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Friday, Sep 28, 2007

When preachers preach about the deadly sins (gluttony and whatnot), it’s difficult for them to do so without getting into at least some description. The impact of a sermon fulminating about the depraved sins of the flesh would lose some of its oomph if the preacher in question—eyes bulging and lips flecked with righteous spittle, of course—left out the juicy details. The flock must understand what exactly is so wrong about whoring and debauching, and where and how these luscious sins are being enacted, if they’re to properly avoid them.


We who consider ourselves part of (or at least neighbors to) the intelligentsia tend not to go in for such déclassé spectacles, but we have our own ways of finding out about what happens in the dark crevices of society. There’s well-meaning documentaries, of course, not to mention HBO Undercover, and, least we forget, National Public Radio. Peter Sagal, the host of NPR’s Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me! takes a page—well, whole chapters, really—from Dan Savage’s blueprint for Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America for his guide to the nation’s seamy under(and over)belly: The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to Do Them).


Pretty much just like in Savage’s book, Sagal takes readers on a humorous tour through all manner of activities traditionally considered sinful, from lust (swinging) to gluttony (insanely high-end dining). Like Savage, Sagal is a quick wit, and he has no illusions about his own ability to fit into the various subcultures he comes across (at a swingers party: “In a lifetime in which I’ve been to all kinds of sexual marketplaces—bars, parties—this was the first time that I was going to get ignored because I wouldn’t put out”). But whereas Savage is an alt-media journalist and stiff-spined defender of personal freedoms and liberties who brings an acid touch to his writing, Sagal doesn’t really have that much of an agenda here, he’s just the public radio smartass who wants to have a good time and make a book out of it.


Sagal is certainly an intrepid enough guide to his (not so) lowly endeavors, whether it’s the soulless “fun” of strip clubs or that time he won $157 playing blackjack in one of Vegas’ lesser casinos. Being a radio host who needs to keep his own amidst all those college types listening to NPR, he’s quick with the quips, and even tosses off some borderline insightful cultural commentary along the way (as well as some helpful and well-learned advice: when going to strip clubs, “bring along some female Ph.D.‘s in sociology”). But the pleasures here are relatively thin and fleeting, made all the more so by a self-satisfied tone that veers too often into smugness. It’s one thing for Sagal to have the commendable honesty to point out that many of our society’s commonly accepted vices are, in fact, not that fun at all (like the $750 dinner at Chicago’s food-fantasy headquarters, Alinea), and quite another for him to have traveled to the dark side and come back with little to report.


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Friday, Sep 28, 2007


Here it is, the last Viewer Discretion Advised before SE&L settles in for its annual examination of horror in all its many film-oriented facets. As usual, the pay cable channels are challenging the very notions of quality, providing limp action, dull drama, and uninspired comedy as its main cinematic starting points. Only a fascinating look back at the War at Home circa 1945 holds any worthwhile allure. Things aren’t much better on the Indie and Outsider scene either. It looks like every movie-based network is waiting for the calendar to turn over so they can indulge in a little movie macabre thrills and chills. So play it safe this weekend – tune in to the suggested selection, and then get ready to get your creepy crawly on. You’ll have 31 days of dread before the haunted holiday itself signals an end to all the ghosts and goblins:


Premiere Pick
Flags of Our Fathers


It was an ambitious decision. With the success of Saving Private Ryan and books like The Greatest Generation, Hollywood and the viewing public’s newfound love affair with World War II was about to get a whole lot trickier. Clint Eastwood announced that he intended to take on the Battle of Iwo Jima – one of the conflict’s worst and bloodiest – and present it from two perspectives. The first would be this Western/Allie/American side of the story, with that famous photo of the flag raising beginning the dramatic dissertation. From there, the hero worship accompanying the soldiers, plus the search for the real story behind the shot, are given an equally evocative treatment. For many this was the lesser of Eastwood’s daunting double feature. The all Japanese Letters from Iwo Jima would be considered the material’s masterpiece. Still, this is a wonderful motion picture, addressing issues not usually associated with a war movie. (29 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Miami Vice


Michael Mann’s uninspired update of his seminal ‘80s TV series avoids all of the arch art direction and soundtrack spoils that gave the MTV-inspired crime drama its signatures. Instead, we getting Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx doing Scarface for an audience more interested in pastels and Glen Frey than undercover acrobatics and moral indecision. (29 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

Running with Scissors


Movies based on books run the risk of angering more than one demographic. You have devotees to the tome, individuals hoping for complete authenticity. On the other hand, you’ve got film fans who just want an engaging entertainment. This adaptation of Augusten Burroughs autobiographical work satisfied neither. It missed too many of the memoir’s finer points, substituting obvious quirk in their place. (29 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

Failure to Launch


Here’s a weird idea for a romantic comedy – let’s focus on the adventures of an amiable slacker who won’t leave home, even after he hooks up with a socially acceptable hottie. Matthew McCanaughy is the likeable sponge. Sarah Jessica Parker is the horse-faced catalyst who’s supposed to inspire, and then spring him. It’s all very touchy feely and phony as Hell. (29 September, Showtime, 8:15PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Kill Your Idols


Kill Your Idols starts off with a stellar premise for a documentary. Hoping to trace the history and growth of the No Wave scene in mid ‘70s New York, director S. A. Crary rounds up a few of the usual suspects – and a couple we desperately hope to hear from – and turns the camera on their open, opinionated selves. For anyone who grew up in the period, only ‘hearing’ about artists like Lydia Lunch or Suicide from their more hip and haughty pals, this is a chance to get in on the ground floor of the significant sonic movement and see what all the fuss was about. In many ways, this approach will probably copy your reaction to this fine, fragmented film. On the one hand, you will definitely find these aging musical anarchists an intriguing and engaging bunch. But there will be folks who hear the racket these reasonable people made and bristle at such an atonal attack. For them, no amount of erudition can make up for their lack of melody. (01 October, Sundance Channel, 11PM EST)

Additional Choices
American Splendor


Paul Giamatti is writer Harvey Pekar, a miserable man who channels his angst into the title comic. Along with friend Toby Radloff (the genuine nerd of Cleveland, Ohio), they work as file clerks for the VA. This astounding biopic follows the cult figure’s rise to prominence…and the pitfalls along the way.  (01 October, IFC, 9PM EST)

Debbie Does Dallas Uncovered


One of hardcore’s penultimate titles gets a documentary breakdown thanks to director Francis Hanly’s overview. This is really nothing more than a UK look at America’s obsession with smut, an episode from Channel 4’s sensational The Dark Side of Porn. Still, it definitely deserves a look. (02 October, Sundance Channel, 2AM EST)

Dahmer


He remains an icon of evil, a man so disturbed that he could only satisfy his psychosexual cravings via vivisection and cannibalism. When he was caught, the slaughterhouse state of his apartment indicated a darkness much deeper than anyone thought. Too bad this small indie effort fails to capture any of these elements. (03 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Circle of Iron


In an ADD hampered cinematic society which thinks films like Crank and The Transporter are too restrained, this elemental Bruce Lee vanity project (which was completed posthumously after the noted Asian action star died) will appear almost comatose. But if you get into the mellow mood being presented, and actually listen to the many maxims offered up, you will definitely be engaged both visually and metaphysically. For many, Lee continues to be batted back and forth, marginalized and sanctified by critics on both sides of the conversations. Still, it’s clear that his impact on martial arts in the movies remains as strong as ever. No film featuring kung fu, karate, or any other form of Eastern training can make it into theaters without bowing to the man who more or less formed their commercial viability. While Circle of Iron won’t diminish his earnest reputation, it also won’t amplify it. Instead, it remains an individualized endeavor lacking its true inspiration. (01 October, Flix, 12:45AM EST)

Additional Choices
Bikers Beware!


It’s Billy Jack vs. Marlon Brando as TCM’s Underground brings chopper riding reprobate to the late night audience. Both movies here – The Born Losers and The Wild One – have been featured before, so if you love ‘em, here’s your chance to enjoy them all over again. If you’ve never seen them, you’re in for some remarkable man vs. motorcycle madness. (05 October, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Red Shoes


British auteur Michael Powell and his longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger created this decidedly adult take on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, and critics have been beside themselves ever since. Remarkable in its use of color and art design, yet equally imposing in its acting and dance performance, this is a masterpiece for the ages. (30 September, Retroplex, 11:40PM EST)

The Capture of Grizzly Adams


Okay, so it’s a TV movie. Sue us. We here at SE&L just can’t get enough of Dan Haggerty’s hokey mountain man persona, and this old fashioned melodrama has enough wonderfully weepy elements to push all of our guilty pleasure buttons. Come on – it’s got wrongful accusations and kids being threatened by a trip to the orphanage. How can you say no? (02 October, Drive In Classics Canada, 10:30PM EST)

 


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Friday, Sep 28, 2007


Apparently, people just can’t be ‘people’ in the movies. Gone are the days when individual idiosyncrasy and outright character quirks gauged a personality. Now – or at least in the universe of the post-modern motion picture – issues outside a human being must dominate who they are. A person whose father is a drunkard, who used heroin in the past, and dreams of a life where material wealth will fulfill every single one of his heart’s desires, doesn’t process said problems and then convert them into an overt philosophy. Instead, they are solely defined by them, limited in cinematic scope to be hobbled by such insurmountable social hurdles. The new film by two time Oscar winner Robert Benton, Feast of Love, is a veritable smorgasbord of such ills-defined scrubs. What wants to be a multifaceted look at how emotion moves and manages us becomes a cardboard collection of movie of the week warning signs.


What we have here is a story where everyone is carved out of crisis. Professor Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman) is all broke up inside since the death of his son. While his wonderful wife Esther (Jane Alexander) tolerates his moods, she’s desperate to see him back in the classroom. While on extended leave, he frequents a local Portland coffee shop (Jitters – tee hee) run by the unlucky in love owner Bradley (Greg Kinear). Having recently lost his wife (Selma Blair) to a lesbian lover, he’s empty and vulnerable. Still, he hopes to find love, and believes he may have when he meets real estate agent Diana (Radha Mitchell). Unfortunately, she’s not the faithful friend he thinks she is. Elsewhere amongst the staff, young barista Oscar (Toby Hemingway) has just fallen head over heels with little girl lost Chloe (Alexa Davalos). In an odd twist of fate, the energetic couple has two massive burdens to overcome. One is his drunken, dangerous father Bat (Fred Ward). Hers is a psychic prediction that Oscar is destined to die.


Human interaction just doesn’t get this overstuffed. If Feast of Love was indeed a food, it would be a purposeless pan pizza decorated with every topping on the melodrama menu and extra schmaltz inserted into the talky, twice baked crust.  Instead of simplifying the story to make everything crystal clear and highly important, Benton believes in getting lost in untold undercurrents. No one is just discontented – they are plagued by literal curses. Happiness doesn’t come from simply being together. No, couples must copulate and spend endless minutes spooning in pre/post sexual congress to illustrate their attraction. Replete with social suckers and lustful losers, this is a movie of misfits, a film better suited as a cautionary example vs. a work of celluloid substance. If we could get a handle on what this director was aiming for, that would be one thing. But the way this sappy story is told, the parts never create a significant sum.


At first, we feel this will be a tale about redemption. Freeman, who basically wears dignity and grace on his brilliantly aging face, could be the center of an intriguing take on forgiving one’s flaws and accepting the horrors of the past. His character has the most inner stability, the most well rounded relationship, and offers more advice than doctors Phil and Laura put together. Unfortunately, he’s one of those ‘unable to practice what he preaches’ teachers. For every beneficial bon mot he gives out, he spends another sleepless night blaming himself for this son’s demise. It’s a tentative situation, one that could easily unsettle a viewer hoping to see something other than 100 minutes of self pity. But Freeman pries more out of his moments than the sloppy script (by Autumn in New York scribe Allison Burnett) actually offers. Sadly, he’s the only actor who can.


On the opposite end of this paradigm is the pathetic Greg Kinnear. It’s unclear what’s more upsetting about his Bradley character – the fact that he’s such a clueless sap, or that this noted performer can’t find a way to play him properly. Maybe in the hands of a more gifted, or daring star, we’d have something to hang onto. But Kinnear actually buys into this guy’s good natured denseness. In a surreal seduction scene where wife Selma Blair is getting mentally bi-curious with a Sappho softball player, our hapless lead sits back and smiles like he’s just let the world’s biggest fart. It doesn’t help matters that every line of dialogue he’s given sounds like a passage from the dimwitted optimist’s primer. We’re supposed to view his unbelievable blind faith as something good. But when it comes out of Kinnear’s mouth, it sounds downright desperate – and rather pathetic.


Part of the problem is the screenplay. It feels like Burnett simply skimmed the chapter headings of Charles Baxter’s book and then inserted emotional signposts from a Lifetime Original Movie. In other instances, she leaves characters so vacant that others must try to fill in their blanks. As Oscar, the dreamer with a Dad who’s consistently two and three quarter sheets to the wind, Toby Hemingway is all tribal tattoo - and that’s it. His after-sex speech about dreams and fantasies sounds like the incoherent ravings of a well potted weed head. This means that Chloe, as essayed by a decent Alexa Davalos must do all the heavy cinematic lifting. Not only do we have to believe in her amiable if aimless gal, but we rely on her to provide her partner with some manner of sympathy. After all, we learn he’s going to die about halfway through the film, so in order to make that event (if it ever comes) resonate, there’s got to be some identification or empathy there.


But Feast of Love will have none of that. Instead, it aims for the little plastic tips at the end of your heartstrings and hopes that by slightly nicking them, the inadvertent and ever so slight tugging will leave you satisfied. In fact, all it really does is make us angry. When the Professor reaches out to Chloe, when Diana’s man whore boy toy calls her the C-word and slaps her face, the movie actually offers up some life. We sense a spark that other sequences have no intention or ability of creating. Even worse, the intersecting narrative with its Altman-esque sense of scope destroys any real sense of drama. Since Benton isn’t out to replicate said American auteur’s epic nature (the running time is kept to a bare focus group friendly minimum) and hopes to keep each important thread in its own isolated arena, elements that should help are left hanging. It says a lot about this film that Kinnear and Freeman end up living next door to each other, yet that fact vanishes from our memory almost immediately.


In truth, it’s hard to assess what would help this haphazard effort. Perhaps if Benton had tossed aside the entire same sex subplot and made Kinnear’s character less of a cuckold king. Maybe Fred Ward’s drunk on a rampage routine could have been scaled back or simply excised. Did we really need the nauseating meet-cute moment when Chloe and Oscar make cow eyes at each other while the Professor predicts their Greek god-like level of love? Even the ‘dog bribe’ bit was a pointless exercise in tacky tween greed. When viewed through all these flawed facets, Feast of Love comes across as a budget buffet instead of a banquet. Baxter’s inspiration for his novel was apparently a reworking of the Bard’s celebrated A Midsummer’s Night Dream. One thing’s for sure – this isn’t Shakespeare. It’s barely Benton, when you come to think of it.



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Friday, Sep 28, 2007

“I’ve decided to keep singing this song until it becomes true,” Steve Earle told a crowd at Town Hall in New York a few nights ago at a solo show before launching into his song “Jerusalem”.  Earle’s song is hopeful in the face of horrific events, imaging a time without war and conflict.  Most realists will tell that you that human nature being what it is, that ain’t gonna happen.  And yet for someone as grizzled, angry and cantankerous as Earle, he still believes that it’s possible and he won’t give up wishing for it, singing that song again and again as a reminder to himself and to us about what’s possible if we really put our minds and hearts to it.


Less than a week before that, Nick Lowe was also doing a solo show in New York, playing at World Trade Center Park, literally in the shadow of Ground Zero.  After going through a set of songs from his new album (what he called “the difficult part of the show”), he regaled the crowd with some great oldies like “Heart of the City” and “Cruel to Be Kind”. And then towards the end, he told the crowd “I look forward to a time that it’s not necessary to sing this song” and then sang ”(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”.  The tune’s made its way into many places including Elvis Costello’s powerfully disturbing album Armed Forces (where it ended the record), the Whitney Houston blockbuster movie soundtrack for The Bodyguard (where Lowe was pleasantly surprised to get a huge paycheck from it), the original done by Lowe’s early ‘70s pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz and a recent cover by the wonderful down home group, the Holmes Brothers, who opened for Lowe at the show.


Like many others, I always assumed that Nick the Knife was making fun of hippies when he did that song.  Judging by his intro though, he was dead serious about it.  Like Earle, he sings his song as a reminder of what might be possible if we all did the impossible and embraced “sweet harmony”.  I honestly wish them both good luck and admire them both for dreaming as they do.  I also hope that there does come a day when neither of them have to sing those great songs.


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Thursday, Sep 27, 2007


The current War on Terror offers some tenuous propositions at best, perhaps the most confusing being the President’s preemptive belief that we are “fighting them there to avoid fighting them here”. While such a stance is all well and good – and guaranteed to please the sanctimonious and security minded – it fails to fully address the notion of safety for our citizenry abroad. While Baghdad has become the main battlefield, radicals are still blowing up hotels, destroying bars and discotheques, and occasionally combating Uncle Sam on his own military turf. The 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut and the 1998 US Embassy disaster in Africa proves that, while 9/11 remains a monumental tragedy in the history of our nation, fanatical fundamentalists will continue to strike at those who their twisted dogma determines deserve it.


And when they do, here’s hoping that the maverick FBI team at the center of Peter Berg’s controversial action thriller The Kingdom are called to duty. In a world no longer clearly drawn along good guy/bad guy lines, this sensational adrenaline pumper plays by some mighty black and white rules. When an American oil facility in Saudi Arabia becomes the scene of a devastating terrorist attack, our nation’s number one law enforcement agency wants to investigate. Unfortunately, the secretive Arab country has a closed door policy when it comes to outsiders participating in crime scene scrutiny.


This doesn’t stop Special Agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) from gathering a team consisting of specialists Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). With a little blackmail persuasion to the Saudi embassy, the FBI is allowed in. They are given five days, and the help of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom), to observe and then leave. Naturally, the Americans’ presence, along with the evidence they uncover, puts their own lives in mortal danger. And as foreigners on unfriendly soil, there is no guarantee of protection.


Brazen in its “all Muslims are evil” philosophy and unrepentant in showing the carnage that results from such a simplified stance, The Kingdom is like a James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration where neither party is participating. It’s manipulative, manic, and just a tad manufactured. It raises more issues than it ever wants to address, and boils all Middle Eastern culture down to a series of backwards belief systems. Granted, as in all stereotyping, there are snippets of truth here and there, and when dealing with a crime that is merely mimicking actual events that have played out before, truth is a defense to such defamatory stances. But what’s most fascinating about The Kingdom is how readily we buy into the jingoism, and how satisfying it is to see our brave men and women kick some true believer butt.


One does have to get over the hurdle of the opening atrocities, however. Without giving too much away, this pre-planned attack will shoot at single mothers, run over children, blow-up ball players and, eventually, elevate all three to something almost impossible to comprehend. The scale of this event is massive, and its impact on an audience used to only seeing the aftermath, not the actual incidents, is truly disturbing. Add to this the ineffectual CSI skills of the Saudi police (their main detecting device – beating confessions out of possible co-conspirators) and the basic mentality that what happens in the Arab world stays within the tightly wound region, and you’ve got a perfect storm of storytelling subterfuge. Indeed, everything in Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script is set up to draw a straight line between patriotism and payoff.


Viewed as liberators – at least when it comes to the facts – Jamie Foxx and his group of high profile performers are actually quite believable as crime scene experts. Each gets their own important moment of detecting denouement, with the Oscar winner for Ray running ramshackle over the double talk speaking Arabs. It’s one of Foxx’s best performances, since it’s grounded in a reality that keeps him from being a total swaggering ass. Equally good are Jennifer Garner as a kind of forensics pathologist (she scans corpses for clues) and Chris Cooper, who’s the grizzled yet game old timer who really knows his way around a bomb crater. In combination with Bateman, whose nothing more than a computer nerd novice and a potential last act plot device, we have a no nonsense bunch who’ll get to the bottom of this case. And since the narrative is structured in such a way as to demand retribution, we can’t wait for these champions to divide and conquer.


And they do so in spectacular fashion. Over the course of his career behind the camera, actor Berg has become an accomplished filmmaker. Previous efforts like The Rundown and Friday Night Lights won’t quite prepare you for the motion picture professionalism he shows here. There are several spectacular stunt sequences that rate right up there with the best the genre has to offer, and his ability to mix in shards of humanity speaks to his growing artist acumen. Splitting location work between the United Arab Emirates and Arizona, Berg gets the stifling, hot desert atmosphere down perfectly, and when our leads have to kick it into Rambo mode, the firefights and fisticuffs are just outstanding. Indeed, the ample action and unswerving dedication to ‘Islam as iniquity’ plays right into a mindset fed up with ineffectual polices and gross government negligence.


It will be curious to see if any firestorm actually occurs – though it’s clear that the lack of subtlety probably demands one. After all, if Aladdin can get dragged through the pro-PC fire for its depiction of Arabs, what will a movie that makes all Saudis (except one) suspicious actually earn? Some will argue that entertainment is not reality, and that all villains are exaggerated for the sake of cinematic drama. But there is no buffer here, not even with Barhom’s Col. Al-Ghazi as a like minded Muslim. We are supposed to see his hardworking dedication and determination, and excuse all the extremism. Just as one terrorist fails to speak for an entire populace, the well-meaning and noble cop is in no way indicative of The Kingdom’s kind. Instead, it’s all flared nostrils and anti-American polemics in caustic, copious amounts.


Yet The Kingdom is such a strong entertainment, such a substantial us vs. them example of wish fulfillment that it’s easy to ignore the many mixed messages. Basically, the film is a brutal Wild West shoot ‘em up ported over to the Middle East and given a glossy, post-9/11 reading. It will invigorate the most dormant sense of citizenship, and have you cheering in places that should give you pause. Even the ending stacks the deck in favor of the fallen. It involves a single whispered sentiment, and how its meaning can be manipulated depending on the nature of the individual offering it. After all the cheering and jeering within the audience, it’s a weird way of providing closure. Clearly Berg and Carnahan think it’s clever. They may be the only ones to understand its true meaning. Viewers may misinterpret it as a call to arms.


All of this makes The Kingdom a very curious film. It is beyond thrilling at times and accurately chilling on more than one occasion. It draws on individual instincts so primal and enigmatic that it’s almost automatic in its joy circuits, and offers fictional justice in a circumstance that demands factual fairness for all. There is no excusing the abominations visited on the peaceful peoples of the world by religious-based vigilantes, especially when their target is so random and their rationale so suspect. But The Kingdom wants to correct that corollary by making everyone evil – except the USA, that is. While it’s great for morale, it seems slightly old fashioned for a movie. It’s not the only out of date premise here, which bodes well for your overall enjoyment, if not your overall understanding.



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