Thursday, August 16, 2007


With the much delayed 2007 version of Invasion of The Body Snatchers on its way to the cinema this weekend, I thought it might be the right time to do a little 3 part series here at KBT. (What can I say, I'm in an urban apocalypse state of mind at the moment.) It has been 51 years since the release of Don Siegel's film version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers which was itself and adaptation of the 1955 magazine serial novel from Jack Finney. When that original film version came out, the number of spins and theories on what people being replaced with emotionless pods could mean were wide and varied. This may have been the earliest indication that a something universal was buried in this particular story. Since then there have been 3 'official' remakes. The first was in 1978 by Philip Kaufman, another by Abel Ferrara in 1993 (with the truncated title of Body Snatchers) and recently one by Oliver Hirschbiegel titled (and equally truncated) The Invasion. The recent version was to have come out in 2006 but due to the studio pod--er--executives thinking that Hirschbiegel's version didn't have enough action sequences in it, other writers and directors were brought in to redo half the movie. An easy joke or truly meta-style film-making? ("They're here already! You're next! You're next, You're next... ")

The reason why remaking this film every 15 years or so is interesting is that the subtext of the 'fear' changes to reflect something gnawing away at America at that moment. Many point out that the Red-Scare is the buried metaphor for the 1956 version; that deterioration of social fabric and conspiracy theories (a la Watergate) is contained in the 1978 version; The destruction of the nuclear family is dealt with in the 1993 version and apparently, the recent version focus on disease pandemics and religious cults. The fact that the story is that malleable is what makes the science fiction and horror genres (or in this case, the fusion of the two) so great. A case could be made that the entire Zombie subgenre of horror (a personal favorite of mine) starting from George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which came out 12 years after the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and going right up to this years 28 Weeks Later. (People are with you one moment and after you the next, told to the tune of modern day anxiety.)

Many folks in my generation hold the 1978 version dear to their hearts (or is that fear to their hearts?) mainly because it was a late night TV staple all through the 1980s although partly because it is openly terrifying at times. The 1956 version, for all its influence, has actually been somewhat difficult to find and even now is surprisingly, somewhat of a chore to find on DVD. This is a shame (I may be showing a VHS copy next week: Oi! The nostalgia!). Since the powers that be have released the 1978 version in a nice remastered package, this will be the first to screen.

There are so many great visuals (and sound cues) in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My favorite is that Donald Sutherland's character drives around in a car with half the windshield glass smashed in a spiderweb of stress lines so dense that it is actually quite difficult to see properly what lies ahead. At a certain point he sees a character from the original version of the film run down in the street and mobbed by the poddies. How perfect is that?

Thursday, August 09, 2007


Relationships between family, friends or a significant other are typically done poorly (or completely ignored) in those big money blockbusters featuring an apocalypse of one kind or another which destroys swathes of urban infrastructure to the tune of millions of dollars of computer graphics. While the recent (and mighty fine) 28 Weeks Later took great pains to integrate ‘the family relationship’ into the gears of its thematic gristmill, some of those elements were overpowered in the stylistic brouhaha of that film. Perhaps it is a slight irony that an art director of lush, visual films such as Fight Club and The Hudsucker Proxy would be the one to take a sparse, tight and emotional approach to the genre. Sure, it is more likely the tiny budget played more of a factor here, but that does not change the fact that Right at Your Door is damn effective at what it does.

The story is simple. After making coffee for his girlfriend Lexi and sending her off to her office job, Brad, an out-of-work musician listens to the news to discover that several bombs have been dropped on downtown LA. A quick look out his window confirms that this is no hoax. After an abortive attempt to get through the chaotic streets and find Lexi, Brad returns home and follows the media recommendation of sealing up the house. The ‘dirty’ bombs are believed to have toxic chemicals and such and the ash-cloud from the urban detonation is not far away. A handyman (who works for the neighbors) helps Brad seal up the vents, windows and door frames with plastic and duct tape. Because he is unable to get across town to his family, he stays. Things get complicated when Lexi returns back to the house coughing up a storm while wading through the ash cloud. The media warns again and again that anyone exposed to the falling ash is contagious and should be quarantined until medical professionals arrive. Brad makes the very difficult decision (it should be noted the opposite decision of the Nostromo crew and kids of 28 Weeks Later) to maintain the quarantine and keeps his wife on the other side of the plastic. Police, military and rescue workers roam the environment as confused and vaguely menacing specters while Lexi and Brad deal with the very real possibility that Lexi is going to die of toxic exposure.

Right at Your Door is both a description of the film and a glove tossing challenge to the viewer. The dangers are a stew of modern disasters which have affected millions including 9/11, the big blackout in 2004 and the SARS scare. Everyone has seen the CNN coverage of these events and how the panic of the unknown spreads faster than the truth. There is a significant screenplay decision from Chris Gorak to have Brad and Lexi just moving into their LA bungalow on the outskirts of downtown. This allows for the cable not to be hooked up yet. It keeps the films focus on character communication and does not have them sitting and watching TV (which most people would be doing in that situation). Recurring shots of tinned goods, bottled water, plastic wrap and duct tape are apt enough metaphors for what Homeland Security means by the time it is filtered down to the individual trapped in their home. And individual clearly have no power to do a damn thing (other than look out for their own as best they can) in these situations. A visually effective scene of a character giving himself a fear induced bleach baptism cries out as angrily a welcome as any to the culture of fear of the new millennium.

The title is clever in that it is a literal description of the situation, but serves up the question of “What would you do?” Likely while watching the film many will be mentally playing their own version of how one would handle the situation. It makes the film cut even sharper because in a way, it is very much an interactive film. A conversation stimulator (it is a great date film for those who are spoiling for a relationship argument afterwards), Brad and Lexi’s decisions (and whether or not you agree with them) will likely make or break the whether the audience finds the film entertaining. Controversial decision making at the most individual (or couple) level is at the heart of Right at Your Door in a way that echoes Anthony Edwards plight in the under seen 80s cold-war shaped paranoid thriller Miracle Mile. Consider this the post-911 update while subtracting the sugary love story and adding much more real couples dialogue. Although 70 years on, North America is a lot more media savvy, but there is a strain of paranoia which taps the same vein as Orson WellesWar of the Worlds radio broadcasts. The performances from Rory Cochrane and Mary McCormack, combined with level realistic dialogue, go a long way cover over qualms about how ‘real’ or how ‘movie’ the situation unfolds. Other than some opening scenes, the film is in essence a ‘one room’ film which emphasizes character and situation over thrill-ride. There has certainly been a spate of these types of pictures this year including Vacancy and Bug and 1408. Right at Your Door is best of show for giving the screen real people instead of dramatic devices.

There is a second layer to the film, the constant babble of reportage going on in the background. From the panicked opening strains of a disaster unfolding in real time and confusing reporters checking in via cellular phone to the elasticized and mundane point three days where there just is not enough information or news to justify constant updates and the chatter devolves into buzzing white noise. This background element feels authentic in a way that it is simply there, not satirical or paranoid or showy. It adds to the tension of the film in a way that the distracting techno score struggles to do at times. That and a thematically sound yet too abrupt ending are slightly weaknesses to an otherwise masterful piece of duck-and-cover cinema.

Right at Your Door is clear proof of how to make a gripping and visceral experience. A good screenplay, savvy close-up cinematography and top shelf performances from all involved (including the many actors only heard via the radio broadcasts) add up to a decidedly rich and offbeat disaster movie. The urban apocalypse film is rapidly amassing enough entries to construct a tidy sub-genre and Chris Gorak’s directorial debut deserves to be sitting near the top of the pile.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


Wow. Welcome to the 100th screening of 'Kurt's Basement Theatre (aka KBT)! Alas, there is no big celebration or anything, but rather a presentation of this British romantic dramedy, Cashback, which focuses on the same early 20s transition-from-school-to-'real life' in the as Kevin Smith's original Clerks or Daniel Clowes' and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. It goes about itself in a low-key, even downbeat manner even compared to those two films. High Fidelity for the tweener set.

What makes this one stand out is how it treats the subject with a visual wit as accomplished as modern visual stylists Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Danny Boyle and David Fincher. The resulting film is the nice blend of high and low culture (Don Carlos to Coldplay if you will) to yield a feel-good film which earns its romantic elements. It is a rare film which chooses not to angrily condemn plastic suburban culture in the western world, but look hard and find small beautiful things amongst the banal. There is a detached joy at work in the film which slowly sheds the former and finds the latter. It is a hopeful movie for those looking to find their way in life, even as it simultaneously exists as a wish fulfillment fantasy. Director Sean Ellis loves to celebrate things as even more beautiful when there is a flaw or two.

The film opens with a close-up on a girls face as she angrily breaks up with Art-school freshman Ben. This is done is slow motion, her perfect lips fluttering in curse words that Ben explains are a tad hard on his fragile ego. The breakup has such an effect that Ben begins to suffer from massive insomnia and detachment from everyday life. Because he is up all night, he takes a McJob at the local gigantic supermarket to make some money with all of his depressing spare time. Once in this job, he does not engage in the juvenile practical jokes of his co-workers or try to avoid looking at the clock (which makes time move slower). No, his technique of making the endless empty activity of the supermarket job pass by is a strange one. Ben gains the ability to stop time and walk around the store looking at the various patrons, frozen now in ‘still life,’ he draws portraits of the woman he unclothes while frozen. A form of visual and thematic time travel worthy of Chris Marker’s La Jetée - this is where the film is quite magical. The act of disrobing and sketching is done simply and without fuss or muss (more importantly, without any sort of leering quality). There is very full nudity, but it is more erotic than lusty, and all the more fascinating with the bright fluorescent lights of the supermarket; hundreds of packaged goods in the background. These women are the fashion magazine goddesses, flawless examples of perfection, who are engaged in mundane, not-typically-sexy positions. This sort of natural eroticism ends up being sublimely effective. It was no surprise to find out that the director was a fashion photographer for his day job.

Another pursuit Ben has at the supermarket is one of the check-out girls. Sharon is also quite serious compared to the rest of the night shift employees. When her and Ben begin to go on dates (as idealized as they are), the actors carry it off with a very natural rhythm of dialogue. You believe it and have faith that young folks can be so mature in their interaction, and trusting to share their dreams.

Cashback has a breezy chapter structure. The picture was obviously as rigorously planned as the perfect special effects, but it flows effortlessly between vignettes of Ben's childhood discoveries of sexuality, to art school classes the supermarket to a footy match between grocery franchises. The humor is clever (Ben's explanation of the double meaning of the word ‘crush’ comes to mind) and physical.

The film is a heck of a lot better than similar themed Garden State. It may not aim to find the long dark night of the soul, or address many of the other more complex challenges of that time in many peoples lives, but as Rom-Coms go, Cashback is a gem waiting to be discovered.