REVIEW: Death Sentence (2007)

Mild Spoilers.

‘Round these parts, when one enters a room and notices among it’s denizens an elephant, it’s considered polite to acknowledge him (the elephant in the room) first, just to get it out of the way.

So, then, about politics and “Death Sentence.” This is a “you hurt my family, now I hurt you”/take-the-law-into-your-own-hands vigilante vengeance movie about a suburban family man who, failed by “the system,” opts to take the fight personally to the vile inner-city street gang that murdered his son using a literal bagful of guns. It’s poster-slogan is “Protect What’s Yours.” Any way you slice it, possibly by intent and definately by execution, this winds up as a merger of “zero tolerance is the only deterent” urban-crime nightmare fused with a “right to bear arms” frontier-justice fantasy – as almost all such stories are when told with sincerity or, at least, intellectual honesty.

Depending on where you fall on the “gun issue” and to what degree you can divorce your personal belief in this regard from the analysis of what isn’t really a “message movie” will have a lot to do with how you end up assessing the film: Too many of the virulently pro-gun are likely to elevate it into something that it isn’t, while a smattering of those virulently anti-gun will certainly react as though director James Wan had just burned a cross on their front lawn. And they’ll both be missing the overall merits of the film, chiefly the way in which it asks the audience to indulge in the fantasy of metting-out shotgun justice on their enemies but also shoves them headlong into confrontation with the logical toll such actions can take on a person. It’s exploitation with a brain… that it uses to figure out how to become even more exploitative.

Kevin Bacon, his simmering intensity somehow ramped up even higher here than it was in “The Woodsman,” has the Charles Bronson role as the suburban dad with the perfect family: Lovely wife (Kelly Preston), two great kids (one an artistic type, the eldest a varsity hockey star), a slick V.P. job at an insurance firm in the Big City and a quaint lil’ house as far away from urban jungle as it can be. All of this is shattered, you will be unsurprised to learn, when Dad and Number One Son make the mistake of stopping for gas in the blighted inner-city after dark and the local gang of psycho-thugs turn up looking for an “initiation kill” for their newest recruit. Exit Number One Son.

In the first of a few interesting mini-twists on the well-worn “Death Wish” formula, Dad is already so enraged at the murder of his son that he doesn’t even give “the system” a chance to fail him: When he learns that the killer may only get, at best, a short sentence; he opts out of the trial, tracks the guy down on his own and takes his eye for an eye. Unfortunately, he’s not exactly a killer by trade, so the act itself freaks him right the hell out and sends him on a slow but innevitable train to Crazy Town. More unfortunately, his prey was also the younger brother of the gang’s leader, and he and the whole “family” (irony!) take the killing as an act of war that they are all too happy to answer. So, there’s your movie: Vigilante-justice sets off a full-blown shooting war between The Burbs and The Hood.

This is, we all realize, well-worn cinematic ground. And while it wisely avoids an overindulgence in reference or homage “Death Sentence” lives openly in the shadow of cut and dry “they-pushed-him-too-far” revenge thriller titans like “Death Wish” and “Vigilante.” What distinguishes it, eventually, seems to come from a willingness to chase the darkness that Wan has brought with him from his more familiar horror work: Most “serious” films in this vein are willing to end in the comfort of ambiguity over “where it all MIGHT end,” but Wan and Bacon are prepared to pull the audience down in the deepest, darkest waters of the revenge thriller pool… the waters where “Taxi Driver” and “Straw Dogs” swim. Ironically, this provides the “realistic consequences” that the genre’s most strident critics most-frequently rail for- but in doing so it “crosses a line” that most of those same critics simply will not be able to handle.

This kind of movie is the squeamish critic’s worst nightmare: It’s absolute, balls-to-the-wall, brutal, punishing, attention-demanding stuff… but it’s ALSO smart, well-made, sincere and excellently-acted – so they can’t couch their “I just couldn’t take it” review in the veneer of more analytical criticism. “Saw” already showed that Wan was a prodigy at visceral onscreen-terror, “Death Sentence” hints that, with the right projects, he could have the makings of another David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoven.


Gone Baby Gone

Seen below: The rather excellent-looking trailer for the upcoming Boston crime drama “Gone Baby Gone”:

Now, here’s the question: Even if the movie is as good as it’s trailer, and IMO it looks to be pretty damn good, will audiences give it a chance considering the problematic (and, you’ll note, completely avoided by the trailer) issue of it being directed by Ben Affleck?

For my money, they ought to. Yes, Affleck has made some awful movies and can be held at least partially responsible for loosing the Plague of J-Lo upon us, and it has been a bit of guilty fun to have him as a go-to movie star turned punching bag lately… but he’s a solid actor and potentially an interesting director, so he at least deserves and honest shot at retribution. That said, seeing it in a modestly-crowded Boston area theater tonight in front of “Death Sentence,” (which you MUST go see now before it leaves) the audience was majorly “into it” until some of them caught the teeny-weeny Affleck credit right at the end of the names, and then the giggles started. Too bad.

REVIEW: Halloween (2007)

NOTE: Review may contain, by necessity, discussion-of or allusions-to differentiations between this film and the original which may constitute SPOILERS. You have been warned.

The reason I don’t automatically get bent out of shape about movie remakes is that, when you get right down to it, almost everything is a remake of something else “officially” or not. It’s pretty likely that we ran out of “new” stories on the fourth or fifth night of Cro-Magnon campfire tales. Joseph Campbell neatly sorted every story in every culture into one of only THREE seperate stories, Karl Jung apparently got it down to ONE. The plain fact is, almost any movie you’ll see is either directly or indirectly “inspired” by other material, and from where I sit after a full century of existance it oughn’t be forbidden for movies to add other movies to the list of “stuff to base movies on” next to books, plays, history, etc. This especially goes for the Horror genre: If- as many horror fans continue to insist- Freddy, Michael, Jason, etc. are the modern equivalents of Dracula, Frankenstein etc.; then it shouldn’t be a de-facto sin to similarly re-imagine or revamp them in the same way that other monster-mainstays have been… or at least try to.

So, short-version, I don’t begrudge anyone merely for ATTEMPTING to, 25 years later, put out a different spin on the Michael Meyers mythos. I especially don’t begrudge Rob Zombie doing so, since if you ARE going to demand horror-genre bona-fides he’s spent two genre films and an entire musical career establishing his. And while Zombie hasn’t exactly made a perfect film he’s made a fascinating and noteworthy one, which I’ll take any day of the week over what we might’ve gotten had the producers gone the risk-free hire-a-hack route. Brett Ratner’s “Halloween,” anyone? Didn’t think so.

The plain fact is that the original “Halloween” is just about the perfect example of it’s own franchise and genre. No straight-up “slasher” film is better, and none will likely ever be better. Going in to Mr. Zombie’s remake, my biggest hope was that it would compare to John Carpenter’s original film in the way that the Hammer “Dracula” movies compared to the Bela Lugosi/Tod Browning original: Familiar story and characters but with a total visual and characterization overhaul. Instead, what we have here is a film that resembles no other horror remake so much as Coppola’s “Brahm Stoker’s Dracula.” Both are reboots of an iconic character that place the antagonist in the forefront of the story, both make it a point to delve into a newly-minted “origin story” for said antagonist, both are intentionally prodding the audience’s sense of cognitive dissonance by making the viewpoint and story-structure “sympathetic” with an unsympathetic character at the center and both are framed as self-aware tributes to the genre/franchise keenly aware that the audience will probably NOT be able to “forget” the original while watching.

The key difference, and easily the most controversial and “difficult” thing about the film, is that Zombie’s take involves a revised “origin” for Michael Meyers that completely reverses the original film’s approach to characterization. The ‘point’ of the original Michael was that he was an empty-vessel for pure evil, sprouted without rhyme or reason in the heart of genuinely good suburban familyland. The “new” Michael is the abused and unloved product of a home enviroment accurately described by one character as the “perfect mix” of forces to turn someone into, well… Michael Meyers. For literally one half of the film, we watch as lil’ Michael starts off killing animals (like any good psycho in training) and then moves up to schoolyard bullies and eventually all but the youngest of his vile family members – an act which, as you already knew, lands him a lifetime stint in an asylum. It’s not so much that Zombie wants us to “sympathize” with Michael so much as he’s forcing us to place our audience-interest in him. To “understand” the why of what he does. The original film was “about” the babysitters stalked by the killer, this one is ABOUT the killer.

This reversal indeed extends to the 2nd half of the film, an abbreviated retread of the original film but this time with greater emphasis on Michael’s perspective. Now that it’s the killer with all the depth and perspective, the film’s victims are the empty, dehumanized ones. The film sees the “good guys” the same way Michael does: As lesser beings, targets, nothing more. They aren’t important (well, one of them is, maybe) to Michael, they’re in the way, and by extension they aren’t important to the movie and aren’t ever made important to the audience. We don’t “want” them to die because they seem like nice-enough people (Zombie pretty much shoots his ‘characters who deserve it’ load on the Meyers family in Act I, so the latter half is refreshingly free of ‘you stupid suburbanites’ cheap-shots) but we’re only “invested” in babysitter Laurie Strode for reasons that everyone and their grandma already knows and that the movie barely seems to recognize is supposed to be a twist.

So, yes. 40 solid minutes getting us “inside” the head/world of a savage murderer and a 2nd half that turns him loose on a cast’s worth of one-dimensional canon-fodder, from the director of “The Devil’s Rejects.” And yet, what keeps the film from finally becoming the amoral “root for the killer” epic the prude-set has been warning us about since the original Michael stabbed his original sister comes down to a very deliberate and even MORE ballsy decision by Zombie: The killings aren’t fun. There’s no Freddy Krueger “funny” deaths, none of Jason Vorhees’ improvisational genius, not even much of the original Meyers’ “heh. Did I do that?” quizzical head-tilting. The butcherings of this new “Halloween” resemble the kind metted out by “Hotel Rwanda’s” machete-wielding Hutus: Brutal, merciless and cold.

The new Michael, re-imagined as a towering 7-foot behemoth inhabitted by wrestler/actor Tyler Mane, is all business: He works fast, doesn’t play games, and is so physically powerful he can take out some of his targets just by squeezing their neck really hard. And when the deaths do take longer than a few moments, Zombie purposefully dwells on the victims, not the hardware: Empty characters though they may be, the unlucky citizens of Haddonfield meet their ends with aplomb; screaming, crying, pleading for their lives. It’s uncomfortable, it’s hard to watch, it’s horror-ific. There’s not a single “Aw yeah, get ‘im Mike!!!” moment once The Shape hits the ‘burbs, and it seems to be the key to Zombie’s vision: He’s let the “slasher” audience deeper into the mind of the monster than they’ve ever been, but in exchange he’s robbed them of the chance to “enjoy” the splatter.

So many of the choices Zombie makes here, and the fearlessness with which he carries it all out, are so fascinating that one wants to overlook or outright ignore some of the more basic and noteable flaws… but in the end that’s not entirely possible. Setting up what is eventually a “two-act” structure is an interesting approach, but the fact that “part two” must so closely resemble the original film causes it to feel jarringly seperate: After spending 40+ minutes in the entirely new world of “growing up Michael,” there’s a genuine “oomph!” in realizing that the NOT entirely new world of the familiar “Halloween” story had just touched down.

More bothersome, the decision to retain (and directly involve) the true connection between Michael and Laurie despite the now much-less-supernatural-like Michael raises some basic logic questions the film just can’t properly answer. And on the just-plain-silly side, while Zombie’s penchant for stunt-casting genre icons thankfully doesn’t get in the way of the movie (the who’s-who of grindhouse vets appear in a series of minor roles, do their parts “straight” and move on) a somewhat gratuitous bit of striptease by Sheri Moon-Zombie does. Mr. Zombie, if you’re listening: This officially became “showing off” about midway through “Rejects.” Yes, you’re wife is really, really hot. We’re all very impressed. Good goin’ on your part. But enough is enough.

I’ll give him his biggest credit where it’s most due, though (and this is where that SPOILER WARNING comes into play, kiddies): THANK YOU for finding an ending that is A.) as ballsy and brutal as the rest of the “big” scenes, B.) still doesn’t let the audience “off the hook” or go for quick catharsis and C.) is an actual ENDING. I won’t spell it out, folks, but if this new “Halloween” gets only ONE thing absolutely, spectacularly, perfect right; it’s the decision to stand up in full knowledge of the ever-worsening sequels that followed the first film and boldly scream “fuck no!, NOT doing that!” at the very idea. Bravo, at least, to that.