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Monday, Aug 20, 2007


Rob Zombie is a genre archivist. Name an obscure or forgotten horror/exploitation film from the ‘30s – ‘80s, and he’s probably seen it, memorized it, and pulled the best bits out to form his own unique aesthetic. Anyone who has listened to his music – either as part of his original band White Zombie, or his ongoing solo career – can hear the references, lyrics filled with amazing macabre imagery and outright schlock homages. But the transition from band frontman to film director remains mysterious, almost unimaginable in these days of carefully controlled Hollywood bottom lines. Yet Universal (and then MGM) both bet that this ghoul geek could deliver the kind of big screen scares that drive audiences to dread. Instead of going right for the standard fear factors however, Zombie delivered two amazing movies that challenged the post-modern mindset to confront the terrors of old and recognize their repulsive, repugnant pleasures.


In a three film oeuvre (his questionable remake of Halloween will open on 31 August, 2007), Zombie has established a clear understanding of what it takes to make a major motion picture. He’s not sloppy in his cinematography or undermined by paltry production design. But there is a clear inspirational distinction between his first above average attempt (2002’s House of 1000 Corpses) and his latter, legitimate masterpiece (2005’s The Devil’s Rejects). It’s a comparison that’s easily made by the recent rerelease of both films as part of a three disc DVD presentation from Lionsgate. While really nothing more than a repackaging of previously available Special Editions, the contextual information provided, as well as a chance to evaluate both movies side by side, illustrates that what started off as pure nerd fandom is now turning into a calculated and creatively impressive career behind the camera.

Both films draw on the same set of characters and background elements. Where they differ is in their style and substance. When House of 1000 Corpses begins, a group of roadside attraction lovers stop off at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen. There they learn of the notorious Dr. Satan, a deranged surgeon who performed unspeakable experiments on the patients of a local insane asylum. Hoping to see his grave, our newly labeled victim fodder head out into the dark, rainy night. There, they run into Baby Firefly, a hitchhiker claiming special knowledge of the area. An unseen shotgun to their tires later, and the foursome are guests in the gal’s whacked out house. They reluctantly meet the rest of the clan: flitty Momma, ditzy Grandpa, titanic Tiny, rugged RJ, and the spectral and sinister Otis. Turns out, they’re a clan of serial killers, working directly with the demented doc by supplying subjects to continue his craven calling.


In The Devil’s Rejects, the Firefly family are ambushed by the police, and sent scattering into the local countryside. Baby and Otis join up with Captain Spaulding (who turns out to be yet another relative). The trio scours the countryside for a means of escape. They wind up at a fleabag motel, where they take a country singer and his entourage hostage. In the meanwhile, Mother Firefly is interrogated by the local sheriff, whose brother was murdered by the brood. Desperate to rid the area of the reprobate once and for all, the lawman calls on the help of some less than trustworthy bounty hunters. This results in a stand-off between good and evil, with the deck stacked heavily on the side of those mindless murderers who’ve got nothing left to lose – except their life.


The dichotomy is practically inherent in the plots. House of 1000 Corpses comes off like a dark ride gone deranged, a slasher slice and dice accentuated with a clever carnival barkers belief in the power of macabre iconography. Sitting through the occasionally scattered narrative, one get’s the impression that Zombie believed this would be his one and only shot at making a cinematic statement. So instead of using a subtle, more assured approach, he went wild, unclogging every craven thought from his creative kitchen sink. The results are a baneful blacklight poster come to life, an occasionally incoherent callback to every blinkered idea that ever gave the director the horror heebie jeebies. The plot points borrow heavily from several certified genre classics, yet all are filtered through his headbanger’s ballsiness. There’s a deadly amount of dark comedy, an unsuccessful finale, and enough flashes of filmmaking brilliance to indicate that Zombie’s moviemaking presence is something much more than a fluke.


The Devil’s Rejects, on the other hand, is pure exploitation bliss. Carefully recreating the atmosphere and action of a sleazoid ‘70s drive-in death wish, this grindhouse glorification puts the spring 2007 attempt by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez to shame. Zombie understands that there is more to raincoat crowd entertainment than scantily clad gals and buckets of blood. Indeed, tone and temperament are far more important than girls and gore. With its washed out cinematography and Me era optical nods (freeze frames, fade outs) the filmmaker forces us back in time, taking us on a fatalistic trip through a violence strewn landscape of dishonesty and dead bodies. By correlating the Fireflys with even more despicable desperados (especially the ‘anything for vengeance’ sheriff), Zombie actually gets us to care for this corrupt clan. Even as they gouge and vivisect their way through the Tennessee countryside – which in perfect passion pit tradition, looks a lot like California – we want to see them succeed, if only to put their far worse tormentors in their place.


As a progression, both films become a revelation, especially when accompanied by perspective adding DVD bonus features. Zombie provides a pair of interesting commentaries, the first one complaining about his mistreatment at the hands of the studios, the second complimenting the suits who supported him the second time out. He remains angry over the massive cuts Corpses had to go through to be determined releasable by both the MPAA and his original Tinsel Town sponsors. He worships the collection of genre names he got to work on both films, and marvels at how nuanced and knowing their performances are. Most importantly, he recognizes his flaws, failing to blame them on anyone other than his own inexperienced and learning self. He comes at cinema as a fan acknowledging the need for an apprenticeship, not a conceited quack whose one step away from hackdom.


This also comes across loudly in the nearly three hour documentary provided as the third “disc” in this set. Entitled 30 Days in Hell, this look at the production of The Devil’s Rejects reveals a cast and crew completely in tune with their director’s desires. One producer even goes so far as to suggest that, sans pay, the incredibly talented company would continue to help Zombie achieve his aims. It’s a stunning revelation, one that arrives from confidence and uncompromised creative license. If Corpses is corrupted by a fear of failure and a lack of faith in the man hired to make the movie, Rejects has the reverse issues. There is such a devotion to the director’s vision that one fears a kind of closed off, narrow-minded outcome. Indeed, some still found Zombie’s revolutionary retro retread to be a vile, reprehensible assault on the senses. It’s a safe bet that those critics never saw an exploitation film in their entire life.



This doesn’t help Corpses any, though. It stands as a solid attempt, an all or nothing, over the top amalgamation of every minute morsel that made up Zombie’s life as a fright film fan. The performances are excellent all around, especially Bill Moseley’s messianic Otis and Spider Baby’s sensational Sid Haig as the creepiest combination of clown and fried chicken cook you’ll ever meet. Yet the problematic production (stopped once, restarted again months later with even less enthusiasm) coupled with Zombie’s own accepted inexperience leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction. Appreciating the film becomes a challenge, a direct mandate from Zombie to be “with him, or against him”. Rejects is more realistic. It doesn’t ask for pretext, though those of us who love the old grindhouse gang find far more pleasures here. Instead, it states its purpose clearly and convincingly, never nitpicking the nastiness inherent in the narrative while avoid the cartoonish carnival ideal that marred some of Corpses’ concepts.


All of which makes the wait for his take on John Carpenter’s slice and dice classic that much more difficult. Trailers tell of a rising “traveling company” ideal, with almost everyone associated with Corpses and Rejects back to play roles here. Zombie has also dug deeper inside the genre bin, bringing out new cast members previously associated with the franchise as well as names known to those who frequented the bottom shelf of a ‘80s Mom and Pop video store. It’s rare to see a filmmaker literally grow up and mature on the big screen. They usually don’t get such a large canvas to practice on. Ron Zombie will either become a macabre maestro or a one and a half hit wonder. But thanks to the insights provided by the 3 Disc Collector’s Edition, we can certainly see that there is more to this man than a personal warehouse filled with multimedia editions of Famous Monsters of Filmland. He is a fine filmmaker, and House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects proves this.


 


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Sunday, Aug 19, 2007

At one time, they were the toast of Tinsel Town, heirs apparent to the mantle maintained by Spielberg, Lucas, and the like. Among the Gods of Blockbusters, they were the popcorn princes, the pre—ordained legatees being groomed to effortlessly slip into the role of moviemaking royalty. No matter the genre, no matter the style, the ten names listed below all had success branded on their backside, and nothing could stop them from achieving their place among the savants of cinema—nothing except a single horrendous film. Indeed, like a hitman hired by a competing studio conspiracy, they saw their skyrocking status and rock solid reputation pierced by that business-minded bullet known as the box office bomb. In some cases, the hit was fatal. In others, the damage was done, but it took years of journeyman slog to solidify a stance six feet under.


Granted, the initial praise lacked perspective, and perhaps a few of the individuals here were unjustly heralded. But it is clear, at least from a cursory glance, that in an industry always looking for the ‘next big thing’, many thought these directors equaled firm future financial returns. But all it took was one misstep, one big fat belly flop in front of the ticket buying types—and the accompanying unreasonable hater hype—to turn their apparently tentative tides. The result was death—not creatively, but commercially—and a long tumble back to the back of the A-list line. There are dozens of stories like these, of auteurs dragged out of obscurity and put through the ringer for some dollar driven manufacturing. They deserve a requiem, not to be reviled. They are the victims of a revolving door system that celebrates cash, not creation. So, in alphabetical order, we will uncover the corpses strewn across the movieland morgue, the one time potential motion picture phenoms who had their preferred medium step up and slaughter them in the bank statement. Let’s begin with:


Name: Martin Brest
Prime Suspect: Meet Joe Black (1998)
After a shaky start (he was replaced by John Badham on the nuke hit Wargames), Brest bounced back, delivering three incredibly popular films (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman). He even managed what many thought was cinematically impossible—getting Al Pacino that long denied Oscar. But something happened to the man who had worked with major movie stars both young (Eddie Murphy) and old (George Burns and Lee Strasberg in Going in Style). He decided to helm an unnecessary remake of Death Takes a Holiday. Not even the superhot Brad Pitt or the prestige factor of Anthony Hopkins could help. The overlong movie tanked, taking Brest’s bankability with it. It was five years before his next film—the final nail in the creative coffin known as Gigli.
Last Seen: Chasing Jennifer Lopez down the street with a “Will Hurt You for Food” sign.


Name: Michael Cimino
Prime Suspect: The Sicilian (1987)
While many would think that the mortal wounding this Oscar winning director took at the hands of his fabled flop Heaven’s Gate basically ended his filmic futures, the truth is a little more complicated. Granted, Cimino couldn’t get arrested in a town that believes fallacy as much as fact, but after a five year exile, the apologetic egotist crafted the fairly decent crime thriller Year of the Dragon. With a solid script from Oliver Stone (which Cimino changed) and a great performance from Mickey Rourke, it appeared that all the Gate hate was forgiven. Then Cimino really stumbled. Hoping to capitalize on his fading Godfather goodwill, Mario Puzo plumed the gangster genre once again, this time in service of a sloppy story about an Italian mobster and freedom fighters. The results finally finished Cimino.
Last Seen: Directing two more forgotten flops before dropping out of sight.


Name: Joe Dante
Prime Suspect: The ‘burbs (1989)
Though he got his start at Roger Corman’s gonzo genre filmmaking ‘academy’, Dante discovered the joys of box office benevolence under the guiding hand of a far more powerful producer—Steven Spielberg. After his revisionist werewolf film The Howling established his creative acumen, Mr. ET hired him to helm his Christmas critterfest, Gremlins. A major mainstream smash, Dante followed it up with two more terrific films—Explorers and Innerspace. But when he teamed up with emerging superstar Tom Hanks for the serial killers in suburbia mess, an artistic Achilles Heal was exposed. It was determined that Dante was TOO in love with his Famous Monsters of Filmland foundations. He became the first film geek in a world unwilling to embrace such a status. He’s been struggling to keep his name in the filmmaking fray ever since.
Last Seen: Still working, though barely producing a mention outside messageboards.


Name: Jan de Bont
Prime Suspect: The Haunting (1999)
A cinematographer since the mid ‘60s, no one would have expected this native of the Netherlands to become the standard bearer for American action. But thanks to his work on a collection of commercial skyrockets (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Basic Instinct), and his dazzling debut with the unlikely hit Speed, de Bont was so deified. The equally popular Twister only sealed the deal. Then came the first real stumble, the unsuccessful sequel to his initial hit. But de Bont shrugged it off, blaming the entire mess on a studio eager to repeat its payday and a lack of Keanu Reeves. But with his remake of The Haunting of Hill House, there was no place to hide. Dull, soulless, and visually messy, it confirmed that his move from setting the lens to calling the shots was premature.
Last Seen: Turning Tomb Raider into another stone in his moviemaking mausoleum.


Name: Renny Harlin
Prime Suspect: Cutthroat Island (1995)
Like de Bont, Finnish born Harlin got his start in the lower echelons of moviemaking. Both Prison and his installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series proved he could handle horror. But his terrific take on the Die Hard franchise, and collaboration with super hot Sly Stallone (for Cliffhanger) turned him from pretender to preeminent.  Heck, even his work on the Andrew Dice Clay vanity vomit The Adventures of Ford Fairlane wasn’t the talent trainwreck everyone assumed. No, love led Renny astray, especially when he decided to turn then wife Geena Davis into a buccaneer. A decade after Roman Polanski proved that pirates were box office poison, this troubled production became the latest in a long line of notorious non-performers. It was such a massive flop that it rendered all his future efforts inert.
Last Seen: Making male model warlocks unintentionally hilarious in The Covenant.


Name: John McTiernan
Prime Suspect: Medicine Man (1992)
Though he’s had troubles off the film set that cost him dearly, McTiernan was viewed as a visionary for his Die Hard revamp of the thriller. It was a reputation secured thanks in part to his work on the equally effective Govenator vehicle Predator, and the superb submarine show, The Hunt for Red October. But Medicine Man proved that this determined director may indeed be a one trick—or make that, one genre—motion picture pony. Aside from a horribly miscast Sean Connery and a preposterous premise about the Amazon as a cancer curing enclave, the complete lack of intrigue had fans wondering if McTiernan had lost it. His next project, The Last Action Hero, confirmed everyone’s worst fears. It was a freefall that even a return to John McClane territory couldn’t salvage.
Last Seen: Rising for air with The Thomas Crown Affair redux, before slowly re-submerging.


Name: Kevin Reynolds
Prime Suspect: Rapa Nui (1994)
Back in the ‘80s, hitching your fortunes to a friend like Kevin Costner seemed like a sensational idea—and that’s exactly what lawyer turned USC film school grad Reynolds did. After working with the soon to be superstar on Fandango, the pair managed to fool the moviegoing public into buying the obviously American actor as Robin Hood. As the two prepared their next project—a post-apocalyptic epic set in a world completely encased in water—Reynolds decided to go native. Pre-dating Apocalypto by more than a decade, this tale of civil war among the indigenous people of Easter Island wanted to be a New Age naturalist adventure. Instead, it turned into a homo-erotic fallacy that fictionalized the region’s rich heritage. No one cared, and no one came. Even Costner abandoned him, kicking him off the troubled Waterworld.
Last Seen: Taking Shakespeare to task with his tame Tristan + Isolde.


Name: Guy Ritchie
Prime Suspect: Swept Away (2002)
Love can do funny things to the creative mind. It can fuel of myriad of artistic pretentions and possibilities. It can also destroy your fledging film career. When Ritchie married America’s middle aged answer to fame whoring, a.k.a. Madonna, he inherited his spouse’s mistaken belief in her cinematic possibilities. The dangerous combination of noted directorial novelty and blond ambition culminated in the cinematic hate crime Swept Away. It’s hard to figure out what’s worse—the notion that someone would be stupid enough to touch Lina Wertmüller’s certifiable culture clash classic, or substituting the riveting Mariangela Melato with the saggy singer who purred “Papa Don’t Preach”. It’s no surprise that this remains the Material matron’s last starring role. Richie, on the other hand, may never fully recover his tainted Tarantino clout.
Last Seen: Trying to return to his London underground crime roots.


Name: Michael Ritchie
Prime Suspect: The Survivors (1984)
Prior to his actual death in 2001 from prostate cancer, this former social satirist was one of the heavies of ‘70s Hollywood. After an apprenticeship in television, Ritchie burst onto the silver screen with one amazing movie after another—Downhill Racer, Prime Cut, The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough. Each one took on a major element of popular culture—sports, fame, beauty, politics—and filtered it through an amazingly insightful and ironic filmmaking mind. It was something Ritchie hoped to carry over into the ‘80s, but his efforts were short lived. Making the mistake of pairing motormouthed Robin Williams with laconic Walter Mathieu, this take on survivalists and the American fascination with guns was grating and uninspired. Worse, it was painfully unfunny, signaling the end of the Ritchie era.
Last Seen: Hanging out with his fellow filmmakers in Heaven’s sumptuous screening room.


Name: Michael Schultz
Prime Suspect: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
It was bad enough that this Beatles debacle had to taint the reputation of the heretofore unflappable Fab Four, but it also undermined the career of one of the great future filmmakers of color. Many were unaware that this infamous flop was helmed by an African American. Even worse, Schultz was the defiant director of such noted urban excellence as Cooley High, Car Wash, and early Richard Pryor vehicles Greased Lightning and Which Way is Up? In a time period locked into the baser elements of blaxpolitation, this auteur was looking to magnify, not marginalize, his people. A decade later, he’d be putting rappers and wannabe hip hop stars through their pedestrian paces. If you want to know how an insightful, intelligent artist can become a slighted cultural shill, this pure pop puke is the answer.
Last Seen: Working his way through episodic television.


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Saturday, Aug 18, 2007


We critics love to throw around terms like “revisionist” and “deconstruction”. We do it mostly out of a lack of appropriate adjectives. When something comes along that defies easy description, that takes an established genre or film type and turns it on its celluloid skull, we become instantly devoid of ways to explain it. The above motion picture modifiers are merely short cuts, buzz words we’ve built along the road toward reviewing. They don’t always accurately reflect the situation we’re extolling, but then again, it’s better than being at a loss for any words. So when you read that the latest TV cartoon to make the jump to the big screen – Adult Swim’s sensational Aqua Teen Hunger Force – is a deconstruction of standard animation and a revisionist view of what a movie is actually comprised of, it’s time to take out that shaker of sensibleness salt. 


To try and clarify the purpose and plot of this insanely surreal pen and ink performance art, you really have to understand and fully appreciate the actual series. Crafted by former staff members of the incredibly popular Space Ghost Coast to Coast as kind of a Saturday morning superhero spoof, the Aqua Teens are a mystery solving service consisting of three anthropomorphized fast food fixtures - an arrogant dairy product (known as Master Shake), an intelligent order of French fried potatoes (called Frylock), and a slightly dopey ball of beef (who goes by the handle Meatwad). Though their origins are inconsistent at best, (there’s something to do with a time traveling evil Abe Lincoln), they’ve now found themselves renting a house in South New Jersey. There, they make neighbor Carl Brutananadilewski’s life a living Hell while warding off the uninspired extraterrestrial villainy of the Mooninites (Ignignokt and Err) and the Plutonians (Oglethorpe and Emory). Initially the Force made their way as ersatz crimefighters, taking on such bottom rung cases as Internet scamming leprechauns and diet pill pyramid schemer (and substandard rapper) MC Pee Pants.


For the big screen, little has changed. Carl buys an InsanoFlex home gym at a yard sale, which Shake steals almost immediately. Unable to assemble the device, the giant beverage uses it as a laundry rack. Frylock finally figures out the complicated instructions, and once put together, the Force allows their annoyed neighbor first shot at a workout. Turns out, the machine is actually a complicated alien apparatus bent on taking over the world. It traps Carl in an endless cycle of exercise while systematically destroying the Earth. Naturally, this draws the attention of the opportunistic Mooninites and the braindead Plutonians. Apparently, the prophetic Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past (a previous Force foe) wants the space spuds to steal the gadget, though its motives are ambiguous at best. In the meantime, Frylock is convinced this entire matter has something to do with the Aqua Teen’s birth, and they travel back to the lab of Dr. Weird and his assistant Steve (regulars from the first two seasons of the show) to get some answers. Oh, and they try to stop the InsanoFlex as well.


Did any of that make sense? Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to. The best thing about Aqua Teen Hunger Force is its ‘anything for a laugh’ approach to humor. This is a true comedic casserole, a jaunty junk food amalgamation of satire, slapstick, gross out, farce, spoof, lampoon, scatology, and the droll. Characters combine both the best and worst elements of individual eccentricity, juxtaposing the amoral and the amiable into a frequently indecipherable stew of deranged dopiness. All three main members of the Force are funny in their own right, but its Shake and Meatwad who frequently steal the show. Our ball of minced flesh is a shapeshifting retard, capable of occasional insights, but mostly wallowing in his own single digit IQ-uity. On the other hand, Shake is sensationally selfish, pushed beyond the boundaries of arrogance and entitlement to the point of ridiculous egotism. He believes all the Aqua Teen hype, though he’s completely incapable of living up to any realistic reputation.


It’s a credit to creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro (and voice actors Casey Means and Dana Snyder) that such out of bounds oddness never fully blows a fuse. Oh sure, the Aqua Teen series can occasionally be so whacked out and insular that only the most devoted of fans can follow it, but there is never a lack of laughs. Similarly, the movie begins with a bang (a fantastic send up of the “Let’s All Go the Lobby” animation from years past) and never really lets up. It’s like Airplane! without the disaster movie premise, or a Farrelly Brothers film without the grating reliance on the vile. Granted, it can be very crude (Carl’s single minded focus on females and sex) and lacking substance or subtlety (excessive violence is often used to underscore a standard slapstick gag), but the men behind this mania have managed to forge a wholly unique and complete universe, one where their brazen disregard for the standards of storytelling doesn’t really matter. It’s a fractured mindset that carries over to the film’s Hellsapoppin’ approach, and the recently released two disc DVD.


Which brings us back to those two tentative words – deconstruction and revisionist. Almost dadaesque in their view of entertainment, it is safe to say that the overall idea expressed by the series, as filtered through Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD, is as close to post-modern art as talking foodstuffs can get. It’s a reflective conceit, one that touches individual audience members differently. Some can see Shake as a misunderstood hero while others cringe at his “me first” meanness. Carl can come across as a libidinous tool, but he’s actually a genius representation of the stodgy sub-urban male. Frylock frequently changes mannerism (and sexual gender), simply as a way of illustrating intelligence’s endless ability to cope with the crackpot. And Meatwad is every mother’s son, a baby born without a lot of smarts or common sense, but when need be, he will literally modify his makeup to save the day…sort of.


Such randomness requires a viewer willing to let the movie work on its own terms. If forced into a formulaic hole, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters comes off as indecipherable and incongruous. Several sequences make little or no sense, and the sudden appearance of characters who disappear within a matter of a few scenes are nothing more than shout-outs to the long time devotee. Newcomers will feel overwhelmed, unable to comprehend what makes this hapless Happy Meal so supposedly clever. But as with any TV to movie transition, context is crucial. Anyone who has been with the series since the beginning, or picked it up before the big screen bow, will definitely get more out of this than someone seeking a mere Saturday night rental. While patience can be rewarded, persistence pays off in much larger deranged dividends. But this is not a fan’s only release. Instead, it’s a challenge to anyone who’s sick and tired of traditional animated anarchy.


While not as salient as The Simpsons or South Park, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force and its Colon Movie Film for Theaters is a bright, baffling companion piece to our equally infuriating times. Real life makes absolutely no sense, and like a clairvoyant cousin cackling in the background, Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad mock your lack of vision. They’ve seen the situation, the shoddy manner in which existence doles out drama like inconsiderate service industry workers, and have decided to deal with its absurdity and surreality. It may be nothing more than an insightful peek into the mind of a messed up 13 year old, or the most clever cartoon satire ever. That’s the great thing about Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters. It’s everything and nothing, clever and/or crap. It doesn’t demand either one. It let’s you make such a decision.



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Saturday, Aug 18, 2007


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The Invasion - Trailer



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Friday, Aug 17, 2007


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


Premiere Pick
Pan’s Labyrinth


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

Additional Choices
Beerfest


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

Scary Movie 4


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

 


Aeon Flux


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

Indie Pick
Garage Days


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

Additional Choices
Marebito


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

The Dancer Upstairs


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

The Celebration


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

Outsider Option
The Frighteners


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

Additional Choices
Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die


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

The Public Eye


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

Arachnia


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

 


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