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by Bill Gibron

6 Mar 2008


When you see the name Roland Emmerich on a film’s credits, you expect a little cheese. After all, the cheddar-fied flavor of wildly uneven spectacles like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow mandate such an evaluation. But no one can prepare you for the ungodly Gouda of 10,000 BC. An amalgamation of much better movies, riffing on offerings as diverse as Quest for Fire, Apocalypto, The Ten Commandments, and any number of creaky ancient myths, Emmerich has finally hit the Monterey Jack-pot. This is a film so completely devoid of creative invention that it entertains by rote, using CG-eye candy and narrative familiarity to barely get by.

Somewhere in a mixed up pre-history, the father of D’Leh leaves his hunter/gatherer tribe and sets out for unknown territories. This labels him a coward, and his son an outcast. When a blue eyed girl named Evolet shows up, village shaman Old Mother predicts doom. The proposed wooly mammoth hunt will not go well, and even worse, ‘four legged demons’ will arrive and decimate the clan. Sure enough, an invading horde of evildoers arrives and takes all available inhabitants hostage. They will be marched across the empty wilderness and then used as slave labor for a sitting ‘god’ of a legendary domain known as ‘the head of the snake.’ Along with elder Tic-Tic, and a few remaining men, D’Leh builds up his courage and follows the kidnappers, rallying the remaining tribes along the way. He then plans to take on the imposing figure building an empire off the backs of some very unwilling captives, and rescue Evolet.

As a series of set pieces looking for any available fable to keep it afloat, 10,000 BC is really nothing more than computing power and implausibility. It is cinema that strains to be relevant while failing every test of scope or significance. Emmerich, who has made chicken nuggets out of pullet poo in the past (Independence Day remains a relatively guilty but undeniable pleasure) never fully realizes his aims here, instead squandering potential moments of power for ambiguous folklore, prophetic convenience, and a true sense of scattered purpose.

There is very little that makes sense, from the reason our hero can’t carry the sacred white spear, the entire Saber-toothed Tiger sequence (which plays out like a sloppy Aesop version of Hercules and the Lion) to the last act almost reveal of our villain. And then there’s the malarkey of the “magical” ending. In many ways, 10,000 BC feels like a badly constructed parable, the ever-present narrator (Omar Sharif) getting many of the facts wrong and more or less making it up along the way.

The references to other movies are so readily apparent you can practically smell them wafting off the screen. Emmerich must have been moved by Mel Gibson’s Mayan bloodbath. He’s incorporated many of that film’s white hat/black hat simplicity and foreign language oddness. Instead of going all native, however, this director gets mixed linguistics, meaning some characters speak English, while others use their own words with (or without) translation. Nothing inspires drama quicker than waiting for a day player to explain what a supporting hero just said. Sometimes, Emmerich supplies subtitles. At other moments, the words supposedly have no meaning. When it tries for significance, it sinks. When it simply goes along lumbering under bitmap versions of ballyhoo, it’s mildly endearing.

Better casting definitely could have helped this film. 10,000 BC relies far too readily on pretty faces with empty magnetism to power its purpose, with even the more unusual and unknown foreign actors rendered generic by Emmerich’s ham-fisted touch. Our leads could easily be lumped into the “anyone from the OC” category, and we never care about the outcome of our lover’s dilemma. There’s a real sense of situational contrivance here, bad things easily circumvented by plot point coincidence or storyline self-adjustment. You can actually feel the screenwriters reacting, seeing a potential pitfall and then cooking up a clunky way out. Your unconscious viewership shifts so often under the weight of so many unexplained issues and phony motion picture happenstance that you get woozy.

While no one goes into this kind of movie expecting absolute authenticity and scientific accuracy, some of the taken liberties are downright insane. There’s a moment where pissed-off dino-birds go Jurassic Park on our traveling warriors, and the ancient priests who serve the villainous uber God look like rejects from a drag version of 300 by way of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Emmerich pitches everything so high, so vast if clearly vacant, that we get a strange feeling of entertainment vertigo. It’s as if, at any moment, the massive holes in 10,000 BC will open up and swallow us up. Unlike past attempts to revive dead genres - Gladiator and the sword and sandal peplum, Lord of the Rings and the entire fantasy film category - there is no way this movie would resurrect the caveman picture. It’s not engaging or original enough.

In the end, 10,000 BC fails because its unwieldy parts can come together to create an intriguing whole. Emmerich constantly goes for the money shot, making F/X rule where people should actually count. But since he’s gotten away with it before - The Day After Tomorrow is mostly event driven - this is one director who figures that such a strategy will always work. It doesn’t. Unless you like your fromage on the incredibly stinky and stale side, kitsch or camp value overwhelmed by a Limburger level of ludicrousness, then avoid this fossilized flop. Roland Emmerich can make decent disposable entertainment. This is one effort that’s more of a throwaway than a treat.

by Bill Gibron

6 Mar 2008


No one remembers Vantage. It crashed and burned on the launch pad. A few may recall Explorer, our first legitimate unmanned orbital mission. But mention the name Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that literally shocked the world, and you’ll get all kinds of learned and intransigent responses. In 1957, the US seemed like heaven on earth. Post war prosperity was creating a considerable Middle Class, while an unprecedented military strength suggested a sense of infallibility.

But when Russia launched the 185 lb metal sphere into the ionosphere, it signaled the start of two major international confrontations - the Cold War and the Space Race. According to David Hoffman in his excellent archival documentary Sputnik Mania, no other action would push the globe closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than this peaceful scientific folly to explore the unknown mysteries of our galaxy.

We begin with the event itself, the launch ‘heard’ all over the planet. On 4 October, the secret project successfully beat the Americans at their own progressive game. Within weeks, President Eisenhower was challenged as to the superpower’s response. In between, the media went wild, frenzied over the event and its significance. Equally insightful was the Russians continued confidence that they would be the leaders in space exploration. But soon, the military began suggesting something far more sinister - Sputnik was merely a decoy, a chance for the USSR to test the effectiveness of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (or ICBMs). Previously, the US felt confident that its chief enemy couldn’t reach its borders with an H-bomb. Sputnik’s delivery system instantly changed that perspective.

From this point forward, Hoffman builds a convincing case for outrageous reactions, political subterfuge, and eventual acquiescence by Eisenhower. Before long, he is caving to demands both inside and outside the Oval Office. He greenlights Vantage, only to see it fail. He’s suspicious of Explorer because of its Army connection and the input of ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun. Success leads to short term elation. But when the Soviets amplify the stakes by putting a dog named Laika into orbit, it appeared the US would never catch up. Luckily, the canine suicide mission, turned into a PR nightmare for the Communist nation.

There are lots of insightful moments like this in Sputnik Mania. While some may find it nothing more than an inflated History Channel special, there is a definite message beneath Hoffman’s fact parade. The key point made by this movie is that, for the most part, the satellite’s launch was wildly misinterpreted. While intelligence suggested a nuclear capability, all signs pointed to a purely scientific design. The other intriguing element is the back and forth beneath both leaders - Eisenhower in the West and Nikita Khrushchev in the East. At a summit near the end of the film, both men discover that the post-Sputnik Arms Race was more of a generals and majors idea than a clear mandate from the Commanders in Chief.

With access to a wealth of stunning stock footage and a talking head approach from those who were on the sidelines during the growing conflict, we get a wonderful overall picture of the times and temperament. The information on Vantage and Explorer is eye opening, as these American attempts at besting the Soviets are frequently forgotten in the situation’s mythos. There is also an Atomic Café style sequence where propaganda films and other media maelstroms are exposed for the short-sighted misinformation they were. Certainly, some of Hoffman’s choices are odd (pro-Communist rants fro Khrushchev’s son, comedian Robert Klein discussing civil defense dog tags) and there are moments of planned overkill (the notion that, in 1958 alone, Russia and the US detonated a nuclear weapon once every three DAYS! ). But there are also revelatory incidents, like the accidental bombing of a South Carolina city (a nuke came loose from an overhead plane and struck the town without exploding).

When it stays in this arena, when it plays to our sense of selective memory and fills in the blanks on issues long forgotten, Sputnik Mania is masterful. But just like the title, which seems a tad twee for the material, Hoffman tends to add unnecessary satire to the mix. Sure, the clips from A-bomb era movies are fun, but they tend to diminish the impact of the actual truth. Also, there are times when a surreal sense of inadvertent hero worship unfurls. When he appears indecisive and ill-prepared to respond to Sputnik, Eisenhower is viewed as a fool. But the minute he makes space a “peaceful” proposition - including the last minute stunt of Project SCORE and the championing of NASA - he’s seen as almost saintly.

It’s a weird juxtaposition, and argues for the difficult balancing act that any director must maintain. On the one hand, there is a desire to view this all as ridiculous, to see the struggle between two mighty nations for some proposed Star Wars scuffle in space to play like Buck Rogers gone potty. Yet some of these confrontations are laughable, legitimate fears exaggerated out of a lack of information and a sense of sudden morality. MAD - or mutual assured destruction - is never mentioned outright, but it is clear that the massive build-up of arms in the year after Sputnik may have actually saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.

Still, there is a lot of chest pounding and hand wringing here, the feigned nobility of the many boy’s rocket clubs that grew out of the era matched against the passionate animal lovers who challenged Russia about purposefully killing their space dog. Yet we buy most of it, if only because we believe so strongly in the storyline. Just like the attacks on 9/11, Sputnik reshaped the American mindset in a single foreign act. Responses, naturally, would be all over the map. Whoever breached the heavens first was more or less destined to determine the fate of mankind - if only for a little while. Sputnik Mania argues that, while the Soviets started the fire, the US clearly fanned the flames. Luckily, both sides came to their senses before it was too late.

by Bill Gibron

6 Mar 2008


During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find.

Terry Leather is a scrappy London car dealer, his gambling problems placing both his business and his marriage in deep, deep trouble. When an old flame named Martine Love turns up on his stoop, he’s open to her somewhat surreal suggestion. She wants Terry to put together a crew and rob a bank. She will handle all the details. He just needs to find the manpower. Set up in an adjoining shop, the plan is to tunnel into the vault and rob it. Whatever Terry and the boys get, they can keep. Martine is after a specific safety deposit box. Turns out, a Black Militant group with ties to London’s underground pornography trade has compromising pictures of one of the British royals. Their leader is using the snaps to keep out of jail. But the heist uncovers more than Terry, Martine, and government intelligence want to know. As the main instigator of the crime, even the Crown could be compromised.

As with all ‘based on a true story’ narratives, the events in The Bank Job have to be taken with a small grain of cinematic salt. In essence, what we are getting is a thirty year old account from a supposed participant in this crime, claiming that the highest levels of UK intelligence staged a robbery to protect the image of Princess Margaret. If we are to believe the facts presented, the compromising images of the noblewoman in steamy sexual congress would destroy the Monarchy (proving, once again, that this really is the early ‘70s). Equally suspect is the notion that a street hood like Terry Leather - name changed to protect the ‘guilty’, or so the pre-credits screen card reads - could literally outsmart MI5, powerful mobsters, shady radicals, and his own character issues to make this all work.

Oddly enough, the heist is not the most compelling part of this film. The set up takes a bit to build, since Donaldson clearly wants to establish character and tone here. There is a nice squalid London vibe, a real sense of time and place. And the actors make good with the limited material they are given. Jason Statham is once again the balding British bulldog with an ever present muzzle and a head butting approach to problem solving. Saffron Burroughs is very believable as the aging model turned drug mule, forced into the service of the government thanks to a boyfriend in the Agency and a taste for cocaine. As suave flesh peddler Lew Vogel, David Suchet provides the perfect combination of sleaze and sensibility. And Daniel Mays leaves a large impression as Dave, one of Terry’s accomplices.

But weak links also abound - and not just in the performance pool. Peter De Jersey’s black radical Michael X is nearly comic in his chest-puffing arrogance. The entire subplot involving another secret agent (a hippy-dippy white girl) working within his group seems senseless in both its support of the story and its finale’s brutality. Also odd is the other main narrative - the potential impact of some additional scandalous photos on high placed British officials. It makes sense in the long run, especially when you consider the criminal element the movie is dealing in, but it frequently comes across like a bad joke. It’s like a punchline without a point. Of course, the era defines such reactions. We are so much savvier in our post-modern cynicism. But that doesn’t mean it helps the movie.

Still, Donaldson’s direction guides us through the rough spots. He’s efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements. The screenplay also strikes an interesting balance between crime and punishment. We want to see Terry and his blokes succeed, if only because these thieves are the most jovial lot on the screen. But we are constantly reminded that their felonious acts don’t often pay, and on a couple of occasions, a character’s fate seems unduly harsh. Donaldson does tie it all up in the end, and we feel a sense of satisfaction with the way things play out. But The Bank Job tends to remain an epic shorn of its scope. If Martin Scorsese were behind the lens, he’d have us at “allo”. Instead, everything stays a small little bit of relatively unknown British history.

Indeed, before the gag order turned the media labeled “Walkie Talkie Robbery” (a ham radio operator overheard signals being sent between Terry and his outside lookout) into a myth, there was substantial buzz about this incident. Why no one ever attempted a fully fictional adaptation of the facts seems strange - as does the arrival of this so-called ‘insider’ version. In part, the movie works because it’s offering us a previously squelched story dealing with inherently engaging material. But The Bank Job could be so much more. Sadly, Donaldson doesn’t strive for same.

 

by Bill Gibron

5 Mar 2008


Thirty-nine is just too young, no matter how you look at it. Life provides such limited opportunities that, to lose them all at such an age smacks of cosmic injustice. Many of you may not have heard of John Polonia, nor know of his work. He was a leftover from the Super VHS craze of the late ‘80s/ early ‘90s, a kid at heart with dreams just as naïve and wide-eyed. Along with brother Mark, he made horror movies - cheap, no-budget straight to video genre exercises that filtered an obsession with US and foreign fright into shockingly original terror visions. Prolific to a fault, the Polonias were the trademark example of the new technological age. They were teens (at the time) that wanted nothing more than to express themselves on film - and the scientific progress within the medium helped them achieve that goal.

And now John is gone - taken down by a heart aneurism just short of his 40th birthday. He leaves behind a devoted brother, an equally loyal spouse, and a young son. As Mark began the painful process of sending emails out to individuals he felt connected to, a strange kind of sadness swept over the outsider arena. It wasn’t just the tragedy of a career cut too short of an existence ended before its time. No, there was a sense of loss for the medium as well, a weird kind of ennui that suggested something equally depressing. It seems, no matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, you’re one solid step from notoriety - or nothing. In the case of John Polonia, it appears only a privileged few have had the pleasure of experiencing his creativity - or understand the man himself.

There’s no denying the Polonias specialized in what can kindly be called grade-Z schlock. It was what they loved. It was where their passions lied. Growing up during the startling transition from the post-modern ‘70s to the home theater ‘80s, the boys were literally inundated with cinema. Birthday gifts included camera equipment, and collaborations with other like minded moviemakers yielded special effects and actors. Together, they forged a grass roots loyalty to Argento and Fulci, Carpenter and Romero. They made slasher films, vampire epics, tongue in cheek monster movies - they even spoofed themselves with last year’s winning Splatter Beach. Thanks to DVD and the ease of distribution it provides, the boys were just breaking away from the notion of mainstream indifference. Instead, websites were championing their films, with offers from independent studios starting to pour in.

Yet the tragic loss of John underscores the main problem in today’s progressive media. Back before anyone could make film, there was a keen sense of perspective and preservation. True, a great many decent efforts were tossed on the coals of disposability, but at least the masterful ones stayed somewhat safe. Today, everyone’s an artist. There are no aesthetic checks, no creative balances. John and Mark Polonia were able to make movies and have them seen as a direct result of these critical barriers being breached. It is not meant to be a putdown, simply a statement of fact. By direct corollary, one fears John’s work will be lost among the DIY rabble, frequently scoffed at as interchangeable and easily dismissed.

What’s not so readily removed is how much true fan affection the Polonias put in their films. From the puppet like aliens in Feeders to the wood demon of their latest film, Forest Primeval, there was a wonderful throwback element to the days of tacky creature features and Saturday matinees. They also adored gore, making their movies as bloody and as disgusting as possible. When you look over their entire output - and it’s a massive canon, to say the least - it’s like retracing at the entire history of horror. They reflect the changing attitudes in the genre, from comedy to cruelty, invention to outright rip-offs.

Ever-present were John and Mark, twin brothers with bushy moustaches and voices carved out of a clear Northeastern cadence. Fighting the cusp between able and amateurish, these like minded siblings sought to express themselves in ways that played directly into their personal proclivities. They always remained technically proficient, even working on other people’s films as actors, writers, and editors. They were genial, often self-deprecating about their product, using the burgeoning digital format to explain themselves in featurettes and commentary tracks. There was always a wistful quality to their discussions, an acknowledgment of luck in an industry that rarely rewards anything save nepotism and ‘who you know’ networking.

With John gone, it will probably be difficult for Mark to immediately move on. As he said in his recent email, it just won’t be the Polonia Brothers anymore. But spirit is a funny thing - it tends to infuse itself (sometimes indirectly) into the remainder of reality. No matter what he does from this point forward, Mark will always carry his spitting image offspring with him. That means that, if and when he makes another movie, it will clearly be a joint effort. If any good can come out of this tragedy, it’s that the messageboard attention John’s death received will provide some renewed interested in the Polonia’s films.

Tempe Entertainment, who released Primeval, is already planning a tribute for the last film the brothers made together. Not surprising, it’s a send-up of the genre entitled Monster Movie. In many ways, it’s a fitting end for a collaboration that often celebrated the weird and the whacky. Thirty-nine is just way too young. Here’s hoping John Polonia will be remembered more for his films and not for such an untimely passing. 

by Bill Gibron

4 Mar 2008


When it happens, it’s rather unsettling. In debate, we call it “squirreling”. In society, it’s known as being ‘out of step’ or ‘rebellious’. It’s never easy being the odd man out in any critical consensus. We all know the feeling of championing a band or artist who others hate, and visa versa. Yet in the world of film reviewing, such an outsider stance often results in feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. There’s also a sense of seniority at play, a deference to those who’ve done the job longer than others. The old guard gets the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, while the newer members are viewed through a novice scrim of suspiciousness.

It is a rare occurrence, but the examples are very telling indeed. Last month, Be Kind Rewind premiered. Michel Gondry’s love letter to home video and the DIY spirit of the new medium technology was uniformly undervalued by critics, many complaining that the story seemed shallow and scattered. Yet to these supposedly trained eyes right here, Rewind was genius. It extolled the value of VHS while proving that film becomes a social language all its own. During the public/press screening, you could literally feel the shrinking sense of perspective. While others in the journalist’s row scoffed and shifted in their seats, one or two of their number were transfixed - and taken in - by Gondry’s efforts.

Or take the upcoming Funny Games. A near shot by shot remake of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name, this twisted tale of a wealthy family brutalized by some very unusual killers is as smarmy and smug as it is distasteful and vile. It has nothing but contempt for the audience, purposefully tosses convention to the window, and more or less acts as an egotistical deconstruction of the whole thriller genre. Some have really connected with this film, calling it brave, bold, and masterful. But at the private screening held for press, there was only one critic who felt the same.

You could tell which one it was. He laughed at all the lame observational satire and seemed to connect with the confrontational style Haneke was preaching. During the more static bits, when bored viewers (like yours truly) looked around for some manner of diversion, you could see the man enraptured by what he was seeing. As the credits rolled and the group wandered out, the comments were harsh:

“Reprehensible!”

“Atrocious”

“Just plain bad”

“Pointless! Just pointless.”

“A repugnant piece of sh*t”

And circumventing the bile, making his way past those who wanted an additional moment with the monitor to express their disgust, the odd man out successfully skirted detection. Days later, at another event, a random comment about Funny Games elicited a sigh from said individual. Clearly, he ‘got’ what Haneke was supposedly selling. The rest were, apparently, just grumpy stuffed shirts.

Being the filmic freak can make you feel that way. This past year, the remake of Halloween and JJ Abrams experimental Cloverfield both struck massive love/hate chords with audiences. From this reviewer’s perspective, both films were excellent. This didn’t mean that he was praised for his honesty or challenged on his choice. No, most of the feedback was downright rude and abrasive. Profanity laced missives were the norm, as were blatant challenges to one’s credentials. Since a critic lives and dies by his or her opinion, such attacks are routine. But it’s interesting to see how many premise their putdowns on the sole basis of having a differing or direct opposite judgment than there’s.

Dealing with one’s peers doesn’t make it any easier or different. Around Oscar time, a conversation about The Savages started up (as an outgrowth of Juno‘s predetermined Academy win). Many in the room found it thought provoking, intense, sadly funny, and moving without being overly dramatic. They argued their case well, supporting their positions with actual evidence of dialogue remembered, specific scenes, and how close to home the film finally hit. Yet this critic was on the outside looking far, far in. He was harangued for not finding Laura Linney ‘amazing’. He was questioned as to why he thought the scripting was weak (answer: it didn’t seem real). And he was routinely disputed as being outside the mainstream in this regard.

It takes a certain type of stamina to do this week after week, to watch one mediocre Hollywood hack job after another with only your wits and your writing skills as a buffer. You recognize immediately upon liking or disliking a movie that you’ll be up against a certain consensus and may indeed find yourself walking a certain belief corridor by yourself. There’s no doubt that a critic has to develop a resilient spine, a keen wit, and a Helluva thick skin. It’s impossible to survive otherwise. Just the hate email alone would be enough to undermine even the heartiest sense of scholarship. Remember, most journalists came into film because it was a passion - something they studied either as a curriculum or as a fan. There’s no real tendency to shoot from the hip, even when they may want to.

On the other hand, most opposing viewpoints come from passion. They are perfectly appropriate and still highly irrational reactions. Funny Games wasn’t bad because it blatantly revised the way we are supposed to look at violence on film. It had major directing, acting, and scripting flaws as well. Yet sometimes, those issues are absent in the “squirrel”. For them, the link is so thoughtful and profound that all the other problems seem petty. How many times have you read a review where a critic clearly says “Factor ‘X’ was so powerful that it helped get the audience through Faults ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’?” That’s the magic and mystery of movies at play.

Certainly there is a sound guilty pleasure in being the odd duck, the squeaky wheel amongst the Kool-aid consuming rabble. Take Borat, for example. At the time, everyone thought of it as the second coming of cinematic comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen was being anointed as the new mock-doc king, and his work was actually being offered for Awards consideration. In more than one piece, yours truly took both the film and the actor to task, suggesting that he was really just an emperor pretender with a new set of snarky clothes. A little over a year later, the backlash has equalized the original praise. Now, what seemed dull witted and worn out has become somewhat prescient and pretty much on the money.

Still, that doesn’t make it any easier. During the press screening for No Country for Old Men, there were several audible groans when the still considered controversial ending finally played out. Several in the select crowd actually went so far as to suggest the film was ruined by the unconventional finale. It’s an argument that still, rages all across messageboards and fansites. Yet the Coens went on to capture several Academy Awards last month, an unscientific suggestion that perhaps some in the voting pool got their approach. That won’t silence the reviewing rebel - and perhaps it shouldn’t. It’s important to remember this, however - critics don’t purposefully buck the trend just to be different. Everyone’s opinion is valid, even if it’s not on the same page as yours.

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