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Sunday, Nov 26, 2006

Gears of War (XBox 360) [Microsoft - $59.99]


To endorse one of the next-gen systems this holiday season would be damn near pointless—so much has been written about the Wii, Playstation 3, and even the XBox 360 that it’s nigh impossible at this point to write anything that hasn’t yet been said.  Tech-junkies want the PS3, casual and family gamers want a Wii, and then, there’s a quiet faction of gamers sitting back and smiling while people fight over the two flavors of the month, content in their belief that the XBox 360 will outshine the other two in good time.  The first sign of such dominance?  None other than Gears of War, the end result of what can happen when a system is given a year-long head start over its primary competitors.  Gears of War simply feels like everything a next-generation title should, from the intricacy of the graphics to the brilliantly-designed cooperative play mode to the elements of horror that permeate every single byte, it feels like more than just a game.  Quite simply, it’s exactly what “next-gen” should be. [Amazon]



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Sunday, Nov 26, 2006

Shaun Cassidy (that’s right, Mr. “Da Do Run Run” himself) can’t seem to get a break in network television. He has masterminded several sensational series (American Gothic, The Agency, the recent Invasion) only to see them unceremoniously cancelled before their time. Nowhere was this truer than in his sword and sandal epic for Fox, Roar. Starring an unknown Heath Ledger and centering on a young Irishman’s battles against the oncoming Roman onslaught, Fox hoped that the series could cash in on some of Hercules/Xena’s crazed cult audience. Sadly, the show was not a campy kitsch companion piece to said series, and after 13 scant installments, it was cancelled. Thanks to DVD however, fans and newcomers have a chance to revisit this special series—and ponder what if. [Amazon]


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Saturday, Nov 25, 2006


The year is 2176. The United States has become a dreary, desolate wasteland. A freak magnetic storm has wiped out all history. A team of scientists is instructed to take a time machine back into the past, to 1776 specifically, to re-discover the principles upon which the once mighty nation was founded. So Adam-11, Chanel-6, and Heinz-57, three hapless temporal explorers make the leap. But a computer glitch lands them in 1976, not quite the year of the Declaration of Independence. A Fifth of Beethoven, yes. As luck would have it, Chris Johnson and Tommy Sears, two California potheads, discover these futuristic fish out of water.


Our bong buddies agree to help the discoverers with their mission to find the true America. But a know-it-all nerd named Rodney Snodgrass threatens to ruin everything by sticking his conspiracy theory, alien obsessive nose into the drug duo’s business. With only twelve hours to obtain pertinent artifacts and a copy of the Constitution, our intrepid trio experiences everything that this enigmatic epoch has to offer: gas lines, recreational pharmaceuticals, and “The Hustle.” But it will take a group effort to avoid Rodney, his seedy brother Eddie, and a couple of bumbling CIA agents if our confused crew is ever going to return to the future to spread The Spirit of ‘76.


From its surrounding show business lineage, one could imagine that The Spirit of ‘76 is either a raucous yet sophisticated comedy (thanks to daddy Carl) or a modern, polished piece of nostalgia from deep inside the Hollywood hit machine (thanks to brother Rob). But Lucas Reiner, he also of the famed last name, tracks his touching take on the Me Decade directly down the middle of both roads, offering broad lampoon style humor with tender tweaks at that most retro of eras to create a gentle, genial farce. This is a very well observed satire, from the little moments (mood rings, space food sticks) to the outrageous fashion trends (it’s a polyester-palooza) and philosophical ideals (the EST like “Be” seminars). While the targets may seem obvious today, in this post That ‘70s Show / Austin Powers flashback media mentality, when conceived in 1989, The Spirit of ‘76 was (and still is) a fresh, friendly look at a much maligned epoch in US cultural history.


This is not a subtle slice of life like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (the inherent truth of that film and its carefully constructed look at a certain people and place make it more documentary than fiction) or an attempt at an actual recreation. It’s just a silly dumb spoof with some nice things to say about freedom. With a wink and a nod to the public’s perception of the entire leisure suit circumstances, The Spirit of ‘76 functions as both a comedy and a comment, presenting the Have A Nice Day dreamscape of 1976 as an enlightened, if decidedly lame, time frame.


One of the reasons The Spirit of ‘76 stands out, aside from its potent visual sense, is its eccentric casting. At first, there is an obviousness to the stars playing the lead roles. After all, what movie exploiting pop culture fads would avoid using ex-teen idols like Leif Garrett (as the hilariously sleazy Eddie Trojan) and David Cassidy (as time traveler Adam-11)? But scattered throughout Spirit are particularly obtuse choices as well. Steve and Jeff MacDonald from the superb rock group Redd Kross (whose brand of electrified pop is highly influenced by the ‘70s) are absolutely hilarious as the valley boy stoners Chris and Tommy. The members of Devo show up as officials of the future government, and other icons of the era (Tommy Chong, Rob “Meathead” Reiner) are matched with unusual cult figures (Earth Girls Are Easy‘s Julie Brown, The Kipper Kids) to flavor the film with an offbeat bouquet. Even regular “actor” Olivia D’Abo and circus clown Geoff Hoyle fit right in.


But a platoon of peculiar players would be nothing without a capable director to guide them, and youngest son/brother Lucas shows that, when it comes to helming hilarious motion pictures, there is something special in those Reiner genes. With an incredibly small budget and no major studio support, Lucas manages to create alternative realities, both past and futuristic, without the benefit of special effects or elaborate props. The homemade, thrift store conceit adds a real authenticity to this film. Instead of looking like a bunch of current actors running around in studio-sewn fashions, the lived-in feel of the clothing and sets make The Spirit of ‘76 seem that much more genuine. Reiner is to be commended for finding a way to make the financial limitations work. While not an all-out laugh riot, The Spirit of ‘76 is a well-made, well-conceived comic tribute to flared trousers and puka beads.


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Friday, Nov 24, 2006


Jack Peterson is a pretty great guy. He has a job that he loves (he builds birdhouses), a best friend (a larger-than-life lothario named Alan) who thinks the world of him, and a nice little townhouse in a sleepy North Carolina city. The only thing Jack doesn’t have is…a wiener. A nurse accidentally cut off his woody when he was an infant, and ever since then, Jack has had to live sans schlong. And boy, oh boy, does Jack long for a replacement skin flute. He dreams about it, fantasies regularly over stroking and fondling his newfound noodle. He has tried plastic surgeons and every possible medical professional, but the best they can offer is a faux phallus made out of fat from his arm and stomach. But Jack doesn’t want a belly-based boner. He wants a real life lizard of his very own, and has more or less given up on ever having one.


Then, Alan gives him some good advice. A private doctor in town offers the chance at a new, experimental tool transplant. When a perfect donor is found, Jack will be reconstructed, made more or less normal above the nutsack. Naturally, the anticipation of a new lease on life, thanks to someone else’s surgically grafted groinage, becomes overwhelming. Jack is giddy for some girth. He is hyper for a hard-on. He even starts to date, hooking up with his nice neighbor Jenny. But as he waits for his new knob and starts to consider all the problems and possibilities, Jack starts to have second thoughts. Maybe he doesn’t want a pubic pole after all. Maybe life is just fine the way it is. After all, aside from sex, Jack’s existence has been pretty sweet, even if it has also been Ding-a-ling-Less.


Sounding like a dirty joke taken to a tacky extreme, but actually ending up rather resplendent and very funny, Ding-a-ling-Less marks a substantial turn of events for its writer-director Onur Tukel. Having previously helmed the horrible Drawing Blood (a vampire horror-comedy that was really none of the aforementioned) and the less than successful House of Pancakes (a tired tale of some housemates from Hell), Tukel finally hits a homerun with his third feature film offering, this slightly skewed romantic comedy about a dude in search of his missing manhood. Initially, it takes a little time to get into Tukel’s mannerisms and mindset here. The filmmaker loads his script with dozens of disgusting and dirty ways to describe a dong and the actions that such an appendage can be used for. Indeed, everyone in this fable-like fantasyland of a small town seems to sympathize with Jack and gives him equally course and vulgar advice. These crudity-laced sentiments are a little off-putting at first, but once you get used to their existence, Ding-a-ling-Less begins to fulfill its promise.


Ding-a-ling-Less also marks a turn in the acting fortunes for its lead, Kirk Wilson. Having been unfortunate enough to star in Tukel’s other failures, this film signifies the perfect role for Wilson’s usually forced forlorn wistfulness. Wilson is very adept at playing pathetic, and during the first half of the film, he really gets us sympathizing with Jack’s dilemma. Then, as the narrative continues and issues arise with the upcoming surgery, Wilson makes the change of heart seem natural and viable. There is never an awkward or arch moment in his performance, and it is excellent in its subtlety and sensitivity. Equally impressive in a far less friendly role is Robert Longstreet, as Jack’s womanizing pal Alan. Kind of like a combination of Hank Azaria and Chris Cooper, Longstreet gets the chance to chew a little scenery as he puts on the boyish bravado and tries to walk his buddy through the world of wang. We also get to see a different side of Alan when he describes to Jack what it’s like to have sex with a woman. Longstreet also gets an excellent speech in the final sequence before the surgery. Along with an ensemble of actors that really believes in this project and its premise, Ding-a-ling-Less turns from a juvenile joke into a thoughtful, complicated comedy right before our delighted eyes.


As he has done before, Tukel experiments with the film medium, augmenting his story with asides, blackouts, visual cleverness, and a style that recalls both vintage Woody Allen and modern indie cinema. Though working with a shoestring budget and limited resources, Tukel makes the most of his North Carolina setting, giving us a real feel for the small town location of his film. The director has also cleaned up his compositional act, framing his scenes in artistically interesting fashion. When Alan and Jack have a conversation in the middle of an alley, the actors are perfectly positioned in a long shot that takes in both the buildings in the background and the somber horizon above, creating an interesting canvas in which to have a conversation. Along with a serious message about meaningless sex and the value of human interaction, Ding-a-ling-Less gives us an unusual, unique take on the malady of the modern male. Indeed, most men at one time or another have felt unfulfilled, and wonder what life would be like if they were better endowed. Using this concept to craft a combination of “Jokes from the John” and insightful allegory, this movie marks Onur Tukel’s arrival as an effective filmmaker. All his other films aside, Ding-a-ling-Less is a wonderful, witty movie with good heart buried inside all the dick quips.


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Thursday, Nov 23, 2006


As your body continues to process all the L’tryptophan, animal fat and sucrose you’ve stuffed into it over the last few hours, and you’re holiday bloated carcass continues to swell up like a sea frog, what better excuse is there for spending a day recuperating in front of the old idiot box. In at least two instances, however, the premium movie channels still think it’s still Halloween. Actually, you could lump HBO’s offering into the general genre category as well, since it features wizards, magic and all kinds of dungeons and dragons styled rot. So unless you’re willing to give another noble variation of that classic tale of medieval lovers a try, one better prepare for a post-gluttony fright night. Besides, with many members of the viewing audience dreading the drive/flight/fight back home, a little spine-tingling terror may turn out to be the best recipe of the entire weekend. Unfortunately, you won’t find much macabre here – just a loose collection of scary side dishes and unjust desserts. For those still conscious after a fifth helping of Grandma’s glorious Sweet Potato and Pralined Pecan Pie (drool…), the movies offered for Saturday, 25 November are:


HBOHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*

Since founding franchise filmmaker Chris Columbus departed the series, critics have been more or less unanimous – the Harry Potter films have been getting better and better. Following the formula he developed for the Prisoner of Azkaban, screenwriter Steve Kloves pares author J.K. Rowling’s dense, interlocking narrative down to its instantly infectious ingredients while keeping the themes – good vs. evil, youth vs. maturity – perfectly intact. Though director Mike Newell (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) seemed like a strange choice, especially after the flare and passion shown in Azkabah by Y Tu Mama Tabien helmer Alfonso Cuaron, he managed to make a worthy successor. Elaborate, exciting and always engaging, it’s safe to say that all other tween oriented projects pale in comparison to this magnificent set of motion pictures. (Premieres Saturday 25 November, 8pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxTristan + Isolde*

James Franco may be a lot of things – handsome, charismatic, complex - but he doesn’t have that old world aura necessary to carry off a period piece. Similar to a certain Mr. Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (oddly enough, also directed by T&I helmer Kevin Reynolds), there is just something so contemporary about the consistently busy actor. Still, most critics found his turn as an orphaned swordsman presumed dead after being struck by a poisoned blade to be perfectly serviceable. It’s the rest of Reynolds’ cinematic circumstances that left reviewers unimpressed. Many felt his narrative drive was lazy and uninspired. Others thought his approach to the material was far gloomier than it should be. With a creative canon that includes Waterworld and Rapa Nui, it’s not hard to comprehend such complaints. Maybe a more timeless talent was the answer all along. (Saturday 25 November, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzWhen a Stranger Calls (2006)

When it arrived in theaters in 1979, the original version of When a Stranger Calls had a horrifying hook that many in the audience were unprepared to consider. In the film’s classic creep-out moment, our heroine learns that the sinister phone calls she’s been receiving are actually coming from…INSIDE THE HOUSE! In the days before cellphones, that was a real shocker! Today, it’s nothing more than a shoulder shrugging moment. So how did the team involved in the remake revamp this idea? Well, they took out all the police procedural material (which was actually what the first film was all about) and expanded the whole “villain in the vicinity” idea. But since this is strictly PG-13 territory (you know, for kids!) the fear factors are amped way down past pabulum levels. The result is a toothless terror title with little reason to recommend its revision. (Premieres Saturday 25 November, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


Showtime2001 Maniacs

*
Outside of a dedicated group of exploitation fiends, Herschell Gordon Lewis is virtually unknown – and that’s sad, really, because this articulate and intelligent man produced some of the most mind-boggling bizarre films ever fashioned. One of his most famous was the “Brigadoon with buckets of blood” entitled 2000 Maniacs. Recently ‘re-imagined’ by first time feature director Tim Sullivan, this gore-laced groove will have you whistling Dixie in no time. The premise – a group of college kids accidentally arrive in a Georgia ghost town loaded with vengeful Confederates – is straight out of Lewis’ flick, and Sullivan wisely matches the legend’s own stylized sick humor as well. While devotees might pale at the thought of one of the grindhouse’s greatest hits getting re-tooled, most will be pleased with the amiable arterial spray provided here. (Saturday 25 November, 9pm EST)


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 24/25 November, the Cabbage Patch Elvis himself, Arch Hall, Jr. is the featured atrocity:


The Sadist
Talk about your suspension of disbelief – Arch is a homicidal maniac ala Charles Starkweather in this fairly effective JD (juvenile delinquency) joint.
(2am EST)


Wild Guitar
Pushing the limits of legitimate believability even further, Arch becomes an overnight pop sensation – yet has a hard time living the rock star celebrity lifestyle. Yeesh.
(3:45am EST)


 


The Cream of the Crop

In honor of IFC’s month-long celebration of Janus Films, SE&L will skip the standard daily overview of what’s on the other movie-based cable outlets and, instead, focus solely on what it and the Sundance Channel have to offer. Beyond that premise, however, we will still only concentrate on the best of the best, the most inspiring of the inspiring, the most meaningful of the…well, you get the idea. For the week of 25, November, here are our royal recommendations:


IFC

: Every Tuesday in November is Janus Films night. For the 28st, the selections are:



Ugetsu
It’s the trials and tribulations of life during wartime, as director Kenji Mizoguchi explores the Japanese civil war of the 16th Century.
(9PM EST)


Miss Julie
August Strinberg’s play about a mismatched love affair between the daughter of an aristocrat and a lowly servant gets a gentle touch from fellow Swede Alf Sjoberg.
(10:35PM EST)


Floating Weeds
The story of an aging acting troupe traveling across Japan is brought to magical life by legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.
(12:25AM EST)


Sundance Channel



26 November - Gimme Shelter
During the infamous concert at Altamonte, Albert and David Maysles captured the Rolling Stones in all their demonic glory – as well as the murder of an unlucky fan.
(6PM EST)


26 November - Grey Gardens
The Mayseles brothers make magic again, this time focusing on the forgotten relatives - Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale – of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
(7:30PM EST)


28 November -Riff-Raff
British bad boy Ken Loach explores his unique brand of socialist realism in this clever outing of England’s disenfranchised lower classes.
(10PM EST)


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