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Sunday, Feb 1, 2009

For Kevin Smith, it’s all about the story. It’s not about fancy camera angles, inferred symbolism, realistic special effects, thematic resonance, or the inevitable flights of filmmaking imagination. No, if it’s not about the characters, their interaction, and the way in which said truth (sprinkled with occasional scatology) sells the narrative, he’s history. In the recent stand-up/concert documentary Sold Out: A Threevening with Kevin Smith (now out on DVD), the writer/director of such slacker classics as Clerks and Chasing Amy offered up an anecdote about the making of his sensational 2006 comedy Clerks II. For him, it kind of sums up the filmmaking process in general, and his career specifically.


In a conversation with producer Harvey Weinstein, a pair of notes (Hollywood speak for possible changes) came to the fore. To hear Smith tell it, Weinstein wanted a dance sequence to feature actress Rosario Dawson in a single full head to toe take. No half-shot. No close-up. Head to toe. That’s how musical numbers are framed, he argued, offering Rob Marshall and Chicago as an example. He then moved on to a much greater concern, at least in his behind the scenes brain. It had to do with Pillow Pants. For those who know the film, the imaginary character plays an important part in naïve fast- food employee Elias’ assumed sex life. For Smith, it was merely the ends to a hilarious means. For Weinstein, however, it was a visual necessity - so much so that he demanded the genital imp be depicted in the film. Smith shrunk in his chair, another case of design over dialogue threatening his vision.


It’s these sorts of situations, and the hilarious ways he deals with them, that color Smith’s otherwise oddball career. He is hugely popular in the new web frontier of onli-nation, has what many would consider to be one of the largest, most vocal cult followings, and has almost never had to compromise his artistic approach to make the movie a studio or a suit wants to see. Of course, the payoff for such implied insularity is success - Smith has yet to make a legitimate, Tinsel Town style hit. While his movies make money, they don’t blow the doors off the box office. Even his latest, the brilliant Zack and Miri Make a Porno (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company), couldn’t cash in on the hyper-huge homunculus success of it’s ‘Friend of Apatow’ leading man (Seth Rogen), the bubbly sexual spryness of co-star Elizabeth Banks (a 2007 everywhere girl) and the familiar foul mouthed funny business that Smith was responsible for jumpstarting.


As part of his always enjoyable Smodcasts, Smith and producer pal Scott Mosier recently spent nearly three hours in what the duo called a “talking cure”, trying to decipher why something so surefire (Weinstein approved the project on the strength of the title alone) failed to ignite profitable public interest. Many different theories were proposed: it had to be the sex… although nothing scandalous was even shown; It had to be the inference of same, even with the imagined mainstream acceptance of smut; Perhaps it was the timing, since the idea of opening a wild carnal comedy on Halloween makes one question the marketing acumen of all involved; Whatever it was, one of the best movies of 2008 came and went without even breaching the bottom of Cineplex coffers.



It makes no sense, really. Zack and Miri Make a Porno has everything you’d want from a film made by one of cinema’s greatest writers. The dialogue sparkles with wit and wicked humor. The characters are clearly drawn and given many individual moments to shine. We get completely involved in the title character’s plight, wondering what will happen and cheering/dreading the next aspect of the adventure. Both Rogen and Banks are stellar, essaying people who talk like regular folk while still embracing Smith’s sometimes smarter than thou hipness. With Craig Robinson stealing every scene he’s in as brash badass Delaney, View Askew regulars Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes working way outside their familiarity zone, and sly supporting turns by supporting eye candy Traci Lords and Katie Morgan, there is literally nothing wrong with Smith’s set-up.


Indeed, the real surprise here is the film’s solid emotional core. Smith hasn’t shied away from presenting love and devotion onscreen. Both Chasing Amy and Jersey Girl centered on the universal connections between people and how we all fumble and fail while making them. Heck, even his Clerks climate has strong ties to individual feelings, friendship, and faith. But Zack and Miri is different. We want to see these people together, to see how their lives would change should their relationship become more (much more) than just roommates. The result is revelatory. Sure, some may argue that the last act turmoil is typical for a post-modern RomCom, but Smith keeps us guessing until the end.


That all this formulaic fuzziness exists in a film which wallows in nudity, crudeness, and random genital jokes is Zack and Miri‘s final genius move. Smith’s strategy to push the limits of what is acceptable remains consistent, but there is never a time when the gratuity or gross-outs overwhelm the narrative (well…maybe once). Smith stands solidly behind his people, making strippers as friendly and multidimensional as frustrated coffee shop baristas. So when a character illustrates her unique “bubble blowing” abilities, or complains about constipation - graphically - the tackiness doesn’t damage our howling good time. Instead, Smith keeps everything rooted firmly in reality. On occasion, Zack and Miri displays a dark, depressing atmosphere that’s hard to shake. 


So why did things turn out so average - not aesthetically, but commercially? Has Smith as a filmmaker spent all of his cultural carte blanche on being an open book, so much so that he can no longer surprise or inspire? Are his fans really fair-weather, supporting his books and his personal appearances, but lacking the drive to actually walk up to the ticket booth and buy a seat. Sadly, the DVD release offers little of the perspective we’ve come to expect from a Smith release. While the two-part Smodcast gave Mosier and his man a chance to debate, the lack of a commentary track on the disc indicates that, aside from explaining the movie in general, Smith has little else to say on the subject. Similarly, there are almost 90 minutes of deleted scenes offered. Clearly, Smith creates his films meticulously, removing subplots (Mewes weird “pimp”) and backstory to advance the jokes.


And Zack and Miri Make a Porno is indeed funny. It’s outrageous and outsized at times, but Rogen and company know comedy. During the outtakes and bloopers, we see how improvisation helped spice up several of the scenes. Similarly, Rogen and co-star Justin Long (who plays a gay XXX star) go toe to toe in a featurette that attempts to prove who the best ad-libber is. Still, we want more of Smith’s semi-serious philosophizing, the kind of clear vision insight he offers in things like Threevening. There, no holds are barred, from the surreal situation of costarring in the latest installment of the Die Hard series, to how he ended up with a miniature dachshund named Shecky. There’s even a thorough overview regarding a recent battle with anal fissures.


Maybe that’s it - maybe Smith’s outspoken nature, in combination with his ‘anything goes’ approach to subject matter makes his movies just slightly outside the comfort level of the mainstream. While $30 to $40 million is nothing to sneeze at, something like Zack and Miri deserves a much larger, near blockbuster acceptance. It’s more than just barbs aimed at boobs, balls, and boners. It’s not all adolescent level giggling. Again, it’s actually a heartfelt, touching, and quite emotional experience, made by a man who might talk ad nauseum about crude carnal exploits, but who is actually a romantic at heart. Oddly enough, Smith seems resigned to his situation (current Smodcast sentiments aside).


During Threevening, he rants about how bored he was by Bryan Singer’s recent Superman update. A financial success, Smith argues about the numerous plot holes and character beats that he didn’t care for. Toward the end, after more or less eviscerating everything that chaffed his comic book sensibility, he reluctantly acknowledged Singer’s status. He’s the guy who gets to make the multimillion dollar disappointments, Smith shrugs. I’ll always be the Clerks guy. Well, as long as that man continues to create movies like Zack and Miri Make a Porno, there’s nothing really to complain about - at least, from a fan’s viewpoint.



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Sunday, Jan 25, 2009

It’s hard to reinvent archetypes. By their very nature, they are so representative of a concept or idea that they tend to wholly define it. This is especially true in horror films. A vampire is a vampire, no matter how you dress it up, romanticize it, or otherwise reconfigure its thirst for blood. Same with werewolves, ghosts, serial killers, and most importantly, zombies. The undead have a certain set of inherent limitations that make them simultaneously the most and least creepy villains around. Their hunger for human flesh is definitely disturbing. Their relatively slow rate of attack can, on occasion, be almost laughable. Of course, when filmmakers try to overhaul the genre, they only work in style, or speed. They never consider substance. That, oddly enough is where the 1981 fright flick Dead & Buried finds its freshness.


In the small town of Potter’s Bluff, some unsavory things have been going on. Anyone new to the remote coastal locale is immediately struck by how run down, gloomy, and inhospitable it seems. Of course, they don’t get to savor that reality for long since the citizenry appears intent on killing anyone who happens to wander by. As the sheriff in this insignificant postage stamp of a burg, Dan Gillis is starting to worry. The dead bodies keep turning up, and he’s finding it harder and harder to explain their deaths. Even worse, it appears that some of these corpses are “arriving” back up in the town - the same people, but with new personalities. All signs point to oddball mortician William Dobbs, and his unusual obsession with the funereal process. But the problem may be bigger for the underhanded lawman - it may have its roots right in his own home.


Without giving most of the major plot points away, Dead & Buried is one exceedingly creepy experience. It’s a gruesome, slightly gory take on the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers/Night of the Living Dead dynamic. Clearly, without spoiling the experience, Potter’s Bluff is unstuck in time. The overall look of the city is dirty, unkempt, and rotting. Everywhere, little hints at what actually could be happening are just visible in the corner of the frames (store shelves inundated with cobwebs, boarded up buildings in supposedly active areas). The population appears to be living in a combination of eras. Some - like the local diner staff and the gas station crew - are carved out of the late ‘40s/‘50s. Others appear like fantasy version of various decades, a queer combination of Victorian and contemporary, old world New England and new world modernity.


Jammed in the middle of this mystery our the two leads, James Farentino and Jack Albertson. The former plays Sheriff Gillis like it’s the last act of some hyperactive Hamlet. Every gesture is over the top, every line reading threatening to chew off what’s left of the scenery. The latter’s William Dobbs, however, is a faultless interpretation of unsuspecting evil. We’re not used to seeing Albertson like this - bizarre, obscure, intense. It’s one of those head spinning turns that changes your perspective on an actor. While Farentino can come across as incredibly hammy, his co-stars studied performance keeps things in check. Elsewhere, the cast is filled out with familiar ‘80s faces like Melody Anderson (as Gillis’ weird wife), Barry Corbin, and in a minor role, future Freddy Krueger Robert Englund. Thanks to the rest of the mostly no-name company, Dead & Buried keeps its sense of ambiguity.


Yet what stands out today - and even more so thanks to Blue Underground’s revamped Blu-ray version of the title - is how moody and atmospheric the film is, both internally and externally. As part of the three (!!!) commentary tracks available, cinematographer Steve Poster discusses the unusual look the he, the director Gary Sherman and their movie hoped to achieve. Supervising the remastering of the print onto the high definition format, he made sure that the low lighting, rampant grain, purposeful darkness, and overall gritty tone were meticulously maintained. While some may argue with this approach, it does give the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image a truly unearthly feel. Dead & Buried may not look like some brand spanking new Hollywood horror film - and that, apparently, was the intention all along.


It’s also interesting to hear director Sherman speak about the film. His track provides insights into how the movie changed from script to screen (he intended a black comedy), and why he shied away for standard fright film conventions. Of course, he also teases fans with a long lost “director’s cut” which, of course, cannot be located today. Along with added information from co-writer Ronald Shusett and various featurettes presenting the late Stan Winston, co-writer Dan O’Bannon, and the aforementioned Mr. Englund, we discover the truth behind Dead & Buried‘s avant-garde designs. Even with a brand new pair of 7.1 lossless soundtracks (DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD) which attempt to add immersive atmosphere and direction to the production design, it’s what’s in the frame that counts - and what’s there is wonderful.


In fact, calling Dead & Buried a “forgotten” film belies what Sherman, Shusett, and O’Bannon created. Who could ever shake the image of a long hypodermic needle piercing an eyeball? A man tied up and burned alive in a fishing net? A family terrorized by a gang of grim townsfolk while holed up in an abandoned ‘haunted’ house? Or what about the denouement which mixes terror, romance, sadness, and satisfaction all in one? Clearly, anyone who has overlooked this movie before has done so for one inexplicable reason - they haven’t seen it.


To watch Dead & Buried (on Blu-ray or standard DVD) today is to experience a true attempt at reinventing a cinematic variety. For the most part, zombies are decaying reflections of our current cultural crisis, a monster made relevant by an almost egotistical need to see ourselves in even the most dire of biological straights. When viewed more clearly, and with the clarity of hindsight, this is Dead & Buried‘s core concept. It’s also why it deserves its disregarded gemstone status. 


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Saturday, Jan 24, 2009

Quick - what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Sonny Chiba? Martial arts? Japanese bad-assness? The Street Fighter? A nominal name check in True Romance? An actual role in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill? Or maybe images of a feudal East come to mind, a territory on the verge of technological breakthroughs and industrial progress, and a small village terrorized by a thriving metal concern and a 900 lb killer bear? What, you say? The other ideas are definitely Chiba-like in perspective, but what does a period piece about a murderous animal and a group of mercenaries trying to destroy it have to do with the international superstar?


Actually, everything, since in 1990 Chiba directed his first (and to date only) film, Remains: Beautiful Heroes. Later retitled Yellow Fangs, the unusual effort became one of the most important movies in Chiba’s lengthy resume - for all the wrong reasons. After making more than 120 movies, the well known man of action decided to step behind the lens. A true labor of love, he hoped Remains would open up another avenue of expression for his mythic career. But it didn’t. As a result of the film’s failure, the legend had to sell almost all his assets, including his famed training school, the Japanese Action Club. Once you see the film, however, it’s easy to understand why fans failed to support Chiba’s idiosyncratic project


Instead of dealing with mobsters, street toughs, and the inevitable high flying fisticuffs that breaks out between them both, Chiba channeled the tale (based on an actual incident) of Red Spots, a massive bruin that terrorized a rural Hokkaido around the turn of the century. Concentrating its wrath on the local female population, the village hunters found their concerted efforts to trap it almost futile. Tossing in a love story between a young warrior and a girl out to avenge her parent’s death, Chiba’s choice flaunted convention.


The connection to the JAC was also obvious, right from the beginning. In fact, Yellow Fangs opens with a credit sequence recognition “in commemoration of the 20th anniversary” of the famed actor’s school. Many of the leads - Henry Sanada, Hiroyuki Nagato - were associated with or students of Chiba. Sadly, when the film eventually flopped at the box office, Chiba was forced to liquidate the club (he financed most of the movie himself) and head off to Hollywood to earn an easy (and much needed) paycheck. Today, he has even changed his professional name to “Rindō Wachinaga” to avoid further association with his action past. 


It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs failed, for it truly shows what Chiba could do with a camera. It’s a movie that’s large in scope, but very human in its dramatics. While some might see the synopsis and think of an Asian exploitation effort ala William Girdler’s Jaws rip-off Grizzly (1976), this is a much more serious, much more somber experience. There are no major stunt sequences, no real reliance on fighting skills or kung fu styles to sell the story. Instead, we get a sly social commentary which pits the traditional ways of Ancient Japan vs. the encroaching threat of modern society (ie, a copper mining concern). There’s also an underhanded take on the paternalistic nature of the country both then and now.


Chiba takes a big cinematic risk right off the bat, offering up an initial bear attack that is quite gruesome, followed by the introduction of the hunters, and then an extended, almost hour long flashback. During this time, we learn of the longstanding relationship between friends Eiji and Yuki, the government’s desire to keep the locals in line, and the gender-based rift which causes all sides to clash. There is a lot of exposition here, as well as some of the most beautiful shots of the winter/spring Japanese countryside ever captured on film. Chiba may be a wonder with his actors, but his framing and composition are extraordinary.


There are several themes at work here - old world values up vs. the encroaching progress, the battle of the sexes between powerless women and their too controlling men, the violent need of nature to put man in its place, etc. All throughout the narrative, Chiba stops the adventure to give characters a chance to reflect. There is a lot of regret in this film - regret for relying on the hunters to stop the slaughter, regret from Eiji that he hasn’t made his feelings known to Yuki, regret from her regarding the fate of her family. But at its core, Yellow Fangs is really just a mystical monster movie, a film where evil is given a sinister spiritual façade, before turning into folklore.


Even with its strange combination of thrills and thought-provoking, Chiba illustrates his real feel for the art of cinema. He understands the subtleties of the medium, and uses his lens as both an insular and reflective device. When the bear attacks, he uses every trick in the book to hide the less than impressive “man in suit” effects. Elsewhere, he was not afraid to hold on close-ups, the actors allowed time to dig deep and deliver powerful, and quite personal, performances. There is an indebtedness to the Shaw Brothers, with many of the locations having a slick, soundstage quality, and by working with friends and well wishers, you can see the amount of drive and determination the cast and crew felt for this project. It’s as if they knew a lot of their idol’s reputation - professional and financial - was riding on it.


Perhaps that’s why, indirectly, Yellow Fangs feels so sad. You can sense a kind of finality in the project, a real indication that Chiba believed he was creating some manner of art with this elevated campfire tale. It’s no surprise then that, up until recently, the actor has stayed away from the director’s chair. But this past year, Chiba changes his mind. His latest creation is the upcoming drama Za Toichi, supposedly centering on illegal loans where 10% interest is charged ever ten days (the title is short for ‘tooka de ichiwari’). While still “in production”, it will be interesting to see what he brings to this far more modern tale. What’s clear from Yellow Fangs is that, when he wants to be, Sonny Chiba is a sensational filmmaker. Too bad it took 28 years to discover that fact.


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Friday, Jan 23, 2009

World War I. World War II. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War. The Rapture. The Harmonic Convergence. Y2K. And now, 2012. It seems like every other decade, the planet is threatened with outright extinction, either the direct result of something manmade or as part of a plan cosmically preordained. So far, it’s been Third Rock from the Sun several, the Apocalypse zero. Some think that may all change with the latest ancient prophecy turned multimedia profit. Famed schlock meister Roland Emmerich has even named his latest dithering disaster epic after the proposed Mayan meltdown. Talk about timely.


Of course, not every discussion of the possible end of the world is so cheesy. The Disinformation Company, noted contrarians and certified skeptics, are sponsoring Nimrod Erez’s latest documentary on the subject - 2012: Science or Superstition. And while many of the talking heads presented sound less than secure in determining the final sell by date for mankind, there are some interesting ideas being floated within their occasionally confusing pseudo-scientific analysis. At times, you feel like you’re watching a group of very well educated and considered individuals discussing the existence of pixies.


There are two main sides to the 2012 debate. According to the Maya Calendar, a specific time “cycle” will be ending on 21 December of that year. Successions or phases of existence was the preferred way for the ancient culture to map out their civilization - everything from planting and harvesting to greater concerns about gods and monsters. When 21 December 2012 arrives, it supposedly signifies some manner of completion for the Mayas. On one side are scholars who interpret this as the last tick of the Doomsday clock. When we hit that moment, everything we know about the world will simply cease to exist. Boom.


On the other side of the argument, however, are those who take a more inspired or spiritual position regarding the countdown. To them, 21 December 2012 is not the end of times. Instead, it’s a moment of consciousness raising, a chance for the people of the planet to come together and alter the cosmic perception. There will be no death or destruction, only rebirth and renewal. For most of 2012: Science or Superstition, we hear both sides structure their arguments, struggle for supporting evidence and theories, and eventually agree that most of what they are discussing is purely speculative. We even get a few descents of the Maya race who dismiss all the apocalyptic talk as sensational and misapplied.


The key to all of this is where, exactly, the Earth will be in conjunction with the Sun and where said star will be located come 21 December 2012. Within the Milky Way, there’s a ‘great rift’, a massive cloud of dense space dust which will supposedly wreck havoc with the planet’s sole source of heat and light. The sun will be sitting smack dab in the middle of it on 12/21/2012. Solar flares are the biggest concern, their magnetic fields and indeterminate destructive power capable of almost anything. For those who believe in the end of everything, this rare positioning if the indicator. When the Sun finally wanders into the rift, and then aligns with our world, we’re in for something quite cataclysmic.


While 2012: Science of Superstition eschews digital recreations of major catastrophes, there some to be a kind of consensus on what might happen - melting of the ice caps, a complete reversal of the poles (a very intriguing notion which gets little more than a cursory mention) and an increase in natural phenomenon like flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. There’s also talk about the rotation of the Earth’s core, a fudging of orbits, and other sci-fi sounding disasters. In fact, one of the flaws in this otherwise entertaining film is the rampant hyperbole. Without much proof, these well educated minds free associate on the Apocalypse like it’s a personal hobby.


Of course, there are skeptics, the minds that measure out logic and reason and then dismiss everything except the bare bones scientific truths. They cannot deny the astronomical data, there’s no way to circumvent what decades of research has more or less confirmed. But there are aspects of the science that still sound sketchy. Some is based on the work of a Russian thinker whose theories appear unproven (something to do with the entire galaxy passing through a huge unsettled interstellar mass). Others use an erudite form of guessing to give us insight into what might happen a little over three years from now.


So why indulge this exercise in extrapolation? Why give Disinformation and its otherwise cracking sense of contrarianism a whiff of respect with regard to this conjecture? The answer is easy - 2012: Science or Superstition is actually very engaging, in a kind of mental jumpstarting way. There’s a certain level of indirect audience participation here, an inherent aspect that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions and shout (silently) back at the screen. Since Enez is not out to confirm the comments of his participants, he allows them to say their peace, and then provides just enough contradiction to allow the home video witnesses to make up their own minds. Many will come away thinking that Independence Day‘s Emmerich has just as much right to destroy the Andes with a tidal wave as these intellectuals have in stirring up their own brand of fear.


In the end, 2012: Science or Superstition does little except put the idea of a possible apocalypse out there like so many others have before. And one imagines that, just like the Christians who are still back peddling about their prediction that The Rapture was coming in 1988 (among many divergent years before…and after), these thinkers will be revising their theories when, as one interviewee puts it, “your bills are still due come 1, January, 2013.” However, there is some amusement to be had in contemplating what ancient cultures thought about the way the world ended, and when you add in the well spoken if frequently freaky explanations for what may occur, the whole experience becomes surreal. Maybe the cosmos will indeed have the last laugh come 21 December 2012. Here’s betting we’re around to hear the anticipated chuckle.


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Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009

Vision is hard to come by in today’s ‘crank ‘em out and count the pennies’ Hollywood. Bankability and commercial viability often trump things like talent, imagination and artistry. Why make something daring when you can make dollars. There’s also a strange synchronicity between the two completely competent business extremes. Sometimes, a filmmaker has to trudge away in demographically determined limbo in order to get his or her chance to stand up and shine. Such is the case with Darren Lynn Bousman. Best known for turning the sensational suspense thriller Saw into a practical, money-making franchise, many dismissed him as a genre journeyman - capable of creating gruesome, horrific terrors, but not much else.


So imagine everyone’s surprise when, after leaving the lucrative series, Bousman’s first feature ends up a Grand Guignol Gothic musical featuring a cast including Sarah Brightman, Paul Sorvino, and Paris Hilton. Entitled Repo!: The Genetic Opera, this morbid modern take on the classical artform stands as one unique, spellbinding experience. Developed by composers Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, it began as a stage play. With Bousman’s support, a 10 minute financing “trailer” was cobbled together and taken around. When Lionsgate, the beneficiary of the filmmaker’s Saw support, gave the greenlight, it was an uphill struggle to get the film made, and then recognized. Now available on DVD, this ridiculously creative repugnant roadshow lives up to every ounce of its wild-eyed ingenious promise.


In Bousman’s more than capable hands, the not too distant future is a grim landscape littered with corpses. A plague has struck the world’s population, turning once healthy organs into failing blobs of flesh. Enter GeneCo and their genetically engineered replacement parts. Thanks to endless advertising, the work of company symbol/songbird Blind Mag, and the relentless pursuit of profit by founder Rotti Largo and his inauspicious children - sons Luigi and Pavi, and fame whore daughter Amber Sweet - everyone now has a second chance at life. But there’s a catch. Organ transplants are expense and most people must finance their necessary surgery. Make all your payments, and everything is fine. Miss one, however, and one of GeneCo’s Repo men will come calling…scalpel in hand.


From such a complex set up, Repo! then takes a traditional approach to its main narrative thread. Dr. Nathan Wallace is Largo’s foremost legal assassin, a man with a past he is trying to escape. His inquisitive teenager daughter Shilo longs to learn about her late mother, the blood disease that is killing her, and the reasons for GeneCo’s sudden interest in her well being. When Rotti finds out that he is terminally ill, he must determine who will inherit his corporate kingdom. But with Luigi’s outsized temper, Pavi’s perverse addiction to changing his face, and Amber’s overall obsession with surgery (and the illegal painkillers that make it all so easy to endure), he can’t see his own family running the business. Instead, he looks to Wallace, his late wife, and their frail offspring to continue on his legacy. But there’s a catch…


From the moment it begins, there is no denying one fact - this is a true opera. Almost all the dialogue is sung, and Smith and Zdunich avoid presenting a collection of pop songs for meatier, more intricate sonic structures. Repo! uses specific themes, repeated motifs, and other obvious classical tricks to take us into a world of heighten emotions and outrageous individuals. The last act denouement, set within the title arena, plays like a Puccino snuff film. Bousman relies on his actors’ talent to take us into an existence overflowing with of rotting death, familial backstabbing, and Marilyn Manson macabre. Such studied voices as Sorvino, Brightman, and Skinny Puppy’s Ogre are matched well by vocal novices like Alexa Vega, Ms. Hilton, and the always insane Bill Moseley.


Casting is crucial to this film, something Bousman discusses at length as part of the DVD’s available commentary track. In the detailed discussions offered, the director goes out of his way to praise each participant for their bravery and commitment to the project. Even without this information, such singular determination would be obvious. Sorvino and Vega are particularly effective, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Anthony Stewart Head equally good as Shilo’s dad and Rotti’s main Repo man. Perhaps the most unsung hero of the entire piece is co-writer Zdunich, who essays the ethereal role of narrator/necromancer The Graverobber with a kind of instant onscreen magnetism that studio suits simply die for. One imagines he’ll be taking up residence in some casting agent’s reserve list before long.


With amazing performances, awe-inspiring visuals, endless reams of invention, and a true talent behind the lens, Repo!: The Genetic Opera should be a masterpiece, and it is…up to a point. Even the bloodletting and organ grinding add to the film’s overall feeling of scope and spectacle. No, the one element that feels slightly out of place (and less so once you’ve experienced the movie a second time) is the music. By avoiding the instant hook, the sing-along melody, or the instantly recognizable riff, the aural side of the production becomes initially awkward and obtuse. Tunes like “17” do stand out immediately, but it takes a while to get into the unique and sometimes struggling joys of “Chase the Morning” or 21st Century Cure.” Perhaps the best moment occurs when Brightman belts out the beautiful Italian aria “Chromaggia”, complete with requisite emotion. It brings the fascinating finale to an utter standstill.


The most memorable element of Repo!: The Genetic Opera however remains how startling impressive and visually imaginative it is. You have literally never seen anything quite like the images Bousman puts on the screen. From the corpse-strewn catacombs with their twisted limbs of agony to the freak show finish which seems lifted from an arthouse interpretation of Sid Vicious’ “My Way” video, this is pure cinematic showmanship from someone who understands the medium implicitly. Had he not had the success of the Saw films, one wonders if Bousman would have ever seen his fabulous fever dream come to fruition. Chastise them all you want, but those poster children for torture porn allowed something like Repo!: The Genetic Opera to see the light of day. The movies are much better for it.


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