Thursday, October 30, 2008

DVD of the Week: The Mist: 2-Disc Collector's Edition

Filmmaker Frank Darabont has a real affinity for Stephen King’s stories, having previously adapted two of the author’s non-horror tales (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) and with his latest film he tackles another King story, The Mist (2007), which comes from The Skeleton Crew collection of short stories. Darabont’s film thankfully flies in the face of the two prevailing trends of gruesome torture porn horror films and lame J-horror remakes to deliver old school scares for a truly satisfying horror film.

After a violent storm knocks out their power and puts a tree through one of their windows, David (Thomas Jane) and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) go into town for supplies with their next-door neighbor Brent (Andre Braugher) along for the ride. They are in the supermarket for only a few minutes when they hear the chilling sound of air raid sirens followed by a frantic man (Jeffrey DeMunn) who rushes in yelling about how the mist took a man away. No sooner does he say this then a fast-moving mist envelopes the entire area forcing everyone in the store to hold up until they can figure out what to do.

Everyone has a theory as to its source: fallout from a possible chemical explosion at the local mill, some freaky weather system or maybe it has something to do with the nearby top secret military base? However, when David and a few others go to check out the back-up generator in the recesses of the store, one of them is attacked by multiple tentacles coming out of the mist, suggesting something more supernatural is lurking in the mist. They go back to the rest of the people and try to explain what they saw and what happened.

Naturally, some are skeptical, but the longer everyone stays cooped up and are eventually assaulted by all sorts of horrific creatures that come in waves, like Biblical plagues, the more tempers get frayed. A line is drawn between those who believe that this threat is some form of religious retribution, led by Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), and those who believe that there is some kind of malevolent force out there but use logic and reason to figure things out.

Darabont does an excellent job establishing the characters, the dilemma they all face, and then pitting them against each other. Some critics had problems with the shrill, Bible-thumping character of Mrs. Carmody as being an easy caricature; however, by the end of the film, all of the things she has said come true. As anyone who has read any of Stephen King’s fiction or seen one of his adaptations knows, a recurring motif is how the internal squabbling of a large group of people is as much of a threat as the horror that threatens them. King shows how fragile the trappings of society are and how it only takes one thing to trigger its collapse.

What is so refreshing about The Mist is how flawed the characters are as represented by David, a movie poster artist and the film’s hero. He gets scared and makes mistakes but rises to the occasion when needed. Is he any less of a hero for doing what he does in the film? Darabont raises some fascinating questions about the notion of heroics and this is masterfully realized by Thomas Jane’s wonderfully layered performance. The filmmaker has created a clever, tension-filled apocalyptic monster movie that has the balls to go out on such a daring sucker-punch of an ending that really pissed off some fans of the original novella. Darabont’s film remains true to the spirit and vibe of King’s story despite the radical reworking of the ending.

Special Features:

The first disc features an audio commentary by writer/director Frank Darabont. He spends the bulk of the track pointing out how he cut costs on this modestly budgeted film and gives credit to the crew members who helped him make it, in particular, the effects people. Darabont goes into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking but the highlight is his explanation/justification of the film’s controversial ending. As always, he delivers thoughtful observations and imparts loads of information.

Also included are eight deleted scenes with optional commentary by Darabont. One scene provides an interesting bit of insight into Brent’s character. There is more of David and Ollie trying to convince the others early on about the outside threat. Also included are more of Mrs. Carmody’s religious ramblings.

“Drew Struzan: An Appreciation of an Artist” is a profile of this prolific movie poster artist. He has done some of the most memorable posters of all time, including ones for the Star Wars films, E.T. (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and the Indiana Jones films to name but a few. Darabont points out that the introduction of David working in his studio in the film is a tribute to Struzan.

There are three Webisodes hosted by Darabont that provide a behind-the-scenes look at three scenes in the film and show what it looks like on the set juxtaposed with final product. We get to see how they did various practical effects in these scenes.

Also included are three trailers.

The second disc features a black and white version of the film that Darabont claims, in his introduction to it, is his preferred version because it was intended as an homage to classic horror films of the mid-1960s.

“When Darkness Came: The Making of The Mist” takes a look at the origins of the film. Darabont had always wanted to make a horror film and after making two non-horror Stephen King films, he decided to do The Mist. King sings Darabont’s praises and talks about how he trusted the filmmaker with the material. There is plenty of on the set footage where we see the cast and crew in action. None of the major studios wanted to do it but Bob Weinstein gave it the greenlight so long as Darabont agreed to do it cheaply and in very little time. This is an excellent look at how this film came together.

“Taming the Beast: Shooting Scene 35” takes a look at the scene where the mutant bugs and birds invade the supermarket. It’s the most action-packed scene in the film and was a challenge to shoot and coordinate because it involved a tricky combination practical and digital effects, lots of extras, and stunts.

“Monsters Among Us: A Look at the Creature FX” examines the designs for the various creatures in the film. He employed effects legend Greg Nicotero and illustrator extraordinaire Bernie Wrightson to design them and make them exotic-looking yet realistic enough so it seemed like they could really exist. It was a mix of CGI and practical mechanical creatures and puppetry.

Finally, there is “The Horror of It All: The Visual FX of The Mist” which takes a look at Café FX’s work on the film’s visual effects. Their main guy used to do prosthetic effects and so he had an idea of what would be practical and what would be CGI. His company had very little time and we see the various stages of the effects. We also see how various effects shots in the film were achieved.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Manhunter

"Do you think I'm going to see him standing in the street and say, 'there he is.' That's Houdini you're thinking about. Toothy Fairy's going to go on until we get smart or get lucky. He won't stop...He's got a genuine taste for it."
— Will Graham

Before Jonathan Demme's Academy Award winning The Silence of the Lambs (1992) graced the screen with Anthony Hopkins in all of his visceral glory, Michael Mann's little remembered (and seen) thriller, Manhunter (1986) presented a very different kind of Hannibal Lector. While Demme's film opted for over-the-top performances and needlessly gory scenes of violence, Mann's film took a subtler, creepier approach to its material. Manhunter is less interested in depicting the actual killings (the main attraction of this genre when it became popular) than in the cerebral and actual legwork required to enter the killer's frame of mind and track him down.

Thomas Harris' novel, Red Dragon, was published in 1981. It explores one man's eerie trip into the mind of a serial killer. Profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) reluctantly comes out of retirement to track down Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), a man who slaughters whole families to fulfill his own power fantasies. Graham is able to pursue the killer by thinking and dreaming as he imagines the killer does. However, the last time he tried this technique it pushed him to sanity’s edge. The case involved a cunning psychiatrist named Hannibal Lector (Brian Cox) who viciously killed his patients, scarring Graham both physically and emotionally. Now Graham must make the dangerous journey back into the mind of a killer to catch him before he kills again.

Producer Richard Roth (who produced the much-lauded Julia, starring Jane Fonda, in 1977) bought the film rights to Harris' novel for Dino De Laurentiis with David Lynch attached to direct. Lynch had already made the critical and commercial disaster Dune (1984) for the Italian movie mogul and was looking for a chance to redeem himself. "I was involved in that a little bit, until I got sick of it. I was going into a world that was going to be, for me, real, real violent. And completely degenerate. One of those things: No Redeeming Qualities." Lynch went on to make Blue Velvet (1986) and so Roth offered the project to Mann. Although, one wonders what Lynch’s take on the material would have been like.

After the failure of The Keep (1983), Mann went back to television and produced the very popular Miami Vice television series for NBC. The 1980s was a time when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. The country was a consumer culture, a carnivorous, materialistic society that is reflected in the show with its stylish fashion and architecture. Manhunter is also a product of its time as it reflected where popular culture (fashion, style and music) was at. Mann read Red Dragon not long after it was published and "thought it was the best thriller I'd ever read, bar none." Mann was intrigued by Harris' exploration into the nature of evil. As Mann wrote the screenplay, he decided not to graphically depict the murders as in the book. This is why Mann's film stands out from the other Lector films and other “serial killer” films.

The first Mann theme that Manhunter explores is the conflict of the individual versus the desire to preserve their family. Will Graham is a consummate professional and the best at what he does – profiling serial killers. His friend, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), seeks him out. Two families have been brutally murdered by the same killer: the Jacobis in Birmingham, Alabama and the Leeds in Atlanta, Georgia. They talk on the beach in front of Graham's house. Crawford shows Will not pictures of grisly murders as we almost expect, judging from the way they're talking, but snapshots of two families frolicking in a recreational setting. This is quite shrewd on Crawford's part. He is obviously appealing to Graham's protective nature towards his own family. He knows Graham will feel empathy for the dead families and future ones and therefore offer his services.

This opening conversation between Graham and Crawford is also a teaser of sorts. Nothing is alluded to concretely – especially Graham's ability to get into the mindset of a killer. The closest we get to what happened to him before he quit is when Crawford says, "you look alright." Graham responds, "I am . . . alright." That hesitation makes one wonder – is he really okay? How damaged is Graham? What is so fascinating about this scene is that so much is implied. The scene begins mid-conversation and alludes to Graham’s mysterious past, one that has caused an obvious rift between him and Crawford. The audience can only imagine what the source of this tension was and will only learn bits and pieces of what happened to him later on in the film. While Graham keeps in the tradition of Mann’s intensely professional protagonists who are the best at what they do, he is also one his most layered characters. There is much more to Graham than a driven investigator. He is also an extremely sensitive person who is compelled to do what he does out of a need to save others from being brutally murdered. The process that Graham undergoes to catch these killers is what intrigued Mann in the first place.

The visual motif of imprisoning bars features prominently in the scene between Graham and Lecktor where the investigator goes to visit the killer in order to get the criminal mindset back. The first shot has Graham framed with bars in front of him. The film cuts to a shot of the imprisoned psychiatrist lying on his bed, his back to Graham with bars in front of him as well. In a way, both men are imprisoned. Lecktor literally and Graham is metaphorically trapped in the nightmare of trying to solve these murders. Graham is almost trapped in his nemesis' presence. Graham does not want to talk too long to Lecktor and risk exposing his mind to the psychiatrist's horrible thoughts.

As Lecktor gets up and faces Graham, the camera slowly zooms in ever so slightly on him which creates a great dramatic effect. Lecktor resides in an antiseptic white prison cell and he wears white so that he almost blends into his surroundings except for his black hair and the skin color of his face and hands. It is a miniature disturbance in this immaculate and pristine place that effectively conveys how dangerous Lecktor is: those tiny bits of him are already disruptive to the immaculate white of the scene. It also throws everything off just ever so slightly as the focus is directly on Lecktor's face, forcing the audience to pay attention to what he is saying and how he is saying it. Even though he is imprisoned, he seems very clearly in control.

The two men engage in a verbal dogfight as Lecktor tries to push Graham over the edge, while Graham fights being exposed to Lecktor's madness.

Graham: I know that I'm not smarter than you.

Lecktor: Then how did you catch me?

Graham: You had disadvantages.

Lecktor: What disadvantages?

(beat)

Graham: You're insane.

The speed of this little exchange is like some kind of perverse screwball comedy. Cox is so effective in this scene by the way he underplays it: completely calm, yet always just a tad menacing – be it the affectations of his accent or the quiet and ruthless way he gives his lines an off-center spin.

Lecktor does not go for the easy insult and counters, "you're very tan, Will," and proceeds to analyze him, demonstrating how easily he can pick him apart. Then, Lecktor goes in for the kill when he says, "Dream much, Will?" At this point, Graham has had it and gets up to leave. He cannot let Lecktor invade his thoughts or his dreams. In Mann's world this would be fatal. Finally, it gets to be too much for Graham as Lecktor presses his advantage: “You know how you caught me, Will? You know how you caught me? The reason you caught me, Will, is because we're just alike. You want the scent? (quieter, menacing) Smell yourself.” Lecktor starts off speaking quietly yet insistently. Graham can no longer stand it and begins pounding on the door, demanding to get out. Lecktor continues, increasing the volume of his voice until Graham, frantic at this point, runs out of the building. As Lecktor says this last line his voice dips back down to a threatening whisper. Graham runs down the many corridors of the psychiatric hospital, almost as if he is symbolically escaping Lecktor's brain, his cell being the vortex or center of it.

The scenes that take place at the Chesapeake State Hospital for the Criminally Insane were shot at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia while the scenes in Lecktor’s cell were shot on a soundstage in Wilmington, North Carolina. According to Cox, he and Petersen rehearsed this scene for ten days and shot it over a period of four days. Not surprisingly, Mann shot the scene many different ways. "At one point," Cox remembers, "I screamed the line 'Smell yourself!', at another I did it very quietly. I did it every way imaginable." Cox plays Lecktor as a polite man, but you can sense the menace seething underneath the cheery facade. He delights in probing Graham's mind, threatening to invade his thoughts and his dreams.

Another of Mann's preoccupations is showing the process of professionals hard at work, doing what they do best. This is showcased prominently in the scene where Graham and Crawford analyze the Dollarhyde’s note to Lecktor. While cleaning Lecktor’s cell one day, a janitor finds the note addressed to the psychiatrist. Lecktor is taken out of his cell with only a few hours for the investigators to decipher the note before he gets suspicious. First, the hair fibers are analyzed; second, the note is analyzed for fingerprints; third, they try to figure out what the missing section of the note says; and finally, they try to decipher Lecktor's reply in the National Tattler personal ads. Mann is meticulous in how he shows the hard work that these professionals do as they analyze physical evidence with state-of-the-art science and technology at their disposal. Everybody works and communicates together as a team racing against time – they have to decipher the note before Lecktor gets suspicious and has to be returned to his cell. As a result, there is a believable tension between the haste of beating the clock and the patience Crawford and Graham exert as they supervise their expert forensic team.

Another stand-out scene is the one where Graham decides to deal with the rift that has been created between him and his family by talking with his son. The scene between them features some of Mann's best writing. Fascinating insight into Graham's past and his special ability are discussed in detail. It is also a nice scene between a father and his son. It takes place in an every day setting – a grocery store – but they are talking about extraordinary things. Kevin tries to understand what his father does and Graham explains how he caught Lecktor: "I tried to build feelings in my imagination the killer had so that I would know why he did what he did." They also talk about how catching Lecktor affected him:

Graham: But after my body got okay, I still had his thoughts running around in my head. And I stopped talking to people. And a doctor friend of mine, Dr. Bloom, asked me to get some help. I did. And after awhile I felt better. I was okay again.

Kevin: And the way he thought felt that bad?

Graham: Kevin, they're the ugliest thoughts in the world.

This scene beautifully underlines the danger that Graham faces. He runs the risk of hurting himself physically and mentally again. It also shows that he is able to compartmentalize his thoughts and his feelings. He recognizes that the thoughts of killing and hurting people are wrong where Lecktor and Dollarhyde do not. And that is what separates Graham from them. This exchange is fascinating because we learn more about the internal struggle that exists within Graham and how much of a threat it is to his well-being. What is even more interesting is that Mann sets this scene in a grocery store. Graham and his son have a heartfelt talk about madness which is contrasted by their banal surroundings: brand name consumer goods. This nicely foreshadows what eventually happened to the serial killer genre: in the 1990s it became riddled with cliches and stereotypes (i.e. the "normality" of the serial killer who is a symptom of our consumerist culture). At the time that Manhunter was made, the genre was still quite fresh and new. Terms like "profiler" and "serial killer" were not as commonplace. The scene ends with a final shot of Graham and Kevin, his arm draped protectively over his son's shoulder, heading to the checkout. Most importantly, this scene demonstrates that Lecktor was not successful in splitting up Graham and his family because they were able to communicate and talk to each other about their feelings.

Mann also provides insight into Francis Dollarhyde's day-to-day existence. This is an attempt to humanize the killer. He is not just some faceless, inhuman maniac or an obvious caricature a la Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. Dollarhyde works at a photo developing lab. We see him walk into a room and look intensely at a photo of what will be the next family that he will kill. As he stands up, he rubs the sides of his head and looks up. We can see a shift in his facial expression – he has gone from being Dollarhyde to the Red Dragon, his murderous persona. The way Tom Noonan plays this scene is excellent and understated. He effectively conveys the sudden shift of personalities in Dollarhyde.

Mann goes to great lengths to make Dollarhyde more humane in the sequence where he and Reba (Joan Allen), a woman from work that he becomes romantically linked with, lie in bed together after making love. He rests his head on her chest almost as a child would and much in the same way she did in an earlier scene with a tiger. She rolls over and puts her hand on his chest but he places it on his mouth. The camera zooms in and his expression transforms into one of sadness as he starts to cry. There is this realization that buried beneath those frightening eyes is a scared, abused child. The Red Dragon persona has not completely taken over. All that Dollarhyde really wants is what most people want: to be loved and needed. He has found this with Reba. Noonan's performance in this sequence is a revelation. He uses his big, awkward-looking body to menacing effect but is as sad as he is deadly in a child-like, almost uncomprehending way. With his very expressive face, Noonan conveys the tortured soul buried deep within and this brings a sense of humanity to his character.

Mann's theory on why a killer like Dollarhyde does what he does is revealed in a great phone conversation between Lecktor and Graham. The first shot of Lecktor shows him lounging in his cell, his feet up like he is talking to an old friend. It is amusing because here is this very dangerous psychopath being completely casual. Lecktor unwittingly provides Graham with the key to understanding Dollarhyde and thereby allowing the investigator to find him. Lecktor explains why killing feels so good. "God has power. And if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is." As Lecktor rambles on about what "a champ" God is, Graham is not even listening to him anymore. He has found the key to understanding Dollarhyde and he does not need Lecktor anymore. At this point it becomes readily apparent what Graham meant early on in the film when he said that Lecktor had "disadvantages." This is what allows Graham to finally surpass him.

Throughout the film, William Petersen portrays Graham as a low-key, brooding, tortured individual. He also maintains an incredible amount of intensity and this no more apparent than in the scene between Graham and Crawford where they talk about what motivates and creates monsters like Dollarhyde.

Graham: He dreams about being wanted and desired. So he changes people into beings who will want and desire him.

Crawford: Changes?

Graham: It's a word. Killing and arranging people to imitate. And Lecktor told me something. If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is. You put it together you get: if our boy imitates being wanted and desired enough times, he believes he will become one who is wanted and desired and accepted.

Petersen takes the intensity of this scene up another notch when he delivers this monologue about the duality that exists within Dollarhyde:

“My heart bleeds for him as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. Do you think that's a contradiction, Jack? Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable, Jack?”

It is a disturbing monologue, delivered with scary vigor by Petersen. This scene is the heart of darkness in the film. Serial killers do not materialize suddenly, they are made, gradually, over many years, until they explode, expressing themselves the only way they know how: through violence. In a baffling move, Mann subsequently cut Petersen's monologue from the recent DVD versions of Manhunter that were produced by Anchor Bay. Perhaps Mann felt that it spelt things out too much but it also diminishes one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

Not everyone appreciated Mann's approach to filmmaking. Many crew members were stressed out from a grueling and intense shooting schedule. This was only exacerbated by De Laurentiis having financial trouble at the time and as a result the production was running out of money. They were forced to shorten their shooting schedule, which meant that the film’s exciting showdown between Dollarhyde and Graham would have to be shot in only one or two days. The special effects team quit prior to the filming of the scene. The gunshot effects, as Dollarhyde is killed by Graham, were done by Mann himself. The entire confrontation was shot in one day over three-and-a-half hours. Mann remembers that they were shooting so fast it felt like they filmed the scene in real time.

Harris' novel was named after poet/artist William Blake's famous painting, "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Rays of the Sun." Mann kept the name “Red Dragon” for the film right up to its release. The title was changed to Manhunter so that, according to Mann, the audience would not mistake it for a kung-fu film. The "Manhunter" moniker came from a headline on the Tattler newspaper in the film. The cruel irony is that this change in name did nothing to help the film at the box office. Manhunter was released theatrically and it grossed $2.2 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $8.62 million in North America.

Critical reaction to Manhunter was a predictably mixed bag. David Ansen of Newsweek felt that Mann was “too stylish for his own good, but the movie holds the viewer all the way to the predictably explosive end.” Ron Base of the Toronto Star wrote a particular insightful review where he praised the film for being “among the most stunningly sophisticated thrillers ever made, in that it meticulously shows the real brilliance required to run down the sort of sociopath killer at work murdering in American society.” Joe Brown of The Washington Post criticized what he felt was a predictable conclusion as “Mann abandons his painstakingly developed realism, switching to flashy jump-cut editing and turning the killer into a ‘Friday the 13th’-type indestructible monster,” but praised Dante Spinotti’s “seductively slick visual style.” Jay Scott, in his review for the Globe and Mail wrote, “Michael Mann’s irritatingly fashionable and self-consciously estheticized version of Red Dragon, entitled Manhunter, is no help . . . Mann is a chic, high-tech William Friedkin, an image-maker attracted to the shine of sleaze.”

The most significant dissenting voice was Walter Goodman of The New York Times who took Mann to task for his “taste for overkill; attention keeps being diverted away from the story to the odd camera angles, the fancy lighting, the crashing music, and you realize you’re being had. It’s like catching a glimpse of the gimmicks in the magician’s bag.” Goodman’s comments certainly date his review back to a time when film critics generally did not look favorably on films with a distinctive style. One only has to look at the critical vehemence directed at Francis Ford Coppola’s stylish adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adults novel, Rumble Fish (1983) to find the pulse of where critics were at in regards to overtly stylish filmmaking.

In retrospect, Mann feels that "the project was probably doomed commercially from the outset." At the time, Harris had only written Black Sunday and was not the big name he is now. The movie's title is still a sore point for the director. "The film's backers all said, 'Red Dragon? It sounds like a Chinese movie. Who cares about kung fu movies?' . . . Manhunter was a compromise title and a bit too much in the mode of generic police thrillers." Mann’s film was dumped into cinematic limbo after the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group declared bankruptcy. However, Manhunter survived on video and cable television. With the film’s commercial failure, Mann returned to television and continued to executive produce Miami Vice and a new television series, Crime Story. In a few short years, Crime Story was canceled after only two seasons and Miami Vice ended its lengthy run soon afterwards. He would not make another feature film until six years later.

Pictures for this article came from the two best websites dedicated to this film: Manhunter - The Complete Resource and Manhunter.

Friday, October 24, 2008

DVD of the Week: Night of the Living Dead

In recognition of its 40th anniversary, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) has been given the special edition treatment on DVD...again. Since entering the public domain, everybody and his brother has released this film on home video so the buyer has to really be careful which version they get because the quality of the film and accompanying extras (if any) varies. In 2002, the “Millennium Edition” was released and it had the best mix of quality transfer and collection of extras. So, how does this new edition hold up?

Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting their father’s grave and spot a man (S. William Hinzman) walking rather oddly among the tombstones. Johnny teases his sister with the now classic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” scaring her. As the man comes closer, she begins to apologize and he grabs at her. Johnny intervenes and he and the man struggle. Johnny is knocked to the ground, hitting his head on a tombstone. Terrified, Barbra runs for the car and manages to escape to a nearby farmhouse.

A few minutes later, a man named Ben (Duane Jones) shows up and by now a few more shambling figures like the man in the cemetery have appeared. After boarding up the house to keep those things out, Ben tells Barbra what happened to him and how he got there. They turn on a radio and a news broadcast confirms what we’ve already suspected – the dead have come back to life to feast on the living. Pretty soon their activity causes people hiding out in the cellar to surface: a man, his wife and their young daughter, and a young couple. They decide to pool their resources and fortify the house in an effort to hold up until help arrives.

What is so striking about the film’s memorable opening sequence is the matter-of-fact way Romero introduces the first zombie. The initial shot of him looks like someone out for a stroll but as we get a better look at him, something doesn’t seem right. The zombie doesn’t talk but rather snarls like an animal. What is also interesting is how smart he is – considering he’s a zombie. He knows enough to pick up a rock and smash a car window to get at Barbra when she tries to escape. When she takes refuge in the house he has enough sense to tear down the phone line.

For a first feature, Night of the Living Dead is a remarkably assured debut for Romero as he has EC horror comics scares with film noir flourishes and a dash of social commentary, especially with the film’s shocking ending (for its time). Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the group dynamic. Romero presents us with a group of diverse characters and then bounces them off each other, pitting Ben’s rational heroics against Harry’s (Karl Hardman) cowardly arrogance. Romero creates believable characters who act realistically to extraordinary circumstances.

Romero also provides tantalizing details about what is happening through radio and later, television news reports that do a great job of establishing the frightening new world our characters are now living in. The broadcasts also hint at a possible source for the zombie epidemic – radiation from outer space that is a nice nod to science fiction films from the 1950s. Night of the Living Dead pioneered the modern zombie film complete with its own set of rules (i.e. the dead are slow moving and have to be shot in the head) that many other films of the genre would also adhere to afterwards. Romero’s film also demonstrated the power of an independently-made horror film that did not have to play by the safe, tired rules mandated by the Hollywood studios. It also launched Romero’s career, giving us several more thought-provoking films for years to come.

Special Features:

So, what’s missing from the “Millennium Edition?” Gone is Kevin O'Brien's 8-minute student film Night of the Living Bread (1990). Also, MIA is a collection of Romero’s early commercial work. Perhaps, the most glaring omission is the 400 pages (or screens) containing the original treatment, and more than 160 still images. Finally, missing is a video interview with actress Judith Ridley.

There is an audio commentary by co-writer/director George A. Romero, producer/actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John A. Russo. They recall the creative solutions they came up with to deal with unforeseen problems and put crew members in front of the camera in order to cut costs. They provide plenty of filming anecdotes and talk mainly about how they pulled off certain shots, make-up effects, and other technical details on this production-oriented track.

Also included is a commentary by producer Russell Streiner, production manager Vince Survinski, actors Judith O’Dea, Bill Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne. Everyone laughs and jokes with each others as they reminisce about making the film. They have a lot of fun recounting the stories behind what we are watching and speak admiringly of Duane Jones. This is an engaging, anecdotal track.

The set piece of the special features is “One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead,” a feature-length retrospective documentary that opens with actors Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner recreating their famous drive to the cemetery that started it all. They talk about how they were cast while Romero talks about his background in industrial films and how he cut his teeth on this kind of work. Screenwriter John A. Russo and Romero talk about the origins of the story. Most of the surviving cast and crew take us through the challenges of making this low-budget film in great detail. This is a fascinating, extensive look at how this landmark film came together.

“Speaking of the Dead” features an excerpt from a public appearance that Romero made in Toronto in 2007 where he talks about the influences on Night of the Living Dead. He cites EC horror comics for their content – lurid stories with lots of gore. Stylistically, he was inspired by Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Romero also talks about the downbeat ending and the angry feelings behind it. Later films, The Crazies (1973) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) are also touched upon.

“Ben Speaks” is the last, in-depth interview with Duane Jones in 1987 before he died in 1988. He has no regrets making the film despite being forever associated with it. The actor speaks very eloquently about his thoughts on the film and the fame that came with it.

Also included is the theatrical trailer.

Finally, there is a “Still Gallery” with various posters, promotional stills, and behind-the-scenes photographs.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rudy Ray Moore (1937 - 2008)

From the Los Angeles Times:

Rudy Ray Moore dies at 81; comedian and filmmaker influenced rap and hip-hop
By Jocelyn Y. Stewart. October 21, 2008.

Rudy Ray Moore, the self-proclaimed "Godfather of Rap" who influenced generations of rappers and comedians with his rhyming style, braggadocio and profanity-laced routines, has died. He was 81.

Moore, whose low-budget films were panned by critics in the 1970s but became cult classics decades later, died Sunday night in Toledo, Ohio, of complications from diabetes, his brother Gerald told the Associated Press.

Though he was little known to mainstream audiences, Moore had a significant effect on comedians and hip-hop artists.

"People think of black comedy and think of Eddie Murphy," rap artist Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew told the Miami Herald in 1997. "They don't realize [Moore] was the first, the biggest underground comedian of them all. I listened to him and patterned myself after him."

And in the liner notes to the 2006 release of the soundtrack to Moore's 1975 motion picture Dolemite, hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg said:

"Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that's for real."

When it came to his own sense of his accomplishments, Moore was never burdened by immodesty.

"These guys Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac claim they're the Kings of Comedy," Moore told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2003. "They may be funny, but they ain't no kings. That title is reserved for Rudy Ray Moore and Redd Foxx."

The heyday of his fame was in the 1970s, with the release of Dolemite followed by The Human Tornado, Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil's Son-in-Law and Money Hustler.

The way Moore told it, his introduction to Dolemite came from an old wino named Rico, who frequented a record shop Moore managed in Los Angeles. Rico told foul-mouthed stories about Dolemite, a tough-talking, super-bad brother, whose exploits had customers at the record shop falling down with laughter.

One day Moore recorded Rico telling his stories. Later Moore assumed the role of Dolemite, a character who became the cornerstone of his decades-long career as a raunchy comedian, filmmaker and blues singer.

"What you call dirty words," he often said, "I call ghetto expression."

But long before Dolemite debuted on theater screens, Moore had found fame -- and fans -- through stand-up routines and a series of sexually explicit comedy albums.

Not only were the album contents raunchy, the album covers featured women and Moore nude and were too racy for display. So store clerks kept the albums under the counter. Without airplay or big-studio promotion, the so-called party records were underground hits.

"I put records in my car and traveled and walked across the U.S. I walked to the ghetto communities and told people to take the record home and let their friends hear it. And before I left the city, my record would be a hit. This is how it started for me," he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 2001.

Although contemporaries such as Foxx and Richard Pryor found success with a broader audience, Moore's stardom was bounded by the geography of race and class: He was a hit largely in economically disadvantaged African American communities.

According to his website, Moore was born in Fort Smith, Ark., on March 17, 1927.

In his youth Moore worked as a dancer and fortune teller and he entertained while serving in the U.S. Army. But his big break came with the recording of his Dolemite routine:

Dolemite is my name

And rappin and tappin


that's my game

I'm young and free

And just as bad as I wanna

be.

By the time Dolemite appeared on film, he was the ultimate ghetto hero: a bad dude, profane, skilled at kung-fu, dressed to kill and hell-bent on protecting the community from evil menaces. He was a pimp with a kung-fu-fighting clique of prostitutes and he was known for his sexual prowess.

For all the stereotypical images, Moore bristled at the term blaxploitation.

"When I was a boy and went to the movies, I watched Roy Rogers and Tim Holt and those singing cowboys killing Indians, but they never called those movies 'Indian exploitation' -- and I never heard The Godfather called 'I-talian exploitation,' " he told a reporter for the Cleveland Scene in 2002.

Late in life, Moore saw his work win fans far beyond his African American audience. There is a "Dolemite" website and chat room that boasts a cross-cultural collection of young fans. Such interest won him mainstream work in an advertisement for Altoid Mints and a commercial for Levi's jeans.

Though Moore built a career on talking dirty, he was very religious. He took pride in taking his mother to the National Baptist Convention each year and often spoke in church at various functions. He rationalized his role as a performer.

"I wasn't saying dirty words just to say them," he told the Miami Herald in 1997. "It was a form of art, sketches in which I developed ghetto characters who cursed. I don't want to be referred to as a dirty old man, rather a ghetto expressionist."

Here's a vintage clip from The Human Tornado:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Prince of Darkness

“The outside world doesn’t want to hear this kind of bullshit. Just keep it locked away. They’ve already managed it for 2000 years.” -- Birack

Prince of Darkness (1987) was made after John Carpenter went public with how dissatisfied he was with the studio interference he encountered while working on studio films like Big Trouble in Little China (1986). He decided to return to his independent filmmaking roots by signing a multi-picture deal with Alive Films. He would get a $3 million budget per film and complete creative freedom. The first result was a creepy horror film and the second installment of an informal “Apocalypse Trilogy” which began with The Thing (1982) and concluded with In the Mouth of Madness (1995). Aside from being heavily influenced by legendary horror author H.P. Lovecraft, all three films feature a higher, malevolent supernatural force that manipulates human beings against one another in order to bring about the end of the world.

A group of ambitious math and sciences graduate students team up with their teacher Birack (Victor Wong) and an intense priest (Donald Pleasence in one of his last roles) to investigate the presence of a biological evil, which maybe the Devil, in a decaying old church. The first ten minutes introduces most of the film’s major characters with almost no dialogue as Carpenter cuts from one person to another, letting their actions inform who they are. There’s Brian (Jameson Parker), the serious one, Walter (Dennis Dun), the self-professed ladies man who is also a bit of a jerk, and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), a smart, good looking woman who becomes romantically involved with Brian.

Pretty soon, some of the students get infected with liquid from the large cylinder that resides in the basement of the church, and a large group of homeless people also surround the building. Carpenter revisits the siege mentality from Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and the dysfunctional group mentality from The Thing. He cleverly pits skeptical scientists against the devoutly religious and then throws them into a crisis where they have to work together in order to survive. As Brian says at one point, “Faith is a hard thing to come by these days.”

Carpenter had been reading a lot about theoretical physics and atomic theory at the time. He thought it would be interesting to create some kind of ultimate evil and combine it with the notion of matter and anti-matter. From there, he decided to have an anti-God that would act as a mirror opposite of God. Carpenter started with that premise and proceeded to add on various other ideas. The director admitted that he was in a very introspective mood at the time of making Prince of Darkness and was interested in making a horror film where the threat was primarily in the mind.

One of the film’s backers was the agent for veteran rock ‘n’ roller Alice Cooper and suggested that he record a song for the film, which they used only briefly. Carpenter got along with Cooper and suggested that the musician play a small but memorable part of a homeless zombie. Incidentally, the impaling device he uses in the film is from his actual stage show. Pre-production lasted only seven weeks and principal photography was relatively short in an effort to avoid a potential Directors Guild of America strike. Carpenter and his cast and crew spent two-and-a-half weeks on Los Angeles locations and two-and-a-quarter weeks of studio interiors. To keep the budget low, most of the cast and crew agreed to work for less because they either wanted the opportunity to make a film for Carpenter, or they had worked with him before (i.e. Victor Wong, Dennis Dun and Donald Pleasence were all returning alumni). The underground church sequences were shot in an abandoned, condemned luxury hotel in Long Beach and large chunks of ceiling would fall to the ground during takes.

Early on there is a great shot of the priest standing outside the rundown church and the way Carpenter frames it – in a long shot with the large building dwarfing the man – is very effective. The filmmaker expertly eases us into the horror with unsettling images like an anthill covered with swarming insects, a bag lady with bugs covering her, and several establishing shots of creepy, zombie-like homeless people just standing outside the church. The first 30 minutes is a slow burn as Carpenter gradually builds the dread, culminating in the first death and it’s an impressive one as a homeless zombie impales one of the students with part of a bicycle frame. These seemingly unrelated images begin to reveal a bigger picture and a greater evil. Throughout, Carpenter’s simple yet effective electronic score establishes a menacing tone that builds along with the emerging evil in the film.

As always, Carpenter sneaks in his social and political message. In many ways, it predicts the corruption of power that is explored in Vampires (1998). Absolute power corrupts and those in such lofty positions hide the truth from society to keep the rest of us ignorant. Carpenter takes a couple of amusing jabs at organized religion with the priest shown riding up to various locations in an expensive limousine. For someone who is supposed to be all about devoting his life to God, he lives pretty well.

Early on in the film, the priest reads a recently deceased clergyman’s journal with an entry entitled, “The Brotherhood of Sleep.” One particular passage is shown with the words, “The sleeper awakens,” which is very Lovecraftian. Much of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos fiction was concerned with the awakening of an ancient evil. We learn that the Brotherhood of Sleep is a powerful, top secret religious sect. Birack is Carpenter’s mouthpiece as he compares the evil in the basement of the church to anti-matter. Like matter is the polar opposite of anti-matter so to is the relationship between God and his opposite, what Birack classifies as Anti-God or Satan.

The critical reception to Prince of Darkness at the time was not kind to say the least. In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “At one point Pleasence vows that ‘it's a secret that can no longer be kept.’ Here's another: ‘The Prince of Darkness stinks. It too deserves to be shut up in a canister for 7 million years.’” Liam Lacey, in his review for the Globe and Mail, wrote, “There is no character really worth caring about, no sympathy to any of these characters. The principal romantic couple, Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, are unpleasant enough to create an unfortunate ambivalence about their eternal destinies.” In his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film a “surprisingly cheesy horror film to come from Mr. Carpenter, a director whose work is usually far more efficient and inventive.” At any rate, you get idea. Mainstream critics did not dig it.

When I first saw Prince of Darkness many years ago, I had a problem with its lack of the traditional two-fisted Carpenter anti-hero. All of the characters seemed to stand around and pontificate about what was happening instead of doing something like Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981) or Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China or Nada in They Live (1988) – men of action. For me, no one character stood out from the rest and they were all equally bland and uninteresting – except for Pleasence’s priest and Wong’s professor, but their characters are given no chance to develop.

Over the years, I have watched Prince of Darkness many times and realized that I was wrong, that there was much more going on in the film than I initially realized. The film was made independently and with a lack of movie stars, Pleasence excepted, but he was hardly a household name at the time. I’m sure that this did not help its chances at the box office but it works for the film because you don’t know who is going to live or die – all bets are off. And so, like in The Thing, the group of students get picked off one-by-one with a core group of survivors fighting against insurmountable odds. What makes Prince of Darkness a refreshing change from most of Carpenter’s other films is that it features his most commonplace protagonists – college students – hardly the stuff that heroes are made of and yet when the time comes, they step up to the challenge because they are forced to in an exciting climax that ends in typical Carpenter fashion with society being saved but at the expense of a few unlucky souls. Or is it? Like the other two films in “Apocalypse Trilogy,” there is a lingering ambiguity suggested by the final image which hints that all may not be well. Prince of Darkness is one of those rare horror films that are as thought-provoking as it is scary.

There is a really nice review of the film over at Voyages of the HMS Swiftsure and another one over at Lessons From the School of Inattention. Finally, most of the images for this article are courtesy of this fantastic site.

Friday, October 17, 2008

DVD of the Week: The Invasion

To say that The Invasion (2007) had a troubled production history is a mild understatement. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel set out to make an artier and edgier take on Jack Finney’s classic science fiction novel, The Body Snatchers. However, Warner Brothers did not like his version and producer Joel Silver was brought in along with his pals, the Wachowski brothers to rewrite the ending with director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) to reshoot it. The result was a film that flopped both commercially and critically. Now that all of the dust has settled and it is finally being released on DVD, The Invasion can be reassessed. Is it really that bad?

When a space shuttle breaks up and is destroyed re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, strange fungus-like stuff is found on the debris. Anyone who comes in contact with it and then goes to sleep becomes unfeeling hosts for an ever-growing alien menace. Psychiatrist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) meets with a patient (Veronica Cartwright, in a nice nod to Philip Kaufman’s 1970s take) who claims that her husband is not her husband and recounts a chilling story about how he killed their dog in cold, ruthless fashion. Later that day, while taking her son (Jackson Bond) trick or treating, a dog attacks one of his friends who doesn’t seem the least bit upset or traumatized.

The next day, she witnesses more strange incidents and people who act in almost robotic fashion – they lack any kind of emotion. Carol mentions this to one of her colleagues, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig), on their way to a black tie dinner. Later that night, she’s attacked by an anonymous census taker. Carol, with Ben’s help, researches this strange new phenomenon and uncovers a pandemic – a virus that infects the DNA and reprograms how we act and behave. The film becomes a surprisingly effective race against time as Carol and Ben try to stay awake while finding a way to repel these invaders from another world.

Hirschbiegel gradually ratchets up the tension as Carol races to find her son, who has been kidnapped by her ex-husband (Jeremy Northam), one of the first people to be zapped by the alien fungus. Along the way, she witnesses people who are still human being taken off the street by alien-controlled police and helped by others who tell her to act emotionless. There are a few annoying jumps in logic, like Carol abandoning her vehicle for no good reason and dropping a gun on two occasions that she could have used later on. For a supposedly intelligent character, she doesn’t make very smart decisions at times.

This is the fourth adaptation of Finney’s novel and so far all of them have paled in comparison to the first one, directed by Don Siegel, which was also the most faithful to the source material. This latest incarnation’s take is that the alien threat is virus-based, but it still adheres to the book’s threat of sleeping as the process to becoming one of them. The reason that this story keeps being remade is that the allegory for the stifling oppressive nature of conformity is so powerful and still relevant after all these years.

I’ve always had soft spot for Nicole Kidman and she is quite good in The Invasion. She has great chemistry with Jackson Bond, who plays her son. He is refreshing free of the annoying little acting tics that often mar the performances of kids in films. They really convey the deep, meaningful bond between mother and son and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. Kidman, as always, looks great and fares much better in this thriller than she did in the flawed, yet interesting The Interpreter (2005).

While the aliens offer a world without pain and suffering, it is also one without joy or happiness. The Invasion updates this classic story for our times as it channels some of the anxieties of our age: avian flu, SARS, 9/11, the Patriot Act, and so on. In a nice change, this film also deviates from previous adaptations by going in a different direction with how it ends. Some may cry sell-out but it feels true to the rest of the film. The Invasion is hardly as awful as some critics would have you believe. If you go in with low expectations you may come away pleasantly surprised by the end result.

Special Features:

“We’ve Been Snatched Before: Invasion in Media History” examines how the Body Snatcher films commented on the times in which they were made and this new one is no different. This featurette also examines the fears that the film addresses, including virus-based threats and how he deal with them, in this informative extra.

The Invasion: A New Story” takes a look at how this film updates Finney’s original story for our times in this brief, pretty standard promotional featurette.

The Invasion: On the Set” examines how they shot on location whenever possible and picked Washington, D.C. because it is the centre of power in the United States.

The Invasion: Snatched” takes a look at how the alien menace spreads in the film.

Arbogast on Film has an excellent look at this film that manages to convey my feelings about the film in much more eloquent fashion than I ever could. Check it out.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Seven

Living in any major metropolitan city in North America can be a dangerous experience. Ask anyone who lives in places like New York City, Philadelphia or Los Angeles. There is a certain amount of fear and paranoia that exists in these densely populated, often congested areas. When you have that many different types of people living in one place problems are bound to arise. In the past, these problems have always seemed containable, maybe even solvable, but now there is a certain sense of pessimism or apathy that pervades the public consciousness. Where once there was hope, now there is only despair, or worse yet, disinterest. Seven (1995) is a film that taps into these feelings with startling accuracy and clarity. It is a disturbing descent into a dark, urban hell that is at once powerful and unpleasant. Call it an urban horror film.

Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a thoughtful man on the verge of retirement and clearly tired of the uncaring city he is forced to protect. His early retirement is a way out, an escape from this horrible place that keeps him awake at night with its noises of people yelling, blaring sirens, and incessant traffic. As the film begins, he is assigned a new partner and a new case. David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, up-and-coming detective who is energetic and hopeful — everything that Somerset is not.

The case starts off simply enough: an extremely obese man is found dead in his squalid apartment. It seems that the man had been force fed at gunpoint. At first, Somerset wants nothing to do with the case, but then a second murder occurs. A prominent defense attorney is found dead in his office with the word, "greed" written on the carpet in his own blood. After going back to the previous crime scene and finding the word, "gluttony," Somerset realizes that there is a pattern forming — these murders are in fact fashioned after the seven deadly sins: sloth, wrath, pride, lust, envy, greed, and gluttony. Still, he does not wish to get involved in the investigation, but the unique style of these murders continues to nag at him. So, he and Mills team up and find themselves delving deeper and deeper into this increasingly disturbing case.

Seven's origins lie in a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, whose previous credits include a string of forgettable films like Brainscan (1994) and Hideaway (1995). To his credit, these scripts were altered significantly by other people to the point where they barely resembled his original idea. This is all changed with Seven, which remained relatively untouched throughout the entire production. Even the downbeat ending was not changed, thanks in large part to the influence of the film's two big stars, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, and the film's director, David Fincher, who insisted that the ending was not to be changed in any way.

The primary influence for the Seven's screenplay came from Walker’s time spent in New York City while trying to make it as a screenwriter. "I didn't like my time in New York, but it's true that if I hadn't lived there I probably wouldn't have written Seven." This distaste for big city life is readily evident from the first exterior shot of the film that features an urban abyss filled with crowded, noisy denizens while an oppressive rain always seems to fall without respite. This look was an integral part of the film as Fincher wanted to show a city that was "dirty, violent, polluted, often depressing. Visually and stylistically, that's how we wanted to portray this world. Everything needed to be as authentic and raw as possible."

After the Alien 3 (1992) debacle, Fincher did not read a script for a year and a half. He said, “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie.” He was drawn to Walker’s script because he found it to be a “connect-the-dots movie that delivers about inhumanity. It’s psychologically violent. It implies so much, not about why you did but how you did it.” Fincher approached making Seven like a “tiny genre movie, the kind of movie Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist.” Fincher worked with cinematographer Darius Khondji and together they adopted a simple approach to the camerawork. One starting off point was the television show Cops and “how the camera is in the backseat peering over people’s shoulder.”

Fincher turned to production designer Arthur Max to create a dismal world that often eerily mirrors its inhabitants. "We created a setting that reflects the moral decay of the people in it," says Max. "Everything is falling apart, and nothing is working properly." The film's brooding, dark look was also created through a unique chemical process whereby the silver in the film stock was re-bonded which in turn deepened the dark, shadowy images in the film and increased its overall tonal quality. Max and Fincher do such an impressive job on the setting that the city begins to take a life of its own, almost becoming another character.

However detailed and impressive the setting is, it never overwhelms the characters that dwell there. In particular, the three main characters, played by Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Gwyneth Paltrow (who plays Pitt's wife in the film), are so strong and distinctive that they refuse to be lost in the atmospheric mise en scene. Freeman is excellent as the jaded policeman who is ready to call it quits. Somerset is a world apart from the stereotypical, shoot-first-ask-questions-later cop that is usually depicted in these kinds of films. Freeman portrays him as a patient man, who is methodical and thorough in his methods — much like the killer and much like the film itself, which takes its time and draws you in with an almost hypnotic intensity. Somerset is also a thoughtful and reflective person. There are many shots of Freeman just standing or sitting in silence as he tries to figure everything out, to make sense of it all. Most films would never take the time to show these kinds of things. When Walker wrote the screenplay, he originally envisioned William Hurt as Somerset and the character’s name came from one of his favorite authors, W. Somerset Maugham. During pre-production, Al Pacino was considered for the role of Somerset but decided to do City Hall (1996) instead. Watching the film now one can’t imagine anyone else playing the role but Freeman.

For such an ominous and forbidding film, there are some real moments of warmth and compassion and these are provided by Paltrow. There is a great scene where she invites Freeman's character over for dinner. The way she greets them, “Hello men,” with a warm, inviting smile, instantly draws you in. The three characters talk and laugh over a meal and this scene comes as a welcome relief from the horror that we have experienced so far. Paltrow, with her engaging smile and gentleness, imbues Seven with a much needed touch of humanity and transforms what could have easily been a standard wife role into a touching portrayal of a woman torn between the love for her husband and her doubts of living in such a threatening city.

Credit must also go to Fincher and Khondji, who create a visually evocative world and take the time to develop the characters. No rapid-fire MTV editing here, which is a surprise considering Fincher's background as music video director. He only breaks the suspenseful pace for a truly exhilarating chase through a run-down building as the two detectives pursue a mysterious figure that might be the killer. We are suddenly thrust into an adrenaline-driven scene fueled by jarring, hand-held camera shots that are quick and disorienting. This approach enhances the scary, unpredictable quality of the scene as we frantically try to get our bearings. Up until then, nothing prepares us for this sudden jolt and the effect is very powerful indeed.

In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-a-half stars out of four stars and wrote, “Seven is well-made in its details, and uncompromising in the way it presents the disturbing details of the crimes. It is certainly not for the young or the sensitive. Good as it is, it misses greatness by not quite finding the right way to end.” Janet Maslin, in her review for the New York Times, wrote, “Mr. Freeman moves sagely through Seven with the air of one who has seen it all and will surely be seeing something better very soon. His performance has just the kind of polish and self-possession that his co-star, Mr. Pitt, seems determined to avoid.” In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote, “It's not the identity of the killer that gives Seven its kick – it's the way Fincher raises mystery to the level of moral provocation.”

Desson Howe, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote, “But what makes things watchable is Fincher's direction. He has a gift for building understated menace. His cinematographer, Darius Khondji, puts a silky contrast into the colors, making things seem velvety, dark and intense.” In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “the filmmakers stick to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something indelible comes across—something ethically and artistically superior to The Silence of the Lambs that refuses to exploit suffering for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering about the world we're living in.” Finally, Sight and Sound proclaimed the film to have “the scariest ending since George Sluizer’s original The Vanishing . . . and stands as the most complex and disturbing entry in the serial killer genre since Manhunter.”

Seven is ultimately a mesmerizing condemnation of life in sprawling, urban areas. For such a negative view, one would have to look back to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1973), a film that also presented a nightmarish vision of a big city. While the two films share some of the same thematic preoccupations, Seven's stylish predecessor would seem to be Blade Runner (1982) with its noisy, congested, rainswept landscape and film noir look. Seven is a powerful, distinctive film that offers a refreshing take on the tired serial killer genre.

Some of the screenshots that accompany this article came from the excellent Movie Screenshots blog.

Friday, October 10, 2008

DVD of the Week: The Happening

In retrospect, M. Night Shyamalan peaked with The Sixth Sense (1999), a film that was a massive critical and commercial success. Naturally, it would be the yardstick that every subsequent film he made would be judged by. To Shyamalan’s credit, he tried his hand at other genres with the superhero film (Unbreakable), science fiction (Signs), and fantasy (The Lady in the Water) with varying degrees of success. Once a critic’s darling, Shyamalan has become their whipping boy with his last two films, The Village (2004) and The Lady in the Water (2006) – the latter was particularly savaged.

With the announcement that his next film, The Happening (2008), would be an R-rated apocalyptic horror film, there was hope that this might be a return to form for the enigmatic auteur. The film performed well at the box office and was predictably vilified by critics. Now that the dust has settled, is The Happening really that bad?

The opening credits play over clouds moving ominously across the sky to tense music reminiscent of the opening of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – one of the films Shyamalan has credited as an influence on The Happening. One day in New York City, strange things start to happen: a woman stabs herself in the neck and construction workers inexplicably jump off a building that they are working on to their death.

Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is a Philadelphia high school science teacher who tells his class about the disappearance of bees. The principal of his school sends everyone home early once word of what is going on in New York gets out. The authorities conclude that this is a result of some kind of chemical attack by terrorists and order the evacuation of Manhattan.

Fearing that this might happen in Philly, Elliot, his best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), and Elliot’s wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) get out just in time as Rittenhouse Park in the city is hit with the same bizarre behavior – people inexplicably killing themselves. This threat spreads throughout the north east portion of the United States and is so widespread that the likelihood that this is an act of terrorism is pretty remote.

Shyamalan does a pretty good job of building the dread with some chilling shots, like that of the construction workers jumping off a building en masse like lemmings, and a man walking into a lion exhibit in the zoo only to be willingly ripped apart by the animals. The fact that these things happen suddenly and with no explanation is all the more disturbing. What is causing people to kill themselves on such a large scale?

However, there’s an awkward subplot involving the strained relationship between Elliot and Alma that is unnecessary and distracting. This should have been jettisoned entirely with additional time spent on Julian’s quest to find his wife, which is given very superficial treatment in the film and comes across as almost an afterthought by Shyamalan. His clumsy attempts at humor are also a distraction but are thankfully few and far between. Shyamalan also insists on getting very mannered performances out of his actors, in particular Mark Wahlberg’s overly earnest performance and the normally wonderful Zooey Deschanel’s lifeless delivery of her lines, which can be annoying at times.

You have to give Shyamalan credit for having the balls to deliver his harshest film to date as he coldly dispatches men, women and children in somewhat grisly fashion. The Happening has its flaws, of which are numerous, but it certainly is not the cinematic train-wreck most critics would have you believe.

Special Features:

There are four deleted scenes with optional introduction by M. Night Shyamalan. The original opening scene of the film featured Elliot and Alma have a big fight which informs the tension between them later on. However, it provided too much backstory and isn’t very well-written or well-acted and was thankfully not used. A more gruesome version of the lion attack is included, as is another death scene that takes place at a piano recital but was taken out for being one too many. Finally, there is an extended death scene that takes place towards the end of the film that is slightly more graphic.

“The Hard Cut” examines Shyamalan’s desire to make a hard R-rated horror film and one scene, in particular, which definitely earned the rating. Ironically, it was the studio that first suggested going for an R-rating and then the director agreed.

“I Hear You Whispering” takes a look at the sequence in the film where our heroes meet the crazy Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley), a woman far removed from society and who serves a warning for that kind of isolationist attitude.

“Visions of The Happening: A Making Of” features plenty of on the set footage of Shyamalan and co. working on the film. The filmmaker wanted to tell an apocalyptic story that harkened back to paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. He wrote the role of Elliot for Wahlberg who studied Shyamalan in order to get a handle on his character. This is a nice look at how the film came together.

“A Day for Night” takes us through a typical day of Shyamalan’s while working on The Happening. It shows the mundane task of setting up shots, and so on.

“Elements of a Scene” examines how they did the car crash scene in what looks like one shot. Naturally, CGI was used to pull off this impressive shot. This featurette takes us through it step-by-step.

Finally, there is a gag reel that shows the cast and crew goofing off in between takes and having fun.