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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2007

Every year they beach themselves on the shores of our aesthetic, dozens of summer blockbuster belugas looking for as many adolescent audience members and merchandising tie-ins as they can get within the mandatory opening weekend window of opportunity. And like the proverbial lemmings to the motion picture precipice, we march right up to each and every one and dive right in, struggling to sample their focus group inelegance. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a big, dumb action film or outrageous special effects extravaganza, but sometimes you need a little movie meat to supplement those huge helpings of high concept carbs.

So before Tinsel Town tempts you with its annual smörgåsbord of stale sequels, overdone remakes and middling main courses, let’s stop to test a few of the adventurous side dishes summer cinema has to offer. Many of these movies were fashioned outside the ‘microwave and reheat’ kitchens of Hollywood, and several sail right along that neglected edge of marginalized moviemaking – the genre (horror/sci-fi/thriller) effort. But in a season overrun by mainstream sameness, where every title is an event, and all entertainment elements are geared toward maximum monetary returns, it’s nice to see a little artistry mixed in with all the artifice.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the ten films that SE&L will be specifically looking forward to come sun and fun season.:

Black Sheep (22 June)

How can you ignore mutant killer livestock? Especially when Peter Jackson’s WETA F/X studio had a hand in the deadly mutton’s design? Though this could quickly de-evolve into another tacky trade-off of the entire Food of the Gods nature gone nutty formula, early buzz has Jonathan King creating a wonderful combination of scary and silly. All comparisons to Shawn of the Dead aside, SE&L is salivating over the prospect of this zombie ewe extravaganza.

Death Sentence (31 August)

It’s about time someone revived the whole Death Wish ideal, and SE&L couldn’t be happier that James Saw Wan is behind the lens this time around. Sure, no one bothered to see the Australian filmmaker’s criminally underrated Dead Silence (how could anyone ignore lethal ventriloquist dummies???), but with a cast including Kevin Bacon (as our vigilante) and John Goodman (as a mob boss), this edge of your seat thriller could be the director’s ticket out of the Hell of horror.

DOA (22 June)

It’s a video game. It’s softcore sexism. It’s every basement dwelling geeks ultimate wet dream. And now it’s being made into a movie. The storyline revolves around the title martial arts competition, and four scantily clad babes who find themselves buff, bikini-ed, and ready to bust some butt. Though it’s already opened in other markets around the world, the US has had to wait almost a year to see this flagrantly anti-feminist fight fest. The inner nerd inside us can’t wait.

Eagle vs. Shark (29 June)

Two dorky losers – one an amiable uber geek named Jarrod, the other a wistful young woman named Lily – hook up at a gamers’ party and decide to take a road trip together. Jarrod is desperate for a little late in life payback on a bully that tormented him in school years before. With constant comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, SE&L senses a healthy dose of fringe filmmaking here. While New Zealand director Taika Cohen is well known in his native land, this could be his US breakthrough.

Fido (15 June)

The living dead as household servants/pets? Another surreal dark social commentary set in the ‘50s in the vein of Bob Balaban’s brilliant Parents? All SE&L can say is HELL YA! This will be the Summer Sleeper movie to beat in our opinion, a film that is already generating massive buzz and a considerable cult following. If Lionsgate can market this correctly, and prove to non-horror fans that there is more here than laugh laced blood and guts, they could have a sizable hit on our hands.

The Flock (11 May)

He’s responsible for the Infernal Affairs trilogy, the Hong Kong police procedurals that, in turn, lead to last year’s Oscar winner The Departed. For his first Western film, director Wai Keung Lau offers up this Se7en like story of aggressive agents, naive trainees, little children, and a nasty pedophile. A delayed release and recent reshoots (san Lau) don’t appear promising, but who knows. This just might work. With his pedigree, we’re definitely betting on Lau.

La Vie En Rose/The Passionate Life of Edith Piaf (25 May)

Though she’s fallen a ways out of the pop culture zeitgeist since the turn of the millennium, SE&L senses there is enough interest in the life and times of this diminutive French chanteuse to warrant a biopic. And since early word is that this movie defies description and borders on being a work of staggering genius, the lack of a present day high profile for the subject may not hurt it at all. Already a hit at the Berlin Film Festival, we can’t wait for it to open here in the states. 

The King of Kong (17 August)

Old school arcade game action meets post-modern social sensibilities in a documentary that follows some dedicated middle aged joystickers as they try to break the world records on the stalwart simian title Donkey Kong. Like all great non-fiction films, this one takes a seemingly staid premise and infuses it with both drama and deeper meaning. There is something uniquely profound – and sort of perplexing – about watching grown men recapturing their youth. Count us interested and in.

The Signal (10 August)

Calling Stephen King!!! Paging Eli Roth!!! You better get that adaptation of Cell up and running PDQ. This blatant take on your material – a mysterious transmission across phones, radio and TV turns people into psychotic killers – is about to hit theaters and steal most of your thunder. Gory, gratuitous and guaranteed to get your genre jones amplified and overdosing, here’s hoping this could be the splatter spree the summer needs to cleanse its occasionally cloying aesthetic palette.

The Ten (3 August)

With that Decalogue of rules known as the Ten Commandments as its basis, former State/Stella creators David Wain and Ken Marino present a comedy anthology that’s part sketch fest, part attempt to contextualize society. With an amazing cast (Winona Rynder, Liev Schreiber, Jessica Alba and Ron Silver) and the same surreal sensibility that made their previous TV ventures seem like disconnected and deranged, this could be the kind of film that breathes new life into the dying big screen farce.

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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2007
by B. Jay Cooper (MCT)

WASHINGTON—Let’s face it, baby boomers often express anxiety about the younger generation. We did a lot of crazy things in our day, but we also marched against the war in Vietnam, we stood up for civil rights and women’s rights. We demanded change. We tried to make a difference.

You’ve heard our complaints: “These kids lack our social conscience. ...They are so coddled, so indulged, so spoiled. ....They have no idea how lucky they are. ... They just seem so darn young.”

But in recent weeks, college students from Rutgers University, Duke University and now Virginia Tech displayed a level of common sense and dignity that not only reassured, but also exposed the shallow shortcomings of our mass communication culture.

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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2007
by Julia Keller [Chicago Tribune (MCT)]

The intensity is what you remember. The passion, the righteous indignation, the savage sense of purpose. He had to shove all of that feeling and all of those facts into his work, and that is why, I suppose, some of his sentences were like Dagwood sandwiches—those big, sloppy, comical snacks concocted by the cartoon character . They tended to go on and on and on, with clauses piled on top of clauses, new thoughts added to old thoughts, everything towering and slapdash.

David Halberstam, who died Monday in a car accident, broke all the rules - the ones about short, “reader-friendly” paragraphs and keeping things simple. All the smart advice.

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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2007

As part of my autodidactically administered remedial course in political economy (my reading randomly in books I see mentioned elsewhere), I’ve been reading Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, which develops the ramifications of a fairly straightforward point: In order for large groups (that is a group in which it’s not immediately obvious how much any one member’s contribution adds to the group’s overall accomplishments) to be successful in pursuing their collective aims, individuals in the group must be compelled to work together for the common aim rather than follow what rationality tells them is their best interest (i.e., become a free rider). This requires organizational costs be met and discipline (the closed union shop, for example) be enforced.

In the midst of making a point about union membership, he cites a passage from Selig Perlman’s Theory of the Labor Movement that I found incredibly depressing:

The scarcity consciousness of the manual worker is the product of two main causes ... The typical manualist is aware of his lack of capacity for availing himself of economic opportunities and knows himself neither the born taker of risks nor the possessor of a sufficiently agile mind ever to feel at home in the midst of the uncertain game of competitive business. Added to this is the conviction that for him the world has been rendered one of scarcity by an institutional order of things, which purposely reserved the best opportunities for landlords, capitalists, and other privileged groups.

Though Perlman is criticized for preaching that workers should orient themselves toward business rather than class struggle (rejecting the idea that intellectuals could organize the working class from without to fulfill socialist aims—for Perlman, organic intellectuals were nascent capitalists, not Gramscian cultural critics), this description of how workers discourage themselves from entrepreneurship rings true, anticipating ideas Sennett and Cobb spell out in The Hidden Injuries of Class. The implication is that workers lack the social capital to lift themselves out of their class, that their inherited habitus includes what Perlman calls “job consciousness”—a deeply felt certainty that opportunities are limited. A truly egalitarian society would work to rectify this feeling via the educational system, but because American education is shot through with socialization processes, it tends to reinforce the sense of destiny one absorbs from the relative position of one’s parents.

The rich have no monopoly on opportunity—there are many rags-to-riches stories we feed ourselves—but growing income inequality seems predicated on the rich being in a position to act on their wider opportunities and make the most of them, and use the rewards to continually reshape the playing field to further favor them when they take risks. Any cursory look at successful capitalists reveals how often they fail and how many more chances they are afforded, mainly because they feel entitled to them and have the networks of supporters to drawn on to make them happen—to secure them credit, or what have you. George W. Bush is perhaps the epitome of this limitless ability to fail without feeling the consequences personally. But for most people, there is instead a crushing sense of limits that generally masquerades as “being realistic.” We accept what is on offer from the world, rather than trying to shape our own lives, because the instinct for making ideas operational—for not being content with the daydream—hasn’t been bred in. We tend to assume that penchant for daydreaming, for settling, for “being realistic” is a matter of personal character, but culturally we emphasize entertainment as precisely this kind of impotent escape. We prize convenience and reconfigure risk aversion as a kind of quiet nobility. We make the martyr complex a species of politeness we might pride ourselves on.

When American society addresses this confidence gap, it tends to promote more individualized attention as a solution (teaching self-esteem, of the joys of compliance as compensatory for the lack of meaningful work—“it’s nice to go home and veg out”) rather than address the institutional issues, the tendency for there to be exponentially increasing returns to wealth and an ever-increasing accumulation of social capital at the top of the income pyramid. Is it possible to redistribute opportunity without redistributing wealth, or pursuing a bolshevist program of simply replacing the powerful functionaries of one class with another? It seems that there would some benefit to teaching sociology rather than self-esteem. The lesson of self-esteem is often that you should take your own failures personally rather than see the other factors that contribute. This may sound a little too much like Lionel Hutz (“We’re going to put the system on trial!” “I don’t use the word hero very often, but you are the greatest hero in American history”) but it seems foolish to preach individual opportunity and ambition without also pointing out the factors that circumscribe it and considering what could be done to alleviate them.

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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

Get ready for a little merchandising back and forth this week as studios and distributors strike at us with a combination of classics and crap. Inside the positive paradigm are one of 2006’s best films, a decent slice of speculation from a noted African American superstar, and a pair of pleasant box sets from two of foreign filmmaking’s greatest auteurs. The negatives of note include another clueless comedy, a crackpot kid flick and a very unnecessary CGI trip to a completely unentertaining museum. There’s also a lot of off title product hitting the marketplace as well, oddball offerings with names like China Doll (a Victor Mature war sudser) Von Richthofen and Brown (Roger Corman’s WWI flying epic) and Blood Orgy of the She Devils (trademark Ted V. Mikels miscreance). Unless you’re willing to experiment with your entertainment, your best bet is to stick with SE&L‘s rock solid pick, a film that makes the 24 April date worth noting:

The Queen

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Stephen Frears’ Oscar nominated nod to the days preceding the death of Princess Diana is how emotionally astute it is. The natural reaction to anyone outside of the Prime Minister of Britain and the title icon would be unbridled devastation. That’s in fact what the world expressed upon her passing. But Elizabeth II and Tony Blair needed to manage a nation, not just their own feelings, and such a weighty proposition gives this amazing movie much of its drive, and its daring. Though it doesn’t pretend to offer factual insights into how Her Majesty and the Man from Number Ten Downing Street actually responded, Peter Morgan’s amazing script does a genius job of guessing. No matter if it’s false or forced, the responses just feel right, and help us see the exhaustive burden of power that follows every leader. Of course Helen Mirren deserved her Academy Award. The movie – and the men who made it - deserved a couple of those little gold men as well.

Other Titles of Interest

Code Name: The Cleaner

Don Imus gets fired for a horribly insensitive racial slur, and yet no one in Hollywood suffers one lick for continuing this borderline racist funny business formula. Cedric the Entertainer is the sad recipient of the Mantan Moreland treatment, playing a janitor who loses his memory and believes he’s a government agent. Sigh. That anyone thought this was viable mainstream entertainment is one thing. But to constantly cast talented black performers as the butt of bumbling jokes is a real crime.

Deja Vu

For some reason, Denzel Washington and genre efforts just don’t mesh. With a tenuous track record that includes Virtuosity, Fallen and The Bone Collector, it would seem silly to keep placing this titanic talent in a scary/sci-fi settings. In this time travel tale, built around the title premise, Washington is an ATF allowed to go back into the past and prevent an act of flagrant terrorism. Thanks to his considerable acting chops, we almost believe it.

The Documentaries of Louis Malle: Eclipse Series 2

As part of their new line of DVDs, Criterion introduces film fans to the non-fiction works of one of the medium’s great artists. Offering six works spanning subject matters as diverse as his native France and post-colonial India, this unusual compendium proves that there was more to Malle than gut wrenching humanism and a deep understanding of the flawed individual. Indeed, he had a keen eye for the drama of everyday existence as well.

The Jean Renoir Collection

Three discs. Seven films. One of SE&L‘s all time favorite filmmakers. So why aren’t we more ecstatic? Well, for one thing, Lionsgate is handling this release, and one has to question their stance as practiced preservationists. Second, most of these movies predate his masterpiece phase, the period between The Lower Depths (1936) and Rules of the Game (1939). Still, it’s Renoir, so you can definitely count us interested, if not exactly in.

A Night at the Museum

Do you miss those halcyon days of big budget, high concept movies that basically got by on imagery and mass hysteria. Well, look no further than this faceless, unfunny excuse for special effects. Ben Stiller trades his comic irony for kid friendly fluff and gets a massive points paycheck in the process. Unless the film’s main conceit grabs you – the displays in a local museum come to life after dark – there’s no need to visit this arch artifact from a lesser period of motion picture production.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Harry and the Hendersons: Special Edition

Wow, were we GULLIBLE in the ‘80s. William Dear, a director responsible for helping invent the music video format with MTV mentor Michael Nesmith (the pair produced the mythic Elephant Parts VHS ‘album’), used Rick Baker’s eccentric makeup to tell a slightly silly tale of a man who befriends a Bigfoot. That’s right, John Lithgow is along to overact as the harried dad who brings the legendary beast back home after his family has a car to creature mishap. All kinds of skunk ape hijinx ensue. Even though the premise is basically ET in a monkey suit, and the supporting cast of Don Ameche, Lainie Kazan and Melinda Dillon are top notch, the film tends to float away on its own internal emptiness. Even with a wealth of added content (commentaries, deleted scenes) its hard to imagine that this new DVD release will resonate with modern wee ones.


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