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Wednesday, Aug 15, 2007


For a time, he was the bad boy of British filmmaking, a moniker that actually meant something back in the productive, post-modern phase of cinema. A director by whim instead of choice, he turned an obsession with visuals into an iconic, inventive style. His fascination with religion, symbolism, nature, and human frailty became the calling cards of his fractured, sometimes frightening vision. Today, his oeuvre forms a footnote in the ongoing deconstruction of late century consensus, and that’s really a shame. Before all the ballyhooed bandits who supposedly struck substantive blows against the artform’s stodgy empire, Ken Russell was the original rebel. And unlike his current compatriots, there was a slightly ludicrous legitimacy to his creative cacophony.


It was English TV where the former dancer and avid still photographer found his initial infamy. After a series of short films, Russell began creating his impressionistic biographies of famous composers, narratives that would usually avoid the facts to find the metaphysical import of the artist. While many forgave his frequent factual miscues and meshing of period placement with modern sensibilities, not every denizen of the dead was amused. The estate of Richard Strauss withdrew the musical rights to the acclaimed musicians catalog after viewing The Dance of the Seven Veils, an effort described by Russell as a “comic strip in seven parts.”  To this day, they have never allowed the supposedly scandalous work to be shown.


That was 1970. The year before, Russell had caused even greater international controversy with his award winning film Women in Love. Only his third feature (after French Dressing and Billion Dollar Brain), this reimagined D, H. Lawrence adaptation featured robust sexuality and that most taboo of big screen stigmas – full frontal MALE nudity. Of course, no outrage goes unnoticed in the UK’s tabloid mentality, and Women became one of the year’s biggest hits. It was nominated for four Oscars, several BAFTAs (the English equivalent) and three Golden Globes (where it won Best Picture). Russell’s reputation was secured, especially among his fellow countrymen. He quickly became the era’s most important filmmaker. But even that wasn’t good enough for the confrontational creator. He would top the Strauss imbroglio with an even more contentious effort – 1971’s The Devils.


After the issue with Veils, Russell quickly regrouped. He tackled the life of Tchaikovsky, including a confrontation of his horrible childhood and closeted homosexuality, in The Music Lovers. Once again, he was the toast of the critical community. Looking for his next project, the director decided on two. One would be an adaptation of the renowned stage musical The Boy Friend (starring supermodel in transition Twiggy). The other would be a reworking of Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction focus on superstition and religious fanaticism in 17th Century France, The Devils of Loudun. Starring Oliver Reed (in one of many collaborations between the actor and the filmmaker) and Vanessa Redgrave, Russell used the book’s factual foundation to mount a vicious attack on the Church and its brutal, backwards mindset.


The film, rife with sex, purposeful perversion, and uncompromising criticism, was more than an early ‘70s audience could handle. Banned almost immediately in Britain, Russell also fought with Warner Brothers over its decision to further edit the final cut. Similar to the stance taken by fundamentalists when Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ hit theaters, conservative groups and religious proponents responded angrily at the director’s decision to mix dogma with explicit acts of carnality. The story, focusing on Reed’s character, a disillusioned priest targeted by Cardinal Richelieu, was seen as a scathing denouncement of organized religion. Fr. Urbain Grandier is accused of corrupting a local convent, and with the help of the deformed, sexually obsessed Sr. Jeanne, he is found guilty and burned as a heretic. Featuring a notorious sequence where naked nuns molest a statue of Christ, Russell’s inspired insidiousness drove censors, and the cash men, crazy.


Yet his reputation only soared after the motion picture was completed. The Venice Film Festival and the National Board of Review both picked him as their Best Director, and the added attention brought audiences to his genial, jovial Boy Friend. Besides, in less traditionalist countries, Russell’s version of The Devils played unedited, meeting with much acclaim. After 1972’s Savage Messiah (a self financed study of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) and 1974’s Mahler (nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes), Russell was handed the perfect vehicle for his opulent visual passions. Roger Stigwood was looking to capitalize on the popularity of The Who, and in particular, their groundbreaking 1969 rock opera Tommy. Long a favorite among fans and aficionados, the core concept for the production was simple. Let lead singer Roger Daltrey play the deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a media messiah. Gather together a collection of current popstars for support. Let composer Pete Townsend flesh out the narrative. And then put it all in the hands of England’s foremost motion picture agent provocateur.


Purists initially balked at the changes requested by Russell and the producers, yet the final result remains the most accurate visualization of Townsend’s take on commercialized and manipulated false idolatry ever attempted. Much of the movie’s genius remains in its dead clever casting. Ann-Margaret played Tommy’s mother, a master stroke considering her earlier incarnation as a part of the packaging of Elvis Presley (as the lead in the satire Bye, Bye, Birdie and the King’s actual costar in Viva, Las Vegas). Reed was once again a part of the picture, his atonal squawk a perfect illustration of his character’s corrupt nature. Supporting roles went to noted names in the current pop purview. Eric Clapton played a nefarious preacher, while Tina Turner was the drug wielding Acid Queen. Who bandmate (and noted party boy) Keith Moon was the perverted, pedophilic Uncle Ernie, and UK idol Paul Nicholas became the callous Cousin Kevin.


The two biggest casting coups came when celebrated megastars Jack Nicholson and Elton John agreed to be part of the production. The star of Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown came on for a cameo, singing (!) the part of Tommy’s quack physician. For the all important role of the Pinball Wizard (for those unfamiliar with the work, our hero becomes a cause celeb thanks in part to his unusual adeptness at the classic arcade amusement) Rod Stewart was originally targeted. But the phenomenally popular keyboard player was a much more obvious choice. His 1974 album Caribou had produced two #1 hits (“The Bitch is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and the release of a Greatest Hits package later that year lead to another chart-topping smash. Decked out in gigantic Doc Marten boots and playing a ‘pinball piano’, John literally stole the show, driving fans to the film for his single scene appearance alone.


Even today, Tommy stands as a remarkable cinematic statement. Russell, working flawlessly within the parameters of the corrupt celebrity spotlight, exacts amazingly nuanced work from his cast. Since there is no dialogue (Tommy is an all singing storyline with additional visual narrative to supplement the songs), everything must be told and sold through performance. Daltrey, having more or less played the lead for the better part of six years, was a perfect golden boy icon. Ann-Margaret is an equally compelling mother Mary (she received a well deserved Oscar nomination or her turn). Even performers unfamiliar with the motion picture format shine in Russell’s revisionist world. Even better, the director’s delirious reliance on visual surreality and symbolism effortlessly matched Townsend’s psychological subtext. Had the movie been a simple, straightforward interpretation of the album, we’d be bored by the time Tommy becomes a quasi-cult leader. But because of its biting social satire, its amazing musical score (given one of the first multichannel Dolby presentations), and the filmmaker’s fascinating vision, it remains a minor masterpiece, and a terrific time encapsulation of the growing Me Decade malaise.


Unfortunately, Tommy would become Russell’s last real meaningful mainstream statement. He tried to copy its anti-fame facets with the blatantly blitzed out Listzomania. Reteaming with Daltrey, the director attempted to turn the life of Franz Liszt into a junk culture jaunt through the wicked world of celebrity excess. Envisioning the classical composer as the world’s first pop star, Russell sets up a rivalry with Richard Wagner. He even depicts Hitler’s favorite musical savant as the bastion of all that is evil (quite literally - he’s a vampire here). His war of ideals – the creative vs. the corrupt, the genuine vs. the false – was overflowing with eccentric and downright bizarre imagery. From an oversized phallus wielded as a weapon, to a last act confrontation including a spaceship (???), this follow-up to the internationally embraced Tommy almost obliterated Russell’s reputation. Viewed as wildly self-indulgent and reckless, it remains one of the director’s most notorious (and unseen) efforts.


Once Listzomania started the ball rolling, Russell never regained his stature. In 1977, he tried to sell a sexed up take on the life and career of silent film star Rudolph Valentino (starring a frequently naked and awkward Rudolph Nureyev), but even three BAFTA nominations couldn’t erase his stained standing. In one fell swoop, he had gone from creator to crackpot. The trouble with his 1980 adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s sci-fi novel Altered States didn’t help matters. Based on the work of scientist John Lilly and his research into sensory-deprivation, the award winning playwright and screen scenarist envisioned a storyline which suggested that, deep inside every human being, was his primordial, prehistoric ancestry, desperate to get out. Tapping into that genetic memory via drug-aided sessions, a sort of biological devolution could take place. Though not an award winning tome by any far stretch of the imagination, Chayefsky believed it made a salient point about the state of mankind.


Russell didn’t really ruin the source material as much as make it his own. Star William Hurt was put through all manner of make-up torture to depict the then novel onscreen physical transformations. The subtext of LSD and other hallucinogens gave the director license to literally create a big screen interpretation of a trip, and the standard Russell obsessions – religion, blood, carnality – came pouring forth. Though surprisingly faithful to the novel’s middle act (Hurt turns into a primitive caveman, wrecking primal havoc in the process), the ending was like an explosion inside the aging filmmaker’s Id. It was quite clear what he was going for (a character trying to reclaim his modern humanity), but the overly stylized and mannered way it attempted to get there caused more confusion than clarity.


Well respected and praised today, Altered States was a decent sized hit at the time. But Chayefsky, furious with the liberties taken with the material (he saw it as a serious speculative effort, not an infantile F/X freak out), asked for his name to be taken off the production (he had also provided the script). Somehow, that translated into Russell being difficult and demanding, and with the cloud of his previous cinematic foibles still in full flower, he was dismissed as part of a sad, hedonistic decade. It was four years before he would make another feature film, and his 1984 take on sex for sale, Crimes of Passion, proved to be his final Hollywood effort. Tapping the then rising Kathleen Turner for the role of prostitute China Blue (who, by day, is a fashion industry employee) and offering Anthony Hopkins the plum role of corrupt preacher Rev. Shayne, the saga of corporeal identity and interpersonal kink caused quite a stir with its frank depictions of fetishism and the erotic. While some praised its frankness, others saw it as a middle aged man’s fantasy fodder.


The next seven years would settle Russell’s reputation as a has-been. His take on Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (including the creation of her seminal work, Frankenstein) became the stagnant and unimaginative Gothic. Whereas his version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome’s Last Dance was novel (the director intercuts the play with sequences set inside a brothel where the production is being helmed) it was Lair of the White Worm that brought him back into the populist arena…if ever so slightly. Featuring a standard horror narrative (Satanic snake charms and disarms a local countryside community) and an early turn by future heartthrob Hugh Grant, it remains a crazy quilt cult hit. But after another trek into D. H. Lawrence territory (1989’s The Rainbow), and 1991’s ‘been there/done that’ Whore (controversial in its NC-17 rating only), his cinematic importance was all but erased. He turned to making music videos, oddly enough working once again with Elton John, and concentrating on television back in Britain.


Today, Russell stands as a well regarded artifact from filmmaking’s wild and wonky past. He is pigeonholed as a man more interested in style over substance, and thanks in part to his eccentric efforts for UK television (including a jaunty take on the English Folk Song), he’s become, at 80, a twee goofball granddad. He’s continued making movies over the last 20 years, little seen efforts with intriguing names like Lion’s Mouth, Revenge of the Elephant Man, and his rock and roll take on Edgar Allan Poe, Fall of the Louse of Usher. Almost all are self-financed, and many are filmed on the fly on his own estate. Granted, remaining active has its advantages, many believe his recent output to be nothing more than an elaborate collection of in-jokes from one of Hell’s more histrionic harlequins.


Just this year, the much maligned maverick announced his newest project – a take on Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders. Whether it sparks renewed interest in the man’s considerable creative canon remains to be seen. The fact that it even requires rediscovering is perhaps the saddest aspect of Russell’s tale. Though he was frequently his own worse enemy, he left behind a legitimate legacy of big screen artistry that’s almost impossible to ignore. One day, the world will once again wake up to this passionate, if problematic cinematic visionary. Until then, Russell remains an enigma, one that should be welcomed back with open, appreciative arms.


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Tuesday, Aug 14, 2007


From time to time, SE&L will step back and let the Tinsel Town marketing machine do what they do best – tantalize and tease us with clever coming attraction previews and trailers. The five films focused on this time around represent some highly anticipated future outings, including the latest from cinematic stalwarts like David Cronenberg, Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson. Every few weeks, we’ll take a break from casting our critical eye over the motion picture artform and let the shill do the talking. And of course, once they do open in theaters, you can guarantee we will be there, deciphering whether the come-on matches the context. In any event, enjoy:


Eastern Promises
David Cronenberg is reunited with his History of Violence star (Viggo Mortensen) for a story of “murder, deceit, and retribution” among the members of London’s Russian mafia.



Lions for Lambs
The War in Iraq gets the soapbox treatment in this multilayered narrative revolving around the people, the politicians, and the policy that serve this senseless conflict.



The Darjeeling Limited
Part mystical journey, part familial non-erotic male bonding, Wes Anderson’s latest looks like it will continue his streak of eccentric yet effective dramedies.



No Country for Old Men
All the rage at Cannes, the Coen Brothers’ new movie takes author of the moment Cormac McCarthy’s New West noir and brings it to startling life.


Be Kind, Rewind
Jack Black and Mos Def star as video store employees who decide to replace their erased VHS inventory with their own homemade versions of classic films.


 


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Monday, Aug 13, 2007


It’s a week of extremes at the old B&M. On the one hand you have the arrival of the latest opus by a man who makes more than just movies. Indeed, his latest work is as unruly and brilliant as ever. On the other side you have an obscure TV cartoon that made the transition to celluloid in a rather nefarious fashion. The city of Boston will never forget the fear generated by its viral marketing strategy, a plan that ended up being mistaken for a terrorist attack. In between, you’ve got an unfathomable box office hit, an unfairly dismissed thriller, an amazing documentary, and a collection of desirable double dips. Put them all together and the 14th day of August is looking like yet another retail burden on the old bundle. If you can only afford a since disc this week however, make sure you pick up our SE&L selection. It represents the best that the modern film movement has to offer:


David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE


It’s a shame that this director’s output is so infrequent that it becomes an event when he makes a new movie. What’s even more disturbing is that no one would allow the man the artistic freedom to produce and market the final results the way he wanted. David Lynch may be a lot of things – difficult, arcane, incomprehensible – but to deny his impact on cinema, and the amazing films he’s made in the process, seems downright foolish. In fact, many found this latest offering (a shot on digital experiment melding many divergent storylines and characters into a single thematic statement) to be his most daring and definitive to date. Leave it to the jaded genius to self distribute the work, carting it around to theaters all over the country for limited engagements. The DVD promises insights into the production, as well as providing a chance for those not lucky enough to live along the roadshow’s stops to witness its wonders themselves. Most will be flummoxed, while a few will be rewarded. All will have to appreciate a true creator at the top of his game.

Other Titles of Interest


Back to School (Extra Curricular Edition)


No one pegged professional comedian (in a good way) Rodney Dangerfield as a movie star. But after stealing Caddyshack from everyone else in it, he was headed for solo vehicles of his own. While Easy Money is much funnier, this oldster goes to college crack-up is definitely worth discovering. This was Rodney in his prime, banging on all six cylinders and never underestimating his growing fanbase. After this, it was all pretty much down hill.

51 Birch Street


Like Capturing the Friedmans without the horrible hot button issues, this oddly insightful documentary finds filmmaker Daniel Block discovering the truth about his parents’ 54 year long marriage. Within three months of the death of his mother, his father catches up with a past secretary, and the two marry almost immediately. Then Block discovers his mom’s diaries. What they reveal turns his adult life upside down, and argues for the notion that no one really knows their family.

Taxi Driver: Two Disc Collectors Edition


Travis Bickle is back, and ready to sweep the scum off of New York’s seedy sidewalks. One of Martin Scorsese’s undeniable masterpieces, this look at life on the fringes has been released on DVD a few times before. This presentation promises a bonus disc loaded with additional context. If you don’t already own it, what’s stopping you? This is classic cinema, period. For others, a double dip may be in order.

Wild Hogs


Every year, Hollywood has to publicly humiliate itself by offering some god-awful effort (usually a comedy) and cringe as critics cry foul. But a funny thing happened on the way to this junk pile’s journalistic drubbing – the audience ate it up. Trying to figure out how this slapdash crap became a hit will challenge every fiber of your cinematic being. It is not funny, poorly constructed, and relies almost exclusively on its dim star power to shine.


Vacancy


Amongst all the hype and hoopla surrounding the spring hit 300 and the imminent arrival of Spider-man, this decent little thriller failed to find room on the pop culture radar. Like Disturbia, which opened the week before and earned all the press, this throwback to the days of solid suspense was overrun by the tween take on the material. Here, Kontroll’s Nimrod Antal makes a spectacular Tinsel Town bow. Definitely should be rediscovered on DVD.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film for Theaters for DVD


To call Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force (part of its Adult Swim nighttime lineup) a “cult” animated series would be an understatement. This show has flown so far under the channel’s routine radar that its elusiveness should be utilized in the creation of future Stealth technology. Still, for those devoted to its deranged surrealism (the show is about a talking trio consisting of a milk shake, some French fries, and a ball of beef), it’s one of the funniest ‘things’ on television. A movie seems like a creative stretch – the series itself only exists in short, 10 minute installments – and the characters do use their inherent abrasiveness to push the limits of their humor. Still, like The Simpsons Movie that finally arrived this Summer, ATHF more than managed the transition intact. Unfortunately, that meant it was still too weird for mainstream appreciation. The DVD promises to deliver even more unglued hilarity. 

 


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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


The hot rumor this week, blazing across the Internet at a slightly ironic warp speed, is the talk that none other than Tom Cruise will make a cameo appearance in writer/director J.J. Abrams 2008 Star Trek overhaul. Buzz has it that Scientology’s slightly askew spokesmodel and former A-list superstar will play Christopher Pike from the classic series in this new tween generation take on the material. For those unfamiliar with the original, and therefore best Trek, Pike succeeded Robert April and preceded James T. Kirk as Captain of the Starship Enterprise. Without getting into the mandatory mythology, this troubled character was crucial to setting up the dynamic that would guide the entire Star Trek series, an aesthetic that would focus more on the human element of the narrative than the extraterrestrial spectacle.


Of course, the rumor mill ran into a wall by Friday, the sizzle slowing to a simmer as denials and refutations flew. Yet the excitement that said announcement generated, both pro and con, should be a good sign for the fledgling filmmaker. With positive vibes still surrounding his viral marketing campaign for the giant monster movie codenamed Cloverfield, and the remaining juice generated by Lost, he appears poised to finally fulfill all his geek promise. Taking on Trek is just his latest smooth move. Generating interest in this dying product seems next to impossible, given the last two decades of sub-space overkill. Yet, floating around names like Cruise and Matt Damon (who has consistently denied interest in playing the young Kirk) has spiked some curiosity. And one should never underestimate the power in Trekker nation. They are a defiantly devoted lot.


Yet the entire situation seems shaky at best. Though adding performance power in the name of known actors seems like a sensible way to approach any revamp, the notion that pure celebrity power alone will save Star Trek seems shortsighted at best. Besides, whenever a new person steps in to ‘blow up’ a stagnant situation - film series, TV show – the desire to insert some new life into a franchise fading and losing its life support has its own unique perils. Granted, doing things the old way has resulted in the current situational stasis. More people would rather see George Lucas continue his overwrought Star Wars than experience another go round with Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Carefully considered change is one thing, but transformation merely for transformation’s sake can be just as deadly. So Abrams is either jumpstarting Trek for the next few years, or killing it off in one fell swoop. 


For many, Star Trek remains the gold standard of serious science fiction. With its noble intentions and scholarly scripts (at least, initially) the original series stands as a benchmark of broadcast excellence. Though it died a death too soon for some, the ‘60s celebration of all things futuristic and fair marked a moment when television understood the intelligence of its audience. Cancellation confirmed everyone’s worst fears, and it took nearly a decade before Hollywood recognized the show’s big screen potential. For the uninitiated, Trek was not a confirmed classic from the get go. It received rotten ratings, wandered around syndication, and even tried to revive its fortunes via a beloved Saturday morning cartoon attempt. When Star Wars splashed onto the public consciousness, a young nation hungry for more extraterrestrial adventures leapt onto the Enterprise express. By the time The Motion Picture arrived in theaters, colleges had revived the fantasists’ fortunes, an afternoon with Kirk, Spock and the crew as much a part of the university experience as getting drunk and using your laundry money to buy pizza.


Yet the first film in the eventual franchise proved Trek’s tentative cinematic status. With a general consensus at the time that the film fulfilled the TV show’s financially flummoxed ambitions, current members of Roddenberry nation now feel this first voyage across the landscape was weak at best. Aside from the whole ‘bald headed alien’ element and metal machine mind meld facets, the cast seemed tentative about restarting their space cadet careers almost a decade after being dropped. It explains Leonard Nimoy’s desire to have his character killed off in the mandatory sequel, Wrath of Khan. Of course, the massive moneymaker inspired the actor to return for the rest of the run, getting extra perks like directing opportunities and creative choices.  It was something the other big star – William Shatner – would demand as well. By the time the Next Generation crew were ready to take over, the original series seemed spent.


But that was the great thing about Trek. It could reinvent itself, and did, three more times, hoping that each new version of the standard sci-fi formula would yield a wealth of box office possibilities. But a funny thing happened on the way to this bankable idea – the public started backtracking. As Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise failed to become full blown phenomenon (while, granted, maintaining and in many cases expanding the franchise’s name recognition and fanbase) Captain Picard and his merry menagerie of intriguing characters became the only viable option. As their efforts became more and more meaningless (there really hasn’t been a good Trek flick since First Contact, way back in ’96), the keepers of the glorious dweeb flame appeared lost for inspiration. In fact, as the Internet burbled with self-created content and far more fascinating fan fiction, whatever new course the creators set for the show, it was hard to match the continuous fascination of the devoted.


So will Abrams do any better? Initial portent suggest ‘No’. According to Trek lore, his will be the 11th film made from the same source material. That spells doom, at least if you believe in the odd/even theory of series’ aesthetic appeal. You see, the second (Khan), fourth (Voyage Home), sixth (Undiscovered Country), and eighth (First Contact) offerings in the series are considered classics. The tenth film (Nemesis) is also cited as special since it represents the end of Next Generation’s tour of cinematic duty. On the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, we have the first (Motion Picture), the third (Search for Spock) the fifth (Final Frontier), the seventh (Generations) and the ninth (Insurrection) installments. All but Shanter’s subpar effort (#5) are embraced as flawed yet fascinating, but aficionados tend to agree that this collection of films is lacking the true Trek greatness. By coming in on an odd number, grumbles can already be heard. Abrams may be brilliant, but destiny seems ready to undermine his success. 


The other major strike he has working against him, aside from the obvious numerology, is the prequel concept. It’s near impossible to point to an example of this motion picture subgenre that actually works. From pointless looks at how Leatherface became a monster (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) to the horrid hack jobs that illustrated how Darth Vader went from retard to robot, going back in an established storyline to explain its origins is asking for trouble. It’s not that the concept is impossible to achieve – The Godfather Part II proved that Vito Corleone’s early years as an immigrant could be as effect as the modern material – but the pitfalls one needs to overcome are quite monumental. First, there is audience expectation. Having grown up with Captain Kirk and his able bodied crew for almost 40 years, individuals familiar with the Star Trek myth will be expecting certain things from this start up. The list of possible character issues and factual stepping stones is far too lengthy to recall here, but let’s just say that if Abrams screws them up, the backlash will be ballistic.


Then there’s the still shimmering cloud of celebrity. Star Trek made its original cast into cultural icons, individuals whose star rose above mere fame into something similar to supernova. If they never worked another day after the cult of personality built around them, our team of terrific actors would remain symbols of a sensational series, and emblems of man’s higher goals when it comes to the cosmos. Naturally, none of this has anything to do with the actual stories told, but when you’re looking for someone to match the mannered machismo of William Shatner, the calm cool of Leonard Nimoy, the irascible cragginess of Bones McCoy, or the velvet foxiness of Nichelle Nichols, there’s a whole pile of perception to deal with. Even if the eventual Kirk is everything a fan could hope for, if he doesn’t match the original in some unexplainable, ephemeral way, the disguise will be destroyed. Fans will crucify the choice, and the ultimate repercussions and criticisms will sink any chance this project has of achieving its rejuvenating goals. 


And then there is a bigger question – where does Trek go from here? If Abrams is successful at overcoming all the obstacles and expectations, creating a substantial hit, what does the franchise do then? So they keep making more of these prequel projects, expanding the backstory of the original series in ways the first shows could never have imagined? Will the new movie’s mainstream acceptance jumpstart another TV try, preparing yet another group of actors for the eventual leap to big screen fortunes? Will Abrams walk away, leaving future projects in the hands of others who, like the films before them, end up creating a “love ‘em/loathe ‘em” dichotomy? And will the cast, flush from bringing Trek back from the dead, demand the kind of money that could kill any forward motion picture momentum before its even been built? When viewed in terms of all these tentative variables, it is obvious there’s a lot riding on this revamp.


Interestingly enough, the inclusive of Cruise (real or not) seems to indicate such awareness. The crowds at the recent Comic-Con convention in San Diego were wowed by the Abrams panel, especially when Leonard Nimoy himself appeared to welcome the production’s choice for his character, Spock (Heroes homeboy Zachary Quinto). As the preparations continue and the gossip mill churns out more possible scoops, there will be more debates, more cheers and jeers, second guessing, and slam dunking. The legacy of Star Trek may be built on the backs of its past, but by confronting this reality with a revisionist prequel, the true mantle of the material will be challenged. One hopes it can take the imaginative strain. If not, Abrams will be carrying a rather unfortunate label – the man who finally ended the seemingly infinite voyages of the Enterprise once and for all.


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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


It’s a hoary old cliché – the so-called somber suburbs are actually a hotbed of unfathomable evil. Along with the rampant adultery, everpresent pedophilia, tantamount teen criminality, and infinite unhappy marriages, the biggest stereotype remains the unknown killer next door. You know, the neighbor who’s too quite, keeping to himself and his locked up house in a way that suggests something must be up. Speculation turns to outright suspicion, and soon everyone within a two block radius is avoiding eye contact and wondering why he (or on rare occasions, she) is wearing such a subtle, sinister smirk. There have been lots of movies that have exploited this white flight fear mongering, from the appropriately named The ‘burbs to the terrific Tom Holland horror film Fright Night. Now comes the wonderful Disturbia, a movie that takes an old school Master of Suspense setting and tricks it out with all manner of high tech terrors.


Clearly coping the best bits from Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Rear Window, director DJ Caruso guides rising superstar Shia LaBeouf through the standard spook house situations. After the death of his dad, our sullen hero Kale gets three months house arrest for “an incident” at school. Hopelessly bored and restricted in his recreational options (Mom - Carrie-Ann Moss - has cut off the iTunes, and the Xbox 360 Live), he starts looking in at the houses on his street, including the one super hot chick Ashley just moved into. Their game of cutesy cat and mouse (and growing affection) is interrupted by the news that a slew of local girls have gone missing, and the suspect seems to be a middle aged man with a classic blue Ford Mustang sporting a dent in its fender – just like the car owned by Kale’s other neighbor, the menacing Mr. Turner. With the help of his best buddy Ronny, and the contributions of his new gal pal, our hero begins to suspect the worse.


Similar to the way Blade Runner effortlessly channels the archetypes of noir inside the wholly original world of a futuristic LA, Disturbia drops us smack dab in the middle of a quaint, Cornball, USA, cul-de-sac pulled directly out of a Spielberg spectacle and then paints in plenty of likeable logistical color to brighten the otherwise tired thriller genre. Caruso, who’s been connected to some interesting blips on the commercial cinema radar (The Salton Sea, Taking Lives) really had his work cut out for him here. The slightest misstep, a minor crossover into full blown formulaic territory, and the “been there, done that’ brigade would have made its meaningful presence more than known. But to his credit, this director does what moviemaking experts before excelled at – creating sympathetic and identifiable characters that we come to care about, and then sticking them directly in harm’s horrifying way. Though the eventual tension is tweaked well into the patently obvious (our killer is an evident outsider), because we like our teen heroes, we fear for their eventual fate.


Kudos should be given to star LaBeof who has to walk the fine line between troubled adolescent and too slick Tinsel Town type. The opening tragedy helps establish his angst-driven dynamic, and the situation that sends him into house arrest is handled in a similarly strategic style. So we are ready to support our locked-up lead through any and all manner of misadventure. Wisely, Caruso takes his time getting to the good stuff, building a rapport between Kale and his best friend Ronny, and the flirtatious fascination with new babe Ashley. The director also sets up other ancillary situations (bratty neighbor boys pulling pranks on our house-bound hero, other nearby mischief) that provide their own sense of impending comeuppance. The finishing touch, the one element that really helps Disturbia work, is in the sly insinuation of evil. During the opening hour, snippets from news reports establish the disappearance of local ladies, and our adolescent trio does a lot of ‘Net snooping revealing nasty details of unexplained crimes.


When added together, they create an aura of dread that drives the film toward its last act permutations. The novel use of new tech toys (camcorders, cellphones, laptops, and other electronic goodies) allows the movie to open up, to take the terror beyond LaBeof and his backyard. Ashley follows our inferred fiend to the local hardware store, where his every move is documented by wireless slight of hand. Similarly, Ronny raids the bad guy’s home, looking for clues with a computer connection camera. Kale can then sit back, spy style, and hack through the visuals for the evidence he needs. Still, any film like Disturbia can’t get away with merely suggesting the scares. It has to get our lead directly involved in the fear. This is the moment where the movie either lives or dies, where it overcomes the trappings typically associated with this standard of story, or it sinks back among the rest of the derivative efforts that currently define the cinematic category.


To say that Disturbia shines during its finale would be an understatement. There hasn’t been this kind of controlled, bravura filmmaking in quite a long time. Caruso begins with the basics – lost friend, imminent threat, the return of the everpresent police (Kale has a tendency to trigger his anklet, meaning the cops are constantly coming over to see what’s up), the well meaning mom looking to protect her troubled son. Once LaBeof is required to take on the role of champion and defend his turf, everything begins to fall into place. The investigation of Turner’s house, the eventual discoveries there, the showdown to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, the conclusion of that clash – everything Caruso does zips along like a well-oiled movie machine. Sure, we might wonder why no one saw this killer’s obvious signs before, and some of the logistical elements (the guys underground catacombs are a little out of place) do push the boundaries of believability. But since it established a solid foundation at the start, we buy directly into all of Disturbia’s daft adeptness.


Of course, there will be critics, people who purposefully play wet blanket because they obviously adore the feeling of damp wool. And in all fairness, this is about as far from Hitchcock as any modern movie can get, unable to match the Master’s glorious stylized vision while readily referencing his wealth of procedure tricks. Others can crow about the lack of scares – but that’s really a red herring. Fear is not the major sensory response created by this genre. Instead, the thriller is supposed to produce edge of your seat shivers, the constantly shifting “unknown” working overtime to disorient and disturb you. Under those perceptive parameters, Disturbia works effortlessly. You can complain that it takes too long to get to its denouement, or that LaBeof and the rest of his Gen Xbox cast mates are given too much pre-pulse pound playtime to show off their cultural cliquishness, but the only real measure for this kind of movie is the creation of dread. In that regard, Disturbia delivers.



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