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Thursday, Sep 13, 2007


Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty to instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.


With a title that suggests the start of an epic poem or perhaps a fairy tale, The Brave One is a startling achievement for stars Jodie Foster and Terrance Howard, and yet another notch in the growing artistic oeuvre of Neil Jordan. On its surface, it’s a standard revenge flick, the story of a young woman torn apart by violence and loss. But it’s also much more than that. It’s an excuse for empowerment in a post 9/11, Red State/Blue State, Yellow Alert existence. It’s Bernard Goetz bobbed up and beautified. It’s every bad cliché about the criminal element crammed into a single symbol of white flight disgust. Compare it to Foster’s first Oscar nominated effort or the shallowest of Charles Bronson’s deathly designs, but the final statement argues for our identification as an audience and our sense of satisfaction as a citizenry. That’s why it’s manipulative and ethically unstable. It’s also why this becomes one of the best, most deep and disarming films of the year.


At the heartbroken center of this story is Erica, a maturing Manhattan gal who spends her days “walking the city”. As part of her public radio show, our heroine captures the tantalizing tone poems that make up her frequently baffling burg, and she translates them into thoughts of endearment, of specialness, and space. She’s madly in love with her doctor boyfriend David, and the two share a kind of intimate peace that veils them in a shroud of sensed security. All of that changes one fateful evening. David is beaten to death by a nameless gang of thugs, and Erica is left in a coma. Once she awakens, she’s unable to cope with her loss. Days are spent drifting from dawn to darkness. Nights are lost in cold sweat visions of her violation. Deciding the only way to reclaim her life is via personal protection, Erica buys a gun.


Thus begins her decent into a kind of unfathomable urban madness. A freak use of the weapon creates a combination of physical unease and psychological satisfaction. Another use and Erica begins to change. Jordan’s main theme here is the notion of transformation. He uses the character to explore dozens of life altering events. Within the span of a few short weeks, our heroine loses her lover, her impending marriage, her inherited in-laws, her plans for the future, her stability within her insular world, the career she counted on (it’s still there, but in fragments), her physiological wholeness, her freedom, her faith in her fellow man, her naiveté, her understanding – and last but certainly not least – her principles. When she pulls out her handgun for the first time, it’s as if a foul force of nature has taken over. By the end of the movie, such an action becomes disturbingly instinctual.


Mirroring this fate in flux conceit is Erica’s “nemesis” – the cop on the beat who intends to take down this vigilante scourge. The tender Terrence Howard seems, at first, an odd choice for the role. He doesn’t bring his bad mother trucker game from Hustle and Flow, nor is he trying to be a basic by the book policeman. Instead, we sense a similar emptiness in him, a hollowed out place where his ex-wife, his career, and his belief in justice used to be. When he lies to Erica (they meet several times throughout the course of the narrative) he feigns a more or less mild interest in what she does. Eventually we learn he is a true fan, someone who bought into every fanciful facet of her New York as Neverland experience. In many ways, The Brave One is a film about growing up. It’s about learning that the boogeyman really exists, and that in almost every situation you can imagine, it’s impossible to completely avoid his tainting touch.


Though it sounds slightly sexist to say it, The Brave One then becomes a movie about “manning up”, about taking the responsibility for your own being on your less than established shoulders.  The reasons why the performances here are so flawless (Foster alone deserves another Oscar, especially since she’s better here than in either of her previous award winning turns) is that Jordan makes his heroes all too humble. Even when she’s sensing the building bravado of pointing a loaded pistol at a sleazy pervert, or reclaiming a small part of her past by tracking down her original assailants, Erica is not a champion. Indeed, in Foster’s fascinating way, we realize how desperate and destructive each act of reciprocal violence is. When shown, the killings are bloody and very brutal, overemphasized stylistically with amplified sound and slow motion fervor. Jordan is announcing the importance of each act, signifying how they will come to mold our lead, as well as underscore every event that comes afterword. Erica’s actions are not without consequences. Whether they’re ever linked to her is another story all together.


Howard is also looking to connect, and the lack of fairness in this – or any other – world is what binds him so solidly to these crimes. In some ways, he’s as much an enabler as someone trying to stop the spree. His conversations with Foster are filled with emotional fissures, gaping holes of humanity looking for emotional mortar to fill them. We see the union building between the pair, the sheepish grins they share in each other’s presence, the critical game of cat and mouse they play as hunter/prey and victim/vindicator. Some will miss all this subtle subtext, viewing the relationship between Erica and Mercer as a RomCon conceit without the bravery to take it to the next level. Others will see it as service to a story that doesn’t want to turn Jodie Foster into a cosmopolitan version of Henry Lee Lucas. But the fact is, we are dealing with a bond built on vicarious role reversal. Erica is doing what Mercer can’t. He’s finding the meaning his now joyless job once held. Similarly, she’s wielding the power a policeman holds. It can’t replace David, but perhaps, the sense of strength and purpose can begin to close the wound.


This is monumental, moving stuff, the kind of film that folds you into it cinematic sphere of influence and never lets go for the entire running time. Long after it’s over, the circumstances and situations keep playing over and over in your head. Indeed, if you really want to see the difference between mere professional filmmaking and a near masterwork, just check out James Wan’s journeyman take on similar subject matter, Death Sentence. There, Kevin Bacon turns into a skin-headed psycho, a man so overwhelmed with gratuitous grief (his entire family is slaughtered) that he turns to wrath as a means of marking time. But when Foster fires her weapon, and feels the release and the revitalization that occurs, we are seeing something more than just payback. We are witnessing the awakening of something dark and disturbing. Once unleashed, however, it can never be contained. Perhaps that’s why bravery is required – both to live with it, and through it.


 


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Wednesday, Sep 12, 2007

No matter the time of year or cinematic season, the film business loves to accent its mainstream titles with the occasional obscure, off the wall effort. Usually hoping to achieve a kind of ‘sleeper’ status, these fringe films are frequently geared toward a certain viewership or specific section of the seemingly endless audience. While often blatant in who they’re aiming for, the vast majority of these movies are nothing more than gambles. They’re a production company or noted distributor tossing the dice to see if sevens, or snakes eyes, comes up. Typically, the questionable returns on efforts like these would limit their merchandising possibilities. But thanks to the digital revolution, where product is practically creating itself, a soundtrack seems like an easily achievable addition. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will wade through the Summer scrapheap, looking for any and all aural gems amongst the motion picture pile. While the pickings may appear slim, there are actually a few grins amongst the garbage. 


Music from the Motion Picture Hot Rod [rating: 6]


It’s relatively easy to define eras by their aural backdrop. Put on a selection of merry Mersey Beat tunes, or a sampling of solid grunge, and the nods of ‘60s/’90s recognition (respectively) are hard to deny. Even a more perplexing epoch like the ‘70s can be summed up with a mixtape tricked out with disco, prog, or a proper balance of punk and pop (or for a clever combination of the two, The Ramones). But when it comes to the ‘80s, all bets are off. It was a time period that seamlessly embraced new wave, hair metal, adult contemporary, hip hop, and the emerging genres of techno and gansta rap. By the time Kurt Cobain primal screamed his way to the top of the charts, the decade had reset its cultural landscape several times over. So to call the soundtrack to SNL cult figure Andy Samberg’s screwhead comedy Hot Rod a paean to the Greed Decade is actually too broad a delineation. It is actually a homage to a couple of quintessential bands, accentuated with some wonderfully weird hidden beauties.


Europe is one of the groups in question, and they get four tracks on this combination music and movie dialogue disc. Actually, the inclusion of riffs from the film itself seems kind of pointless, since without the proper context, the comedy fails to resonate, even as a souvenir. But the boys from Sweden really turn up the sonic screech with such guitar power pomp as “Danger on the Track”, “Time Had Come”, “Rock the Night”, and the politically inconclusive (if not quite incorrect) “Cherokee”. For instant flashback fodder, Stacey Q shows up to coo away on the classic “Two of Hearts”, while Cutting Crew tries to glamorize the grimness of a title like “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”. But it’s the formerly unknown entries by Australian artists Moving Pictures (the amplified angst of “Never”) and John Farnham (the drop dead brilliant everyman anthem “You’re The Voice”) that really recommend this disc. They shine as brightly as anything the Norseman or incidental instrumentalist Trevor Rabin can contribute.


Bratz Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 1]


It’s a safe bet that parents who battled Barbie as an example of the repugnant pre-teen role modeling given their impressionable daughters never saw these doe eyed drama queens coming. The doll line – a sad excuse for underage fame whoring camouflaged as imaginative role play – is incredibly popular, and there have been many multimedia variations on its questionable glamour grrrl power routine. Yet unless you were preparing for puberty and Pro-Active-ing your blemishes, you probably weren’t aware that a live action kid flick was in the works. Arriving and diving near the end of the popcorn season, the infallible fashionistas as lamentable social statement were not quite the box office hit the toy manufacturers and demographically demanding marketers expected. Instead, Bratz The Movie was an unqualified disaster, raking in less hard sell scratch than the Itzy Pitzy Bratz Party Palace or the Forever Diamond Rollin’ Runway combined. The last bastion for a possible recoup remains the MTV-friendly soundtrack album. Yet its equally interchangeable nature and lack of artistic integrity dooms it to an equal sense of retail rejection.

A quick glance at the list of so-called musicians that make up this sorry excuse for a compilation immediately indicates your and the film’s, level of pop culture intuitiveness. Nonsensical names like Orianthi, Prima J, Brick & Lace and Jibbs bump sonic uglies with established ear wormers like Ashlee Simpson and Black Eyed Peas. The ratio of recognizeability to shrugged shoulders – at least to those whose biological age has finally reached double digits – is about 1 in 10. The music itself, however, is the same old manufactured dance beat drone you hear pouring out of iPods while online to make your own Teddy Bear at the mall. Nothing here stands out: not the diseased diva dumbness of “Rock Star”; not “Heartburn”‘s mid-tempo test of patience; not the ‘worship me’ waste of time “It’s All About Me”. And the rest is worse. Guardians who find the figurines an abominable social statement will not be prepared for the prepackaged push of this mindless, manufactured mess. While not a clear sign of the impending auditory Apocalypse, it’s a clear indication that the four mock rock horseman are getting ready to saddle up.


The Hottest State Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Back when his cache of youth coup stardom was still pretty full, Ethan Hawke managed to get the novel he wrote as a teen published. Entitled The Hottest State, the inward glancing effort was roasted by critics and dismissed by fans who wanted more of his Realty Bites slacker sense and less of his plain prose. Yet thanks to a latter career skirting the fringes of fame, working in highly regarded independent fare and earning an Oscar nod alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day, Hawke has gained a recognizable Renaissance stance. So it makes perfect sense in these days of camcorder creativity that the actor would revisit his semi-autobiographical turn. Putting on as many production caps as possible – actor, director, writer – Hawke delivered what many considered to be a massive improvement over his original naïve tome. While still an overwrought talk fest, it succeeded in shaking much of the misguided wonderment that hobbled his literary leanings.


Driven by the tentative lilt of acoustic guitars, much of The Hottest State’s soundtrack is reminiscent of open mic night down at the local folkie club. Well known names like Willie Nelson (“Always Seem to Get Things Wrong”) and the ethereal Emmylou Harris (the spectacular “Speed of Sound”) butt up against equally engaging work from bands like Bright Eyes (the whimsical and powerful “Big Old House”) and Rocha (who gets three tracks total). Jesse Harris, famed collaborator with Norah Jones (whose “World of Trouble” makes an appearance) was in charge of the overall score, and his finger picked instrumental pieces “There Are No Second Chances” and the accordion/trumpet tinged “Morning in a Strange City (Café)” provide a solid sense of atmosphere. Of his solo songs, “One Day the Damn Will Break” doesn’t hold the same tonal sway, while “Dear Dorothy” has a real honky tonk twist. There will be those who find his entire enterprise mopey and meandering, like a chill-out CD for the mildly depressed and only slightly socially maladjusted. But for a collection of soft country rock shuffles, accented by heartfelt performances and solid lyrics, it’s an excellent compendium. 


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Tuesday, Sep 11, 2007


They say it’s the toughest hurdle for a writer to overcome. Plot and characterization can draw on a dozen different elements, and subtext and themes usually arrive organically through the organization and creation process. But coming up with a title? Yeesh, that’s the benchmark between scribbler and scribe, talent and tool. If you’re looking for proof of such a literary reality, gaze no further than the last 10 years in George Lucas’ production career.


With the recent announcement of the new Indiana Jones IV movie moniker (more on that in a moment), Luke’s legitimate deadbeat dad is three for four in lousy cinematic handles. And if you thought nothing could compete with the serials gone South smell of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, wait until you feast your ill-prepared peepers on this newest nonsensical name. Unless it gets tweaked somewhere between the publicity and the close of production, the man in charge has hobbled pal Stephen Spielberg with the following lamentable label:


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Huh? What’s that again? Since when did this series suddenly see a new age Master of the Universe make-over? What, pray tell, does such a 1930’s name tell us about what to expect come May 2008? With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade, we at least had some idea of what was ahead – in each case, an ark, a temple, and a quest of some sort. And since each of the previous installments dealt with life or death, good vs. evil struggles, the mental movie began playing before a single section of celluloid was unspooled.


But what, exactly, is a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? At first glance it appears almost like gibberish, as if a videogame designer on a five Red Bull buzz simply typed random power words onto his laptop. Upon closer examination, part of the title entity could be a reference to the pre-Columbian myth surrounding the supposed mystical powers of 13 such carefully carved pieces of quartz. Though many of these relics are now considered to be the work of modern artisans, a legitimate claim of age suggests an ancient, spiritual spook show. Knowing Lucas, it could also be a throwback to the old comic strip hero The Phantom. Crystal skulls were used quite frequently in the masked hero’s adventures. 


So while the spy geek savants over at AICN and IGN decipher and dig into all manner of legal and questionable evidentiary sources in the neverending race for high tech scoops (they’ll figure this fiasco of a name out soon enough), it’s appropriate to pause and consider the overall state of the crappy movie title. There have been a rash of them lately - The Squid and the Whale, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. To be fair, it’s not that these monikers are meaningless. Some are taken from novels and other preexisting sources, while others reference important elements inherent to the storyline. But in many cases, simply stating the obvious doesn’t always provide the necessary understanding or knowledge – not even if you call yourself Scary Movie.


In truth, the worst film monikers are those that come as a direct result of a filmmaker’s unflappable belief in their own ideas. Others derive from studios unsure how to market the original onerous name. Then there are the cases where a foreign film arrives on these shores newly christened, all in an effort to get Westerners interested in what another part of the world has to say. When you add it all together, it’s plain that more goes into a truly terrible label than the “off the top of my head” conceits the concept suggests. Certainly arrogance, incompetence, and overreaching all play a part. But some things can’t be rationalized. After all, is there really a reasonable excuse for calling anything The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies? Didn’t think so. .


Which leads us back to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The rumor mill reports that LucasFilms actually submitted six potential titles to the MPAA and for potential copyright. For the record, they were:


Indiana Jones and the City of Gods
Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds
Indiana Jones and the Fourth Corner of the Earth
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Gold
Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Covenant


Apparently, old Georgie couldn’t decide which to choose, and threw a dart at his list. Seems his aim was pretty bad. Aside from Fourth Corner of the Earth (which really is no better than the final selection) the other four possibilities actually sound like realistic Raiders sequels. It’s not a clearly definable line – one man’s Destroyer of Worlds is another’s Quest for the Covenant - and let’s not forget that Lucas loves to create chaos where there’s calm. Before the DVD release of the original Indy trilogy, he insisted that the first film change its name to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to add “continuity” to the releases. Ugh.


And yet, this doesn’t really address the dilemma of a movie hampered by a horrible title. It’s hard to say if a lame name – or even more perplexing, a vague or uninteresting one – really affects awareness. Studios will state, unequivocally that branding is important to the successful selling of a film. But would The Wind that Shakes the Barley or The Shawshank Redemption play better to a mainstream audience if they were retitled The Anti-British Rebellion or Escape from Shawshank Prison, respectively? For that matter, could an obvious step outside the bonds of retail reason like Lust, Caution (Ang Lee’s latest, a WWII erotic espionage thriller) actual overcome both a bizarre moniker and an NC-17 rating to be anything other than an out of the way arthouse critical darling?


It will only get worse in the coming weeks. From the bland and uninspired Michael Clayton (which is really about more than the character forming the film’s identity) to Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (which is a lot like naming something after the classic HR Pufnstuf rhyme “Oranges, Poranges”) the art of summing up a film in a single, significant phrase is clearly a skill many inside the industry no longer possess. Unless it sings of the bleeding obvious, anything illustrative yet esoteric is truly beyond their grasp. It’s the main reason why every facet of a franchise and almost every segment of a series is stuck with a numerical nomenclature – Roman or regular.


All of which makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that much more depressing. It comes from a pair of talents that took American Graffiti and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and turned them into words that actually resonated with some kind of pre-release intrigue. True, both films found the majority of their classicism after they hit theaters – and the same could be said for any of the titles discussed here. But as the proposed Phantom Creeps components of the Star War prequels indicated, sometimes, a dumb name begets an even stupider movie. With its already potent feeling of “been there/done that”, and the ageism issues with the lead, here’s hoping the famed action hero archeologist’s trip to the land of glass heads it’s not a disaster in the making. While the pedigree suggests otherwise, the title tells a different story.


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Monday, Sep 10, 2007


As the Fall continues to bombard us with its cultural relevance, the DVD distributors are maintaining a sales status destined to complicate and perplex the entertainment picture. This week alone offers titles that should be coming out next month, when monsters and madmen are more relevant and revered. Then, there’s a small character study from Canada more or less fated to get lost in the significance shuffle. Two Hong Kong action aces deliver some of their most divisive works, while a notoriously unreleasable film from Sam Fuller finally gets a digital airing. In fact, the surreal nature of the selections seems to indicate a lack of counter programming skills, especially in light of autumn’s catch-all commercialization. Still, anytime a lost classic like our SE&L selection shows up on store shelves, able to be purchased in a version that does the title justice, we won’t care what time of the year it is. So here’s the best bet for 11 September, and a few more intriguing choices to go along with it:


From Beyond


Stuart Gordon went from Chicago theater company director to horror geek God with his wildly invention H.P. Lovecraft zombiethon Re-Animator. When it was announced that he’d follow-up that film with yet another tale from the eccentric genre scribe, his newfound fans freaked out. What possible terrors would he uncover this time around? When they saw the results, however, they were less than impressed. For some reason, From Beyond is not as well regarded as its companion piece, and after watching the film again after several years, the lack of abject appreciation is even harder to fathom. This is a first rate offering of offal, an F/X free for all with blood, bodies, and entrails everywhere. Maybe it was all the talk of engorged pineal glands that made audiences uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the strange, mid-movie S&M workout. It could be that Gordon’s devotes just wanted more of Herbert West and his living dead dark comedy. Whatever the reasons, this is a BETTER overall film than Re-Animator. It proves that this mild mannered moviemaker was more than a geek show carnival barker.

Other Titles of Interest


Away From Her


Sarah Polley, perhaps best known as the Sally Salt in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the chief female zombie fighter in Zak Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, takes the director’s chair for this fascinating film about Alzheimer’s Disease and letting go. The radiant Julie Christie is the aging woman afflicted with the illness, who finds life in a nursing home equally unsettled. An audience and critical favorite, home video now provides a chance at broader appreciation.

The Burning


After Halloween and Friday the 13th established the slasher film as the pop culture commercial cause celeb, everyone and their knife-wielding brother wanted in on the windfall. This 1981 knock-off has an intriguing lineage. It features a story by Harvey “Miramax” Weinstein and acting turns by Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. Tom Savini supplied the gruesome special effects. While far from a scarefest classic, it does have its decidedly disturbing – and disgusting – moments.

D.O.A.: Dead or Alive


Corey Yuen, a Hong Kong action maven noted for such films as Jet Li’s The Enforcer and The Transporter, brought every adolescent boy’s favorite female based video game to the big screen – and no one cared. Shuffled around from release date to release date, and given little or no publicity, it’s no wonder its target demo missed the call. They probably didn’t know it existed. DVD will hopefully show how Yuen supports a slight story with lots of signature martial arts bravado.

Face/Off


When John Woo went Hollywood, few expected something this downright delightful - especially after the seeming missteps of Hard Target and Broken Arrow. But thanks to stellar performances by Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, and an unusual and unique premise, the results are one of the director’s few English language masterworks. True the outsized story can, occasionally, barely contain the acting histrionics on display, but with Woo’s patented slo-mo mayhem, it goes down like candied crack.


White Dog


Maverick auteur Sam Fuller caused quite an uproar with his follow-up to the well received war film The Big Red One. Accused of racial insensitivity – and in some cases, outright bigotry – the filmmaker adapted Romain Gary’s tale of a seemingly calm canine ‘programmed’ to attack only black people, and the resulting firestorm sent him into European exile. Apparently, early ‘80s audiences didn’t understand the metaphor Fuller and co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson were going for. Maybe the post-millennial mob will.


And Now for Something Completely Different
American Cannibal: The Movie


It’s one of the weirdest movies to come down the pike in quite a while. Imagine Borat, except instead of sending a fake Kazakhstani journalist around America making fun of our foibles, we have a pair of reality show creators trying to sell the various networks on a show involving people eating. There has been a lot of Internet arguing over whether or not this is a 100% legitimate effort or not (a great deal of it is staged and scripted, the subjects clearly in on the ‘joke’), and how you come down on that question will color your overall perception of the picture. Even outside such issues, the film has its flaws. Our two leads do so much handwringing over the whole reality show concept that you wonder how they ever survived in such a cutthroat business. Then there’s the lack of closure come finale time. Too may questions are left laughingly unanswered. Perhaps the filmmakers were going for a Blair Witch kind of openness. The only thing they manage to achieve is a similar sense of overhyped dissatisfaction.

 


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Sunday, Sep 9, 2007


Though every generation likes to think that they’ve discovered Hollywood’s dirty little secret, the truth is that remakes have been around forever. Back in the silent days, storylines would be revisited time and time again, and once sound reinvigorated the artform, notorious non-talkies were recreated for a sonically sensitive viewership. All throughout the Golden Era, previous hits were reconfigured for new stars and directors, and musicals were made over to keep the Depression/War weary audiences entertained. Though they didn’t call themselves by the now notorious name, the ‘50s and ‘60s were flooded with genre efforts that basically repeated the same narrative ideas and themes ad nauseum, and the ‘70s saw deconstructionist directors take on their Tinsel Town favorites as an experiment in homage/hubris.


Yet over the last few years, the remake has raised its profile significantly, thanks in no small part to the decision by filmmakers to take on well known and beloved projects from the past. When Gus Van Zant decided to soil the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock by creating a shot for shot revamp of his seminal Psycho, buzzers started going off in film fans heads. If such an important movie masterwork could be given such a pathetic post-modern push, what was next? The answer came at the cost of such genre classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. While one can debate the validity and viability of these recent retoolings, the words of the late, great Gene Siskel still reverberate – why remake good movies when there are perfectly bad films out there that could use a redux.


In honor of such cinematic wisdom, SE&L presents a few suggestions for lamentable works that could really use an artistic overhaul. With the exception of one genuine gem, the movies discussed here all had promise – at least, when they were originally conceived. But somewhere along the line, their ability to translate said potential into actual motion picture polish went askew. Now, they have a chance for aesthetic redemption – that is, as long as the right combination of creativity and consideration is utilized. If not, God help us all. Let’s begin the discussion with one of the biggest eggs ever laid by a major movie name:


Howard the Duck

Fans of the original source material were excited when it was announced that George Lucas and his production company were taking on the fowl from another planet, given the filmmaker’s still active Star Wars cred. Even when it was discovered that Willard Huyuck would handle the writing/directing chores, there was still optimism. This was the man responsible for helping script American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With the standard pre-production security that accompanied ‘fantasy’ films of the era, no one knew what the title character would look like, but with a creative staff like the one at ILM, it promised to be something really special. It turned out to be a little person in a kid’s party outfit. Gone was the gaunt, cigar chomping anti-hero of dozens of cynical comics. In its place was an obvious costume that constantly reminded the viewer they were watching some guy in a suit. Add in the other misguided elements – the bumbling Tim Robbins’ character, Howard’s asexual attraction to co-star Lea Thompson – and you’ve got an abysmal cinematic mess.


In 2007, all of this can be changed. First and foremost, CGI has come such a long way that fully realized characters like Gollum (or any number of Star Wars prequels props) can be rendered in life like, interactive expertise. Howard’s original grating gumshoe qualities can be reinstated, and this new animated version can blend seamlessly into the live action without sticking out like a dwarf in duck duds. Even better, the comic book movie has been reinvented and is now revered by Hollywood, which understands the wealth of goodwill and greenbacks they can earn by giving the fanbase what it wants. All someone has to do is convince Uncle George that this project would be worth his sagging genre reputation (one assumes he still holds the rights) and find the right industry obsessive (Kevin Smith, perhaps) to give this quirky quacker the cinematic respect he deserves. Oh, and one more thing – NO Thomas Dolby electro-pop soundtrack, please!


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

When Don Knotts walked away from his role as Deputy Barney Fife on the solid ‘60s hit The Andy Griffith Show, he did so with an armload of Emmys, and a huge amount of performer popularity, on his side. Universal, long hoping to tap into that formidable fame windfall, put the actor into a series of specially designed projects, many crafted by the Griffith show’s staff writers. Who better to guide Knotts’ big screen persona than the men who developed it for the boob tube. After the combination cartoon/live action comedy The Incredible Mr. Limpet, the actor next appeared in this wonderful little gem. Using a horror theme (Knotts is a typesetter who investigates a local haunted house, hoping to become a real life reporter) and his personal pliability with physical goofiness, the filmmakers found the right balance between humor and heart. The result is an enduring classic that stands up well, even today. It showcases Knotts’ deft timing, and offers a perfect subject showcase for his shaky shenanigans.


So why remake it? Well, two reasons, actually. It’s a fantastic storyline – a little contrived and clichéd at times, but still effective as a quaint, quirky character study. It would be easy to see someone like Steve Buscemi, or a younger Jeff Goldblum, playing the part of nerdy nebbish Luther Heggs. Both are individuals who can infuse their performances with enough peculiarities and pathos to elevate the material. Secondly, special effects have grown so in the last 40 years that the haunted house element of the narrative can really be explored. The notion of a small town tainted by a towering estate with an evil past has a delightfully discordant ring to it, and done properly, the contrast between comedy and creeps can be winningly maintained – similar to the way the divergent emotions were equalized in Edward Scissorhands. In fact, if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are looking for another project to participate in, this would be right up their alley.


The Sentinel (1977)

In 1975, two books dominated the genre fiction landscape. One was Stephen King’s vampires in a small town tome ‘Salem’s Lot. The other was Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel. Centering on a New York supermodel and her brownstone apartment (that just so happens to be poised precariously over the actual gates of Hell), it was a nasty little gem, a pure page turner with gore and gratuity in abundance. Naturally, fans who favored flocking to the Cineplex to get their spine tingled couldn’t wait for an adaptation. Sadly, what arrived in 1977 was a toothless, watered down version of what Konvitz created – and oddly enough, he was responsible for the inept, uninvolving screenplay. Part of the problem with the big screen translation was the terrible casting. Christina Raines defined blandness as the helpless heroine, and director Michael Winner (a Brit, hot off the success of Death Wish) decided to pepper the rest of the roles with old school Hollywood heavies like Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Jose Ferrer, Ava Gardner, and Burgess Meredith, among many others. This gave the narrative a lame Love Boat feel. Winner himself was also an issue. He kept the blatant terrors of the novel tented in a veil of ambiguity and subtlety, in direct contradiction to what readers wanted.


With the current trend toward turning every fright flick made in the last 30 years into a pre-tween remake, it’s astounding no one has thought of revisiting this material. In the right hands, you could easily have a menacing mesh of Dario Argento’s Inferno and William Freidkin’s The Exorcist. The book is bursting with sensational scare setpieces, and with the newfound F/X tech, they can be accurately recreated in all their blood drenching glory. Even better, Tinsel Town could easily find a filmmaker more in sync with Konvitz’s sense of splatter. Imagine this property helmed by Sam Raimi, Neil Marshall, or Nacho Cerda – filmmakers who understand the visceral appeal and ambient awfulness in a little arterial spray. And then there is the ending. Since we learn that the title entity stands guard over the entrance, keeping the demons and the damned from roaming the Earth, just visualize the last act spectacle once the doors to Satan’s sin palace swing wide. It’s enough to make true macabre mavens giddy. 


Robot Jox

With the towering success of Michael Bay’s Transformers (a hit despite the prominent display of his much maligned name on the marquee), the time seems ripe to remake this Stuart Gordon sci-fi epic. Granted, the premise is a tad perfunctory: there’s no more war. Country/conglomerates now wage battle as part of a spectator sport where the title ‘athletes’ operate skyscraper sized automatons in rock ‘em, sock ‘em beat downs to the death. But thanks to the undercurrent of espionage (someone is sabotaging the machines to favor one ‘side’ over the other) and the overpowering possibilities of the visuals, we have something that CGI could make truly magnificent. This is not to say that Gordon’s movie is bad. In fact, it’s very good. It’s just hampered by a lack of financing (the production company actually went bankrupts during filming) and limited stop motion animation effects. Add in the lack of true star power – the cast is recognizable, but definitely relegated to the lower tiers of celebrity – and a basic b-movie feel, and you’ve got a project ripe for rediscovery.


In fact, Bay may be the perfect person to head up the remake. He has a tendency to inflate everything he does with an elephantine sense of importance, and he’s comfortable carving insular universes out of recognizable reality. Unlike The Island, which tried for future shock and wound up delivering flaccid schlock, Bay could really explore the dynamics of a planet gone playground, a world were a no holds barred rumble between giant machines determines the fate of nations. One can easily see the old Soviet iconography and new American jingoism being incorporated into the mix, and with the right set of actors – why does the name Nicholas Cage immediately come to mind? – this could be both monumental and meaningful. Indeed, Robot Jox is one of the few off title properties that carries a lot of inherent commentary possibilities. This means Bay could make something important for once, whether he realizes it or not.


The Incredible Melting Man

When Rick Baker was still an unknown scrub, drinking in the discerning genius of movie make-up guru Dick Smith, he was asked to participate in this peculiar project, a mid ‘70s update of a standard ‘50s sci-fi shocker. His mandate – create the title character in all its goo glop glory. And he did just that, much to the joy of slimy sluice fans everywhere. Too bad the film surrounding the slowly disintegrating astronaut was so lame. Filled with unintentional humor, oddball tangents, and a lack of other onscreen grue (while the man’s melting could be shown, his grizzly murders could not) the results are as ridiculous as they are repugnant. After a few play dates in the still standing passion pits and last remaining urban grindhouses, the film went on to obscurity, disdain, and in some outsider environs, considered cult status. It eventually achieved a newfound, if noxious, appreciation as part of a classic installment of the TV phenom Mystery Science Theater 3000.


Still, it’s a wonderful idea, and if handled by the appropriate genre guide, we could have a new installment of the one time fashionable “double dare” entertainment. For a little background context – back at the beginning of the ‘80s, when the VCR made make-up and physical effects the scare sets cause celeb, movies were made that tested the mantle of the average moviegoer with their over the top, exploitative gore. Examples included Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and City of the Living Dead/Gates of Hell, as well as John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Their reputation as notorious, noxious examples of excess had fans challenging each other, putting their love of all things red and revolting to the true eye gouging, skull drilling, head-bursting test. In the considered hands of someone like Eli Roth, or Rob Zombie (two filmmakers who get the groove of outrageous offal), we could have a new puke paradigm on our hands. 


Nightbreed

Clive Barker wanted it to be “the Star Wars” of horror films. After successfully bringing his brilliant Hellraiser to the silver screen, he eyed his “monsters among us” novella Cabal as his next project. It was to be big and brash, the culmination of his reality based repugnance (ala the beloved Books of Blood) and love of all things fanciful and foul. Using up his entire cache of industry interest and filmmaking favors (remember, this was only his second full length feature behind the lens), he envisioned an epic terror tale dealing with psychopathic serial killers, hidden underworlds, and misunderstood menace. He even got body horror icon David Cronenberg to step before the camera as one of this main leads. Production was problematic, with cost overruns and budget concerns cranking down the creativity. Similarly, scope had to be scaled back and many of the more important moments in the film (the descent into the bowels of Midian, with all its accompanying creatures) had to be trimmed or merely tossed away. When it was all over, the studio hated what they saw, and buried the film via a short spring release.


Except for the lack of support, Barker no longer faces the massive monetary concerns that held the original Nightbreed back. CGI and other effects are relatively inexpensive, and can be mastered by any one of several outside the industry artists. Even better, DVD has made incomplete movies like this a much more saleable commodity. If Barker could just get his hands on the missing film reels, restructure the storyline, and fix it all up with some computer generated jazziness, he might have something. Even better, he could just give up the notion of revamping the film himself, and let someone else tackle the actual literary source. Cabal is one of the author’s best works, and in the hands of someone equally in tune with what Barker was after – say, Peter Jackson? – the possibility exists for the epic the author always hoped for. Of course, as the prequels proved, the Star Wars comparison can be restrictive at best. Perhaps reconfiguring it as “the Lord of the Rings of the macabre” would be a good place to restart. 


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