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Friday, Dec 29, 2006


By all accounts, 2006 was a disorienting year at the movies. On the one hand, box office receipts were up, end of the year quality seemed sound, and a decent balance between horrible and honorable was maintained across the board. At least, that’s how it looked at first glance. But when you probe deeper, delving into the darkest recesses of the cinematic septic tank, the atrocious efforts of the past 12 months give off a funk so powerful that even the most seasoned cinephile would gag from the tang. You see, bad movies don’t begin abominable. Several significant factors must come into play before your typical motion picture goes malodorous. Basically, a director must become blinded to his or her own vision, the script should skip standard literary elements like logic and coherence, and the actors must merge with the flimsy filmic foundation, performing up to or below the level of the narrative’s nonsensical expectations. Toss in some lame special effects, sloppy cinematography, and an editor whose aesthetic skews toward the erratic, and you’ve got certified cinematic slop on your hands.


Or do you. Reviewing this year’s list it is clear that, in almost all the cases, the efforts being belittled are big budget Hollywood horse apples. They’re the kind of expensive, marketing masterminded redundant dreck that threatens to make every trip to your local theater a metaphysical minefield overflowing with potential time wasters. Sure, it’s easy to pick on the independent efforts that represent some film geeks glorified idea of compelling creativity, but when untold millions are being spent to support half-baked humor, insipid drama and atrophied action, it’s the worst kind of filmmaking felony. In some ways, picking the worst films of any year is much harder than pinpointing the best. For every Departed, there’s a dozen Stay Alives. For every Science of Sleep, there’s a few Super Ex-Girlfriends. Paring it down to ten can be trying, but we here at SE&L strive for analytical excellence. So after hours of concentrated consideration, here is our list of the 10 Worst Films of the year:



1. Little Man
Without a doubt, the most excruciatingly horrible experience anyone could have at a movie theater in the last few years. It’s not bad enough that the one time talented Wayans clan revert to lowest common denominator humor to sell their dwarf as a diamond thief stupidity. No, they go a step further, filling the screen with so much sophomoric sleaziness that you feel just filthy watching it. Clearly the vilest experience of 2006.



2. Omen 2006
For anyone who needs proof that bad casting can kill a potentially interesting project, this lame remake of the 1976 satanic sensation is considered confirmation. Between the misused Mia Farrow to the blank as a fart Julia Stiles, you’d think this tale of the Antichrist’s return to Earth would have exhausted all potential acting awfulness. But no, they have to drag poor Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick through the sludge as a giggly, goofy Devil doll. Ugh!



3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
When this sequel/prequel to a remake of the original power tool terror was announced, it promised to show how Leatherface (now named Thomas Hewitt) became the crazed cannibal killer that many a Goth gal gushes over. Instead, the narrative centers on the slaughter star’s Uncle, a redneck reject who uses a random roadside incident to become Sheriff Hoyt. Add in the standard batch of unwitting teens and it’s another dull, dumb splatterfest.



4. BloodRayne
Sword and sorcery doesn’t get any stupider than in this Uwe Boll directed dung. Featuring amazingly bad acting turns by Michael Madsen, Billy Zane, Ben Kingsley, and Ms. T-X herself, Kristanna Loken, this ‘based on a video game’ groaner takes motion picture mediocrity to new levels of ludicrousness. Boll recently challenged several journalists to a staged boxing match, defending himself against their critical drubbing. Too bad his fisticuffs can’t save his hideous hackwork here.



5. Employee of the Month
Just like mixing certain household cleaners, the combining of Dane Cook, Dax Shepard and Jessica Simpson turns out to be a caustic, near deadly experience. Granted, Shepard has proven capable in efforts like Zathura and Idiocracy, while Cook can claim a large myspace-based fandom. But Simpson is a slag, unable to act her way out a siliconed skin bag, and her co-stars match her witlessness for witlessness. Comedy doesn’t get much sadder than this.



6. Big Momma’s House 2
Following Eddie Murphy’s formula for failing career rehabilitation, former blue comedian Martin Lawrence dons drag once again to portray that infamous obese black woman. This time, he takes on the Mrs. Doubtfire dynamic, playing nanny to a group of kids whose daddy might be a corporate spy. With nameless villains, featureless plotting, inert performances and an overall feeling of being warmed over and repetitive, this was just a poorly concealed cash grab.



7. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Nicole Kidman – statuesque Australian beauty, porcelain in her complexion and supermodel-esque in her overall look. Diane Arbus – dark, dour New Yorker, very ethnic in her inherent Jewishness and disturbed to the point of self-destruction. How do the two match up to make a singular surreal biopic about the famed photographer’s career? Only the amazingly misguided Steven Shainberg can explain this fictional, farcical take on the troubled, talented artist.



8. Zoom
Tim Allen now holds a distinct place in the annals of sci-fi cinema. He starred in one of the genre’s greatest satires (GalaxyQuest) and, this year, he wrapped up the worst effort award as well. Playing a former superhero recruited to train a group of underage wannabes, this appalling combination of the speculative and the scatological is aimed at an IQ below the average of its single digit demographic.




9. Poseidon
With all the advances in special effects, a remake of this 1972 Irwin Allen disaster epic would seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, director Wolfgang Peterson took the whole ‘mindless’ concept seriously, and delivered an inert action movie with more plot holes than portholes. Even the CGI sucked, rendering the set piece moment when a ‘rogue wave’ capsizes the ship as pure pixilated poppycock. Not even Kurt Russell could save this ship.



10. The Da Vinci Code
Ron Howard rewrites the rules of the thriller, determining that belabored flashbacks and endless exposition are the perfect components to create suspense and intrigue. With a built in fanbase across the world, Code becomes the first megahit to be a complete and utter filmic fiasco as well. Proponents point to the meticulous recreation of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, but this literal adaptation is so overblown in its sense of self-importance that it simply implodes.



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Friday, Dec 29, 2006

I’ve been reading Giles Slade’s Made to Break, which explores the evolution of the concept of planned obsolesence in American industry. Slade goes into way too much detail for my taste about the nascent radio and nylon industries, but his overall account of the unstoppable rise of disposability is interesting. The story goes like this: the expansion of industry in the nineteenth century brought with it the specter of overproduction, which seemed to many to be responsible for the Depression. (Obviously these folks took no comfort in Say’s law.) In order to get consumers to repeatedly purchase the same item, and thus keep workers employed in making these items, they needed to be convinced that what they already owned had become obsolete by offering a “new and improved” version. Of course, touted technological improvements were often specious, and most improvements are entirely stylistic—as a quintessential example, Slade traces how GM pioneered styling in autos to steal market share from Ford, which stubbornly built durable cars. Slade cites Christine Fredrick, one of the pioneers of gender-targeted advertisement, as devising a list of three “telltale habits of mind” that we should be induced to cultivate, which he paraphrases as this:


(1) A state of mind which is highly suggestible and open; eager and willing to take hold of anything new either in the shape of a new invention or new designs or styles or ways of living.
(2) A readiness to ‘scrap’ or lay aside an article before its natural life of usefulness is completed, in order to make way for the newer and better thing.
(3) A willingness to apply a very large share of one’s income, even if it pinches savings, to the acquisition of the new goods or services or way of living.


I don’t think it’s too cynical to say that this defines the meaning of life for those in a consumer society—do whatever you can to remake yourself in a new and improved way with the aid of products that one can readily fantasize about and through. The degree to which you are “countercultural” is the degree to which you consciously resist these tenets. (And the degree to which we think we disobey these tenets but reveal nonetheless how deeply we have internalized them makes us faux countercultural—makes us hipsters.)


Industrial design as an industry in its own right begins here, and the advertising industry, generally, takes off with this new mission in mind, to persuade the general public that fashion cycles must be obeyed in regard to all their material possessions, and the up-to-dateness of the stuff you have is the surest way of identifying status, rather bloodline or comportment—this message has a democratic appeal to it, in that it seems to do away with inherited privilege in favor of what money can buy, but the relentless, ceaseless striving to be current if not novel is merely a different kind of tyranny, and one that is tremendously harmful to the environment—Slade is especially good at illustrating the enormous amount of waste a consumer society generates by relying on unecessary packaging (individually wrapped just for you!) and unnecessary replacement buying to connote one’s personal progress. Inevitably we come to expect to throw away everything we acquire eventually; we don’t saddle ourselves with the looming burden of ownership—imagine if you were continually confronted with the possibilty of having to keep everything you got forever; think then what a borderline insult it would be to have gifty gifts foisted on you for no other reason that to make the giver feel thoughtful.


This burden of ownership, and our deeply ingrained committment to disposability, may be why it feels so good to purge ourselves of unnecessary things. It’s always a rewarding feeling when I drop off Trader Joe’s bags full of junk at the Goodwill. (Though I usually end up buying more junk on the same visit.) At times I feel as though nothing is as satisying as the experience of using things up, of finally extracting the potential of some object I’ve acquired and then getting rid of it. Consumer society orients us to think in these terms, of not merely using things but of using them up, of extinguishing them, of sucking them dry. The idea that something could be useful without being used up begins to seem like a dream, a scam, a lie akin to a perpetual motion machine. When I’m conscious of this, I try to resist; I begin to romanticize getting pleasure from the same thing, listening to John, Wolf King of L.A. over and over again, or glorying in playing Freecell repeatedly. I think about rereading books I love, sometimes I’ll even thumb through them, suffused with warm wistfulness—ah, that first time I read For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign….  So we glorify inexhaustible resources, but we don’t trust them; they are fairy tales, mirages of nostalgia. Eventually we begin to think of other people as resources to be used up, that this is the honest and fair way of appraising them, and we attempt to extract whatever use we can out of them and then discard them, whether they are in the labor force or are our intimates—though the “purity” of the latter may sometimes be contructed as an escape from the former, the way we feel obliged to use people in production, to manage them as disposable things. In essence we start to plan for obsolescence with regard to the people in our lives, though we regard this as something inevitable that we must “be realistic” about. (We need to expect the cheese to be moved, that sort of thing.) This leads perhaps to our wanting to compensate by prioritizing trying to be indisposable, feeling irreplaceable for some unique quality we have to offer the people who are closest to us. We love those who make us feel this way, regardless of whether the way we have become indispensible is also a way we can be any good to this world.


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Thursday, Dec 28, 2006


One more day. One more 24 hour time period. A few cocktails, a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” and, before you know it, the new year will finally be here. It all sounds so dignified, and back when people actually anticipated the turn of another 365 days, this holiday was treated with a kind of tacit respect. Sure, there was still a lot of partying and partaking of alcohol, but suit and tie, not shorts and a beefy T, were the apparel of choice. Nowadays, the transition between 31 December and 1 January is seen as a time for drunken foolishness, projectile vomiting, and a nauseating hangover accented by way too much college football. It’s an intoxicated testament to how the next 12 months will probably play out. Even more disconcerting, several new traditions have built up around this annual liquor lift. Some shoot of fireworks, failing to remember that the black powder explosives are supposed to represent the rockets red glare of our national anthem come 4 July. Similarly, some regions see individuals pointing pistols at the sky and ripping off a few rounds before the booze bites them back toward some manner of reality. So in preparation for all this aggravating anarchy, a couple of hours in front of the boob tube may be the perfect pre-Eve anesthetic. The choices for the weekend of 30 December are typically hit or miss, but a couple may just provide the entertainment comforts you crave:


HBOThe Family Stone
One of last year’s under the radar delights, former fashion executive Thomas Bezucha deconstructs the knotty connections between kinfolk with this fresh, occasionally formulaic comedy. Sarah Jessica Parker is the uptight, Type-A personality who finds herself awash in the title clan’s free-spirited spontaneity. Dermot Mulroney is her boyfriend, and the prodigal Stone. They return to the family home for the holidays, and all kinds of comic and caustic situations arise. Along the way, Bezucha gives us a deaf gay son, Diane Keaton as a meddling mother who finds her eldest’s choice of companion unworthy of her favorite child, and the arrival of Parker’s sister, played by Claire Danes, as a catalyst for some last act circumstantial secrets. While there is much more drama here than humor, and the Stone’s can come across as a little self-involved and arrogant, Bezucha keeps the revelations and the reactions honest. It makes for a heady holiday treat. (Premieres Saturday 30 December, 8PM EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxRumor Has It
In reality, this is not a bad idea for a movie – a young woman, curious about her past, discovers that her family may actually be the inspiration for one of the ‘60s most famous works – in this case, the novel and film known as The Graduate. Unfortunately, first time filmmaker (and screenwriter) Ted Griffin was yanked from the director’s chair when fading superstar Kevin Costner found him wanting. In stepped the equally evaporating Rob Reiner, and together a motion picture disaster was fashioned. Perhaps it was placing Jennifer “Only Ready for Prime Time” Aniston in the lead, an actress of limited, if not downright singular cinematic qualities. Maybe it was the notion of nutty Shirley MacLaine taking point for the far more ‘potent’ Anne Bancroft. Or it could be the film’s fractured tone. At any given moment it can be a comedy, an earnest drama, or a cyclical pop culture pit. In any case, no amount of “plastics” could contain this film’s formidable flopsweat. (Premieres Saturday 30 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzThe Matador
Pierce Brosnan is a high-minded if burnt out hitman (he considers himself in the business of ‘facilitating fatalities’). Greg Kinnear is a down on his luck salesman who can’t seem to catch a break. The two meet in a Mexican bar, and eventually buddy up for a series of deliciously dark comic coincidences. Previously known for his unusual takes on the thriller genre, writer/director Richard Shepard uses Brosnan’s inherent undercover allure, along with Kinnear’s hound dog demeanor, to create an unforgettable pair of baser level leads. The interaction between the performers is priceless, and the narrative, which seems like a simple post-modern crime spoof, ends up being a poignant look at two morally bankrupt buffoons. Praised by many critics as one of the year’s (2005) best films, Starz serves up this effort as its last Saturday premiere of 2006. It is a film definitely worth checking out. (Premieres Saturday 30 December, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeCoach Carter
Someone once said that certain actors could read their grocery lists and we would still find them to be compelling onscreen presences. Whoever conceived of that unusual insight obviously had Samuel L. Jackson in mind. Capable of carrying himself with dignity and discipline in even the wackiest of circumstances (Formula 51, xXx and its silly sequel), this amazing performer provides the gritty realism that brightens even the most ridiculous premise. Case in point – Coach Carter. Based on a real life individual famous for benching his entire basketball team for poor academic performance, Jackson jump starts what is a standard sports story, giving weight to what is essentially an after school special level narrative. Under the dizzying, jump-cut chaotic director of Save the Last Dance‘s Thomas Carter, this MTV production wants to promote the value of education over entitlement. Sadly, a Jackson-starring PSA would have probably made the point more effectively. (Saturday 30 December, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


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 29/30 December, it’s back to Vincent’s “Price”-less oeuvre for more macabre fun:


Madhouse
The last in what many consider to be a roundabout dark comedy revenge series for the actor (after the Phibes films and Theater of Blood), Price is again an actor who may or may not be a psychotic killer.
(2am EST)


The Last Man on Earth
As the Earth slowly dies from a post-apocalyptic plague, Price is the only human left. Sadly, his survival skills now must include combating wave after wave of bloodthirsty, vampire-like zombies.
(3:45am EST)


Independent Eye
A new year signals a new approach for SE&L‘s weekly venture into deciphering the best that pay television has to offer – at least film wise. Going back to basics, each week, Independent Eye will focus on the films featured on two of cable’s more esoteric movie channels – IFC and Sundance. The top three picks (when available) for each will be discussed, hopefully enlightening you on the cinematic possibilities that exist beyond the standard blockbusters and off title releases. For the last weekend of 2006/first week of 2007, the filmic focus finds:



IFC: The Independent Film Channel


31 December 9PM EST – Shallow Grave
For his first feature film, Trainspotting‘s Danny Boyle mixed Hitchcock with delicious dark comedy to tell a tale of flatmates, a fatality, and a suitcase full of cash.


1 January 9PM EST – Garden State
Scrubs’ Zach Braff got a chance to prove his talents behind the camera, writing and directing this autobiographical take on maturation and memories.


4 January 11PM EST – The Sweet Hereafter
Atom Egoyan’s masterpiece about a tragic bus accident is more than just a drama about loss – it’s a telling take on how anger paralyzes and poisons us.


The Sundance Channel


1 January 12AM EST – H
Many claim this is the South Korean version of Silence of the Lambs, with just a little Se7en tossed in for good measure. This means it’s either derivative or delightful.


 


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Wednesday, Dec 27, 2006


Before the complaints come pouring in, let’s clarify the ground rules for this particular year-end list, shall we? Many of the movies referenced were indeed made BEFORE 2006. At least one dates as far back as the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. A few are DVD-only releases. Others had a limited life in theaters before making their way to the home theater arena. So, in essence, the criteria for appearing on this list is that, in general, the titles discussed must have arrived on the digital domain sometime in this calendar year. Granted, we could be dealing with a double dip, a new release of an out of print presentation, or a major distributor pick up of a previously independent offering. In any case, there is a twofold purpose to making such an annual assessment—to raise the profile of some criminally overlooked efforts and to make a broader determination of what a year like 2006 had to offer.


You’ll notice that the list is weighed heavily toward two distinct categories—comedy and genre efforts. Indeed, at least five of the films listed have humorous underpinnings, while six carry horror/fantasy/sci-fi elements as part of their make-up. The reason for this is self-evident—your big budget Hollywood hit machine is incapable (with rare exceptions) of making this kind of film work and work well. Instead, they go for the easy high concept or the limited lowbrow gross out as part of an overall demographical devout business model. In addition, many of these films have a homemade feel to them, a clear indication that DVD, and the decreased costs of moviemaking technology, are investing the common man with the true means of creating cinema. This does not mean their quality is compromised. In fact, almost every title here easily eclipses much of this year’s Tinsel Town’s tripe.


So grab a pen and make note of SE&L’s Top Ten Films of 2006 That You’ve Never Heard Of…until now:



1. Lollilove
Amazingly enough, Troma’s release of this mock-documentary classic came out all the way back in January. Still, we here at SE&L have yet to see a comedy as clever, biting, and insightful as this look at the convoluted clash between celebrity and charity. Jenna Fischer, famous for her role on NBC’s Office, hooked up with famous hubby, silver screen scribe James Gunn and delivered 2006’s funniest film.




2. Period Piece
Another Troma title, this time from genius outsider auteur Guiseppe Andrews. In this scatological Short Cuts, Andrews addresses the way in which sex scars and subjugates us. Using his typical acting company of trailer park residents and a vignette like approach that resembles Paul Thomas Anderson on peyote, this astonishing social commentary only gets funnier—and fouler—with repeat viewings. Andrews is indeed a cinematic savant.


 



3. New York Doll
One of the best experiences a viewer can have is going into a movie cold, not knowing anything substantive about a story, and coming away mesmerized and moved. This is what happened when director Greg Whiteley discovered that Arthur “Killer” Kane, bassist for the New York Dolls, was a fellow Mormon. Following his rise and fall from star to street person, we get an experience both uplifting, and devastating.




4. Marauders/ SNAK—Sensitive New Age Killer/ Defenceless (Savage Cinema from Downunder)
Though a couple of these titles were released years ago, the work of Australian Mark Savage was more or less unknown to US genre fans. Now, thanks to an impressive box set from Subversive Cinema, we get to experience this divergent trio of terrific films in all their independent artistic glory. From senseless spree killers to a ghostly woman’s revenge, Savage cements his position as an inventive and important filmmaker.



5. Rock and Roll Space Patrol: Action is Go!
Our third Troma title is the equivalent of fan fiction. It’s a labor of dork love, a ballad to Roddenberry and a sloppy French kiss for individuals obsessed with their multi-sided dice. Everything here is DIY and duct tape, from the Amiga-esque CGI to refrigerator experiments in “ice box fusion”. A lot like watching the Three Metaphysical Stooges spoofing Star Trek, this glorified Geeks Gone Wild is stellar sci-fi schlock.



6. Small Gauge Trauma
For over 10 years, Canada’s Fantasia International Film Festival has been on the cutting edge of up and coming genre greatness. They discovered such macabre masters as Takashi Miike and introduced J-Horror to a ‘desperate for something different’ Western mentality. This year, they released a DVD collection of their most novel and creative contributions. Combining live action and animation, the results are remarkable, easily one of 2006’s most compelling compendiums.




7. Bleak Future
It is hard to get a real handle on this surreal sci-fi stunner, a piece of potent post-apocalyptic chaos that plays like a long lost Douglas Adams novel. Bleak Future is simultaneously smart and stupid, realistic and retarded, inspired and insipid, wholly original and a complete and utter rip off. It’s the kind of craziness that Netwads will go nutzoid over for decades to come.



8. Freak Out
Like a Monty Python derived movie macabre, this slasher spoof is out to imitate favorite fright films while simultaneously sending up the genre every step of the way. Combining a little Benny Hill style slapstick, a healthy dose of Goodies era goofiness and more than a few nods to TV dynasty Dallas, what we end up with is a compendium of styles and a wealth of worthy material.



9. Magdalena’s Brain
Leave it to narrative novices Marty Langford (producer/writer) and Warren Amerman (writer/director) to merge the speculative with the sinister to create a marvelous sci-fi/ horror hybrid. More dread-driven than straight ahead scary, this oddly effective film features strong performances and an equally powerful narrative force. Complete with a twist ending that actually works and a strong central performance by Amy Shelton-White this is an excellent indie entertainment.




10. Let Me Die a Woman
As an update to the old Roadshow movie of the 40s and 50s, the legendary Doris Wishman was behind this deranged docu-drama. Part hygiene exposé (the subject—transsexuals!) part Christine Jorgensen riff, all wanton weirdo wackiness, this corrupt combination of sex change surgery footage and post-/pre-op tranny treats is so downright bizarre, it could only come from the lunatic lens of the raincoat crowd’s favorite femme.



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Wednesday, Dec 27, 2006

Via Mind Hacks comes a link to a test you can take to see whether you suffer from amusia, a condition that makes people with otherwise perfect hearing unable to comprehend music. Whenever I read reviews of electronic music, I wonder if I suffer from this condition or something like it, because I can’t hear what enthusiasts of the genre hear no matter how hard I try to discern grooves or insist to myself it’s not the sound of a broken dial-up modem. Since I occasionally contribute music reviews myself, I thought I better get tested.


I have to say, it was much more arduous than I thought it would be. It was like listening to someone practicing scales and trying to differentiate between each attempt based on subtle variations. With the long strongs of MIDI tones you were supposed to memorize, it was a little like playing Simon. It’s a bit of an endurance test; I wondered if part of the point was to test how your ears adapt to identifying certain kinds of anamolies. Half of the test seems to be about recognizing melody, the other rhythm. I scored the same on both sections: 28 out of 30. I don’t know if this is a good score or not, but I’m inordinately proud of it.


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