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by Bill Gibron

6 Mar 2008


During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find.

Terry Leather is a scrappy London car dealer, his gambling problems placing both his business and his marriage in deep, deep trouble. When an old flame named Martine Love turns up on his stoop, he’s open to her somewhat surreal suggestion. She wants Terry to put together a crew and rob a bank. She will handle all the details. He just needs to find the manpower. Set up in an adjoining shop, the plan is to tunnel into the vault and rob it. Whatever Terry and the boys get, they can keep. Martine is after a specific safety deposit box. Turns out, a Black Militant group with ties to London’s underground pornography trade has compromising pictures of one of the British royals. Their leader is using the snaps to keep out of jail. But the heist uncovers more than Terry, Martine, and government intelligence want to know. As the main instigator of the crime, even the Crown could be compromised.

As with all ‘based on a true story’ narratives, the events in The Bank Job have to be taken with a small grain of cinematic salt. In essence, what we are getting is a thirty year old account from a supposed participant in this crime, claiming that the highest levels of UK intelligence staged a robbery to protect the image of Princess Margaret. If we are to believe the facts presented, the compromising images of the noblewoman in steamy sexual congress would destroy the Monarchy (proving, once again, that this really is the early ‘70s). Equally suspect is the notion that a street hood like Terry Leather - name changed to protect the ‘guilty’, or so the pre-credits screen card reads - could literally outsmart MI5, powerful mobsters, shady radicals, and his own character issues to make this all work.

Oddly enough, the heist is not the most compelling part of this film. The set up takes a bit to build, since Donaldson clearly wants to establish character and tone here. There is a nice squalid London vibe, a real sense of time and place. And the actors make good with the limited material they are given. Jason Statham is once again the balding British bulldog with an ever present muzzle and a head butting approach to problem solving. Saffron Burroughs is very believable as the aging model turned drug mule, forced into the service of the government thanks to a boyfriend in the Agency and a taste for cocaine. As suave flesh peddler Lew Vogel, David Suchet provides the perfect combination of sleaze and sensibility. And Daniel Mays leaves a large impression as Dave, one of Terry’s accomplices.

But weak links also abound - and not just in the performance pool. Peter De Jersey’s black radical Michael X is nearly comic in his chest-puffing arrogance. The entire subplot involving another secret agent (a hippy-dippy white girl) working within his group seems senseless in both its support of the story and its finale’s brutality. Also odd is the other main narrative - the potential impact of some additional scandalous photos on high placed British officials. It makes sense in the long run, especially when you consider the criminal element the movie is dealing in, but it frequently comes across like a bad joke. It’s like a punchline without a point. Of course, the era defines such reactions. We are so much savvier in our post-modern cynicism. But that doesn’t mean it helps the movie.

Still, Donaldson’s direction guides us through the rough spots. He’s efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements. The screenplay also strikes an interesting balance between crime and punishment. We want to see Terry and his blokes succeed, if only because these thieves are the most jovial lot on the screen. But we are constantly reminded that their felonious acts don’t often pay, and on a couple of occasions, a character’s fate seems unduly harsh. Donaldson does tie it all up in the end, and we feel a sense of satisfaction with the way things play out. But The Bank Job tends to remain an epic shorn of its scope. If Martin Scorsese were behind the lens, he’d have us at “allo”. Instead, everything stays a small little bit of relatively unknown British history.

Indeed, before the gag order turned the media labeled “Walkie Talkie Robbery” (a ham radio operator overheard signals being sent between Terry and his outside lookout) into a myth, there was substantial buzz about this incident. Why no one ever attempted a fully fictional adaptation of the facts seems strange - as does the arrival of this so-called ‘insider’ version. In part, the movie works because it’s offering us a previously squelched story dealing with inherently engaging material. But The Bank Job could be so much more. Sadly, Donaldson doesn’t strive for same.

 

by Bill Gibron

5 Mar 2008


Thirty-nine is just too young, no matter how you look at it. Life provides such limited opportunities that, to lose them all at such an age smacks of cosmic injustice. Many of you may not have heard of John Polonia, nor know of his work. He was a leftover from the Super VHS craze of the late ‘80s/ early ‘90s, a kid at heart with dreams just as naïve and wide-eyed. Along with brother Mark, he made horror movies - cheap, no-budget straight to video genre exercises that filtered an obsession with US and foreign fright into shockingly original terror visions. Prolific to a fault, the Polonias were the trademark example of the new technological age. They were teens (at the time) that wanted nothing more than to express themselves on film - and the scientific progress within the medium helped them achieve that goal.

And now John is gone - taken down by a heart aneurism just short of his 40th birthday. He leaves behind a devoted brother, an equally loyal spouse, and a young son. As Mark began the painful process of sending emails out to individuals he felt connected to, a strange kind of sadness swept over the outsider arena. It wasn’t just the tragedy of a career cut too short of an existence ended before its time. No, there was a sense of loss for the medium as well, a weird kind of ennui that suggested something equally depressing. It seems, no matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, you’re one solid step from notoriety - or nothing. In the case of John Polonia, it appears only a privileged few have had the pleasure of experiencing his creativity - or understand the man himself.

There’s no denying the Polonias specialized in what can kindly be called grade-Z schlock. It was what they loved. It was where their passions lied. Growing up during the startling transition from the post-modern ‘70s to the home theater ‘80s, the boys were literally inundated with cinema. Birthday gifts included camera equipment, and collaborations with other like minded moviemakers yielded special effects and actors. Together, they forged a grass roots loyalty to Argento and Fulci, Carpenter and Romero. They made slasher films, vampire epics, tongue in cheek monster movies - they even spoofed themselves with last year’s winning Splatter Beach. Thanks to DVD and the ease of distribution it provides, the boys were just breaking away from the notion of mainstream indifference. Instead, websites were championing their films, with offers from independent studios starting to pour in.

Yet the tragic loss of John underscores the main problem in today’s progressive media. Back before anyone could make film, there was a keen sense of perspective and preservation. True, a great many decent efforts were tossed on the coals of disposability, but at least the masterful ones stayed somewhat safe. Today, everyone’s an artist. There are no aesthetic checks, no creative balances. John and Mark Polonia were able to make movies and have them seen as a direct result of these critical barriers being breached. It is not meant to be a putdown, simply a statement of fact. By direct corollary, one fears John’s work will be lost among the DIY rabble, frequently scoffed at as interchangeable and easily dismissed.

What’s not so readily removed is how much true fan affection the Polonias put in their films. From the puppet like aliens in Feeders to the wood demon of their latest film, Forest Primeval, there was a wonderful throwback element to the days of tacky creature features and Saturday matinees. They also adored gore, making their movies as bloody and as disgusting as possible. When you look over their entire output - and it’s a massive canon, to say the least - it’s like retracing at the entire history of horror. They reflect the changing attitudes in the genre, from comedy to cruelty, invention to outright rip-offs.

Ever-present were John and Mark, twin brothers with bushy moustaches and voices carved out of a clear Northeastern cadence. Fighting the cusp between able and amateurish, these like minded siblings sought to express themselves in ways that played directly into their personal proclivities. They always remained technically proficient, even working on other people’s films as actors, writers, and editors. They were genial, often self-deprecating about their product, using the burgeoning digital format to explain themselves in featurettes and commentary tracks. There was always a wistful quality to their discussions, an acknowledgment of luck in an industry that rarely rewards anything save nepotism and ‘who you know’ networking.

With John gone, it will probably be difficult for Mark to immediately move on. As he said in his recent email, it just won’t be the Polonia Brothers anymore. But spirit is a funny thing - it tends to infuse itself (sometimes indirectly) into the remainder of reality. No matter what he does from this point forward, Mark will always carry his spitting image offspring with him. That means that, if and when he makes another movie, it will clearly be a joint effort. If any good can come out of this tragedy, it’s that the messageboard attention John’s death received will provide some renewed interested in the Polonia’s films.

Tempe Entertainment, who released Primeval, is already planning a tribute for the last film the brothers made together. Not surprising, it’s a send-up of the genre entitled Monster Movie. In many ways, it’s a fitting end for a collaboration that often celebrated the weird and the whacky. Thirty-nine is just way too young. Here’s hoping John Polonia will be remembered more for his films and not for such an untimely passing. 

by Bill Gibron

4 Mar 2008


When it happens, it’s rather unsettling. In debate, we call it “squirreling”. In society, it’s known as being ‘out of step’ or ‘rebellious’. It’s never easy being the odd man out in any critical consensus. We all know the feeling of championing a band or artist who others hate, and visa versa. Yet in the world of film reviewing, such an outsider stance often results in feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. There’s also a sense of seniority at play, a deference to those who’ve done the job longer than others. The old guard gets the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, while the newer members are viewed through a novice scrim of suspiciousness.

It is a rare occurrence, but the examples are very telling indeed. Last month, Be Kind Rewind premiered. Michel Gondry’s love letter to home video and the DIY spirit of the new medium technology was uniformly undervalued by critics, many complaining that the story seemed shallow and scattered. Yet to these supposedly trained eyes right here, Rewind was genius. It extolled the value of VHS while proving that film becomes a social language all its own. During the public/press screening, you could literally feel the shrinking sense of perspective. While others in the journalist’s row scoffed and shifted in their seats, one or two of their number were transfixed - and taken in - by Gondry’s efforts.

Or take the upcoming Funny Games. A near shot by shot remake of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name, this twisted tale of a wealthy family brutalized by some very unusual killers is as smarmy and smug as it is distasteful and vile. It has nothing but contempt for the audience, purposefully tosses convention to the window, and more or less acts as an egotistical deconstruction of the whole thriller genre. Some have really connected with this film, calling it brave, bold, and masterful. But at the private screening held for press, there was only one critic who felt the same.

You could tell which one it was. He laughed at all the lame observational satire and seemed to connect with the confrontational style Haneke was preaching. During the more static bits, when bored viewers (like yours truly) looked around for some manner of diversion, you could see the man enraptured by what he was seeing. As the credits rolled and the group wandered out, the comments were harsh:

“Reprehensible!”

“Atrocious”

“Just plain bad”

“Pointless! Just pointless.”

“A repugnant piece of sh*t”

And circumventing the bile, making his way past those who wanted an additional moment with the monitor to express their disgust, the odd man out successfully skirted detection. Days later, at another event, a random comment about Funny Games elicited a sigh from said individual. Clearly, he ‘got’ what Haneke was supposedly selling. The rest were, apparently, just grumpy stuffed shirts.

Being the filmic freak can make you feel that way. This past year, the remake of Halloween and JJ Abrams experimental Cloverfield both struck massive love/hate chords with audiences. From this reviewer’s perspective, both films were excellent. This didn’t mean that he was praised for his honesty or challenged on his choice. No, most of the feedback was downright rude and abrasive. Profanity laced missives were the norm, as were blatant challenges to one’s credentials. Since a critic lives and dies by his or her opinion, such attacks are routine. But it’s interesting to see how many premise their putdowns on the sole basis of having a differing or direct opposite judgment than there’s.

Dealing with one’s peers doesn’t make it any easier or different. Around Oscar time, a conversation about The Savages started up (as an outgrowth of Juno‘s predetermined Academy win). Many in the room found it thought provoking, intense, sadly funny, and moving without being overly dramatic. They argued their case well, supporting their positions with actual evidence of dialogue remembered, specific scenes, and how close to home the film finally hit. Yet this critic was on the outside looking far, far in. He was harangued for not finding Laura Linney ‘amazing’. He was questioned as to why he thought the scripting was weak (answer: it didn’t seem real). And he was routinely disputed as being outside the mainstream in this regard.

It takes a certain type of stamina to do this week after week, to watch one mediocre Hollywood hack job after another with only your wits and your writing skills as a buffer. You recognize immediately upon liking or disliking a movie that you’ll be up against a certain consensus and may indeed find yourself walking a certain belief corridor by yourself. There’s no doubt that a critic has to develop a resilient spine, a keen wit, and a Helluva thick skin. It’s impossible to survive otherwise. Just the hate email alone would be enough to undermine even the heartiest sense of scholarship. Remember, most journalists came into film because it was a passion - something they studied either as a curriculum or as a fan. There’s no real tendency to shoot from the hip, even when they may want to.

On the other hand, most opposing viewpoints come from passion. They are perfectly appropriate and still highly irrational reactions. Funny Games wasn’t bad because it blatantly revised the way we are supposed to look at violence on film. It had major directing, acting, and scripting flaws as well. Yet sometimes, those issues are absent in the “squirrel”. For them, the link is so thoughtful and profound that all the other problems seem petty. How many times have you read a review where a critic clearly says “Factor ‘X’ was so powerful that it helped get the audience through Faults ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’?” That’s the magic and mystery of movies at play.

Certainly there is a sound guilty pleasure in being the odd duck, the squeaky wheel amongst the Kool-aid consuming rabble. Take Borat, for example. At the time, everyone thought of it as the second coming of cinematic comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen was being anointed as the new mock-doc king, and his work was actually being offered for Awards consideration. In more than one piece, yours truly took both the film and the actor to task, suggesting that he was really just an emperor pretender with a new set of snarky clothes. A little over a year later, the backlash has equalized the original praise. Now, what seemed dull witted and worn out has become somewhat prescient and pretty much on the money.

Still, that doesn’t make it any easier. During the press screening for No Country for Old Men, there were several audible groans when the still considered controversial ending finally played out. Several in the select crowd actually went so far as to suggest the film was ruined by the unconventional finale. It’s an argument that still, rages all across messageboards and fansites. Yet the Coens went on to capture several Academy Awards last month, an unscientific suggestion that perhaps some in the voting pool got their approach. That won’t silence the reviewing rebel - and perhaps it shouldn’t. It’s important to remember this, however - critics don’t purposefully buck the trend just to be different. Everyone’s opinion is valid, even if it’s not on the same page as yours.

by Bill Gibron

3 Mar 2008


From time to time, SE&L will step back and let the Tinsel Town marketing machine do what they do best – tantalize and tease us with clever coming attraction previews and trailers. The five films focused on this time around represent some highly anticipated future outings, including the latest from cinematic stalwarts like M Night Shyamalan, Mike Meyers, and Kung Fu Hustle‘s Stephen Chow. Every few weeks, we’ll take a break from casting our critical eye over the motion picture artform and let the shill do the talking. And of course, once they do open in theaters, you can guarantee we will be there, deciphering whether the come-on matches the context. In any event, enjoy:

The Love Guru
It’s more Austin Powers’ style wackiness as Meyers portrays an Indian shaman trying to save the career of a professional hokey player. Standard hijinx ensue.

CJ7
Hong Kong God Chow turns family friendly with this ET like tale.

The Happening
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and only the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable knows what’s on tap.

Baby Mama
Tina Fey takes a break from 30 Rock to offer her own satiric take on superwomen and the desire to have it all - including a surrogate kid.

Midnight Meat Train
The Clive Barker tales gets a stylistic spin. Looks like it could be a solid genre winner.

 

by Bill Gibron

2 Mar 2008


Everyone wanted their moment. Everyone wanted their time with the masters. On an unusually cool Florida night, with a wind whipping around the Channelside Theaters reception area, two exploitation icons sat, waiting to greet their fans. It was magical, the kind of high profile appearance that turns Tampa from a backwater cultural burg into an outpost along cinema’s historic highway. When the Gasparilla Film Festival announced that Blood Feast, the 1963 gore epic would be part of their itinerary, some movie snobs scoffed. After all, we’re talking about a 45 year old cheapie that earned its reputation on notoriety, not name talent. But when it was also disclosed that producer David F. Friedman and director Herschell Gordon Lewis would be on hand to reminisce about their infamous film, the connection became clear.

For those unfamiliar with those names, Friedman is the acknowledged ‘Mighty Monarch’ of the exploitation arena, a producer who had a more than influential hand in taking the taboo busting genre from the grindhouse to the arthouse - and back again. His partner in crime was Lewis, a Chicago based maker of advertising and industrial films who quickly learned that the real money was in pandering to the prurient interests of an audience. Getting their start in nudist camp films, the guys quickly learned that anyone could feature topless females cavorting around lush tropical backdrops. They needed something new and different. With his fascination with Grand Guignol, Lewis suggested gore. Instantly, the pair traveled to Florida, concocted a bizarre Egyptian ritual narrative, and Blood Feast was born.

Now, nearly five DECADES after they literally created the first splatter film, they were back in the Sunshine State, and reveling in the overwhelming accolades that never came their way eons ago. Friedman, 85 and in slightly failing health, stood and greeted his admirers, while Lewis, 79 and as spry as ever, sat at a table and held court, just like any member of royalty would. Among the throng waiting were fanatics, geeks, punk rock devotees, and the occasional gob-smacked critic. Hands clasped DVD covers, worn trade paperbacks, souvenir barf bags given out for the screening, and some highly unusual mementos. One young man, a fledgling F/X artist who was inspired by Feast, brought his metal make-up kit. After the standard star-struck approach and the exchange of personal pleasantries, he got Friedman and Lewis to sign his case. 

From the outside looking in, these exchanges seemed slightly selfish. With both men clearly feeling their age, it was oddly uncomfortable to watch their fans swarm and monopolize their space. Some would stand for a second or two, happy for a signature and a quick digital snap. Others, however, needed to explain themselves, to clarify their passion for Freidman’s films or Lewis’ later productions in obsessive detail. As others waited for their equally important moment, these home video vampires stood their ground. Certainly the guests of honor never showed it, nor did the festival handlers, but there was an invasive atmosphere that made some of the exchanges uncomfortable to watch. There is a mythos surrounding these men that mandates a certain level of respect. For some of the Kevin Smith wannabes in the crowd, it was more about their perspective than those being honored.

Still, fandom breeds a certain level of entitlement, and the rarity of the appearance definitely brought out that facet. But there were also high levels of admiration, and some clear moments of inspired reverence. A few in attendance held copies of Friedman’s definitive biography A Youth in Babylon, praising a clearly moved man for his enlightened narrative on the history of exploitation. Lewis found himself signing everything from old VHS copies of Feast to ultra-rare Laserdisc versions of the film. Even soundtrack CDs, released since the advent of home video, found their way into the mix. Couples calmly asked for photos while one clueless attendee turned to a group standing nearby and asked, “Who is Herschell Gordon Lewis?”

It was that kind a night, an event where the age old adage about never meeting your heroes bore both legitimacy and ludicrousness. For anyone who’s heard Friedman and Lewis on DVD commentary tracks, or has been lucky enough to see one of their few taped interviews, meeting them in person is like déjà vu all over again. Their voices remain the same - a clear combination of a well lived life and pure carnival barker showmanship. While they look much older, the same glint appears in their eyes, faces literally lighting up the minute someone mentions Lewis’ work in marketing (where he truly made his name) or Friedman’s connection to the carnival (he still comes to Florida every year to attend the industry convention in Gibsonton).

Before they knew it, the theater was ready to show their film. Promises of a pristine print from San Francisco quickly turned out false. Instead, a relatively ratty copy of Blood Feast gave viewers a scratchy, slightly out of focus look at the classic. Even in 35mm, the audience knew it was a lark. As Lewis would later say in the hilarious post-screening Q&A, they laughed in all the right places. There were audible gasps during the gore, and more than a few Mystery Science Theater 3000 like riffs. Every once in a while, a keen observer could hear Lewis and Friedman talking, their recognizable voices responding to something they saw on the screen. There was applause at certain points and a clear sense of satisfaction when it was all over.

Local St. Pete Times film critic Steve Persall, instrumental in getting Feast shown at Gasparilla, led the post-screening interview. While they searched for a working microphone, Lewis stood up and proudly announced that they both could ‘project’, and from that moment on, the genuine lovefest began. As a fount of undeniably entertaining stories, both men mesmerized the crowd. They told of how a concrete sphinx outside the Suez Motel on Miami Beach inspired their plot, and how Kansas City banned the use of the word “Blood” in film advertising - which made showing In Cold Blood quite difficult. There was a singalong (Lewis leading the audience in a stirring rendition of the Two Thousand Maniacs theme song) and a last minute slasher gag that went horribly wrong.

After the aborted effect, a feigned throat slashing that saw more fake gore on Lewis than his intended victim, the remaining fans starting moving toward the men. On the screen above was a symbolic splash of grue, leftover from the effort. As it trailed down the stark white scrim, workers hurried to wash it off. Yet the imagery was undeniable. Here were two octogenarians, life spent in pursuits both in and outside of exploitation, being celebrated for finally placing ample arterial spray onto celluloid. Even in 2008, they can’t help but leave their imprint everywhere they go.

A little Windex and elbow grease finally cleared off the claret, but few will forget the magical evening spent with two true artform pioneers. The grindhouse gave mainstream movies the chutzpah to move beyond studio system mandates - and it was men like David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis who took all the risk. It’s about time they were rewarded - and on this one Tampa evening, they definitely were. 

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