERS o’plenty here. In fact, both movies have the facts and fatalities completely given away over the course of the article. Perhaps a better plan would be to wait until after a viewing to visit this piece. After all, both the original and new Last House rely on shock value as a means of making their point, and nothing spoils suspense faster than a little firsthand knowledge. Either way, here’s the compare and contrast between 1972 and 2009:

The Characters
At the beginning of the original film, Wes Craven offered the standard “true story” tease, stating that certain names had been changed to protect those still living. Oddly enough, something similar could be said about the update. Gone are the goofball cops who provide more slapstick than protection for the local populace. Equally missing are all counterculture sidebars (harassing hippies) and throwaway local color (chicken farmer Ada Washington). Krug is still here, as are Sadie and Junior. Fred “the Weasel” has been renamed Francis and is given a slightly smaller libido than his 1972 equal. He’s not a fellow escaped con but the actual brother of Krug. Troubled girl from across the tracks Phyllis has been replaced by good natured grocery store clerk Paige, and all the subtext about Mari’s friend being “bad” and “slutty” has been swapped for concepts like “trusting” and “innocently reckless”. Again, this is probably to make her death that much more senseless, but it does remove a rather strong element from the wilderness wilding to come. Perhaps the biggest change happens for Junior, however. Instead of being a strung out junkie selling out everyone for a hit, we now get a weak willed kid who just wants to be liked. His transformation is one of The Last House on the Left 2009’s strangest surprises.

On the other side of things, Mari is a strong swimmer (a fact that makes the middle act escape seem rather obvious), Dad is a workaholic type ER doctor (perfect for suturing wounds and delivering emergency chest cavity venting) and Mom is a slightly sexy teacher with a hidden talent for payback. Gone are the arcane, erudite conversations of the 1972 couple. In their place are a matter of fact pair of parents who see no other solution than destroying the people who imperiled their child. Our new guardians are more thoughtful and “hip”. The original were so old school and square that their sudden switch over to maniac mode was truly disturbing.

The Story
Oddly enough, there is little difference between the basic plot of the 1972 film and this 2009 redux. Screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth are very faithful to the initial movie’s main set-up (sorry, no trips into NYC to see some scummy rock band) while attempting to expand the emotional core between the characters. We learn that the Collingwoods have faced a tragedy the year before with the death of their oldest son Ben. Everyone, especially Mari, still carries complex memories. Our heroine and her pal Paige fall into a kind of trap, although Junior is far less complicit this time around (in fact, one could argue for his complete innocence). The lure of pot is still the main sticking point for the gals’ deadly fate, but sex is now secondary in Krug and company’s plans. As you’ll see below, Mari doesn’t die instantly after her ordeal, and there is less hospitality and interpersonal interaction between the Collingwoods and the criminals before the mayhem begins. In a recent interview, Craven claims to really like the subtle changes. By keeping Mari alive, mandating that she get to a hospital soon or die, the parents have a real reason to go apeshit on her tormentors. In the original, the vengeance felt anarchic and animalistic. Here, it’s in direct correlation for the couples’ need to help their child.

The Killings
It’s SPOILER time, and if you don’t want to know the fate of any character in either film, turn away now and prepare for Friday’s opening. Indeed, the biggest difference fans will see in the recent remake is the way in which all the deaths occur. For those unfamiliar with the Craven original, Mari and Phyllis are taken out into the woods. Both are tortured and tormented. Phyllis is stabbed repeatedly and then disemboweled. Mari is raped, and then as she tries to escape, is shot in the back and left for dead in a nearby lake. Craven originally intended for the girl to remain alive long enough for her parents to find her (the scene was shot and is available on the recent Special Edition DVD release), but he figured that it was better to leave said reconciliation on the cutting room floor. Instead, Krug and his gang show up at the Collingwood house, they have dinner, and then the killing begins. Junior shoots himself. Fred is seduced by Mom, has his “manhood” removed orally, and is left to bleed to death. And in the film’s shocking climax, Krug and Dad battle until the latter gets the advantage via chainsaw. Mom slits Sadie’s throat and leaves her to rot.

In the remake, Mari burns Sadie with a cigarette lighter. This causes a car crash which breaks Francis’ nose. The gang takes the girls out into the woods, where Paige is stabbed. She bleeds to death. Mari is raped in a very brutal manner, and as she escapes to the lake, is shot in the back. She indeed survives, and manages to make it back home. Desperate to get her to a hospital, Mom and Dad soon discover that the individuals who showed up at the house earlier were actually the fiends who did this to their child. After some emergency meatball surgery, Mari is secured away while her parents exact revenge. Francis is semi-seduced, stabbed, and bludgeoned. Mom tries to drown him in the kitchen sink, and Dad steps in to help. Francis’s hand finds its way into the disposal, and the couple throws the switch. Finally, while screaming in agony, Dad drops the butt end of a hammer into the guy’s skull. After retrieving a gun from Junior, Sadie is shot in the face.

Once again, Krug and Dad fight to the death, and before we know it, the escaped murderer is supposedly dead. However, in a key last minute addendum, Dad returns from the hospital to find Krug lying on a table, paralyzed. Seems our father figure cut his spinal column so he couldn’t move. As the criminal pleads, Dad puts his head in a broken microwave, cranks up the juice, and waits for the moist results. One fried face later and Krug’s coconut literally explodes. The End. Now, in some ways, both films are cruel and callous in their disregard for human life. There is much more physicality in the remake, more fisticuff back and forth between the Collingwoods and Krug’s clan. At the same time, however, the deaths in the original seemed more apropos. Fred’s demise in particular mirrored the horrific way in which he treated the girls, and the original Krug’s animalistic bravado required something as extreme as a chainsaw to end its power. Still, the microwave gag is a wonderful denouement, and audiences will surely respond to the comeuppance given these heartless, soulless creeps.

by Bill Gibron

10 Mar 2009


Movies about big ideas require big scores. Films about larger than life individuals also mandate music to match. There’s a fine art to making sonic mountains out of melodious molehills, a true gift that few composers have, and few longtime artists can maintain. Certainly audience familiarity and fondness can ruin/resurrect a career, and there are certain aesthetic and stylistic conceits that follow any musician when they respond to the call of their muse. But the true titans of supercharged soundtracks, names like Elfman and Williams, find ways to challenge themselves as well as the listener. Mr. Oingo Boingo is often known as the man who made Batman dark and diabolical, but his recent score for The Kingdom was a wonderful bit of experimental ambiance. Similarly, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have been hammering out the same bombastic backups for years, but as with last year’s incredible The Dark Knight, it works within the right context.

This time out, Surround Sound looks at the recent almost-phenomenon that is Watchmen. We dissect both Tyler Bates’ contributions as well as those cultural lynchpin pop songs chosen to represent the parallel USA of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In both cases, the results are less than stunning. We then go back to one of the original cinematic stalwarts, the man in the funky fedora carrying a bad-ass bullwhip. John Williams will always be much more than the sonic side of the Spielberg/Lucas money machine, but there’s no denying his iconic help in solidifying both men’s amazing oeuvres. Newly minted with material not previously available on CD or MP3, the Indiana Jones films (the important efforts from the Greed Decade only) are their own unique entertainment experience, thanks in large part to the incredible abilities of the man responsible for their familiar epic sweep.

But let’s start with the recent attempt at broadstroke heroics. As Watchmen proves, not every comic book champion has a signature sound to amplify their importance:


Watchmen - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]

As the first certified controversy of 2009, the lack of critical consensus over Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has been interesting to observe. Those who love it embrace the faithful translation of the famed book. Those who hate it clearly expected something more than what was on the screen. In between are opinions ranging from acceptable to awful, with many divergent judgments falling smack dab in the “no particular point one way or the other” middle. Many have hinted that the lack of “epicness” in Tyler Bates score is one of their chief disappointments, and it’s not hard to see why. As the mastermind behind the soundtracks for other Snyder efforts (including Dawn of the Dead and 300), there is a sense of unnecessary nepotism at work, and while some of his efforts for other directors (Rob Zombie, Neil Marshall) have stood out, Watchmen is just not that interesting. Indeed, when most of the music sounds like leftovers chopped from healthier compositions, you know you’re in trouble.

Fluctuating wildly between heavenly choir pomp and subtle, almost inconsequential circumstance, Bates’ score for the much anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel is underwhelming and often underdeveloped. After the requisite hero histrionics of “Rescue Mission”, insignificant snippets like “Don’t Get Too Misty Eyed” and “Tonight a Comedian Died” underlie the music’s lack of impact. “Silk Spectre” gets things back on track, if only because of its Danny Elfman-like flourishes. Indeed, it seems the longer the effort, the more substance it has. As one works through the 21 individual pieces, it’s clear that Bates had little thematic clarity. Indeed, the best bit comes right at the end, when the composer drops the stereotypical spectacle and goes for the heart. “I Love You” is a wonderfully evocative experience, a lone guitar picking out a plaintive melody that seems to drift along, accenting everything that’s come before. It makes up for the meaningless grandstanding of something like “Requiem” (which borrows from Mozart of all things).



Watchmen - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

Oddly enough, the big problem with the actual score for Watchmen manages to cross over and condemn the collection of pop culture hits used as a backdrop to the movie’s main narrative as well. It’s not just a question of poor choices - it’s the idea that, within the vast realm of ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s music available, Zack Snyder decided that these were the indicative songs of the era he was trying to evoke. And they just don’t do the job. When a fan can sit back and pick better tracks than the one’s compiled, there’s an inherent flaw in the formulation. Granted, there are some interesting choices (“Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen), but for the most part, a panel of VH-1 inspired soccer moms with limited exposure to either the time frame or Alan Moore’s novel could probably come up with a similar set of sonic cues.

After the noise nonsense that is My Chemical Romance’s ridiculous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Road”, Watchmen jumps over Nat King Cole (“Unforgettable”) to deliver its sole genius decision. Using Mr. Zimmerman’s ode to cultural progress, “The Times They Are-a-Changin’” works perfectly within the storyline being set-up, the montage meant to bring us up to speed on the entire masked avenger idea, and the numerous historic events being referenced therein. It’s so inspired in fact that later attempts at the same thing with tracks like “The Sound of Silence” or “All Along the Watchtower” seem subpar. Elsewhere, K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “(I’m Your) Boogie Man” is hollow, and the randomness of “Ride of the Valkyries” offsets the depth derived from a modern classic conceit like Phillip Glass’s “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies”. Still, Snyder understands the inherent mood created by these songs. Some are clearly used to enhance atmosphere and little else.



Raiders of the Lost Ark - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

How John Williams, a Julliard trained pianist and composer went from tacky TV themes for The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space to the man behind such magnificent blockbuster scores as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Superman is an amazing story in and of itself. Getting his start with Henri Mancini and contributing to the works of such luminaries as Bernard Herrmann, and Jerry Goldsmith, the man responsible for the Mystery Science mainstay Daddy-O (his first solo film credit) became an Academy fixture when his work on Valley of the Dolls was nominated in 1967. By 1971 he had a coveted Oscar (for adapting Fiddler on the Roof for the big screen) and had given Irwin Allen’s disaster flicks The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno their popcorn buzz. But it would be neophyte upstart Steven Spielberg who turned Williams into a hummable household name. After working on The Sugarland Express together, the duo delivered the seminal shark tale to a eager Summer of ‘75 public, and the rest is motion picture mythology.

By ‘81, Williams was the go-to guy for the growing Spielberg/Lucas mega-movie empire. Even lesser films like 1941 would see his amazing musical hand in collaboration. When the Hollywood heavyweights decided to pay homage to the Saturday matinee serials they grew up with, Williams was tagged to give the action opus its jingoistic charms. The resulting theme for Indiana Jones, and his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, managed to push the artist into another commercial realm all together. As he had previously with other cinematic characters, Williams created a sonic signature that, even today, offers a kind of instant recall for the icon being preserved. In the person of Harrison Ford, Jones and his first adventure became an instant classic. Naturally, Williams was back for installments two and three (and four, if you’re counting the recent Crystal Skull stumble among the representative efforts of all involved).

Williams was also responsible for what might be called the ‘soundtrack album experience’. Instead of offering one or two recognizable tracks, almost everything he writes becomes a memorable sonic experience. During Raiders, selections for sequences “Escape from the Temple”, “The Map Room: Dawn”, and “The Fist Fight/The Flying Wing” have their own individual recognizability. It’s an effect carried over to Temple of Doom (“Slalom on Mt. Homol”, “Children in Chains”), and The Last Crusade (“Keeping Up with the Joneses”, “The Canyon of the Crescent Moon”). Williams functions in compositional wholes, of making characters thematically clear and aurally symbolic. It does lend itself to a kind of reasonable repetitiveness that makes his scores so undeniably rock solid. And perhaps the best thing about the newly rereleased remasters of these soundtracks is the inclusion of material left out in previous editions. Getting to hear three new tracks on Raiders, ten on Temple, and seven on Crusade makes the experience that much more fulfilling.

Indeed, Williams work here is without comparison. He’s truly the gold standard of such high pitched bravado. The moment his Indiana Jones theme kicks in, we know we’re in for a wild rollercoaster ride of cheesy thrills and action—packed chills. Elsewhere, he evokes the mystical elements of each story quite well, be it the Ark of the Covenant (“The Well of Souls”), the sacred Shiva lingman rocks of India (“Approaching the Stones”) or the actual holy chalice of Jesus Christ himself (“The Keeper of the Grail”). Though his work is often oversized and stratospheric in scope, Williams never gives in to the excess. His compositions always seems compact and complete, not a single note out of place, not a single cue overcompensating.

While it helps to be working with some of the most talented filmmakers in the history of the medium (good melodies have to have visuals to cement their staying power), Williams walks the fine line between necessary contributor and stand-alone star. No wonder his scores for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Las t Crusade are so timeless. Even in truncated (and now expanded) versions, they speak of one man’s undeniable talent, and his essential assistance as a part of the motion picture equation.

by Bill Gibron

9 Mar 2009


So what is it? A hit? A flop? Something somewhere in the middle? At a mere $55 million in weekend box office, Warner Brothers (and those litigious hangers-on FOX) must be circling the spin wagons and preparing to pour on the positive publicity. Twenty years ago, making more than half of the notorious blockbuster number of 100 in one three day period would be almost inconceivable. Today, it’s a drop in a deep, debt ridden bucket. While the amount of money something makes is never a clear sign of aesthetic or critical accomplishment, Hollywood measures meaning in dollars and cents - and the sheep-like media, incapable of solid independent thought, publish said spreadsheet summarizations with schaudenfraude delight.

So what exactly does a $55 million take mean for the long-in-gestation adaptation? Clearly, when compared to the $100 million of Iron Man, or the $300 million of The Dark Knight, we are waltzing through middling motion picture territory. The revamp of The Incredible Hulk did about $55 million its opening weekend, as did the female niche effort Sex and the City: The Movie. Claiming that a similarly small and specialized fanbase should be ashamed for only half a hundred is ridiculous. Besides, Watchmen is nearly three hours (including previews and trailers) and walked into theaters with an incredibly hard “R” attached to its availability. Making $55 million with the local pre-teen crowd packing Cineplexes is one thing. Doing it with the 17 and up crowd deserves some kind of special consideration.

That won’t stop those who hate the film from filling their greenback ducts with bile and spewing a kind of planned propaganda about the movie’s destined destruction. Others will toss their hands in the air and wonder what more a filmmaker has to do to draw an audience. There will be revisions, considerations for Thursday Midnight screenings and IMAX attendance, but one thing’s for sure - the $55 million figure will become the benchmark of 2009, a number ready to be shot down by X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, and Public Enemies. Still, one can try and gauge the impact this opening will have on the talent involved, taking into consideration more than the amount of cash that fills the coffers. Let’s begin with:

The Studio(s)


Warner Brothers/FOX


For Warners, it was all win/win initially. They had the director they wanted (hot off the phenomenal triumph of 300), the screenplay they needed (wonky, but totally workable), a cast they could bank on (no big names = no big salaries), and a pre-publicity buzz that made marketers drool with anticipation. With both messagesboards and viral campaigns loaded for bear, there was no way a Watchmen movie would fail. FOX must have thought so too, since they jumped in during post-production to claim their piece of the potential pie in court. Now, no matter what happens, Warners has wondered over into lose/lose terrain. If Watchmen doesn’t make $200 million, it will be seen as a failure - especially when it comes to profit sharing time. And if by some chance it surpasses all expectations and makes much, much more, the numerous hands reaching out for a cut will be painful to any earnings margin.

The Source


The Graphic Novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons


Of all the questionable outcomes, the impact on Watchmen as a literary entity remains the most complex. Surely, the semi-success of any film adaptation will draw readers anew to the original graphic novel, and those not put off by the format will find a work of incredibly dense and discerning wonder. Moore’s prose is plaintive and philosophical, wrapping up many intriguing ideas inside a seemingly simple story of revenge. Of course, the Cold War setting will seem dated, and the notion of Nixon as a three term President could put many off their measured morning in America coffee, yet there’s much more here than parallel histories and wistful “what ifs”.

Still, there is a drawback to such attention and that’s the dreaded “s” word - scrutiny. There will be some who come to Watchmen and wonder why the book is so beloved. Others will see Moore as a miserly old coot who happily cashes the checks his works incur while cursing the various mediums making said money. Some will take his adaptation complaints to heart and boycott anything but the written word - and that’s too bad. The film version of Watchmen is an exciting and rather special epic. While commerciality is perhaps the bane of Mr. Moore’s creative existence, it’s also not the final defining factor of anything’s worth. If it was, his cult would be laughable, not legitimate.

The Writers


David Hayter and Alex Tse


For Hayter and Tse, the ultimate realization of a Watchmen movie means much more to both of them than any bottom line balance sheet. The former has been down this road before (he worked on both X-Men films and The Scorpion King) while the latter is experiencing the first brushes with popcorn fame. In fact, Tse is already hard at work adapting Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man for future Snyder consideration. Since they were given the task of remaining faithful to the graphic novel, and will be seen as doing same (one missing squid aside), there’s no real downside to their contribution. Even if the film went on to severely underperform, they won’t be pegged as the problem. Indeed, for many involved in the production, Moore and Gibbons will be given more grief than those charged with accurately bringing their vision to life.

The Director


Zack Snyder


For his part, Snyder has already won. Even if the eventual returns don’t cover the cost of production, the man behind Dawn of the Dead and 300 set out to make the best. Most believable Watchmen movie he could, and given the outcome, he did just that. Sure, you can argue over how he truncated the tale, and how successful something like The Tales of the Black Freighter will be both outside and included in the final DVD cut, but he bested noted imaginative individuals like Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky, and there’s something to be said for actually filming the “unfilmable”. Any primping on his part will be seen as studio swagger and the resulting returns on home video will guarantee at least a few more dream projects before the fiscal reality of a less than Dark Knight return sinks in.

The Stars


Jeffery Dean Morgan/Patrick Wilson/Jackie Earle Haley


Of the many names associated with the Watchmen movie, only three truly stand out. We can’t consider Malin Akerman or Matthew Goode because many thought of them as miscast, and with Billy Crudup disguised under a buff blue CG persona, his career clout is also limited. But there’s no denying the continued interest in Jeffery Dean Morgan (the Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II) and especially Jackie Earle Haley (as the reactionary Rorschach). All three men should see their profile in Tinsel Town amplified significantly. All three give award worthy performances in a genre effort that rarely gets such a mention (Heck, SE&L is still shilling for Haley as a Heath Ledger like lock come Oscar time) and they provide the emotional core to the complex narrative. With only Wilson currently capable of walking the fine line between mainstream commerciality (Lakeview Terrace) and indie edge (Hard Candy), here’s betting the others find their phones ringing relatively soon. 

The Franchise


Sequels?


Oddly enough, this is a dead subject - at least from the purists’ initial position. Aside from the aforementioned side projects and an expanded DVD/Blu-ray run come five to seven months from now, Watchmen just does not lend itself to a sequel or series. Snyder approached it as a self-contained work, and the ending offered currently closes things off nicely. Still, Moore did allow for some continuation leeway when he ended on the discovery of Rorschach’s journal, and you know a cash flush studio - if there is a way to make another Watchmen movie and not totally alienate or piss off the predisposed demographic, they will do it. Here’s betting that multiple digital reconfigurations and special editions will be the most this movie sees of a supposed continuation.

by Bill Gibron

8 Mar 2009


It seems like, every year, the Academy Awards introduces us to a new actor or actress that we should have heard of already, but for some reason (not wholly our own fault), we haven’t. In 2006, it was Felicity Huffman. In 2008, it was France’s Marion Cotillard. And in 2009, the new name messing up Oscar pools everywhere was Melissa Leo. Though she’s been in the business since 1984, few of her films have been mainstream successes. And when she does appear in wide release efforts - Mr. Woodcock, Righteous Kill - she’s never the recognizable lead. Still, Leo is the very definition of a working actress (her IMDb page boasts over 80 appearances in her two decade career). Right after Frozen River, the title that would come to define her current higher profile, she traveled to South Africa to make the thriller Lullaby - and it’s a good thing too. Without Leo, this shallow suspense film would be wholly forgettable. 

Stephanie is a waitress living a dead-end life in the middle of nowhere America. Every week, she travels to the local Western Union station and wires money to her beloved son Stephen who is currently holed up in South Africa. What Stephanie doesn’t know is that her boy is a crackhead, in debt to a drug dealer who doesn’t take such matters lightly. Along with pregnant girlfriend Tina, the strung out kid is in a lot of trouble. One day, Stephanie receives a call at work. It’s T-Boy, the aforementioned South African mobster. He wants a ransom and he wants it NOW. Instead of simply wiring the cash, Stephanie calls in a few favors, grabs her passport, and travels halfway around the world to help her child. When she arrives in Johannesburg, the culture shock is overwhelming. But that’s nothing compared to the personal sacrifices she will make to help everyone - Stephen…and expecting gal pal Tina as well.

Lullaby is a flim flam flick. It wants to substitute local color for actual thrills and standard crime drama dynamics for evocative foreign flavor. In the hands of native Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina! , Cry the Beloved Country), this South African take on typical ‘innocent in a world of vice’ is not effective enough to get us involved. Like the recent, redundant Lake City, Lullaby provides its audience with no real rooting interesting in the outcome. We have some compassion for Stephanie, especially with the amount of emotion Ms. Leo invests in the role. But since nothing is really set-up - not the relationship with the son, not the backstory as to how he got to South Africa, not our heroine’s histrionic move to simply pull up stakes and head across the Atlantic - that by the time the bad guys appear, we don’t know whether to hiss or yawn. The inherent bond between mother and child is inferred and exploited, but never to a successful end. By the time the plot demands payback, we are simply going through the mechanical movie motions.

It has to be said that Leo is electrifying here. She really invests Stephanie with a desperation that practically overwhelms this tiny film. Eyes consistently filled with fear and tears, and body bent from a life of serving others, this scrappy matriarch should really make us care about her plight. But screenwriters Donald Barton, Ivan Millborrow, and Michael Sellers don’t know the first thing about empathy. They simply start the story and hope our feelings eventually catch up. This is particularly true of the Middle Act meet-up with prostitute Tina. Stephanie is supposed to see a kindred spirit in this waste of a working girl, someone struggling to survive, but the callous, cynical nature of this whore undermines any sympathy. And when they suddenly turn into Thelma and STDS, robbing the locals to raise T-Boy’s payment, the myriad of unanswered questions subvert any suspense.

The rest of the performances are rote, to say the least. Joey Dedio has clearly spent far too long in cornrows to be this cavalier. His T-Boy is about as menacing as a man in bad hair can be. Similarly, Lisa-Marie Schneider’s Tina is an ambiguity looking for some kind of filmic focus. She’s bad-ass, she’s battered. She sold out Stephen (?) but then wants to help him (???). Elsewhere, Roodt loads the screen with lots of amateur actors, people who absolutely look the part, but who don’t necessarily know how to play it. There is nothing subtle here. Everything is frontier, “in your face” grandstanding. Even the minor roles tend to overstay their welcome, taking away from the movie’s desire to place you directly on the edge of your seat.

Still, Lullaby languishes in the mind, not because of Roodt’s skill behind the lens, but because of the numerous loose ends left dangling. The relationship between the criminals and the victims, the reason Stephanie is so broken up about her son, the boy who she visits when first arriving in South Africa, the reason she seeks no assistance from anyone in authority or legal power, who she turns to for money, why the diner owner makes a pass - all of these things are introduced, dramatized, and then left to dissipate and decay. Of course, even if they were all wrapped up in the neatest of bows, Lullaby would still lack a solid connective core. The more and more Ms. Leo moves away from the rational and the reasonable, the less and less we care about the outcome.

Indeed, the independent realm was not the right medium for this kind of movie. A lo-fi approach to high tension material only derails the proposed spectacle. Since everyday people usually don’t find themselves locked in cat and mouse conflicts with the criminal element in their town, such heighten reality (and production value) is necessary. Not every film can be One False Move. Not every effort can house a performance like Leo’s. In combination, the incongruity between manner and Method negate each other, resulting in a dull and rather tedious experience. Sadly, it looks like this recent Oscar nom will go the way of so many “here today, forgotten tomorrow” talents. Melissa Leo will still make a living as a solid, sometime superior actress. Here’s hoping Lullaby doesn’t ruin her resume too badly.

by Bill Gibron

7 Mar 2009


Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Some may call them “bros”, or the more high school appropriate “tools”, but eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life.

This formula has been followed in several recent very successful laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and even Superbad. Each time, the taint of testosterone unfettered overwhelms the notion of subtlety or clear substance. Now there’s another name to add to the ever-growing genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models (new to DVD in an Unrated edition from Universal) provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over. It’s also one of 2008’s most consistently surprising sleepers.

When they end up in some silly accidental legal trouble, energy drink corporate rep Danny Donahue and his arrested adolescent buddy Wheeler are sentenced to 30 days of community service. Forced to serve their time at a local outreach center known as Sturdy Wings, each man is paired up with a troubled youth. For Wheeler, that means putting up with the F-bomb dropping delinquent Ronnie, while Danny must contend with a D&D obsessed nerd named Augie. The expected result hopes for a little mature guidance and lots of substitute parent/child quality time. Of course, no one gets along at first, our heroes making many mistakes while desperate to relate to these kids. This really pisses off the former drug addict director of the center. Eventually, everyone finds a happy middle ground of acceptance, although their bonds are tested during a Renaissance Fair battle royale. No, seriously. 

Rapidly becoming the MVP of the entire Bro-mance genre, Paul Rudd has rapidly become a consistently comic foil. The last time we saw the actor and several members of MTV’s cult sketch comedy series The State working together, it was on the uneven but often interesting Commandment comedy The Ten. Now comes the hilarious, if somewhat structure-less, Role Models. Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection. By the end of the film, we really care about Danny and Wheeler, the former’s faltering relationship with good sport lawyer Beth (played by the currently omnipresent Elizabeth Banks), and their two underage sidekicks. And thanks to these important aspects, the filmmaker unlocks a series of ways to keep things consistently funny.

The first formidable feature is the raw raunch power of a cursing grade-schooler. Nothing is funnier - or more inappropriate - than a wee one working it, Richard Pryor style. Oddly enough, actor Bobb’e J. Thompson is more than just a sailor’s handbook of profanity. There is real pain and anger in this kid and though the novelty of hearing him swear a blue streak wears off quickly, the effect is still sensational. He is matched quip for quip by Rudd. As he did in Knocked Up, the current “FOJ” (friend of Judd) drops little atomic bombs of brilliance, either in reaction or rejoinder, keeping everything Danny does a question of taste and/or tolerance. Rudd is especially strong during the opening bits, where his dead end life as an energy drink pitch man proves almost lethal. He even has a nice running joke with Thompson (who tags him with the ultimate put-down…“Ben Affleck”).

The final fun facet is the film’s unbridled love for things just slightly outside the mainstream. KISS, about as relevant in 2008 as Uriah Heap and Foghat, become the inspired muse for both Wheeler and our quartet’s last act stand off during the role playing L.A.I.R.E. tournament. Just hearing “Detroit Rock City” blaring from a Minotaur shaped monster truck is more than enough sweet cheese movie magic. Even better, the whole Middle Earth dynamic is both celebrated and chastised, its lack of a link to reality matched evenly by how much pleasure and pride the competitors get out of the event.

So, what doesn’t work? Frankly, the perpetually scruffy Seann William Scott is too lost in his own libido to garner our sympathy. You just know the minute he sees a hot chick with a pair of come hither…eyes, he’s abandoning Ronnie to his own unsupervised devices. And Elizabeth Banks does the whole noble girlfriend part perfectly, but she’s almost ancillary to the entire narrative (as Rudd’s serenade of the classic “Beth” illustrates). In fact, Role Models really doesn’t need such mainstream sentimentality. The way in which our do-nothing heroes begin to bond with their lost and somewhat fragile charges provides more than enough emotion to sustain us.

As part of the new DVD package, we get more saucy, scandalous material. The Unrated moments are no bluer or ballsier than the original, but the added anarchy really swings. So does the commentary track from director Wain.  Insightful without being insipid, he brings a lot of humor and wit to the track. Equally entertaining are the numerous bits of added content, including deleted scenes, bloopers, improvisational bits with the cast, and some anarchic behind the scenes sneak peeks. Clearly, as with most comedies, Role Models was made up of the best bits of pieced together hilarity. The results definitely speak loudly for Wain’s continuing success as a filmmaker.

Oddly enough, Role Models may be more sweet than satiric. It tosses off the slang and four letter slams with casual abandon, recognizing almost inherently that we will giggle at their presold shock value. But it’s the moment when Wheeler and Ronnie connect over the concept of breasts (or “boobies”, as the movie lovingly calls them) or when Danny defends Augie to his clueless parents that this film finds its voice. In fact, without the sexual references and graphic language, this would be a pleasant PG romp. But Role Models knows it takes more than heart to get Cineplex audiences interested in a contemporary comedy. So it borrows a few blue moves from the Apatow playbook. To paraphrase a classic quote, copycatting is the sincerest form of filmmaking flattery. This winning, if slightly wonky, effort has enough positives to keep the few unnecessary negatives at bay.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Exposition Dumps Don't Need Dialogue in 'Virginia'

// Moving Pixels

"Virginia manages to have an exposition dump without wordy exposition.

READ the article