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Wednesday, Mar 3, 2010

Brian DePalma deserves better. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that the legacy of Brian DePalma deserves better. If Internet rumors are to be believed, and Paramount has pegged the former member of the post-modern moviemaking b-Rat Pack (along with pals Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas) to helm the sequel to their gimmick laden hit, Paranormal Activity, than a clichéd sentiment like “how the once mighty have fallen” might not be strong enough. No, in this case, a more telling phrase like “you must be f**king kidding me” seems more apropos. True, the man has not made a ‘great’ film in nearly two decades (the last being, arguably, Casualties of War), but does that mean he has to play stupid second fiddle to an artistically inert found footage stunt?


While the report that began the speculation does cite that DePalma is simply “in the mix” (along with Wolf Creek‘s Greg McLean and Transsiberian‘s Brad Anderson), the notion that a filmmaker who was once at the cutting edge of onscreen suspense - borrowing heavily from one Alfred Hitchcock, mind you - would be part of said conversation is crazy. It’s like pointed to David Lynch and saying he’d be perfect for the Alvin and the Chipmunks tre-quel (which will surely be in 3D, one imagines). No one doubts that there are legitimate reasons for Paramount to pursue DePalma, and surely the aging auteur is looking to relaunch his name brand. But with an effort as artistically weak as Paranormal Activity, it seems like Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 all over again (and we all know how well that went…).


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Wednesday, Jan 13, 2010

I, for one, am glad Sony has decided to scrap plans for a fourth Spider-man movie. As much as part one jumpstarted the sagging “comic book as serious source of drama” dynamic in contemporary cinema (leading to classics like The Dark Knight and Watchmen), and as much as the second film showcased director’s Sam Raimi’s remarkable range as an artist, the third effort indicated that the concept had run its course. Naturally, the studios don’t think so. They wanted more money…sorry, movies, and were counting on the original creative team to keep the coinage flowing.


Since it was announced, Raimi struggled to bring Spider-man 4 to life. There were rumors of villains (Vulture), actors (John Malkovich), and direction (back to brooding and darkness). But something interesting happened along the way. Sony got a script they liked better. Now, Raimi is out, and the studio is going to “reboot” the franchise, taking the character of Peter Parker back to high school. Call it the tween Twilight approach to the famed Marvel icon and you’ll get the basic idea. Naturally, messageboard nation remains significantly up in arms.


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Friday, Nov 27, 2009

It should have been the blockbuster battle royale of 2009, a cinematic smackdown between two toy-based action adventure popcorn epics. One the one side was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay’s bloated expansion of everything the first film got right (or for some, wrong). Clocking in at more than two hours and twenty-nine minutes, it threatened to bludgeon the audience with its gignormous F/X overkill and fetishized shots of Megan Fox’s…face. It’s opponent - another Paramount production, this time based on the ‘80s geek reinterpretation of that real American hero, GI Joe. Subtitled The Rise of Cobra, this beached whale workout offered the king of pointless surfeit, Stephen Sommers, using every CG trick in the book, including robotic running suits and an underwater battle so pointlessly elephantine that it would make Poseidon himself pass out.


But a funny thing happened on the way to the rendering lab - Transformers turned the trick, raking in more cash per critic’s complaint than any film in the history of hack. As audiences tempered on better impressive eye candy like Star Trek, they lined up like loons to prove that the lowest common denominator sometimes equals the biggest box office returns. On the other hand, by the time Cobra’s new world order nemesis showed up, the press held back from passing judgment on its lack of charm, it could barely break $150 million. So why is it that one crappy overdone excuse for Hollywood Summer movie merchandising set the studio coffers ablaze, while the other ran out of steam before it could make back its craft services budget? If the recently released Blu-ray versions of both films are any indication, the answer is quite simple - people are dumb.


That’s right - audiences are apparently retarded. They loved ever inch of Bay’s amped up retreat, never once arguing with its “same thing, just more of it” mantra. It’s a sentiment that’s even more obvious when you re-watch the film again sans 70 foot screen surplus. For all its intricate automaton gimmickry, its empty nest parent pratfalls, and racially sketchy strategies, its one incessantly boring experience. As a matter of fact, if you took away the distractions and simply went with the narrative as presented, you’d be so bored you’d demand dozens of longing shots of Transformer testicles.


GI Joe, on the other hand, is saddled with that most oppressive of moviemaking prerequisites - the origin story. It has to spend time setting up the Joes, why they are so secret and special, and the arms dealer demagogue whose threatening the world. Granted, it’s an equally stupid premise as all that “return of the revenge of the Fallen” falderal, but at least Sommers knows how to have big goofy fun. Michael Bay just seems obsessed with more…MORE…MORE!!!


Spend some time with the commentary track for Transformers #2 and you’ll see what we mean. The director, given over to commercially coaxed delusions of grandeur, makes it very clear that his vision of this sequel was more unrestrained, more plot-riddled, more everything in every way. The script was severely trimmed, says the spectacle savant, the better to give more time to the “characters” (like the motorized minstrel show known as Mudflap and Skids, perchance?) and the chaos. While we don’t get many details on what was removed, it’s clear that a lot of the villain’s backstory was excised, motive and explanation as to goals apparently not as important as awkward moments of aged matron mugging.


GI Joe, on the other hand, knows it’s dumb. Sommers even suggests that he wanted to make a live action cartoon (in keeping with the Greed decade update of the icon and franchise). That he succeeds both in creating flat, one dimensional champions and equally inert scoundrels means he more than lived up to his goals. But the best part about this take on a Hasbro toy line is the desire to make things fluffy and fun. Unlike Bay’s Transformers, which plays it so deadly serious that it’s fatal, Sommers skips logic, realism, context and anything that would make his movie seem like part of the actual planet we live on. Oddly enough, it’s Joe that plays into preconceptions and takes on a the more recognizable appreciable edifice. While the Autobots and Decepticons are ransacking Egypt’s infamous pyramids, Cobra is targeting the Eiffel Tower with its nanotech seeking missiles.


In the battle between more = moronic then, GI Joe clearly wins. It’s a far more inventive movie, trying to turn a child’s backyard game of world domination into a computer generated excuse for printing money. Sommers has always suffered from a desire to drown his viewers in so much optical obesity that they get bad movie diabetes in the process. He knows he’s lethal, but hopes his giddy kid conceits carry him past the morgue with ease. Bay, on the other hand, is cancer. He’s insidious, sneaking into areas of your entertainment consciousness you thought were safe from disease and destruction, and then slowly sapping the life out of each and every one. By the time you’re ready to rely on said centers as a means of salvaging your enjoyment existence, Bay’s blend of wonk and waste have won. You’re spent, subservient to his craven stuntwork sickness, one foot firmly placed in the franchise grave. 


More importantly, GI Joe plays better on the small screen, a reduction in imagery allowing the viewer to see what Sommers was really shooting for. Transformers Dos, on the other hand, becomes the evil emperor’s jockey shorts. What didn’t work in theaters is applied fifty fold by being miniaturized, while the obvious flaws in the basics of filmmaking show through early and often. Bay’s vision is too busy, too based on the 16x9 limitations of the video playback he (and other directors) rely on during filming to clarify their compositions. Sure, the kids who clamored for the title in theaters will definitely delight in witnessing its wanton disregard for intelligence on their own home theater set up, but Joe seems like the lesson that will be learned later, and more favorably. Sommers may not get to make the sequel suggested by the ending, but at least he did his entity proud. Bay just does it loud.


While it may seem silly to scrap over films that obviously had no ambition other than to hammer the viewer with as much synapse-snapping stuff as possible, the success of Transformers and the failure of Joe will remains one of 2009’s greatest anomalies. And when you toss in the equally swollen Terminator: Salvation, it’s clear that if the first nine years of the new millennium have taught us anything, it’s that Jerry Lewis should be shot. No, not for his crazy comic shenanigans, but for inventing the aforementioned technology that allow filmmakers to view their movie through the unnatural window of a portable on-set monitor.


For decades now, novice auteurs have misinterpreted the material they see on such tiny portals as the possible magic they’ll be bringing to the movie. In the case of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, it’s nothing more than brain-death brought to larger than life extravagance. If less is indeed more, both of these movies have created black holes where blockbusters used to be.


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Friday, Oct 2, 2009

No one does detached British youth better than Sean Conway. He’s like an across-the-Atlantic Larry Clark without the dirty old man’s leer. Like most film school graduates, no matter the locale, he’s a combination of what he’s learned, what he’s loved, and what he longs to achieve. As much a writer as he is a director, Conway has expanded his media profile to include novels, poem collections, and several short stories. He’s also an accomplished screenwriter, selling his first script while still in college. In many ways, he’s the classic celluloid success saga - student film to much more accomplished work, minor recognition to national acknowledgement. In a series of short film steps, cobbles on the road to artistic reward, Conway has perfect his themes. He’s also found a way to cleverly combine prose with motion picture providence.


The results can definitely be seen in the following five mini-features, spanning the first three years of his output. Each one addresses a particular portion of Conway’s peculiar POV, including sex, drugs, crime, craziness, kink, cool, and above all, contemporary chaos. By focusing on individuals in his disenfranchised demo, by turning the standard coming of age into a true test of human will, he reinvents a genre we’ve seen dozens of times before. Even better, he does so from a decidedly British perspective, a look laced with tradition, techno, and a tendency toward underplaying emotion. This makes Conway’s work even more astonishing - even with said cultural setting, he still unearths the kind of rich psychological tapestry that a lot of more “obvious” films fail to deliver. Going over them one at a time, we can see his growth, as well as the common threads that bind his works together, starting with: 


Rocco Paris (2005)

Rocco is an art student who spends his days painting Xerox copies of Kurt Cobain photos, his nights navigating the dead end world of his aimless youth. His girlfriend Zazie brightens things up, but the truth remains that our hero seems as directionless as his muse.


As with most student films Rocco Paris feels like a wholly insular initiation into the world of Sean Conway. It’s clear from what we see visually that this English upstart understands the language of films. His scenes come together with a kind of celluloid magic, making sense even when the narrative gets lost in a lack of explanations. Similarly, he ‘gets’ the concept of creating character tension by using gesture and actions as indicators. There is a real sense of discovery and personal growth on the part of our lovers, a look at a life that seems truly believable and yet almost completely built out of Conway’s desire to impress. Indeed, that’s what one means when they argue inferred narrowness. As a fledgling filmmaker, our future auteur is still getting his bearings. We see where he’s going, but we’re not sure if he’s getting there in the best possible manner.


There are other elements here that will also scream self-indulgence: the constant switching between grainy black and white and cloudy snuff film style color; the voice over narration that often misleads the audience as to intent; the sudden shift, at the end, into French (with French subtitles to boot); the projector sound effects; the flimsy fixation on the late Nirvana shaman. None of these whims are fatal to the film - indeed sometimes, Conway uses them as a necessary wake-up call for a viewer lulled into a kind of visual complacency. Most importantly, Rocco Paris illustrates what its maker continues to do best - finding the fringe faction in his own part of the world and illustrating it in honest, open, and aesthetically exciting way.


Rabbit Stories (2006)

Fenton Fuller is a young man tormented by schizophrenia. While his family wants him institutionalized, our subjects shattered mind senses conspiracy in every action.


Really nothing more than an extended rant punctured by occasional bits of conversation exposition, Rabbit Stories argues for Conway’s ability as a writer. There are times in this fictional tale when you swear he found a real mental patient, an equally authentic set of adults, and filmed them au natural, without provocation and within a stylized documentary. With the camera snaking around and in between characters, an editorial approach that plays with our own sense of reality, and page after page of perfected psycho speak, we can’t help by feel confused - and confident in Conway’s ability to tell the truth. The lines here are so stinging, so concrete in their ability to illustrate Fenton’s condition, that even if we didn’t have the voiceover telling us of his bubbling bad brain, we’d catch on rather quickly. He’s a classic nutjob in an equally timeless tale.


It’s just too bad then that there’s not more backstory here. We are interested in the Fuller family dynamic - why Mom visits, why Dad criticizes. We are also intrigued by the doctors, driven to distraction by our lead’s constant lack of an internal monologue. Again, one of the hardest things to accomplish in fiction is a factual portrayal of mental illness. Even with available examples in real life, and some undeniably gifted actors, artistic pretense frequently gets in the way of authenticity. But since Conway is a wizard at the truth, capable of uncovering it in even the most ditzy or dire of circumstances, it’s no wonder Fenton’s surreal stream of consciousness works.  By avoiding the cliché and the stereotypical, Rabbit Stories reveals its knowing nature.


Alex and Her Arse Truck (2007)

Alex is planning on taking a bath, and her man plans on watching. Along the way we meet a geek burglar, a well-endowed swimmer, two larded drug dealing lesbians, and a pub filled with reprobate raffling off our heroine’s soiled knickers.


Like his American counterpart, trailer park Pasolini Giuseppe Andrews (the indie genius contributed two songs to the soundtrack here), Conway is interested in life the way it’s really lived - not the sugar coated, candy colored version of existence fed to us via television and advertising. There is a razor sharp authenticity here, an eccentricity meshed with the undeniable truth that easily takes one’s breath away. His actors really help sell the situation. As Baby Shoes, Danny Young is dynamic, looking like a slightly less smug Colin Farrell. He brings a real warmth to his jealousy-torn role, and his voice over narration is loaded with story enhancing emotion. Similarly, Gina Blondell’s Alex is the flawless personification of everything Conway wants to convey. She’s sexy, stupid, alluring, ambiguous, and ever so slightly out of reach. Even her walk screams something significant. In a setup that mandates a ying to a partner’s yan, Young and Blondell make a wonderful - and better yet, believable - pair.


There are other layers to Alex and her Arse Truck that help make this 15 minute masterwork feel far more fleshed out and realized. Race becomes a subversive sexual subject, as does overweight lesbian congress. We get surreal, enigmatic images of a swimming man covered in Band-Aids and a cheerleading group practicing in a darkened parking lot. The musical score does a great job of supplementing the circumstances, amplifying the out of control atmosphere and accenting the characters. As unheralded auteurs go, Sean Conway will definitely be a name to watch in the future. If there is any justice in an artform landscape littered with lame journeyman hacks, his will be a creative spark recognized and revered. Alex and her Arse Truck is all the proof anyone needs. 


Kings of London (2008)

Two black half-brothers, both named Aristotle, try to figure out their path in the cold hearted criminal streets of the UK. One fancies himself a poet. The other competes in the unusual sport of ghetto racing. Each one faces his own struggles, both at home and out among the gangs and cutthroats they run into on a daily basis.


While it’s an obvious sentiment, this is what Conway has been building up to over the last few shorts films. Longer than anything he’s attempted before (at 24 minutes, it’s almost twice the length of Alex) and built on a solid storyline, this is a compelling character study carved out of secret loss, obvious problems, and some slightly off center concepts. The entire notion of “troubled” Aristotle wearing a woman’s wig, riding a horse, and entering unusual offtrack races makes for an curious arc, but the vast majority of the movie is made up of the quiet interaction between our two main leads, each one delivering the kind of understated performance that brings out the best in Conway’s material. Indeed, this is the best written short of the lot. It’s lyrical, ephemeral, cruel, calculated, and all too real in its slice of life snapshots. And thanks to the men managing these lines, we become entranced in the all too certain sense of doom.


Conway also proves his mantle as a visual artist with this film. The shots he selects, the slow motion races that put the mute Aristotle up against all competing horsemen, really shine in a viable, cinematic way. Filmed in HD, with a real emphasis on naturalism and found locations, Kings of London provides a glimpse of the city that few ever see. This is a view of the backroads and alleyways of the sprawling meta-metropolis, a portrait painted in struggles and survival. This is a place where no one wins and everyone suffers in the end. The film even begins with a story of date rape, and wraps up on a beat so horrific and yet obvious that it comes out of the plot organically. There will be those who question Conway’s desire to turn everything into a monologue, a chance encounter becoming several pages of pain-filled dialogue, but that’s the beauty of Kings of London. It’s a near masterpiece of tone, approach, and storytelling.



Sloe Gin Nights (2008)

Two boys spend an aimless night smacking each other in the genitals while a narrator explains their alienated and disaffected feelings.


In some ways, the story of this two minute short’s making is far more interesting than anything which happens on screen. Film journalist Mike Plante (Cinemad), got it in his mind to invite filmmakers to lunch. In exchange, the artist would have to agree to make him a movie. The catch? It could only cost the amount spent on the meal. In the case of Conway’s $24 repast, the results are quite odd to say the least. Shot on what looks like a cellphone and featuring some uncompromising male nudity, what we wind up with is a lark, a romp relegated to what looks like a poorly made porno. The narration provides some compelling context, as well as addressing the obvious questions about who, what, when, where, why, and how. Beyond that, and the intriguing set-up, we can relish Conway’s wordplay, but that’s about it. The rest of Sloe Gin Nights seems missing from the otherwise engaging middle section.

With a feature film in his future and what seems like the full support of a community ready to aid in his arrival, Sean Conway should soon be a household name. Like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, he seems perfectly in tune with the United Kingdom of his life and times. Like Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie, however, he uses obvious stylistic choices and rich dialogue to enhance his day in the life dynamics. The combination is intoxicating, drawing one in while keeping enough distance to demand our empathy. With such a stellar foundation of filmmaking behind him, Conway is destined for greatness. That he’s already come close to achieving it here argues for such an inevitable aesthetic conclusion.


 


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Monday, Sep 14, 2009

That audible gasp you heard last week was film geek society struggling to come to grips with what they just heard. After years of being marginalized as the man who produced more bad b-movie dung than any other independent maverick, after decades balancing unbelievably bad schlock with a cadre of novices who turned into industry giants, Roger Corman was getting an honorary Oscar. Yes, you heard right - the man who made the original Little Shop of Horrors, who helmed a series of spectacular Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for his American International Pictures was picking up the film biz’s biggest tribute, an award that many far more famous and talented have never received.


Granted, it’s nothing more than career-retrospective recognition, and when you’ve got a list of names you helped shepherd into cinema like Corman does (just a few of the names include Coppola, Scorsese, Howard, Bogdanovich, Demme, and Cameron), such a nod was inevitable. And since the Academy of Arts and Sciences is looking for ways to remain relevant in the instant access and opinion platitudes of the Web World, giving Corman one of those coveted gold statues is a guaranteed way to get the normally jaded celluloid know-it-all to sit up and take notice. One imagines the decision had less to do with such crass commercial matters and actually stemmed from Corman’s contribution to film.


Still, it will be pretty amazing to watch the man responsible for such tacky ‘50s terrors as Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent and Teenage Cave Man get his just rewards. Heck, the video overview alone will be worth tuning in for. Corman, like the exploitation pioneers who copied his go for broke approach, rewrote the rules of post Golden Age filmmaking, tackling genre titles and favored commercial categories (the Western, the War movie) with slavish shoestring abandon. He once bragged that he could make a Roman Empire epic with “two extras and a bush”, but he was much more proficient than that. Indeed, Corman gave voice to hundreds of otherwise ignored actors, actresses, writers, directors, and production crew, using his skinflint style to minimize returns while maximizing results.


His honorary Oscar, however well deserved, does break new ground for the formerly stodgy society, introducing the possibility of having other outsider mavericks make their way up the stairs to the Kodak Theater. If SE&L may be so bold, perhaps we could champion a few choices for future ballots. After all, if the guy who gave us a plethora of pathetic horror hackdom in the ‘70s and ‘80s can win your ultimate approval, we think these five people deserve a similar statement of artform significance. Each one has given in ways that are undeniable in the annals of film and to leave them out while letting Corman in seems, well, criminal, starting with the man responsible for the continuing commercial appeal of the gross out comedy:



John Waters


For his amazing trilogy of ‘gals gone gonzo’ films - Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living - this aging Baltimore bad boy should be first up for his piece of AMPAS metal. Waters took his passion for underground moviemaking, married it to a sense of humor formed out of juvenile delinquency and proto-perverted fixations, and fashioned some of the funniest films ever to be ignored by the mainstream. By the time Hollywood embraced his pristine piece of PG nostalgia, Hairspray, it had been transformed into a boring Broadway hit. Yet the rest of his oeuvre - Cry-baby, Polyester, A Dirty Shame, Pecker, Serial Mom - confirm his status as the king of stingy suburban satire. If anyone deserves an Oscar, it’s the former (and still reigning) Prince of Puke.



Kenneth Anger


As one of the many cinematic anarchists that got Waters creative juices flowing, Anger is an artist trapped in a maniac’s moody persona. Some days, he’s a diva. On others, his affiliation with the Thelematic philosophy and Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law - Liber AL vel Legis drives his wholly insular motives. And yet the movies he’s made - Scorpio Rising, Rabbit’s Moon, Lucifer Rising, among others - are visionary works of undeniable cinematic scope. What makes this particular selection all the more spicy is that Anger is also responsible for uncovering and publishing many of Tinseltown darkest, dirtiest secrets. His infamous Hollywood Babylon books first introduced curious fans to the horrors of the Black Dahila, the truth behind the Fatty Arbuckle case, and the murder of Sharon Tate.



Alejandro Jodorowski


For El Topo and The Holy Mountain alone, this hallowed Hispanic savant should have a permanent place in the Academy’s Hall of Fame. Both movies represent the very pinnacle of revisionist reinvention, the former finding solace in the spaghetti western, the latter as a denouncement of religion and the manipulative mainstream media. Together with other exceptional works - Fando y Lis, Santa Sangre - Jodorowski remains a man married to his singular sense of art and the expressions of same. While he does dabble in mysticism and some eccentric philosophical pursuits (psychomagic?), his works continue to impress and inspire. If Oscar is indeed looking to extend its awareness of the talent triumphing in the rest of the world, this directing genius would be a great place to start.

 



Jose Mojica Marins (Coffin Joe)


Come on Oscars - show you’ve got a backbone and celebrate this Brazilian horror filmmaker who challenges his countries love of religion and government oppression by outwardly mocking them in his supposed scary movies. A blasphemer as well as an iconic man of the people, Marins has turned a tired stereotype - the evil undertaker- into a macabre action hero, an immortal who confronts the hypocrisy in society by reflecting its repugnance in his own evil. His Coffin Joe films remain the most astonishing - violent, vehemently anti-Catholic, and volatile in their celebration of all things flesh. Besides, with his six inch long fingernails, it would be wonderful to see how he actually “accepts” his award. Could make for some very memorable television.


K. Gordon Murray


So what if he never really made a movie on his own. Who cares if he exported almost all of his product from behind the Iron Curtain (or from somewhere South of the Border) and redubbed it for clueless ‘60s kiddies. Murray made a mountain of moolah providing such surreal matinee fodder as Little Red Riding Hood, Santa Claus, The Magic Land of Mother Goose, Curse of the Doll People, and Jack and Beanstalk. Most of these Russian/Ukranian/East German/Spanish/Mexican productions were blessed with big budgets and impressive effects, but Murray managed to find a way to sap all the magic out of these culturally specific fairy tales.  With a major documentary on the man coming soon, it’s time Hollywood acknowledged his contribution to the crap kid vid it puts out today.


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