For the weekend beginning 25 April, here are the films in focus:
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay [rating: 5]
Is it possible to make a stoner comedy without actually showing your heroes wake and bake? Can a keen political satire be crafted out of obvious takes on the War on Terror and government incompetency? Both questions come up frequently in this relatively successful sequel to the 2004 pot party. This time around, our title characters are on their way to Amsterdam when their bong is mistaken for a bomb. They end up entering, and then fleeing from the infamous Cuban prison, hoping that a highly placed pal in Texas can bail them out. Kumar also wants to stop his ex-girlfriend from marrying this conservative cad. With the usually dependable Rob Corddry ruining every scene he’s in, and a great deal of inappropriate race baiting, first time directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who also wrote both films) use the “insult everyone equally” approach to avoid controversy. Still, when a sidesplitting smoke out only offers one real take on the toke (it arrives when our duo meet up with an equally Chronic prone George W. Bush), when it doesn’t have the nerve to argue the very policies it parodies, then we are dealing with some very cowardly comedy. Still, there are enough laughs - and stars John Pho and Kel Penn are more than winning - to sustain us through this uneven second helping.
It’s about time someone stood up and told Hollywood the truth - children are not the creative cure-all a character needs. Giving a demanding, type-A personality a toddler will not instantly turn a control freak shrew into an Earth goddess. This applies to all zygote phase formulas as well. While many may see the names Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the marquee and think comic gold, Baby Mama is instead a loaded Pampers full of fetus poo. While the talent pool it’s drawing from is marginal at best (who still thinks Steve Martin is cutting edge?), there is no excuse for such unfunny business. Using caricature instead of personality (Fey is the square-glasses wearing dork, Poehler is the Big Gulp slurping stooge) and forcing everything through a sieve of ‘babies are adorable’ drek, we wind up with 90 minutes whinier than the population at a Day Care. Co-stars Greg Kinnear and Dax Shephard are clearly present to give men both sides of the bad name (wuss/asshole) and pop culture references have to pass for satire (yo, hip-hop is def!). While Fey had no control over the content (the crappy writing and directing are courtesy of Michael McCullers), she should have better career management. A film like Baby Mama could land you on the artistic adoption list forever.
There is nothing noble about caring for a demented relative. There is nothing inherently humorous in the decision over whether or not to warehouse said elderly family member. While it may ease your moral compass to find a fancy (and expensive) assisted living facility, the reality is much less mechanical. There’s a crucial line in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages that does indeed resonate within such a situation. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing the sensible brother to Laura Linney’s angst-driven Annie Hall type, argues that high end does not necessarily mean the best care. “This is all for you”, he complains, pointing to a brochure loaded with color photos and various amenities. “None of this is for Dad. It’s all here to assuage your guilt.”
Indeed. While it manages to skirt the logistical issues involved in dealing with the diminished capacity of a loved one, Jenkins seems to think that she has the emotional issues all worked out. Using Hoffman’s quiet resolve as a contrast to Linney’s over the top tendencies, she fully believes The Savages showcases reality in all its whiny warts and all element. She’s wrong. 100% wrong. In fact, the key difference about this 114 minute movie and the real world is that after the running time has elapsed, everything’s resolved. Traumas have been aired out, problems dissected and shuffled successfully back into life’s loaded deck. Of course, in reality, it never ends.
Over the last eight weeks, my family has been going through a Savages like crisis. It began innocently enough with a phone call - an aunt who typically doesn’t stay in touch dialed to say that she couldn’t get my wife’s 96 year old grandmother to answer her numerous rings. The old woman had lived alone for nearly 31 years, and even nearing 100, she showed no signs of age-oriented complaints. The relative wondered if everything was okay. After all, she did hear that the nonagenarian had been in a car accident the Saturday before. Yet after a quick visit to the ER, she was treated and released with a clean bill of health. Everyone had noticed that her hearing had diminished over the years, and Grandmother frequently failed to respond to the phone’s ring. But this latest turn seemed odd - perhaps, even sinister.
My wife, sainted beyond the beatitudes of even the most liberal Pope, decided to find out what was going on. She grabbed her mother, got in the car, and drove to her grandmother’s house. An hour later, she returned with rather dire news. “We knocked and knocked. I called from the cellphone dozens of times. We yelled and yelled.” She didn’t have a key, so she couldn’t actually go in, but from what she could see on the outside, things did not look promising. There were no lights on inside the house, and from what she could decipher, the front room (dining and kitchen area) looked virtually unused.
At this point conjecture took over. Maybe she wasn’t released from the hospital after all. Maybe she was still in a room, being treated. We later learned that another aunt had fractured her pelvis in four places during the same accident. Maybe Grandmother was visiting her. Whatever the scenario, someone with access had to be contacted. We finally found my wife’s uncle, the man married to the injured aunt. He had a key to the house - but after learning what had been discovered, he didn’t want to go in alone. My wife and I jumped back in the car and drove over to the house to meet him.
Lots of things run through your head at this time - scenes from movies where bodies are discovered, corpses rotting with cops clamoring for clues only to realize the suspect has suddenly turned into a victim. You play out all your reactions at one time - the smell, the scene, the realization of death in all its unavoidable physicality right before you. You then prepare. As the trip nears its end, you wonder what you will truly do. The flesh may be willing, but the spirit is, at present, spooked pretty good.
When we arrived, the uncle was standing in the driveway. He bore the look of anyone faced with the potential of finding their mother-in-law deceased and decaying. There was a quiet exchange of words, a tentative placing of metal into a lock, and with the swing of a door, the three of us entered. It was funny - the first thing anyone heard was the collected sniffing of all our noses. Clearly, we were going for the aroma-based means of discovery. Nothing. The house smelled…like a house. Quickly, absolute silence was maintained. My wife called out. No response. She called again.
Faintly, from far away, we could hear a very weak voice. To make a long story short, we discovered Grandmother lying on the floor, the clichéd commercial tagline of “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” playing in the back of our mind. She was alert but highly confused, thinking she was still in bed instead of splayed upon her vanity floor. Paramedics were called, assistance was attempted (she was disoriented but still very stubborn), and neighbors started nosing into everyone’s business. By the time we got her to the hospital, the concept was already out there - what do we do now? Where do we put this 96 year old woman once the doctors determine her condition?
That was indeed eight weeks ago. Since then, there have been conversations, arguments, arrangements, and agreements over Grandmother’s care. One son immediately suggested a nursing home. One daughter demanded she be sent back home. Assisted living became the equalizer, and it was here where art didn’t do what it’s supposed to. Instead of imitating life, it totally disintegrated it. If you believe The Savages, a few confrontations and a couple of clever bon mots later, and all your old people problems are wrapped up in an ironic package of self-examination and satisfaction. While writer/director Jenkins may indeed be right about how such a situation reflects on who you are inside, it doesn’t begin to address the deep-seeded sentiments that drive families to fight over what to do.
Dementia, or as the medicos mandate, “diminished capacity” contains a lot of loopholes that The Savages failed to address. When Phillip Bosco’s father figure smears feces on the wall, it’s nothing more than shorthand for what’s really going on. His moments of lucidity are often played for pathos, yet when a lost relative actually returns to reality, be it ever so briefly, it’s not a sad situation. In fact, many in the family view it as a ray of recognizable hope in an otherwise bleak personal landscape. The Savages does get one thing right - everyone involved has a desperate desire to see things turn back to some sort of normalcy. If Grandmother required a couple of minutes contemplation during the course of your week, her mental reconfiguration should keep to that schedule as well.
But what Jenkins completely forgets is how all encompassing these issues really are. Granted, in her film, the brother and sister had long since ceased contact with their father, a relationship with a woman in Arizona providing the locational limits. But once the mind has been marred, and the need for care is concluded, nothing can reestablish the borders. Over these last few weeks, Grandmother has gotten stronger. She’s fallen and broken her hip, but the surgery turned out to be a godsend. It fixed a badly arthritic bone, allowing a titanium rod to reestablish her physical dexterity. According to her doctor, she’s very strong and heals miraculously well.
But concern has now stopped centering on her body (though the frequent stays in post-hospital rehab try to dictate otherwise). Instead, everyone is nervous over her growing disconnect with the truth. The more wistful want to believe that she will find a way back to our world. She recognizes faces quickly, and can carry on a conversation with ease. But then the disquieting comments start. She believes she is on vacation. She thinks nurses are out to kill her. She wants her husband, dead for over three decades, to return from a business trip and pick her up. She argues over the location of her wallet and purse, and is concerned about where she parked her car - though she hasn’t driven in over 10 years. It seems funny at first, the brain burbling in ways that suggest senility crossed with sitcom crankiness.
Of course, it soon turns trying. One of the things The Savages fails to fully explore (among many, mind you) is the cloud that crazy actually forms. For those emotionally involved, the lack of a clear connection to what’s going on is devastating. It’s like being told your parent or loved one is dead without getting a chance to grieve over the body. Instead, you must visit the wake every single day, screwing up the courage to see the once familiar family member stripped of what made them a viable member of the clan in the first place. Imagine how horrific it must be for a mother not to recognize their own daughter. Now reserve the perspective and see how well you sleep at night.
Oddly enough, none of this is remotely funny - at least not in the traditional sense. There can be some moments of groan-inducing gallows humor, and a bit of black comedy. But nothing about this circumstance screams laughter. Nothing about it is intentionally humorous. Instead, you chuckle to yourself over your reactions, for your approach and how life rebuffs you. You snicker under your breath as relatives wax poetic, though the last time they saw the subject of their verse was so long ago the blips seem buried in nostalgia. Jokes usually get the cold shoulder, or the critical eye. Everything is just too intense, too raw.
I had seen The Savages, several months before the Grandmother issue occurred. Back then, I found it self indulgent, petulant, and relatively unrealistic. When my own father faded and died, none of the clearly written quips found in Jenkins’ dialogue made it into my family’s conversation. There was no Rodney Dangerfield like one-liner about putting Pop in the garage since company was coming over. This latest bout with aging and mental atrophy didn’t rewrite my opinion of the film. Instead, what the real world makes abundantly clear is that fiction fails to fully capture much of its numbness, or nuances.
Drama is never as ‘melo’ as in your own life, and sadness sinks lower than any character’s confrontation with themselves. Some may celebrate what The Savages managed to make out of a ‘relatively’ shitty situation, but there is a truth that remains legitimately lacking. Movies based in actual events are supposed to provide insight. They’re supposed to provide guidance where personal bias blinds us. In this case, the movie pre-grandparental issues seemed specious at best. Now, they’re just downright ridiculous.
Poor Patrick Smash was born with a problem: a gas problem. You see, he has two stomachs, and his overactive digestion produces an excess amount of colon blow. From the time he was an infant to his current pre-teen years, Patrick has been one incredibly farty fiend. He farts day and night. He farts in school. He farts in private. And it’s caused him nothing but trouble. His father leaves the family because of it. The bullies pick on him over his continuous crack coughs. Even the teachers dismiss the needy child on account of his active ass. But when our sad little lad meets up with science geek Alan A. Allen, the two become best friends for life.
Unfortunately, their camaraderie is challenged when the U.S. government whisks Alan off to help with a space station malfunction. Hoping to locate his pal, Patrick joins up with an opera singer who wants to use the boy’s butthole as a means of obtaining vocal heights (don’t ask). When that ends badly, our poot prodigy winds up in the hands of Uncle Sam as well. Turns out, his tushy produces the perfect rocket fuel to send Alan’s specially designed rocket into the stratosphere. Even better, Patrick will be able to live out his lifelong dream - he has always wanted to be an astronaut. Too bad his Thunderpants kept getting in the way. Now, for once, they won’t.
Thunderpants is a one-joke movie that decides to abandon said gag about 20 minutes in for some routine Roald Dahl-like misadventures. When focused on the farting - yes, this film is really just an extended barking spider spoof with half-baked kid-lit fantasies thrown in for unequal measure—the movie mostly works. But once it decides to warm to the whimsy, everything falls apart. Granted, the humor is coarse, and forced through a decidedly British concept of comedy, meaning there’s lots of personal embarrassment and exaggerated freakishness to be found. This is the kind of film that wants audiences to laugh at oversized bullies cold-cocking the decidedly dorky heroes, to celebrate the inhuman stench coming out of a little boy’s bottom, and cheer as he uses his multifaceted flatulence to show up his enemies and win the day.
Such a concept is not without its charms. When handled correctly, the air biscuit can be a beautiful thing. Its combination of sound and sour substance has been known to leave many a listener doubled over in uncontrollable snickering. It’s the pre-schoolers’ first foray into funny business, an art form to adolescents, an adult’s primary form of non-erotic bonding, and the elderly’s personal entertainment element for the grandkids. But here, writer/director Peter Hewitt (working with co-writer Phil Hughes) decides to do away with the butt trumpet early on, focusing instead on a bizarre opera singer subplot, and then the movie’s main mission, using poor Patrick Smash’s overactive alimentary canal as a means of saving some space shuttle astronauts. With Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint along as uber-nerd Alan A. Allen, we’re stuck with not one but three storylines that basically don’t work.
Let’s take them one at a time, shall we. First, there is Patrick Smash’s personal predicament. Granted, it’s pretty hysterical when an infant version of our hero basically blasts away for 10 minutes straight. From the moment he’s born to the second his father leaves, tired of putting up with the nonstop sphincter popping, Hewitt has us in toilet-humor titters. But like many English fantasies, things turn dark rather quickly. Mom starts pounding the sauce, and the school tormenters go to outrageous extremes to undermine Patrick. After a while - the aforementioned 20 minutes - Thunderpants is no longer funny. It’s sad, dour, and kind of cruel.
Even when Patrick discovers Alan (a boy who can tolerate his toots because of a defective nose), their friendship is fragile and very desperate. It makes us wonder what will happen next - and then the singer storyline kicks in. Embodied by U.K. luminary Simon Callow, this oversized vocal egotist employs Patrick to hit the high notes in an impossible aria, the goal being international acclaim and the title of world’s number-one tenor. Naturally, it makes no sense, as does our lead’s ability to fart like a singing voice (where’s La Petomane when you need him?). But things really go out of whack when Patrick is charged with murder - huh? - and ends up on trial. The courtroom material is not clever, and wastes the sizable talents of Brit wit Stephen Fry. Before we know it, however, the U.S. government is stepping in, and Patrick is off to lend his anal gas to the Red, White, and Blue.
It’s the transition over to action man mode than really fails Thunderpants. We discover that Alan has been working on an engine which mimics Patrick’s two-stomach situation, but thanks to some bumbling adults (the research staff of this NASA-like agency is all brainiac kids), the system has failed. So Mr. Russet Gusset must sit in a toilet-like booster seat on the space shuttle and literally “blast” the rocket into orbit. This is all taken with tongue-in-cheek seriousness, mind you. Ned Beatty plays the God-fearing director of the agency, his occasionally inappropriate remarks (“this boy’s a fruit,” “this boy’s a tool”) explained away as misconstrued religious musings. He’s matched in shame by Paul Giamatti, skinnier than we’ve seen him in a while (the film is five years old, after all) and doing the straight-laced secret agent bit to the 40th degree.
Of course, everything is warm and fuzzy - and apparently quite odiferous - in the end, with our hated human oddities the celebrated saviors of the day, and everyone who ever wronged them gathered up for a pre-credit grab at a piece of the pair’s fame. The unsuccessful melding of the sentimental with the slapstick, the sincere with the scatological makes Thunderpants nearly impossible to enjoy. In fact, it’s so mannered in its presentation (Patrick overuses certain supposedly clever catchphrases over and over and over again) that it’s hard to imagine kids being the least bit interested - at least, after the ass-gas blasting takes a bum burp backseat.
Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era. Looking over titles like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, it’s hard to deny his import. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama seemed a very long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.
It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan - or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store - and wife - were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers.
Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (new to DVD from Image Entertainment and THINKFilm) is kinetic. It is dynamite laced with electricity, a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement. It’s about greed and the lack of money, morality and the lack of ethics, love and the lack of commitment. It takes standard human foibles and amplifies them to the stuff of glorified Greek tragedy. With amazing performances, pitch perfect direction, and a story that crackles with flawless mechanical timing, we wind up with another stellar example of that solid suspense subgenre - the dark double cross. In a year that’s seen the equally exceptional Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men, Lumet’s return to glory stands right along side them. It’s depressing and daring, showing that even six decades in, this heralded director is not about to go softly into that good night.
This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy - a strip mall jewelry store - all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired of living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.
Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.
Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned by basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.
The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.
And as the DVD points out, much of this was the direct result of Lumet’s creative input. The original script (which the director calls ‘wonderful’ in the included commentary and featurette) did not have Andy and Hank as brothers. Instead, they were just friends. Lumet purposefully altered that dynamic. Other subplots were removed completely, including one revolving around Andy and his kid. All of this was done to tighten up what Lumet considers a rip roaring ‘melodrama’. The rest of the cast discuss the classification, but once the director offers his definition of the term - “heighten reality with a true sense of over the top dramatics leading to tragedy” - everyone agrees with the categorization.
It all makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away.
Darren Lynn Bousman is a man possessed. Calling from Los Angeles, where he is putting the final touches on his latest film, the man behind the Saw franchise’s successful sequels wants to get a message out. “Everyone talks about being sick of what’s out there - sick of the sequels. Sick of the PG-13 Japanese horror remakes,” he says. “They want originality. They want something different.” Enter his newest project - Repo: The Genetic Opera. A futuristic tale centering on designer organ transplants, post-apocalyptic corruption, and live on stage vivisection, the director is excited, and wary of his revamped rock show. “It’s been a hard thing - It’s been the biggest struggle of my life getting this movie made,” Bousman adds. From talking to the talented 29-year-old, it has also been his lifelong dream.
As a kid in Kansas, making horror movies was never his ambition. “Growing up, I came from a theater background”, he offers. “It was a classic story - I was a dork in high school, I really didn’t fit in anywhere.” As with most creative types, the stage set him free. “I got involved in theater,” he admits, “and everything changed.” After taking part in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Bousman’s was bitten - and his new goal was clear. “It was the first kind of experience into something creative - it was amazing and it changed my life…because I became addicted to the music.” Indeed, the notion that emotions and psychological underpinning could be expressed via song struck him as a vital and important epiphany.
“I think the thing about musicals is…if you look at music and what it does to you…or what it does to a society…it is the thing that it is crucial to our life.” He goes on to clarify, “Whether we’re working out and listening to our IPod, whether we’re in a car listening to music, or we go to parties and music is the backdrop, music is an extremely important component.” The link to motion pictures soon became clear when he watched the film version of Superstar in preparation for the play. “Movies are also important like that. I mean, what do we do on the weekends? We go see the new movies that opened on Friday night. When we go on dates, we watch movies.”
The effect was personal and profound. “I was immediately in love”, he recalls, “I watched (Superstar) again and again, and again and again. It was like…I had never seen anything like it.” Thus began a fascination, a fetish if you will, with the genre. It’s a joy that has quickly gone from appeal to an outright obsession. “I collect musicals now”, he adds, the glee in his voice rather obvious. “I have some of the most obscure things, things people have never heard of. Musicals from foreign countries…it’s just amazing.” So when the chance came to move out to Hollywood and begin his career, Bousman only had one ambition in mind.
“I got into the entertainment business to direct a musical”, he admits. “I didn’t come out here to do Saw. I didn’t come out here to do horror films.” Yet that’s exactly what happened. Somehow, a script he was attached to entitled The Desperate got noticed by the studios as being very similar to the surprise Sundance hit, and soon he was collaborating with co-creator Leigh Whannel on the second installment of the influential terror title. Yet even after two more movies, the concept of directing a musical continued to intrigue him. “Music has always been a driving force in my life” the director confesses, “When a musical is done correctly, when you combine movie’s visuals with the music, it triggers emotions that are not normally felt. Music has the power to make people cry, to get excited.”
Oddly enough, when it came time to adapt Repo: The Genetic Opera into a feature film (it was originally a stage play, and then a 10 minute short film that functioned as kind of a resume reel), his previous success had no influence on studio interest. “I knew we had a great script”, Bousman points out, “and I knew music was going to elevate it to a whole other level and it was my chance to pay homage to the movies that I loved - Superstar, Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Forbidden Zone.” Sadly, few would listen. “My present reputation didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.” It sounds almost surreal when you consider the success of his three Saw installment. “Me making this movie was like coming in as a first time filmmaker,” he laments. “Even today, it’s a constant battle to get this movie out there.”
In fact, with its unique premise and wall-to-wall singing (“That’s what it is - songs from beginning, middle to end” he explains), Bousman clearly anticipated some difficulty. “It’s not Saw. It’s not The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s kind of a hybrid of all of my favorite moments from movies, or all my favorite types of movies.” Yet not even festival previews have earned the film a potential release date. “We did an early, early screening of it from a workprint cut about two months ago”, he states. “Every review has been glowing, and I’m so lucky and so excited that we’re able to do that, yet even the good reviews aren’t helping my cause right now.”
Some of this can be chalked up to the narrative. Repo centers on a dystopic society where a disease has caused a global plague of organ failures. Enter Geneco, a biotech company that takes advantage of the awful situation to provide transplants - at a price. Of course, those who fail to pay end up as part of the Genetic Opera, a stage show where the final act is the repossession of the unpaid entrails. Yet Bousman understands the inherent “weirdness” of the project, and believes that, if marketed correctly, it could find its audience. He recognizes the problems, though. “The way I like to describe Repo,” he says, “Someone tells you ‘let’s go to a steak restaurant’, and then they take you in and give you sushi. People are immediately going to be upset. They’re going to say ‘wait a minute, this isn’t steak’ and they’re going to hate it.”
“I think right now, the problem with this movie is that people are thinking of it as meat and potatoes. It’s not. It’s sushi.” He adds, “I think the problem they are having is that they have to think outside of this box before they see this movie. Viewers have to go in knowing its going to be sushi.” Bousman tried to address some of the concern through casting. This, however, caused its own issues. “I had names thrown at me like (Jon) Bon Jovi, and Harry Connick Jr. a lot of names that are safe. And I said, ‘of course, that’s who you want me to cast’.” But the director would not relent. “That’s what normal people would do,” he argued. “But that’s not this movie. This movie is outside the box. And the casting reflects that.”
As part of his eclectic group, Bousman hired Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, Paul Sorvino, Bill Mosley, Anthony Head, and Alexa Vega. While the names may seem random, there was a strict method to the filmmaker’s madness. “The movie is crazy,” he explains, “and I wanted to make sure the casting was crazy as well.” He also took the inherent fanbase from each actor into consideration, from the classical diva-dom of Brightman to the outright media whoring of Hilton. He recognized that horror geeks would flock to see Mosley, while Sorvino offered the mainstream crime drama crowd. There was also the Spy Kids contingent - via Vega and Head’s undeniable Buffy link. The results speak for themselves, as Bousman states. “The casting in my mind could not be any more perfect. Each one of them is amazing in their roles.”
And this was important to Repo‘s success. “This movie had to have real cred. It was a major battle that we fought, credibility.” In fact, the director understood both the upside, and the downside, of going with such an idiosyncratic company. “If Bon Jovi had been brought in, first off, his audience is a very specific audience. And they are not going to respond to this type of movie.” By offering up a wide-ranging selection of known names, Bousman believes he’s kept potential audiences clued in. “(Repo) is such a spectacle. The movie is so out there. I wanted to make it a spectacle to watch as well.”
The unusual look of the film also played directly into this ideal. “It’s a cross between ‘50s propaganda art and a really twisted, macabre fairy tale,” he admits, “I love it. It’s dark and depressing.” But in keeping in line with the disinformation approach, Bousman made sure to tap into the form’s underlying ridiculousness. “There’s something so macabre about propaganda’s message,” he notes. “What it’s promoting is horrific, and yet you have a smiling person with a thumbs up on it.” Luckily, he found an old collaborator who agreed with this approach implicitly. “I wanted it to have a specific look. The DP (Director of Photography) - Joseph White - was amazing. He was the DP on one of my first short films and I was glad he could come back and do this.”
All of which feeds directly into Repo‘s into what Bousman views as the film’s undeniable relevance. “It’s very timely right now,” he points out. “I live in Los Angeles and when you walk down the street, no one looks like people anymore. They all look manufactured.” By applying the designer label pop culture crassness to people’s insides, as well as their outsides, the director feels his film offers a clear cautionary warning. “The whole thing is - people want perfection in the way they look. I do too,” he admits. “They are taking it to extremes now. No one wants to put in the work. And so Repo asks us to look at what we are doing to our bodies, manufacturing ourselves to meet some ridiculous standard.”
He points to a perfect illustration of this idea within the film itself. “Paris Hilton’s character is great. Her name is Amber Sweet and Amber is constantly undergoing some major plastic surgery procedure,” Bousman chuckles. “Every time we see her in the movie, she changes her appearance.” Again, the filmmaker is firm in his philosophy. “It’s about the absurdity of it all, and then what happens when we take it to the next level - manufacturing ourselves from the inside out,” he argues. “What happens if and when we can replace our heart, our lungs, our kidneys, our spines. What if we can replace our eyes. That’s what it is. It’s happening right now. Every time you go outside and walk down Rodeo Drive, people are looking more and more absurd.”
Yet even with a surreal if saleable cast and a very contemporary set-up, Repo sits, awaiting a release. For his part, Bousman is confused by the delays, “It’s not what’s in theaters now,” he states, “Repo is that thing that everyone’s been craving. It’s ballsy. It’s risky. And it will never find an audience unless the studios are willing to embrace it as different.” By starting a new, amazingly dense website (Click Here), by getting out and giving interviews and making personal appearances, he hopes a grass roots effort can build up around the film, a calculated cult that will show the suits a need for wider distribution.
But there’s a catch. “You cannot compare it, it is physically impossible,” Bousman argues. “Again, this isn’t Saw. I dare you to compare it to another movie.” He also knows that “unique is not necessary marketable.“I’m guilty of it. I’ve done three sequels back to back to back.” He goes on to add: “And my next movie after this is a remake. This is my rebellion, my chance to do something completely different. If you give the audience something different, they will find it and they will embrace it. They are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. They don’t want to be shoveled the same cookie cutter machine made movies.”
And thus, the current call out and passionate product pitches. Bousman, however, definitely realizes what he’s up against. “Repo‘s a hard pill to swallow. It takes a good fifteen minutes for you to understand. There is no talking. There is no spoken dialogue in this movie,” he explains. But he hopes that, by getting the word out, he can convince those in charge to give the film a chance. “My goal right now is to inform people of what the movie is, because you need to know what it is prior to going in and seeing it,” he points out. “The reason we did it was to start informing people about what the movie is they are going to see. You can’t go into this movie blind. It will fail.”