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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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Friday, Sep 7, 2007


Instead of ranting and raving about the upcoming week in premium pay cable movie premieres, let’s just meditate on Autumn, SE&L’s favorite time of year. Here’s a picture to aid in your calmative contemplation:



Okay – enough multicolored foliage. Now, on to the choices for 8 September, including a rather timely world premiere:


Premiere Pick
World Trade Center


It’s so strange to think that this movie was made by the same man who redefined Vietnam, took on the JFK conspiracy, and supported several causes considered ‘anti-American’ by conservative commentators. For decades, Oliver Stone has been an aggressive agent provocateur, not a flag-waving jingoist. Yet here he is, the man responsible for calling into question almost every political power within the last three decades doing a nice, noble job of telling the true story of two Port Authority police officers during 9/11. In Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena, Stone found two actors capable of carrying off their scenes while buried under tons of art department rubble, and the initial scenes of the terrorist attack, all suggestion and subtle shifts in personnel and perspective, are expertly done. Towards the end, when the trapped men’s families start freaking out, the movie looses a little of its bearing, but overall, Stone taps into the national nightmare of that fateful day, and delivers a devastating drama. (08 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Superman Returns


Bryan Singer’s bloated, overdone homage to Richard Donner didn’t deserve all the geek squad accolades it received. Even a year after its release, the flaws are all too obvious. Kate Bosworth remains a poor choice for Lois Lane, and the whole Super-boy angle is underplayed to the point of implausibility. For every good thing this restart does – Brandon Routh is excellent as the superhero, and Kevin Spacey gives good Lex Luthor – Singer stumbles. (08 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Return


You’d figure that after The Grudge, Sarah Michelle Gellar would try and move as far away from the J-Horror film fad as possible, less she wind up typecast. Sadly, she instead embraced the format, starring in this Asian terror knock off from British moviemaker Asif Kapadia. Unlike his first film, the feudal India themed The Warrior, this has Ju-On juice spread all over it. Fans of more subtle scares should look elsewhere for their fear factors. (08 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Open Season


Though the look of this animated ordinariness is unusual (lots of odd angles and stylized characterization), we wind up with the same old CGI stumbles. Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher are a bear and a mule deer, respectively, that must rally the other woodland creatures in time to prepare for the title event, and the onslaught of hunters that will follow soon thereafter. Though the humor is forced and the film forgettable, the kiddies couldn’t care less. (08 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Breathless (1956)


Perhaps the biggest misconception about the French New Wave that swept through cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s was that the entire movement was an attack on Hollywood and its mainstream brand of moviemaking. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, all directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard wanted to do was expand the possibilities of film, and the only way they could accomplish this was by blowing up the formulas and deconstructing the various elements. Then, they put them back together in ways contrary/complimentary to the works that they loved, thereby creating and commenting via a new form of expression. This, Godard’s 1960 masterpiece, is a perfect example of the stratagem. The storyline is simplistic – a young girl hooks up with a murderous criminal – but it’s the presentation that sets the new standards. With its handheld cameras, jarring jump cuts, breaking of various ‘walls’, and self-conscious rebellion, it functions as one of the artform’s most important and radical works. (12 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Tout Va Bien


Over a decade after he redefined the language of film, Jean-Luc Godard teamed up with fellow filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin to make this aggressively avant-garde look at relationships, politics, and the strictures of cinema. Featuring fine performances from Yves Montand and a fresh from Klute Jane Fonda, the result is supremely frustrating with sprinklings of electric genius. While not upfront about all their ideas, Godard/Gorin still get most of their point across. (09 September, Sundance Channel, 7:15PM EST)

Igby Goes Down


Celebrated as a post-modern Catcher in the Rye as well as one of the first films to adopt the digital approach to filmmaking, this Burr Steers’ effort has its charms. Macaulay’s brother Kiernan Culkin does an excellent job in the lead role, and he gets good supporting turns from Bill Pullman and Susan Sarandon. While not quite on par with Salinger, this is still a smart and substantive coming of age saga. (12 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Steal This Movie


The Yippie movement, best exemplified by Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden remains a potent source of motion picture material. Sadly, nothing has successfully tapped into such subject matter, including this well intentioned biopic from documentarian Robert Greenwald. Vincent D’Onofrio does a fine job as Hoffman, and Janeane Garofalo is good as his wife, Anita. But the narrative never finds a focus. (14 September, IFC, 11:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
The Prime Time


Before he became the Godfather of Gore (with his classic terror triptych Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red), Herschell Gordon Lewis was the king of the nudie cutie. Working with partner and mighty monarch of the exploitation film, David F. Friedman, the former advertising employee cranked out Florida based flesh feasts dealing with subject both scandalous and silly. In this case, we have the typical little girl lost scenario. Jean is desperate for kicks (the ‘50s/’60s substitute word for illegal fun) and she ends up getting involved in drugs and nude modeling. Perhaps most notorious for Karen Black’s appearance (or lack thereof – she sued to be removed from the film) and the lack of Lewis regulars (it was his first film as a director, after all), it still stands as a slyly suggestive treat. (11 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 1AM EST)

Additional Choices
Twice the Price - Again


Our main man Vincent is back again for another double dose of delirium at the hands of TCM’s Underground series. This time around, we witness a late in life insignificance of Madhouse, followed by the more successful Italian take on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (here called The Last Man on Earth). No matter the movie, Price was a gem. He remains a very enigmatic and elusive screen star. (14 September, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

The Piano


New Zealand director Jane Campion went from cult creator to mainstream moviemaker – at least in the eyes of Western audiences – with this intriguing take on the bodice ripping romance. Holly Hunter, Sam, Neil and Harvey Keitel give brave, bravura performances in a narrative that, while arch and a tad tawdry, really gets to the heart of obsession, compassion, and loss. (10 September, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

House on Haunted Hill (1995)


While William Castle purists will balk at the suggestion, the remakes of his classic films have been pretty good – considering the campy and kitsch nature of the originals. This offering is not as good as 13 Ghosts (a more imaginative take on the material), but still offers enough gory thrills and unexpected chills to send more than a few shivers up and down your spine. (11 September, ThrillerMax, 11:50PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

The death of the western as a viable film genre remains, even to this day, a perplexing motion picture issue. It could be argued that the glut of horse opera product that flooded the pop culture market between 1940 and 1980 extinguished any artistic or commercial viability the category had left. Indeed, Hollywood loved to spread the oater’s morality play mandates as thinly as possible. Part of the reason was popularity. Until political correctness condemned its conceits, kids played Cowboys and Indians and the pioneers were looked upon as great land emancipators, not the catalysts for cruel, cutthroat genocide. How the mythos went from machismo to mass murder is definitely a topic for another time. But it does help explain why the sagebrush saga has seen better days. Along with a draught of compelling creativity, post-modern audiences just aren’t eager to revisit our country’s more primeval past.


Perhaps that’s why James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma is so strict in its storyline dynamics. This second version of Elmore Leonard’s short story (the first, in 1957, featured Glen Ford and Van Heflin) revolves around a simple rancher who, in a desperate act for much needed money, decides to escort a rogue outlaw to the title train, an express that leads to prison, and eventually, the gallows. Actors such as Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were originally considered for the project, but Mangold managed to score a box office bonanza when he cast Christian Bale (Batman himself) as Civil War veteran Dan Evans and Russell Crowe as suave train robber and ruthless killer Ben Wade. Rounding out the supporting parts with Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Gretchen Mol, and Alan Tudyk, he had performers worthy of pulling off the impossible—making this manner of film compelling to a consumed-by-CGI audience.


For the most part, he succeeds in spades. 3:10 to Yuma has its off moments, and its unexplored potential, but for the vast majority of its running time, this is an excellently made and superbly acted throwback. Mangold is not out to deconstruct the genre ala Unforgiven, nor is he trying to contemporize or reimagine his homage ala The Quick and the Dead. Instead, this is the kind of mild mannered, if action packed, movie that the Italians targeted with their spectacular splatter spaghetti updates. After an exciting opening stagecoach hold up, the narrative becomes a series of metaphysical standoffs waiting for some glorified gunplay to forward the momentum. This is a good looking film, one that captures an Old West authenticity that’s unique among its motion picture peers. This is a grubbier, dustier western, a movie that frequently mentions the hardship and the horror of eking out an existence on the fringes of a still-forming nation. 


In that regard, one has to stop and mention the magnificent work of Christian Bale. Playing a Northern veteran of the War Between the States (with his own humiliating past to protect), there’s a real desperation in his performance, a quiet helplessness that carries over to his gaunt face and hobbled physicality. Missing a foot and more considered than confrontational, Evans makes for an unusual hero. Not only do we need him to buffer Wade’s craven cult of personality, but we hope he will find his inner strength as well. The combination creates real tension, and gives Bale lots of room to play. In turn, he’s both pathetic and powerful, a presence that demands attention even if all it results in is nothing more than mockery. With a scraggly beard and sullen eyes, we witness the kind of alienation and angst we’d expect in a post-modern movie. But thanks to his amazingly accomplished acting, it all becomes part of a much more meaningful whole.


Crowe, on the other hand, is quite the quandary. He’s supposed to be larger than life, a charmer who’d enjoy conning you as much as killing you. Instead of delving deep into his character’s psychosis, or the rationale behind his antisocial stance, the actor merely grandstands. You can practically hear him having too good of a time, a leprechaun-ish lilt in his voice almost mocking everything the movie stands for. It’s a brave creative choice, since it could easily alienate the audience. After all, Wade will go through a last act change that pushes our perspective of him into fairly uncharted territory. One can indeed question whether Crowe actually prepares us for this possibility. When he turns on the intensity, he’s as grave as they come. But in the lighter moments, when he’s joking and jesting, we’re stuck stewing over the man. His rogue routine raises enough questions to turn his character into quicksand—substantive at first, but with some rather shaky foundations underneath.


The rest of the company is crafty and first class, with Ben Forster literally stealing the film as Wade’s trusty and treacherous sidekick Charlie. He’s evil personified, a man metering out his own idea of justice one blazing six-shooter at a time. When he appears onscreen, all bets are automatically off, especially during the opening/closing action sequences. He’s ruthless, with just a touch of feyness to render every act doubly despicable. He’s unpredictable and yet totally calculated, a lethal combination indeed. He acts as a counterweight to the cavalier tone taken during some of the movie’s more trite moments. Similarly, Alan Tudyk’s venerable veterinarian is a wonderful reminder of the definite dangers involved. Whether it’s repairing bullet wounds or reminding the posse of their purpose, he’s a wonderful voice of reason. Add in Peter Fonda’s grizzled grimness (including a rather nasty backstory) and a real flair for bullet bravado, and you’ve got a really fine cinematic sentiment.


There are a couple of minor misgivings however. The entire subplot with the son, an ungrateful little knave that eventually comes around to his dad’s way of thinking, asks too much of an already perplexed viewer. Why this kid loves the outlaw life and vicarious violence is only suggested, though it appears to be derived from a love of dime novels and press puffery. He’s worked back into the overall tone about halfway through, even if we’re not sure why he’s around. Then there’s the Civil War angle. Bale wears his service literally, the war wound haunting and hobbling him. Yet other characters who mention their part in the conflict do so without a lick of significance, as if their conscription in the nation-defining event was similar to going down to the local saloon for a snort. It’s confusing, and lacks closure. Still, 3:10 to Yuma does a direct job of both bending and blending archetypes. Luckily, the narrative avoids most of the standard stock personas, even if Crowe ends up bedding one of the cleanest looking whores in all of Arizona.


Most of the praise goes to Mangold, however. He keeps things lively, and never forgets that a contemporary audience likes their wicked weaponry in full muffle blast mode. The gunfights are staged in a highly kinetic manner, the participants constantly plotting and moving in an attempt to avoid that hot kiss of lead. The finale is probably the best two on twenty showdown in the history of the genre, made even more effective by the emotional bond we feel with these characters. Even better, this director lays out the basics for a possible genre rebirth. All that’s required is a simple story, capable stars, an acknowledgement of the current medium trends, and a filmmaker that’s capable of meshing them all together. The results can only hope to be as effective as 3:10 to Yuma. In the realm of remakes, this one surpasses its still significant sources.



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