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by Rob Horning

30 Oct 2008

I am very happy that the pro-sports team that I care about the most, the Philadelphia Phillies, won the World Series last night, something I have often doubted I would ever see again. Their triumph seemed to vindicate a by-the-book approach, as “baseball lifer” Charlie Manuel, the Phillies manager, stuck to familiar recipes for success and trusted his players to perform, while opposing manager Joe Maddon, regarded as a kind of baseball intellectual primarily because he wears distinctive 1950s-scientist eyeglasses, tried some unconventional moves that ultimately didn’t pan out.

It’s a novel experience for me to have the baseball season end with my team winning the last game played, but what I’ll probably remember from the season is less that sense of total relief when it’s finally over but the recognition of the passive spectator’s impotence that grows as the stakes get higher for the team you’re rooting for. As the Phillies progresses through the playoffs, I became more and more superstitious, assigning significance to entirely meaningless aspects of my life—which door did I enter work? which train did I ride to my friend’s apartment to watch the game? which chair did I sit in? what beer glass did I use?—as if these things would have an impact on the outcome of games. I desperately wanted to feel like what I was doing mattered to something that had become (perhaps disproportionately) important to me, but the more important the games were, the more desperate my ludicrous magical thinking would have to become. But it’s only when the Phillies secured the last out and they were celebrating in a pile on the field did it struck me with a bolt of undeniable clarity that my watching had nothing to do with it. My sense of agency had left me completely, and I was filled with pure vicariousness, a peculiar baseless pride that is bound up uniquely with participating in mass fandom. It’s exhilarating but also sort of scary.

I’ll probably forget that feeling as it is replaced with nostalgia for what just happened, and agency will be restored to me in the way I describe the big plays and the peculiar way I felt about them as they happen. I’ll turn the Phillies’ World Series win into a story about me, for anyone who’s willing to listen.

by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008

It’s been easy to dismiss Guy Ritchie as of late. The soon to be former Mr. Madonna has done little outside the limelight to distinguish himself, and the career choices he’s made since marrying the Material Girl, are suspect to say they least. He bombed with both his remake of Swept Away and the lame Las Vegas heist pic Revolver. Now Madge is pulling the plug, and Ritchie appears reinvigorated. While no one will mistake it for anything remotely original - especially in light of his two international hits Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - Rocknrolla represents a true return to form. Inventive while staying exactly the same, Ritchie reminds us that his kind of cock-up comic crime thriller can be incredibly satisfying…and why he was once its UK king.

A local gang known as the Wild Bunch has been pulling off the odd crime for years. Consisting of One Two, Mumbles, and Handsome Bob, they usually find themselves butting heads with local crime lord Lenny Cole and his right hand man Archie. When a building business deal goes bad, the Bunch find themselves in debt big time - and Cole is holding the bill. So they take a job robbing a Russian financier. Tipped off by his sexy accountant Stella, they succeed in scoring and paying Lenny back. Only problem is, the Russian was doing business with…you guessed it, and now all parties plans are going sour. But that’s not the only problem. Lenny’s estranged son Johnny Quid, an addict ex-rocker, has stolen the Russian’s lucky painting, and won’t give it back. 

Decidedly darker than previous Ritchie offerings, Rocknrolla struts and preens like a chuffed chart-topper with a debilitating drug habit should. It features fascinating performances from a rogue’s gallery of expected talent and twists its fairly straightforward storyline into an often multifarious collection of contrivances. Yet whenever we doubt the narrative, whenever the characters create chaos where a simple set of phone calls or face to face meetings would have sufficed, we get Ritchie’s patented Tarantino-isms, and all is right with the cinematic world. It’s been a while since someone came along with such blatant Pulp fictionalization. That trend seemed to die out during the first half of the second Bush Administration. But Ritchie still revels in it, and after seeing this stunning example of same, who could disagree.

As usual, the director finds a cast who can take his flights of fancy and run like Olympic sprinters. Gerard Butler drops his 300 gruff and turns on the Scot stock charm to give One Two some compelling criminal cheek. His equally impressive accomplice, Idris Elba, makes Mumbles more than just a smooth talking tough. Elsewhere along the mobster bandwagon, Tom Wilkinson goes bald and ballsy as a bribe and buyout businessman who controls the London construction racket, while Mark Strong plays his right hand man muscle. With the added attraction of a seductive Thandie Newton as an untrustworthy bean counter, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Jeremy Pevin as a couple of Yank music managers, and various flawless bit players, Ritchie finds the right individuals for his outsized sense of character.

But it’s Toby Kebbell as former superstar and current junkie Johnny Quid that gives Rocknrolla its titular tidal wave. Walking around like a member of Romero’s zombie horde, and running his mouth in a spellbinding combination of pharmaceutical philosophy and insanity, he steals every scene that he’s in, and even lifts a few in his absence. Quid is Ritchie’s cinematic Ace, a card he plays whenever things get too familiar and unfocused. As he denigrates his fellow crackheads, calling them out for their personality flaws and lack of loyalty, we watch a man slowly destroying himself - and not giving a good goddamn in the process. Kebbell has been impressive before. He was excellent in the Joy Division/Ian Curtis bio-pic Control. But Rocknrolla should be considered his break out role, and as is typical of this kind of splash, he destroys the thing.

It’s a shame that Ritchie lost his way in a private world of public pop star surreality. There are moments in Rocknrolla that remind us of why we championed the English agent provocateur just a few short years ago. When One Two and Mumbles are being pursued by a pair of wacked out Russian assassins, the clever use of close-ups (with what appears to be cameras attached directly to the actors) draws us in to the characters’ foot chase desperation. Similarly, obvious wipes and dissolves distill the numerous competing plotpoints into sketchpad snacks - easily digested and dealt with. The remaining red herrings - what happens to Stella, where Johnny goes post-parental confrontation - are given the tricky “to be continued” treatment. Yet if the next phase of Rocknrolla is as rip-snorting as the first, we won’t really care.

In fact, it’s safe to say that once the tabloids have lost interest in the Kabbalah Queen’s ex and focus instead on where the over the hill femme fame whore is now storing her pointed bras, Guy Ritchie can get back to the business of making the kind of movies that signaled his anarchic arrival in the first place. Some may complain about the pacing, or the incredibly complicated nature of the narrative, but Rocknrolla is the kind of film that gets better as it goes along. It just begs for multiple viewing, if only to catch everything going on. Initially, we are confused by the cheats and swindles. But as the huckster dust clears, Ritchie’s real gifts as a moviemaker help us over the rough bits. They say divorce is always hardest on the kids. Thankfully, film fans seem immune from such custodial horrors. In addition, a newfound clarity usually accompanies any great purge. With Madonna gone, Guy Ritchie is reborn - and Rocknrolla is his bad-ass baptismal.

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

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