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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

MIDNIGHT EAGLE (dir. Izuru Narushima)


It’s curious to note the continuing influence of Western filmmaking on the usually idiosyncratic foreign cinema. Instead of incorporating or exploiting Hollywood’s hackneyed entertainment principles, some countries simply embrace them without exception. Japan has maintained a wonderfully oblivious take on American moviemaking over the last few decades. They still enjoy the power of giant monsters and an amplified level of acting. Over the last 20 years, thanks to the advances in technology, more cross culture cooperation has, sadly, led to more and more Eastern films feeling like warmed over Tinsel Town junk. Take Midnight Eagle. This two hour plus work of international intrigue wants to emulate the overproduced popcorn product that clogs up the summer Cineplex. Luckily, it’s much better than most of the malarkey considered marketable by our own studio suits. Sadly, it also suffers from some unusual aesthetic choices.


Troubled war photographer Yuji Nishizaki has seen enough. Escaping to the mountains of the Japanese Alps, he hopes to erase from his mind the tragic memories of what he’s seen. Unfortunately, further heartbreak occurs when his wife dies, leaving him alone with a young son named Yu. Sister-in-law and magazine reporter Keiko is angry at the absentee father and takes the boy to live with her in Tokyo. Without an emotional or familial anchor, Yuji is left suffering and desperate. While on one of his lonesome retreats, he witnesses a bright flash in the sky, a crash on the side of a far off peak, and an accompanying Air Force survey. Wanting to avoid anything awful, he slinks back to his sheltered life. But when best friend Oaichi hires Yuji to shoot photos of the investigation, the jaded journalist suddenly finds himself back in harm’s way. Seems an American Stealth bomber, loaded with a rogue nuke, is lying in ruins, and if the Japanese don’t reach it in time, the atomic device is destined to wind up in the hands of the advancing enemy force.


Like a series of subplot ships slowly meandering downstream to a final narrative focal point, Midnight Eagle has to be one of the most languid political thrillers ever conceived. Deliberately paced to emphasize every melodramatic moment and frequently substituting martyrdom for suspense, this intriguing if ultimately cold genre effort argues for Japan’s increasing reliance on archetypal tricks to support its spectacle. Set mostly in the frozen climes of the nation’s noted mountains, director Izuru Narushima maximizes his location, pushing the boundaries of believability in the process. Our heroes - friends Yuji and Oaichi - spend days in the bitter cold, even getting involved in firefights and battle-instigated avalanches. Yet they never once seem to suffer from frostbite or hypothermia. While we get an explanation later indicating that both men have frequented these snow-covered ranges for years, such tolerances are telling. Midnight Eagle is not out to be the realistic geopolitical potboiler it promises. Instead, it will offer a passive pro-peace platform, using an unnamed enemy (North Korean is inferred) and a reckless ally (the USA has apparently reneged on a “no nuke” flyover policy) to show why Japan must lead the cause for international harmony.


It’s a solid statement, and one that works for the most part. Because he looks so world weary and haggard, actor Takao Osawa is a decent movie messenger. He’s lost so much - courage, wife, son, sanity - that his last act transformation into active participant seems totally logical. Similarly, the diminutive Yuko Takeuchi is excellent as the driven Keiko. Her scenes opposite Osawa are excellent, especially when she is deriding his lack of familial concern. In fact, Midnight Eagle works much better as an interpersonal drama than a showboating F/X actioner. We really feel the connection between the characters, and experience the emotional issues right along side them. Unfortunately, the narrative keeps interfering to bring us more War Room bravado and implied chest puffing. There are a couple of governmental insights that work, almost all involving Tatsuya Fuji’s Prime Minister. There is an especially telling scene where an aid finds the leader crumbled on a rooftop, crying. Once he’s seen, the attempt to regain his composure is memorable.


So why, exactly, is Midnight Eagle so underwhelming? It could be that we never really comprehend the hazard. Of course, nuclear annihilation has its impact - it’s a post-modern given. But there is never any real danger except from the camouflaged troop’s bullets. Typically, a Hollywood thriller would have a preemptive problem that shows us the scope and the scale of the threat at hand. Here, everything is implied. No tragic test runs on an outer island. No visualized example of the devastation predicted. Not even a clear idea of how much damage the bomb can cause (a presentation on the impending tragedy is all charts and graphs). What we need here is a figurative explosion - something to shock us into understanding the consequences at stake. It is obvious that Narushima wants to build the dread little by little, making every moment away from the problem count. Yet the sad situations with the characters occasionally sidetrack the supposed suspense by making the family more important than the fate of a nation.


Midnight Eagle is also a very claustrophobic film, the mountainside locales reduced to snowbound medium shots with very little scope. It’s a telling artistic choice, since the very rare instances where the camera does pull back take our breath away with their visual insinuation. Additionally, sequences of supposed cat and mouse play out in steps, not showcases, and we never really fear for Keiko or Yu’s well being. Instead, we recognize their role as catalyst for the last act tearjerking. This is indeed an attempted four hanky weeper, characters committing acts of noble altruism that are meant to get the waterworks flowing. Oddly, we’re left unmoved by all this exploitation. Perhaps it’s because we see through the ruse Midnight Eagle is fostering. We understand that Yuji and Oaichi must suffer, and their newfound friend in the military is programmed to die for his country. Since a certain level of predictability exists, we don’t get as caught up in the finale’s machinations as we should.


All of this leaves Midnight Eagle as a perfectly serviceable entertainment. It does reach the ditzy dizzying heights of a Michael Bay blockbuster, and rarely rates concern as a work of nail biting thrills. Still, the winter setting does provide some erroneous shivers, and the storyline is measured in such a way as to constantly keep our attention. When Hong Kong took the crime genre to heart, imbuing the dying film style with all manner of artistic and ancient tradition, it reinvented and revitalized the format. While it would be interesting so see how Japan handles the post-Godzilla disaster epic, Midnight Eagle is not out to be so grand. Instead, it’s a veiled call for calm in a world burdened by dozens of unnecessary conflicts. While the meaning is righteous, the manner of its delivery may be too sluggish for Western ADD adrenaline addicts. It’s acceptable, not epic.


Midnight Eagle - Trailer

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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

THE ORPHANAGE (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)


It’s safe to say that, before Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish horror (and its Mexican counterpart) were reserved for the famed Paul Naschy and his old school ilk. It was all religious symbolism and mannered moralizing. But thanks to the bigger picture boos presented by this cinematic NeoWave (which includes Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a whole new world of artistic innovation has opened. It’s been a real entertainment epiphany. Del Toro has even moved into the role of mentor, guiding the work of others into the movie mainstream. Thanks to his vision and approach, we now have the magnificent movie The Orphanage. Combining classic haunted house motifs with a real sense of sentiment, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona has delivered a stunning work of wonder. It signals the continued influence of the Hispanic aesthetic on the frequently failing fright flick.


It’s been several decades since Laura has been back to the place of her childhood - a rundown foster home that holds some decidedly mixed memories for the now middle-aged mother. She’s returned to buy the place and start her own special needs school, and she’s brought along her doctor husband and her own adopted son. While the building has a tragic history, Laura hopes she can bring a little light back to the space. Within the first couple of weeks, young Simon seems preoccupied and distant. While prone to having imaginary friends, he’s suddenly developed a flock of them. And where he used to be open and honest, he’s now secretive and aloof. As plans draw near for the facility’s Grand Opening, Laura seems haunted by a spectral old woman. This creepy visage visits the home, breaks into the property’s shed, and more or less makes a nuisance of herself. Then someone disappears. Struck by the loss, Laura must investigate the awful crone, as well as decipher where her loved one could have gone to. Suddenly, the horrid past of the orphanage comes into full view, and in order for our heroine to survive, she must face the untold terrors within.


Bolstered by cinematic atmosphere so ripe you can practically pick it and eat it, The Orphanage is a deliriously delicious creep out. Directed with substantial style and a fabulous flare for the moody by Spanish whiz Juan Antonio Bayona, this is appealing adult fantasy at its most enlightened. Similar to witnessing a motion picture marriage between Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Mexican madman Guillermo Del Toro (who produced this incredible effort), the insidious tale of a foul foster home and the haunted legacy it carries is a major triumph of instinct and imagination. Bayona and his collaborator Sergio Sanchez aren’t covering new ground here. All countries have their haunted house stories, from the demonic dwellings of Italy to the spooked sanitariums of New Zealand. But The Orphanage strives to do something different. It wants to impart a clear emotional core to the film, to make all loss - be it simple or supernatural - become part of the character’s personal concerns. Thanks to some amazing performances, a gorgeously Gothic setting, a flawless sense of dread, and various artful ‘X’ factors, what we wind up with is a true terror classic, the kind of film that will only build in reputation and respect as the years pass.


It’s intriguing to see how Bayona formulates his fear. The Orphanage has bows to many macabre symbols, from the little child in the face-covering burlap sack (recalling all hooded fiends) to the moments where the paranormal parks itself directly in the path of reality (you name the ‘parallel truth’ motion picture). Requiring an endemic narrative to achieve these aims, the director gets incredibly lucky here. Sanchez sets up not one, or two, but three intriguing plot threads. We have the contemporary tale of modern family Laura, Carlos, and their adopted son Simon. The young boy’s secret (he’s sick, and this review won’t spoil the reveal as to the nature of his disease) meshed against his mother’s memories of this mysterious mansion have a centered, present-day appeal. We feel for these people and understand their desire for a better life. This echoes the issues in the flashbacks. We learn that Laura lived during a time when the orphanage suffered a scandalous setback - several students were poisoned by a vengeful teacher, and their deaths meant the end of the hospice. That this woman suddenly thrusts herself back into Laura’s life many years later is just the first sign that things here won’t be smooth sailing.


Then there’s the main mystery. Without ruining the plot, it involves an interfamilial fight, the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend, the development of a spirit ‘game’, and the eventual disappearance of someone close to Laura’s heart. All of this plays out in jigsaw puzzle plausibility, pieces falling into place with evocative regularity. As he builds his story, Bayona evokes his producer, as well as the similarly styled works of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Indeed, The Orphanage is often the most Italian looking Spanish horror film ever made. Some could call it an overall European conceit, but the fact remains that overwhelming homes with hidden secrets have long been a favorite of the Mediterranean masters. Toss in some sly dark humor, a dash of epic eeriness (the costal locale with its menacing lighthouse and shoreline play a crucial role), and some stellar performances, and you have a film that tunnels its way directly into your subconscious and begins to do battle.


Special kudos have to go out to Belen Rueda. As Laura, whose loss is further complicated by he own slipping grip on reality, she gives an incredibly soulful turn. When she’s wandering helpless through a group of potential clients, their handicapped children lost within an insular world of thoughts and troubles, the analogy is plastered all over the actress’s fragile face. As little Simon, Roger Princep avoids child actor precociousness to really get to the heart of his character’s individual concerns. He doesn’t respond well to the move, and his desire to make his imaginary friends happy has a fiendish, Exorcist like quality to it. Even Geraldine Chaplin has an amazing cameo moment when her supposed psychic powers are truly put to the test. The rest of the cast is wonderfully potent, especially the problematic Mabel Rivera (as Pilar) who frequently resembles an insane corpse. As the reason for all the paranormal portents, she makes an icky effigy. In fact, everything about Bayona’s visual style screams scary. From the tumble down home to the often hazy horizon, we appear to have stumbled directly into a ghostly gateway. 


Thankfully, Bayona and Sanchez avoid easy answers and formulaic finishes. The Orphanage is a wonderfully complex thriller that gets more and more insidious as the ending unfolds. There is more to this mystery than a whodunit and why. Instead, we get the evils of the past visited on those outside the initial foul fray, and restless spirits imposing their undead will on those arrogant enough to live among them. It all adds up to one of the best genre endings in recent years, a sad if celebratory resolution that gives us closure, comfort, and a healthy dose of the creeps. Comparisons to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth are totally appropriate. In Bayona’s mind, not all stories end with ‘happily ever after’. Sometimes, you have to suffer greatly to achieve a state of grace. Under such a philosophy, this movie was tortured from the opening frames to the final credits. It’s so elegant and exceptional that it must be the byproduct of something very bad. While it may be nothing more than a Hispanic phase of the already fading spook showing, The Orphanage stands apart. It’s as timeless as it is terrifying.


The Orphanage - Trailer

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Wednesday, Nov 28, 2007


In Wednesday’s overview, we discussed the majesty that is the Damon Packard canon. In one ever-evolving oeuvre is insight into one man’s soul, his heart, and his intellectualized infatuation with the media that made up the filmstrip of his life. Yet without access to this material, without seeing it firsthand, it is possible to remain skeptical of Packard’s presumptive perfection. Besides, anyone who really wants to get into the inner workings of this hotwired savant needs to find themselves lost in his rampant cinematic collages. Therefore, these mini-reviews of his most meaningful movies (and short film collections) will hopefully provide perspective into one of the leading avant-garde archivists working in film. It will also argue for Packard’s place among the unsung greats in a cultural category that mistakes popularity with aesthetic success. These amazing works will never be erroneously viewed as popcorn fare. Equally important, the dull as a dirge Hollywood hit factory will never be favorably compared to art. Packard, however, can claim an inventive, near timeless air.


Anyone interested in purchasing these fantastic cinematic masterworks can contact Packard via his MySpace Page, or go to the official rating: 10]


It stands as a singular work, a piece of art so carefully conceived and executed that even in two distinctly different versions it’s a solid cinematic masterpiece. Packard poured his life into this unhinged honorarium - every movie obsession, ever TV touchstone, every film-based fantasy that found its way into the director’s internal diorama. Pasted into it was an equally shocking view of life living in LA, a narrative of daily street strut hard knocks that turned the frequent flashbacks in on themselves. Toss in the clear cult dimensions of Packard’s preoccupation with Stephen Spielberg (the original cut has an extended sequences inside the infamous ET ride at Universal Studios) and a weird sense of self-loathing (though already chubby, Packard plays himself as a fake padded elephantine presence) and you’ve got a package perfect for a think tank of therapists to study and speculate over. Naturally, this is nothing more than the filmmakers own take on the typical ABC Movie of the Week material - lost ghost gal running aimlessly through ethereal post-modern architecture - but with everything else he includes in the mix, Reflections of Evil becomes an amazing manifestation of the new millennial malaise.


Still there are those who can’t stand this seemingly self-indulgent mess. They view Packard as an aimless wannabe whose fan boy fascinations get the geeks all hot and bothered. Sadly, such criticism misses the major point. A film like Reflections of Evil is akin to jazz - it’s not the narrative notes that Packard is hitting on, it’s the remaining cinematic beats he’s purposely avoiding that are important. Like David Lynch’s sometimes indecipherable dream logic, this is one auteur that sees the rules not as a restriction, but as a way of rationalizing his otherwise outsized vision. Reflections of Evil is great because it takes risks, defies expectations, blatantly confronts apprehension, and demands that you pay attention. It’s not confusing on purpose - it’s complex because it can be. Without studios mandating demographically friendly edits or staid script streamlining, Packard is free to indulge in the kind of improvisational, atmospheric mise-en-scene that all of cinema is supposedly built around. He’s not producing commerce - he’s creating canvases. Most geniuses don’t get recognized in their own lifetime. Thanks to DVD, Packard may bypass that artificial fame claim all together.


The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary (2003)[rating: 9]


Purists prefer to think of George Lucas as a magnanimous despot, the uber unpretentious overlord of an empire built upon nothing more than good time entertainment spectacle and a USC education. So what if his Star Wars is nothing more than a collection of horse opera clichés strung together with Akira Kurosawa clarity and a devotion to dopey ‘30s serials? They never hurt anyone, and generations grew up on their motion controlled imagination. But Packard knows better. He understands that deep inside the Skywalker family legacy is a lot of loose Lucas family ends, shortcomings and dysfunctional talking points that eventually led to the less than meaningful prequels. The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary uses DVD material from the Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones release, as well as other making-of memorabilia, to forge a critical vision of Lucas as completely out of touch with cinematic reality. Workers are depicted using porn voiceover groans to emulate character concerns, their leader lovingly oblivious to the XXX footage flashing before his bearded puss. Crappy effects are celebrated, ridiculous psycho-speak (reminiscent of Alan Alda’s dissertation on comedy from Crimes and Misdemeanors) used to refer to narrative mythology and art design.

Of course, almost all of this material is faked - Packard imposing his own crafted comedy onto the otherwise typical EPK tenets of the standard DVD featurette. Lucas doesn’t come off cruel so much as clueless, a doddering old dofus who still thinks model spaceships and CGI creatures can successfully replace the movie magic of imagination, invention, and intrigue. He doesn’t understand that he successfully stunted an entire genre by focusing on silly string instead of story. Watching him look over a manqué of a proposed character, eyes glinting with computer generated possibilities, is far more satiric than having one of Packard’s fictional employees drop the F-bomb in front of the filmmaker’s supposed presence. Indeed, the brilliant move here is to have the moments of direct outrageousness. They play perfectly within the context of the story, but also highlight the real satire stuck inside the Skywalker saga’s self-styled seriousness. Some may think that The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary is nothing more than a gimmicky takedown of an already overworked target. The truth is, Packard lets the former ‘70s maverick dig his own egregious grave.


Grizzly Redux: Killer Edition (2005)[rating: 9]


Taking his outright fascination with Spielberg and the phenomenon surrounding the giant’s breakthrough motion picture blockbuster, Packard pulls William Girdler’s goofy grizzly bear rip-off of Jaws and jerryrigs it into that shark tales pristine polar opposite. With slapstick substituting for seriousness, outrageous arterial spray mimicking the modern mandate for gallons of grue, the results rival the best spoofs ever attempted. Girdler’s film is so overwrought and full of itself (the man was a naturalist, and loved the wild, and it shows in every landscape loving scene) that it’s primed for lampooning, but what Packard does is far more meaningful. As with the Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary, he plays with the populist cues within Spielberg’s film, and finds the common ground that many attempted copiers miss. The point of Redux - beyond the blatant referencing of the DVD driven directorial desire to readdress past success - is to expose cinema for what it really is: a craven bastion of unimaginative manipulators who will take any concept (rogue great white shark) and stuff it into a format that hopefully resonates, monetarily, with audiences.

In order to get the full effect of the film, one has to hunt down the Packard tweaked trailer. Taking the exact same voice over narration from the original Jaws ads, and using footage from Grizzly, the pretense is prepared. The movies are so shockingly similar that they appear to symbolically merge. It’s a similar situation with the director’s latest film, SpaceDisco-One. There, he uses Logan’s Run and 1984 in a way that make both works indivisible from each other. Even better, he saves a groan (and snooze) inducing effort by the hands of a noted exploitation pioneer and turns it into a treat. Girdler is a member of the ‘60s/‘70s passion pit posse, moviemakers who knew that all theaters needed product - and the more provocative, the more profitable. No one would ever mistake his standard operating thrillers for the sex and skin epics the grindhouse was noted for, but in Packard’s perverse view, Grizzly had all the makings of a splatter house sensation. All it needed was a little post-modern modification. His intended revamp was a way to address the distinctions - and it works wonderfully.


Damon Packard Short Film Collection Volume 1 & 2 (2005)[rating: 8]
Lost in the Thinking and Other Commissioned Works (2005)[rating: 8]
Roller Boogie III and Other Commissioned Works (2006)[rating: 8]


Described by the director as his “Poverty Years” (Reflections failed to fly on a heavily editied and reconfigured Go-Kart Films release, while Mockumentary remained understandably unreleased) the lack of financial backing combined with the sudden pressures of notoriety meant little work and even less cash. As a stop gap move, he went small, focusing his mighty imagination on investigating his 8mm past (Packard, as with most cinematic masters, made movies from a young age) as well as taking on more artsy assignments from clients of more modest means. While not officially full length films in the traditional sense (DVD allows for such compilation complications), these collections function as equally important statements in Packard’s considered oeuvre. He proves in them an innate ability to channel his considerable inspiration into almost any format - be it an outright spoof (as seen in made for public access satires of noted mainstream films), to a quick cut homage to unknown efforts from the past (like the montage highlight reel for the animated Superman serials of the ‘40s).

Indeed, each one of these compendiums is stellar, featuring such amazing mini-motion pictures as Dawn of an Evil Millennium (the proposed preview for an 11 hour horror epic), a Sage Stallone shot and narrated action flick trailer showing Packard kicking his own car’s ass, the splendid Roller Boogie remix, and the Halloween 3 inspired Thinking. Not only is this amazing imaginative stuff, but the archival value is untold as well. Packard exposes us to things we may never have known existed, like the Harvey Keitel/Johnny “Rotten” Lydon Italian made thriller Copkiller, aka Corrupt, or the equally obscure sword and sorcery effort Hundra. Some of the best stuff remains the amazing Early ‘70s Horror Trailer, the Star Trek satire, and the rough cut of the unreleased elfin fantasy film Apple (which Packard attempted while living in a tent in Hawaii for two years). It all adds up to an amazing overview of one man’s complicated cinematic psyche. It also suggests that Packard has more in common with the experimental filmmakers of the past than the dour independent directors of today.


SpaceDisco-One (2007)[rating: 10]


What do you get when you cross 1984, Logan’s Run, and a failed film production viewed from the director’s slightly arrogant perspective? The latest Packard masterwork, that’s what. Using the War on Terror, the failed information skewering of the Fox Network, and the rising media influence of the Internet as a foundation for a narrative about the mindless pursuit of purpose, this amazing feature is even less optimistic than Reflections. It argues that Big Brother has long since stopped being a threat and is now an embraceable reality, much more a part of our everyday life than concepts of personal freedom, love, and respect for human life. By recreating scenes from the seminal 1984 Michael Radcliff adaptation, with amazing work contributed by Simon Prescott (as O’Brien) and Robert Myers (as Winston Smith), we see the truth about our current cultural climate and how close to complete fascism our world really is. Sure, there are moments of chaotic self-reference (Packard can’t release anything without a sly shout out to his past work), and the standard ‘70s inserts, but thanks to the subject matter he’s working within, everything about SpaceDisco-One resonates.


In fact, it’s safe to say that time away from the medium, years spent on the fringes of financial disaster has sharpened Packard’s skills. He’s more fluent here, letting performance and words take over for visuals and celluloid stunts. Granted, there is some blatant humor as when our heroines (Stargirl 7and Francis 8 are supposedly direct descendant’s from Logan 5 and Francis 7) discuss Starbuck and the original Battlestar Gallactica, and 1984‘s Ministry of Truth turns out to be the Universal Citywalk. Additional outlandish elements (the title starship has its own roller rink), mean we get more shots of actors racing around like it’s a teen party circa 1977. In fact, one could argue that SpaceDisco-One represents the final word in Packard’s Me Decade fascination. He’s already ripped through the seminal ABC Movie of the Week, reconfigured Jaws and its much celebrated creator, took Lucas to task for returning to the scene of his cinematic mind crime, and even touched on the more obscure, outsider elements of the era. Merging disco with the post-Wars world of kiddie oriented speculative fiction fills in some necessary pop culture gaps. It also suggests that Packard is ready to move on - figuratively and literally. Where he goes next will be interesting indeed. Rest assured, this convert will be there, waiting to see what transpires. You should too.


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Tuesday, Nov 27, 2007


He’s the most visionary filmmaker of his generation, a genius toiling away in relative obscurity while others of his ilk milk the Internet and festival circuit for every last fame whoring morsel. Yet when compared to their weak minded (and kneed) efforts, Damon Packard stands apart. Born in the ‘60s, reared in the ‘70s, and gifted with the amazing ability to channel post-modern moviemaking into a stream of savant-like subconsciousness, he is single handedly reinventing the idiom of film. Along with fellow free spirit Giuseppe Andrews, Packard is turning celluloid on its humdrum, hackneyed ass, while kicking conventionality and conformity to the neo-No Wave curve.


And he’s done it by cannibalizing the past. To say that this filmmaker is obsessed with cinema’s “second” Golden Age would be as great an understatement as suggesting he’s merely an underground artist. In fact, Packard is so plugged into the Me Decade, so intertwined with the efforts of Coppola, Lucas, and especially blockbuster savior Steven Spielberg that he’s a one-man West Coast renaissance reference map. Toss is a few California quirks, a healthy knowledge of ‘70s television (including the iconic ABC Movie of the Week), and a love of the laid back, Summer of Love hangover that was the world after Watergate, and you’ve got an entire multimedia encyclopedia locked up in one slightly psychotic 40 year old brain.


To listen to Packard talk, film officially ‘ended’ in 1977. Star Wars had substituted unnecessary spectacle for smarts and other favored auteurs were locked in aesthetic battles with themselves. Some would win (Apocalypse Now). Others would fumble and appear to flame out (1941). As the ‘80s ushered in the era of the high concept, elephantine budgets, and overemphasis on special effects, that lasting impact of the Vietnam era motion picture revolution was glossed over in favor of opening weekends, box office returns, and sordid celebrity scuttlebutt. A movie was no longer a work of uncompromised art. It was a cold and calculated commodity, a chance to turn a befuddled business model into a consistent combination of clever marketing and demographic manipulation.


But with his amazing body of work, films that defy description as easily as they embrace their inevitable portrayals as “experimental” and “avant-garde”, Packard has repackaged the ‘70s, turning them into the symbolic acid reflux flashback they really were. Part celebration, part condemnation, and all wholly original, the bold statements that make up his creative canon are easily the most synapse firing freak outs since Kubrick concocted some mirrored process shops to symbolize spaceflight in 2001. All that’s missing here is a giant monolith, an ex-pat’s predilection for perfection, and a few million dollars in financial support. That Packard’s no budget affairs can easily match those of grander repute speaks volumes for his viability as a titanic talent.


It all starts with samples - film clips and snippets - material gathered from a lifetime as watcher and cultural observer. Packard has everything: trailers from obscure British sword and sorcery epics; soundtrack albums from equally unremembered science fiction flops; TV ads from the network’s annual new season blitz; homemade footage crafted from early childhood efforts; newfangled digital technology; old school video wipes and dissolves; analog effects; gallons of blood; untold imagination; unfounded paranoia; and a deep seeded belief that film - not music or any other meaningful media - is the true soundtrack to our lives. In fact, it may just be the support system of our soul.


He accomplishes this amazing feat by melding material that otherwise wouldn’t be considered for combination or comparison. For example, the trailer narration and underscoring for the film Jaws will be superimposed over that popcorn phenom’s closest b-movie counterpart - the killer bear schlock fest, Grizzly. Then Packard will add self-produced scenes of slapstick and grue, just to remind everyone that the entire reality - original merged with copycat, new footage filtered in - is part of the way the nu-industry movies work. Film is, today, no longer a result of one person’s applied vision. Instead, it’s a volatile stew of suggestions, hubris, incompetence, originality, and reliance on the tried and true. When placed before the public, responses are measured and what works is retained. And what doesn’t? It’s tweaked and retweaked until someone decides it’s fiscally sound…or unsalvageable. 


All of this is reflected in Packard’s approach. He will combine old horror films, memorable moments from TV terror, add in his own scripted material, mash it all up in a computer editing program, add in music from other forgotten movies, and ball it all up into a work of wounded intelligence. It’s shocking how effective it can be. Where once you had a simple sequence of girls running in slow motion, now you have a frighteningly faithful homage to those subtle, atmospheric ‘70s scarefests. In Packard’s world, every film is a drive-in classic, every shot a reference to some seminal movie moment from the past. Even better, he makes the material his own, turning his glorified geek tendencies into McLuhan-esque statements of cultural commentary.


Indeed, unlike his close artistic ally Andrews, Packard isn’t out to define what makes a film. He’s not using a camcorder and a bunch of trailer park residents as an echo on what makes basic cinema. Instead, this dedicated director (he once mailed out 23,000 free copies of his epic Reflections of Evil in hopes of getting some attention) believes in the foundations of the format. He’s out to present the previously scene and already recognizable in a new and fascinating light. It’s something akin to holding up a foggy funhouse mirror to the medium that’s given him so much joy, hoping that everyone else sees the insular insane ravings that made motion pictures his personal passion. And he does it all without a single whiff of insider support. While noted pal Sage Stallone (son of Sly) has been a longtime accomplice, Packard has typically functioned so far under the radar that his misguided masterpieces barely get a media mention.


Until now. As we do with any cinematic trailblazer that the rest of the out of touch fanbase fails to embrace, SE&L will present an overview of Packard’s wonderfully perplexing works in tomorrow’s update. Hopefully, such a variety will inspire you to contact the filmmaker and buy one (or hopefully, more) of his devastating directorial deconstructions. Along with their novelty, and desire to remain both nonsensical and knowing, they touch on so many facets of filmmaking (both past and present) that it’s impossible to argue with their insight. Call him a self-indulgence mental case or the single greatest independent artist of the ‘90s/‘00s, but one thing is for sure - Damon Packard is an unqualified moviemaking maverick. And each and everyone one of his fascinating films proves this over and over again. 


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Monday, Nov 26, 2007


When Bobby Darin went from teeny-bopper “splish splash” to pseudo-Sinatra swing, he brought along a vampy, jazzy update of an old Louis Armstrong number with him. Reinterpreting the lyrics to give the tune a ring-a-ding-ding kick, and working all the Brecht/Weill out of the thing, “Mack the Knife” became the singer’s signature song. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, sold a million copies, and went on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1960. Yet few, if any, knew of the original source material. In fact, Dick Clark warned Darin against cutting the track, telling him that if fans ever found out it was taken from an “opera” it would destroy his rock-n-roll cred.


Of course, he was wrong, but even today, the 3 Penny title will throw anyone not aware of the legacy behind Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s riotously influential stage work. Indeed, even a modern revival from 2006 featuring Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, and New Wave chanteuse Cyndi Lauper failed to ignite much interest. Perhaps if people had a chance to see G. W. Pabst’s brilliant interpretation of the material in his 1931 film, they’d realize how phenomenal The 3 Penny Opera really is. The movie is indeed one of the slyest, most striking masterworks ever.


On the day of his wedding, MacHeath, also known as Mackie Messer, otherwise notorious as Mack the Knife, wants everything to be perfect. After all, he is marrying longtime girlfriend Polly Peachum. It’s a very advantageous pairing - she’s the daughter of an infamous London racketeer who controls the beggar trade and his status as a heel remains intact. Also, he’s allowed to carouse and womanize (if only a little) on the side. While finding a preacher willing to enter his literal den of thieves is tough, Messer manages to get hitched. But when Papa Peachum finds out, he is livid. He demands his son-in-law’s head, and propositions corrupt police chief (and Messer ally) Tiger Brown to frame the felon.


When the lawman initially won’t cooperate, Peachum plays his ace. The Queen’s Coronation parade is a few days away. If Messer is not in prison and headed to his death, there will be a poverty row rebellion to interrupt the pomp and circumstance. With all sides playing against and into each other, it will take more than treachery and deception to outwit one another. As in any 3 Penny (or poverty) Opera, it’s the little things overlooked, and the twists of fate unexpected, that end up counting.


G. W. Pabst’s adaptation of Weill and Brecht’s 3 Penny Opera is an astounding cinematic experience - like watching M the musical as filtered through a neo-realistic view of silent-film German Expressionism. At first, you feel overwhelmed by the arch, stylized approach to the story. Told by traveling minstrels and lacking the initial elements of explanation and exposition, it immediately tosses us into London’s seedy port district, a locale overrun with scum, strumpets, and the scoundrels who take advantage of same. As we are introduced to the main characters - master thief (and murderer) MacHeath/Mackie Messer, his gal pal Polly Peachum, and the various members of the twosome’s felonious entourage - and watch the preparations for their soon-to-be grand wedding, we wonder where all of this is going.


For many, the 3 Penny is an unknown quantity, a non-traditional songfest that closely resembles the arcane entertainment referenced in the title. Indeed, the first few numbers - including the instantly recognizable “Mack the Knife” - resemble a Wagnerian war against Gilbert and Sullivan. They’re more arias and sextets than chorus/melody making. While each one of the drawn-out dirges is packed with psychological subtext and social protest, it all comes across as overblown and obvious. How the movie will manage from this point is anyone’s guest.


And then we are introduced to Polly’s corrupt father, a man who actually controls and licenses the beggars in the city. No one can work the streets without his permission, and such a setup is instantaneously intriguing. We want to know more and need it ASAP. But the story does something even better. It takes the situation and amplifies it one outstanding step further. Peachum has a list of possible panhandling personas - the cripple, the crazy, the mute, etc. - and candidates can only choose between those that haven’t met their citywide or regional quota. In one stellar sequence, a newcomer argues with the fierce Fagan over his employment possibilities. The crass, capitalist way Peachum handles his business, and the ragtag group of street trash that wanders through his door (most merely playing at their pathetic state) gives 3 Penny a wonderful cynical edge.


It’s clear why Weill and Brecht were attracted to this 18th century ballad opera (which they then updated). In a country just caving into Nationalism and accompanying Nazi power, the concept of corruption within even the most morose of social situations (the homeless as organized con artists) meshed perfectly with their growing political concerns. When we later find out that police chief Tiger Brown is linked to both Messer and Peachum’s criminal organizations, it adds fuel to an already foul fire.


And then Act III arrives. Peachum, angry that his daughter has married Messer, wants the hoodlum hanged. He threatens Brown with a peasant riot during the Queen’s Coronation if the lawman doesn’t frame his unwanted son-in-law and place him before the gallows. While Messer is mired in the court system, he leaves his racket to his bride, and she turns the burglary and pickpocket ring into a legitimized version of the very same enterprise—otherwise known as a bank. Using their newfound status, and an excess of cash, they save Messer and call Peachum’s bluff. The result is a mass melee between the peasant class and the upper crust who constantly shun them.


As staged brilliantly by director Pabst, this last-act anarchy is unforgettable. A collection of faces both found and fashioned, it speaks volumes about the power in protest while suggesting the senselessness in fighting right with might. Epic in scale if not in visual scope (this was a studio production, limited by the logistics of creating all of London on a soundstage), the clash of classes is then overridden by a last-act truce that speaks more about modern society and who pulls the strings than any movie since, post-modern or otherwise.


When it’s all over, when The 3 Penny Opera wraps up its cutting condemnations and finishes with a flourish, we wonder why we ever doubted it. Even the unusual sonic cues and melodious complexity that keeps everything at arms length suddenly seems silly and easily embraceable. Because of the knotty narrative turns, the backdoor wheeling and dealing, and clearly defined criticism of Germany’s lax citizenry (it’s a similar statement made by Jean Renoir’s revelatory Rules of the Game), what started out stark and dated turns timeless and all too telling. Hats off to Austrian Pabst, who channeled fellow greats like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau to create an amazing monochrome landscape of shadows and light for the intrigues to play within.


He also does a magnificent job of keeping his characters clear and beyond the obvious caricatures. This is especially true of Papa Peachum. One gets the clear impression that a slight amount of anti-Semitism could be present in Weill/Brecht’s interpretation of the original character. He sure looks and acts like Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. But thanks to Pabst’s careful control of the material, as well as Fritz Rasp’s multifaceted performance, all potential racism is avoided. In fact, even though the entire narrative deals with society’s most unsavory element, 3 Penny never resorts to such cinematic name calling.


It’s safe to say that this ancient allegory, first formulated back in 1728 when Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) suggested John Gray take up the cause of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, is more potent in 2007 than in pre-World War II Europe. Back then, criminals and lowlifes were a cause for scandal, an unacceptable breed given over to censure and individual exile. While Messer makes a compelling mobster, we are never allowed to forget that he once killed an entire family just for the fun of it. Today, thanks to tabloid television and the 24-hour-a-day news cycle, we semi-celebrate such antisocial heroes. They become the “there but for the grace” grooves that feed our need for holier-than-thou judgment.


3 Penny takes such a sentiment and turns it right back at our self-righteous, sanctimonious faces. It asks us to explain why these kinds of characters are so engaging, and makes us realize that they truly exist in all corridors of power—even in ourselves. Weill and Brecht may have been rebelling against a war-weary nation headed toward a complete totalitarian meltdown, but their musical makes us look at our own lack of action in light of such situations. It places us directly in the line of the poor-person maelstrom, and asks us to question why we still don’t care.


Even better, it belies our already staunch cynicism. Everyone thinks the police are corrupt, the wealthy are wicked, the government given over to special interests, and that corporate coffers are lined with white-collar criminality. 3 Penny pushes it all further into farce, suggesting that there’s unbridled badness even among the already unlawful. When Polly proudly celebrates the buying of a bank, we see the simple substituting of one racket for another. When Peachum and Messer talk truce, we witness every backroom deal that drives ethics even further from the standard business/legislative model. It’s all so very modern and yet locked deep within its Victorian England setting. That it suggests such static history makes for an even more disconcerting entertainment.


While you won’t be humming its tunes on the way out of the theater—or while removing the DVD from the player—the music is memorable, especially since it easily encapsulates everything we see onscreen. Indeed, The 3 Penny Opera probably plays better on film than in the theater. Live, the inherent ambiguity of the staging can ruin even the greatest writer’s intentions. But when pasted to celluloid, the tendencies become timeless, and their motives remain solid and concrete. Over the decades, revivals of the show have been less than successful. Movies remain the best way to experience this classic social commentary.


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