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Saturday, Sep 2, 2006


It’s sad that Jerry Lewis has become the punchline to an endless array of farcical French jokes. Buried beneath all the old school mugging and silent slapstick schtick is a truly gifted filmmaker whose inventive ideas behind the camera didn’t always translate to guaranteed hilarity in front of it. Want proof? Take the crazed comic’s 1961 forgotten masterwork, the bachelor boychick as maid to a mass of Misses entitled The Ladies Man. Certainly, the clothesline premise seems too disjointed to be potent. It was only Lewis’s second film as a director and it had, at its center, one of the largest and most expensive sets ever constructed for a feature film. Lewis demanded and got a full size, scale model dollhouse-like home built inside one of Paramount’s soundstages, an amazing monstrosity containing four separate stories, a grand concourse, several open-walled bedrooms, a series of serpentine staircases, and an old-fashioned elevator running up the side. Shown in several severe long shots by Lewis (who is obviously proud of the perspective it gives the film), this art department masterpiece is stunning to behold.


Just like David Fincher’s desire to have an entire Brownstone mock-up to work within for Panic Room, Lewis uses this amazing effigy very effectively. Anyone wondering why he is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker’s dexterity. Lewis’s lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale feel. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value. Naturally, any movie runs the risk of being overshadowed by such a substantive stunt. It would take a larger than life star to survive within the labyrinthine layout. Lewis is, of course, that more than sizeable superstar. Thankfully, he avoids the obvious love affair possibilities to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something sincere and silly - and undeniably Lewis.


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Saturday, Sep 2, 2006

Dada seems like a poor subject for a museum retrospective considering how those artists’ mission seemed to be to undermine the credibility of institutional art and its curators while lampooning the tastes and proclivities of the bourgeois philistines who frequent such palaces of pomposity and complacency as museums. Yet there I was, a philistine at large at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, taking it all in. Perhaps the artists would have reveled in this irony. As the paragraph on the wall explained, the Dada artists were pioneers in the art of branding, coining the word Dada to unite the heterogenous art—quasi-cubist painting, embroidery, typographical experiments, pictographs, collages, manifestos, mannequins, readymades, etc.—that went out under its banner. Consequently Dada works seem to be about little more than brand building and self-promotion—it’s not an accident that there are dozens of posters for Dada exhibitions in the Dada exhibition—and the influence this work had on graphic artists, industrial designers and marketers is apparent in how familiar everything in the exhibition looks, how the experimental pieces evoke nostalgia rather than perplexity, how pointedly the provocative Duchamps fail to provoke. Though much is made of the Dadaists devotion to randomness and spontaneity in their methods, these works are outrageous in the calculated way advertisements can be; they use deliberate randomness the way ads now use non sequiturs and absurdity to arrest our attention. So the experience of all this attention-craving Dada in one place—no quiet dignity to these objects—is pretty exhausting, even more disorienting than the usual big, crowded museum show.


The show is organized around the local art enclaves in various cities that the Dada movement was able to manufacture, which gave the appropriate impression that the Dada’s main achievement was to make hip happenings, to create proto-Williamsburgs of self-importance wherever they chose to congregate. I had the feeling the less I knew about Dada, the more I would be able to appreciate the works, which taken in isolation, disburdened of the posturing that surrounded their marketing, could have been quite impressive and moving. Exhibited together, though, one is too conscious of the oppressive art scene, its peculiar anxieties and egoistic concerns. But Dada artists were among the first to discover how to use the emerging mass media as an artistic medium—the collages made of pieces of newspaper and theater tickets and photos cut out of magazines are only a fitting symbol of this.


I liked Schwitters’s collages, though, for an entirely different reason. Though the works seemed to demonstrate the artist’s efforts at mastering the discombobulating proliferation of entertainment and information the era experienced, bringing all the industrially produced pieces of culture together, the works now made by countless, nameless hands, ordering it all and making it coherent and subject to the individual artist’s imprimatur, I appreciated the way they seemed to bring artistic endeavor to a DIY level. They made me wonder why I didn’t try my hand at making some art—all I need is a good matte cutter and some nice frames, and I could maybe put something together. It wouldn’t be as good as Schwitters, obviously, but it would be better than simply consuming art, herding myself through the mass of people. But then the more people who feel like they should be making their own art, the more one has to work to promote oneself, to stand out from the masses, to earn exhibition space and an audience. So the DIY spirit I felt was part and parcel with the revulsion I felt at the branding and attention-grubbing.


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Friday, Sep 1, 2006
“Family film” has become such an ugly term for me lately: most of these Disney-endorsed flicks are barely passable as entertaining morality plays. Instead, they seem to offer up wiseacre kids trying to act like adults while their unfortunate parents dither about incompetently. The saccharine, phony nature of this present-day PG-fare seems to frequently be accompanied by some sort of rock and roll performance set piece in which young and old either share the mic in a duet, or exchange loving glances while playing guitar. It seems that in all of the commotion and emo, they forgot to include something important: the actual FAMILY. Lucky for us, we can be transported back to a time where this genre was actually embraced and celebrated with an offbeat, often unsympathetic take on the “family values” feature: Martin Ritt’s Sounder.

The world this celebrated director conjures up is about as far as you can get from traditional or contemporary, what with the story centering bravely on the trials and tribulations of the Morgan’s, a family of sharecroppers overcoming impossible bad luck during the Great Depression. It’s a tale full of rough edges, no-holds-barred sadness, and a complete lack of pity. The often unsympathetic tone the film takes is a bit shocking at times (no stranger would dare hit a child they didn’t know today, not without severe consequences), but is still dependable and accurate. Sounder preaches its morals and values in a subversive, non-offensive way that is never false or cloying. The story watches eldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks, in an introspective film debut) grow into a man while learning the hardest life lessons from his wise, yet misguided parents Rebecca and Nathan Lee (Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield; the first African-American man and woman to be simultaneously nominated for acting Oscars). His parents see the spark in the young man’s mind and they push him into a life of education rather than work. The journey of the young man stays at the center of the film, letting the viewer peek into a world long past, exposing all of its cracks in a believable way.


Sounder deals with some very heavy issues (including the horrifying, inhumane and unfair physical and emotionally cruelties most black people of the time were expected to silently tolerate) without becoming bogged down with cliché-riddled sermonizing. Feeding your hungry family during hard times, working hard labor jobs at a young age, and love in the most dour of circumstances are some of the universal themes Ritt and his great cast touch on. They remain equally relevant to families today, more than thirty years later. At the core, the film is a story about the love and loyalty shared between parents and children and the ties that bond a family together – a closeness that often requires great sacrifice and strength. Rebecca, for example, must learn to let go of her son as he readies to leave the nest. Selfishly, she wonders aloud “who will help me around the house? Who will help me out in the field?” while he looks on with disappointment.


Tyson, as a flawed (but fundamentally wholesome) mother of three, shies away from playing her character for cheap sympathy or dignified suffering: Rebecca is scared for her family’s well-being, and must endure long days of back-breaking work to be the sole provider once her husband is arrested for stealing meat to feed them. She is strong without being overbearing, sensual, and wise without being particularly sophisticated. Her pride is visible when scolding two racist officers who will not allow her to speak with her imprisoned husband (classily tossing off the barb “You got yourself a real low-life job, Mr. Sheriff”; an offense that in is very daring given the potential consequences). Winfield too creates an indelible character: sometimes selfish, other times brutish. As Nathan Lee, he imparts wisdom to his son; but also makes sure to tell him that he is loved: something that is conveyed imaginatively with dialogue and nuance rather than through present-day neuroses or an uninspired musical extravaganza. It’s Sounder‘s strongest selling point.



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Friday, Sep 1, 2006

Via AdPulp comes this stirring elucidation of the punk rock ethos.


Within the punk rock credo of my youth were the seeds of a larger business philosophy. Ten years in a boutique design and branding firm has shown me how valuable the punk rock attitude is to a successful brand plan. The brands that consistently rise to the top have questioned everything that’s been done before. Adding “X” to a razor’s name? Just a lame attempt at buying an audience with weak, non-genuine branding. Inventing a razor for shaving heads? Totally punk rock.


John Lydon or Malcolm Mclaren couldn’t have said it better. As I’ve noted before, “punk” is primarily a branding strategy, a rough equivalent for “edgy” and “youthfully exuberant.” It’s another name for the restless, aimless energy that powers the engine of fashion. It certainly has been emptied of all its rebellious and subversive implications (it has always buttressed the “system” rather than undermine it) and smoothly integrated into the marketing machine as a way to approach a specific demographic. So we can expect to see punk breakfast cereal and punk shampoo and punk SUVs as well as punk razor blades.


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Thursday, Aug 31, 2006

It’s September, and that means a new month, a new page on the desktop calendar, and a new slate of movies for your perusal on all four premium cable channels. Actually, that final bit is not quite true. A couple of decades ago, when the coaxial held equal footing in the home video market for the available audience attention span, pay TV networks would dump the previous 30 days worth of titles, loading up the preceding four weeks with all manner of ‘new’ motion picture product. Granted, the schedule was shamefully similar to what had been offered before – forgotten films, made for cable schlock, your basic b-movies – yet as long as it was “different” enough, they felt they were fulfilling their promise.


Nowadays, with DVD dominating the demographic, the premiums have wised up. They rotate their stock like the commercial crops that they represent, always feeding the merchandising machine that keeps their subscriptions active and their customers calm. Then once a week, typically on a Saturday, the latest big name ‘blockbuster’ drops, like a carrot in front of an overtired mainstream mule. The arrivals this week – 2, September - are an interesting combination, representing some of 2005’s best and more baffling efforts. They include:


HBOWallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

*
After the smashing critical success of Chicken Run, the geniuses over at Aardman decided to give their seminal twosome their own big screen epic. Using the painstaking art of stop motion animation, and setting their tale within the unlikely genre of horror, the result was one of ‘05’s best efforts. As characters, Wallace (absent minded inventor) and Gromit (faithful canine companion) represent a perfect combination of the clever (dog) and the clueless (man). Given Aardman’s acknowledged skill and craftsmanship, it’s no big surprise that this delightful duo easily make a transition from short film prominence to full-length feature masterpiece. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 8:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


CinemaxCinderella Man

*
Always seen as the blockbuster/Oscar contender that never was, Ron Howard’s look at Depression era boxing champion Jim Braddock was probably the victim of too many expectations and too much exterior baggage. It didn’t help matters that star Russell Crowe was going through one of his more “uncomfortable” fame phases, and that the brain trust behind the final release date decided to premiere this prestige picture in the middle of the Summer’s celebration of superficiality. Add in the typical Hollywood whitewashing of anything remotely controversial and you have the standard story of the human spirit overcoming social adversity. If you didn’t already catch it on sister station HBO, now’s your chance to judge its mixed merits for yourself. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 10:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


StarzThe Greatest Game Ever Played

*
Actor Bill Paxton’s (Aliens, A Simple Plan) directorial follow-up to his 2001 creeper Frailty couldn’t be more dissimilar. Combining your standard underdog sports drama with a turn of the century period piece, Paxton presents the true story of a 20 year old linkster who actually defeated the reigning 1913 US Open champion Harry Vardon. While golf films in general don’t inspire a lot of entertainment confidence (The Legend of Baggar Vance anyone?) Paxton plays up the populist angle in the material, giving the entire enterprise a nice, nuanced feel good gloss. Even more amazing, this project was scripted, and based on a non-fiction tome by none of than Twin Peaks scribe Mark Frost. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 9:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


ShowtimeThe Woodsman

*
Though he seems to be better known for that slightly clever ‘six degrees of separation’ game than his recent movie roles, the truth is that Kevin Bacon has been making some brave choices as of late when it comes to his career. Take this terrific 2004 drama in which the former Footloose star plays a just-paroled pedophile trying to regain a sense of normalcy in a world unready and unwilling to forgive his past. Not only does Bacon basically implode his former friendly frat boy image, but he also redefines his future as a sly, subtle and serious actor. Though the subject matter may seem shocking, it is nothing compared to the astonishing work done here by this unfairly underrated performer. (Saturday 12 August, 8pm EST)


PopMatters Review


* = PopMatters Picks


 


Indie Film Focus: September 2006

Last month, Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to supply us with 30 days of star driven righteousness to keep the small screen film finds freely flowing. With the network back to it’s rather hit or miss programming, SE&L has decided to focus on another facet of the cinematic canon – the Independent film. Thanks to IFC, otherwise known as The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel, there is currently a 24 hour a day supply of outsider excellence. Some of the movie suggestions here will seem obvious. Others will reflect the divergent nature of the art form’s overall approach. Whatever the case, these are the highlights for the week of 2 September through 8 September:


IFC



Bamboozled (2000)
Spike Lee’s modern minstrel show loses its way toward the end, but while it’s working, it is one devastating denouncement of the media and its approach to race.
(Saturday 2 September, 11:00pm EST)


American Movie (1999)
All Mark Borschardt ever wanted to be was a filmmaker. Thanks to documentarian Chris Smith, he became something more – a symbol of irrepressible Indie dedication.
(Sunday 3 September, 5:00pm EST)


City of God (2002)
Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund didn’t invent the gangster film, but thanks to their efforts behind this stellar cinematic masterpiece, it sure feels like they did.
(Tuesday 5 September, 10:45pm EST)


Run Lola Run (1998)
While he’s never lived up to the promise he showed here, German director Tom Tykwer still deserves a place in foreign film history for this kinetic crime thriller.
(Wednesday 6 September, 5:45pm EST)


Sundance Channel



Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Remember when Guy Ritchie made GOOD movies NOT starring his shapeshifting dance diva wife? That’s okay, this British take on the mob movie will remind you.
(Saturday, 2 September, 7:00pm EST)


DiG! (2004)
Without question, the definitive rock and roll documentary. Ondi Timoner uncovers the insanity both inside and outside the music biz, and it’s not a very pretty sight.
(Monday, 4 September, 7:00pm EST)


Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973)
Controversial at the time (holy hippies?), Norman Jewison’s adaptation of this revered rock opera still plays as vital and as volatile as it did three decades ago.
(Wednesday, 6 September, 7:00pm EST)


Fellini’s Casanova (1976)
Always known for his cinematic excesses, this is considered by many to be the Italian maestro’s overkill breaking point. Tune in for yourself and see if it’s true.
(Thursday, 7 September, 7:00pm EST)


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