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Monday, Jun 25, 2007

As June comes crawling to a close, the final retail Tuesday sees some interesting choices, all available at your favorite local home entertainment emporium. Granted, they tend to represent the less than successful members of the mainstream set, movies that failed to make their mark at the box office four to six months ago, and are just now seeing a seismic turnaround onto the fiscally friendly format. But there is a great deal to enjoy here, including a solid second film from a critically acclaimed director,  a stereotypical uplifting sports film, a by-the-numbers actioner and one of the most intelligent looks at the horror film ever created. Toss in some off title entities and the usual under-performing suspects, and its standard Summertime fare. While it would probably do better come October, SE&L suggests you forget the sunshine and pick up its selection for 26 June. It will have you thinking of Fall’s autumnal terrors lickety-split:

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Vernon Leslie

Attention all horror fans – it’s time to rejoice. After six months of fading fortunes at the box office, there’s a new scare sheriff in town, and his name is Scott Glosserman. An obvious genre maven, this first time filmmaker has crafted one of the cleverest, most inventive movie macabre spoofs since Wes Craven made us Scream. Using the novel idea that all slasher serial killers (Jason, Freddy, Michael) are real, and that they all conform to a kind of slice and dice code of ethics (can’t enter closets, must locate virgin to act as ‘survivor girl’), Glosserman deconstructs the ‘80s splatter favorites and turns them into psychological studies worthy of Freud. Then we meet the title character, a mass murderer wannabe who has hired a documentary film crew to follow him around. It’s their interaction, and the last act switch into a standard scary movie, that really sells this sensational experiment. If you’ve been burned by the recent redundant dread, give this indie effort a shot. You’ll be glad you did.

Other Titles of Interest

Black Snake Moan

For a follow up to his wildly successful Hustle and Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer decided to go down the old fashioned exploitation route. He came up with a story about a black blues musician taking a slutty white girl under his wing, attempting to cure her ‘provocative’ ways by chaining her up. While it wants to be a Baby Doll for the new millennium, there’s more tenderness than taboo here.

Dead Silence

It took James Wan almost three years to return with an answer to the massive sophomore success of Saw. The result was this movie macabre oddity, the story of a killer ventriloquist and her possessed dummies from Hell! Trying to fuse old school terror with nods to both the Italian and Japanese styles of horror, many fans failed to see the fright. DVD will be the perfect place to rediscover this potential cult classic.

Peaceful Warrior

Victor Salva is at it again. No, not THAT. Instead, he is making yet another film about a loner like teenage boy looking for guidance, and in this case, finding it from a kindly older man. Salva’s scandalous past, including a conviction for child molestation, doesn’t seem to deter his directorial fortunes. While other artists struggle to get movies made, he consistently finds films to forward. Such is the weird workings of the industry.


At this point in the genre, it must be harder and harder to find motivational stories of unlikely sports teams beating the odds and showing the status quo that they too matter. But this tale of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim club started by urban do-gooder Jim Ellis (a decent Terence Howard) has a nice period feel, as well as an inspirational hook that most movies of its type can’t match.


Mark Walhberg is a marksman lured out of hiding to protect the President from assassination. Naturally, he is double crossed and accused of the eventual crime. What follows is another standard big budget action extravaganza with too much bombast and not enough believability. It’s a shame that director Antoine Fuqua has had such a troubled time of late. All Tru Blu scuffle aside, he remains a promising feature filmmaker.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Frankenstein Conquers the World/ Frankenstein vs. Baragon

It has to have one of the greatest premises of any Toho production. The heart of Frankenstein’s monster is recovered from a European stronghold during WWII, and is kept in a Japanese lab. When the Hiroshima bomb is dropped, the organ takes on a life of its own. Soon, it’s guiding a feral boy with a freakish facial deformity. Baragon shows up, and the two square off in standard man in suit style. Originally scheduled as another Godzilla sequel, this unusual take on the giant monster movie has to be seen to be believed. And what makes matters even more unbelievable, DVD distributor Tokyo Shock is giving this far out film the two disc special edition treatment. Offering both the original and English language versions, as well as commentary and other contextual tidbits, we gain insight into series creator Ishirô Honda, and how seriously said film were taken. Fortunately, for us, it’s all fun and foolishness.


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Monday, Jun 25, 2007
Schapelle Corby in jail.Courtesy:

Schapelle Corby in jail.

Convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby has missed the deadline to appeal a Queensland court’s decision that proceeds from her bestselling memoir be frozen. In basic terms, this means Corby and her family won’t get to share in roughly $300,000 in book profits just yet, and if the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions has his way, the Corby’s won’t ever see that fat cheque.

In 2005, Corby, a pretty surfer-chick from the Gold Coast, was sentenced to 20 years in an Indonesian prison for smuggling four kilos of marijuana into Bali. For a while, Corby was the poster-babe for Indonesian injustice. Email petitions did the rounds asking for signatures to send to the Indonesian government to (somehow) right some tragic wrong. Everybody was talking about it—if Schapelle wasn’t on the front page of the Herald-Sun, she was the main topic of water-cooler conversation. And everybody had an opinion. To hear some people tell it, the Corbys were nothing but a family of druggies, known Coast-wide as the go-to guys for all kinds of highs. Others, though, took Schapelle beneath their wings, and raged about how horrifying it was to see an Aussie girl suffering such torture at the hands of barbaric Indonesians. And some people tried to convince you they knew the real story—a friend of a friend bought weed from Corby’s this, that, or whatever. Still, whatever their opinion, few thought Schapelle deserved the hellish conditions of her Indonesian jail cell for four measly kilos.

It’s up in the air whether or not Corby did indeed smuggle drugs knowingly into Bali, but, regardless, she’s doing the time. The proceeds from the book, she says, were to be used to fund her appeals process. Now, here’s where things get tricky. The DPP doesn’t want the convicted criminal making loads of money based on her status. But why, really? Who does it hurt? Corby believes she has a chance through her appeals to get out of jail early, so why can’t she take advantage of a gossip-thirsty book-buying public who snapped up her memoir (co-written with journalist Kathryn Bonella) in droves?

I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, I can understand the DPP’s ruling. If we let this convicted criminal make money from her notoriety, we’ll have to let the rapists and child killers do it, too. And where will it end? But it’s not like Schapelle’s out buying luxury cars. Should criminals with open appeals use their status to financial advantage purely to handle legal costs? I’m trying to see the difference between Schapelle selling her story and profiting, and a SchapelleStock-type music festival that might be held for her to do the exact same thing. And that happens all the time. How great is the difference, if it’s all in the name of justice?




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Monday, Jun 25, 2007

I’m about a month behind on this, but conservative blogger Reihan Salam recently attached a peculiar political thesis to the recently-reissued Chevy Chase film Fletch in an essay for Slate. Though many of the points Salam makes are accurate - Chase’s character is a jerk whose smugness makes us wonder why we should be laughing along with him—the argument seems a bit like a pat culture-war brief. The essay reads like a calculated provocation, a bias (that liberals are always hipster creeps, “reverse snobs”) looking for an occasion. Salam basically attempts to make a juvenile film serve as proof that liberal attitudes (they don’t quite reach the level of political philosophy in his mind, it seems—they are only postures, poses one makes to try to impress others) are also inherently juvenile, petty attempts of the privileged to poke fun at earnest hard workers while sympathizing with “countercultural” deadbeats. Salam suggests that the liberals who enjoy Fletch get off vicariously on how the character can go through his world exuding contempt for salt-of-the-earth types who can’t manage or don’t bother to be ironic.

Fletch is handsome, self-confident, and he certainly sounds affable. Listen closely, though, and you’ll find that his pleasant demeanor masks the condescending jackass within.
Fletch has no time for squares. He’s happy to charge many a Bloody Mary and steak sandwich to some rich asshole while he’s infiltrating a posh country club.

To Salam, Fletch is mainly a glib supercilious phony that only other glib phonies could enjoy. “What better way to highlight Fletch’s abandonment of the hypocrisy of middle-class convention than to have him treat everybody like crap?” Salam explains.

But I’m not convinced that we’re not supposed to laugh at Fletch and his boorishness, not empathize with it as though it constituted some welcome rebellious statement. It should be remembered that Fletch follows almost point for point the formula established by Eddie Murphy’s breakout film, Beverly Hills Cop, right down to the doodly incidental music by Harold Faltermeyer, the synthesizer maestro behind “Axel F.” The main difference in the films is that Murphy, a black cop from the tough-as-nails streets of Detroit running amok in the luxe world of Beverly Hills, is a slightly different sort of outsider than Fletch, a newspaper reporter undercover in the drug milieu. To make it conform more to the BHC formula, Fletch was made to seem also like an irreverent outsider who won’t abide by the establishment’s rules. The audience of BHC may sympathize with Murphy’s laughter at upper-class mores and kid-gloves police procedure, but he remains fundamentally other to most of the audience because of his race if nothing else. And audiences would rather imagine themselves as the Beverly Hills resident than the outsider black cop—in fact audiences get to do both because they can luxuriate in the Beverly Hills settings while conveying with laughter that they get the outsider perspective. They experience the luxury without the pretension.

Chevy Chase makes for an imperfect analogue for Murphy, but the Fletch character I think is conceived in the same way—we are supposed to appreciate his antics but ultimately feel superior to him; to feel like by laughing at him we get the best of both worlds—mainstream comforts and a hipster sensibility. This potentially noxious combination may be what Salam objects to. According to the essay he prefers comedy animated by right-wing populism—the snobs defeated by the slobs, as in Animal House. Salam then universalizes this motif as the linchpin of all successful screwball comedy, and deems Fletch a failure.

Fletch is so abominably bad because it’s trying to be a slobs vs. snobs comedy, but all the while, Fletch is the biggest snob of them all. He claims to stick up for the downtrodden. But like the über-educated hipster kids clamoring to secede from “Jesusland,” his disdain is directed against the God-fearing, hard-working rubes of the Heartland.

But this seems wrong on several accounts. Salam obviously wants to deride today’s hipsters, some of whom in their kneejerk nostalgia may embrace Fletch as an iconic film—just as they tend to consider anything they can remember from when they were eight years old as iconic. This may be pathetic, but it’s not really an act of snobbery so much as it’s a generation’s attempt to differentiate itself from previous ones.  Regardless, Fletch (who is not depicted as hypereducated or in the grips of any special anger toward religious voters or religious mores—he seeks instead to root out institutionalized corruption and I guess that’s why Salam confuses Fletch’s villains with the Republican party) has nothing to do with the urban secularism of the hipster class, and this transparent attempt to elide them should not be allowed to stand.

Also, I object to the characterization of Fletch as a slobs vs. snobs film. It’s not Revenge of the Nerds—like BHC it is comedy-action hybrid that wants to celebrate wisecracking vigilantism, with the humor taking the edge off of the antisocial nature of it. But Chase plays up the antisocial nature of Fletch’s endeavor—the selfishness and self-righteousness—which perhaps makes those who want to revel in the “one just man against rotten institutions” theme uncomfortable. And when he takes advantage of the made-to-order scripted morons in order to propel the plot, what’s expressed is not Fletch’s hipsterish hauteur but the lazy screenwriter’s contempt for perceptive and demanding audiences. What we see is the inclination to write for the lowest common denominator unfolding as action. We feel the awkwardness of being expected to laugh along with the complacent folks who don’t want their comedy to be complicated or layered, people who think sitcoms that trade in stereotypes are funny.  In other words, the film is tailored not for cognoscenti but for the sort of people in flyover country that Salam imagines the film offends and attacks.

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Monday, Jun 25, 2007

When Mayor Mike Bloomberg returned from California last Wednesday to make a minor speech about his city’s 311 service, he was bombarded with questions from media concerning his perceived intention to run for President in 2008. Bloomberg has recently made headlines for switching his party affiliation and for blasting the two major parties for lack of bipartisanship. Despite consistent denials that he intends to run, the media can’t seem to let go of the fantasy three-way New York battle royal. The City’s tabloids had a field day with the non-announcement and The New York Times ran, not one, but two front-page above-the-fold articles on Bloomberg.

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Sunday, Jun 24, 2007

It’s enough to make fans of Disney’s old fashioned artistry weep openly. On 19 June, Sharon Morrill, longtime President of the company’s DisneyToons Studios, was out of a job. Throughout the course of her 13 years as head of said division, Morrill led the animation giant into one of its most profitable – and controversial – ventures ever: the reconfiguration of classic cartoon titles into cheap, easily knocked-off, direct to home video sequels. From Brother Bear II and various configurations of Lilo and Stitch to the complete bastardization of timeless treasures like Bambi, Peter Pan and Cinderella, the studios desire to maximize profitability (and trade on its Good Housekeeping Seal level of reputation) did more to destroy the marquee value of the studios most important asset – it’s heritage – than anything else in its 85 year history.

At least, that’s what John Lasseter and Ed Catmull thought. Back when Disney was courting Pixar for some manner of partnership/revenue sharing agreement, the eventual buyout of the CGI gods brought two of its chief components into brand new roles at the House of Mouse. Lasseter was named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, while Catmull was put in charge as President. Both wanted to drastically alter the direction the business was going it. Prior to their taking over, Uncle Walt’s world had just announced a decision to abandon traditional pen and ink cartoons, instead opting for the fading fad of 3D computer creations. But with the box office failings of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the new duo decided to reverse the ridiculous decision. In fact, Mickey’s kingdom made headlines earlier this year when a new 2D title, featuring the first heroine of color in any Disney cartoon, was proposed (it will be called The Princess and the Frog and is set for 2009).

Next on the agenda – the seemingly endless stream of subpar product pouring out of Morrill’s sector. Now, it has to be said that this effective executive is playing scapegoat for a series of practices that has haunted the studio since The Lion King resurrected Disney’s blockbuster realities. Previously, both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had reestablished the company’s artistic fortunes, but King’s kid friendly storyline brought in the big bucks – and the suits (including former CEO Michael Eisner) were looking for more. Along with Aladdin, the Mouse House saw a way of quickly and efficiently maximizing their returns. They would take all the left over footage created for their animated films, and make rapid turnaround sequels, striking while the interest irons were hot. Believe it or not, full length cartoons can be completely reworked between the script and drawing stage, and even more changes can occur once test screenings dictate the direction. So it was a win-win for the company. It used up some of the otherwise useless material, and extended a title’s potential payout.

With well received direct to video efforts like Return of Jafar and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, the stage was set for a whole new revenue stream. And the marketplace was more than eager to open their billfolds. Back in the mid-‘80s, when the VCR became the de facto babysitter for hundreds of blasé boomer parents, Disney was the name everyone turned to. Warners was viewed as too archaic (and violent) while other cartoon wares were dismissed as artificial and driven by commercial considerations (product tie-ins, etc.). No, Uncle Walt and his magical world was the way to go for most enlightened Moms and Dads, and with the company’s oddly effective embargo policies (a famous title would go on sale, only to be pulled from stores a few months later and mothballed for up to seven years) any additional Disney release was greeted with wide wallets. 

Thus, the vaults were unsealed, and any and all previous material was up for sequelization. Initially, no one much cared. These were offerings aimed at the wee ones, starter sets, if you will, for unformed minds. The hope was that, as the big budget theatrical releases cemented their status as unpolished gems, the direct to video films would fill in the gaps, appeasing a rabid retail demographic until the sell through hit came along. DVD threw the company a curve ball it wasn’t expecting, and it didn’t win over many fans with its decision to go with the pay-to-play technology known as DIVX. In truth, Disney badly mismanaged the transfer over to digital, and had to try and catch up with the rest of the industry throughout most the late ‘90s. The glut of releases, combined with the fading fortunes of their theatrical efforts (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range all tanked) placed the company in a precarious position.

It was Morrill and her division that kept them afloat. It was also her decisions that finally pushed matters over the edge. Since she took over in 1994, DisneyToons Studios produced almost 50 ‘original’ titles. Many took already established series (Winnie the Pooh, The Adventures of Goofy) and continued the franchise. Others were far more questionable, utilizing beloved favorites (Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, Pinocchio) as jumping off points for narratively inconsistent efforts. While it acted as a cash machine for the company, it also created an artistic impact that few could have envisioned. In essence, the direct to video offerings diluted the original films, making them feel like part of a production line process instead of individual statements of creative pride. Slowly but surely, each new Disney release was viewed through a veiled cloud of cynicism – and it was a suspicion rewarded when, less than a year later, an ‘all new’ sequel was waiting for your mindless consumption.

Granted, it was a brilliant strategy, one based on the inherent disconnect the audience had for the original sources. Kids, by their very nature, are not the most discerning consumers. They will take anything that provides 60 to 90 minutes of bright colored craziness, as long as it satisfies their sugar-rush reality. They could care less if Belle’s Magical World is based on an Oscar nominated masterpiece. They want more anthropomorphic objects and they want them now. So all Morrill did was deliver what the buyer was craving – more and more monotonous eye candy for the children to chew on while forcing Fruit Roll-ups into their craw. They even went so far as to restructure theatrical films into long running TV series – Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, Tale Spin – anything for a bit more black ink.

But not even Disney could have predicted Pixar’s eventual importance to the genre. It couldn’t have conceived the mainstream hysteria over the smugly ironic 3D offerings from Dreamworks and Fox. Suddenly, Mickey’s Manor was trailing in the artform it helped build from the ground up, and all it had was Lasseter’s computer generated gems to rely on. It tried its own hand at bitmap rendering (Dinosaurs being a decent example), but overall, Walt’s ways were viewed as old fashioned, behind the times, and perhaps worst of all, completely antithetical to the bottom line. Along with soon to be exiting Eisner, Morrill had made the once proud name of Disney into a trademark tainted by nothing but dollar signs.

The final straw was a fairy, apparently. Lasseter’s tenure as Chief Creative Officer was cutthroat from the very beginning. He restarted 2D animation, backed off the company’s CG only stance, and started dropping proposed Morrill merchandise (The Aristocats II, The Ugly Duckling Story) left and right. But it wasn’t until he saw the horrendous (and soon to be released) The Tinkerbell Story that Mr. Pixar was convinced that Morrill had to go. Taking the classic character and trying to cram her into a Bratz like girl power paradigm seemed unthinkable. In addition, this sloppy salvo was just the opening tact in an overall product strategy that seemed based on marketing research and consulting rather than creativity and artistry.

Calling it “unwatchable” Lasseter demanded a change. With pal Catmull at his side, they pulled the plug on Morrill’s tenure, and decided to take DisneyToon’s Studio in a slightly different direction. Instead of pulling from the classics catalog, the sector will now draw from the wealth of content currently available on the Playhouse Disney Channel. There will still be a few left over sequels to contractually cater to (The Little Mermaid III for one), but after that, the House of Mouse will have reformed their warping ways – and for many, it may be too little too late. While the founding father himself must be smiling over the Lasseter/Catmull hire, he has to be worried about the longevity and legacy of the company named after him. Prior to the ‘80s, Disney was known for timeless, quality family entertainment. Today, it’s sneered at, earning a tag of merchandising charlatans, whoring out their traditions for the sake of some extra sales.

But it goes far beyond that. Like many corporate entities in the last two decades, Disney decided to stop making product for the people, and instead, manufactured artifice for its bean counters. Just like Hollywood’s micromanaged motion pictures, purposefully cobbled together out of various clichés and stereotypes to be everything to every paying patron, the business plan didn’t care that its animated films were flopping. They had built in so many potential ways of recouping their costs (between direct to video, merchandising and theme parks tie-ins) that it didn’t matter. Mediocrity could be as lucrative as a masterwork. And with the trend away from 2D animation and the seemingly untouchable magic of Pixar, there was no need to push itself.

Thankfully, Lasseter and Catmull are now in charge, and while they have a long way to go toward achieving the near impossible – rebuilding the company’s creative fortunes – they’ve taken a remarkable first step. There will be those who lament not having another narrative go round with their favorite characters, and parents may wonder what they will do once the Disney cartoon conveyor belt comes to a screeching halt, but for the men behind the recent radical restructuring, protecting this cinematic symbol’s tattered and tarnished reputation seems like a wise executive decision. The House of Mouse may never go back to an impervious icon of quality and family friendly filmmaking, but it can at least reclaim some of its soul. With Morrill’s departure, the process has already begun.

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