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Sunday, Apr 15, 2007


Dear Weinstein Brothers. We know things aren’t going particularly well for you right now. After severing ties with the notoriously bothersome House of Mouse and striking out on your own, you’ve found nothing but roadblocks in your Neuvo Miramax highway to success. Your recent releases have all underperformed, and now, that 2007 tent pole, the fascinating Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retrofest Grindhouse is being buried under a bounty of bad press. The entertainment community, desperate to see you fall on your flabby behinds, has come after you like sharks on a wounded whale, and the foreseen flopsweat is ripe with potential failure.  It’s gotten so bad that you’ve even been thinking of taking both movies, expanding their individual running times, and releasing them as separate cinematic experiences.


Guys….guys…guys…calm down. Grab a bottle of Artesian spring water, a couple of prescription sedatives, and rest for a while. The LAST thing you want to do here is split apart this already intriguing return to the drive-in dynamic of three decades ago. Film fans of a certain age and demographic get what you were going for and really appreciate the time, talents, and tenacity you showed in getting it released. This was never going to be an easy sell – for one thing, Tarantino and Rodriguez are Grade-A certified geek meat if ever audiences tasted same. Their projects are propelled from a dork driven place so deep down inside their idiosyncratic ideals that basement dwelling film nerds feel unworthy in their presence. If you thought you were about to make mega-bucks with these oddball directorial dweebs, you must have been smokin’ screener copies of Shakespeare in Love.


Grindhouse was destined to be a tough ticket for numerous, obvious reasons. You’re dealing with horror and other genre elements, facets that most film fans tend to kvetch over, and critics can’t understand or appreciate. Next, you’re dealing with a category of cinema that few comprehend, let alone welcome. Ask someone what they think of exploitation, and you’re likely to get the regurgitated opinion of some overly academic dickweed who doesn’t cotton to any aspect of the raincoat crowd. Add in the uneven tone, the tendency to associate the entire project with the outer fringes of major mainstream motion pictures, and the lack of genuine buzz (thank you so bloody much, 300!), and you’ve got a dead on delivery dud. Even if you gained a 100% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, audience ennui would be enough to give your business plan agita before the Friday estimates were released.


But this doesn’t mean you give up. You shouldn’t conform to a viewing going public too dumb to fathom what you’re doing. As a matter of fact, the failure of the film has nothing to do with what’s up on screen. Grindhouse remains a witty, inventive, highly satiric, and gross as all get out experience that’s practically overpowering in its artistic energy and invention. Tearing it apart and turning it into a crude competition of sorts (and between Rodriguez and Tarantino, one can almost envision where your cash is landing) will destroy everything your filmmakers fashioned. And let’s not forget the fake trailers. Those who participated in making those marvelous mock ads deserve some respect as well. Yet the question becomes, how do you solve this seemingly impossible problem. How do you make audiences interested (or in some cases, re-interested) in a title already tainted by a group of jaded journalists? The answer, oddly enough, is right in front of you.


Like the fabled producers of old, the men who made exploitation the historical hinge for all post-modern cinema, you can’t take failure as the final response. David F. Friedman, Dan Sonny, Harry Novak and Bob Cresse didn’t make mountains of money – and a ballbusting reputation - by moping around the minute the public rejected their efforts. No, they reinvented these projects, using the standard carnival barker approach of bait and switch to change the perception of their problematic productions. Sure, this SOUNDS like what you want to do, but there is a big difference between cutting your losses and trimming the fat. These men made their all important names out of never failing the public, by understanding what the people prefer, and more importantly, what they’d be willing to pay for. If a standard sexless thriller didn’t work, they’d tack on a scandalous ‘square-up’ reel to increase the erotica. If the horror wasn’t high enough, more blood drenched gore was quickly inserted. Entire films were re-edited, sequences reshoot, and plotlines changed to find the right combination of salable shuck and jerryrigged jive.


So, following this pattern, here’s what you should do. First, pull this daring double feature from the theaters before more self-styled pundits can piss all over it. Take stock in what you have already available in cutting room trimmings and existing tweak time, and get your auteurs involved. Make them part of, not the reason for, this process. Don’t dawdle over money or creative control – the ship is sinking and the rats have already ponied up and abandoned you. Look to the future – say the end of August/beginning of September – and get your accessible forces poised for war. It’s going to be a long and involved process, but in the end, you could be looking at 300 style returns at the end of the day.


In the case of Planet Terror, reinsert the “missing reel” sex scene between Rose McGowen and Freddy Rodriguez, turn the Bone Shack into a combination barbeque pit and badass biker bar, let the chopper riding rejects rumble with some good old fashioned fisticuffs, give us more of the stoic stripper storyline (including lots of shots of nubile naked torsos) and then tell Robert Rodriguez to remove a little of the freak show spectacle. Granted, no one enjoys mindless bloodletting as much as this considered critic, but fountains of grue spouting over and over again can get a tad, well, old. Instead, how about more of those amazing moments when deconstructed corpses are examined in nasty, nauseating detail. In a world awash in CGI chum, physical effects can really help you stand out. Besides, nothing will sell the fright flick facets of this production better than more shots of Fergie’s hollowed out head.


As for your main man QT, tell that diva director to turn down the chatter. The dialogue in Death Proof is amazing, the kind of potent palaver that Tarantino carries Oscar gold for. But in a film that’s a self-described “slasher flick”, what we need is more slice and less nice. Listening to girls gossip and give their unique opinions of sex and self within the context of a killer action thriller is like featuring random shots of kittens during a snuff film. Trim a few minutes of their minutia driven confabs, give Kurt Russell more lines (he is an endlessly fascinating character who we need to know more about) and provide another stellar suspense sequence like the one where the car’s characterization is proven on Rose McGowen’s unsuspecting person. Make it lean and mean and you’d have one amazing movie on your hands.


Finally, find a few more famous filmmakers willing to give you some new and novel trailers – perhaps approach members of the referenced and revered like John Carpenter or Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then tell the MPAA to go to Hell. That’s right, thwart convention. Take a stand for all lovers of cinematic extremes. Position yourselves as the artist’s advocate, and let the marketing challenge chips fall where they may. It’s going to take you a good few months to get the interest level back up again, and to purge the perception of failure from almost all elements of this movie. Again, breaking them in two won’t do that. You’ll just double the disgust, making movie fans, in their mind, choose the lesser of two unexceptional evils. To revamp awareness and create curiosity, you have to reposition everything about your concept. 


And the only way you can do that is via education. Time to teach the public what they obviously do not know – that is, that exploitation rewrote the motion picture roadmap. It created a freshness and openness that most filmmakers never even considered. Better yet, when foreign films couldn’t find a footing on American shores, the Grindhouse gang rescued these movies, exaggerated their simplistic sexual freedoms, and turned the arthouse into the cathouse. Recognize that you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining and hire someone happy to oblige – say Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, or Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon - and walk the viewers through a short lesson in the genre’s mesmerizing history. Get the remaining members of the 40 Thieves together for a series of interviews, or better yet, have IFC, Sundance, Encore, or any other cable channel that’s willing to work with you do a series of Grindhouse specials. Showing a certain style of movie once a week won’t cut it. You need constant coverage of the category with input from the people who provided the foundation for your post-millennial homage.


Then, create a documentary mini-series. Get QT and Rodriguez to go coast-to-coast, roadshowing their new versions in a day long grindhouse extravaganza. Let them position their films midway through, and then surround them both with a dawn to dusk collection of classics, cult faves and unknown gems. Toss in a few real trailers, a bunch of those clever, kitshy ads from the era, and make it a magnificently misguided marathon. Turn it into the Lollapalooza of b-movies madness, a real event that will proceed the regular theatrical showing. Of course, this is just the suggestion of someone who loves the original double feature and would hate to see it die from what appears to be a predetermined desire to see you fail. You’ve worked your magic on other minor efforts before. Here’s your chance to show the entire world that you can, and do, mean business. You can’t let audience apathy wear you down. Grindhouse is a good movie. Now it’s time to convince everyone else of that fact.


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Sunday, Apr 8, 2007


It’s been three days since it arrived on the web and yet the verdict is still out on Rob Zombie’s “reimagining” of John Carpenter’s classic slasher film Halloween. The new ‘teaser’ trailer, providing only the slightest glimpses of lead villain Michael Myers and the concerned psychiatrist chasing after him (the desperate Dr. Loomis is played this time around by Brit legend Malcolm McDowell), promises a lot – and Zombie himself instills a similar feeling of anticipation. After all, this was the man (rocker turned director) who delivered one of 2005’s best films, the excellent exploitation retread The Devil’s Rejects. Similarly, he’s a very serious student of the horror genre, as his flawed if still fascinating debut feature, House of 1000 Corpses, confirms.


But taking on a legend like Halloween doesn’t seem like the smartest move for this fledgling auteur. Unlike Marcus Nispel’s work in the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Zach Synder’s efforts to bring Dawn of the Dead up to date, Zombie already has an established style. Call it schlock shock sensationalizing or Grand Guignol grindhouse, but he’s not the unknown quantity of say, Alexandra Aja or Christophe Gans. Here’s a man steeped in the creature feature concepts of the past, a person who’d fit in perfectly among classic TV horror hosts, the monster spook show spectacular, and as a standing member of the legendary 40 Thieves of exploitation. So why take on Carpenter’s signature film? Why bring so much potential criticism down on your recently revised reputation?


The answer appears to be twofold. First, it’s an obvious case of paycheck payback. Zombie’s Corpses was a trouble production from the very beginning, a full blown work of motion picture macabre in an era as yet unprepared to embrace same. For his tireless efforts, his release dates were endlessly bumped around, his vision eviscerated by mandated studio and MPAA cuts, and actual ownership of the title was tossed from distributor to distributor. That anyone got to see the final film is amazing in and of itself. But then Zombie played on that cinematic sob story, parlaying his problems into a gig creating an Evil Dead II style sequel. Unlike Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects had a clear intent – to mimic the drive-in grime and slime of the ‘70s slick sick flicks. As usual, success bred options, and taking a stack of greenbacks from MGM and Dimension for this remake was obviously something Zombie wanted – or needed.


The second response is far more compelling. A study of this new teaser trailer indicated a less stylized, more aggressive approach to the Michael Myers story. Carpenter, clearly a student of old school suspense and masters like Alfred Hitchcock, wasn’t aiming to dissect or probe the disturbed psychopathic mind. Instead, he wanted to manipulate the language of film to create the ultimate edge of your seat entertainment. He also wasn’t out to start the slasher fad (which, unfortunately, he did) nor did he think his initial effort would begat a continuing scare series. In essence, Halloween was a one shot deal that de-evolved into a callous cash grab. Any substance sustained from the way Carpenter imagined the story has long since disappeared into a ridiculous realm of repetitive revamps.


But Zombie’s concepts appear more honest, draped in reality and stripped of the first film’s slayer as superhuman characteristics. Delving deeper into Michael Myers backstory (the trailer offers fleeting glimpses of animal abuse and youthful violence – standard serial killer profile stuff) and envisioning his holiday night of terror in more everyday small town terms (another amazing shot comes near the end as a seemingly silent house reveals a death struggle at its doorstep), Zombie is apparently looking to bring Halloween into the vaguely voyeuristic 21 century.


Back when Carpenter created the story, there was a sense of neighborhood nonchalance in his tone, an acknowledgement that friends and family were beginning to close themselves off from one another over a palpable feeling of distrust. Gone were the days when front doors remained unlocked and homes were warm and inviting. In the nasty new world, undeniable dread was just a turn of the latch away, and Carpenter made grand use of such startling social designs. Zombie has no such logistical luxury. The present world is one in complete sync with suspicion and fear, a place where panic has unseated common sense as the overriding interpersonal emotion. Thanks to years of media fear mongering, and the government’s desire to use alarm as politics, he faces a populace already antsy and ready to react.


The teaser seems to tap into this idea in ways both obvious and indirect. We see a shot of Michael Myers entering a home, butcher knife poised to do some decidedly deadly damage. Quickly the camera pans over to a shocked girl sitting motionless in a stairwell, her defeated screams and lack of action indicating a repugnant resolve. It’s as if she’s already given up on life before our villain has a chance to take it from her. Similarly, there is a moment when our fiend is featured full faced (behind his shoddy Shatner mask, as always), Zombie’s lens focusing directly on the killer’s cold, empty eyes. In the background, McDowell is narrating, making his case for Michael as monster. But the two concepts don’t quite match. The words are alarmist, but we’ve actually seen that vacant look before. It’s a blankness that’s paraded out before us everyday during endless crime updates on the 24 hour news channels.


Still, the biggest hurdle Zombie faces here is making an idea that once seemed so novel – the unhinged spree killer – into something fresh and inventive. Thanks to endless Dateline ‘documentaries” and other fictionalized versions of the mass murderer’s mentality, we know this kind of character well. In fact, it’s become a thriller cliché; the mindless maniac with the singular desire to slay. From what we can decipher in the trailer, Zombie hopes to combat this by bringing clear-cut authenticity and realism to the narrative. By keeping the surroundings as recognizable and mundane as possible, while inserting within this scenario a shockingly non-supernatural “boogie man”, he hopes to bridge the gap between one trick pony and real onscreen terror.


It remains an uphill battle. Messageboards have been aflutter with negative views of this project ever since a copy of the supposed script was “leaked” onto the web. Those who revere the original have argued over every artistic choice Zombie has made, from dealing with Michael Myers as a young boy to jerryrigging some of the narrative’s most memorable shock elements. And since he proved at least twice before that he can handle original takes on horror and violence within the genre, many find it hard to dismiss the substantive stench of ‘sell-out’ clouding this entire enterprise. Following this fledgling filmmaker over the last decade or so, ever since Beavis and Butthead made his band a hilarious household name, it’s hard to imagine that Rob Zombie is only doing it for the dosh. Until August, when we get a more complete glimpse of his Halloween vision, we’ll be left wondering just how this entire nightmare scenario will play out. The odds, unfortunately, are in its favor, no matter the promise temporarily ‘teasing’ us.


View the Halloween (2007) Teaser Trailer Here


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Sunday, Apr 1, 2007


In a little less than five days, maverick directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez will unleash their long awaited double feature phenomenon in the making, Grindhouse, onto an unsuspecting motion picture marketplace. Starring Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson and a cadre of filmmaking friends (fake trailers for the presentation have been crafted by the likes of Rob Zombie and Eli Roth), the diabolical duo are hoping to open the eyes of tenderfoot film fans everywhere. It is their goal to bring the good old days of onscreen exploitation back to the masses.For his part, Rodriguez is serving up the splatter spoils, offering a zealous zombie stomp entitled Planet Terror. Tarantino, on the other hand, is exploring the seedier side of things with his psycho stuntman on the prowl, Death Proof. Together, they guarantee the classic concepts celebrated by drive-in film critics Joe Bob Briggs – beasts, boobs, and blood.


But is it really exploitation – or better yet, do these two inexplicable genre efforts guided by a pair of exceptionally talented men really warrant the true ‘grindhouse’ label? Signs are sketchy at best. It remains a fact that, scattered throughout the legacy of the taboo-busting genre, there are movies that explore similar themes. Harry Novak’s The Child, for example, was a great example of the living dead dynamic, and crazed killers stalking and splattering unwitting innocents (Booby Traps, A Scream in the Streets), were an industry mainstay. Even when you move beyond the outer fringes of the genre and into the more obscure examples of filmed filth, there are enough examples of the horror/crime/drug/sex standard to fulfill the retro raincoat crowd title. But the question remains, what about these new films in particular. Are they fact or fad, real attempts at recreation or, as one suspects, a gimmick used to serve an already attention-grabbing release?


It is obvious that no filmmaking duo – or dozen directors, for that matter – could sum up the exploitation genre in a single set of films. There are far too many subjects and subsets, aspects and approaches involved to allow for such an easy dissection. But the main issue with any supposed grindhouse offering is the purpose behind the production. Money was the motivating factor for these carnival barker like showmen. The main distributors and producers of the old school product even had a self-effacing nickname for themselves – The Forty Thieves. Running around the country playing drive-ins and gritty downtown theaters, they purposefully positioned their product like inventory in a warehouse. In his exceptional book, A Youth in Babylon, Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation World David F. Friedman argued for what is, in essence, a post-modern Hollywood film production ideal to the creating and commercializing of controversial cinema.


Whenever they began a project, the smart schlock filmmaker always took the temperature of the times. He (or in rare cases, she) sampled the pop culture landscape, looked to see what was making headlines (violence, sex crimes, drugs, etc.) and then made sure their movie stayed true to said subject’s more sensational elements. But beyond the narrative, producers recognized that through a clear demographical decision, they could almost predict where certain types of movie would be best received. Rowdy sex farces usually did well in the South, while far more mean-spirited or sadistic fare drew better in big cities. Finally, they would work up a mock budget, and determine a maximum amount of advertising and distribution monies to be spent. If all the salesmanship stars were aligned, they would then figure out the potential profit (these movies were NEVER made without a clear indication of the possible success) and maintain a strict adherence to this limited fiscal plan.


As a result, most exploitation films were not hits, but solid returns on precisely planned out investments. The artistic nature of a release was never considered, nor was the inevitable entertainment value to an audience ever gauged. In essence, the men making grindhouse fare were playing a masterful game of bait and switch. They would lure in curious crowds with their tantalizing, taboo subject matter, and then once the coinage was carefully concealed, roll out their less than exceptional effort. For anyone familiar with the long lineage of this kind of moviemaking, the vast majority of the interchangeable offerings are quite forgettable. Aside from their time capsule qualities, and ample depictions of nudity, they tend to be boring, unexceptional, crass and without merit.


So where exactly do Planet Terror and Death Proof reside? Well, for one thing, it’s clear that the entire premise for this double feature extravaganza comes from the drive-in dynamic which in turn, represents a late in life adjustment made by the exploitation gang. When theaters could no longer guarantee audiences, and mainstream movies started limiting available screens, the passion pit was instantly targeted. Not only was this done because of the guaranteed audience (remember, couples weren’t necessarily coming for the movies) but also out of a firm financial desperation.


After the initial craze in the ‘50s, drive-ins started losing their luster. By tapping into the need to compete with the major chains and growing Cineplex movement, the independent owners of these exterior entertainment venues would purposely look for something weird or unusual to enhance their visibility. And it usually worked. Herschell Gordon Lewis, the godfather of gore, once described his trepidation when his slice and dice epic, Blood Feast, was premiering at a rural outdoor theater from off the beaten prosperity path. Unsure of the location, his fears were quelled when he saw a mile long line of cars all waiting to pay for admission. So the bravura or bawdy b-movie found a second life playing to teenage audiences looking for a little psycho-sexual privacy as well as a place to pet. 


Certainly, there aren’t specific requirements mandated to make a movie meet the grindhouse distinction, but its fairly obvious that Tarantino and Rodriguez are using the moniker to make their standard scare fests appears far more scandalous than they are. One is fairly sure that these will not be the envelope pushing perversion of something like Let Me Die a Woman (Doris Wishman’s surreal sex change drama) or Lewis’ harrowing horror comedy precursor, The Gore Gore Girls. In fact, when faced with gaining a dreaded MPAA rating, the only required snips came at the expense of Eli Roth’s slasher spoof trailer, Thanksgiving. Like William Castle before, or some of the more famous members of the Forty Thieves (Dan Sonny, for one), our mainstream directors are going retro for a reason.


Sure, it could be for a love of the genre – and it can be very addictive once you recognize how important the industry was to shaping the modern movie going experience. They could also have a far more obsessive fascination with the cinematic category, resulting in an understanding that’s more in touch with the basic tenets and expectations of the exploitation ideal than the casual fan may have. And indeed, they’ve never said their movies were all inclusive, reveling in any and all aspects of the miscreant movie model. But when you call your offering “Grindhouse”, and spend countless weeks pimping your product as same, you better be able to support your shilling – and right now, all this film has going for it is a great deal of geek goodwill.


Early buzz has been positive, if not necessarily loaded with the flagrant fanboy pontifications that one comes to expect (especially when its QT and RR at the helm). And with 300 stealing some of the movie’s pre-Summer publicity, including its rating as a must-see cinematic happening, we could be looking at a case of bad timing accompanied by limited appeal. Finally, we are dealing with a clear critical bias here – horror oriented movies made with a kind of craven creativity that jaded journalists no longer respond to. So in the end, Grindhouse will live and die thanks to its artistic more than its artificial elements. But one things for sure – it really isn’t a throwback to the days when ballyhoo controlled the box office. There’s nary a shout out to the pioneering picture makers of the past, and many of the more important facets that formed the genre are all but absent. Until it officially opens, it will remain a crafty concept expertly rendered by a couple of extremely sharp anti-Establishment icons. It’s a shrewd marketing ideal that even an old roadhouse huckster would envy.


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Sunday, Mar 25, 2007


When last we left director Terry Gilliam, he was waging a one man war against THINKFilm and their Region 1 DVD release of his latest effort, Tideland. Angry over the way in which the addled “adult fairy tale” was treated – from a purely technical standpoint – he had called for a kind of boycott. The disagreement was over that most tenuous of digital dynamics, the original theatrical aspect ratio. THINKFilm made a decision – rightly or wrongly – to change the film’s framing from a longer and thinner 2.35:1 (how it played during its short big screen run) to a wider and more ‘open’ 1.85:1. To make matters worse, only the Region 2 version from Revolver Entertainment maintains Gilliam’s original ‘vision’. All other presentations have, for some reason, perverted his compositions.


Some have questioned the filmmaker’s motives in this case, citing various conspiratorial reasons why he would purposefully decide to undermine his own film. Such sentiments were further amplified recently when Gilliam released yet another statement, suggesting that anyone who bought the Region 1 release of Tideland place black masking tape across the top and bottom of the image. He even provided some crude instructions on how to freeze-frame the opening credits and apply the image-blocking material. Instead of destroying our TV sets in such a manner however, SE&L has decided to apply science to a question of tenuous technology. With a copy of both the Revolver release from Region 2 and our trusty THINKFilm’s Region 1 title, we’ve taken screen caps of similar scenes from the film, and offer them up for comparison. Pay close attention to the black bars featured on the overseas transfer. It is the supposed telltale sign that something is amiss with this release.



Jeliza-Rose Meets Dell - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose Meets Dell - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose Dreams of Life Underwater - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose Dreams of Life Underwater - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose and Dickens Play Dress Up - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose and Dickens Play Dress Up - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)


From an initial look, it’s obvious that the Region 1 edition provides a minor amount of additional information at the top and bottom of the screen. In the scene where the character of Jeliza-Rose is imagining her life in an underwater world, you can clearly see more of the floating table in the top right corner and make out the base of the pillar in the front foreground. In the sequence where Dickens and our lead share a quiet, intimate moment, more of the man’s leg is visible. In the first images of Dell, all that’s obscured is the top line of the horizon. In fact, throughout the Region 2 version of the film, insignificant moments like this have been cropped. In addition, it’s quite clear that NO information is lost along the left or right edges of the frame. Some websites had complained that, in order for THINKFilm to maintain the compositions created by Gilliam within a 1.85:1 aspect ratio readjustment, the print would have to be digitally “zoomed”. Clearly that is not the case here.


As the result of such a side-by-side comparison, what stands out most of all here is that this entire OAR argument appears to be a case of much ado about principle. As we have seen, the movie doesn’t really suffer from the rather unnecessary reconfiguration. The visuals are still stunning to look at, and THINKFilm has not altered the size of the images to fit its designs. Watching either version of the title will still provide you with the aesthetic intent of the cinematography and art design. What does suffer, however, is Gilliam’s rights as an artist and a man of integrity. His film has undoubtedly been fiddled with, and it appears to be a situation out of his control. What this says about the future of the digital format, and how the creative clashes with the commercial for the sake of some higher ethical standard could be something very concerning indeed. In fact, it could be the beginning of a whole new ‘pan and scan’ style argument – the kind that more or less killed off the VHS format.


When one starts with the basic acknowledgement that Tideland is definitely NOT being offered in its original aspect ratio, two questions immediately cloud the conversation – (1) why was this done, and (2) is it really a circumstance worth committing career suicide over. While the later inquiry may seem harsh, it does hit on the reality behind the reaction by Gilliam. A filmmaker already walking around with a dark cloud of difficulty surrounding his reputation doesn’t need to add further fuel to such a raging character inferno. All throughout the commentary track on the DVD he complains about the difficulties of working independently and how he longs to be back in the mainstream moviemaking fold (at least, he admits, until he gets booted out again). He definitely doesn’t earn any employability brownie points with this kind of schaudenfreuda shenanigans. Or perhaps, it’s a case of whistling past the given graveyard. Gilliam really isn’t anyone’s fool. He clearly knows his already skittish status in Hollywood. Maybe he thinks this kind of goofball grandstanding will endear him to someone looking for an outsider desperate to crawl back in. Either way, he doesn’t lose so much as deflect attention back toward his distributor.


That’s why the first question is a far more intriguing – and lasting – consideration. It seems clear that THINKFilms felt it could marginalize this movie, removing the black bars present on the Region 2 release to “open up” the image. Little else about the DVD itself is different – both versions contain nearly the same exact supplementary features and added content. Maybe they still believe – as company’s like Blockbuster and Disney claim – that audiences prefer home theater images that fill the frame. And since they couldn’t get away with a standard 1.33:1 edition, they instead decided to make the letterboxing as likable as possible. Of course, this remains a mere theory, especially since the Academy screener they sent out in November was also formatted for the 1.85:1 image. If Gilliam is to be believed – and there is always a bit of the carnival barker about this extremely talented man – all of this was done without his knowledge. Whether he even had the right to interfere and demand his original vision be offered is another story for another day.


In the end, it appears that the Tideland scandal – or whatever lesser variation of said word you want to use – boils down to idealism vs. intent. On the pragmatic side, the OAR has been altered, and yet the effect is negligible. On the motivation surface, it seems THINKFilm’s undermined its product by presenting it in a manner that made its creator very angry. No matter how much salt one takes with Gilliam’s basic ‘boycott’ comments, you don’t want the maker of your merchandise calling for a embargo. Visually, you are not missing anything if your purchase the Region 1 DVD. But behind the scenes, away from the camera and the cast, the issue lingers. Was it just a mistake? Was it meant to be a kind of demographically demanded compromise? Was THINKFilm simply out to lunch when they made the decision to handle this already tripwire title in such a manner? The plot thickens. Sadly, we may never have an answer. Leave it to Terry Gilliam and everything he touches to always remain a pleasantly puzzling enigma. 


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Sunday, Mar 18, 2007


He has the magic touch. Either that, or Hollywood is so bereft of visionaries that his ideas must be copied – in some cases, literally – in order for motion picture innovation to be captured. Of course, it’s Frank Miller that everyone is talking about – again. The celebrated comic book artist first came to the attention of film fans when his Dark Knight take on Batman was reference over and over again as the inspiration for Tim Burton’s reboot of the famed super hero. Then Robert Rodriguez did the illustrator one better, actually giving him a co-director credit on his all CGI take on the Sin City series. It was that unique post-modern noir, a combination of real live actors and carefully crafted digital backdrops that argued for Miller’s arrival as a major influence in the world of cinema.


And now 300 seals the deal. The Zach Snyder epic, telling the tale of ancient Sparta’s confrontation of overwhelming Persian forces at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is currently confounding critics, already over $100 million in box office grosses in a little less than ten days. Some are calling the sword and sandal spectacle the dawn of a new age in filmmaking, while others laugh at its ‘all style and no substance’ approach. But with Rodriguez already planning a pair of City sequels and the industry buzzing over Snyder’s boffo returns, one thing is for certain – just like The Matrix did back in 1999, Miller is destined to cast his impact over a decade or more of motion picture output. After all, you know the old Tinsel Town saying. Success doesn’t breed contempt – success breeds competition.


So as producers and suits go scurrying through the Miller catalog, looking for untapped projects to greenlight, and as the copycats prepare their own interpretations of the artist’s over the top style, we here at SE&L have a few suggests for genres that should be given the man’s pen and ink invention. In each case, the motion picture category is either stagnant, or suffering from one of its usual bouts of overdone obviousness. But by splashing a little Miller into the mix – or, by implication, following the same stylized look of his ‘graphic novels’ – an aesthetic rebirth may actually be in order. Let’s start with the most logical creative candidate:


The Horror Film:
Experts will argue that you don’t need enigmatic visuals to sell scares or suspense. Indeed, music, plotting, characterization and careful direction are all one supposedly requires to make an effective thriller. But since those other elements are in short, or seemingly unavailable supply, there’s got to be another way to reconfigure the fright film. Enter macabre ala Miller. Thanks to his exaggerated approach, especially when it comes to blood and guts, and the ability to ramp up violence until it reaches otherworldly proportions, your typical slasher storyline or undead drama would suddenly stand as a demented demonstration of fear. We’ve already seen other movies attempt such a shift. Ronny Yu’s amazing Freddy vs. Jason managed to breath life into the two dying franchises by emphasizing their inherent brutality, filtering it through a Hong Kong action ideal. And for all their goofy Goth cheesiness, the Underworld films have tried to create an alternate universe where vacuous vampires battle Eurotrash werewolves in an ongoing war of wire-fu proportions.


But it is Christophe Ganz’s astonishing Silent Hill that proves, positively, that Miller’s optical opulence can carry the creepy for an entire horror film. Based on the noted videogame series, the French filmmaker (who made a name for himself with the remarkable Brotherhood of the Wolf) applied real world terrors to his supernatural setting, resulting in a startling vision of surreal, sinister despair. Several sequences in particular, as when air raid sirens sound off to warn of the coming “darkness”, grab the viewer by the neck and refuse to let go. Now imagine such a situation augmented by Miller’s attention to depth and detail. Sin City touches on such scary movie elements. It’s clearly there when Mickey Rourke’s Marv confronts Elijah Wood’s serial killing cannibal Kevin. But that was part of an overall crime story, not a focused look at monsters and madmen. As a result, the application of Miller’s technique to something as inherently horrifying as the zombie film, or something like the Hellraiser franchise, would be outstanding (just imagine a collaboration between the artist and Clive Barker on his Tortured Souls series. Ew!).


The Western:
It’s a purely American genre, a cinematic classification that tends to wrap up the entire spectrum of morality and machismo in a few fiery gun battles. And yet the Western is deader than a Dodge City doornail, milked of all its meaning thanks to decades of overproduction and under-appreciation. Certainly, there have been attempts to revive the hoary old horse opera, wrapping it up in metaphysical meaning (Clint Eastwood’s excellent Unforgiven) or post-millennial angst (Nick Cave’s crafty The Proposition). But when it comes to straight ahead dynamics, when one looks to the black hat/white hat narratives that drove the early era of film, there is very little left of the West’s fading sunsets. Instead, we prefer our cowboy conceits retrofitted into other genres – science fiction (Star Wars), crime drama (you name it!). But if Miller was brought in to enliven the oater, to add his idiosyncratic look to all the outlaw elements, something majestic might occur. Imagine the showdowns, gun barrels glistening in the burning midday sun, bullets flying across the horizon in specialized slow motion majesty. It’s enough to get a film fan good and flustered.


The closest we’ve come, and indeed, a great place to start when considering this concept, is Sam Raimi’s pre-Spidey spectacle The Quick and the Dead. Thanks to a hot (commodity speaking) Sharon Stone, fresh off the lingering Basic Instinct hype, the Evil Dead auteur got a chance to work out all his High Noon histrionics with the visual aplomb he was noted for. His camera in constant motion, his shot selection a veritable cornucopia of new and novel angles (including one incredible ‘wounds eye view’ perspective), Raimi reinvigorated the Western by realizing the areas that needed improvement. Unlike previous revamps by maestros such as Sergio Leone, the filmmaker avoided all the psychological ramifications and went right for the gut. The results were a partial reprieve for the format, and a great example of how style can salvage even the most antique artifacts. Miller’s approach is similar – finding the places where spectacle can replace specifics - and using visuals to vault a sequence’s primeval impact. Like a spaghetti western on steroids, a Frank Miller sagebrush saga would be amazing.


The Musical:
Yeah, it may seem like an odd choice, but the one thing that is definitely missing from the post-modern showtune dynamic is vision. Present day filmmakers, unfamiliar with the old school extravaganza of the genre’s past, figure that if they merely fancy things up with bright lights, big stars, and lots of MTV-style edits, audiences will ignore the unreal situation of individuals randomly breaking out into song. But that’s not the real problem with the musical’s current hit or miss fortunes. No, what’s really missing from the mix is pure artistic heft. It’s what makes Busby Berkley’s work within the category, classic and what elevates the MGM offerings from ‘30s through the ‘50s to the status of masterworks. But look at the recent attempts at reviving the artform. Chicago was a misguided mess (forget the Oscar) while Rent and Phantom of the Opera failed to generate much interest. And let’s not even start in on Dreamgirls. If ever a musical missed the opportunity to play with images and era, it was this relatively routine interpretation of the Motown sound.


In fact, the last great big screen musical was also the last one to understand the need for a unique approach and look. While it was set in the ‘50s, and relied on a famous Roger Corman b-movie for its foundation, Frank Oz’s masterful adaptation of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors created a world wholly its own, one based in the campy kitsch of the drive-in movie melded onto the sensational schlock of the subject matter. The opening number, and unbelievably moving “Downtown”, sets the stage for the rest of the film’s super sized sentiments. In fact, Oz was so effective at selling the love story between Seymour and his sweetheart Audrey that he had to change the original, downbeat ending. With someone like Miller portraying everything, from the conversations to the choreography, we’d witness the rebirth of a genre through the lost art of visual storytelling. Even better, the artist’s inherent knowledge of what works best within a certain imagined moment would help to bring the hidden emotion and narrative undercurrents out of the songs. Lyrics demand performance and perspective to work effectively. Someone with a mind like Miller’s could easily prove how substantial this stylized interpretation can be.


It has to be said that Silent Hill, The Quick and the Dead, and Little Shop of Horrors all represent just the tip of the treatment iceberg when it comes to bringing Frank Miller’s visual acumen to the world of motion pictures. It is clear that what is required, aside from the artist’s input, is a director in sync with his unusual approach, and a studio willing to gamble a little. No one is saying the combination will be perfect – after all, there are those who look to Sin City and 300 and scoff at the idea of Miller’s brand of sketchpad simplicity. Still, for several genres that are sitting somewhere between outright death and cinematic life support, the unbelievable imagination of this arcane comic book mind could be the aesthetic salvage they so desperately deserve. If it worked for the pathetic peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, how can it not succeed elsewhere.


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