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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [dir. Tim Burton]


The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece. 


So fans of Stephen Sondheim had ever reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.


Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.


When we first meet Sweeney Todd, he is returning to London after a long stint in prison. Jailed by a jealous Judge named Turpin for crimes he did not commit, the former Benjamin Barker learns that his beautiful wife was raped, and later committed suicide. Even worse, his equally attractive daughter Johanna has been taken in as the Magistrate’s ward. Desperate for retribution, Todd decides to take up his old profession - barbering - only this time, his clients won’t be leaving his shop through the front door. Upon meeting and conspiring with the impoverished pie merchant Mrs. Lovett, Todd attempts to reestablish his trade.


He challenges Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli to a shaving competition, and with the win, must face the dandy’s considerable wrath. In the meantime, a young sailor has fallen for Todd’s teenage daughter, and warns the barber of the terrible news - Turpin is in love with her, and is planning on taking her as his bride. Through murder, the anguished father will work his way to the man he feels is responsible for his miserable fate. It will also help Mrs. Lovett’s failing shop, as meat for her pies is hard to come by…


There are two ways to look at Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd - both of them successful. Fans of the original may wince at a few of the obvious edits (no “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, a truncated “City on Fire”) yet should embrace the stark and quite stunning way in which the film illustrates Sondheim’s main symbol - the shedding of blood as a balm for the troubled soul. While the truth of this legend’s actual existence may never be fully known (people still swear Todd was a real person, without any proof of same), the notion of his mark as a frightening figure of unhinged justice is fully realized. Both tragic and terrifying, without pity and full of passion, Sweeney Todd is a crushed spirit working out his anguish in rivers of the red stuff, one slit throat at a time.


Anyone unfamiliar with the show, or simply showing up to see Johnny Depp deliver another remarkable acting turn will also come away more than satisfied. In a career arc that’s seen its fair share of experimentation and excess, the now marketable mainstream superstar is absolutely brilliant here. It’s a risky role - the music lacks a standard pop song structure, and for all his glorified depression, Todd remains a wicked, wicked man - but thanks to his undeniable talent, Depp turns a figure of immense evil into something somber and quite sad. He is not the bombastic vocal presence of a Len Cariou (the original Great White Way Todd) or George Hearn, but his performance of the musical material is heartbreaking. He syncs up flawlessly with Sondheim’s sentiments, resulting in the most menacing, mercurial Todd ever.


His is matched equally well by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Unlike the stage versions of the character, which hinge on a broad based sense of surrealistic bawdy cockney slapstick to sell the cannibalism, this version of the pie merchant is all grime and desperation. Lovett is not comic relief or audience friendly joviality. She’s a shattered soul, just like Todd, and her ready kinship and scheming with the barber is never forced or implausible. Carter may possess the smallest of voices, but like Depp, she delivers in the mandatory emotional ranges. During their brilliant bits of byplay (the clever ” A Little Priest”) or her shattering solo spots (the hilarious “By the Sea”), Lovett is the levelheaded version of Todd’s evil. She wants the same results that he does - and by some accounts, a whole lot more.


The remainder of the cast is just outstanding. Timothy Spall is like a vile Victorian woodcarving come to life as the disgusting, devilish Beadle Bamford. Alan Rickman is also marvelously malevolent as the vile Judge Turpin. The movie’s brief bits of comedy are handled with amazing adeptness by Borat‘s Sacha Baron Cohen, and little Ed Sanders is a sensational Tobias Raggs. He handles the seminal song “Not While I’m Around” with a beautiful bravery. Since their roles are reduced here, the actors playing Johanna and Anthony don’t get much screen time. But both Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower offer powerful voices and memorable moments.


But it’s Burton who ends up the true hero, his eye for the unusual and the downtrodden in full, flowering effect. Aside from the gallons of grue, he works in a very muted palette, the almost black and whiteness of his color scheme leaving room for lots and lots of blood. This is Grand Guignol glorification, a movie that celebrates arterial spray in ways genre efforts can’t embrace. Every spurting throat, every gaping wound, is an extension of Todd’s pent up anguish. He needs release, and the only way it can be found is via the blade. But Burton’s not just a slave to the slice and dice. He stages the many songs in a smaller, more minor note, keeping the multifaceted emotions inside Sondheim’s occasionally obtuse lyrics front and center.


The result is the year’s finest cinematic experience, a movie completely awash in its own outsized elements and internalized treats. Like all great artists, the talent involved here didn’t dishonor Sondheim, but instead, they make the material their own. That’s the true test of any adaptation. Perhaps the reason other recent musicals have failed is because of a disingenuous desire to stay true to the original while modernizing (or in other cases, pointlessly modifying) the source to satisfy unclear demographical concerns. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is proof that, when left to their own devices, the gifted will give over to something quite special. The undeniable greatness exhibited here certainly supports such a conclusion.


 



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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2007


When Santa sits back in his North Pole office and tallies up the boy and girl balance sheet every year, one wonders what exactly he uses as a means of measurement. It used to be that obeying one’s parents, doing well in school, and avoiding the pitfalls and problems of growing up were the essential benchmarks for a ranking of “good”, while putting a tack on teacher’s chair, pouring ink on Mommy’s rug and filling the sugar bowl with ants warranted a score of “bad” and a mandatory gift of furnace fuel. But now, in a world that excuses almost any behavior as part of the maturation process, it must be impossible to differentiate between disobedient and merely misunderstood.


The same thing applies to seasonal films. For everyone who wants nothing but visions of sugarplums and candy cane wishes, there are people who prefer their seasons greetings more mocking and satiric. Then there are a chosen few who can effortlessly manage between the two ideals, easily enjoying both the joyful and the jaundiced. Therefore, SE&L will separate its list of the best Christmas/holiday films of all time into two categories – naughty and nice. It’s the only way to cover all the jingle bell basics and make sure that everyone’s Yule is as cool as possible. While far from definitive, the undeniable delights of the divergent films featured guarantee no cinematic coal in any film fans stocking.


1. Nice: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Forget all the ridiculous remakes and stick with the sparkling and effervescent original. This terrific take on the commercialization of the season never fails to bring a smile to even the most mean, miserable face. Featuring Edmund Gwenn in a role that would redefine the personification of Santa for decades to come, this masterful little fable about belief and hope is a breathtaking combination of cynical and magical – the perfect combination of Christmas then and now. 


2. Naughty: Christmas Evil
Asking the disturbing question of how society would react to someone taking the role of Santa seriously, Lewis Jackson’s amazing motion picture assessment of one man’s descent into Kringle craziness remains a forgotten mistletoed masterpiece. In the lead role, Brandon Maggart spends his days in a toy factory, his nights making lists of the local school children. But when he finally ventures out on Christmas Eve, his moralistic intentions become confused, creating a memorable spree of Yuletide terror.



3. Nice: A Christmas Story
Few remember that Bob Clark’s now traditional cinematic treat was an unfettered flop when it first hit theaters in November of 1983. Apparently, audiences weren’t quite prepared to experience the knowing nostalgia of holidays circa the pre-War era. It took home video, and dozens of showings on Turner stations like TBS, to transform this clever comic take on holidays past into a timeless seasonal celebration. Now, devotees wouldn’t be caught dead missing a single moment of this festive familial farce. 


4. Naughty: Black Christmas (1976)
Bob Clark again, this time utilizing the holiday season for his inventive twist on the slasher film. Without the strict cinematic mandates that the genre would require throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Clark created the first subversive slice and dice, providing little explanation for the sorority attacks, and no actual resolution. With a narrative featuring eerie phone calls from a horrifying killer named Billy, this film is a perfect antidote for all the tinsel and treacle.


5. Nice: Scrooge
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has long been considered a Saturnalia standard. But of all the versions of his venerable Victorian allegory, this 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney is the most magical. Using an Oliver-esque approach to its recreation of London (read: grimy and grim) and amplifying the story’s supernatural elements, director Ronald Neame and composer Leslie Bricusse deliver a wonderfully winning effort, truer to the literary classic than any other adaptation out there. 


6. Naughty: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas
Stealing the stop motion animation crown from those loveable TV titans Rankin and Bass, Burton scripted a timeless treasure that suits both Santa and Satan quite well. As poor misguided Jack Skellington, the King of Halloweentown, tries to unravel the secrets of Christmas’ festive feeling of fun, we are treated to a world loaded with artistic marvels and inventive iconography. Perfectly suited for October or December, this is one flight of fancy that grows more and more magical, year after year. 


7. Nice: The Polar Express
Some still find this first experiment in CGI rotoscoping to be a little disconcerting – the humans do appear rather stiff and disturbing in their zombie like blankness – but no one can fault Robert Zemeckis’ Christmas Card come to life look for the film. Thanks to the 3D imagery, this movie comes alive with startling seasonal symbols and moments of sheer cinematic bliss. Like most holiday treasures, its thrills are as universal as a smile and as special as the time of year.


8. Naughty: Lucky Stiff
Another forgotten masterwork, this time centering on an overweight lonely heart that’s invited to a Christmas celebration by a red hot honey he meets at a ski resort. Oh course, she and her family are cannibals, cruising the country for fatted ‘calves’ to clean and dress for their own festive flesh feast. Starring voice-over artist Joe Alasky as the blimp, and Donna Dixon as the blonde with an eye for prime man meat, this quirky black comedy delivers nonstop laughs.


9. Nice: It’s a Wonderful Life
Like A Christmas Story, Frank Capra’s look at the fragility of the American dream was more or less ignored by late ‘40s audiences. But once TV took up its cause, and a lapsed copyright allowed unlimited home video releases, the once overlooked gem became a true seasonal standard. Featuring fine turns by Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, what some found almost anti-American 60 years ago is now viewed as the perfect piece of old school Hollywood craftsmanship.



10. Naughty: Bad Santa
Nothing illustrates our post-modern mindset toward the holidays better than this crude family film about a drunk and debaucherous Santa who uses his department store position as a means of casing joints for his annual Xmas eve robberies. Unfortunately, a chubby little gingersnap known only as “The Kid” throws our Kris Kringle crook for a loop. The result is both hilarious and heartwarming, with just enough scatology thrown in to keep the Noel nasty

 


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Tuesday, Dec 18, 2007


Does it matter if an actor or actress is gay? Beyond all the hypocritical moralizing and dogmatic religious stances, should a film fan really care if a homosexual performer is playing a heterosexual part? We praise the non-handicapped for taking on the role of the regressed, and give out awards to thespians who literally change their bodies to become totally different ‘characters’, so why should it matter if a lesbian plays a leading man’s love interest, or visa versa? It’s not a new discussion in Hollywood, but when you consider the profile of the most recent ‘outed’ superstar, the issue gets raised all over again.


In accepting the Sherry Lansing Award at a Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast on 13 December, Jodie Foster offered an emotional speech which included her stating “I would like to thank my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss.” She was referring to Cydney Bernard, a one time production manager and coordinator who has been the actress’s significant other since 1993. There’s no questioning their commitment, and recent rumors about the father of Foster’s two sons and the motives for this unusual break in her public facade are specious at best. Besides, Tinsel Town’s been ‘hip’ to the two time Oscar winner’s lifestyle for years, and it hasn’t hurt her box office clout or her standing in the industry.


Yet the question now becomes, will all that change? Nothing affects a star’s status quicker than a scandal, but there’s no chance of that happening here. So the only other factor that could come into play is financial—and in our current cultural state where intelligent design battles science for a place in the classroom and Presidential candidates wear their faith on their constantly self-aggrandizing sleeves, the ethos of Foster’s ‘choice’ will take many aback—one kneejerk reaction at a time. Remember, this debate will have nothing to do with talent, personal principles, or the need for greater tolerance and understanding in a post-millennial world. Your average mainstream moviegoer hears ‘gay’, and an entire universe of propaganda and proselytizing comes crashing down around their already narrow view.


You could call it prejudice, but the proper word is perspective. Sure, some will automatically turn their bigotry switch over to seethe upon hearing this news, but for the most part, audiences will do something akin to backseat driving (or Monday morning quarterbacking) and begin a ridiculous reevaluation process. Since most salient individuals acknowledge homosexuality as a fact, not an option, the idea of pinpointing her ‘change’ won’t be bantered about. But the idea that a lesbian can now play a romantic, passionate heterosexual heroine will definitely be part of the discussion.


Take this year’s excellent The Brave One, for example. Dismissing the vigilante aspect for a moment, the entire movie is based on a simple premise—how the loss of someone you love can lead an otherwise smart individual to the darkest depths of their soul. After the death of her doctor fiancé at the hands of a ruthless gang, Foster must face down the urge to kill as she slowly sinks into a kind of emotional malaise. It’s clear the couple connected—their first act love scene is tender and telling. Yet with this recent revelation, it’s not a stretch to hear audiences asking if Foster is truly capable of sincerely playing this role.


It’s not the first time that such a clouded concern has been forwarded. Right before production on the romantic comedy Six Days and Seven Nights, Anne Heche announced her relationship with comedian/sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres. The massive press coverage that accompanied the disclosure trickled into a less than cogent conversation over whether the actress, currently co-starring with macho megahunk Harrison Ford, could convincingly play someone interested in men. It seems silly now (just like the previous take on Foster), but the quasi-controversy produced pundit after pundit dismissing a gay woman’s ability to be believable as straight.


In general, such a sentiment is ignorant at best, a hate crime at worst. Dozens of homosexual men have successfully mastered the art of pretend known as acting, and while a few have stayed within their own orientation as a matter of pride or principle, others have experimented with all manner of roles, from action to comedy, horror to heroism. It seems downright silly to say this now, but any discussion about Heche should have focused on her limited screen presence and poor overall chemistry with Ford, not who she chooses to sleep with. It’s a standard that someone of Foster’s caliber will never have to address. But there will be those who find their broadmindedness broached, and revising history apparently helps relieve the unease.


Take the two Academy Awards she owns. Silence of the Lambs is such an asexual picture, and the acting in it so flawless, that no one could question any of the stars’ believability. Foster is Clarice Starling, flirtatious inferences with the entomologist and Dr. Lecter in equal uneasy amounts. There is nothing about the turn that speaks to stereotypes. But Foster’s first Oscar, for The Accused, may flummox some uninformed heads. In said film, she plays a white trash slut who fails to get the ‘no means no’ benefit of the doubt from a gang of barroom rapists. While many praised the actress for such daring and boldness, the ‘gay’ angle will keep the already tacky up at night.


Again, it all becomes a meandering matter of acuity. Does her ice queen bitchiness now come off differently in Spike Lee’s Inside Man? Was playing a 14-year-old prostitute for Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver more difficult for a young woman just growing into her sexual identity? Will there be some who from this point forward never believe her opposite a leading man, and are there others who will demand she take up a cause and outward agenda that she chose to embrace privately for decades? Insane as it sounds, does someone’s sexual orientation, a subconscious, private position, manifest itself in ways only outsiders can see? And will future flops—and all superstars have them—be blamed on issues other than creative bankruptcy?


In truth, these are the career concerns that arise whenever a performer is finally ‘outed’. It’s not really a question of hiring and firing—it’s a question of cash. The biggest heterosexual lothario can spread squalor and STDs all over the industry, and if his movies make money, he’ll be first in line for the next high profile project. Yet, as we’ve seen with Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, bad judgment and lifestyle lunacy can lead to a never ending barrage of bad press and—even worse—audience backlash. All the limited access minds of moviemaking need is a single hint that an actor or actress is box office poison and their prospects almost instantaneously dry up. And in our ridiculously fundamental social order, being gay could signal the start of such a downward trend.


As one of the best actresses of her or any generation, Jodie Foster has earned the right to be left alone. She’s been nothing but professional, and even centered in a swirling media firestorm over her link to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (she was relentlessly stalked by shooter John Hinkley), she remained a calm, considered antidote. Luckily, most of her growing pains occurred outside of the media morass that tends to permanently taint everything it touches—but this latest hackle raising headline will take a while to significantly blow over.


Until then, Foster will have to walk the mandatory tabloid tightrope. Every decision she’s made in the last 20 years will be front and center for speculation and aspersion. The next moves in her otherwise flawless occupational arc will be fodder for further dissection and disparagement. If her next film fails, will it be perceived as some form of audience message? And if it succeeds, does it stand for anything besides a superstar’s continued well-traveled track record? Someone’s sexual orientation should never be part of any aesthetic evaluation. It’s the work that should stand, not issues outside of it. Sadly, our society hasn’t learned that lesson just yet. Maybe Foster will change that. Odds are, she won’t.


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Monday, Dec 17, 2007


It stands as one of the big debates among critics. It surpasses annual best of lists and arguments over overrated/underrated directors/writers/actors. For purists, the answer is obvious. Film is meant to be an isolated and individual experience, especially for someone given the charge of examining it for consideration and comment. On the other hand, the post-modern movie scribe believes that as populist entertainment, a film should only be considered as part of a group dynamic. Only with an audience can a comedy’s humor be judged correctly. Only with a crowd can a fright fest’s shivers be accurately gauged.


Of course, as we’ve come to discover over the last two pieces in this prolonged Fourth Estate examination, viewers and reviewers don’t mix. Even worse, many publications and their editorial staff are not looking for the mob mentality - at least, they didn’t used to. To say that an audience’s reaction SHOULD be important to a critic is like suggesting that they can’t do their job without it. And yet they are asked to all the time. Naturally, if you visualize your aesthetic purpose as playing reporter, delivering plot and how the reader might react to it, the forced guffaws and freely shed tears are your basic bread and butter. But if your job is more in line with classic criticism - viewing each movie as it applies to the overall artform - some complimentary ticket holder’s take means very little.


Let’s face it - your typical critic is not out to pander. Pauline Kael didn’t establish her legacy by listening to the amplified ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ of a packed Cineplex. Roger Ebert didn’t win his Pulitzer by gauging the number of shrieks a Poltergeist play date received. A reviewer takes the job because they love the medium, and their approach to same and how they view it is intensely private…until made public. While it’s nice to hear an audience sigh in appreciation of a motion picture job well done, it’s never mandatory. Even worse, some suggest that hearing crowds crow over an obviously hackneyed effort actually amplifies their contempt. It can be confusing at best.


Perhaps, by example, the problems in both approaches can be better highlighted. Let’s take a crass, horribly unfunny comedy like Rush Hour 3. Screened for the press in a preview audience-only offering, fans of both Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker lined up hours before hand to support their favorite onscreen action duo. So when they finally find a seat, complain about the critic’s row, and settle down for some cost-free entertainment, they’re ready to react. All throughout the lame, nonsensical 90 minutes of movie, the crowd cheered. They literally rolled in the aisles as obvious jokes limped by, and they rallied like less than sober sports fans when the finale unfolded. Praise poured out of the mouths of all but the critics. They were too stunned to speak.


Then there’s Sweeny Todd. The Sondheim musical, brought to wondrous life by director Tim Burton, was a terrific tour de force, the kind of operatic experience that allows a viewer to escape and explore. Though the songs can be difficult and the amount of blood overpowering, the film is a literal work of art - and yet, in the half-full preview screening it played in, the crowd was subdued to the point of possible boredom. There was a smattering of applause as the credits rolled, and the comments given to the studio representatives suggested an alarming level of discontent. Of course, most of the critics found it masterful.


So, which reaction is valid, and which one is not. From a professional perspective, Todd is the clear winner. It has a 90% positive rating vs. Rush Hour 3‘s 20%. Yet box office is usually the final word, and in the case of the tired tre-quel, Chan and Tucker are destined to come out ahead. So what is the audience reaction actually predicting? If not artistry, than mere appreciation? And is that really a critic’s job - to determine what’s saleable vs. what’s skillful? Under a traditional career definition, that goes against everything a journalist represents.


But what about the private screening? Does the lack of an audience matter there? It’s clear that, in the case of movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the added involvement of a crowd would not matter. In fact, their presence could have cancelled out the magical spell being weaved by the able bodied auteurs behind the lens. On the other hand, the odd family film fragmentation of something like The Water Horse, or the quirky indie issues at the heart of Wristcutters: A Love Story might have actually benefited from an audience’s input. Not every movie announces its intentions in obvious ways. If a viewer can offer up some insight, igniting a reaction in a critic’s head, then it’s a clear case of win/win.


This almost never happens, however. Instead, inappropriate laughter and unnecessary communal commentary are the norm. At a screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a man was so amazed by the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, that he reacted to her dramatic execution by shouting “DAAAAMN! They cut her head off!” In another case, while a character in Feast of Love (and otherwise awful film) was dying, snickers could be heard from various members of the movie going multitude. The misplaced giggle is probably the most blatant audience offense. Just because you’re not frightened by a scary movie doesn’t mean some other member of the attending throng isn’t. Your disrespectful defense mechanism is not really appreciated.


Still, it’s hard to argue with this core concept of the theatrical experience. All three Apatow efforts this year - Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played so well with an audience that it’s hard to imagine experiencing each without them. Similarly, I Am Legend needed its fan-base support, if only to help keep viewers awake during the dull third act build up. The audible gasps during The Kingdom and The Bourne Ultimatum did argue for both film’s action acumen, and genre workouts like Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Mist played much better with an exponential level of fear.


It really doesn’t answer or even address the question, however - and drama remains the twisted trump card. Serious films play on so many differing levels and emotions that they can quickly bifurcate a crowd. Reactions to something like Rendition were all over the map, while American Gangster fell across clear actor/demographic lines. Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford didn’t play like end of the year candidates in their private morning screenings, but when shown with a crowd, both received realistic, indirect boosts.


Just like judging movies for a living, prognostication by popularity is a horribly incomplete science. Evan Almighty flopped, yet the audience who attended the preview lapped up every uneven minute. Bee Movie made viewers buzz, yet it looks to be one of the least successful CGI efforts ever. On the other hand, Stardust and Sunshine had strong critical approval and yet turnstiles remained relatively still. It’s been said that if one could predict - within an acceptable frequency - what will work and what will fail, they’d be the richest man or woman in Tinsel Town. It’s just not that easy.


And audiences aren’t the answer. While the clash over private vs. public will probably end up remaining a matter of personal preference, the conversation will continue. As stated in other installments of these ‘confessions’, there is an automatic bias from the professional community against being herded and harassed. Major markets probably never even consider the issue while smaller regions wrestle with it week in and week out. Obviously, the studios think that some films play better with more people present. Others are for media minds only. Perhaps it’s not a matter of right and wrong after all. It may not even be an issue at all. But in light of the way criticism is marginalized nowadays, one thing is obvious - all reaction is taken with a huge grain of cinematic salt, both inside and outside celluloid. 


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Sunday, Dec 16, 2007


Only time will tell. It’s been very helpful to other struggling scary movies. When it was first released in 1974, most critics considered Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be the most disgusting, debased effort in the history of the shock genre. Today, a copy of the film sits in the vault of the Museum of Modern Art. When Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead hit the Cineplex, a positive blurb from horror master Stephen King couldn’t keep the splatter fest from ending up on many writer’s year end “Worst” lists. Now, it’s seen as a powerful and effective chiller. So there’s hope for Rob Zombie yet. Upon its arrival in theaters this past August, many despised his intriguing remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick, Halloween. Here’s hoping that a few years from now, when the controversy has passed and new eyes have viewed this exceptional effort, the film and its maker will get the respect and reevaluation they so richly deserve.


It wasn’t an easy choice for the rock star turned filmmaker to make, initially. After two very difficult and very different self-styled films (the average House of 1000 Corpses and the amazing exploitation update The Devil’s Rejects), taking on the myth of Michael Myers was bound to get more than a few geeks’ goats. After all, in a post-Internet world where everyone’s an expert of cinema, tampering with the genius of Carpenter’s creation seemed ludicrous. No matter that the Michael Bay produced Chainsaw update ended up being something to celebrate, there was a metaphysical quality about this seemingly unnecessary revamp that had webheads ready to tussle. And when early script reviews foamed over too much backstory and not enough slice and dice, the worst fears of the fans were apparently about to be realized.


So where, exactly, was the subterfuge? Maybe it was the release date. After all, who offers a blood-filled terror title in the middle of summer? It could also be the continued marginalization of Zombie. While a few support his work behind the camera, there are others who hate the very notion that he’s even allowed to make movies. There’s the standard anticipation to reality ratio, a slippery sliding scale that measures viewer expectation against the usually crashing facts of a film. And then there’s an odd “X” factor, a kind of mob mentality that works like the juvenile piling on from the days of the old school yard. It seemed like, once the negativity began, critics came out of the woodwork to belittle and demean this film. Even those who never sully their synapses with a genre effort took time out of their otherwise busy screening schedule to rip the remake.


Yet all this antagonism fails to convey the aesthetic truth - Halloween 2007 is a great film. It’s the ballsy byproduct of a horror fan who ‘gets’ the concept of cinematic fear. While having to fill some mighty elephantine shoes, Zombie established his worth as a director of imaginative skill, and by bucking the trend toward defanging an original via a pointless remake, he proved that a new vision - especially a bold and bloody one - can countermand any artistic apprehensions. Still, the aura surrounding this breakthrough effort is confused and cold at best. It will take time to heal it’s damaged import. The rehabilitation of this movie can begin with the 18 December release of the essential two disc ‘unrated’ DVD. It argues for one man’s persistence in light of the numerous needs of a mainstream motion picture (and the studio supporting it).

If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant repetition – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive), and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.


In his full length audio commentary, Zombie addresses all the issues that gave purists pause. He defends his use of backstory, explains the way actors gravitate toward their own interpretations of events, and rallies around the archetypes that make up standard scary movie mythos. It’s the DVD equivalent of a mea culpa combined with an “I told you so.” One thing is clear in this conversation - Zombie completely understands what he’s done. He too is an addict to the genre he works in, and wants to be as faithful to the demands of the horror film as anyone working in the category. Unfortunately, the wavelength he’s vibrating on clashes with the mindset of minions who believe fright got its bearings during the direct to video variables of the 1980s…and it’s a volatile cocktail that just doesn’t mix.


There’s also a second disc loaded with deleted scenes, an alternative ending, a three part look at how the movie was made, interviews with the cast and crew, and a featurette focusing on Zombie’s decision to use and the movie’s obsession with masks. One of the main sticking points for critics was the notion that Michael Myers, as a famed spree killer, has a background seemingly torn from an FBI primer on behavioral dysfunction. Yet in this piece, we discover a much deeper psychological stance. In many ways, the masks represent the link between the character as an angry child and what he will become as a psychotic stalker adult.


All this context argues for a movie much more complicated than initial reviews indicated. While comedy is always gauged on its ability to make audiences laugh, horror suffers from a similar kneejerk acumen - that being, if it doesn’t make you shiver, it’s somehow worthless. However, in a post-millennial world, where everyday existence bears out a palpable level of terror, it’s hard to create genuine dread. Reverence to a film type can be just as important as delivering the mandatory mannerisms. In the case of Halloween, we get a dimensional character study where emotions battle the eerie for total shocker dominance. That both elements exist, side by side, remains one of Zombie’s - and his film’s - greatest assets. 


With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this assassin. Not to apologize for him, but merely explain. By turning him into a flesh and blood person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death.


At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of elucidating and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.


At this point, it needs to be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. The addition of scenes in this “unrated director’s cut” adds more heft to his onscreen persona. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son that’s both horrifying and heartbreaking.


As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.


Still, upon reflection, it’s easy to see why people didn’t like this confrontational film, why one should feel sorry for Zombie. He was really lost in a no-win situation. On the one hand, anyone who believed Carpenter was something more than a joyful journeyman working out his Hitchcock fascinations with this 1978 low budget experiment obviously would detest the fact that his most famous early film received the crass commercial Tinsel Town treatment. They were destined to hate the results no matter how good or bad. On the other hand, there are the know-it-all members of fear nation whose endless hours in front of a VCR, absorbing every thriller from here to Helsinki, lend them the false credibility that only obsession can validate. Since they are superior in their informed (if insular) opinion, they have the implied right to ridicule this filmmaker and the man behind the mask.


In both cases, each group is missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, his reemergence was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. It’s the making of a murderer and the consequences of his descent into unfettered madness that certify its status as a classic. It also formed the foundation for one of the smartest, most shattering horror films ever. Unfortunately, few can see that now. It will take time for the truth to emerge - and when it does, Zombie’s efforts will finally be justified. Better late than never.


 


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