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Sunday, Oct 14, 2007


For dedicated horror fans, it’s the hideous Holy Grail, a cup runneth over with as much minced body parts and juiced marrow as possible. It’s the icing on a particularly nasty cake, a filling so foul in a pastry so vile that simply sampling its entrails-laced spice will send your palette to purgatory – forever! Since its popularity as a means of pushing the exploitation film into a new, non-nude dynamic, to its post-millennial pose as a redefining hardcore homage, gore has given the movie macabre its surreal, sacrilegious fascination. It’s also elevated the craftsmen behind the scenes – the make-up artists and effects technicians – to the level of Gods, beings given over to unbelievably realistic interpretations of human death and dismemberment.


For those of us who love dread, splatter is often viewed as the demon drug of the otherwise subtle and subjective spookshow, the next step in our genre appreciation, that uneasy leap from bone rattling to bone breaking. Some cinematic categories couldn’t survive without it. Imagine, a zombie epic without some flesh feasting, or a slasher film where the killer’s injurious intent is illustrated by a simple fade to black. For those who like to think of horror as a disease, a blight on movies comparable to tawdry XXX fare, gore is like the pop shot at the end of a rather aggressive sex scene. It’s the raison d’etra, the punchline at the completion of a jaundiced joke, a way of rewarding audience patience and solving narrative incompleteness with severed limbs and missing heads.


And yet, for some in the fear faction, gore isn’t groovy. It’s a cheap date that puts out, even when you don’t want it to, a shortcut scapegoat that argues for aesthetic sloppiness and a lack of true imagination. It’s the fart joke in the family comedy, the terminal disease that makes an already overdone drama more saccharine. While there are bigger abominations in horror – the continued Euro-trashing of vampires, the purposeful PG-13ing of content – many view the excess of blood to be indicative of what’s wrong with the contemporary creepfest. Citing old school scares like the Universal monsters and Haunting style ghost stories, they reject grue’s carnival barker bravado and cheap shot sentiments.


Of course, DVD has only broadened the debate, studios and their hired hands using the format’s ability to manipulate and reconfigure footage to produce dozens of unrated and unedited director’s/collector’s cuts. While there are rare cases when the new, MPAA-less version offers nothing new except extended dialogue and expositional material, that the vast majority of the updates are nothing more than moments of sluice originally rejected as inappropriate. Purists tend to balk at such an unnecessary reworking, while the more aggressive in the gorehound community argue that all censored scenes should arrive on home video in contradiction to their previous violated state.



But beyond the “us vs. them”, the classicist’s clash with the craven, the question remains – why is gore so satisfying? Why does it sicken some and excite others? Is there a psychological basis for such a dichotomy, or does it all just boil down to some manner of cinematic constitution. After all, there are awarding-winning dramas (Saving Private Ryan) and celebrated satires (anything by Monty Python) that uses blood and its excessive letting as a means to a much more viable ends. And while there would be some who’d actually enjoy the experience, no one is suggesting that actual autopsies be filmed and featured as the latest horror trend. No, somewhere between realism and revulsion lies the gruesome’s gonzo appeal. Tracing a path to its current controversial acceptance may lend some insight into what is, notoriously, a rather contentious creative predisposition.


For many, gore came to the fore after old school exploiteers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman decided that the nudist colony film was fading. Always looking for a new way of bringing gratuity to the grindhouse, they decided that violence was the next great unexplored option. Now, substituting terror for titillation may not seem like the soundest business model, but the duo knew that their outsider status mandated moving the film medium beyond the simple and safe. It was their purpose to tweak cinematic taboos, and since sex and brutality had been longstanding Hays Code no-no’s, what better subjects to celebrate. But by 1963, everyone and their ballyhooing brother were filming strippers for cash. Lewis and Friedman saw the wanton writing on the wall, and decided to delve into gratuity’s dark side.


The one-two punch of Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) proved to be intensely profitable. While they may not have started the horror subsect (it is up to others to argue over and determine the first true gore film), their success fueled a fiscal belief that terror could use a little redrum redirection. Initially, few picked up on the pair’s slice and dice dictum. It just didn’t seem like the proper paradigm for a softcore smut peddler to play in. Then the MPAA arrived, its “parental guidance” ideals putting a kibosh on everything that exploitation experts were pushing. While many spent the next few years battling First Amendment court cases, splatter gravitated underground. Aside from the occasional appearance in a high minded Hollywood effort (Bonnie and Clyde and The Exorcist, for example), it was film’s fringe dwellers who kept the claret flowing.


For many, the next great wave in motion picture pus came from Europe – and the Italians, in particular. Names like Argento, Fulci, and Bava brought the long dormant death dream back to prominence, mixing artistry with atrocity (or in some cases, just plain evil) to forge a kind of graphic Gothic approach. Movies like Suspiria delivered Grand Guignol grotesqueries back to the fore. By the end of the ‘70s, Zombi 2 and Cannibal Holocaust were pushing the boundaries of acceptability.  American filmmakers were also doing something similar. George Romero reinvented the living dead movie with his organ-caked offering Dawn of the Dead, while Friday the 13th combined slaughter with inventive make-up work to popularize the soon to be omnipresent slasher film. 


By the mid-part of the ‘80s, the genre had come into its own, with big name F/X men like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin ruling the medium’s cutting edge. Films like The Thing, The Evil Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street illustrated that outrageous and excessive violence could be used in undeniably compelling ways, while a landslide of direct-to-video efforts established that – sans intellectualizing or originality – splatter was destined to cannibalize itself. Sure enough, by the ‘90s, fright fans were looking for something new to tweak their tired interests. CGI gave imaginary creatures a well-deserved reprieve, while foreign fear factors – especially those from Japan and other Far East nations – offered a sly, more supernatural means of macabre. It wasn’t until the torture porn efforts of the early ‘00s that gore regained its footing. Today, it’s viewed as a necessary part of the overall horror story.



Yet none of this addresses why ample arterial spray remains so enjoyable. History has a habit of contextualizing something to the point of passivity, yet new grue mavens arrive on the scene everyday. As a matter of fact, technology has helped many of them crawl out of their fanboy basements and realize their own repugnant visions. So there is obviously something universal in the fetid format’s appeal. Yet even armchair psychologists and legitimate professionals can’t agree on a reason why. Some point to the adolescent need to rebel (citing that most blood lovers derive from the standard misspent and misunderstood youth movement) while others view it as merely a technique for experimenting with one’s own internal tolerances.


Indeed, the whole double-dare and/or water cooler nature of the set-up could explain its unusual appeal. Since, by its very nature, our social order is tied to competition, being the first on your block to see the latest gross out spectacle – and better yet, thriving on it – could be interpreted as a blatant badge of obsessive dishonor. It’s a calculated cool to be sure, but in a dynamic that tends to reward such unusual accomplishments, being able to tolerate a torso ripping isn’t the worst reward one can seek. Then, of course, there’s the standard human attribute known as morbid curiosity. Tied directly to the above-stated starvation for attention, people are notorious for wanting to stare disgust directly in the face. In addition, such sentiments are usually linked to mortality and a fear of death. Gore, therefore, may provide the panacea that allows the looky-loo a chance to feel more secure as part of this tenuous metaphysical terrain.


Yet the most obvious reason for gore’s continued interest is reflected in its execution. Filmmakers have gotten exceptionally good at such “gags”, while companies like KNB and Digital Domain transformed the terrifying into a viable art. When a throat is cut in your standard scary movie, wound gaping while rivers of blood pour from the slit, it’s not the crime that’s compelling. No, what lovers of such degradation are responding to is the tiny technical elements – the momentary pause before the skin stretches and parts, the realistic look of the flowing fluid, the actor or actresses’ performance and response, the manner in which the director frames and composes the shot. Because it can easily look like the fakest of filmic propositions, horror fans are particular about their putrescence. In fact, part of the appeal is the very “compare and contrast” nature of such appreciation.


Then there is imagination. Fear fans love to see things they’ve never witnessed before. They enjoy being treated as motion picture archivists, using the past as a means of measuring the present. The splatter specialists understand this, and strive to bring something different and exciting to each new project. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof contains one of the most disturbing car crashes ever, the effect of the wreck on everyone involved examined and highlighted in horrific detail. Similarly, Saw III contained a sequence of brain surgery so sickening that many wondered if such a procedure was medically sound (to everyone’s surprise, it was/is). When Eli Roth offered up various power tools in his amazing Hostel, they didn’t shy away from their murderous mechanical mayhem, and in the Michael Bay produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Leatherface got to wield his weapon in ways original auteur Tobe Hooper could only imagine.


So maybe it is the need to stare death squarely in the face. Perhaps it stands as a cruel desire to see others suffer for the sake of a thrill. Maybe, like the canvases of Francis Bacon, devotees locate the mastery inside these massacres. Or it could just be the new age equivalent of The Depression’s desire for happy, sappy musicals. In a recent interview, Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon suggested that horror is cyclical, ebbing and flowing based on the political signs of the times. Naturally, his argument took a more liberal bent when he points out that Reagan and Bush have been responsible for the most aggressive of redolent renaissances. But he may have a point. Gore is an escape, a vision of unreality in a world overdosing on actual information. It stands as a connection to our corporeal being, a way of helping us manage our fading humanity.


And besides, it’s a great deal of illicit fun. Like discovering your Dad’s stash of Playboys when you were young, the shady, antisocial nature of such disturbing imagery represents the heavy metal equivalent of movies, the raised fist anarchy that many horror fans long to embrace. After all, the genre itself stands in direct defiance of everything that makes the artform attractive – the stories are sordid and the images brutal and disturbing. So, in retrospect, perhaps the reason that gore is good stands as part of a more common individual attribute. There will always be those who follow the flock. In contrast, certain individuals will challenge such a corrosion of conformity. For them, the battle flag is soaked in corpse-grinding suet, blood caking every facet of this rage against the mainstream machine. This is one revolution that is frequently televised – and the images are always a deep, dark red. That’s why gore is so grand. It’s also why it’s so good.


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Saturday, Oct 13, 2007


No one thought it would be such a massive hit. After all, it was a goofy little splatter film directed by a relative genre newcomer. Besides, in a realm overrun by big name filmmakers using make-up and physical F/X to realize their most repugnant visions, how could an outsider to motion picture macabre make any kind of meaningful dent? Well, when Chicago theater director Stuart Gordon arrived on the horror scene with his unconventional Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator, legions of fans took notice. The zany zombie film with the over the top bloodletting became an instant cult classic, and as the years have rolled by, it’s become a beloved benchmark. Of course, once completed, Gordon faced a major obstacle – how to avoid the sophomore slump. After Empire Pictures’ Charles Band passed on several other ideas, another run at HP territory was devised. But this movie would be different than the first. It would move “beyond” anything the novice director had done before.


Indeed, From Beyond is more serious and less ‘spoofy’ than the tale of Herbert West and his day-glo decision to play God. It deals with more science fiction oriented elements, and delves deeper into the sleazoid sex only hinted at in Re-Animator. With a little more budget to work with, a cadre of accomplished craftsmen and technicians at his disposal, and a cast already in tune with what Stuart was hoping to achieve, the results are more compact and complete than that famous if frequently out of control first film. There is not a lot of complicated plot here – lab assistant Crawford Tillinghast is accused of killing Dr. Edward Pretorius after an experiment results in the death of the medico. Our hero claims innocence, offering instead an insane story about unseen entities that exist between the realms of reality and the ethereal. Psychiatric whiz kid Dr. Katherine McMichaels decides to take up his cause, and along with cop/protector Buford Brownlee, they return to the scene of the crime – and the pineal gland resonator that lies within.


From the very beginning of this film, you can tell Gordon is striving for something different. While his style is still the same - this is a filmmaker who loves to hide his horrors until he can give them the full majestic movie treatment they so richly deserve – the story kicks in with a different kind of urgency. On the commentary track from the new unrated edition of the film (now out on DVD from MGM), Gordon recognizes the limited scope of Lovecraft’s original tale. By the time the credits arrive, the short story has been exhausted. So coming up with another 90 minutes of filler is what gives From Beyond its novel, Italian horror like whodunit. Unlike his previous effort, which felt like a homage to every direct-to-video vomitorium released during the VCR’s heyday, this movie plays like a combination of Fulci, Argento, and Bava. There is just something about the combination of procedure and pus that recalls the very best of our Mediterranean macabre maestros.


Oddly enough, very little blood is spilled here. Indeed, the alternative narrative discussion finds Gordon arguing that he needed to replace the claret with slime. Seems the MPAA, angry that he released Re-Animator without a rating, decided to rake him over the coals come From Beyond’s consideration. They mandated cuts and edits that took most of the overt arterial spray out the set-pieces. For decades, this material was considered lost. After all, who would have thought that 20 plus years later there would be a need for gore removed from a horror movie? Luckily, a little archeology on the studio’s part turned up these trims, and tech geeks matched them to the movie. Today, we can see From Beyond the way the director intended – bile and body parts included. It’s not a more noxious experience, just one closer to how Gordon intended it to be.


It also doesn’t alter the original version’s viability. From Beyond stands as a stellar example of what ‘80s terror did best – expanding on old concepts while using any and all available resources to realize its ideas. There have been hundreds of mad scientist movies, each one offering its own unique take on the evil experiment gone radioactively wrong concept. But this movie makes a radical departure from such strategies in that it gives us competing crazed researchers – three if you count the evil quack back at the hospital that keeps putting Crawford in harms way. Pretorius may have started the dread, but McMichaels allows her inner lusts – for power, for personal glory, for physical love – to override her rationality. She becomes the far more threatening presence as the lure of the Resonator keeps her focused on pushing its limits.


While there is a John Carpenter’s The Thing like look to the main monster, Gordon again thwarts convention by making the “it” a thinking, feeling, being. When it gropes McMichaels out of sexual need, we feel the sleaze. When it tries to convince the others to join its biological make-up, it plays right into the standard human helplessness. This is thoughtful offal, organs and shredded muscle melted into a pool of psycho-sexual sluice. The effects really sell the premise, and the overall art design helps us believe in the machine’s menacing purpose. Once Crawford becomes brainwashed (literally), the motion picture meanders over into even more surreal splatter. After all, we are dealing with a creature who craves gray matter, and such mind bending tendencies really give From Beyond its excessive flavor. It matches well with what Gordon established in Re-Animator.


There are those who find that first film so much better that they tend to downplay Beyond’s solid scary film status. Granted, when the movie suddenly finds itself in S&M land, actress Barbara Crampton tricked out in full dominatrix mode to help McMichaels find her inner slut, it appears we’ve suddenly stumbled into Red Shoe Diaries territory. And a force of nature like Ken Fore shouldn’t be relegated to playing sidekick/clichéd first casualty. Still, for all its unexplainable tangents and Roma-esque madness, From Beyond is a brilliant film. Sadly, it represents the last time that Gordon would stand as a viable fear factor. As part of a contract with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, he would soon find himself lost in a swirl of failed projects and no budget miscues. For every practicable attempt (Robot Jox, Fortress), there’s a wildly ineffective misstep (Castle Freak, The Pit and the Pendulum).


Here’s hoping that this new DVD – which also contains a nice retrospective and some intriguing storyboard to scene comparisons – will revitalize From Beyond’s reputation. Its MIA status from the format has often been cited as the reason behind its lesser consideration. Of course, Re-Animator’s rabid loyalists will scoff at any suggestion that this HP Lovecrafting can compare to the original bodily fluid fable. Though it may be hearsay to say it, From Beyond may be better than its predecessor. It feels more like a film and less like a series of F/X pieces piled together. We enjoy the character interplay more, and realize that the conclusion means more to us than who lives or who dies. We want to see Pretorius get his comeuppance. Thankfully, Gordon gives us that…and a whole lot more.


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Friday, Oct 12, 2007


The sense of community has vanished. The neighborhood is no more. We live in isolated exclusivity from each other, no longer keeping up with the Joneses, but rather avoiding them outright. We’ve got politicians saying it takes a village to raise our kids, and yet the notion today of such togetherness is so oblique as to practically blot out the white flight suburban sun. Privacy has been replaced by isolationism, imagined horrendous actions playing out a mere few feet from your own sordid secrets. And we don’t care, as long as we are safe. As he wanders through his South Boston locality, PI Patrick Kenzie senses such disconnect. He sees through the feigned interest and media hype to recognize one sad fact – a child is missing, and no one knows anything that can really help him.


In the hands of first time director Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone arrives as one of 2007’s finest films. Taken from a novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, this simple story of an abducted little girl, the surrounding investigation, and the suspicious mother at the center, has the kind of narrative power and acting prowess that elevates it above other like minded dramas. By capturing a sense of society lost, by using both the media focus and the behind closed doors denouements that seem to follow such situations, Affleck produces tragedy on an epic Greek scale and moviemaking of classic neo-noir artistry. In combination with some of the most riveting performances in recent memory, as well as a true sense of setting, what we wind up with is an incredibly dense and layered exploration of human ethics.


The saga of little Amanda McCready is already an overhyped press sensation when her distraught aunt Beatrice contacts local investigator Kenzie. Along with his live-in girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro, the couple is known for helping debt collectors locate deadbeats. Reluctant to take on the case at first, a conversation with the child’s blasé, drug addled mother Helen changes everything. Realizing a local dope dealer may be involved (the kidnapping may have something to do with stolen drop money), Kenzie confronts the hood. His responses raise even more questions. Worse, a local pedophile has just been released from jail, and he’s holed up in a squalid shack with some fellow addicts. All signs point to an imminent threat to Amanda’s well being. With the help from a pair of Boston’s finest, and a dedicated police captain who has made crimes against children his number one priority, Kenzie may solve this crime – or worse, discover an unruly and unconscionable conspiracy underneath.


To give away more of the plot would absolutely ruin Gone Baby Gone. One of this film’s greatest strengths is the fact finding interactions between star Casey Affleck (Ben’s brilliant brother) and the individuals he interrogates. There’s a snarky, smug strategy and streetwise strength in how Kenzie handles these situations. He relies on alliances, long standing reputation, and an almost omniscient knowledge of underworld mechanics to dig behind the bullshit and discover the truth. These wonderfully evocative moments, scattered throughout the film like rewards at the end of a complicated maze, are the kind of payoffs we anticipate and expect. After all, hints and suggestions can only take us so far. Director Affleck understands this, and purposefully allows the verbal fireworks to close up a few loose ends before unraveling a couple more.


This is also a movie about attitude. Among the various victims and suspects presented, we can see a well honed stance, a formed façade given to the rest of the world to judge or junk. From the seemingly straight laced detectives who combine caring with a well earned callousness, to the McCready family and friends who offer conflicting messages of disgust and despair, the universe of this South Boston area is covered in contradictions. When we meet Beatrice, she’s a hard nosed relative who simply wants her niece back. But then the interactions with Helen suggest a more selfish, personal rationale. Similarly, a character like police captain Jack Doyle presents nothing but professionalism…that is, until he lets a little of his guard down, and the slightest hint of anxiety stumbles across his speech pattern. In a movie filled with secrets, such personalities play flawlessly into the mix. They make for a much richer, more fulfilling film.


So does the acting. While his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was amazing, Casey Affleck’s work here is a revelation. He is so radiant, so unabashed in his studied swagger, that we breathlessly anticipate his next move. During a crucial shoot-out between Kenzie and the aforementioned house of drugs and depravity, the combination of fear and fierceness illustrate Affleck’s approach perfectly. He can talk the talk and walk the walk. Equally good are Ed Harris and John Ashton as the Boston cops. Without giving much away, they have to play both sides of the fence to forward the film’s agenda, and they do so spectacularly. While she didn’t offer much as the object of desire in The Heartbreak Kid, Michelle Monaghan does a dynamic job of bringing the story’s maternal elements to the fore. Her reactions, based almost exclusively in a female nurturing perspective, add an extra level of consideration here, and her last act resolve is simply stunning.


There are many other brilliant turns here – Morgan Freeman’s cloistered captain, Amy Madigan’s proud Irish aunt, Amy Ryan’s hedonistic hellion of a mom, Edi Gathegi’s slang spouting Haitian don – all proving that, when it comes to directing, Affleck really understands actors. But he’s also in tune with the artform’s more ephemeral facets. From the opening shots, where the Boston neighborhood is painted in brutal, authentic strokes (the extras give the concept of local color a dark, disenfranchised quality), to the set piece sequences where the plot points play out in electric, kinetic splashes, this is a tour de force that truly lives up to the tag. Gone Baby Gone shows a mastery of all the cinematic basics. Affleck then goes a step further and suggests that he knows how to turn said strategies into masterpieces.


Yet it’s the theme of ethical dilemma that this film returns to time and time again. Everyone here is in a quandary – from the victim whose dope-fueled lifestyle choices may have resulted in the literal loss of her child, to the PI who is hoping a successful resolution of this case will lead to more legitimate work – and how they respond to and decide these issues stand as Gone Baby Gone’s biggest reveals. Even characters we don’t think have a backdoor agenda turn out to be trading on their principles. It makes for a moody, complex entertainment, the kind of narrative that drags you in different directions to the point where you can’t anticipate where you’re going next – and you don’t really mind. The journey is so stunning that its frequent bouts of unbelievable cruelty really don’t distract.


Indeed, the only negative thing one can say about this film is that director Affleck’s Jenny from the Block tabloid rep may ruin the chances for a wider audience embrace. This is the kind of movie that resurrects your faith in film - not just as a diversion, but as the creator of meaningful human mythology. From its initial crawl to its final dour beat, Gone Baby Gone delivers on its premise, its promise, and its propositions. We may not like where it goes, and the images it offers can be too harsh for mellowed mainstream eyes, but the resulting work is celluloid at its most classical and filmmaking at its finest. Ben Affleck deserves a lot of credit for reinventing himself as a talent to be reckoned with, not ridiculed. Like the neighborhoods sitting at the center of his amazing movie, such tabloid sentiments are now gone, baby…gone.



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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


For the weekend of 12 October, here are the films in focus:


Michael Clayton [rating: 7]


Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.

Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. read full review…


Elizabeth: The Golden Age [rating: 6]


Playing fast and loose with the facts, and generating little big picture meaning, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, stands as a series of individual court intrigues that fail to add up to any great epiphany.

Why is it so hard for cinema to make history come alive? The period piece generally brings out the worst in the medium, using unnecessary spectacle and the archness of eras past to stifle creativity and eliminate interest. There have been some successful examples of the genre (Barry Lyndon, Restoration), but for every wonderful, evocative epic, there’s a myriad of mindless recreations that barely find a reason for being. In 1998, Pakistani director Shekhar Kapur got critics attention when he took the story of British monarch Elizabeth I and gave it a sumptuous, human design. The eponymous film brought its star Cate Blanchett to the fore of young English actresses, and proved that a glance backward could be as revealing as any forward thinking speculation. Now, nearly 10 year later, the second part of a proposed trilogy by the director has arrived. But unlike his first foray, all we get is history lost among the ruins. read full review…


We Own The Night [rating: 5]


Gray really does offer nothing new here. We get the same old statement of blood being thicker than watered-down business associations, and the denouement depends on something we’ve seen in dozens of derivative gangster efforts.

Pundits love to smear Hollywood with a single, ‘bereft of ideas’ swipe. Of course, such pronouncements seem very accurate in light of endless remakes, cookie cutter vanity fair, and the relentless pursuit of the all mighty dollar. While you can understand an industry’s desire to continue manufacturing the product that makes its rich, art tends to get stale when it constantly mimics itself. Sadder still are the situations where a seemingly new take on archetypal material winds up playing out as predictable as the efforts it’s avoiding. Thus we have the problem facing We Own the Night. When you hear the premise – brothers on either side of the law butt heads as they reconnect over issues of loyalty and duty – you hope something new can be found in the formula. Unfortunately, the only thing writer/director James Gray can offer that’s different is a glimpse inside the Russian mob – and he himself covered this territory a decade before with Little Odessa. read full review…


 


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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


Why is it so hard for cinema to make history come alive? The period piece generally brings out the worst in the medium, using unnecessary spectacle and the archness of eras past to stifle creativity and eliminate interest. There have been some successful examples of the genre (Barry Lyndon, Restoration), but for every wonderful, evocative epic, there’s a myriad of mindless recreations that barely find a reason for being. In 1998, Pakistani director Shekhar Kapur got critics attention when he took the story of British monarch Elizabeth I and gave it a sumptuous, human design. The eponymous film brought its star Cate Blanchett to the fore of young Australian actresses, and proved that a glance backward could be as revealing as any forward thinking speculation. Now, nearly 10 year later, the second part of a proposed trilogy by the director has arrived. But unlike his first foray, all we get is history lost among the ruins.


Spain is ensconced in an unending holy war. The Inquisition, incited by King Phillip II, is determined to eradicate all European heathens – and top on their list is Britain’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. As part of a mandate from God, Phillip ransacks his coffers, strips the countryside bare, and builds a massive fleet with the distinct purpose of crossing the Channel and ridding England of its whore sovereign. As the first step, however, a plan of assassination will be put into place. In the meantime, Her Majesty has found favor in newly arrived explore Walter Raleigh. He’s engaging and brash, unafraid to approach her as a woman as well as his ruler. At first, it appears Elizabeth’s days as the “Virgin” Queen of her country will end. But then her potential paramour’s eyes wonder to the Court Lady-in-Waiting, Bess. Soon, it will be their love that sets aristocratic tongues wagging. Naturally, the Spanish complete their mission, and set sail toward their destiny. It is up to Elizabeth to rally her troops, gain favor with the various military minds, and court public opinion as a strong, supportive monarch. If she can’t, her nation is doomed. 


Playing fast and loose with the facts, and generating little big picture meaning, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, stands as a series of individual court intrigues that fail to add up to any great epiphany. Featuring stellar performances from a well rounded cast, and a narrative that’s so circular it’s almost surreal, we get the shorthand version of 16th Century British monarchy. Director Shekhar Kapur wants us convinced that the events playing out in the House of Tudor are no different than the petty behind the scenes scandals that plague modern royalty. We have a depressed and lonely ruler, a usurper mounting favor along the fringes, a close confident violating the Queen’s trust, and a swashbuckling pseudo pirate whose playing hearts to forward his own agenda. Add in the Inquisition, Spain’s redolent religious fervor, the familial double crosses, and general sovereign uncertainty and you’ve got the material for a virtuoso bodice ripper.


But Elizabeth: The Golden Age, is more interesting in channeling all these catalysts into a kind of mythos mudslinging. We are supposed to see Mary Stuart as a spoiled and arrogant cur, so highly strung that her cheekbones seem supported by guide wires. Instead of a victim of circumstance, or a fatality of standard 1500’s skullduggery, she’s as guileless as she is guilty. Yet Kapur envisions her as a villain, a martyr to a mission she will naturally never benefit from, but still willing to press the issue until she appears mad. Samantha Morton’s cocksure performance doesn’t dissuade our opinion. She plays Mary like the spoiled unseated Prom Queen who’s convinced the entire student body will finally come to their senses and vote her back as the bell of the ball. When she dies – and that’s not a spoiler, for those who remember anything about high school – Kapur holds the camera on her like a comic book antagonist getting her just rewards.


This pomp as pulp ideal ruins many of Elizabeth’s quality interactions. When the Spanish Ambassador and his diplomatic armada saunter into the Court like members of a comedy troupe, you half expect to hear Terry Jones and Eric Idle exchanging Monty Python bon mots. Even better, Clive Owens’ Walter Raleigh is like an outcast in his own epoch. He’s so progressive, so filled with the wanderlust of exploration and the vastness of the new world that you sense he would levitate out of his shoes just on the sheer concept of circumnavigation. He comes off as a Classics Illustrated version of himself, a man made out of his legacy and historic contributions, not the human being about to live them. Part of the problem is Owen – he’s just too modern a man to play an Elizabethan dandy. We keep waiting for him to break into his seedy Sin City drawl or - in logistically appropriate fashion – save the infertile of the UK from themselves.


He is countered, of course, by Cate Blanchett. Having walked away with an Oscar nod the first time she donned Her Majesty’s various wigs, it’s a role she’s all too familiar with. Part determined leader, part cowardly interpersonal demagogue, the many moods the character must go through are reflected expertly in the English rose’s reddened face. Blanchett was born to play this part, even if Kapur undermines her effectiveness by altering truth to placate his vision. While age is never discussed in the film, Elizabeth fluctuates wildly from youthful spirit to aged spinster, sometimes in the same sentence. Even worse, his last act stand against the sailing Spanish fleet betrays history in order to forge some kind of irrelevant iconography. Oddly enough, her reign is saved by happenstance and naval heroism, not anything she does directly.


Indeed, a lot of the film feels misdirected away from the center. The set up of Spain as a bastion of radicalism is given more import than Elizabeth’s current political situation. Lady in Waiting Bess becomes the fulcrum between Raleigh’s infatuation and the reality of wooing the Queen. Sir Francis Walsingham (a great Geoffrey Rush) has the competing claims of a possible royal assassination and his own failing health to keep him full formed. Even the minor characters, like the evil Jesuit played by Rhys Ifans, seem as integral to the overall approach as anything that happens in Her Majesty’s bedchamber. It’s indicative of where Elizabeth: The Golden Age looses the audience over and over again. For every golden moment of actual meaning, there’s a flash of false idolatry. Kapur is really indulgent here, so in love with the look of things that he fails to move beyond the pretty pictures. While we’re supposed to scoff at the irrationality sealing Spain’s fate, we can’t help but be wowed by the CGI fleet on the horizon.


But what finally fells Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a lack of significance. Perhaps to a nation steeped in the legacy of a great leader, this superficial swipe with many historic alterations would suffice. You get your symbolism and your sense of country too. But outside that interested realm, the relationships and realities play like Harlequin romances with exaggerated chutzpah. That’s the problem with the past – like science fiction, it’s been used for much more than mere factual recounting. Decades of romance novels and equally syrupy cinema have robbed it of its power and scope. Yet a director like Kapur should know better than to pull punches for the sake of spectacle. There is no doubt that his vision is filled with wonder and beauty. Too bad the rest of this film feels flimsy and single minded.


 


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