Sunday, November 9, 2008

Movies: Repo! The Genetic Opera

Repo! The Genetic Opera imagines a steampunk, noirish future where organ replacements are handily engineered by GeneCo, ensuring a long life for those who can afford it. Those who can’t afford it can get the goods on credit, but of course, if you default on your payment, said organs are handily repossessed by the Repo Man, making for a less long life. Oh, and it’s an opera. Co-starring Paris Hilton. These elements could be the recipe for something eye-bleedingly awful or something unbelievably brilliant. Repo! yo-yos between those two extremes.

The visuals of the film are phenomenal, full of dark, twisted, lush, steampunk imagery, like someone spilled out the brain of Edward Gorey, H.G. Wells, and Hieronymus Bosch onto the screen. And all the heavy lifting of world-building and background exposition is handily dispatched by flashes of a highly-stylized comic book, which both sets the mood and allows the film to cut right to the heart of things, i.e. graphic organ removal. The visuals alone might even be worth the full price of admission. If you’re going for the music, however, you might want to wait for a bargain matinee. Some of the opening songs (”Genetic Repo Man” and “21st Century Cure”) are catchy and mood-setting, but the next thirty or so minutes are filled with tuneless, meandering melodies that swing between bland and outright annoying. They so counteracted the great imagery, interesting characters, and imaginative story that I initially wondered if Repo! might not have been better off as a music-free movie rather than an opera. But after a while, standout songs started appearing, interspersed with the blander offerings, which led my final opinion to be that Repo! would have done better with a traditional book-and-music musical format than a sung-through rock opera.

The performances are hit or miss as well. As the Repo Man, Anthony Stewart Head is phenomenal, displaying savage ferocity and overprotective tenderness in equal measures. He’s also an accomplished singer, which comes as no surprise to those familiar with his collaboration with George Sarah, Music For Elevators, as well as his stint in Rocky Horror and his occasional musical performances as Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sarah Brightman, the original Christine in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and the West End, is quite good as Blind Mag, the opera diva with the creepy genetic eyes. And Alexa Vega (as Shilo, the Repo Man’s daughter) and Paris Hilton (as Amber Sweet, daughter of GeneCo’s founder Rotti) turn in solid performances, even if their singing voices are a bit anemic. Paris Hilton might not be the next Grace Kelly, but love her or hate her, you notice her, she has an undeniable charisma that makes her hard to ignore, and she is, if nothing else, interesting. Paul Sorvino as Rotti Largo - founder of GeneCo, employer of Repo Man, and jilted paramour of Shilo’s deceased mother who left Rotti for Nathan (Repo Man’s kinder, gentler, slightly-less-kill-happy alter ego) years ago – gives an interesting performance as a villain who is not really layered, but not entirely unsympathetic, either. Rotti also has two sons, brothers to Hilton's Amber Sweet: Ogre as Parvi Largo and Bill Moseley as Luigi Largo. Ogre is chilling and hilarious as a creepy dandy who wears women’s skinned faces over his own. Bill Mosely, however, is out-acted by Paris Hilton as the angry Luigi. His every line reading is convoluted and contorted. It’s lucky for him the scenery of Repo! is so expansive, allowing the film to retain its lush look after he’d chewed through half of it.

But the real standout is Terrance Zdunich as GraveRobber, the narrator who makes his living peddling a black market drug extracted from the brains of corpses. (And you thought jenkem was a disgusting idea.) He oozes sinuous charisma and lights up every scene he’s in. His singing and mannerisms are spot on, and he, more than any other component, holds the film together, serving as our Virgil on this hellish descent. Before the credits rolled, I wondered whether his performance stood out because he was the best or because he had been given the best materials to work with. The answer turned out to be a little bit of both, as Zdunich is the co-writer along with Darren Smith, who also has a small role in the film.

Repo! knows its roots. The anarchic feel shared by similar cultish rock stage musicals (the arena where Repo! got its start) such as Bat Boy the Musical, Reefer Madness, and Evil Dead: The Musical, and off-screen musical performances by goth-rock staples Poe and Melora Creager of Rasputina, help ground this work with its spirited predecessors. Repo! also manages to layer in some nice themes that elevate genetics to more than just replacement kidneys. When Rotti is diagnosed with an illness even he can’t cure, he has to decide which of his three children is least unfit to inherit his legacy. Meanwhile, Shilo is kept prisoner by the blood disease she inherited from her mother, and she voices the thesis of the film with “Infected”: “How much is it genetics, how much of it is fate, how much of it depends on the choices that we make?” Frankly, I went to Repo! for the gore, camp, and rock, so finding an actual story with themes and imagery and symbolism and all was just gravy.

Repo! The Genetic Opera isn’t for the squeamish – it is, after all, by Twisted Pictures, best known for the Saw franchise. If the phrase “Repo Man sings a song using a corpse as a puppet” makes you go “Awesome!” rather than vomit slightly, then Repo! is definitely for you, and make no mistake, I am definitely in the “Awesome!” camp. The movie has its flaws, there are some moments that are cringe-inducing and some performances that are a crime against humanity. There’s also some unresolved business where a character dies before receiving an important piece of information that would absolve them of much past angst, which is unsatisfying and frustrating for the viewer who knows this information. But these low lows are coupled with some of the highest highs I’ve seen in cinema in years. Repo! is exciting as hell, something new that doesn’t color within the usual Hollywood lines, and I’d gladly sit through another performance of the disjointed rock number “Seventeen” to see something as thrilling as GraveRobber’s “Zydrate Anatomy” (which you can watch below) or Blind Mag’s high-flying operatic swan song. If you’re not lucky enough to live in one of the handful of cities where Repo! is playing now, it’s due out on DVD in January, and I highly recommend you rent it – hell, buy it – as soon as it hits stores. Just try to pay cash instead of credit.


Sex Mahoney for President said...

A Paris Hilton opera? I'm sold.

Sex Mahoney for President

Sex Mahoney for President said...

I didn't have my headphones with me yesterday when I visited this blog. That clip is three shades of hilarious. I can't wait to force someone to sit through this movie with me come January.

smd said...

Isn't it great? Let me put it this way, I had to shell out $12 to see it because it's only playing in NYC and movies are godawfully expensive there (not that $10 in Jersey is much better), and despite being a less-than-employed dead broke sadsack, I still felt like I got my money's worth, especially with the corpse puppet scene.