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Tuesday, Mar 3, 2009

Right now, it’s the studio’s only concern. The film has been completed, the marketing has been revved up, the press has been invited and the (so far mixed) reviews are starting to pour in. Years ago, a pan from someone like Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael might have meant something. In past decades, bad buzz (or in the opposite, unstoppable hype) could have helped predict the upcoming scenario. But Warner Brothers - with a little forced legal cooperation from FOX - are now playing the waiting game. They are gauging the media, deciphering the focus group cues and messageboard clues. They are baiting geek nation and hoping that the critical clique will take the hook and run like Hell. Watchmen is poised to be the first real ‘event’ film of 2009, and its time to crunch the all-crucial numbers.


That’s right; it’s all down to numbers now. Box office returns. Butts in seats. Watchmen may be a fine entertainment, or a stunning piece of visual art (or both…hint, hint), but the bottom line is just that - the reason for the film’s existence. FOX didn’t run to their local civil courthouse to complain about aesthetics. The studio who apparently passed on the film several times wasn’t crying over spilt special effects? No, they sensed a potential cash cow and wanted to make sure to get a bit of the cream for themselves. If the movie doesn’t make back it’s budget, it will be seen as a full blown failure, no matter how it functions as cinema. If it only makes a couple of hundred million, it will stand in line along with The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and other “not Dark Knight” successes.


So who will be there come Friday morning (or in some instances, Thursday midnight)? Fans will surely be some of the first in line, their thirst for anything Alan Moore and the Minutemen almost unquenchable. For them, this is more than niche. For them, this is the answer to a prayer long genuflected over. Surely, they will be rewarded, minor changes and all. But the truth is, the rabid lovers of the original graphic novel will not be enough to sweeten the greenback starved suits - not in this or any economy. Even if each and every lover of the book came and sat through the nearly three hour movie twice, Warners would still be waking up with a clear case of the deep in debt cold sweats. So how does Watchmen reach beyond this determined demographic? Will anyone other than the faithful show up come 6 March?


Surely, the overwhelming publicity propaganda both on and off line will draw in some of the neophytes, especially those who are already prone toward comic book adaptations. For them, Watchmen will walk a fine line between brilliant and baffling. Moore’s narrative is very much steeped in personal angst and individual alienation, not grand heroics and epic gestures of action goodwill. There’s no prancing Tony Stark substitute, no hardline post-millennial Bruce Wayne wannabe. Instead, all the characters carry the perplexing personality issues of the everyday human. They’re afraid of war. They’re concerned about their aging well being. And they are worried that someone may be trying to end their reign as the world’s mythic masked vigilantes. If they can breach Moore’s tangled web of weakness and self-deception, newbies will find themselves instantly intoxicated.


Teens, especially, will be rewarded for their rapt, text message attention. Zach Snyder, notorious for ladling on the ultra-violence with Kubrick/Burgess abandon delivers enough squishy splatter and luscious gore to make even the most seasoned blood fan cringe - if just a little. Adolescent males will cheer like soccer hooligans over Rorschach’s revenge on a nasty child killer, and the last act jail break features a power tool prototype that even Leatherface at his most Texas Chainsaw Massacre-y can’t match. This may turn off a few of the gal pals in the 15 to 21 pool (those capable of getting in to see this very hard “R” film), but there is also a romanticized lure to the material that makes it the perfect fodder for new age geek girls. After all, when was the last time your saw caped crusaders copulating while flying over a failing city? Or full frontal blue male nudity?


Adults however, will remain Watchmen‘s wild card - and Achilles heel. It’s hard to see anyone over a certain age falling for this high minded spectacle of surreality. The Dark Knight certainly drew in the over 50 crowd because of its decision to go against type. While steeped in funny book formulas, Christopher Nolan simply shifted everything over into the realm of serious crime drama and let the situations sell the stranger stuff. And it worked to the tune of a billion buckarinos. Watchmen has no such realistic core. It’s an alternate reality, a Brazil like combination of socio-political pomp and revisionist retro-raw circumstance. The opening montage may stir a few of the faithful down memory lane, but it’s hard to see a senior citizen sitting still as Silk Specter gets her face smashed by a sex-crazed Comedian - or better yet, as the narrative turns grim and very, very disturbing. 


Watchmen now clearly stands on a precipice. It will either be seen as a risky, rewarding experiment or a noble failure that still fulfills the vision of both its director and its devotees. Judgment on the final effectiveness of the film may have to wait until the proposed FOUR HOUR director’s cut that Snyder has promised come DVD/Blu-ray time, and some of the missing subplots - the Black Freighter/Under the Hood angles, for example - will have to bear up to their own sense of scrutiny come release date (a separate disc arrives in stores on 24 March - a SE&L review will arrive shortly thereafter). After all the talk, after all the advertising and viral manipulation, Watchmen stands to be judged on criteria that are as callous as they are indicative of the industry. Get ready to experience the kind of backseat driving and Monday morning quarterbacking that only a potential entertainment phenomenon can create. It’s no longer about the movie. For Watchmen and Warners, it’s all about the money. 


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Friday, Feb 13, 2009

Do few genre filmmakers “get it” that when a true artisan comes along, their presence can be initially perplexing - especially when he or she is being asked to reinvent a classic of macabre cinema. So many fail - David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s awful The Eye, for example - that anyone managing to survive said re-imagining is rare indeed. That’s why Marcus Nispel is such a welcome anomaly. Not only has he been charged with reviving the fortunes of two “archetypal” motion picture monster franchises - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th - but he’s managed to make the recognized classics all his own. In fact, some might argue that his updates are just as good (or better) than the originals.


Nispel is an interesting career case. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he came to America at age 20 to start a production company. Concentrating on commercials and music videos, he worked for artists as diverse as Faith No More, Simply Red, Elton John, and No Doubt. He won four MTV Video Music Awards and saw his Portfolio Artists Network expand their advertising reach with clients like Coca-Cola, Nike, Mercedes and UPS.  In 2003, Michael Bay was looking for a new face to take on his planned redux of Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse epic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel, who had first tried to get into feature film directing with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days (he left the project over “creative differences”), was initially seen as an odd choice. Instead of going with a recognized horror name, Bay and company thought the cinematic novice would do the material justice.


They were absolutely right. With his trademark de-saturated color schemes, emphasis on atmosphere and tone, and a gore-drench brutality that the original completely lacked, Nispel made the story of Leatherface, his cannibal clan, and the unlucky teens that dared tread into his personal slaughterhouse domain an electrifying, terrifying experience. While paying homage to what Hooper and his beer-swilling buddies accomplished back in the Me Decade, he updated the premise for a blood and guts oriented post-modern crowd. Even cynical critics who normally dismissed fright flicks as the bastard step-children of the motion picture artform couldn’t deny that Nispel had forged something powerful and slightly sadistic out of what could have been a campy bit of nostalgia. The film became one of the Summer’s surprise hits and led to a less than successful origin story prequel.


For his part, Nispel went on to a pet project of his -Pathfinder, an adaptation of Nils Gaup’s 1987 film Ofelas. A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the original’s narrative was moved Westward, with Native Americans and Vikings taking the place of the Tjuder and Lapp tribes. With lead Karl Urban fresh from his turn as Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a directorial dedication to authenticity and history, studios clearly thought Nispel could deliver something spectacular. As the April 2007 release date came and went however, it was clear that this tale of murder, revenge, and cross culture clashing would do little but die at the box office. For his part, Nispel took the failure in stride, sitting back and studying his options (like the long rumored adaptation of American McGee’s Alice for horror heavy Wes Craven).


So it was quite shocking to see Nispel’s name featured in the initial teaser material for the proposed update of the Jason Voorhees legacy. It appeared like a step backward, a desperation move by a filmmaker who failed when moving outside the fear factory. In addition, the Friday the 13th franchise, while fun and very much tied to the introduction and explosion of home video in the 1980s, was not the kind of “classic” that Chainsaw was. Perhaps from a purely cultural standpoint, but Sean Cunningham’s crude slice and dice definitely wasn’t finding a spot in the Museum of Modern Art (where Hooper’s film now sits). Indeed, it looked like for all intents and purposes that Nispel, finding no success to separate himself from murder and mayhem, came crawling back to the scary movie to save his career.


In truth, bringing this director back was a godsend. Of all the films that need careful reconstructing, Friday the 13th is definitely high on the list. It’s an oddball mystery, a tawdry take on And Then There Were None where we don’t get the joy of figuring out the killer’s ID until the fiend shows up and says “Hello.” Betsy Palmer is brilliant as cook turned psycho Pamela Voorhees, and her machete battle with last girl Alice is amazing in its broad scoped camp cravenness. But before that, we have to suffer through endless minutes of stalk and shock, with little suspense preparing us for Tom Savini’s autopsy level make-up F/X. Today, the hockey masked hacker known as Jason is considered a true horror icon. But that status definitely comes from the other 10 films the character has starred in. At first, Friday the 13th was not about the deformed boy. It was about his batshit mother.


Nispel’s decision to redefine Jason as an animalistic predator is just one of the new film’s novel approaches to the material. This new Friday the 13th thwarts convention as easily as it embraces the standard slasher formulas. The opening 25 minutes are all film craft and corpses, Nispel showing off in ways that both shiver the spine and tweak the brain. By the time the title shows up, we’ve already experienced the death of his mother, the rise of Jason, and the set-up for the next part of the plot. Nispel’s greatest asset, and the one element that differentiates him from all other post post-modern horror filmmakers is his level of seriousness. He never treats the genre like a joke, or a lesser level of cinematic artistry. He sets up his scenes like old school masters would and he works the audience like regaled names in the category’s past. Sure, there’s still a by the numbers corpse grinding involved, but getting there is an exercise in polished, professional cinema, nothing more or less.


Indeed, the reason Nispel should now be number one on any studios classic horror remake list - an inventory now containing such noted names as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and The Evil Dead - is that he won’t kowtow to fanboy lusts or messageboard mandates. He won’t cater to memory or excessive obsession. Instead, he will play the narrative exactly the way the material requires. As a matter of fact, the next update he should attempt should be Sam Raimi’s breakthrough demons in a cabin romp. The Evil Dead would be perfect for Nispel’s ominous ambience and sensational splatter rampaging. He would use the wilderness as an effective foil to the foolishness happenings within, and when the creatures start to emerge, he could really turn on the terror. Just like Leatherface and his family, Nispel could even make the entire thing into some sort of redolent look at society circa 2010 (or whatever date the studios decide to set).


Because of his complete confidence in his own vision, because he can take even the cheesiest chestnut from the macabre mindfield and turn it into something stunning, Marcus Nispel should be instantly tossed to the top of the horror heap. He should never have to worry about working. He should have a laundry list of potential projects to choose from. Even when he fails - and Pathfinder is nothing short of subpar - he shows a spark and originality that few filmmakers possess. Remember, both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th were predisposed to fail. Devotees just knew that anyone tackling these titles would come up incredibly short. That Nispel managed to match - and in the case of Jason’s journey, best - the previous offerings says something about his gift for gruesomeness. Clearly, when it comes to horror, he “gets” it. Any producer looking to jumpstart their genre franchise should “get” him as well.


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Tuesday, Dec 2, 2008

While they won’t make a lick of sense to most Westerners (they’re almost exclusively in Japanese), the seven trailers featured here represent the work of maverick moviemaker Minoru Kawasaki to a T. While we compile more material for tomorrow’s blog post, please enjoy these stunningly surreal delights.


Calamari Wrestler


It’s the story of a squid who longs to be a champion. And you thought Mickey Roarke had the inside track on grappling greatness.


Executive Koala


An office drone with the body of an oversized Australian animal is suspected of being a serial killer. Huh?


Kabuto-O Beetle


Another odd creature - a bug - and another wannebe wrestler. Hmmmm…


The World Sinks…Except Japan


When natural disaster causes the rest of the planet to sink into the ocean, Japan becomes the last bastion of dry land for the world’s weirdos…and politicians. 


The Rug Cop



A policeman and his crime-fighting toupee. What more could you want?


Crab Goalkeeper


A giant crustacean conquers the world’s most popular sport.


Cat Noodle Chef


A feline puppet fancies himself a Japanese noodle chef. Yummy!


 


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Wednesday, Feb 27, 2008

In celebration of the upcoming Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa, FL, and the 1 March screening of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman’s Blood Feast (complete with an appearance by the exploitation gods) SE&L will focus on the movies made by these two living legends. Today, a brief overview of their individual creative canon.


After their profitable partnership dissolved, after their once amicable relationship started to fray (in part thanks to lawsuits, misunderstanding, and miscommunication), director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman were desperate to prove they could go it alone. Both knew that the exploitation game was still the most important genre in all of cinema. It was where the medium was truly testing the limits of its aesthetic. It was also where the easy money was. A little gore, some T&A, and a fine living could be made. Before coming back together to make Blood Feast 2 in 2001, both men made several sensational pictures. Unfortunately, when the time comes to write their bios, the same THREE films take front and center.


Yet there are many amazing movies as part of this duo’s individual oeuvres that get unfairly overlooked. While few have had the impact of Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red, they definitely deserve an equal amount of attention (and in the case of Color, much more so). Consider this list as a beginner’s guide so to speak, a starting off point for a further perusal of the considered works of two exploitation giants. While they are not the only names among the founding members of the genre, Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman are truly artists among the raincoat rabble. Our overview starts from the production end of things:


From David F. Friedman



The Defilers 1965


The first true “roughie”, an exploitation subgenre that focused on violence as much as sex, this craven bit of carnality remains Friedman’s confirmation he could hack it without Lewis. Two spoiled men kidnap a gal and make her their perverted plaything. Unrelenting in its brutality and corporeal cruelty.



A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine 1966


Friedman discovery Stacey Walker is the only reason to watch this otherwise routine ‘bad girl gets her eventual comeuppance’ drama. She primps and preens across the black and white screen, her Baby Doll like innocence swamped in gallons of sleazoid slime. Everything else is by the book and routine.



She Freak 1967


Using his status as an actual carnival owner to reimagine Tod Browning’s Freaks, Friedman digs up a deliciously seamy look at love and betrayal on the Midway. Much of the story stays the same, but with late ‘60s sexuality taking over, we get a healthy dose of dementia.



The Erotic Adventures of Zorro 1972


There’s much more than swashbuckling in this scandalous take on the Hispanic hero. Featuring the unflappable Bob Cresse as a corrupt officer, and a bevy of California beauties, this is the kind of softcore sex spoof that Friedman fell into late in his career. It stands as one of his best.



Johnny Firecloud 1975


In light of the success of Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack character, Friedman found his own way to celebrate growing Native American awareness. The result was this action packed tale of bigotry, bravery, and the most irredeemable white people ever. Jack may have started the war, but this amazing artifact ended it.


From Herschell Gordon Lewis



Blast Off Girls 1967


Like A Hard Day’s Night gone gangrenous, Lewis lifts the lid off of rock and roll corruption and finds a talentless bunch of wannabe musicians and a cameo by Colonel Harlan Sanders? Let’s face it - any film with a character named Boogie Baker (who everyone pronounces “boo-gee”) has more moxie than most.



The Gore Gore Girls 1972


Strippers are being slaughtered and it’s up to a fey private dick to figure out whodunit. Featuring classic moments including the ground hamburger butt (complete with salt and pepper), the plain and chocolate milk giving nipples, and gratuitous Henny Youngman. It’s enough to make you scream…with deranged delight!



The Gruesome Twosome 1967


The local wig shop needs inventory, and guess who supplies the samples? Why, it’s the girls from the nearby college campus. Another in Lewis’ hilarious string of gore comedies, this one note nasty is far funnier than frightening. Even the blood is a little less festive than before.



How to Make a Doll 1968


Hoping to trade on the growing promiscuity of the sexual revolution, the Godfather of Gore decided to go robot. When a nerdy scientist realizes he’ll never get a real girl, he decides to build one. The results are like an outtake from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In…only crazier.



Jimmy the Boy Wonder 1966


A rare non-exploitation spin for Lewis, this heartwarming family film has a horrid child actor in the lead, the producer’s wife as the singing female star, and enough sloppy psychedelic missteps to give the wee ones nightmares. The story centers on a boy who can stop time. He should have halted it before production began.



Just For the Hell of It 1968


Juvenile delinquents run ramshackle over a small Florida town, wrecking all kinds of ‘baby into garbage can’ havoc along the way. Really nothing more than a series of smash and grab set pieces supplemented by droning dialogue about all things antisocial, this stands as one of Lewis’ most unhinged efforts.



She-Devils on Wheels 1968


Female biker babes, riding hard and partying harder - that’s the premise to one of the ‘60s greatest grindhouse classics. The scene where the gals pick over the male members for their evening’s pleasure is a glorious goof on the long running battle of the sexes. In fact the whole narrative is one long feminism/chauvinism chopper tirade.



Something Weird 1967


Hoping to do something with LSD and ESP, Lewis lumbered into a crackpot combination of witchcraft, psychics, and supernatural possession. Toss in some acid, and the title speaks for itself. It stands as a benchmark in the director’s solo work, an ‘anything for a dollar’ drive that saw him finally returning to terror. 



The Wizard of Gore 1970


Montag is a magician whose splatter show acts somehow come to life hours after the performance. Unlike his later horror comedies, Lewis takes this material very seriously, and the resulting grue is quite disturbing. While Ray Sager’s sprayed gray hair is rather unconvincing, the rest of the film is unrelenting in its desire to disturb.



Year of the Yahoo 1972


An election time favorite, this outsider view of the political process is as vital today as it was 35 years ago, perhaps even more so. A country bumpkin singer is tricked into running for the Senate by a group of corrupt campaign chiefs. Oddly enough, his rube hick humility strikes a chord with the public.


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Friday, Feb 8, 2008


Ever since Pixar proved that three dimensional animation could be considered art, the battle between traditional pen and ink cartooning and the high tech tool has raged ever onward. On the one side are those who fear the tradition of human drawing will be destroyed by the turn toward computer assisted creativity. On the other are those who fervently believe that all technological advances can only improve the process. This contrast between progress and the past is a lot like the conflict at the core of director Jeffrey Travis’ adaptation of Edwin A. Abbot’s 1884 social commentary Flatland. Originally conceived by the author as a swipe at the stringent Victorian class system, this delightful fable provides the perfect metaphor for those who embrace change vs. those with a fundamentalist hold on the past.


Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his adopted granddaughter Hex (Kristin Bell) are free thinking forms in the two dimensional world of Flatland. He’s an office drone who takes orders from supposed superiors, sage like Circles who use their many angled manner as a means of oppressing the mathematical masses. There is a strict hierarchy in this order - triangles are the lowest, common worker, followed quickly by squares, pentagons, hexagons, etc. One day, Arthur is visited by Spherius (Michael York), a messenger from Spaceland. He has come to show the naïve citizens of Flatland that there is another dimension, a third dimension of height, that will broaden their perspective on the universe and their own 2D life. Of course, if successful, the Circles will lose their power. So they plot to suppress this information, and anyone who holds it - including Arthur and Hex.



Clocking in at a little over 30 minutes and packing a lot of education in its geometrical meaning, Flatland is a fabulously engaging effort. Not to be confused with a 2007 full length feature by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., this labor of love represents a real sense of individual imagination and awe-inspiring wonder. Writers Seth Caplan and Dano Johnson, along with director Travis, have translated the essence of Abbot’s allegory, using the best bits to fuel a fantastic look at conformity, control, and the power of contravention. With effective voice work from Sheen, his real life brother Joe Estevez, Bell, and others, the result is an exceptional classroom tool that functions equally well as an artistically brave entertainment. Indeed, one of the best facets of Flatland is the intriguing character design, in combination with the unique vision employed to realize the basic X,Y world.


Bringing personality to squares, triangles, and other shapes is never easy, especially when you have to adhere to clear mathematical principles (don’t want the number geeks getting on your case over the angles of your vertices, right?). Yet thanks to a combination of simplicity and sophistication, a clear old school cartoon technique merged with the infinite options of motherboard manipulation, we get breathtaking moments like the aerial view of our title locale, or the opening sequence shuffle through the everyday activity of the population. It’s amazing stuff, the kind of material that shows how dedicated Travis and company are at making this unusual universe real and tactile. We get a true sense of Arthur’s home and workplace, as well as the suburban Hell setup that strictures Flatland.



Yet this film doesn’t rely on eye candy to get its point across. There are solid ideas behind Flatland, concepts that Abbott challenged along with his pre-1984 prognostication. One of the best moments occurs when Spherius - voiced with perfect gravitas by York - scoffs at the notion of a FOURTH dimension. Apparently, just like the Circles who guide the 2D world, the 3D plane is equally shortsighted. There’s also a sensational sequence where little Hex begins the process of thinking “outside the box”, using the theorems presented to explain the leap from length and width to height - and maybe beyond. Arthur’s interaction with Pointland and Lineland are also flawless at getting their message across with straightforward, self-explanatory strokes. From the tiniest detail to the celebratory conclusion, Flatland stands as a major accomplishment.


It also suggests that old fashioned cartooning and CGI can easily work together. When given a chance, the techniques blend effortlessly, resulting in a memorable, magical movie going experience.  There is a lot of heart here, along with the various formulas and arithmetic - and while some of Abbot’s story and satire are simplified in order to make things more manageable, the main narrative never feels truncated. In fact, this adaptation avoids a great deal of the ancillary politics of the period that get in the way of the wonder. Flatland is clearly more interested in the bigger picture than the many minor facets. Its successful combination of approaches bodes well for the future of animated movies - and the fortunes of these filmmakers.



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