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Friday, Apr 18, 2008


If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then Washington DC must be an orgy of Caligulian proportions. There among the conservative and liberal, special interests and the accompanying pork, lies the inherent evil - and the distinct beauty - of the democratic system. To use another tired cliché, we are what we eat, and by continually electing representatives who put personal agenda and individual power above that of their constituency, our policy dishes have been paltry at best. Back before ‘W’ put us in the center of a Middle Eastern maelstrom, very few career Congressmen were thinking about the rise of radicalism in the region. In fact, the only official paying any attention was a representative from Texas named Charlie Wilson - and he was more concerned about Communism than the Qur’an.


As the unlikely hero of Mike Nichol’s pristine period comedy Charlie Wilson’s War (new to DVD from Universal), our lone star guff-slinger is an endearing ‘80s icon. When we first meet the man - in the person of a terrific Tom Hanks - he’s on a fact finding tour…of a Las Vegas hot tub filled with strippers. Cocaine sitting neatly along the edge, an adult beverage poised precariously in his hand, he’s an old school powerbroker in a glammed up Greed decade domain. Wilson can’t understand why Washington is so complicated. To him, the legislative process is who you know matched with nepotism, ass-kissing, and lots of reciprocal favors. It’s the very definition of ‘politics’. Yet when he discovers the fate of the people of Afghanistan, and the seeming desire for domination by an invading Soviet Army, all Wilson sees it R-E-D.

Luckily Houston socialite Joanne Herring (a wonderful Julia Roberts) has been paying attention, and she wants her local representative (and sometime lover) to help funnel cash to the region. Of course, Wilson doesn’t realize the wall of opposition he’ll face, nor does he lack the nerve to attack such stonewalling head on. He will need some help, however - and Herring can only sweet talk so many of her male admirers. Enter disgruntled CIA operative Gust Avrakotos. Angry at the agency for overlooking hot zones while focusing on less important domestic drivel, he latches onto Wilson in a way that will redefine both men. With the Congressman’s network of string-pullers and promises, an initial outlay of cash from Herring, and a whole lot of chutzpah, this trio will change the face of the Arab world - for short term better, and long term worse.


At this point in his illustrious career, 77 year old Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would stop him. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant The Graduate), but he also helmed other challenging efforts like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, his tendency is to beat people over the head with his agenda, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). Those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.


Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritanical PC times, this story of a lecherous wheeler dealer and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Sure, the script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular and Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.


How the filmmaker makes all of this palatable - and plausible - is one of War‘s greatest achievements. Sorkin’s snarky humor helps (everyone here is Algonquin witty and wise beyond their position) as does the wonderful work by all the actors, including current “It” girl Amy Adams as Wilson’s disaster-skirting Congressional aide. But Nichols doesn’t simply pile on the laughs. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, our hero views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves.


These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2008 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change. The added content on the DVD, including some historical context as part of the Making-Of and personal insight from Wilson himself, helps extend this sentiment. There has always been a very human side to the media-marginalized Arab world. Sadly, few films have touched on it.


From the fabulous acting - Hanks and Roberts make a extraordinary pair, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is flawless as the gruff and grumble Gust - to the ironic present day applications (a celebration is marred by the sound of…a large jetliner) Charlie Wilson’s War is one of last year’s best films. Even better, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be.


Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or Alan J. Pakula. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. It’s a reflection of the man at the center of this prescient story.



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Monday, Apr 14, 2008


“Dick Laurent is dead.”


It’s the sentence that both begins and ends the film. It is spoken to and by the same person. The audience clearly hears it twice, yet we’re never quite sure if the one-sided conversation actually happened, or if it was all just some fractured, schizoid dream. David Lynch has been quoted as saying that Lost Highway is an example of a psychogenic fugue, a state of mind often characterized by an abandonment of personality and memories, like amnesia. In their place, another persona emerges. It may be a fantasy version of oneself, or a more idealized concept of one’s inner strengths and/or weaknesses. In this case, a convicted killer named Fred Madison may or may not physically transform into troubled mechanic Pete Dayton. Considering it comes from the mind of America’s premiere auteur, all (or none) of it may be true.


When it finally found its way onto DVD last month, Lost Highway became the finally filled gap in Lynch’s digital career. After self-releasing his short films and Eraserhead, there have been substandard to personally supervised versions of his canon. As a filmmaker, his scope is breathtaking. He’s tackled the avant-garde and heavy melodrama (The Elephant Man), provoked science fiction fans with his unique take on Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune, delivered the ultimate small town crime spree spin with Blue Velvet, and deconstructed myth through his devastating revision of the Wizard of Oz (Wild at Heart) and Tinsel Town itself (Mulholland Dr. ). And no one is soon to forget his forays into television, both the masterful (Twin Peaks) and the misinterpreted (On the Air).


Yet it’s Lost Highway that remains the crucial turning point in his oeuvre, the meaningful moment of aesthetic “I don’t give a shit” when the filmmaker allowed hallucinogenic visions to forever merge into his very definition of Lumierian language. It stands in sharp contrast to even his most complicated efforts, purposefully insular and manipulated like a mobius strip. It resembles a creative purgative, every idea the man has ever had regurgitated onto celluloid and structured like an infected night terror. It is erotic, aggravating, endearing, unidentifiable, genre-bending, genre-embracing, loaded with recognizability and as indecipherable as an ancient alien dialect. The end result may not fulfill the promise of its nasty neo-noir leanings, but like any attempt at something great, it succeeds more than a million other examples of the sort.



The story is purposefully divided into two (much of the movie uses bifurcation and duality as an easy symbol). We begin with the tale of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) - noise jazz musician by night, nervous husband by day. His knockout of a wife, Renee (played with Viagra-like arousal by a never better Patricia Arquette), has a past that remains unspoken between them, yet it’s clear it has something to do with shady characters and sexual sleaze. One day, a package arrives at their door. It turns out to be a videotape of the house. The next day, another cassette arrives. This time, the tour wanders inside and into their bedroom. At an uncomfortable party where Renee’s hinted-at history slams into her present, Fred faces off with a white faced reveler (Robert Blake). The next day, a far more disturbing VHS arrives.


Events best left unspoken play out, leading to Fred’s arrest and incarceration. One night, via inference and literal smoke and mirrors, our hero turns into troubled youth Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty)…maybe. Released from jail and sent home with his parents, our oddly out of place protagonist returns to his life as an auto mechanic. One of his best customers is local mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). The police know him as…Dick Laurent. As Pete starts a torrid affair with the Mafioso’s mistress, Alice (played again by an equally enticing Arquette), the trap is baited. Our femme fatale wants her boy toy to rob a skuzzy smut peddler. She sets him up - all he has to do is show up on time and commit the crime. It’s Double Indemnity meets outtakes from Trent Reznor’s private snuff films.


As riddled with secrets as it is obvious in its obsessions, you can completely gauge Lynch’s fetishes while watching Lost Highway. The open road is definitely one of them. As he did with the title fabric in Blue Velvet, the director turns a nighttime drive along a deserted yellow-streaked blacktop into an exercise in unnerving suspense. The female form is another one. Like Laura Dern in Heart, Arquette’s dual role requires her to get topless quite often, and the languid shots of her undulated breasts will have male members of the audience ‘standing’ at attention. Speed is also an element in the film. Several sequences appear over-cranked, using the frenetic pace and visual hyperactivity to suggest everything from impending doom or highly charged eroticism.



And then there’s Lynch’s main fixation - death. It even wears a clever kabuki mask here, and is played in a perfect example of comedic cosmic foreshadowing by Robert Blake. Call his character the Grim Reaper, the Angel of Destruction with an available video camera, or the voyeuristic nature of our own internal anguish, but the diminutive actor with the fireplug physique disappears into Lynch’s lunatic fringe, and the transformation is terrific. When the white faced demon confronts Fred at the party, he plays it so cool as to cause frostbite. Yet the exchange becomes so heated that the fires of Hell literally leap from Blake’s eyes. During the last act, when Getty goes for Arquette’s convoluted plot, the figure returns. Yet strangely enough, it’s not the visage of Pete he confronts, but Fred once again.


There are several ways to interpret this. One is that Blake represents our hero’s inner horror, the tormented level of envy, jealousy, anger, or outright distrust that drives Fred to kill. The mystery man does show up right before the last videotape, and before Dick Laurent meets his first/last line fate. Similarly, his camera can be viewed as the preparations for the murder. Like someone premeditating and plotting, we first see the house…then the set-up…and finally, the abominable act itself. Last but not least, Blake could also be a retarded red herring. Lost Highway is literally overloaded with the kind of subjective, incomplete symbolism that drove many a fan of Twin Peaks to toss their remote at the TV. From unexplained tattoos to sentences that seem spoken as the punchlines to untold jokes, our video vamp may just be a really cool idea that Lynch doesn’t know how to fully explain.


If one had to venture a guess as to what all this splatter and speculation means, if forced to find a bottom line to what can frequently feel like a disjointed collection of cinematic scraps, the best interpretation of Lost Highway is this: after killing his wife in a fit of envious rage, unbalanced musician Fred Madison spends his prison time locked in an elaborate fantasy. He imagines he is Pete Dayton, and concocts for the fictional character a fractured home life, a pleading and needy girlfriend (played by Natasha Gregson Wagner) and a slightly sexy job as a glorified grease monkey. Into this false front arrives the men he hates - Dick Laurent (who we learn was once associated with Renee) and pathetic pimp Andy. Naturally, our hero deals with them both. Just as he’s about to be executed, he envisions an escape and a comeuppance for everyone who ever wronged him. The lost highway literally becomes his personal leap into the acceptance of destiny.



Of course, there are several logic leaps contained in such a conclusion. The police investigate Andy’s “accident” and reveal that Pete’s - not Fred’s - fingerprints are everywhere. Our mechanic’s parents also indicate that Mr. Eddy, or the Mystery Man (it is not clear) accompanied him on the night when he took Fred’s ‘place’. Lynch literalizes the transformations, showing open skulls covered in grue pouring/consuming smoke and clamor, and we are supposed to believe that Alice is merely Renee re-envisioned, yet the two act decidedly different, even down to speech patterns and sexual prowess. In fact, it’s clear that very little in Lost Highway lends itself to easy explanations or clear cut conclusions. In some ways, Lynch has fashioned the first crime drama where the specifics of ‘what’ happened are always overshadowed by the other five categories of inquiry.


Yet for many, it remains the director’s most outstanding artistic statement, a true template of his talent and temperament. Ask anyone to name their favorite Lynch film, and few may mention Highway. But ask them for the movie that more resembles what he stands for as a filmmaker, and this will come in a close second (to Eraserhead, usually). Indeed, this could be the story of Henry Spencer spun into a James M. Cain tall tale, a moody and atmospheric swipe at the traditions laid down by decades of classic cinema. The acting is uniformly good, with several performances changing our perspective of otherwise unexceptional (Pullman, Arquette, Loggia) talents. Yet the true star of this amazing movie is the man behind the camera. Like a great dictator enveloped by his own idealism, Lost Highway reflects who and what David Lynch truly is.


That’s why, for all its artifice and pretense, its unfathomable complexity and celluloid lyricism, this movie more than any other replicates the mind of its maker. It takes everything he’s touched, everything he’s learned, everything he’s gained, and everything he hopes to earn and tosses it into a breeze blowing away from the mainstream and into an absurdist surrealism all its own. Many will find it maddening. Others will call it indulgent and overly ambitious. Some may even decry its value all together. But for those who sync up to Lynch’s freaked out fugue state, complete with unanswered questions and discontinued details, the results are resplendent. Lost Highway may be a maze from which there is no escape, but few will complain about getting consumed by its peculiar parameters. Besides, it’s quite a ride! Just ask Dick Laurent.


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Sunday, Apr 13, 2008


Among fans of classic animation, there has always been a clear pecking order. At the top was the artistic flower and fluidity of Disney. Almost matching said studio, substituting sarcasm for serenity, was Warner Brothers. And pulling up the rear, not quite capable of matching the two giants in the creative cartooning department was the work of Max and Dave Fleischer. This doesn’t mean that the two Austrian born brothers were not capable of the same aesthetic excellence as Walt and his Harry/Albert/Sam/Jack competitors. In fact, their patented rotoscoping technique gave them a technological advantage over their pen and ink compatriots. It’s just that their feature length efforts - 1939’s Gulliver’s Travels and 1941’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town - never set the public’s imagination on fire.


Mr. Bug was doomed to fail. It opened two days after Pearl Harbor. By the time of its production, Dave and Max were no longer talking to each other. Removed from their positions as head of the company, the two went their separate ways, leaving the film to flounder and then fade away. Aside from occasional TV showings in the ‘60s and ‘70s (usually as part of the Frazier Thomas approved WGN Sunday matinee Family Classics), few remember the insect epic. A new DVD release from Legend Films should have changed all that. Yet instead of bringing a long forgotten animation masterwork back from the dead, it more or less buries the film once and for all.


The narrative centers on the return of Hoppity the Grasshopper to his old city stomping grounds. There he learns that his beleaguered bug pals are beset by humans everyday. Even worse, a new building is planned for their part of the ‘Lowlands’. Hoppity hopes to stop all the chaos. It’s threatening the business of Old Mr. Bumble and his daughter (and our hero’s childhood sweetheart) Honey. Of course, the long legged lead is not the only one interested in the beautiful bee. C. Bagley Beetle wants Honey for himself, and will use henchmen Swat the Fly and Smack the Mosquito to guarantee that no one will stop him. All the while, the new skyscraper looms, bringing its own form of destruction to Hoppity and the gang.


There are two positives and one massive negative about this digital release, elements that constantly battle each other for our appreciation and fuel our obvious apprehension. On the one side, just getting a chance to see Mr. Bug Goes to Town - even under the silly Bugville title - is reason enough to celebrate. This out of print gem is a reminder of the days when cartooning was a wholly creative process, a form of film language that wasn’t solely interested in or guided by marketing, demographics, and maximizing future sell through units. The Fleischer’s believed in a very detail oriented characterization, a tremendous amount of intricacy fleshing out their two dimensional creations. You can see it everywhere in this film - from Beetle’s wrinkled brow villainy to the various New York style cityscapes.


Then there is the surreal sense of seriousness that the Fleischer’s favored. Disney never placed its symbols in serious danger, all threats from wicked witches and anthropomorphized wizards rendered inert by the end of Act III. But Mr. Bug practically percolates with inherent hazards. From a rainstorm that turns into a terrifying flood to the gangland style sentiments of Swat and Smack, there’s a darkness present that definitely undermined the Fleischer films. After all, audiences loved the make believe mayhem and fake death dynamic of the Warners. They appreciated the glossed over glamour of the House of Mouse. They didn’t really want to see cartoons given a sinister, disturbing edge.


Since their approach was very old world European, the Fleischers tend to suffer outside the realm of their original releases. Unless a digital package accurately and painstakingly recreates the full color bloom of their work, things tend to look incredibly dated and mechanical. Yet it’s hard to imagine a worse DVD presentation than the one given here by Legend Films. Clearly collecting a poorly duped VHS quality copy of the film, they simply kept the inaccurate full screen transfer, terrible color differences, and overall bargain basement feeling and plunked it down on an aluminum disc. The results are a crime - not only to fans of the movie, but to the legacy of the already marginalized Fleischers.


Recently, relatively pristine offerings of the duo’s definitive Superman cartoons, as well as an excellent collection of Popeye shorts, show exactly what can be done with old school Fleischer. Certainly, it requires time, effort, and an outlay of cash to bring these defect filled (and edited for television) efforts back to life. Equally important is maintaining the artist’s vision. The duo are probably exhausted from the amount of spinning they’ve been doing in their respective graves. In the world of commercial shame, this particular presentation should hang its flawed format head. It looks bad, and no amount of added content (in this case, three bonus cartoons) can make up for it.


All of which brings us back to the story of the Fleischers and their place in painted cell history. After the failure of Mr. Bug and their ouster from Paramount, they still managed a meaningful career within the medium. While Max struggled to stay relevant by working with the Handy Organization, Dave took over the presidency of Screen Gems at Columbia. As time passed, both of their feature films reached a kind of revered cult status. While Gulliver’s Travels has had an equally spotty DVD reputation, nothing can be as bad as Bugville. Granted, Legend gets some small amount of slack for finally releasing this lost gem on the medium. But how they handle the all important image suggests they shouldn’t have bothered. 


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Saturday, Apr 12, 2008


Alfred Hitchcock became a legend via his mastery of it. Few outside John Carpenter have equaled said cinematic skill set. The fine art of suspense has long since given way to slapdash splatter, generic shivers, and an oversized reliance on gratuity and gloom. Few fright filmmakers have even dared to replicate Hitch’s stylized dread. Instead, they keep the fear factors obvious, hoping such an unwelcome overkill will inspire the genre. Perhaps this is why Ils, the fantastic film from French directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud, is so arresting. Offered to American DVD (from Dark Sky Films) under the title Them, this is a grand thriller, an edge of your seat embracing of the more subtle sense of scares.


Driving late one night, a mother and daughter are forced off the road by someone unseen. When they investigate, something horrible happens. The next day, a French teacher named Clementine, new to Romania, returns home to her disheveled manor. Her writer boyfriend Lucas greets her with the usual creative ennui. As the night wears on, they settle in. Suddenly, they hear noises in the yard. Someone turns on their car lights, and then makes off with the vehicle. Soon, the electricity goes out, and the floorboards creak. Someone is in the house with them. Who it is, and what they want, will turn a typical evening into a gruesome ordeal in terror.


While it may sound like gushing, one thing is crystal clear - Ils/Them is one of the finest, more ferocious suspense films of the last ten years. It argues for the aptitude of the twosome behind the lens, as well as proving that their bitter Hollywood take on J-Horror’s The Eye was merely a fluke of paycheck cashing proportions. As a motion picture, it’s almost flawless. It provides easily recognizable and slightly complex character sketches. It gives the audience an unseen and yet relentlessly malevolent villainy. There is atmosphere to spare, and an attention to cinematic standards that’s hard to escape.

It’s a callous, claustrophobic experience, a purposeful subversion of expectations set within a well worn slasher backdrop. We know that Clementine and Lucas are doomed, their logistical fate founded on both the rundown nature of their new home and the remoteness of the property. We sense that something evil is going to happen here even before the nocturnal nastiness begins. And then, when the terror strikes, it’s all implied. There is something inherently unsettling about hearing an unknown figure walking through your home, the knowledge that such a private domain has been invaded by a foreign being. In fact, Ils is a primer on putting such a scenario through as many permutations as possible.


Moreau and Palud also use our inherent distrust of the former Iron Curtain as a means of measuring out the anxiety. Films like Hostel have fostered a common notion of Eastern Europe as a hotbed of amoral debauchery. From killing clubs, to roving bands of equally murderous thugs, the Romanian countryside is converted into an ‘anything can happen’ playground for the most perverse, unsettling games. Even better, the house Clementine and Lucas inhabit has its own haunted precept. We see the plastic-sheeted attic and instantly recognize that nothing good will come from this locale.


Yet it’s the human element that really stands out here, with Olivia Bonamy giving an excellent turn as Clementine. She plays both the studied teacher and terrified casualty bit with an equal amount of emotional heft. While given much less to do except suffer early on, Michael Cohen infuses Lucas with a sad, not quite stoic persona. We just know he’s going to be the ‘death’ of this couple in the long run. Granted, the title card “based on true events” denouement throws us off a bit. It’s not just for what it says about the killers’ identity, but for the entire region in general. We just don’t want to believe that poverty along with a sense of pointless liberation would lead to such a diseased reaction.


It all makes Ils the very definition of a classic creep out, a by-the-book illustration of the power inherent in film. Moreau and Palud are not reinventing the wheel here. There’s no novel twist on the title type or jump into smarmy self-effacing satire. Instead, they rely on the formula to feed their fever dream, and it does so dynamically. While we get the distinct impression that some of the facts may have been exaggerated even before Moreau and Palud (who also handled the screenplay duties) fictionalized them further. Still, for anyone who ever felt their spine go cold while an unidentified sound frazzled their nerves, this movie is masterful.


Too bad then that there’s not more done in the digital packaging department. The film’s low budget leanings are kept well hidden by the DVD’s image transfer, but the lack of extensive context really undermines the directors and their efforts. The Making-Of shows how intense the shoot actually was, but there is a puffy, electronic press kit quality to the insights. Similarly, an overview of how Clementine is treated in the film is more of a love letter to Bonamy than a hands-on look at the production. What’s really needed here is a director’s commentary, a chance for this pair to provide the kind of analysis that will help future fright filmmakers avoid the issues currently killing the genre.


Yet it’s a minor quibble when compared to the final film. Ils is the kind of experience where we become vicarious victims, recognizing that Clementine and Lucas are probably headed for one fatalistic fate. Just like Hitchcock’s heart-stopping masterworks, we become so involved in the narrative, so tied - directly and metaphysically - to the events transpiring before us that it all literally becomes too much to bear. If all you know of this dynamic duo is there awkward American debut, push Jessica Alba aside and give Ils a try. It will make even the most hardened horror fan weep with dread-induced delight. 



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Monday, Apr 7, 2008


It is 1978, over two years since a conflict between China and Russia resulted in the release of bio-chemical weapons that have destroyed almost the entire population of the planet. We meet the apparent sole survivor, a scientist named Robert Neville who injected himself with a vaccine before the destruction came. He is now immune and stuck spending his days in the never-ending chores of survival. When it’s light, he forages for food and seeks signs of other life. He also hunts for the headquarters of The Family, a dark loving group of disease-altered mutants who want to kill Neville. Their leader, the crazy, charismatic Matthias, sees Neville as a personification of the technological evil that led the world to destroy itself. He wants to be the one who wipes out this “human plague” once and for all. Their battles of weapons and wills consume their lives.


That is, until Neville runs into Lisa and Dutch, two additional survivors who are caring for a group of kids. Unlike Neville, they are all infected with the germ. But they have not changed as quickly as The Family, meaning there is still time for Neville to find a cure. As he battles to find a way to keep Lisa’s brother Ritchie from “turning,” the mutants up their campaign against their mortal enemy. But not everyone can survive the terrors, the torment, and the treachery of being the last one left on Earth. Someone will be The Omega Man.


Since it was first published in 1954, Richard Matheson’s grim story of the last man on earth and his battle to survive has become a prized cinematic commodity. Back in 2002, Ridley Scott was developing I Am Legend to star a pumped up Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sets were designed and effects prepared. Fans couldn’t wait to see the Blade Runner visionary’s take on the material. Eventually, the plans for that version of the novel were scuttled, and Will Smith pegged Constantine director Francis Lawrence to jerryrig his own schizophrenic adaptation of the tome. Luckily, there are still two other movies out there, both with their own set of motion picture setbacks. Each one tried to capture Matheson’s sense of isolation and menace, and for the most part, each one more or less succeeded.


Vincent Price starred in the Italian-made The Last Man on Earth, a decent little B-movie from 1964 that sought to stick to as many of the epic notions that the novel envisioned without bankrupting the budget. And then there was 1971’s The Omega Man, the Charlton Heston sci-fi vehicle that marked the A-list superstar’s second foray into the realm of future shock (with 1968’s Planet of the Apes behind him and 1973’s Soylent Green looming ahead). Given a name symbolizing its place in the Greek alphabet (Omega is the 24th and last letter) and modifying Matheson’s story of vampires out for blood to a more socially consciousness, anti-war, and proliferation statement, this effective, if occasionally eccentric, take on the material has long been a cult favorite. Some buy the changes in the story and find the new, idealistic enemies threatening indeed. Others simply shake their head and wonder when someone will give the gifted Matheson his due.


The Omega Man does so many things right that when the two things it gets completely wrong rear their ugly, ill-considered heads it’s almost enough to destroy the entire film. Director Boris Sagal, a veteran of television, does one of the better jobs of conveying a post-Armageddon environment for his characters to function in. It is rare when his abandoned streets and empty shops feel like back lots or sound stages. There is an attention to detail (the beginning of vegetation overgrowth, masses of intertwined cobwebs) that really sells the isolation and desertion. Never once is the spell broken. And then he finds an actor who seems to purposefully carry the weight and fate of the world on his broad, beefy shoulders.


Heston is a very physical actor, a presence that’s not model attractive or body builder perfect, but does resonate a strong, heroic determination. Frankly, if the risk had been taken to simply let Chuck be the last ACTUAL person on the planet, he could pull it off brilliantly. Even reduced to stagy sequences of externalized internal monologues, he sells the silly characteristic very well. Heston is often accused of over the top scenery chewing, and anyone who remembers the ending of Green or the “damn dirty ape” histrionics of Planet will tend to agree.


But in The Omega Man, we see a much more subtle, subdued protagonist, a man battling the outer threat of the gang of mutants known as “The Family” as well as the personal demons of loneliness and dogged preparedness. It requires him to turn the bravura down several notches and still remain powerful and potent. And Heston rises to the occasion flawlessly.


It’s just too bad, then, that the flaws in the film are so near fatal. Some people argue that, while not novel specific, the fiendish force of The Family makes the perfect frightening foil for Heston’s Robert Neville. But aside from the times when they mock him, calling his name out in childlike singsong from the shadows, the overall effect of these diseased drones is campy, not creepy. It’s like being trapped in a cult full of giggly albino Earth-First luddites.


As their leader, Anthony Zerbe gives both Charles Manson (who seems to have been an obvious model) and the Rev. Jim Jones a run for their rhetoric with his “back to the basics” balderdash. His and his clan’s motivation (no more science or technology, including the wheel!) seems stupid, self-righteous, and downright suicidal, and their stark lack of skin pigmentation will probably only scare those people who find clowns, or Edgar Winter, unnerving. If they didn’t try to stab or set fire to Heston, the only thing he would have to fear from them is being pontificated to death.


The other weak link is Ritchie, the young black boy saved from “the plague” by Neville’s scientific discoveries (and, to some extent, his sister Lisa). Their presence in Chuck’s life seems superfluous to all that is going on, as if to add a humanizing and womanizing angle to Neville’s non-stop battle for survival. Indeed, time and The Family’s terrorizing of Heston seems to stop so he can treat the child and do a little repopulating with Lisa. The fact that they are associated with Dutch, a hippie ex-medical student biker who harbors, “Christ-like,” a group of orphaned children, shows the sanctimonious tone that undermines the potential thrill and chills to be had. When it’s lean and mean, The Omega Man is an effective and evocative thriller. When it’s heavy handed and preachy, it’s stifling.


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