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Friday, Dec 28, 2007


It’s no small measure of the last 12 months that half of the films featured on SE&L’s 2007 list are without confirmed distribution as of this date. Sure, Manhattan mavericks Troma will eventually release two, but the other three stand out as attempts by completely independent filmmakers to get their efforts out into the money-engorged mainstream market. In past years, makers of such an obscure top ten had to pick from movies made decades earlier, only now getting a legitimate digital release. Today, the potential selections are so numerous that it’s almost impossible to glean the valid from the vapid. Still, when you consider the untold number of direct to DVD films available, finding a group of praise worthy productions remains a daunting task.


So before the breakdown, some rules. We narrowed the choices down to anything released between 1 January and 31 December. The actual year of origin/production was not important - the movie simply had to have a digital version available in 2007. Similarly, we tried to champion as many unknown writers and directors as possible. While Lloyd Kaufman and crew probably don’t count, everyone else here is practically a feature film newbie. Finally, we tried to tackle as many genres as possible. As part of this Decalogue, we have three clear comedies, one documentary, three horror films, a pair of avant-garde grindhousers, and a spaghetti western homage. They add up to one amazing set of movies, a collection of creativity the likes of which many of you have never seen.


So let’s begin 2007’s Top 10 Films You Never Heard of with the ridiculously randy entry at the bottom:


#10 - Pervert!
Proudly proclaiming its debt to Russ Meyer and the frisky exploitationers of the past, outsider auteur Jonathan Yudis has ALMOST made one of the best worst movies ever. Starring “adult film star” Mary Carey and a remarkable Darrell Sandeen in the mandatory Stuart Lancaster roll, what we get here is part horror film, part softccore smut fest and a whole lot of bare naked bosom. In fact, the film is flawless for its first 40 or so minutes. When our lead finally leaves the narrative, her replacements can’t keep things afloat. As long as you ignore this questionable quibble, you’re sure to have a good time.



#9 - Disaster!: The Movie
Is a filmmaker tempting critical fate by taking on a cinematic archetype in a manner that shows like South Park and Robot Chicken do a heck of a lot better? Does a stop motion animated action adventure featuring caricatures of the genre’s greatest hits lose some of its lampoon luster thanks to non-stop references to BMs and other bodily fluids? The answer, fortunately, is no – at least in the case of director Roy T. Wood’s anarchic Armageddon send up. Overloaded with cartoon T&A, non-PC puppeteering and about every Hollywood cliché the apocalyptic thriller has to offer, this cornball cavalcade is a pure schlock sensation. 



#8 - Knee Deep
Documentaries don’t get any more compelling than this hilarious whodunit clash over a depressed dairy farm. While hanging clothes on the washing line, Janette Osborne heard a small pop. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in her side. As she headed for her car, she thought she saw her son standing near the house, a rifle in his hand. Seconds later, two more shots were heard. Thus began Farmington, Maine’s most notorious case of attempted murder with the estranged Josh and his latest live-in gal pal Donna charged with the crime. Filmmaker Michael Chandler was lucky enough to hit on the case and, Brother’s Keeper style, he delivers one of the most compelling works of stereotypical ‘stranger than…’ ever.



#7 - Deadwood Park
For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Eric Stanze’s Deadwood Park is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies where buckets of blood and a volley of body parts help measure a macabre’s supposed success, this creative classicist goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema in the process. As a director, this St. Louis based filmmaker has always stressed imagery. But here, within the context of this genuinely intriguing tale, Stanze really lets his lens do the talking.



#6 - Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is one of the best, most original horror spoofs ever. Like a substantially sharper Scream, it wants to deconstruct the slice and dice genre staples while creating some terror benchmarks all its own. First time filmmaker Scott Glosserman should be proud of what he accomplishes here. The narrative is fresh, innovative, intelligent as Hell, and completely capable of delivering both scares and satire. Taking the slasher storyline as a literal lifestyle choice, and tossing in a solid murderer’s mythology, he resurrects a long dormant fear factor and makes it sing with new cinematic significance.



#5 - SpaceDisco-One
What do you get when you cross 1984, Logan’s Run, and a failed film production viewed from the director’s slightly arrogant perspective? The latest Damon Packard masterwork, that’s what. Using the War on Terror, the failed information skewering of the Fox Network, and the rising media influence of the Internet as a foundation for a narrative about the mindless pursuit of purpose, this amazing feature is even less optimistic than his Reflections of Evil. It argues that Big Brother has long since stopped being a threat and is now an embraceable reality, much more a part of our everyday life than concepts of personal freedom, love, and respect for human life.



#4 - The Blood Shed
Imagine if David Lynch and Rob Zombie had a baby, and they let John Waters, Jack Hill, and Edith Massey act as guardians ad litem. The results would begin to resemble something similar to the wonderfully weird brain damaged b-movie The Blood Shed. The conceptual offspring of couture auteur Alan Rowe Kelly, this tasty take on the entire Texas Chainmail Massacre strikes an intriguing balance between scares, stupidity, and satire. It takes all the archetypal elements of a Deliverance level hillbilly hoedown, macerates it in a cinematic concoction of kitsch, creeps, and dollar store perfume, and paints a perverted patina over every last piece of lunatic fringe. The results are resplendent.



#3 - Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead
Sadly, the Troma trademark has been turned into a tag for all that is dumb, dopey, schlocky, and stupid. Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth, perfect proof arriving in Poultrygeist. Unlike their camcorder imitators, this is a real celluloid find, a middle finger kiss off to the entire service industry. Using a combination of tried and true gruesomeness, a buttload (literally) of toilet humor, a collection of clever songs, and an acerbic insight into the raging corporate machine, he makes a sensational silk purse out of a skidmarked sow’s rear. Toss in some lesbian T&A and you’ve got an exercise in excess that’s a true crude classic.



#2 - Special Needs
At first, it looks like Special Needs is going to be the same old sloppy reality show spoofing. Isaak James - who wrote, directed, and stars - appears overly eager to roll out a combination of actual and ‘artificial’ human oddities and get us to laugh at what makes us nervous and uncomfortable. It will all be in bad taste and very obvious. But believe it or not, this isn’t where the filmmaker and his clever cast decide to go. Instead, we are introduced to an engaging and intricate world of high maintenance histrionics, battling bravado, and just enough sideshow shock value to transcend the potentially tacky. What should be shallow becomes sensational.



#1 - The Legend of God’s Gun
Like El Topo on even more peyote, or a spaghetti western as directed by Kenneth Anger channeling Federico Fellini, The Legend of God’s Gun is an absolute masterpiece of style over surreal and slightly stereotyped substance. A homemade horse opera, shot of video and put through a millions different digital and post-production elements to create a cacophony of illustrative explosions, the effect is a mindf*ck as episode of the hallucinogenic death metal version of Sugarfoot. With as much in common with the works of Jodoworski and Leone as those of Dennis Hooper (especially The Last Movie) and Sam Raimi (the quirky The Quick and the Dead), what we wind up with is something so invigorating, so jam—packed with implausible pleasures that we really don’t mind the inconsistent acting or lack of linear storytelling.


Sure, some could argue that this is all arch artifice subbing for art, people role playing the Fistful films for the sake of some specious post-modern homage. But because of the loving care director Mike Bruce takes with the overall look of the action, and the numerous knowing beats provided by screenwriter Kirkpatrick Thomas, we get something more than just a glorified geekville serenade. Instead, this is inventive eye candy poised as categorical creativity, a fascinating cinematic case study given a whole new technological shimmer thanks to the ‘anything goes’ availability of amazing aesthetic tools.


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Friday, Dec 28, 2007

The Economist‘s year-end double issue seems to be a catch-all for all the evergreen articles that could find no comfortable place in the magazine’s rigorously formatted weekly structure. It’s comparable in a way to the New York Times Magazine‘s annual year in ideas feature, but far more discursive, almost arbitrary. Among this year’s “Chirstmas specials” (as the table of contents deems them) are articles about Mormons, poker, census-taking, skydiving, Esalen (with some sadly egregious typos in the dek—probably a printer’s error; my heart bleeds for their copy editors) and the sex life of pandas. The two I found most interesting were one about the rise and fall of shopping malls (a photography exhibit prompted me to write about them in the past) and another on the moribund entertainment piers found in coastal resort towns—places in Atlantic City or Santa Monica where you are encouraged to free yourselves of ordinary constraints and waste money on cheap distractions (my favorite is Skee-ball) and synthetic candy and the like.


Why commercialize piers? Not necessarily for their natural beauty, though that can be impressive—I like staring out into the awesome nothingness, the endless horizon, as much as anyone. It’s seductive on several levels, as piers strain and stretch to extend those horizons for us, even if it’s for only a few feet. But as with malls and casinos, piers are disorienting places, making them ideal for separating people from their money. According to the article, pier owners turned away from a strategy of exclusivity to instead cater to ordinary people, believing that they “could profit instead from the mob’s adventurousness: that sense of being in limbo, neither on sea nor on land, suspended in a state of fantasy.”


Because piers are classic liminal spaces—suspended between land and sea, breeching a conceptual boundary immutable categories—the article suggests this creates an opportunity for a “sense of self-discovery” but it is also a place where you know you have reached the end of the line—hence the frequency with which people attempt suicide from them. If one doesn’t opt for that direction, it can be reassuring to know that at that point, there is no other direction to go in but the way back. Retracing the same ground can be tedious, or a kind of tacit admission of defeat, but not at the end of a pier. Then, I accept that there is no shame in going back from where I came.


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Thursday, Dec 27, 2007


No critic can see every movie in a single year. There are only 365 days from 1 January to 31 December (366 with that added leap), and even if you saw two movies a day, you’d barely get through the entire 2007 release calendar. Someone with much more time on their hands calculated that over 750 films were offered over the last 52 weeks - nearly 15 per 7 day cycle. That includes direct to DVD entries, long shelved titles finally seeing a perfunctory distribution, and standard Cineplex offerings. Toss in a few ‘yet to find a release’ efforts and those given a mere limited showcase for award consideration and you can see how the numbers add up. SE&L struggled to see 125 films theatrically this year - that’s just over 10 a month. When you add in digital releases and other options (pay per view), the number moves closer to 250.


Still, we didn’t see everything - and as a result, we didn’t get a chance to review everything. Yet over the next five Fridays (with the occasional break for a noteworthy new 2008 film), we will try and play catch-up. These left-overtures, made to guarantee a more informed, inclusive assessment of 2007 will cover heretofore unknown documentaries, several celebrated movies that simply slipped through the cracks, and more than a few unknown quantities. First up, however, are four highly anticipated and high profile releases. Each one stands as a significant part of the current cinematic calendar, and no overview of the year in film would be complete without at least a marginal discussion. Granted, a few of the remaining major titles will get the full review treatment (There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but this section hopes to address the more glaring aesthetic gaps quickly and efficiently. It all begins with:


Once [rating: 8]
Once is a nearly flawless little film - emphasis on the word ‘little’. It’s not out to tell a grandiose tale of unrequited love or star-crossed passion. Instead, it lets lonely people - in this case, a struggling street musician and an earnest immigrant from the Czech Republic - discover each other, connect, and then slowly drift apart. It uses songs to tell of their growing affection and respect, and the music also fills in the blanks regarding emotional context and personal angst. There is a real familial texture to the film - writer/director John Carney was in a band with lead actor/featured busker Glen Hansard, and the lead collaborated with actress Markéta Irglová on several of the key numbers. Performed live, with as much raw power and synergy as possible within a very low budget scheme, what we wind up with is an epic told in incomplete lyric lines, a classic fable forged out of slowly strummed guitar, lilting piano, and strained, struggling voices.


Both Hansard and Irglová deserve a lot of credit for how open and honest they are, artistically speaking. Music is a tough undercurrent in any film, its sonic significance meaning the world to some, a cloying, clumsy conceit to others. Here, Carney lets it do most of the heavy lifting, leaving his actors time to bring the nuances of the narrative to life. There are dozens of memorable scenes here - Hansard playing his songs (for the first time, supposedly) to his dad, the hastily cobbled together band impressing a hardened studio exec. - but it’s the morbid, moving tunes scattered throughout that leave the biggest impression. If you’re hoping for overblown romance set inside an equally grandiose or glamorous setting, Once will fail to deliver (Ireland is very cold and claustrophobic here). Love is not the main driving force between these two empty souls. As a matter of fact, both believe they can overcome the sentiment’s inherent limits and rediscover (or restart) it’s fire. No, what this film wants to champion is the collaboration in creativity, and how substantial (and superficial) it can be. For Once, it’s wonderful.


The Kite Runner [rating: 6]
It would take a viewer with the aesthetic skills of an Olympian to overcome the horrendous hurdles placed in entertainment’s way by this well-meaning but misguided adaptation of the famed bestseller. First and foremost, the story is full of purposeful convolutions. Events happen without rhyme, reason or clear set-up, simply stated for automatic acceptance and rote response. Characters aren’t dimensional - they’re mechanical, purposely created to fit certain narrative demands and manipulative paradigms. Our lead is a coward - and never changes from youth to adulthood. And child rape and sexual abuse are the poisonous plotpoints du jour. While many who love Khaled Hosseini’s novel will be happy with the adaptation (many of the main beats have been kept almost intact), fans unfamiliar with the tale of two boys - well off Amir and servant boy Hassan - living life in a pre-Soviet/Taliban Afghanistan will wonder why everything has to be so cruel. Seeing older kids bully younger ones is standard schoolyard shtick. Letting those threats end up in sodomy and defilement seems outrageous, and without proper dramatic foundation.


The Kite Runner is indeed a film dense with cultural disconnect. Perhaps if filmmaker Marc Forster had abandoned the books manipulative material and dealt with the elements of the story that were really interesting (what happened to the young victim during the reign of the Soviets and the rise of Islamic extremism) instead of focusing on the mopey, depressed, guilt ridded Amir, we’d feel more engaged. The featured transition from whiny kid to dour adult is neither compelling nor credible. Even when given the chance to fight for what he wants toward the end of the story, he lets another little boy do the defending. While the kite tournament material is intriguing (even with all the obvious CGI sophistication) and the history harrowing, Forster can’t find a way to make the many divergent threads work in complete consort. The end result feels incomplete, missing important moments and a real message. While it’s wonderful to see the Middle East painted in less than jingoistic images, the parts don’t add up to a substantial sum. This is one Runner that stumbles before hitting the finish line.


Atonement [rating: 8]
For those of you who miss the bodice ripping regality of a good old fashioned period piece weeper, Atonement will fulfill your Merchant/Ivory five hankies hankering quite nicely. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s beloved novel, and dealing with a love that transcends Earthly trappings (like class, law, and war), we witness the story of destined lovers James McAvoy (as Robbie Turner, the educated servant’s son) and Keira Knightley (as upper crust babe Cecilia Tallis). Skittering around the fringes is jealous tween Briony, longing for the much older man she can’t have and jealous of a sister whose much more refined and beautiful than she. During a dinner party, the child witnesses something that sets her off. One false accusation later and Robbie is in jail, Cecilia has disowned her family, and Hitler is invading France. The film then fast forwards to a world ravaged by conflict as the couple attempts to get back together (he’s a soldier, she’s a nurse). Along the way we get reminders, both subtle and starkly repugnant, that nothing in a time of international crisis ends up sunshine and secret rendezvous by the sea.


If there is one glaring flaw in this otherwise faultless film, it’s the character of Briony. She’s a monster, more brazen Bad Seed in her purposeful destruction than scared, green-eyed innocent. We watch her, soulless sense of entitlement driving her to acts of unconscionable cruelty, and wonder if she’ll ever be redeemed (or as the title suggests, held accountable for her numerous sins). The answer, sadly, is no. Even when Vanessa Redgrave shows up two hours later to give the girl an older, wiser veneer, we still see someone who barely comprehends how horrendous their actions really were. Luckily, Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright distracts us with lots of amazing cinematic statements. There’s an incredible tracking shot that follows Robbie and his fellow soldiers through a Hellish maze of military mayhem along a French coastline, and the final images of our long suffering lovers are simply stunning. Yet one can’t help but feel the impenetrable pall cast by Briony over the entire affair. It’s a necessary contrivance to keep the plot moving (and the tragedy fertile), but without a sense of justice, Atonement just doesn’t pay its penance. It turns a potentially magnificent movie into something that’s merely good.


Juno [rating: 8]
Juno is a snarky afterschool special for the Pinkberry crowd. It’s Knocked Up for the non-Britney brigade. It’s a movie with its own built in sense of Mystery Science Theater 3000 self-referential satire and one of the brightest humoresques in a genre stumbling for a rebirth. Some may see it as the nu-millennial notion of irony as genuine wit taken to ungodly extremes, and others will read the name “Diablo Cody” on the credits (born Brook Busey, she’s the screenwriter swimming in all the Tinsel Town juice right now) and wince at the proto-porn moniker. Yet as with any fairytale, no matter how supposedly nascent, you have to take the flights of fancy with the familiar. After all, this is the story of a teenage gal (the title trooper, played to perfection by Ellen Page) getting pregnant, and no one really having a conniption as a result - clearly a work of fabulist fiction. Deciding against abortion and going for the other “A” word (adoption), our hyper-spunky heroine looks for the perfect parents. Thus begins the film’s biggest paradigm: who makes the best parent - the cool guy who loves alternative rock and exploitation gore films, or the stuck up career woman who emotionally understands the burden of a baby. Tough call.


Yet thanks to Cody’s quirky dialogue, driven by one too many games of Trivial Pursuit and a couple of correspondence courses from the Quentin Tarantino School of Slam Speak, and Page’s flawless manipulation of said mouthfuls, we sail along on rays of Kevin Smithey sunbeams. Director Jason Reitman doesn’t let his outward love of Wes Anderson’s static tableaus undermine the mirth. Instead, his is a cinematic comic timing practically bred into his DNA (his Dad is Stripes/Ghostbusters’ Ivan). With equally engaging work from an all star cast - JK Simmons, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney - and a story which sells none of its problematic potential short, we wind up with something that’s smart, sassy, a tad too big for its broadminded britches, and a clear companion piece to the year’s other kings of much cruder comedy. In a world where every underage choice gets its own issue oriented movie of the week on Lifetime, Oxygen, or a combination of the two, Juno’s jaded joking is a breath of really fresh air. It stands as one of 2007’s brightest, best - and frequently, most baffling.


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Wednesday, Dec 26, 2007


From time to time, SE&L will step back and let the Tinsel Town marketing machine do what they do best – tantalize and tease us with clever coming attraction previews and trailers. The five films focused on this time around represent some highly anticipated future outings, including the latest from cinematic stalwarts like Will Smith, Christopher Nolan, and the elusive Wachowski Brothers. Every few weeks, we’ll take a break from casting our critical eye over the motion picture artform and let the shill do the talking. And of course, once they do open in theaters, you can guarantee we will be there, deciphering whether the come-on matches the context. In any event, enjoy:


Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Guillermo Del Toro returns to the comic book genre with this sequel to his superb take on Mike Mignola’s classic character.


The Dark Knight
It’s Batman vs. The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s continuing reconfiguration of the super hero film. Looks amazing.


Speed Racer
Talk about eye candy! The minds behind The Matrix update the Japanese animation icon with some stunning visual flair.


Sex and the City
For some, this is a big “who cares?”, but fans of the fiery femme foursome can’t help but wonder what this big screen adaption will bring.


Be Kind, Rewind
After taking on an abandoned NYC this winter, Will Smith returns to summer as a reluctant superhero with a really bad reputation. Hmmm…



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Wednesday, Dec 26, 2007

Just a quick note that my list of best music journalism of ‘07 will appear in PopMatters in a few weeks- I’m makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice, etc..  As for New Year’s resolutions… I want to try to keep concentrating on my writing and editing so that hopefully I’ll become better at each (which means my reissue project work is still on hiatus).  Also, I’ll try to make a better effort not to be too disgusted and snobby about mainstream artists with abhorrent personalities- after all, I do like Amy Winehouse but I draw the line at Britney.  Hopefully, I can also report here about some positive things happening in the biz and some good role models instead of just ranting about the evils of the RIAA or FCC (which should both go to hell and burn).  Have a good holiday and I’ll see you online in ‘08.


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