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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

BEE MOVIE (dir. Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith)


While it may seem like blasphemy to say it, the comedic allure of Jerry Seinfeld remains elusive to some of us. As a stand-up, he was merely acceptable, the kind of observational whiner that’s become something of a satiric spoof all its own. His self-named sitcom, the often described “show about nothing”, has gone from must-see TV to a Borat level of hindsight marginalizing. Even his post-boob tube work has been lamentably unsatisfactory, failing to give fans and those who never bought into the hype the brazen witticisms they once loved. Now the one time small screen icon is making the leap to silver, albeit in an anthropomorphized, CGI form. Playing the title insect in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie, he hopes to draw a more sophisticated crowd to what has been, traditionally, kid-oriented fair. He may actually succeed.


After graduating from bee college, young drone Barry B. Benson and his cousin Adam Flayman can’t wait to get a job in the hive’s honey manufacturing concern. But when they learn that the career they choose will be the one they have for their whole life, Barry balks. Traveling with the Pollenjocks who work outside among the flowers, our hero gets his first taste of what it’s like in the real world. Of course, there are specific rules if a bee finds themselves among humans. Never talk to people, and never sting them. Both missteps could be fatal. When he’s almost killed by a lunkheaded yuppie named Ken, Barry is saved by Vanessa, a good natured florist. Violating the mandates of the colony, the little bug strikes up a friendship with the attractive young girl, and it’s not long before the pair is hanging out, sharing insights into their species. But when Barry learns that humans eat honey, and that his fellow insects are enslaved to make the succulent elixir, he becomes furious. In order to save his kind’s byproduct, he does the only thing a tiny pest can – he sues the honey companies in court.


While never as clever as it thinks it is, and lacking the internal logic that makes a Pixar project hum with indescribable brilliance, Bee Movie is still a witty, imaginative romp. It offers Jerry Seinfeld in “trying too hard mode” and a wealth of talent being patently underutilized. Unlike other CGI cartoons that rely on stunt casting to give its characters inferred life, Bee Movie simply lets actors do their job, with such noted names as Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, and Matthew Broderick accomplishing what they can. Sure, there are moments of abject obviousness, as when the bullying, overbearing and incredibly obese lawyer starts speaking with…John Goodman’s voice, and nothing can hide Renee Zellweger’s noxious, nasal bleat (she’s a real weak link here as the human Vanessa). But any film that gets Sting to make fun of his nom deplume, or Ray Liotta to riff on his tripwire reputation, can’t be all bad.


Actually, Bee Movie is a lot like Antz except with a younger multi-millionaire mensch substituting for Woody Allen. There is the same unexceptional imagineering, the individuals behind the scenes thinking that turning nature into something corporate and mechanized means fresh and novel. As the various honey-based conglomerate logos spin by, as we see the hive as some sort of wacked out widget production palace (complete with bugs who collect the last drop of sweet stuff from the vats) the slightly sloppy shortcutting shows through. When dreams and closet dwelling creatures were explained in the masterful Monsters Inc. you never got the impression that the warehouse of doors was a half-baked notion. But the sticky amber liquid comes to represent so much in Bee Movie that the lack of magic tends to take away from the premise. Indeed, the first 20 minutes more or less tread nectar, waiting for Seinfeld’s Barry to finally fly outdoors.


Once our yellow and black hero interacts with Vanessa and begins to learn the ways of humans and the world outside the hive, Bee Movie begins to click. Granted, such surreal setpieces as a trial, an airplane emergency, and a decimated Central Park are hardly the stuff of animated hilarity, but props should be given to Seinfeld and the other writers for taking the genre in a different, more grown up direction. While it can’t match what Brad Bird has done with a similar, maturing storytelling style (as witnessed by the brilliant Incredibles and Ratatouille), Bee Movie is better than the lame brained, pop culture cribbing of Shrek. In fact, unlike the entire joke-a-thon style of the overly busy Fox CG films, there are moments of quiet elegance and sly satire here.


Of course, not everything works. Some of the more subtle jabs will fly over the heads of wee ones (the whole concept of Barry’s parents fretting over Vanessa being “Bee-ish”, the Larry King parody) and there are numerous gags that just don’t work. In fact, a good percentage of Bee Movie is not what one would call laugh out loud funny. Instead, like much of what Seinfeld represents, there is a thinking man’s level of wit here that keeps the snickers at arms length. We get what the film is driving at, and where it hopes to land its punchlines, but when an obvious Graduate riff simply dries up and blows away, we can sense a demographically concerned focus group mentality at play. Sitcom success is one thing. For Seinfeld to click as a cartoon character, there’s a whole other level of mainstream acceptance that has to go on – and Bee Movie doesn’t mess up the marketing.


And then there are elements that make no sense at all, at least from a humor standpoint. Someone needs to get Patrick Warburton a case of Decaf, stat. He reads every line of his spurned human paramour Ken as a far more hyper version of his paralyzed cop character Joe Swanson on Family Guy. He literally has no nuance to his shriek and shout performance. Chris Rock is also hampered by the PG parameter he’s locked into. When he’s talking about how hated mosquitoes are (being one of the bug’s himself), you keep waiting for the rant to go blue. Instead, it’s stifled, left incomplete and lagging behind other sequences in the film. While the action is anarchic, perfect for the ADD driven sugar frosted seat fillers, we loose much of the complexity the animators have attached to the NYC backdrop, and there’s no sense of awe-inspiring artistry here. Dreamworks isn’t making a film for the ages. This is perfectly prepared product, specifically finessed to increase shelf life and stimulate DVD revenue.


Indeed, while it will guarantee swift ticket sales and long lasting box office legs, Bee Movie is hardly what you’d call a classic. It offers its own slightly askew take on the anthropomorphic creature cartoon and frequently trips on its way down said path, but when all it said and done, it’s inoffensive and fairly entertaining. Some will say they expected more from their former small screen God and argue that the movie marginalizes his fairly obvious genius. Others knew he was a man of limited skills all along. No matter what side of the argument you find yourself on, Bee Movie is likely to disappoint. It’s not as awful as you think. It’s also not as good.



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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

AMERICAN GANGSTER (dir. Ridley Scott)


Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters—at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?


Apparently, screenwriter Steve Zaillian and director Ridley Scott seem to think so. They’ve taken the story of Harlem drug king Frank Lucas and turned it—and him—into a symbol of pre-‘70s smarts and racially irrelevant success. Then they parallel it with the story of an honest cop vowing to clean up the streets, along with his fellow crooked officers. Add Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as the leads and the results speak or themselves. Or at least they try too. Overlong by at least 20 minutes, and missing many of the detail that turns such cops and robbers sagas into glorified Greek tragedies, American Gangster is polished filmmaking that frequently misses the inherent spectacle of the story it’s telling. Then it discovers there was very little scope to begin with.


When we first meet Lucas, he’s a henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the man’s untimely death, the apprentice vows to create the same kind of classy, corporate like Drug Empire as his mentor. Realizing that buying directly from the source can cut down on the middle man, and increase the product’s (heroin) purity, he travels to Bangkok to meet up with an old military friend. They strike a deal with the locals, and soon, kilos of high grade H are making their way in the metal coffins of fallen Vietnam vets.


It’s not long before Lucas owns the streets, and he brings his entire family up from North Carolina to help him out. He even has the mafia buying their Blue Magic from his organization. When his cop buddy gets involved in graft and dope, honest officer Ritchie Roberts decides to bring down whoever is pushing. Of course he must cut through massive corruption among his fellow policeman, a lack of real leads, and Lucas’ expertly planned process. All it takes is a tip, and a trail to follow, and both sides of the law are destined to butt heads. 


American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details. There is not much more to Frank Lucas than honor among heroin dealers, and Ritchie Roberts is the only incorruptible lawman in all of New York proper. Together, they are the karmic balance of good vs. evil set within a city drowning in dope. Granted, we learn that Lucas is as cold blooded as they come, killing rivals in broad daylight. And Roberts is a womanizing heel, incapable of holding onto the principles in his private life that he cherishes in public. So we get some sort of dimension in how the characters are portrayed. But unlike films such as Goodfellas, Scarface, and the Godfather saga, American Gangster functions on a level outside of crime. Sure, the smack trade is part and parcel of the narrative, but it’s the men, not the setup of the syndicate, that really matters.


Indeed, this is perhaps the most overblown character study ever committed to film. At nearly 150 mins, Scott can’t stop expanding the personality playing field. Lucas has six other siblings and each one gets his moment in the emblematic sun. Both his mother and his Puerto Rican beauty queen wife have their own sequences of self-righteous indignation. On Roberts side, we find his unhappy, soon to be ex, a woman who responds to all interpersonal disappointment by dropping names of the mobsters her partner is pals with. Then there’s the soon to be junkie colleague who looks like Serpico crossed with Superfly. You just know he’s going to get a dramatic send-off. Scott also shows us the street level recruits who make up Roberts newly formed federal task force. By the time he’s done, we expect American Gangster to give us the backstory on every waitress, bouncer, and soul singer we see.


The morals are also misplaced here. Lucas is a scum sucking dope peddler, a man systematically addicting and killing his own people in the name of free enterprise and sticking it to the “white man”. Frankly, racist Italians giving blacks a means of self destruction makes a whole lot more sense—at least from an unenlightened, ‘60s/’70s standpoint—than a smooth talking, educated brother. Lucas’ motives are never explained save for a single speech where he indicates a desire to do for himself and his family. Great, and apparently, it doesn’t matter that all of Harlem is strung out as a result. Even worse, when we get to the last act confrontation with authorities, Lucas stands his ground—that is, until a massive jail sentence is dangled in front of his face. Then he instantaneously turns snitch—but since he’s ratting on dirty cops and underworld crime lords, who cares… right?


As a result, American Gangster goes more than a bit cockeyed once in a while. When Roberts turns over nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills (standard operating procedure at the time would have been to pocket the loot), he becomes the pariah of the department. Yet we’re supposed to infer why his fellow officers hate him—something about rubbing their nose in their petty, obvious bribery. Similarly, Lucas’ violent outbursts are meant to marginalize his suave and debonair demeanor. But you’re dealing with Denzel Washington here, an emblematic figure who can make baby rape seem cool. In fact, it’s so hard to paint either character in a corruptible light that when Scott assembles a Thanksgiving Day montage highlighting the horrors of Harlem, it plays like disconnected blight dragging us away from the real picture at hand. For as gaudy and gratuitous as they were, films like Scarface and The Godfather never forgot they were dealing with killers. This may be the first mob movie that turns its villains into viable vehicles for underhanded respect.


In fact, all of American Gangster plays like a perfectly formed post-millennial pastiche of the Playstation Generation’s greatest imagined gangland hits. It readily recalls every Scorsese-like step into the realm of such dark, strictly business realities and underlying urban decay. While set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the look is less dated and more fashion model post-modern. There is a swagger that the story fails to fully earn, and a matter of fact quality that underlines the story’s inherent superficiality.


Intriguingly enough, there is a documentary out currently entitled Mr. Untouchable. It deals with the exact same facts, except this time, we learn the lessons of Harlem’s decline into heroin from fellow dealer Nicky Barnes. Said film features details American Gangster skims over (why the drug cutting gals are naked, the Italians ultimate aims) while making a case for Barnes as everything Lucas is portrayed as. It’s a compelling argument, one that Ridley Scott and his A-list almost-epic fails to fully embrace. American Gangster is a very good movie. Somehow, one senses, it could have been grand.




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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007


Daniel Kraus’ PBS sponsored documentary about local law enforcement in a small southern town is an outright masterpiece. Sheriff strives to do little more than give us a look behind the badge as Ronald E. Hewitt secures the North Carolina community of Brunswick County. What we get instead is the broadest scope of human drama as depicted within the tinniest of backward burgs. Hewitt’s family has a long tradition in the area – several streets and buildings in town are named after his kin. But it’s the buzzcut Baptist who rules things now, his God, country and Colt .45 mentality a breath of fresh air in these days of questionable police practices and criminal oriented news reporting. In fact, if Hewitt could be cloned and his doubles resituated around the country, it’s a foregone conclusion that the crime rate nationwide would decrease ten fold.


Following the cinema verite style of fact filmmaking, Kraus isn’t out to have talking heads narrate Hewitt’s life story. Instead, he rides along, quasi-Cops style, as the compact constable goes about his daily chores. One day, he could be speaking to a school assembly. The next, he could be investigating the robbery and murder of a local attorney. Over the course of the film, we see Hewitt dealing with a life or death manhunt, coordinating a roadside dragnet, and busting up an illegal video poker emporium. Always the gentleman, this sheriff never looses his temper. He doesn’t curse like a sailor or aggressively pursue suspects. Instead, Hewitt believes in using the techniques he’s learned on the job, in combination with the close knit nature of the surrounding area, to aid in his investigations. He can even work the local media, when necessary.


When we first meet Hewitt, he appears like your typical Southern lawman, his deceptive drawl putting him instantly into the canon of stereotypical country bumpkins. But Kraus doesn’t let that caricature carry. Within seconds, the man is wooing reporters, directing child services to help a pair of juvenile victims, and phoning other locals for added technical and scientific support. Suddenly, the Joe Higgins/Jackie Gleason version of the sunglass donning Confederate copper is replaced by a brash, intelligent man with a keen instinct for solving cases. During a particularly telling montage, Kraus intercuts various statements Hewitt has made to TV, and the sheriff’s use of carefully moderated words and specific terms indicates a thoughtfulness and caution that is indeed rare. Even more amazing, we see him coordinating and communicating with his constituency. While some may argue such an approach is necessary to maintain one’s political position, we sense there’s more to it than that – at least, to Hewitt.


Indeed, he’s the human representation of dedication and determination. He never quits until the last lead is followed up and never rejects a request for assistance. When he travels to a State Sheriff’s Conference and, unexpectedly, wins the award for outstanding sheriff, his humble thank you and acknowledgement of his peers is priceless. Thanks to the manner in which Kraus captures the on the job moments – directly, precisely, without any identifiable motive or manipulation – we view Hewitt is pure hero worshipping terms. He becomes the guy we wish was looking out for us, the type of peace officer your parents once advised you could trust and rely on. While there are probably a few skeletons in his closet (everyone’s life has them, even if they’re incredibly minor at best), we are sold a full blown family values version of small town swagger. And we love it.


Kraus makes sure to show us Hewitt’s sense of personal pride as well. He is careful in how he dresses, making sure to always look put together and well turned out. He never shows fear, or a lack of confidence, though an occasional aside for a bottle of cold water or a moment alone reveal a very real, very vulnerable human being. Kraus uses his camera instinctually, picking up on points that a more staged approach would probably miss. When the lady behind the video poker counter pleads ignorance as to any remaining money in the building, Hewitt delivers a wonderful little speech about being “right and square” with his suspects. After a little more poking and prodding, the cash she swore didn’t exist magically ends up in his hands.


Sheriff is also interested in the different cultural dynamics of small Southern town life. Hewitt is seen hunting, shotguns slung, daughter along to provide firm parent/child companionship. There is also an intriguing moment when the lawman congratulates his son’s friend for making first chair percussion in the school band. “I told you he was going to do that!”, Hewitt’s son says with a smile. A hug and a kiss confirm another close tie. In fact, most of this man’s life is made up of networks and contacts, links between people he’s known for decades and individuals he’s interacted with on both sides of the criminal justice system. It a closeness that helps support a few Solomon like opinions. While he doesn’t like the local nudist colony, (and many in the community don’t) he still champions the member’s right to live that lifestyle – as long as they are doing it peaceably.


The new DVD from FACETS Video helps broaden our perspective. Along with the original 76 minute theatrical version of the film, we get over 40 minutes of deleted footage, sequences expanding our understanding of Hewitt’s duties and his approach to same. What’s even more compelling is, once we’ve seen the additional material, we recognize that the narrative doesn’t need the extra enlightenment. Kraus has done such a marvelous job of sketching in all the necessary details from the collection of sequences we see in the film that Hewitt and his circumstances come across fully formed and capable of easy consideration. As intimate as it is instructional, and insightful, Sheriff stands as a unique cinematic accomplishment. It’s impossible to imagine that, when Brunswick County was chosen and Hewitt was contacted about this particular project, such a stellar behind the scenes statement would be made.


It’s a credit to Kraus who did something similar with his look at a 40 year old beer drinking wrestling fanatic with Down’s Syndrome named JeffTowne. What seemed obvious at first all of a sudden transcended its borders to blossom into an engaging, irresistible discovery. Sheriff Ronald E. Hewitt could easily become a modern day Andy Griffin, ‘golly gee’ philosophizing making everyone from the Carolina’s seem like hambone hicks. Instead, we see the meshing of modernity with tried and true tradition. The result is something spectacular, a film about a job that actually explains said career’s allure and fulfillment. He may not like the hours, and many of the crimes he must investigate are heinous and inhumane, but this is one lawman who takes pride in the service he provides. He’s a Sheriff, and darn proud of it – and so are we.


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Tuesday, Oct 30, 2007

As our month-long tribute to terror ends, SE&L celebrates one of the missing in action icons of practical special effects - Mr. Rob Bottin.


On the Mt. Rushmore of Cinematic Repugnance he’s Teddy friggin’ Roosevelt, his brooding, bearded façade figuring prominently along with those of Dick Smith, Tom Savini, and Rick Baker (substitute Stan Winston where appropriate). His cartoonish, slightly surreal take on creature F/X was marked by a disturbing level of invention, and when asked to recreate more human horrors, his autopsy like efficiency reveled in the body’s more noxious humors. Yet after giving David Fincher a tour de force performance for his serial killer spectacle Se7en, he more or less disappeared, showing up sporadically for a few high profile projects (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club) before fading away. Since 2002 however, he’s been more or less MIA, a once brilliant madman lost in the exile of his own increasing reputation.


A California boy, Rob Bottin was born in 1959. He grew up loving monster movies and started creating his own characters while in his teens. A few of his sketches caught the eye of fellow fright lover Baker, and at age 14, he was hired on to work for the in-demand artist. After assisting on the ’76 version of King Kong and that space opera blockbuster Star Wars, his big break came when John Carpenter was looking for someone to realize the menacing pirate ghosts for the filmmaker’s much publicized Halloween follow-up, The Fog. Bottin, an imposing kid at 6’2”, not only designed and executed the F/X, but he played the lead spirit – Capt. Blake – at the end of the film. After a brief stint supporting Tom Savini on the sickening slasher sleazefest Maniac, Bottin began working with Baker on the pair’s next secret project.


Buried in myth and clouded by contradictory innuendo, the falling out between the men over the creation of a realistic werewolf transformation remains an incomplete motion picture legend. At the time, Baker accused Bottin of stealing his ideas, while the young gun threw the same accusation back at his onetime mentor. Watching The Howling and An American Werewolf in London side by side, the mutual influence is obvious. Yet were Baker reverted to a bloodless, full body metamorphosis for director John Landis, Bottin used the inherent limits of individual physicality to create a more brutal, bloody change. With Joe Dante’s Howling beating Werewolf into theaters, it looked like the student got the last laugh. However, when Oscar rolled around, it was Baker who walked away with the newly created award for make-up effects.


Undaunted, Bottin literally threw himself into his next project. The remake of The Thing was a technical nightmare, but assigned director Carpenter could think of no one better than the gifted 23 year old to realize the creature concepts he had in mind. The original ‘50s classic had actor James Arness dressed as something resembling a human carrot. The Thing’s reinvention would be more along the lines of the source material short story “Who Goes There?”. Carpenter wanted the ultimate shapeshifter, a being that could literally take the form of anything it came in contact with. In these pre-CGI days, it was an epic undertaking, but Bottin was up for the challenge. He worked seven days a week, sleeping in his shop, for over a year to make the horrific entities the director wanted. By the end of production, Bottin was so spent he had to be hospitalized for extreme exhaustion.


All the hard work paid off, though. For many, The Thing remains the last word in advanced physical effects. It’s a gruesome, gore-filled cavalcade of bleakness and cruelty. From the ultra realistic dog death sequences to the finale which finds Kurt Russell’s McReady battling a 30 foot amalgamation of everything the extraterrestrial’s emulated over the course of the film, Bottin filled the frame with as many innovative atrocities as possible. When it hit theaters in 1982, fright fans heralded the movie’s sluice drenched spectacle. Critics were not so kind, often referring to Bottin as the cinematic equivalent of a geek show barker. Of course, time has only cemented The Thing’s status as a classic. Today, Bottin is idolized, not marginalized, for what he created.


Luckily, his next project would help broaden his appeal. When Joe Dante was looking for someone to visualize the wild – and frequently wicked – imaginary threats forged in the brain of that famous little despot Anthony as part of a big screen remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode, he turned to Bottin. Like Looney Tunes on acid, the F/X expert turned rabbits into oversized demons, and manufactured a collection of corrupt cartoon effigies who recalled the Warner Brothers icons gone gangrenous. Dante loved what Bottin did so much that he brought him on to realize the goofball aliens of Explorers. During this same time, Ridley Scott was actively seeking someone to help him lift the fantasy film out of its sword and sorcery doldrums. Overwhelmed by what he had seen of his work, he asked Bottin to assist in bringing the main villain of his latest film, Legend, to life.



For some, turning the rather unimpressive Tim Curry into the stunning mangoat known as The Lord of Darkness remains Bottin’s latex and appliance masterpiece. In form and figure, the characterization is flawless, from the elongated and hoofed legs to the massive horned headpiece. Even more astonishing, Darkness has a massive musculature that hides its actor’s own flabby physique. When combined with Curry’s inspired performance and Scott’s stylized approach, the domineering demon became the film’s signature visual, surpassing stars Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, and a wealth of impish supporting players. For all its flaws as a film, Legend still stands as a stunning triumph for the artistic technician.


After working on another Dante film (Innerspace) and turning Jack Nicholson into the Devil for The Witches of Eastwick, Bottin returned to splatter with Paul Verhoven’s terrifically vicious Robocop. The violence he created was so nasty in fact that the movie received an initial X rating. When the MPAA finally came up with the NC-17 in 1990, Robocop was often cited as an example of a film that suffered at the hands of the board’s implied censorship. With its exploding limbs, melting bodies, and ultra-realistic gunshot wounds, Bottin definitely pushed the limits. Yet when he and Verhoven regrouped to take on the long dormant sci-fi project Total Recall, the ratings results were the same. Like The Thing before, the make-up maestro expanded the possibilities of his craft, turning the Mars madness into a primer on various techniques and approaches (the film would be recognized by the Academy with a Special Achievement Award).


While he was working all kinds of movie magic to turn Arnold Schwarzenegger into an interstellar hero, a little something called computer generated imagery was slowly seeping into the fabric of film. The Abyss became one of the first films to use the new technical tool to realize a F/X sequence – in this case, the watery alien probe – and as studios saw the potential in motherboards for their outsized visuals, experts like Bottin suddenly saw their talents devalued. While he continued pressing forward, helping Warren Beatty and Barry Levinson realize the gangster brutality of Bugsy, and giving Basic Instinct its ice picked pulse, it would be three years before he stepped onto a set again. By that time, digital was destroying manmade dexterity, and as if in direct response to such shortsightedness, Bottin set out to break the benchmark once again.


Initially, it’s hard to see how Se7en does this. Many of the murders occur off screen, and when we witness the repulsive results of John Doe’s unhinged “preaching”, the ratings mandated cuts removed much of Bottin’s brilliance. Still, he researched every aspect of the film, taking in a real autopsy and studying obesity’s affect on the body. He reviewed crime scene photos and the creation of police evidence files. When the cast and crew saw the results of Sloth’s visualization, the effect was so disturbing it made more than a few sick to their stomach. When added to director Fincher’s already dark vision and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s bleak ideas, Bottin’s genius generated the kind of psychological terror that has since made the film infamous.


And then – nothing. Well, not really. Bottin did work on Mission: Impossible, Fear and Loathing, Fight Club, Charlie’s Angels, and the Adam Sandler flop Mr. Deeds. According to the IMDb, his last legitimate credit was for “special animatronic cow and bull effects” in Serving Sara. A scan of the World Wide Web turns up very little current information. When Special Edition DVDs are put together, his participation is typically reduced to archival interviews or older featurettes ported over from previous packages. His absence from the current cultural landscape is confusing at best, especially when you consider how influential and important his work has become. There are people who literally obsess over everything Bottin has ever done, from his uncredited turns as a teen to the missing footage excised at the hands of the MPAA. For many fright fans, he’s an unseen God, a man whose disturbing dominion has suffered without his input.


Perhaps Bottin feels he can’t compete with the scan and spatter concept of post-millennial makeup. Maybe’s he’s earned all the money and respect he could ever want and simply needs a rest after four decades in the industry. At 47, he’s still a very young man, and could easily make a comeback should the right project strike his fancy, and with the retro renaissance currently feeding the fright film, a Bottin helmed Saw or Friday the 13th would seem like a gore nerds dream come true (he wrote an unused script for Freddy vs. Jason back before the project ended up with Ronny Yu). Whatever the reason for his vanishing act, here’s hoping he recognizes how much he’s missed. A sketch artist with a stylus can only do so much when it comes to creature effects, and Bottin could be a wonderful guide to those unfamiliar with hand on latex practicality.



Besides, horror needs him desperately. Bottin believed in using imagination and innovation as a means of achieving his frequently gruesome goals. He never let the limits of a budget or a medium get in the way. Sure, he obsessed over things, often to his detriment, but the results stand as archetypes for the artform. As a makeup artist and special effect technician, Bottin managed the seemingly impossible. Even as technology transformed the industry, his gear and greasepaint efforts stand as timeless. Sure, they can remake The Thing (as currently planned), using CGI to realize what almost killed the craftsman, but it won’t be the same. Indeed, no carefully rendered and realized monster can match what Bottin did with blood, sweat, and a lot of bladder F/X tears. This is why, even absent from the scene, Rob Bottin rocks. He’s the standard no hard drive can replicate – or replace.


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Monday, Oct 29, 2007


By its very nature, the short film has a hard time lending itself to horror. While the simple shock, the gross out gag, and the briefest of interludes between the supernatural and cinema can all find a home within the truncated format, creating macabre in such a tight logistical span seems almost impossible. Dread relies on mood, atmosphere, premise, follow through and other nebulous elements to be effective, and getting all that across in seven to twenty minutes is tricky at best. Those who’ve managed such cinematic slight of hand deserve praise for cracking one of the artform’s most complicated puzzles, said success translating into an equally deserving example of the medium.


In 2003, Other Cinema, an independent DVD distributor, collected several fine examples of these horrific mini-movies, including corrupt classics by such insane savants as Damon Packard and J. X. Williams, and released them in compilation form. Experiments in Terror proved that, though minimal in running time, the short film could be massive on imagination and meaning. Four years later, the company is back with Experiments in Terror 2. Expanding the selections while bringing back frightmare favorites (Packard and Williams both have new offerings), the expanded technological options provided by the digital revolution argue for a renewed viability. But there are specific pieces picked from four decades before that illustrate the necessity for artistry first, artifice second.


Viewed in one huge 95 minute hunk, or screened separately, this is avant-garde fear at its most mesmerizing. For anyone sick and tired of sloppy slice and dice or visually muted ghost stories, these optical wonders, bursting with retrospective revisionism and meticulous montages, creates a compelling overview of what people find frightening. There are very few examples of standard narrative story structure here. In face, aside from Angel Nieves 2001 effort The Fear and Bill Morrison’s borrowed plotline from the 1927 film The Bells (for his 2003 work The Mesmerist), everything else here is handled in an evocative, suggestive manner. The aforementioned shorts are sensational, Fear playing like a perfectly formed summary of late ‘70s/early ‘80s moviemaking. Morrison’s found footage, combining decay and remastering to offer up a disturbing sense of psychological parallelism, is a wonder to behold.

Thematically, there is a constant sense of backwards glancing here, a look at how dread past remains resonant in contemporary terror. Between 2 Deaths (2006) offers an intriguing look at San Francisco locations used by Alfred Hitchcock for his masterwork Vertigo. Director Wago Krieder does his best to line up shots exactly as the Master of Suspense did, and his morphing back and forth between the modern material and the Jim Stewart/Kim Novack gem stands as a stunning archival stunt. Similarly, Amor Peligrosa takes the age old symbol of death – the skeleton – and turns it on its frisky, fornicating head. Michelle Silva’s silly sexual congress remains compelling, if only because it seems so metaphysically apropos.


But it’s the actual works from the 1960s that help us understand the post-modern movement in Experiments. Opus 5 (1961) is a celluloid collage, a collection of unsettling images – fire, lights, religious iconography – that suggests a primer from hence all horror has originated. Lloyd Williams’ skilled juxtapositions give the presentation a creepy, unearthly aura. Similarly J. X. Williams’ Psych-Burn (1968) is the love generation unhinged, a compelling cock-up between go-go dancers and gory backdrops that even finds a way to turn the psychedelic acid rock of the era on its head. As the imagery bombards us with its death and debauchery subtext, the music is mindlessly interrupted, classic fear beats and shrieks inserted to remind us of the yin yang nature of man.


Oddly enough, when modern filmmakers attempt the same thing, the results can be less than impressive. Usama Alshaibi’s equally scattered Hold My Scissors tries for the Hellspawn head trip, and yet can’t quite pull off the impressionistic hat trick. It comes off as minor Shakespearean – full of sound and fury, and signifying very little. Similarly, Clifton Childree and Nikki Rollason’s She Sank on Shallow Bank wants to recall the early shorts of David Lynch (an auteur who truly understood the format) with their monochrome meandering. But for every provocative moment – a woman suggestively drowning on a sound stage seashore set – we get ghostly shoes shuffling around a boat. If there is sense to be made of such accidental imagery, it gets lost here.


The remaining masterpieces more than make up for any cinematic slack, however. Damon Packard, one of the undeniable masters of retro-revivalism, has utilized his entire catalog of Me Decade macabre to manufacture the dead-on dementia of The Early ‘70s Horror Trailer. A nine minute amalgamation of various damsels in all manner of ABC Movie of the Week distress, we keep waiting for Burt Bacharach’s “Nikki” to start up in the background. Luckily, Packard is one step ahead of us. He utilizes underscoring from such diverse sources as Escape from the Planet of the Apes and peppers the entire project with as many Super-8 stunts (prism lens, double exposure, slo-mo) as possible. Some may see it as nothing more than a massive gimmick given over to self indulgence. But when viewed through the eyes of someone who lived through the era, it’s absolute genius.


So is the aforementioned Fear. How a modern filmmaker like Angel Nieves managed to accurately recreate the look, feel, performances, and overall dread dynamic of an early ‘80s exploitation schlocker in 2001 is unnerving. From the sets to the storyline, you never once guess this is a post-millennial production. Instead, its old school scare tactics that feel fresh and innovative, carefully controlled pacing providing the right amount of suspense. It’s a very disturbing experience, one that leads to an instant reflection on the films it faithfully mimics. With The Mesmerist, the effect is different, but equally devastating. While The Bells is often dismissed as a well acted, half-formed morality play, director Morrison digs the meat out of it, using the original, racially insensitive title cards, to offer a comment on stereotypes and human sin. While it’s great to see Lionel Barrymore and a young Boris Karloff in full genre mode, it’s the underlying message about intolerance and redemption that’s far more effective.


As an added treat, Other Cinema includes a pair of compelling bonus features. The first is an interactive ‘Closet of Horrors’. By using your remote and clicking on the illuminated doorway, you are transported to one of a random collection of trailers, clips, and fright themed commercials. It’s an unfathomable delight. By contrast, the rant-oriented Warhol Beyond the Grave (from a longer piece known as Pleromadromadhetu) finds the long dead pop art phenom rising from the tomb to take on his legacy, as an anti-Andy screed plays in the background. It’s a weirdly compelling combination, both a declaration and denouncement of the 20th Century’s leading limelighter.


An appearance by the man - or the image of same – who once declared the disposability of fame is an excellent end note to this compelling collection. With its devotion to former frighteners, Experiments in Terror 2 appears to suggest that post-modern fear is too throwaway to warrant commemoration. For many in the creative community, the siren song of what came before is far more compelling than the simulated superficiality of current CGI creepshows. While these may be mere trials in the lexicon of fear, they are far more fully formed than much of today’s takes. As curator and compiler of this remarkable overview, Other Cinema deserves a lot of credit. While they won’t satisfy everyone, these short film scares deserve their moment in the sun. Experiments in Terror 2 gives it to them, and we couldn’t be happier.


 


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