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Tuesday, Dec 11, 2007

In celebration of Sidney Lumet’s recent triumph Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, SE&L takes a look back at one of the director’s seminal ‘70s masterpieces.


Is it possible for a writer to be too prescient? Could they be so in tune with the turning tide inside a stalwart of cultural existence that their insight goes from being clever to creepy? Such is the case with one Paddy Chayefsky and his take on the manipulation of the news media called Network. Thirty years ago, critics were agog at the notion that something as sacred as the evening news would or ever could be turned into a platform for demagogic rants, unimportant tabloid scandal, and agenda-based crusading.


Sadly, this brilliant scribe, responsible for The Hospital, Marty, and The Catered Affair, didn’t live to see his scenario come frighteningly true. We now live in a time when information has been usurped by infotainment and 24-hour cable stations offer rant time for the demagogic, exploit every scandal to untold tabloid proportions, and let their left or right freak flags fly brilliantly. You may indeed question whether we have actually come to the point where acts of political crime and social terrorism are run as part of basic prime-time programming. The answer? Ever watch TLC, or Court TV?


When longtime UBS anchorman Howard Beale learns that he will be “forcibly” retired, he makes a shocking statement on that night’s news. One week to the day, he will commit suicide on national television. Naturally, the stunt gets him fired, but the public seems intrigued. Over the better judgment of News Division President Max Schumacher, Beale is left on the air. The next day, he explains his actions with a simple phrase. After years of telling the people the “truth,” he just “ran out of bullshit.” The expletive gets him yanked again, but the climb in the ratings gets the attention of entertainment programmer Diana Christensen.


She sees the possibility of turning Beale into a prophet, a mad monk of the medium spouting off about the ills of society. While simultaneously developing a prime-time show centering on a group of renegade radicals, Christensen approaches corporate bigwig Frank Hackett with a proposal. She will take over the nightly news and turn it into a hit show. Of course, Schumacher refuses, but success breeds strange bedfellows and Beale’s late-night revelation of his new “calling” creates an instant national phenomenon. Suddenly, UBS is not just some podunk pariah. It is now a viable and visible network. However, as with all prophecy, doom and gloom are not far behind and destruction will meet all those who pretend to play God—even if it’s just on TV or in the corridors of corporate power.


When it was first released in 1976, Network was nothing short of a satiric revelation. It hinted at the horrors that could come if TV turned its back on the public interest and instead pursued the all-mighty dollar. It dug deep into the crawling corporatization of the media and argued against allowing multinational interests to filter into and through the fourth estate. It spit on the First Amendment, flirted with outright controversy, and made outrageousness and ridiculousness seem prophetic but improbable. With Walter Cronkite seated behind the CBS chair, trusted like no one else in Bicentennial America, there were no Howard Beales waiting in the wings for their insignificant sound bite of fame.


In 2007, however, Network plays like a blueprint for a myriad of modern pundits. To today’s viewer, Beale becomes a crazy combination of Bill O’Reilly, John McLaughlin, and Geraldo Rivera. Where once the news was a sanctuary of ethical considerations and investigative insight, it has now become a chatty-Cathy coffee-klatch commiserating over the communal back fence, arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong (or left), and how much sex, drugs, and residual rock-and-roll was involved.


As a movie, Network is nearly perfect, one of those cinematic statements that its participants can wear with special, inexhaustible pride. It was a breathtaking final testament to Peter Finch’s acting acumen, a reminder that William Holden wasn’t a longstanding member of the Hollywood hierarchy for nothing, and a realization of Faye Dunaway’s incredible bravery. Everyone in the cast, from corporate raider patsy Robert Duvall to Ned Beatty’s capitalist-as-biblical-serpent Arthur Jensen, radiates a kind of performance flawlessness that one just doesn’t find in most modern movies.


Certainly credit must be given to American auteur Sidney Lumet. He discovered the heart and soul of Chayefsky’s surrealistic statement and infused the entire project with a kind of knowing authenticity that made it even more powerful. For a director whose legendary output is impressive, to say the least (he is responsible for many masterful films, including 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, just to name a few), Network stands as one of his greatest triumphs. Its compact completeness and sense of plausible implausibility draws laughs out of lunacy, sorrow out of selfish egotism.


True, this is really a writer’s film. There are no action scenes to highlight a filmmaker’s flair or narrative gimmicks (like mental impairment or physical flaws) to show the actors’ obvious bravado. No, what Chayefsky created was a poetry of purpose, a lyrical lassoing of the insanity derived from the post-Watergate world of TV news. He was singing a sentimental, silly dirge to a dying giant and his stanzas as speeches are some of the best-crafted screenwriting ever attempted. There are several standout spoken set pieces, not just the instances where Beale goes ballistic for his nightly news tirades. When the obviously insane newsman tells his audience to go to the windows and yell out that seminal statement of stagnant citizenry, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” the words leading up to the chant are far more effective than the catchphrase itself.


Similarly, Ms. Christensen uses a bargaining deal for some James Bond films as seduction, foreplay, and pillow talk during a frantic sex scene. Holden delivers a devastating denouement about broken relationships as he says farewell to his accidental mistress, while Ned Beatty delivers the movie’s main theme—how the upcoming “new world order” will be papered in multinational conglomerate stock options, not U.N. peacekeeping initiatives or CARE packages—like a preacher gone potty.


In fact, one of the most amazing things that you see when you watch Network some 30 years later, aside from how right on its predictions about television were, is how hopeful it seemed. When Beale’s fire-and-brimstone act comes back to bite the UBS executives in their aspirations, the actions discussed to “eradicate” their crisis are unapologetically absurd—at least, that’s how Chayefsky sees it. He is writing from a position of shuttered optimism. He knows things are bad, but he can’t imagine they’d ever get to the point were murder might solve programming problems. He argues that the people wouldn’t cotton to such craven cruelty and they especially wouldn’t tolerate it being shown on national television.


Perhaps it’s better then that Chayefsky left this planet when he did. He missed Morton Downey Jr. and his gladiatorial gross-out as chat show. He didn’t see Pennsylvania State Senator Budd Dwyer pull a .45-caliber Magnum out of a manila envelope and put the business end in his mouth, committing suicide in front of a live press conference crowd. He didn’t get to see Jerry Springer or Richard Bey, or bask in the bloated glow of misguided media moguls Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch. One could easily see the author writing sequels to his critical cautionary tale, adding more and more mania to the multi-channeled glass teat until, spent and defeated, he realized that the boob tube would always win.


If anyone keeps this all grounded though, it’s Lumet. His Oscar nomination for directing was well deserved, as he manages to make the contemptible seem common and the mind-boggling appear minor. He uses actual locations to keep situations authentic and never lets his actors overstay their importance. That is why Finch is so fine as Beale. His is a character that could easily be played for overblown comedy or uninspired pathos and Lumet lets neither occur. Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is the same way. She is an ice queen, a bossy bitch with a Cheshire-cat grin masking the backstabbing knife in her hand. She could have been a caricature, but Lumet lets her be bad for pure badness’s sake.


As Schumacher, Holden is the fulcrum upon which the entire enterprise balances. He is reason looking in on madness, the ethical broaching the source of station squalor and scandal. If we don’t feel for him, understand his personal plight, and accept his occasional lapses (why an affair, and with whom?), we will never believe the movie’s over-the-top tenets. They will feel like sketch comedy, not stinging satire. Lumet is indeed the reason Network triumphs. He knows the game inside and out, and never once lets it fall beyond the boundaries of believability. He knows that, if it’s not real, it’s preposterous—and nothing kills comedy faster than indecipherability.


Though most may not like to admit it, the world of TV is a reflection of what we watch. Programs are not invented on the off chance that we will watch them. Our viewing habits have been studied and consulted over, represented on graphs, and argued over in marketing meetings. Every few years, a film comes along condemning such practices. In the ‘80s, it was Broadcast News (or if you are a little more forward-thinking, Videodrome). The ‘90s had The Insider and the minor Wag the Dog. But in the ‘70s, it was Network and the reverberations from that seismic smack in the cathode ray have been felt all throughout the industry, even as the airwaves turned coaxial and then digital.


While its pronouncements might seem dated and many of its references as ancient as the history on which they were based, this is still a masterpiece of a movie, a great big flailing middle finger to a cultural icon that didn’t heed its warning. In a post-millennial maze of reality shows, prime- time confessionals, and stunt-oriented idiocy, TV has totally lost its way—and we as the audience have let it. Argue about its position as a vast wasteland, but the truth is far more painful. As a mirror to our own internal tendencies, Network is more foreboding than every before. If Chayefsky saw us arriving at this point so many years before, what does the future hold?


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Monday, Dec 10, 2007

Hollywood is obsessed with the epic. They can’t get enough of the ‘bigger is better’ mindset when it comes to moviemaking. At one time, a $100 million budget seemed unthinkable, then condemnable. Now it’s near the low end, especially in light of $200 to $300 million mainstream monoliths. Of course, with such an outlay of cash, all avenues of financial recoup need to be explored - and that includes the inevitable soundtrack/orchestral score release. Be it the work of the actual composer, or a selection of songs provided by name rock bands, a blockbuster film or franchise almost always mandates as many merchandisable paradigms as possible. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at how Michael Bay, the studio behind the Saw series, and New Line’s continuing obsession with a certain celebrated hobbit, continue to provide CD shelves with an endless stream of tie-in fare. Some is good. Some is grand. And others represent the lower depths of movie music marketing. 


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The Complete Recordings [rating: 9]


In the realm of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classics, there is no such thing as ‘enough’. Everything involved in the billion dollar earning trilogy - the settings, the effects, the films themselves - move beyond the scope of normal cinema to turn into a universe all their own. As a result, production house New Line has found as many ways as possible - with and without the auteur’s input - to continue the seemingly constant revenue streams. In this case, we have the third in a continuing CD series hoping to bring every note Howard Shore composed for the films to soundtrack lovers everywhere. The Complete Recordings for Fellowship of the Ring came out two years ago, and Two Towers shortly thereafter. Now, it’s the Oscar winning installments turn to shine, and as with anything associated with Jackson, Tolkien, and the famed film franchise, it represents the best the specific medium has to offer.


Spread out over four discs (with a fifth DVD-Audio presentation offering Advanced Resolution Surround, Advanced Resolution Stereo, Dolby Digital Surround and Stereo), we get 53 separate tracks covering everything conceived for the film - epic battle backdrops, tiny connective inserts, full blown orchestrations, and incidental sounds. There’s Annie Lennox singing the song “Into the West” (found on disc four), and snippets from the film itself. For completists, it’s a gem, the kind of complementary treasure one rarely gets from a studio. On the downside, much of the material here is recycled from previous parts of the triptych. When Frodo needs an aural cue, it’s the same one that’s been following him since Part One. In addition, Shore’s sensibilities have since become quasi-cliché: the mixing of musical genres, the overtly Celtic Enya-like drones, the moments where the music becomes as manipulative as the sequences on screen. Yet the overall impression is one of size, heft, and massive dramatic weight - just what Return of the King requires. And since it has the Jackson seal of approval, it’s a worthy component of the Rings legacy.


Transformers The Score [rating: 7]


Sometimes, the bigger the project, the smaller the score. While many would argue that blockbusters require bombast, it’s also clear that some composers want subtlety to sell the mood, not amplified orchestral chaos. Someone should tell this to Steve Jablonsky. As the man behind the music for The Hitcher, The Island, and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his aural pallet runs to the grandiose and the shapelessly suggestive. When you hear a Jablonsky backdrop, the action inherent in a stunt sequence is evident, the wall to wall wonder of an F/X moment is practically painted in your mind. This is old school film music, the kind that wants to be an entity in and of itself while also functioning as a integral part of the movie’s overall experience. Yet unlike those he freely mimics - John Williams, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard - there’s a bit of false bravado here. It’s as if Jablonsky the composer sat back, listened to the complete catalog of his industry idols, and created a sound that followed their formulas implicitly.

Anyone looking for oversized motion picture sturm und drang will definitely find it inside these enjoyable, bass heavy symphonic soundscapes. Both “Autobots” and “Decepticons” introduce the characters it was created for perfectly, and the last act tracks “Optimus vs. Megatron” and “No Sacrifice, No Victory” do a nice job of selling the mechanical melee that occurs. It’s the same experience one gets from “Soccent Attack”, “Downtown Battle”, and “Sam on the Roof”. There are very few quiet moments here, times when the music modifies a lesser situation in the narrative. Of course, this could be due to the fact that director Michael Bay doesn’t really do ‘small’. Yet “Sam at the Lake” and “Witwicky” have a little less oomph than the other extravaganza supporting material. In the end, your enjoyment of this compilation will depend mostly on how fond you are of the movie they modify. If you loved Transformers, you’ll really dig this overly dramatic backing. If you think Bay and his brethren are scope without substance, you’ll find this score equally empty.


Saw IV Music from and Inspired By [rating: 4]


Apparently, when one thinks of the Saw franchise, their mind instantly turns to Metal - and not just any heavy rock retreads but full blown balls to the wall death, thrash, and other extreme guitar workouts. If you like your sonics loud, fast, and in your scarred face, you’ll love this 19 track aural assault. Granted, it is as repetitive as the symbols of Satan, but one has to admit that the decibels describe the actions in the never-ending horror series quite well. The chugging, growling, primal scream nature of this score (actually, a collection of songs used in, and finding their muse from, the movie) matches the torturous, gross out glee of Jigsaw’s various games, even if after the first 15 or so tracks you want to drive a drill bit into your cerebellum. The raw anger inherent in the musical genre placed outside of the cinematic screamfest’s context does make for some heavy metaphysical lifting, but if you’re prone to howling at the moon or spending you nights cutting yourself, this album will definitely sync up with your psyche.


Many of the names here are less than mainstream or memorable. While Nitzer Ebb, Drowning Pool, Ministry, and Skinny Puppy all have identifiable cred, bands like The Red Chord, The Human Abstract, and Dope Stars Inc. come across as ‘formed for this project’ style oddities. One thing’s for sure - no one here will be winning an award for their lyrics anytime soon. The recent DVD release of Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse has more memorable - and believable - sentiments than the blood, sweat, and fears offered throughout. Still, tracks like “Life is Good”, We’rewolf”, and “Shame” offer a terrific mix of musicianship and the macabre. This is not a collection for the casual fan of Scandinavian shrieking or German grind pulses, however. This will be headache inducing for the uninitiated, and too much of a terror trip even for those who love their Metal unrefined and unprocessed. Don’t be confused - this is not the work of series composer Charles Clouser (he is represented once here). This is a standard CD tie-in. 


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Sunday, Dec 9, 2007
With the DVD version of the Summer hit The Bourne Ultimatum arriving at stores this week (11 December), it’s time to look back on the entire Bourne film franchise to date. Within the context of the new digital package’s throng of special features (commentary track, making-of materials, documentaries on the amazing special effects), one can look at the three films together and see a cohesive attempt to transcend the trappings of the traditional action film.


It was supposed to be True Lies that saved the genre. As the Bond franchise continued to settle for spectacle over substance, James Cameron’s overinflated spy flick was destined to change the face of onscreen espionage forever. Turned out, it ended up being nothing more than the director’s inspired action filmmaking, and that’s about it. Even with the nuclear explosions, high rise chase scenes, and last act Harrier jet jive, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold were not the cinematic operatives the public was aching for. Instead, it would be another eight years before Robert Ludlam’s famed black ops assassin would get re-imagined to fit a post-millennial mindset. Instead of turning to bigger and badder special effects, filmmakers Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass brought the secret agent back down to earth, and in doing so, completely rewrote the rulebook on the dying aesthetic.


The resulting films - The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum, are masterworks of compact storytelling and human physicality. They offer realistic plots accented by occasional overreaching ability. In our lead, the monolithic hero Jason Bourne, we have a well trained, tripwire force of nature, capable of constantly being one step ahead of his ever-present pursuers. Yet contrary to his ingrained, almost brainwashed capability for survival, there’s a sad, disconnected man who simply wants to remember who he is. Ludlam’s greatest contrivance was the state of amnesia that Bourne finds himself in. It allows for a palpable level of realism interspersed among the fistfights, car chases, and psychologically challenged intelligence game playing.


Identity centers on Bourne, rescued while floating out at sea, unaware of who he is or how he got there. Through a course of investigation and information, he finds a link to the CIA, their elite corps of international assassins, and the possibility of massive internal corruption. Supremacy sees a Russian conspiracy trying to frame Bourne for a hit against his own people, pushing the agency to try and silence him once more. Ultimatum sees the heretofore amnesiac spy recovering his memory, realizing what he’s become, and coming face to face with the people who poisoned him so. There are dozens of subplots pulsating through each film, but to discuss them openly would ruin the revelation for those interested in experiencing the franchise fresh.


Anyone looking for careful translations of Ludlam’s work should seek out a Richard Chamberlain starring TV movie from 1988. Its Bourne is very faithful to the first novel. But in The Bourne Identity (and the subsequence films in the series), the charismatic killer is retuned to fit a more contemporary ideal. The original spy was part of a Vietnam era setting. There was backstory with an Asian family and a desire for revenge when they eventually died. Now, he’s a man lost in a world he doesn’t remember, instinctually doing a job he can’t recall. Throughout the first film, his struggle for self is offset by a failed mission, a rogue African exile, and the CIA’s need to plug any potential leaks that could compromise their illegal operations. This makes the Bourne films multifaceted as well as singular in design and direction.


So does the love story. Identity really relies on Bourne’s connection to the aimless, drifting Marie. In her, he sees a kindred spirit, a young woman who is as equally lost as he. She, on the other hand, sees a strong, silent hero who can save her from a life without rhyme, reason, or purpose. Several times throughout the first film, Bourne tries to turn her away. He offers her money (her main driving force) and freedom, yet she is captivated by the broken man in her presence. A certain maternal instinct takes over, and their one love scene is more tender and heartbreaking than erotic. Indeed, this relationship needs to be believable and potent. Otherwise, the plot machinations that surround it would seem arbitrary and without motive.


The final element mandated is the need for an outwardly benevolent but inwardly corrupt villainy. In this case, the CIA will do quite nicely. Only in the first Bourne film is there another situation worth considering (the botched assassination of angry African Nykwana Wombosi). In the sequels, we are only concerned with our hero taking on the baseless bureaucrats who want him terminated, with extreme prejudice. Between Alexander Conklin, Ward Abbott, Pamela Landy, and Noah Vosen, we have enough paper pushing precariousness to put even the most skilled agent on edge. Add to that the computer bank of trackers, grid wired to every manner of surveillance on the planet, and you create a monumental (and monstrous) task for Bourne to overcome. Of course, it’s not a matter of if he will succeed. It’s all a question of how - and at what cost.


With that, the franchise found a perfect starting point. The Bourne Identity is action packed yet personal, encompassing all manner of international intrigue while keeping the narrative squarely focused on who this character really is. Matt Damon delivers in the role, creating a believable sense of specialist and psychological sufferer. We never doubt his abilities or his angst. He’s an unlikely action hero, too clean cut and white bread to seem capable of such shocking acts. But as this series will show, Bourne is all about thwarting expectation and delivering on his promise. Director Liman lingers on moments of self-discovery, allowing Damon to dig deep into his character’s troubled soul. We never see it displayed in histrionics, however. It almost always arrives in a look, or a fleeting troubled glance.



As the object of his growing affections, the choice of Run Lola Run‘s Franke Potente is inspired. She’s just pretty enough to be alluring, just practical enough to withstand Bourne’s larger than life tendencies. She’s an excellent match for the unlikely element presented by Damon. Together, they’re like an ordinary revamp of Bond and one of his babes. Indeed, all throughout the Bourne films, we see the old school machismo and borderline misogyny of the original spy efforts constantly deconstructed and destroyed. Unlike True Lies, which saw Cameron utilizing the hoary he-man themes in a subtle, satiric manner (Jamie Lee Curtis’ striptease, as an example), Liman - and later Greengrass - simply ignored the archetypes. The result was films that felt alive and new.


It’s amazing how well Supremacy‘s new director carried on the foundations laid by Identity. Paul Greengrass was a relatively unknown British filmmaker when he took the reigns from Liman. Substituting hand held cameras for a previous Stedicam conceit, the new approach took Bourne into places the standard espionage movie would never dare investigate. There’s family life, the unnecessary destruction of same, the return of old foes and the discovery of heretofore unnoticeable new ones. It signals the end of one covert scheme and the uncovering of yet another. In between we get amazing fist fights, old school physical effects, and one of the most amazing and plausible car chases ever captured on film.



It is clear that the new infusion of vision invigorated the series. Damon is more alive than ever, his darker side clouding an already cracked interpersonal position. He’s lost everything, and with it, the will to tolerate such treatment. He is vengeance reborn, focus renewed on taking down the powers that perverted his life and stole his soul. Throughout the numerous square-offs, showdowns, and claustrophobic cat and mouse moments, we see a man coming undone, only to rebuild himself into a near robotic version of his programmed assassin self. When the results of this reconfiguration finally finish, heaven help those who get in his way.


That’s the premise for Ultimatum, the final head to head between our hero and his harried past. With Greengrass back for another go, and a plot that’s completely focused on bringing down the forces who formed this amoral spying machine, the film is nothing more than two hours of sly setup and potent payoff. Some have suggested that this is the best Bourne movie of the bunch, and they may be right. When viewed back to back, when seen as a psychological and emotional progression from cold to calm, passionate to powerless, Ultimatum becomes the fabulous finale the three part narrative has been hinting at. It’s to the productions credit that Tony Gilroy (with occasional help) stayed around to write all three movies. The consistency in tone and character he brings lends to the trilogy’s effectiveness.



The final (for now) Bourne starts up right where the last left off. A name - David Webb - has been tossed out there, and our trained killer has followed a complicated betrayal all the way to his origins at the CIA. In freaky flashbacks meant to start filling in the gaps, Greengrass shows us Bourne’s derivation. We see him tortured and brainwashed, created like a cog in a menacing and miscreant US government machine. Unlike the scenes in Supremacy where the character remembers his role in the assassination of a Russian leader, these moments are meant to finish Bourne’s portrait. They act as measures of the man, a lineage that he must suffer through and escape from if he is ever to have a life. Love has been left out of the series every since the opening of part two, but Julia Stiles returns as a determined desk jockey who wants to help our hero recover himself. It’s not a romance so much as a really clear friendship based on respect and human empathy.


The filmmakers even throw in an antagonistic turn, making Pamela Landy (a wonderful Joan Allen) into an ally for Bourne - a mother figure, if you will, for a boy who lost his entire family in a fog of calculated cold warring. With the return of a character everyone thought dead, and the arrival of yet another stuff shirt supervisor, we’re back to high tech tracing and continent crossing one-upmanship. There is an incredible sequence in Tangiers where Bourne travels across rooftops and through building windows, only to end up in a remarkably brutal dustup with another assassin. The hand to hand here is so compact, so intense in its imposed ferocity that it literally leaves one breathless.


So does a New York chase that rivals the Moscow version in scope and destruction. It’s important to note that, unlike other summer romps that relied on CGI to stage their practical stunts (Live Free or Die Hard, The Kingdom), Greengrass wanted real life action or nothing. It’s a throwback ideal, but one that plays perfectly into the Bourne franchise’s desire to deconstruct the past. It’s funny to see the latest James Bond - the daring Daniel Craig - pulling off many of the moves witnessed in Identity and Supremacy, yet when matched up against Ultimatum, Casino Royale pales in comparison. Granted, they are two birds of a slightly similar feather, but the idea that a recent upstart could compare favorably to - or God forbid surpass - the famed superspy would be heresy…until now.


The fact remains, however, that the Bourne films are one of the most satisfying collections of high octane thrills every brought to the big screen (and, thankfully, they lose little in the transfer to home vide). They celebrate smart cinema and explore the many fast-paced facets of film’s multilayered language. As detailed character studies, they are sensational. As examples of where espionage can go in a post-Cold War world, they are ideal. And let’s face it, any franchise that can turn Matt Damon from Northeast wholesomeness into international man of intrigue has to be doing something right.


In fact, there is much more to these densely packed films than can be discussed in a single feature or review. Indeed these fine films demand to be experience, to be savored for what they accomplish as well as what they avoid. In the grand scheme of cinema, James Cameron could have taken his ‘titanic’ spy spectacle all the way to the top. Luckily for us, Jason Bourne stepped in and grabbed the reigns. For sheer entertainment and excitement, nothing can beat The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. They are the new spy standard bearers and all future filmmakers need to take notice.


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Sunday, Dec 9, 2007


When film fans think Hong Kong, their mind typically envisions martial arts mania, dedicated shaolin’s kicking period piece butt with a highly skilled and disciplined vengeance. Or perhaps they fast forward a few decades, and see various gangsters and triad members shooting it out in waves of symbolic slow motion ammunition. However, it’s a safe bet that the last facet of Asian cinema they anticipate is the raincoat crowd styled sleazefest - especially when the Shaw Brothers production moniker is on the marquee. But that’s exactly the kind of flesh feasts the company experimented in, especially considering its genre jumping tendencies. A perfect example of this ideal is 1975’s Se sat sou, also known by the more sensationalized name Killer Snakes. Lovers of chop and/or socky need not apply. Instead, this Eastern promise (new to DVD from Image) delivers nothing but sin, skin, and lots and lots of reptilian scales.


When he was young, Chen Zhihong witnessed his parents’ bizarre sex practices. They’ve had a numbing effect on him ever since. Only capable of being aroused by the most serious bondage and discipline pornography, he spends his days looking at dirty magazines and his nights pursuing local prostitutes. Living in a shack near a Chinese snake peddler, he comes across an injured serpent one day. Nursing it back to health, he names it, and befriends many of its equally harmed species. After he’s robbed by a local hooker and her gang of bumbling thugs, Zhihong vows revenge. Using his snakes, he takes on the criminals. Soon, the city is abuzz, as police investigate a series of bite-related deaths. Meanwhile, our hero sinks further and further into madness. Obsessed with a local toy cart merchant, he’s horrified to learn she’s been taken in by a pimp to work in a dancehall. Naturally, with his slithery pals in hand, he hopes to set things right.


The Shaw Brothers sensational Killer Snakes is like cramming the rat revenge epic Willard into every exploitation cliché ever created. More seedy than scary, with as many guilty pleasure delights as solid cinematic tricks, this is Me Decade Hong Kong horror at its most surreal. Helmed by genre journeyman Chih-Hung Kwei and featuring a disturbing turn by actor Kam Kwok-leung, this humiliation into vengeance effort is hard to completely define. Clearly created to explore the seamier side of sex, yet tied directly to the payback style of action adventures thrills, this wonderfully schlocky experience is like a Viagra laced fever dream. Women do get the short end of the stick here, and no matter how hard Chih-Hung tries to balance it out with terror, the bondage and rampant nudity dominate the discussion. Still, for all it gets right, we easily settle in and wait for the wantonness.

It’s hard to find an underlying theme within this otherwise grind-housed gratuity. The Shaws could have been trying to explore the growing divide among the classes of the newly urbanized Hong Kong. The focus on poor, put upon Chen Zhihong and his near homeless existence complements the constant referencing to rich pimps and ruthless businessman. However, this lowlife vs. the highfaluting dynamic is barely touched on by Snakes. Instead, the main narrative centers on our hero’s psycho-sexual distress and love of porn. Chih-Hung spends several minutes on miscreant montages, layouts from X rated magazines matching the equally erotic fantasies fouling up Zhihong’s mind. They swirl and pulsate like a teen boy’s nightly bed wettings. Toss in the virginal toy seller who winds up become a dime-a-dance gal, and the pathway to the perverted is paved with scads of sicko smuttiness.


Yet it’s the title fiends that pack the most punch. Like Willard, Killer Snakes has Zhihong rescuing an injured reptile (as in most Asian cultures, the serpent is sought for its gall bladder, which supposedly contains aphrodisiacal qualities), and once nursed back to health, the cobra becomes his best pal and familiar. Whenever his caretaker is threatened, this snake calls up his comrades and does some hilarious toss fu on the bad guys. Indeed, the one warning you will not read on this film’s credits is “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of this Movie”. We get vipers having their organs cut out, others being stomped and thrown about wildly, and a last act attack featuring numerous creatures literally cut in half. Pro-PETA audience members will palpitate at the sight of such slaughter It makes the Italian animal torture of the Cannibal films feel tame.


If one is looking for a deeper meaning here, the snake’s stance as a symbol of virility and manliness can easily be worked into the narrative. Zhihong is constantly viewed as impotent and weak, a push over without a single macho or virile attribute. The vipers are his scrotal substitute, the figurative balls he lacks in his daily dealings. Yet even when they are taking his place in a fight or exacting revenge on those who have wronged him, this wimped out weasel can do little except crouch in a near fetal position, giggling grotesquely. It really is a noxious portrayal of one man’s dementia, and when you add in the sex and violence, it becomes an odd Shaw anomaly. It’s too bad the new digital package doesn’t provide some context to explain its role in the company’s creative canon.


For anyone who’s a fan of the glorious days of American exploitation, however, Killer Snakes plays like a reunion with a favorite film friend. The taboo busting extremes in some of the scenes (a classy whore is ripped to shred by a pair of komodo dragons) fall lockstep into similar manic moments offered by the likes of Harry Novak and David F. Friedman. Even better, Chih-Hung uses the traditional view of human reproduction as a starting point for more and more disrespect. It’s clear that this film looks down on white slavery, and challenges the concept of women selling themselves for money. And yet, do these gals deserve to be raped by snakes? In the pure patriarchy of the old world East, such a chauvinistic system is seen as normal. Killer Snakes tries to make it as vile as possible.


It all adds up to a filthy ball of fun that changes the perception of the Shaws as much as it exemplifies their studio’s many filmmaking facets. Innocence is corrupted, not saved. Weirdness is celebrated, not sheltered. Nature remains the ultimate decider of fate, and humans who fail to fulfill their promise end up with several hundred fang marks in their face. There will be some who grow bored when Chih-Hung calls on another breast accented montage to probe his character’s madness, and some will be shocked by the full blown fatalistic ending. But Killer Snakes is meant to be an earnest example of excess, not a realistic depiction of human horrors. And for those of us in sync with the 42nd Street freakiness of decades past, we wouldn’t want it any other way.


 


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Saturday, Dec 8, 2007


They represent the last word in physical comedy, their surefire slapstick a crazy cut above everyone who would eventually try and imitate their art. While the formidable silent film approach to humor had long been abandoned for more sophisticated laughs (i.e. the majestic Marx Brothers), the so-called Stooges still believed in its visceral, unequivocal effectiveness. Working both live and on film, they perfected their timing and false fury in a way that would forever change the format. In fact, when people think of the appropriately named comedy style, the Stooges come up more often than other, more mercurial examples.


It’s safe to say that they now own the genre – and this without the complex, narrative inspired gags that one time illustrated its cinematic language. No, aside from an occasional clay/pie/cream puff fight, Rube Goldberg inspired tumble, or interaction with a collection of well-placed props, the trio touted as The Three Stooges were the most hands on of the body-oriented buffoons. From the moment their shorts aired as part of a trip to the movies, the eye gouge, the cheek smack, and the stomach poke were never quite the same. 


Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering the first three years the performers pitched their vaudeville shtick to motion pictures (1934, ‘35, and ‘36) the 19 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.

Still, if you don’t get the genius that is The Three Stooges, don’t fret. Not everyone embraces the masterful at first. What you need is some manner of perspective, a compare and contrast if you will between the boys’ unquestionable wizardry and all the other warmed over wannabes. Think the trio is too low brow? Look at their contemporaries Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They practically lived along the bottom rungs of subterranean common denominators. Find their actions too brutal and abusive? Watch modern mirthmakers attempt the same physical shtick. It’s all unnecessary violence with none of the boys’ panache.


No, the Three Stooges remain viable cinematic icons nearly 75 years after their motion picture debut because, in an era which still embraced slapstick as viable everyman entertainment, they understood the rules, rewrote the syntax, and defined the genre for all who would come after. In fact, you could argue that the Stooges both showcased and strangled the artform. Before them (BTS), individual anarchy was an approachable element for any film. But once they came along (ATS), their flawless bravado couldn’t be matched. Instead, most bowed to the masters and moved along.


It’s not hard to see the immediate impact of the trio. Looking at the four films from their first year at Columbia (they had some previous success as part of the MGM family with straight man Ted Healy), their impeccable style and skill with comic timing is more than evident. Granted, “Woman Haters” does the dumbest thing possible with the boys – it turns them into shuffle bum singers in an all rhyme (and no reason) variety review. The premise has possibilities, but outside the standard slapstick, the rest of the short stumbles.


“Punch Drunks” was the perfect comeback. It gave Curly his first great goofball roll (a fighter who goes nutzoid the moment he hears the song “Pop Goes the Weasel”), and sets up the trio’s working dynamic – Moe as the cantankerous leader, Larry as the sullen sidekick, and Curly as constant source of frustrated bemusement. By “Men in Black”, the hospital/doctor setting could barely contain them. The Oscar nominated effort is so overloaded with sight gags, physical flailing, and memorable lines (“Jeez, the joint is haunted”) that it accurately reflects the growing confidence between the studio and its stars. It would all be taken to dizzying new heights with the football themed funny business of “Pigskins”.


By 1935, the Stooges were established. After a couple of minor period piece stumbles (both “Horses’ Collars” and “Restless Knights” have their non-narrative moments), the threesome hit a string of inspiration that would forever illustrate their power. Unlike the costumed craziness of an era specific outing, the timeless aspects of the gang worked best when butted up against the current social morays. It’s just more fun to see Curly court and dress down a snooty dowager than a Wild West cowgirl. They were better as social commentators, the downtrodden taking on the haughty rabble, than as members of a specific historic sect.


That’s why the art school spectacle of “Pop Goes the Easel” soars, its last act clay fight a delicious combination of comeuppance and cruelty. It’s why the whiskey crazed swells of “Pardon My Scotch” and the cockeyed Confederate gentility of “Uncivil Warriors” make the perfect backdrop for the boys’ unbridled mayhem. Even the insular short “Hoi Polloi” figured this out. It actually made taking down the privileged part of the plotline. It’s obvious that the Stooges work better as the storm amidst the calm, not visa versa. The minute they step on the elitist golf course to challenge the links in “Three Little Beers”, their presence perks up (and perplexes) all around them.


Still, those behind the camera didn’t quite grasp this comedic compartmentalizing – at least, not yet. They still believed the boys could work well within every filmic format. Proof of how wrong they were arrives toward the end of 1936. The first six shorts the trio made that year featured present-day circumstances (exterminators, performers, war veterans, trial witnesses, starving hoofers, and firemen) and used modern slang and jargon to complement the physical hijinx. Then it’s back to Dodge City as the guys give the frontier another try. True, the Stooges were fantastic as part of a Civil War setting, but “Warriors” would be the exception that confirms the overall rule.


“Whoops! I’m an Indian” is not bad, it’s just not a stunner. It takes too long to payoff, and along the way, the boys are seemingly forced to be funny. That’s not how the Stooges are supposed to work. When matched with the effortless laughs of “Slippery Silks” (the furniture gowns remain one of the shorts’ best sight gags), or the public domain delights of “Disorder in the Court” (who HASN’T seen this legal lampoon), it simply stands out as something underwhelming. And since this incarnation of the act would go on to make another 78 shorts (97 in all), it would remain a prickly premise the studio would insist on. After all, how many different settings could the storied group’s havoc fully function in?


It’s important to note that there was more to the Three Stooges than location, location, location. Many believe the boys to be inept in the arena of scripted jokes, but buried throughout the first three years of their Columbia existence are consistent examples of verbal wit. From a classic witness box exchange invoking the spirit of ’76 to a dessert as feather bed reference, the trio used lots of imaginative wordplay as part of their performance. Even the titles created were typically spoofs of current popular films (“Men in Black” for Clark Gables Men in White) or parodies of well known songs or sayings (Pardon My ‘Scotch’ subbing for ‘French’).


In fact, those who would marginalize the trio as being nothing more than jocular juvenilia, the pre-post-modern equivalent of fart jokes and toilet humor, have probably never really studied the Stooges. They are much more than boxers battling within a craven comedic context or arrested adolescents using fists instead of quips to earn their keep. They are artisans working in the almost impossible arena of physical wit. That they continue to delight a quarter century later is both a testament to their timelessness and their unequivocal quality control. Sadly this first Volume only whets our long dormant appetite for the rest of their amazing output. 


Back in the mid-80s, it was argued that The Three Stooges were the male equivalent of a chick flick – that is, the kind of entertainment that hit men in the merriment harder than it did the ladies. Of course, there are numerous ways to argue out of such a broad overgeneralization, but for the most part, the comment has a small amount of truth. Sold as a baser experience, as the artistic equivalent of a knee to the groin, the short films made by these amazing performers can be considered gut level laugh getters. But does this mean women are above the experience, or simply that, searching for a way to describe the decades old appeal of the act, scholars slipped into stereotyping?


Whatever the case, it’s clear that there are more than gents holding up the Stooges’ lasting legacy. Constantly bringing new generations into their farcical fold, as long as there are viewers, there will be fans for the threesome’s fantastic follies. Bellyache all you want over the lack of packaging or added features, but The Three Stooges Collection Volume 1: 1934 – 1936 is performing one invaluable service – it’s protecting the boys’ mythos for future aficionados to enjoy. And when it comes to skilled slapstick, a true obsessive will take preservation over puffery any day of the week.


 


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