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Wednesday, Dec 20, 2006


It’s the biggest crime in all of cinema. Bigger than Uwe Boll’s continued presence behind a camera. Bigger than the super-sized paychecks being given to shoddy screenwriters like Akiva Goldsman. Back at the beginning of the ‘70s, this astounding American ex-patriot set the stage – and the anarchic design – for the seminal sketch comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Along with the troop he helped guide their famous first film Monty Python and the Holy Grail to comedy classic status. At that moment, Terry Gilliam was a director, and from 1977’s Jabberwocky on, he has carved out a unique and artistically important oeuvre. But now it seems those days are over. Thanks to a couple of incomplete efforts, and the still lingering doubts about his moviemaking skills, Gilliam has become a kind of motion picture pariah, dismissed before he even has a chance to defend himself visually.


The most recent example of this automatic disregard came with the release of his “adult fairytale” Tideland. An adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s much talked about novel, the story centers on a young girl, Jeliza-Rose, whose parents die from their drug addictions. Left all alone to fend for herself, her grip on reality starts to fade. Soon, she’s communicating with inanimate objects and re-establishing her family ties with a pair of mysterious, menacing neighbors. When it premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, it was greeted with unanimous jeers. Many felt it to be the worst movie of the year, and Gilliam had a hard time finding wide distribution for his effort. As 2006 started, the film still had no planned release in the US, and the director took the drastic step of advertising his effort with an unusual bit of street beat publicity. Wandering around outside a taping of The Daily Show, Gilliam did a meet and greet with fans, all the while wearing a cardboard sign proclaiming “Will Direct for Food”.


Such a stunt is not the tragedy at hand. In fact, it’s an incredibly clever way for the director to drum up his fanbase while advertising the fact that, thanks to Thinkfilm, Tideland was getting a minor, limited number of play dates in America. No, the real creative calamity comes on the Oscar screener for the film. Since Tideland barely played around the country, critics groups have been sent a DVD offering the film, and a one minute intro by the director. Sullen, cloaked in a backlit monochrome setting, Gilliam defends his film, making it very clear that ‘some will love it, others will hate, and many will wonder just what the Hell is going on here’. At 66, he is reduced to an apologist and a symbol, a shill for his own work that should require no such salesmanship. In a year which saw Darren Aronofsky offer up a narratively arcane approach to the concept of mortality, and Christopher Nolan reestablish the power of storytelling twists, having to argue for one’s “difficult” film should instill audience outrage.


But that’s the point – no one cares. Tideland has not topped the box office charts. In fact, it’s come and gone from theaters so quickly that many of Gilliam’s most fervent followers never had a chance to see it. But more importantly, it continues a terrible trend in the media, one that seems to readily dismiss Gilliam the minute he steps behind the lens. Ever since Jabberwocky, which critics found to be light on Python pithiness and overflowing with grimy, gross-out gags, he has a two pronged attack to overcome. First, he is constantly being compared to what he’s done before – in particular, his groundbreaking animation work for the TV comedy classic. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he must live down a reputation for being a producer’s nightmare, a production’s problem, and a budget buster, among other things.


To hear the rumors and rumblings, Terry Gilliam is Michael Cimino without the attitude, ego or Oscar. That famous filmmaker, responsible for both the well-regarded Deer Hunter and the notorious studio killer Heaven’s Gate, has learned the very hard way that Hollywood never forgets a fiscal hand unbound. Though he tried to make up for his much publicized debacle, Cimino still sits on the outside of Tinsel Town, destined perhaps to always look in. To Gilliam’s credit, he has avoided such entertainment exile…until now. Prior to the last film in his “Age of Reason” dreamers trilogy, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the filmmaker was seen as an idiosyncratic, eccentric artist, a man uncompromising in his vision and resolute in his ability to create compelling cinema. Time Bandits was a massive hit, and Brazil broke through to critics, allowing them a chance to celebrate a man whose battle with his studio (Universal) over final cut and distribution became the stuff of legitimate legend.


But right around the time of Baron Munchausen, things started to change. A massive epic revolving around a mythical German hero, his tendency toward lies, and the grand spectacle that resulted from such fibs, it was a fairy story come to life, a chance to visit the fiery furnaces of the Underworld and to commune with the gods and goddesses of the ancients. In his behind the scenes book on the subject, Andrew Yule describes a filmmaker driven by a desire to realize his ambitious, sometimes impossible goals, a producer mired in incompetence, and a studio already nervous over reports of overspending and massive production delays. Though the final result was a masterpiece of unbridled motion picture imagination, the lingering financial fall out was the first of what would become two destructive albatrosses around Gilliam’s neck.


To his credit, the director fought back. He desperately wanted to prove his ability to make a movie on budget and on time. Taking the helm of a far more urban entity, Gilliam delivered The Fisher King. Hugely popular, respected by both the public and the film community (who nominated it for five Oscars), it was verification that, as a filmmaker, he could play by the mainstream rules. His next effort confirmed it even further. Matching up rising superstar Brad Pitt with reigning big wig Bruce Willis, Gilliam fashioned a fabulous piece of time travel trickery entitled 12 Monkeys. Though it took him four years to find a project after King’s commercial success, Monkey’s confirmed that given the proper support and subject matter, Gilliam was capable of very great things.


But it was his next gig in the director’s chair that started the downfall. When Sid and Nancy helmer Alex Cox was kicked off his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic tome Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam was brought in as a “hired gun”.  Under incredibly difficult circumstances (he only had weeks to draft a new script) and a desire to stay true to Thompson’s hallucinogenic writing style, he took actors Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro on a whirlwind ride through the adventures of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Sadly, the film was misunderstood by many, lambasted by those who found it self-indulgent and delusional, and before he knew it, Gilliam was back wearing his troublemaker tag. No matter the previous big screen success of The Fisher King or 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing repainted the man as a disaster waiting to happen.


Unfortunately, his next effort seemed to confirm it. Having long wanted to bring his take on Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra’s classic to the screen, Gilliam began The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Depp again in the lead, and famed French actor Jean Rochefort as the fabled windmill chaser. Mixing modern with ancient approaches, the movie was to be both an adaptation and a comment on Cervantes’ symbolic story. Unfortunately, it never got off the ground. Rochefort was suffering from back pain, and after only a couple of days shooting, had to be flown from the set in Spain back to Paris, where he was diagnosed with a double herniated disc. Then a flash flood wiped out most of the production. Military planes constantly marred takes, and with one of his leads out of commission, Gilliam had no choice but to close down production and hope to restart sometime in the future. That day has yet to come.


Now, all of this wouldn’t have mattered had filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe not been making a documentary on the movie’s progress. Having created a similar making-of for 12 Monkeys, Gilliam had given them free reign, allowing the duo to keep their cameras in close as problems mounted and tempers flared. The resulting tell-all, Lost in La Mancha, was viewed by many as a searing indictment of Gilliam. Everything that books and buzz had hinted at regarding the director’s somewhat demented style were visible for all to see. While praised for his openness, Gilliam was again labeled a troubled, volatile artist, and the years of rebuilding post-Munchausen were gone. Sadly, things have only gotten worse. His blatant attempt at a big studio commercial hit – the Matt Damon/ Heath Ledger starring The Brothers Grimm faced post-production fiddling from Miramax, and its steadfast studio head Harvey Weinstein. Considered a failure by many, the lack of respect for Tideland now acts like icing on a very sour and bitter cake.


Frankly, Gilliam deserves better. A lot better. As a filmmaker, he is responsible for several outstanding efforts, and his so-called flops fare much better in comparison to other infamous bad movies. Perhaps the venom of his reproach stems from such artistry. Indeed, the more ambitious they are, the harder they are humiliated. That seems to be a nice paraphrasing of the popular comeuppance maxim, and no one aims higher than Gilliam. All throughout Brazil and Baron Munchausen, his vision is unlimited, his flights of fancy so fantastic that you can’t begin to broach them in your own sense of scale. He is given over to excess, wallows in wild abandon, and never once apologizes for the lengths he goes to give himself over to the medium’s inherent art. Though some have dismissed his later works as weak in comparison to his past, a few have simply stated that Gilliam has always been an overrated rebel.


And he’s never been his own best friend, film wise. He turned down chances to director Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Enemy Mine and Forrest Gump. He’s been known to reject potential deals over the slimmest of aesthetic compromises. He is incredibly devoted to specific cast and crewmembers, and will abandon projects if they express reservations. And, let’s face it, Gilliam wants to make movies where the visual is more important than the pragmatic. That doesn’t seem unreasonable, especially in a day and age where CGI spectacle rules over the slimmest of storytelling skill. But Gilliam is an artist at heart, a man who made his living with his wits, his pens, and a piece of paper. To ask him to reign in that inner ideal is really requesting too much.


But the bigger issue is, why Gilliam? After all, Darren Aronofksy’s The Fountain won’t be clogging up the countdown of Top Ten moneymakers of 2006, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water was as incomplete an adult fairytale as one can find. The answer may be perspective. Tideland is Gilliam’s 11th film in three decades as a director. For Shyamalan, it’s seven in 14 years. Aronofsky, on the other hand, has only made three in eight. Call it the ‘old enough to know better’ or the ‘too young to completely discount’ school of thought, but Gilliam just isn’t cut the same cinematic slack as his creative youngers. Worse, aside from that misguided book project the Sixth Sense creator agreed to, neither newbie has the kind of ballyhooed baggage that Mr. Monty Python does. In essence, the great tragedy that has befallen this amazing moviemaker is that, somehow, his onscreen unpredictability has become his offscreen persona. His name should rightly be at the top of every list when studios consider filmmakers for outrageous, imaginative movies. Regrettably, it’s possible that Tideland will become his involuntary swan song. Disastrous, indeed. 


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Sunday, Dec 3, 2006


If it were possible for one filmmaker to represent both the best and the worst that film has to offer, if one director can be both an artist and a hack, brilliant and unbelievably bad, that man would be Bob Clark. For nearly four decades, this amiable auteur (or faux-teur, depending on your interpretation of his canon) has made both exemplary examples of cinematic excellent and movies so mind-bogglingly poor that Ed Wood and Dr. Uwe Boll should sue for bad film copyright infringement. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider, especially if you believe in the notion that talent trumps ancillary elements like acting, scripting and viability of material. Even in the course of his stumbles, Stephen Spielberg’s unmistakable style notoriously shows through. But in Clark’s case, his efforts are like motion picture multiple personality disorder. You never know which version of the man - talented or intolerable – you’re going to get.


So, the real issue becomes - is Clark a good filmmaker occasionally falling into an abyss of artistic atrocity, or a major league motion picture bungler who turns luckily lucid on occasion. It’s a comparison that’s fraught with several sizable creative caveats. You see, aside from his 1983 take of Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (reconfigured and retitled A Christmas Story), Clark’s recent legacy is overwhelmingly negative, from remarkably mediocre efforts like Turk 182, Now and Forever and It Runs in the Family to out and out outrages like Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and the squalid Baby Geniuses films. There’s also the belief of time tempering critical consideration – both pro and con. Clark’s Porky’s, seen by many as a likeable lowbrow coming of age comedy upon its initial release (1982) now gets mentioned along with other known examples of excrement like The Karate Dog. On the opposite end, a one off exploitation effort like She-Man (1967) has found a new life (and respect) thanks to grindhouse preservationists Something Weird Video.


Black Christmas is a perfect example of this two-pronged dilemma. In 1974, no one was quite ready for a holiday-themed slasher film where an unseen killer stalks and slays a group of sorority girls, all the while spewing insane, schizophrenic ramblings. Dark, sinister and incredibly disturbed, Clark’s Christmas remains the natural link between Michael and Roberta Findlay’s slice and dice sex films (highlighted by the fabulous Flesh trilogy) and John Carpenter’s genre rejuvenating Halloween. Yet thanks to a marketing campaign that made the movie look like a blasphemous spree-killing First Noel sleazefest (the narrative occurs over the holiday season, but that’s where the Yuletide significance ends) and the lack of significant star power (John Saxon and Margot Kidder where the film’s known names), Christmas came and went without much more consideration.


Now, three decades later, it is finally acknowledged as a pure post-modern masterpiece, a weird and wicked exercise in terror by a man who (believe it or not) made his initial cinematic splash in the horror genre. Unlike the hippies vs. zombies zip of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, or the Monkey’s Paw via Vietnam thrills of Deathdream, Clark’s clever Xmas creature feature fascinates the notoriously picky macabre fan because of everything it fails to do. After decades under the splatter spell of Freddy, Jason, Michael and others, it’s hard to imagine this sort of film without an identifiable killer at the center of the story. But Clark purposefully eschews showing us “Billy”, the babbling bad guy with no internal monologue whatsoever. Using an inventive, first-person POV whenever Bill is up to his life-taking tricks, the director keeps his villain invisible. All we see – or better yet, hear – are the horrific imaginary confrontations occurring in Billy’s head. Sometimes spoken out loud (in truly terrifying obscene phone calls to the sorority girls) and sometimes reserved for our killer’s demented thoughts, there is more inherent fear in this aspect of the film than in a dozen, derivative deaths.


But Clark doesn’t stop there. By providing no clear motive or connect to the victims, and never resolving the issue of identity, even at the end, Black Christmas balks at being an open and shut scare film. Instead, it uses the purposeful happenstance of Billy’s “arrival” at the sorority (it is just a random place to hide from a previous, perverted crime) and the indiscriminate way in which life is tripped up and taken to deliver unheard of suspense in a mid-70s movie. In many ways, Christmas stands right along side such well-known terror titles as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carpenter’s Hitchcock homage. Yet because of his incredibly uneven track record, Clark and Black Christmas can’t get the respect they deserve. Instead, a seemingly unending stream of subpar efforts blot out the occasional positives in the man’s varied oeuvre.


Indeed, just like a massive pendulum, Clark’s critical favor always seems to do a deserved about face, moving from ‘easily celebrated’ to ‘undeniably shitty’. Loose Cannons illustrates just how low his reputation can go. Much worse than the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton pariah Rhinestone (which could have never worked, considering the casting and the concept – singer must turn cabby into crooner) and easily usurping the intelligent infant idiocy of the Baby Geniuses films, Cannons is cause for concern from the minute the movie announces its premise. In this dim crime comedy, Hitler made a porn film and it has fallen into the hands of some underground nogoodnicks. Two detectives – Gene Hackman and Dan Ackryroyd - must buddy up and figure out the shady pseudo-pornographic doings before the 90 minute running time expires. Oh, and Danny boy suffers from a surreal psychological disorder which causes him to impersonate famous characters from cartoons and TV shows. 


Yes, it’s as baffling - and BAD - as it sounds, which is shocking when you consider that the screenplay was written by the Mathesons – famed father Richard (I am Legend) and his son Richard Christian. Obviously formulated as a starring vehicle for the rapidly receding power of the former SNLer, Cannons can’t decide if its plot, or its peculiar idea of comedy (Ackryroyd ad-libbing and riffing through a painful parade of “alternate” personalities) is its most important element. It’s literally a movie making up its cinematic rules as it goes along. Oscar winner Hackman seems flummoxed by everything around him, from Danny’s vile voices to Dom Deluise as the most sexually suspect flesh peddler in the entire adult industry. Even worse, the whole Fuhrer f*ck film angle is so shockingly out of character for the narrative – Cannon‘s constantly positions itself as a simple cop/buddy actioner – that its justifiably jarring, and along with the uncompromising amount of onscreen violence, Clark seems to forget the first rule of film – consistent tone is everything.


In fact, that appears to be the problem with many of the man’s movies. When a supposed family film about super smart bratlings hangs the majority of its so-called humor on the suggestion of severe child endangerment, when the schmaltz of a heavyweight Hollywood melodrama – in this case, the legendary Jack Lemmon weeper Tribute – gets lost in a journeymen like lack of staging and emotional substance, overall atmosphere begins messing with your movie. In something like Deathdream, or Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark finds ways to invest his fear with infrequent funny stuff, yet he never once undermines the general mood. But in uneven efforts like From the Hip or the Porky’s films, Clark’s concept of continuity appears to be set on ‘random’. He will introduce uncomfortable sexuality one moment, absolutely uncalled-for slapstick another.


Yet none of this addresses the question of why Clark’s career is so sporadic. It doesn’t explain Black Christmas (or his sensational Sherlock Holmes effort, Murder by Decree), or unravel the mysteries of Rhinestone‘s repugnance. It would be easy to say that Clark is a “personal” filmmaker and be done with it, suggesting that he succeeds when he’s personally interested in a project, and tapers off when his dedication wanes. Maybe there is something to the whole ‘source material’ argument. After all, how could a movie about Nazi nudie films possibly be good? Truth be told, when one pays close attention to Clark’s career, he really is just a lucky stiff whose many missteps fail to fully destroy his irregular reputation. Heck, even A Christmas Story was initially dismissed as a soft, silly seasonal effort and more or less failed at the box office. It took a few years away from the spotlight, and millions of reruns on Ted Turner’s cable networks, to reestablish the film’s family classic stance.


What’s clear from all this filmic archeology is that Bob Clark makes bad movies. His 40 years in the business are riddled with them. Fortunately, he’s also delivered a couple of major (and minor) masterworks. Instead of viewing him like a series of peaks and valleys, it’s best to imagine him as lying in an endless ravine of rot, floundering around like a wayward cinematic soul, only capable of occasionally seeing the light of legitimacy. Time will not rescue him. It is hard to imagine that, decades from now, people will be comparing Loose Cannons or Baby Geniuses to other important artifacts. In fact, it’s safe to say that Clark will be less heralded, and more hated, for his numerous works of noxious nausea. But oh those amazing mountains. It is clear that many a genre maven would gladly trade a gargantuan gorge of Porky’s just to view the summit of something like Black Christmas one more time. Perhaps this justifies Clark’s entertainment existence. Or maybe it makes it that much more confusing. One thing’s for sure – such a puzzling quandary will definitely be Bob Clark’s true lasting legacy. 


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Wednesday, Nov 15, 2006


They say time heals all wounds. They also argue that vengeance simmers like a stone in the soul. Combining to two should result in an exercise in forced forgiveness, a chance to let the calendar calm the pain and the distance of decades to erode away the desire for payback. But sometimes, the opposite happens, especially when the reason for the ache is ambiguous, and the manner in which it was administered unnecessary. There are those occasions where an individual’s own guilt is so strong, their life path so strewn with evil and amoral choices, that no amount of time could solve their rage. Instead, the need for retribution burns like a furnace, charring everything around it in a swath of sadness and madness.


This is what happens to two interconnected souls – unimportant businessman Dae-su Oh and wealthy playboy Woo-jin Lee. One has a misguided vendetta against the other. Said victim has a clear grudge against the man who he believes imprisoned him unnecessarily for 15 years. As complicated a game of cat and mouse as the cinema has ever seen, Chan-wook Park’s OldBoy stands as a monument to the Nu-Asia genre of film, and South Korea’s domination of the category in general. As part of his brilliant Vengeance Trilogy (including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) Park’s middle act marries Western ideas of violence as vindicator with Eastern elements of honor, status and cruelty. It is safe to say that both protagonist and antagonist here are equally guilty of transgressions against the other. What isn’t so clear is what payback will gain them, if anything.


This was part of Park’s design all along. In a stunning new three disc tin box collector’s set from Tartan Video, the process behind this provocative motion picture is laid bare, with the director divulging as many behind the scenes processes as possible to amplify the theme of his movie. In essence, OldBoy is part thriller, part primer on the horrors of hate. Park professes to purposefully making his characters blank and unemotional, channeling all their inner emotion into their meticulous plans for reprisal. In Dae-su Oh’s case (brilliantly essayed by actor Min-sik Choi) the years of isolation, brainwashing, hypnotism and torture have left him literally empty inside, except for a festering need to find out who kidnapped him after that late night of drinking, as well as why he’s been stashed away from the rest of the world for a decade and a half.


In the case of Woo-jin Lee, the stakes are slightly more obscure. A dandy on the outside, but unmentionably dark on the inside, actor Ji-tae Yu turns the enigmatic catalyst for all of Dae-su Oh’s problems into a formidable foe, a man building his entire life’s desire onto one easily collapsible plan of payback. In the film’s narrative Woo-jin’s house of corrupt cards can fall at any moment. Dae-su can give up his quest. The mobsters he’s working with can decide to double cross him. The use of unscientific notions like hypnosis could collide with happenstance, and truth could be unveiled without the commiserate comeuppance the man is looking for. From his palatial penthouse (purposefully designed by Park to reflect an individual making existence more complicated than it has to be), to the overly intricate plan that’s supposed to satisfy his hurt, Woo-jin is the worst kind of bad guy – focused, yet formless. With him, anything can happen…and almost always does. 


That is indeed the point of OldBoy. Park’s participation in a series of commentary tracks for this new release highlight how he carefully crafted his plot to leave questions in the audience’s mind about who’s the hero and who’s the heavy. Clearly, when considered side by side, Dae-su has the most understandable need for revenge. He’s been imprisoned, and as a result, lost to the world (including his family) for more than one complete generation. Though his life is loaded with misdeeds, he can’t fathom the crime he committed to require such an unexpected and uncompromising sentence. Still, Park wants to make sure that Dae-su is not considered completely innocent. As a matter of fact, the moments of animalistic violence used as steps toward the final denouement are meant to highlight the character’s clear proclivity toward such anti-social behavior.


It is these amazing moments, like the stunning hallway/hammer fight completed in one magnificent take (with a little technical tweaking here and there) that takes up most of the second DVD’s documentary run time. Park is a proficient director, completely capable of improvising on the spot and screwing with the cinematic paradigm to foster a furtherance of his occasionally lofty goals. All throughout the box set, we see moments where experiments are attempted, diversions are crafted, and input from the cast and crew are taken, each moving the film into differing dynamic directions. Similarly, Park professes to having a homage-heavy style, and its interesting to hear about how certain sequences – like the high school foot chase through time - were inspired by other directors (Brian DePalma) and their efforts (Dressed to Kill).


Even more intriguing, Park used varying subliminal visual cues throughout OldBoy, hoping to affect the perception of what is happening while dropping hints along the way of the connections between the characters. For example, Woo-jin Lee is represented by the color purple (which in many Asian cultures symbolized death), while Dae-su is surrounded by browns and greens (with their obvious overtures toward decay and rot). In some of the supplemental material, we see how the art direction was purposefully fashioned to exploit this ideal as well as set up secret warnings that only the most observant viewer would possible pick up. Other times, Park uses particular filmmaking styles – a documentary approach for the opening, an obvious artsy method during the incarceration and isolation material. In fact, it is safe to say that OldBoy represents a masterful competition between acuity vs. actuality. What we see on the screen can sometimes be much more important than what is actually happening between the characters. 


But because of the mannerisms he employs overall, like staging a car crash with the vehicles poised at Los Angeles and New York, respectively, part of OldBoy‘s brilliance is the way in which it gets to that final confrontation. Even more amazing, Park purposefully pulls back during the all important showdown, using unusual aesthetic choices to challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of what should occur. Fights flourish behind low, ambient music. Confrontations are lax, left unknown by choices in camera angle and framing. This is all part of the plan, a choice made by Park to prepare the audience for anything and everything. One of the more magical elements of OldBoy is that, even if you can predict everything that’s going to happen, Park is already several steps ahead, ready to thwart your most considered expectations with his mesmerizing tricks.


Oddly, the two individuals most responsible for the issues between the men - Woo-jin’s sister Lee Soo-ah and Dae-su’s gal pal, Mi-do – are more or less left on the outskirts of the story, their identity far more important than the part they play in each character’s current situation. Park argues that this was not a determined slight, one that should warrant criticism from women’s groups arguing about the downplaying of the female facets of the film. Instead, it’s all part of a bigger symbol being shuttled back and forth – the notion that anger and the need for revenge can blind people to the truth laying right before their eyes. Both actresses here are excellent, giving brave performances that require them to simulate some often scandalous situations. But neither comes across as completely compelling, either. OldBoy makes it clear that, in the realm of defending honor and seeking justice, men make all the decisions – for bad and for good.


That so much meaning can be buried inside what many might view as a Tarantino-esque excuse to overload the screen with brutality and blood argues for the artistic prowess of South Korean cinema, something that Tartan’s new box set sells very well. The third DVD in the set provides a production diary that gives us a day-by-day breakdown of OldBoy‘s filming, and it’s an eye-opener. Gone are the Hollywood mandates for superstar treatment and specialized crewmembers. Missing are the moments when personal and professional desires clash. In their place, we see plenty of hard work, long nights and intense collaborations.  Though presented without clear context or explanatory voiceover narration, this footage argues for an unseen maxim in the Asian movie business. Many fans feel that most films are fashioned out of luck, talent, and a sprinkling of magic. The truth is that experiences as exemplary as OldBoy are not the result of some wizard’s spell. They result from a coming together of creative minds all willing to work hard to forge something special.


In OldBoy‘s case, the finished product remains one of the new millennium’s best movies. And when you consider that Park produced companion pieces of equal power as both cinema and stylistic statements, his importance as a creative force cannot be undermined. One of the best things about the DVD format is that it allows for a window into a world – filmmaking – that many of us outside the business would never have an opportunity to experience. With this new three disc release (which includes an English translation of the Japanese Manga “comic” used as the foundation for the storyline), we witness the process that made this film so magnificent. While the final scene of the film may be open to interpretation, Park’s intensions are very clear. OldBoy is indeed a movie about the passage of time. But instead of healing all wounds, or lifting the stone from one’s soul, all that’s created is a path toward personal and metaphysical destruction. It’s as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.



Tartan Video‘s Three Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition version of OldBoy was released on 14 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here



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Wednesday, Oct 25, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Italian horror maestro Dario Argento made his name in two competing concepts of fear.


Dark and mysterious are the twin paths Italian director Dario Argento travels on. It’s a duality that has come to define, and in some cases, confine, one of macabre’s most meaningful artisans. Down one road lies the realm of the human soul, a place easily perverted by the notion of man as the most monstrous, destructive force in all the world. It is here where his giallo efforts exist, films based on the famous Italian pulp paperbacks known for their yellow – or ‘giallo’ – covers. From the animal trilogy The Bird with Crystal Plummage, Cat O’ Nine Tales and Four Flies on Flies on Grey Velvet to efforts like Tenebre, The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player, these reality-based thrillers have used the cat and mouse game of killer and cop to completely reinvent the notion of crime and punishment. His cinematic specifics have gone on to influence filmmakers the world over. 


Down the other trail, however, is a place even more enigmatic and disturbing. It is here where you will find the surreal supernatural efforts that have come to form the foundation of Argento’s sizable legend. While there are those who swear by his crackerjack murder mysteries, citing their power as both inventive narratives and examples of nuanced craftsmanship, it is his jarring juxtaposition of light and dark, real and unreal, good and evil that has had the true lasting effect for the filmmaker. Using the central theme of Thomas DeQuincey’s Three Mothers (Tears, Sighs, and Darkness) and mixing elements both actual and avant-garde, Argento strove to give horror a vibrant, visual representation. He didn’t just want knives and blood to be the basis for all fear. No, along this motion picture pathway, the recognizable and the dreamlike exist in a near incestual bond, unholy and slathered in sin.


Discounting his efforts for Italian television, it is amazing to note that the ratio between Argento’s tripwire whodunits and his paranormal pictures is almost three to one. He has only made three wholly supernatural cinematic statements – Suspira, Inferno and Phenomena (released in the US as Creepers) while the rest of this oeuvre is overwhelmed with death, dismemberment and detectives. When fans and scholars discuss his films, they too diverge along predisposed conduits, some certain that its his giallos that will live on long after his spook shows have faded, while others champion the challenges raised by the auteur’s otherworldly epics. To the fans of films like Inferno or Phenomena, Argento represents a real leap in style incorporating substance. He manages to make the macabre both beautiful and baneful, luring in audiences with his gorgeous visuals while simultaneously scaring them to their very core. It also helps that, with only three real examples to go on, the horror hits far outweigh the murder mystery missteps.


Indeed, when viewed linearly, Argento has gone from exciting to erratic when it comes to his signature serial killer sagas. Recent efforts like The Card Player and Sleepless have been considered inconsistent among critics and fans alike, and many feel the need to go back as far as Tenebre to find a pure examples of his hyperstylized human horror show. This, unfortunately, leaves out one of the director’s best efforts – 1987’s Opera. Using the majesty of the classical music format as an amazing backdrop for his slasher like leanings, this story of a cursed production, and the murderer enforcing the fear, is seen by many as Argento’s last legitimate stab at giallo excellence. Everything that’s come since – his American thriller Trauma, his Black Cat part of the Poe piece Two Evil Eyes, even the sensationally sick and somewhat sloppy Stendhal Syndrome – is viewed as lesser examples of his one-time artistic acumen.


But perhaps the most telling argument against his later works is the abject brilliance of the movies he made in the past. It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it’s a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Many artists faced with this dilemma simply give up, or revisit the circuit of golden oldies, recycling their greatest successes until there is no longer a paying audience. Reinvention, sometimes viewed as the key to continued longevity, can help, unless your experimentation is so wild and uncharacteristic that you lose the core audience who followed you up until this point.


Such was the case with Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the unintentional Animal Trilogy. With achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento’s use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, leaving the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.


As usual, it was a dream—about a medium reading the mind of a psychopath—that brought about the idea for another terror tale. But this would be a crime story like none other before or after, a gruesome saga of a disturbed mind on a murderous spree to cover up the past. The screen would be filled with blood, deep red rivers of gore. Style would be heightened and the experimentation with angles, techniques, color, and sound would be as important as the emphasis on story and acting. This would be the birth of a new style of giallo, one filled with artistic as well as criminal elements. And it would mean the reawakening of Argento, not just as a commercial director, but as an important cinematic visionary. In reality, the film did indeed mark a turning point for the director. It bridged the gap between previous real world based movies and began the ascent into the realm of the fantastic and the frantic. Profondo Rosso, otherwise known as Deep Red, would mark the true origins of his style and the sense of horror that would herald and haunt Argento the rest of his career.


Frankly, there is no better Italian thriller, giallo, detective, horror, or slasher style film than Deep Red. It resonates with all the visual excesses and subliminal undercurrents that Argento would later explore to their maximum capacity. It is a tour de force of camera, composition, and film craft skills. It is such a benchmark of smart, passionate film construction that it surpasses expectations and thwarts potential imitations. In his rethinking of the psycho killer genre, he focuses less on the slayer and more on the climate of fear. He wants the threat to come from the unknown, not some clear-cut origin. Because Argento is one of only a handful of horror directors who appreciates and uses the apprehension of the unfamiliar to provide mood for his movies and motivation for audience dread, his films are viewed as disturbing and uncomfortable. But this does not mean they are unsuccessful. Indeed, Deep Red is a terrific thriller, and finally confirmed Argento’s genius to those outside the foreign film market.


Success drove the director to push even further. He had even greater ambitions. Since he first read about them in a collection of essays entitled Suspiria De Profundis, Dario Argento had been fascinated with the Three Mothers, the imaginary rulers over the dominion of pain and suffering. Conceived as a complement to the entire Graces/Furies/Muses notion of mystical, powerful women, their origins do not derive from some ancient teachings or cultural folklore, but from the hallucinatory mind of an opium addict. Seeking inspiration and a chance to move away from the genre that made him a superstar, Argento took the tale of the Maters Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum, and Lachrymarum as the logical components to a trilogy. Each film would deal with a different Sorrow. Each would focus on a different location. Inferno, Argento’s equally artistic and brilliantly confusing 1980 follow-up to Suspiria, focused on Death herself, the Mother of Darkness. But with the success and acceptance of his experimentation within the conventional mystery drama of Deep Red, Argento wanted to branch out and tackle true supernatural horror. Suspiria is that startling starting point.

Understand this is Dario Argento’s version of the supernatural we are discussing, one rooted deep in European manners and superstition. In Argento’s world, ghosts do not kill people, knives do. As he views the paranormal, it manifests itself in everyday, mundane brutality. Possession may lead to illness, or even death, but more times than not a victim will be cut, or hung, as a means of quenching paranormal bloodlust. Suspiria is a horror film unlike any other in that it ventures far away from the standard “old dark house” or “living creature” notions of terror to invent a world where setting, style, and sound are more frightening than the bloody victim on the floor. In Dario’s realm, death is a release, an explosion of bound tension and a surrender of will. His work is the natural link between classical, gothic horror and the existential terror of post-modern cinema. Argento is truly one of Italy’s best, most misunderstood, and underappreciated directors. His influence on American horror is evident. Just look at any film by John Carpenter, for example, and you will see the trademark frequencies found in Argento’s cinematic stockpile.


It’s more than his avant-garde style that confuses and angers people. He is not willing to play fair and is more interested in how a film makes you feel than how it resolves its plotline. Something can be beautiful, and confusing as hell, but as long as you see the grace in its presentation, the meaning is unimportant. Argento confounds the fan looking for cold-blooded killing (though he does provide many sequences of graphic mutilation) or expecting the conventions of a standard horror ideal. Suspiria is the best example of this conundrum. While it is a film about witches, we hardly see any of their activities or rituals until the end. While it is a film about the power of black magic, the death is all common and realistic (except for a demonically inspired animal attack). Indeed, Suspiria is its own self-contained universe, a place where palatial settings mask hordes of meat-rotting maggots, or beautiful stained glass becomes a deadly pointed weapon of destruction. Viewed as a trip in to Argento’s private realm, it is easy to see why many call it a masterpiece. Suspiria takes convention and tosses it into a room filled with barbed wire fencing, letting it struggle to survive the oncoming visual and aural onslaught.


With this one two punch, Argento cemented his moviemaking mythos, and forged the dueling avenues that his erratic career has had to maneuver. Every proceeding film now had a major tour de force benchmark to be held up against. Whenever he tried another crime thriller, Deep Red became the critical focus of the comments. If he branched back out again into pure horror, the hallucinatory genius of Suspiria cast a shadow over the entire enterprise. Interesting enough, said film would also follow any giallo effort, arguing that Argento should stop wasting his time with such procedural parlor tricks and get back to finalizing the Mothers Trilogy (fans will be happy to know that he has plans to make the third and final film, hopefully for a 2007 release). Like the burden that any artist carries when they are compared with their past, Italy’s premiere fright master has been both lauded and lamented for his choices, unable to escape the opinions of fans, and fellow filmmakers, when it comes to his often confusing career moves


So now that our corridors have names, now that Via Suspiria and Via Profundo Rosso are labeled and legitimized by the numerous viewers who’ve traveled down their complicated and occasionally confusing logistics, it is safe to say that Dario Argento remains a true motion picture enigma. He is one of the few remaining filmmakers from decades gone by that can still rely on their reputation to sell a story. He is one of the few directors who still gets fans in a frenzy when a new project is announced, providing them with instant recall of journeys both grand and grating on the twin roads of his aesthetic’s twofold directions. Though his track record has been anything but flawless, he does have more classic cobblestones and masterpiece mortar than many creators can claim in several lifetimes.


Perhaps this is why we are willing to accept his bifurcated approach to the art of cinema and leave it at that. Though he hasn’t always definitively delivered, he’s proof that the voyage is sometimes as important, and more interesting, than the final destination. It’s what makes Argento stand out in an arena filled with pure motion picture pretenders. It’s what keeps him vital, and viable, in the ever changing world of fear. And with two distinct ways in which to achieve his ends, it’s clear why he remains so important. While said dualism may be disturbing to those looking to easily classify their creative icons, it sets Argento apart from his Italian brethren. It’s what makes him the true maestro he has managed to become today.


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Sunday, Oct 22, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Tobe Hooper, one of post-modern horror’s most promising filmmakers, became a monster movie pariah.


How did it happen? Where did he go wrong? In a perfect world, Tobe Hooper wouldn’t be a fright film pariah. He’d be considering his next creative decision, mulling over dozens of derivative Hollywood scripts in a coy cat and mouse game that he, naturally would end up winning. He would have taken the success of his amazing 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and parlayed it into a non-stop stream of genre defining and redefining efforts. There’d be no question about who directed Poltergeist (screw a certain Steven S.), and past films like The Funhouse and Eaten Alive would be seen as minor missteps instead of the last likeable efforts from one of the medium’s most misbegotten masters. Sadly, this is not a perfect world, and as anyone who’s tried to sit through many of Hooper’s more recent efforts, he is definitely not a perfect filmmaker.


So how did it happen, actually? Where indeed did Tobe Hooper go wrong? There are some rather ardent supporters who still believe in his ability to scare people, holding out hope that he’ll eventually right his derailed directorial canon. They will overlook outright junk like Spontaneous Combustion, Night Terrors, Crocodile, The Mangler, and his most recent reject, Mortuary and still claim that prior to becoming a Hollywood hack for hire, Hooper was still a vital filmmaker. They may have a point. Looking over the films he’s made in the 12 years between the two signature Saw films argues for an artist still trying to be viable in a filmic category that was slowly swallowing its own soul. As the Devil gave way to the slasher, Hooper helmed unique and uncompromising movies that said more about who he was as an idealistic individual than the current state of macabre.


No one could have predicted that a little slapdash exploitation film made to grind some bucks out of the still viable drive-in demographic, based loosely on the life of Wisconsin’s notorious Ed Gein mythos, would end up being one of terror’s tent pole experiences. Through a combination of inspiration, invention and outright karmic happenstance, what could have been a minor monster movie became an unsettling work of art. Take away all of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s violence and brutality – the final shot of Leatherface dancing in the rising sun of a new day is one of the most compelling images ever captured on celluloid. It made Hooper an instant icon, and secured his place as one of the pioneers of terror. It also opened doors for the former college professor and documentary cameraman that perhaps he shouldn’t have passed through.


There were also signs early on that all was not well in Hooperville. Right after his killer alligator epic Eaten Alive, the filmmaker was hired to helm The Dark, an oddball extraterrestrial invasion film that looked and felt like an attempt to jump on the about to be hot Alien bandwagon. At some point in the production, Hooper went head to head with the producers, and was fired. John Cardos was brought in to finish the project. It wouldn’t be the last time that Hooper was removed from a movie. Aside from the rumors surrounding Poltergeist, he quit the British snake thriller Venom, sighting “creative differences” with the main moneymen. Among the many reasons a filmmaker can fall in the tripwire town of Tinsel, failing at the box office is creative crime number one. But standing right besides said fiscal flopping is the “difficult reputation”. Whether or not his reasons for rejection were viable, Hooper had been labeled. And after his next three films, he’d more or less cemented his professional unacceptability.


After that notorious suburban spook show hit, Hooper was handed a number of possible projects. Unfortunately, he fell in with the infamous meddlers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan of Canon Films. While they promised financial support, they delivered no guarantees when it came to final cut, or eventual distribution. Three years came and went before Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires arrived in theaters, minus 15 of its original 116 minute running time, and with the lamentable title change to Lifeforce. More sci-fi than scary, and missing much of its internal logic thanks to the editing, the film was viewed as a failure by even the most ardent Chainsaw supporter. Even those who came to appreciate the movie in later years were mainly responding to the recovered “director’s cut”. It was a stunning blow for a man that, up until this UK jive, was considered a fabulous fright master.


His next step didn’t endear himself to anyone. Hooper had always loved 1953’s Invaders from Mars, and wanted to modernize the cheesy matinee classic. Unfortunately, while the situation looked new, the effects were as retro as a trip back to the Eisenhower era. The decision to maintain the look and limits of the old b-movie style of monster made this intended update more funny than fresh, and fans just didn’t get the rationale behind revisiting what appeared to be a standard shoddy creature feature from the past. Lost for a novel next step, Hooper appeared to become desperate. His next move would baffle even his heretofore strongest followers.


Depending on who you listen to, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 is either a wonderful cinematic satire, on par with the scathing social commentary found in George Romero’s work or the last bullet in the creative gun that helped Hooper commit career suicide. There’s no meaningful middle ground on the project – fright film mavens either love it or LOATHE it. Purposefully the polar opposite of everything he did in the 1974 original (tense atmosphere, documentary stylizing, maintenance of an air of authenticity) this full blown farce had our antihero Leatherface as a hyped up horndog. It presented the previous sinister Cook as a non-stop one liner dropping Bleak chorus. It even introduced a new clan member into the mix, the metal plate sporting Chop Top, whose sole purpose seemed to be egging on his power tool wielding brother while dropping deranged pop culture references.


Time has definitely treated this instantly dismissed title rather well. Even disparate elements like Dennis Hopper’s Method acting madness, or the entire Vietnam-based abandoned amusement park now seem like part of one artistic madman’s personal cinematic purgative. A great deal of the time, Chain Saw 2 plays like Hooper’s final statement on the entire Massacre phenomenon. He kids himself, and his fans, even adding a scene where Drive-In critic Joe Bob Briggs comments on the manner in which Leatherface slaughters some random babes. Golan and Globus had wanted another dark, disgusting exercise in dread. What they got was an aggressive, Airplane! like lampoon where the only thing taken seriously was Tom Savini’s autopsy-quality F/X.


It was apparently the straw that finally broke the fear fans’ benevolent back. The original movie is considered by most to be one of the best ever made. The revamp came and went without anyone much mentioning it afterward. Canon closed shop, leaving Hooper to wander through a few tame television efforts before trying his hand again at the big screen. Spontaneous Combustion was certifiable proof that his outright genre rejection shown in Chain Saw 2 was not just some one-time Hooper experiment. A stupid story involving nuclear weapons, genetic defects, and one man’s ability to immolate people made absolutely no sense when it finally found its direct to video home, and the disdain and contempt for the audience was obvious. Hooper no longer wanted to connect with viewers. He was merely going to give them what he saw fit. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take his fright.


It has been all downhill from there. When the best thing you can say about a recent Hooper effort is that it had some pretty good gore effects (the only interesting element in his otherwise pointless Toolbox Murders remake), you know you’re dredging the bottom of the boo barrel. Having long since given up on this journeyman turned joke, most fans find his current canon to be as laughable as it is lamentable. His production credit on the two new Chainsaw updates also causes the faithful to cringe, again considering the status the first film has in the annals of the genre. And yet, none of this really explains why he’s now such a non-entity. Scholars could compile as much research as possible and still not be able to figure out how or why Hooper finally fell.


It’s possible that, like Chain Saw 2, or Eaten Alive, the movies that many consider to be horrid examples of Hooper’s oeuvre will find solid support upon future reevaluation. After all, his masterpiece was considered quite the abomination at the time of its release. It is conceivable that something like Night Terrors will be hailed as a classic, or Invaders from Mars seen as something of a sci-fi highlight decades from now. His career could also be a clear case of the almost unavoidable horror one hit wonder paradigm. Maybe Hooper only had one good movie in him, and the original Black and Decker epic was it. It could also be that Hooper was stereotyped by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Perhaps he saw himself as a far more varied filmmaker, capable of dabbling in any and all cinematic categories. Unlike Sam Raimi who found a way out, Hooper got stuck being a terror titan – and it effected everything he did thereafter.


Of course, one can’t discount the Poltergeist factor. The 1982 film was such a huge hit that individuals on both sides of the situation obviously understood the power of being linked to such a box office behemoth. The power play against Hooper – the persistent if still unproven rumors that, once again, he had been replaced and that the end result was more a Spielberg style scare film – hounds him to this very day. It leaves people with questions, allowing them to think that there is more truth than professional sour grapes behind the undying creative control gossip. And maybe it became too much. Maybe playing the Hollywood game and getting your otherwise appreciated name dragged through the meaningless motion picture mud has scarred Hooper forever.


It sure does appear that, after the Poltergeist poisoning and his inability thereafter to reproduce it’s success, Hooper simply gave up. Nothing post-Chain Saw 2 has had the pure horror chutzpah of the movies he made in the ‘70s. Even his TV miniseries version of Salem’s Lot and the carnival as killing floor fiendishness of The Funhouse can’t find a comparative contemporary equivalent. It’s as if this director just stopped trying once 1986 ended, and the last 20 years have been an endless ramble toward complete cinematic insignificance. It’s already working. Many younger film fans think the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a meek, mild effort when compared to Marcus Nispel’s balls to the wall reimagining, That a true horror milestone can be made unimportant reflects very poorly on the man who made it. If he’s not careful, Tobe Hooper may discover that it’s too late to save his already addled legacy. And that’s more terrifying than anything he’s done in decades. 


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