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by Bill Gibron

24 Feb 2008


Leave it to the 80th anniversary of Oscar to throw us all for a loop - at least metaphysically. In one of those years where it seemed like every award was predetermined, Sunday night’s Academy telecast offered a few solid surprises - and a fair amount of sure things as well. It was a strange night overall: Jon Stewart taking his usual post-modern satiric swipe at everyone and everything associated with Hollywood; Daniel Day-Lewis was almost personable; and someone stole John Travolta’s eyes! There were highlights (Once winning Best Song, and Stewart leading co-winner Marketa Irglova - with Glen Hasard - back onstage to give her music cue shortened thank you’s) and lowlights (The Golden Compass beating two better films for Visual Effects), but mostly, the eighth decade of this Tinsel Town trophy fest packed a welcome bit of unpredictability.

It started with the Best Supporting Actress award. No one thought Tilda Swinton had a chance, though her turn as Michael Clayton’s corporate antagonist was cinematically solid. No, everyone had pegged Ruby Dee to take home this prize, and on the off chance she failed to get the career capper, critic’s list favorite Amy Ryan was waiting in the wings. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Swinton‘s name was called. It signaled yet another instance where this category confounded the traditional thinking. Something similar happened when Best Actress came along. From the underdog pinings for Juno‘s Ellen Page to the old world welcome back for the expected Julie Christie, Marion Cottillard‘s work in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose was viewed as quite the long shot. So when her name was announced, the stunned performer literally fell apart. She was so visibly moved during her acceptance speech that you just knew she too thought her chances were slim.

On the men’s side of the evening, everything went as scripted. Javier Bardem took home the Supporting Actor trophy, touting No Country and his homeland of Spain in the process, while Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis continued to carry There Will Be Blood on his sinewy British shoulders. Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic provided another of the night’s unexpected thrills when Robert Elswit walked away with the Oscar for Best Cinematography. In a career spanning more the 25 years, and dozens of good (Boogie Nights) and god-awful (Moving Violations) movies, this was only his second nomination - and he ended up beating Roger Deakins who was up for two awards himself (No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The man behind the Coen’s bleak Southwestern vision went home empty handed for the seventh straight time.

Elsewhere, there was conformity and confusion. Somehow, Compass did beat both Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for Visual Effects while La Vie en Rose picked up a second trophy for Make-Up work (beating Norbit, Hallelujah!). The Bourne Ultimatum garnered three trophies, all in the technical fields (Achievement in Editing, Sound, and Sound Editing). On the other hand, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had to settle for a single award for Best Art Design (Dante Ferretti and partner Francesca Lo Schiavo had previously won for The Aviator). Other singular winners included Atonement (Best Score), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Best Costumes), and Juno (Best Original Screenplay). Diablo Cody, author of the feel-good pop culture comedy was another recipient visibly shaken when she accepted her statue. Even her typical ‘too cool for school’ demeanor faded in light of the moment’s majesty.

Another shocker was Taxi to the Dark Side. The story of a cabdriver who died while in US custody (he was arrested and tortured by American forces), beat two other Iraq- based narratives (No End in Sight and Operation: Homecoming) and category mainstay Michael Moore (SiCKO) for Best Documentary. On the other hand, Pixar proved its continuing Oscar dominance by taking home yet another Best Animated Feature trophy for Ratatouille. It’s Brad Bird’s second, a staggering achievement when you think about it. Yet in the end, it was Joel and Ethan Coen‘s night. They took home acknowledgements for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and ultimately, Best Picture. None of these wins was a stunner - the boys had won the DGA and Producer’s Guild Awards - but it was still very odd to see the Academy embrace these particular filmmakers so. The duo have never been known to walk to the industry beat, not in their movies or in their public personas.

So No Country for Old Men will go down as the evening’s big winner (four in total) and the second crime drama in a row to take home the top prize (after The Departed in 2007). Trivia buffs will likely be the only ones who remember the names of the Best Live Action (The Mozart of Pickpockets) or Animated (Peter and the Wolf - again!?!?) Short, or the winner of Best Foreign film (Austria, for the true story of Nazi Counterfeiters). Office pools worldwide will smart over the upsets and eyes will now turn to the ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’. The 12 months of 2007 produced a literal landslide of excellent cinematic fare, much of which never even got a chance at Oscar gold. A year from now, we’ll be having the same argument over 2008’s hopefully abundant crop of celluloid. Here’s hoping next year’s ceremony is even more surprising.

by Bill Gibron

23 Feb 2008


The test of any great story is its adaptability - that is, how readily another individual or culture can take the basic tenets and make it their own. Myths and legends are a primary source of such interchangeable material, but there have been many ‘modern’ narratives that have found such universality. Though many may argue that he merely channeled the basic stories of the past, William Shakespeare created several plays that have become the standard bearer for dozens of updates and revisions. His most heralded work remains Hamlet, considered a true test of any actor’s mantle. Interestingly enough, it forms the basis for the luxurious martial arts spectacle The Legend of the Black Scorpion. But instead of focusing on the famous melancholy Dane, we get a decidedly female look at the complicated court politics.

This is a movie where Gertrude - in this case, Empress Wan (played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Ziyi Zhang) - is the main focus. We have our Hamlet in the tormented Prince turned tortured artist Wu Lan (a wonderful Daniel Wu) and a backstabbing, scheming Uncle (You Ge) who may have murdered his own brother for the throne. Toss in the unrequited love of Qing Nu (a heartbreaking Xun Zhou) daughter of the crown’s chief advisor, her brother (Xiaoming Huang) exiled to a distant part of the Empire, and a defiant official who pays for his consternation with his life, and you’ve got the Bard’s basics clearly in place. But director Feng Xiaogang isn’t interested in just retelling the well honed saga. Instead, he adds subtle subtext about human nature, the need for individual facades (or masks), and the ruthless nature of power - both personal and political.

Together they combine to bring new life to a classic. The Legend of the Black Scorpion (on DVD as part of the Weinstein Company and Genius Products excellent Dragon Dynasty Collection), for all its Old Vic allusions, is purely Chinese in its execution. This is a film that flaunts massive, impressive sets, long, luxuriant takes, performances pitched somewhere between dour and delirious, and enough Yuen Wo-ping wire fu to soften even the most hardened of martial arts hearts. Thanks to the brilliant art direction, the use of tone and mood, the emphasis on interpersonal passions and pride, as well as the incomparable scope of events, we get a story that soars well above the typical elements. Instead, Xiaogang gives us tragedy as a type of cosmic destiny, a means of making the smallest act seem like the most significant and symbolic step ever taken by a human being.

The Legend of the Black Scorpion is indeed as eye opening as it is thought provoking. From the opening moments when we meet Wu Lan in his beautiful bamboo school, to the last act confrontation at the world’s most sumptuous banquet, Timmy Yip’s stunning designs, loaded with exotic and ephemeral touches, take us back in time and literally out of this world. While most period pieces strive for some semblance of era-appropriate realism, only the warrior uniforms here recall a feudal state. The rest of Black Scorpion shudders like an art gallery come to life, moments so magnificent and masterful that you wonder how they were ever achieved. As part of the new two disc DVD package, we learn a great deal about the production, how CGI and other optical tricks were used to realize some very ambitious aims. It highlights the big budget foundation of this fascinating film.

Yet pretty pictures are nothing without actors and performances to populate them. And in the casting of Black Scorpion, Xiaogang has found a fascinating company indeed. For all her plaintive, porcelain beauty, lead actress Zhang makes a devastating villainess. Perhaps because she is so regal in her demeanor she comes across as even more cruel and heartless. At the other end of the spectrum, no Western actor can out melancholy Wu when it comes to playing our notoriously depressed lead. Instead of being inactive or unable to defend himself, the Prince in this version of the story stands for his principles and fights when confronted. It is only when he sits with the Empress or his love Qing that his true sadness comes forth. Wu is a wonderful martial artist, a man who typically isn’t given much of a chance to highlight his kung fu. Here, he gets a pair of wonderful swordplay scenes, and he really excels in both.

As for his handling of the material overall, Xiaogang can be accused of going slo-mo more than necessary. During the opening attack at Wu Lan’s school, there is a great deal of undercranked blood spray. Indeed, fans of such formal epics may be put off by the amount of gore here. Bodies are bisected with regularity, and one character is beaten to death in a gauntlet so cruel it’s almost impossible to watch. Yet between all the garroting and wound gushing, suicides and mass slaughter, it’s the lesser intrigues that carry this film. And it is here where this director truly shines. The scenes between characters sizzle with unspoken fervor, and the contrasts between close-ups and massive establishing shots never let us forget the “cogs in a bigger machine” theme. In fact, it’s clear that Xiaogang used Hamlet for more than a fictional foundation. Something about the story truly resonated with him.

It’s a fact confirmed by ever-present commentator Bey Logan as part of Black Scorpion‘s excellent digital overview. Spending most of his time comparing and contrasting this version of the Bard with the original, there is a lot of insight in the alternate narrative track. From moments he feels surpasses the classic to times when traditional Hong Kong filmmaking took over, Logan lets us in on all aspects of the production. Perhaps the most engaging material offered centers on the missing scenes - intriguing sequences scripted but never filmed. We also learn who killed Wu Lan’s father, and why such a conclusion was cut out of the film. Along with the standard Dragon Dynasty interviews and featurettes (Xiaogang and Wu get the Q&A treatment, while there are two Making-of documentaries), we truly begin to understand the positives - and potential negatives - of adapting a very famous tale.

Yet it’s that very alteration that stands as The Legend of the Black Scorpion‘s biggest accomplishment. While it seems next to impossible to take Hamlet and make it your own, the creative company behind this film has done just that. There is just enough Shakespeare here to keep purists from crying foul. Yet there is also enough originality and outright vision to keep things looking and feeling wholly unique. Some may complain over the lack of action (there are probably four or five major martial arts sequences in a 140 minute movie), and the open-ended conclusion could leave audiences cold, but make no mistake about it - The Legend of the Black Scorpion is as opulent and overpowering as any version of the famous play you’ve ever seen. It stands as a true work of art.

by Bill Gibron

22 Feb 2008


At this point in its cinematic history, the zombie has been reduced to a journeyman horror workhorse. In a genre that once saw it as a frightmare superstar, rabid fanboy love (and the accompanying desire to show such affection via homemade imitation) has reduced your standard cannibalistic corpse into a hackneyed terror tenet. Gone are the days when the novelty of the creature could carry an entire film. Now, if there aren’t CGI hordes of these flesh craving fiends defying logic and physicality as they sprint across the screen like undead athletes, fright fans groan in disapproval. It will be interesting to see how they greet Jorge Grau’s 1974 old school scary movie The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, there’s a lot here that a new fangled macabre maven could love. There is also a great deal to test their post-modern patience. 

While on his way to a holiday in the country, antiquities dealer George has his motorcycle totaled by inconsiderate driver Edna. They strike up a bargain - she will take him to his cottage, if he will first let her visit her sick sister. Lost along the way, they seek directions from a local farmer. He is in the process of using a newfangled government device that kills bugs and other parasites via radioactivity. What they don’t know is that the machine also resurrects the dead. Edna is attacked by a strange man, and when they arrive at her sibling’s, the crazed woman is screaming about the death of her husband. Of course, the conservative police inspector doesn’t believe a word of their story. He thinks the duo are murderous hippies ala The Manson Family, ready to turn his lush part of England into their own killing fields. It will take more than a few hysterics to convince him there’s something more sinister going on. The reanimated bodies tearing up the hospital may be all the proof anyone needs.

If you’re looking for the missing link between George Romero’s zombie epics and his splattery Italian copycats, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue might just be that absentee connection. Combining the American ideal of suspense and social commentary with the Mediterranean love of all things gross and gory, Spanish transplant Jorge Grau was given a simple mandate by this eager backers - create a commercially viable color rip off of Romero’s 1968 black and white Night. With a long list of credits including recent genre efforts Penalty of Death and Bloody Ceremony (both from ‘73), the filmmaker was provided a hefty budget and the run of Cinecitta Studios. With some location work in England, and the growing emergence of Italian special effects, Grau gave his audience more than they bargained for.

Indeed, the main thing you notice about Manchester Morgue is the anti-counterculture screeds from American actor Arthur Kennedy. Attempting a passable Irish/Scottish brogue, and looking like your typical Establishment goon, the former Hollywood star repeatedly rails against, hippies, drugs, youth, long hair, non-conformity, and anything else that comes into his button down mind. He is backed up by some local bureaucrat that uses his preoccupation with the occult to accuse the newly arrived city slicker suspects of Satanism. It’s a weird juxtaposition. On the one hand, you have the typical zombie dramatics - dark night, groaning and heavy breathing, the sudden appearance of a reanimated corpse. But by placing the blame squarely on our hero and heroine, Grau gives his movie a touch of necessary realism.

There is also a staunch pro-environment message here as well. The radioactive bug zapper, its five mile range bringing the recently deceased back to life, is part of a multilayered look by Grau at that time tested standby, man vs. nature. At the beginning, when George is riding around London on his motorcycle, we see shots of nuclear power plants and dirty, decaying buildings. This is not the slick, high tech city circa 2008. Instead, Manchester Morgue suggests a metropolis dying under the influence of crass corporate and industrial practices. There’s even an overheard radio broadcast later on that supports such a view. Our lead also loves to chide the workers running the big red atom smashing pest controller. His shouting matches over the effect on the land - and later, the local corpses - provide the film with a solid bedrock of beliefs.

But for most horror fans, it’s gore that delivers the most perverse pleasure, and Manchester Morgue doesn’t disappoint. While you have to wade through 80 moody minutes to get to the sluice, Grau gives in to our basic bloodlusts. We get axes to the head, disemboweling, lopped off breasts, several bites to the neck, and enough walking ghouls to infect even the most cynical fan with a good case of the heebie jeebies. When you combine this material with the film’s already pea soup thick tone, it becomes a very unsettling experience. Like most great fear flicks, we get the distinct impression that anyone can die at any time. And since Kennedy is simply jonesing to deliver a little conservative comeuppance to the two ‘long hairs’ he feels are responsible, we get double the threat.

But The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is really centered on style and approach. Grau doesn’t give in to the temptation to merely imitate Romero. He avoids the documentary dynamic that made Night so memorable, and instead seems to channel a great deal of Hammer’s horror ideal. Similarly, the film is not fully Italian. Instead of completely painting the cinematic canvas red, this director explores character, hot button issues, and religious symbolism as a way to make his monster mythology more believable. There are oddball elements interspersed here and there - the opening London travelogue with the occasional mysterious figures in the background, the notion that the zombie can “create” members of their killer brood by the application of blood to the eyelids - but since Grau keeps everything else grounded, we buy their overall non-believability.

Thanks to Blue Undergroud’s exceptional new transfer (bright and basically flawless) and attention to added DVD content (we get interviews with Grau, star Ray Lovelock and F/X artist Gianmetto De Rossi), The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is poised to be rediscovered by a new generation of terror aficionados. And it definitely deserves the chance, if for no other reason than to show how the entire subgenre changed and mutated to fit the current social and political clime. Instead of feeling dated, as some ‘70s films find themselves, there’s a timeless quality to what this movie accomplishes. By looking to the past while focusing on the present, Grau gives us an experience to contemplate for decades to come. It’s a dark and very disturbing vision. It also proves that, when done right, zombies can still be the creepshow kings. It’s a lesson many post-millennial moviemakers could definitely learn. 

by Bill Gibron

21 Feb 2008


For the weekend beginning 22 February, here are the films in focus:

Be Kind, Rewind [rating: 9]

At its core, Be Kind, Rewind is a brilliant dissection of the effect the video cassette had on the concept of movie fandom and its lasting impact of cinema in general.


There’s a strange sort of feeling that comes over a person when they stumble across another’s love letters. Of course, there’s the inherent curiosity of seeing how someone else expresses their emotion. But there can also be a small amount of discomfort, especially when the individual invaded bares their soul so completely. This will probably be the reaction most moviegoers have to Michele Gondry’s magical masterwork Be Kind, Rewind. Those looking for a riotous comedy featuring a fully unleashed Jack Black should probably wait for the comedian’s next high concept project. In this French filmmaker’s personal paean to the ‘80s and home video, everything - including the performances - is in service of his passionate, very personal vision.read full review…

Other Releases - In Brief

Vantage Point [rating: 5]

When a movie has to rely on a series of cinematic stunts to achieve its ends, the convolutions are bound to undermine the ambitions - and that’s exactly what happens in Peter Travis’ around about political thriller. Using the attempted assassination of a US president at a massive world terrorism summit (and an additional suicide bombing) as the grist for a ‘keep ‘em guessing’ bit of conspiracy theorizing, this TV director can only trade on a single glorified gimmick. The event here is replayed at least eight times, viewed from as many personal perspectives as possible, providing snippets of truth and indirect clues along the way. While the concept seems competent in theory, the execution is spotty and uninspired. Every time we think we have a handle on all the back stabbing, uneasy alliances, and double crossing, Barry Levy’s script takes an illogical shortcut, using unbelievable coincidence and contrivance to get all the actors in the same space at the same time. While the performances are uniformly good, and the last act car chase gets the pulse pounding, the overall effect is dizzying. Like a terminal case of déjà vu, Vantage Point appears destined to repeat its problems over an over again. And then it does.

by Bill Gibron

21 Feb 2008


There’s a strange sort of feeling that comes over a person when they stumble across another’s love letters. Of course, there’s the inherent curiosity of seeing how someone else expresses their emotion. But there can also be a small amount of discomfort, especially when the individual invaded bares their soul so completely. This will probably be the reaction most moviegoers have to Michele Gondry’s magical masterwork Be Kind, Rewind. Those looking for a riotous comedy featuring a fully unleashed Jack Black should probably wait for the comedian’s next high concept project. In this French filmmaker’s personal paean to the ‘80s and home video, everything - including the performances - is in service of his passionate, very personal vision.

In a rundown section of Passaic, New Jersey, Mr. Fletcher owns a mom and pop video store. Specializing in video tapes, he soon realizes he may have to modernize - especially with the city threatening to condemn his building and put him out of business. Leaving his likable clerk Mike in charge, the desperate man heads off on a fact finding mission. He has only one mandate - keep the loose canon crazy man Jerry out of the shop. Seems the manic mechanic believes the electric company is scrambling his brains. After an aborted mission to sabotage the utility, Jerry is magnetized. When he enters the store, all of Fletcher’s inventory is erased. Hoping to stave off disaster - and the boss’s personal spy, the nosy Mrs. Falewicz - Mike gets Jerry and dry cleaner employee Alma to help him recreate all the movies lost. He will then use these “sweded” versions of the films to keep the enterprise afloat. Hopefully.

Be Kind, Rewind, is the sort of movie you have to step away from for a moment - especially in light of the creative conceit that appears to be driving the narrative. When you learn that the main thrust of the film will focus on the ‘recreation’ (or ‘sweding’, as the script calls it) of classic ‘80s films - Ghostbusters, Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy, etc. - you expect that material to be golden. And it really is, Gondry relying on his typical homemade special effects aesthetic to mine amazing satire out of the spoofs. But once you realize how these knockoffs are made - from memory, without screenplays or copies of the films to work from - you begin to see the director’s designs. There is indeed much more to this movie than a series of pointed parodies. At its core, Be Kind, Rewind is a brilliant dissection of the effect the video cassette has had on the concept of movie fandom and its lasting impact of cinema in general.

It all begins with the premise: two semi-slackers - one, a determined video store clerk with artistic ambitions; the other, a technologically tuned-in cynic who sees the mainstream as manipulative and evil. Together, they become an independent force for film, taking iconic motion pictures and processing them through their own pop culture blender. It’s like watching the onscreen birth of Quentin Tarantino and Ain’t It Cool News simultaneously. Even better, the resulting movies become so meaningful to the clientele, so part of who they are as an audience and a community, that they rally around the guys when trouble strikes - in this case, Sigourney Weaver in a wicked cameo as a copyright touting studio suit. Everything that home video did to the medium - the ready accessibility, the collector’s obsession, the direct connection, the self-righteous self importance - becomes part of the thematic landscape that Gondry explores. It’s like an analog trip in the way-back machine.

And he does so in a more straightforward, less surreal manner, than ever before. Working from his own script, the filmmaker finds the perfect balance between the odd and the ordinary, taking outside issues (Fats Waller, jazz rent parties, the history of Passaic) and juxtaposing them against Mike and Jerry’s adventures in moviemaking. Unlike previous films, where Gondry was forced to battle with elements of magical realism, the fairytale, and the downright bizarre, he gives himself the freedom to explore both the real and the unreal world, to wander through a specific universe peppered with as much imagination and invention as the slightly sci-fi realms he’s worked in before. 

Gondry also has yet another amazing cast to help him. Mos Def’s Mike is the heart of Be Kind, Rewind. He provides the motivation to make us care, along with the vision to keep us involved. Taking point is Black as the brain addled Jerry. Walking a very thin line between endearing and aggravating, we buy most of what the character presents only because the film finds a way to keep his whimsy cheery and in check. Danny Glover and Mia Farrow add skilled, old school flavor as Fletcher and Falewicz, respectively, and former MTV fave Kid Creole does a delightful job as the manager of a local ‘Blockbuster’ style store. But the real discovery here is Melonie Diaz. While she’s worked consistently in smaller budgeted films, this is one of her first mainstream roles, and she’s great as the direct and dictatorial Alma. Without her guidance (and fiscal gifts), our heroes would be nothing but unheralded hacks.

But when it’s all put together, when Gondry’s subversive message about the way VHS revised our perception of film finally finishes, Be Kind, Rewind becomes a celebration of cinema as both a medium and a message. From the subtle references to other like minded films (the ending is so Cinema Paradiso that Giuseppe Turnatore should be flattered…or filing a lawsuit) to the original use of post-punk DIY spirit, this is an artist assembling his greatest hits in hopes it will resonate with an already jaded demographic. The biggest hurdle this fine film will have to face is a know-it-all audience that sees too much of themselves in Mike and Jerry. While Gondry definitely champions their wide-eyed wonder, the ending suggests that belief will have to succumb to business as usual. With ads selling the story as a nonstop collection of moronic remakes, there will definitely be some buyer’s remorse.

But unlike the bloated blockbusters from two decades ago, there’s a subtext to this movie beyond a single oversold gimmick. Be Kind, Rewind is as hilarious as it is heartfelt, a fully formed film, not a simple set-up for a collection of copies. And when you consider the history of videotape, how it turned a dying medium into a potent, and profitable, cultural signpost, the parallels here become all the more significant. Years from now, when scholars are ruminating on movies that accurately reflected the inherent issues within the artform, Gondry’s greatness will be revealed. Until that time, be brave and take a gander at this man’s outspoken adoration for the format that changed everything. Forget HD. Ignore DVD. The VCR was perhaps the most important filmic force since sound and color - and Be Kind, Rewind understands this all too well. That’s why it’s such a smart, sensational film.

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