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Friday, Apr 13, 2007

There’s an old song that describes the budding relationship between the beleaguered Los Angeles Times reporting staff and the paper’s new owner: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you

Check out the Times’ interview with its new owner, mogul and motorcycle enthusiast Sam Zell, who claimed to see the purchase as a business deal and hinted he would not dismantle the paper. This information was probably intended as good news, but it would have been more reassuring if Zell had expressed enthusiasm for the importance of newspapers to democracy. Sure, newspapers can be profitable; but they are way too much trouble to own for money alone, if only because they are run by pesky, nosy and trouble-making reporters. This is a lesson Zell may have learned already when Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about going to Zell’s Malibu digs last week to grill him on a local civic issue: illegal gates erected by Malibu residents that make it hard to get to the public beach.


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Thursday, Apr 12, 2007


Buckle up, brave cinematic souls, it’s going to be a bumpy weekend ride. On the premium pay channels alone we have a brazen battle of extremes – the graceful vs. the graceless, the timely vs. the tacky. The shift between the offerings on HBO and Cinemax alone are enough to cause anyone permanent aesthetic whiplash. Still, at least there are recommendable offerings this time around. Some Fridays it’s near impossible finding something worth suggesting. The pickings are a little slimmer in the Independent and Outsider arena. Once you get past SE&L‘s top choices, the alternates are shaky at best. Still, secure yourself in your home theater saddle and prepare to traverse at least a couple of these movies all the way to beyond the blue horizon – or at least to the end of their running time. And if you wander over to any of the other titles talked about for 14 April – well, at least you were warned:


Premiere Pick
United 93


Some still consider it the best film of 2006 – all lack of Oscar love excluded – a sparse and very authentic recreation of the doomed September 11th flight. Others argue that it remains a difficult if not next to impossible movie to enjoy, an experience that so readily places you in the situations playing out on that fateful day that something akin to “entertainment” can’t be found. But there is no denying the artistic impact this movie has had on the cinematic depiction of this American tragedy. Paul Greengrass set the benchmark for all films to follow, and as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center proved, it’s a hard standard to fulfill. Whether or not the small screen will lessen any of the narrative’s impact remains to be seen, but one thing is definitely for certain. United 93 will stand in motion picture history as one of the most honest, truest, and most touching films ever made about a horrible act of terrorism. (14 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Big Momma’s House 2


Groan…it’s Martin Lawrence doing the cash grab thing again, and audiences are wise to his ruse. There is nothing more outwardly disturbing than an African American comedian, copying another of his ethnic counterparts – in this case, Eddie Murphy – in making fun of their own race. Women of color – especially LARGE women of color – should find these scrawny screw-ups and kick their asses – immediately. (14 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Keeping Up with the Steins


Consider it a Jewish My Super Sweet 16 as the title family creates the kind of over the top bar mitzvah that is all too common nowadays. Of course, director Scott Marshall (son of filmmaker Gary) can’t leave well enough alone, having to impart his good natured comedy with as much pathos and pap as possible. He even manages to get his elderly dad to drop trou for the camera. Talk about your unnecessary rites of passage. (14 April, Starz, 9PM EST)


Capote


This is the movie that finally won Phillip Seymour Hoffman his long overdue Oscar. That’s good. It’s also the film that so completely overwhelmed the In Cold Blood zeitgeist that the equally wonderful Infamous got swept under the theatrical table. That’s bad. Offering a sensational chance to compare and contrast, this subtle Oscar bait of an effort is first up on the premium pay cable channels. (14 April, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Coffin Joe Trilogy


Jose Mojica Marins is one of the most misunderstood filmmakers in his native Brazil. A deeply religious country, many find his affronts toward the church and God to be outright blasphemy, and he has spent more time defending his work than creating more of it. Thanks to DVD, and a long growing cult of international horror fans, we have a chance to experience what the South American populace finds so scandalous. And indeed, Marins is a man courting controversy every step of the way. The three films being offered here – At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse, and Awakening of the Beast  - are considered by many to be the best of the director’s early works. They definitely do a fascinating job of establishing his onscreen alter ego – the power mad Prince of Darkness Coffin Joe. So grab a bowl of popcorn, dim all the lights, and be prepared to have this Brazilian wonder completely mesmerize you. (19 April, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Leaving Normal


Christine Laiti and Meg Tilly play less brash versions of Thelma and Louise in this girl power road pic directed by future epic helmer Edward Zwick. In fact, comparisons between the two films probably killed Normal‘s chances at the box office. Of course, the clunky script (by broad comedy scribe Ed “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” Solomon) didn’t help. Instead of compelling, this films goes cockeyed, crazy, and then cloying. (14 April, Sundance, 12PM EST)

Leaving Las Vegas


Many in his current fanbase may not know that Nicholas Cage was once a serious actor. A decade or so lost in action hero la-la land will create such artistic amnesia. Right before he sold-out for the sake of a paycheck, he provided this devastating turn as an alcoholic, self-destructive man. Planning on drinking himself to death, he brings Elizabeth Shue’s prostitute along on his depressing, downward spiral. The result is acting aces. (15 April, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Pray


It starts out like your typical kidnapping story – a desperate couple swipes a child and contacts the parents looking for ransom. That’s when they get the shattering news – said hostage has been dead for over a year! Guess its time to bring on the unsettled spirits and ghost gals covered in black stringy, spook show hair. But thanks to some psychological tension, and a nice helping of gore, we survive the stereotyping. (16 April, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Outsider Option
Coffy/Foxy Brown


It needs to be said so let’s just come right out and say it – Pam Grier is FINE! Even today, as she enters a more ‘mature’ phase of life, the lady is a looker in all the right ways. But back when she was the queen of the blaxploitation scene, she was scalding sex incarnate. Not only that, but she could kick some major bad guy booty as well. Featuring two of her most infamous roles, Turner Classic Movie’s Underground series (with or without host Rob Zombie – who knows anymore) will give modern audiences a chance to experience this first lady of fisticuffs, though it will be interesting to see what they do with the whole violence/language/nudity thing. There is a great deal of all in both. Cutting these films would be a crime, especially since their taboo-busting elements were what made them so special in the first place.  (13 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Phantasm II


With Anchor Bay celebrating Don Coscarelli’s life behind the camera in DVD form, here is one movie that won’t be making it onto the digital domain anytime soon – at least, in Region 1. Thanks to rights issues with Universal, this superior sequel to the director’s definitive fright flick remains MIA. And that’s too bad, since it’s a sensationally sick revisit to the world of Reggie and Mike – and that maniacal monster The Tall Man. (14 April, ThrillerMax, 11:50PM EST)

Electra Glide in Blue


Hail Canada! Thanks to their quirky b-movie channel, this amazing Robert Blake vehicle from 1973 is getting another North American release. Playing a motorcycle cop whose desperate to make the Homicide division, we wind up with a taut thriller couched in the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ conceit. Though many know him today as an accused killer, Blake was an amazing actor, and this able actioner more than proves it. (17 April, Drive In Classics, Canada, 11PM EST)

84 Charing Cross Road


Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins are long distance pen pals in this ersatz romance from British filmmaker David Hugh Jones. Based on a true story, this charming case of Trans Atlantic correspondence (between a NY script reader and a UK book shop owner) grows into a real primer of friendship, love and life. Those looking for a sensational “sleeper” will definitely enjoy this effort. (19 April, Indieplex, 7:15PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Apr 12, 2007

Hillary Clinton’s $36 Million Dollar Magic Trick

The staggering amount of money raised so far for Hillary Clinton’s ’08 presidential campaign should be a cause for concern. Her first quarter windfall of $26 million was conveniently leaked to the Drudge Report on April 1st and was intended to convey a stark message to her Democratic rivals. The numbers were officially released later that day and the media frenzy over the primary finances began (John Edwards raised $14 million, while on the Republican side Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani raked in $21 million and $15 million respectively).

Clinton’s early receipts eclipsed all previous records for fundraising in a presidential primary and set a new precedent for aspiring presidential candidates. The $26 million, however, did not tell the whole story of Clinton’s elaborate fundraising mechanism – one that flouts campaign finance laws and attempts to bury her competition in a mountain of cash.


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Thursday, Apr 12, 2007
by Karen Heller / The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Let us, for a moment, table Don Imus’ contemptible language and address the issue of how he and so many other opinionated gabbers came to flourish in the first place.


There is precious little humility or civility left in our national discourse. We don’t have a culture war as much as a breakdown of dialogue. Actually, there’s precious little dialogue. It’s all monologue, on the radio, the television, flooding the Net, with shrill soliloquies of anger, snark-infested humor and uncensored logorrhea that, at the core of it, amounts to more from Me, me, me!


While millions of people tune in to talk radio, they don’t listen. They tune in to be entertained and appalled. They want an aural freak show, the ramblings of an unbridled id. They’re cruising the dial for bad behavior, the kind of talk never permitted at the dinner table or eliminating all chances of a second date.


The issue isn’t a call for censorship. It’s the abandonment of self-censorship. No thought, no matter how stupid, gets left behind.


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Wednesday, Apr 11, 2007


Grindhouse is not a return to the sordid salad days of drive-in b-movies. It is not a careful or accurate recreation of the original raincoat crowd experience. The name is a gimmick, a throwaway cinematic stunt purposely poised to draw in the curious as well as the converted. Sadly, it seems that both will wind up only slightly disappointed. What Grindhouse is, however, is a slam bam smash ‘em up celebration of the freedom given film by the exploitation industry. While the mainstream was sitting back, letting community standards and self-appointed censors determine what could and could not be shown on the nation’s theater screens, producers like those in the notorious business brotherhood, ‘The 40 Thieves’, were blurring the boundaries between the taboo and the marketable. If it weren’t for them, and the outrageous movies they made, the modern film works would be languishing in Eisenhower era conservatism.


You can see the adoration that these filmmakers have for the genre’s expansion of the language of cinema within every frame of this far out double feature. Since directors Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino understand that no one can recapture the actual feel of these fascinating entertainment relics, the next best thing in their mind is to make sure any tribute is terrific. For his infected human holocaust known as Planet Terror, Rodriguez reimagines the zombie film as a combination gorefest and chick flick. We spend so much time with put upon go-go gal Cherry Darling and equally tormented Dr. Dakota Block that the plentiful grue tends to trip up the ample emotional undercurrent. The same thing applies to Quentin Tarantino’s car crash thriller Death Proof. Here, we’re dealing with non-erotic female bonding, with sensational scenes of female empowerment breaking up the otherwise astounding action sequences.


It’s interesting to note that both films feature female heroines and mostly male villains. In the case of Planet Terror, cameos from Bruce Willis and QT himself bring a decidedly paternalist pall over the entire proceedings. Even with Freddy Rodriguez’s machismo man turn as Wray, it’s the girls dealing most of the death blows. Tarantino treads a little more lightly in his film, giving the ladies room to gossip and cruise before turning them against their tormentor. Perhaps even more startling, Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike is a wonderful contradiction in testosterone terms. When he’s able to torment his prey, forcing them to realize the fate that awaits them, he’s all chest-puffing bluster. But the minute he gets injured – or perhaps, a better way to say it is the second someone gets a physical advantage over him – he whines and cries like a sissified stuck pig.


It’s an interesting dynamic to explore, one you’re not used to seeing on the big screen. But this is what Grindhouse is all about – challenging convention, disrupting the status quo and pushing the envelope of acceptable cinematic content. There is a lot of gore here – more than perhaps any dozen so called horror fests could ever hope to achieve. Rodriguez especially loves to pour on the arterial spray, and there are times when torrents of red stuff shoot off across the frame in ridiculous rivers of rot. Credit has to go to all the F/X technicians and stunt people who worked on this project. Tarantino’s first act car wreck has got to be one of the most disturbing destructive images ever captured on film. You feel like you’re looking at one of those driver’s education shockers, the ones that warned you via real dead bodies posed post-catastrophe.


Even more interesting are the performances. Though many critics would have you believe that the cast of both Planet Terror and Death Proof are putting on their purposeful schlock shoes to imitate bad camp acting from the past, this is definitely not the case. Indeed, all throughout Mr. Pulp Fiction‘s flick, we are treated to some of the liveliest work any actress has offered onscreen this year. Rosario Dawson, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito are fine in their sly supporting turns. Equally effective are Zöe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double for Kill Bill), Tracie Thomas, and a fierce Sydney Poitier as the main obsession of Russell’s clever creation, Stuntman Mike. From Rodriguez’s end of the spectrum, everyone in his company is banging on ballistic cylinders. It’s great to see Michael Biehn back, as well as Jeff Fahey in a barbequing badass role. But the movie really belongs to Rose McGowen and Marley Shelton as Cherry and Dakota, respectively. They’re the yin and yang of the narrative, the pro and con of a crazy crackpot horror homage.


In fact, the filmmaking here is so stellar that it’s hard to continue referring to these films as Grindhouse features. The exploitation movie had no real artistic aspirations. It didn’t want to be a provider of great action or a bringer of substantial scare. Their movies were all about the bottom line – carefully creating a project and making sure that, even with limited returns realized, a profit would be more or less guaranteed. Here, Rodriguez wants to give you his take on the entire living dead/sci-fi shock genre, while Tarantino is remaking Vanishing Point with vixens. QT is on fire during his film, both his car chases and his conversations crackling with energy and movement. Our Sin City savant is equally adapt at creating onscreen mayhem. The attack on the hospital, and the stand-off at The Bone Shack are astounding (and let’s not even get into the splatter spectacle of the last act helicopter sequence).


And then there are the fake trailers – four in all – and each one is a hilarious joy to behold. First up is the Danny Trejo treasure Machete, a magnificent combination of Charles Bronson badness and Mexicali menace. The shot of our tattooed hero getting hot and heavy with a couple of naked babes is worth the price of admission alone. Then we’ve got Rob Zombie’s ridiculously perfect Werewolf Women of the SS. It’s so much like watching a collection of Ilsa outtakes that it’s frightening. Shaun of the Dead‘s Edgar Wright delivers his brilliant Hammer/Amicus amalgamation, Don’t, and Eli Roth revisits the ‘80s slasher film with the decidedly sick Thanksgiving. Each one of these mini-movies is magnificent, played perfectly by actors perfectly in sync with what the cinematic category demands. With the possibility of a Machete movie going direct to DVD, it appears there will be more to Grindhouse‘s legacy than a pair of amazingly entertaining movies by a couple of maverick filmmakers.


All of which begs the question – why isn’t this superior entertainment more successful? Are people really put off by all the violence? Did the Weinstein’s (the main men behind the movie) make a fatal error in not marketing the movie beyond the film geek demo? Have gals avoided what is probably the most potent girl power proclamation since The Bride battled Bill for reclamation of her life, simply because they think this is some silly slice of jock rock? Whatever the reason, individuals interested in spending three hours under the spell of some significant cinematic art would be well advised to queue up for this masterwork. Unlike the films it fancies, this Grindhouse may have a shorter theatrical engagement than anyone involved initially imaged. The reason for such a showing remains a mystery. But one things for certain – this is a resplendent reminder of why movies are magic – and the forbidden zone trooping talents that created the original pathways to said illusions. 


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