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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2006

A Military Miscellany by Thomas Ayres [Bantam - $15.00]


Did you know Stonewall Jackson only ever bathed in cold water, even in the dead of winter? Or that he refused to read by artificial light, that he believed he only sweated on one side of his body, and that he stared at walls for hours nightly? The American military is full of weird facts like these and Thomas Ayres has collected them all. His “Miscellany” is a great gift for military buffs and anyone who loves crazy trivia. Brilliant about Ayres’ book, too, is just how these fascinating and often completely bizarre facts begin to form a history of the U.S. military that, in perhaps the oddest twist of all, aren’t particularly surprising. Did you know that upon hearing of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt collected his thoughts for a full 22 minutes before calling the White House? [Amazon]


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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2006

The Other [Fox - $14.98]
(1972, Robert Mulligan) Starring: Uta Hagen, Diana Muldaur, Chris Udvarnoky, Martin Udvarnoky, Norma Connolly.


It is safe to say that, among the movies made in that defining cinematic decade of the ‘70s, The Other is one of the best—a near-flawless example of tone and storytelling melded with wonderfully effective material and meaning. In the hands of Academy Award nominee Robert Mulligan (responsible for To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ‘42, among many others) and adapted by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tyron from his own best-selling novel, this paranormal period piece about psychologically unsound twins takes elements of The Bad Seed and twists them into an amazing American Gothic. Now out on DVD in a beautifully restored print, this story of an old-fashioned family in the middle of a picturesque, pastoral setting scans the surfaces of normalcy—and locates the ugly underneath.  [Amazon]


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Monday, Nov 27, 2006


It’s coming down to the wire, people. Christmas - or for those of a multi-cultural or diversity-oriented persuasion, winter holiday gift giving time – is just around the corner. Time to shore up your purchases, recalibrate your shopping list, and make that final push toward providing your loved ones with the materialistic means of showing how much you love them. The summer of 2006 continues to come home to roost, with four of the presented picks representing the best, the worst, and the least of the sunny season’s selections. For SE&L‘s scratch, nothing beats a double dose of Silent Bob’s brand of intellectualized idiocy (including a second serving of the man’s manic lecture series) and Criterion comes calling again with another mandatory motion picture for fans of pre-sound cinema. Still, there is a lot to look into this week, including numerous box sets and collections – none perhaps as intriguing as the Ultimate Collector’s Edition compendium of Krypton’s favorite son. All five feature films, an earlier George Reeves effort, 14 discs, a documentary and a chance to see Richard Donner’s original version of Superman II. For purists and completists, it’s a treasure trove of material. For everyone else, the optional offerings clamoring for your credit card on 28 November are:


The Ant Bully


In CGI’s continuing effort to eat itself whole, yet another summer flop arrives on DVD, just in time to give your bitmap weary children another reason to whine aimlessly when you visit the nearest video store. Though its premise sounds perfectly potty – a group of insects miniaturize a young boy to teach him a lesson in responsibility and consideration – many critics complimented the film on its imagination and narrative invention. Still, the same stagnant issues that are destroying the animation category are abundant here – silly stunt casting (Julia Roberts, Nicholas Cage), far too many pop culture references, a hyperstylized approach to keeping the frame full of activity - and with the recently released Pixar prize Cars poised for rediscovery, this may be a title best left for a rental, not a purchase.



PopMatters Review


Clerks II

*
One of 2006’s best finally bows on DVD, and it still shocks SE&L that more film fans aren’t salivating over Kevin Smith’s superb sequel. For anyone who thinks this is just more of the original’s intellectually realized dialogue laced with lewd and crude gross out humor – well, you may have a point. But the truth is, Smith has something significant to say about aging and expectations here, and he does so in a way that resonates long after the donkey show jokes and the profanity peppered tirades. Besides, Clerks II contains one of the most uplifting moments of the entire year – a sensational sequence where series newcomer Rosario Dawson leads the gang in a glorious celebration of life set to the Jackson 5’s “ABC”.



PopMatters Review


Monster in a Box

*
Before his untimely death by suicide in 2004, Spalding Gray was seen as an iconic, idiosyncratic performance artist who worked wonderfully within the lost art of communication. A monologist by trade, and an actor on the side, he first came to the fore with his brilliant deconstruction of life, Swimming to Cambodia. This follow-up, focusing on his attempts to write a novel and deal with the memories of his mentally unsound mother, is a little less focused, but just as powerful. Perhaps the most shocking thing, in retrospect, about this presentation is how sound and secure Gray appeared to be. Who knew that the same demons driving him to masterful expressions and considerations of existence were also leading down a path of eventual self-destruction. His is a voice that is truly missed.



Pandora’s Box: The Criterion Collection

*
Criterion uncovers yet another gem with the release of this legendary Louis Brooks vehicle. The tragic story of a prostitute and performer named Lulu, this is the film that made Miss Brooks a star, and the toast of the jumping jive jazz age. Director Georg Wilhelm Pabst combined his acclaimed insight into actors with the inherent artistry of German Expressionism to forge an epic dissection of the human spirit. With many of Hollywood’s silent stars forgotten or forced into post-modern pigeonholes, it’s important for preservationists like Criterion to keep their true memory alive. And nothing guarantees immortality better than a perfect DVD package providing the proper balance between entertainment and context. As they do with all their products, Criterion proves the possibilities – and the pleasures – that can be achieved within the digital medium.


 


See No Evil
Be warned – though it may seem like every other horror film from the ‘70s is being remade today, this is not a new version of the 1971 shocker starring Mia Farrow as a hapless blind woman being stalked by a deranged psychopath. No, this is further proof that WW(F)E founder Vince McMahon has too much disposable cash on hand. Having proven that people will watch just about anything with his seemingly never-ending homoerotic grapple-a-thon, otherwise known as professional wrestling, he’s now trying to apply his demographically deft touch to making movies, in this case, subpar slasher efforts. Featuring singlet superstar Kane as the resident evil of a rotting hotel and a group of interchangeable Hollywood hopefuls as the delinquents sentenced to clean the place (and play victims), neither hi-jinx, nor horror, ensues.



PopMatters Review


Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut*
Decades from now, when DVD is remembered fondly as the medium which introduced the notion of “alternate versions” as viable motion picture marketability, a disc like this one will be the historical precedent. Many fans of the series were unaware that Donner, the original director of the Christopher Reeve Superman, was hired to helm TWO films. Created concurrently, the filmmaker was later dropped by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind who, apparently, objected to his fiscal freewheeling. Salkind friend Richard Lester was brought in to complete the project, even though Donner had shot over 75% of the sequel. For ages, the “Donner Version” was more or less an urban legend. Now, with Warners Brothers’ full permission, the fired filmmaker gets a chance to have his original vision seen by the viewing public. Talk about your digital redemptions.


Superman Returns*
This post-millennial update by the shockingly overrated Bryan Singer has two strikes against it going in – it decides to follow-up on events derived directly from Richard Donner’s original film, and it features an abysmally out of place Kate Bosworth as the lamest Lois Lane in history. Surprisingly, Brandon Routh makes an excellent Man of Steel. While a little young (the entire cast suffers from some surreal age issues throughout), he is commanding and compassionate, the perfect superhero for an era undecided on the whole “truth, justice and the American way” of doing things. While the action sequences are sensational – especially a mid-air rescue of a crashing space shuttle - the quieter moments between our champion, his ex-flame, and their ‘married with children’ complications just don’t work. Singer’s signed up for a sequel. Here’s hoping he keeps the pizzazz and ditches the personal.



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 28 November:


A Polish Vampire in Burbank*
For a long time, Marc Piro’s 1985 home movie got by on its terrifically tacky title alone. Consumers craving something unusual during their weekly trip to the Mom and Pop consistently rented this retardation based on its nifty name along. Little did they know they were headed toward an evening in the company of a crappy Super 8mm spoof. Granted, this is a Hell of a lot better than Mel Brooks’ completely awful vampire vileness, 1985’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but neither is a match for 1974’s Vampira, which was later re-labeled Old Dracula to trade on the Borsht Belt comedian’s classic Young Frankenstein. In any case, Piro plays a reluctant neckbiter who falls for his first victim. Featuring a ‘queerwolf” and gratuitous Eddie Deezan this is either a classic, or crap, depending on your bad movie acumen.


 


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Monday, Nov 27, 2006

As with any other top 100-10-1000 or one million list of best albums in the universe, there is plenty to argue about on
The All-Time 100 Albums.  No knock against Josh Tyrangiel or Alan Light here- both are fine writers (though I notice that there seems to be a surplus of Christgau one-liners popping up in their reviews).  A few observations though…


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Sunday, Nov 26, 2006


Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is the luckiest untalented son of a bitch in all of Hollywood. Don’t believe it? Well, Sony has just ponied up $4 million large to let this hack hammer away on a Da Vinci Code sequel. That’s right, the one element that critics almost universally pointed out as being the Dan Brown thriller’s atrocious Achilles’ Heel - well, maybe second only to the casting – is being rewarded with another go round, and a shockingly healthy paycheck for the responsible putz. Along with the recent news that Goldsman would be behind the much-delayed take of Richard Matheson’s classic end of the world creeper I Am Legend, film fans definitely have a right to be despondent. It seems like, whenever Tinsel Town wants to totally screw up something, they turn to the man with the Goldsman touch.


And before you think that this highly paid nimrod is just some blessed bastard who always happens to be in the right place at the right time, let’s revisit exactly what his onerous efforts have wrought. Indeed, his creative canon holds many reasons why this insipid, routine writer should be hurt, not hired. Associated with more triumphs than tragedies, there is an entire school of thought that proposes that Goldsman gives great purposeful patchiness. Indeed, his scripts are so scatter shot and sloppy that they allow actors, directors and other important film people to fill in the bewildering blanks. There are others, though, who want Akiva to get all the credit. Success is always subjective, but it seems that someone has stuck a bug in Tinsel Town’s ear, convincing them that Goldsman, not any other element in the wide range of explanations for a film’s potential payoff, is almost single-handedly responsible for the erasing of red ink.


Take his first big screen credit – The Client - co-written with Robert Getchell, who himself had previously penned the amazing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the kitsch classic Mommy Dearest. Guided more by director Joel Schumacher and bestselling boob John Grisham, the ultimate triumph of the film had much more to do with the novelist’s reputation and placement on the best seller’s list, along with the wise decision to cast Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the leads than Goldsman’s minor contributions. Obviously doing the doctoring for an already formed film script, to consider this a Goldsman solo feat is downright foolish. Still, he did manage to claim a sucker – sorry, supporter – in Schumacher, and the two continued their association with the G-man aiding and abetting in his killing of the ‘80s Batman series. He provided parts of the script for Batman Returns (along with several others), and then slammed the coffin lid shut with his solo work on the abysmal Batman and Robin.


With that last abomination alone, Goldsman should have suffered more than just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. One imagines a ball peen hammer to the privates wouldn’t be painful enough. Yet, somehow, he got positioned as the go to guy for blockbuster material (maybe someone misunderstood the concept behind the term “entertainment”) and was again commissioned by Schumacher to give another Grisham legal brief - A Time to Kill – the old Goldsman approach. The combination of racial screeds and arch dramatics seemed to suit the scribe well, and before you knew it, box office receipts where heading skyward. Again, the reason behind the “Kill-ing” was simple – John Grisham was, at the time, the most popular writer in the world. He could produce a description of his own bowel movements (actually, he did, it was called The Chamber) and a rapid, slightly retarded reading public would buy it up like literary Soylent Green.


Yet enough of A Time to Kill‘s gratuitous glitter seemed to land on Goldsman so that, soon, he was pegged to produce an update for the Irwin Allen cult classic Lost in Space. A long simmering effort for New Line, it was all systems go once Goldsman turned in his draft, and it appeared that the company could envision a big boffo weekend payoff followed by a long term stay at the Cineplex. Yet despite some stellar special effects and intriguing casting choices (Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith!!!) something wasn’t right. As a matter of fact, something stunk outright – and it was Goldsman’s grossly ineffective screenplay. Overloaded with leaps in logic so vast that no trip to through the space-time continuum could bring them any closer together, and his usual inept way with dialogue and characterization, the movie actually appeared hollow inside, lacking a single significant “sci-fi” moment. Someone should have reminded Goldsman that, when you’re working on a flight of fancy, it’s a good idea to have items like imagination and intelligence as part of your narrative arsenal.


But there was a bigger scourge set in motion by this remake. Goldsman was given a production credit, the Hollywood equivalent of a first date hickey. Since the title carries a notion of power and importance, the failure of Space washed off the scribbling scrotum like dimensions of his player’s personalities. Luckily, his magic witch malarkey Practical Magic was already bought, sold and staged before the Robinsons found themselves forever misplaced in the marketplace. Panned, but not enough to stick to the suddenly Teflon typist, Goldsman decided to drop out of the business for a while. He didn’t write again until the beginning of the new millennium, his most significant contribution to the culture being as one of the many chiefs on Renny Harlin’s hilarious Jaws jaw-dropper, the super smart shark epic Deep Blue Sea.


Since it was painfully evident that the one time pairing of Goldy and Schu was on the outs (probably over the whole “nipples on the Batsuit” thing), our hackwork hooker required another pimp to make sure his screenplay services would satisfy a few studio Johns. The answer arrived in former child star turned semi-decent director Ron Howard. Attempting to turn the life story of Nobel Prize winning (and mentally troubled) economist John Nash into a biopic, the older Opie saw something in Goldsman that few today can find with an electron microscope and a gross of radioactive dye. Employing a gimmicky twist that was supposed to shake the audience to its core (you mean, EVERYONE he talks to is fake? A figment of his imagination? No shit?) Goldsman gave Nash a heroic façade that was blatantly false. While no one goes into a Tinsel Town biography for its accurate depiction of history, many of the more “troubling” facets of Nash’s life were whitewashed by Goldsman’s feel good foolishness.


And then Oscar had to go and give the man a statue. In a year that saw the first film in the fabulous Lord of the Rings trilogy, Terry Zwigoff’s take on Daniel Clowe’s Ghost World, and the intense, introspective In The Bedroom. Goldsman beat out much better material – not to mention writing – to garner his permanent foothold in Hollywood’s unimaginative heart. Granted, not every Academy Award guarantees a studio or agent will pick up the phone (just ask the two juniors – Louis Gossett and Cuba Gooding), but in the case of Goldsman, it seemed to indicate that all the critics were wrong. No, his scripts didn’t suck the moldering feces out of a dead corpse’s butt. No, he didn’t sacrifice cinematic requirements like cohesion and vision for the obvious and stereotypical. Sure, he had his fair share of flops, but this was vindication of his inherent artistry. Along with the trophy for Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind and its soulless screenplay remain two of Oscar’s most indefensible wins.


Thankfully, things haven’t gotten worse – at least, not yet. Goldsman’s grasp of Isaac Asimov was about as strong as I, Robot‘s approach to automatons (I know, let’s make our androids look like ceramic poseable artist’s models), but Will Smith was around to get jiggy with it all. While Goldy’s contribution again felt like a trip to Tinsel Town’s economic era, there are still moments where you can actually see the man messing with the movie. He avoids the obvious ethical debates – paying them the merest of lame lip service – so that there’s more time for chase scenes and flashbacks. Like the overwhelming drive to explain everything in The Da Vinci Code, Goldsman believes that ‘more’ makes a movie. In his case, however, he can’t convince us that excessive exposition – or in the case of The Fresh Prince’s ‘droid story, lots of lame CGI candy – can make for compelling cinema.


Since Howard and his personal plotter appear attached at the hip (Ronny has only made one movie – The Missing - without a floppy Goldsman foundation in the last five years) and the less than successful returns of Cinderella Man more or less failing to stick to anyone in particular (with A Good Year now tanking nicely, Russell Crowe better grab a phone receiver and watch his back) it’s no surprise this witless writer has signed on to decipher another Dan Brown brow-beater. Angels and Demons, the first of the Code-oriented tomes to feature symbologist Robert Langdon, was like a walkthrough for Da Vinci‘s more outlandishly muddled mysteries, and if Goldsman’s treatment of that multi-million seller is any indication of how this film will flow, be prepared for more asides, allusions and illustrations as every single significant and insignificant facet of the plot is trotted out for the uninitiated. It will then be over-explained and then re-referenced, just to make sure you’re along for the ride.


Still no one seems to understand that The Da Vinci Code made money because it was based on an international monster of a book, featured arguably the world’s most popular and beloved actor in the lead, and had one of these inherently controversial storylines that people just wanted to see made into a movie. Sadly, the film that resulted is as turgid and uninspired as the overall casting choices. With all those false positives in its portfolio, Code tapped into its fanbase, sucked up some significant bucks before the rest of the summer season snuffed it out, and ended up being an artistically awful financial success. So who gets the humungous paycheck? The man whose main contribution was making Brown’s page-turner into an exercise in inertia. How typical. 


Goldsman must be dependable and professional, keeping his promises and meeting his deadlines with genial good grace and a fruit basket on the side. There must be something about his work ethic and ability to acquiesce to those above and around him that makes his presence a necessary evil – like craft services, or Teamsters. His writing is indeed horrid, but it doesn’t differ too much from the massively mediocre excuses for entertainment that are released onto theater screens before making a mandatory beeline to the DVD den of iniquity. Yet somehow, Goldsman is the pariah, and it is time he was punished. Making him watch his movies won’t be enough. Like smelling your own farts, some people’s personal offensiveness doesn’t phase them in the least. No, a great crime deserves some mega-time. That’s why Akiva Goldsman must die.


No, not murdered. Not dead in the literal use of the word. No, Goldsman must loose his luster, shave off his indirect successes, and man up to the reality that he’s nothing more than a fortunate friggin’ pawn in Tinsel Town’s never-ending pursuit of the putrid. Ever since the ‘70s (and a few flash years in the ‘90s) the movie business has bastardized itself over and over, repeating and reinventing only the most profitable and franchisable. He is not an Oscar worthy writer. He was never responsible for the accomplishment of a single film he’s been involved in. The Writer’s Guild of America should revoke his credentials and actually let him try to reestablish his $4 million meaningfulness. Of course we all know that he can’t, and that when Angels and Demons makes another confused killing, Goldsman’s price will skyrocket again. As the reports from the set of I Am Legend confirm that Matheson’s material will once again be compromised for the sake of commerciality, it seems that nothing changes in the post-millennial movie biz except the size of the paychecks. Definitely not the pissants getting paid.


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