Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Sunday, Jun 3, 2007


That’s it. Mark it on a calendar. 2007 is the year where we officially no longer matter. Film critics, that is. Where once we set the standard for discussion on film, we’ve been marginalized by a medium that believes us to be out of touch, self important and far too fanatical in our devotion to quality over quantity. Newspapers are dropping us for generalized wire service hype. Messageboards are alight with conversations and condemnations of our efforts. Even fellow members of the Fourth Estate are tearing us a new class hole. David Poland, former film festival director and currently owner of industry information source Movie City News recently ripped into reviewers who loved Judd Apatow’s latest comedy classic Knocked Up. He did so with a joke that marginalized anyone adoring the film into a “middle-aged person who is so tired of studio movies that you will desperately overpraise a so-so film”. As Allison Porchnik once said, you gotta love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.


This is what film criticism has been condensed into—personal attacks/obsessions passing as viable cinematic analysis. It’s prevalent. Someone hates Mel Gibson for the horrendously racist things he said last August, and said writer translates that anger into a complete dismissal of the actor/director’s inventive action film Apocalypto. Then there are those so-called journalists who can’t make up their own minds. These supposed writers scan fan forums and other analytic websites to get ‘impressions’ of what the average man and/or woman is thinking about a specific film. They then roll all those thoughts into pure populist pap and pawn it off as well considered conclusions. Perhaps the worse example of this trend remains the film fetishists. To them, everything they love is legitimate, from the best example of Hollywood’s Golden era to a wonky little horror film that no one has ever heard of. In both cases, however, their overdone praise moves from meaningful to sickeningly sexual in its depth of desire.


Part of this is in response to the new found community of self-described know-it-alls called the Internet. In a realm where everyone has a forum, it logically figures that everything would be legitimized. There are six billion potential pundits in this world, meaning that all entertainment genres, from mystery to science fiction, action to heartbreaking drama will definitely find their champions. Taking it even further, within each subset will be people who love/hate a particular product with as much sense/insanity as they enjoy/despise something else. It’s an inferred universe without consensus, a place where even a one time motion picture masterpiece—say Citizen Kane—will eventually find an entire website devoted to how overrated and unremarkable it really is. And since there is no true guiding aesthetic (this is everyone out for themselves, remember), nothing is held in particular esteem. That means everyone is right. It also means that everyone is wrong. It’s merely a matter of perspective.


Take last year’s amazing movie The Fountain. Critics couldn’t handle its intertwining storylines and emotional reach. So instead of meeting it somewhere around the middle, they declared Darren Aronofsky the latest Emperor auteur and helped the viewing public rent his brand new cinematic skivvies. Similarly, Zak Snyder’s 300 burst onto movie screens back in March with a wave of invention that few films in the last few decades have managed to muster. But since the narrative was mired in old world machismo and dotted with homoerotic leanings, the proud carriers of the pro-PC banner took the movie to task. Some even disregarded it as being too action/aggression oriented. Last time anyone looked, the movie was about a battle between badly outnumbered Spartans and invading Persian hordes. So where, exactly, is the subtlety supposed to go? There are weekly examples of this kind of critical contradiction. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End will be both vilified as an overstuffed example of Hollywood hubris while simultaneously being celebrated by those who believe it to be a throwback to the original ‘70s blockbuster.


Because of the number of outlets for so-called legitimate cinematic reportage, because of the lack of an ongoing critical accord on what constitutes art and what equals artifice, because we can no longer sit idly by and watch geeks give us the metaphysical finger, we’ve decided to bite back. And the wound is now fully festering and gone gangrenous. We currently exist in a freakish film industry time when Grindhouse, a well received revamp of the exploitation film earning an 81% overview rating on Rotten Tomatoes (a database for storing critic scores), is considered a massive flop, while two atrocious titles from the same time—Norbit and Wild Hogs can earn a 9% and 16% rating respectively and still be massive mainstream hits. Some would call such movies ‘critic proof’, but there’s more to it than that. Bad is bad, but somehow, that message is not translating to the public.


And those who argue that it shouldn’t matter do indeed have a point. Movie reviewers, by their very nature, are product testers. They sample the motion picture wares coming out each and every week and let you know how their particular tastes reacted to it. From then on, the next step is wholly your own move. You don’t have to agree, and you may go into a screening and have the exact opposite reaction. But in the end, all the writer is providing you is an opinion. Sure, it may be steeped in a great knowledge of the medium or a singular joy for cinema, but these are not Gospel conclusions. They are—for the most part—the genuine reactions of a film fan. So Norbit should not live or die by what 123 critics from around the globe say it is. If you go to the theater and enjoy it, more power to you. And it’s that previous statement that sets up a potentially dangerous precedent.


While it may have at one time been about creativity, 2007 Tinsel Town is definitely a cash and carry conglomerate, period. Dollars are the determinative factor in why many films are made. Sure, we can see occasional gambles (the aforementioned 300, Apatow’s previous hit The 40 Year Old Virgin), but the major motion picture studios have the profit margin down to a slick hard sell science. They don’t go into a Little Man believing in failure. Indeed, they view certain production plans (horror sequels/prequels, comic book characters franchising) as money making its way to the bank. So when Disney greenlights two more Pirates movies on the back of the first one’s success, they are counting on a pair of separate yet simultaneous situations: (1) that the eventual release on home theater will continue to whet your appetite for more and (2) that their experience in repeated past successes is astute enough to get them through this risk.


Thus a critic proof film is not really able to avoid a journalistic smear campaign. No, what the film is truly protected from is any negative impact from the audience. What Hollywood has gotten dead brilliant at is marketing movies in such a way that, even if your best friends told you it was the biggest stinker this side of Waterworld, you’d still get in line on opening weekend to see for yourself. And this of course ties in directly to the Internet ideal. Since the number of websites catering to criticism have skyrocketed in the last few years, as well as the availability of high profile portals (blogs, myspace pages, YouTube) for opinion placement, the mainstream media no longer holds any sway. Norbit may hold a less than 10% approval rating from regular reviewers, but on a place like The Internet Movie Database, the score goes up to over 30. Such a strident difference empowers the audience and leads them to believe that their own conclusions are valid—even more so – than the person who makes viewing film their career.


Are there pompous scribes who ruin it for everyone? Absolutely. Are there people in the film fussing trade so out of touch that they can actually champion something like Are We Done Yet? over David Fincher’s fabulous Zodiac. Definitely. Is there someone already chomping at the bit, ready to scream that both films deserve to be dumped in the nearest cesspool as examples of cinema at its most stagnant? You know it. But something odd has happened over the last couple of months. The loudest voices are not only being heard, they are drowning each other out, creating a weird wall of sound that turns off everyone who comes in contact with it. Mr. Poland himself is one of those individuals who likes to say “it sucks, because I said so” and then tosses in a few rationales for his rejection before moving on to his next insider tip about the future of film.


Again, what’s missing is context, the notion that cinema is not a disposable commodity easily interchangeable with any other kind of pulp product. Disregarding critics is similar to stating that superficial summer paperbacks represent literature as its most artful. Popularity does not equal perspective. Instead it’s a sign of mere mass acceptance. Independence Day is not a great science fiction film, just a well liked one. Similarly, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a fixture on Best Of lists because individuals with a wealth of experience in the medium recognize its inherent value. Sometimes, a movie can combine the two (Pulp Fiction, for example). But without a voice outside the din discussing the difference between the two, the result is a watered down aesthetic—and the current state of mainstream moviemaking.


You think endless sequels and slight summer blockbusters are seen as proud accomplishments by the studios? No, they represent the fast food of the business, the guaranteed dosh makers that allow them the luxury of jeopardizing their revenue on a few prestige pictures come Awards season. They want you to believe a critic doesn’t know what he or she is talking about because it protects their investment and leads to greater returns come opening weekend. Thus the continuing decline in preview press screenings. Of course, they don’t mind turning around and using contextually suspect blurbs to support their hype machine, and they love to tout the number of Year End lists their movies appear on. Talk about your hate/tolerate kind of relationship.


When you boil it down to its basics, criticism is suffering because, in general, it’s poorly thought out and equally illiterate. Scan the web for other reviews of Knocked Up and you will find people actually using the attractiveness of actor Seth Rogen (or repugnant lack thereof) as a means of rating the film’s comedic viability. Talk about using high school standards as a means of making adult decisions. Why not just have Paris Hilton tell the moviegoing public what’s “hot” and what’s “not”. From poor sentence structure and a self-determined desire to be cleverer than what you’re reviewing, the critical community continually shoots itself in the foot. But instead of being merely hobbled, it looks like, this time, the damage may be permanent.


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Saturday, Jun 2, 2007


Post-millennial audiences have basically forgotten how to go to the movies. The home theater experience and its myriad of personal perks (readily available bathroom breaks, unlimited snacking, selfish screening time management) have turned the average film fan into an impatient instant gratification addict. A big screen release has to deliver, and deliver quickly, or attention spans shift and butts begin to stiffen. This may explain the near 50/50 split on the viability of Gore Verbinski’s amazing old school blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Half the critical community found the film an honorable companion piece to the previous buccaneer blasts. But an equal number are not that happy at all, arguing that whatever entertainment value Parts 1 and 2 contained, this one is adrift on a sea of stunted amusements. 


Let’s start with the chief complaints against this final facet of the ‘current’ franchise (don’t worry, more movies are inevitable – Tinsel Town never kills outright this kind of cash cow). First off, there’s the grievance that, at two hours and forty-nine minutes, the narrative goes on for far too long. Well, when you’re working through an entire mythology that reaches back across two complete films, as well as a great deal of suggested storylines, you’re wrap-up is going to be gargantuan. Besides, like Roger Ebert once said, no ‘good’ motion picture is ever too long, and Pirates 3 is an amazing entertainment. The second objection rides on the so-called ‘ridiculous’ amount of characters connected to the resolution. Yes, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up here, but who would you eradicate in the process? Would you pull an Aliens3 on some of the supporting cast and kill them off during the opening credits? Perhaps put a few familiar faces in the gallows line-up that opens the film?


No, epic scope and far too many important personalities are what this incredibly accomplished send-off thrives on. For those who hated, or couldn’t handle the introduction of Davy Jones and his craven crustacean crew during Part 2, or longed for the sudden surprise of finding a Disney attraction offering that didn’t instantly suck on ice (ala Part 1), this will not be the movie for you. Instead, this journey to the ends of the Earth in search of closure – and a certain suave scallywag – is anxious to amplify the overall importance of events we’ve seen previously, while adding even more outlandish elements to the already overreaching yarn. Indeed, like the first films founded in the pure popcorn paradigm, director Verbinski is out to change the overall flavor of motion picture eye candy. No matter your issues with the overlong narrative or wealth of unnecessary characters, no one can deny the spectacle of the final pirate stand-off deep inside a whirlpooling maelstrom. It remains one of the series most sensational defining moments.


Equally impressive is the first act descent into Davy Jones’ notorious ‘locker’. Turns out the place is more like purgatory – a lonely, desolate locale where Sisyphean tasks await the unlikely visitor.  For those in the audience who’ve sat back impatiently wondering just where the Heck Johnny Depp has been hiding for the last 45 minutes, his clone-addled insanity (Capt. Jack is confronted by multiple version/visions of himself) is like a Super-Sized helping of the popular knave. Our unlikely superstar still finds ways of making this character likeable and unique, but it’s important to note that Jack will not be the sole focus here – and Depp knows it. He makes the most of his moments without overstaying his welcome. Instead, he provides the usual cinematic spice this entire series loves to thrive on.


Once we’ve move beyond Chow Yun Fat and his Hook-like seaport of Shanghai (the most unrealistic element in this entire fantasy film) we get locked into the storytelling mechanisms moving briskly by. Again, there’s no denying that the movie is plot driven, but to call it overdone or confusing is hogwash. In fact, the plot often feels like the Lucas crafted designs for Star Wars. The original 1977 blockbuster was a clever combination of recognizable genres types (the Western, the serial) with self-started and generated mythology interspersed throughout. Here, Verbinksi takes the typical high seas adventure yarn, mixes in a few post-modern references of his own, and then inserts lots of lore about ocean goddesses, afterlife debts to pay, and personal crises that must be confronted and conquered. As long as you’re attentive and open to the overall experience, you’ll easily comprehend the movie’s motivational machinery. If you’re too busy text messaging your “bff”, you’ll likely get lost.


The reference to a certain motion picture set in a ‘galaxy far, far away’ is also apropos for what Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End strives for, from an entertainment standpoint. Like the popcorn movies of old, this is an experience as much as it is a film, a chance for audiences to get lost in elements they rarely experience in life. Oddly enough, the year before Wars arrived at theaters, Universal tried to jumpstart the pirate movie with Swashbuckler. Featuring Robert Shaw, James Earl Jones and Peter Boyle, it didn’t do well at the box office, but did set the contemporary schematics for future attempts at the sea-faring saga to follow. By utilizing the ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ archetypes within a new kind of updated narrative, director James Goldstone overhauled the entire formula. Seventies audiences just weren’t ready for the retrofitting.


Something similar could be said for modern crowds. When the first Pirates hit, it’s clear that Producer Jerrry Bruckheimer felt it was the superb supernatural angle that wowed viewers. That’s why the sequel is inundated with as many CGI and make-up monster men as possible. In Part 3, all that’s been abandoned. Now we get more of the sensational swordplay and keel-hauling adventure that recalls the grand spectacles of old. In some ways, these movies are like templates, picking and choosing the homages and references they need to succeed before moving on to another character’s individual dilemma. Without the numerous personalities to contend with, the plot would become needlessly repetitive. With a merry band of important entities, every turn of the storyline screw is important.


Still, it’s not hard to see fans giving up on this entire enterprise. They’ve been fed a failed bill of goods by a critical contingency that can’t make up its mind on what is acceptable and what is awful. For everyone comparing this film to the Matrix or Terminator titles, the point has some validity. Both initial movies were made as stand alone statements, lacking the open ended leanings that something similar to Spider-Man offers. To flesh them out, one had to use the original idea as ballast, while battling the demands of studio interference and fan anticipation. That something remotely entertaining comes out of such a schism is high praise indeed. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the successes far outweigh the incredibly minor quibbles - not that the present demographic is patient enough to see it for themselves. 


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Friday, Jun 1, 2007


Has any film arrived with more nonsensical – and non-cinematic – baggage as Apocalypto? Granted, Mel Gibson’s egregious gaff last August clouded its theatrical release in a totally unnecessary manner, but it was the media that made tenable the connection between his personal philosophy about his fellow man and a film focusing on South American tribes at the end of their reign as civilized societies. Like any major superstar – and for a while, no one was bigger than the slightly manic Mel – the building of a celebrity is only half the press’s process. Dragging them back down the stairway of eminence makes up the second section of fame’s cyclical nature.


Perhaps DVD can help his flagging interpersonal fortunes. Gauged solely by what’s up on the screen, Gibson shouldn’t have any issues at all. From a pure filmmaking point of view, Apocalypto is brilliant. It’s a tenacious throwback to the days when human beings handled action, not CGI and special effects. It uses it’s wonderfully simplistic storyline to pour on much welcomed buckets of atmosphere and design, and it purposely leaves the audience directly in the dark. As a result, we instantly identify with his lead character’s dilemma (protecting and/or returning to his family) and discover the wild and wooly ways this foreign world works, right along with everyone else.


Unlike the ra-ra ridiculousness of Braveheart, or the subjective snuff film reverence of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives the audience a break here, creating an excellent antidote to the plodding post-modern blockbuster. In a script that is elegant in its ease, Gibson identifies the good guys (Jaguar Paw’s jungle dwelling tribe) and names the unbelievable bad guys (the completely corrupt and de-evolving Mayans) and puts them at odds inside a beautiful, bloody epic. Argue over his skill with narrative or characterization, but no one can doubt Gibson’s gift behind the lens. Using digital cameras and advanced filmmaking technology, there is a rawness to this imagery present that’s just astounding.


There are indeed shots in Apocalypto that will literally take your breath away, moments where you wonder aloud if this is the natural beauty of a practical location, a purely computer generated spectacle, or a clever combination of the two. In particular, there’s a moment during Jaguar Paw’s last act escape where he winds up in a pit of headless corpses. Colored a dire, dreary gray by the surrounding mud, the bodies form a kind of corrupt canvas, as perfect a painting of pain and horror as the visual medium has to offer. In addition, the entire Mayan Temple scene is radiant in its crassly colorful depiction of debauchery. As part of Touchstone’s Special Edition disc, Gibson is on hand to explain how he captured every cleverly created moment. We even witness the attention to detail in the Behind the Scenes featurettes. 


As for the performances, it really is hard to challenge or criticize them. Texan Rudy Youngblood is very good in the leading role, though he tends to have less of the detailed physical maladies (bad teeth, body scars) as given to his equally impressive co-stars. Still, he never comes across as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’. Naturally, there’s a villain, and Gibson does a very smart thing when it comes to his bad guys. He divides up the evil, making main leader Zero Wolf (played by Raoul Trujillo) a far more focused heavy. He even shows a softer side, doting on his son in a way that foreshadows a fatal event that drives the Mayans to make Jaguar Paw a palpable public enemy. Snake Ink, on the other hand, is like a pre-Columbian Simon LeGree. Face forming a constant snarling smirk, actions always poised on the precipice of outright psychosis, newcomer Rodolfo Palacios seems to be channeling every old fashioned rogue in the action movie manual. Thanks to the use of an ancient language and subtitles, the personalities all seem to merge and meld into a kind of collective clan. It is only via easily remembered art design elements, and individual idiosyncrasies that we end up with certain specific types.


While it may be bereft of real emotion – as much as we like Jaguar Paw, we don’t really feel the connection between he and his pregnant mate – there is no doubting Gibson’s ability to showboat and inspire. The entire trip through the mad Mayan city, filled with touches both natural and otherworldly, creates the kind of sociological science fiction that any good period piece can provide. We want to be transported to a world we’ve never experienced, believe in the validity of the varying little details that make up the magical whole. Some have criticized the authenticity of Apocalypto’s artistic assertions, but the added context of the DVD should help to resolve some of those lingering logistical doubts. Indeed, we learn that things were much worse – read: bloodier and gorier – than depicted onscreen.


Yet it’s the nonstop action of the entire last act, a foot race that seems to cover the entire length of Central America in its lightning paced logistics and epic scope that truly amplifies our appreciation. Obviously inspired by his stint as a certain Mad Max, Gibson emulates the best of Australian auteur George Miller and strips everything down to body parts and wooded paths. Instead of just spectacle (and there’s plenty of that) we get strategizing and opportunism. While some may question the seemingly boundless energy Jaguar Paw and his pursuers maintain, we recognize the urgency in both the escape and the hunt. Our hero has to get home to his family. The villains have a horrifying superstition to follow and feed (and a little eye for an eye payback to administer). By avoiding complicated motives and obvious stunt set ups, the action in Apocalypto’s finale is a solid cinematic adrenaline rush. It argues not only for the effectiveness of the film, but for the skill stowed away in Gibson’s bag of cinematic tricks.


For all his flaws as a human being, his history as a man both married to and marred by his convictions, Mel Gibson should never be doubted as a moviemaker. Apocalypto may not be one of the all time classics of the genre, but it surely stands shoulder to shoulder with the exceptional efforts of 2006 – at least from an inventive perspective. Besides, what’s the better legacy to have hanging around your neck – an undeniably dense anger toward people of a certain persuasion, or the ability to make startling celluloid statements? While it may be possible to judge a man strictly by his actions, art is not so easily categorized. It requires a different set of perceptive standards. Here’s DVD’s chance to change some minds


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Thursday, May 31, 2007


Don’t you hate the feeling? That dull, throbbing pain in your cinematic proclivities provided by what can best be described as a popcorn movie hangover. So far, the month of May has given us a trio of tre-quels, and another look at some very British non-zombies. It was the entertainment equivalent of binge drinking. As June begins busting out all over, the theatrical choices are becoming a little less bombastic – and if you’re not already in line to see Judd Apatow’s brilliant Knocked Up, there is something really wrong with you. The pay cable channels, on the other hand, are weeding through the remainder of last year’s lesser offerings. For anyone whose seen the ads, Cinemax and HBO are promising a big fat blockbuster couple of months. Too bad they choose to avoid that approach this week. Similarly, Starz has been on a roll of sorts the last few Saturdays. This time though, the sacrilege hits the fan. We here at SE&L are still going to suggest it, even though it represents the worst of Tinsel Town’s thriller tendencies. You have been warned:


Premiere Pick
The Da Vinci Code


Buried inside Dan Brown’s purposefully provocative premise is actually a pretty strong story idea. After all, the Church has been a notorious secret keeper for eons, and to think it would resort to violence to protect the fact of Jesus’ secular reality is not so incredibly far fetched. But then he had to go and muck it all up by turning the entire tale into one big oversized cryptogram with way too many loose ends and obvious clues. All director Ron Howard did was emphasize the sloppy code busting. In addition, Tom Hanks is horribly miscast, unable to loose his average Joe vibe to play a dorkwad Harvard scholar. Toss in the lack of legitimate surprise (the media had long ruined Brown’s chartbuster hook), some scenes of incredibly ponderous exposition, and you’ve got a massive mainstream hit that plays like a lame History Channel reenactment.  (02 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
John Tucker Must Die


The teen comedy has suffered significantly over the last few decades. Basically, the kind of material masquerading as coming of age fodder has been usurped by sitcoms and cable cartoon shows. While the premise of this relationship/revenge spoof sounds novel, it ends up derivative and dopey – sort of like your typical high school student, right? No amount of ‘you go girl power’ can save this sloppy satire. (02 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Accepted


It must be matriculation night over at the HBO/Cinemax studios. When it was released last August, many felt this college jokefest could be a modern day Animal House. It ended up being another unappetizing installment of the overly ironic post-millennial excuse for a laugh-a-thon. While the notion of a student run school for partying is not a new one, the PG-13 rating which reduced every gag to something tepid and tame is. (02 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


Strangers with Candy


Before her position was usurped by Sarah Silverman, Amy Sedaris was the go-to gal for confrontational wit and wisdom. Perhaps that’s why this big screen makeover of her Comedy Central hit felt so desperate and dated. It was just so 1997. Hyped as the second coming of funny, it flopped so massively at the box office that even die-hard fans couldn’t find a screening. Thanks to endless repeats on cable, they should now have no such viewing problems. Let the reconsideration commence. (02 June, ShowTOO, 10:30PM EST)

Indie Pick
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life


Before the death of founding member Graham Chapman, the members of Britain’s undeniably brilliant sketch comedy company delivered their final motion picture masterwork – a vignette oriented comic cornucopia on the purpose of existence. While many found the film too fractured and fragmented, it plays today like a strong litany of lessons lifted directly from humanity’s metaphysical playbook. Taking on birth, war, death, and dismemberment, along with a collection of musical numbers that each rival Oliver! in their “I’m All Right Jack” Englishness, the troupe fashioned a seminal work of cinematic comedy that few, if any, could ever dare match. Sadly, it would be their final group effort, but it continues to argue for the talented men’s position as kings of skewering satire. (07 June, Sundance Channel, 7PM EST)

Additional Choices
Kinsey


Overlooked when it arrived in theaters, Bill Condon’s witty exposé remains a work of quiet genius. Well past due for a big screen biopic, the story of America’s preeminent sex researcher was watered down a little for mainstream consumption (meaning a limited glance at the subject’s rumored festishes and bi-sexuality). But the wonderful performances by Liam Neeson and Laura Linney more than compensate.  (02 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Fried Green Tomatoes


Fannie Flagg was, at one time, the hillbilly Harlequin romancer, a novelist using standard sentimentality of the chick flick as a basis for her country cousin yucks. This story of female empowerment and under-ripe love apples stands as her most popular paean to gals abandoning men in favor of their own overriding womanliness. Thanks to marvelous turns by the entire cast and a nice feel of nostalgia, it remains a well loved lament. (05 June, Sundance Channel, 6:45PM EST)

The Sleeping Dictionary


Before she became a full blown erotic eye candy pin up, Jessica Alba actually attempted to be an actress. Proof is this unusual 2003 drama in which the future male fantasy fodder played the title character, a native girl used by turn of the century British bureaucrats to learn the language and customs of their colonies. While not perfect, it remains a lovely movie overflowing with stunning vistas and fine performances. (05 June, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Outsider Option
Head


If the Monkees were indeed the exact artistic opposite of the Beatles, then it makes perfect sense that the Prefab Four would create a film diametrically opposed to the Liverpool boys’ own joyful saccharine romps. Head is hard to decipher at first, a social commentary without anything new or significant to say, a work of warped brilliance bathed in a slack self-effacing paradox that wouldn’t be popular for another 25 years. At its heart, thought, it remains a fascinating deconstruction of the entire Monkees myth, from the lighthearted screwball slapstick of their hit TV show to the notorious disposability of their music. It remains a movie so ahead of its time that it’s still waiting for said era to arrive. This is a brave pick for TCM’s Underground, especially when you consider that they’ve been bringing us reruns and bottom of the barrel b-movies for quite a while now. (01 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Grand Canyon


Back before he fell from cinematic grace, Lawrence Kasdan delivered this Crash like take on life in early ‘90s Los Angeles, and critics couldn’t’ get enough. While clearly loaded with more social observations than story (the characters here do love their long conversations), the writer/director’s intelligent insights really drive the drama. Add in some pitch perfect performances and you have one of the era’s best. (02 June, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

Satan’s Cheerleaders


Like every great grindhouse classic, this movie has a better title than truth. A Satanic janitor looking for virgin meat to sacrifice gets the local pep squad in Dutch with his fellow Devil devotees. Unfortunately, the jokes on him, in mores ways than one. Featuring a completely out of place Yvonne DeCarlo and a classic John Ireland, the drive-in once delighted in such dementia. Now you can too. (02 June, Drive In Classics, Canada, 9PM EST)

Mean Girls


Quick - when someone says dirty drunken slut, what’s the first two words that come to mind? If you said Lindsay Lohan, you deserve a double martini and a pair of crotchless panties. If, on the other hand, you named anyone else, then you might want to check out the cable channel premiere of the former ingénue’s mainstream comedy hit. There’s enough wit here to almost make you forget a certain actresses antics. ALMOST. (07 June, TNT, 8PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Sometimes, a monster merely happens. You can argue all the FBI profile material, and trace a killer’s lineage back to days vivisecting his (or on rare occasions, her) pets, but the truth is that evil doesn’t necessarily need a clinical explanation. If we are to believe the dogma and the organized ritualization of same, it is a constant within our ethical purview, and battles constantly with good for domination over our soul. So do we really need to clarify why bad things happen, or why individuals forsake morality for something more mean-spirited and sinister – even when the entity in question is a maniacal medico who likes to cannibalize his victims with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?


Hannibal Lecter, especially as personified by actor Anthony Hopkins in three separate films – The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon – remains a stalwart cinematic sicko, a fiend formed out of everyone’s own internal horror hierarchy and imagination. Some see him as horror humanized. Others tend to treat him like the granddaddy of death, the far more eloquent bunkmate of figures as fiendish as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger. He doesn’t demand elucidation – he readily infers his foulness. So what’s the best way to destroy said demon, to undermine his already potent noxious nature? Why, give him a rationale for being so repugnant, that’s how. And that’s exactly what Hannibal Rising does.


While not the worst prequel ever made, this might just be the most pointless. It draws on luxuriant imagery and old world charms to try and defend the insane actions of a future madman. It provides excuses instead of scares, psychological underpinnings where a couple of good gore sequences would have sufficed. Unlike the previous pieces in the Lecter legacy, Rising isn’t really about police procedure or burrowing into the mind of a serial killer. No, this is your standard revenge flick, Michael Myers and his growing slice and dice dementia moved half a world away and several decades into the past. Here, we meet the mighty Lecter clan, wealthy Lithuanian land owners who are naturally caught up in the middle of the Nazi/Russian flare-ups of late World War II. Hoping to avoid the fate of many of their fellow countrymen (including several singled-out Jews), the entire clan flees to the country. There, a pre-pubescent Hannibal and his beloved younger sister Mischa can become instant orphans and take turns starving.


The narrative catalyst that will come to guide the rest of the storyline – and by inference, the rest of our psycho’s despondent life – arrives in the pretense of some jaundiced German sympathizers led by the god-awful, grotesque Grutas (a barely recognizable Rhys Ifans). Along with his four flunkies, this misguided mercenary has been changing allegiance and looting the countryside, all in a desperate attempt to stay alive. When they see the Lecter little ones, they automatically think ‘bargaining chips’. But as the war drags on, and rotten potatoes and scrapbook leather become scarce, little Hannibal and his precocious sibling start looking like lunch. Before you can say “pre-schooler soup’s on!”, an atrocity occurs, and our title terror is left to die in the woods. Thankfully, he is rescued and sent to a Russian orphanage. The rest, as they say, is half-baked history.


From the minute we meet Gaspard Ulliel as the adolescent Lecter, we start to sense where the rest of this tale will be taking us. In his adult years, our villain is portrayed as an intellectualized façade housing an animalistic viciousness. As he’s eating the meat off another human’s cheek, he’s simultaneously rationalizing and relishing it. Here, Ulliel is given a different task all together. He is supposed to be youth corrupted by circumstances, naiveté obliterated by the horrors one human can inflict on another. As he escapes his institutionalized captivity, he leaves the orphanage bully scarred and scared. When he arrives in France (to hook up with his Samurai loving Japanese Aunt – don’t ask), he embraces chivalry to a fatal fault. All the while, our actor resembles a reject from an Armani ad, high cheekbones and chiseled jawline making him the most sinister supermodel on the planet.


Up until this time, we’ve been patient with Hannibal Rising. We’ve accepted the overlong warfare footage (expanded, if only a little, on the new Unrated DVD released by Genius Productions) and snickered ever so slightly at all the feudal Asian claptrap. Gong Li is wasted as Hannibal’s arch relative. Frequently dispossessed of her only means of support or shelter, she still manages to act and dress like a character carved out of Memoirs of a Geisha. There is supposed to be some connection to her sword and sandal traditions and Hannibal’s eventual descent into death dealing, but we never see it. Perhaps it was something that screenwriter (and novel author) Thomas Harris left for readers to discover. The final piece of the puzzle is a shot of sodium pentothal. It helps our troubled anti-hero find some clarity, and before you know it, he’s traipsing around Europe exacting retribution on the men who made Mischa-bobs out of his kin.


It’s too bad that we’ve stopped caring. You see, the inherent problem with Hannibal Rising is not its exterior make-up. Ms. Li aside, the performances are fine, and Ulliel is diabolical and dapper. We don’t even mind the war criminal crusading police officer, or the less than effective henchmen who surround Ifan’s indelible antagonist. In fact, if we didn’t realize that this entire narrative is building up to the creation of that master of corrupt quid pro quo, this would be a well made, period horror film with lots of atmosphere and some effective moments of dread. We’d even forgive the last act’s sudden shift into slasher film territory, Hannibal creating cleverer and cleverer ways to exact his wounded revenge. But the prequel specter hangs heavy over this entire production, leaving one feeling disoriented and angry. Two plus two does not equal four in Hannibal Rising. No, this is a movie that wants to question the existence of addition before even getting down to the brass tacks of finding said sum.


Indeed, the two concepts of Hannibal just don’t gel. The cold blooding killing is there, as is the unhealthy appetite for corporeal foodstuffs, but when you view this newest version of the character alongside the one well established over the last two decades, it’s like seeing a bad Turkish knockoff. There’s a basic recognizability, but the pieces aren’t quite fitting together. Forget the attempted nods to Hopkins characterization – this Lecter is light years away from his eventual self. In fact, one could easily argue that this entire film is merely the opening salvo in a series of Hannibal prequels where we learn – over time and many body parts – how a cruel kid from Lithuania turned into the bane of Will Graham and Clarice Starling’s existence. It’s not that Hannibal Rising lacks justification. It’s more that these descriptions just aren’t good enough. Lecter is larger than life, a freakish combination of dozens of other famous mass murderers filtered through one man’s incredibly inventive mind. But here, Harris is resorting to tabloid basics. As a result, we spend most of the time wondering when young Hannibal will stop sulking and start carving up his hamsters.


Showing the same deftness for period flare as he did in Girl with a Pearl Earring, director Peter Webber acquits himself quite well. He doesn’t understand the first elements of suspense or thriller pacing, but he can offer up a nicely evocative abandoned cottage. He does rely a little too heavily on chaos-creating montages and quick cuts meant to hide most of the hideousness, but he delivers the dramatics with practical aplomb. It’s a shame then that he’s left holding the Lecter mythos bag. Had this been any other lunatic, Webber would be welcomed as the newest member in the macabre makers fan club. As it stands, he sits lording over the shattered remains of a once viable film franchise. At least he has a co-conspirator. Thomas Harris was thought of as the gold standard of horror literature. But thanks to this unappealing prequel, he’s now a sell-out shill. And that’s more terrifying than anything present in Hannibal Rising


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