“21st Century Kaspar Hauser” [MP3]
What Made Milwaukee Famous
“Key of C” [MP3]
Archie Bronson Outfit
“Dart For My Sweetheart” [MP3]
“Dylan Pt. 2” [MP3]
It’s definitely the dog days of DVD summer this Tuesday. Unless you are interested in failed TV shows, outsider genre offerings (with less than tantalizing titles like Back Woods, The Tooth Fairy and Electric Zombies—UGH!) or various permutations of the rock and roll vanity project (video collection concert performance, etc) there’s very little in the way of legitimate mainstream motion picture fare. While this means that those few identifiable releases are guaranteed a bigger slice of the consumer pie, such a selection won’t necessarily drive patrons to the old brick and mortar. After all, will you be going out of your weekly way for the gay comedy Adam and Steve? Or some butchered box set of Westerns/Mysteries/Horror offerings? So take the following list with a healthy dose of skeptic’s salt. PopMatters isn’t necessarily recommending them—“recognizing’ may be a better term. The selections that grabbed SE&L’s attention for August 8 are, in alphabetical order:
Beginning like a typical teen thriller, then slowly sinking into a prickly post-modern noir, this third film from director Rian Johnson is a real Indie gem. Featuring a clockwork script, impressive acting, and enough twists to keep you guessing right up until the end, this throwback to the days when men were macho, women were cheap and crime never paid (it just loaned out its joys for reimbursement later) can be a little bracing at first. After all, we aren’t used to high school students talking like pulp private dicks. Yet once it discovers its own particular rhythms and settles into its unfolding puzzle box story, the result is something unique indeed.
The Hidden Blade
As much a revisionist look at the samurai film as a staunch follower of same, Blade represents writer-director Yoji Yamada’s second installment in his trilogy based on a series of novels by Shuuhei Fujisawa. In a career that’s spanned 41 years and 77 films, Yamada was mostly known for his Toro-san films—all 48 of them. But with 2002’s superb The Twilight Samurai, Yamada garnered a great deal of critical attention. Twilight was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and walked away with 13 Japanese Academy Awards. Word is that Blade is just as good as it’s predecessor. If true, this bodes well for this DVD release—and the upcoming Bushi no ichibun, the final installment in the triad.
Spike Lee spices up the heist film with his own unique brand of urban angst, and brings Tinsel Town A-teamers Denzel Washington, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen along for the ride. He ended up with the biggest box office hit of his career, and an outpouring of critical affection almost unheard of in this auteur’s 20-plus years behind the lens. While some felt the ending was unsatisfying, especially in light of all that came before it, this is still one of the most entertaining and engaging films in the director’s diverse career. It offers a maturity and an intelligence that argues for a new phase in the filmmaker’s always contentious canon.
The Jayne Mansfield Collection
Consisting of three of Mansfield’s more memorable movie turns (The Girl Can’t Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw), this is one compendium overloaded with both cinematic and camp value. Loads of DVD extras (commentaries, documentaries, featurettes) and pristine transfers help disprove the theory that Mansfield was nothing more than a low rent Marilyn Monroe. Though she never really got a chance to stretch as an actress, this is one sex symbol that was more than an over-inflated chest—at least, for a short while.
Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector
While utilizing the human personification of the New South NASCAR numbskull, this member of the Blue Collar Comedy tour takes fat, drunk and stupid to whole new levels with his first feature film. What a man with questionable hygiene would know about wellness and cleanliness must be one of those Tinsel Town issues resolved by that cinematic catch-all, the suspension of disbelief. With the late great Jim Varney unable to rise from the dead and pump out another Ernest P. Worrell extravaganza, we’ll just have to settle for this entertainer whose more catchphrase than comic.
As the second film in Danish director Lars Von Trier’s proposed trilogy on the United States (entitled “USA – Land of Opportunity), Manderlay lost its original lead (Dogville‘s Nicole Kidman) and gained a potential young talent in The Village‘s Bryce Dallas Howard. This, and other casting changes didn’t bother critics as much as the storyline’s suggestion that right minded liberals may not always have the best interest of “the races” at heart. Sure, all of the first film’s tricks (bare stages, chalk mark “buildings”) are present and accounted for in this plantation potboiler, but no one can successfully mesh art with outrage like Von Trier. Sadly, this may be the filmmaker’s final word on such a provocative subject. The final film (Wasington) is currently on ‘indefinite hold’.
Image offers up its own digital version of this 1971 rarity, a crazy cartoon featuring music by George Kleinsinger, a script by Mel Brooks and Joe Darion, and all based on a Broadway show compiled from the stories by Don Marquis (noted New York newspaper columnist and short story writer). This tale of Archy the author who’s reincarnated as a cockroach, only to fall in love with a fickle feline named Mehitabel, has long been hailed as either a work of visionary pen and ink grandeur, or a minor effort in the otherwise bloated world of ‘70s serious animation. With a tagline that shouts “It’s sophisticated enough for kids, simple enough for adults!”, it’s kind of hard to tell which side is right.
In a new weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 8 August:
Ghost in the Teeny Bikini
Ever wonder what porn stars do in their off hours. Why, they make low budget softcore sex romps. The fearless Fred Olen Ray, responsible for such hack classics as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Invisible Mom, and Teenage Cavegirl, is on hand to tell the story of an actress named… Muffin Baker, who returns to her hometown to attend the reading of her dead Uncle’s will. Of course, all kinds of spooky and sexy hi-jinx ensue. With Method meat puppet Evan Stone along for the ‘ride’ and enough sin and skin to keep an adolescent boy ‘engaged’ for hours, this sort of self-effacing schlock has been Ray’s bread and bodkin butter for decades now. Apparently someone likes what he does.
On paper, Little Miss Sunshine plays like a joke with a punch line no one wants to hear. What do you get when you take a failed inspirational speaker, a suicidal Proust scholar, a heroin addicted grandfather, a depressed teenager, and a driven to the edge mother and her daughter, pack them all in a Volkswagen van, and send them traveling to California for a beauty pageant? Well, in anyone else’s hands, a formulaic, predictable film in which life lessons are learned and everything is wrapped up in a neat, little bow. However, in the hands of husband and wife directors, Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, using a first time script by Michael Arndt, the result is a moving, hilarious and raw examination of family who can’t stand each other, but need each other all the same.
Blessed with an astonishing ensemble performance by a cast that includes Steve Carell (who steps comfortably into a dramatic role without the baggage that someone like Robin Williams brings to similar endeavors), Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine is ostensibly about a wacky trip to a beauty pageant for six and seven year olds. But in taking us there, it tackles with honesty and clarity the dreams that sustain these characters, as well as the lies they tell themselves to keep going, avoid reality and dodge the pain of failure. Dayton and Faris get all the details, big and small, with a bull’s-eye precision. From an opening scene at the dinner table, in which mismatched plates and cups are set out for a take-out fried chicken dinner, to a remarkably touching sequence in a diner in which the family convinces a weight concerned, potential beautiful queen, to eat her ice cream, the directors keep the film from slipping into contrived emotions or obvious showdowns.
Little Miss Sunshine offers the kind of movie experience that is extremely rare at the summer multiplex. It traverses its territory and treats its audience with intelligence and caring, offering huge laughs and equally sized tears. You will leave the theatre fulfilled, not because these characters all meet happy endings, but because sometimes life is complicated, shitty, hilarious and unpredictable—something that Dayton and Faris got completely right.
Elizabeth Holmes of The Wall Street Journal apparently had the same idea that I did about the portion of MySpace “friends” that are actually ad pages, but being a real journalist, she actually interviewed some relevant people about the subject, like the executive in charge of generating profits from the phenomenon, and produced laugh-out-loud money quotes like this: ” ‘What we really struck upon is the power of friendship,’ says Michael Barrett, chief revenue officer for News Corp.‘s Fox Interactive Media.” He’s probably not even joking. Perhaps he means that people are so enamored of the idea of friendship that they’ll expand it to embrace all of their preferences. But if anything, the phenomenon is more a testimony to the power of social networking, which reduces friends to advertisements for oneself.
Holmes notes the conundrum of fans creating what are essentially ads for products without the company who owns the brand’s involvement or permission: “A profile for Willy Wonka matches the feel of other fictional characters, listing his hometown (‘the Land of Make Believe’), his occupation (‘amazing chocolatier inventor extraordinaire’) and his nearly 61,000 ‘friends.’ But the Willy Wonka site is created by a fan, not the movie studio.” It seems as though amateurs sense a demand for a brand friend and step into the breach when the company is slow to make one of its own (or doesn’t want to pay News Corporation/MySpace for the privilege—MySpace, incidentally, is beginning to resemble traditional media, with companies buying ad space within its domain). The demand stems from the urgency with which people must establish identity through brands by navigating their way through the coded social space they define. Without the brands, the language we have to speak our identity in a way we can trust people will understand is impoverished.
Today’s New York Times has an item in the Arts and Leisure section about Abby Cadabby, a new female muppet designed to be a lead character on Sesame Street. Reportedly, the character “has her own point of view and ‘is comfortable with the fact that she likes wearing a dress.’” What a breakthrough; finally those women who like wearing dresses will get some attention in our culture, because heaven knows, it’s hard for a girl who wants to conform to traditional expectations about gender. Liz Nealon, the show’s creative director, wanted “a girly girl” to fill an underrepresented niche, since, she explained, “We have our wacky, and we have our gentle.” So women apparently come in three flavors now; wacky, gentle and (the somewhat tautological) girly; this makes them slightly less flexible in terms of personality than a Dungeons & Dragons character, for whom there were nine alignments available (if you count “neutral”).
Abby Cadabby seems like an attempt to mollify family-values critics on the right, who have targeted publicly funded children’s television and who seem to regard any attempt to unshackle women from traditonal roles as an assault on the family and the future of the species. “Political correctness hampers creativity,” Nealon tells the Times, which seems like a dead giveaway. So in order to be “creative” one must be able to work in the tried and true gender stereotypes that have been worked for centuries? Any reference to political correctness, the bogus boogeyman of the right, is a tip-off that pressure is being applied by conservatives, or that a conservative point of view has taken root that promotes conformity as freedom and paints subversion as doctrinaire. Sesame Street seems to have had a long history of not playing this game in the past; it’s sad to see it undermine its reputation as a cultural niche where the Disney rules don’t apply.
It’s nice that the show wants a female lead character; it’s counter-productive though when the reason is to turn that female character into a popular toy. (What else is femaleness good for?) The article sees Abby Cadabby—pink and insectile; a kind of warmed-over feminized Harry Potter imbued with magical skills (a.k.a. feminine wiles) and designed to be able to look “vulnerable” and “beseeching”—as a attempt to make a marketable female muppet that can be a new cash cow for the Sesame franchise and compete with Dora the Explorer. “There are so many cute things out there,” one of Sesame’s product managers explained, “but in order to make them want one doll over another, I think the real deciding factor is how much they’ve connected with the Muppet from the show. And you’ve got to be able to capture that.” The best way to do that? Make a character who conforms to the ideals of many misguided parents who crave a feminine doll-child; then the child too can idolize and “connect” with this creature that obviously wins approval. The little princess in the household can play with her little princesses from the culture. Perhaps it’s an unfair caricature, but this is what seems troubling about third-wave feminism in general (at least the aspect of it that champions the manipulation of femininity as empowerment, anyway); it wants to redeem gender stereotypes by seizing control of the way they are marketed. Gender difference becomes a kind of comparative advantage to maximize and exploit, making irreducible personal qualities into product conforming to customer expectations. Abby Cadabby is femininity for sale in doll form, and it is also an object lesson in how to manufacture the valuable product of femininity for yourself out of the raw material of your own body and sensibility.