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by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008

The Clint Eastwood renaissance has been a joy to behold. While many thought his 1992 Oscar for Unforgiven would mark the culmination of an amazing, four decade long career, the new millennium has seen an amazing string of cinematic gems. In the last three years alone, we’ve witnessed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Now comes Changeling, a 1920s period piece about the notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, and the one woman who stood up to the incredibly corrupt LA county police system. Naturally one expects a stumble after such a string of special efforts, but this is not the fall. Unfortunately, it also has a hard time fitting in with the rest of his considered classics.

On a cool Spring Saturday, phone company employee Christine Collins left her small son Wallace all alone in their quiet LA neighborhood. She promised to be home by four. When she arrived back, a little late, she was startled to find her boy missing. A phone call to the police provided little comfort. Eventually, when law enforcement became involved, Christine received assurances that everything possible was being done. Five months later, there was a break in the case. The police returned a young boy to Christine. Much to her chagrin, she immediately realized it was not her son.

Thus began a series of confrontations with officials, the media, and local agitators. Unable to control the bad press, the Captain in charge commits Christine to a local insane asylum. There, she is tormented by her doctor in hopes of forcing her to sign an acknowledgment that the boy is indeed her son. With the help of a prominent pastor and a no nonsense attorney, Christine gets her day in court. Meanwhile, the fate of her actual son, and several other missing children, may lie in the arid soil of a remote ranch where a transient and his young charge have been involved in some horrific, unspeakable acts. 

Changeling is a very good movie that misses being great by the smallest of margins. It’s overlong and dramatically drawn out, leading light Jolie given one too many scenes to weep her seemingly copious tears. The casting is suspect, everyone but our anguished lead carved out of what appears to be second tier choices. And there’s a sensational subplot - actually, the real meat of Changeling‘s narrative - which constantly threatens to be more engaging and interesting than Christine Collins’ snake pit suffrage. When tied together with Eastwood’s LA by way of True Confessions atmosphere, and a series of real life contrivances that may strike contemporary audiences as nothing but laughable, you’ve got a fascinating idea marginalized by elements that, perhaps, cannot or could not be helped.

It’s safe to say that Jolie was the perfect choice for Collins. She’s mousy without looking lost, and her radiant beauty belies a vulnerability which later becomes crucial to the story. During the opening sequences where her life as a roller-skating phone company supervisor is highlighted, we sense something strong in this woman. When faced with the prospect of taking on the exceedingly corrupt Los Angeles police department, it’s fascinating to watch that resolve disappear. Jolie also has excellent scenes with her two “sons”. Before the crime, her creative ways of dealing with her boy’s familial concerns (she is, after all, a single mother in the late ‘20s) are wonderful. Afterwards, the suspect way she treats the unfamiliar child says everything about who Christine Collins is.

Too bad no one else can really match her spirit. John Malkovich comes across as a crusader without a cause, a plot device brought in over and over again when justice needs to be metered out and audience vigilantism needs appeasement. Jeffery Donovan has it even worse. As the main “villain” of the piece, the smug Captain forcing the false child on Collins to save the department’s PR perspective, he appears to have been hired for his resemblance to Eastwood circa Rawhide. He’s a cipher, an empty space where something really evil needs to be. Along the way, there is fine work from others - Amy Ryan as a asylum inmate, Michael Kelly as the detective who breaks the mass murder case - but when two child actors steal the film outright from their more mature peers, you sense something is amiss.

Indeed, Changeling frequently stumbles over its ambitions. You can tell Eastwood (who joined the production late, after Ron Howard passed to pursue Frost/Nixon) thinks he is making a post post-modern Chinatown, a calm façade indictment of California as a last bastion of wicked wild west immorality. The police chief is referred to as a gunslinger, his men as a band of rogue hoodlums. The horrendous murders are exploited in slash and burn bits of directorial bravado, Eastwood going gonzo on occasion to paint Gordon Northcott as an unhinged if personable psychopath. The shots of early century LA are radiant in their detail, and Jolie’s life seems lived in, a series of cable car patterns and daily interpersonal rituals that the 78 year old director seems to excel at.

And yet Changeling never turns into the epic it promises to be. The loony bin business seems lifted from another, lesser b-movie experience, and the last act juxtaposition between competing court proceedings functions like a luxury the narrative can’t really afford. A good fifteen minutes could have been removed from the languid two and a half hour running time and the performances or the plot wouldn’t miss it. ‘Indulgent’ is not a word readily associated with Eastwood, and yet this film is full of instances where a little expositional economy would have elevated things. We don’t need all the conclusions, the denouements on top of already discovered truths. It’s as if the film wants to beat you over the head with how badly Collins was treated, and therefore wants to make her vindication twice as overbearing.

Thankfully, there’s so much here to enjoy that the moments of overkill don’t destroy Changeling‘s chances. Had Eastwood simply focused on the Wineville Murders, he’d have wound up with something shocking and somewhat sleazy. By bringing Christine Collins into the picture, the crime (and the equally criminal style government syndicate desperate to keep things quiet) and the fall out receive a necessary, nuanced human face. It may not live up to the Greek tragedy tenets of Mystic River, or rewrite the rules of the sports film like Baby, but then again, Eastwood doesn’t need to finesse this material. He has the truth on his side. Changeling is one of the better films you will see this year. Oddly enough, it definitely isn’t among the best.

by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008

Thanks to its mainstreaming by the media (and the ever-present lure of easy access via the Internet), pornography has gone from stern community scandal to goofy necessary evil. It satisfies an obvious craving while providing suspect psycho-social suspicions. It also fosters a multibillion dollar industry, and as they say, money changes everything. Some adult stars have even made the semi-successful move into straight entertainment. Jenna Jameson touts her books and b-grade horror films, while Mary Carey turned her addiction into a run on VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab. Now Kevin Smith is getting into the act, turning the plight of two Pennsylvania pals who are low on cash into a clever comment on Bush’s America, human ingenuity, hardcore histrionics, and the map of the human heart. 

For most of their lives, Zack and Miri have been friends - very good, very close friends. Even though they share most things and now live together, their relationship has remained strictly platonic. Yet life in 2008 is not easy. Mounting bills, and a lack of payment options threaten their marginal existence. As luck would have it, a chance encounter with a gay porn star at their high school reunion leads the duo to a desperate conclusion - they need to do something to solve their money problems. The answer? Make a homemade adult film. Of course, it sounds much easier than it ends up being. Rounding up some local talent and a few friends, the original plan is to produce a XXX take on Star Wars. When that production implodes, the couple must find a new venue and premise. None of this addresses the bigger concern, however - how will having sex affect Zack and Miri’s friendship?

In a year that’s seen such spry and subversive comedies as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best. It represents yet another triumph for Kevin Smith (after the amazing Clerks II) and showcases a growing maturity for a filmmaking once noted for wallowing in the infantile. Sure, scatology abounds, and no one could accuse Smith of taking his subject too seriously. But when it comes time to deliver the goods, to get past the obvious T&A toilet humor and offer up something sweet and sincere, the king of the ViewAskew Universe literally rules. With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.

As with most of his projects, Zack and Miri is expertly cast. Smith associates Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson are along for the ride, and Rogen is joined by Craig Robinson a fellow refugee from Judd Apatow’s comic company. Toss in former porn queen Traci Lords and current adult star Katie Morgan, and some wonderful cameos from Kenny Hotz, Justin Long and Brandon Routh and you’ve got a can’t miss crew of talent. Smith makes the most of them, offering up his standard stellar dialogue with an improving acumen behind the camera that’s a joy to behold. Instead of a strict point and shoot stylizing, there are moments of visual intrigue that indicate a cinematic confidence that Smith seemed to lack before. And no one handles the incorporation of music into a movie in such a rich, meaningful way.

As for the leads, both Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks shine. He is less extroverted here than when paling around with his former Freaks and Geeks consorts. Instead, Zack comes across as a dreamer who needs the proper catalyst to come out of his shell. In that regard, Miri stands as the perfect foil/symbolic fixture. She’s the hot chick with a definitive dork soul, and she accepts Zack on a level much deeper than any other woman could. Together, they generate the kind of chemistry you can’t buy in Hollywood, and turn what could have been a sunny collection of smut jokes into something really heartfelt and sincere. If we don’t buy the pairing, we won’t accept the porn. Smith successfully sells us both.

Indeed, the real surprise here is the film’s solid emotional core. Smith hasn’t shied away from presenting love and devotion onscreen. Both Chasing Amy and Jersey Girl centered on the universal connections between people and how we all fumble and fail while making them. Heck, even his Clerks climate has strong ties to individual feelings, friendship, and faith. But Zack and Miri is different. We want to see these people together, to see how their lives would change should their relationship become more (much more) than just roommates. The result is revelatory. Sure, some may argue that the last act turmoil is typical for a post-modern RomCom, but Smith keeps us guessing until the end.

That all this formulaic fuzziness exists in a film which wallows in nudity, crudeness, and random genital jokes is Zack and Miri‘s final genius move. Smith’s strategy to push the limits of what is acceptable remains consistent, but there is never a time when the gratuity or gross-outs overwhelm the narrative (well…maybe once). Smith stands solidly behind his people, making strippers as friendly and multidimensional as frustrated coffee shop baristas. So when a character illustrates her unique “bubble blowing” abilities, or complains about constipation - graphically - the tackiness doesn’t damage our howling good time. Instead, Smith keeps everything rooted firmly in reality. On occasion, Zack and Miri displays a dark, depressing atmosphere that’s hard to shake. 

To some, Zack and Miri make a Porno will play like a Kevin Smith film co-opted by the mundane and measured out with one too many Inside Seka splashes. And there is definitely a demographic who will view the consistent carnality and claim all kinds of corruption and exploitation. But outside the buzzword basics, this is a great film. It’s funny, inventive, irreverent, subversive, and tastelessly terrific. It never tries to be more than a story of individuals, of how relationships are tested and interpersonal barriers are overcome. While he threatens to change things up and make a horror film next time out, Kevin Smith has finally found his real calling. As long as he continues to celebrate the marginalized and takes to championing Everyman (and woman), he might just become a wanton Woody Allen. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is proof of this. It’s one of 2008’s best.

by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008

If it’s October, it’s Fright Time here at SE&L. As we have the last two years, we will use the tenth month of the year to celebrate all things horror - the good, the bad, and the gory. In between our standard Friday film reviews and occasional mainstream DVD release, we will look at 20 scary movies that may (or may not) be worth your attention. By checking back here regularly, you will see the titles covered, and find links to the opinions provided. Hopefully, we will uncover some gems among the junk. Enjoy!

On DVD - Feast II: Sloppy Seconds (2008)
On DVD - Phantasm (1979) 
On DVD - The Toolbox Murders (1978)
On DVD - Evilspeak (1981)
On DVD - Pieces (1982)
On DVD - Pieces (1982) - Version 2.0
On DVD - Bad Taste (1987)
On DVD - Mad Monster Party? (1969)
On DVD - The Last Broadcast (1998)
On DVD - The Beyond (1981)
On DVD - Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2007)
On DVD - Ils (2006)
On DVD - Ganja & Hess (1973)
On DVD - Inside (2007)


Mil Mascaras: Resurrection (2005)
Midnight Meat Train (2008)
Haunted Hay Ride (2008)
Mirrors (2008)
[REC] (2008)

The Cottage (2008) - Coming Soon

by David Pullar

30 Oct 2008

The old saying about the fine line between genius and madness seems particularly apt when looking at writers. There must be something about the personality or temperament that is well-suited to long hours of isolated scribbling that leads to eccentricity and anti-sociability.

Recently, I’ve been reading Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals—a hatchet job on the writing profession if ever there was one. Now, Johnson is a curmudgeonly Conservative and has his own agenda in portraying the shortcomings of self-appointed (usually left-wing) intellectuals, but it’s hard to deny that at least the ones he selects are a sorry lot.

The most astonishing thing that comes out of these portraits is how poor at human relations some of the most humanist writers were. Johnson paints Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy, both known for their groundbreaking portrayals of women, as being hopelessly misogynistic in real life. Even more astonishing, given the psychological insights of much great literature, is how little empathy many of these writers have. How can someone understand people so well in the abstract and so little in the concrete?

A less polemical look at the writing profession is from Javier Marias, whose Written Lives is a true joy to read. Without any particular agenda, Marias relays anecdotes from the lives of some giants of literature: Nabokov, Mann, Mishima, Conrad, Faulkner. They’re mostly humorous and all the writers are portrayed as eccentric at the very least. Some (particularly Rimbaud or Mishima) are more accurately described as “crazy”.

There’s a lot of selection bias here. Johnson wanted to prove that intellectuals, particularly writers, are ineligible to tell the world how to live, based on their own (considerable) shortcomings. Marias wants to entertain. Either purpose will lead to a tendency to choose the most sensational stories. Obviously there are plenty of writers who are well-adjusted and even tempered—it’s just that a lot of the truly remarkable writers aren’t.

Are great writers any crazier or more deeply flawed than the rest of humanity, or do we simply forgive them more?  Do we excuse their foibles on account of their “artistic temperament”?  Do we say that their personality is unconnected to their art?

Even Johnson, who appears to be less willing to forgive faults than most, acknowledges that great art remains great irrespective of who created it. He takes more issue with the idea that great art should guide us, when the ideas and philosophies within served their creator so poorly.

As a lover of books and writing, I’m happy to cut the greats a little slack. And I’m more than happy to have a bit of a laugh at their oddities.

by Arun Subramanian

29 Oct 2008

It’s not difficult to imagine who the target audience for Mega Man 9 is.  A good number of gamers came of age during the heyday of the NES, when both challenge and level design encouraged multiple playthroughs of titles.  These qualities were particularly important considering both how much more $50 was then than it is now, and how many fewer people were playing video games to begin with, indicating a much more hardcore fanbase.  It doesn’t seem likely that newcomers to Mega Man will have any interest in Mega Man 9.  However, gamers who spent a good deal of time with Mega Man 1 and 2 in their formative years will very likely find the prospect of purchasing a new 8-bit Mega Man for $9.99 irresistible.

That said, it’s somewhat interesting to try and determine who will actually complete the game, given its level of difficulty.  From top to bottom, Mega Man 9 is a throwback to an another time in gaming.  The audiovisual presentation aims to match that of the earliest 8-bit titles to a fault.  Between that and the challenge presented, Mega Man 9 is strikingly content to present itself as though the last 20 years of gaming never happened.

As with the classic titles in the series, memorization, trial and error, and pure platforming ability are crucial to success in Mega Man 9.  Experimentation is also required in order to determine the most efficient order in which to defeat the bosses.  Again, Mega Man 9 is reminiscent of a time when beating the game was only the beginning of actually getting good at it, and punishing difficulty was welcomed, because level design and predictable enemy patterns meant that after the initial learning curve, dying was the player’s fault.

Normally, it might be difficult to argue that the “lost game”, retro feel that Mega Man 9 achieves was especially necessary in order to evoke nostalgia.  Indeed, games like Bionic Commando: Rearmed have demonstrated that the reboot of a long dormant franchise itself is likely to ensure decent enough sales among those that remember the original.  What makes Mega Man 9 unique is how active the franchise, or at least the protagonist, has been for many years regardless of the quality of individual titles.  Revisiting the early days of Mega Man when the series was at its strongest, then, is what makes the design of Mega Man 9 particularly notable. 

Although it makes perfect sense for Mega Man 9 to be distributed digitally (regardless of the brilliant limited edition physical packaging), it does seem somewhat at odds with the rest of the game’s aesthetics for there to be downloadable content and achievements for the Xbox 360 version.  But beyond that, Mega Man 9 does an admirable job of revisiting a classic gaming franchise, leaving the original presentation untouched, while offering brand new content.  For fans of the series, it offers a large amount of replay value for its relatively low price, though its retro brand of difficulty may prove too much for some.

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