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by Bill Gibron

24 Aug 2008


One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. It would borrow greatly from D. W. Griffith and the earliest days of moviemaking while adding enough Dali-inspired strangeness to make Un chien andalou look like Underdog.

Not known for his straightforward, rational, or even coherent aesthetic, this is a man manufacturing pictures based on his own fudged up film language. Maddin makes movies locked in his own unique approach, one that apparently hasn’t aged since Keaton and Chaplin were battling it out for box office supremacy. A perfect example of what he is after comes in the form of Brand Upon the Brain!, a self-described “97% accurate” autobiography of his early life as the abused son of a tyrannical couple who run a lighthouse orphanage while manufacturing an immortality serum. Seriously.

It’s not like the plot to the film (new to DVD from the Criterion Collection) clarifies things. When a fictional ‘Guy Maddin’ receives a letter from his dying mother asking that he return to the family homestead and give the place a much needed makeover, the middle aged painter agrees. Armed with a can of whitewash, he begins to touch up the fading walls of the Black Notch Island lighthouse, where his mother and father once ran an orphanage. Slowly, his memories of the past come flooding back.

He recalls his sexually frustrated older sister, and her physical awakening at the hands of a pair of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew like detectives - Wendy and Chance Hale, otherwise known as “The Lightbulb Kids”. He remembers late night footsteps and long lines of orphans entering his father’s mysterious lab. He balks at reminiscences of his mother’s watchtower worrying, a weird telephone like device and searchlight seeking out anything remotely fun or satisfying. He even revisits his own ineffectual rearing, complete with too many intimate cuddles and his own awkward carnal confusions. 

In general, Guy Maddin is either a stone cold genius or the kind of overly arty arsepipe that gives underground cinema a bad rap. Here’s voting for the former delineation. While you’ve probably never seen a silent scream as significant as Brand Upon the Brain!, Maddin makes his freak show fever dream relatively easy to digest. Sure, we grow slightly weary of all the peephole compositions and Lumiere like dissolves, but when the end result is this engaging, it really is hard to bellyache.

Indeed, Maddin earns major brownie points for out weirding David Lynch, circumventing Ken Russell, going gonzo where Terry Gilliam is merely giddy, and working it like a combination of James Whale, Tod Browning, and The Residents. Sure, it’s all pretend pretense, dramatics cleverly concealed inside manic moviemaking symbolism. But once you get a handle on Maddin’s cinematic dialect, the iconography becomes all too clear.

While he argues for the veracity of the events in Brand Upon the Brain!, it has also been suggested that the accuracy lies in ‘psychological’ truth. That means that Maddin’s character in the film was probably not the victim of a domineering and pseudo incestual mother. Instead, we can read in between the frame count to find the reality of an artistic young boy more or less smothered by his parent’s prearranged ambitions. Similarly, Sister could not have been a nun like nuisance that explored her sexuality via illicit trysts with ‘30s era teen spies. And let’s not even mention the occasional cranium draining that father forces on her.

Instead, Brand is plainly suggesting that, in a manner most understandable, Maddin’s sibling sought fantasy and freedom in unconventional ways, and when her family discovered this, their punishments figuratively leeched the life out of her. He wouldn’t be the first to cast relatives as reprobate from Hell. Such puzzle box pronouncements are all over this narrative. From Mother’s omniscient watchdog despotism to Father’s far away and distant kind of clinical disconnect, one sees a household orphaned, without the kind of conscious center that leads to love and open understanding.

Why else would Maddin’s movie mother want the residence painted over? Part of Brand Upon the Brain!‘s significance stems from the concept of hiding from the past. Indeed, the very approach of the film makes it all so meta. Sonic themes repeat - the call of the gulls, the ding of the off shore buoy, suggesting the kind of mental soundscape that shapes our memories. Maddin also repeats certain sequences, the better to emphasis his mother’s nonstop assaults, his Father’s “foghorn” like loss, or his own fascination with Wendy and Chance - the Lightbulb Kids.

Part of the fun in this film is deciphering the clues - what does naming these characters after Edison’s invention signify? An idea? An epiphany? Illumination? What about the statement that “raging = aging”? Is it merely a clever play on words, or a sensible psychological statement applied as a nonsense rhyme? The fact that Maddin literalizes everything, giving it shape and form where other filmmakers would strive for the suggestive, means that Brand is a film that fully expects you to play along. And since he employs a cast of unknowns, we can’t rely on celebrity to aid in our appreciation

Some can consider it confusing or even self-indulgent. ‘Interactive’ would be a much better label. Brand Upon the Brain! is like an incomplete composition, requiring the input and experiences of the viewer to realize its aims. Since the tale is told both visually and via a voice over narration, we get to play a kind of storyline compare and contrast. Even better, the implied dialogue frequently countermands the images, as when Mother’s maternal cooing appears almost erotic when applied to her young son.

There is a clear acknowledgement of the power of myth within Maddin’s work, and much of the time, Brand feels like Oedipus or some other famed Greek tragedy as spun and shuttered by The Brothers Grimm. The decision to use old silent filmmaking techniques really helps. By making Wendy and Chance the spitting image of Clara Bow, while his Father fumbles around in what looks like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the homage to the artform’s past is particularly potent. It gives the fantastical, almost science fiction like format a real sense of significance.

In all honesty, Brand Upon the Brain! can best be described as a monochrome responsorial to Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s brilliant City of Lost Children. That French fable also emphasized the loss of innocence, the attempt to recapture youth, the feminine dominance of offspring and the typical ineffectual pining of the male. While the acclaimed foreign film wanted to feel like a bedeviled bedtime story, Maddin is more interested in producing a psycho-sensationalized mind play. One could easily envision this film being transformed to the stage, the various orchestration and foley choices accompanying a highly stylized recreation.

Of course, the bigger question remains - is any of this entertaining? Do we buy what this daring deconstructionist is selling, or would we be better served steering clear of his scrapbook as scar tissue? The truth is that Brand Upon the Brain! is not necessarily built for instant amusement. Instead, it sets up a subjective surrealist wavelength and wonders aloud (and often) if you’re capable of syncing up. Those who can won’t be disappointed. Those who can’t will simply shrug their shoulders and back peddle to the comfort of the mainstream. In either case, it’s a clear win for Maddin’s malarkey, and motives - not that he cares about such commercial aims.

by Bill Gibron

23 Aug 2008


Can context really change your opinion? Can the changing cultural or political tide turn one set judgment, especially when the item being discussed seems irretrievably linked to said shifts? Morgan Spurlock must think so. When he offered his intriguing if incomplete dissertation on the Middle East and the so-called War on Terror a few months back, it seemed like a silly slapstick take on a very serious subject. Now, in light of an election which seems poised to be decided on issues other than our commitment in Iraq and threats from Islamic fundamentalists, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? appears much more lucid and likeable. 

The DVD release (from Genus Products and The Weinstein Company) of the title bares this out, especially when looking at the bonus material offered. Spurlock adds a few supporting snippets, including an insightful interview with Shimon Peres. The Israeli President makes it very clear that peace can be brokered, but as with any negotiation, it’s a matter of compromise. And when one side sees itself as totally marginalized within the process (as is the case with the Palestinians), there’s little desire to do anything except fight back. In light of his words, the entire foundation of this film changes. Sure, it’s still a goofy journey through world politics accented by Spurlock’s sunny slacker stance. But one cannot deny the connection to our own Western worries.

It’s clear in the main set-up the movie offers. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. Young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. Again, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead this is what Spurlock learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one.

By using the impending birth of this first child as a catalyst for cutting through the political rhetoric and the international posturing, we see the personal concern and connection and though premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span. It does its job remarkably well, and is eye opening in ways both important and superfluous. But just as he did with his attack on McDonalds, Super Size Me (and to a lesser extent, his otherwise excellent 30 Days series for FX), Spurlock stuffs the cinematic ballot box. He hedges his bets, going for the obvious score vs. the insightful if complicated underpinning.

It happens almost immediately upon entering Egypt (the film is built around a multi-country tour with our grinning guide playing a terrorist-trailing Tony Bourdain). Whenever he comes upon a disgruntled group of citizens, the message is repeated like a mantra - we don’t HATE the people of the US, just their horrific, misguided, and totally out of touch government. Over and over again it is repeated: we love you, we despise your failed foreign policy. Even in occupied territories outside Israel, where the aforementioned Palestinian refugees suffer unusual and horrid hardships, few are fuming at Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. Aside from one or two obvious militants, the same sentiment is voiced over and over - population good, president bad! 

Yet there is more to Spurlock’s madness than just delivering this one note communication. Unlike so many news reports that want to cast Muslims as one big bearded bunch of Islamic radicals, Where in the World… gives faces to this decidedly foreign issue. They are no longer villains in veils and headdress. Instead, they are actual human beings (Shock! Horror!) who just want schools, drinking water, financial help - oh, and some minor sovereign recognition and democratic rights would be great as well. The whole Jihad angle is substantially downplayed, the interviewees more than willing to rag on their radicalized brethren as not “representative” of the Middle East. As stated before, this is far from a revelation.

Still, there are times when even these comments seem contradictory. As part of the bonus features, three Saudi girls discuss their concept of freedom within a segregated, paternalistic theocracy. They argue that they have choice (they choose to conform) and they suggest they could drop the Muslim mandated rituals whenever they wanted. When pressed, they admit that the trouble to do so may not warrant the reward. The lack of follow-up remains one of this film’s few stumbles. Spurlock rarely gets to the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes question. Most of the time he offers nothing but passive aggressive acceptance.

Most of the time, he doesn’t even try to contradict or add context. He just lets jerks be jerks and moves on. Both sides get it good, from party line toting students to Hasidic Jews giving the people of Israel an equally bad name. Similarly, one senses that all these pro-peace pronouncements could be easily countermanded by a look at the cutting room floor - at least beyond the limited extras offered on this DVD. Like the director he’s most often compared to - Michael Moore - Spurlock clearly has an agenda. He’s more interested in fact flagging than finding. The viewpoint he puts out in Where in the World… may indeed be his overall experience, but it’s clearly one filtered through careful editing and a specific unbalanced viewpoint.

As the magnificent strains of Elvis Costello’s reading of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” start up, as the credits roll and the people we’ve met smile kindly for the camera (even the radicals), something strange happens. Beyond all the ADD inspired graphics, the video game grandstanding, the Charlie Daniels on Demerol theme song, and the overall reliance on generics, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden becomes a very effective film. It’s as if the music (and now the DVD) makes the points that Spurlock avoids, questioning and commenting on the tenets he tries to expose. There was never a chance he would find the fiery fundamentalist. Yet somehow, Spurlock still found the truth - or at least part of it.

by Bill Gibron

21 Aug 2008


One more week, and it will all be over. Another tent pole, another bit of Monday money bragging, and Summer 2008 will be history. Before that, here’s the films in focus for 22 August:

[REC] [rating: 9]

[REC] is ridiculously good. It’s a show-stopping terror trip through something that really shouldn’t work all that well.

It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does, it truly is cause for celebration. The horror genre has been so blatantly mismanaged by Hollywood, reduced to a series of unnecessary remakes, forced franchise fodder, independent null sets, and Westernized takes of better foreign frights, that when a solid movie macabre comes your way, you really do have to stop and settle the shivers. And it’s more than the dread onscreen working your frazzled nerves. No, when something as remarkably effective and downright scary as [REC] arrives on your plain, PG-13 doorstep, you have to seriously contemplate the reasons why - and wonder just when America is going to show its dearth of creativity and cannibalize the thing. read full review…

Death Race (2008) [rating: 6]

Like big steaming chunks of charred animal flesh, or a fleeting glimpse of a gal’s ample cleavage, Death Race taps into something very primal (and very male) about the action movie experience.

Remakes are like those proverbial Tribbles in the classic Trek episode. Give them a creative inch - or in the case of Hollywood, a recognizable box office return - and they’ll overrun your aesthetic starship, and last time anyone checked, Tinsel Town was plowing through them at warp speed. In a clear case of ‘the new generation needs its own version’, everything from the last three decades is now being updated to appeal to a tween, PG-13 demo. A rare exception is Death Race, an ‘update’ of Roger Corman’s action spoof that’s been given a gritty, grimy, hard-R polish. Gone are the cross country premise and “people-as-points” fun. In their place is a Rollerball meets ridiculousness ideal that’s, oddly earnest if ultimately empty goofiness.  read full review…

The Rocker [rating: 5]

Sadly, The Rocker is so rife with formula that a pre-school could wet nurse on it indefinitely and still never go hungry. 

Rock stardom is a standard personal fantasy. It represents two very elusive elements - the power that music has over all of us and the godlike fixation we have on those who make it. The notion of moving the masses in such a way, to produce the beautiful noise that brings sense and sensibility together, remains a wonderful daydream of wanton wish fulfillment. So when a movie proposes to take on said topic, to show how a fleeting glimpse of recognition ruins a man’s life, it should have a relatively easy time of getting our already primed attention. Sadly, The Rocker is so rife with formula that a pre-school could wet nurse on it indefinitely and still never go hungry.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

21 Aug 2008


It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does, it truly is cause for celebration. The horror genre has been so blatantly mismanaged by Hollywood, reduced to a series of unnecessary remakes, forced franchise fodder, independent null sets, and Westernized takes of better foreign frights, that when a solid movie macabre comes your way, you really do have to stop and settle the shivers. And it’s more than the dread onscreen working your frazzled nerves. No, when something as remarkably effective and downright scary as [REC] arrives on your plain, PG-13 doorstep, you have to seriously contemplate the reasons why - and wonder just when America is going to show its dearth of creativity and cannibalize the thing.

It’s a typical night for reporter Angela Vidal. She’s on location doing another of her insightful “While You’re Asleep” segments. This time, she intends to follow a group of firefighters as they go about their evening routine. While she hopes for an alarm, the journalist recognizes the dead end elements of her assignment. Without warning, the company is called to a local apartment building. Seems an old woman was heard screaming - that is, before she went quiet. As they investigate, they notice the nervous nature of the other tenants. Sure enough, there is reason to be anxious. The lady isn’t dead. As a matter of fact, she may be something much, much worse. Soon, the government is quarantining the building, trapping Angela, her cameraman, and several unsuspecting victims. They all appear to be the potential targets of a biological plague that may have a more suspicious, supernatural source.

[REC] is ridiculously good. It’s a show-stopping terror trip through something that really shouldn’t work all that well. Employing the by now tired first person POV perspective (everything is captured through a cameraman’s omniscient lens) tied to a ‘happening in real time’ panic strategy, this exercise in style cries out to be complained about. On the negative side, we do see little characterization. Our heroine seems perky enough, but everyone else is just bloody bite fodder. True, the narrative is more inferential that assertive, giving off hints and possibilities without coming up with clear, concrete answers. And since it trades in something standard within the always overworked horror dynamic (innocents against the monsters), we openly doubt if it will have anything original or clever to add.

The answer, happily, is a big fat “YES”. [REC] routinely argues that good ideas will always trump a lack of flawless execution. There’s no way this film could work within a typical creature feature mise-en-scene. By the time the apartment dwellers started dropping like flies, we’d grow incredibly blasé and bored. But thanks to the talent of directors Jaume Balagueró (the main man in charge) and Paco Plaza (our witness with the handycam), the visceral nature of the approach avoids any such lulls. Framing can really help a fright film, our inability to see what’s going on within a composition adding to our sense of unease. These Spanish scare masters rely on this device time and time again, images lagging in the background as our players interact, their movement slowly making their menace known. Even more impressive is the filmmaker’s dedication to the all important ‘anyone can die’ ideal. Nothing emphasizes a potential threat better than a truly random danger. 

Something new to the otherwise familiar fright works however, is the concept of hopeless indestructibility. All throughout [REC] , we wonder why the standard kill methods don’t work. These ‘things’ are shot, stabbed, and smashed, and yet they continue to come - angrier and more aggressive than before. There is never a moment when we figure all is safe. Instead, Balagueró and Plaza play continuous mind games with our sense of safety. Sometimes, the threat is all too real. At other instances, it’s merely the figment of some adrenalized individual’s highly over-stimulated and susceptible imagination. Make no mistake, however - anything can spell disaster here, from a small child to an ‘abandoned’ penthouse. [REC] never plays fair with its fear, and that’s why it’s so wonderful.

Equally interesting is the stunning display of old school Blair Witch-ery. Back when the found footage ideal was indeed unique, some felt the gimmick would eventually run its one note course. Instead, contemporary filmmakers have found interesting and inventive ways of making it viable, from the zombie zeal of George Romero’s Diary of the Dead to the Godzilla on growth hormones of Cloverfield. Here, Balagueró and Plaza don’t try to impose structure on what is filmed, sticking to a recognizable storyline. There are never moments when the camera is somewhere it shouldn’t or couldn’t be. In fact, where this film triumphs over the original Burkittsville ballyhoo is in the notion of purpose. Unlike the improvised idiocy of that film’s scareless downtime, [REC] just keeps the creeps coming.

The result is a return to those glory days of audience angst and edge of your seat shocks. Like gore for the lover of sluice or tension for those desperate for a helping of Hitchcock, [REC] gives hope to a demo frequently capable of giving almost any genre jive the benefit of the doubt. It’s a wonderfully evocative, thoroughly engaging experience, the kind of jump jolt joy ride that instantly satiates your panic proclivities…and then some. The last few minutes will truly mess with your mind, sticking with you long after the credits roll. While Balagueró has been celebrated in his native land, he’s relatively unknown on our side of the Atlantic. A film like [REC] would likely offer said ramp up in recognition - that is, if US studio suits weren’t already ready to release their own remake of the title.

Yep, come this October 2008, Screen Gems (responsible for upcoming cash grab revamps like Silent Night, Deadly Night and The Stepfather) has Quarantine ready and waiting. Starring Dexter‘s Jennifer Carpenter and employing the same hand held cinematography, it will be interesting to see if this red, white, and blue construal will have the same gut level effect. One senses the translation will be less than successful. Hopefully, that means that more disillusioned fans will flock to their local B&M once the tie-in DVD is released. [REC] truly deserves to become a fright film classic. It represents one of those rare instances when concept, construction, and completion all work to make a memorable, horrific experience. It really is a reason to rejoice.

by Bill Gibron

21 Aug 2008


Remakes are like those proverbial Tribbles in the classic Trek episode. Give them a creative inch - or in the case of Hollywood, a recognizable box office return - and they’ll overrun your aesthetic starship, and last time anyone checked, Tinsel Town was plowing through them at warp speed. In a clear case of ‘the new generation needs its own version’, everything from the last three decades is now being updated to appeal to a tween, PG-13 demo. A rare exception is Death Race, an ‘update’ of Roger Corman’s action spoof that’s been given a gritty, grimy, hard-R polish. Gone are the cross country premise and “people-as-points” fun. In their place is a Rollerball meets ridiculousness ideal that’s, oddly earnest if ultimately empty goofiness. 

In a future overflowing with poverty and violence, the prison based demolition derby Death Race is the most popular online entertainment extravaganza. Run by warden Hennessey and starring masked prisoner Frankenstein, the web event draws millions of viewers - and dollars - for the private penitentiary corporation. When a mishap threatens the spectacle, the stern female steward turns to new inmate - and convicted wife killer - Jensen Ames as her new driver. Once he meets up with chief mechanic Coach, and his main competition Machine Gun Joe, he discovers that there is more to his incarceration than crime. Seems this ex-race car jockey turned steel worker may have been set up specifically to save the three day competition - with no hope of he, or anyone else, making it out alive.

Like big steaming chunks of charred animal flesh, or a fleeting glimpse of a gal’s ample cleavage, Death Race taps into something very primal (and very male) about the action movie experience. It’s all noise, bluster, and torque-testing horsepower. When it moves, it travels at unlimited overcranked rpms. When it stops to focus on exposition and depth, it’s like listening to the set-up for a very bad, very superficial pulp novel. That Paul W.S. Anderson, film geek scourge that he is, could find a way to make both elements work is surprising enough. That he winds up delivering one of the summer’s shockingly guilty pleasures is indeed ‘fuel’ for thought.

All those with fond memories of the Roger Corman cult classic from the ‘70s take heed - there is very little here to remind you of that cheesy schlock stunt piece. Paul Bartel’s even if effective direction is nowhere to be found. In its place is a style reminiscent of a poorly designed carnival ride, one where you can anticipate the thrills by the logistics of the layout. When the narrative announces that there will be three stages to the title competition, you’re already aware of when Anderson will turn up the adrenalin. And since the trailer more or less gives away all the possible plot twists, what happens during each and every race is fairly obvious.

Also, at many times during this otherwise engaging Farm Film Reportage, Anderson gets in his own way. You can sense he was striving for something more serious, a speculative fiction that says something about our love of violence, corporate greed, morbid curiosity, and outright love of velocity. In its place however is the satisfying crunch of metal and an equally rewarding sense of mindless mayhem. All the action centers around explosions and bullets, revved up hunks of machinery destroying each other in all manner of logic defying permutations. Characters who we barely know are killed in massive sprays of body parts and blood, and everything is soaked in a sinister despotic aura that demands redress.

Naturally, it’s up to human adrenal gland Jason Statham to supply the permanent five o’clock shadow musk. Making a living out of being buff, unshaven, and incredibly surly, the British thesp provides his accustomed glower power, if little else. He’s always an appealing anti-hero, but this time around his vacant Jensen Ames appears inane. Sure, there’s his baby daughter’s salvation to be considered, and his desire for outright revenge, but none of these motives resonate. Instead, Anderson offers Statham as emaciated male musculature, ripples replacing anything remotely resembling characterization or a rooting interest.

Equally out of place, for a different reason, is Joan Allen. Yes, the Oscar nominated lady gets to put on her F-you bitch bomb pumps and play baddie, all in the name of authoritarianism and conglomerate insatiability. With a single personality beat - “make dat mon-ey” - and a sexless disposition, she’s villainess as placeholder, a fashion plate prop waiting for a better menace to take her position. Do we cheer when its comeuppance time? Sure. Do we really understand the reasoning behind her choice of chump (Statham) and destruction of all that he held dear? Huh? She at least fairs better than Tyrese Gibson and Natalie Martinez, both reduced to obligatory eye candy for the requisite sides of the gender aisle.

Anderson, who is often marginalized by a fanbase that has seen him turn some of their favorite geek obsessions (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) into mindless mainstream mush, does a decent, journeyman job here. He doesn’t strive for some kind of dystopic dream state or visual allegory. Instead, it’s all screeching engines, smoking lightning and heavy pedal to the metal thunder. As someone who still manages a paycheck for what he accomplishes behind the lens, Anderson remains an enigmatic cinematic shoulder shrug. But nothing he does in Death Race convinces you that his detractors are wrong…or that his employers think outside a very small, very specific financial box.

That most of these major quibbles drift away in a cloud of oil smoke and exhaust will stand as this last gasp popcorn pitch’s only hope. In a critical community that rightly targets the mindless and aimless as celluloid sputum, Death Race sure smells like something spoilt. But after a season of angst-ridden superheroes whose complex character complaints drive even bigger narrative ambitions, its good to simply sit back and feel your brain cells systematically shut down. This doesn’t make this unnecessary ‘reimagining’ good, merely tolerable. If you want some real kicks, head back to the original. It’s far more enjoyable. But in a Summer of ‘seriousness’, Death Race refuses to take itself so - and sometimes, that’s all that’s required. 

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