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Sunday, Jan 14, 2007


There was much more to Yvonne DeCarlo than The Munsters. There was the opera singing youth who performed at the famed Hollywood Bowl, the voluptuous B-movie actress with roles in some of the genre’s seminal efforts. There was the omnivorous sexual being, a woman who claimed 22 lovers in her scintillating autobiography, including Howard Hughes, Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor and Billy Wilder. And there was the Broadway star who gave Follies (and it’s showstopper “I’m Still Here”) its emotional heft. Last but not least, she was Lily, ghoulish wife to Frankenstein husband Herman and mother to weird wolfboy Eddie. Unfortunately, in a medium measured by a certain level of “what have you done for me lately” fame, DeCarlo was typecast for her brief stint in creature feature costuming. Though she never complained about the classification, it’s sad that one TV show more or less wiped out an entire other career before the public.


With her recent passing from natural causes at age 84 (DeCarlo died on 8 January) fans of her infamous macabre mother bit have reason to be in mourning. While Fred Gwynne gave The Munsters its manic energy, and Al Lewis enlivened the show with his embittered old bat shtick, DeCarlo was the homespun heart, the voice of reason in a realm overloaded with Gothic goofiness and juvenile joking. It was a peculiar place for the former Peggy Yvonne Middleton to be in. Born in the Canadian province of British Columbia, DeCarlo’s mother saw potential in her child from a very early age. Abandoned by her father when she was three, hers was a hard knock life of isolation, dance classes and dramatic studies. While performing provided an excellent escape from the loneliness and poverty of her single parent’s precarious circumstance, young Peggy still suffered. When she turned 15, Mom finally took her to Hollywood, hoping for instant success. Yet aside from winning Miss Venice Beach in 1938, no one was welcoming this adolescent actress. Without breaching a single studio door, the pair eventually returned to the Great White North, defeated.


Three years later, an 18 year old Peggy returned to Tinsel Town, and found steady work in chorus lines while seeking a screen test. Before long, she was working, unbilled, in several slight short films. When her turn as a bathing beauty got her noticed in 1941’s Harvard, Here I Come, the newly christened Yvonne DeCarlo (a combination of her grandfather’s last name and her middle moniker) became exotic eye candy for numerous forgettable efforts. Though a leading role in 1943’s The Deerslayer raised her profile a little, it wasn’t until 1945’s Salome - Where She Danced that DeCarlo finally got the big break she needed. She soon became known for her “sex-and-sand” epics, movies with names like Song of Scheherazade, Slave Girl, Casbah and Desert Hawk. She was equally comfortable in a Wild West setting, where her smashing good looks and ample figure helped fortify such films as Frontier Gal, Black Bart, River Lady and Calamity Jane and Sam Bass.


But it wasn’t until 1956, when noted spectacle specialist Cecil B. DeMille was looking for an actress to play Sephora, the wife of Old Testament titan Moses in The Ten Commandments that the actress finally arrived. DeCarlo won the role, and soon she was stealing glances as the faithful spouse who stood by her God guided man through all manner of trials and tribulations. Looking far more erotic than a Biblical bride should, rumor has it that costar Anne Baxter was angry that her Nefrateri had to compete with DeCarlo’s physical flower for the affections of Charleton Heston. A huge hit, Commandments lead the actress to another fine role as Amantha Starr in Band of Angels. Though today, this pre-Civil Rights look at the antebellum South screams racial (and historical) insensitivity, DeCarlo, along with Sidney Poitier and Clark Gable, gave a daring performance (she was even involved in a taboo testing interracial kiss).


As with most studio stars, the failing Hollywood system strangled the actress’s efforts to move forward. Television became a necessary repository for DeCarlo’s career goals, and she ended up co-starring on popular series like Bonanza and The Virginian. But it was the chance offer of a comedic role in a ridiculous sounding sitcom that finally secured the b-movie beauty a slice of immortality. It is said that former Car 54 costars Gwynne and Lewis did not want DeCarlo as Lily. They thought her too old (she was born in ‘22, with Lewis arriving in ‘23 and Gwynne starting off in ‘26) and saddled with a randy reputation loaded with sleazy innuendo (something Kenneth Anger chronicles in depth in his Hollywood Babylon book). This was supposed to be a family show, after all.


Once she put on the fright mask make-up and donned the ghoul’s gown, all fears were instantly alleviated. Lily became the show’s stalwart, the straight man allowing for Gwynne and Lewis’s laugh out loud craziness. As with The Addams Family, The Munsters used the comic premise to explore domestic issues and subjects usually avoided (racism, sexuality, conformity) by the standard sitcom. But just like its chief competitor, the public grew weary of the gimmick-oriented offering and The Munsters disappeared after only two seasons. Again adrift, DeCarlo tried to parlay her TV celebrity into more meaningful roles. Sadly, she seemed stuck in low budget quickies, dreary drive-in dreck, and the occasional exploitation effort. Thankfully, the Great White Way offered her a chance to shine, showing off the surprisingly strong singing voice that few in her fanbase knew she had.


In Follies, DeCarlo was Carlotta Campion, a former star reminiscing about her time in the limelight. Given a great showstopper by musical genius Stephen Sondheim, the theater proved a perfect format to fulfill DeCarlo’s lifelong dreams. The show ran for over a year, and remained an apex in the actress’s latter years. A few Munster’s reunion shows during the ‘70s and ‘80s kept her in the public eye, but by 1995, age and illness forced her into retirement.


Though she was married only once throughout the course of her career (a 13 year relationship with Bob Morgan resulted in two sons and a step-daughter) DeCarlo’s earlier after hours escapades remained salacious tabloid style scuttlebutt. Her tell-all autobiography in 1987 confirmed many of the more sensational aspects of her story, but nothing could really dissuade the public about her persona. Thanks to endless years of afternoon reruns, generations grew up loving the vampire-like matron with a strong, sensible streak, and Lily Munster’s legacy continued unabated. Even actresses who would take on the Munster mantle in various remakes and TV movies acknowledge that DeCarlo was the definitive version of the humble horror housewife.


Still, there was much more to Yvonne DeCarlo than widow’s peaks, haunted house hilarity and an untamed libido. She’s a reminder that imagery and memory are a strong combination, a recipe to reduce even the most startling female figure into a lifetime of living as the bride of the monster. Tell someone that DeCarlo was Moses’s mate and they’ll probably ask you the name of the spoof you are referencing. Hopefully, as her career is considered, newcomers to the actresses canon will discover the diversity of her talents. Sure, she will always be Lily Munster. But that’s not all Yvonne DeCarlo was. Not by a long shot.


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Saturday, Jan 13, 2007


In the hierarchy of oversized Japanese icons, Majin (or Daimajin in the native tongue) barely registers on the fanbase firmament. Several slots below reigning king of all kaiju, Godzilla, and barely within breathing room of the giant lizard’s chief rival, the elephantine turtle terror Gamera, this legendary golem-like figure remains an afterthought in the whole Toho/Daiei rivalry. Created in 1966, when every child’s favorite amphibian was kicking some incredible box office butt, the mythic stone statue turned green faced avenger was introduced to movie audiences in the film Daimajin. Instantly successful (people just couldn’t get enough of humongous beings breaking up miniature communities as part of their entertainment ideals), two sequels quickly followed – Daimajin ikaru (Wrath of the Majin) and Daimajin Gyakushu (The Return of Majin).


But it took AIP, and their television division, for the warlord waxing effigy to make an appearance on American soil. Redubbed into English, stripped of their CinemaScope grandeur, and reduced to Saturday matinee kiddie fodder, the Majin films made a minor dent in the demographic, using their period piece pronouncements to further illustrate the Eastern obsession with tradition, heritage and honor. Barely remembered by new generations of Godzilla/Gamera lovers, Image Entertainment now releases a delightful double feature of the vengeance minded figurine’s first two films. Though barely passable when it comes to technological specifics (these are still the Western speaking full screen versions being offered) the actual films are filled with the kind of special effects ridiculousness that make most kaiju a crackerjack culpable contentment. 


Daimajin (here renamed Majin, Monster of Terror) follows the format set out by latter day Toho/Daiei epics from the era. Instead of giving us all kind of bad ass monster mashing right up front, director Kimiyoshi Yasuda (best known for his Zatoichi films) sets out to recreate the time and place of feudal Japan. He explains the historic pecking order, briefly breaches the samurai code, and then gives us a typical story of political uprising, a cruel warlord’s bloody coup, and the rescued royal offspring who will lie in wait until the time comes for their return to power. In between we get lots of ancient Japanese gods and rituals, a constant reminder than Shino (a friendly warrior entity) must be appeased, less Majin get mad and start kicking country rube rear end. In the first film, our evil dictator decides to tear down the stone figure sitting near the top of the sacred waterfall, even going so far as to have his men drive a stake in Majin’s forehead. The results, or course, are fatal as our sculpture comes to life with payback on its mind.


Naturally, this all Hell breaks loose action sequence takes about 80 minutes to arrive. Before then, Yasuda gives us riffs on The Ten Commandments (a slave building the warlord’s fort is left to be crushed by oncoming columns before a local man saves his life) and standard melodramatic mush (a young boy constantly pesters his imprisoned father about a dying mother Daddy can do nothing about) before bringing on the successful city smashing. It has to be said that Majin, Monster of Terror has some very good old fashioned physical F/X work, especially when you consider that some of the Godzilla/Gamera oeuvre is laugh out loud terrible when it comes to their blue screen silliness. Here, Yasuda takes the finale very seriously, and Majin is definitely not your standard fire-breathing beast. Instead, he crushes people underfoot (sadly, no blood is shown) and uses the giant spike in his head as a means of dispatching the object of his anger.


Cathartic in its approach to man in suit justice, Daimajin makes you feel like the spiritual world is setting things right amongst the players of the corporeal plane, and while it does contain those dopey, jaw dropping elements that make Toho/Daiei movies so memorable (overdone villains chewing the scenery, moments of narrative illogic), there is still a real feeling for the time and place presented. It’s a formula followed almost to the letter by the second film featured, referred to as Return of the Giant Majin (actually, Daimajin ikaru). Again, an evil overlord trounces the legitimate local authority, goes despot on the dominion, and needs a 10 ton stone reminder of why such authoritarian atrocities don’t float the ghost world’s boat. Before we know it, another rubber encased stunt man is walking ramshackle over balsa wood homes as a cast of thousands flee his rear projection wrath.


Like the first film, we must suffer through plot points that purposely exaggerate our desire for revenge (peasants getting killed, children in perpetual peril) and wait incessantly while everyone final figures out that, by praying to Majin, karma will come along and boot some totalitarian tocks. It’s interesting how serious the filmmakers take these last act destruction set pieces. For some reason, American’s never really got behind the whole giant being/city destroying genre. Examples were usually reserved for bad B-movies (The Amazing Colossal Man) or nature gone nutty extravaganzas (Them!, Beginning of the End). But the Japanese, obviously influenced by the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, used the Godzilla/Gamera films – and all their Mothra/Rodan variations – as a symbol of how unstable life really is. One day, you’re a nation at war with the most powerful country in the world. The next, a mutant bomb wipes out an entire town.


Scholars have long discussed the correlation between nuclear proliferation and the Toho/Daiei efforts, finding parallels between the world’s rapid rise toward atomic armament and the destruction of the environment via global grousing and disrespect. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Majin movies don’t make a larger impression. There is no dialogue drawing a link between the statue and some simmer modern political problem, no symbolic stance where a transformed beast destroys the army that more or less created him. No, what we have here is cinematic vigilante justice, pure and simple, a chance for audiences to feel the cathartic curative facets of a malevolent boss belittled, a cruel taskmaster destroyed. While Godzilla and Gamera can definitely stand in for the natural order run amok, the more spiritual, theological nature of Majin keeps it insular and unique.


All problems with popularity aside, the Majin movies are still a great deal of fun. While it would have been nice to see all three films here (now out of print, ADV Films released the entire trilogy back in 2002), the pair offered up by Retromedia and Image recall rainy weekend days seated in front of the TV, juvenile eyes starring in wide delight as mythic beings beat the Bejesus out of each other on a glorified grand scale. Maybe one day, our man Majin will find a fan club capable of pushing it over the top, allowing it to take his rightful place alongside a massive moth, a revamped reptile and a titanic tortoise. As it stands, The Giant Majin Collection reminds us that certain styles of cinema are inherent to specific cultural setting. Thank god the Japanese love their bigger than life figures of retribution. Schlock cinema would be nothing without them.



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of The Giant Majin Collection was released on 9 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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Friday, Jan 12, 2007


By 1969, the career of legendary director John Huston was in an unprecedented slump. Since 1964’s Night of the Iguana, he found his name attached to one misguided project after another (The Bible, Casino Royale, A Walk with Love and Death) and it appeared the glory days of his special cinematic gifts were all but gone. But a crucial thing happened along the way to obscurity. Huston vowed to challenge himself, work through the creative drought, and attack projects of varying styles and types, hoping to freshen what had seemingly become stale and stalwart. While he would again find another zenith of sorts in his 1975 adventure The Man Who Would Be King, the Me Decade started out promising for the larger than life director. He followed the current “independent” movement, then in its infancy, with a small, near perfect look at losers at the very outskirts of social, emotional, and physical poverty. The remarkable Fat City was the unpolished and yet spectacular result of an old fashioned Hollywood filmmaker’s newfound experimentalism. Based on Leonard Gardner’s powerful novel of the same name, the film marked a new era in Huston’s career as the former studio player crafted a motion picture that matched nicely with the early ‘70s filmmaking renaissance, when writers and directors conceived cinema as art, not just a profit making business enterprise.


A simple character study of drunks and bums, the naïve and the jaded in personal freefall, Fat City is a film about desperation, about the lengths people will go (and the abuse they will foist upon themselves and others) in the mad desire to break out from the shackles of skid row reality. A small picture in subject but massive in thematic resonance, Fat City explores that lowest of social subsections, visiting (and then staying far beyond) the “wrong side of the tracks” to dwell in the sphere of the truly desolate and downtrodden. This is not a film of sudden epiphanies or life affirming revelations. There is no “big fight” at the end. True, there is a contest between the main character and a washed-up Mexican boxer, a final shot at personal salvation for the more or less useless hero. But this is not Rocky. There is no bag of riches or life-altering resolution at the final sounding of the bell. There is hardly even redemption. Fat City shows us that, even in victory there is potential defeat and that sometimes, in the most horrid and painful of losses, a little human dignity can still be salvaged. The people living on the edge of society aren’t just going through the motions; they are being moved, as life size game pieces, in God’s own private joke game of Life. Unfortunately, they never seem to come up winners.


The themes of rehabilitation and destiny play a huge role in Fat City. Each character at the beginning of the film has gone to seed in some manner or another. Tully is broken, a horrible lush who still carries the body of a prizefighter, if not the mental concentration. Ernie is a neophyte, an untested specimen in the arena of boxing, love and life. Oma is emotionally and mentally void, using alcohol as a means of killing what little feeling and grasp on reality she has left. And while seemingly well adjusted, Ruben too is dispirited, trading on the bodies and brainlessness of his fighters for a few dollars and the dream of the big time. Destiny is always at odds with the players in Fat City. From how they live to the means of pursuing their dreams, the social circumstances preordain their choices, seeming always to lead to failure and unhappiness. The characters are fated to the fringe, a place where righteousness seldom stops to roost. In their Fat City, a date with a naïve virgin spills into a legal and biological arrangement for life; the failure to follow a potentially profitable fighter to Panama means a trip back to the boondocks for the manager and the bottom of a beer barrel for his could-have-been-champion charge; and the personal desire to interact with another, similar minded and mixed drink companion leads to homelessness and heartache. Try as they might, Dame Fortune has passed over the denizens of Fat City, perhaps because even on her own ethereal level, she too can find no hope for them.


This is truly an actor’s movie, and as for the performances, they are flawless. Stacey Keach doesn’t “play” Billy Tully so much as he embodies him, transforming his posture and mannerisms into a rye soaked, borderline punch-drunk lowlife whose will to live (and die) comes from whiskey that all but shatters his simple ideals. Keach has never been a superstar, but it’s not for lack of talent. His Tully is a fully realized icon, a genuine lost soul with the physical stamina to work the migrant vegetable circuit but the emotional scars and damage to dissolve into a stupor as well. He is filled with conflicting desires but seems destined to slip into a fifth of forgetfulness rather than do anything of substance about them. It is a great acting accomplishment, as is Jeff Bridges’ turn as the damned Ernie. In this young idealist you can see how Tully came to this point in his life, and why Ernie seems meant for the same. Not so much a character as a dramatic straight man to the despondency and depravity around him, there is a naïve charm and wistful acceptance in Bridges’ demeanor, using his inexperience and vitality to underwrite a slow walk into the fetid underbelly of life. His distance and thoughtfulness allows the audience to enter and interpret the world that he functions within. While not as showy as the other roles in the film, Bridges still captivates the screen with his interpretation of the soon to be walking wounded.


But at the core of Fat City are two performances, wildly dissimilar in tone but equally powerful and telling in their framing of the story. Anyone who remembers the character of Coach from Cheers will be amazed by the stellar work of Nicholas Colasanto as Ruben, Tully’s onetime (and Ernie’s current) boxing manager. An old time pugilist who wears every fight he’s ever had or been involved in on his open, broken face, Ruben is a realist, the epitome of a diehard, even-as-it-is-slowly-killing-you spirit of those scrapping at the very bottom. Crazily optimistic and trying not to give in to the bleakness and misery of his surroundings, Ruben is convinced that he is just one fighter away from success, but also resigned to make his chump change off the sweat and blood of inexperienced street scufflers willing to sacrifice their bodies for a few dollars. On the opposite end of the sullen spectrum is the amazing work of Academy Award nominee Suzanne Tyrrell (for her role here) as the perpetually pickled Oma. Drunken to the point of incoherence and damaged to almost physical immobility, many may find Tyrrell’s manner over the top and shrill. But in reality, she is phenomenal. Bitter and funny, she paints a portrait of a woman so lost in liquor and its depressive properties (both emotional and chemical) that any doorway out has long since closed. For now she is left abandoned and misplaced in her own private universe, complete with its own moral codes, lunatic logic, and social graces. Oma represents the very bottom, the dead end to where all the characters are potentially headed. Tyrrell’s bravery in making it a very unpleasant, painful place to experience deserves as much credit and recognition as can be given.


While all this may seem too down and out to be entertaining, it’s a credit to Huston’s long perfected directing and narrative style that the film ends up saying something positive, even as it wallows in the seemingly miserable lives of these characters. Ruben is hope. Or at least help. Oma is gloom. In between are Billy and Ernie. Ernie may be good enough to make a go of boxing, even if with Ruben he can only rise to the level of street hustling fights in off circuit venues. Billy is transfixed by Oma, seeing her as a potential drink and soul mate. Until they move in together, that is, and her near infantile dependency loses its charm and becomes a noose. Billy doesn’t want to end up pouring his existence out of a wine jug. But in a stunning shot at the very end of the movie, he has a moment of clarity, a lucid frame in his downward life spiral that indicates exactly where he is and where he will be the rest of his life. Leave it to the old pro Huston to constantly manufacture magic movie moments like that, and always find the proper tone, setting, and performance to underline his themes. From the opening moments where we fly over the urban renovations of the San Francisco/California scenery and slowly arrive in the tenements of Stockton, we understand that we are in the hands of a brilliant, classic filmmaker. Huston explores the landscape, both inner and outer, in Fat City and creates a spellbinding, exceptional motion picture, and a near timeless classic.


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Thursday, Jan 11, 2007


Over the next few weeks, we will be revamping our Friday look at the films found on your premium pay cable channels. Our hope here at SE&L is to search beyond the Saturday night showings that tend to dominate these listings and instead broaden the viewing spectrum to include forgotten titles, recent hits, overlooked classics and big dumb guilty pleasures. With hundreds of offerings spread out over dozens of channels (and feeds), it will be a daunting task, but one we hope allows for more choices, and more films to discuss. As it stands, we stick with our old format this time around. But be on the look out. Over the next installments, SE&L will definitely be shaking things up. For 13 January, here’s what you can look forward to:


HBOFirewall
As if we need proof to be nervous about Harrison Ford taking up the Indiana Jones mantle for a fourth time, the 64 year old’s inert performance in this pedestrian thriller will definitely give Raiders fans a reason to recoil. Borrowing from almost every previous Ford action film, this combination of Jack Ryan, Air Force One, and The Fugitive fails on all levels. It is never very exciting, offers up an illogical narrative, and reduces our star to nothing more than a catalyst for various confrontations and stunt setpieces. Not even capable of being a slight, superficial diversion, director Richard Loncraine, whose previous efforts behind the lens (My House in Umbria, Wimbeldon) show little action acumen, creates a dull, derivative techno mess. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 8PM EST).


Cinemax16 Blocks
Richard Donner returns to the action category, eight years after the last Lethal Weapon film, and the results are uneven but effective. Bruce Willis is an aging cop set to deliver a key witness (Mos Def) to court. The title indicates the distance he must traverse. Naturally, shadow forces want to silence the stoolie, and our hero ends up caught in a crossfire of competing interest. Once the truth is uncovered, the case becomes even harder for our loyal policeman. Released in March 2006 to little fanfare and mediocre studio support, critics actually enjoyed this return to form for the one time creator of box office blockbusters. Home video – or in this case, the pay cable medium – may be the perfect place for fans to discover this genre gem. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzThe Shaggy Dog
That noise you just heard was Tim Allen’s already toilet-bound film career being flushed away for good. With a third sloppy Santa Clause film under his belt (featuring that career-killer Martin Short) and the abominable Zoom barely making a dent in the Summer sweepstakes, this disastrous Disney misstep is the inexplicable icing on the comedian’s cinematic cake. Never the best House of Mouse franchise to begin with, the Shaggy series pushes the boundaries of both believability and likeability. There is just something so surreal about a storyline that has an adult male going canine in order to learn some lame life lessons. Kids may cotton to this cutesy crap, but adults will require instant insulin shots the minute this saccharine slop starts. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeFour Brothers
Borrowing more than just a bit from The Sons of Katie Elder, this John Singleton success finds a quartet of divergent siblings seeking justice once their beloved adoptive matriarch is found murdered. Of course, their vigilante style of payback reveals closely held secrets among the four, and that complicates the situation considerably. Though the link to the John Wayne western was downplayed upon initial release (similar to the stance Michael Bay took with the whole Island/Clonus circumstances), Singleton strove to make his gritty urban crime drama different. By focusing on the interaction between the characters, and keeping the action amplified and fierce, he delivered a delightful mainstream hit. While no means a work of art, these Brothers definitely excite as they entertain. (Saturday 13 January, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


ZOMBIES!
For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 12/13 January, an unusual Basil Rathbone/Bela Lugosi/Lon Chaney Jr. effort is highlighted:


The Black Sleep
Hoping to cure his wife’s brain tumor, a mad scientist conspires with a cohort to find victims for his evil surgical experiments.
(2am EST)


Independent Eye
A new year signals a new approach for SE&L‘s weekly venture into deciphering the best that pay television has to offer – at least film wise. Going back to basics, each week, Independent Eye will focus on the films featured on two of cable’s more esoteric movie channels – IFC and Sundance. The top three picks (when available) for each will be discussed, hopefully enlightening you on the cinematic possibilities that exist beyond the standard blockbusters and off title releases. For the second week of 2007, the filmic focus finds:



IFC: The Independent Film Channel


14 January 1:50PM EST – Office Space
Mike Judge’s ode to mindless corporate drones, unnecessary flair, and the joke that is a cubicle-based career arc, deserves its crazy cult status. Find out why.


16 January 9PM EST – Amelie
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s gorgeous little fable about a girl who returns beloved lost objects to the forlorn people they once belonged to is a magical movie experience.


19 January 12AM EST – This Night, I’ll Possess Your Corpse
Hoping to find the perfect bride to bear his son, Zé do Caixão – a.k.a Coffin Joe terrorizes the citizens of a small Brazilian village. A masterpiece of macabre.


The Sundance Channel


17 January 12AM EST – Boom!
The famous Burton/Taylor flop, this reworking of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is a bad movie buff’s dream. Choice cheese indeed.


 


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Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007


There is a moment in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Children of Men where the reality of what is going on finally sinks in. It doesn’t occur when our hero, Theo, narrowly escapes death as a bomb goes off in his local coffee shop. Nor is it the sequence where a band of rebels known as the Fish kidnap this disgruntled civil servant and ask him for a bureaucratic favor. No, in a scene so subtle it almost gets away with its subversion, Cuarón lets us look at the London kept unaffected by the ongoing apocalypse around it. Behind well guarded gates, past lawns loaded with all manner of English tea party pageantry, zoo animals mingle with the privileged and the upper crust, palace guards parading down archetypical streets, everything glazed with proper British ceremony.


Theo, there to visit a relative in the ministry, gets to see the spoils of a world gone warlike. The “rescued” statue of David sits in the foyer, as memento of a raid in Florence. Similarly, a trip to Spain garners Picasso’s Guernica, it’s images of death and destruction used to line a dining room wall. As he sits and eats, sipping wine and drinking in the artificial atmosphere, we see a shockingly familiar site just beyond our view. Sure enough, right outside the window, is yet another lesson in preserving the past. It’s the inflatable pig from Pink Floyd’s Animals album, once again sitting perched within its Battlesea Power Station setting.


Call it dystopian or future shocking, but Children of Men is nothing more than a sensational cinematic allegory as bona fide art. Fashioned from PD James famed novel about a world gone infertile (and the horrors that accompany such a biological barrier), a legion of screenwriters have boiled the metaphorical wake up call into a look at the planet circa 2006. The technology visible is not quite beyond our current comprehension (even if computer screens float freely in the air) and the destruction not predicated on massive acts of global extermination. It is clear from the neo-fascist regime ruling Britain that Earth has died from the inside out, unable to cope with the demise of implied immortality. One of the ideas that this stellar motion picture exploits effectively is the hopelessness of those unable to contemplate the inability to continue on with the species. Instead of finding ways to channel this despair, to join together to fight, they turn on each other, creating police states where citizenship is more important than solutions.


The scenes where immigrants – or ‘fugees’, for refugee – are rounded up and placed in camps smack of so many historical atrocities that it’s hard to pick just one. Between references to the Troubles, the Holocaust and post-9/11 America to the Cuban Boat Lift of the ‘80s and the Japanese internment of the ‘40s, it is clear that Cuarón sees the world as a constant power struggle between the established and the excluded, a continuation of colonialism and imperialism wrapped up in jingoistic jargon and problematic patriotism. When we learn that Theo’s being recruited to help Kee, a pregnant black migrant, escape the city to a supposed scientific project, his stupefaction over seeing a woman with child provides him with an answer to everyone’s problems. “Tell them”, he says, “tell the world.” Naturally, he is scoffed at, one member of the resistance making it clear that Britain would never stand for the first new baby in 18 years being a non-citizen. Of course, there is another reason for their rejection of Theo’s plan, but it’s clear from their conviction that Kee’s existence would only escalate the problem.


Part of the beauty of this film is its exquisite attention to detail. Songs like “In the Court of the Crimson King”, “Hush” and “Ruby Tuesday”, obviously chosen for their ready recognizability, also set the tone for these looking backward times. The Beatles are nowhere to be heard, and bands from the later part of the Brit-pop movement fail to make an appearance as well. Indeed, when Theo’s hippy friend, a pot growing ex-political cartoonist named Jasper (played brilliantly by Michael Caine) wants to “rock out”, he puts on some discordant noise which sounds like techno gone tainted. Memories from the past are important to the people of Children of Men, but they also realize that without a future generation to share them with, such recollections are more or less pointless. They too will die one day. Even Theo’s ex-lover, the Fish leader Julian (Julianne Moore) reminds her partner (and father of their now dead child) that you never really forget what came before, you simply try and learn to live with it. Since each performance is amazingly effective – Clive Owen, as Theo, argues for his place as one of today’s best big screen actors – and the world Cuarón creates so precise, we don’t need long scenes of expositional explanation to get the feel of this tentative time period.


The camerawork here is equally amazing. Mostly handheld, sometimes with the addition of a Steadicam, Cuarón places us alongside the characters, letting us overhear conversations and viewing potential dangers from a clear first person POV position. Some may see this as a trick – along with a couple of sensational tracking shots that, in one take, cover substantial narrative and action ground – but it works to keep us attached to the storyline. Something as unfathomable as Children of Men‘s crisis needs to stay immediate and focused. Sit around too long, or maintain too much distance from the situations and people begin to pick away at plotpoints. Similar to the style Stephen Spielberg employed during War of the Worlds, Cuarón is making it clear that this is no time for thinking. Thought went away over 18 years ago, and now governments wage war against humanity in order to save their own sense of sovereignty. We are supposed to be swept up in events like these, not sit back in the comfort of our stadium seat and rationalize a way for these desperate people to simply get along.


Yet there’s another element at play here, something sly and rather underhanded. It is clear that Children of Men is offering up a weird sort of warning sign, telling a social structure that clearly sanctifies all offspring to be careful what they live vicariously through. The notion of biology as a balm has long been a staple of the cinematic experience. Couples are fighting, families are in free fall, the wicked are wearing down the world. Have a baby, and suddenly, everything is lollipops, roses and puffy pink (or blue) clouds. The implication, both from the opening news report on “Baby Diego” and the glimpses we see of other catastrophes, is that without kids, adults go insane. Unhappy, unfulfilled and without a means of channeling their fear of death into something that will theoretically live on, the supposedly more mature members of society become unglued, guiding the populace toward genocide, isolationism and religious radicalism. Both Christians and Muslims get their moment to muck things up (never outwardly, but in the background) and it’s interesting how God becomes an incomplete catalyst. Kee is seen as a miracle, but one only a phantom group of scientists can supposedly help.


In addition, the film forces a confrontation between the diplomatic minded among the liberal set and the far more iron fisted forces in charge. The parallels to Iraq and other recent US foreign policy blunders are more than obvious, and scenes where armed forces battle rebels for control of a refugee facility have a war correspondent feel to their filmmaking. Cuarón keeps his camera fluid during these moments, never letting it settle even in sequences of outrageous histrionics or nail-biting stealth. He also avoids the brave new worldisms of most futuristic films, keeping police state Britain recognizable, with minor touches here and there to amplify the unfamiliarity. In the end though, Children of Men is more about the present than what we can anticipate years from now. It holds up a mirror to our sentimentalized selves and argues that, without a conduit for our care and consideration, we will turn on our fellow man and destroy all civilizing concepts around us. In a year that saw masterpiece works from Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a cinematic clinic on how to make images work both as metaphors and movie. Definitely one of 2006’s best, Children of Men helps reinstate the sagging fortunes of serious sci-fi. Too bad all filmmakers can’t be as specific – and sensational – as Cuarón.


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