It’s a pretty good week for new DVD releases – that is, if you’re not looking for viable family friendly fodder. Among the “all audience” missteps hitting the merchandising shelves are the ‘Christ our Savior is born’ boredom of The Nativity Story, and yet another computer generated cartoon that mistook processing power for entertainment. Even that sadly mis-categorized Ed Wood gets his entire G-rated output overhauled for yet another plucked-from-the-public-domain box set. But if you’re looking for standard Hollywood heft, a popular pugilist taking one more drink from the sequel cistern, and the lamest LOTR cash-in ever, there will be plenty to fleece your finances come next Tuesday. So break out the bread and peruse what’s available this upcoming 20 March, including the sturdy SE&L pick:
Other Titles of Interest
The Naked City: The Criterion Collection
And Now for Something Completely Different
Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film
He has the magic touch. Either that, or Hollywood is so bereft of visionaries that his ideas must be copied – in some cases, literally – in order for motion picture innovation to be captured. Of course, it’s Frank Miller that everyone is talking about – again. The celebrated comic book artist first came to the attention of film fans when his Dark Knight take on Batman was reference over and over again as the inspiration for Tim Burton’s reboot of the famed super hero. Then Robert Rodriguez did the illustrator one better, actually giving him a co-director credit on his all CGI take on the Sin City series. It was that unique post-modern noir, a combination of real live actors and carefully crafted digital backdrops that argued for Miller’s arrival as a major influence in the world of cinema.
And now 300 seals the deal. The Zach Snyder epic, telling the tale of ancient Sparta’s confrontation of overwhelming Persian forces at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is currently confounding critics, already over $100 million in box office grosses in a little less than ten days. Some are calling the sword and sandal spectacle the dawn of a new age in filmmaking, while others laugh at its ‘all style and no substance’ approach. But with Rodriguez already planning a pair of City sequels and the industry buzzing over Snyder’s boffo returns, one thing is for certain – just like The Matrix did back in 1999, Miller is destined to cast his impact over a decade or more of motion picture output. After all, you know the old Tinsel Town saying. Success doesn’t breed contempt – success breeds competition.
So as producers and suits go scurrying through the Miller catalog, looking for untapped projects to greenlight, and as the copycats prepare their own interpretations of the artist’s over the top style, we here at SE&L have a few suggests for genres that should be given the man’s pen and ink invention. In each case, the motion picture category is either stagnant, or suffering from one of its usual bouts of overdone obviousness. But by splashing a little Miller into the mix – or, by implication, following the same stylized look of his ‘graphic novels’ – an aesthetic rebirth may actually be in order. Let’s start with the most logical creative candidate:
The Horror Film:
Experts will argue that you don’t need enigmatic visuals to sell scares or suspense. Indeed, music, plotting, characterization and careful direction are all one supposedly requires to make an effective thriller. But since those other elements are in short, or seemingly unavailable supply, there’s got to be another way to reconfigure the fright film. Enter macabre ala Miller. Thanks to his exaggerated approach, especially when it comes to blood and guts, and the ability to ramp up violence until it reaches otherworldly proportions, your typical slasher storyline or undead drama would suddenly stand as a demented demonstration of fear. We’ve already seen other movies attempt such a shift. Ronny Yu’s amazing Freddy vs. Jason managed to breath life into the two dying franchises by emphasizing their inherent brutality, filtering it through a Hong Kong action ideal. And for all their goofy Goth cheesiness, the Underworld films have tried to create an alternate universe where vacuous vampires battle Eurotrash werewolves in an ongoing war of wire-fu proportions.
But it is Christophe Ganz’s astonishing Silent Hill that proves, positively, that Miller’s optical opulence can carry the creepy for an entire horror film. Based on the noted videogame series, the French filmmaker (who made a name for himself with the remarkable Brotherhood of the Wolf) applied real world terrors to his supernatural setting, resulting in a startling vision of surreal, sinister despair. Several sequences in particular, as when air raid sirens sound off to warn of the coming “darkness”, grab the viewer by the neck and refuse to let go. Now imagine such a situation augmented by Miller’s attention to depth and detail. Sin City touches on such scary movie elements. It’s clearly there when Mickey Rourke’s Marv confronts Elijah Wood’s serial killing cannibal Kevin. But that was part of an overall crime story, not a focused look at monsters and madmen. As a result, the application of Miller’s technique to something as inherently horrifying as the zombie film, or something like the Hellraiser franchise, would be outstanding (just imagine a collaboration between the artist and Clive Barker on his Tortured Souls series. Ew!).
It’s a purely American genre, a cinematic classification that tends to wrap up the entire spectrum of morality and machismo in a few fiery gun battles. And yet the Western is deader than a Dodge City doornail, milked of all its meaning thanks to decades of overproduction and under-appreciation. Certainly, there have been attempts to revive the hoary old horse opera, wrapping it up in metaphysical meaning (Clint Eastwood’s excellent Unforgiven) or post-millennial angst (Nick Cave’s crafty The Proposition). But when it comes to straight ahead dynamics, when one looks to the black hat/white hat narratives that drove the early era of film, there is very little left of the West’s fading sunsets. Instead, we prefer our cowboy conceits retrofitted into other genres – science fiction (Star Wars), crime drama (you name it!). But if Miller was brought in to enliven the oater, to add his idiosyncratic look to all the outlaw elements, something majestic might occur. Imagine the showdowns, gun barrels glistening in the burning midday sun, bullets flying across the horizon in specialized slow motion majesty. It’s enough to get a film fan good and flustered.
The closest we’ve come, and indeed, a great place to start when considering this concept, is Sam Raimi’s pre-Spidey spectacle The Quick and the Dead. Thanks to a hot (commodity speaking) Sharon Stone, fresh off the lingering Basic Instinct hype, the Evil Dead auteur got a chance to work out all his High Noon histrionics with the visual aplomb he was noted for. His camera in constant motion, his shot selection a veritable cornucopia of new and novel angles (including one incredible ‘wounds eye view’ perspective), Raimi reinvigorated the Western by realizing the areas that needed improvement. Unlike previous revamps by maestros such as Sergio Leone, the filmmaker avoided all the psychological ramifications and went right for the gut. The results were a partial reprieve for the format, and a great example of how style can salvage even the most antique artifacts. Miller’s approach is similar – finding the places where spectacle can replace specifics - and using visuals to vault a sequence’s primeval impact. Like a spaghetti western on steroids, a Frank Miller sagebrush saga would be amazing.
Yeah, it may seem like an odd choice, but the one thing that is definitely missing from the post-modern showtune dynamic is vision. Present day filmmakers, unfamiliar with the old school extravaganza of the genre’s past, figure that if they merely fancy things up with bright lights, big stars, and lots of MTV-style edits, audiences will ignore the unreal situation of individuals randomly breaking out into song. But that’s not the real problem with the musical’s current hit or miss fortunes. No, what’s really missing from the mix is pure artistic heft. It’s what makes Busby Berkley’s work within the category, classic and what elevates the MGM offerings from ‘30s through the ‘50s to the status of masterworks. But look at the recent attempts at reviving the artform. Chicago was a misguided mess (forget the Oscar) while Rent and Phantom of the Opera failed to generate much interest. And let’s not even start in on Dreamgirls. If ever a musical missed the opportunity to play with images and era, it was this relatively routine interpretation of the Motown sound.
In fact, the last great big screen musical was also the last one to understand the need for a unique approach and look. While it was set in the ‘50s, and relied on a famous Roger Corman b-movie for its foundation, Frank Oz’s masterful adaptation of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors created a world wholly its own, one based in the campy kitsch of the drive-in movie melded onto the sensational schlock of the subject matter. The opening number, and unbelievably moving “Downtown”, sets the stage for the rest of the film’s super sized sentiments. In fact, Oz was so effective at selling the love story between Seymour and his sweetheart Audrey that he had to change the original, downbeat ending. With someone like Miller portraying everything, from the conversations to the choreography, we’d witness the rebirth of a genre through the lost art of visual storytelling. Even better, the artist’s inherent knowledge of what works best within a certain imagined moment would help to bring the hidden emotion and narrative undercurrents out of the songs. Lyrics demand performance and perspective to work effectively. Someone with a mind like Miller’s could easily prove how substantial this stylized interpretation can be.
It has to be said that Silent Hill, The Quick and the Dead, and Little Shop of Horrors all represent just the tip of the treatment iceberg when it comes to bringing Frank Miller’s visual acumen to the world of motion pictures. It is clear that what is required, aside from the artist’s input, is a director in sync with his unusual approach, and a studio willing to gamble a little. No one is saying the combination will be perfect – after all, there are those who look to Sin City and 300 and scoff at the idea of Miller’s brand of sketchpad simplicity. Still, for several genres that are sitting somewhere between outright death and cinematic life support, the unbelievable imagination of this arcane comic book mind could be the aesthetic salvage they so desperately deserve. If it worked for the pathetic peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, how can it not succeed elsewhere.
During a standard shift at the local funny farm, Dr. Widesworth consults with Dr. Godwin about a girl, named Julie. She’s been diagnosed as a “cutter”, a self-mutilator. Convinced she can add some insight, Widesworth wants Godwin’s help. Meeting with the decidedly sane psychotic, the docs become privy to Julie’s bizarre, unreal story. Seems she once did the old University thang with a group of her best friends. One day, a new girl from Hawaii showed up. Her name was Amy and she was introverted and inhibited. Naturally, Julie’s catty clique instantly classified her as a ‘loser’. When it becomes obvious that the withdrawn islander had eyes for drama teacher Mark Bernardi, the crew determines to play a joke on the Pacific princess. Unfortunately, it resulted in Amy going comatose. When Julie’s Aunt Maylea arrived to care for her, she brought along an ancient Polynesia cure. She then used an enchanted Tiki doll to avenge Amy. She believed that, only through the systematic killing of everyone involved, could her niece’s soul be saved - apparently. And thus the massacre began…
Lord Almighty, but you have to adore Tiki! Oh sure, it’s a schlock revisit to the Charles Band school of scares, with just a splash of Dan Curtis’s Trilogy of Terror thrown in for gory good measure. Writer/director Ron Ford obviously suckled on the Zuni Fetish Doll’s Movie of the Week teat for several years, resulting in this Polynesian prank that’s more marvelously tacky than a blistering bowl of rotten poi. All the characters are jerks, barely able to provoke our curiosity, and the plot is so staggeringly mechanical that we keep waiting for the creepy old guy to turn up and tell the rest of the prospective victim’s pool that they are, indeed, “all doomed!” But thanks to a perfectly satisfactory puppet assassin, as well as the unrestrained bliss of seeing said plaything track and take out a cluster of clods, this incontrovertibly non-scary homage to horror’s blatant b-movie ideals is spectacularly silly. You’ll cackle at all the logic leaps and piss-poor intrigues, while at the same time championing a little island icon with a voracious craving for bad actor body parts.
It goes without saying that our star, an ersatz actress named Jolene Smith, is extremely unappealing. Even when she’s gussied as Eliza Doolittle in preparation for her part in Pygmalion (emphasis on the first syllable, please), those shrieks you hear aren’t paranormal beings yelping at the moon. It’s viewers around the world wondering how this attractiveness-addled performer ever got a callback. While it may appear unjust to highlight such an observable visual aspect of the film, it definitely supports the homespun spirit that helps make Tiki what it is. In the hands of some veteran specialists and teeming with onscreen CGI-sores, we’d be groaning at all the dumb dialogue, retard line readings and obvious continuity errors. But by hook or by crook, our title terror makes it all tolerable. Perhaps it’s the retro recollection of Karen Black taking on that vicious little blade wielder with a yap full of fangs, or the current island-oriented model who darts across the screen, little wooden feet tapping away in full sonic mode. Whatever the reason, Ford has found a way to make the monster movie fun again. And he does it by concentrating almost exclusively on the villian.
Indeed, without our new shock symbol, Tiki would flop quicker than a family-oriented Robin Williams comedy. The little wooden wonder is the gratuitous glue that holds this otherwise middling fright flick together. The nudity is nauseating (especially a Disgusting Girls Gone Wild style lesbian sequence – ew!) and the bloodletting is awesome, but limited to just a few memorable moments. Some of the set-ups are completely uproarious (one corpulent boytoy and his equally balloonish-babe make bile-producing whoopee in a hayloft before Tiki performs his serial public service = GO! TIKI! GO!) and the climax lays the groundwork for a possible sequel, which means more of our featured fright figurine. While one lone element doesn’t usually rescue a failing genre effort, the title treat in Tiki has enough cinematic charisma to save several subpar scare films. Ron Ford deserves plenty of fright fan Frenchings for delivering on what could have been a major macabre calamity. If you want a wonderful reminder to the diabolical doll era of terror, this talented little island idol will definitely deliver the terrific Trader Vic’s goodness.
300 defies description. Every attempt by mainstream critics to categorize or contextualize the film is more or less wrong. This is not some manner of anti-war propaganda piece (or worse, a pro-US boast for its Arab/Persian aggression). About the only real connection to the world of video games comes in the stylized presentation of violence which, frankly, is no more poetic than what Frances Ford Coppolla accomplished with the infamous “baptism” scene at the end of The Godfather. It is neither a historically accurate recreation of a famous battle, nor is it a slam against any specific region or peoples. What Zach Snyder has accomplished here is something quite miraculous. What he’s made—thanks in part to Frank Miller’s imagination and a ton of computer processing power—is a real Rorschach test for why people go to the movies.
Think on that for a moment—why DO you go to the movies. To be entertained? To spend a few hours away from the family? To lose yourself in worlds only imaginable through the lens of a cinematic artist? To be moved? To laugh? To cry? As the famous one-line once said, to kiss $8.50 goodbye? Within each or all of these questions lies some element of the answer. Of all the mediums, it is often said that film is the least personal and most group-oriented. There are those who argue that horror films are scarier with an angst-filled audience surrounding you, sharing the dread. Others recognize that the mob mentality of such a communal experience renders even the most routine comedy uproarious. So it’s clear we come to film as kind of a litmus test, to weigh our opinion against that of our fellow filmgoers to determine an entertainment’s true value.
So in truth, 300 cannot work the same for all of us because it is the kind of movie that challenges the very nature of why we love, or hate, film. It takes a decidedly hoary old genre—the sword and sandal epic—infuses it with all the technological magic it can, and then sticks a fuse of fantasy straight into its belly. Once said wick is lit, the resulting fireworks either inspire or enrage you. There is no real middle ground here—people either adore or deplore this incredibly well choreographed dance with death. Far better than the highly overrated Gladiator (a true blight on Oscar’s already tenuous history) and a mighty millennia away from the pulpy peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Synder wants to turn such tales back on their origins. He wants to use celluloid to re-establish the literal meaning of such a tale’s ‘epic poem’ status.
No two words better describe this film. This is vision amplified by ability, lyricism made manly by the imposition of well-formed physiques. Make no doubt about it, the Sparta at the center of the story is a brutal world overloaded with ego, testosterone and sweat. It’s the kind of country that kills off the weak and unwieldy, even hours after they are born, and believes in such forgotten human virtues as duty, honor, and glory. It may seem overly simplistic and a tad shortsighted, but this is not the modern world. This is not a planet interconnected and constantly communicating with each other. This is the land of myths and legends, oracles and gods. This is a place of men, in all their strengths - and all their superstitions.
As a result, some may be put off with all the moralizing and mysticism. They will see the sequence where the diseased priests prophesize—with the help of their naked teenage girl Oracle—that no war can occur during the High Holy days and scoff at such a suggestion. They will see Xerxes in his fey, flouncing demeanor, face painted up like an Egyptian drag queen, and giggle at the implied femininity. They will wonder where the various monsters come from, how an executioner can look like a boss from their favorite Playstation product, and believe this a film for an entirely different generation. But the truth is that 300 is a return to the world of visual storytelling, a place rarely visited by our mainstream manufacturing plant known as the Hollywood film business.
Indeed, we have forgotten the power in images. We forget what it felt like when the Mothership first appeared over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or when Neo first realized he could defy both time and physics in The Matrix. Peter Jackson or George Lucas can overwhelm us with their ideas (and the realization of same) and yet the effects seem to fade the minute we leave the theater. This is home video’s truest legacy. As a result of such overwhelming access to any and all cinematic stimulus, we’ve lost the inherent naiveté required to really enjoy someone’s creative approach. Instead, we play a never ending game of considered comparison, wondering what that scene reminds us of, contemplating if said shot actually adds to a film’s overall narrative language.
It’s a shame our eyes are so jaded now, because lying in wait, right outside the typical and the remade, are persons ready to reinvent the old magic. They will take a sword fight between two Spartans and hundred of Persians and manufacture it in such a way that every clang of metal, every spray of blood, becomes another stroke on a grand master’s canvas. They will render even the most meaningless scene—a conversation between husband and wife, king and queen—into a stunning experiment in shadow and light. Call it an attempt to jumpstart our imagination or a metaphoric map to rediscovering our inner joy, but 300 is built for spectacle, not scholarship. All it wants to do is present a piece of the movies’ past in a new and novel light. And it accomplishes said goal amiably.
This is a rousing, reinvigorating effort, the traditional reason why people USED to go to the movies. A couple of famed critics who sadly stand as the last of a literally dying breed used to say that movies act as kind of a mental vacation. They are meant to whisk you away to places, and introduce you to people, that you wouldn’t normally visit in reality. Like 300, film is supposed to inspire awe and disregard expectations. It is its main purpose for being. But for some reason, perhaps due to their ready availability and post-modern disposable nature, we no longer value such statements. To the new moviegoer, film is fodder for endless online conversations, debates over issues that, more times than not, have very little to do with the movie in question.
But Zach Snyder steps up and asks—nay, DEMANDS—to be taken seriously as a director of sound mind and superb vision. This is a movie as sumptuous feast, an eye candy extravaganza that never once becomes overpowering or overblown. Instead, all the stunningly stylized violence fills a void usually lacking in this kind of action film—the sadistic nature of war and battle. Where once gore was avoided to keep the nobility of the heroes intact, Snyder uses it as a symbol of determination. The more blood that’s shed, the lesser the enemy’s resolve. He also accomplishes his fatalistic determination by careful, clever casting. No one would ever imagine the man behind the mask in Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera would pack on the pounds, bulk up his body, and turn into the very emblem of Spartan pride. But Gerard Butler is a stellar King Leonides, containing everything we’ve come to expect from such a character. When he makes his stand against Xerxes, determining the fate of his men, and his country, the power within his persona—and the performance - shows through.
In addition, 300 does indeed reinvent the notion of how action accentuates and accessories a film. In something as obvious as a battle scene, where we know blows will be exchanged, it is up to the filmmaker in charge to keep us engaged and interested, less it all become a mere free for all. With his carefully controlled compositions, expert framing, and desire to deliver both the Spartan and Persian attacks in grand operatic style, Snyder gives us real insight into combat. We learn the strategies meant to conquer as well as the mistakes that lead to defeat. We also recognize where heroism and valor lie. It’s not in the remarkable moments where heads leave bodies in balletic grace, nor is it in the sequences where arms and legs are sheered away. No, where true gallantry lies is in the guts to face almost impossible odds, and laugh squarely in the face of said annihilation. And nothing cackles quite as convincingly as 300.
So complain all you want to about the lack of factual accuracy. Argue that Snyder is all style and no substance, or that his cast is made up of out of work Chippendale dancers trying to turn slaughter into something serene. But whatever you do, don’t dismiss 300 as anything less than a work of visionary expertise. While your aesthetic complaints may have merit (albeit a minor amount), from a truly technical standpoint, this is what the cinematic artform actually looks and feels like. Instead of chastising a movie for taking such a risk, we should be celebrating. It’s a shame we’ve lost that ability. Thankfully, we have electrifying efforts like these to remind us of what we are missing.
Going through the possible motion picture presentations every week, it’s fascinating to see how the premium movie channels are expanding and diversifying. For example, Moveiplex (a division of Starz) has just announced the start-up of two new services – Indieplex and Retroplex. Each one addresses what the company sees as underserved cinematic categories – in this case, independent films and classics from the past – and each one is hoping that rabid film fans will agree. It’s not an unusual move – Encore (another Starz subsidiary) has always divided up its content into mysteries, romance, westerns, etc. But as more and more outlets open up – channels devoted exclusively to foreign films, or horror – it becomes harder and harder to keep track of the options. With the big pay networks offering multiple feeds and On-Demand services as well, the choices are almost limitless. Thankfully, for the weekend beginning 17 March, one easily accessible feature clearly stands out:
Take the Lead
The Family Stone
The Devil’s Rejects
sex, lies and videotape
Road to Guantanamo
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
The Long Goodbye