Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

28 Aug 2008


The little lie begins the deceit. Soon, the lack of truth clouds everything - from love to legality. Within days, loyalties which once seemed firm are tested, while newfound friendships provide the catalyst for even more distrust. All the while, the deception cuts as deeply as the Siberian cold, the temperature unable to freeze out the feeling of isolation or the need to be insincere. Soon, there is nothing left but a mountain of fabrication, its uneasy equilibrium waiting for one loose element to cause it all to come crashing down. That uncertain fragment is Jessie, the wife of rightly religious hardware store owner Roy. While her troubled past is now a faint memory, what she will do presently along the couple’s Transsiberian train trip will call into question everything she ever was - or wanted to be.

Returning to America via Moscow, train nut Roy and his photography loving wife Jessie have decided to take the Transsiberian express from Beijing, where they have just completed a successful church mission. Uncomfortable at first, they soon meet up with Spanish ‘teacher’ Carlos and his 20-something Seattle gal pal Abby. At first, our marrieds enjoy their fun loving friends’ company. But soon Carlos is making a play for Jessie, and while adverse to his advances, he does remind her of a more freewheeling time in her life. Soon separated, Jessie is left to her own devices. When a visit to a local church turns deadly, secrets are suddenly revealed. Turns out Carlos and Abby may be running drugs, and the Russian detective who now shares the compartment with Roy and Jessie may not be the straight shooter he pretends to be. Either way, it’s going to be a rough ride across some frozen, and rather frightening, tundra.

Transsiberian is the kind of movie you have to indulge in. To be sure, it needs more than half of its 111 minute running time to get all its little narrative dominoes in place. As you sit and watch director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9) meticulously putting each one out, the mind free associates on their significance. Initial conclusions are hard to come by, but once piled together they create the kind of solid set up that only needs a single plot point twist to take us down a rollercoaster ride filled with suspense. Oddly enough, Anderson succeeds, if only slightly. While we can’t really care about his characters (more on this in a moment), we do empathize with their fate. And when the guns come out and the torture begins, our tendency toward identifying with these people is heightened anew. This is not to say that Transsiberian is wall-to-wall dread. Once it gets going, however, it delivers enough electricity to keep us right near, if not completely on, the edge of our seats.

Our leads don’t help matters much. Woody Harrelson, who can usually be counted on for something special, is stuck playing the unwilling, unknowing accessory. He’s the kind of husband so trusting of his wife that when the police are waving a firearm in her face, he still thinks its all some kind of cross-culture confusion (“We’re American!” he shouts). The same can be said for Eduardo Noriega’s Carlos. He’s all crotch shots and amoral animal magnetism. From the moment he lays eyes on Jessie, we can sense the mental undressing - and humping. It’s not hard then to see him as evil. Rounding out the male leads is Sir Ben Kingsley. On the plus side, he’s not putting on the shtick as some fart blowing guru or oversexed New York shrink. But as Detective Grinko, a supposedly honest man in the unethical morass known as Russia, he’s about as obvious with his loyalties as an ‘80s Miami beat cop.

That just leaves our two female focal points to hold down the filmic fort, and luckily, they both do. Again, we aren’t on Jessie or Abby’s side, but we don’t mind the way Emily Mortimer and Kate Mara (respectively) bring them to life. Of the two, our married mark is more troublesome. Jessie makes some very stupid mistakes and choices here, trusting individuals who never give her a real reason for such a belief while approaching all problems like something she will consider…eventually. When Roy turns up missing toward the movie’s midpoint, we instantly suspect foul play. But even in the midst of such a personal dilemma, our heroine finds time to drift out into the countryside with Carlos. If motivations were currency, Mortimer would be paying us in Confederate dollars…or wooden nickels.

Mara is better in that Anderson doesn’t give her too much to do. In a clear case of a little going a long way, Abby makes an impact for what she isn’t as much as for what she turns out to be. When Jessie argues that she’s a good girl, we really don’t see it. But over time, Mara makes us consider the possibility - which is much more than can be said for anyone else in the cast. Thanks to the way Anderson prepares us for the payoff, and the clever little clips that he and co-writer Will Conroy toss in, we don’t mind that the finale feels lifted from dozens of other thrillers. Like Brian DePalma or John Carpenter, Anderson is aping Hitchcock in the best possible way - that is, acknowledging the master while making his noted conceits all his own.

This is what helps Transsiberian thrive. As we watch each carefully planned portion announce itself and then fall back into place, as the twists and turns take us in directions we never once considered, as the characters connive and try to betray their way out of peril, we’re prepared to be held in the tight grip of clockwork caper. That Anderson almost delivers on such a promise is unusual enough. That he can do it in a cinematic era when excess drives most thrills and chills is the film’s most amazing feat. While an appreciation for old school shivers is not required to enjoy what Transsiberian is offering, such an appreciative attitude won’t hurt. This movie’s mechanics are as creaky and conventional as the steam-driven locomotives that Roy loves so dearly. That they still function is a tribute to the power of the motion picture - and a story structured on that most human of habits…the lie.

by Bill Gibron

27 Aug 2008


Mathieu Kassovitz is livid. Not just angry, mind you, but completely pissed off. After five long years of planning and praying, after months of harsh production elements and massive studio interference, his dream project, Babylon A.D. is about to close the Summer 2008 season. Not with a blockbuster bang, mind you, but with the kind of wounded whimper and no preview punishment that comes with abject studio hatred. That’s right—Kassovitz’s righteous indignation is no match for Fox’s fear of failure. The Hollywood heavyweight is purposefully writing off this title, allowing it to tank in the most obvious way possible.

It’s no wonder that the man behind the celebrated La Haine is outraged. Sure, his resume doesn’t wholly redeem his position—after the aforementioned black and white drama about disaffected youth in France, Kassovitz has had little cinematic impact. And no, working with Halle Berry on the worthless Gothika doesn’t count. It all leads to the classic Tinsel Town clusterf*ck—vaunted foreign filmmaker, respected past productions, moderate American success, studio desperate for something new, creator hungry to realize a long gestating ambition. Put them all together and you have the recipe for a big fat juicy (and unexpected) hit… or in the case of Babylon A.D., a Hindenburg waiting to burst into flames.

Based on the book Babylon Babies by French science fiction author Maurice G. Dantec, this Vin Diesel vehicle had an inauspicious start. Kassovitz had long wanted to adapt the material, and finally got commissioned to develop a script back in 2005. While the director had planned to star pal Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) in the lead, Diesel eventually signed on. Thus began a series of screw-ups, set backs, and situational traumas that found Fox stepping in to wrangle control. According to published reports, bad weather pushed production over time and budget, and the studio, sensing that Kassovitz was in over his head, was a constant source of on set interference. Originally slated for Thanksgiving 2007, the release date was pushed back—first to February, and then August 2008.

In the meantime, the filmmaker saw his pet project whittled down from an unwieldy two hours plus to what he considers to be 90 minutes of “violence and stupidity”. With a complicated story involving a mercenary (Diesel) hired to deliver a woman from Eastern Europe to a futuristic New York, and a fanatical religious group desperate to get their hands on the ‘host’ of their new messiah, Kassovitz saw a parable for our post-modern world. He wanted to explore the concept of faith, and the human frailty to follow it. He also envisioned something epic in scope, but very personal in perspective. Fox clearly wanted action and aggressiveness. According to the director, the studio cut out all the context (almost 70 minutes worth), leaving him with an unsellable, almost un-releasable mess.

Now, this is not the first time that a ‘misunderstood’ foreign filmmaker has had his or her vision violated by an American company that can’t see the creative writing on the wall. One of the most notorious examples of this ideal was Once Upon a Time in America. Sergio Leone, a then ‘60s icon for his brilliant deconstructionist spaghetti westerns, had spent 10 years nurturing a screenplay based on Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods. He even turned down The Godfather to focus on his own ode to Jewish gangsters in the ‘20s and ‘30s. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, the 229 minute version was hailed as a masterpiece. But when Warner Brothers tested the film for American audiences, their proposed distaste for its length and elaborate flashback structure indicated the studio may have a bomb on their hands.

Taking the movie away from Leone, a two hour and nineteen minute calamity hit theaters to scathing reviews from most film critics. Gone was the time tripping exposition. In its place were unconscionable trims, missing scenes, and a straightforward storyline that made little sense. The butchery was so great that cultural bellwethers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert devoted a whole section of their At the Movies show to disemboweling Warners over the decision. When the studio approved cut nose dived, Leone got a chance to refashion the film. While he never did manage a full 320 minute print like he wanted, the original was restored and is today considered one of his greatest achievements.

To listen to Kassovitz talk, the same thing has happened with Babylon A. D. , and while one can forgive a filmmaker for unfulfilled ambitions (and the resulting bitching and moaning), such a suggestion is strong indeed. Since no one has seen his purported 160 minute attempt, it’s hard to say if he even has a point. Much more telling is Fox’s reaction. Clearly they did not get the brain-dead Vin Diesel action romp they expected. With a leading man not known for his subtlety, and a premise that some have likened to a bigger, more brutish Children of Men, an intriguing contradiction occurs. Surely Kassovitz didn’t pull a professional bait and switch. Fox had to approve his script, and his concept for the film. So if they knew what they were getting, why do they now not want it?

That’s always the big question here—why do studios act so shocked when they get exactly, or pretty darn close to, what they initially bargained for. A screenplay is never a wholly singular creation—hired ‘doctors’ diddle with it endlessly, making sure that stars and other outsource concerns are addresses and modified. This is not done in a bubble, mind you, but with full corporate co-op, usually. Also, a big budget always means a version of Big Brother on the set. No filmmaker can cry foul when they get in bed with a known name. Interference is apparently part of the mainstream game—you just have to learn to circumvent it. Finally, most foreign filmmakers face an inherent prejudice that comes from seducing Hollywood. Shakespeare may have argued for the wrath of a woman scorned, but an angry studio is no picnic either.

So where does the sense of wounded pride on both sides come from? Why save face, especially to a media estate slowly dying in both relevance and respect? If Fox hates Babylon A.D., they should offer it up for review any chance they get. Such a slow burn would bury Kassovitz and his whining once and for all. But of course, the studio won’t do this—and we all know why. Call it sheep to the cinematic slaughter, but there are people in the demo who will line up for anything done by certain stars. Slap a name on a marquee and no matter the pre-release provenance, a few million mindless drones will drop their dollars. This is clearly what the studio is hoping for. Diesel may be dull, but he’s still a draw (at least in someone’s eyes). No reviews means no chance of missing out on any of that fluctuating fanbase cash.

Still, it’s always hard to speculate on these situations. Film folk, noticing how Fox systematically cancelled screenings around the country over the last few weeks, simply point to the lack of said advanced word and whistle “disaster”. The whole symbolism suggested by “not screened for the press” is confirmation enough for them. But what was it exactly about Kassovitz’s original cut that was so offensive/off base? Did he really make such a horrible motion picture? The stench of several unsuccessful focus group gatherings is fairly obvious here. Why studios continue to think that everyday people can guarantee them a hit still boggles the mind. The rabble tends to like anything (or hate everything), and their opinion on how to “improve” a film usually revolves around comfort level, not creativity.

Which still leaves the entire question of Babylon A.D. in the lurch. Surely it can’t be as bad as Fox thinks it is (or made it, for that matter). Equally true is the notion that Kassovitz, after seeing his baby disrespected, is merely sticking up for his motion picture principles. Somewhere in the middle of this mess is the truth. Maybe Babylon Babies wasn’t the best book to adapt. Maybe Diesel is a dud as a leading man (his career arc would suggest so). Perhaps both financier and filmmaker bit off more than they could ever possibly chew. Maybe there is no clear answer from either side—an artistic/artificial meeting of the minds that never occurred.  It won’t matter much after this weekend either—that is, until the inevitable “director’s cut” DVD arrives in stores sometime this winter. Then the debate can begin all over again.

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.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Culture Belongs to the Alien in 'Spirits of Xanadu'

// Moving Pixels

"The symbols that the artifact in Spirits of Xanadu uses are esoteric -- at least for the average Western gamer. It is Chinese culture reflected back at us through the lens of alien understanding.

READ the article