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Thursday, Aug 30, 2007


Rob Zombie gets it. He understands implicitly what makes horror such a potent genre for fright fans. He’s not quite a full fledged master of macabre, but he’s getting there in amazing leaps and outstanding bounds. Frankly, the grumbling from terror devotees was all but expected when it was announced that John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film, Halloween, was poised for the mandatory post-millennial remake. After all, with already in the can disasters like The Fog to reference, and Zombie’s status as a novice director (the magnificent The Devil’s Rejects not withstanding), there was cause to be concerned. Very concerned. So as the summer season casts its final lots this weekend, the lack of publicity and bifurcated buzz would suggest that all the trepidation was warranted.


Well, that’s garbage. Halloween is brilliant. It’s a stroke of slice and dice genius. It represents some of the most solid film work this growing fright night giant has ever brought to the big screen, and it argues for putting real fear aficionados behind the lens of your latest take on a tale of terror. This is not a rip off of Carpenter’s archetypal effort. It’s also not a sloppy, substandard attempt to cash in on the fanbase’s love of an original masterwork. Instead, this is a genuine and heartfelt tribute to the man who made masked killers relevant in a decade dominated by aliens, giant sharks, and existential human dramas. When it comes to other pioneers from dread’s determined past, Zombie is first and foremost a follower. His unabashed love for the monster movies that make up his novel, no holds barred aesthetic, is obvious in every frame of this brutal, shocking spectacle.


If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant a repeat – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive) and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.


With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this killer. Not to apologize for him, but merely clarify. By turning him into a flesh and blood, three dimensional person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred FBI profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death. There is also a clever mask motif which helps complicate the case even further. Michael often expresses that he is ‘ugly’ and ‘not himself’, and the face-shielding symbol is a wonderful way of reminding us of his past…and his penchant.


At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror of the slaughter sequences we witness. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of explaining and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.


When Carpenter created his film nearly 30 years ago, he was working as a journeymen hoping to branch out into the realm of the artist. He cribbed from Hitchcock and Hooper, as well as drive in titans like Bob Clark. His version of events was all about style – the extended tracking shot that starts the film, the moments where Michael and his intended victims play an apprehensive game of hide and seek among the massive shrubbery of Haddonfield. For his part, Carpenter was going for the glory as well as the gonzo, and that’s why his brilliant merging of vision and vileness still works today. Zombie’s efforts are no different. There are amazing directorial flourishes in the film, including a compelling use of freeze frame as well as an evocative moment were all movement stops except for the camera, which swings around to capture the young Michael in menacing, dead eyed mode. Anyone who says that Zombie is not a full fledged filmmaker should have their critical credentials revoked. Of course, with the way horror is routinely marginalized by the mainstream for the masses, such a sentiment is not such a surprise.


It also should be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son. As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.


Upon reflection, one has to feel sorry for Zombie. The overblown press who believes horror is nothing but entertainment excrement to be endured on behalf of an ever shrinking paycheck are going to ream him six ways to sundown. They’re going to reference the original (though it’s a guarantee most have not see it in 29 years, if ever) and call it a day, using Carpenter as a crutch to argue that Zombie should have never been handed the remake ropes. Similarly, current horror fans who consider Scream the genre’s shining post-modern moment and lack the basic context to consider anything different will complain like cowards about how ‘routine’ and ‘not scary’ this take on their hallowed hack and splat is.


In both cases, they’re missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, it was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. No, in this case, the making of a murderer and the consequences of his cravenness are what really intrigued this fan. The result becomes one of the smartest, most shattering horror films in a very long time. Don’t worry if you end up liking what you see. The wet blankets usually come around once the wool is dry. No, Rob Zombie definitely gets it. And if you do as well, then you’ll understand exactly what’s so special about this amazing movie.



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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007


Sometimes, dumb is all you need. Not a Larry the Cable Guy level of retardation, or a Carrot Top concept of the doltish. No, what really gives the cinematic pallet a high-quality cleansing is a ripe old fashioned dose of certifiable stupid. And Balls of Fury is that heaping helping of sensational single digit IQ-uity. Actually, it’s unfair to call this witty, borderline satiric spoof of martial arts movies and sports films brainless. It’s actually very smart in its silliness, a good natured goof that wants to earn its hilarity any witty way it can. Yes, it’s frequently sophomoric and slightly scatological, and it riffs on so many comic cross references that you can get lost in all the homages, but the fact remains, this is a wonderfully effective little film. It’s the kind of insane entity that will probably get lost in all the summer shilling. But here’s betting it becomes a major cult classic once it dives onto the digital domain.


In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him – his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon). Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.


Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant - who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in – the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! – that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here. For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers – mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.


He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand up God Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.


Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight – and slightly overweight - sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation. We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.


Unfortunately, the movie loses its way about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it just appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before our long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime. In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. 


With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career. They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success – or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


 


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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


Physical comedy is officially dead, and Rowan Atkinson killed it. Well, not the actor himself, but with his inexcusable desire to keep destroying the reputation of his resplendent Mr. Bean with all manner of mediocre motion picture incarnations. That sunny British series, with its reverence for silent film funny business, was a class act of timing and treatment, using old school slapstick to illustrate an eccentric’s uneasy way in this button down, conformist cock-up called society. Now, on celluloid, he’s nothing more than crass kid fodder, a G-rated response to the parental cries of media inappropriateness. Once he was a mean spirited plank who saw the entire world as worthy of his slightly askew scorn – yes, even women and little children. But now he’s been transformed into a gangly, goofball Gamera, friend to everyone except the sideswiped member of the audience who didn’t see such a tiresome trainwreck coming.


Helmed by British TV director Steve Bendelack (proving that the UK boob tube can match its American counterpart in producing horrible hack auteurs) and written by actor Hamish McColl (with appropriate credit to Robin Driscoll for all the original series bits being stolen) Holiday offers very little that’s new. Bean – embodied by a rapidly aging Aktinson – repeats shtick from previous so-called ‘adventures’ while proving that new ideas are few and very, very far between. The story has our hapless hero winning a trip to the French Riviera. Along the way, he prevents an important Russian director from boarding a train to Cannes, befriends the man’s smart alecky son, and disrupts the set of American moviemaker Cason Clay’s (a lost Willem Dafoe) latest epic. He eventually makes it to the big time film festival, where more mindless hijinx (and a case of mistaken kidnapping) ensues.


Back in the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, broad farce founded on the fragility of the human body was a cheap and effective means of making audiences laugh. Without the ability to used words and sounds, the visual element was crucial. That’s why writers would spend hours working up elaborate gags, recognizing that the viewer was relying on said set up and pay off for their entertainment value. In the post-Jazz Singer era however, only The Three Stooges managed to carry on the tradition. In their case, they merged recognizable types (the bully, the mensch, the idiot) and accented the byplay with equally emblematic noises (watch one of their shorts with the sound off and see how successful it is). Aktinson and Bean have none of this. At first, he was a novelty for mining this vast untouched vein of humor’s history. We laughed not only at the pratfall, but the audacity to attempt it in a post-modern media.


Blown up on a big screen, our loveable lox loses that framework. Because of the immediacy of cinema, the larger than life facets of a 50 foot tall screen, Bean’s basic stumble bum approach is lifeless. It lacks energy and verve, scuttled by Bendelack’s complete disregard for comedy basics. Examples abound, as when Mr. Bean constantly undermines a film set. The various ‘jokes’ utilized to establish the characters complete lack of regard are telegraphed so far in advance that there’s more suspense in when they’ll start than snickers once they arrive. Even more frustrating, Bean borrows a great deal from its British betters. Snippets of the classic Goon Show wit (especially circa Peter Sellers) are wedged into elements borrowed from Monty Python (silly walks, anyone). Add in some sloppy satire, including the obviously aimed at adults lampoon of pseudo-serious Hollywood dramas (personified by Dafoe’s self indulgent film) and you’ve got a grab bag of gunk.


So little works here in fact that you can actually count the effective sequences on one hand – maybe even a single finger. When our inconsiderate dope derails the young boy’s reunion with his dad, they wind up with a telephone number missing the final two digits. Bean’s solution? Call every possible combination of numbers until they find his father. These quick cut moments, various archetypal individuals answering their phones in all manner of blackout buffoonery, have a nice, nonsensical randomness that actually gets us to giggle. But then Bendelack does nothing with it. A long sequence of our hero hitchhiking goes nowhere, and when Bean arrives in Cannes, he becomes a prop in a more and more preposterous chase. Even bubbly actress Emma de Caunes is wasted as the good natured Sabine. She’s saucy Parisian pulchritude, that’s about it.


Now there will be voices vehemently opposed to such a harsh stance, arguing that this is nothing but good, clean, wholesome fun. The rarity of fare that the whole family can enjoy – or at the very least, tolerate – apparently usurps all other artistic considerations to these supporters. It’s part and parcel of the new marketing mindset, a dynamic where watchability equals worth. But even under such a lax standard, Mr. Bean’s Holiday fails. Jacques Tati, a fairly obvious influence, managed to transform his bump and scrape situations into some manner of high art, using both the material and the method of its presentation in tandem to illustrate the chuckle. Here, Bendelack believes that frequent forays into handheld digital dreariness (our dithering dimwit carries around a camcorder) will emphasize the “you are there” feeling. Unfortunately, it merely muddies an already ambiguous ideal. 


As an avant-garde notion of throwback homage, Mr. Bean’s Holiday is awfully cute. But it’s not funny or fresh. Its mixed message ideal of all ages appropriateness (the vast majority of the movie’s subtitled, oddly enough) lashed to a character that’s no longer a loveable louse renders the entire enterprise pointless. Fans of the original series will shudder at how soulless this all is, while anyone coming from the first film deserves this kind of dead-eyed sequel. Gearing everything to kids may make sense in light of the one off Mr. Bean animated show, but even those offered more imagination and sophistication that what’s offered here. And then there is Aktinson, a truly talented man who deserves much, much better. Anyone who has seen his work in Black Adder, or The Thin Blue Line can attest to that. Mr. Bean appears to be the legacy he can’t live down, an international nudge like Baldy Man or Dame Edna.


Yet none of these criticisms will matter in the end. The previous Bean outing was a huge worldwide hit, and the DVD became another in a long line of digital babysitters disconnected parents could use to safely keep the wee ones at bay. Holiday will be no different. It dives directly underneath the lowest common denominator to look for primordial approval, and even then it fails to generate much gregarious goodwill. While it’s inoffensive (unless you’re French) and even tempered (unless you’re America) it’s also dull, lifeless, and slack. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that has we critics scratching our head in ‘who demanded this’ confusion. Mr. Bean’s UK run ended more than a decade ago, and the first film came and went way back when President Clinton was still in residence at the White House (1997 to be exact). A great deal of silent era slapstick has only grown better with age. The exploits of Mr. Bean have vinegared.



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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007


Sometimes, you have to forgive a subject’s more sensational elements. While a documentary is supposed to be, first and foremost, a work of plainspoken truths, there are elements inherent in any exploration that tend to unintentionally glamorize or glorify issues. Take Michael Moore’s recent SiCKO. Sure, people can argue that the filmmaker manipulates situations to satisfy his own, idealized agenda, but when the material is as mangled as the US Health Care system, the reality is always going to override the outrage. It’s a similar problem facing first timer Jason Kohn. Tackling the reign of terror flowing throughout South American stronghold Brazil, a fear based on a fracturing class system, high level political corruption, and a freakish fad of kidnappings for quick cash, he sometimes delivers more histrionics than hard facts. But Manda Bala –translated, “Send a Bullet” – believes whole heartedly in its exotic exposé, and for the most part, it wins us over as well.


Similar to the stance taken directly after 9/11, when antibiotics and duck tape streamed off store shelves (in anticipation of another attack), wealthy Brazilians have taken to tapping into a massive cottage industry of security. We hear tales told by businessmen and big wigs about daily abduction attempts, and as a result, classes in personal protection (including REAL defensive driving) and car bulletproofing are all the rage. They represent a status symbol of sorts, a way to differentiate the important people living in Sao Paolo’s futuristic high rises from the fringe factions metering out a meager living inside the ghetto slums. Kohn connects this Wild West level of criminality with a famous political corruption case. Permanent government fixture Jader Barbalho managed to skim more than 2 BILLION dollars off the top of the Brazilian coffers, thanks in part to a bogus Amazon development fund and a frog farm that functioned as a money laundering scheme. Though hounded by the Courts and the special police task forces, he remains a powerful Teflon titan.


Interspersed throughout this class structure symbolism is the sickening underside of all this body snatching. The desperate criminals, wanting to prove that they mean business, make a habit of chopping of the ears of their victims. It is these souvenirs, along with cruel and condemning notes that figure into every citizen’s nightmares. A famed plastic surgeon, who specializes in ocular reconstruction, explains his burgeoning practice, while an actual victim recounts her maiming at the hands of some heinous cutthroats (it happened during a marathon showing of Alfred Hitchcock films, no less). The final straw suggesting a link between all these situations is an actual sitdown with an authentic abductor. Considering himself a kind of Robin Hood for his shanty town (“when they can’t afford medicine, I buy it for them”) we are supposed to see the connection between poverty’s protection of the gangster, and a failed electorate securing an obviously crooked Congressman’s greed. As long as they keep their people happy, the police will be kept at much more than arm’s length.


Granted, for most of Manda Bala, the links are limited and without context. Kohn prefers to build a puzzle rather that spell everything out, so the first few minutes spent on a slightly disgusting frog farm appear to make no sense. Similarly, our villain is introduced in an offhand, almost slight manner. He’s called a criminal by several people, but it’s not until Kohn explains his failed assistance organization, SUDAM, that we see how horrible Barbalho’s acts really are. Then the tie-in to the amphibian agriculture is established, and things begin to make sense. In essence, Manda Bala wants to view Brazil as an emerging international power, an overpopulated place of possible prosperity riddled with the frequently foul growing pains of any soon to be superpower. Kohn wisely avoids all the culture shock, the abhorrent obsession with beauty (and the surgical manipulation of same), as well as the rampant materialism in the region. Instead, this is a story about immorality of the highest level – between people and people, and citizens and their social structure.


As an apprentice to Errol Morris, Kohn should have recognized that a narrower focus would serve this material well. After all, he stumbled upon a potential superstar in Dr. Avelar. Not afraid to take credit for almost every medical discovery involved in his profession, he represents the best of both narrative worlds. On the one hand, his practice revolves around rebuilding the faces of those kidnapped and scarred. We see, first hand, the kind of scalpel and cartilage miracles he can create. On the other hand, he’s rich, and as a wealthy member of Sao Paolo’s elite, he runs the risk of having himself (or more likely, his family) abducted. So he extols the virtues of his many bodyguards, pimped out – if high profile – car, and his secluded country retreat. In this one character, all the elements the director hopes to discuss in this documentary are present. Instead of trying to manipulate four separate storylines, this one significant player could have provided a fulcrum for a clearer conversation.


Still, Manda Bala is unbelievably effective, the kind of film that gets you wondering when these horrible inhumane practices will finally reach the Northern Hemisphere. While there’s a much greater police presence in the US than in Brazil (a startling statistic states that for the 20 million citizens in Sao Paolo, there is a kidnapping task force of only 800), the abduction tactic is reminiscent of the car jacking craze and home invasion phenomenon of the late ‘90s. It speaks to a brazenness of the new criminal, the kind that sees the end goal without ever once taking into consideration the consequences – legally or ethically. While it may seem silly to say this, most crime prevention is based on the deterrent quality of laws. The theory states that people will tend to avoid felonious acts (especially in cases of murder and drug dealing) because the penalties will be excessive and severe.


But with a clear culture of corruption seeping through all manner of South American society, and a message that states that even the most obvious acts will go unpunished, the opposite is occurring. If politicians can prosper and profit without feeling the pinch of the police, why should the more desperate and dependent care? After all, they have the backing of the vast majority of the population (the poor won’t be traded for cash anytime soon) and with the aforementioned acts of goodwill, they tend to be borough heroes.  Indeed, Kohn argues that the newfangled industries that cater to the wealthy’s nervous needs actually feed into the problem. As the targets become warier of the criminal’s ways, the bad guys switch up and shift their attention. In the end, it’s a vicious cycle that suggests there really is no end in sight.


Even with its occasional faults, Manda Bala does what documentaries do best – illuminate an intellectual or social situation that our otherwise narrow Western viewpoint would never even consider. The visual beauty in the film – Brazil is one of the most inviting looking regions in the entire world – contrasted with the cynical, almost comic approach to the problems, lends to moments of well earned epiphany, as well as frequently flops back into directorial self-indulgence. The story of how the influential of Sao Paolo came to this fraudulent conclusion makes for an incredibly insightful experience. Here’s hoping the eventual reform movement gets as much prescient attention. 



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Saturday, Aug 18, 2007


In the world of monsters, the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were nothing more than second class zombies. While the undead slaughtered thousands out of an instinctual and insatiable bloodlust, the amiable alien replicants simply wanted to take over the planet, one sleeping citizen at a time. Interesting enough, both fear franchises have provided ample political allegories and numerous sequels/remakes/revamps. The original version of Jack Finney’s novel was a mighty metaphor for McCarthyism. The 1978 adaptation illustrated the disaffection and distrust of a post-Watergate nation. Even Abel Ferrara’s 1993 take tried to argue for the corrupting and catastrophic affects of conformity. Apparently two and a half times through the ringer is all this premise could maintain. With 2007’s oft-delayed The Invasion, there is simply no more symbolic juice left.


Granted, not all of this is the movie’s fault. The rumor mill has been buzzing about this project for over two years, ever since the 45 day shoot completed in late 2005. Originally planned as a straight reworking, screenwriter Dave Kajganich eventually delivered his own reinterpretation on the story, and Warner Brothers was happy enough to start distancing itself from the source. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, hot off his controversial Hitler drama Downfall, vowed to keep the story as real as possible, and avoided any F/X spectacle, opting instead for good old fashioned tension and suspense. Naturally, preview audiences hated it, and focus groups eviscerated the subtle, serious approach. Enter script doctors Andy and Larry Wachowski, and new director James McTeague (who had just completed V for Vendetta together). Over a year after production wrapped, The Invasion was literally reconfigured, reshoots changing the premise and finale of the film.


No wonder the plot feels so piecemeal. After a major disaster involving NASA, the Centers for Disease Control discover an alien spore on some space wreckage. Within days, America is plunged into a “flu-like illness” pandemic. As the rest of the world reports a similar spreading disease, Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) begins to notice small changes around her Washington DC offices. Commuters become calmer and less rushed on their way to work, while patients complain of loved ones who no longer act like their “real” selves. She notices the same thing in her ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam), a top level Presidential advisor. After a night of Halloween trick or treating turns up a strange, sticky substance, Bennell asks her boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) to work up the sample. Turns out, it’s some manner of foreign agent that replicates human DNA while merging it with some extraterrestrial entity. It is taking over the population, during the REM sleep phase, and it is up to Bennell to save her son if there is any hope for humanity to survive. Of course, he’s inconveniently been left with his odd acting father.


Playing like a mystery missing most of its first act, The Invasion hits the ground running (literally, since the first thing we see is a space shuttle disintegrating and plummeting to Earth) and refuses to let up from there. Now, if this was in service of some kind of slam bang action movie where such momentum needs to be maintained, we could understand the urgency. But after producing a premise, the story stumbles around, providing nothing we can use for future fear factors. Kidman, doing coy and confused for all its worth, spends a lot of the opening hour as an outside observer the action happening to everyone and everything around her. This creates a kind of distance between her character and the audience that doesn’t help with the crucial cinematic elements of empathy and identification. We don’t really understand Dr. Bennell. She’s hyper sensitive over her small boy Oliver, and yet she allows him to become a prop in a perplexing game of ex-spouse supremacy.


It doesn’t help that she’s stuck in “friend” mode with best beau Driscoll. Craig, looking worse than he has in any film in recent memory, makes a poor paramour, the kind of drawn out doormat whose willing to put up with a hot chick’s quirks because he still sees some sexual light at the end of the tunnel. He’s too passive to be a participant in a worldwide catastrophe, and the last act switch into pseudo savior mode doesn’t jibe either. There are several other throwaway roles here – Jeffrey Wright as a doctor specializing in exposition, Roger Rees who only gets a single scene to play a sour Russian diplomat, Veronica Cartwright (a bow to Phillip Kaufman’s ‘70s version) as a desperate and deluded housewife. None of them build to any sort of unified theme or idea. And as our primary villain, Northam is nominal. He’s like a weak willed version of an infomercial host – and the only thing he’s selling, sadly, is a total lack of bad guy believability.


Then there is the direction. It is clear from watching this cobbled together version of the narrative that Hirschbiegel intended to get his anti-American rant on. In the background of most initial sequences are news reports from Iraq, veiled condemnations of our failed foreign policy. Similarly, Rees’ only scene is a backhanded rebuke of the US as a solid superpower. If there was to be a parallel in this particular film, it was the ineffectual nature of the Red White and Blue response to crisis, versus the aggressive attack mode of the rest of the world. But since he was carted off the project, much of this material is buried, blurred from our vision and shuttled off to a scarce sonic backdrop. Add to this the preposterous stylistic decision to visualize events as the actors describe them, and then using an edited version of the images to represent reality. It’s awkward at first, and when you’re looking to build suspense, situation, or story, such a jagged concept kills all three.


Still, there is an inherent sci-fi fascination in this subject that stimulates our interest. We can practically write our own movie in our head, taking elements that either Hirschbiegel or McTeague thought worked well and reinventing our own version of them. The concept of conventionality, of running with the pack and braying with the sheep still has a lot of potential strength. America is more conformist now than it’s ever been, a nation numbed by a lack of external interests and a swelling arrogance. Riffing on that while providing some enticing alien F/X would have worked wonderfully. Even better, use the current War on Terror as a starting point and push the post-9/11 malaise directly into our faces. You can’t make a palpable parable without taking risks. The Invasion’s conceit is so laidback that it actually takes a while to realize the world is going to Hell. While this may have been the idea all along, it really does get lost in the translation here.


And so we are left with bits and pieces of two divergent movies. One film wants to find the horror in everyday life. The other looks at any incursion, alien or otherwise, as a means to some manufactured, manipulative ends. For its part, The Invasion does scoot along capably. You don’t care about the characters, but your natural curiosity as to how it will all end is definitely triggered. To call the conclusion anticlimactic would be giving it a value it fails to earn organically. It’s a series of setups missing a major league punchline. For fans of simplistic speculation that’s only capable of going through the motions, this movie will satisfy a basic need. But as past presentations of the subject have suggested, there is more to these particular human duplicates than meets the eye. Unfortunately, the fourth time was the harm, not the charm here.


The Invasion - Trailer



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