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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

It was, for the most part, a pretty mediocre summer movie season. All the proposed blockbusters were either artistic or critical busts (with one major exception) while smaller films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Descent snuck up on audiences and proved far more inventive and satisfying. Four months ago everyone was talking about the impact The Da Vinci Code would have, as well as the potential domination of Superman Returns over the rest of the popcorn film landscape. Now, as September slowly arrives, we’re questioning New Line’s ‘Net-only strategy regarding Snakes on a Plane and wondering if Monster House would have done better as a Halloween release. Yes, there were a few legitimate lessons to be learned amidst all the hype and hoopla: Will Ferrell showed that if Larry the Cable Guy ever decides to retire, the former SNL-er may have a viable career as a NASCAR comic; M. Night Shyamalan completed the fall from grace every fanboy has been expecting since Unbreakable‘s last five minutes; prestige performer Meryl Streep may be a summer movie’s biggest secret weapon; and CGI continues to cannibalize itself.


Indeed, from the mundane machismo of Michael Mann’s reimagined Miami Vice to the feel good fizzle of World Trade Center, the Summer of 2006 continued to illustrate the incredibly sad fact that original ideas are scarce, star power means very little in light of a bad script and sloppy execution, and superheroes in the wrong hands aren’t quite so ‘super’. Still, there were a few releases worth cheering for, movies that managed to not only entertain, but exemplify the new niche oriented approach to motion picture subject and salability. Gone are the days when one film completely dominates the pop culture consciousness (again, with one major exception). In its place are dozens of offerings, each one speaking to a specific individual audience. So, without further ado, SE&L presents its picks for the Top 5 films of Summer 2006:


5. Cars
Say what you want about Pixar’s latest anthropomorphic epic, but no other animation company working today has such a consistent track record in pushing the artistic and emotional limits of CGI. While many felt that this was one of the rare occasions where technology and technical skill got the better of the storytelling, there is still something awe inspiring and adventurous about this tale of an egotistical race car that learns friendship and humility among the automotive residents of a forgotten Route 66 city. Granted, the wistful appeal of the open road contributed a great deal to the film’s considerable scope, but it was the voice acting work of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Michael Keaton and Bonnie Hunt that gave this film it’s poignancy and heart.



PopMatters Review


4. Monster House
Perhaps the biggest snafu that occurred this summer was the decision to release this brisk fall snap of a picture in the middle of one the muggiest, most humid seasons on record. Using the motion capture technique advanced during the creation of The Polar Express, Executive Producer Robert Zemeckis, along with old pal Steven Spielberg, found the perfect combination of story and filmmaker (first timer Gil Kenan) to realize their vision of real life recreated in a remarkable animated fashion. The result was a Goonies for the post-millennial masses, a smart, intelligent adventure that avoided many of the artforms more obvious clichés (pop culture references, stunt voice casting) to forge a generally exciting, incredibly inventive film.



3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
As a sequel to one of the biggest hits from 2004, this revisit of Pirate’s mainstream mystique had a lot to live up to. Many were concerned that Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow, so memorable in the first film, would grow old and stale the second time around. Some wondered if new villain Davy Jones would match Capt. Barbossa in the all important areas of evil and cunning. From a broader perspective, a few fans questioned why another film needed to be made at all. While the overall critical consensus was mixed, Dead Man’s Chest has become the biggest box office hit of 2006, and continues to bode well for the final installment of this proposed buccaneer trilogy (tentatively entitled At World’s End) to be released NEXT summer.


PopMatters Review


2. Clerks II
Who would have thought that Kevin Smith could revisit his initial success as a filmmaker and make it fresh, ingenious and undeniably hilarious? Of all the movies to arrive at the Cineplex this summer, Clerks II was the most consistently enjoyable. It gave fans a chance to reconnect with their favorite New Jersey slacker duo, introduced a couple of brand new characters that instantly took their place in the pantheon of Smith originals, and proved that nothing is more cinematically fulfilling than great dialogue, expertly delivered. Even more miraculous, a significant amount of emotional resonance was unearthed, giving depth and direction to all the dirty jokes and donkey show antics. What could have been a regular ‘K-Mart’ of a comedy turned out to be one of the season’s most unexpected gems.



PopMatters Review


1. Snakes on a Plane
While it’s easy to argue about the film’s failings as a thriller, a campy cult phenomenon or an Internet marketed misstep, there is one undeniable fact – Snakes on a Plane is a great deal of genre fun. A complete throwback to the blockbusters of the ‘70s (It’s like Airport mixed with a drive-in delight like The Day of the Animals) this unapologetically entertaining film makes no bones about being gratuitous or goofy. With the entire cast in on the joke, and the filmmaking free to explore all the plausible parameters of the title, we end up with a real rollercoaster ride that wraps its anarchic action in a blanket of pure b-movie mania. While it may not have been the perfect summer 2006 film, Snakes did the best job of reminding audiences of just how special the season can be. It was the only film that actually FELT like a blockbuster.


PopMatters Review


In Thursday’s Short Ends & Leader Blog: The Five Worst Films of Summer 2006.


 


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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

Everyone else in the op-ed racket seems to be writing about some rainstorm or other that happened almost a year ago, but David Brooks comes through in today’s NYT with a gripping and timely piece about this breaking new trend: tattoos. Believe it or not, people are marking their skin, with ink! What deep insight, what keen powers of observation for Brooks to notice this. And these people seem to think it marks them in some unique way despite the fact that all these other people are doing it! How silly, they don’t even realize how comformist they are in their non-conformity. As Brooks so wisely sums up in his majestic closing statement: “Another generation of hipsters laid low by the ironies of consumerism.” Wow. By highlighting this 15-year-old “trend,” he has torn the mask off “hipster” culture at last with this column and proven once and for all that all supposed acts of subversion are phony and resistance to the happy progress of American consumerism is futile.


Now, I’m no fan of tattoos myself, but something about hearing Brooks make a similar case as me makes me want to rethink it a bit. Brooks is essentially denaturing the argument made in Heath and Potter’s Nation of Rebels and before in Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool to seize yet another opportunity to mock people for signaling self-awareness, a tendency he conflates with elitism and selfishness. He makes out people with tattoos to be a shallow bunch of short-sighted simpletons who are blinkered by their worship of empty gestures of individualism (the only individualist gesture that matters, of course, is entrepreneurship). The stories tattoos tell are far more complex than Brooks is willing to admit; they have long ceased to be expressions of how dangerous or different a person thinks she is. Also, having a tattoo is not “an alienated look” as Brooks suggests—by his very logic, tattoos are an expression of belonging to the zeitgeist, not rejecting it. He seems trapped in preconceptions about tattooing that ceased to apply sometime around the Stone Temple Pilots’ debut album. Some people may tattoo as a form as self-harm, as an elaborate form of cutting, but probably the majority do so not to express anger but pride. Brooks is quick to sneer at youth culture as conformist, but when has youth culture ever been about anything but pseudo-rebellion? To call it “conservative” as he does is to distort the terminology—seeking to belong isn’t the same as espousing a political ideology. Or is Brooks admitting that to be conservative is to be conformist and cowardly?


It seems much more likely that there’s nothing insincere or aberrent in one’s getting a tattoo—the conformity inherent in the practice at this point seems to confirm that. A person’s not simply erroneously calculating how rebellious or subversive they will become. Instead I would imagine one gets a satisying feeling of having followed through with a serious committment (something you’d expect Brooks to cheer) and displayed some courage (it’s not joining the Army, but tattoos do hurt). And the ownership over one’s own body one asserts by marking it in some conscious way is a private matter, ultimately, which is why most tattoos, I’m guessing, are not usually immediately visible to stangers—they are often in a more intimate place and can serve as a way of showing you trust someone. You show the tattoo, you tell the story behind it, which Brooks dismisses as some self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing narrrative about shopping, since he sees tattoos as nothing more than “perfect consumer items”, but which can often be more a way for a person to organize and articulate a long-developing self-awareness and share it with a privileged few. Brooks won’t admit that these people may not care about how “mainstream” they are, that their minds are on something wholly different, that they could be concerned with any kind of issue larger than themselves (like, say, how their government could fail to plan for a major disaster they knew was coming and allow one of its cities to be ruined, perhaps permanently). If tattoos are consumer goods, they are mundane ones, no more deserving of contemptuous treatment than any of the other goods—T-shirts, cars, housewares, etc.—we use to communicate ideas about ourselves to others. I agree that there are probably better ways to communicate, and certainly more important messages to communicate than the ones goods limit a person to, but why single out tattoos? Why not condemn the entire consumer economy, or all consumers?  After all the only thing separating a hipster from a redneck (or country club suburbanite or any of the other demographics Brooks has fetishized) is irony, and in the end that doesn’t show up anywhere on the balance sheet.


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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

Classical publication Fanfare has sparked a brouhaha over revelations about a policy that gives advantage to advertisers to have their product reviewed.  Sad to say, this issue isn’t going away, not only because this isn’t the first time a publication has come out and admitted this (i.e. New York Rocker) but also that in the age of the Net, this is the kind of trial and error that’s going to keep happening.


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Saturday, Aug 26, 2006


For anyone who thinks that all Goona Goona movies are alike, a trip through this particular Cannibal Holocaust should quiet those concerns once and for all. Far more graphic than other jungle jive, but with an actual message method to its miscreant madness, this is one of the best Italian horror films ever—all for reasons that have nothing to do with terror or the macabre. Ruggerio Deodato has made a geek show as Greek chorus, a strident social commentary on the state of the news media glossed over with gore and gratuitous animal slaughter. While it is truly tainted, sickening stuff, one does not feel as filthy as say the experience of watching the last few minutes of Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox. Both movies trade in the same sort of revolting imagery, but one film wants to play with the parameters of cinema. The other is just out for a splattery good time.


But Cannibal Holocaust isn’t just a gut-munching gross out. Though it may seem odd to say it, Cannibal Holocaust is really a disgustingly dark comedy, a savage satire on the media and the methods it would stoop to in selling a story. Deodato was way ahead of his time here, attempting a Network-like denouncement of filmmakers and journalists who would rather “create” news than simply report it. We laugh at the moments surrounding the fictional Alan Yates and his team of intrepid psychos. It is hilarious how quickly they revert to rape, murder, and disgustingly deviant behavior, all in an attempt to “go native” and have the locals provide them with some sensationalized footage. Sure, the entire last act of the film (where the Blair Witch-style material from their final “adventure” is screened by the TV executives) is laughable, a kind of perverted pantheon of over-the-top elements. But Deodato uses this approach to both condemn and codify his characters. We need villains in this kind of film, and Alan and his pals make the perfect cannibal bait.


That is why Cannibal Holocaust is a much better film than its imitators and inspiration. It is still repugnant and sordid, but most of the misguided grotesquery is in service of a very sound message. The truth is that Cannibal Holocaust is a good movie gunked up by elements that are either unnecessary (monkey brain eating? Please…) or unexplained (the way in which the natives function among themselves is left to a lot of confusing speculation), a true milestone of moviemaking that is sadly slandered for issues far outside the main purpose of the narrative. As long as you are prepared for the repugnance, you will more or less enjoy this graphic, gritty cinematic experiment. Its reputation is well deserved.


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Friday, Aug 25, 2006


Clint Eastwood as the “master director” is sort of a new concept thanks, largely, to his recent box-office and award-circuit triumphs with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. While Eastwood’s first major critical success came with 1992’s unlikely Oscar winner Unforgiven, the veteran Hollywood star’s 1988 gem, Bird is the film in his canon that best represents the scope of his talents.


Charlie Parker was one of our greatest musicians. “Yardbird” was one of the true jazz pioneers, blending vision, skill and creativity perfectly. Unfortunately, he was plagued by a terrible drug habit, bad business decisions and bleeding ulcers. Eastwood explores the mind of a creator, which is fascinating considering the director’s own gifts and his love of jazz, and it is obvious he can relate to the struggle of having to be the best, even when you don’t feel like it. When the possibility of electric shock therapy is tossed around as a possibly cure for the musician’s ailments, it is just as quickly dismissed. No matter the demons involved, changing the mind and chemistry of a great artist is always detrimental.


What we then witness is a thrilling, career-best performance from Forest Whitaker, a turn which took the male acting prize at Cannes that year. He not only captures the grandeur of a music firebrand working with a heavy heart, he somehow also finds the kindness, the wit and the humanity inside the fast living man. The actor is fearless: he doesn’t go for cheap sentimentality and plays Parker as incredibly flawed, to the point of being incapacitated by his own bad behavior. He expects those that surround him to blindly tolerate his addictions without really thinking through the consequences. While Whitaker blazes through the narrative with an unlikable abandon, one of my favorite is also one of the most simple. After playing wherever he could, to little or no acclaim, Bird visits Paris and is welcomed with open, adoring arms. After a particularly intense performance he is rewarded with a hail of accolades and a storm of roses thrown at the stage. It is a glorious moment, especially when one views Whitaker’s reaction. His gratitude, his humbleness and his pure happiness at seeing his real love connect in the way he wants it to is startling.


Bird also intimately examines the performer’s partnership with dancer Chan Parker (played with vigor by Diane Venora). The scenes between the concerned common-law spouse and her disturbed, creative partner crackle with a rare energy and sharpness. Venora delivers an unexpected performance, in every sense. It may be “the thankless wife” role, but Venora elevates her character above the rut most women who play the quietly supportive type fall into. Chan is sublimely devoted to her husband, to his music and his creativity. She is tolerant of his habits, sometimes despite the welfare of their children. She sees his problems as being intertwined with his gifts and allows him to continue on his path with little interruption, even if it means she will eventually lose him to the grip of these vices. She deals with the tricky subject of being romantically affiliated with a black man and having his children - which in itself was a pioneering effort in those times - with a sense of pride and love that is a refreshing twist on the relatively stock role. The film is in fact based on the memoirs of Parker’s widow and Eastwood managed to not only gain her blessing on the venture, but also received access to a slew of unreleased recordings that were previously locked in a bank vault thanks to her involvement.


Eastwood manages to lift his tidy little story into another dimension by putting the music at the forefront, something that is clumsily absent from the slew of recent films with similar topics. While musician bios like Ray and Walk the Line seem like elaborate showcases for rising talent to posture about, imitating their subjects, Bird is a more artistic and more thoughtful effort. It lets its actors’ characterizations unfold at a sumptuous, un-rushed pace around the music. Though Bird’s physical struggles and his relationship with those closest to him are intrinsic plot elements, the vigorous musical sequences (where Whitaker avoids a stock imitation, meticulously re-creating not only the artist’s techniques, but also his inner fire) are the real draw, proving Eastwood can’t really be placed in a box when it comes to his directorial choices


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