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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007


The War in Iraq is destined to leave yet another battle-weary scar on a nation finally recuperating from the one it received three decades before. Both sides can argue their rosy Red pros and basic Blue cons, but when all is said and done, all conflict is about people, not positions. They are the ones who pay the price, not the politicians. So what does it say about Paul Haggis and In the Valley of Elah, his post-Crash comeuppance to everyone who thought his 2005 racial roundelay didn’t deserve the Oscar, that our brave fighting men are actually the bad guys here. Not unsympathetic bureaucrats, career minded Congressmen, or bomb building extremists, but the boys and girls wearing the stars and stripes. Granted, this laconic whodunit is based on actual events, but one still has to wonder if this is the right story to tell, given the current climate in the country.


When he goes AWOL after returning home from Iraq, the parents of Private Mike Deerfield get a fateful phone call. Father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military policeman himself, immediately heads over to his boy’s base to see if he can aid the investigation. However, his worst nightmares are realized when a badly burned, and crudely cut up, body is found along a deserted roadside. It is his son, the obvious victim of foul play. Promising his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) that he will get to the bottom of the crime, Hank contacts local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Unappreciated by the male members of the bureau, and battling against stonewalling Army brass, she initially gives up on the case. But when inconsistent statements and some illegally obtained video footage suggest something far more sinister, she decides to help Hank. Together they will try and figure out why Mike became the target of such a senseless slaughter.


Wearing its holier than thou attitude on its blood-soaked sleeves, In the Valley of Elah is the most underhanded, backdoor anti-war film ever attempted. It takes a standard murder mystery, wraps it up in a torn and tattered flag, and flies the entire narrative upside down and a little lower than half mast. As a thriller, it’s a swing on a country porch. As a diatribe, it’s like listening to a well-intentioned teen explain politics. There is literally nothing wrong with Haggis’ approach, or his appreciation of the toll the Iraq War is taking on everyone involved – family, friends, and those in the line of fire. And he does make his characters complex enough to sustain such a subtle, slowpoke storytelling stratagem. But by the end of its overlong running time, when the final loose thread has been neatly knitted back into place, one can’t help but think that there was a better way to make this material work. Sometimes, a scream is preferable to a whisper.


Yet Haggis is content to keep his voice down. There are moments when this movie appears to be barely moving, when our director is purposefully stalling for significance. For example, when Tommy Lee Jones checks into a local motel, we witness his entire bed making routine. Similarly, we catch almost all of his character’s morning hygiene ritual, with an accidental shaving cut accentuated for future plotpoint portents. Indeed, a great deal of In the Valley of Elah wastes time laying cinematic booby traps. The aforementioned facial laceration will end up bleeding on a list of heretofore unknown subjects, while an inappropriate racial epithet will turn into an invitation for background information. Haggis wants to hide his symbolism as much as celebrate it, and with the cinematography’s dour, faded color scheme and vague visual palette, he creates the perfect vista for such an approach. Unfortunately, this film is so restrained that it frequently feels inert.


Granted, one doesn’t come into a tale like this expecting the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but Haggis’s halting style can be very aggravating at times. At one point, Sarandon phones Jones to tell him that a package from their dead son has just arrived. Immediately, he warns her not to open it, and after a brief back and forth she acquiesces. But then the subject is never mentioned again, with almost an hour going by before the envelope makes a last minute reappearance. As a dramatic device, it may have some significance, but we are smack dab in the middle of a murder investigation – a crime that may have some connection to the soldiers Mike served with. And you’re NOT going to investigate a mysterious parcel sent from the front lines which, perhaps, holds a key to solving the case? Right, that makes perfect sense.


Haggis’s politics are also problematic here. Thematically, In the Valley of Elah ascribes to the theory that war turns the innocent into bloodthirsty butchers, and in the case of the Iraq conflict, it has the potential to turn the best and brightest into unstable, antisocial psychopaths. There are several senseless sequences of foreboding offered, as when a scared military wife warns the police that her husband has started acting weird (he goes berserk and drowns the family dog). Yet instead of taking it seriously, the other officers in the station make goofy animal noises as Charlize Theron tries to comfort her. The whole chauvinistic take on the lawmen of Tennessee is equally odd, since the justification being forwarded is that, as ex-military men, it’s part of their noble nature. Indeed, time and time again, Haggis argues that everybody’s favorite iconic Uncle is really the Son of Sam. In his world, being all you can be means eventually turning into Ted Bundy.


If one thing saves this overly stoic statement, it’s the overall level of proficiency in the performances. Jones, Theron, and Sarandon all own Oscars, and they legitimately deserve said accolades. While he’s nothing more than a hospital corner’s curmudgeon at the beginning, Hank Deerfield is modified nicely over the course of the narrative, thanks in part to Jones’ desire to dimensionalize this despondent dad. Sarandon gets two excellent scenes (a morgue visit, and a late night phone call) and she makes the most of them. Oddly enough, Theron’s efforts may be the most intriguing. Dressed down, but never out (it’s hard to make this classic beauty look bad, unless you’re stopping off at the special effects tent), she comes across as jaded and unstrung, a woman waking everyday to a series of traumas that have as much to do with her career as crime. Her single-motherhood is hyped to no real end, but the connection with her kid makes for some intriguing and enlightening nuance.


Yet it’s these types of tangents that ultimately derail In the Valley of Elah. It seems like, every time a clue is unearthed, it requires a lengthy rationale and off topic backstory to certify it. Papa Deerfield swipes his son’s cellphone from the barracks, and within its damaged memory is a series of cryptic video clips. Of course, we get to witness almost all of these overlong ‘flashbacks’ in technologically deficient detail. As the picture pixelates, jumping and jerking to mimic handheld, in battle ‘realism’, we wait for the denouement. Sadly, Haggis hampers his own vindications by employing such a strange, scattered approach. Yet each video has an explanation, and we are constantly thrown off the case itself, to explore these occasionally unnecessary facets. It’s like the title analogy (Jones tells Theron’s little boy the story of David and Goliath): we are supposed to see the allusion between small town cop and the big, bad US military, but because the movie avoids such bravado confrontation, the link appears hallow.


Maybe the message will save In the Valley of Elah. Polls indicate that most Americans are sick of Iraq and its jumbled, no-endgame policies. As such, Haggis plays right into their worst, most horrifying fears. He shows an army incapable of achieving its objective while excusing the off-base criminality of its soldiers as simply “blowing off steam”. The grunts themselves are strip club settled and pimply, like hyperactive kids in an oversized candy store. When we learn what happened, both at home and abroad, we’re not shocked as much as saddened. The US has always suspected that its ‘unnecessary’ wars lead to unseen post-traumatic consequences. As a filmmaker, that’s all Haggis has to offer. Relying on it may be politically, or philosophically right, but it doesn’t necessarily serve a murder mystery thriller. Perhaps that’s why In the Valley of Elah seems so subdued. When questioning the heroism (not the heart) of the men who serve our nation, it’s best to speak softly. You don’t want to rile the resolved.


 


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Thursday, Sep 20, 2007


The glamorization of crime has as much to do with the mob as it does the movies. Because of its strictures that exist outside the limits of the law, the rights and duties, honors and codes becomes the art design for a million cinematic statements. Part of the relish in something like The Godfather is watching these ritualistic rationales play out, as well as sneaking a peek behind a frequently unseen curtain. But the genre itself is also a mirror, reflecting the level of sameness in, say, a South Central Los Angeles gang and a high ranking Hong Kong triad. It’s all about family, force, and the freedom to indulge in the blurry border between capitalism and corruption. In his latest mean streets masterwork, Eastern Promises venereal horror icon David Cronenberg takes the Russian mafia to task. It’s part of a bigger picture dissection of how obsession makes even the most moral individual turn.


Our story begins when midwife Anna (a wonderful Naomi Watts) stumbles across the diary of a dead girl. With a newborn baby left behind, she’s desperate to locate some manner of family abroad. With the help of her immigrant uncle Stepan, she translates a few pages of the text, and learns of the girl’s name (Tatiana), her trip from Russia, and her initial contact with a local London restaurateur Semyon (a diabolic Armin Mueller-Stahl). When she approaches the seemingly genial gentleman, he promises to get to the bottom of the Tatiana’s situation. But since Anna has a copy of the diary as well, the secrets it contains suddenly threaten the incognito mobster’s standing. He puts his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell, stealing every scene he’s in) and dedicated ‘driver’ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) on the case of reclaiming the journal, quieting anyone connected with it, and retrieving Tatiana’s baby. Even the slightest slip up could mean chaos for Semyon’s omnipresent power structure.


At first, it feels like Eastern Promises is going to revolve around an unconscionable connection between Anna and Nikolai. They run into each other several times during the opening act, and each time, there’s a growing sense of attraction and mystery between the pair. We keep waiting for the inevitable moment, the situation which allows both characters to remove their outer façade and become real, recognizable people. But Cronenberg isn’t out to explore that particular narrative thread. Indeed, many of the standard crime story motifs that have come to define the cinematic category are completely ignored by this wonderful film, making it an anomaly in an otherwise recognizable realm. Sure, there is blood, and death hangs its shingle over almost every onscreen action, but as a director, this is one artist who is looking for new canvases to compile. Eastern Promises will remain recognizable, but only partially so.


Instead of going for gratuity, Cronenberg is out to understand human arrogance. He wants to know what makes one group of people – in this case, displaced Russian hoodlums – think they can flaunt the conventions of civilized society. He does so by contrasting Semyon with his son, offering an older man of unspeakable evil with a young stud who barely has the backbone to handle the small stuff. Obviously doomed from the start, Vincent Cassell turns Kirill into a walking contradiction, a man who loves power but can’t wield it in a way that’s successful or substantive. He lucks into his tainted triumphs, and relies heavily on Nikolai to mop up his messes. Semyon, on the other hand, is cruelty covered in a fine patina of paternity. He’s like everyone’s elderly grandpa - that is, if said relative was a repulsive, irredeemable rapist. It’s to his credit that Cronenberg never lets Mueller-Stahl act on his reputation. Suggestion works much better than having all of it shown.


At the opposite end is Mortensen’s Nickolai. His is a brute that is all outer trappings, from his jet black wardrobe and Secret Service sunglasses to the elaborate tattoos that trace his horrible history of violence. We are given reason to fear this mystifying man, especially after witnessing the offhand way he handles the disposition of a corpse. Even more intriguing, you will never see a gun in Eastern Promises. Every act is tactile, requiring a knife or handy tool to tackle. When Mortensen’s character is confronted in a bath, his full frontal nude body battling with two dagger wielding hitmen, it’s more than just a homoerotic stunt. Cronenberg wants to illustrate that real men don’t need a phallic substitute (read: a firearm) to create unspeakable destruction. All they need is a sharpened blade and a will to survive. As one of the film’s setpiece splatter sequences, Nickolai’s naked clash is a classic.


But it’s also antithetical to the movie’s main point. As with most syndicate activity, insinuation and rumor is far more effective at keeping things under control than direct confrontation and destruction. It’s obvious from the moment Semyon learns of the diary. The contents do indeed worry him, but the sign of weakness amongst the other bosses is far more problematic. Like a massive game of multilevel chess, the slightest miscalculation can mean utter defeat. It’s the reason the understated Don is so mad at his son. He sees recklessness and a streak of irredeemable drunken sloppiness – elements that function in direct contrast to the strategic aims of the syndicate. It’s a model of interconnected complexity that illustrates how difficult these dynasties are to take down. But it also underlies the notion that everyone here is out for their own selfish motives. Even the supposed heroine is far from pristine.


Indeed - don’t be fooled. Naomi Watts’ Anna is no innocent here. She has her own selfish reasons for learning of Tatiana’s family, though the underpinning isn’t apparent at first. Cronenberg only hints at the pain this childless woman experiences especially as someone serving biology day in and day out while her own personal prayers go unanswered. Yet in several close contact conversations with her mother, we begin to see the truth. Without spoiling the situation, it’s clear that circumstances in Anna’s past are coloring her concern, leading all pathways directly back to her own maternal instincts. No one else in the film feels the same way, and it’s shocking the Cronenberg would introduce such a mercenary facet into this narrative. But because we keep expecting certain ‘good vs. evil’ avenues, it’s that much easier of the director to take us down an unexplored backstreet.


As a matter of fact, much of Eastern Promises is a window into a world we know little about. While pageantry and grandeur paint the Russians as much as the Italians (a major confrontation occurs during a ceremonial banquet), Cronenberg stuffs this storyline with all manner of insider details. We learn of the Yakuza-like significance of body art, what stars on one’s knees means, how slander and sexual defamation means more than a random killing, and why the collapse of communism led to such inhuman hostility. It’s intriguing material, made even more emblematic by how this director incorporates it into the subtext. Some hold a significant place in the plot. Others are asides that only come back to resonate later.


Perhaps the best thing about Eastern Promises, however, is its lack of conclusiveness. We definitely get an ending, and an epilogue wrap-up featuring a calculated character “where are they now.” But there is no real sense of resolve, no suggestion that everything is right in this one time very wrong world. Instead, the tableaus suggest change, but little in the way of finality. Roles may have changed, and situations settled, but there is still trouble brewing. One can sense it. You can even see it in a person’s slow, controlled deliberation. It’s a look that can only come from contemplating the next move. Unlike other movies in his canon, which end on a shot that suggest definiteness, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises remains an enigma. And considering the genre he’s working in, it explains crime’s continuing hold on our consciousness.


 


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Tuesday, Sep 18, 2007

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, is currently playing on select dates around the country. The next screening will take place on 21 September, 2007 at the Loft Cinema in Tuscon, AZ. More information can be found by clicking here Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman will be there, in person, and there’s a chance to “Win a Date” with the noted director (along with actress Elske McCain. Addition rules of the contest can be seen by clicking


It really is a shame that the once mighty Troma trademark has been tarnished as of late. Thanks to DVD, which brought film’s tempting technological reach to the greater unwashed, wannabe Toxic Avengers have tried their hand at mimicking the blood and guts mastery of Lloyd Kaufman and the gang. Usually unable to emulate the craven cartoon qualities and joyful junkiness of the indie icon, they go for the gross and the easy arterial spray. Missing is the message, the satiric overtones, the clear love of cinema, and the devotion to art that comes from the company. In its place is a subpar substitute that has out of touch critics referencing all horror comedy by a slanderous descriptive slam. Somewhere along the line, Troma has been turned into a tag for all that is dumb, dopey, schlocky, and stupid.


Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth – or perhaps a better way of saying it is that there is more to these Manhattan movie mavericks than gore and naked girlies. Perfect proof of this maxim arrives in the soon to be released fast food freak out Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Unlike their camcorder imitators, this is a real celluloid find, a middle finger kiss off to an industry undermining its public with questionable hygiene practices and ever more suspect health concerns. Created by company honcho Lloyd Kaufman after witnessing, first hand, the rat infested foulness of a noted neighborhood franchise, there is as much politics as pus in this whacked out working stiff spectacle. Using a combination of tried and true gruesomeness, a buttload (literally) of toilet humor, a collection of clever songs, and an acerbic insight into the raging corporate machine, he makes a sensational silk purse out of a skidmarked sow’s rear. Toss in some lesbian T&A and you’ve got an exercise in excess that’s a true crude classic.


Our sorted saga begins when Arbie and Wendy, two horny high school graduates, have sex in a local cemetery. They are interrupted by the restless spirits of a disgraced Native American tribe, and afterwards, vow to remain close even as life pulls them apart. Fast forward a few months and the American Chicken Bunker, run by recovering KKK member General Roy Lee, has set up a restaurant right on top of the Indian’s burial base camp. Even worse, the company’s noted livestock atrocities have members of C.L.A.M. (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerates) up in arms. While Denny and the rest of the staff – Carl Jr., Humus, and Paco Bell – try to keep things under control for the grand opening, Arbie learns that Wendy has gone girl, hooking up with angry activist Micki. Joining the General’s team in hopes of winning back his babe, our hero comes face to beak with a collection of undead fouls, and the reanimated resolve of some pretty pissed off pullets.



Outrageous, insane, and borderline brilliant, Poultrygeist is one of the best things to come out of Troma since Kaufman gave birth to the Make Your Own Damn Movie parody Terror Firmer. It’s bloodier, ballsier, and bluerer than anything the company has ever done, and it is its first ever zombie flick. This is the kind of crackpot genre gem that gets its kicks out of wallowing in feces, tweaking Islamic terrorists, exploiting same sexiness, and undermining standard cinematic expectations. It’s a tasty throwback to the days when physical effects ruled repugnance, where gore-based gags were just as important as CGI spiked spurting. In the grand realm of grade-Z grooving, where bile and body parts match boobs and buttocks for cinematic sleazoid perfection, director Kaufman and his amiable cast of unknowns deliver on every sophomoric swipe, while drop kicking Colonel Sanders and Ray Kroc in the process. It also makes one thing crystal clear – once you’ve seen how the originators get it done, the imitators seem pretty pathetic, indeed.


No one really champions Troma’s take on terror, and that’s a shame. Certainly, it’s broad based and jocular, trying for as many snickers as scares, but there is something deeply satisfying about the way Kaufman and crew approach their projects. The scripts, usually collaborations between many motivated film geeks, tend to cut to the chase and amplify the anarchy. Smartly written and loaded with all kinds of cracks – puns, lampoons, and the proudly profane – they become the blueprints for the creation of an unmistakable horror hybrid. Poultrygeist definitely benefits the most from this brazen business model, since it has four decades to draw on. The results are like a glorified greatest hits package, an omnibus offering of everything that makes the Troma name terrific.



Some, however, have questioned the decision to include songs in this film, since the notion of a monster musical where characters constantly interrupt the flow of the fun to rev up and vocalize does have its questionable rewards. But Poultrygeist does a wonderful job of making the tunes feel like an effortless extension of the storyline. When Arbie and Wendy try to re-establish their romance during the evocative ballad “Fast Food Love”, Kaufman counterbalances the “Moon/June” sentiments with a full blown lesbian ho-down. As our paramours plead in 2/4 time, the sisters of Sappho go gonzo. Similarly, a fabulous duet between Arbie and his future self (played by a spectacularly goofy Kaufman) has the added amusement of seeing the Troma chief traipsing around in a too short skirt. Granted, many of the actors are tonally challenged, and a few of the lyrics are more wobbly than witty, but the combination really works. It’s reminiscent of another Kaufman supported entity – the brilliant Trey Parker/Matt Stone extravaganza Cannibal: The Musical.


Poultrygeist is indeed on par with the aforementioned farce, since it handles its consistently contradictory facets with fearlessness and finesse. In a mainstream dynamic that can’t conceive of how to technically go for broke, this amazing movie does so time and time again. Gorehounds, unable to get their daily recommended dose of disgusting via conservative Tinsel Town tripe, will practically plotz at the level of outstanding offal here. There are sluice soaked gags so innovative and memorable (the head omelet, death by diarrhea, implant evisceration) that they’re destined to go down in the annals of onscreen splatter. There’s hasn’t been this ludicrous level of Technicolor yawning in quite a while. Combined with the blatant bad taste witticism, the propagandized agenda, and Kaufman’s clear creative vision (mock him all your want – the man knows his audience and what makes them merry), you end up with the motion picture equivalent of punk rock – raw, dirty, and damn proud.



Of course, none of this would be possible without the dozens of volunteers and underpaid performers who give up their regular grind to provide Kaufman with a concrete talent pool. As our leads, Jason Yachanin and Wendy Graham turn Arbie and Wendy into a classic cornball couple, the kind of kids you root for as the entrails and body parts fly. Though he’s absent from the action most of the time, Joshua Olatunde’s Bunker manager Denny is a smart aleck delight. Every line he delivers sounds imported from Samuel L. Jackson’s high school resume. As with any latter day Troma movie, recognizing the occasional cameo is half the fun. One of the best here comes from porn pro Ron Jeremy. Not only is his mandatory “you’re all gonna die” diatribe a hoot, but the punchline provides a nice acknowledgement of the meat man’s late in life battle of the bulge. 


All of this makes Troma’s current crisis of confidence all the more confusing. Kaufman will claim blacklisting, and without another cogent reason for his company’s exclusion within the otherwise omnivorous media, his point is well taken. Troma can apparently be copied, referenced, and blatantly stolen from, and yet a film like Poultrygeist has to scramble for any booking it can get. Instead of being a monster hit alongside similarly styled overhyped movie macabre, this incredibly effective circus has to take a backseat to PG-13 rated retardation. As the old song says, we frequently don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone. While he’s still around, capable of making movies as wonderfully weird and wholly entertaining as this, it’s time to give Lloyd Kaufman his due. He’s a filmmaker, not a fool, and this Night of the Chicken Dead is proof of his, and Troma’s lasting legacy. It’s simply amazing.



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Sunday, Sep 16, 2007


Back before Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson unleashed Scream on an unsuspecting genre public, no one would have fathomed linking fear and funny business together. Certainly there were specific spoofs of the fright film, and some directors believed instinctually that small amounts of comedy actually aided the dread. But to essentially make the humor as important as the horror seems a filmmaking feat of impossible parameters. Too much wit, and the suspense dries up. Too much fright and the jokes appear intrusive. Heralded by ‘Net head as the second coming of satiric scary splatter, Hatcher has lots of good things going for it. Unfortunately, they do tend to serve the same old slice and dice that hasn’t been relevant since a certain Mr. Reagan left the White House.


We are greeted by your standard spookshow premise – a pair of college friends visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras decide to go on a haunted swamp boat trip. It’s not a mutual decision – Ben is trying to get over being dumped by his girlfriend, while Marcus just wants to look at as many bead-less boobs as possible. Eventually, they make it to the launch, and there, among the various archetypal tourists and mysterious passengers, they learn of Victor Crowley. A legend among the bayou people, the story goes something like this – born with a horribly disfigured face, young Victor was kept sheltered from the world by his dad. When a Halloween prank by some local kids caused their shack to catch fire, the sad child’s father tried to save him. Unfortunately, the title implement he used ended up in Victor’s skull, leaving a massive scar. Now, decades later, an undead Victor supposedly stalks the bogs, looking for victims to satisfy his sense of justice.


Now, if this all sounds very Jason Voorhees and/or Freddy Krueger to you, that’s because Hatchet is cut from the same threadbare 1980s creepshow cloth. It is clear that writer/director Adam Green is a big time hack and slash fan, a fervent believer in the cinematic staying power of blood and buffoonery. While a tad too reliant on the post-modern notion of inherently ironic quips (the characters here don’t joke as much as provide a Mystery Science like nod and wink to everything that’s going on), Green does give us some mighty fine gore. In fact, it’s safe to say that Hatchet has some of the most satisfying anarchic arterial spray this side of a Romero zombie flick. This is the kind of film where heads are pulled apart, arms are severed from torsos, and – yes – axes cleave people in two - literally. While there is an over the top nature to the nastiness, it will provide lovers of repugnant liquidity more than enough sluice.


In fact, excessive claret may be Hatchet’s sole strong point. Green’s direction is good, if a tad generic, and he stages everything like one of those Disney Channel Halloweentown titles. There is very little invention, and his stock shocks are obvious and sort of embarrassing. Similarly, his cast offers nothing but stereotyped stops. They’re decent, but stuck essaying standard fright night fools. There’s a chubby Midwestern couple that stumbles around like mashed potatoes looking for the gravy boat, while a pair of pathetic bimbos and their pseudo softcore porn producer provider resemble outcasts from a Girls Gone Mild shoot. Even our evasive chick with a vendetta and a weapon turns into a whiny tart by the time Crowley starts wielding his sharpened stick.


Granted, our Goonies gone gonzo icon is a semi-impressive heavy, the kind of killer that immediately gets us thinking back to a dozen trips to the bottom shelf of a local Mom and Pop video store. But Green doesn’t give him a lot to do. All the set-up, with its sympathetic tone and temperament, never results in this maniac being anything other than murderous. And since a great deal of the action occurs at night and in shadowy locals, we never really get a good look at his fearsome fright mask. In some ways, Green goes to such lengths to keep Crowley in darkness that we never get the eerie epiphany his appearance mandates.


Still, it has to be said that Hatchet’s homage to the goofy, gloppy vivisection-fests of two decades before has a strange way of satisfying. The self-conscious wit actually works most of the time, and the inevitability of the deaths makes the character’s personal standoff seem that much sillier. Also, the bayou backdrop provides a nice amount of local color. Even the opening trips through the side streets of NOLA – and a few funny voodoo shops – puts us in the proper, pro-pus mood. Indeed, Hatchet has to screw up big time in order to have us hating it. When you toss in the production history (it was one of the last movies made in Louisiana before Katrina devastated the area) and the good nature attempt at recreating the genre, this film fairs very well.


Still, one has to wonder if the modern horror fan is ready to return to the days of creaky cat and mouse games followed by mindless mayhem without style or finesse. Over the 30 years since the slasher discovered its sage (either Bob Clark or John Carpenter – you decide), theatrical evil has strived to remove itself from the format’s rote realities. It’s wanted to avoid the carbon copy crappiness of the endless stream of splatter to reintroduce mood, narrative, characterization, and overall creativity back to the macabre medium. Still, when you can’t offer anything cogent, you go for what’s available. Scream substituted satire. Hatchet is hoping that humor pulls it through. The grand gore quotient does elevate an evaluation, but some will see it as noxiousness for novelty’s sake. In fact, that’s a perfect way to sum up this horror hilarity – outrageousness substituting for originality. 



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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


Sometimes, as a critic, you’re stuck for a motive. You work your brain around the history of cinema, and while potential reasons seem to reverberate, you still can’t comprehend what inspired a specific motion picture decision. In this case, we are dealing with the confounding decision by Broadway director Julie Taymor to tackle the Beatles masterful catalog as part of some post-modern musical experiment. Certainly, one senses an aesthetic in the right place – the Fab Four remain pop benchmarks and cultural earthquakes, individuals who redefined the very life and times they lived in. In addition, the ‘60s still reverberate with messages of peace, love, and equality - ideals that have just as much import today as they did forty years ago. Yet how all this ended up in the wildly uneven and creatively confused Across the Universe will remain a mystery to even the most insightful movie mind.


Telling the barest of stories and sprinkling an odd amalgamation of Northern Songs throughout, Taymor tries to achieve the same level of visual insanity and emotional power as Ken Russell managed in his adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, and Milos Forman found in his reinterpretation of the rock opera Hair. In fact, you’d be better served seeking out a rental copy of each of these gems and watching them side by side. Unfortunately, such a celluloid clash would only minimally mimic the mess Taymor achieves. This is either the most brilliant disaster ever helmed, or the most abysmal masterpiece ever crafted, a blunted gem that can’t make up its mind if it wants to shine, stumble or just plain stink. For every element of originality and invention, there’s a stereotypical take that destroys the atmosphere. Further more, the minute the music stops and the actors attempt to deliver their dialogue, all the energy dies. We soon find ourselves awash in clichés and cryptograms.


Our journey begins with Jude (and yes, there will also be a Lucy, a Sadie, a Prudence, a Max, and a JoJo, just to keep the Lennon/McCartney obviousness intact), a Liverpool shipyard worker who wants to find his American dad. Jumping ship in New Jersey, he locates his father working as a janitor at Princeton. After befriending fun boy Max, Jude winds up having Thanksgiving with the Ivy Leaguer’s definition of WASP-ish Americana. There he meets and falls for Lucy. Soon, everyone has relocated to the Big Apple, where Jude gets a job as an artist, Lucy becomes an activist, and Max is drafted.


They rent their communal pad from the Janis Joplin-esque Sadie, who has a Jimi Hendrix-ish guitarist boyfriend named JoJo. Along the way, we see the birth of campus revolution, the death of a black child during the Detroit Riots, and the introduction of acid by a LSD Guru named – wait for it – Dr. Robert. Eventually, Jude is deported, Lucy is feared dead, and Max comes back from his tour of duty in a less than sane state. Of course, all they need is love and everything is tangerine trees and strawberry fields…forever.


From a casting standpoint alone, Across the Universe suffers from that supposedly sincerest form of flattery – imitation. Sultry singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) is the spitting image of Joan Osborne, while JoJo (Martin Luther) is Ritchie Havens in a purple haze. It’s not the actual actor’s fault – they’ve been cast and presented this way. Less obvious are the three main leads. Both Joe Anderson as Max and Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy are supposed to be carved out of suburban symbolism, but both have the generic appeal or your typical Tinsel Town target audience. They aren’t individuals, they’re icons to wholesome hollowness, ex-Mickey Mouse Club members not invited to the reunion. In fact, the only performer who seems specifically selected for his combination of aura and singing chops is UK thesp Jim Sturgess. When he interacts with his fellow failures, he brings an inherent depth the others don’t possess. Even better, when he sings, he adds nuance and feeling to what is, for the most part, bland bombastic vocalizing.


Which brings us, naturally, to the music. Taymor wants to be innovative and unconventional in the way she interprets the Beatles songs, and with rare exception, her muse misses the mark by a long and winding country mile. The opening parallels between the US and the UK, set to the groove of “It Won’t Be Long” indicates where this project could have gone, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is given a mournful ballad feel (and a sly subtext) that’s truly moving. But then there are outrageously awful misfires like Eddie Izzard’s atrocious reading of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or Bono’s bloated take on “I Am the Walrus”. Both numbers immediately bring to mind the cameo-packed claptrap from 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Apparently, no one on this production learned a single lesson from that fiasco. Otherwise, they’d never consider putting a non-singing comic (Steve Martin) in a role where he’s required to belt out an incongruous joke tune (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”).


But it’s Tommy that keeps reverberating in your head, the wild eyed weirdness of Ken Russell’s slightly controlled chaos reminding one of how good this kind of material can be. Naturally, said rock show was specifically created as a character study, not cobbled together out of a classic band’s hit tracks. But Taymor is still trying to fill in the narrative and contextual gaps by the application of imagery, and it’s here where her status as a rogue surrealist wannabe finally fizzles and fades. During “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, refugee Marvs from Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City do a dopey ballet with army recruits in their underpants. A CGI montage of pre-induction tests battles against the same semi-clothed dudes carrying the Statue of Liberty like coffin bearers. Near the end, when Max is mental, multiple Salma Hayeks show up to administer pain killers as “Happiness is a Warm Gun” plays. Before long the entire hospital room is spinning like a carnival ride while a priest has a conniption fit. Groovy. 


Even the more normal takes on the material let the director down. JoJo arrives in New York to the strains of “Come Together” (featuring the brilliant move of having Joe Cocker play the ersatz narrator), but the obvious discomfort onscreen continues, mostly because of the incongruous nature of the images with the lyrics. In addition, a poignant moment set to “Let It Be” equally looses all its steam. The singing is miraculous – the metaphors are mixed. While there’s no denying that Taymor hits on more than one sequence of solid inspiration, it all becomes a question if it’s the material (it’s pretty near impossible to screw up an “All You Need is Love” singalong) or the mannered approach (overripe fruit as a symbol of destruction linked with “Strawberry Fields Forever”) that finally does her in.


The truth is, it’s neither. Had this filmmaker fumbled through the last four decades of rock and roll, picking out the purposefully obtuse and long since forgotten, found a non-derivative tale about growing up in turbulent times, and tried to meld her story with her symbols, we’d have a much better effort than anything Across the Universe attempts. The problem is an iconic cloud cast by The Beatles themselves. This was a group that literally shifted the cultural dynamic, leaving behind a lasting impression as both brilliant songwriters and social barometers. Like trying to import Picasso into your production designs, or using a shot for shot Hitchcock as your frame of reference, the music of John, Paul, George, and Ringo had too much baggage to stand on its own. While Taymor may admit she took that into consideration when making this movie, given the deconstructionist nature of some of her choices, it’s a patina she can never fully overcome.


That’s why Across the Universe is so uneven. You have to work so hard at forgetting everything you know about the boys from Liverpool, even as the movie constantly throws their monumental achievements directly at you, that it’s frequently not worth the effort. In addition, the lack of insight and artistic shortcutting produces an overlong, laborious crusade. In many ways, this remains one of the worst ideas in the entire pop culture lexicon. Yet somehow, the individuals in charge of Cirque De Soleil managed to find a happy medium between creative and crass when they turned the Beatles Love into a Las Vegas strip hit. Of course, the free form acrobatic show doesn’t have a lax narrative, cardboard characters, uninspired imagination, or a rose colored glasses view of the ‘60s to hamper it. It simply treats the Fab Four as they deserve to be. This movie avoids such direct respect - and pays the price.


 


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