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by Bill Gibron

26 Aug 2008


There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest.

Life is pretty horrible for out of work thespian Dana Marschz. Having landed in Tucson, Arizona and teaching at a podunk high school, he longs for the days when he was a star - or at the very least, the center of a residual providing herpes commercial. When budget cuts force other classes out of the curriculum, Marschz finds his group inundated with thuggish teens with no desire to participate. Then he discovers that drama is the next to go. Hoping to raise spirits - and some money to save the program - he writes his own script, a sequel to Shakespeare’s most famous play. With added musical numbers, and ample sex and violence, the production becomes a lightening rod of local controversy - and typical to his life, Marschz finds few people to stand by and support him. 

Let’s just call Hamlet 2 Waiting for Guffaws, and be done with it. Sadly, said laughter rarely comes, if at all. Treating its sad sack subject as the butt and beneficiary of all its jokes, this one note nonsense hopes to trick us into thinking its irreverent. Some of the subterfuge comes from Fleming’s partner in crime. Pam Brady is touted as one of the minds behind South Park, but her work as both producer and occasional writer cannot begin to match the magic that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone contribute to the show. Somehow, one imagines that if she left the animated series today, Park could somehow muddle through without her. Besides, if her contributions here are to be based on her work with the cartoon, she clearly added little besides scatology and random F-bombs.

No, the bigger problem with Hamlet 2 is with its basic format and structure. Dana Marschz is indeed a douche, an unhinged hambone that doesn’t recognize his own flailing ridiculousness. Watching him struggle and fail should be patently funny stuff. But Fleming and Brady want us to champion his chumpness instead. We’re supposed to see a hyper-sensitive dreamer and hope that all his freak show fantasies come true one day. But he’s not loveable or even likeable. He’s a self-absorbed git. And since that’s the case, most of his backstory is bunkum. His relationship with wife Brie is a radiant red herring, used to add silly fertility jokes and waste time between teacher/student shenanigans. Besides, Catherine Keener is so disconnected from this material she appears to be channeling the spirit of some other actress in a totally different film.

It’s the same with the movie’s pale post-modern gimmick - the ironic introduction of Elizabeth Shue as…Elizabeth Shue. In a Being John Malkovich kind of moment, we get the comment on the comment, the “Hollywood’s a Bitch…and Boy Don’t You Miss It” mantra spelled out in supposed self-lampoonery. Reduced to a wide eyed washout of her former Oscar nominated self, Shue sends signals that mix us up even further. Truly, she’s in on the joke, but in such a blatantly, ‘aren’t I ginchy’ manner that you can’t help but feel sorry for her. The minute star Steve Coogan goes apeshit over her existence in his town (as a nurse, of all things), she gets a few career credits - Leaving Las Vegas, Adventures in Babysitting - and then she’s Marion Ravenwood. It’s like Woody Allen introducing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and then not giving the media guru his punchline.

And speaking of Coogan, has any actor been so undeniably good at being so godawful annoying before? He’s like walking psoriasis, his performance making you itch from its outright irritability. He doesn’t interact with his fellow cast mates, many of whom represent the newest level of bottom feeding fame spawns the media has to manufacture. Instead, Coogan comes on like a drunken uncle, palpable and unfiltered, hoping to be inspiration but typically resulting in petulance. We never care for his aims, never want to see him succeed. In fact, the way Hamlet 2 should work is via the standard “failure = focus” paradigm. Marschz should see his play flop mightily, its lack of competence turning him inward and toward the area where his unknown acumen is best suited. Instead, we get a backwards happy ending, one that feels as fake and phony as any other supposedly whacked out aspect of the film. 

If Hamlet 2 has a single saving moment, it’s the play within a film fiasco which gives this entire exasperating effort a title. While much of the material tanks, the song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” manages to overcome its lunkhead lyrics to get us clapping, and you can’t help but cheer when the amateur performers put on the Bard. But even then, there is so much ancillary anarchy surrounding it (including an unnecessary Amy Poelher as an angry ACLU attorney) that our focus is constantly forced elsewhere. As a matter of fact, much of this movie is misdirected, literally walking away from what’s witty to indulge in situations that seem left over from earlier, unpolished drafts of the script.

Indeed, Hamlet 2 feels like initial ideas not fully fleshed out - the components of a comedy quickly and cheaply crammed together to see if they will actually meld into something special. While it’s never easy to grade humor - it’s as personal a genre as horror or romance - it is simple to see where someone’s idea of cleverness goes instantly off the rails. Hamlet 2 is preplanned irreverence, offering nothing organic in the way of cheek or mockery. Though it offers up ideas and individuals who should find a way to work, the movie just tries too hard to find an answer. The result is more scattered than a sophomoric slam dunk.

by Bill Gibron

25 Aug 2008


The late Gene Siskel once said that if filmmakers want to remake a film, they should focus on the junk. Why update a classic, he argued, when there are so many b-movies and unsuccessful schlock efforts to choose from and improve on. He had a point, of course. There’s no need to make another Casablanca, or Citizen Kane - not when there are hundreds of lamentable horror titles and uneven exploitation outcasts to pick through. In a clear case of “be careful what you wish for” however, novice screenwriter Zach Chassler and outsider director Jeremy Kasten have decided to revamp Herschell Gordon Lewis’ neo-classic splatterfest The Wizard of Gore. Unfortunately, the duo completely forgot the reason the original film was so memorable.

By 1970, things were changing quite radically within the grindhouse model. Sexploitation was blurring the line between hard and softcore, and filmmakers were trying to find more rational, realistic ways to incorporate violence into their drive-in fare. One of the last purveyors of unadulterated gore was Lewis, the man responsible for starting the cinematic trend in the first place. In the early part of the ‘60s, his Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red) became the benchmark for all arterial spray to come. But by the end of the decade though, he had dissolved his successful partnership with producer David Friedman, and was trying to make it on his own. Hoping a return to serious scares would increase his profile (and profits), he made The Wizard of Gore.

It was kind of a homecoming for Lewis, and not just because he was going back to his straight sluice roots. No, at one time the director actually ran a Grand Guignol style nightclub in Chicago, and the premise for Wizard mimicked his showmanship experiences perfectly. The plot revolved around a magician named Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) whose blood drenched act gets the attention of a local TV reporter named Sherry Carson. Along with her boyfriend Jack, they attend Montag’s macabre show. In between tricks, the conjurer calls up young women from the audience, hypnotizes them, and then puts them through all manner of gruesome tortures. After it’s over, the girls seem okay. Later, they end up dying just like they did onstage.

In both its approach and execution, the original Wizard of Gore is a sleazy, surreal treat. It uses a shoestring narrative thread that allows Lewis to indulge in his ever increasing bits of brutality. The splatter set pieces are rather inventive, including a human hole punch and a tasty chainsaw attack. While the mystery of what’s happening to these young girls is part of the plot process, Wizard would rather spend the majority of its time watching Sager overact. A longtime associate of Lewis’, this on-set jack-of-all-trades in gray sprayed hair is pure ham as our perverted prestidigitator. His line delivery would be laughable if the actor wasn’t trying to take it all so sincerely. Together with the red stuff, the 1970 Wizard is some goofy, grotesque fun.

So how do Chassler and Kasten update the material? What do they do to try and breathe new life into an old hat horror show? Why, they create one of the most confusing plots ever presented in a fright film, and then populate the confusion with several quality genre names and a few naked Goth gals. If you look closely you will see Jeffrey Combs as The Geek, Brad Dourif as Dr. Chang, and former child actor Joshua John Miller (Homer from Near Dark) as coroner’s Intern Jinky. The main casting offers Bijou Phillips as a mystery girl, Kip Pardue as the publisher of an underground paper, and the fantastic freakshow that is Crispin Glover as Montag himself.

Doing away with the investigative reporting angle, the updated Wizard uses the seedy and subversive LA fetish scene to fashion a narrative involving Edmund Bigelow, a trust fund baby who uses his considerable cash to live like it’s the 1940s every day of the week. He dresses in period garb and outfits his large loft with era-specific items. He even drives a classic roadster. One night, he takes new gal pal Maggie to see Montag, and both are immediately taken by the magician’s presence and performance art atrocities. Soon, Edmund fears that the “victims” he is seeing each night onstage are winding up dead in real life. He seeks the advice of Dr. Chang, as well as best friend Jinky. He soon learns, however, that things are far more complicated (and corrupt) than he could ever have imagined.

As revamps go, the new Wizard of Gore is not without its charms. The aforementioned actors all do a wonderful job of delivering definitive turns within a very unfocused and often unflattering set-up. Glover is given the most leeway, and his “audience vs. actuality” speeches are delivered with almost Shakespearean verve. He doesn’t quite steal the movie from the others, but there would be little reason to revisit this material had Glover not been sitting at the center. Everyone else acquits themselves admirably, with Ms. Phillips and Mr. Miller earning special marks. Pardue, on the other hand, is just so strange as our purported hero Edmund that we can never get a real handle on his potential guilt or outright gullibility. Toss in some decent F/X and you’ve got a chance at some wonderfully wanton thrills.

But the shoddy script by Chassler, or perhaps the scattered interpretation of same by Kasten, lets this remake down time and time again. Stumbling over into spoiler-ville for a moment, we are supposed to understand that Montag is merely an illusion, a symbolic slave to the Geek’s murderous desires. While he’s onstage racking up the bodies, the horrific hobo with a taste for blood is using a hallucinogenic fish toxin to brainwash audiences into seeing something else - the better to go about his splattery serial killing in the back. Edmund’s propensity toward violence has made him the Geek’s latest target - he will replace the old Montag and continue on the duo’s deadly work. Naturally, our hero outsmarts the villain, deciding to take control of the show - and the slaughter - all by himself.

Now, in general, there is nothing wrong with this kind of plot repurposing. In the original Montag was just a madman, using the power of mind control and post hypnotic suggestion to destroy pretty young things. Here, Chassler and Kasten want to overcomplicate things, tossing in scenes blurring fantasy and reality so regularly that we loose track of the timeframe. Bijou Phillips is supposed to be an important catalyst to all that’s happening, and yet she’s introduced in such a clumsy manner that we never understand her overall importance. Even Dourif, who uses reams of exposition to remind us why he’s crucial to the outcome seems adrift in the filmmakers’ fixations. From the 1940s focus (which gets old very quickly) to Edmund’s constant cracking of his neck (a byproduct of the fish toxin) there are repeated elements that will drive viewers to distraction.

Yet perhaps the most disturbing thing about the new Wizard of Gore is the lack of…well, gore. Of course, the new “Unrated” DVD reportedly solves most of that problem, but at the expense of what, exactly. Why was the original edit so devoid of actual grue? Surely, the MPAA was a concern, but the set up seems more interested in dealing with Edmund’s growing dementia (and addictions), the full frontal nudity of the Suicide Girls, and the on again, off again trips into inner space than blood and body parts. Lewis only used his premise as a means of delivering the disgusting. In The Wizard of Gore 2007, the offal is the least of our concerns, and that’s not the way to approach any old fashioned splatter film.

And so the redux legacy of The Wizard of Gore sits somewhere between old school corner cutting and post-modern meddling. The original version delivers in the vivisection department. The new movie fumbles the all important garroting. In fact, it may be safe to say that, in some fictional film lab, where the best aspects of otherwise incomplete entertainments can be sectioned out and sewn together, a 70/07 Wizard amalgamation could be formed that offers both valid plot points and solid putrescence. Until that time, we are stuck with two competing if competent cinematic claims. One uses blood instead of baffling narrative to win us over. The other decides we care more about the psychological than the slippery. In either case, The Wizard of Gore deserves better. Apparently, Mr. Siskel’s advice has a few unforeseen filmic flaws to be worked out. 

by Bill Gibron

24 Aug 2008


He seems like a nice enough guy. Last time anyone checked, he wasn’t making massive tabloid headlines with his debauched behavior, nor had he been discovered killing kittens in some crack-soaked back alley. Heck, he even has a hot girlfriend (director drag and drop diva Milla Jovovich) and a baby girl. And yet ask film fans who their least favorite director is - nay, ask them to list the men who’ve made an abomination out of the motion picture medium - and his name instantly comes up. As frequently as Dr. Uwe Boll. With a directness reserved for Ed Wood or Coleman Francis. To listen to the disgruntled talk, he has systematically destroyed potentially effective projects, reducing long held genre hopes to squirming, squiggling junk.

So what is it about Paul W. S. Anderson that drives the critic to complain - and even worse, why does this friendly faced UK filmmaker receive so much fanboy wrath? The answer, sadly, remains rather elusive. It can’t be his actual moviemaking acumen. He’s certainly got a handle on the artform’s basics, unlike other hacks that can’t put two scenes together without struggling to make sense of the narrative structure. And as this week’s Death Race proves, he can manufacture fake action with the best of them. Sure, he edits like an insane person and piles on the flash when some focus would truly help. But Paul W. S. Anderson is not a bad director. He’s just had the unfortunate luck of taking on titles that get geek panties in a big fat workmanlike wedge.

His name wasn’t always a motion picture pariah. He first came to prominence in his native Britain, where in 1994 his violent thriller Shopping caused quite a stir. Its portrait of disaffected youth, stogy class conformity, and the purposeful destruction of property gave a smug England some harsh food for thought, and catapulted Anderson into the minor fringes of the mainstream. It also made him fodder for that notorious “next big thing” tag, something many foreign filmmakers get saddled with once Hollywood finally hears about them. As a creative cause celeb, Anderson was given immediate access to the hottest script in the studio system - the big screen adaptation of the video game smash Mortal Kombat. It would wind up being the first of his many career coffin nails.

Granted, it’s hard to screw up a martial arts movie in which characters compete in a ‘brawl for it all’ tournament to the death, but Kombat apparently gave audiences its first reasons to be concerned about Anderson. It wasn’t the lack of skill - again he is far more fluid in his filmmaking than any of the movie making misfits he’s frequently referenced with. No, where Anderson seems to stumble (both then and now) is in the all important area of ‘reimagination’. Unlike Christopher Nolan, who tweaks the Batman saga into a psychologically deep crime story, or Sam Raimi who tries to keep to Spider-man’s general spirit, you never know what to expect when Anderson is in charge. Sometimes, you get a reverent reinvention of the mythos. At other instances, the end results are unrecognizable to even the most ardent aficionado.

In Kombat‘s case, the reinvention process seems to totally forget the reason the movie is being made in the first place. It has to be hard for screenwriters to turn fisticuffs into fleshed out stories, but Anderson’s scribes treat it like brain surgery. Gamers loved Kombat because of its bone crushing battles bathed in buckets of blood. They loved the finishing moves and the easily identifiable characters. Trying to turn this all into some manner of Shaw Brothers knock-off was not the way to go, and yet Anderson and company strove to bring a kind of backstory viability to the concept. While many felt the reformatting failed, the title was still so commercial that even this subpar semblance of the game made money.

As usual, cash creates opportunities, and Anderson was allowed to pick his next effort. He chose the David Webb People script Soldier. Kurt Russell was pegged to star, and pre-production began on the potential sci-fi epic. The pedigree at least seemed secure - Peoples had co-written Blade Runner, received an Oscar nomination for his work on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and guided Terry Gilliam’s great 12 Monkeys. Soldier had all the elements of a potential hit - a certified cult star, an intriguing story, and a hot shot helmer behind the lens. Then Russell decided to take some time off, and the entire project was pushed back.

Anderson needed something to help him cope with Soldier‘s work stoppage. He barreled head first into the outer space horror film Even Horizon. The original screenplay by novice Philip Eisner offered an abandoned alien laboratory investigated by a party of Earth astronauts. Anderson preferred a more straightforward scary movie, and discarded the idea. Instead, the new Horizon storyline centered on a missing spacecraft that may or may not have traveled to the bowels of Hell when it disappeared for seven years. Loading the narrative up with sadomasochistic sex and gore-drenched violence, Anderson hoped to redefine both terror and the extraterrestrial. Instead, he was forced to cut nearly 20 minutes of the movie to get an “R” MPAA rating.

At this point, Anderson was two for two. Sure, Event Horizon was not a major financial hit, but enough in the business saw its polish and professionalism to give the director another shot at Soldier. Russell was ready now, and the film premiered to universal yawns in 1998. Many consider it to be the worst film of Anderson’s career, a braindead bit of bombast that trades on little of the premise’s promise and ideals. At the time, the filmmaker had hoped to update Roger Corman’s Death Race for an actual 2000 release. Instead, he had to suffer the blowback from creating a big time blockbuster bomb. It would be two more years before Anderson got a chance at another noted title.

The zombie video game Resident Evil had long been considered a cinematic slam dunk. There were even suggestions that the father of the undead film, George Romero, was eager to film an adaptation. But the job went to Anderson instead, and while the devotees dished over the stupidity of the choice, the director delivered. Even though it changed some of the console title basics, Evil was still a moderate hit. It led the way to Anderson’s adaptation of AvP: Alien vs. Predator, another solid success. Again, the faithful fumed over the liberties taken with the material, including elements not found in the comics or companion sources. Yet Anderson argued for his approach, highlighting his reliance on the original films as guidance and inspiration. 

All of which brings us to this week’s box office dud Death Race. Coming in third behind Tropic Thunder and The House Bunny, Anderson clearly has lost a lot of his big screen buzz. Of course, no one was really clamoring for a revisit to Corman’s 1976 road kill epic to begin with, but the update is not as bad as the reviews suggest. Instead, it’s just big dumb action with lots of explosions and cars (and body parts) going v-rrrooooom. Indeed, there is nothing here to suggest Anderson is the Antichrist or incapable of delivering decided popcorn perfection. But as with many of his movies, the way he reimagines Death Race - an internet competition inside a maximum security prison run by a ruthless female warden with one eye on the ratings and another on her big corporation concerns - fails to fulfill the concept’s kitsch calling.

And there’s another argument that may or may not sway potential detractors. Anderson is one of the few filmmakers who is open and brutally honest about the editorial decisions he is forced to tolerate by mindless studio heads. Ever since Kombat, he has complained about interference, stating that if he could release a “Director’s Cut” of his frequently panned projects, the opinion of his work would change radically. Event Horizon is one of his particular sore spots, the aforementioned missing footage destroyed or lost by parent Paramount. Especially in this era of the digital domain, where DVD can indeed redeem a failed film, Anderson is angry that he hasn’t had a chance to do just that. There are supposed longer edits out there for every one of his marginalized movies, but due to their lack of success, the rights holders see no reason to rereleased his versions - if they’re even available. 

And so Paul W. S. Anderson sits, marginalized by a business he’s frequently benefited. Personally, he says he’s sick of trying to explain the symbolism in Magnolia (clearly being mistaken for Paul THOMAS Anderson), and after changing his name to W.S. he hates explaining anew that he is not responsible for The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited. His next film is another video game adaptation - the more or less unnecessary Spy Hunter - and one assumes that even now, the arcade crowd is gearing up to undermine his efforts.

Until then, Anderson will continue on as producer, writer (Castlevania), and behind the scenes Resident Evil guide (the franchise appears headed for its fourth film). It’s also clear he will remain a ridiculed member of an easily outclassed collective. He’s definitely not the worst director in the history of film. But defending him gets harder and harder - especially in light of his less than spectacular past and present preoccupation with b-movie mediocrity. One day he might find a way to prove his detractors wrong. Until then, Paul W. S. Anderson will remain an easy if enigmatic target. Just like his films, figuring out what’s wrong with his reputation is not as simple or straightforward as it sounds.

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.

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