Saturday, September 29, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #1: Mistakes and Mishaps

Opening day of this year’s Horrorfest screenings was somewhat like a horror flick itself. My wife, Angie, is in Atlanta this weekend for a business conference and I find myself home alone with the kids. Two boys: one 6, the other 2. Can you see where it may have turned into a horror story?

Most of the day went wonderfully; but once we got home, Jack (the 6-year old) seemed to fall into a pattern of hitting his head on various objects about the house: the table, the wall, the floor, a toy truck in a chair, his brother. This meant I had to diffuse a crying situation about every ten minutes or so. Jude (the 2-year old) is at that age where it is his mission to get into and dump out everything he can climb to, reach for, and pull out. He has also been on a Mommy dependency binge of late and has not been taking her absence well.

The biggest scare of the evening came when I discovered the dog had been getting her anxiety out chewing on my satellite TV cable all afternoon. That had me speaking to her in the very way a slasher flick heroine might address the killer in the final moments of the film. Meanwhile, I was attempting the easiest dinner I could come up with for me and the boys: breakfast! The eggs seemed to be made of the most fragile of shells, which insisted on shattering into my fry pan every time I cracked one. I burned my fingers getting the shells out of the pan and burned the bacon, toast and eggs because I had to walk away from the stove so many times to pulls the boys off each other.

Finally, bedtime arrived and I was able to put them down… for a good night’s sleep, which they did rather easily. Then I could breathe a sigh of relief, recline in my easy chair, and push the play button on my remote for a chilling evening of horror films.

Severance (2007). One of my mistakes this week was identifying the British horror/comedy “Severance” as a zombie flick in my Horrorfest preview. There are no zombies in this movie. But I suppose that goes to show that I am not going into these movies with solid preconceptions. “Severance” is actually a slasher flick of sorts. It is made with that dark British humor that is becoming more popular here in the States through films like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”; done in earnest, but with macabre tongue-in-check awareness of the absurdity of our modern human existence.

The clever title refers to the victims of this terror plot, a group of business executives out on a wilderness getaway weekend of team training programs. “Paintball is about working together, so I don’t want to see any Rambos out there,” claims one of the team leaders. Is it a surprise to see one of the weekend warriors firing off twenty rounds of paint or so at a person he hasn’t even identified in the next scene?

The slasher techniques used here don’t really offer anything that hasn’t been seen before. It takes place in the wilderness, so someone is bound to end up in a bear trap (although the bear’s cameo near the beginning of the film is subtly humorous). But it is the quirky humor and the unforeseen plot developments that make this film wholly original.

The Host (2007). The South Korean film “The Host” has been described by many critics as the best monster picture in years, and I am inclined to agree with that sentiment. Like any good monster flick, “The Host” isn’t really about the monster. In fact, the monster isn’t even perceived as the actual threat by many of the story’s players, but that is one of the film’s effective twists.

While it would be easy to focus on the monster in the way a “Godzilla” film might, “The Host” is more interested in other aspects of its story. The monster is a wonderful creation, referred to in press material as a giant salamander. It looks more to me like a fusion of many different creatures found in the Han River that are mutated into one when a doctor orders gallons of toxic waste to be dumped into Seoul’s enormous sewer system.

I would, however, like to address the film’s attitude toward America. This film is a not-so-shocking but extremely harsh indictment of the United States and its current and past foreign policies. The Korean War is not a military campaign that often comes up as a black spot on U.S. history, but upon viewing this film, I wonder. The filmmakers seem to feel that U.S. policy in Korea has been just as much of a mistake as many have felt about our current war on terrorism. What does all that have to do with a giant salamander? Well, every mistake and mishap in this film is done under the orders of Americans. Even the initial chemical dump is done under the request of an American doctor, played by the great Scott Wilson.

But this all makes it sound like a political movie. Those are only the underpinnings. At the heart of this movie is a dysfunctional family that is willing to sacrifice everything for each other. “The Host” is an extraordinary example of the innovation and creativity that is driving one of the fastest growing and internationally popular film industries of our time.

Stay Alive (2006). I committed another mistake during the writing of my Horrorfest preview when I left the 2006 video game-based “Stay Alive” off of my list of primer films. I’m sure the reason this happened is because “Stay Alive” is so utterly forgettable. It is an example of one of those cookie-cutter movies that gathers a bunch of good looking young actors to get knocked off one by one in a series of uninspired, PG-13 degree accidents that aren’t really accidents but the work of a very clever ghost; a ghost that would never have become one if she had been half as clever when she was alive.

“Stay Alive” contains one of those interesting premises that could have produced a good movie if that had been the intention of the filmmakers rather than trying to appeal to the broadest audience base. Some video game geeks start playing this new game and then start dropping dead in manners very similar to the deaths of their characters in the video game. Frankie Muniz( of “Malcolm in the Middle” fame) provides the only point of interest with his performance of a caricature of a video game geek. Unfortunately, his fate provides one of the most obvious twists of the plot. You would’ve had to completely miss a large section of the movie not to be able to predict it.

So “The Host” sets a high standard for the rest of this year’s Horrorfest to live up to. And, hopefully, I am done with mistakes and mishaps, like “Stay Alive”, for the rest of the month.

Here’s a scene from “The Host”. Notice the activity in the background in the shot with the woman wearing headphones and you’ll see how the horror and humor collaborate in this film.

Buy it: The Host

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Horrorfest 2007: A Preview

October is just around the corner, and once again I find myself frantically rearranging my Netflix queue in preparation for my annual Horrorfest. That spooking time kind of snuck up on me this year, and I seem to be making my preparations at the last possible moment. Each October I dedicate the majority of my movie watching to one of my most favorite genres: horror. But like many great loves, there is a hate side to my relationship with horror films, which might explain my belated preparations.

Much of the horror genre is filled with sub par attempts, with the creators often confusing jarring editing and gratuitous gore for actual scares. The horror genre is often a starting point for filmmakers that have yet to learn the value of story and character development. If you can’t relate to a victim, it is hard to be scared for them. And all too often horror films fall into cutout formulae and predictable schlock.

This was the case for this year’s primer flicks. Most years I build up to my October shock fest with a couple of horror flicks seen in advance of the official beginning of Horrorfest (the final weekend in September). This year’s primer films will hopefully be a couple of the least satisfying.

Halloween (2007). This summer I learned just why someone might release a movie called Halloween in August when I screened the Rob Zombie “re-imagining” of the John Carpenter classic “Halloween”. I was considerably harsh in my critique of this lack-luster remake of one of my favorite horror films of all time, because it seemed to hold so much promise. But according to friends with equal enthusiasm for the original material, but a less severe reaction to the remake, the term “lack-luster” certainly applies.

Zombie has carved a name for himself in the modern horror genre, with his films “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects”, as a filmmaker with an eye for the perverse but a keen sense of character development of the most depraved sorts. His take on “Halloween” was to focus more on the development of the serial killer Michael Myers, which demystified the villain and took much needed attention away from Laurie Strode, the heroine of the story. The result is a film that somehow seems rushed and yet too slow to pull the audience in long enough to get to the horror. Zombie utilizes some great visual elements that unfortunately do little to help connect the audience with the characters.

The Return (2006). This film was released with little fanfare 10 days after the Halloween holiday last year. Starring current scream queen Sarah Michelle Gellar as an industrial equipment saleswoman who returns to the area of her childhood to close a big sale only to find she has a strange connection to a woman who was murdered in the same area some 15 years earlier, this movie seems to lack the emotional hook necessary to carry the horror which is intended by it.

Once again, director Asif Kapadia incorporates some interesting visual and story elements, but fails to provide the scares to go with them. Kapadia has the patience to develop the story and characters, but never gives the audience a reason to care for them. The most disappointing element of the film is its resolution, which provides a fairly weak connection between Gellar’s heroine and the murdered woman.

Early disappointments aside, 2007 promises one of the best Horrorfests I’ve had yet. I received several suggestions from friends after the conclusion of last year’s Horrorfest, including the aforementioned “The Devil’s Rejects”, Nicolas Roeg’s psychological thriller “Don’t Look Now”, the road movie horror flick “Dead End”, the Gothic horror “Hour of the Wolf” from Swedish character auteur Ingmar Bergman, modern silent film revisionist Guy Maddin’s “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary”, indie cult flick “May”, and J-horror director Takashi Miike’s classic “Audition”. I will also try to catch up on some of this past year’s plethora of horror releases like “Bug”, “1408”, “The Number 23”, “Vacancy”, “The Reaping” and “28 Days Later”. Of course, with Netflix’s policy on new releases going to people with smaller queues first, some of these entries may have to be replaced by more readily available titles. I also plan a trifecta of darkly humorous zombie flicks (the monster not the former rock star turned director) from across the pond in “Severance”, “Fido”, and the were-sheep comedy “Black Sheep”. I may catch up with the “Saw” franchize, and plan to take in the entirety of TNT’s Stephen King inspired mini-series of mini-movies from last year “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”. The festival opener promises to be one of the best horror entries of 2007, the much raved about Korean monster flick “The Host”. And as part of my continuing film series presented for friends in the Marshall area under the unofficial banner of the Marshall Film Society, we will be revisiting the 1978 remake of the sci-fi horror classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

It promises to be yet another fright-filled Horrorfest, which I only wish I could share personally with each and every one of my readers. Please, take a gander at what I’m watching this month, read my festival reports, rent what you are interested in, and be sure to give yourself a few scares this October. I know I will.

Buy it: The Return
Buy it: Halloween movies

A scene from Halloween, not as scary as the original.

And one of the few frights from The Return.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

All the World’s a Movie: The Great Shakespearean Filmmakers

With the United States premiere of the latest Shakespeare adaptation by Kenneth Branagh, “As You Like It”, running on HBO this past month and its subsequent DVD release on Tuesday, the time seemed right for a retrospective of Shakespeare’s works on the silver screen. Despite the fact that modern audiences largely ignore the works of William Shakespeare on film, there has been an illustrious history of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Many film greats have submitted the works of Shakespeare to film, some even developing their reputations mostly upon their vision of his material.

The works of Shakespeare have driven directors and actors alike to risk their salaries for the critical lauding and challenges that Shakespeare’s words and stories have to offer. Kevin Kline, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Michelle Pfeifer, Emma Thompson, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, Robin Williams, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Alec Baldwin, Kate Winslet, Toshiro Mifune, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Crystal, Glenn Close, and Bryce Dallas Howard are just a few of the performers who have taken the proverbial Shakespearean plunge on screen. Many actors have been “struck so to the soul, that presently” they have even skipped over the divide from acting into direction to satisfy their obsessions. Lawrence Olivier, Al Pacino, Kenneth Branagh and Orson Welles have all sat in the director’s chair so they could get their own unique takes of the bard onto the screen. I now offer a list of some of the best.

Lawrence Olivier. Perhaps one of the more prolific actors to come from across the pond, Lawrence Olivier was always held in high regard in the Hollywood and acting communities as a whole. I recall a story from my own acting training about how Olivier once held an audience in awe simply by reading the phone book. This may be more of a legend than fact, but this incredible reputation of Olivier’s owes much to his work in Shakespeare, and on film he was able to bring that reputation to a much larger audience.

His first screen work in Shakespeare was as young juvenile Orlando from “As You Like It” (1936). Throughout his career he continued to return to the works of Shakespeare with later leading roles in “Othello” (1965), the television productions of “The Merchant of Venice” (1973) and “King Lear” (1983), and even providing the narration for Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo & Juliet” (1968). But it was at the height of his matinee popularity that he made his greatest contributions to Shakespeare’s legacy on film with his self-directed leading performances in the awkwardly titled “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with his Battle Fought at Agincourt in France” (1944) -- now more simply known as “Henry V”, a definitive version of “Hamlet” (1948), and his tragic look at the misshapen psychopath “Richard III” (1955). Olivier brought such intensity to these performances that even American audiences were able to embrace Shakespeare’s poetry and see the drama of his stories.
Buy it: Olivier's Shakespeare

Orson Welles. Orson Welles was a theater man when Hollywood dragged him into the cutthroat world of filmmaking, a world that quite literally cut his visions to shreds, but what rich and unique visions they were. Much of his reputation as a director was built upon the brave new ways in which he staged his Shakespeare productions. In 1939, He staged a famous version of Macbeth with an entirely black cast, set in Haiti, utilizing the practice of Voodoo to bring a new life to go with Shakespeare’s words. On film, Welles’s large build made him a perfect embodiment of many of Shakespeare’s flawed tragic heroes, including his turns on television in the “Omnibus” production of “King Lear” (1953), as the money lender and flesh taker Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” (1969), and even in the spin-off story from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” and “Henry V” as Hal’s partner in crime Falstaff in a movie that was known both as “Falstaff” and “Chimes at Midnight” (1967). But it was his striking use of shadows and light in his filmed stagings of “Macbeth” (1948) and “The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice” (1952) that exemplified his bold choices as a director and his commanding presence as a world class Shakespearean actor.
Buy it: Orson Welles' Shakespeare

Akira Kurosawa. The filmmakers’ obsession with Shakespeare is not contained exclusively to English language artists. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa found a great deal of inspiration from the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and storylines fit well into the world of the Samurai warrior, which was a popular subject in Japanese cinema in the mid-20th century, akin to the American western. Kurosawa visited Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in his film “Kumonosu jo” (1957), known in the U.S. as “Throne of Blood”. He returned to Shakespearean grounds late in his career with his Oscar winning epic “Ran” (1985), taken from the play “King Lear”. Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptations show the universality of Shakespeare’s work, transcending both language and environment.
Buy it: Kurosawa's Shakespeare

Franco Zeffirelli. There was a time in Hollywood when if you wanted to do a Shakespeare adaptation, you called Franco Zeffirelli. Starting with “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the warring lovers, Zeffirelli gained a reputation for his wonderful production values, impeccable period costumes and the ability to draw star power to Shakespeare. He followed “Shrew” with the topically popular “Romeo & Juliet” (1968), which became a classical version of the flower power rage against the machine of the late 60s. Don’t hate us because we love, man. In the 80s, Zeffirelli brought his extensive experience with opera to the big screen in the operatic adaptation “Otello” (1986), starring Placido Domingo as Shakespeare’s troubled Moor. And Mel Gibson tapped the Italian director to bring his version of “Hamlet” (1989) to the screen.
Buy it: Zeffirelli's Shakespeare

Roman Polanski. While not providing a whole list of Shakespeare adaptations, director Roman Polanski made a significant contribution to the bard’s filmography with his 1971 version of “Macbeth”. Polanski was on a roll of successful films with “Macbeth” sandwiched between “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “Chinatown” (1974). He turned in one of the grittiest Shakespeare films yet with this adaptation of “the Scottish play”, replicating the realistic period costuming of Zeffirelli while adding the element of a dank location castle set.
Buy it: Polanski's Shakespeare

Baz Luhrmann. In 1996, Australian director Baz Luhrmann returned one of Shakespeare’s most youthful tragedies to the youth that inspired it with “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the titular roles. The adaptation was criticized for its poorly handled performances, but earned great praise for Lurhmann’s clever modernization of the setting. Utilizing a soundtrack filled with popular rock anthems, Luhrmann turned what had become stiff and inaccessible to youth culture into a world of gang violence and hip-hop references that could appeal to the very demographic it was about.
Buy it: William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet

Julie Taymor. After successfully adapting what some deemed the inadaptable “Lion King” from screen to stage, Julie Taymor decided to adapt what many deem Shakespeare’s worst play “Titus Andronicus” to the screen with the movie “Titus” (1999). Anthony Hopkins plays the titular role in this highly visual and stylized Shakespearean gore-fest after a long career of playing Shakespeare on stage and screen. Taymor’s stunning production and costume design, along with a cornucopic usage of color, distracts from what is really a deplorable story, making this adaptation a visual feast for audiences that are more accepting of the story because of it.
Buy it: Titus

Al Pacino. Actor Al Pacino has always held a great passion for Shakespeare. In a career full of visceral, emotionally charged characters, he has never been what many people erroneously feel makes for a good Shakespearean actor. In his attempt to fulfill a dream of bringing Shakespeare’s “Richard III” to the screen, Pacino created one of the more unique Shakespeare films ever and an amazing quasi-documentary in the film “Looking for Richard” (1996). Pacino’s film is part a performance of “Richard III”, part a documentary on making a movie of a Shakespeare play, and part a Shakespearean acting seminar for both the audience and the cast of his film, which includes such Hollywood players as Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder, and Aidan Quinn. For a more traditional Shakespeare film starring Pacino see Michael Radford’s beautifully adapted “The Merchant of Venice” (2004).
Buy it: Pacino's Shakespeare

Kenneth Branagh. The current reigning champion of Shakespeare on film is British director/actor Kenneth Branagh. Armed with training at the Royal Shakespeare Company and a company of other RSC alumni, Branagh has brought both Shakespeare standards and some of his more obscure works to film. As an actor Branagh relishes in those rich complex characters of Shakespeare, like his performance as Iago in director Oliver Parker’s 1995 adaptation of “Othello” and, of course, that melancholy Dane in his own uncut version of “Hamlet” (1996). But as a director he seems to find more joy in Shakespeare than most. Having adapted more of Shakespeare’s comedies than any previous director, Branagh delights in the confounding romances of Shakespeare in the films “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), the 30s style musical version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (2000), and his latest 19th century Japan set “As You Like It” (2007). But perhaps his most successful Shakespeare was his first, the historically based “Henry V” (1989).
Buy it: Branagh's Shakespeare

Other entries. Along with the contribution of these Shakespeare luminaries, there have been many adaptations throughout cinematic history that have also successfully captured the spirit of the great bard. “A Mid Summer Night’s Dream” has had two wonderful film adaptations. In 1935, William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt directed a version with James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland. While Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeifer, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Rupert Everett, and Christian Bale are just some of the start-studded cast of Michael Hoffman’s 1999 version. In 2000, director Michael Almereyda filmed a modern version of “Hamlet” that sees Ethan Hawke soliloquizing in the rental racks of a Blockbuster. Trevor Nunn directed the only good version of “Twelfth Night” (1996) I’ve ever seen. In 1969, Tony Richardson tackled an overly romanticized version of “Shakespeare’s Hamlet”, with Anthony Hopkins as Claudius and Marianne Faithful as Ophelia?! Just last year, director Geoffrey Wright took “Macbeth” into the Australian underworld. And in 1995, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine offered their stage version of “Richard III” to the screen, set in Nazi Germany.
Buy it: Richard III

Modernized versions. Even when his words aren’t used, Shakespeare’s stories often make for popular fare at the box office. High school seems to be a ripe setting for Shakespeare’s plots. Recently his story influence can be found in “O” (2001, “Othello”), “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999, “The Taming of the Shrew”), and “She’s the Man” (2006, “Twelfth Night”). His stories also adapt well into the musical format, “Kiss Me Kate” (1953, “The Taming of the Shrew”) and the classic “West Side Story” (1961, “Romeo & Juliet”). They have also made for some very far removed (in the geographical sense) loose adaptations, “Scotland, Pa.” (2001, “Macbeth”), "Forbidden Planet" (1956, “The Tempest”), the less imaginatively titled “Tempest” (1982, “The Tempest”), and Gus Van Sant lifted portions of Shakespeare's history of "Henry IV" for his 1991 film "My Own Private Idaho".
Buy it: West Side Story

So although Kenneth Branagh’s latest Shakespeare adaptation had to look for a home on a cable network like HBO, the works of Shakespeare have obviously had a profound influence on the silver screen. Whether they appear in the form of a period costume piece, a modern re-envisioning, or merely an extracted storyline, the works of Shakespeare will probably find their way onto movie screens for a long time to come.
Buy it: As You Like It

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

As You Like It / *** (PG)

Rosalind: Bryce Dallas Howard
Orlando: David Oyelowo
Celia: Romola Garai
Oliver: Adrian Lester
Touchstone: Alfred Molina
Jaques: Kevin Kline
Audrey: Janet McTeer
Duke Senior/Frederick: Brian Blessed
Corin: Jimmy Yuill
Phoebe: Jade Jefferies

HBO Films and BBC Films present a film directed and adapted for the screen by Kenneth Branagh. Based on the play by William Shakespeare. Running time: 127 min. Rated PG (for violence and some sexual material).

It seems the great bard William Shakespeare was a man like any other, a man both fascinated and plagued by woman. To watch and understand the romances of Shakespeare is to see a portrait of women as bountiful muses and nearly mad slaves to anxiety. The women of Shakespeare, from the enlightened and progressive ingénue to the dimwitted harlot, cannot simply love a man; they must meddle with and manipulate any situation in which they find themselves dealing with men.

Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “As You Like It” presents one of his many plots involving a forbidden love complicated further by mistaken identities and genders. The celebration of the passions of love is elevated here by the inclusion of not just two lovers, but with love multiplied by the power of four. Eight lovers are set about to confound and confuse each other as to just who loves who, how much and why. Meanwhile, it’s up to the audience to keep score—not such an easy task for modern film audiences as it might have been back in the bard’s day.

Another signpost of Shakespeare’s desire to further stir the pot is the inclusion of a much darker melodramatic subplot. “As You Like It” opens as Duke Senior (Brian Blessed, “Alexander”) is banished from his kingdom in a coup by his own brother Duke Frederick (also played by Blessed). Senior’s daughter Rosalind remains in the kingdom at the request of her cousin Celia. Another sibling rivalry exists between Oliver and Orlando, the sons of Sir Rowland de Boys. To prove himself to his older brother, Orlando bests a wrestler of Frederick’s with encouragement from Rosalind, whom Frederick banishes in retaliation.

This introduction is dark and heavy, and serves mostly as a prelude to a much lighter story. It almost plays like one of those false starts to a “Simpsons” episode, where you think the story is going to be about one thing but ends up being about something altogether different. Once all are banished to the Forest of Arden—Rosalind with Celia in tow—the film passes through some magical portal where the fear and terror of the Duke’s court melt away into a pastoral paradise. Director Kenneth Branagh (“William Shakespeare’s Hamlet”) makes a clear distinction between the settings. The Duke’s court is dark and claustrophobic with its cubical interiors, while the forest makes for one of the more beautiful natural locations ever seen in a Shakespeare adaptation. Even the meager architecture that does exist in the forest blends in with the landscape, looking both natural and exotic. Note the winding bridge outside the grotto where Rosalind and Celia are hiding out as peasant brother and sister.

Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Lady in the Water”) dresses as a man to conceal their identities in the forest. This of course leads to an awkward situation when Orlando (David Oyelowo, BBC America’s “MI-5”) follows Rosalind to pursue his deepest feelings for her and finds a boy – albeit a very attractive boy – named Ganymed instead. While in the guise of Ganymed, Rosalind also catches the eye of Phoebe (Jade Jefferies) who is being hopelessly pursued by the boy Silvius (Jimmy Yuill, “Ladies in Lavender”). Frederick also dispatches Oliver (Adrian Lester, “Primary Colors”) to find his brother, and therefore find his daughter with Rosalind; but when Oliver’s eyes first fall on Celia (Romola Garai, “Amazing Grace”) yet another romance ensues.

Along with the lovers, Shakespeare also throws a couple of his fools into the mix. One is Touchstone (Alfred Molina, “Spider-Man 2”) who, for all his courtly wisdom, feels he must wed in order to bed the wench Audrey (Janet McTeer, “Songcatcher”). He makes this his singular mission. The second is Jaques (Kevin Kline, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), one of Senior’s attendants, who finds himself in a deep depression after the fall of his lord’s court. Jaques’s melancholy says more than I ever realized back in college when I participated in a staging of this play, speaking to present day events in a way that allows this seemingly innocent romance to become a poignant reminder of just why we need such entertainments. Jaques’s famous “All the world’s a stage…” speech remains powerful in a world where former sports stars, once acquitted of murder, can again find themselves headlining the evening news.

Just keeping the characters and storylines straight in a Shakespeare can be as mind boggling to the modern viewer as the iambic pentameter; but Branagh juggles them well while his cast makes the language sing, if not drop as easily as a rhyme by Kanye West. Branagh makes the interesting choice of setting his version in 19th century Japan, if only as an excuse to place his cast in exotic attire to compliment the beautiful woodland backgrounds. And both Howard and Garai are perfectly cast as the leading ladies, whose little schemes are as charming as they are maddening.

In another decade, “As You Like It” would have been a theatrical release. There has rarely been a hand to guide audiences through Shakespeare as clear and confident as Branagh’s. He stuck it out in the theaters for longer than the studios probably wanted to bother with him; but he may have finally found a welcoming home in HBO, which has made a point of trying to bring culture to their feature film projects. I hope so, because it would be a shame to lose touch with work as profound as Shakespeare’s. Even his little comedies about meddling, maddening women are more than what they would seem. And they are a lot of fun, if you’re just willing to watch.

But it: Shakespeare films

Monday, September 10, 2007

Shoot ‘Em Up / ***½ (R)

Smith: Clive Owen
Hertz: Paul Giamatti
Donna Quintano: Monica Bellucci
Hammerson: Stephen McHattie
Lone Man: Greg Bryk

New Line Cinema presents a film written and directed by Michael Davis. Running time: 87 min. Rated R (for pervasive strong bloody violence, sexuality and some language).

My dad’s favorite movies are those mindless violence action flicks where the plot merely exists as an excuse for gunfire and explosions; he refers to them as “Smith & Wesson commercials.” Well, the new shoot ’em up—aptly titled “Shoot ‘Em Up” —is the ultimate Smith & Wesson commercial. Hardly a moment goes by in this movie without a gun going off in someone’s hand.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes the characters don’t even need to have the gun in their hands to make the bullets fly. Sometimes they don’t even use a gun at all to “shoot their loads.” Sometimes all it takes is a carrot. But there is a hero, a villain, a sexy girl and many, many expendable thugs in black. There are thousands of bullets, hundred of explosions, gallons of blood, and damn any attempt to keep it realistic. That would just take away from the fun of it all.

The film begins like a classic spaghetti western, with a close-up on the hero’s eyes. In this case it’s Smith (Clive Owen, “Sin City”), a man sitting on a city street bench eating a carrot. Smith witnesses a pregnant woman being pursued by a guy who wears his bad on his sleeve. When the guy pulls out a gun to deal the woman a final solution, Smith can’t bring himself to stay out of it.

Suddenly, we find ourselves at the end of a western, in the showdown. The next 85 minutes will be that showdown, possibly the longest in film history. And the filmmakers are bent on giving the audience everything it ever wanted out of a showdown, most notably never letting up.

Smith’s challenger is a man by the name of Hertz. Paul Giamatti (“The Nanny Diaries”), a character actor who generally specializes in playing nervy little rats, threatens to develop teeth gnashing into an art form all its own. Giamatti can barely keep the sentences he forms from exploding out of his mouth like bullets forced out of a gun.

Which brings us back to the guns. Everything in this film is dealt with in bullets and steel. The pregnant woman gives birth while Smith fights the bad guys off. With no blade at hand, the obvious solution is to cut the cord by shooting it off. Need to look up last year’s tax return? Use a bullet to open up the filing cabinet, and eliminate a bad guy while you’re at it. Need a handy escape route? Surely a bullet will provide a speedy method. Can’t find the right words to tell your enemy your deepest thoughts? A neon sign and a few well placed bullets will solve that problem efficiently. And if you run out of bullets, you can always borrow someone else’s, or purchase a few with some food stamps.

Obviously, writer-director Michael Davis (whose most notable credit is the screenplay for “Double Dragon: The Movie”) has both a gift for delivering copious amounts of action and a great sense of humor about it. During one of the more ridiculous sequences, Smith jumps from an airplane and engages in a freefall gunfight with a string of baddies; it occurred to me that all these bodies had to land somewhere. The detail didn’t slip Davis’s clever mind either, and its payoff produces one of the movie’s biggest laughs.

Now, I use the word “ridiculous” not in the negative sense. This film is ridiculous, and to the undiscerning viewer it might seem silly and over the top. But that’s the point. This film is gloriously ridiculous. Not ridiculous to a fault, but to an acerbic comic effectiveness that is delightful and even wonderfully imaginative. When Smith blows a hole into an oil tank to create a slick for catapulting his body through a room of bad guys, or when he spins down the center of a stairwell on a rope, mowing down bodies as he falls, it is meant to evoke those gimmicks in serious action flicks that make you roll your eyes. Here it inspires laughter and a sublime joy stemming from the absurdity of clichĂ© action violence.

But what of the plot? It doesn’t matter. I suppose it is important to know that Smith ends up with this newborn baby, carrying the poor infant through the most gratuitous action sequences. The presence of a baby leads Smith to enlist the help of a prostitute (Monica Bellucci, “The Brothers Grimm”) who specializes in infant fetishists. Her involvement allows Smith a partner to help him keep the baby safe from his would be murderers. Her presence also provides Davis with the opportunity to create one of the greatest testosterone fantasies ever conceived, a combination sex scene/shootout.

I almost wish they hadn’t bothered with plot details or reason at all. It would have been nice never to have learned just who Smith was or why Hertz was trying to kill a baby that hadn’t even been born when his job began. All these details that Hollywood seems to feel are necessary just seem like a distraction in such a highly stylized genre film. But I suppose these details serve as a break from the constant action. “Shoot ‘Em Up” certainly earns its title, and earns it well.

Buy it: great action flicks

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Halloween / *½ (R)

Dr. Samuel Loomis: Malcolm McDowell
Laurie Strode: Scout Taylor-Compton
Michael Myers: Tyler Mane
Michael Myers (age 10): Daeg Faerch
Deborah Myers: Sheri Moon Zombie
Sheriff Lee Brackett: Brad Dourif

Dimension Films and The Weinstein Company present a film written and directed by Rob Zombie, based on the 1978 screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Running time: 109 min. Rated R (for strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity and language).

Dear Mr. Zombie,

I feel the need to address you personally on the subject of your latest film. Because I respect who you are and what you have accomplished, I am amazed at how misguided and off the mark your “re-imagining” of the John Carpenter horror classic “Halloween” is. Surely, someone who’s last name is derived from a horror monster has a solid understanding of what is and is not scary. You have proven yourself as an innovator of horror concepts with your music and videos. You’ve even directed a couple of horror films that show an obsession with and a refined talent for exploring the dark nature that peaks horror enthusiasts’ interest. But I wonder if your fascination has more to do with disturbing people than actually scaring them.

I have to admit that when I first heard that one of my all-time favorite horror films, and one of my favorite films period, was being remade, my heart sunk. With horror films today consisting mostly of grotesque torture porn and quick-cut editing that misses the whole concept of how to jolt an audience out their seats, I was sure I would see yet another slasher-flick hack job (pun intended). Then I discovered you were to direct, and my hopes were raised at the thought of a true fan of classic horror getting to pay tribute to a classic while offering his own unique take.

Then, I heard a radio interview with you about the film and suddenly there wasn’t another movie I was more excited for this year. Maybe if I were a horror movie character who gets ridden off as a crazed fool only to have my muttering come true, I might have recognized this rollercoaster of emotions as the bad omen it obviously must be. Or maybe I just should have known they would only release a movie called "Halloween" on August 31 for good reason.

In your interview, you mentioned that the key to this story is the characters. While that seemed compelling on the radio, I should have known that you were a victim of the notion that to be taken seriously in Hollywood you need a character-driven story. Because of this, you spend the first hour filling in Michael Myers’s backstory. You make him a kid with a poor childhood: his mother’s a stripper, her boyfriend is abusive, they live in trailer trash hell (but later we find the Myers’ had a pool in their back yard—when was that installed?), and bullies persecute him in school. Despite all this, you later fall back on the notion that Michael was born evil, even using some of the Dr. Loomis dialogue from the original film almost verbatim.

But the real problem with humanizing the killer is that you take away all of his mystery. The genius of Carpenter’s original version of Myers is that he never talked, not even as a kid. The audience didn’t know anything about him. Maybe he was the devil incarnate. And those scenes of character development throughout the first half just drag on. Character development, even when it’s Michael Myers we’re talking about, isn’t scary. It may be disturbing, but seeing the kid make the choice to kill isn’t nearly as scary as not seeing him make the choice.

And if you want people to think this killer could be real, why cast such a hulking man as ex-professional wrestler Tyler Mane (“X-Men”) as your killer. The guy is so big, of course he’s a killer. There was never a doubt how he was going to take out his victims. With his massive size, the only sensible way to kill anybody is to bludgeon them to death, and that is pretty much what he does to everyone. You can see this guy coming a couple of blocks away. The only reason we don’t is because you didn’t have the second unit shoot that scene.

And for all of the development time you’ve spent on Myers himself, you’ve spent no time on the actual heroes or victims. These are the people the audience is supposed to relate to. Without a connection to the victim, why should we care? Laurie Strode was the lead role of the original picture, where she was played by the instantly likable Jamie Lee Curtis, practically originating the teenage slasher heroine standard. With this film, I’m not even sure if Laurie should be listed as a main character. She’s played by Scout Taylor-Compton, who seems likable enough but is never given a chance to define who Laurie Strode is. You put some glasses on her, apparently to evoke the bookworm quality Curtis had, although I never got the impression she actually used the glasses.

Really, the second half of the movie is just a nightmarish mess. You obviously have great respect for the original material, as you have gone out of you’re way to re-envision slightly altered versions of the murders of Laurie’s friends and the attacks on Laurie herself. But you take no time to set these scenes up. As in the original, the murder victims are all teens just trying to have some sex, but the only thing that happens faster than these kids jumping into the sack is Myers yanking them out again to drive knives and other household items through their chests.

The murder scenes seem spliced together from a shooting schedule that wasn’t long enough. If I hadn’t seen the original version, I would have no idea who was who or what had happened. It’s as if you thought you were directing music videos again, where a literal sense of what is going on is not the point. Not one of these scenes made me jump. In fact, there is only one moment in the film where my heart even rose a bit. During the final ten minutes I just wanted either Myers or Laurie to die (I didn’t care which), so I could just go home.

I am not trying to disrespect you with these criticisms. I just can’t understand how someone who has built an entire career on the ideals of horror could show so little understanding of them. Perhaps this is just a case of a studio run amuck. They want you to save a long-dead franchise. They make you feel like an A-list director and fill your head with phrases like “character-piece.” And you think you’re putting together a serious “re-imagining” of the source material; when in fact, you were supposed to be re-making a slasher flick. It is a remake. It is a slasher flick. I’m not sure what you were trying to make.

Disturbed, but not terrified.

Buy it: Halloween movies