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by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 2007


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.

by Bill Gibron

16 Sep 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. 

by Bill Gibron

15 Sep 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.

 

by Bill Gibron

15 Sep 2007


They don’t call them ‘the formative years’ for nothing. Our past constantly crashes into the present reminding us of the many reasons we become the people we are. As a result, we love to wallow in such nostalgic glimpses of shame, frustration, and accomplishment. They seem to support our own shaky self image, and add up to a universal connection between generations and personalities. Perhaps one day, a filmmaker will come along and find a way to tap into the inherent satiric possibilities of such blissful backwards glancing. If you’re looking for a joyless, toothless mess of a comedy that tries to use individual development as a means of metering out laughs, than the sad excuse for entertainment known as Mr. Woodcock will be right up your mangled memory lane.

There is a decent idea for a movie buried somewhere in this attention span testing nightmare. It floats along the surface of what is, in essence, a very forced bit of funny business. Even the story screams stupidity. After years away, self help guru John Farley (a desperate Seann William Scott) is awarded the Golden Corn Key by his Nebraska hometown. Using a trip back as an excuse to avoid a mind numbing book tour (organized by agent as soused aggravation Amy Poehler), John reconnects with his Mom (Susan Sarandon) and discovers the shocking news. The widow has been dating again – as a matter of fact, she’s going out with her son’s sadistic gym teacher from middle school, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thorton). The news dredges up painful, problematic memories for John, reminders of being mocked and abused by the buzz cut wearing jerk. He decides to use any means necessary to stop this possible partnership, especially now that wedding bells may be about to ring.

With the proper, no holds barred approach melded with a mean-spirited, manipulative script, this could be some hilarious stuff. But because of a preemptive PG-13 mandate from the studio, and a lack of any real intelligence or insight, this potential testosterone-laced standoff ends up a panty waisted wuss-out. It’s not just that the film is painfully unfunny – it fails to even understand why its jokes don’t begin to work. For example, when John complains to Woodcock that he doesn’t want to conform to some request, the emotionless man deadpans “do what you want. This isn’t Russia”. Similarly, during a last act battle royale for some manner of interfamilial superiority, every cornball catchphrase the PE coach has pulled out over the running time is regurgitated, as if to reemphasize how one note and completely superficial his prickly personality really is. Had the movie spent more time in the setup, showing John Farley as a sad little boy in a constant war with Woodcock, any payoff would have some context. But all we get are lame ‘lame’ kid riffs, followed by more dull Wood-cockiness. 

In yet another variation of his by now stereotypical ornery, wiry SOB persona (something he popularized with similarly styled efforts like Bad Santa and The Bad News Bears remake), Thorton plays the title character like a man wearing a peanut sized jock strap. His body suggests a few stints in rehab, not a lifetime in service of the President’s Physical Fitness Program. As a star, he really only has two modes – passive and peculiar – and yet he manages neither here. There is no chemistry with co-star Sarandon (who seems to be following the Diane Keaton “do any script that comes your way” version of a late in life career change) and very little believable combativeness with Scott. Indeed, when watching him work, you’d swear that Thorton was phoning this one in – and using one of those early ‘80s shoe box sized suckers to do it with.

The story also suffers from being wildly unfocused and full of unexplored tangents. Scott is given a gal pal, apparently, to prove he’s not some manner of failed momma’s boy, yet the possible plot thread NEVER goes anywhere. Similarly, he hooks up with one of his old classmates (My Name is Earl’s Ethan Suplee) in his plot for revenge. After one stint with a video camera, and another involving a little breaking and entering, said avenue of discovery is tossed aside. Even during one of several false finales (Scott lets the town have it in a pseudo scathing, subpar speech) we feel the ethereal brakes constantly being applied, filmmakers or fixtures behind the scenes stopping the comedy from ever getting too extreme or biting. Indeed, when a raging lush like Poehler’s character can’t get her alcohol fueled groove on (she has a sad seduction sequence in a bar), we’re witnessing watered down humor at its most bland.

None of this speaks well for novice director Craig Gillespie. A creator of TV commercials for the last two decades, his idea of cinematic innovation and intrigue is to preprogram specific beats and overlong laughter pauses into the actually narrative. Thorton will let rip with one of his listless macho man maxims, and the movie will actually wait until you’re done chortling. Even worse, sight gags and slapstick are regularly stifled so that the accompanying audience appreciation can be metaphysically measured. If timing is everything in comedy, Gillespie is a broken Bulova that’s lost its quartz crystal. From the lack of any realism in the performances (though humor can be fanciful, it should have an anchor in some kind of authenticity), to the sloppy and unsatisfactory wrap up, to the various dangling plot points, this is a director who suggests that every new film will be another act of apprenticeship.

Mr. Woodcock is not really a crowd pleaser or some kind of ‘dumb as dirt’ delight. Instead, it’s an apparent attempt to reset the demarcation when determining the lowest common denominator. If you enjoy wit wrapped around the repetition of one single snicker (John has to hear the employees of a pizza parlor constantly referencing his mother’s sexual prowess with the title character), or an obvious joke name (the brain pan appreciation of Beavis and Butthead immediately comes to mind), then this cinematic sludge is your perfect escapist exercise. Finding it mindless won’t be hard, since there’s not a single slice of gray matter swimming in its spoof. Perhaps the only thing more depressing than a movie that can’t manage the opportunities it has is one that specifically ignores them to go for the crotch shot. This is the filmic version of a football to the groin – with only the plentiful pain remaining.

by Bill Gibron

13 Sep 2007


Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty to instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.

With a title that suggests the start of an epic poem or perhaps a fairy tale, The Brave One is a startling achievement for stars Jodie Foster and Terrance Howard, and yet another notch in the growing artistic oeuvre of Neil Jordan. On its surface, it’s a standard revenge flick, the story of a young woman torn apart by violence and loss. But it’s also much more than that. It’s an excuse for empowerment in a post 9/11, Red State/Blue State, Yellow Alert existence. It’s Bernard Goetz bobbed up and beautified. It’s every bad cliché about the criminal element crammed into a single symbol of white flight disgust. Compare it to Foster’s first Oscar nominated effort or the shallowest of Charles Bronson’s deathly designs, but the final statement argues for our identification as an audience and our sense of satisfaction as a citizenry. That’s why it’s manipulative and ethically unstable. It’s also why this becomes one of the best, most deep and disarming films of the year.

At the heartbroken center of this story is Erica, a maturing Manhattan gal who spends her days “walking the city”. As part of her public radio show, our heroine captures the tantalizing tone poems that make up her frequently baffling burg, and she translates them into thoughts of endearment, of specialness, and space. She’s madly in love with her doctor boyfriend David, and the two share a kind of intimate peace that veils them in a shroud of sensed security. All of that changes one fateful evening. David is beaten to death by a nameless gang of thugs, and Erica is left in a coma. Once she awakens, she’s unable to cope with her loss. Days are spent drifting from dawn to darkness. Nights are lost in cold sweat visions of her violation. Deciding the only way to reclaim her life is via personal protection, Erica buys a gun.

Thus begins her decent into a kind of unfathomable urban madness. A freak use of the weapon creates a combination of physical unease and psychological satisfaction. Another use and Erica begins to change. Jordan’s main theme here is the notion of transformation. He uses the character to explore dozens of life altering events. Within the span of a few short weeks, our heroine loses her lover, her impending marriage, her inherited in-laws, her plans for the future, her stability within her insular world, the career she counted on (it’s still there, but in fragments), her physiological wholeness, her freedom, her faith in her fellow man, her naiveté, her understanding – and last but certainly not least – her principles. When she pulls out her handgun for the first time, it’s as if a foul force of nature has taken over. By the end of the movie, such an action becomes disturbingly instinctual.

Mirroring this fate in flux conceit is Erica’s “nemesis” – the cop on the beat who intends to take down this vigilante scourge. The tender Terrence Howard seems, at first, an odd choice for the role. He doesn’t bring his bad mother trucker game from Hustle and Flow, nor is he trying to be a basic by the book policeman. Instead, we sense a similar emptiness in him, a hollowed out place where his ex-wife, his career, and his belief in justice used to be. When he lies to Erica (they meet several times throughout the course of the narrative) he feigns a more or less mild interest in what she does. Eventually we learn he is a true fan, someone who bought into every fanciful facet of her New York as Neverland experience. In many ways, The Brave One is a film about growing up. It’s about learning that the boogeyman really exists, and that in almost every situation you can imagine, it’s impossible to completely avoid his tainting touch.

Though it sounds slightly sexist to say it, The Brave One then becomes a movie about “manning up”, about taking the responsibility for your own being on your less than established shoulders.  The reasons why the performances here are so flawless (Foster alone deserves another Oscar, especially since she’s better here than in either of her previous award winning turns) is that Jordan makes his heroes all too humble. Even when she’s sensing the building bravado of pointing a loaded pistol at a sleazy pervert, or reclaiming a small part of her past by tracking down her original assailants, Erica is not a champion. Indeed, in Foster’s fascinating way, we realize how desperate and destructive each act of reciprocal violence is. When shown, the killings are bloody and very brutal, overemphasized stylistically with amplified sound and slow motion fervor. Jordan is announcing the importance of each act, signifying how they will come to mold our lead, as well as underscore every event that comes afterword. Erica’s actions are not without consequences. Whether they’re ever linked to her is another story all together.

Howard is also looking to connect, and the lack of fairness in this – or any other – world is what binds him so solidly to these crimes. In some ways, he’s as much an enabler as someone trying to stop the spree. His conversations with Foster are filled with emotional fissures, gaping holes of humanity looking for emotional mortar to fill them. We see the union building between the pair, the sheepish grins they share in each other’s presence, the critical game of cat and mouse they play as hunter/prey and victim/vindicator. Some will miss all this subtle subtext, viewing the relationship between Erica and Mercer as a RomCon conceit without the bravery to take it to the next level. Others will see it as service to a story that doesn’t want to turn Jodie Foster into a cosmopolitan version of Henry Lee Lucas. But the fact is, we are dealing with a bond built on vicarious role reversal. Erica is doing what Mercer can’t. He’s finding the meaning his now joyless job once held. Similarly, she’s wielding the power a policeman holds. It can’t replace David, but perhaps, the sense of strength and purpose can begin to close the wound.

This is monumental, moving stuff, the kind of film that folds you into it cinematic sphere of influence and never lets go for the entire running time. Long after it’s over, the circumstances and situations keep playing over and over in your head. Indeed, if you really want to see the difference between mere professional filmmaking and a near masterwork, just check out James Wan’s journeyman take on similar subject matter, Death Sentence. There, Kevin Bacon turns into a skin-headed psycho, a man so overwhelmed with gratuitous grief (his entire family is slaughtered) that he turns to wrath as a means of marking time. But when Foster fires her weapon, and feels the release and the revitalization that occurs, we are seeing something more than just payback. We are witnessing the awakening of something dark and disturbing. Once unleashed, however, it can never be contained. Perhaps that’s why bravery is required – both to live with it, and through it.

 

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