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by Bill Gibron

8 Sep 2008


Love him or hate him - or perhaps a better means of comparison is ‘revere him or reject him’ - but John Carpenter is much more than his frequently slipshod cinematic cache. Granted, over the last two decades he has yet to match the macabre benchmarks established with such groundbreaking efforts as Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York. But to diminish the man with a “what have you done for me lately” ideal seems silly, especially in light of how classic said previous creepouts have been. In fact, when you broaden your perspective a little and realize just what the man has truly accomplished, you’ll see that such irate instant gratification has no real legitimacy or leverage.

For the most part, film fans fail to remember that Carpenter is more than just an accomplished director. He’s a wonderful writer (he’s scripted at least 20 films and/or TV productions), an accomplished producer, and perhaps most importantly, a fantastic horror/fantasy film scorer. Some of the most memorable music to come out of a Carpenter film is typically created by the man himself. In collaboration with longtime associate Alan Howarth (among others), this rightful figure of renaissance rarity has made as much of an aural imprint on the genre as visual. In fact, many of his themes are so instantly recognizable that the complementary motion picture would feel lost without it (and visa versa).

While some of his later compositions pale in comparison, the years between 1974 and 1987 saw many of his most unforgettable efforts. Drawing direct inspiration from Dario Argento and his work with Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin (as well as the compositional kingpin Ennio Morricone), Carpenter’s soundscapes are both unique and referential. There are definite ‘disco’ underpinnings to his approach, as well as a reliance on analog synthesizers that give each effort a kind of cine-schlock b-movie sheen. Some may complain that once you’ve heard Carpenter underscore a film, you’ve heard his entire auditory canon, but true aficionados of his work know better. Here are at least five fine examples of the man making music to support his often outlandish and totally original flights of fear fancy.

Prince of Darkness (1987)
For his last legitimately great film, Carpenter decided to deal with the arrival of the Antichrist - the Devil’s true son. Set in a broken down church and imbued with a highly technical (and talky) take on science vs. philosophy, the director poured more of himself and his ideas into this film than he had in any other previous project. The results are riveting and ripe for post-millennial reexamination. On the sound side, this is one of Carpenter’s most clear cut borrows from Goblin. The throbbing electronic beat supports what sounds like banshees wailing over shrill strings. While the tempo never deviates, the drama inherent in the melody lines suggests something vast and apocalyptic. It couldn’t be more correct.




Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Decades before Quentin Tarantino was quoting (and ripping off) the Shaw Brothers as some kind of newly discovered cinematic standard, Carpenter was manufacturing his own unique revision on the then mostly unknown Hong Kong action movie genre. Thanks to a terrifically quirky script from W.D. Richter (the movie was originally planned as a Western) and a legendary turn by Kurt Russell (no one does clueless heroics better), this remains one of Carpenter’s commercial and cult standouts. It is also the most rock and roll of the filmmaker’s cinematic compositions. The end titles even use a song by the faux combo The Coupe De Villes (actually the director and fellow crewmembers Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace).




Christine (1983)
In what seemed like a match made in horror film heaven, the reigning Don of Dread was earmarked to adapt Stephen King’s killer car bestseller for the big screen. But instead of being completely faithful to the author’s automotive murder ideas, Carpenter decided to make his own hilariously sick satire of the generic John Hughes high school film. Funneling in a little ‘50s JD jive just for fun, he created a unique and undeniably odd effort. Even better, this is one of his most complex compositional undertakings. The score frequently references classic rockabilly with bits of Twin Peaks era Angelo Badalamenti tossed in here and there. Like the movie it supports, this soundtrack remains one of Carpenter’s more criminally underrated.




Escape from New York (1981)
For what is perhaps the ultimate example of an action film as flashpoint allegory of a dystopian society gone sour, Carpenter invented the iconic character of Snake Plissken, had the creative common sense to cast former child star Russell in the role, and the covered everything in a fascinating future shock sensibility. For many, this stands as one of Carpenter’s, and the filmic category’s, best. So is the sensational soundtrack. In what has to be a near perfect marriage of music and mise-en-scene, Carpenter makes every note and every cinematic beat sync up beautifully. Another instance where narrative and noise fuse in such a way as to forever coexist.




Halloween (1978)
This is, without a doubt, Carpenter’s crowning achievement. It represents his love of Hitchcock and all things suspense married to a prickly post-modern view of the everpresent personal boogeyman. Sure, it started the whole slasher genre (much to Black Christmas or Michael Findlay’s chagrin), but revisiting the film some 30 years later illustrated Carpenter’s mastery of filmmaking form and classical composition. So does the score. Like other seminal ‘70s films like Jaws and The Godfather, the aural backdrop here is so identifiable and iconic that it creates its own unique sphere of further influence. Beyond what it did for the fright flick, Halloween re-established that solid scary movies needed their own recognizable soundtrack to really resonate. Don’t believe it? Just ask Friday the 13th, or something as recent as Saw. There is more to fear than the sense of sight. Carpenter is one of the few filmmakers who embrace and exploit audio’s ability to deliver the shivers. That’s why he will always be a master of BOTH mediums.

by Bill Gibron

8 Sep 2008


Contemplate the number for a moment…$8 million. One Sixtieth of what The Dark Knight has made so far this Summer. One tenth of the average budget for a mainstream movie. The salary some undeserving TV actor is earning to make the unnecessary (and unwarranted) jump to the big screen. Yet that is exactly how much money the first film of the Fall Season, the clumsy crime thriller Bangkok Dangerous took in over the three day weekend ending 7 September. Averaging less than $3 million a day, this certified flop argues for the end of America’s fascination with all things Asian - at least from a cinematic standpoint. With J-Horror remakes regularly tanking and Eastern filmmakers having a hard time connecting with blasé Western audiences, this latest blow may not be a true death knell, but it sure feels like it.

Now no one was expecting a runaway blockbuster. After all, the talent involved suggested a minor cult hit at best. And when you think about it, the revamped storyline robbed the original movie of its substance and meaning. For those who didn’t see it (and there’s a whole helluva lotta you out there), Nicolas Cage stars as Joe, a hitman whose having a sudden crisis of conscience. Sick of his solitary life as a killer for hire, he decides to take on a protégé, and befriend a deaf pharmacy clerk while on his last job in the title city. Naturally, nothing works out for the murderer for money, each of this marks becoming more and more difficult to ‘execute’. In the end, Joe decides to take out the mobster who contracted him, even if it means losing everything he has - his student, his lover, and his life.

With its anemic action scenes - poorly staged and awkwardly edited - and its lack of deliberate depth, it would be easy to dismiss this box office bomb as the typical Tinsel Town tainting of a once viable motion picture product. But what does it say about creators Danny and Oxide Pang that they are the one’s responsible for this regressive redux? Sure, there is plenty of blame to go around, but unlike the ripples that occur after a movie turns into a monetary monster, a failure has its own unusual way of cherry picking out the parties responsible. So as we did with Iron Man and The Dark Knight before, SE&L will venture a guess as to how Bangkok Dangerous’ business model embarrassment will play out among everyone involved. As you will see, there are some who don’t have to worry. Others, obviously, are on the last few minutes of their already borrowed time.

The Studio


Lionsgate


Long considered the company of last resort for any lame, unwatchable horror hack job floating around the direct to DVD universe, new company president Joe Drake has announced that he’s moving the production paradigm away from money draining mediocre macabre and back into more PG-13 oriented mainstream product. With an infusion of cash, and a claim to some of the more intriguing titles this Fall, it appears that Drake is a man of his word. Of course, when the repercussions arrive from Bangkok‘s failure, the fallout should be minimal at best. After all, Drake can merely blame the man he replaced - ex-studio guide Peter Block. It was his bumbling baby after all. 

The Source


The 1999 Original


As their first foray into feature filmmaking, the brothers truly delivered a naïve tour de force, a movie that makes no bones about its unabashed sentimentality (in the original, our amiable antihero was the deaf one) or love of violence. Some have suggested that it’s just as slow and overly mannered as the Tinsel Town makeover, but the language difference alone helps compensate for such artistic underachieving. When the dust final settles from this fiasco, the original version will end up heralded as some kind of cult classic. It neither deserves nor demands such superlatives. Instead, it’s just a decent debut, nothing more.

The Writer


Jason Richman


Poised to take one part of the bi-furcated blame for this unqualified disaster, our Southern California scribe has very little legitimacy to stand on. After all, his other Summer film, the equally uneventful Swing Vote, also came up short when coffer counts were mounted. Yet if there is one main lesson to learn from Bangkok Dangerous’ shortcomings, it’s that screenplays rarely take the full brunt of any responsibility. That’s because of all the pieces in a multimillion dollar production, the scribe is the least considered - and that stinks come post-success praise. But it definitely helps once pink slips start arriving.

The Directors


The Pang Brothers


Okay - here is the true ground zero for this cinematic stink bomb. The Pangs may have been heavily touted talents for their endless Eye movies (as well as Bangkok‘s inspiration), but Hollywood functions under a “what have you done for me lately…as in yesterday” mentality, and the boys’ miserable track record speaks for itself. The Jessica Alba version of the blind babe ghost story came up short, and the Pangs own attempt at a haunting mainstream horror movie - the equally ineffectual The Messengers - suggested a certain flash in the pan status. Of course, there are a couple of Pang productions unseen by Western eyes (2007’s Forest of Death, 2008’s In Love with the Dead and Missing) that may moderate such a cold classification. But one thing’s for sure - don’t be looking for Danny or Oxide to take on any future high profile projects. They’ve more than used up their commercial cache in La-La land.

The Star


Nicolas Cage


There is no need to worry about Cage being unable to find work. Reports have him linked to no less than nine new or currently in development projects - and that’s not counting a proposed Ghost Rider sequel sometime in the near future. And more than a few of his upcoming efforts - Alex Proyas’ Knowing, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost - sound absolutely incredible. Apparently even with junk like Next, The Wicker Man, and the National Treasure films as part of your recent resume, a single Oscar and a quirky onscreen persona can still get you some sensational scripts. It will be interesting to see how long his losing streak can last before the studios start pulling the (hair) plugs.

The Franchise


The Hitman Movie


While the ending does leave an opening for a sequel, it’s hard to see how anyone could greenlight a return to this already overdone material. Part of Bangkok Dangerous’ problem - at least in this American revisit - is how redundant and formulaic it feels. John Woo at least offered a little motion picture panache when he served up his take on the typical gangster gunplay stereotypes. The Pangs simply desaturate the colors and consider it a stroke of aesthetic genius. Frankly, journeyman jokes like Brett Ratner and Tim Story have created more compelling action scenes, and with the exception of this Summer’s sensational Wanted, the professional killer genre is more or less terminal. Again, Bangkok Dangerous won’t necessarily kill it, but this body blow will be hard to overcome.

by Bill Gibron

7 Sep 2008


In the world of innocuous comparisons, Jet Li will always be Gene Kelly to Jackie Chan’s Fred Astaire. The latter used his grace and tireless technique to add uniquely comic flare and characterization to his martial arts moves. The former, equally adept and expert, took a far more physical and staunch approach. Together with the late great Bruce Lee, they have done more for the Hong Kong action film than a production company filled with Shaw Brothers. Yet thanks to our previous narrow minded focus on our own interpretation of the genre, few US fans got to see these icons in their prime. Genius Products and The Weinstein Company, via their definitive Dragon Dynasty imprint, has been hoping to change all that. With their 31st (!) release, we get Li proving why he is one of the greatest movie stars ever. In this fantastic film, his truly is the Fist of Legend.

While studying in Japan, Chen Zhen learns that the master of his kung fu school has died during a challenge. Vowing to help rebuild its failing reputation, he leaves behind his gal pal Mitsuko and returns to Shanghai. It’s the mid-‘30s and the entire country is currently under Japanese invasion. Upon arriving, Zhen finds his fellow students defeated and depressed. Even worse, the new headmaster, Hou Ting-An, is failing to fulfill his late father’s mandates. Zhen takes on and defeats the Japanese sponsored training temple, raising the ire of General Fujita. He frames the Zhen for murder. Luckily, Mitsuko steps in to save the day. Prejudice against such interracial match-ups lead our hero and his fiancé to live in a cabin in the wilderness. As Ting-An tries to escape his responsibilities via a local prostitute, it will be up to Zhen to save the face of his former master and his great school once and for all.

It goes without saying that Fist of Legend is some manner of masterpiece. It features Li in one of his most compelling and iconic roles (it’s an update of the famous Bruce Lee film Fists of Fury/The Chinese Connection from 1972) and shows why director Gordon Chan is considered a modern Hong Kong king. Utilizing all the standard storyline manipulations, from loss of dignity to a last act fight to the death, Legend lives up to its mythic title by taking these elements and molding them into something electrifying and emotional. The entire experience is as spellbinding as it is brilliantly bad-ass. Li has always been a wonderful fighter, and in this film he shows off every skill in his capacity. There is even a clever bit where he uses Western boxing techniques to throw his mystified opponent off guard. It’s yet another testament to the skilled stuntwork of the equally celebrated action God Woo-ping Yuen. His repute needs no further finesse. 

But there is more to this movie than kicks and counterattacks. The main theme running through Fist of Legend is the unflinching hatred between the invading Japanese and the victimized Chinese. The prejudice is so deep that when Li’s former female classmate Mitsuko shows up to offer her (false) testimony in Chen’s defense, she is rewarded with some unsettling, uncalled for bigotry. As one of the characters says later on in the film, everyone will accept the young headmaster’s whore mistress from the local brothel, but the woman who saved their true hero’s life gets relegated to an existence in exile. Not all the Japanese are evil, however. Fist does try to moderate the intolerance. During these scenes, Li’s subtler side shows through. Though he understands the anger and animosity, he chooses to see beyond the small-mindedness and social stigmas.

In fact, it’s hard to differentiate which is more powerful - the anti-Japanese sentiment (understandable considering the countries’ shared history) or the battles. Each grabs a hold of our attention and provides various levels of intrigue. Film historian Bey Logan, a fixture of these DVD presentations, states in the accompanying commentary that some of this kowtowing was clearly meant for Hong Kong audiences. Certain scenes got crowds up on their feet and cheering, especially toward the end where Li seems to singlehandedly push the invaders back to their tiny island nation with a single unselfish act. Logan also explains that the original Bruce Lee movie was so well loved that Li and Chan were concerned about adapting it. The more political approach soothed their understandable hesitance. As we watch this remarkable movie, we see that much of this narrative is layered in the art of populist myth making - both plotwise and for movie marketing. It certainly has a star capable of carrying such a stance.

As they do with almost all their releases, Dragon Dynasty delivers a content dense two disc package that should make purists proud while giving newcomers the context they need to simply enjoy. There are interviews with director Chan, kung fu “impresario” Chin Siu-ho, Japanese action hero Kurata Yasuaki (who plays the charismatic master of the competing school), and a sit down with American director Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell regarding the film. Toss in some deleted scenes (always fun, considering the source), a screen fighting seminar at the Kuratra Action School, and a trailer gallery, and we have an excellent set of supplements that provide explanations as well as added entertainment value.

Yet even it pales in comparison to the rousing experience of seeing Fist of Legend for the first time. There is no greater joy for a film fan than learning the ‘when and where’ of how their favored hero earned their earmarked reputation. Here, Li is nothing short of human electricity, lighting up every scene he is in and sending high voltage shock waves through the entire narrative. From the powerful punches that force opponents across the room, to the sadder sequences where Chen mourns his fallen master, Fist of Legend overloads the screen with heart pounding - and breaking - radiance. It is perhaps one of the best martial arts movies ever - and just like the classic Hollywood hoofer he’s comparable to, Li does it all with athleticism, power, and an undeniable individual elegance. He truly is something superhuman.

by Bill Gibron

6 Sep 2008


The notion of returning to your roots is at the core of every life crisis. Getting back to the comfort of the past, to the people who supposedly know you best and longest suggests a security that, sadly, is just not there. No, going back home in an attempt to find the same old acceptance, happiness, personal insight, and situational ease proves the oft cited maxim against the possibility of doing same. In Troubadours, a rousing indie effort focusing on this very subject, we learn that connectivity and the friendships forged in same can be just as destructive as the traumas tricking you into taking the trip back.

Art Stone left his father’s farm with big, broad shouldered dreams. But all Chicago provided was a series of dead end opportunities and a broken heart. When he catches his girlfriend in bed with another man, he finally slips into depression. At the behest of his buddy, he heads back to his parent’s property, eager to work the land and basically find himself. But Art soon runs into his old gang, a group of farm hands and menial laborers who use the world around them as an excuse to get drunk, get rowdy, and get in trouble. With his heavily religious relatives looking down their nose at him, and a new girl turning his head, Art must decide what’s important - a return trip to the city to seek his fortune, or the role of tripwire troubadour in a one horse town.

The brainchild of three outsider filmmakers - Tom Galassi, Tom Synder, and Adam Galassi - and tinged with the kind of kooky experimentalism that both electrifies and irritates, Troubadours (new to DVD from Facets Video) takes its sweet time telling a rather intriguing tale. It wants to explore how post-modern machismo has been mitigated, Fight Club style, by a society that stresses getting in touch with your feelings and a more therapeutic way of dealing with decisions. Within this collection of types - the radical, the flag waver, the nonconformist, the raging conservative - we see snippets of the way the world works circa 2008. Amidst the pain of misspent youth and a growing need for maturity, our hero stumbles bravely along, looking to understand himself by coming to terms with the people who played a part in his formation.

As Art, Tom Galassi gives the kind of performance that seems almost invisible at first. He is all reaction, letting others speak for him or even suggest a psychological path to explore. His responses color in the character nuances, allowing silence and stillness to speak volumes. Similarly, the way in which he interacts with his pals provides equally important insights. We can see how Chad’s confrontational stance protects him from outside criticism, while the fate of others rests firmly in their lost boys grasp. There is a clear undercurrent of arrested adolescence here, of boys being boys for no good goddamn reason, and when the filmmakers let the festivities go on too long, Troubadours stumbles. When they keep it to conversations, the movie often amazes.

There is also a nice use of local color here, the Southern Illinois farmland providing a nice bit of forgotten Americana. Equally effective are the insert shots of the landscape, the unique approach to capturing the countryside - almost piecemeal, if you like - giving the film a wonderful somnambulistic edge. The music also aids in creating atmosphere, though the reliance on shoe-gazing groups like My Morning Jacket and Devil in a Woodpile frequently feel like outtakes from 1994. As directors, the two Galassis and Synder tend toward intimate set-ups and random quick cuts. The upside to such a presentation is that the film feels true and very authentic. The downside is that we often experience a kind of creative whiplash. There are definitely times when it’s tough to get our bearings.

Another aspect that may cause some concern is the obvious decision to rely on improv to flesh out many of the scenes. As part of the DVD package, we are privy to outtakes and deleted scenes which show how frequently off base this material became. Still, these added features do expand the viewing experience, especially when the subject of the music comes up. Perhaps the only thing missing here is a full length audio commentary. Tom has a unique past (he was part of a regional company of the Blue Man Group), and many of his costars come from similarly interesting backgrounds. Besides, their narrator presence during the film could help explains some of the narrative hiccups and the use of certain symbols (the ringing cellphone, the monkey mask).

Still, in a genre which typically renders itself stagnant by an overreliance on self-indulgent and absorbed strategies, the open ended and loose feel of Troubadours definitely wins us over. By the time we realize we’ve just witnessed another manboy making up his mind about life, we are awash in a sea of good feelings and genuine emotion. There will be some who find this well meaning meandering to be more or less an unfocused experiment in homespun hedonism, but that’s part of Troubadours’ charm. While it may be impossible to return to your past, a fine cinematic experience out of the attempt is obviously possible. The Galassis and Synder understand this all too well.

by Bill Gibron

4 Sep 2008


It’s as precious as oil, and just as many wars have (and will) be fought over it. But unlike the battles braved by American soldiers to keep SUVs humming on US highways, these clashes come at the price of something far more precious - the basic necessities of life. According to one estimate, there are over 1.2 billion people on this planet without access to potable water. And of that number, the UN has targeted several million with direct emergency aid campaigns. So why is the situation only getting worse? Seems like the key word is ‘privatization’, and as Irene Salina shows in her fascinating documentary Flow, those contracted to solve the problem and financially benefiting from same have only added to the misery.

Focusing on a few foreign countries - Bolivia, South Africa, and India - and then moving to an unusual grass roots challenge in Michigan - Flow is your basic no-frills tell-all. It follows the premise that all humans have the “right” to water. Not to bottled water. Not to high priced, frequently unavailable water, but pure, clean, easy to obtain, and inexpensive drinking water. With the influx of foreign multinationals who have figured out a way to make massive profits out of empty infrastructure promises, Salina shows that it is typically the poorest people, without anyone to support their situation, that often find themselves paying exorbitant prices for dirty, unavailable resources.

There are many villains in this consistently one-sided commentary. Executives from major names like Suez and Vivendi defend their choices while we see how aimless and rather arrogant they are. A small village in South Africa must buy prepaid coupons to access their ration. But since many of them are uneducated, they must be taught the new system. The company’s answer? Appalling picture books with cartoons, all printed in English (not the native tongue, by the way). In India, a one man revolution has taken place, local farmers and villagers able to use ancient landscaping techniques to create their own renewable aquifers. Of course, once a contract is signed with a big name business, the ‘cease and desist’ threats begin.

The West is not left out of the blame game. We are ridiculed for our love of bottled beverages, taken to task for thinking what we are getting is somehow better than what comes out of the city tap. Of course, Flow fails to acknowledge that some states like Florida have such foul tasting and tainted municipal sources that a case of Zephryhills (now owned by Nestle) is better than relying on your local government. Still, it’s shocking to see people with perfectly viable reservoirs draining Dasani after Dasani thinking they are doing something wholesome and healthier. The situation escalates when a small town in Michigan battles a big name to save its own basin.

This one struggle goes to the heart of Flow‘s purpose. When Nestle loses its court case, told they cannot simply pump as much water out from under these citizens as they want, the lawyers wrangle a reprieve. Indeed, while the appeals process chugs along for the next few years, they still operate at near full capacity. It’s the same almost everywhere you go with the exception of Bolivia. There, riots and massive demonstrations force the leadership to kick out the private companies. If the people cared, says one frustrated organizer, there’d be many more victories like this.

In fact, one of the most startling aspects of Flow is its predictions about world water needs and shortages. We learn that there may be more oil in the ground than life giving liquid to go around, and at the rate we consume, the concept of privatization will be more or less a given. Salina suggests that the primary goal of these companies is control. Money may be an ancillary benefit, but if you have the power over basic necessities, you can certainly name your terms and demands. We can already see it happening in the India case. Instead of supporting people who’ve figure out a way around their drought plagued dilemma, (via rainwater runoff) the elected officials line their pockets and undermine their efforts.

All throughout Flow are talking heads supporting the policy positions offered and criticizing those who would argue free market and outright capitalism. Some make a lot of sense. Others have a tinge of post-‘60s psycho radicalism to them. This does not mean that their ideas are any less valid, but when dealing with something so large and so crucial to the survival of the planet, the more sensible usually supplant those driven to screeds. From an aesthetic standpoint, Salina also does a wonderful job of adding ambient elements to the scholarship. On the one hand, we see the standard images of free flowing rivers and streams. On the other, music modulates the foreboding, making the threat even more menacing.

Salina makes Flow function as a wake-up call to those who take such issues as an international given. After all, how many people who run the faucet as they brush their teeth, think that they are actually wasting the equivalent of a whole South African town’s weekly supply? When we pick up that bottle of Evian, do we really understand that in some South American countries people would kill for such a source? Indeed, one of the more moderate speakers believes that, just like during other times of crisis, an informed outside constituency will rise up to rectify what commerce and corruption has shattered. For that fact alone, Flow is an important film. That it states its many positions in a powerful and persuasive manner helps to limit some of the more tired rhetoric.

And still the war rages on, winner and losers racking up the casualties as a populace cries out for some manner of justice. While films such as this may not sway the conflict one way or the other, it will at least sum up the sides involved. More importantly, Flow feels like the truth. It doesn’t have the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock smugness or self satisfaction clouding its cause. Instead, it looks at a seismic situation and allows the facts to frighten everyone into attention. Here’s hoping that once the fear subsides, some substantive solutions can be discovered. If not, this is one mêlée where, if one side loses, everyone does.

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