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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006

Though his company is one of the mega-media company pressuring the FCC to loosen its rules about how huge media companies can get, my hat’s off to Viacom/CBS boss Sumner Redstone for telling the same FCC what a bunch of cultural fascists they really are.  In this Hollywood Reporter story, he lets ‘em have it with both barrels. “If the public is not happy with a particular program, then they won’t watch it, and it will go off air.  Government censorship—and by this I mean imposing any kind of burden or penalty on those who publish protected speech—circumvents this process… Give the government the tools to punish those it doesn’t like or silence what it doesn’t want to hear, and you undermine democracy. Give people the tools to choose what they see and hear, and you enhance democracy.”  Granted that part of this grumbling comes from the increased fines that the Congress/Prez just signed into law but the sentiment’s still the right one.


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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006

In the music business, they are noted as artists only capable of a single significant Billboard blip. Yet in filmmaking, no matter the genre, they are barely even recognized. For some strange reason, the motion picture industry doesn’t typically categorize a moviemaker based on only one noteworthy hit or miss. Certainly there is an atmosphere of appreciation based solely on a writer or director’s last box office receipts, but that has more to do with finance and business than it does with quality or overall excellence. Many distinguished auteurs have had their fair share of commercial disappointments and yet consistently retain their timeless status when real critical deliberation is given to their efforts.


But when it comes to horror, all bets are off. So iconic in its facets that it more or less supercedes all other categorical considerations, the movie macabre is actually a very specialized motion picture form. Many have tried it, and very few have truly succeeded. This is especially true for those craftsmen who view their talent as transcending all manner of product pigeonholing. There is also a senseless, snobbish quality involved, with many directors feeling that, as an art form, the fright film is beneath them. While it could be a case of understanding their own limits, the truth is that terror has always been an unappreciated style of cinema, and this high class, haughty notion has penetrated even the most mediocre moviemaker’s mindset.


Still, some of the biggest names in the business have tried. A few have even met with massive success. But when you look more closely at the classics, the horror films that consistently make the Top 10 lists, you see that a few represent the one and only ‘hit’ that these paranormal pretenders to the throne ever created. Duplicating the criteria used when musicians are involved, SE&L has decided to celebrate those craftsmen who found a way to make their sole scary movie attempt effective. Naturally, there are some caveats. A director listed may have indeed made more than one horror film - William Friedkin also attempted the bad babysitter/tree demon debacle entitled The Guardian, while Clive Barker has made the nauseating Nightbreed and limp Lords of Illusion - and, as a matter of fact, can even claim a second, almost as substantive effort and still avoid elimination. The only other element worth pondering is the movie’s viability as a creepshow archetype. Many may argue over the titles chosen, but it’s clear that when viewed in light of the two prerequisites mentioned, these five films stand out as perfect examples of horror’s ‘one hit wonders’:


William FriedkinThe Exorcist (1973)
Without question, one of the art form’s most gratifying masterpieces as well as one of the greatest movies ever made. As much about the universal battle between good and evil as it is an unique allegory centering on the early ‘70s generation gap between parents and children, this flawless fright film would end up being Friedkin’s one and only genre success (the goofy Guardian just doesn’t count). The directorial decision to keep everything as realistic as possible, along with the idea of maintaining the theological struggle at the center of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel gave the Exorcist its horrific heft and its philosophical depth. But it was the high level of skill and invention from all involved in the production that also turned what could have been a slapdash Satanic farce into a truly terrifying experience. Nearly as effective today as it was 34 years ago, Friedkin could skip the scary movie category from now on and still be considered one of its true masters. The Exorcist is just that good.


Clive BarkerHellraiser (1981)
Similar to Friedkin’s masterpiece in its use of a standard dramatic device – in this case, the concept of adultery – as a foundation for supernatural fear, Clive Barker’s first feature film as a director is also unquestionably his best. Thanks to a clever combination of recognizable types (the unhappy wife, the clueless, cuckolded husband, the desperate daughter caught in the middle) and the creation of ‘80s cinema’s most menacing fear icons, the Cenobites, Barker pushed the limits of both the emotional and the eerie with this remarkably insightful movie. Many fail to see the sinister subtext involved – a near incestual coupling between a dead brother-in-law and a cheating spouse who will do anything, even KILL, to keep her corpse-like lover alive. With enough gore to satisfy the needs of even the most brazen blood hound, and an intellectualized approach to pain and suffering that few fright films can claim, Hellraiser deserves its place as a minor masterpiece. Too bad Barker never did better. His terrific potential shines through in every grue-covered frame.

 


Danny Boyle28 Days Later (2002)
Zombies. To borrow a line from The Simpsons, the undead are the Washington Generals of the genre film. Whenever a filmmaker, young or old, can’t figure out how to make with the monsters, they fall back on these flesh-eaters and hope for the horrifying best. While the fast-movie maniacs at the center of this story are not true cannibal corpses, Boyle borrows liberally from the overdone filmic formula to radically reinvent the seemingly stagnant social commentary. Viewing Britain as a bastion of brainless reactionaries lashing out at anything that dares disturb their self-satisfying ‘sleep’, Boyle twists the conventions of terror to show just how bleak the human spirit can become when wrapped in a blanket of pure power and/or biologically altered rage. Thanks to his inventive camerawork – this is cutting edge digital moviemaking at its very best – and a script that doesn’t shy away from the scares, what at first seemed like your standard Romero riff actually signaled a rebirth of the entire living dead ideal. 


Tim BurtonSleepy Hollow (1999)
Though he’s constantly considered a major part of the fear arena, Goth god Tim Burton has actually only made one full blown horror movie in his 20 year career, and it’s this amazing homage to the high style Hammer films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Using the Washington Irving classic as a jumping off point, and a sensational cast loaded with British and American iconoclasts – including Christopher Walken, Johnny Depp, and Michael Gambon – Burton braved the scorn of the purists by making his narrative more about the birth of criminal investigation than a faithful adaptation of the folklore favorite. Tossing in references to many of the sinister visuals from motion pictures past, as well as his own unique brand of Edward Gorey-inspired imagery, Burton gave fright fans everything they could possible want, including lots of bloody decapitations. While this eccentric director’s oeuvre has always contained nods to elements both supernatural and paranormal, this inventive and evocative effort stands as one of Burton’s best.


Stanley KubrickThe Shining (1980)
In 1968, this legendary filmmaker delivered what he considered to be the first ‘serious’ science fiction film that the otherwise slipshod genre had ever seen. Not only did the resulting epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, transform the entire cinematic category but it quickly became one of the art form’s greatest triumphs. Obviously hoping to do the same for the fright flick, Kubrick took Stephen King’s beloved third novel, stripped it of all its narrative nuances, and streamlined the story into a fright fable about fate and family. Instead of a classic, it became one of the auteur’s most argued over efforts. Some find it an excellent example of technical terror – atmosphere matched with storytelling and characterization to suggest that evil has an eternal, lasting legacy. Others just found it a slow, somber fright flick. Even with it’s elegant, eerie Steadi-cam work, the occasional bursts of over the top acting histrionics from lead Jack Nicholson, and a single definitive scare sequence involving something malevolent hiding out in Room 237, a clear consensus couldn’t be reached. While the verdict is still out for most die-hard fright fans, The Shining still stands as Kubrick’s only attempt at a classic creature feature.


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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006

Two great articles that I highly recommend:


- Fight For Newspapers: “Cut back on the quality of a newspaper in order to show an impressive short-term return for the market’s sake, and the slide toward disaster has begun. Readers will notice and begin drifting away, and advertisers will soon follow. It won’t be long before the vultures are circling.”


- Digital Rights In Question As Business Model: required reading for any major label (not to mention Steve Jobs and Bill Gates).  Whether they finally get the point is another matter.


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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006

In a consumer society, shopping is never strictly about the goods themselves. Because we by and large define ourselves through consumer choice rather than what we do, we use shopping as a means to answer larger questions than “What can I clean my dishes with?” and “How many pairs of socks do I need to get me through to laundry day?” We try to get at things like “Why I am I here?” “Who am I supposed to be?” and “How can I make sure I seem more important than him?” In other words, shopping becomes the field in which we pursue not just utility but meaning, we pursue objects that anchor reality, give it shape, remind us of our place within it while making us feel as though we have the power to shape it. (When I buy that new widescreen flat-panel monitor for my computer at home, I have in a very tangible way changed the shape of reality as I experience it.) We seek to access the wellspring of authenticity; we want triggers that remind us we are having a real experience.


N+1 editor Mark Greif, in an essay reprinted in the most recent Harper’s, suggests that we collectively locate that fountain of authentic experience in sexualized children. He argues that we are socialized to regard our first sexual experiences as our first real experiences—fumbling and awkward as they often are at the time, they become the core of all our nostalgic yearnings as we grow older, and advertising’s efficacy derives from exploiting those forever-lost moments of pure possibility. “The lure of a permanent childhood in America” (and here I think of postcollegiate enclaves like Williamsburg, Brooklyn) “springs from the overwhelming feeling that one hasn’t achieved one’s true youth, because true youth would be defined by a sexual freedom so total that no one can attain it.” Though we never know this kind of libidinal bliss, we acclimate ourselves to the notion we could have had it if only we weren’t so stupid when we were young, and by having fleeting images of the erotic elysium repeatedly thrust before our eyes, we can’t bring ourselves to let it go. Instead we let these images represent to ourselves what we should have been, what we were in our chrysalis, what we still might be now underneath the wear and tear of age. “From the desire to repossess what has been lost (or was never taken advantage of) comes the ceaseless extension of competition”—competition for commodified youthfulness, now identified with desirability and authenticity, and conveniently enough, impossible to ever truly possess. In Greif’s view, this leads to sexualizing children, the bearers of youthful sexuality (the lodestone for our fantasies of recapturing authenticity) in its most pungent, concentrated form. “One fears our cultural preoccupation with pedophilia is not really about valuing childhood but about overvaluing child sex”—the specter of pedophilia occults the images of youth used for marketing and sharpens their appeal. And even a cursory glimpse at Star or In Touch Weekly is enough to confirm the unsavory obsession with teenage celebrities and their budding sexuality. Even if we don’t know their names or recognize their specific faces, they are the centrifuges capable of enriching inert consumer commodities with explosive energy. They serve as the matrix from which desires are manufactured and refreshed. They are humans as pure objects, without self-awareness but supercharged with the attention of others, they seem to promise that all the human qualities we yearn for can simply be possessed as objects—purchased, even, from indifferent vendors—rather than laboriously and tentatively teased out of rare fortuitous moments of existence after fraught, fragile interactions with those we care about.


This may explain why pedophilia waspointedly invoked with regard to the Foley scandal, which involved pages who were past the age of consent. Some argued this was a way to tar homosexuality, as though it was always a perversion like pedophilia; it may also be an expression of how our culture’s instinct is to wish to expand the boundaries of youth, extend its domain and aura and enchant more of our shared experience. Because sexuality has become so bound up with the marketing of youth, it has become, in Greif’s term, “a new kind of unfreedom”—echoing Foucault’s argument in the first volume of his History of Sexuality Greif argues that we are compelled to a sexual “liberation” that plays out as a compulsion to confess and be evaluated in terms of sexual standards not entirely our own but the social products of fashionability and novelty (the correlative of youthfulness). We are forbidden from not thinking about it. Wisely, Harper’s pairs Greif’s essay with Chinese personal ads from people who aspire to asexuality yet seek the companionship of marriage. I wonder if it represents a specifically Chinese reaction to the encroachment of sexualized marketing that comes with consumer capitalism, or whether similar enclaves exist in America. Has it gotten so bad that asexuality could be the new distinction, the latest way to be cool?


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Monday, Oct 16, 2006

Wait a moment – isn’t it October? The pseudo-official start of fall? The time when the leaves are changing and Halloween-inspired horror movies are king? Well, by the looks of the local brick and mortar, the standard ploy of flooding the marketplace with as much macabre as possible seems to have stalled, at least for the moment. Sure, there are a number of no-name terror titles making their way to shelves all across the country, but the usual glut of gore and gratuity has definitely tapered off. As a matter of fact, the only fear feature worth noting this week is the otherwise awful Omen remake that significantly stunk up the Cineplex this past summer. So pure film fans, rejoice. It looks like, in a deliberate move to counter-program the kind of DVDs available for sale, more interesting examples of non-genre filmmaking are replacing the routine fear factors. It’s enough to make you believe it’s December, or sometime in mid-March. On that note, let’s look at the product waiting for your hard earned dollars this 17, October:


Billy Wilder Speaks!

*
He is responsible for many of the masterpieces that make up Hollywood’s greatest hits – films with titles like Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Sabrina, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Now, thanks to a two day interview with German journalist Volker Schlondorff, we have this telling testimonial by the filmmaker himself, describing in detail the reasons behind his decision to direct (to protect his screenplays) and how each of his many amazing efforts came about. Sure, the nuggets of information may seem slight and sort of bite size, but we rarely get to hear the masters weighing in on their oeuvre, and for those unfamiliar with Wilder’s work, this career-spanning sit-down, complete with a constant stream of clips, is an excellent primer on one of Tinsel Town’s true titans. This DVD release also contains its own digital treasure trove – almost all of Wilder’s film trailers are included.



The Break-Up

We here at SE&L don’t like Jennifer Aniston. It has nothing to do with her talent – a statement which presumes she has some – or her long running stint on that undeniably popular sitcom Friends. No, our anti-Aniston sentiments derive directly from her film catalog. A view of her IMDb resume highlights a creative canon so superficial that it threatens to be blown away by the slightest cyber-breeze. Here, she is paired with that professional pin-up for arrested adolescence, Vince Vaughn, in a tragedy that was billed as the perfect summer RomCom. Helmed by inventive director Peyton Reed, responsible for the randy retro Down with Love and cheerleader challenge hit Bring It On, what was sold as the ditzy dissolution of a perky if unhappy relationship was really a mean spirited wannabe War of the Roses. It didn’t help matters that Ms. Aniston was suffering from a bad case of post-Pitt love life syndrome. It made her hook up with Vaughn – and the movie itself – seem all the more desperate.



PopMatters Review


Clean, Shaven: The Criterion Collection

*
One of the great lost films of the last twenty years, Lodge Kerrigan’s searing and insightful look at one man’s battle with schizophrenia deserves to find an audience outside the few who’ve seen it at festivals or on long out of print VHS/DVDs. Thankfully, those prophetic preservationists at Criterion have agreed to give this experimental effort the full blown special edition treatment. Kerrigan’s approach to this subject matter is indeed unique, attempting to actually visualize the way in which the world looks and sounds to a person struggling with such a debilitating mental affliction. Unflinching in its personal and social views, highly disturbing, and stoked by an astonishing performance by Peter Greene (perhaps best known as that hillbilly rapist Zed in Pulp Fiction) this haunting, harrowing drama is not your typical Hollywood take on insanity. There’s no Best Actor bravado here, just truth in all its painful paradigms.



The Omen (2006)


Piles of dreary cinematic dung don’t come any larger than this completely misguided remake of the 1976 classic. Released at the height of the public’s fascination with all things diabolical, Richard Donner’s original is a pitch perfect exercise in tone and storytelling. Yet when you consider that this is a note for note duplication of the Gregory Peck/Lee Remick thriller, it makes you wonder about the source material itself. Luckily, the real reasons for this updated debacle are easily identified. Aside from making Damien a pesky, proactive demon – not a simple little kid with a hidden Satanic streak at his core – journeyman director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) miscasts this movie miserably. Both Liv Schreiber and Julia Stiles are far too young for their power couple roles, and when the sulfur starts hitting the fan, both appear to be looking for the nearest adult for help. Sadly, that turns out to be a scenery scarfing Mia Farrow…and let’s face, she gave birth to Beelzebub’s baby back in the ‘60s. This nominal effort is not worth any true horror fan’s time.


 


PopMatters Review


Over the Hedge
Need further proof that computer animation has more or less run its course after only a decade and a half as a vital cinematic art form? Take a gander at this demographically correct quasi-comedy and decide for yourself. Guilty of each and every cinematic pitfall that currently plagues the genre (stunt voice casting, overly simplistic storyline, far too many puerile pop culture references), this sometime clever take on suburban sprawl and the many facets of friendship just can’t overcome its highly commercialized gloss. Unlike Pixar films that always seem to find the proper note between precocious and perfection, Hedge (based on a far cleverer comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis) appears designed deliberately to force Moms and Dads to dig deep into their pockets for endless items of tie-in merchandising (and those ads featuring our characters cavorting in Wal-Mart can’t be helping the wallets much).  While not as bad as Open Season or The Wild, this CGI candy is decidedly sour.



PopMatters Review


Reds*
Only ‘70s superstud Warren Beatty could be this overly ambitious and get away with it. Taking the true story of American journalist John Reed, Western witness to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and tying it to an epic underscoring of political change and challenge in the equally erratic United States, this ersatz celebration of free-thinking and racialism was lauded upon its initial release. Believe it or not, Beatty even beat out Steven Spielberg (for a little something called Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Louis Malle (for his superb Atlantic City) for the Academy Award for Best Director. Today, what felt sweeping and romantic comes across as a little naïve and somewhat soft, and even with the stellar acting of Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton (snagging an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and Diane Keaton, Beatty is still required to carry the entire project. Thanks to the numerous hats he was wearing, it appears he may have bitten off a little more than he could artistically or pragmatically chew.


They All Laughed*
After the disastrous ‘70s streak that included Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon (Saint Jack was a quiet surprise) filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was looking for something to re-ignite his creative spark. He thought he found it in 1979 Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten. Hired as part of this light and breezy comic caper, the director and Dorothy soon became fast friends. Fate, however, would deal both a fatal blow when a jealous Paul Snider, Stratton’s sleazy manager and spouse, killed the 20 year old just after filming wrapped. This cursed the film commercially, and no studio would touch it. After a limited initial release, it sank into oblivion, leaving Bogdanovich grief stricken and exiled from Hollywood for the next four years (he would return with the well-received Mask in 1985). Thanks to DVD, this well-meaning movie now has a second chance to connect with audiences.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 17 October:


Frankenhooker*
After Basket Case, his love letter to 42nd Street and the glorious grindhouse cinema that fueled the exploitation genre, and Brain Damage, a cutting edge commentary on drug use and culture, long time cult craftsman Frank Henenlotter was looking for another sure-fire schlock concept. After seeing James Lorinz hilarious turn as a sarcastic mafia doorman in Street Trash, the director got the idea to fashion a Frankenstein style film around his cynical, snide persona. The result was this half-comedy, half-horror farce that farts in the face of Mary Shelly’s modern Prometheus. Granted, the movie grows grating when Lorinz’s “creation” - the decent looking but acting challenged Patty Mullen - starts shuffling around and eating up endless amounts of screen time, but Henenlotter’s sense of humor always shines through. While not on par with the other movies mentioned, this is still required viewing for anyone smitten with this director’s creepy crackpot camp.



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