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by Bill Gibron

30 Jul 2008


It’s never pleasant when something that was lightweight (albeit cheesy) and fun is forced into profit sharing mode. Put another way, when a franchise has to jerryrig its purpose in order to pump out another meaningless sequel/tre-quel/quad-cast, there’s very little entertainment fuel left for the fire. Take the latest unnecessary Mummy movie about to hit theaters this Friday (1 August). Here’s a flaccid little excuse for escapism that has the audacity to squander two of the finest talents ever to grace a Hong Kong action epic, and then it dumps the series’ signature character in favor of a last act battle between zombies and statues (trust us - it’s not nearly as cool as it sounds).

No one begrudges a movie star from earning a paycheck. Even our most celebrated and seasoned actors (Sir Ben Kingsley, are you listening?) have been known to lower their standards in order to up their income bracket. That being said, their profiteering doesn’t always have to be so obvious, or god-awful. This year alone, we’ve seen the aforementioned Oscar winner playing a crosseyed cornjob in Mike Myers seminal stink bomb The Love Guru. Joe Montegna - The Simpsons’ Fat Tony and Broadway’s original Ricky Roma - went effete for a turn as Larry the Cable Guy’s buddy in Witless Protection. Heck, even John Turturro took another break from indie angst to revisit popcorn land in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (last year, it was Transformers).

Naturally, there are some who would never consider such a step down, or who simply bow out before they can capitalize on their newfound fiscal fame. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a perfect example of this high idealism in Rachel Weisz. Back in 1999, when Stephen Sommers was hired to bring the old school Universal creature up to date, his choice for the female lead - Evie Carnahan - was a fresh faced British actress with some minor onscreen credits. In 2001, when The Mummy Returns arrived, Weisz was more well known. Four years later, Oscar awarded the hard working performer for her turn in The Constant Gardener. Even then, Weisz expressed interest in reprising the role for this latest turn. Clearly, somewhere along the way, cooler aesthetic heads prevailed.

This happens a lot. Stephen Spielberg wanted Sean Connery back as Indiana Jones’ Dad for the latest installment of the action hero’s serial on steroids adventures. The temperamental Scottish legend said “No”. Similarly, Michael Keaton dropped out of the Batman movies when Tim Burton bailed. There are also instances where series staples are unceremoniously “dropped” from the planned follow-up. Imhotep himself, Arnold Vosloo, was told by original Mummy man Sommers that a follow-up was in the works, and they there were plans on bringing his character back. Fast forward a few years and Egypt is out, Jet Li is in, and the entire narrative was jet set over to China. That really must suck - especially when you’re the character everyone is supposedly clamoring for.

Of course none of this matters in a monster movie. All we really care about is the spook show. The Mummy films were never what you’d call frightening. They were more like heightened hype-horror - excess which might have been terrifying were the obvious strings and zippers not constantly reminding you of the schlock value. Sommers is an expert at such goblin grandstanding. Look at Van Helsing (you’d be wise NOT to take that advice literally). It took every famous fiend in Hollywoodland and transformed them into a computer generated free for all where logic and fun were shuttled aside and sacrificed for more and more Dracula-babies. Such showboating is standard operating procedure for this cinematic kid in a celluloid candy story. Unfortunately, in turning things over to Cohen, Sommers and the series went from the frying pan to fiasco’s fires.

Cohen completely misses the purpose of the Mummy franchise. He thinks he’s making Indiana Jones: The Far Less Professional Years. He handles action sequences with all the grace of someone who once made a movie about a killer airplane (Stealth - look it up) and uses every camera trick and editing ploy in the book in hopes that no one will notice the ineptness. When you have characters careening down a Shanghai street, their fireworks truck poised precariously to explode, one should be on the edge of their seat, not shrouding their eyes in dull skepticism. Not all spectacle stuntwork has to seem plausible, by Cohen’s take on this material gives one’s suspension of disbelief a major high impact workout.

Even worse is the aforementioned corpses vs. ceramics showdown. Like the infamous pygmy mummies from the second Sommers film, the amount of visual overkill on display is enough to give audiences a virtual headache. As every mainframe in California renders the ridiculous undead melee, Cohen keeps his camera as far away from the reality - literally and figuratively - as possible. This means that, at any given moment, the epic finale of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor looks like the final ant confront from a high octane version of Phase IV. Even worse, when we do eventually get close-ups, it’s hard to tell the motion capture performers from the computer generated fighters.

The last straw, however, has everything to do with the regional relocation and Vosloo-less casting decisions. Jet Li is, without question, one of the genre’s greats. His work with Jackie Chan in this spring’s The Forbidden Kingdom was that half-baked hackwork’s sole saving grace. Even as he approaches middle age (and a self-imposed desire to work in ‘straight dramatic films’ only), he can still kick major hinder. Now, add in a frequent female co-star of the mighty martial artist, the equally amazing Michelle Yeoh, and you’ve got a match made in Shaw Brothers heaven. When they square off, swords blazing and skills matched, it should resonate with heavy Hong Kong energy.

But Cohen blows it again, thwarting the choreography and avoiding the whole “wire fu” thing for some overcranked Ridley Scott-ishness and incompetent framing. Even the skeletons and statues are treated with more respect. To say that Li and Yeoh are wasted here suggests that anyone entering this latest Mummy massacre will actually have heard from them (or better still, recognize their non-Tinsel Town turns before the lens). Instead, they are merely the fodder for another pointless chapter, a ‘no one asked for it’ return trip to a place that wasn’t that interesting the first two times through. Weisz was right to bail - especially in light of how horribly underwritten this updated Evie ends up being (Maria Bello as her replacement is just bad).

About the only person to come out of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor not reeking of friendly yeti feces (don’t ask) is Brendan Fraser. Sure, the 39 year old is given a college age son in the film (it’s a soap opera level of biological time teasing) and he’s reduced to little more than a comedic foil for the foolishness surrounding him, but the ladies sure do love his shirtless musk (there was an audible girlie gasp in the theater when his semi-chiseled form got a loving close-up). Indeed, he’s got a Teflon talent which tends to wick away any lasting impact from his frequently incomprehensible career move - Dudley Do-Right? Monkeybone?  As a perfect example of unnecessary coffer stuffing, this latest Mummy installment will probably be profitable enough to warrant yet a fourth foray into sarcophagus. And if part three is any indication of quality, the next cloth wrapped creature feature will be even more uninspired.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jul 2008


Someone in marketing must have thought it was a good idea. After all, it was a concept that went together with the theme and main character of the movie quite well. Better than a t-shirt (which was also offered) or a keychain (huh???), a pair of drum sticks symbolized ex-80’s hair band musician Robert “Fish” Fishman’s main motivation. All he ever knew was the skins, and when he lost his shot at rock and roll immortality, he lost everything…except his kit. So at a recent screening of the upcoming comedy starring Rainn Wilson, The Rocker, a local TV station gave away dozens of drum sticks, a token of their preview appreciation.

After the initial novelty of holding two pieces of wood in one’s hands started to wear off, the smallish audience was starting to get antsy - and as a result, inventive. A few took their recently received “instruments” and did a little air drumming. Others batted the balsa together, pretending to countdown the next imaginary arena anthem. Before long, the theater was filled with a cacophony of lumber lameness, patrons trying to keep the imaginary beat on the back of seats or their own legs…with minimal success. As the time for the movie to start grew near, most in the critic’s row assumed that the rat-a-tat-tatting would stop. After all, the inherent charms of the storyline should stifle such nervous energy, right?

Well, not exactly. Within the first ten minutes of the slightly subpar comedy (nice, but bloated with every musical cliché in the lexicon), the first nods to Neil Peart could be heard from way in the back.  Before long, wannabe Bonham’s were tapping along to the concert sequences. When there was no reason to rap, the sticks still struck anything within range, the hallow noise adding an unnecessary drone to what was already a trying entertainment experience. By the end of the screening, the combination of novice Charlie Watts and the standard in theater din turned The Rocker into something akin to motion picture waterboarding. Sadly, not even the Bush Administration could condone this level of intolerable torture.

Complaining about noise in a movie theater, especially circa 2008, is a lot like kvetching over too-skinny supermodels or skanky reality whores. Thanks to home video, and a lessening human etiquette, people treat the cinema as their own personal private space, answer phone calls, texting their pals, talking intermittently over plot points and narrative particulars, and in general, acting like there is no decorum in visiting the local picture show. So to mention it within this context seems foolish. But in reality, a preview or advance screening is supposed to be a different animal. Since they are solely set up for the benefit the press (the other audience members are invited guests), there is an attempt to create some clear sonic parameters.

Sometimes, they work. Rarely do you hear people arguing over what some character said. Doing so usually meets with a strong “shhhhh” chorus. Even better, a cellphone ringing or any other kind of communication with the outside world leads to monitor admonitions, and frequently, an escort out of the theater via security. In general, the studios try to maintain a professional clime for the few remaining critics to work within. But there is one element they can’t control, and in fact, would never want to manage. You see, when a theater agrees to a screening, they accept a flat rate payment for the seats they would have sold for that showing. So the company is reimbursed for the loss.

But since most movie theaters make their money from concession sales, the pittance they get for the lost seats is nothing compared to the cash they can commandeer from snacks. And since the audience is already getting to see a soon to be featured film for free, their tolerance for overpriced drinks and crappy popcorn is greatly diminished. And so they buy. They buy and buy and buy. They buy the salty sweet snacks en masse, loading the stadium seats with the nauseating aroma of fake butter, nacho cheese, pickled jalapeno slices, and microwave pizza. Some theaters - especially ones located in malls - even allow patrons to bring in their food court purchases. This means that the scent of fast food Chinese or mediocre meat sandwiches can be added to the swimming sea of stench.

For those of us in the biz, the olfactory assault we suffer each time we attend a screening is typically offset by our irritation over other issues (seating situations, credential clarifications). Still it can be quite a chore balancing our disappointment over a typically mediocre movie with the omnipresent fragrance of stale State Fair styled cuisine. Sometimes, we even take a “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach and indulge ourselves. But far more disgusting than the stink generated by such gluttony gang bang is the noise - the endless streams of slurps, slorps, burps, farts, crunches, crackles, munches, rustles, and jostles that accompany the cinematic feed bag.

It’s inevitable. No matter where I sit in the press row, I usually find the ‘drink demon’ behind me. You know the kind - plastic straw constantly sliding up and down the super-sized lid, the resulting “creak” like a dead clown’s coffin door opening and closing. In between audible gulps, the ice is shaken and stirred, the better to mix the melting mixture with the backwash present. Every once in a while, a dry spot will be located, and the resulting libation loss causes an aural vacuum that brings back memories of the family dinner table, and Dad giving you that awful “punishment after the meal” look. Since the serving is typically 20 times that of what a human normally needs, this sipper cup ritual goes on for at least an hour. Once the last ounce of syrupy sugar has been tapped however, it’s time to remove the top and chew on the remaining frozen fun for a while.

Or maybe you’ll be lucky enough to sit in front of the ‘snack spelunker’. You know the kind - the top of the popcorn bag is never enough. No, for this two fisted face stuffer, only the product at the bottom of the container will do. As a natural result of such digging, there’s a distinct racket, similar to weevils burrowing into your brain. As the feasting continues, the noise grows more distinct, oil filled hand hitting on secret pockets of pseudo sustenance. Add in the constant chewing, the cow cud creation of the perfect cinematic experience and you have a soundtrack no film composer can compete against. There have been times when I’ve missed lines of dialogue as patrons partake of mandatory mastication, the combination of eating and obtaining producing a pronounced ruckus.

Naturally, no one is going to put the kibosh on such high profit margin behavior. Imagine the backlash should a studio monitor grab a microphone and announce, pre-screening, that the eating of snacks should be ‘restrained’ during the course of the running time. These people already get surly when having to ditch their Blackberry and quite their wee ones. Take away their food? That’s a violation of their cinematic Constitutional rights. And since these free movies are all about entitlement (not to the media, who are usually getting paid to suffer through the situation), the more rules you try to impose, the more insurgency you foster. Heck, such behavior even happens in ‘critics only’ previews. Between sips of Starbucks and nibbles of Egg McMuffins, we members of the press can put up quite a cacophony.

Certainly The Rocker situation was unusual. Most advertisers don’t try so hard to tie their swag into the storyline. It’s usually CDs, clothing, and the occasional promotional poster. But even if the reps had removed the drumsticks from the equation, one would still have to suffer through endless gorging and the accompanying biological braggadocio that comes with it (and let’s not talk about the occasional bouts of flatulence, shall we?). While we’ve come to expect some clamor within the theatrical experience, the sound of screenings can be trying indeed. To paraphrase the Buzzcocks, noise does annoy. And you don’t have to be hit over the head with a piece of wood to prove it.

by Bill Gibron

28 Jul 2008


As an aural rule of thumb, the bigger the film, the broader the score. Very few epics are accompanied by acoustic guitar or solo piano. Indeed, when it comes to bringing on the bombastic, the creators of motion picture soundtracks are as excessive as the directors offering up the oversized visual inspiration. The summer of 2008 is no exception. Starting with Iron Man, and working its way toward an inevitable showdown with a certain Caped Crusader, this has been a popcorn season of unsubtle spectacle. Heck, even the comedies have gone gonzo, amplifying their anarchy for the sake of super-sized belly laughs.

Of course, on the other side of the argument is the notion that larger is not necessarily superior. Pushing anything to the limit - sight or sonic - can result in a kind of overkill that leaves audiences cold and critics complaining. Like an overreliance on CGI, symphonic pomposity can destroy an otherwise effective film. Equally annoying are instances where sound and filmic fury tend to negate and further devalue each other. Luckily, the three scores featured as part of this installment of SE&L‘s Surround Sound tend to pair up perfectly with the movies they mirror. In fact, the success (or lack thereof) of said accompaniment can act as a perfect measure for the overall entertainment value of combined product.

Wanted - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

Ever since his days as the leader/creative guide for New Wave sensation Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman has been unusual. His reputation for exploring all facets of a format (pop music, film scoring) has made him a must-have soundtrack composer. He typically brings something fresh and inventive to the mix - as in last years, ambient inspired turn for Peter Berg’s The Kingdom. But there is another complaint leveled against him, one that seems fostered and confirmed by his work on this summer sleeper. Elfman is often accused of being a surreptitious recycler, using thematic concepts and similar sounding cues throughout his oeuvre. His work on Wanted more or less bears this out.

While not as derivative as the above discussion would suggest, Elfman does pull out many of his old neat beat bombastic tricks here. There are the suggestive string runs, the quirky brass accents, and the dark, driving aural dominance. Every once in a while, like in the wonky “Wesley’s Office Life” or fluid “Fox’s Story”, he finds a way to mesh the known with the new. And there’s even an actual song - the rollicking first track “The Little Things”. At other times, like in the action sequence oriented “The Train”, we get the same old identifiable idiosyncrasies. One thing’s for sure - unlike his Explosions in the Sky inspired work from last year, you’d instantly recognize the man’s Wanted ways. Unlike other composers, however, redundant Elfman is still a clear cut above the rest.


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 4]

When Peter Jackson’s superb Lord of the Rings trilogy took the critical community (and box office) by storm, Hollywood suits hoped to replicate its ‘lifted from literature’ success. So far, the Narnia movies are the only viable Tolkien take, and even now, this sequel to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe underperformed mightily, revenue wise. Part of the problem was the timing of the release. Who could have imagined that a certain Tony Stark would soar out of the starting gate to helom May’s monster hit? In addition, it was sort of a shock when Caspian turned out to be so…dull. Whatever worked the first time seemed lost in an unoriginal fantasy film.

Further proof of the title’s journeyman-like mediocrity comes with Harry Gregson-Williams’ overwrought score. Back again for another tour of C. S. Lewis’ allegorical realm, the staid, forced pomposity on display makes for tough listening. Without the movie’s movement to guide the sounds (or visa versa), we are treated to something that resembles endless inserts from a routine Renaissance fair. Between the fake grace of “Arrival at Aslan’s How” to the fighting frenzy of “The Armies Assemble”, everything here follows strict compositional clichés. Toward the end, some ersatz Enya tracks arrive to give everything a cloying, compact conclusion. Just like the source from which it was drawn, the soundtrack to Prince Caspian can’t help but feel overly familiar.


WALL-E - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 9]

When all is said and done, this latest effort from the geniuses at Pixar may be viewed as its most ambitious, underperforming film ever. Initially thought to be yet another kiddie robot romp, the resulting allegory, focusing on an Earth ravaged by materialism and ecological disaster and two automatons destined to save it, has to be one of the most unusual CG spectacles ever. Between the mockery of couch potato complacency to the last act homage to HAL of 2001 fame, there is much more to this amazing movie than cute as a button machines, awe-inspiring vistas, and bumbling human comedy. Along the way, the creators want to leave lessons that, while perhaps they are too young to process, will become more meaningful once the demographic ages a bit. 

That being said, Thomas Newman’s score is as dense and complicated as the movie it complements. The initial tracks, including an opening slice of Hello Dolly deliciousness, prepare us for the somber, subtle mood of the dead planet material. It’s like a symphony for a global snuff film. By the time we get to Eve’s arrival and the return to the Axion starship, the composer’s gift for satire shows through. His “BNL” track (representing the corporate jingle for the Wal-Mart like marketing monolith at the center of the storyline) is brilliant, as is the midway space ambience. By the end, WALL-E wanders into typical heroics mode, but along the way we are treated to treasures like Louis Armstrong’s resplendent reading of “La Vie En Rose” and another Dolly delight (Michael Crawford’s crackerjack “It Only Takes a Moment”). It’s the sugar on a sonic snack so sublime it leaves you craving more.

by Bill Gibron

27 Jul 2008


It only took 10 days. Less than two weeks. It remains a stunning accomplishment. It took Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 16 days to get there. It took the overly hyped third Star Wars prequel Revenge of the Sith 17. Even Spider-Man 3 had to wait 19 days to pull in such scratch. But the superhero phenomenon which is The Dark Knight crossed over the $300 million mark this weekend, cementing the film’s place as 2008’s biggest cinematic story. No one could have predicted such a response, especially for a 150 minute drama that’s more serious than spectacle. Add to that the messageboard concerns over the film’s dark quality and downbeat ending, and the suggestion is that something significant is happening here that just doesn’t occur with your standard popcorn flair.

One thing is clear - Hollywood hacks who think material must be dumbed down and homogenized for audience consumption are probably rethinking said position (and looking for work, hopefully). The Dark Knight is indeed a savvy, smart thriller, built more out of a model similar to the crime epics of Coppola, Mann, and Scorsese than the cut and paste product of your typical comic book adaptation. Co-writer/director Christopher Nolan took some major risks with the material, keeping the danger palpable and the characters complex. As a result, there was a real possibility that this film would not click with crowds. And with the already sizeable returns for other superhero movies this summer (Iron Man and Hancock making the most monetary noise), there was a real risk of something akin to also-ran status

But $300 million big ones speak for themselves, and Knight shows no signs of letting up. It is still a watercolor work, something everyone it talking about in reverent, must-see terms. Granted, the Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger may be a bit premature (a nomination is not out of the question, but let’s not hand the statue over to his family just yet), but it is clear that this will be a movie remembered come awards season. But the biggest question, as always, is this - what does this level of success mean for everyone involved? What does earning such a vast sum so quickly signify for the studio? The comic book company? The individuals in front of and behind the camera? For that, we’ll need to do a little above the bottom line analysis. Only then can we see if there’s anything other than triumph for all involved. Let’s begin with:

The Studio - Warner Brothers
After the debacle known as Speed Racer (the audience’s fault, not the film), Warners really needed this sort of monumental result. It helps make that major misstep in marketing seem like nothing more than a business model blip on a high return radar. The studio has been lucky like that as of recent - backing Will Smith’s Christmas hit I Am Legend while taking a drubbing for failures like The Invasion and 10,000 BC. Of course, the real challenge will come when the subject of a third installment is breached. Does the studio rely on Nolan to continue his winning ways, or will they balk and pull a Schumacher out of thin air. Either way, their upcoming releases (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Watchmen) seem to suggest more pluses than movie minuses.

The Source - DC Comics
With Marvel making all the news during Summer’s inaugural months - both good (Iron Man) and not so (The Incredible Hulk) - the comic rival really needed something like this to settle the score. With such underperforming efforts as Constantine and Superman Returns, it was clear that Nolan and his take on the Caped Crusader would make or break the company’s cinematic fortunes. Now, with $300 million and counting, DC has a real reason to smile - and the accolades just keep coming. Last week, the long awaited teaser trailer for Watchmen finally hit the ‘Net, and along with the highly praised Comic-con panel, hinted that 2009 might be equally successful for the catalog - both critically and commercially.

The Writers - Christopher & Jonathan Nolan
If there is any justice in the business of show - and there usually isn’t - Chris and his brother John will become the script doctors du jour of a failing Tinsel Town talent pool. Let’s face it, if Akiva Goldsman can claim an Oscar (and the literary omniscience that seems to accompany it) for his work within the genre, the Nolans should have a rec room full of accolades. The one consistent thing about the product they present is how smart, substantive, and cocksure it really is. When characters speak, they do so in assertions that seem perfect for the situation they are facing. Even better, the dialogue resonates in ways that come back to complement the conservation’s true intent. If Chris decides to drop directing for a while - that is, until the right project comes along - he and Jonathan could clean up in the screenplay polishing department. 

The Director - Christopher Nolan
If he didn’t already have carte blanche from the film’s critical reaction, the man behind the Bat’s recent success can surely write his own ticket anywhere in Hollywood now. While there have been hints that he will go back to his inventive indie roots (more Memento than Insomnia, one supposes), it’s clear that Nolan can claim any commercial project he wants. Even better, he’s proven that, within the right framework, audiences will sit through even the most serious, complex entertainment. If he chooses carefully, he can cement his status as one of his generation’s guiding cinematic lights. And of course, there’s always the third installment in the Caped Crusader’s saga to fall back on should he fail. Given his amazing track record so for, that doesn’t seem very likely.

The Actors
Christian Bale
Bale has already proved the impact of a multimillion dollar opening weekend - he was accused of assaulting his mother and sister before the British premiere of The Dark Knight, and even the tabloids have taken his side. Of course, the personal scandal may be nothing more than old school family dissention fueled by sudden financial success, but this is one actor who really doesn’t need the money to make his mark. He’s already keen to revisit the Bruce Wayne saga again (as long as Nolan is behind the lens), and he’s signed on to play another heroic icon - John Connor, the man behind the human rebellion against the machines in the new Terminator film(s). His resume from the past few years is so impressive, that it’s hard to imagine he ever struggled. Hopefully, his success as the Caped Crusader only broadens his potential performance horizons.

Aaron Eckhart
Eckhart has been an indie idol for so long that it’s hard to remember when he was the one getting the push for mainstream leading man status. Remember his turn in the disaster flop The Core? Of his solid work in Erin Brockovich? Returning to smaller projects surely helped his acting cred, but he still needed a breakout part to produce a kind of casting clarity he will surely have now. His amazing working as Harvey “Two Face” Dent delivers that knockout blow. On equal par with the work done by costars Bale and Ledger, Eckhart elevates his spurned and scarred District Attorney into something akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. His arc is so fully formed, and his transformation within it so authentic and real, that when he goes on his last act spree, we sigh at the inevitability of it all - and marvel at how this underrated performer pulls it off. 

Heath Ledger
The saddest element of Ledger’s untimely death isn’t the fact that he’s not around now to enjoy the universal praise his eerie work as the Joker is receiving. Nor is it the fact that he won’t be around for the inevitable big money payday once the next installment comes calling. No, what’s most disturbing about Ledger’s passing is that, with this undeniably diabolic characterization, we realize just how much talent we as film fans will be missing out on. No one could have predicted that the sweet, vulnerable man from Brokeback Mountain or The Brothers Grimm had this much menace in him. Even better, his work as the clown prince of chaos leaves a lasting legacy that, in essence, could have tainted the actor forever. If one has to go out - and there is never a rhyme or reason for doing so by your own hand - this unbelievable blaze of glory surely brings things to a clean, karmic conclusion.

The Franchise
This is perhaps the hardest question for the entire post-modern Batman movie. For those who’ve not seen the film, this SPOILER will probably be an unwelcomed bit of advance information, so perhaps you should simply skip this paragraph. Otherwise - having taken the advice of newly appointed Commission Gordon, the Caped Crusader has decided to accept the blame for the many deaths caused by Dent. Instead of a hero, he will become a renegade - or even worse, the stuff of social nightmares. By becoming the bad guy (indirectly, that is), the entire mythos takes a tantalizing turn. Nolan has said that he spent all his creative wealth making this version of the comic book hero, and may not have an answer as to where it goes from here. Between potential villains and likely storylines, there is a lot of uncertainty present, that’s for sure. But where there’s a will - and a big pile of cash - there’s a way. And as they proved this time around, as long as there is true talent involved, anything is possible.

by Bill Gibron

27 Jul 2008


While it’s not novel to say so, politics remains a truly unique animal. While typically set up to give all sides a voice in how the population is structured and led, its antiquated ideal no longer legitimately serving the “one man, one vote” fantasy. Instead, running for office has become a quasi-fame whore obstacle course, the best candidate often losing to the one capable of avoiding the pitfalls predicated by numerous conflicting obligations and needs. In the end, what we get is a kind of communal compromise, a contract if you will between the voter and the sharp-dressed defenders. It’s this kind of wheeling and concealing that’s at the core of the excellent made for TV movie The Deal. The locale may be different, but the political games definitely remain the same.

With their party’s defeat in 1992, British Labour leader Neil Kinnock resigns in disgrace. Replaced by longtime political animal John Smith, the opposition is desperate to end more than a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign. Looking to the new blood within the organization, the names of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair emerge. The former is a longstanding member, a staunchly Scottish firebrand in his legislative motives. The latter is more of a personality, easy on camera and clearly in tune with the pre-millennial climate in the country. Naturally, the matter of succession is addressed, with Brown believing he has a ‘deal’ with Blair about who will next represent Labour. But when an unexpected tragedy occurs, both men will be tested, and their agreement seen cast away by the media, and many within their own union.

When you think about it, The Deal is really nothing more than a serious of closed door confronts all leading up to the inevitable election of Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister. The scope is further limited in that writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears (also responsible for The Queen) have chosen to focus solely on the infighting between then Labour Party cohorts Blair and Brown. Viewed as diametrically opposed in personal approach, as well as political savvy, we’re supposed to choose sides and see who wins (even though the facts give that element away). So it’s the process, and the personalities involved, that drive The Deal‘s initial drama. But thanks to the performances of actors Michael Sheen and David Morrissey, we gain the kind of insights we couldn’t glean from a newspaper or a Parliamentary transcript.

Morgan acknowledges in the commentary that accompanies this new DVD version of the film (from The Weinstein Company and their high end Miriam Collection label) that while meticulous research was done on this backroom battle between two rising UK heavyweights, some creative license was used to realize his aims. Frankly, The Deal doesn’t suffer because of it. Like All the President’s Men, or the movie the screenwriter was last involved in, putting fictional words into the mouths of well known public figures is fine, as long as the intent is clear, and from the remaining bonus material on the disc, we discover how closely The Deal matched the truth. Of course, by keeping things small, situated between a few formidable individuals, such a strategy works well. And when you combine it with clever direction and amazing acting turns, the lack of documentary-like clarity is all forgiven.

This was Sheen’s first turn as Blair, and it’s clear that he learned more about the man before taking on Her Royal Highness in The Queen. While his up and coming Labour representative is seen as little more than a cunning chameleon (trading on his Scottish birth and London upbringing, embracing policies from both sides of the governing sphere), one sees the totality of the modern political animal in his smiling, scheming mannerism. In fact, for anyone wondering why Sheen’s Blair felt such compassion for Elizabeth II during the whole Princess Diana death debacle can see his situational acumen at work here. Certainly there are moments when we realize he is completely within his rights to do what he does. But there is no denying his “anything for a gain” gumption.

This is also true of Brown, though his old school bluster and dour personality made him a clear contradiction to lead the nation (though he is doing so now). He’s like a bulldog without a proper enemy to snipe at. His anger seems focused inward, every defeat Labour takes at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives acting like an internal body blow. Morrissey is very good at getting his glower on, especially in the middle sequences when it looks like his buddy Blair will indeed usurp him as the ‘darling’ of the party. Yet by the end, Brown has taken that determination to levels which outline why he would have to wait over a decade to gain the control he believed was his. By this point, he’s so scorned he’s practically inert.

When they are together onscreen, The Deal sizzles with a kind of critical chemistry. Both actors essay incredibly difficult material, since the public persona of both men was and remains well known to the intended audience (especially in the UK, where this TV movie first aired). In addition, you can literally feel the personal respect, professional reliance, and palpable reticence between the officials. While we don’t learn much about the British political system, we do understand what lures men into its service. Unlike the United States, which sees its representative form of government constantly cave into the needs of big business and corporate lobbyists, England seems to value the support of the constituency much more (even if playing to the people is merely logistical lip service).

With Morgan planning a final installment in his ‘Blair’ trilogy (focusing on the leader’s latter years interacting with Presidents Clinton and Bush), The Deal functions as more than just a companion piece to the Oscar winning Queen. Indeed, like something almost Shakespearean, it sets up a man who will see the very facets that aided in his ascension undo him in the end. What’s also clear is that no matter the public façade put on by the candidates, there’s always an equal amount of private jerryrigging going on as well. Elections are not won solely on the balloting of an interested public. What The Deal makes clear is that, in this arena, there are many more arrangements brokered than even the candidates can see.

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