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It’s sad but true – mainstream movie critics hate horror. Not in the conventional way, mind you. No, the standard print or online journalist hates motion picture macabre in a manner that seems inherent to its very makeup. It’s like how little kids hate vegetables or teenagers hate authority. Put something scary out into the marketplace and watch the negative notices pile up. Don’t believe it? Well, let’s look at the stats, shall we. Picking the major theatrical releases of 2006, and finding the ones that specifically deal with standard genre themes, the results are absolutely shocking. There is a definite anti-terror sentiment. Even recent outings by James Wan (Saw) and Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes 2) remain with low double digital decisions on the webs’ review database, Rotten Tomatoes.com.

It’s not just the standard fright flicks either. Big budget Hollywood horror, anchored by box office favorites like Jim Carrey (The Number 23), Sandra Bullock (Premonition) and two time Oscar winner Hillary Swank (the soon to be released The Reaping) are being purposefully pigeon-holed as garbage by a journalistic paradigm that dismisses supernatural and paranormal elements as third class cinematic citizens – and it’s done automatically and en masse. Let’s go back to the beginning of 2006, shall we, and revisit the release of Eli Roth’s drop dead brilliant Hostel. Destined to be the Halloween of its generation, a movie as influential within the genre as it will be among the fanbase, the 93 writers who bothered to see the film ardently dismissed it (it earned a 59% approval rating). While certain caveats must be considered when dealing with such a gratuitously gory film, to read the blurbs posted, Roth committed some manner of horror movie hate crime.

It’s a revulsion that permeates almost all movie criticism. Though comic book movies and action films must endure the same perplexing prejudice, it seems that anything given over to terror just can’t catch a break. And if you combine the two – look out! Take Silent Hill. A video game adaptation (strike one) helmed by a style oriented foreign filmmaker (strike two) that dealt with themes and imagery revolving around death, religion, and surrealistic shocks (strike three), Christophe Gans’ groundbreaking masterpiece failed to fire up the Fourth Estate. Instead, they saddled the film with one of its lowest overall ratings – 27% - and argued that the visual brilliance on display was not enough to overcome the narrative’s intrinsic shortcomings. And almost all pointed out its PS2 platform origins.

It’s the same situation that happened when the first Hills Have Eyes remake hit theater screens. Granted, there is no love lost between franchise founder Wes Craven and those who write about film for a living. Their adore/deplore battle has extended as far back as the director’s first fright landmark, the nauseating and nasty Last House on the Left. Perhaps it’s his lofty ambitions for what are essentially exploitation flicks (he tends to defend his ideas by providing sound scholarly support for same), or the ruthlessness in their execution, but the two have been at loggerheads for decades. When a Hills revamp was announced, most applauded the decision, especially since those old enough to remember the original didn’t hold it in high regard. The second supposed stroke of genre genius came when director Alexandre Aja was chosen to steer the scarefest. His Haute Tension was a tasty slasher throwback, and all believed he could resurrect this sleazoid tale of a family vacation gone cannibal. Finally, we were dealing with a remake here – a somewhat proven entity seeming capable of providing the foundation for some funky fear factors.

With more than 50% of the press hating it, the Hills revamp turned out to be a major mistake. Not to fans, mind you. They loved the fact that Aja gave his flesh eating fiends a no nukes nastiness that clarified their repugnant ravenousness. But for those so-called sophisticates who bring their anti-dread baggage with them whenever they opine, Hills was a geek show glammed up with recognizable actors and overdone special effects. In fact, if one were to peruse every terror title released, over the last couple of years, they would see a similar set of descriptions used to undermine the genre’s very elements. “Too gory”, some will say, or “Not enough character development”, others will state. “Over the top” or “extreme” become the mantras for demeaning the decision to go for the throat, while “far too subtle” and “somber” illustrate when a critic feels the movie is making its case with mood and atmosphere alone.

It’s an unusual situation, one that becomes even more striking when you compare it to other cinematic categories. Comedies do get busted for lacking laughs, while dramas are frequently faulted for offering melodrama instead of reality, ennui instead of emotional impact. Action films can feel fake and underdeveloped, while family films are torn apart for failing to deliver the kind of whimsical delights their demographic demands. But in horror’s case, the cuts seem particularly cruel. If a slasher film is only trying to kill off one dimensional teens in as many imaginative ways as possible, doesn’t it live up to its expectations? If a monster movie delivers a beast that simultaneously scares and intrigues you, doesn’t that have some manner of viable value? Not every movie can be The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and yet you can find writers who’ve readily dismissed each and every one of these examples. So the current trend against the genre is not a new one – but the bias has become far more prevalent of late.

In fact, nowhere was the critic’s bile more inexplicable than in regards to the works of Glen Morgan. With only two major motion pictures under his belt (2003’s Willard and 2006’s Black Christmas) this former X-Files anchor has had the unfortunate luck of helming two major mainstream flops. Willard actually got some good notices, even though it failed to make a dent in the all important fiscal aspects of the industry. But last year’s remake of the Bob Clark classic was literally annihilated. It sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been taken to task for everything - from being unlike the original (unfair) to lacking depth and complexity (again, untrue). Nothing more than a slasher redux with an eye for detail and demented killer backstory, Morgan crafted a clever complement to Clark’s genre-defining shocker. And still, you could feel the verbal tar and feathering commencing all throughout the analytical flogging.

Yet what’s even more interesting about the entire situation is the number of critics who actually review these kinds of films. A recent release like Norbit can offer 111 different reviews, while a major motion picture like The Departed can see upwards of 200. But Black Christmas was discussed by only 47 critics. Hostel found 94 souls brave enough to take on its tawdry delights, while Silent Hill could only manage 78. Of course, this counts those who’ve waiting until DVD to discuss the film, so perhaps a better gauge of how much coverage the horror genre gets can be seen with the previously mentioned (and barely two weeks old) James Wan (Dead Silence) and Hills Have Eyes (the Part 2 sequel) titles. The 22% score for Silence comes from a mere 37 writers, while Eyes 2 gains it 13% from only 31. The importance of noting this is two-fold. First, it argues that only a small minority of the massive print and online community are even considering these films. If a potential pool of, say, 120 exists, only 25% are even bothering to address the release.

But it’s the second factor that’s even more disconcerting. It’s clear that, as a genre, horror is mired in a state of callous disregard. Critics who can’t get into free advance screenings obviously fail to follow up and pay to see the film, nor do they try and broaden their perspective on the artform by taking in such titles in their spare time. While they see dozens of dramas and several comedies per year, a horror film may only cross their path once or twice (and, again, if they don’t get to see it beforehand…), and without the effort to see it and properly contextualize it, there is no room for solid scholarship. A major monster effort like Slither can be easily stereotyped as a Troma film, creating a cynical shortcut to actually reviewing what’s on the screen. Similarly, blood and violence are so tied up in the continued juvenilization of our society that many critics can’t see past the PC pronouncements to respect gore or gratuity for its viable visceral power.

In essence, as a ‘minority’ within the ‘majority’ of mainstream moviemaking, horror continues to suffer from a sort of reactionary racism. This isn’t arguing that every macabre movie made is worthy of praise (just take a look at Turistas, or the recent AfterDark Horrorfest for proof), but, equally, not everyone is worthy of condemnation. Sadly, this is the way it’s always been, and as most fright fans fear, it will remain this way for decades to come. If you ever wondered why, years later, a forgotten horror film is suddenly embraced as a forgotten classic, part of the answer lies herein. The knee-jerk reaction by the critical community to the very idea of a scary movie exposes an undercurrent of intolerance that is both unreasonable and unprofessional. All film should be judged on what it has to offer, not on the bias of those providing opinions. It’s time to review what’s on the screen, not what is in the minds of those who propose to know better. Apparently, they don’t.

Nominees, Best Actor: 2006
Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat
Matt Damon for The Departed
Leonardo DiCaprio for The Departed *
Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson
Ray Winstone for The Proposition

Other notable performances:
Edward Norton for Down in the Valley, The Illusionist, and The Painted Veil
Patrick Wilson for Little Children

The Best Actor races of awards seasons past have been really heating up in the past few years. 2006 is turning out to be more of a lean race for the men, where it’s really anyone’s guess as to who will take home the Oscar at the end of all of the pre-awards lunacy, but the same few names keep popping up as being “in the running”.

In his last two outings with Martin Scorsese, Dicaprio was either not the focus of the attention (he was far out-classed by Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; wearing a horrible fright wig and saddled with the wooden Cameron Diaz as a co-star), or he was passably functional but not “classic Scorsese” great (as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, he had some terrific moments, but for my money was miscast). Third times a charm, it seems: Leo has finally given us a “classic Scorsese” performance with The Departed. Filled with rage, youthful macho abandon, and the expertly shaded heroics of Scorsese’s pack of anti-heroes of past awards seasons his character really stacks up favorable next to some of Robert DeNiro’s early work with Scorsese (the rawness in Mean Streets for some reason comes to my mind). DiCaprio has finally delivered fully on the promise everyone has been talking about for years now. We get it; you’re a very serious actor, Leonardo.

Co-star Matt Damon would be an equally compelling choice as actor of the year for his stellar, similarly surprising turn in Scorsese’s film; it seems as though Damon just gets better and better with age. In a cast that is filled with knockout turns, Damon fits perfectly. With strong performances in diverse lead and supporting roles (from tortured gay misfit in The Talented Mr. Ripley to the sublime action of the Bourne films franchise) for more than ten years now, Damon’s collaboration with Scorsese makes perfect sense. It will be very exciting to see his next move after the third Bourne installment this year.

While comedy doesn’t really play well with most film critics organizations that dole out awards (generally to the most austere dramatic performances), Sacha Baron Cohen’s skilled portrayal of a hapless, hysterical Kazakhstan-born reporter is not only one of the best comedic performances of this year, but of any in recent memory. Tackling the outrageous physical demands of the part without any vanity, Cohen has seen his name popping up on year-end “best actor” lists all over the country. He shared the Los Angeles Film Critics award for Best Actor this year with Forest Whitaker’s ferocious characterization of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (talk about an odd couple), and snagged a Golden Globe nod the same week. His is a performance so buzzed about, that at this point he might be considered a favorite for an Oscar nomination, provided of course, they can look past the whole testicles-in-the-face scene (or the anti-Semitism, or the sexism, or the… well you get the point).

Two men flying under the radar of everyone this year, are Ryan Gosling for his searing, natural work in the indie drug-addiction drama Half Nelson and Ray Winstone as a English lawman in lawless Colonial Australia in Nick Cave’s revisionist western The Proposition. Both turned in career-best work that is shamefully going unnoticed by the predictable critic’s groups, mainly because everyone is so obsessed with Whitaker’s role in a shamefully by-the-numbers biography film. I guess original characters aren’t interesting to watch anymore?


Nominees, Best Actress: 2006
Penelope Cruz for Volver
Laura Dern for Inland Empire *
Kirsten Dunst for Marie Antionette
Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls
Kate Winslet Little Children

Other notable performances:
Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal
Cate Blanchett for Little Fish
Fernanda Montenegro for House of Sand

In the category of Best Actress this year, the only name anyone seems to be able to say is: Helen Mirren. Mirren has been fantastic consistently for so long that her sweep of critic’s prizes (and it’s very likely she will take the Oscar too) doesn’t seem particularly gratuitous, even though it sort of is. She is good in The Queen as Elizabeth, but she has been so much better elsewhere that it seems a little insulting that this sort of stock (at times boring) impersonation is being heralded as her career-best when there are so many other more interesting options in this race. Like in the case of Best Actor and Actress winners of the past (and the list is long), playing a real-life character will likely be Mirren’s ticket to a clean sweep of acting prizes this year.

Nothing any other artist, male or female, will pull off this year will top the experimental Laura Dern/David Lynch alliance in Inland Empire. It’s the kind of performance that will be talked about for years to come and will be properly understood sometime in the future, too late. Dern has been kicking ass and taking names since 1985 (with the underrated teen drama Smooth Talk, which was immediately followed by her first Lynch outing, 1986’s Blue Velvet) and this is he best work to date. As she’s gotten older, her acting choices have become some of the most interesting of any woman in the industry: another Lynch turn in 1990 with Wild at Heart, her Oscar-nominated Rambling Rose, the razor sharp Citizen Ruth, and the searing relationship drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore offer a mere sampling of her film work; while her small screen work has been equally effective (just check out 1998’s The Baby Dance, in which she goes toe to toe with the formidable Stockard Channing, if you don’t believe me). Lynch’s film could very well turn out to be one of the worst-reviewed of the year, but even the critics who hate the film couldn’t help singling out the brave performance of Dern.

Another revelation this year is Penelope Cruz, working again with director Pedro Almodovar on Volver (the two last worked together in 1999 for All About My Mother, in which Cruz played a pregnant nun with AIDS). It’s probably a sound bet for any actress to take even the smallest part with Almodovar, who is so famous for drawing out unique, memorable women but never has such a familiar actress caught me this off-guard: I am not at all a fan of Cruz’s technique, but found her utterly compelling here. When she is performing in English, I always feel like something is missing or something isn’t really connecting properly. In her native Spanish, she comes across deadly sexy, fiercely intelligent and totally committed to her material; it’s like we are watching a completely transformed woman. Though she continues to churn out misfire after misfire in the US (my apologies if anyone was really into her “performance” in Sahara), Almodovar continues to see something exceptional in Cruz, which is lucky for fans of great female acting everywhere in the world.

Left out of every major critical outing this year (unjustly) is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette, but specifically the deviously girlish performance of Kirsten Dunst, who like Cruz, sometimes has trouble connecting to characters that are perhaps outside of her range or experience. As the young queen, Dunst was able to register on screen like she never had before: she was appropriately beguiling, and eventually commandingly tragic. It’s another case of an actress really hitting her artistic stride alongside a favorite director (2000’s The Virgin Suicides was their first successful match up), which looks to be the most surefire way to achieve a modicum of artistic merit this year.

Little Children was one of the best films of the year that, unfortunately, no one saw. Kate Winslet can apparently not give a bad performance, audience or not: her turn as a bourgeois suburbanite mother whose life is uproariously stirred up by a neighbor is one of the most introspective and well-thought out pieces of acting she has done to date (think American Beauty meets Madame Bovary, and you’ll get the idea of where she is coming from). Considering the career that Winslet has nurtured over the years, it’s a bold statement to call this her best work, but it is clear that she wholly identifies with the material and connects with it on a very important level, being a young mother herself in real life. Playing a woman who isn’t concerned with appearances at all, and who also might not be a great mother, Winslet is able to speak volumes with the most seemingly insignificant gestures and looks; but also with a singular lack of personal vanity. In Little Children Winslet’s beauty is presented as many things other than just physical: it’s empowering, tragic, and even stoic.

And lastly, we have the biggest, boldest hype of the year: Jennifer Hudson. She of the mega-buildup, she of American Idol fame has had a maddening amount of buzz being spilled her way for her tour-de-force debut performance as the now-mythical Broadway character Effie White in Bill Condon’s adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls. It is the only time in recent memory I can confidently say that the performance lives up to the hoopla: Hudson is flat-out astonishing. At the end of her huge diva number that closes the first act, prepare to be amazed at her skillful combination of real, gritty emotion (that isn’t glam in the least), theatricality, and vocal prowess. The audience I saw this scene with, outside of Detroit, erupted in thunderous applause and cheers in the middle of the film, after this scene (something I have not seen with any other performance, in any other film).  Hudson is charming, and it is refreshing to see a real woman like her run away with show. She may not be as skinny as co-star Beyonce Knowles or as popular, but she is way, way cooler.

Hudson’s off-screen persona compliments her character’s transition from nothing to star to has-been and back again perfectly and naturally. The only issue I have with her performance is that she is being promoted (and winning) supporting actress honors all over the place, when really she is the lead of the film: she has more screen time than her co-stars and is so expressive that when she is not onscreen, you are still thinking about her and hoping she will be back soon. Like her character in the film, she is being screwed out of what is rightfully hers just so Knowles, who is more of a supporting character in the story than Hudson, can be primed to take a spot in the lead actress categories. At least losing gracefully this time will likely result in an Hudson getting Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, rather than an insult from Simon Cowell. Thanks, J.Hud for taking one for the team, a classy, winning move indeed.

Nominees, Best Supporting Actor: 2006
Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children*
Garrison Keillor for A Prairie Home Companion
Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls
Jack Nicholson for The Departed
Mark Wahlberg for The Departed

Other notable performances:
Danny Huston for The Proposition
Paul Dano for Little Miss Sunshine
Brad Pitt for Babel

With ease, I would give Supporting Actor of the year honors to the comeback of the year: Jackie Earle Haley for his creepy, dryly funny characterization of a sex offender living in the most judgmental of all suburban enclaves in Little Children. Most film lovers will remember the former child actor from his work in the 1970s in popular films like The Bad News Bears, Breaking Away or perhaps as the unstable, feminine child star that causes complete, unhinged pandemonium at the end of The Day of the Locust (a truly delirious, weird performance). No matter what sort of disturbing or popular work he’s done in the past, Haley’s current work as a man struggling to keep his urges in check while living with his understanding mother is the most solid, original supporting turn this year.

Speaking of comebacks, where in the hell has Eddie Murphy been hiding? His performance as the James Brown-esque singer in Dreamgirls is a stunning, virtuoso turn that showcases Murphy’s versatility in a fresh new way. While the performance has a few comedic elements to it, Murphy highlights the more dramatic moments of James Thunder Early in addition to his electric musical numbers. It’s a dynamic, show-stopping performance filled with energy, wit and pathos that no one has been able to ever capture from Murphy until now. It’s a revelatory, surprising take on a man who could have descended very easily into parody (especially given the entire film was basically filled with stunt casting). Hopefully this serious attention will translate into Murphy making better movies in the future.

The men of The Departed should maybe have their own special award this year. Martin Scorsese brings the best out of everyone he casts: veteran Jack Nicholson finally gets to go to “Marty school” (to terrifying and humorous result as a very bad man), while Mark Wahlberg (who has flown disturbingly under the awards radar despite such ace performances in films like Boogie Nights, Three Kings, and I Heart Huckabees; any of which he could have feasibly been Oscar-nominated for) gets to make the most out of his relatively limited role infusing his Boston cop with cynicism and humor. It’s clear both actors are having the time of their lives working with the director that most living actors would likely cite as the director they most wanted to work with. Uber-star Brad Pitt (who gave a surprisingly tender and focused performance in Babel), seems poised to steal some awards thunder from the Departed guys, but let’s all remember, he is also doing double duty this year as a producer: on The Departed!

One interesting, less-talked about performance that will likely breeze through the whole hoopla leading up to the Oscars is Garrison Keillor, who stars as a version of himself in Robert Altman’s home spun A Prairie Home Companion. He helped adapt the script, he sings, he jokes, and he finds the heart of, well, himself. It’s a clever, tender performance given he is playing opposite such heavy-hitters as Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, and Meryl Streep. The collaboration between Altman and Keillor brings a bittersweet end to the maverick filmmaker’s career, with all of the radio show’s sweet witticisms fitting perfectly within the filmmaker’s signature frenetic, kaleidoscopic-cast vision of Keillor’s fantasy life.


Nominees, Best Supporting Actress: 2006
Adriana Barraza for Babel
Rinko Kikuchi for Babel
Frances McDormand for Friends with Money
Meryl Streep for A Prairie Home Companion *
Emily Watson for The Proposition

Other notable performances:
Jodie Foster for Inside Man
Jessica Lange for Don’t Come Knocking
Carmen Maura for Volver

Fabulously over-crowded with amazing women this year, I find myself scratching my head at my personal choice for Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep for A Prairie Home Companion. I think the woman is vastly overrated (and I think The Devil Wears Prada, for which she is getting an obnoxious amount of awards attention, is one of the worst movies of the year), but I will be damned if she hasn’t returned to top form in a role that requires her to cast all “Streep-isms” aside and actually act. She is funny, poignant, and she sings like an angel (the actress has never found a more appropriate vehicle for her talents to merge within). If you are not moved to tears by the end of the musical number “Goodbye to Mama” (in which Streep and co-star Lily Tomlin sing lovingly about their dead relatives and how much they miss them), chances are you might be a robot or dead inside. In a fitting tribute to the late Robert Altman, in what will be his last film ever, Streep reinvents herself and proves her credibility yet again. Which sadly makes the fact that she is getting all the press for Prada so infuriating: she is being remembered this year for the wrong film!

Last year quintessential character actress Frances McDormand received a rather gratuitous Oscar nomination for the absolute dreck that was North Country (playing a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease—a sure-fire way to get Academy recognition). It is a crying shame that this year she will be sitting it all out on the sidelines after turning in a superior performance in Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money. Opposite co-stars Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, and Catherine Keener, McDormand is the clear cast standout. It’s a great contemporary female role (Holofcener is getting really good at being the go-to director for this particular milieu), and McDormand infuses it with everything we have come to expect from her: daffy grace, biting wit, and pure heart as a fed-up working mother who has a potentially gay husband.

Emily Watson is the sort of magnetic presence that sets the tone for any film she graces. This year, in Nick Cave’s bold re-visioning of Colonial Australia as a lawless pseudo-western, Watson was able to play a “wife” role with heart and grace that lends the brutally violent, macho film an ethereal, womanly air each time she appears. Opposite Ray Winstone (as her rigid law man husband), Watson finds a perfect balance between the times: she is neither an inappropriately anachronistic woman ahead of her time, or a wilting flower yielding to every paternal command. Leave it to Watson, the only major female in the film, to leave the biggest impression with only a few key scenes. Her talent for scene-stealing is exciting to watch.

Two of the year’s most persuasive, original characterizations came from the women of Babel, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi. The two couldn’t have possibly played characters more different from each other: Barraza was an illegal immigrant nanny involved with bad decisions at the US/Mexico border, while Kikuchi was a Japanese girl dealing with the recent death of her mother and her distant father who also happened to be a deaf/mute. Each woman perfectly captured a different feeling of dissociation, and the effects of being undone by one’s own sadness; but the most interesting thing, I thought about Babel‘s two stand-out cast members was that the script allowed both women (who are separated by many years in age, and many miles in geography), to explore their characters’ sexuality in everyday manner. Barraza’s examination was admittedly only a small part of her story but the detail was a rich one in a story so filled with politically charged injustice and fear. Kikuchi’s overt sexuality (as well as her sexually lashing out towards others), was more on display and more of a fundamental part of her character, but was so startlingly frank that it is bizarre to think that there has never been another character like hers on screen who has looked at sexuality in such a unsentimental, almost dangerous manner. Both women turn their seemingly ordinary characters into almost mythological women.

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. 

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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