WHOS MINDING THE STORE 19
It’s a battle between fact, fiction and the forgotten this week. A pair of excellent documentaries deconstruct their contentious subject matter while an Asian master battles an experimental icon for symbolic old school supremacy. Toss in a decent indie drama, a blood-drenched horror sequel, and an attempted return to action/adventure prominence by a couple of former A-listers and you’ve got the best that 23 January has to offer. To start things off, here is our clear SE&L Pick:
This Film is Not Yet Rated
Other Titles of Interest
Yojimbo/Sanjuro: The Criterion Collection
And Now for Something Completely Different
The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 1
Last week, James Cameron announced that after 10 years in post-Titanic exile (where, granted, he did produce a great many personal projects including Aliens of the Deep), he was smack dab in the middle of his next production, an ambitious sci-fi epic entitled Avatar. The storyline, rumored to center around a US solider sent to a far away planet to participate in its war, will be an ambitious undertaking, with live action elements mixing effortlessly with something the director calls “photo-realistic” CGI. In an interview with ‘Ain’t It Cool News’ honcho Harry Knowles, Cameron indicated that filming had already begun, and that he should have the initial elements wrapped up and completed by the end of this year.
Sounds like a sensational Summer of 2008 release, right? Wrong. In his talk with Knowles, Cameron went on to say that Avatar will not be arriving at your local Cineplex until sometime in 2009, if then. Apparently, the technology being used to render these amazing digital visions – extraterrestrials, space landscapes, intense battle sequences – will take that long to plan, perfect and render (they are being handled by Peter Jackson’s company Weta). Unlike other CGI, Cameron warns, the material in Avatar will be the next generation in visual effects, lifting the medium from its sloppy, Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie level leanings and more toward a successful melding of life with virtual reality.
As the geek contingency self-flagellates over the possibilities, and the inevitable sniping starts over carefully leaked storyline and character elements, the rest of the moviegoing public will have to wait another 24 months before discovering if Cameron is the next Stanley Kubrick, or just another run of the mill George Lucas. It’s a dazzling, daunting possibility. More than anyone else, the aforementioned 2001 titan brought serious science fiction to the realm of cinematic artistry. On the other hand, Mr. Star Wars has proven that CGI can be both a boon and a burden. From using the technology to revamp his original Trilogy, to relying on it exclusively to visualize his noxious prequels, Lucas, more than anyone else (with perhaps a little help from Jackson) has illustrated the main weakness inherent in the artform.
You see, when done right, CGI is a brilliant cinematic supplement. It presses out the creative creases in complicated sequences and adds an otherworldly pizzazz that standard cinema has a hard time replicating. When used in conjunction with other elements – set design, directorial flair, narrative complexity – it can lift a film into a realm where fantasy truly meets reality and easily co-exists. But when done incorrectly, when over-utilized and brutalized for the sake of some silly desire for more, more, more (read: the Lucas technique), you end up with…well, you end up with animation. Instead of something that resembles the world around us, the artificial nature of the medium pushes us out of the experience. Our eyes and our brain know it, even if the people behind the production don’t.
One of the biggest flaws in old George’s Vader-redefining films is the reliance on digital to create all the filmic facets – sets, props, creatures, action. No matter the attention to detail provided by Industrial Light and Magic and the talented artists employed, the human mind still responds with suspicion when images look too good, when they announce their intention to trick. Take the cityscapes used throughout the prequels. They look amazing with their gravity, physics and pragmatics defying dimensions. Buildings rise miles into the air, landing platforms jutting out like impractical parking ramps. The skylines shimmer with a paradoxical presentation of awe and ambiguity. We enjoy the eye candy treat, but take very little of cinematic sustenance away. Similarly, when all manner of mind-blowing creatures are carted out over and over again, sometimes for the sake of mere variety, we feel the need to disavow the dynamic.
That’s the problem with most current CGI efforts. From clunky beings that look worse than the earliest computer rendered experiments to obvious attempts to expand a normally nominal vista, the digital domain has turned the art of optical effects into a glorified ruse. It’s all smoke and mirrors, carefully crafted software and proprietary technology twisted into the most synthetic of cinematic styles. There are excellent examples of intricate incorporation. There are also models of meaningless modification. But the simple fact remains that a computer just cannot create the tactile, textural experience of well done physical effects.
A perfect example of a director who makes/made such an old school circumstance work, and work brilliantly, is Terry Gilliam. All throughout his breathtaking Ages Trilogy (Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) the ex-Monty Python animator and true creative genius forged fantastical wonders with puppets, perspective, miniatures, green-screen, and all manner of make-up and animatronic magic. From figuring out a way to feature star Jonathan Pryce in full atmospheric flight to rendering Python pal Eric Idle the fastest man on the planet, Gilliam conspired with his crew to create the impossible out of the practical. Students of the medium know all the tricks – the cotton matting clouds, the use of camera speed to suggest weight and heft, the application of motion control and intricate detailing to give items size and merit. In Gilliam’s talented hands, well crafted F/X aren’t fake or phony. Instead, they effortlessly merge with the overall vision the filmmaker follows, working to keep the audience locked well within the otherwise obtuse ideals.
The same goes for someone like Ridley Scott and his magnificent set of late ‘70s/early ‘80s epics; Alien, Blade Runner and Legend. As close to a perfect combination of movie and mannerisms ever created, Scott’s simple designs – to take viewers to places they’d never dreamed possible – are executed not with computers and programs, but with painstaking interaction between artists and the motion picture medium. From H. R. Giger’s definitive interstellar villain to the look of L.A. circa sometime in the far off future, the reliance on the real, not the bitmap and binary, gives these movies a richness and a realism that technology has yet to capture. Sure, Tim Curry had to go through Hell to take on the persona of The Lord of Darkness, his hours in the make-up chair challenging his patience and his health. But when the results are so resplendent as they are in Legend, when he is flawlessly lost inside the demonic dimensions of his character, it’s easy to excuse the sacrifice.
Other filmmakers like Tim Burton (with his effects style clinic called Beetlejuice) and Sam Raimi (delivering his demented Dead films without a single CGI supplement) equally established that even the cheesiest physical effect could work as long as the elements surrounding it matched the filmmaker’s motives perfectly. Even Cameron proved this with his stellar sequel Aliens. It’s impossible to imagine the movie’s climactic moment rendered digitally. It would seem silly for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character to gear up for her battle with the Queen Mother in a totally CGI robotic forklift suit. Call it reverse rejection. With physical effects, the eye sees the stunt, and starts scanning the image for imperfections. With CGI, the vision is so slick that we initially overlook its misdirection. But then the less than real aspects announce themselves, and we loose interest in the subterfuge.
It’s the biggest problem with modern computer graphics. Unless a great deal of time and care is taken in how a sequence is staged and rendered, the difference between a cosmic clash between warring interstellar factions and a Saturday morning cartoon become almost negligible. The mind can only register so much detail before the brain is boggled and begins to turn off. Sadly, individuals in charge of today’s slick science creations forget this, and try to pack as much intricate specificity into each scene as possible. That’s why Lucas’ arguments about “improving” his original Trilogy can’t stand. We believed the films when they first arrived in theaters, their sense of optical splendor a solid emotional memory for anyone who was lucky enough to see them back then. Now, they look tinkered with, taken to unrealistic lengths by a man who believes obsessively in the power of his microprocessors.
Hopefully, Cameron won’t fall into the same self-indulgent trap. He practically wrote the book on merging the physical with the computerized in his Terminator 2 and Titanic. But with this new mandate to dump the practical and move toward the totally digital, we could be witnessing another creative crash and burn from a filmmaker who should know better. Just because audiences bought the mostly IBM made Middle Earth and all its CG creations doesn’t mean that Peter Jackson’s auteur input should be diminished. After all, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a semi-realistic rendering of sci-fi/ fantasy reality and you don’t hear fans harping over its filmmakers lack of an Oscar. No, cinematic skill needs to accompany the new tendency toward super computer creativity. The two F/X forms can live together in a kind of motion picture bliss, each one supporting and complementing the other. Maybe James Cameron is correct in taking the next two years to make sure his Avatar sets the standard for all computer graphics to come. If he fails, it will be another example of the invention usurping imagination for no good reason.
The title alone should have horror film fans drooling in undeniable anticipation. It encapsulates almost everything about the genre that fright fiends love. Then, when you happen upon a synopsis of the plot, the schlock circuits inside your macabre mentality blast into overdrive. A superhero serial killer battling a mad scientist who wants to overthrow the planet by turning the populace into zombies? Where do I sign up? Well, the answer is imprinted all over Caleb Emerson’s motion picture madness. With his second feature film, Die You Zombie Bastards!, this Massachusetts moviemaker is out to recapture the glory days of bad b-movies, a canon covering the campy classics of the 1950s up and through the VHS variables of the ‘80s. And the results are ridiculous – and absolutely hilarious.
The story does indeed start out bizarre, and then gets even stranger. After decapitating a group of hunters in the woods, murderous madman Red Toole (a spectacular turn by actor Tim Gerstmar) goes home to his weird wife Violet. After a little corpse grinding of their own, she presents him with a present – a homemade hero kit, including a red suit, big yellow rubber boots, and a cape made out of human flesh. How thoughtful. Meanwhile, a trio of sex bomb scientists tries to locate the legendary Amphibious Guy, a sea creature noted for his unusual genital prowess.
Unfortunately, they instead run into newly exiled alien uberlord Baron Nefarious, and he turns the girls into zombies. It’s the skuzzy spaceman’s goal to conquer the world, using his living dead device to turn the entire planet into walking corpses. Once he sees Violet, the Baron decides to kidnap her as well. Lost without the love of his life, Red dons his outfit, takes to the streets, and slowly makes his way to the desperado’s island retreat. Along the way, he must battle horny Swedish sluts, consult a Jamaican jinn, and decipher the stunted English of rockabilly legend Hasil Adkins. If he does, he will defeat Nefarious and get his vivisection-loving Violet back.
Like The American Astronaut, Rock and Roll Space Patrol: Action is Go, or the bravura Bleak Future, Emerson is definitely functioning within his own idiosyncratic space, a self-helmed universe where evil alien villains live in overdone mountaintop hideouts, sexy scientists explore exotic locales for a well endowed creature from the hack lagoon, and mass murderers make love among various and sundry severed body parts. It’s a place where local legendary slashers don coconut masks, and Rastafarian sages spend their time divining fortunes from their bathtub. It is also a land of penises – lots and lots of penises. For some reason, Emerson is obsessed with the male member, giving us multiple examples of fake phallus to laugh/cringe over during the course of the film. Yet the movie never feels overly gratuitous or sleazy. Instead, all the scatology is presented like a series of sketches in a Middle Schooler’s assignment notebook.
Such a spoof-a-riffic approach may bother some, especially those who hate for their favorite cinematic categories to get all tangled up and tacky. Yet Die You Zombie Bastards! is so expertly realized, so perfectly set within its own insular world that its not long before you forget all the movie type muck-ups and simply enjoy the entertainment being offered. Emerson is an expert deconstructionist, always finding the easiest way of taking the piss out of a situation. When our amiable anti-hero, the spree killer turned crime fighter Red Toole, speaks to the police, he puts on an air of thespian authority that’s so arch it’s richly insane. Similarly, when Nefarious goes on his rogue-mandated rants, he brings the kind of broad mannered mania that convinces us he really wants to rule the world. Since the actors clearly understand what Emerson is after, and share his peculiar view of how plot and personality are created, we witness a kind of cinematic symbiosis, a coming together of subject and approach that gets better and better as the movie motors along.
Indeed, Die You Zombie Bastards! never stops striving to bring something new to the terror title lampoon. When a Swedish bartender tells her story of Olaf, the nasty cheese demon who attacks young women with his breast wrecking fondue, the manner in which Emerson envisions the situation – first person POV shots, skinny imp arms stirring the lava-like fromage with insidious glee – sends us over the edge into pure dopey dada enjoyment. Similarly, the mandatory last act melee finds Red battling Nefarious while zombies take on robots, ninjas and some hilariously disobedient dog men. It’s a shame that more filmmakers don’t fill their films with as much imagination as this stellar satiric celebration. Granted, some of if can easily grow grating (the dominating dick jokes, in particular) and some may feel that, toward the end, Emerson repeats himself instead of striving for new narrative ground, but overall, we appreciate Die You Zombie Bastards! for what it aims for more than the targets it sporadically misses.
As stated before, it’s important to have actors who comprehend the crackpot conceits of the movie’s main motives. Without a cast ready to go along for the goofball ride, you end up with artistic elements battling at cross-purposes. Gertsmar does his utmost to fill out even the most ancillary role (he plays several here) and Geoff Mosher is masterful at capturing Nefarious’s clueless confusion. As Violet, the cannibal bride and loony lover of Red, Pippi Zornoza is far funnier when she’s not chewing up the scenery. In her initial scenes, she’s so over the top that we tend to dismiss her. But when Nefarious tries to taunt her during a pre-matrimony meal, the gal’s callous comeuppances are classic. Perhaps the most surprising turn is offered by ‘70s/‘80s porn idol Jamie Gillis. Mr. Meat Puppet plays Stavros, a kind of guardian angel/fairy oddfather for Red’s fantastic voyage. Instead of going for camp or cool, Gillis actually makes his supernatural sage a three dimensional entity, something we miss when fate steps in and turns things tragic.
But for many, the appearance of outsider rock god Hasil Adkins will be the butter on this terrific stack of puzzling pancakes. Old, doughy, and equiped with songs about such standard sonic facets as bacon and eggs (no…seriously), Adkins adds that dive bar David Lynch lunacy to the film, kind of like a rancid Roy Orbison with an entire back catalog of psychosis to draw from. His scenes one on one with Gertsmar are great, especially when you see the actor struggling to get the musical muse to make some sense. Like a detour into a visit with Satan’s personal songstylist, Adkins’ appearance is priceless – and even a little sad once we learn his unfortunate real life fate. It’s the final cherry on this silly sundae overloaded with luscious ice cream craziness and ribbons of fully f**ked up fudge.
Companies like Image should be proud of providing quality queerness like Die You Zombie Bastards!, especially when they give viewers a chance (via commentaries and featurettes) to learn a little about this kind of project’s production history. Once we witness the Herculean effort put in by Emerson, his company, and his more than happy to help crew, we see the signs that something special is about to be created. No one enjoys the process of independent filmmaking this much and doesn’t end up making a minor motion picture masterpiece. In this case, Caleb Emerson manages the full classic cult creation. While 2007 has barely begun, it is clear that, come 12 months from now, Die Your Zombie Bastards! will find its way onto some year end ‘best of’ list. Those who don’t cotton to this kind of lo-tech treat are missing something very extraordinary. More than surpassing its inferential moniker, this is definitely a movie to “die” for.
Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of Die You Zombie Bastards! was released on 16 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here
All right, so it’s not the most accurate depiction of the rise and fall of the seminal punk band The Sex Pistols ever committed to film. Granted, both the brutal documentary The Filth and the Fury and the group’s own aborted big screen effort The Great Rock and Roll Swindle do a much better job of fleshing out the dynamic between drummer Paul Cook, guitarist Steve Jones, bassists Glen Matlock and Sid Vicious, and singer John “Rotten” Lydon than this mostly fictional biopic. Still, in an era inundated with mindless hair metal, when the DIY spirit of the ‘70s seemed a million greedy greenbacks away, rebel filmmaker Alex Cox parlayed his Repo Man cache into a chance at recreating Britain’s infamous bad boys and their import to the era. Part love story, part affectionate look at how punk purged an industry of its dinosaur daftness, Cox traded truth for social symbolism and created a three chord masterwork.
Instrumental in the film’s stunning success are the performances. Yes, this is the movie that introduced Gary Oldman to most of the world, the former UK TV fixture finally getting a chance to strut his amazing acting stuff across the Cineplex for all to see. His version of the stoic, slightly dim Sid Vicious is all party boy put-ons and little child terrors. Treating the moments both on and off stage as situations unfairly complicated by people, drugs, obligations and incompetence, Oldman locates the individual behind the icon, and watching him shift between the two is one of Sid and Nancy‘s major delights.
Similarly, Chloe Webb captures the demented desperation of the nauseating Nancy Spungen in brash, bitchy spades. Anyone familiar with this groupie’s terrifying true story will instantly see how Webb has softened, perhaps even salvaged the smack addicted slag. Behind all the tirades and temper tantrums, the sloppy sex and starf*cking facets, is a little girl that just wanted to be Barbie. Too bad about the bruises.
But there are other actors in this film, unsung heroes whose supporting work really anchors this occasionally out of control experience. Primary among the brilliant ancillary champions is Andrew Schofield, perfectly channeling Johnny Rotten’s rejection of all things phony and ‘boring’. Even his singing captures the frontman’s confrontational commentary style in ways that defy mere dramatics. The fact that everyone here, from Schofield to Oldman handled their own onstage vocal chores makes the tricky transformations that much more powerful.
Perhaps the most potent – and problematic - portrayal though is that of David Hayman as the master manipulator Malcolm McLaren. Having long lived off the reputation that he more or less manufactured the Sex Pistols like a mean-spirited, malfeasant Monkees (he even had the band cover the Pre-Fab Four’s “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”), most historians now consider ‘Malcey Walkey’ a jaundiced joke, a sinister and shrewd businessman who used and abused a group of disgruntled youths to line his pockets. In Hayman’s hands, such huckster slickness is more or less absent. In its place is a hard working Svengali who balances propaganda with personality to guide his boys along the profits and pitfalls of the UK music scene. For many, it’s the most artificial note in a movie made up of rumors, legends, myths and innuendo.
Even with all the amazing music and pristine performances, this is still Cox’s film, and his visual style and narrative drive is nothing short of astounding. There are sequences here that rival the best that cinema has to offer in their artistry and effectiveness. For instance, after the band has broken up and Sid is stationed in Paris, trying to jumpstart a solo career, McLaren gets the stunning idea of having the tone deaf talent warble the Frank Sinatra standard “My Way”. Recreating the controversial film clip for the song (once only visible via the SNL exploitation oddity Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video), we see Oldman recreate the performance, move for move.
But there’s a single shot, a moment right before Vicious pulls out a gun and pretend assassinates the audience, where Cox’s captures everything Sid and Nancy stands for. Shot at an angle looking downward, the actor framed perfectly among the brightly lit stage, Oldman’s gawking glance, filled with both contempt and confusion, staggers us with its heartbreaking humanness. It’s as if, buried inside this talent free emblem of Britain’s desperate decline, is a real young man who simply wants to be understood. Dazed by the faux adulation provided by the extras, Vicious breaks out his pistol and begins firing. It’s a major moment in the movie, Sid’s last real defense of himself. After this, heroin and the harrowing situation with Nancy will spiral out of control, leading to the controversial conclusion that still haunts his legacy…and this film.
For many, the death of Nancy Spungen was not unexpected. She was a walking nightmare, a cruel, callous woman who chewed up and spit out people with a studied, egotistical abandon. Many view her as the true manipulative force in Sid’s life, and Cox makes no bones about jumping on that blame bandwagon. Spungen is constantly shown pushing Sid closer and closer to self-destruction, egging him on with as many calculated comments and confusing controls as possible. By the time the movie makes its third act descent into the couple’s lamentable life in New York, the pair become a composite, a collective of track-marked arms, collapsing veins, and interpersonal inevitability. As portrayed here, Sid kills Nancy as part of an accidental action. Rendered emasculated by her constant nagging, their supposed suicide pact falling apart, our puzzled youth lunges at his lady, knife poised to satisfy her self-absorbed whine.
Defenders of Vicious have often pointed to this conclusion as the final nail in the Sex Pistols’ sad saga, a tale about talent tripped up by forces outside the greater group dynamic. Some have even suggested that Cox got it wrong, that the couple’s copious consumption of drugs had more to do with Nancy’s death (let’s just say it has something to do with sex, smack, drug dealers and a lack of cash) than some trumped up decision to die together. Such a sense of eventual destruction does seem to permeate every fiber of this film, from the first moment Sid sees Nancy to the infrequent times when the pair are happy and having fun. They just appear destined to be driven to the dark side by each other’s longings and lackings. In the end, it really doesn’t matter if Sid and Nancy accurately portrays the story of the Sex Pistols. After all, the movie’s not named after the band now, is it?
Finally, SE&L has a new Friday format in place. Instead of focusing exclusively on the premium channels and the Saturday evening ‘event titles’ they feature, we will scan the weekly offerings to highlight a few independent and outsider efforts as well. This way, you don’t have to stick with the frequently mediocre mainstream selections. Instead, you can venture out into the realm of documentaries, classics, horror and foreign films to discover a preferred tele-visual repast. For the week beginning 19 January, here are the small screen possibilities:
Walk the Line
Big Momma’s House 2
The Longest Yard
New York Doll
The Devil’s Backbone
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Curse of the Demon
Night of the Comet