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Friday, Nov 23, 2007


Seated alongside The Residents as long time bay area agent provocateurs, the San Francisco based avant-gardists Negativland consistently defy description. Sonic poets, defenders of free speech, and flaunters of the Fair Use Doctrine, the magnificent mash-up artists have been taking on corporate consumer speak and unrealistic copyright laws since their founding at the end of the ‘70s. Though the core of the collective has changed little since their first high school meeting (Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons have remained friends since), the actual band has always been a loose amalgamation of like minded artists, skilled filmmakers, animation activists and similarly styled pop culture rebels. And with targets as imposing as Disney, Coke, Pepsi, and those all powerful mainstream music icons U2, they’ve never been at a loss for material. Toss in a little swearing Casey Kasem, a phony axe killer connection, and various affronts to so-called conservative society, and you’ve got a series of lawsuits just waiting to happen.


To understand the DVD compilation Our Favorite Things, one has to comprehend the basic tenets of Negativland’s philosophy. Thematically, the band appears to follow the William Burroughs’ method of cut and paste creativity. The notorious beat author, responsible for the incomprehensibly brilliant Naked Lunch, used to write long passages, tear out the typed page, cut the sentences into soundbite snippets, and reconfigure the prose into new, unexpected phraseology. Much of the music Negativland makes is standard rock and electronica stomps. There’s even a peppering of pop and pleasant valley sundriness to it. But the lyrics, when there are any, follow a more free flowing, stream of subconsciousness pattern. And the inclusive of samples, sound oddments, various narratives, and other found material fall right into Burroughs’ beliefs. As a result, the group is more of an experience than a straight ahead act. On the plus side, this gives their overall message more room to blossom and grow.


Collected together by celebrated DVD outsiders Other Cinema, Our Favorite Things offers 18 mindbending examples of the band’s creative collage collaborations with experimental and no wave filmmakers. Multifaceted, layered, and brimming with solid subversion, it’s clear why the group has been seated at the center of controversy. Anyone who would challenge the House of Mouse by having Little Mermaid Arial voice the foul mouthed rant of a corporate scumbag attorney is asking for trouble. But Negativland’s targets are typically much bigger than the keepers of Walt Disney’s dying legacy. Hot button subjects like religion, marketing, greed, and government propagandizing make the issues of an angry animation company seem small. Yet the power in these shorts cannot be underestimated. In fact, most of Our Favorite Things plays like brainwashing purposefully created for the already converted. Indeed, by using similar subliminal techniques as those who are doing the preaching, it’s hoped that the faithful truly see the light.


It all begins with something called “Learning to Communicate”. A combination of anti-technology stances and pro-Luddite tweaks, it starts the disc off on a very surreal note. Once we get to “No Business”, the real purpose behind Negativland can be seen. Taking the classic number from Gypsy, the short examines the concept of stealing – in this case, not the extra bow, but music from the Internet. As classic downloading bars fill the screen, Ethel Merman’s bombastic voice extols the joys in robbing artists of their work. Without changing anything except the order of the sung lyrics, this amazing montage is a borderline masterpiece. So is “Gimme the Mermaid”. As a violent voice chides someone on copyright and ownership, a familiar Disney heroine provides the visualized façade. In a very simplistic, uncomplicated manner, this short makes the point regarding the unreasonable nature of indignant ownership.


Next up is the special edit radio mix of “U2: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. As the familiar strains of that alt-rock revivalism screed scurry along the background (in perfectly modulated Casio keyboard crappiness), we hear the familiar voice of Shaggy and America’s Top 40, one Casey Kasem, using language that would make the typical tweeny-bopper blush (with recognition, probably). It’s simply stunning. Then we have a weird exchange between another radio personality – a call-in talk show host – and a listener who doesn’t know the number of “Time Zones” there are in the old Soviet Union (the answer is 11). It’s good, but not as wonderful as the next track – the flawlessly executed “Freedom Waiting”. Initially, we think the scattered and stuttering narration is talking about our inherent right to liberty. Then we start to see all the TV commercials, and the soft shill pitch becomes painfully obvious. Similarly, “The Bottom Line” uses a home shopping style lampoon to sell America’s policy regarding prisoners and torture. Both movies are masterful.


At this point, Out Favorite Things wanders over a bit into the bleeding obvious. It doesn’t dissuade from the message or the manner in which it is being presented, but when an anti-gun feature (called “Guns”) mixes classic kiddie TV ads from the ‘60s with shots of Vietnam and Buddy Dwyer’s on-camera suicide, the level of approach seems rather simplistic. Much better is the No Nukes nonsense “Yellow, Black, and Rectangular” which uses the Civil Defense symbol as a means of illustrating public disinterest in the arms race. Finally, a small child sings “Over the Rainbow” as hiccups occasionally ruin her take. The stop motion animation features a somber stick figure rabbit that finally gives in to its fatalistic urges. It’s funny and effective, but just not as good as what has come before – and what is about to arrive.


One of the best deconstructions of how popular culture cannibalizes its symbols, the “Mashing of the Christ” takes clips from dozens of Hollywood Bible pics (Gibson’s Passion, numerous versions of The King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told) and cobbles them together in a perfect compare and contrast arrangement. In the background, an evangelist endlessly repeats a meaningless Marxist chide – “Christianity is stupid. Communism is good.” The combination of blood, belief, and bullshit is just superb. And the crackpot KPIX News story on the fake connection the band created between this anti-religious rant and a horrible family killing in the Midwest is nothing more than typical myopic media icing on an already melting communications cake. It proves one of Negativland’s most frequently voiced adages – people are too dumb to realize when a lie stares them square in the face. The next two films illustrate this flawlessly.


“Truth in Advertising” pits another talk show host against a caller who wants clarity between the salesmanship of commercials and the actual validity of a product’s purpose or content. The edited banter, in combination with the repetitive backdrop of noted advertisements, keeps the concerns – and the lack of clear cut answers – in focus. The next seven films take on one of the band’s favorite targets: the pointless soft drink wars between Coke and Pepsi, and the unnecessary onslaught of overhyped, celebrity driven, selling. “One World Advertising” proposes a solution, while “Why Is This Commercial?” and “The Greatest Taste Around” continue the pointed dissection. “Taste in Mind” and Humanitarian Effort” comments on the worldwide influence of such corporate carping, while “Drink It Up” and “Aluminum or Glass” offers two hilarious songs that mock both the health and habit forming flaws in the sodas. Throughout, clips from a ‘40s era Coke industrial film deifies the soft drink. The DVD ends with a glorious reconfiguration of the Sound of Music song that comprises the title of this release.


As an immersive example of pure performance art, Negativland: Our Favorite Things is practically pristine. It may occasionally employ a cinematic sledgehammer to make its points, but when the information and ideology is so evocative and meaningful, it’s okay to apply a bit of blunt force trauma. The animation/cartoon collage format is perfect for the band, since it instills the numerous meanings behind every track expertly, and the range of material and subjects is without equal. Sure, it may seem like the band is railing against the same five issues all the time, but there are hidden declarations and untold political positions buried in each and every poptone. The DVD is delicious, adding several additional shorts (the tainted travelogue “Visit Howland Island”, the hilarious home horror movie “The Monster of Frankenstein”, among others) and a wonderfully rich visual transfer to keep the pictures pretty. There’s also a bonus CD featuring the a capella versions of the band’s material by singing group 180 Gs. 


There will be those who find this leftist liberal leaning lunacy one giant act of unimportant no-name rock band hubris. Instead, Negativland: Our Favorite Things, is like listening to the skeleton of one of those horrid celebrity vanity project albums. This is Bruce Willis bellowing offkey as ‘Bruno’, it’s Phillip Michael Thomas endlessly living the book of his life. It’s Warhol, washed out and worm-ridden, MTV melted down to its business model whoring. Once witnessed, the mind instantly focuses on other noxious issues the collective could tackle. In a world where the current President has condemned the US to decades as the world’s laughing stock, a Negativland take on such an onerous official would be oh so super sweet. Until then, we have this amazing collection of short films to hold us over. Like the best that cinema has to offer, many here will stand the test of time – and so will their meaning.


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Thursday, Nov 22, 2007

For the week of Thanksgiving (at least for those of us here, in America), SE&L will look back at some of the stories from earlier in the year which suddenly have renewed relevance.

With the announcement that director Marcus Nispel will be stepping up to helm the Michael Bay-produced remake of Friday the 13th we look back at a list of titles that truly deserve a cinematic revisit.


Though every generation likes to think that they’ve discovered Hollywood’s dirty little secret, the truth is that remakes have been around forever. Back in the silent days, storylines would be revisited time and time again, and once sound reinvigorated the artform, notorious non-talkies were recreated for a sonically sensitive viewership. All throughout the Golden Era, previous hits were reconfigured for new stars and directors, and musicals were made over to keep the Depression/War weary audiences entertained. Though they didn’t call themselves by the now notorious name, the ‘50s and ‘60s were flooded with genre efforts that basically repeated the same narrative ideas and themes ad nauseum, and the ‘70s saw deconstructionist directors take on their Tinsel Town favorites as an experiment in homage/hubris.


Yet over the last few years, the remake has raised its profile significantly, thanks in no small part to the decision by filmmakers to take on well known and beloved projects from the past. When Gus Van Zant decided to soil the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock by creating a shot for shot revamp of his seminal Psycho, buzzers started going off in film fans heads. If such an important movie masterwork could be given such a pathetic post-modern push, what was next? The answer came at the cost of such genre classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. While one can debate the validity and viability of these recent retoolings, the words of the late, great Gene Siskel still reverberate – why remake good movies when there are perfectly bad films out there that could use a redux.


In honor of such cinematic wisdom, SE&L presents a few suggestions for lamentable works that could really use an artistic overhaul. With the exception of one genuine gem, the movies discussed here all had promise – at least, when they were originally conceived. But somewhere along the line, their ability to translate said potential into actual motion picture polish went askew. Now, they have a chance for aesthetic redemption – that is, as long as the right combination of creativity and consideration is utilized. If not, God help us all. Let’s begin the discussion with one of the biggest eggs ever laid by a major movie name:


Howard the Duck

Fans of the original source material were excited when it was announced that George Lucas and his production company were taking on the fowl from another planet, given the filmmaker’s still active Star Wars cred. Even when it was discovered that Willard Huyuck would handle the writing/directing chores, there was still optimism. This was the man responsible for helping script American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With the standard pre-production security that accompanied ‘fantasy’ films of the era, no one knew what the title character would look like, but with a creative staff like the one at ILM, it promised to be something really special. It turned out to be a little person in a kid’s party outfit. Gone was the gaunt, cigar chomping anti-hero of dozens of cynical comics. In its place was an obvious costume that constantly reminded the viewer they were watching some guy in a suit. Add in the other misguided elements – the bumbling Tim Robbins’ character, Howard’s asexual attraction to co-star Lea Thompson – and you’ve got an abysmal cinematic mess.


In 2007, all of this can be changed. First and foremost, CGI has come such a long way that fully realized characters like Gollum (or any number of Star Wars prequels props) can be rendered in life like, interactive expertise. Howard’s original grating gumshoe qualities can be reinstated, and this new animated version can blend seamlessly into the live action without sticking out like a dwarf in duck duds. Even better, the comic book movie has been reinvented and is now revered by Hollywood, which understands the wealth of goodwill and greenbacks they can earn by giving the fanbase what it wants. All someone has to do is convince Uncle George that this project would be worth his sagging genre reputation (one assumes he still holds the rights) and find the right industry obsessive (Kevin Smith, perhaps) to give this quirky quacker the cinematic respect he deserves. Oh, and one more thing – NO Thomas Dolby electro-pop soundtrack, please!


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

When Don Knotts walked away from his role as Deputy Barney Fife on the solid ‘60s hit The Andy Griffith Show, he did so with an armload of Emmys, and a huge amount of performer popularity, on his side. Universal, long hoping to tap into that formidable fame windfall, put the actor into a series of specially designed projects, many crafted by the Griffith show’s staff writers. Who better to guide Knotts’ big screen persona than the men who developed it for the boob tube. After the combination cartoon/live action comedy The Incredible Mr. Limpet, the actor next appeared in this wonderful little gem. Using a horror theme (Knotts is a typesetter who investigates a local haunted house, hoping to become a real life reporter) and his personal pliability with physical goofiness, the filmmakers found the right balance between humor and heart. The result is an enduring classic that stands up well, even today. It showcases Knotts’ deft timing, and offers a perfect subject showcase for his shaky shenanigans.


So why remake it? Well, two reasons, actually. It’s a fantastic storyline – a little contrived and clichéd at times, but still effective as a quaint, quirky character study. It would be easy to see someone like Steve Buscemi, or a younger Jeff Goldblum, playing the part of nerdy nebbish Luther Heggs. Both are individuals who can infuse their performances with enough peculiarities and pathos to elevate the material. Secondly, special effects have grown so in the last 40 years that the haunted house element of the narrative can really be explored. The notion of a small town tainted by a towering estate with an evil past has a delightfully discordant ring to it, and done properly, the contrast between comedy and creeps can be winningly maintained – similar to the way the divergent emotions were equalized in Edward Scissorhands. In fact, if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are looking for another project to participate in, this would be right up their alley.


The Sentinel (1977)

In 1975, two books dominated the genre fiction landscape. One was Stephen King’s vampires in a small town tome ‘Salem’s Lot. The other was Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel. Centering on a New York supermodel and her brownstone apartment (that just so happens to be poised precariously over the actual gates of Hell), it was a nasty little gem, a pure page turner with gore and gratuity in abundance. Naturally, fans who favored flocking to the Cineplex to get their spine tingled couldn’t wait for an adaptation. Sadly, what arrived in 1977 was a toothless, watered down version of what Konvitz created – and oddly enough, he was responsible for the inept, uninvolving screenplay. Part of the problem with the big screen translation was the terrible casting. Christina Raines defined blandness as the helpless heroine, and director Michael Winner (a Brit, hot off the success of Death Wish) decided to pepper the rest of the roles with old school Hollywood heavies like Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Jose Ferrer, Ava Gardner, and Burgess Meredith, among many others. This gave the narrative a lame Love Boat feel. Winner himself was also an issue. He kept the blatant terrors of the novel tented in a veil of ambiguity and subtlety, in direct contradiction to what readers wanted.


With the current trend toward turning every fright flick made in the last 30 years into a pre-tween remake, it’s astounding no one has thought of revisiting this material. In the right hands, you could easily have a menacing mesh of Dario Argento’s Inferno and William Freidkin’s The Exorcist. The book is bursting with sensational scare setpieces, and with the newfound F/X tech, they can be accurately recreated in all their blood drenching glory. Even better, Tinsel Town could easily find a filmmaker more in sync with Konvitz’s sense of splatter. Imagine this property helmed by Sam Raimi, Neil Marshall, or Nacho Cerda – filmmakers who understand the visceral appeal and ambient awfulness in a little arterial spray. And then there is the ending. Since we learn that the title entity stands guard over the entrance, keeping the demons and the damned from roaming the Earth, just visualize the last act spectacle once the doors to Satan’s sin palace swing wide. It’s enough to make true macabre mavens giddy. 


Robot Jox

With the towering success of Michael Bay’s Transformers (a hit despite the prominent display of his much maligned name on the marquee), the time seems ripe to remake this Stuart Gordon sci-fi epic. Granted, the premise is a tad perfunctory: there’s no more war. Country/conglomerates now wage battle as part of a spectator sport where the title ‘athletes’ operate skyscraper sized automatons in rock ‘em, sock ‘em beat downs to the death. But thanks to the undercurrent of espionage (someone is sabotaging the machines to favor one ‘side’ over the other) and the overpowering possibilities of the visuals, we have something that CGI could make truly magnificent. This is not to say that Gordon’s movie is bad. In fact, it’s very good. It’s just hampered by a lack of financing (the production company actually went bankrupts during filming) and limited stop motion animation effects. Add in the lack of true star power – the cast is recognizable, but definitely relegated to the lower tiers of celebrity – and a basic b-movie feel, and you’ve got a project ripe for rediscovery.


In fact, Bay may be the perfect person to head up the remake. He has a tendency to inflate everything he does with an elephantine sense of importance, and he’s comfortable carving insular universes out of recognizable reality. Unlike The Island, which tried for future shock and wound up delivering flaccid schlock, Bay could really explore the dynamics of a planet gone playground, a world were a no holds barred rumble between giant machines determines the fate of nations. One can easily see the old Soviet iconography and new American jingoism being incorporated into the mix, and with the right set of actors – why does the name Nicholas Cage immediately come to mind? – this could be both monumental and meaningful. Indeed, Robot Jox is one of the few off title properties that carries a lot of inherent commentary possibilities. This means Bay could make something important for once, whether he realizes it or not.


The Incredible Melting Man

When Rick Baker was still an unknown scrub, drinking in the discerning genius of movie make-up guru Dick Smith, he was asked to participate in this peculiar project, a mid ‘70s update of a standard ‘50s sci-fi shocker. His mandate – create the title character in all its goo glop glory. And he did just that, much to the joy of slimy sluice fans everywhere. Too bad the film surrounding the slowly disintegrating astronaut was so lame. Filled with unintentional humor, oddball tangents, and a lack of other onscreen grue (while the man’s melting could be shown, his grizzly murders could not) the results are as ridiculous as they are repugnant. After a few play dates in the still standing passion pits and last remaining urban grindhouses, the film went on to obscurity, disdain, and in some outsider environs, considered cult status. It eventually achieved a newfound, if noxious, appreciation as part of a classic installment of the TV phenom Mystery Science Theater 3000.


Still, it’s a wonderful idea, and if handled by the appropriate genre guide, we could have a new installment of the one time fashionable “double dare” entertainment. For a little background context – back at the beginning of the ‘80s, when the VCR made make-up and physical effects the scare sets cause celeb, movies were made that tested the mantle of the average moviegoer with their over the top, exploitative gore. Examples included Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and City of the Living Dead/Gates of Hell, as well as John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Their reputation as notorious, noxious examples of excess had fans challenging each other, putting their love of all things red and revolting to the true eye gouging, skull drilling, head-bursting test. In the considered hands of someone like Eli Roth, or Rob Zombie (two filmmakers who get the groove of outrageous offal), we could have a new puke paradigm on our hands. 


Nightbreed

Clive Barker wanted it to be “the Star Wars” of horror films. After successfully bringing his brilliant Hellraiser to the silver screen, he eyed his “monsters among us” novella Cabal as his next project. It was to be big and brash, the culmination of his reality based repugnance (ala the beloved Books of Blood) and love of all things fanciful and foul. Using up his entire cache of industry interest and filmmaking favors (remember, this was only his second full length feature behind the lens), he envisioned an epic terror tale dealing with psychopathic serial killers, hidden underworlds, and misunderstood menace. He even got body horror icon David Cronenberg to step before the camera as one of this main leads. Production was problematic, with cost overruns and budget concerns cranking down the creativity. Similarly, scope had to be scaled back and many of the more important moments in the film (the descent into the bowels of Midian, with all its accompanying creatures) had to be trimmed or merely tossed away. When it was all over, the studio hated what they saw, and buried the film via a short spring release.


Except for the lack of support, Barker no longer faces the massive monetary concerns that held the original Nightbreed back. CGI and other effects are relatively inexpensive, and can be mastered by any one of several outside the industry artists. Even better, DVD has made incomplete movies like this a much more saleable commodity. If Barker could just get his hands on the missing film reels, restructure the storyline, and fix it all up with some computer generated jazziness, he might have something. Even better, he could just give up the notion of revamping the film himself, and let someone else tackle the actual literary source. Cabal is one of the author’s best works, and in the hands of someone equally in tune with what Barker was after – say, Peter Jackson? – the possibility exists for the epic the author always hoped for. Of course, as the prequels proved, the Star Wars comparison can be restrictive at best. Perhaps reconfiguring it as “the Lord of the Rings of the macabre” would be a good place to restart.


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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007


For the long holiday weekend beginning 21 November, here are the films in focus:


The Mist [rating: 8]


The Mist is destined to go down as a modern horror classic.

The indirect partnership of author Stephen King and writer/director Frank Darabont remains one of film’s most fascinating. Somehow, after crafting several genre scripts (for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Blob remake, and the Fly sequel), the soon to be cinematic savoir hooked up with George Lucas, working on the heralded Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Yet Darabont never forgot his earlier experiences crafting a short film out of King’s least supernatural story, the autobiographical cancer tale The Women in the Room. From there, he was determined to tackle another obscure tale from the fear master’s canon- the prison drama Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The results, considered by many to be a mid-90’s masterpiece, cemented his status as the ultimate interpreter of King’s work. Even the slightly bloated Green Mile couldn’t undo his reputation. read full review…


Enchanted [rating: 7]


Enchanted is a sugar spun delight. It’s as fluffy as a bunch of newborn bunnies and as cute as an entire collection of buttons.

It’s amazing that the House of Mouse never thought of this before: taking one of their signature, slightly saccharine animated heroines and tossing her – pen and ink pell mell – into the modern world. Via careful character matching, or the company’s patented cartooning techniques, this forlorn beauty could come in contact with some real metropolitan beasts. Even better, the anthropomorphic world of 2D fantasy could come crashing into the realities of a 3D world, with lots of satiric hi-jinx ensuing. And just imagine if, for once, Disney had a sense of humor about it all. Instead of lording over its legacy like a deranged demagogue, it could use the effort as a knowing nod and wink to all the critics and complainers who’ve labeled the studio out of touch, both in its aging artistry and its lack of contemporary commercial appeal. Handled properly, you’d be looking at a monster hit – and a celebrated return to form. Well, get ready audiences, because Uncle Walt’s wise men have indeed devised such a stunner – and it’s called Enchanted. read full review…


August Rush [rating: 3]


Heavy-handed, undeniably saccharine, and about as magical as a clown at a kid’s party, August Rush is an implausible, pus-covered pixie stick

Music is given credit for a lot of things. It forms the soundtrack of our lives, has charms to soothe the savage breast, and expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent. It’s our heartbeat, our sense of spirit, and exposes the depth of our very soul. It is also a callous and cruel mistress, messing with us when we don’t want to be manipulated and infusing us with aspirations we may never attain. Because of its excruciatingly personal and private nature (one man’s Beethoven is another’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard), it makes for a rather tenuous cinematic base. While your story may be sublime, the songs or sounds you use to accent it can come across as atonal and discordant. Oddly enough, the exact opposite happens in Kirsten Sheridan’s disastrous August Rush. The melodic moments are some of the best ever captured on film. Too bad the rest of the narrative is as nauseating as a boy band ballad. read full review…


Hitman [rating: 3]


Hitman overstays its welcome from the moment the ammunition starts flying, and never finds a satisfying way of winning us back. It’s dry and dour, so full of itself that you’d swear it was a college athlete.

Come back John Woo – all it forgiven. Sure, Windtalkers was a waste of time, and anything for a Paycheck didn’t demand you lower your standards to brash Benifer levels. No, the adrenaline rushed crime thriller needs you – and with the newly released Hitman ready to louse up theaters worldwide – it’s not a moment too soon. All the lessons you taught us about re-imagined action, about giving the standard fire fight a sly, slow motion significance, have been ignored in favor of big guns, big bangs, and big disappointment. Only you could make this feeble foreign intrigue work, and with the sloppy script and underwhelming cast, it would be a Herculean task. You weren’t sitting in the director’s chair, unfortunately. As a result, the so-called shoot ‘em up turns into a snoozefest.  read full review…


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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007


Come back John Woo – all it forgiven. Sure, Windtalkers was a waste of time, and anything for a Paycheck didn’t demand you lower your standards to brash Benifer levels. No, the adrenaline rushed crime thriller needs you – and with the newly released Hitman ready to louse up theaters worldwide – it’s not a moment too soon. All the lessons you taught us about re-imagined action, about giving the standard fire fight a sly, slow motion significance, have been ignored in favor of big guns, big bangs, and big disappointment. Only you could make this feeble foreign intrigue work, and with the sloppy script and underwhelming cast, it would be a Herculean task. You weren’t sitting in the director’s chair, unfortunately. As a result, the so-called shoot ‘em up turns into a snoozefest. 


Born into a weird world of purposefully programmed orphans, Number 47 was raised to be the ultimate lethal weapon. He’s a hired assassin, working for the mysterious ‘Organization’. When a political hit goes array, our killer faces a quandary. Set up by someone and about to take the fall, he needs to find out who framed him – and make sure no one will benefit from it. All roads lead to the initial target (a Russian leader named Belicoff), his drug dealing brother Udre, and a prostitute/potential witness named Nika. After saving the girl from a parallel plot, 47 heads off to find the source of his betrayal. Turns out, the target in question may not be dead after all, and the international intelligence community may be playing a part in all of this. And then there is the Interpol agent named Mike Whittier who has been chasing 47 for three years. All he needs is one lucky break, and he can put this cruel killer away for life.


Hitman overstays its welcome from the moment the ammunition starts flying, and never finds a satisfying way of winning us back. It’s dry and dour, so full of itself that you’d swear it was a college athlete. In a genre not known for its subtlety, cinematic tact, innovation (unless you’re John Woo), or lack of contrivance, this vacant videogame adaptation is a barely passable poster child. It’s the kind of effort that slinks when it should soar, that substitutes brooding for that all important bullet ballet. If the ability to glower successfully was a true underworld asset, the pretentiously named Number 47 would be Tony Soprano. Even worse, a movie named Hitman should revel in its gory, gratuitous killings. It’s the main purpose for inviting an audience. Sadly, screenwriter Skip Woods and director Xavier Gens don’t comprehend the fun in firepower. Instead, they keep pushing the film into political intrigue mode – and in these days of uncertain international ideology, a From Russia with Love storyline feels so Tom Clancy.


With his hairless head, slight physique, and back of the neck barcode tattoo, 47 is a manufactured psycho, a pre-credits sequence providing the only insight into how and why he became the way he is. This material, the most unique and different element Hitman has to offer, is underplayed to the point that we forget it after a few minutes. Even when the character discusses his make-up later on, it takes a second for our brains to recall said reality. Why Woods and Gens would avoid such origin material for more mindless intelligence agency protocol is just one of this film’s failings. In order to make 47 something more than an assassinating automaton, we need to see how he suffered, to witness the inner demons he is constantly dealing with. Instead, the storyline keeps him distant, and therefore dull. Even intriguing clues (a church key, a bag of deadly tricks) become nothing more than throwaway moments.


Of course, if lead Timothy Olyphant were a more present actor, we’d have little to worry about. Hitman was originally planned as a vehicle for Vin Diesel, and say what you want about the limited range lunkhead, but when it comes to action bravado, that cueball has it in spades. Olyphant, on the other hand, is like a kid playing cops and incredibly skilled hired gun. During a mandatory sequence of isolated inner turmoil (expressed best by a steamy shower) we see he has the physique for the job. But instead of the charisma of Chow-Yun Fat circa The Killer, we get someone who looks surprisingly like a refugee from a Euro-trash version of Extreme Makeover, Home Edition. Wisely, Woods gives the character very little dialogue. Instead, 47 is fleshed out by his meticulous attention to death-delivering detail. He is so many steps ahead of his potential captors that we never once fear for his safety – not that we care, actually.


Indeed, the biggest problem with Hitman is its lack of any and all emotional pull. Since 47 is so proficient, there is no suspense. He’s so asexual that when slinky Soviet sexpot Nika (a wannabe Asia Argento named Olga Kurylenko) straddles him like a stripper, his only response is to drug her and leave. When he’s joking, it barely registers. He’s never outright angry or totally deep in despair. No, 47 is exactly like everything else in Hitman – he’s moderated to the point of meaninglessness. The story, the tone, the action sequences, the plodding plot twists all reflect Gens desire to dilute anything that could conceivably enliven the proceedings. In a film centering around slaughter and the skillful application of same, we expect lifelessness…just not from anything other than the corpses. And yet everything we see and anything we experience is filtered through a lumbering lack of energy.


Still, the fanboys should be happy. Though nothing here can match the vicarious thrill of envisioning you finger on the trigger of a joystick jerryrigged weapon, game devotees will see a lot of their console fave here. And since they are fully ensconced in all aspects of the Hitman mythos, a lack of onscreen depth or explanation won’t really matter. All they require is the recognizable iconography - the tribal symbol logo of the enigmatic “Organization”, the Reservoir Dog style black ensemble, the double barreled defiance of two gleaming guns – and all is well in the PlayStation universe. Filmgoers, on the other hand, don’t have the benefit of endless hours investigating the various nuances of their interactive experience. Instead, they need their information and intrigue plastered across the screen. Sadly, not even blood gets sprayed across the feeble framework provided. Hitman had some minor potential. Too bad the filmmakers decided to temper that as well. 


 


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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007


It’s amazing that the House of Mouse never thought of this before: taking one of their signature, slightly saccharine animated heroines and tossing her – pen and ink pell mell – into the modern world. Via careful character matching, or the company’s patented cartooning techniques, this forlorn beauty could come in contact with some real metropolitan beasts. Even better, the anthropomorphic world of 2D fantasy could come crashing into the realities of a 3D world, with lots of satiric hi-jinx ensuing. And just imagine if, for once, Disney had a sense of humor about it all. Instead of lording over its legacy like a deranged demagogue, it could use the effort as a knowing nod and wink to all the critics and complainers who’ve labeled the studio out of touch, both in its aging artistry and its lack of contemporary commercial appeal. Handled properly, you’d be looking at a monster hit – and a celebrated return to form. Well, get ready audiences, because Uncle Walt’s wise men have indeed devised such a stunner – and it’s called Enchanted.


When we first meet the fair Giselle, she’s singing about love’s true kiss in the far off fairytale realm of Andalasia. With the help of her woodland creature friends, she is making an effigy or her dreamboat desire, the spitting image of none other than Prince Edward. Naturally, his highness’s evil mother, Queen Narissa, wants to keep her seat on the throne. If her son gets hitched, he inherits the realm. Hoping to avoid a meeting (and a marriage), she puts loyal servant/sidekick Nathaniel on the payroll. He thwarts Edward every step of the way. Sadly, it’s all for naught. Giselle and her true love meet, and prepare for their wedding. As a last ditch effort, Narissa sends her future daughter-in-law to the one place her boy can’t find her – the real world. Manhattan, New York actually. There, Giselle is ‘rescued’ by a cynical divorce attorney named Robert Phillip. A single dad raising six year old Morgan, he’s been dating the Type-A career gal Nancy for nearly five years. As Edward and Nathaniel head to the big Apple themselves, Giselle tries to teach Robert about love – and starts to discover her true feelings as well.


Enchanted is a sugar spun delight. It’s as fluffy as a bunch of newborn bunnies and as cute as an entire collection of buttons. It features a fantastic, star-making performance by actress Amy Adams, a wicked sense of humor, and enough cartoon/CG spectacle to keep even the most easily distracted tweener happy as a clambake. As an entertainment, it’s beyond chipper. As acknowledgement of the standard fairytale formulas, it’s wonderfully wise. Not really a parody in the traditional sense, Enchanted earns a lot of its wit from shamelessly embracing the archetypes that many feel have deadened hand drawn animation in the last three decades. Toss in a classic score by long time Disney hit maker Alan Menken (working again with lyrical collaborator Stephen Schwartz) and a flawless meshing of animation with actuality, and you’ve got something that stands as a post-modern Mickey-made classic.


The main reason for the movie’s unflappable appeal is lead Amy Adams. While Oscar nominated for her turn in Junebug (how many remember her…or the film?), she is simply astounding here. So perky and upbeat she could make a corpse conga, there is an amazing amount of bright spirit and uncomplicated emotion in this pure, pretty princess. Even when working with New York’s notorious wildlife (a classic moment has her straightening up Robert’s apartment with the aid of cockroaches, flies, rats, and pigeons), she’s snowier than Ms. White and sunnier than a certain Cindy. Without Adams’ dead-on performance, Enchanted wouldn’t work. Instead, it would be Aquamarine. In fact, the closest any previous film comes to this is Ron Howard’s hilarious Splash – and that fabled literal fish out of water tale had the late great John Candy around to keep things rib tickling.


No, what Enchanted has is a noble supporting cast including James Marsden as your typically dense Prince, Susan Sarandon as a workable wicked witch, beefy Brit Timothy Spall as Nathaniel, and a goofy animated chipmunk named Pip that steals every scene he/it is in. Grey’s Anatomy fans might wonder about their favorite manly medico, Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd. Luckily, Patrick Dempsey is very good here, doing quite a bit with what is, clearly, the film’s most underwritten role. We don’t really see his character’s warming to Giselle as much as expect it, and his last act heroism is oddly uninvolving. Indeed, if Enchanted has a flaw, it’s the lack of an emotional epiphany. Since we are dealing in predictability (it’s part of a cartoon’s model), we know who’s ending up with whom. While getting there is fun, it’s not the three-hanky happiness we could have received.


Still, Kevin Lima deserves as much credit as Ms. Adams for pulling this off. As a director, he worked on previous Disney efforts like A Goofy Movie, Tarzan, and 102 Dalmatians, and he really outdoes himself here. Taking a savvy script by Bill Kelly and introducing all manner of genre in-jokes into the mix, we wind up with a slightly surreal, decidedly non-sappy lark. The musical moments – both drawn and danced – are expertly handled, and Lima really understands how to build a scene. When Pip disrupts a pizza parlor, or a costumed ball clashes with fairytale villainy, we completely buy the jarring juxtaposition. Thanks to the expert performances, the naturally unreal feel of New York itself, the careful controlling of the narrative, and the heartfelt sense of happiness and fun, any minor missteps are instantly forgiven and forgotten.


In a legacy that once saw the studio dominate both the live action and hand drawn cinematic realm, Enchanted is a real renaissance. It proves that Disney was only down, not out, when it came to challenging up and coming classicists like Pixar – and they didn’t need to rely on crass, pop culture heavy efforts like Shrek or Ice Age to restand its ground. Certainly set up to be a frequently revisited future franchise (we get a happily ever after, but there’s clearly more material to explore here), they’ll be no complaining as long as the sensational standards created here are kept. Who would have thought that after a year which saw a formidable Fred Claus, a middling Mr. Magorium, and an underachieving Underdog, that the best family film would find the House of Mouse embracing and redirecting years of aesthetic atrophy. The results are as charmed as the title suggests.



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