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by Bill Gibron

11 Nov 2008


A soundtrack, by its very definition, is a supplement. It’s not meant to overshadow the movie, or make a statement separate from the vision of the director, actors, producers, etc. At its best, it’s a seamless interpretation of the moments, a way to enhance the drama, amplify the comedy, misdirect the suspense, or rev up the action. It’s a cog in the machinery, a part leading up to a much bigger whole. But there are times when the creativity of a composer can be much, much more to a piece of media. It can be the missing element in an otherwise uninspired effort, the memorable bit out of 90 minutes (or more) or boredom. It can be the saving grace, the aural albatross, the defining facet, or the last straw on a cinematic camel’s already broken back. When it works, it works wonderfully. When it doesn’t, it draws far too much attention to itself.

In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at four examples of scores as symbols, each one pointing to a problem or potential pitfall in their production. In each case, the sounds employed and the themes explored say more about the movie (or in a rare bit of diversity, the graphic novel) being supported than the entity had to offer itself. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the case of these soundtracks, the artists involved had an idea for what to say that differed somewhat from the initial intent of the project. Only in one case does it work out for all involved. In the rest of the situations, the sound flounders. By bucking the trends and pushing outside the boundaries, these collections also manage to patch holes that other aesthetic aspects (acting, cinematography, writing) couldn’t correct. Let’s b begin with the best:

Spooks - The Original Score [rating: 8]

It’s not everyday that a comic book gets its own soundtrack - but then again, not every pen and ink title is Spooks. Originally released in a four part series back in February of 2008, this past July saw all the material collected together to form a full blown graphic novel adaptation. With a new short story as a bonus and the reinsertion of some unnecessarily deleted material, this tale of a military-based ‘ghostbusters’ that “keeps humanity safe from things that go bump in the night” has oversized ambitions out the Fifth Dimension. While the book itself was unavailable for review, Adelph Records sent out copies of the limited edition score for critics to contemplate. One things for sure - composers Lalo Schifrin and Andy Garfield sure have their hookey homages down pat.

Sounding like what would result if Paul Verhoeven and Michael Bay got really really drunk, had the ability to procreate, and ended up doing the dirty deed, the Spooks soundtrack is a short but sweet loony lark. This overblown pomp and pseudo-epic circumstance is brilliantly cheesy and absolutely pitch perfect. One can easily imagine over-pumped future marines kicking werewolf butt while lost in the middle of a warlock’s coven. Granted, “Omega Team” sounds like a rejected theme song for the supernatural people’s court, and “Zach and Felicia” has the flavor of a ‘70s TV movie wrapped in a velvet David Lynch longing, and there are far too many nods to John Williams and his entire Star Worn-out space operatics. But for something meant to complement an already larger than life concept, Spooks is sensational.



Appaloosa - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

Westerns used to be the bread and campfire butter of multiple old school mediums. Between radio and early television, film and comic tie-ins, Cowboys and Indians set the standard for many an entertainment ideal. That they dropped in popularity was not a question of quality. It was almost exclusively a matter of overkill. Now, almost five decades later, the genre is experiencing a kind of renaissance. Films like The Proposition, 3:10 to Yuma, and Ed Harris’ recent Appaloosa reintroduced the dynamic to a cynical and sheltered generation. In the case of the latter of these otherwise fine efforts, the story of a pair of lawmen trying to bring justice to a small settlement has its problems (namely, the casting of Renee Zellweger), but overall, it was a wonderful update on a stock cinematic style. Heck, Harris even crooned the movie’s “love theme”, just like days gone by.

Similarly to listening to a cowpoke concocting his own surreal take on New Orleans jazz, Jeff Beal’s oddball backdrop for Harris’ horse opera is endlessly fascinating. In the end, however, it’s also entirely flat. It’s the kind of soundtrack that needs the actual images to make a lick of sense. Take track four, for example. Entitled “Allison French”, we are supposed to get a real feeling for Zellweger’s coquettish character. There is even a hint of duplicity in the melody (which happens to be appropriate). Instead, it sounds like the opening to an episode of High Chaparral. Elsewhere, inadvertent moments of improvisation are probably meant to suggest the “American-ness” of the project, how its Western sensibility really matches with other ‘USA-A-OK’ elements. But it’s an uncomfortable match. Tracks like “Dawn in Appaloosa” have a loose, funky feel. Yet other material like “Cole and Hitch Stalk Bragg” sound like incomplete tone poems. For a thoroughly winning film, Beal’s score is only partially satisfying.



Max Payne - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 2]

Marco Beltrami has quite an impressive resume. A partial list of the films he’s scored includes Mimic, Resident Evil, Hellboy, Terminator III: Rise of the Machines, and last year’s winning Western 3:10 to Yuma (for which he received a well deserved Oscar nom). The winner of numerous ASCAP awards, as well as the holder of a formidable geek fanbase, you’d swear he was a true genre genius. Yet in collaboration with longtime production partner Buck Sanders, his work on the videogame turned big screen snoozefest Max Payne argues against both his talent and timelessness. For a movie already confused about its tone, and totally schizophrenic in its storytelling, this is one soundtrack that does little to help in our understanding. In some ways, Beltrami’s blasts of insignificant sound only add to our befuddlement. 

Truth be told, the score for Payne is a series of orchestral farts followed up by unnecessary techno lifts from The Matrix and any other implausible predictable post-modern thriller. Instead of setting a mood and atmosphere, Beltrami gets in, passes a little symphonic gas, and then disappears into the filmmaking firmament. None of the tracks are memorable here. Interchangeable titles like “Deathlab”, “Storming the Office” and “Factoring Max” are like blank canvases occasionally blotted with uninspired sonics. There is no tension or style, no real feeling for the movie’s mindless addiction to slo-motion chaos. Instead, we get a purposeful placing of notes, followed by a close facsimile to something resembling a soundtrack. It’s instantly forgettable - which in many ways reflects the feature film experience flawlessly.



The Express - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

Ernie Davis’s story is inspirational. It’s also perplexing. As an icon, he holds a singular place in sports memory - college or otherwise. He’s the first African American ever to win the Heisman Trophy. It was an achievement his predecessor at Syracuse, the legendary running back Jim Brown, never managed to achieve. He also helped his team win a National Championship, a high tension game played against the backdrop of a racially charged Cotton Bowl deep in the heart of a segregated Texas. But for some reason, his myth has been marginalized, forgotten and faded from the memory of all but the most dedicated football fan. He deserves better. That being said, the cinematic interpretation of his life was supposed to jumpstart his reconsideration. Instead, it ended up flopping, playing like Brian’s Song without the sentimentality or staying power. 

Oddly enough, the soundtrack is even more disconcerting. If you didn’t know that The Express was just your standard feel-good five hankey sports film with the horrendous cloud of racism hanging over its collection of formulaic clichés, you’d swear it was the most dour and disturbing drama this side of Grave of the Fireflies. Mark Isham may have a long history as both a recording artist and helmer of major motion pictures (Quiz Show, Crash, Lions for Lambs, to name just a few) but he completely misses the point here. Instead of being uplifting and generous of spirit, tracks like “A Meeting” and “Don’t Lose Yourselves” sound like funeral dirges retrofitted for a pragmatic purpose. Even events which call out for celebration, like “Heisman” or “Draft”, are unexpectedly downbeat. Isham may have been trying to underscore Davis’ meteoric rise with his doomed date with destiny, but The Express needed more heart to battle the history. This soundtrack offers neither.

by Bill Gibron

10 Nov 2008


Right now, it’s only a rumor, and if the gods of film are paying attention, here’s hoping it stays that way. Granted, Variety is not some nerd dominated rag given over to the spurious reporting of half truths, but when one reads an item like this, it naturally leads to questions of journalistic integrity. Can it really be true? Can the king of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, really be considering a remake of Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy with none other than the Prince of July 4th, Will Smith, in the lead? Somewhere, in his isolated basement bedroom, a film geek is quietly weeping.

For those totally unfamiliar with Park’s disturbing effort, the pairing of Smith and Spielberg may seem like a natural. After all, both men excel at bringing larger than life entertainments to the big screen, and yet each one is quite capable of the smaller, and yet still mainstream friendly film. That the two haven’t hooked up before is one of those Tinsel Town truths that just seems false. After all, they represent the reach of the artform, both commercially and culturally. But those who know Oldboy understand what a major miscalculation this is. The disturbing, violent revenge flick is about as far outside each artist’s comfort zone as creatively possible.

Oldboy centers on the story of unimportant businessman Dae-su Oh and wealthy playboy Woo-jin Lee. The former has been ‘wrongfully’ imprisoned for 15 years. The latter apparently has the means - and more importantly, the motive - to affect such a severe personal punishment. Within such a set up, we are treated to a brutal, sometimes beautiful narrative, Park exploring the nature of retribution and past mistakes as part of a three film trilogy on the subject. Oldboy falls in the middle, between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. It’s also the film critic turned director’s most recognizable and acclaimed international hit.

Now, no one is saying that Spielberg and Smith can’t handle the action. Both men have made movies where edge of your seat thrills is one of the picture’s main purposes. And the nasty nature of some of the sequences could be toned down for Western tastes without losing much of their blood-drenched import or dynamic. Even issues of age, cultural philosophy, and narrative ambiguity could be handled by these Hollywood heavyweights. No, where the main issue with Oldboy comes is in the translation department, and the subject matter requiring adaptation. In this manner, it seems surreal that two superstars not known for controversy would court same in such a blatant, box office unfriendly manner.

For those who have not see Oldboy, the next few paragraphs are going to be loaded with SPOILERS, so perhaps it’s better to stop reading now. For those who love Park’s original, the material mentioned here is the 800lb gorilla in the screening room. You see, the main subtext in the conflict between Dae-su and Woo-jin is incest. One blames the other for starting a vicious rumor that lead his sister to suicide. As a result, Dae-su is kidnapped on his daughter’s birthday, hidden away for 15 years, and then when released, given a limited time frame to find out why. So Dae-su spends most of the movie playing pissed off detective, destroying those who stole his life from him.

Naturally, there’s a love interest. But leave it to Park to play perverted and disturbing with the genre formulas. When Dae-su meets the lovely Mi-Do, he doesn’t realize that they are related. Indeed, all throughout Oldboy, Park slowly peels back the narrative layers to reveal that Woo-jin, angry that his former classmate may have driven his sibling to her death, plots a sickeningly savage payback. Just as the rumor of incest (and the truth, perhaps) led to one tragedy, Woo-jin orchestrates Dae-su’s capture and torture to lure his victim into the arms of a woman - his own daughter. It’s a disturbed little denouement, and one that offers up Oldboy‘s final act of personal attrition.

With an ambiguous ending that suggests Dae-su and Mi-Do may stay together after all, and an unhealthy kind of karmic realignment, Oldboy is indeed a masterpiece. It’s visually stunning, while announcing Park (and the entire South Korean film industry, for that matter) as a post-millennial foreign voice worth considering. When it was released in 2003, it caused a sensation. Festival audiences lucky enough to see it where left drained, while messageboards began the inevitable debates and deconstructions. Even as it was finding its niche on DVD, talks began about the almost automatic Hollywood remake. While such names as Harvey Keitel and Nicholas Cage were mentioned as potential stars, nothing really solid came out of such suggestions.

While no one is claiming that Smith and Spielberg can’t handle themselves professionally, one senses something wrong with either choice. Park’s problem in Oldboy was making his generally nasty anti-hero into something sympathetic, while the villain is veiled in the kind of upper class snobbery and personal charisma that makes him simultaneously easy and hard to hate. Mi-Do is neither victim nor vixen. Instead, she’s a sad girl, desperate to cling to something to make up for her vacant, painful past. So where, exactly, in either man’s creative canon does such subtle complexity lie. Spielberg’s most ambitious drama was also his most obvious - Schindler’s List. He didn’t have to do much to make the Holocaust horrific. Smith, on the other hand, has a couple of feel good dramas under his belt (The Pursuit of Happyness, the upcoming Six Pounds), but most everything else is tinged with humor.

The notion of Mr. Fresh Prince taking on Dae-su’s unfathomable ordeal, a journey which transports the character from nobody to prisoner to insanity to murder to sex to scandal to self-mutilation is one drenched in Eastern values and precepts. Smith may be able to battle angry extraterrestrials, light-sensitive zombies, and CG creations of all shapes and size, but we’ve never really seen him attack personal demons in a deliberate way. Indeed, much of what Smith does as an actor is outward. Even in this past Summer’s Hancock, when he had to play sullen and disconnected, his moroseness seemed to come from the exterior of his character. While he’s done good work in many films, Smith seems wrong for Dae-su’s complicated dimensions.

And since when has Spielberg shuttled his famous feel good framework to delve into the depraved. Oldboy would be a better challenge for Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, or David Fincher than the man who made dinos and darling little aliens into cinematic stalwarts. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with mixing things up a bit, to fly outside your ‘worked before’ ways. Even something like Munich played indirectly into his larger than life, broader in scope designs. Perhaps if the right script came along, one anticipating the problems both men bring to the table, this version of Oldboy could work. But one senses that Smith, already betrothed to the terrible Akiva Goldsman (must be part of the Devil’s standard contractual lingo), will make sure things stay suspicious.

While one hopes that the story turns out to be a hoax, or better yet, a PR move to determine the industry reaction to such a pairing and project, fans should stop complaining and realize that an Americanized Oldboy was always part of the plan. The ‘who’ and ‘when’ were the only unsettled issues. If Smith and Spielberg pull it off - great. They will prove many a proposed pundit wrong. But if they take the material and turn it into something like City of Angels (the sappy, crappy Wings of Desire remake) or any number of cheap, charmless J-Horror revamps, everyone loses. Of course, Smith and Spielberg will retreat to their palatial positions as industry icons and go about their box office business. The fate of Park’s potent meditation on mankind and misery is another question entirely. 

by Bill Gibron

8 Nov 2008


Has it really been 20 years? Was it really just two decades ago when a local Minnesota UHF station, desperate for some cheap weekend programming, hired a few provisional stand-ups and gave them access to a few minutes of programming and their b-grade matinee movie archives? And was it really the tale end of the Reagan era when Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, and behind the scenes studio technicians Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon, got together with some hastily cobbled together puppets and a crappy piece of schlock and made the practice of talking back to a bad movie screen cool? Indeed, the KTMA phase of Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on 24 November, 1988, and the rest is, how they say, basic pay cable channel history.

It’s definitely been an unusual and uneasy legacy: A few station switches; a cult phenomenon; a rumored acrimonious breakup between the original partners; the ascension of head writer Mike Nelson into the show’s new star, critical acclaim; the final gasp of Sci-Fi fandom; the rebirth as competing entities Riff Trax and Cinematic Titanic; a few DVD releases. Indeed, for anyone who has worshipped the efforts of what used to be known as Best Brains (or a close collective facsimile thereof), keeping track of all the continuing comedy has been a chore in and of itself. While Nelson, Murphy, and current co-conspirator Bill Corbett deconstruct every new release in their audio only format, Hodgson, Weinstein, Beaulieu have recruited Mary Jo Pehl and (TV’s) Frank Conniff to jumpstart the silhouetted satire routine.

And with its fourth independent installment, the lamentably awful Legacy of Blood, Cinematic Titanic finally finds its groove. Previously, the quintet battled between reverence to the past and placating the present. Fans wanted backstory, clear indications of what the group were doing and why they were returning to familiar territory. What was the Time Tube, and why the weird warning light “skits” in the middle of the movies. Well, all those who wondered about the internal workings of the CT situation, pay attention. Before the horrific thriller from 1971 unravels, the collective have a conversation with the crew which may fill in many of the blanks. While not 100% satisfying, it sets us up for all the underground bunker commentary to come.

As for Legacy, it’s beyond horrific, the kind of And Then There Were None rip-off that made Agatha Christie cry in her Mousetrap. When the patriarch of the rotten Dean family dies, the siblings all show up for the reading - or in this case, the listening - of his will. They are joined by their respective spouses, repressed memories, and the most unhelpful set of servants ever. Naturally, the dead man’s estate stipulates that they all must spend a week at his home, and that if any of them should die, the other’s split the money evenly. Before you can say “Miss Jane Marple”, relatives are reeling, freshly killed corpses pushing up the alcohol fueled daises. Eventually, one remaining Dean is left, and when the murderer is finally revealed, we get a strange sense of cinematic déjà vu. Or maybe it’s just gas.

Like an episode of Dynasty gone gangrenous, Legacy of Blood uses a freakish family, the standard story set up legalese, and a bountiful collection of closeted skeletons to turn something supposedly shocking and scandalous into 90 minutes of mindnumbing dullness. Director Carl Munson was clearly a fan of the Method style of acting. He lets every member of his ‘Where Are They Now’ cast crow and carry on like mourners at a New Orleans wake. And then they REALLY start to overact. As part of the onscreen interpersonal dynamic, we get a sister incestually obsessed with her practically porcine brother, a psychiatrist in-law whose constantly on the make for the clan’s over the hill matron, a cowardly couple whose ratty little dog takes a lethal swan dive into the cement pond, and a tank of piranhas just waiting for a human body part to munch on.

Instead of terror however, Legacy of Blood is all talk.  Characters here just gab and gab away, hoping that their lengthy conversations overloaded with suggestions and sordidness will make our skin crawl. Sadly, they just make our eyes droop. Naturally, this makes for perfect Cinematic Titanic fodder. The gang can’t ignore the unctuous sexual sleaze pouring out of every character, and their quips about said horniness are classic. Sure, some of the material crosses over into the more “adult” oriented element of their demographic, but it’s nice to hear some borderline blue humor from the gang. Equally funny are the fill-in bits, with Trace offering up a goofy game show were Josh must guess which item WON’T kill him, while Frank is busted for that most heinous of show etiquette violations - gum chewing!

But it’s the back and forth between cast and celluloid that keeps the Cinematic Titanic series fresh and fun. The sequence where the chauffer character Frank is seen lounging among his collection of Nazi paraphernalia (including a lamp made of human skin - yikes!) is one of the series’ best, and nothing says ‘stupidity’ like the bad indecipherable accent attempted by Munson pal (and exploitation titan) Buck Kartalian. While most of Legacy of Blood - a retitle from the original Blood Legacy, go figure - is antiquated e- performers pitching fits of hopeless thespian histrionics, there are small moments which remind us of why films like this are just asking for a sassy dressing down.

With 20 years comes a lot of history - of missed opportunities, of unofficial classics, of times when it seemed the subject and the subjected meshed in perfect comedy clarity. Cinematic Titanic provides glimpses of such splendor. It reminds us of the reasons we fell in love with Hodgson’s homespun experiment in the first place. It’s the kind of entertainment that speaks to a specific ideal, that angers some purists while pleasing those with a much smaller motion picture axe to grind.  As they continue to create their own unique revamp of the pristine MST format, there will probably be stumbles and struggles along the way. And anytime you take on the distribution yourself, you’re bound to get lost in the self-produced melee. But fans both young and old understand that there’s nothing better than the original. With Cinematic Titanic, and Legacy of Blood, you get the closest of reproductions.

by Bill Gibron

7 Nov 2008


If you ask Guillermo Del Toro what his most personal films are, the answer seems obvious - at first. The Devil’s Backbone was a chance for the Mexican moviemaker to discuss the impact of Spanish Civil War on his ancestral homeland. It combined a Gothic ghost story with a strong political agenda. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth extended the meditation to the Franquist repression during the Franco regime. Again, we got a mixture of history, heritage, honor, and horror. The third choice, however, is the oddest overall. While no one expects Blade 2 or Mimic to join the others, both Cronos and the original Hellboy were close to his humble geek heart.

Yet, oddly enough, it’s the sequel to his 2004 comic book hero epic that sits closest to the man’s soul. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation (new from Universal) of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, we hear Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.

You see, long ago, when the Earth was green, humanity and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could be let loose. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections.  Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic demon with a decent heart named Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.

Clearly, the connection to Mike Mignola’s comic and character is now very loose, to say the least. In fact, Del Toro reveals as part of his discussion, that when he first heard the idea for a follow-up film, Hellboy’s daddy was distraught. He didn’t like or appreciate much about the follow-up. But leave it to the likable Latino with the mind of an ADD amplified arrested adolescent to bring him around. The Golden Army is indeed great. It is two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.

Del Toro has always been the biggest of genre mavens, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling over his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.

Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film. 

Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.

All of these underlying themes and subtle subtexts are further explored in the DVDs bonus features (by the way, the final disc is just a digital copy of the film). We learn how the Troll Market reflects Del Toro’s views on good and evil. We see deleted scenes meant to strength the bonds between the characters. As part of the Director’s Notebooks, Del Toro discusses how Pan’s Labyrinth and the difficulty of said shoot allowed him to escape into the world of The Golden Army. And all throughout the added content, form and design, shape and approach are dissected and described, Del Toro’s unique idea for the film fleshed out by artisan’s able to fully realize his aims.

That’s why this movie is one of 2008’s best. Del Toro describes it best when he says that it’s the kind of film that, if he had seen it when he was an eager 11 year old, he would have obsessed on it for months. That’s because, instead of pulling back, this director unleashes the full force of his creative power - and the results are ridiculously resplendent.  It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat.

So we really shouldn’t be surprised to see a gentle giant with Satan’s skin standing right alongside the real world characters caught between war and remembrance in Del Toro’s canon. To dismiss Hellboy II: The Golden Army as nothing more than a pleasant popcorn experience is to underestimate the power in this filmmaker’s soul. Of all the foreign voices finding a way in mainstream genre moviemaking, Guillermo Del Toro is truly one of the best. It will be interesting to see what he does when given the canvas crafted by Peter Jackson and the universe inhabited by the equally endemic characters of JRR Tolkien. If it’s anything like this amazing masterwork, the two-part Hobbit will be another item in Del Toro’s list of favorites. And what an impressive collection it is.

by Bill Gibron

6 Nov 2008


Hollywood hates poking fun at itself. While it’s handled its fair share of good natured cinematic ribbing, once we get to the seething scalding takes like The Stunt Man or The Player, amiability turns instantly to animosity. Heck, even a comedy like Tropic Thunder seems overwhelmingly mean-spirited. Ex-members of the Tinsel Town elite are notorious for burning as many drug and debauchery induced bridges as possible, with examples like the late Julia Phillips’ tell-all tome You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again arguing both in favor of and totally against personal reserve. Now comes What Just Happened? , based on Art Linson’s memoir about his (mis)adventures as one of the industry’s leading producers. With Barry Levinson behind the lens and Robert DeNiro heading an all-star ensemble, what could go wrong? The answer - EVERYTHING!

Ben has big problems. The test screening of the film he produced starring Sean Penn was a disaster, and his latest movie won’t start shooting because its lead, Bruce Willis, has arrived on the set overweight, angry, and covered in a mountain man level of facial hair. While his boss, the no nonsense Lou Tarnow, wants these issues resolved pronto, Ben hasn’t the backbone to figure out how to fix them. Instead, he obsesses on his second wife, the beautiful if insecure Kelly, and worries about Zoe, his teenage daughter from his first marriage. In between, there are battles with hot tempered directors, egomaniacal actors, ineffectual agents like Dick Bell, and a friend/screenwriter who, when not pitching scripts to Ben, is possibly pitching woo to Kelly. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, or death. Ben, however, is barely driven to distraction.

What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. It takes what should be a potent insider skewering and turns it into a pseudo-sudser where the character’s melodramatic meandering substitutes for La-La Land insights. It proves that, where once he was a mighty maverick of individual filmography, Barry Levinson is now back in tattered Toys mode - self-indulgent, lazy, and utterly lacking in artistic, creative, or commercial merit. And this after the one two bombardier-ing of Envy and Man of the Year. But perhaps the greatest abomination created by this 104 minute affront is that it is never, ever funny. Not when DeNiro does his sheepish schlep routine. Not when Willis goes bug-butt over his beard. Not when a Tarantino like filmmaker argues for the aesthetic integrity of a scene where criminals kill a dog in a full blown head shot.

It goes without saying that What Just Happened? is stiflingly bad. It has one redeeming element, and she - Catherine Keener as a no bullshit studio executive - is on and off screen so rapidly she barely has time to register. The rest of the time we are left with characters we care little about, problems that have no basis in the real world, and plot contrivances that push the very boundaries of the “based on a true story” paradigm. Linson may indeed be taking liberties here, going far too fictional to protect the innocent (or the regularly litigious). In the book, Alec Baldwin was the prima donna celeb, and Fight Club was one of the incredibly troubled productions. On screen, such authentic intrigue would have been a welcome internal connection. Let’s face it - viewers love gossip. But when turned make believe, the already larger than life facets go rogue. As a result, they reinvent the narrative into something like a fetid Aesop’s Fable, sans moral.

The cast, of course, is no help. They see this as their chance to bite the fiscally beneficial hand that constantly overfeeds them, and when they’re not chewing up the scenery, they’re mentally checking the zeroes on the end of their paycheck. Willis is especially weird, ranting and cursing during his hackneyed hissy fits like he forgot the cameras were rolling. He’s constantly threatening to break out into a ‘wink at the audience’ smirk. Similarly, Tuturro milks his cowardly yutz agent for less than 10% of his narrative worth. This is perhaps the worst performance he’s ever given - and no, we aren’t forgetting Transformers. Only Keener and Robin Wright Penn (as the iconic Kelly) save face, and it’s no thanks to Levinson. Directing in a manner that uncovers no pacing or comic timing, What Just Happened? winds up looking like a badly dubbed foreign film.

And then there’s big Bob. DeNiro has never been an easy fit within the comedic genre. Unless he’s playing with his own tripwire type (Meet the Parents), he comes off as a Shakespearean snob doing dinner theater. Here, he’s actually not bad, affecting a neurotic nebbish persona that could best be described as Woody Allen via Hell’s Kitchen. There are times when he is just a Paul Rudd impression away from being a total cliché, but he imbues Ben with enough dimension that we don’t instantly dislike him. No, it takes nearly an hour and one bathroom pick-up later to find our lead to be loathsome. Once Ben goes overboard into stalker mode, everything about What Just Happened? fizzles and flops. The ending seems anticlimactic and unimportant, the resolution offering the standard middle finger salute to audience attentiveness and consideration.

Frankly, something like this works better on the page, the brain free to recreate the scene where studio execs literally dodge some of the directorial choices made by David Fincher in Fight Club. We can do a much better job of watching the prose Linson lumbered across the Ethan Hawke version of Great Expectations than watching a English dope fiend argue why a dog has to get shot in the noggin. One might argue that What Just Happened? is too inside to connect with everyone. Only those who truly understand the business called show will snicker at Levinson’s labored satire. Everyone else should steer clear. Movies about the movies and those who make them usually don’t deliver in the way a typical mainstream effort would. What Just Happened? proves this point over and over again.

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