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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Composer Tyler Bates Talks 300

300 — a stirring, violent and visually audacious tale of battlefield sacrifice — has focused on cinematographer Larry Fong’s rotoscoped, consistently evocative camerawork. And rightly so — the movie’s saturated frames and rich shadows look and feel like a comic panel come to life, and feed its brawny, heightened tone. Composer Tyler Bates‘ driving, aggressive music, though, reflects the characters’ physical vigor as well as their steadfast dedication to principle.

I had the chance recently to speak with Bates about his second collaboration with Dawn of the Dead director Snyder, his overall career path and the challenges of tackling iconic properties. For the full interview feature, from Rotten Tomatoes, click here. To visit Bates’ eponymous website, meanwhile, click here.

The Devil’s Rejects

As Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot gets further into the swing of production, I figured it would be time to get some stuff up and posted on his work; ergo this review of his last film, The Devil’s Rejects, redacted and tweaked from its original publication in Screen International.

A lot of horror movies self-profess to be brutal and out-there, but most modern genre pictures actually reveal themselves to be little more than communal vehicles of squeamish discomfort, because in the final analysis and in the pursuit of as many pan-demographic dollars as possible, they don’t really want to cross the line into flat-out perversion and wantonness.

Writer-director Rob Zombie’s wide-eyed, merrily depraved The Devil’s Rejects, on the other hand, has no such qualms. Refusing to cater or pander to a younger horror audience weaned on the teen-centric slasher flicks of the past half decade, the movie is unapologetically degenerate in just about every form and fashion. This means a film-going experience that is at times borderline unwatchable, but — and here’s the key — unwatchable on its own terms.



The Devil’s Rejects is a sequel of sorts to Zombie’s directorial debut House of 1,000 Corpses — though that 2003 film was such a bust and critical piñata that its ties are being smartly downplayed — in that it follows some of the same depraved characters as they escape a raid on their isolated country house and set off on the road, cutting a bloody swathe of scattershot retribution. Set in 1978 to a countrified soundtrack (including Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, Muddy Waters and Terry Reid), the film centers around a murderous clan of hillbillies who are chased from their torture-dungeon home and take hostages on their attempted flight to freedom. Demented matriarch Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is captured by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) and his deputies in said raid, but Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife) and her white-haired brother Otis (Bill Moseley) escape and meet up with their equally psychotic father, the clown-makeup-smeared Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). While the Fireflys hole up with pimp and small-time drug peddler Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree), Wydell eventually enlists the assistance of two unsavory bounty hunters to deal with the murderers outside the official parameters of the law.

For all its lack of nuance, and the unpleasantness that its unnerving sadism conjures forth, The Devil’s Rejects is definitely of a piece with exploitation movies of the ilk and era for which it’s aiming. Wydell is an irascible figure, the type of lawman-pushed-too-far character you would expect to see Lee Marvin playing a couple generations ago, and Zombie brings a skeezy lasciviousness (freeze frames on violent beatings, macabre attempts at humor, psychological torture to match the physical brutality) to the entire affair. Overwrought performances and a maniacal B-movie energy cap off what is an artful and graphic if wholly unoriginal to-scale rendering of exploitation cinema.

Cinematographer Phil Parmet, too, brings a grubby effectiveness to the proceedings. Shot entirely on location in the California desert communities of Lancaster and Palmdale, The Devil’s Rejects exudes a dusty, bleak palette that is in mortal lock-step with the desolation and desperation of the narrative.

All in all, The Devil’s Rejects unnerves more than just about any other picture of the year, so pervasive is its sense of disgust and dread. These qualities mark it as certainly different from much of its modern cinematic brethren, though they won’t necessarily make it good for most audiences. (LionsGate, R, 108 minutes)

Dreamland

A moody,
three-quarter-sketched genre document somewhere between The X-Files, The Twilight
Zone
, The Mothman Prophecies and
(surprisingly) a heartwarming Lifetime fictioner, writer-director James Lay’s Dreamland is a spooky, open-ended,
alien-tinged quasi-thriller that makes the most of its desolate landscapes
. Shot
in deep shades of blue by cinematographer Jonathan Hale, the movie is an old
school, filmic exercise in the elongation of apprehension
. When filmmaker Robert
Rodriguez talked, in Rebel without a Crew,
his tome about the making of El Mariachi,
about making a list of one’s assets, and then using those to help shape the
narrative of a movie, he could very well have been talking about a movie like
this, so spare and streamlined are its moves and payoffs.

The story centers on
a pair of young lovers, Megan (Jackie Kreisler) and Dylan (Shane Elliott, above), who
are on a road trip through the
Nevada flatlands. When they stop at a greasy spoon
diner between the infamous “Area 51” and a radiation-poisoned nuclear testing ground,
things start to get weird. Kindhearted counter jockey Blake (Jonathan Breck) regales
them with stories of a crashed alien craft, much to the consternation of another
customer (Billie Joe Armstrong). Said patron’s irritation nearly escalates into
a fistfight, but Blake steps in and calms things down. Back on the road, Dylan
turns on the radio and finds a speech from Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics. When
the car dies, a visitor appears in the rear window — a visitor from another
moment in time. When he and Megan get separated, Dylan gets “touched” somehow,
changed. When they reunite, and subsequently make their way back to Blake’s
diner, it’s just the beginning of a slurry mystery spanning worlds and time.

Lay (Razor) certainly doesn’t wind things up too
tightly, and while there are a few bits included seemingly only to up the
creepiness quotient, they’re not rooted in gore or effects work or anything
fashionable and hook-y like that. Jason and Nolan Livesay’s music is a weird,
grab-bag mixture, sometimes nicely reminiscent of an old school, Hitchcockian
thriller, but sometimes leaning inappropriately toward a slight comedic flavoring.
(The source tunes in the movie are otherwise solid, and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” gets a nice workout, too.)

If the physical staging of some of the scenes and the conveyance of spatial
relationships leaves a bit to be desired, Dreamland
is quite well acted, and possessing of some nice, unfussy visual passages. There’s
also an admirable, rewarding slow-play of details to match the low-key stakes
of the story
. It ultimately doesn’t all come together in pat, a-ha! fashion; elliptical and a bit coy, Dreamland is characteristic of the difference between something that is really very well directed and smartly directed. Still, if you can take character-rooted nuance in your sci-fi, there’s
some genuine enjoyment to be found here.

There are
unfortunately no supplemental DVD extras on this single-disc release from Image
Entertainment, which comes in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with a Dolby
digital 5.1 audio track. Something, anything, from Lay would have been nice,
and as far as the transfer, while the blue-hued cinematography is nice to
behold in many scenes, the contrast is such that it renders other passages far
too murky. B (Movie) C- (Disc)

First Born

Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Or Leaving
Las Vegas
nominee Elisabeth Shue, for that matter. It’s the latter who
stars in this straight-to-video thriller from writer-director Isaac Webb, a moody
little indie-minded movie in the vein of Rosemary’s
Baby
and The Others, with a pinch
of Repulsion thrown in
for good
measure.

Using post-partum depression as its leaping off point (Shue
apparently got the script before Brooke Shields could), First Born trades in issues of slippery slope sanity that Hollywood
productions would revel in, turning the amp up to 11. In his narrative feature freshman
effort, though, Webb, while definitely aiming for goosing shock, doesn’t feel
the need to explicitly set up these jolts, or always play out their immediate consequences
to the most logical conclusion. The result is a movie of not insignificant atmosphere,
but one that also feels like a bit of an intellectual casserole, with leftover
ideas emptied from the refrigerator of Webb’s mind
in willy-nilly fashion.

Shue stars as well-to-do housewife and former dancer Laura,
who has the quintessentially perfect life. Upon discovering that she’s
pregnant, Laura soon after moves to the suburbs with her husband Steven (Steven
Mackintosh). His long hours and emotional disengagement feed her burgeoning
sense of isolation, physically paralleled by their spacious but sparsely
decorated, secluded country home. When their baby is born, it quickly becomes
apparent that being a mother is more challenging than Laura first imagined, as
she gradually begins a downward slide into despair.

All sorts of strange crud starts happening, and Laura naturally
questions her own sanity. From a mouse-infested basement with a mysterious
diary found in its walls to a peculiar new nanny (Kathleen Chalfant) that Steven
insists on employing to assist his increasingly erratic wife, the red herrings
and head feints come at a fast and furious clip. Even if a fairly film-savvy audience member is able to mostly sort these out rather quickly, and thus “call” the film’s ending long before First Born crosses the finish line, there’s some low-fi pleasure to be taken from a film that invests more in its characters than its CGI budget, particularly if one is partial to and missing Shue (yes, pun intended). Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, First Born comes with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 audio track, and optional Spanish subtitles. C+ (Movie) C- (Disc)

Bow Wow Looks To Unseat Will Smith

Hip-hop artist, actor, mini-mogul-in-training — Bow Wow doesn’t
need anyone to throw him a bone
. In honor of his 20th birthday, then, here’s a slightly redacted reposting of an interview done from the fall of 2005, on occasion of the theatrical release of Roll Bounce. To wit:

There used to be a day when actors wanted only to be actors.
That day is no more. There used to be a day when singers wanted only to be
singers. That day is no more. There used to be a day when actor-singers wanted
merely to be actor-singers. That day is no more.

And there used to be a day when performers who formerly, and
formally, had the designation “Lil’” in front of their name would be happy to
escape adolescence with a trust fund intact. That day, too, is no more. Yes, in an interview in advance of his new
period skate movie Roll Bounce, Bow
Wow is telling me that he wants to put Will Smith out of business
. And he’s not
entirely kidding.

In breathless fashion, multimedia army-of-one Bow Wow
relates anecdotes about his recently completed music tour, his upcoming film
projects, various endorsement deals, the self-starring reality show he’d like
to launch on his own terms
(“I think if I had mine it’d be crazy, you’d never
see nothing like this”) and, yes, plans for
his own clothing line. Probably one of the most preternaturally confident —
cocky? — of the under-drinking age set in Hollywood
today, Bow Wow is a relentless talker and self-promoter, and unnervingly on
point
. (If none of his entertainment ventures stick, he could in a decade segue
into politics, where his cult of personality would find welcome reception.)

Yet Bow Wow has a unique
combination of experience and basic insight that could serve him well, and
together give him just as much of a puncher’s chance as anyone else looking to
rapaciously climb the Hollywood ladder. Ask him why rappers today feel the need
to brand themselves with such a wide variety of lifestyle accoutrements, and
he’ll launch into a soliloquy about the genre’s high relatability amongst
today’s kids and how fans therefore want to also feel like they own a piece of
their favorite hip-hop stars
— or even athletes — outside of music or off the
court. It’s a bit broad strokes but nonetheless perceptive. Bow Wow is no dum
dum, in other words.

Bow Wow first came to fame as the preteen protégé of
rapper-producer Jermaine Dupri, who continues to serve as his musical mentor. His
debut album, Beware of Dog, sold over
three million copies and spawned the hit “Bounce With Me,” which touched number
one on both the rap and R&B charts. He then made his feature film debut in Like Mike, and was most recently seen
opposite Cedric the Entertainer in Johnson
Family Vacation
.

Setting one’s sights on Will Smith, though, requires a bit
broader palette, and so Bow Wow began looking for something with a bit more
heft to it. It was then that he heard of Roll
Bounce
, a script by television writer Norman Vance (Beauty Shop) that Malcolm Lee (Undercover
Brother
, The Best Man) had
expressed an interest in directing. “What attracted me to the film was the
storyline,” says Bow Wow, “and especially that is was something completely
different than anything I’ve done before. I really wanted to broaden my career
as an actor, and this role was a great way to take it further.”

The film’s story, set in a music-cued 1970s, centers around
Xavier “X” Smith (Bow Wow). At a time when rollerskating was a way of life, X
and his pals ruled supreme. When their local rink closes, however, it sends
these decidedly downtown kids into terra
unfamilia
— an uptown rink known as Sweetwater — where they face off
against a collection of flamboyant over-the-top skaters. Along the way, there’s
a budding romance with the sweet Naomi (Meagan Good) and a therapeutic healing
in X’s relationship with his father Curtis (Chi McBride).

“I’ve been skating for years so this wasn’t really anything
new to me,” says Bow Wow. “I’ve been skating since I was around six years old.
I used to waste my mother’s money all the time, just playing games at the
arcade. And then she was like, ‘Nah, get on out there.’ So it was cool, it
brought back some memories.”

“The routines and the choreography were really the only
thing that I had to learn,” Bow Wow continues. “That took a few weeks. A lot of
us, we’re not dancers, a lot of us don’t have rhythm
, so it was cool to get
everybody together and just try to do it. People were falling, some folks
couldn’t get it, some could. But we had to wait, and work together, because we
were a team and we had to move as a unit.”

While the nostalgic underpinnings and familial drama of Roll Bounce make it almost as much of a
“glance-back” movie for adults as a funky comedy of choreographed good times, the
assortment of supporting player cameos (Nick Cannon, Charlie Murphy, Mike Epps,
DMX, Wayne Brady) adds further color and flair. Bow Wow also asserts that young
and old can appreciate the artistic showmanship of rollerskating. He acknowledges
the ascendancy of rollerblades, but points out the existence of Los Angeles’ World
on Wheels and other local skating rinks, saying there’s still a healthy
underground appetite for the type of “jam skating” on display in Roll Bounce. “Rollerblades are
definitely used for exercise and things like that,” says Bow Wow. “But when
it’s time for you to skate and really show off what you’ve got, then it’s four
wheels.”

Bow Wow will soon get a chance to get to know other types of
four-wheel modes of transportation as well, as he and Lucas Black (Sling Blade, Friday Night Lights) are set to co-star in the third installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise,
set in Tokyo. Shooting commences on
location in October — “I’ve never been [to Japan], so that’ll be all new,
different,” he says — and though Bow Wow is as of yet uncertain as to what, if
any, sort of driving school training he’ll have, don’t be too surprised if you soon
see his endorsement of an auto body professional. Or a tire company, or a rim
specialist…

Jim Carrey: Kismet Detective

Jim Carrey is nothing if not dogged in his pursuit of well-roundedness.
While plenty of actors have been only too happy to trade on the
well-fed contentedness of their big screen personalities, and merely
flip their careers into cruise control (a certain Dreamgirls Oscar nominee comes to mind), Carrey has for more than a decade shown a penchant for
dancing on the razor’s edge
. Broad comedies are his forte, but he
clearly yearns for embrace — commercially as much as critically — in
dramatic fare as well, as The Truman Show, The Majestic, Man on the Moon and now his choice to headline the recent The Number 23 all illustrate.

“I really have always thought of myself as somebody who lives in the
middle of the wheel, and is able to go to the extreme, to the outside
of the wheel, in any direction,” says Carrey
. “The best case scenario for me is to
be able to be centered and then go out. You can be zany
and funny or you can do something that really has some depth to it and
is serious …I would
hate to get trapped in one little thing. I always feel like funny is an
appendage, but it is not my whole body.”
For the full feature interview, from FilmStew, click here.

300

300 offers up a stirring tale of battlefield sacrifice that’s tailor-made for MTV-generation glorification. It’s bloody, it has nudity and a wicked streak of darkly humorous fatalism that seems suitable for these times; it pops off the screen with the same sort of in-your-face quality of Sin City, mixing fantastical visual affectation with skull-cracking action. Young males are going to eat this movie up. I’ve talked about it before, but for the full review, from FilmStew, click here.

Reese Witherspoon Goes Missing

Joe Carnahan can’t catch a break. The erstwhile Narc director, after laboring for over a year on the third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise before departing over creative differences with star-producer Tom Cruise, finally got back into theaters this Janurary with Smokin’ Aces, which was promptly annihilated by critics.

Now Reese Witherspoon, the star-producer of the remake of the 1965 Otto Preminger film Bunny Lake Is Missing, which Carnahan was set to direct, has pulled out of the production just weeks before the movie was set to start filming, according to a piece in today’s Los Angeles Times, by John Horn and Sheigh Crabtree. The film is about an American woman whose daughter goes missing from a new nursery school while in England. She is then confronted with discrepancies in her story by police, who eventually suggest that her daughter never existed. The bulk of the production was to be in Los Angeles.

Scripts have gone out to Charlize Theron and Kate Winslet in an attempt to recast the project on the fly, but Carnahan has a limited window of availability, since he starts shooting the 1950s-set crime thriller White Jazz in late July. Well, until star-producer George Clooney pulls out of that project, that is…

Short Time’s Car Chase

So a friend sent me this link of the car chase from 1990’s Short Time, starring Dabney Coleman, and it’s true that if you have seven and a half minutes to burn, it’s worth a look — a reminder of the kinetic power of non-CGI-infused chase sequences. The early aerial shots really help sell it, and the hood’s smash of the windshield gave me post-traumatic flashbacks — I had that happen once, at 65mph on a freeway.

I particularly enjoy Matt Frewer’s exclamation of, “Your yogurt!” as well as the varied, repeated uses of the phrase “son of a bitch,” which is the perfect low-grade epithet for this chase. Again, for the YouTube clip, click here.

Borat

Owing as much to distributor 20th Century Fox’s clandestine
screening policies as my own unfamiliarity with the character from his earliest
incarnation on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali
G Show
, Borat was a movie that
sort of snuck up me, and boy was that the right way to see it
. To not be
bothered or encumbered with broad strokes plot descriptions or even smartly
pitched, tongue-in-cheek mini-spoilers for some magazine’s fall preview issue,
to see the film fresh and let it wash over you in roughshod fashion like a
rogue wave on that first foray into the water during your annual trip to the
beach — this was the way to
experience Borat.

Subtitled “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit
Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the movie, of course, centers around
mustachioed Kazak reporter Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen), a clueless and virulently
anti-Semitic naïf who takes to America with his tubby producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken
Davitian) and “a jar of gypsy tears for protection” in order to make a
documentary about the United States for his fellow citizens. There Borat
stumbles through various rituals of socialization (obtaining a car and driver’s
license, attending a dinner party, learning the nuances of Stateside humor),
and finds himself smitten with Baywatch
pinup Pamela Anderson, whom he regards as his vestal virgin-in-waiting.

That various, quoted critical analyses of Borat can tout it in equal, honest
measure as a “fall-on-your-face, pee-in-your-pants, screaming riot” and “the
most politically influential, culturally important, shockingly tasteless and
gaspingly hilarious movie of the year”
is reflective of the movie’s satirical
brilliance. The sheer range of the careening humor — only loosely,
situationally scripted, and much of it improvised, with the unwitting
participation of real folks — is impressive. Gross-out laughs at naked,
masculine cavorting and pooping in a bag are thrust uncomfortably right up
against drunken frat boys, homophobic Bible-belters and other glancing
embodiments of intolerance. Throughout it all, Cohen never drops his guard and
winks at the audience
; it’s as impressive a display of acting as any this past
year, and Cohen deservingly shared in the Best Actor prize with Forest Whitaker
from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

The film, meanwhile, is somewhat of a mirror. It’s in large
part pure anarchic reveling, yes, but it’s also quite revealing
. Cohen plays
Borat as a chauvinistic, grade-A doofus, but he’s also a solicitor of
prejudices, a sort of census taker of only partially hidden judgments
— showing
in the process that it’s possible to appear outwardly decent but still harbor
contemptible views and prejudices.

Even the DVD packaging extends Borat’s prankish, unblinking joke. Available in either 1.85:1
anamorphic widescreen or full screen editions, the Amray case’s cover art is
printed in slightly blurry fashion on a low-grade quality paper, and apart from
the credits, it’s entirely in Kazak. The disc itself, meanwhile, further feeds the
feeling of a homemade bootleg, with the title scrawled in faux marker on a DVD
that reads, “It is life. No. Demorez.”
Only the O-ring, outer cardboard
slipcover prevents idiots everywhere from angrily phoning 20th Century Fox or
their local retailer when returning home and unwrapping their purchase; it’s
normal, and in English. (Optional English and Spanish subtitles are also
available, along with Spanish, French and Russian Dolby surround mixes to
complement the original, English language 5.1 Dolby surround audio mix.)

The disc’s supplemental extras, on the other hand, don’t
necessarily overwhelm you with quantity, though there is more than a half hour
of deleted scenes and additional material — much of it from Cohen’s in-character
publicity tour, as when he arrived at the Cannes Film Festival in a neon green
banana hammock
(above). The menu screens are in garbled English, with a purposefully
low-tech production design to match the movie’s Eastern Bloc credits. Given the
instant-classic of this title, a more tricked-out special edition somewhere
down the line seems a lock, but one could reasonably expect it to be far off —
a retrospective anniversary release when Cohen is open to reflecting without
benefit of a mask. A (Movie) B (Disc)