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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007




The title is Sartre’s. I conjure it here (first, because I promised in the last entry that I would, but then second, as a way) to suggest that perhaps it takes a French philosopher to explain France. Because this mundane peripatetique can’t.


What I see burbling up around me every day that I step out of my upscale touriste hotel is unrecognizable, inexplicable . . . but infinitely delectable. An image to be desired, to be explored, to be rendered into one’s realm of comprehension. By contrast, Sartre’s conception of “Huis Clos” was a world of dysfunction, of disdain; a dungeon to be shunned, eluded, rebuked. “Huis Clos” meant “No Exit”; but not simply an inability to escape; rather, the impossibility of breaking free from one’s captivity. “Huis Clos” was a euphemism for “hell”; it designated a state in which protagonists were saddled with something they were being punished for; a penalty that they could not tolerate. Huis Clos protagonists were people whose ideas and actions were insufferable, yet remained an inextricable, ineradicable part of existence.


Well, that is simply one idea. Sartre’s jaded view of his own society, likely the result of having (barely) survived a Nazi occupation and was now free to rapple with the consequences… survivors being asked to forgive and forget all and join the emerging world of democratic nations.


Yet, in my rendering, the Paris of the early twenty-first century is none of that. It is simply a space that defies easy understanding. There is easy access—entry—but no clear exit—no simp-e understanding.


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Friday, Jul 27, 2007


With August right around the corner, summer seems to be winding down the way it began – not with a solid cinematic scream, but a minor motion picture whimper. The premium pay cable channels have done little to alleviate the dull, depressing malaise, playing a hopelessly outdated hit and miss game of blockbuster vs. disaster week in and week out. Sure, those disconnected from the rest of the post-modern multimedia machine will be happy just to have said lackluster first run features filling up their coaxial line. But with so many outlets for potential entertainment in the amusement arena, continuing to champion garbage does little to elevate one’s aesthetic position. And it’s a shame. Once pay TV was seen as the hope for home theater enthusiasts. Now it’s a bastion of bad byproduct mixed with the occasional filmic find. The final weekend in July is a perfect example of this ideal. The choices for the 28th do a good job of mirroring the overall options – for good, and definitely for bad:


Premiere Pick
Jet Li’s Fearless


Marketed as action star Jet Li’s last “martial arts” movie, the promoters of this firebrand period piece were actually fibbing, if only a bit. Li has no intention of giving up the well choreographed fighting moves that made him an international superstar. No, this fascinating look at Chinese Master Huo Yuanjia, the founder and spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation, will be the last ‘wushu’ effort the actor attempts. A subgenre of the standard kung fu category, this epic stands as a deeply personal and very powerful work by a man devoted to the subject’s teachings and philosophical perspective. Many have praised this film for its attention to detail, as well as its inclusion of as many different styles of human combat as possible. Thanks to the enigmatic efforts of Ronny Yu behind the camera, Li exemplifies the charisma and the athletic prowess that’s made him a legend. A must-see movie for fans of old school stunt work and pure visual opulence.  (27 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Inside Man


Spike Lee proves he can make mainstream movies just like the rest of Hollywood, resulting in a career rebirth – at least from a commercial standpoint. Featuring excellent performances from Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen, this is big budget, A-list thriller entertainment at its most fresh and ferocious. Along with his work on the amazing Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, 2006 stands as a banner year for the enigmatic director. (27 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Covenant


Where do one time famous filmmakers go when their careers fade into obsolesce and/or oblivion? Apparently, the answer is the hack teen horror genre. This is where you’ll find Renny Harlin, the man behind Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s hard to sink much lower than a movie about male witches, but this occult OC finds the onetime action king treading tenuous waters at best. (27 July, Starz, 9PM EST)


Mad Hot Ballroom


Little kids learning a mature mannerism – a guaranteed documentary crowdpleaser. In this case, we have a program that teaches underprivileged urchins in the toughest sections of New York City the social and disciplinary benefits of professional dancing. Of course, it all ends up centering on a competition to see who’s best, but the journey is more enjoyable – and enlightening - than the final showdown. (27 July, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Cry-Baby


After hitting critical – and commercial – paydirt with his ode to Baltimore circa the early ‘60s (the drop dead brilliant Hairspray), bad taste guru John Waters went back another decade to deliver this, a reimagined juvenile delinquency musical. With rising superstar Johnny Depp in tow, and a clever cast including Iggy Pop, Susan Tyrell, Rikki Lake, Patty Hearst, and notorious porn goddess Traci Lords, the devious director juxtaposed the bohemia brazenness of greaser chic with the uptight terrors of suburban conformity. Stylistic, electrifying, and filled with fabulous music, the film proved that Waters could work within the confines of Hollywood wholesomeness and still deliver an acerbic, witty satire. Now, like its pre-Peace generation counterpart, Broadway is adapting this stellar spoof for the stage. While it can never match the original, more money – and recognition – headed Waters way is an aesthetic plus, anyway you look at it. (31 July, Sundance Channel, 12:00AM EST)

Additional Choices
The Nomi Song


He was the most unusual figure floating around the edges of the New York post punk scene. Yet with his alien appearance and operatic vocals, Klaus Nomi was less a novelty and more an endearing eccentric. Part personal escape, part rock and roll performance art, his undeniable uniqueness meshed with a tragic personal trajectory makes for a monumental cinematic experience. (30 July, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

The Agronomist


Jonathan Demme’s career has always been filled with contradictions. For every serious Hollywood movie he makes – Beloved, Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs – he steps outside the system to direct deeply personal, highly topical documentaries. In the case of this intriguing tale, the filmmaker explains the life and tragic times of Haitian radio personality and human rights activist Jean Dominique. Few knew of this man in his lifetime. After seeing this devastating movie, even less will forget him.  (31 July, IFC, 7:25PM EST)

Quiet Cool


It’s amazing how time tempers even the most caustic opinions. Back in its day, this b-movie action film was considered an off title treat at best, a lame excuse for Tinsel Town thrills at worst. Fast forward twenty years, and it’s now a lost example of independent excellence. James Remar plays a cop who gets in too deep after agreeing to help an old flame. Not the greatest movie ever made, it’s still a fine example of genre experimentation.  (01 August, IFC, 7:45PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dr. Phibes Rises Again


After the shocking success of the 1971 original, star Vincent Price was asked to reprise the title role, a heavily scarred surgeon who, in the first film, sought revenge on the doctors he felt contributed to his wife’s death. Now, with some ancient Egyptian scrolls in tow (and a bigger budget to work with) the sequel ups the camp factor and tones down the supposed terror. The story is basically the same – Phibes is again wronged and wants payback on those who’ve harmed him. But with its wildly imaginative sets and sense of outsized outrageousness, what could have been an ongoing supernatural series ends up exhausting all its ideas at once. Still, one can’t escape the endearing delights of Price in his twilight prime, an actor so filled with good natured gravitas that he could make even the most mediocre material come alive. He proves it here, elevating a routine redux into something quite special.  (29, Drive-In Classics Canada, 10:15PM EST)

Additional Choices
A Bucket of Blood/The Terror


It’s a Roger Corman double feature as Dick Miller plays an artist who discovers the value of “life like” models, while Jack Nicholson gets creeped out at Boris Karloff’s eerie cliff side castle. Both movies are examples of the bottom line oriented producer at his most forward thinking and fun. And when you consider the talent he had both behind and in front of the camera, it’s clear why he’s a legitimate legend even today. (20 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Idolmaker


The ‘50s fascination with the talentless teen idol remains a powerful backdrop for a major motion picture, and yet few have found the creative calling to venture into said Svengali-like territory. In his first major motion picture, Taylor Hackford used the life of rock promoter Bob Marucci as the premise for a gripping tale of stardom unearned, and dreams dashed. It remains one of the best explorations of the era’s exploitation ever captured. (02 August, Indieplex, 6:55PM EST)

Headspace


There’s a clear conundrum awaiting audiences of this unusual horror hybrid. The critical community has been very kind to this tale of a young man whose ever increasing mental capacities begin making his life a literal living hell (complete with demons). Fans who’ve found the film based on said reviews have declared it a useless piece of inappropriately praised junk. Guess audiences at home, intrigued by the premise, will have to decide for themselves. (02 August, The Movie Channel, 1:20AM EST)

 


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Friday, Jul 27, 2007

Don’t you just love Kate McCulley?


NPR’s Talk of the Nation introduced me to her last week, and now I’m officially addicted to her blog, The Grammar Vandal. McCulley is a 22-year-old Bostononian who goes around the city correcting grammar mistakes on signs. Her passion is a beautiful thing. She mentions, openly and honestly, during the NPR interview that “bad grammar is a sign of a person who isn’t educated”, and that she considers herself a “vigilante”. Some of her best work includes sticking as apostrophe adhesive on a sign reading “Professors Row”, and raising a local farmer to hero status on her blog for his correctly-worded “Farmers’ Market Today” sign.


Someone needs to employ this woman to travel the world correcting linguistic wrongs. I’d love for her to clean up my town—we’re constantly choking on, among other things, restaurant menus displaying “hamburger’s”, “parmigana/parmagiana/parmagina”, and even, believe it or not, “sapghetti” (it’s written in huge letters on a walkway!). And I thought it was only backwards hick towns like mine that suffered this level of grammar-cancer.


Fight on, Grammar Vandal! We need you.


 


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Friday, Jul 27, 2007

New York City’s Animal Collective continues to draw fans closer and naysayers further away with their experimental brand of rock. Started in 2000, Animal Collective consists of Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and Geologist. In October 2005, they released Feels, an album met with critical acclaim. Animal Collective’s eight full-length album, Strawberry Jam, will be released September, 2007.


Fireworks from Strawberry Jam:



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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007


You’re gonna hear a lot of talk in the next few days about The Simpsons Movie - and not all of it will focus on the film itself. Some of it will center on Fox’s failed strategy to keep the movie away from critics, and the clandestine, last minute appeals that saw the press finally viewing the finished product the night before it officially opened. Others will question the legitimacy of an effort that flaunts the fact that, as an audience, you are paying for the privilege of seeing something that the boob tube provides for free. Heck, Homer even makes a joke about it. There will be a few who frown on the lax language issue, their favorite family using the mildest of profanities to express some of their concerns. And a couple may complain about the abomination which is animated genitalia.


Well, you can tell all these wannabe experts and misguided moral watchdogs to eat your ever lovin’ shorts. After 18 years on the air and nearly 400 amazing episodes, The Simpsons Movie delivers the entertainment equivalent of a 90 minute greatest hits package. Jam packed with jokes, insider references, unique cameos and characters, and just a smidgen of sentiment and heart, this is the kind of stone cold genius creation old school fans have been longing for and demanding since around Season Four. Indeed, the most striking thing about this luminous bit of social satire is how fully realized and completely linear it is. Most episodes of the series, especially in the last few years, are tangential, vignette oriented, and elliptical. A weird event will trigger another oddball happenstance before the whole things blows back and up in Homer’s fat face. Here, we begin with a basic storyline, and the jokes grow organically and effortlessly from its finely honed foundation.


It all begins with that current crisis du jour – our volatile environment. In typical surreal Simpsons fashion, Homer adopts a pig. When he can’t figure out what to do with his new pet’s “leavings” (to quote wife Marge), he decides to dump an entire silo full of feces in local Lake Springfield. Coincidentally, daughter Lisa has been protesting the continued polluting of this body of water (with the help of her new Irish boy buddy Colin), and the town has placed a moratorium on further befouling, afraid of a horrible natural disaster. Of course, our favorite bald buffoon doesn’t listen to them, and soon, things are at a crisis point. The EPA – under the direction of Chairman Russ Cargill (a hilarious Albert Brooks) and President Schwarzenegger – finally comes up with a plan. It will dome the town, trapping everyone inside forever. Then when things get too bad, they’ll bomb the city. In the meantime, Springfield has driven the Simpsons away, and they begin life anew in Alaska. Yet, even with all the hard feelings, the family can’t resist the urge to return and help save their threatened town.


And just to keep things frisky, there are a couple of clever subplots involving Barts’ growing affection for the Flanders, Grandpa’s religious hissy fit, and Homer’s interaction with the native Inuit peoples of America’s 49th State. Yet instead of distracting us from the main plotline, these asides help us appreciate the level of intelligence and wit the show’s creators carry over into the film. They even add in a very touching moment where Marge speaks from her heart. To any fan of the wonderful voice acting the cast produces on a weekly basis, this heart-rendering reading by Julie Kavner will all but unhinge you. It’s very, very powerful. The rest of the actors are also uniformly excellent, managing to make us care about the outcome of certain situations that, within a cinematic fantasy paradigm aimed directly at the PG-13 demographic, are more or less predetermined from the start. In fact, the script (credited to 15 of the show’s most inspired scribes) does a great job of poking fun at the whole doomsday action adventure genre.


It wouldn’t be The Simpsons without the goofy asides and borderline crude cracks, and leave it to the brains behind the scenes to keep things as imbecilic as possible. Homer doesn’t suddenly grow smarter, or stumble onto the truth after several sincere conversations. Instead, he remains regressive and childlike, amiably screwing things up with a sense of wide-eyed wonder that’s a sidesplitting joy to behold. Similarly, both Bart and Lisa are toned down here, each one getting a solid sequence of their own before giving in to the needs of the narrative. There will be a decided outcry from fringe favoring fans about the lack of extended scenes of Apu, Krusty, Principal Skinner, Mrs. Crabapple, and many others. Indeed, aside from Kent Brockman and the brazen bumpkin Cletus, the rest of Springfield’s citizenry are reduced to perfectly honed cameos – introduced and exploited as needed and necessary. The family members are the real focus.


Are there things here that don’t work? Not really. Hans Zimmer’s score barely stands out above the comedic din, his mundane music cues doing very little until the final confrontation with fate. Similarly, the animation takes a bit of getting used to at first. Fans familiar with Futurama will instantly appreciate the combination of 3D CGI and standard pen an ink cartooning. But it’s still odd to see the Simpsons home swallowed up, Poltergeist style, or a massive deep focus mob containing possibly every character ever conceived for the show. And of course, the continuity police will be up in arms over how Marge and Homer’s marriage has, once again, been reimagined into a familiar formal setting (they eloped, as all true Simpsons savants remember). Yet none of this really matters. In fact, any quibbles over content or approach are incredibly minor when compared to how effortlessly this movie delivers its many, many delights.


On par with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in the way in which a beloved TV series can be broadened and deepened by the cinematic experience, The Simpsons Movie is a major triumph – and that’s saying a lot considering its stance as a creative enterprise overflowing with consistent genius. The direction (by David Silverman) has a decided artistic bent, several shots announcing their compositional and framing freshness with major impact (this happens frequently during the last act). The Inuit dream sequence is especially impressive, riffing on symbolic ideas fans will remember from past character interactions with the cosmic. Perhaps the best thing this fine film does however is treat its audience with intelligence and respect. It doesn’t try to cheapen our yellow-tinged icons by making them into a sloppy, saccharine example of kid vid corniness. All The Simpsons Movie emotion is earned honestly, and all its humor is unforced and very, very funny.


So let them all talk. It may not be a return to the glory days of phenomenon formation, when the series finally found the courage to take the show outside the boundaries of your typical animated TV experience, but The Simpsons Movie argues that there’s plenty of life left in this clever collection of characters. Whether Fox decides to keep renewing the series, or simply allowing film to fill in the future blanks, one thing is certain – The Simpsons remain one of the classic comic creations ever. Their big screen debut may have taken over a decade to arrive, but it was well worth the wait. Here’s hoping one family member’s statement over the closing credits comes to fruition - the sooner, the better.


(PS: Make sure you stay until the very end – the writers have some extra rib-ticklers as a reward for those who don’t just jump up and leave.)


 



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