Katherine Heigl: the new Barbarella?

June 12, 2007

With the heated debate over the moral repercussions of Eli Roth’s latest blood fest currently dominating the blogosphere, it’s high time to switch over to a lighter and altogether more pleasant subject…

You’ve probably heard by now that they’re planning a Barbarella remake. Some are screaming blasphemy already, but I’m all for it. Apart from the shagadelic art direction and Jane Fonda’s impossibly sexy leading role, the original has lots to improve on.

Robert Rodriguez will be helming the project. Sounds like a groovy choice to me. The guy has a natural flair for superficial, glossy trash and Barbarella’s universe should be right up his alley. What’s more: this is the man who gave us Desperado’s Carolina and Sin City’s Gail, so I trust him to push the costume designs in the appropriate, sleazy direction.

There’s just one big question: How on Earth are they going to find an actress as INSANELY HOT as Jane Fonda in her prime? It’s impossible, right?

Well… almost impossible.

I present you: Katherine Heigl.

A spectacular blonde with dark brown Bambi eyes, a killer body and genuine acting chops. If this isn’t tomorrow’s It-Girl, I’ll eat my shoe before a rolling camera. Honestly, you don’t actually believe it’s the dorky Seth Rogen that’s responsible for drawing massive crowds to Judd Apatow’s sleeper hit comedy Knocked Up, do you? Of course not, it’s Izzie Stevens from Grey’s Anatomy!

Just watch this clip and nod in approval:

No need for a screentest: Katherine Heigl is the 5-star double-rated astro-navigatrix of the future!

Sure, I’ve heard the other names that have been tossed around. I love Salma Hayek and Scarlett Johansson, but they’re too short for the role. Uma Thurman or Cameron Diaz? Old hat. Drew Barrymore? Sorry, not up to standard. Angelina Jolie or Rose McGowan? Way too dominant. (Barbarella is submissive at heart, not a sexual predator!) Jessica Alba? Small potatoes. Kate Beckinsale? Hold on–that’s actually a pretty decent second choice, but surely no match for Heigl…

Just picture this girl in a transparent perpex top and plastic thigh-high boots… Mr. Rodriguez, are you paying attention? (And now we’re at it: for God’s sake, keep the title sequence, will ya?)

Is anyone with me on this? Am I leaving out any promising contenders? Let me know! Meanwhile, here’s one more pic:

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Sunshine and The Cinematic Experience

May 16, 2007

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Sunshine, a sci-fi epic, directed by Danny Boyle, about a team of scientists sent on a mission to reignite a dying sun, is neither a mindless Michael Bay extravaganza nor a chin-strokey affair in the vein of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. It’s the cinematic oxymoron many of us have been waiting for: the thinking man’s action movie. It also happens to be gobsmackingly stunning, ruthlessly intense, handsomely cast and blessed with a 100% INSANE last act that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but had yours truly grinning from ear to ear. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is a spectacle quite impossible to put into words, and that’s exactly what makes it brilliant cinema–albeit the kind that’s difficult to defend on theoretical grounds.
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Read the rest of this (spoiler-free) article on The House Next Door. Yes, you heard me. Go on now!


Confessions of a De Palma fan: The Black Dahlia

March 4, 2007

I have resisted posting my thoughts on The Black Dahlia for quite a while now. Being the De Palma advocate that I am, and a host of a De Palma-minded forum to boot, I didn’t want my very subjective feelings to affect the enthusiasm of others. It just felt wrong. But now that a few months have passed, I suppose it’s time for a confession: I have mixed emotions about this film.

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Not that it’s bad. Hell no! It’s high class filmmaking, no doubt about that. I admire its narrative ambition, the stylized performances (stylized for a reason: everybody’s posturing) and the obvious skill on display. And yet… I don’t really care for it. Not since The Bonfire of the Vanities have I seen a De Palma film so far removed from my own sensibilities. Pretty odd when you consider that all the basic ingredients for a personal favorite (beautiful women: check, murder: check, mystery: check) were present.

Somehow, I missed a heartbeat to guide me. I love De Palma at his most lyrical; when he lifts you up from your seat and smacks you down again with his relentless visual storytelling, when you’re completely THERE in the moment every step of the way. That romantic, emotional roller-coaster side of De Palma (I’ve never seen him as the cold technician that detractors mistake him for) doesn’t get much room in The Black Dahlia: he’s too busy spinning his intricate web of lies around the truth… to the point of the lies replacing the truth. If The Black Dahlia is a study in obsession, it’s a very cerebral one. I realize that’s probably how Ellroy’s mind works, and in that sense, De Palma’s film might be the ideal movie adaptation. But to me, that doesn’t make it ideal De Palma. I guess I’m not much of an Ellroy man…

That said: I adored the movie when it got out of control and took a detour into the bizarre (I wanted the whole to be like that!). The ending was a creepy highlight that gave me chills all over. There were plenty of bravoura shots, great music cues and rememberable moments (the crane shot over the roof that reveals the body in the distance, Johansson shutting the bathroom door, meeting Madeleine’s family in first-person, the shadowy figure with the knife, the reveal of the clown’s painting), but – dare I say it – I was underwhelmed by the set pieces. Especially after having been blown away by Children of Men a couple of weeks earlier.

There’s much to agree with the positive arguments raised by people like Matt Zoller Seitz, Keith Uhlich and Ari the Principal Archivist… It’s just that I expected Betty Short to obsess me as much as the film’s leading characters. She didn’t. Fortunately, this tells you more about me than it does about the quality of the film.


Boys like Peet are not afraid of wolves

February 16, 2007

Below is my second contribution to Jim Emerson’s Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon, running all weekend at Scanners. My earlier contribution can be found right here.
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The best animated picture of 2006 wasn’t made by Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Warner Bros. or Sony Pictures. It didn’t feature any talking or dancing animals. It wasn’t directed by Nick Park, Hayao Miyazaki or George Miller. It’s neither CGI nor drawn. Hell, it wasn’t even released in the US last year.

Last Christmas I was out shopping with my two sons. We visited the local electronic store looking for a new microwave oven, when I suddenly had this creepy sense of being stared at. I looked on my left to a wall covered with about fifteen giant flat-screens, all tuned into the same broadcast, and saw a pack of wolves staring right back at me, moving in perfect sync. It was a moment straight out of a dream.

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‘What’s that?’ I whispered when I noticed that my boys were as fascinated as I was.
‘A wolf!’ said my oldest, who’s always had a weak spot for dangerous animals. ‘It’s a puppet.’
I nodded and thought to myself: stop-motion animation. Our eyes were glued to the silent TV-screens. Apart from the wolf-puppet, we saw an intense-looking kid wearing a brown leather hat, a bird, a cat and a duck.
‘I think it’s Peter and the Wolf,’ I said, remembering the cassette tape of Prokofiev’s classical work I used to listen to as a kid. It simply had to be, and yet… it couldn’t be. I knew Peter’s giddy string theme by heart, and it didn’t match at all with the pale, brooding puppet I saw before me…

I got home, started googling and learned about an ambitious 29-minute short called, yes, Peter & the Wolf. Five years in the making. Produced in Poland. Shot on high-definition cameras. Directed by a female Brit by the name of Suzie Templeton. Music performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Mark Stephenson. Apparently, it premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last year alongside a live performance of the orchestral score. Being the animation enthusiast that I am, I couldn’t help wondering why I’d never heard about this project before.

Two weeks later, the DVD arrived from Amazon.co.uk. The boys and me sat down before the television and we pressed play. What we witnessed was an outright masterpiece.

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You see, as much as I enjoyed listening to that Prokofiev tape as a kid, a part of me was always a little let-down by the paper-thin story. Frankly, I couldn’t care less for the bird, the cat and the duck. It took ages for the wolf to arrive! This adaptation, however, took all these familar ingredients and made them work in every single way. The characters had been fleshed out properly, just like the action, and the lavish production design, the exquisitely sculpted puppets (not too cute!) and gorgeous cinematography were simply flawless.

In an interview for The Independent, director Templeton explains:

I had to work out how to visually tell the story, how to arc it and stretch it to the music, so that it keeps the viewer’s attention, and doesn’t just fill time but builds visual sequences that correspond to each musical theme.

Templeton’s first stroke of genius was to get rid of the traditional narration. As a true visual stylist, she decided early on to let her images do the talking, which meant that words and dialogue were ruthlessly abandoned. Mind you, we’re talking about half an hour of pure pantomime here! But wait, there’s more: Prokofiev’s world-famous composition – obviously the backbone of the whole enterprise – doesn’t start until six minutes into the movie. Instead of using the musical themes to establish the basic story elements, we’re familiarized with Peter’s ghoulish, claustrophobic world by listening to the howling wind on the other side of the fence, and the creaking backdoor that his overprotective Grandfather keeps firmly locked. It’s only after the tormented boy finds a way to sneak out of the house and into the woods where sunshine hits his face, that the string theme sets in as a breath of fresh air. Cinema doesn’t get more cinematic than this.

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I could go on and wax rhapsodic about the beautiful frozen lake; about the muted color palette and the wide range of fabrics and materials that makes every shot a feast for the eyes; about the intricate sequence where Peter catches the wolf (an almost Brian De Palma-worthy set piece) and hundreds of cinephiliac moments crammed inside those 29 minutes. A personal favorite is when we hear the English horns play the wolf’s theme for the very first time. Instead of cutting to the approaching wolf directly, Templeton dares to show a 30 seconds long close-up of Peter, sensing the wolf’s presence. It’s a perfect set-up for the drastically altered ending – which I won’t reveal here – that would have Carl Jung clap his hands with glee.

The tag-line for this adaptation is “Boys like Peter are not afraid of wolves.” Now that I’ve seen Templeton’s film, I know why: Peter is the wolf.

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Peter & the Wolf – a co-production of UK’s BreakThru Films and Se-Ma-For Studios in Lodz, Poland – is available on region 2 and 5 DVD only and can be ordered here. Go ahead, you won’t be disappointed. It’s worth buying a region-free player for. To see an early short by Suzie Templeton, visit AtomFilms.


Anticipating 300: Pixels will blot out the sun!

November 1, 2006

When I read Frank Miller’s 300 a few years ago, I very much doubted if this graphic novel could ever be successfully adapted to film. Not because the story was too vast and complex to survive the translation, in a way Neil Gaiman’s intricate Sandman saga is; or too outrageously blasphemous like Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. No, simply because of Miller’s virtuoso use of extreme comic stylization within a historical framework.

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Nevermind that we’re talking about the ancient battle of Thermopylae, in which King Leonidas and his personal guard of 300 Spartans held off an army of one million (give or take) Persian warriors in a narrow gorge. Faithful reconstruction my ass! This is Frank Miller’s tall, mythical take on the historical event, existing in a universe all of its own. The swollen hyperboles, the ferocious violence, the supreme machismo and glorious heroism–it all worked to great effect on the page. Any attempt to approach this material in a less stylized manner, I figured back then, would make it seem utterly ridiculous.

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That was before Robert Rodriguez pushed the envelope of comic book faithfulness with his film version of Sin City (2005). Doubt turned into hope: Here was a movie that dared to stray from the medium’s inherent photorealism with expressive lighting, a digitally controlled color palette and (most importantly) all-CGI-backgrounds. The method proved so flexible that it even allowed the makers to match each shot of the film to every drawn panel in the comic. From the moment it was announced, I realized it was a wise move to follow a similar route for 300 (2007). And judging from his surprisingly solid remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), Zack Snyder is just the man to pull it off.

Last month my hopes were rewarded by an awe-inspiring teaser trailer. Apart from the stunning imagery (watch this comic-to-screen-comparison to get a sense of how much Snyder sticks to Miller’s vision), this trailer excels at what the comic medium is incapable of showing: actual movement. Anything is possible now… Hear my inner geek roar!

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Children of Men

October 30, 2006

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I’ve just come back from seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. What a marvelous film! Don’t expect a full review here (others are much better at that than I am). Instead, let me just say this:

Plausibles are complaining about the movie’s “hard-to-swallow” premise, being: humanity on the brink of extinction because of an unexplained crisis of infertility. They have no idea what they’ve just witnessed. Children of Men may very well carry the most relevant and potent metaphor of our times and manages to do it justice.

Cuarón has entered the Big League, that’s for sure. One instantly classic long take inside a driving car combines total chaos with laser precision film-making, bringing to mind the Spielberg of Munich and War of the Worlds (2005). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more successful blend of gritty realism and stylized storytelling.


Black Book in primary colors: Verhoeven’s back!

September 16, 2006

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Between invisible apes strapped to operating tables and pretty Jewish girls who dye their pubic hair in extreme close-up, the choice is easy… Welcome home, Paul Verhoeven! Zwartboek, Verhoeven’s first Dutch film in over twenty years (if you include 1985’s Euro-pudding Flesh & Blood), is the work of a director doing exactly what he wants, and nothing else. So it’s good, then? Oh yes. I’d go so far to say it’s Verhoeven’s best.

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Paul Verhoeven has never been afraid of the Big Gesture. It’s what he’s all about. Zwartboek is no exception. In a recent interview, actor Thom Hoffman (who starred in De Vierde Man as well as Zwartboek) compared Verhoeven to the abstract expressionist painter Karel Appel, known for his motto “I paint like a barbarian in these barbarian times.” The comparison makes sense. Verhoeven’s style is the cinematic equivalent of CoBrA action painting: exploding with robust imagery, primary color schemes and violent brushwork. But don’t be fooled–this Dutch Master’s broad strokes often work together to paint a finely nuanced picture. Behind Zwartboek‘s brawny sense of adventure is a cautiously calibrated morality play.

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Not that it should come as a complete surprise. In the case of Zwartboek, Verhoeven and regular screenwrite Gerard Soeteman (Turks Fruit, Soldaat van Oranje, De Vierde Man) took twenty years to do their homework and refine their script until it snapped, crackled and popped, referencing a rough total of 800 documents, articles and books on the Dutch resistance. They based their film on real events and concocted a fictional storyline to glue those facts together.

Thematically, the film is rooted in Verhoeven’s experiences of growing up during WWII. Back then, the parents of one of his best buddies were members of the NSB – a Nationalist party that sympathized with the Nazis – convincing him that there were endless shades of grey between black and white. Verhoeven set out to make a picture in which no single character is purely innocent or strictly evil (although I believe he permitted himself one or two out-and-out villains). This in itself is not a radical philosophy – especially not in these trivial times – but it’s a truthful one. Zwartboek leaves you with the impression that the Liberation never came, that human atrocity lives on forever and people are not to be trusted… But hell, life’s sure worth the ride!

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All people behind the scenes worked miracles to make 17 million euros look like 70 million dollars. They had a hard time to raise money for this picture in Europe, but on the bright side Verhoeven gained access to an unbelievable pool of available acting talent. The lovely Carice van Houten as Rachel/Ellis, especially, is radiant in her leading role and Verhoeven quite rightly calls her the most talented actress he’s ever worked with. Here’s a heroine that modern audiences need to see more of: strong, down-to-earth and witty. When this brave young woman finally breaks, you’d have to be a cold-hearted stump of a being to not break along with her.

The same quality level can be found on every level of the production. I take back my initial doubts about director of photography Carl Walter Lindenlaub (Independence Day). His crisp lighting style is a good match with Verhoeven’s larger-than-life sensitivity. Lindenlaub wisely avoided shooting in black and white, sepia-tone or using a bleach-bypass process and based Zwartboek‘s look on German color films from the 1940s instead. (Whether Lindenlaub succeeded in his approximation is not for me to judge–it’s been a while since I saw one.) Anne Dudley’s score sounds like a cross between the military marches that Rogier van Otterloo composed for Soldaat van Oranje and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie-ethereal main theme from Basic Instinct.

Frustratingly enough, the critical reception in the Netherlands doesn’t seem to be very positive. Some things never change. It just shows how good the Dutch are in underestimating their own artists. Until they die, that is.

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Production notes

After the principal photography of Zwartboek was completed, I’ve worked with a couple of its crew members on two of my own projects (the camera dolly we used was still marked with a “Carl Walter Lindenlaub” sticker). They told me that Verhoeven prefers to shoot in sequence to keep his actors in the moment, which meant that the lighting constantly needed adjusting as soon as the director decided to switch over to a reverse angle. And the man never, ever shoots a master. It’s in his contract, simply to avoid impatient producers going: “We’ve got the scene, I just saw it. Move on!”

Now listen to this: Apparently, Sharon Stone called Verhoeven on the set of Zwartboek directly after the release of Basic Instinct 2. When she asked him if he liked it, Verhoeven exclaimed in his clunky Dutch accent: “But Sharon, you look TERRRIBLE! How could they’ve DONE this to you!” Tact was never his thing. Thank heavens for that.