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Sunday, Jul 1, 2007


The headlines were so bizarre as to be hilarious. The German government, or more specifically, the department in charge of the nation’s motion picture production approvals and locations, was refusing to let Tom Cruise make his new movie, Valkyrie, in their country. It had nothing to do with the storyline—a failed WWII plot among Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though still a slightly tenuous subject, the German people have become less sensitive on the subject. No, the stated rationale was that Cruise, as a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, was a prominent member of a ‘dangerous cult’. The country would have no part in his presence. The firestorm surrounding the decision caused the standard back peddling, and within days, Valkyrie was welcomed with open arms. Oddly enough, if the nation wanted a more legitimate reason for banning the movie, they need look no further than the director in charge.


That’s because Bryan Singer is a hack. In a flummoxing fanboy realm where every movie he’s helmed has been deemed an instant classic, he’s barely better than a dozen far more despised directors. What, for example, makes Singer better than Mark Steven Johnson? Both have overseen half-baked comic book movies, and yet everything Mr. Ghost Rider and Daredevil does is condemned. The same lame characterization and average action sequences also appear regularly in Singer’s sloppy oeuvre. For that matter, why does our X-Man get labeled a true devotee of the funny book artform when Sam Raimi holds a similar Spidey stature? Could it be that Singer fails to own an Evil Dead like cult constantly circling its unwelcome wagons around its maker’s many moves? Indeed, you’d think Raimi would rate higher than this wannabe auteur, and yet so many give big Bry a pass that you’d swear they were on his personal payroll.


Looking back over the six full length features he’s helmed—and discounting the independent effort Public Access for now—it is clear that Singer lucked into a situation that, once it occurred, he found almost impossible to repeat. Said circumstance was the happenstance of buddying up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. A high school friend, the two budding filmmakers collaborated on a pair of projects, one of which would go on to skyrocket the duo to instant Tinsel Town fame. Its name was The Usual Suspects, and thanks to a critical community desperate for something different in the standard crime/caper genre, the talky, showboating cinematic stunt became a sleeper hit. It also gained the pair unexpected Hollywood clout, thanks to many appearances on year-end lists and a pair of Oscars (neither for Singer).


Yet the next step for both seemed highly unusual. McQuarrie, who actually owned one of those two Academy Awards, worked on a failed television pilot (something called The Underworld) while Singer took over the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s beloved Different Seasons stories, Apt Pupil. In fact, he had long wanted to tackle the project, and sent the famed horror author a copy of Suspects as kind of an audition reel. Bringing in another childhood buddy—Brandon Boyce—to write the script, Singer made sure to walk as carefully to the edge of the story’s controversial narrative (a young boy discovers a nasty Nazi war criminal in his neighborhood, and picks up his violent mantel) without ruining his mainstream mandate. Unfortunately, a specific artistic choice got the entire production in hot water (Singer filmed a non-sexual shower sequence featuring several unclothed male minors), and in the end, the movie was only mildly successful.


All the while, another friend named Tom DeSanto was planting the seeds for the filmmaker’s first mega-success. A lifelong comic book geek, the production executive desperately wanted Singer to take on the big screen adaptation of the fabled Marvel characters, the X-Men. With its obvious undercurrents of racism and intolerance, it was a project that intrigued the director. Numerous scripts were floating around, many of which were quite faithful to the characters origins and attitudes. Singer, however, wanted to somehow bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds, and he imposed changes on the property to ‘modernize’ its approach. Devotees of the characters were instantly up in arms (Issue #1—the new black ‘Batman’ like suits) and many feared Singer couldn’t appreciate the importance of this long delayed adaptation.


It was clear that, in the end, he really didn’t. X-Men stands as the sloppiest of big screen comic book movies, a leap in artistic logic that believes in manipulating material to fit both the demographic and business model the film is forged within. Thanks to advances in special effects, the various mutant powers owned by the characters are convincingly realized, but Singer fails to find actual personalities within each supposed hero and/or villain. In fact, he seems to think that backstory (Magneto as Holocaust survivor) and the stench of abject racism (the narrative revolves around a politician who wants to expose the mutant population as a possible threat to society) will fill in the obvious blanks. Suffering from average action scenes, an excess of explanatory exposition, and way too many players to properly manage, the movie remains an ineffectual mess. While there are those who find it almost flawless (especially compared to the plethora of similarly styled movies that it spawned), it’s really nothing more than a magnified misfire.


Still, money talks in the BS world of moviemaking, and with nearly $300 million at the box office, X-Men was viewed as an unqualified success. Singer was heralded as the new voice of comic book cinema (soon to be overtaken by others more deserving, including Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro) and he tried to parlay that professional delineation into his next few creative choices. But Hollywood loves to lock artists into previous payoffs, making sure that their triumphs are owned outright and reliably repeatable. Contractually obligated to make X-Men 2, Singer had to drop out of a couple of high profile projects in order to accommodate the studio’s sequel needs. Wanting to take a more ‘human approach’—i.e., focusing on the reactions of society against the unusual and the different—the director drew up a new motion picture battle plan. Of course, he ran directly into the suits desire for more of the same, and it wasn’t long before X2 (as the newest installment was called) arrived, easily following the dollar-based directive.


While a step up artistically, especially in the epic scope and size of the storyline (an almost unlimited budget will do that for you), X2 shows that Singer still has no idea how to combine heroics with emotion. The main characters remain icons, unable to break out of the special skills that more or less define who they are, and without Ian McKellan as prime villain Magneto and Patrick Stewart as good guy Dr. Charles Xavier, the central conflict of the film would have no performance power or potency. Actresses Halle Berry and Famke Janssen lobbied hard for more significant screen time, and the balance between male and female mutants frequently feels shifted based on star quality, not storyline needs. With the action only slightly improved from the first film, and an inconclusive finale that simply sets up the next installment in the series, X2 was a preachy, arrogant attention whore. Naturally, the viewing public ate it up, twisting the turnstiles to the tune of nearly $400 million.


It’s at this point where Singer starts throwing his movie franchise muscle around. In 2004, his TV medical drama House, M.D. , found a home at Fox. Later that year, negotiations began for X-Men 3. But Warner Brothers, desperate to get back into the superhero game, were looking for someone to helm their Superman revamp. A long dormant disaster, everyone from Kevin Smith to Tim Burton had taken a swipe at reviving the Man of Steel, and with moneymen behind the mutants balking at Singer’s latest demands, Kal-El’s keepers saw a chance to get one of the two main names in the genre (Raimi, the auteur behind the ridiculously popular Spider-man series being the other). Singer jumped at the chance to reimagine Kyrpton’s last son, and Fox responded by handing over the reigns of X-Men: The Last Stand, to the Rush Hour reject, Brett Ratner.


Though slightly hurt, Singer couldn’t have cared less. He had Clark Kent’s alter ego to deal with, and the problems were paramount. The project had little believability or bearing and the graphic novel basis for much of the jumpstart was forged out of publicity ploys (the Death of Superman) and Dark Knight style stunts. Looking over the character’s cinematic arc, Singer proposed something radical. He would forget everything and anything that came after Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s ‘70s interpretation of the material, and make a movie that picked up where Superman 2 left off. While fans were flummoxed, Warners was sold. The new direction was approved and casting commenced. Chalk one up for Singer’s sense of what would sell. Unfortunately, it would be the last cognizant decision he would make as director.


His first significant stumble came with his choice of actors. No, Brandon Routh would turn out to be a wonderful choice (he’s a great Man of Steel), and old pal Kevin Spacey (who won one of his two Oscars under Singer’s guidance in The Usual Suspects) was an obvious - and rather easy - Lex Luthor. But Kate Bosworth is a hideous Lois Lane, incapable of bringing anything remotely realistic to her portrayal of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She’s a lousy damsel in distress and an even worse example of self-sufficiency. In this post-modern, post-feminist world, she crumbles the minute danger rears its routine head. She is supposed to illustrate the broken dream of Superman’s disappearance, but she’s really nothing more than an un-pretty pie face playing with the big boys.


Then there is the overall art design. Somewhere along the line, Singer fell in love with the notion of tweaking the image as far over into the blue spectrum of color as possible. Noticeable even to the untrained eye, the azure tint to everything from cars to clothes is oddly unsettling. Perhaps he thought it would give the entire production a more comic panel feel. Instead, it frequently feels like someone has purposefully fiddled with your retina’s rods and cones. As for the action, the opening space shuttle crash is wonderfully executed, and when the Daily Planet’s trademark globe is dislodged from the top of the skyscraper, Superman’s rescue of said object is powerful in its impact. But the rest of the movie is undermined by a real lack of focus—specifically, in what Lex Luthor plans on doing with his newfound appreciation for crystals and kryptonite.


From a sloppy haired super offspring (who looks about as threatening as a Little Rascal’s waif) to a finale that’s all spectacle and no substance, Superman Returns was not the pinnacle of Singer’s production powers. Indeed, it once again highlighted all of his inherent flaws. Unlike Raimi, who perfectly balanced emotion with excess in Spider-man 2, or Nolan, who found a flawless combination of psychological and physical conflict in Batman Begins, Singer’s characters are all flash. They appear to be reaching for depth, but unless they are capable of seeing beneath the surface (like Routh did for his turn as Superman), they end up coming across as flat and totally dimensionless. Even the heroes he chose to highlight in the X-Men series—Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm—are more outer shells than insular individuals, defined almost exclusively by their special skills. The intriguing thing about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne is that, at least in their current cinematic incarnation, they are people first, pillars of super heroism second.


This is why Singer sucks. He’s all about the surface, his constant concerns about subtext all smoke and unskilled mirrors. Outside the genre, he’s had limited direct success (Suspects was McQuarrie and Spacey’s baby, the vast majority of House is helmed by others) and so few people have seen his Sundance winner Public Access that it really doesn’t count. Any other filmmaker would be called a wounded one trick pony, especially since the X-Men have now been largely overshadowed by other, better comic book movies. This doesn’t mean that we should write off Bryan Singer for the near future. It merely indicates that, as some kind of savior, as a go to guy for every epic idea that comes down the pipeline, he should have to wait in line like dozens of derivative others. He’s not the greatest director of kinetic eye candy, and his films can’t compare to the efforts of those who’ve followed.


Valkyrie could change all that, and if it does, he will once again have a lot of significant help. McQuarrie is back penning the script, and Cruise still holds some clout, even if his pre-War of the Worlds/Mission Impossible III antics cost him some demographic percentage points. But having the German government diss you before a single frame a film is shot (granted, it now seems like a massive miscommunication) is not the most promising of possible omens. And yet, when Bryan Singer is involved in a project, it seems that something has to be slightly askew. It helps explain his ineffectualness come opening day, providing a built in excuse where something more personal is definitely the issue. How this translates into his status as an A-list director is still astounding. He’s no different than a dozen mediocre moviemakers (Tim Story, are you listening?) who get lucky tapping into an uninformed audience zeitgeist. He not special—he’s substandard. This makes his continued ascension into the ranks of motion picture powerhouses as puzzling as ever.


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Saturday, Jun 30, 2007


Aileen “Lee” Wuronos, on paper, is an almost offensively shameless Oscar-begging character: a serial killer/prostitute/lesbian. Add in a few extra points for this actually being a real person. Compounding matters considerably is the fact that, impossibly, the glacially beautiful South African-born Charlize Theron would be playing this downtrodden woman, who, let’s just say knew her way around the block (and had for many years). Fortunately, what could have descended into a camp nightmare of gigantic proportions instead provided a showcase for one of the most original star turns of the new cinematic millennium; one that actually ended up working.


Wuronos was executed on 9 October, 2002, about one year before the film was made. Her ashes were taken back to her native Michigan by her long-time confidante (and my former next door neighbor!) Dawn Botkins, who provided Jenkins and Theron with much of the original source material that, would become the foundation for this tremendous feat of acting.


Theron’s high-wire act could be compared to the theatrical, operatically over-the-top, and gimmicky antics of women like Faye Dunaway (as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest), Nicole Kidman (as Virginia Woolf in The Hours), and Annette Bening (as Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty)—all Oscar nominees (the former two winners); it is a level of commitment that is ferocious when combined with the actresses’ blend of tightly-controlled animal magnetism and star presence. The performances are very aware, very controlled, and aided in each case by a very specific “look” that the actress relies on to help get her point across. These are performances that veer dangerously toward the brink of caricature and could easily be seen as skirting camp disaster. Each of these actresses portraying a variety of damaged women, though, is able to rely on her own particular skill to pull it all together. Theron is the best example of this, in this writer’s humble opinion.


This is the kind of performance that rarely gets rewarded, something that comes along every so often and reminds you of what exactly actors are capable of accomplishing and capturing through good-old fashioned physical transformation (including 30 pounds gained by the leading lady and an array of prostheses). Justly, Theron’s phenomenal work as “Lee” took the Academy Award for Best Actress of 2003 (on 29 February—Wuronos’ real-life birthday), in first time director Patty Jenkins’ compellingly bleak character study, Monster.


The sequence that opens Monster provides the viewer with a brief and startling view of Lee’s life history. After these informative, shocking images, accompanied by words that bombard us with decades of details in mere minutes, we are transported into the bitter, somber reality of a grown-up Lee’s world. She is sitting beneath a dirty underpass on the side of a Florida highway, in the rain. Through the grit and despair, we see a figure holding a gun and contemplating the end. This is Lee; an unrecognizable Theron. Even her eyes look profoundly soulless and tragic (thanks to almost black, reptilian contact lenses). Lee is vaguely inhuman: lumpy, sketched out, wild-haired. She is a liar, a con-woman. Theron’s immersion into this character is done not as a blatant copycat act; she also employs a different, gravelly voice and a Midwestern cadence, haggard make-up on her skin, and tough body language. The actresses’ control over these restraints is a testament to her strength and range as a performer.


Lee (who has some obvious mental health issues) decides that she’d rather not kill herself with five bucks in her pocket - she rationalizes that she probably performed a sexual favor for it, and that would be akin to working for free. She figures that she should at least try and spend it before pulling the trigger. She wanders into a nearby lesbian bar where she has her first encounter with Selby (Christina Ricci). After a rough beginning the two begin to hit it off. That Lee gives the confused young woman a chance at all adds a dramatic dimension that is moving—there is a palpable connection between the two that makes the homeless, bruised hooker a more relatable, human character. This action is revelatory for someone who has been desperate to make a connection (to no avail) for so long. Their affair is doomed and implausible from the start, and it reeks of pathos. It makes the violence looming in the story’s distance more significant.


Humanity is oft-discussed when talking about filmed acting. The intricate psychology of Theron’s Lee is one of the best examples of this I can think of. The actress and the filmmaker sincerely take into account the confused sexuality of their lead character, providing an experimental portrait of sexual awakening that never degrades its subject. When talking with Tom (Bruce Dern), she realizes that she is talking romantically about a woman and quickly switches her pronouns. Up until this point, she didn’t identify with being a lesbian. Lee, high on new prospects readies for a date with Selby.


Ricci, in a solid supporting turn, is equally daring as a cipher lacking any clear personality of her own; somewhat excited to assume someone else’s. Selby is an amalgamation of real-life (Lee’s actual lover, Tyria Moore could not be depicted for legal reasons) and dramatic license (“Selby’s age, appearance, and history were all changed for the film). Selby is living in Florida on her strict, religious father’s orders, with equally staunch family acquaintances. She is equally as desperate as Lee, in other ways; and also struggling with her sexuality. This set-up allows for two highly original performances to be showcased in the film. Ricci’s performance has been maligned by critics as much as it has been praised, many times overlooked in the wrecking ball wake of Theron’s praise. The filmmakers’ bold choice to mix fact with fiction (while still remaining lovingly attached to the emotional truths of the story), and the pairing of these two women about to hit the bottom of their own downward spirals is assured.


The sadness comes back, and any optimism that may have been built up for the new and in love couple quickly flies out the window when the scenes of Lee hustling johns shows the hopelessness of her situation. There aren’t any realistic dreams of a sweet future, only fantasies. This all happens in the film’s first fifteen minutes or so. Monster hits like a truck.


That Lee is involved in a murder, while trying to raise money for a rendezvous with her would-be new love adds another heartbreaking layer to the proceedings. It becomes very clear that the life of a hooker is much different than what the film-going public has been treated to in the past: Lee isn’t Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. While some of her intentions seem to be pure, she definitely does not have a heart of gold and no billionaire playboy is going to take her out of this despair. Lee must constantly be on her guard, looking over her shoulder. Perhaps it is out of self-defense she kills her first trick after a “date” turns into a horror-show of rape and sexual torture that is genuinely appalling to watch, but it also highlights the dangers of Lee’s everyday life. This is the moment in the film in which Lee seems to break with reality—her primal scream after the killing will raise the hairs on your neck.


Strutting around, looking at her own blood-spattered and naked body in the mirror with a mix of disdain and curiosity before making love to Selby for the first time, may seem like an insignificant detail, but for me, it shows a level of commitment to every gesture that is missing from a great deal of modern screen acting. This is not a “natural” performance at all; it is otherworldly and manufactured, like the real woman. Lee begins to go on a murder spree to support Selby and work towards their dream of living in a small house in the keys. How does she become a murderer? Was she, as Lee claimed, victimized by all of the johns to a degree?


The scene in which Lee convinces Selby to stay with her for one week rather than return to Ohio (“You’ll never meet someone like me again”, she cagily barks) takes place immediately after the first killing. It is obvious that in this case, Lee realizes after the heat of the moment that what she did was wrong. She won’t recover from this crime, it’s almost as though Lee knows she will be going to jail forever. Perhaps in this is the moment of realization she constructs the elaborate fantasy future filled with domestic bliss with Selby where she assumes a macho, traditionally-male persona that dictates she protect and care for her “little woman”. After killing a man, Theron is shot lit from behind, enjoying a cigarette, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. As the camera retracts sluggishly, and she disappears into the blackness, you get the feeling that this signifies the woman’s confusion and her lack of control; that this is her final descent.


Lee actually still thinks that quitting hooking is a plausible thing. She thinks she wants to be a vet (“I fucking love animals”), or a “business person”. A series of humiliating job interviews (including one to be a legal secretary where she is degraded in a horrible way), in which a desperate Lee is inspired by her human connection to Selby to live life on the straight and narrow. This brief, unrealistic period lets Lee slip into the only place she has ever felt comfortable: in her romantic, delusional ideals of the perfect life. Monster really showcases the cycle of poverty, and abuse and shows how commonplace it is to become utterly stuck in it.


Unfortunately for Lee, this cycle began when she was raped as a child and never ended. That Lee never really had a chance and her inability to cope with the injustices committed against her is mournful. The scene in which she recounts pathetically to a john the tales of her childhood sexual abuse with disturbing candor or the shot of her begging for change are among the examples of Theron’s dedication to fully-fleshing out her character’s truth. The actress doesn’t stand in judgment, and balances all of these elements flawlessly. She keeps on killing and telling herself that she is the prey, that she is an avenging angel. It becomes hard for her to kill her final victim; she is snapped back into the reality of her life, except it is much too late to stop at this point. She has to kill the man to save herself from being caught.


Lee sends Selby back to Ohio to spare her from prison. The scene at the bus station is one of the most affecting in the film that features Lee, once so tough and confident, as a grief-stricken and raw tangle of nerves. She is filled with regret and sobs for help and forgiveness. Selby repays Lee’s loyalty and love by turning her in; accepting no blame for anything that happened while they were together, though she was well-aware of the killings. She tricks her former lover into taking all of the heat. This is Lee’s act of heroism: she takes the blame so Selby can have a life. The final scenes of Lee getting handed the death penalty, where Lee is used and tired are made even more haunting by Theron’s final haunting gaze directly into the camera being juxtaposed with hokey sayings about hope and love. The terror in her eyes shows that her fate has broken her.


Though Theron’s performance is very seductive, and her character is lethally charming, Jenkins keeps the film from ever fully surrendering to the whims of the killer. There is always a gently-placed hand of judgment placed between the audience and Aileen. It keeps us acutely aware of the horrors of her crimes—even though at times it might be easy to acquit her because of her circumstances. The film never excuses her behavior.


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Friday, Jun 29, 2007


Michael Bay may be one of the most misunderstood moviemakers in today’s Hollywood. This doesn’t mean he’s some manner of artist or auteur, nor is anyone suggesting that his track record is anything but scattershot. But he has helmed a couple of guilty popcorn pleasures (The Rock, Armageddon) that more or less balance out his exponential epics in concept extravagance (Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys 2). Yet he remains technically proficient and inherently energetic, filling his movies with the kind of excessive oomph that less successful action helmers like Bryan Singer and Mark Steven Johnson would die for. And still, he is considered on par with such motion picture pariahs as Uwe Boll and Paul W. S. Anderson. Frankly, it’s an unfair tag of talentlessness.


That being said, his latest turn behind the Panaflex, Transformers, is just terrific. Based on the Hasbro toy line from the ‘80s, it’s a bit brain dead in parts, a bit too married to said cartoon/geekoid origins. It also piles on the ancillary characters for what seems like purely demographic reasons. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, this is the blockbuster destined to drive butts directly into the seat. It’s the most scrumptious of eye candy, the kind of overwhelming optical delight that only a big budget studio slamdunk can deliver. It’s loaded with humor, has startling setpieces to spare, and provides the perfect cinematic foundation for a gagillion sequels to come. For Bay, it’s a sort of redemption, a clever comeback from the disastrous dopiness of 2005’s Parts: The Clonus Horror – oops, sorry, The Island. It’s the kind of narrative that plays to all his strengths – steroided stuntwork, epic exaggeration, obvious characterization – while substantially reducing his tendency to trip over his own inflated mannerisms.


There are three main storylines running through the movie’s first 90 minutes, a trio of tales destined to intersect and basically go boom for another hour afterward. Part one finds a group of US soldiers in Qatar battling a scorpion-like beastie and a transmogrifying helicopter. The slaughter leaves behind a ragtag group desperate to report the robotic enemy to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, in the LA suburbs, a teenage boy named Sam Witwicky (a brilliant Shia LaBeouf) is looking to buy his first car. He ends up with a dingy yellow Camero that actually houses the good guy automaton Bubblebee. Sam soon learns of the threat to life on planet Earth, and hooks up with the rest of the Autobots (including the heroic Optimus Prime) to take on and defeat the Decepticons. Finally, Sector 7 a government shadow agency similar to MIB or Area 51 are hoping to discover the purpose behind a massive extraterrestrial cube (known as the All Spark) as well as what the previously captured evil Megatron wants with is.


Naturally, this leads to all kinds of large scale battles between our mutating machines, and it has to be said that the combined efforts of Industrial Light and Magic and K.N.B. EFX are simply mindblowing. This is the kind of movie unimaginable 10 years ago, the level of sophistication making the real and the imaginary merge with almost seamless authenticity. During the last act war between Optimus Prime and Megatron, the streets of LA – along with several skyscrapers – become the backdrop for a robot battle royale, previously unthinkable images bouncing off buildings and scaling the skyline with awe-inspiring ease. Something similar happens when the good gear guys survey Hoover Dam from a distance. The way they blend into the real life setting, their hulky bodies moving with ease up and down the façade, makes us believe in their viability. Likewise, thanks to the power of computers, the many transformations feel organic and planned, not just some shapeshifting shtick.


While this kind of oversized adventure is not necessarily known to be a performer’s paradise, many in the cast make a significant impact. In what amounts to minor cameo roles, Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson are all rim shots and rib ticklers. Indeed, they seem purposefully placed in the film to bring funny whenever the chaos gets too heavy. Equally odd is Jon Voight, reduced to a kind of drawling Donald Rumsfeld clone as the Secretary of Defense. He’s a plot device pure and simple, and yet something about the way he essays the Southern fried bureaucrat is extremely engaging. On the other end of the government gangster paradigm is John Tuturro. Chewing up the scenery with his evil efficiency, it’s a wonderful turn for the indie icon. But the film really belongs to LaBeouf. Like Matthew Broderick in Wargames, or Henry Thomas in E. T., he is the adolescent anchor that lets the audience into this world of way out wonders. Forging a bond with Bumblebee, as well as helping the rest of the Autobots achieve their ends, he’s part hero, part hapless, and destined for young adult superstardom.


Unlike recent large scale sci-fi spectacles – like say Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s War of the WorldsTransformers isn’t hiding some deeper social or political commentary. It’s not trying to represent our war on terror, or our failing fortunes in Iraq. True, many of the battle sequences have the feeling of actual armed conflict, but that has more to do with avoiding old school cartoon cock ups for the sake of some traditional cinematic combat. And Bay’s teens aren’t some high minded intellectuals. They are into beer and cars, girls and questions of cool. The only angst anyone feels occurs when LaBeouf’s Sam tries to avoid having his massive mechanical pals completely destroy his Dad’s carefully constructed garden. This is pure premised motion picture making, the full blown visual equivalent of the pitch line that reads “oversized robots fight for the fate of the Earth”. Thankfully, it was on Michael Bay’s watch that such a project was proposed.


Indeed, it may be time to give this maligned moviemaker his due. While some have argued over the film’s two plus hour running time and scrambled pace, Transformers needs this kind of extended rollercoaster rationale. It would not be cost (or future sequel) effective to have nothing but nonstop action, and the movie is based on a beloved animated series that was also known for its occasional quirkiness. So having passages where actual characters carry the story, to allow the downtime to emphasize the potency of the powerhouse material is all the work of Bay’s bravura behind the camera. He’s not out to merely make the celluloid equivalent of fireworks. He’s out for the whole package – the drama, the comedy, the suspense and the mental amusement park. Sure, you can sneer at all the product placement, or merchandising-mandated decisions, but this is an exhilarating thrill ride that actually steps up and delivers on its many predisposed promises.


In a summer that’s seen underperforming tre-quels and more than its fair share of warmed over sameness, Transformers is offering something similar, but in a much more exciting and evocative guise. It gives us the formulaic good vs. evil element, the team vs. individual ideal, the us vs. them/friend vs. foe foundation, and tweaks it all with technology only heard of a few years ago. Without the weight of an already formed franchise to pull it down, this filmic funhouse is allowed to spin wildly out of control. And like desperate devotees of Tinsel Town’s tricks, we simply sit back and enjoy the operatic ride.



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Thursday, Jun 28, 2007


It’s cinematic cornucopia time for the premium pay cable channels this week, especially since June transmogrifies into July midway through the seven days – and then there’s the whole flag waving, celebrate your country call of the fabled Fourth to take into consideration. With all those potential pitfalls in the way, it’s a wonder that the powers who program these channels have any nails left to nibble. Indeed, how do you keep them glued to the set when there are tons of illegal fireworks to purchase and play with? Harder still is the competition from the local Cineplex. Die Hard is back. Pixar is back. And Michael Bay and his robots in disguise are waiting in the wings. It’s clear that for many in the great unwashed demographic, television will be the last things on their BBQ and blockbuster minds. So cut the premium networks some slack. What they’ve got scheduled – including the SE&L selection for 30 June – is enough to make a dedicated couch potato smile:


Premiere Pick
A Prairie Home Companion


It’s a shame that Robert Altman had to leave this agreeable little gem behind as his last feature film. While many critics complimented its typical intertwined storylines, a few couldn’t get past the foundational material – i.e. Garrison Keillor’s twee Podunk radio show. In fact, it’s funny how many of the movie’s best bits seem to simultaneously embrace and deconstruct this perplexed personality’s Lake Wobegon stories, settings, and characters. Granted, it will be hard to see the sequences where the talent-free Lindsay Lohan battles mightily to keep in step with onscreen Mom Meryl Streep, but in the long run, this bright and brassy swansong for the fictional show will always be remembered as Altman’s last stand. And when measured against time honored masterworks like MASH, Nashville, 3 Women and Short Cuts, it has some hard company to keep in step with. Still, there is an impish kind of creativity here that shows the legendary director was still as sharp as ever. His remains a voice that will be sorely missed. (30 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Idlewild


It’s a sure sign of too much success. The duo known as Outkast (Andre 3000 and Big Boi), responsible for some of the most inventive and invigorating music in the last 10 years, parlay their popularity into a chance to create a full fledged movie musical. Oddly enough, the results are much better than one would have imagined. While the storyline is formulaic and the acting average, the songs really sell this amiable period piece. (30 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

The Guardian


Kevin Costner as a rough and tumble Coast Guard rescue swimmer instructor. Ashton “Demi” Kutcher is the high school athlete who thinks he’s hot spit. Together, they clash over conduct and duty while big fat CGI waves threaten innocent boaters on the high seas. If by that vague synopsis you can already see where this story is going, don’t be surprised. So did everyone else who actually paid to see this supposed action slop. (30 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction


Who, besides Ms. Stone herself, still thinks she’s capable of rip-roaring erotic sexuality? Show of hands? The fading 49 year old must have been absolutely desperate to take up the Catherine Tramell mantel again, especially with all the stink she caused over certain sequences in the 1992 original. Of course, back then, she could pull off the seductress. Now she looks like a member of the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? touring company. (30 June, ShowTOO, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Aristocrats


Humor, like music, is a highly personal and subjective passion. Either something makes you laugh, or it doesn’t. So if you find incredibly vulgar and racy jokes to be the decline of Western civilization, perhaps you should skip this otherwise fascinating documentary by comedian Paul Provenza (with some help from outsider magician Penn Jilette). Taking a traditional dirty gag – a famed piece that’s been around since the earliest days of stand-up – and allowing dozens of current and former quipsters a chance to explain and riff on it, the obvious tact taken here is to discuss the concept of taboos and onstage envelope pushing. But Provenza also manages to sneak in some commentary on how society views such subjects, as well as how free speech and speaking freely may actually be two different things. If you can handle the bewildering ‘blueness’ of the material, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this devious discussion. (05 July, IFC, 8:25PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Cooler


One day, Alec Baldwin will get his Oscar. He deserves it, and he’s given plenty of performances worthy of such peer recognition. On the other hand, it’s hard to say if this movie contains his best work. Granted, back in 2004, the buzz was building on the actor’s turn as an old school casino boss. But come trophy time, he was barely acknowledged. That doesn’t take away from the film’s effectiveness, however. It’s very well done. (30 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Control Room


Al Jazeera is the controversial Arab news channel that has both the Bush Administration and their right wing wiseguys up in arms. They claim the station merely functions as a mouthpiece of the region’s radicalized beliefs. The agenda-guided journalists there might not disagree. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim finds himself smack dab in the middle of the melee as he exposes the truths, and the tricks, used by either side of the story on the War in Iraq to win support, both at home and abroad. (02 July, Sundance Channel, 7:30PM EST)

La Haine


The title is translated literally as ‘hate’, and there is plenty of said emotion in this amazing film from French director Mathieu Kassovitz. Addressing the despair and dissolution rampant in the ghettos surrounding Paris, we are introduced to three wayward youths who epitomize the current struggles (one’s black, one’s Arab, one’s a Jew). Aside from the obvious influence of American hip-hop and rap, the lack of power fuels a destructive, fatalistic rage inside them. Then one of them finds a gun. (03 July, Sundance Channel, 7:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Grace of My Heart


Why has no one made a definitive film about the Brill Building? What? That name doesn’t ring a bell? Well, how about the songwriters who earned their music mythos while working in the historic hit factory – Lou Reed, Neil Diamond, Carol King, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart? Perhaps it’s a question of publishing rights, but it seems that this subject has been ripe for a motion picture epic for far too long. The closest we’ve gotten is this Allison Anders effort that, while incredibly evocative of the time and place, must substitute newly minted melodies – and a girl power narrative center – to get its occasionally arch points across. To make matters even more meandering, the narrative includes fictionalized sketches of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson that just don’t seem to fit into the overall theme being explored. It’s a noble failure, however, one that argues for another go round with what is some highly substantive subject matter. (01 July, Indieplex, 5:05PM EST)

Additional Choices
West of Zanzibar/ The Unholy Three


Lon Chaney was not only the Man of a Thousand Faces, he was also one of the first major genre superstars. This inspired combination of Tod Browing classics, shows off the man’s amazing talent for mimicry more than his well known penchant for remarkable make-up. It’s too bad that he died so young, and that most of his creative canon is lost. Even here, toward the tale end of his career, Chaney remains a stark, stunning performance powerhouse. (29 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Squirm


Radioactive killer earthworms - you just can’t get more schlock than that. But writer/director Jeff Liebermann desperately tried to up the exploitation ante by setting the story in the steamy, slow-witted South, and piling on the hillbilly hokum. It more or less worked, as this passion pit staple proves. Liebermann leaves no hoary old cliché unturned, and even reinvents a few just for fun. The result is a dime store definition of the ‘so bad it’s good’ ideal. (30 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Left In Darkness


Every once in a while, an inventive independent horror movie will come along, using intelligence and ideas to substitute for a lack of special effects and eerie eye candy. While less than stellar, it usually soothes the horror fan’s savaged breast. Well, this isn’t that kind of fright flick. Instead, it’s a moderately entertaining work of misapplied macabre that’s just barely coherent enough to be engaging. (06 July, Sci Fi Channel, 3AM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jun 27, 2007


They call it the ‘sophomore slump’. It’s a phrase reserved for any artist/filmmaker/musician that follows up an initial success with a decidedly underwhelming second project. In the realm of the motion picture, a perfect example would be Richard Kelly. In 2001, he concocted a little science fiction freakout named Donnie Darko. It’s tale of time travel and suburban foreboding struck a chord with disenfranchised and alienated teens everywhere, and while not a major box office hit, it found a massive audience when it was release on home video. There was even a director’s cut DVD. Yet his second film, the still unreleased Southland Tales, was met with unmitigated hatred when it premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. From “unwatchable” to “a work of wounded hubris”, the outright rejection from audiences has held up any major theatrical play dates (it’s now tentatively scheduled for March 2008!).


James Wan was a little luckier than that. His Dead Silence only took four years from conception to release, and instead of blatantly burying the Australian filmmaker’s second major fright film, Universal actually gave it a massive mainstream roll out (over 1800 screens). Critics responded like they do for most horror films - i.e. they dismissed it outright without much analytical thought - and the film flopped. Of course, it didn’t help matters much that the publicity department kept stressing for director’s connection to the name-making Saw. The two movies couldn’t have been more dissimilar in tone, concept or execution.


Wan, along with writing partner Leigh Whannell, did indeed make waves in 2003 with their Sundance smash about a pair of unrelated individuals trapped in a booby-trapped bathroom, and the warped serial killer named Jigsaw who controlled their fate. Literally unknown, the pair became major macabre players thanks to the title’s cult-like success. A popular precursor to what is now called ‘torture porn’, the otherwise solid psychological thriller became an even bigger horror franchise, spawning two sequels so far (a third is on the drawing board). Whannell stayed on to guide the scripts, while his partner planned his next foray behind the lens. It turned out this old fashioned groovy Gothic ghost story was the proposed production.


For this film, Wan and Whannell developed a ghoulish female ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, and borrowing a bit from A Nightmare on Elm Street, gave her a fatalistic backstory involving child murder and citizenry revenge. Jumping forward to the present, we are introduced to Jamie Ashen, who has just lost his wife to a hideous murder. On the same night that he received one of Shaw’s demonic dummies, his spouse Lisa had her tongue ripped from her mouth. Returning to Raven’s Fair, the town he grew up in, Jamie uncovers the truth about the murdered performer and her bevy of disturbing dolls. He also confronts his cold and distant father over the clan’s connection to her crimes. When the detective investigating Lisa’s death shows up to keep his eye on Jamie, they are both tossed into an unnerving cycle of restless spirits and supernatural revenge.


While it is true that Dead Silence is nothing like Saw, it is also a fact that it’s far from a failure. Indeed, if you take the movie on its own, unusual terms, it ends up being an effective and suspenseful spook show. Now, there are a couple of elements you have to buy into in order to thoroughly enjoy this film. First and foremost, you have to believe that ventriloquist dummies are inherently frightening. Seeing them, sitting there, human-like eyes staring at you, burying their gaze directly down into your soul - this has to send several unsettled shivers right along your stone cold spine. If that doesn’t happen, or you haven’t built up enough gruesome goodwill after seeing Magic, The Great Gabbo, Devil Doll, or Dead of Night, then much of what Wan wants to do just won’t work. While it references other fright flicks – especially those of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento – it’s a premise that can be problematic.


The second issue has already been mentioned. Without giving too much away, Mary Shaw is a kind of sideshow Freddy Krueger. She killed children, but for reasons less sexually repugnant than our bad guy burn victim in a green and red sweater. Still, their origins are very analogous, and the whole nursery rhyme angle really seals the similarities. This will cause many fans to have a ‘been there, done that’ feeling that will cloud their potential enjoyment. It is a shame that Wan and Whannell couldn’t come up with something more original. After all, Mary Shaw has some really weird ideas about how to optimize her doll’s ‘realism’ – couldn’t that be murderous motivation enough. And since the character is played onscreen by the wonderfully enigmatic Judith Roberts, an actress capable of inciting fear with a simple look, you don’t need much more than dementia to direct your dread.


Those two elements aside, Dead Silence is a sensational looking film. Wan has lost known of his Saw-inspired directorial flair – he merely applies it in a much more controlled and colorful manner. This is a movie loaded with atmosphere and mood, where fog fills the woods and buildings practically breathe under the weight of their own disquieting ambience. Wan went all out to make Raven’s Fair the most menacing ghost-town in training since Collinsport and Collinwood withered under the residency of their namesake’s Dark Shadows. Especially eerie is the setting for the film’s finale, the decrepit old Guignol Theater. Since we also get to see it in its heyday, the transformation from showplace to sinister is truly bone chilling. But nothing can top the extremely disconcerting corpses in this film. Shaw’s murderous modus – pulling out people’s tongues - leaves horrific visages of dead bodies with their mouths unhinged and hacked open. Either in full view or suggestion, it’s potent paranormal stuff.


There are aspects to this movie that don’t quite gel, however. It seems that anyone who had just experienced the death of their spouse would want nothing to do with the doll at the center of the slaying, as well as the various unholy locales associated with it. Secondly, Wan and Whannell drop a couple of interesting subplots (the mortician’s crazy wife, the problems between Jamie and his distant dad) in favor of more moody walks through gloom drenched ruins. There is also something a tad artificial about Wan’s overall aesthetic approach. The movie looks great, but he relies on repetitive shots (cars traveling along superimposed maps) and specific framing devices (all buildings are composited head on and symmetrical) to drive the narrative. The acting is excellent all around, but we never find ourselves emotionally involved in the fate of our hero. Our attention is turned a little too much on how all this is going to turn out.


The answer is both satisfying…and a little sick. Wan and Whannell indeed save the best for last here, answering several questions (and raising a couple) with a conclusion that builds on almost everything we’ve seen before. It wraps up the film in a nice, nasty little bow, and quells any concerns that our pair couldn’t pull this off. Still, it’s strange that the final version (the unrated DVD adds some extra elements that really help establish the horror) didn’t connect with audiences. It’s the same kind of mood-oriented spine-tingler that 1408 has ridden all the way to the bank. Maybe it’s the two tenuous facets mentioned before. It could be that fans of Saw weren’t interested in something old school and subtle. Perhaps March is just a bad time to forward a fright flick. Whatever the case, Wan has survived. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next feature, a Death Wish inspired vigilante drama entitled Death Sentence (starring Kevin Bacon). Still, for fans looking for an alternative to all the blood and guts gumming up the current genre trappings, give this excellent effort a try. It’s an amazingly winning little creepshow. 


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