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Saturday, Aug 18, 2007


In the world of monsters, the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were nothing more than second class zombies. While the undead slaughtered thousands out of an instinctual and insatiable bloodlust, the amiable alien replicants simply wanted to take over the planet, one sleeping citizen at a time. Interesting enough, both fear franchises have provided ample political allegories and numerous sequels/remakes/revamps. The original version of Jack Finney’s novel was a mighty metaphor for McCarthyism. The 1978 adaptation illustrated the disaffection and distrust of a post-Watergate nation. Even Abel Ferrara’s 1993 take tried to argue for the corrupting and catastrophic affects of conformity. Apparently two and a half times through the ringer is all this premise could maintain. With 2007’s oft-delayed The Invasion, there is simply no more symbolic juice left.


Granted, not all of this is the movie’s fault. The rumor mill has been buzzing about this project for over two years, ever since the 45 day shoot completed in late 2005. Originally planned as a straight reworking, screenwriter Dave Kajganich eventually delivered his own reinterpretation on the story, and Warner Brothers was happy enough to start distancing itself from the source. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, hot off his controversial Hitler drama Downfall, vowed to keep the story as real as possible, and avoided any F/X spectacle, opting instead for good old fashioned tension and suspense. Naturally, preview audiences hated it, and focus groups eviscerated the subtle, serious approach. Enter script doctors Andy and Larry Wachowski, and new director James McTeague (who had just completed V for Vendetta together). Over a year after production wrapped, The Invasion was literally reconfigured, reshoots changing the premise and finale of the film.


No wonder the plot feels so piecemeal. After a major disaster involving NASA, the Centers for Disease Control discover an alien spore on some space wreckage. Within days, America is plunged into a “flu-like illness” pandemic. As the rest of the world reports a similar spreading disease, Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) begins to notice small changes around her Washington DC offices. Commuters become calmer and less rushed on their way to work, while patients complain of loved ones who no longer act like their “real” selves. She notices the same thing in her ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam), a top level Presidential advisor. After a night of Halloween trick or treating turns up a strange, sticky substance, Bennell asks her boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) to work up the sample. Turns out, it’s some manner of foreign agent that replicates human DNA while merging it with some extraterrestrial entity. It is taking over the population, during the REM sleep phase, and it is up to Bennell to save her son if there is any hope for humanity to survive. Of course, he’s inconveniently been left with his odd acting father.


Playing like a mystery missing most of its first act, The Invasion hits the ground running (literally, since the first thing we see is a space shuttle disintegrating and plummeting to Earth) and refuses to let up from there. Now, if this was in service of some kind of slam bang action movie where such momentum needs to be maintained, we could understand the urgency. But after producing a premise, the story stumbles around, providing nothing we can use for future fear factors. Kidman, doing coy and confused for all its worth, spends a lot of the opening hour as an outside observer the action happening to everyone and everything around her. This creates a kind of distance between her character and the audience that doesn’t help with the crucial cinematic elements of empathy and identification. We don’t really understand Dr. Bennell. She’s hyper sensitive over her small boy Oliver, and yet she allows him to become a prop in a perplexing game of ex-spouse supremacy.


It doesn’t help that she’s stuck in “friend” mode with best beau Driscoll. Craig, looking worse than he has in any film in recent memory, makes a poor paramour, the kind of drawn out doormat whose willing to put up with a hot chick’s quirks because he still sees some sexual light at the end of the tunnel. He’s too passive to be a participant in a worldwide catastrophe, and the last act switch into pseudo savior mode doesn’t jibe either. There are several other throwaway roles here – Jeffrey Wright as a doctor specializing in exposition, Roger Rees who only gets a single scene to play a sour Russian diplomat, Veronica Cartwright (a bow to Phillip Kaufman’s ‘70s version) as a desperate and deluded housewife. None of them build to any sort of unified theme or idea. And as our primary villain, Northam is nominal. He’s like a weak willed version of an infomercial host – and the only thing he’s selling, sadly, is a total lack of bad guy believability.


Then there is the direction. It is clear from watching this cobbled together version of the narrative that Hirschbiegel intended to get his anti-American rant on. In the background of most initial sequences are news reports from Iraq, veiled condemnations of our failed foreign policy. Similarly, Rees’ only scene is a backhanded rebuke of the US as a solid superpower. If there was to be a parallel in this particular film, it was the ineffectual nature of the Red White and Blue response to crisis, versus the aggressive attack mode of the rest of the world. But since he was carted off the project, much of this material is buried, blurred from our vision and shuttled off to a scarce sonic backdrop. Add to this the preposterous stylistic decision to visualize events as the actors describe them, and then using an edited version of the images to represent reality. It’s awkward at first, and when you’re looking to build suspense, situation, or story, such a jagged concept kills all three.


Still, there is an inherent sci-fi fascination in this subject that stimulates our interest. We can practically write our own movie in our head, taking elements that either Hirschbiegel or McTeague thought worked well and reinventing our own version of them. The concept of conventionality, of running with the pack and braying with the sheep still has a lot of potential strength. America is more conformist now than it’s ever been, a nation numbed by a lack of external interests and a swelling arrogance. Riffing on that while providing some enticing alien F/X would have worked wonderfully. Even better, use the current War on Terror as a starting point and push the post-9/11 malaise directly into our faces. You can’t make a palpable parable without taking risks. The Invasion’s conceit is so laidback that it actually takes a while to realize the world is going to Hell. While this may have been the idea all along, it really does get lost in the translation here.


And so we are left with bits and pieces of two divergent movies. One film wants to find the horror in everyday life. The other looks at any incursion, alien or otherwise, as a means to some manufactured, manipulative ends. For its part, The Invasion does scoot along capably. You don’t care about the characters, but your natural curiosity as to how it will all end is definitely triggered. To call the conclusion anticlimactic would be giving it a value it fails to earn organically. It’s a series of setups missing a major league punchline. For fans of simplistic speculation that’s only capable of going through the motions, this movie will satisfy a basic need. But as past presentations of the subject have suggested, there is more to these particular human duplicates than meets the eye. Unfortunately, the fourth time was the harm, not the charm here.


The Invasion - Trailer



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Friday, Aug 17, 2007


In two weeks, it will all be over. The summer hype machine will finally close down, and the weary motion picture audience will have a chance to catch its breath before the next barrage of implausible propaganda comes hurtling down the production pipeline. After all, award season is just a mere three month away. Argh! Anyway, there’s an opportunity to catch up with one of last year’s best efforts this week, a truly remarkable movie that just lost to Germany’s The Lives of Others for Oscar’s Best Foreign Film (and considering how amazing that film was, that’s quite an accomplishment). Sadly, the rest of the pay cable channels are serving up nothing but chum, regurgitated comedies and unnecessary sci-fi silliness. Unless you look beyond the Big Four to alternate networks, you’re stuck sucking on the proverbial Tinsel Town teat. And with the latest popcorn pictures providing nothing but ever hardening husks, there will be little silver screen relief. So relish the SE&L selection for 18 August. It is truly a motion picture masterpiece:


Premiere Pick
Pan’s Labyrinth


Up until now, it’s been relatively easy to dismiss Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. Oh, he’s just a glorified genre director, some might say, pointing to his initial forays into fear with such works as Cronos and Mimic. Others look directly to his comic book efforts, from the only decent installment in the Blade series (#2) to his magnificent makeover of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and deny his inherent ability. Even his defiant history lesson from 2001, The Devil’s Backbone is viewed as more of a ghost story than a grand artistic statement. But with the release of this amazing film, and the surrounding critical clamor, Del Toro is finally finding the respect that he deserves. And there’s a good reason for all the accolades. Without modifying his cinematic approach, and staying true to his vibrant vision of a world constantly weakened by elements both fantastical and fatal, this fascinating fable of a little girl’s hellish existence amongst the Post-war Fascists of Franco’s Spain is simply stunning. It’s a testament to human will and the power of the mind to make substitutes and sacrifices for the horrors all around us. (18 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Beerfest


Who, exactly, are Broken Lizard, and more importantly, why do they keep getting chances to make movies? Artist like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch have to struggle to finance their films, and yet this so-called comedy troupe has had three flaccid projects greenlit – Super Troopers, Club Dread, and this inconsistent alcohol comedy. The plot has a pair of brothers competing in a German Fight Club style drinking competition. Sounds like a subpar Simpsons episode gone even more sophomoric. (18 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

Scary Movie 4


The spoof, as a comedy genre, is officially dead – and the reason rests in this horrendous fourth installment in the already weak faux fear franchise. Gone is any semblance of the R rated foundation that started this stale series. In its place are tame takes on War of the Worlds, The Grudge, and (of all things) Brokeback Mountain. Featuring Leslie Nielsen as a bumbling President who makes our current Commander in Chief look like a savant. (18 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Aeon Flux


What do you do with all that newly gained Academy Award clout? Well, if you’re Monster’s Charlize Theron, you sign up for a quick cash grab and make a stupid sci-fi action film based on a mediocre MTV cartoon. Fans of the original Liquid Television series were startled to see the liberties taken with this revamp. But the most troubling element is our lead, a truly talented woman who deserves better. (18 August, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Garage Days


For filmmaker Alex Proyas, it looked like a future filled with speculative fiction fare. He had successfully overcome the horrible death of Brandon Lee to complete The Crow, and his Dark City set the stage for all that Matrix mania. But instead of continuing on the high tech road, the audacious auteur delved into Australia’s music scene (he’s a Downunder native) to produce this bittersweet comedy. Returning to his MTV roots (he got his start directing videos), we get the standard story of an unsigned band hoping to make it big. Loaded with obligatory montages and lots of Proyas’ patented visual vibrance, we also get the behind the scenes drama, the kind of backstage instability that tears friends and fellow musicians apart. While he would return to the shape of things to come with the middling Will Smith vehicle I, Robot, this will mark the moment when Proyas proved his true moviemaking mantle. (23 August, IFC, 1:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Marebito


Proving he is the master of Asian creepiness, Ju-On creator Takashi Shimizu took the eight day break he earned before helming the American remake The Grudge to shoot this sly, suspenseful story about a fear obsessed free lance photographer and an unsettling urban legend about a demonic presence in the Tokyo subway system. Efforts like this and the recent Reincarnation prove that there is more to Shimizu than stringy haired spooks doing the spider crawl down a set of stairs. (19 August, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

The Dancer Upstairs


Though the title suggests something completely different, this John Malkovich directed drama actually centers around a South American police officer’s search for a suspected revolutionary. Featuring a sensational cast that includes Javier Bardem, the film tries to balance the political elements essential to the narrative’s drive with the interpersonal concepts that create character. Most critics found it less than successful, but the small screen can often change a movie’s entertainment dynamic. It will be up to viewers to decide. (20 August, IFC, 6:35PM EST)

The Celebration


A product of the radical cinematic style known as Dogma ’95, this dysfunctional family melodrama is a real piece of work. Every member of this corrupt clan has so many skeletons in their closet that could start their own medical research business. Thanks to the no frills filmmaking approach, and the commanding performances, the over the top human histrionics are kept in check. The results are as powerful as they are preposterous. (22 August, Sundance Channel, 11:45PM EST)

Outsider Option
The Frighteners


The Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s lost masterpiece, an important cinematic cog linking his genre work of the past with the monumental achievements in fantasy filmmaking he would attain with the Lord of the Rings. Coming right after the personal, praised Heavenly Creatures, Jackson had wanted to make a more mainstream film. Robert Zemeckis stepped in and offered the director a chance to make a full-blown Hollywood hit. With longtime partner Fran Walsh, Jackson had been kicking around the idea of a Ghostbusters-style psychic who conned people out of money by pretending to purge spirits from their home. Though it failed to become the blockbuster everyone had hoped for, The Frighteners still functioned as a real stepping-stone in its creator’s canon. Beyond its import to his career, Jackson’s film is also important in the ongoing evolution of CGI. While Jurassic Park will always be seen as a monumental step forward, this forgotten gem was a formidable attempt at the seamless incorporation of motherboard rendered visuals into a narrative. (21 August, USA Network, 12PM EST)

Additional Choices
Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die


Mike Connors is an American spy sent down South to Rio by the sea-o to prevent a madman from launching a sterility inducing satellite. Terry Thomas is a proper British valet, and Dorothy Provine is an equally snooty secret agent. Rushed into theaters to beat the ultra-hyped James Bond parody, Casino Royale, this glorified goof has earned some interesting support over the years. Supposedly Hollywood hero Quentin Tarantino is a big, big fan. (21 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 11PM EST)

The Public Eye


Though it was supposedly based on the life of infamous tabloid newspaper photographer Weegee, this 1992 period piece is more fiction than fact. Joe Pesci makes a fine ‘40s shutterbug, mouth stuffed with an ever present cigar, but the tacked on subplots and lack of any real notorious names leaves the story feeling superficial and slight. By the time our lead lumbers over into hero mode, we’ve long since stopped caring about his snapshot situations. (23 August, Indieplex, 7:20PM EST)

Arachnia


Big bugs gobbling up gratuitous goofballs? How can any schlock fan resist? Apparently, the answer rests in writer/director Brent Piper’s complete lack of cinematic competence. Responsible for such past puke as A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell and Drainiac! , this giant spider invasion was to be as hilarious as it is horrifying. Sadly, it’s just another waste of a potentially worthwhile terror treasure trove. (23 August, Starz Edge, 12:30AM EST)

 


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Thursday, Aug 16, 2007


If you ever wondered what Sixteen Candles, the John Hughes teen comedy from the mid-‘80s would look and sound like fashioned after the aesthetic mindset of someone like Kevin Smith, Superbad is the answer. Gloriously profane, single minded in its ‘anything for sex’ approach, and expert at capturing how real adolescents express themselves, this bookend presentation from the Judd Apatow party posse (in this case, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Greg Mottola) proves that 2007 definitely belongs to the former Freaks and Geeks patrol. Though not as consistently funny as June’s jocular Knocked Up, this far more ephemeral farce turns the last days of high school (ala Dazed and Confused) into a wickedly wild walk on the decidedly drunk and horny side of adolescence. It also shows that youth’s impracticality and fearless nature can be parlayed into one helluva good time.


Ever since they were small, Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) have been buddies. Pals. Inseparable best friends. They’ve watched each other’s back, and supported one another through many of life’s pre-college pitfalls. But now senior year is almost over and the unthinkable is about to happen. Evan got into Darmouth. So did the dorky tag-along Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But Seth must settle for State, meaning he will not be joining his associates in the Fall. And while they deny any possible problem with this arrangement, inside each guy is hurting. Luckily, a hot chick named Jules is throwing a party, and she wants Seth to provide the booze. Since he’s underage, he must rely on Fogell’s fake ID. Matters get a little complicated during the alcohol run, and before you know it, the police are involved, Seth and Evan hate each other, and everyone finds themselves miles away from the ribald revelry.


Like the best elements of the last three decades of big screen comedy, Superbad utilizes smart dialogue, brilliant situational satire, loads of gross out gags, and just a smidgen or post-millennial irony to turn growing up into a spectator sport. So laugh out loud funny at times that you wonder why other so-called humor fests are so haphazard and dull, this incredibly vulgar vamp is the antidote to the current crappy Hollywood excuses for sidesplitting (are you listening, Chuck and Larry???). There will be those that balk at all the boner humor, who hear Seth describe a grade school obsession with drawing male genitalia and cringe at the lack of subtlety in the material. But just as they proved this past June, no one understands the unspoken human dynamic, the part of us that we hide from the rest of the public, better than this clever crew. We may not want to admit it, but something like Superbad expertly exposes what we’re secretly thinking inside.


Granted, the movie has its missteps. The acquiescing cops, the loser law enforcers who end up playing patsies to all the teen shenanigans, really don’t work as characters or creative choices. Played by screenwriter Rogen and SNL’s Bill Hader, they’re very weak links in what is otherwise a solid satiric set up. After all, kids cracking up over their coming of age doesn’t need the support of stunted adults to justify its rule breaking logistics. While they provide some clever lines, they tend to drag the narrative down. Even more troublesome is the second act slip into an odd adult/adolescent standoff. When Evan and Seth accept a ride from a practically pedophilic passerby, his entire in-car conversation is shady. Once they arrive at the promised liquor-rich shindig, things turn ugly quickly. While the sequence does contain one of the movie’s best running ‘gags’ (manifesting all definitions of that word), it tends to destabilize the otherwise jovial juvenilia.

What does work here, and works brilliantly, mind you, is the interaction between Cera, Hill, and newcomer Mintz-Plasse. Years of sitcom saturation have convinced us that teenagers all talk like acerbic standups, using their limited time onscreen to provide worthless one-liners as substitutes for smarts. Here, Rogen and Goldberg give us the true sound of how sexually insecure males speak. Granted, the dialogue is overloaded with words that, two decades ago, kids wouldn’t be caught dead delivering (especially not to girls), but like all good observational humorists, these guys have decided to wisely change with the changing times. This gives Superbad a richness that underscores the complete lack of tact the characters exhibit. In addition, the last act return to their little boy roots is hilarious, since it illustrates how ill-prepared they really are for their future as adults. It’s a nice touch in a movie that spends a lot of time in outlandish excess.


While American Pie may claim the status as first film to make girls as gonzo as the guys pursuing them, Superbad is equally refreshing in this regard. It used to be that females were the object of horny male fantasy and relegated to eye candy, empty and vacuous without a significant emotional or psychological stance. True T and A, that was all. But thanks to a new, more knowing view about the battle of the sexes, ladies are just as lewd as the guys. In addition, the movie also comprehends the need to manufacture a kind of character recognizability. Mintz-Plasse gets the scene stealing sequence surrounding his fake ID (and the soon to be schoolyard mantra, “McLovin”) but we also get Hill’s hilarious lack of inner monologue and Cera stumblebum sweetness. Together they fuse in a way that makes anything they do seem interesting and engaging. If those crazy cops hadn’t shown up every 30 seconds to drag the movie off into the realm of the ridiculous, Superbad could stand as this decade’s American Graffiti. Or, at the very least, it’s Porky’s. This is one of the most insightful films about growing up lost and lusting every made.


Though it seems like a thoroughly modern experience, Superbad does have a delicious throwback mentality, a sense of humiliating history reminiscent of those days in back of the classroom, trading newly learned dirty jokes with your fellow classmates. It’s as smart as it is silly, as warm as it is wanton. There will be a few who shiver at the plethora of blue words, and when all is said and done, the narrative does seem a tad slight. We don’t really learn any major lessons here except friendship is forever and chicks dig dorks who get their butt kicked. Destined to make stars out of its quasi-celebrity cast, this will be a film many remember as their own rite of entertainment passage. If audiences weren’t convinced of the Apatow edge by the one-two punch of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up! , Superbad supplies the slam dunk to finalize the thesis. Unlike most makers of movie comedy, this is one group of guys who understand how to make viewers literally scream with laughter.


Superbad - Trailer



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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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