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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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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007


It’s an interesting time for the once dead film genre known as the Western. Ever since Clint Eastwood snagged an Oscar for his “revisionist” revival of the spiraling cinematic favorite, post-modern moviemakers have embraced a more deconstructed version of the oater. In their mind, the standard element of black hat/white hat, good vs evil no longer holds sway in a society far more ambiguous and ethically unsure. While recent horse operas have tried to trade on those wholesome, old fashioned values (the recently released 3:10 to Yuma), others have actually tried to dig deeper into that dilemma. The 2006 Australian hit The Proposition was one such example, as is the upcoming Brad Pitt ‘epic’ The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies see the stereotypical symbolism inherent in the category as a means of making larger, more metaphysical points.


It’s the very reason the spaghetti interpretation of the material made such a splash 40 years ago.  Treating the genre as a combination of considered iconography and classical tragedy, the mannered, manipulated imagery created by these foreign films generated a whole new emblematic appeal. Unlike the Hollywood way of the sagebrush saga, which used character as a catalyst for its bigger right/wrong dynamic, Italian directors like Sergio Leone skipped the personal and went right for the problem. They elevated disputes into wars of karmic calculation, and blurred the lines between villain, victor, and victim. It’s no wonder the western faded away after the influx of the Mediterranean influence. With the exception of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s brilliant El Topo, few could find a way around the contrasting combination of clipped heroics and glimpsed Hell. That is, until now.


To call it genius would be a gross understatement. To label it a homemade homage to an equally endearing artform would also be too simplistic. For filmmakers, musicians, and friends Mike Bruce and Kirkpatrick Thomas, the Once Upon a Fistful fabulousness of the pasta prairie parade is merely a jumping off point for a combination lampoon and love letter to the works that rewired their cinematic sensibilities. The result – the magnificent Legend of God’s Gun, a shot on video fever dream filtered through the latest high tech post-production optical candy factories to produce one of the most original and unforgettable films of the newly crowned “noughts”. While it may seem like nothing more than a copycat compilation of Leone, Corbucci, and Barboni riffs, with just a little sidewinding psychedelia thrown in for gonzo measure, the opposite is actually true. What Bruce (director/actor) and Thomas (writer/actor/composer) manage is nothing less than a brilliant distillation of everything the reformulated artform stood for.


The story is devastatingly simple. A one time gunslinger turned Preacher (his woman was murdered by a band of ruthless outlaws right before his eyes) wanders the desolate desert countryside, seeking salvation and revenge. He’s after the scorpion poison drinking desperado, El Sobro. Along with his gang of craven killers, the villain has cut a trail of death and destruction all across the West. Sought by a Bounty Hunter desperate for recognition – and financial returns – these divergent individuals will eventually face off in the small town of Playa Diablo, a place where the Sheriff senses his wife is cheating on him, and the Deputy is the dog doing it behind his back. Of course, there’s some sacred gold involved, and more than one personal vendetta to settle, as gunfights turn into glorifications for everything the winning of the Wild West ever stood for or signified.


Sadly, such a description doesn’t do The Legend of God’s Gun justice. It’s one of the most artistically accomplished and visionary self-made movies since Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut and Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family. Not only does it flaunt our expectations of spaghetti worship, but it takes the era in which the cinematic revolution occurred and channels it through the genre formulas as well. The results rip through your brain and sever your synapses, shredding what you know about film and replacing it with a brand new celluloid language. There are moments here of visual grandeur that top the most accomplished moviemaking recreationist. There are also sequences of significant reinvention that speak to Bruce and Thomas’ talent both in front of and behind the camera. This is not just some celebration of cinema. It’s a bow to all the media this duo dig – comics, the music of Morricone, pop art, action movies, and the always systemic image of a poised gun.



In its mannerism and make-up, The Legend of God’s Gun plays like a series of climaxes waiting for the context to catch up to them. Backstory is hinted at and inferred, while characterization is kept to costuming, quirk, and straightforward sonic signatures. This is not the Penny Dreadful style of shoot ‘em up that monopolized the Western myth for the first 60 years of modern moviemaking. Instead, Legend channels more bizarro attempts at reviving the genre, like the works of Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie), Marlon Brando (One Eyed Jacks), and the Sams - Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Fuller (Forty Guns), and Raimi (The Quick and the Dead). It also invests in its own naiveté, understanding completely that it can never fully recreate the slow burn significance of the films that came before it. Instead, this is an effort of insinuation, to use a more Madison Avenue approach to the subject matter, meaning it hits the high notes, the recognizable rigors, and then invents its own clever combinations to compensate for the lack of legitimacy.


And it’s not just an internal conceit. As stated before, this is a basic camcorder production, a shot on video version of every other outsider attempt at moviemaking the new science can support. But thanks to the computer, and its ability to tweak colors, create age, provide purposeful defects, and give each frame the full Peter Max dynamic, Bruce and Thomas can indulge their every creative whim. They exploit long forgotten film elements like split screen, freeze framing, multiple exposures, fish eyed lens, kaleidoscope effect, and insert montages. In combination with the astounding score by Thomas’ band Spindrift (so sonically right it’s frightening), the amateur acting from the cast (complete with mandatory ADR voiceover work), the backdrop’s bravura grandeur (it’s ghost town-irrific) and the many little moments of outright gadgetry make for a movie that revives your faith in filmmaking.



Since it is only available directly from the filmmakers (through their production company, Razor Tree Films) and lacks the full blown digital directness of a professionally distributed product, there will be those who dismiss the polish of this project. They will look at the self-helmed hucksterism and argue that it’s no different than dozens of other moviemaking wannabes selling their wares out of the metaphysical back of their van known as the Internet.  But that would be missing the point. Decades ago, Francis Ford Coppola argued that cinema would finally find a populist position, technology allowing anyone with an idea to bring their vision to the otherwise myopic masses (it’s a position supported by such diverse entities as Martin Scorsese and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman). The Legend of God’s Gun is a clear indication of this new media mandate. It’s an explosive, eye popping expression of full blown film geek love measured through an aesthetic sensibility that flawlessly recreates its own insular inspiration.


Not only that, but it’s a nod to the filmic forbearers who had the wisdom and wherewithal to see that the Western wasn’t dead, just in need of a major artistic overhaul. Bruce and Thomas follow the footpath carved out by brilliant, bloody works such as The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West and then invert it all for the socially hip. It’s a blatant doom trip, a droning drive directly into the sand washed mythos of the cowboy, the gunslinger, and the cruel, callous killer. In The Legend of God’s Gun, we are not dealing with law and order, civilization vs. savagery. Instead, this is the amazingly muddled and fertile fields of the genre expressionists, people who propose there existed more going on behind the scenes of any storyline than just upright citizenry, quiet desperation, and wanton wickedness. There was a meaning that reached far beyond humanity to address the very nature of being. Luckily, these filmmakers found a way to guide their vision. It’s now available for all who are interested – and it’s amazing


 


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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007

If you’re looking for the culmination of the last two decades in filmmaking, if you need a movie that provides nothing but hair trigger pop shots, if your standard action movie is just too slack paced and remedial for your Red Bulled synapses, Michael Davis’s deconstructionist marvel will fuel inject your fun factors in quick order.

Welcome to the world of adrenaline amping gun porn. Maybe a better term for it would be “ammunition oriented erotica”. While there is technically nothing sexy about the arterial spray and wonder weaponry of Michael Davis’ demented actioner Shoot ‘Em Up, one does get the distinct impression of watching a XXX title where handguns substitute for hardcore. Grooving on its gratuity to the point of plentiful premature climaxes, and referencing the John Woo School of snail-paced mayhem to the point of stalker status, this demented director, previously known for nothing very much, has created the first freak geek manifesto. He has made a movie that does away with unnecessary cinematic standards like dimensional characterization, narrative clarity, physical logic, and any sense of subtlety. In its place are never-ending firefights, cut to the chase action sequences, bullet ballet, and a weird obsession with breast milk. Seriously.


The plot, when we finally find one, is an intriguing amalgamation of exploitation excess and Jackass level joke. While sitting on a street corner, minding his own business, the illusive Mr. Smith (a marvelous Clive Owen) sees a pregnant woman being chased by a murderous mob. Stepping in to protect her, he ends up with her newborn child, and a mob of angry hitmen on his tail. Led by the lecherous, leering Mr. Hertz (the brilliant Paul Giamatti), this craven crew has been given strict orders to destroy the kid at all costs. Hoping to find a substitute mom, Smith seeks the aid of prostitute pal DQ (Monica Bellucci as rather dandy eye candy). Initially rejecting his request, she relents, and suddenly, the faux family is on the run and looking for an escape. But they’ll have to get past a presidential candidate, an influential weapons manufacturer, the Second Amendment, the anti-gun lobby, and about 9000 members of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight before uncovering the truth and foiling Hertz’s fatal plot once and for all.


There’s no rationalizing a movie like Shoot ‘Em Up. There’s no way to excuse its excesses or validate its unavoidable volatilities. Instead, one simply has to sit back and enjoy the highlight reel histrionics of the action, the pure visual pleasure of watching choreographed actors exchange pot shots like gun toting gladiators. While really nothing more than a glorified game of one-upmanship where Smith and Wesson replace sword and saber, and everyone has a vendetta driving their designs, director Davis should be commended for making all of this negligible nonsense work. He takes what is, in essence, a Six Shooter Territory Wild West stunt show gone Gotham and turns it into a magical motion picture experience that borders on the epic. Granted, he doesn’t have the added Asian ideals of honor, duty, and loyalty down yet, and his characters tend to talk in blurbs from the back of old pulp novels, but viable action is an art. From what we see here, Davis is a punch-drunk Picasso.


It’s hard to hate this movie, try as it might to tweak your PC sensibilities. This is the kind of craziness that offers necrophilia as an offhand snicker, uses an infant as a precarious prop, and proposes that the entire world is run by corrupt corporate and government entities that pat each other on the back before planting a 9mm round in it. Emotions are for dames and dunce caps, and wit revolves around how successful you are in rearming your pistol before your opponent airs out your entrails. Sure, it’s all so hyper-stylized and mannered that it’s similar to hallucinating anime after a peyote and Pixie stick binge. Or maybe a better way of putting it would be to say that Shoot ‘Em Up is the naughtiest non-nudity the NRA ever fantasized over.  The well staged sequences of unbridled mayhem may help us to forget the overall lack of substance, but there’s no denying the high spirits hangover we feel once it’s done. 


Making matters even more complicated is the outstanding acting job by the two main leads. Clive Owen has crafted a nice little niche as the day saving action hero with the hobbled heart of a human being. As he did in Sin City, and again in Children of Men, he’s a capable champion made even more valiant by our obvious rooting interest in his success. Sure, he’s responsible for the death of hundreds, but who could hold a grudge with that cool and calculated chin butt. Similarly, Paul Giamatti gives a new meaning to the term “hygienically challenged” with his scraggly faced, sweat stained Mr. Hertz. Given lots of juicy lines to work with, and a character dimension that has his unstoppable anger deriving from a horrible home life (this mobster is the most henpecked hitman in the history of organized crime). Together, they form the core of some brilliant byplay, a cool for cat and mouse that adds an element of sly substance to what is basically kids playing cops and criminals.


There are a few elements here that will try your motion picture patience. Since its budget was obviously limited to the lower end of the financial scale, some subpar CGI had to be used to realize a couple of the stunts (one involves a classic moment between Owen, Giamatti, a couple of cars, and an infant in the middle of the road). Similarly, Davis does indulge his technicians a few too many rapid cutting conceits. When you watch a John Woo film, the last thing you notice is the editing. It’s easy to fall into an MTV style stance when dealing with this type of material, but for the most part, the director keeps it under control. And then there’s the lack of estrogen. Granted, Bellucci’s around to look fetching and fertile, but the lack of other female facets here is more than noticeable. When they’re not being gutted or gunned down, they’re part of the periphery, nothing more. Frankly, it would have been nice to see a long legged counterpart to our pair of provocateurs. It would have really pushed this project over the top.


Still, you gotta love the primal potency of Shoot ‘Em Up. It’s been a long time since any movie has made such a strong connection to our cave dweller cravings. This is hunter/gatherer grandness, the sort of symphonic splatter statement that turns ordinary people into obsessives. Though it all feels so superficial and slight, even with all the corpses piling up, the undeniable attraction to orgiastic violence provides enough entertainment heft to leave us spent and satisfied. Certainly this movie will rub some the wrong way, questioning the glorification of gunpowder as yet another scar on the already mottled match-up between the media and society. Even worse, they will point to adolescents, already ripe with retrograde notions of right and wrong via videogames, and vilify both the messenger and the missive. But sometimes, all we ADULTS want is cinematic junk food, and Shoot ‘Em Up is definitely more filling than equal entries like Smokin’ Aces, The Marine, or Crank.


In fact, if you’re looking for the culmination of the last two decades in filmmaking, if you need a movie that provides nothing but hair trigger pop shots, if your standard action movie is just too slack paced and remedial for your Red Bulled synapses, Michael Davis’s deconstructionist marvel will fuel inject your fun factors in quick order. It’s rare when a movie can elevate both your blood pressure and belief in the artform, but Shoot ‘Em Up definitely deserves such recognition. It’s not a full blown masterpiece, or something that will stand the test of time, but for what audiences are looking for in 2007, it will fit the bill with ballistics to spare.



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