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Friday, Aug 31, 2007


When compiling this week’s compendium of choices, a single theme kept sticking out – “Award Winning”. In fact, looking over the list, over half the films and/or filmmakers represented have Oscar, or something similar, sitting on their inner sanctum shelves. This either argues for the Academy’s broadening acceptance of fare outside the studio system mainstream, or just a freak coincidence of programming proportions. In both cases, it makes for an interesting beginning to what promises to be an equally odd month. With school starting back, the Summer season officially finished, and families falling into their familiar routines, TV reasserts its importance as a communal comfort and fixture. So don’t be surprised to see the major pay channels rest on those laurels, at least for the time being. For SE&L’s part, we will continue to seek out the more unusual offerings to challenge your motion picture palette, including our stand up suggestion, an insane satire we felt was one of 2006’s best:


Premiere Pick
Idiocracy


It’s the best movie of 2006 that no one saw – and that was on purpose. Fox, feeling let down once again by Mike Judge’s slanted satirical eye, relegated this 2004 futuristic farce to a high shelf in their direct to DVD release schedule. Then, feeling considerable pressure from the filmmaker, dumped it in a few theaters during the end of Summer 2006, signaling their overall contempt for the title. While no one deserves to be treated so, especially not the man who made Office Space and brought Beavis and Butthead into the world, Fox’s reaction makes sense…especially once you’ve seen the film. The very demographic the studio was banking on to fill Cineplex seats were the very target of Judge’s derisive skewering. A movie that makes the bold prediction that our country is getting stupider every year, here’s hoping it finds a knowing audience on home video. (01 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
X-Men: The Last Stand


Brett Ratner has nothing to be ashamed of. His installment of the famous comic book franchise was imminently watchable. If anything, he proved once and for all that Bryan Singer is one of the most overrated auteurs in all of cinema. What has he really done to warrant such praise? The geek fiefdoms opinion aside, Ratner’s adaptation of the material results in a solid action flick.(01 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Queen


The death of Princess Diana divided Britain into two long simmering camps. The first were glad to get rid of the globe trotting, royalty ruining tabloid subject. The vast majority mourned the first real perceived “person” in Buckingham Palace. This fictionalized recreation of the events directly following her passing remains a stellar motion picture. Helen Mirrem’s much predicted Oscar was very well deserved indeed. (01 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Akeelah and the Bee


2006 ended up being the year of the spelling bee, what with this film and Bee Season following up the discovery of the fascinating documentary from 2002, Spellbound. This time out, a young girl from South Central Los Angeles is taken in by a mentor and prepared for Nationals. It has all the standard feel good facets, but thanks to gritty portrayals from Keke Palmer and Laurence Fishburne, it transcends its trite trappings. (01 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Blues Brothers


There’s no real reason to go into the relative merits of this overdone SNL skit. It does represent the excess of the late ‘70s piled into the mythos created by the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. It does have the late great John Belushi in what was probably his best role. And the cameos and reliance on good old fashioned R&B for its musical numbers definitely made it an aesthetic rarity. No, the really interesting element of this movie is the massive revisionist history that has gone on over the last quarter century. This movie was a FLOP when it first hit theaters, an expensive vanity project viewed as a reason to relegate all the participants, including director John Landis, to the back of the commercial bus. It made money, but barely covered its elephantine budget. Now, in our post-millennial/messageboard mentality, it’s a comedy classic. What a difference a few years, and a million showings on cable TV, can make. (05 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sling Blade


The world first discovered the oddball pleasures of Karl Childers and his creator, writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thorton in this brilliant Deep South drama. Playing a mentally challenged man who was institutionalized after killing someone, his impending release has the head of the hospital worried. Karl is not prepared to meet the pressures of the real world. Those fears, oddly enough, are proven all too true. (01 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Far from Heaven


Hoping to channel the spirit of such Tinsel Town kitsch masters as King Vidor and Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes took his throwback retro revisionism and applied it to a scintillating melodrama dealing with interracial romance and gay love. Quite a controversial jolt for its ‘50s suburban setting. Celebrated with several Oscar nods, it remains a work of exquisite beauty and seismic social themes. (04 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Waterland


Jeremy Irons was probably hoping that this adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel would land him right back on top of the Awards season heap. Only two years after his 1990 win for Reversal of Fortune, this tale of a timid schoolteacher who uses his classroom as a confessional had all the earmarks of another strong cinematic statement. Sadly, it failed to fulfill much of its potential promise. In retrospect, it’s a decent little drama. (04 September, Sundance Channel, 11:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dead Alive, a.k.a. Braindead


Peter Jackson wasn’t always into CGI spectacle and retelling Tolkein’s literary triptych. When he started, he was a good old fashioned horror geek, and he translated his love of all things splatter into a pair of seminal scarefests – 1987’s Bad Taste and this demented zombie stomp. Beginning with a pair of star-crossed lovers, a mean spirited mother bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey, and a town’s eventual transformation into a slapstick selection of the living dead, the future Oscar winner (that has such an amazing sound to it) went all out for this blood soaked bonanza. As influential in the world of whacked out horror comedy as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 or the entire Troma catalog, the combination of gore and goofiness went over like gangbusters with fright freaks. It established the filmmaker’s ability to successfully mix genres, making him the perfect choice to bring the still amazing Lord of the Rings trilogy to life. If you want to see greatness, even in its indie embryonic stage, this is the place to start. (02 September, HD Movies, 12:15AM EST)

Additional Choices
Dementia 13/Homicidal


After a month spent celebrating the amazing movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Turner Classic Movies is back with its Underground series, and the selection this time out represents a bit of program padding. Both films have been shown before, Dementia as part of a Corman cock-up, Homicidal as a William Castle salute. Worth seeing, but not necessarily viable a second time around. (07 September, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Three Stooges Film Marathon


No, this is not a festival of their amazing shorts. Instead, these are the kid vid vehicles the aging slapstick stars helmed once TV established their rerun relevancy. Our twisted trio meets Hercules, heads off into orbit, and goes around the world in a daze. There are only three words you need to know in judging the quality of this collection of comedies – Curly Joe DeRita. That’s all. (02 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM to 1AM EST)

The Sugarland Express


During his days as a wunderkind discovery working at Universal Studios, Steven Spielberg dreamed of being a serious dramatist. Before finding himself detouring into blockbuster territory with Jaws, he delivered this action-oriented stand off between Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, and the Texas State Police. Not so much an anomaly in the proud popcorn movie papa’s canon as a sign of his amazing range and inherent directorial designs.  (06 September, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

 


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Friday, Aug 31, 2007

The annual conference of central bankers is about to begin in Jackson Hole, Wyoming—an always exciting academic elucidation of macroeconomic research. If central bankers were indie rockers, this would be Bankerpalooza. This year it’s attracting more attention than usual because the turbulent credit markets have crept out of their hiding spot deep in the financial section and made it to the front page, making collateralized debt obligations and asset-backed commercial paper into household words. (Okay, well, not really; but for business-press addicts, it has.) Observers have been especially eager to hear Bernanke give this speech about the what more the Fed might do to ameliorate conditions in the debt market. Will it risk generating moral hazard and bail out the financiers with a fed-funds rate cut?


When I used to study literature, my fellow graduate students and I would make a big deal about the centrality of language to experience and how much hung in the balance in the close reading of texts and in the teasing out of every possible nuance of words forged in the crucible of the author’s intentions and the audience’s expectations. But even while I was making those arguments, I never quite believed them; I didn’t really think these skills had any bearing on real life—they were just an elaborate way to try to justify spending one’s time, say, reading Trollope novels without feeling like an idler. But it turns out that the skills weren’t worthless; I was just reading the wrong sort of material. Clearly, careful parsing of the Fed’s utterances leads to significant economic consequences. Millions of dollars are made or lost on these interpretations and how they play out on the market, as in what happened two days ago when Bernanke wrote a letter to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. The Fed’s language fashions economic realities, the way we always insisted Emily Brontë‘s shaped perceptions of gender in Victorian England or whatever. Only in the Fed’s case, there’s direct empirical evidence to support the claim. Not that those analyses of literature are superfluous or wrong; it’s just that I personally wish I would have realized that analytical skills could be more profitably employed outside of English departments, on matters more pressing and more widely consequential than just what Thomas Grey might have meant when he was writing poems in the 18th century about his cat.


In the speech, Bernanke attempts a middle course, with a great deal of hedged language about future actions. These are the key paragraphs:


It is not the responsibility of the Federal Reserve—nor would it be appropriate—to protect lenders and investors from the consequences of their financial decisions. But developments in financial markets can have broad economic effects felt by many outside the markets, and the Federal Reserve must take those effects into account when determining policy. In a statement issued simultaneously with the discount window announcement, the FOMC indicated that the deterioration in financial market conditions and the tightening of credit since its August 7 meeting had appreciably increased the downside risks to growth. In particular, the further tightening of credit conditions, if sustained, would increase the risk that the current weakness in housing could be deeper or more prolonged than previously expected, with possible adverse effects on consumer spending and the economy more generally.
The incoming data indicate that the economy continued to expand at a moderate pace into the summer, despite the sharp correction in the housing sector. However, in light of recent financial developments, economic data bearing on past months or quarters may be less useful than usual for our forecasts of economic activity and inflation. Consequently, we will pay particularly close attention to the timeliest indicators, as well as information gleaned from our business and banking contacts around the country. Inevitably, the uncertainty surrounding the outlook will be greater than normal, presenting a challenge to policymakers to manage the risks to their growth and price stability objectives. The Committee continues to monitor the situation and will act as needed to limit the adverse effects on the broader economy that may arise from the disruptions in financial markets.


The first sentence declares the Fed’s intention to forestall moral hazard; if risk has no consequences, then markets don’t work properly. Risk was in danger of becoming meaningless, with investors treating credit markets as a perpetual-profit-making machine. Those looking for better yield had to assume larger risks (subprime loans hidden in AAA tranches of CDOs) at higher leverage. That’s no longer true; spreads between risky and safe investments have widened again. As Bernanke says earlier in the speech, “Some increase in the premiums that investors require to take risk is probably a healthy development on the whole, as these premiums have been exceptionally low for some time.”


But after that celebration of risk qua risk, he drifts into a fog of prognostication: past data will be “less useful than usual” and they will look instead to the unmentioned “timeliest indicators” and the unreported advice from unnamed “business and banking contacts.” Then they will “act as needed.” Apparently, that promise has been enough to comfort Wall Street: stocks on the Dow and the S&P 500 are up more than 1 percent so far today. But isn’t that because the statement is vague enough that congenitally optimistic investors can read into it what they want to hear? Consider the typical headline (this one from Reuters): “Bernanke: Fed Ready to Act if Turmoil Hits Economy”. This is not exactly news; this is the Fed’s mandate. Presenting it as news, though, can do wonders for day traders.


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Friday, Aug 31, 2007

Joel and Ethan Coen continue to be two of the most innovative directors today. Making their debut with Blood Simple, the Coen brothers showcased their ability to make neo-noirs. Since then, the Coens directed and produced classics such as Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo. Their latest film, No Country for Old Men, will be released early November.


Trailer for No Country for Old Men:



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Thursday, Aug 30, 2007


Rob Zombie gets it. He understands implicitly what makes horror such a potent genre for fright fans. He’s not quite a full fledged master of macabre, but he’s getting there in amazing leaps and outstanding bounds. Frankly, the grumbling from terror devotees was all but expected when it was announced that John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film, Halloween, was poised for the mandatory post-millennial remake. After all, with already in the can disasters like The Fog to reference, and Zombie’s status as a novice director (the magnificent The Devil’s Rejects not withstanding), there was cause to be concerned. Very concerned. So as the summer season casts its final lots this weekend, the lack of publicity and bifurcated buzz would suggest that all the trepidation was warranted.


Well, that’s garbage. Halloween is brilliant. It’s a stroke of slice and dice genius. It represents some of the most solid film work this growing fright night giant has ever brought to the big screen, and it argues for putting real fear aficionados behind the lens of your latest take on a tale of terror. This is not a rip off of Carpenter’s archetypal effort. It’s also not a sloppy, substandard attempt to cash in on the fanbase’s love of an original masterwork. Instead, this is a genuine and heartfelt tribute to the man who made masked killers relevant in a decade dominated by aliens, giant sharks, and existential human dramas. When it comes to other pioneers from dread’s determined past, Zombie is first and foremost a follower. His unabashed love for the monster movies that make up his novel, no holds barred aesthetic, is obvious in every frame of this brutal, shocking spectacle.


If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant a repeat – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive) and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.


With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this killer. Not to apologize for him, but merely clarify. By turning him into a flesh and blood, three dimensional person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred FBI profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death. There is also a clever mask motif which helps complicate the case even further. Michael often expresses that he is ‘ugly’ and ‘not himself’, and the face-shielding symbol is a wonderful way of reminding us of his past…and his penchant.


At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror of the slaughter sequences we witness. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of explaining and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.


When Carpenter created his film nearly 30 years ago, he was working as a journeymen hoping to branch out into the realm of the artist. He cribbed from Hitchcock and Hooper, as well as drive in titans like Bob Clark. His version of events was all about style – the extended tracking shot that starts the film, the moments where Michael and his intended victims play an apprehensive game of hide and seek among the massive shrubbery of Haddonfield. For his part, Carpenter was going for the glory as well as the gonzo, and that’s why his brilliant merging of vision and vileness still works today. Zombie’s efforts are no different. There are amazing directorial flourishes in the film, including a compelling use of freeze frame as well as an evocative moment were all movement stops except for the camera, which swings around to capture the young Michael in menacing, dead eyed mode. Anyone who says that Zombie is not a full fledged filmmaker should have their critical credentials revoked. Of course, with the way horror is routinely marginalized by the mainstream for the masses, such a sentiment is not such a surprise.


It also should be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son. As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.


Upon reflection, one has to feel sorry for Zombie. The overblown press who believes horror is nothing but entertainment excrement to be endured on behalf of an ever shrinking paycheck are going to ream him six ways to sundown. They’re going to reference the original (though it’s a guarantee most have not see it in 29 years, if ever) and call it a day, using Carpenter as a crutch to argue that Zombie should have never been handed the remake ropes. Similarly, current horror fans who consider Scream the genre’s shining post-modern moment and lack the basic context to consider anything different will complain like cowards about how ‘routine’ and ‘not scary’ this take on their hallowed hack and splat is.


In both cases, they’re missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, it was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. No, in this case, the making of a murderer and the consequences of his cravenness are what really intrigued this fan. The result becomes one of the smartest, most shattering horror films in a very long time. Don’t worry if you end up liking what you see. The wet blankets usually come around once the wool is dry. No, Rob Zombie definitely gets it. And if you do as well, then you’ll understand exactly what’s so special about this amazing movie.



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Thursday, Aug 30, 2007

You have to wonder if the manuscript for The Uncommon Reader had been just sitting in Alan Bennett’s trunk gathering dust for years, its every attempt at publication rejected by publishers prior to the success of last year’s film The Queen, after which gently entertaining tales about the Queen Mother told from her point of view became much more salable. Whatever the case may be, Bennett’s novella is a charming little diversion that will leave Angolphiles sighing with pleasure and most everyone else grinning, if a touch underwhelmed.


Bennett’s conceit here is that one day the Queen (or she refers to herself in conversation, “One”) happens to be walking the corgis on the grounds when she comes across the palace bookmobile. Thinking it would be rude not to take a book, she checks out an Ivy-Compton Burnett title and heads on her way. This simple act leads to Her Majesty opening up whole new vistas in her heretofore-unreflective life. One book leads to another and soon she is devouring the printed word by the bushel, always with a stack on the nightstand and one or more in her purse. She even keeps one open in her lap while in the car, absent-mindedly waving to her subjects.


A wit of no little talent, Bennett has a good time with his little fancy of an idea, smartly wielding some trademark dry Anglo understatement: When the Queen tells her husband that there’s a bookmobile on the grounds, he responds, “Jolly good. Wonders never cease.” Although the author is wise not to dig too deeply into his subject (this is thin terrain), he gets good mileage out of observing the Queen’s developing tastes—she absolutely devours Proust, but while reading Henry James at teatime, lets out an irritated, “Oh do get on”—and watching how her growing obsession affects her abilities to act Queenly. As state functions become more and more tedious, she looks to literature for escape. Stuck next to the president of France, she asks him for his opinion on Jean Genet (hasn’t heard of him). Later, she survives a painfully boring trip to Canada only by a chance meeting with Alice Munro whom she got talking to and, “learning that she was a novelist and short-story writer, requested one of her books, which she greatly enjoyed.” Such are the perks of royalty.


Although it may be difficult to peruse The Uncommon Reader without imagining Helen Mirren voicing her lines (there are worse things), and won’t take you more than a couple hours to finish, Bennett’s sliver of a story is a perfectly enjoyable take on the joys and dangers of literature.


It just may not be worth $15.


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