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

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Monday, Dec 11, 2006


Slim, slim pickings this week. Unlike other release dates this holiday season, it’s mostly pointless past flops, lots of repackaged TV series, and just a couple of commendable titles on tap to turn your gift-giving head. Believe it or not, it was hard to find seven movies worth mentioning this week, what with all the reissues, double dips, and peculiar pairings. Things pick up a little next week – the last Tuesday before that jolly old elf makes with the philanthropic all nighter – but its clear that most of the good stuff, DVD wise, has already hit the teeming marketplace. Perhaps the best advice we here at SE&L can give you is to go back over past versions of “Who’s Minding the Store”, break out the pen and ink, and make your own list of what titles are naughty, and those that would be nice, especially sitting under the delightfully decorated artificial tree. If you’re still concerned about what awaits your slowly deteriorating dollars this 12 December, here’s the lean loot available:


Barnyard: The Original Party Animals

For starters – what’s up with the udders? Male cows do not have such suckling items, and their inclusion marks just how completely clueless this stale CGI mess really is. The product of the mangled mind of one Steve Oedekerk (responsible for the repugnant Kung Pow: Enter the Fist and those routinely dumb Thumb parodies), this lazy look at farm critters “after dark” is stylistically reminiscent of the man’s other computer generated venture – the far superior Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. What gets lost here amongst all the stunt casting, pop culture referencing rot is anything that would make this 3D effort stand out from the dozens of derivative efforts that seem to arrive in theaters every other month. While extremely young kids might find something to like – or nap over - during the film’s overlong 90 minute running time, adults will groan at yet another example of a newfound artform cannibalizing itself.



The Chronicles of Narnia: Extended Edition


As if the initial release wasn’t bad enough. When it arrived in theaters last year, Narnia did everything it could to poise itself as the next Lord of the Rings. Sadly, except for truly dedicated fans of the C. S. Lewis serial, the response was more tepid than titanic. Still, a sequel is in the works, and now, in full Peter Jackson form, Disney is dropping a holiday-timed “extended edition” of the film, complete with added footage and a ton of supplementary content. Does this make the otherwise earnest epic any better? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Can Disney count on a LOTR‘s like return on their digital investment? Oddly enough, the answer is probably yes. Fans love to look at differing versions of a favorite title, while the uninitiated may use such an opportunity to finally seek out this effort. Either way, DVDs will be flying off shelves, and for the House of Mouse, the bottom line is all that really matters (see below).


 


PopMatters Review


The Devil Wears Prada

*
It was Summer 2006’s most unlikely blockbuster, a satiric character comedy that put lots of repeat business butts in the seats week in and week out. While other major releases had their three days (or less) in the sun before slowly slinking off into that promotional abyss known as quick turnaround land, this adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s book had the acting chops to hold out and hang on. Part of Devil‘s success sits directly on the relationship between Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs and the magnificent Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Anyone who thought this was pure chick flick territory obviously didn’t know the story’s underpinnings, and while much of the movie is a coming to terms between a New York neophyte and a big shot bitter design magazine diva, there is much more here than heart and chutzpah. Thanks to the perfect performances, and David Frankel’s nuanced direction, what appeared rather obvious actually ended up being very multifaceted and multi-layered.



PopMatters Review


The Doors: 15th Anniversary Edition

*
It was an incredibly odd project for director Oliver Stone. In between the antiwar vitriol of Born on the Fourth of July (which won the filmmaker his second Academy Award) and the monumental conspiracy theory screed of that epic masterpiece known as JFK, the controversial artist took on the story of one of rock’s most enigmatic offerings. With the inspired casting of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison – he maintains the perfect combination of animal magnetism and self-destruction insensitivity – and Stone’s typical way with historic recreation, the late ‘60s on the Sunset Strip come to vivid, visionary life. No one except for Scorsese and Tarantino handles music as well as Stone, and the recreations of famous moments in the Doors’ legacy are superb. Only Meg Ryan sticks out as a far too post-modern mate for Morrison. Otherwise, this is a lost gem from a director who seems destined to constantly create same.



The Fox and the Hound 2
As mentioned before, Uncle Walt’s world definitely understands how to market its mythos – mostly to its own detriment. Recognized by many animation lovers as low rent cartooning to begin with, the original Fox and the Hound didn’t really require any more attention other than the dismal box office and middling home video viability it managed. Never one to pass by a chance to cash in on someone’s love of their legacy however, the Mickey merchandising machine has churned out yet another unnecessary sequel, a lamentable effort poised to join other dreary double dips like Return to Neverland and Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp’s Adventure. That collective groan you hear is the united consumer consciousness turning off to these obvious money making ploys. The other noise you’ll recognize – it’s parents ponying up for another digital babysitter for their entertainment starved wee ones.



Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby*
It’s funny…at one point in time, it looked like this film would be best remembered for its numbskulled NASCAR humor only (talk about shooting redneck fish in a barrel). Then a little film named Borat hit movie theaters, and suddenly everyone remembered that Sacha Baron Cohen also appeared here as the French racecar driver Jean Girard. Now, that’s all you see in the ads hyping the DVD release – star Will Ferrell and Cohen going toe to toe, trading trackside insults. While this second tier comedy from a fourth level SNLer was winning enough for most, it is clear that those in publicity recognized that a little Kazakhstan karma never hurt anyone. Oddly enough, as Cohen’s star is rising, Farrell failed to capture a comparative audience for his recent semi-serious outing, Stranger than Fiction. Even if his fans argue that such subtlety is not the comedian’s funny business forte, it’s possible that this may be Ferrell’s last legitimate hit for quite some time.


PopMatters Review


World Trade Center: Two Disc Commemorative Edition*
It’s so strange to think that this movie was made by the same man described in the Doors’ discussion above. For decades, Oliver Stone has been an aggressive agent provocateur, not a flag-waving jingoist. Yet here he is, the man responsible for calling into question almost every political power within the last three decades doing a nice, noble job of telling the true story of two Port Authority police officers during 9/11. In Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena, Stone found two actors capable of carrying off their scenes while buried under tons of art department rubble, and the initial scenes of the terrorist attack, all suggestion and subtle shifts in personnel and perspective, are expertly done. Towards the end, when the trapped men’s families start freaking out, the movie looses a little of its bearing, but overall, Stone taps into the national nightmare of that fateful day, and delivers a devastating drama.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to “Who’s Minding the Store”, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 5 December:


Babette/ Monique, My Love*
There is something incredibly surreal about smut when it tries to be serious. And no one understood the oddity of earnest Eros better than Roberta Findlay. While her husband concentrated on his perverted slasher storylines, movies mixing sexiness with sadism in ever harsher helpings, the Missus made softcore sagas involving women discovering their long lost inner lesbian. Both Babette and Monique feature Linda Boyce as an overly verbose narrator explaining – and exposing – the seedy underworld of New York’s numerous secret societies. Thanks to incredibly arcane descriptions that would have gloomy Goth girl poets blushing from an overabundance of flowery prose pleasantries, and your standard late ‘60s selection of barmaids, hippies and artist models, what we end up with is a men’s magazine come to life. If you like your fake fornication brazen, bawdy, and in black and white, this December release from Something Weird Video will definitely stir your subdued Sapphic sentiments.


 


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Sunday, Dec 10, 2006


When did moviegoers, including those in the so-called critical class, get so stupid? When, exactly, did they decide to turn off their brains, sitting back mindlessly and demanding that everything in an entertainment be explained to them? Was it when marketing became master of the cinematic domain, when test screenings and focus groups stole creativity out of the hands of the artist? Maybe it was during the days of the high concept, when narrative didn’t need to be deep or intricate - it just needed to connect instantly with an audience. Home video definitely drove a stake in the heart of cinematic intellectualism. Once everyone had access to the world’s wealth of film, the backseat scholarship began, and as a result, the creation of false perception.


Granted, viewing a masterpiece like 2001 on a 13” screen is not the proper way of determining Kubrick’s overall approach to science fiction, yet such an aesthetic has long since become the norm. As a result, all of these factors have fooled faux cinephiles into believing they understand the nature of movies. Unfortunately, every once in a while, they prove that, deep down inside, they’re insolent little scholars unable to think their way out of a plausible motion picture bag. Take Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, The Fountain. True, the Requiem for a Dream director fought hard to realize his vision of mortality acceptance set inside a surreal speculative fiction/period piece format. And it’s clear that, once first superstar lead Brad Pitt pulled out, Aronofsky had to substantially diminish his vision. But from the reviews being written, both in print and on the web, you’d swear the director had made his own arcane Inland Empire.


In case you missed it – and you probably have, since its flying out of theaters faster than a non-Pixar CGI cartoon – The Fountain centers on Izzy, played by Rachel Weisz, and Tommy, played by Hugh Jackman. She’s a writer. He’s a research scientist/doctor. She is dying of an inoperable brain tumor. He is experimenting with exotic plant life to find a potential cure. As their last days together become insular and unhappy, Izzy presents her husband with a present – it’s her most recent effort, an epic romance/adventure called The Fountain. In the book, a Conquistador is sent to find the Tree of Life by the Queen of Spain. She will use the existence of the mythical symbol as a way of stopping the Grand Inquisitor from usurping her throne – and condemning her to death as a heretic. Charged with his royal mission, the warrior travels abroad, where a Mayan temple supposedly holds the secret location for this holy relic.


The parallels are pretty obvious: a lady being undermined by a “cancerous” force inside her own domain; a dedicated lover intent on finding the “cure”; a battle being waged both internally and externally; faith being destroyed and reconfigured on highly personal and prophetic levels. The story within a story format is so stereotypical – and thus avoided by many modern filmmakers – that Aronofsky’s use is disconcerting at first. It therefore makes some manner of sense that overstuffed film critics, bombarded with every level of moviemaking formula in the motion picture pantheon, would react with some suspicion. Indeed, one doesn’t expect such obvious analogies in the ‘oh so clever’ current artform – and especially from Aronofsky. Even with his dedication to style over subtlety, such an apparent narrative ruse would seem beneath his talents.


As a matter of fact, it is. There is more to the ancient empire storyline than a simple metaphor for Izzy and Tommy’s trials. Clearly, these scenes are meant to forge a fascination with immortality, a question of what cheating death actually means. This is high stakes stuff, material moving at a level beyond most normal human’s hampered thinking capacity. Without going into massive spoilers, the Conquistador’s efforts expose the arrogance of battling transience. Similarly, the fate of the Queen seems certain. She can send all the soldiers she wants out into the New World, hoping to find a remedy for what ails her ‘dying’ regime. But the truth is, such solutions are many miles – and months – away. Anyone who thinks they can hold off the rollercoaster of religion for that period of time is simply foolish. In essence, the actions of the past participants in the story are predestined to fail. That’s the main message of the movie – death cannot be stopped, no matter how hard you fight against it.


So then, what’s the next step? Where does a story like this go from here? It’s at this juncture where many reviewers jumped the sensibility ship. Aranofksy does make a bold choice here – something many miss upon an initial viewing. Izzy explains to her husband that she couldn’t complete her manuscript. The last chapter has been left blank, and she gives her spouse pen and ink, telling him he must finish the story. The sentiment is crystal clear. She’s doing the hard part – dying. He has the second most challenging choice – how to respond to it. The book’s conclusion will reflect his feelings on the subject, and signal how he intends to approach her departing. When viewed in this more than likely light, the futuristic material that has thrown so many moviegoers for an illogical loop is suddenly self-evident.


Tommy is a man of science, someone constantly throwing aside the pragmatic and the emotional for complicated trials on untested treatments. He views the world in a way that most physicians/healers do – that is, they are demigods determining life and death with little interference from the spiritual. His is not a quest for inner peace. He is battling the almighty forces of nature, and he is determined to win. When he does pick up the literary mantle for his dying bride, he envisions an interstellar trip, Tree of Life in tow, to the novel’s otherworldly afterlife, a mythic realm of rebirth entitled Xibalba. There, he will cure the ailing icon, restore balance to his broken existence, and hopefully, resurrect his lost love. This is not some real time trip into another part of the galaxy, a 2001-style symbol of evolution or an A.I.-esque lesson in humanness. As much as the Conquistador material reflects the battle for life, the space bubble ride is a metaphor for the journey toward accepting death.


Since it’s presented in a continuum-tripping manner, certain sequences breathing into and breaking apparent existing scenarios, Aronofsky purposely perverts what is basically a pair of dream sequences supporting a disease of the week romance. It’s so clearly observable – the Conquistador’s tale ends like any good fable would, and the space story is the cathartic conclusion the plotline craves. Naturally, many critics have complained that, when you remove all the gloss and gimmicks, you are stuck with two rather dimensionless characters at the center, and while this may or may not be true, it strikes one as far more insightful than most of the complaints leveled against the film. A few writers have referenced Kubrick’s serious speculative masterpiece – always in an annoyingly inappropriate negative light – as a way of explaining how unexplainable The Fountain is, while others name check nonsense like Zardoz as a way of comparative contrast (frankly, the link is so tenuous as to be truly laughable).


Yet what’s obvious about most of the negative reviews is that intelligence is being systematically switched off the minute the screening starts. Part of the problem is something called CCC – cinematic catalog consciousness. Many in the film commenting community have been involved in the process for a very long time, and have seen so many movies in as many varying genres that their gray matters has been literally rewired to draw instant, often shortsighted conclusions. A music writer once opined that they could tell a hit record within the first 10 seconds of the needle hitting the vinyl. Movie reviewers suffer from something similar. Because of how their minds are bombarded with all manner of aesthetic elements, pro and con, puzzle pieces of perception start systematically falling into place from the opening frames. Many a cinematic scholar has lamented how a potentially good movie is more or less given up for dead by a mindset predetermined to instantly encode and appraise what’s being seen.


So maybe a few of these flummoxed critics gave up on The Fountain within the first five minutes, and ground their teeth until Aronofsky was through with his non-CGI sky show. But in far too many cases, it appears that usually sane cinephiles have simply missed crucial parts of the plot. Izzy makes it very clear that the characters of the Conquistador and the Queen come from her book. She mentions it at least three times, and Tommy never “sees” these scenes until he has her manuscript in hand. Anyone who argues that the period piece material is real and that the present day couple are the old ones reincarnated (or worse, made immortal by the Tree) is just plain stupid. The movie provides the clues to what these sequences represent. Not catching on is sheer cinematic laziness.


Even worse, the interpretations of the outer space material border on the retarded. Reincarnation is given another airing, while others have offered a bizarre combination of immortality and technological advancement as an explanation. One of the most outrageous examples argues that Tommy, devastated by Izzy’s passing, goes on a journey – like the Conquistador – to find the Tree. Once successful, he lives off it for 1000 years until, almost spent, he must enclose it in an interstellar vehicle and send it off to a kind of cosmic clearinghouse. There, some kind of extraterrestrial mumbo jumbo will occur, and everything will be right with the world. Of course, none of this addresses the absence of Izzy, why she only appears as a ghost-like vision during the trip, and why her disembodied voice keeps telling her husband to “Finish It”. When she gives her husband the writing set, she wants him to complete her book. The galaxy quest is that tale envisioned, nothing more or less.


After reading pieces rife with confusion, contempt and callous dismals, it’s clear that Aronofsky’s take on the Kubler-Ross conceits of death and dying did not resonate with most reviewers. And there is nothing wrong with disliking a film. People’s opinions are to be treasured, not trashed. It’s the very foundation of all criticism. But to go the extra mile and categorize The Fountain as unfathomable and incomprehensible is like rubbing salt in an undeserving wound. Is the movie creatively complicated? Yes. Does it hold on to many of its mysteries until long after the final credits have rolled and you’ve had a chance to sit back and consider them? Indeed. Is this just some motion picture masturbation about star-crossed lovers lost over three different millennia? Absolutely not. Such interpretations are proof that, when it comes to cinematic scholarship, many writers got in on their looks, not their knowledge. The reaction to Aronofsky’s The Fountain confirms what many in the movie community already believe. Film criticism is a dying art. In fact, from the looks of things, it may already be dead.


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Saturday, Dec 9, 2006


Harlan Hollis is known world wide as The Junkman, a humble business bloke turned fabulously wealthy multi-media mogul on the back of his scrap auto business. He makes movies, owns diamond mines and oil wells, and lives a jet setting eccentric lifestyle. A widower whose wife was killed by a drunk driver, he divides his time between his mega-buck empire and his teenage daughter. While readying his latest stunt filled film, he makes time to celebrate his child’s birthday, attend a James Dean festival that he has sponsored, and arrange the world premiere of his near completed masterwork. But gathering forces outside his insular life want Hollis dead, and they send a band of highly trained assassins out in cars and planes to kill the trash heap Trump once and for all. Will our high living, fast driving hero make it to the festival on time? Will he ever get to see his child again? More importantly, will his latest cinematic experiment have a boffo box office weekend? Or is it possible that this will be the time that The Junkman joins the rest of the metal in his yard?


Taken at face value, all one can say is - WOW! Junkman is one weird mamma-jamma of a movie. This möbius film strip motion picture functions like an Escher print come to life, cross and direct referencing itself and its makers so many times, and skittering in and out of reality so often it threatens to turn into Ouroboros and consume itself. It’s a true story told as fiction with most of the real people playing themselves. It’s a car crash fiesta formulated as a Citizen Kane style send-up of filmmaker and stuntman H.B. Halicki. The reference to Welles 1941 classic is not co-incidental. Halicki, here as Hollis, uses the same multi-media style (stills, news reports, flashbacks, and interviews) to tell the pseudo story of his life, except in this case, Rosebud is a tricked out Cadillac Eldorado running a supped up V-8 engine under its shiny hood. And unlike W.R. Hearst’s worst nightmare, the future salesman for Paul Mason wines didn’t load his narrative with an extended 45 minute car chase.


That’s right, forty-five minutes of automobile anarchy: chases, crashes, stunts, and impossible moments. Basically divided into four separate sections, kind of like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons except with larger insurance premiums, we get ten or fifteen minutes of fact filled narrative and set-up and then the pedal and the bumpers start hitting the metal as elaborate vehicular feats are hurled relentlessly at the camera for the sake of excitement. This movie is reportedly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most destroyed modes of transportation (planes, trucks, and cars) than any other movie in history. And while it seems hard to believe it in light of past (The Blues Brothers) and present (Speed) examples of the genre, one thing is for sure—The Junkman sure does have a lot of Detroit’s finest ramming into each other over and over again.


In some ways, Junkman reminds the viewer of Richard Rush’s exercise in inversion, the classic black Hollywood come-tramedy The Stunt Man. Similar in structure (with the “is it a movie or is it real?” ideal in full flower), it differs in that there are no performers the like of Peter O’Toole or Steve Railsback to sell the satire. Instead, Halicki casts himself in the lead, and then wisely as both director and writer, gives most of the dialogue and emoting to the one or two professionals (Hoyt Axton, Christopher Stone) in the cast. Still, there is nothing wrong with the amateur acting antics of the mostly playing themselves persons. Indeed, the natural charm and realistic line readings create an aura of authenticity that helps save The Junkman from sinking under the weight of its lofty ambitions. Sure, Halicki is interested in featuring metal on engine block action, but he also wants to work myth, murder and intrigue into the mix. Frankly, from what we see of Halicki/Hollis real life, a biopic of the eccentric entrepreneur would be an equally intriguing cinematic prospect. In love with all cars, he owned a huge warehouse “office” (the size of a football field) where he housed his mad collection. He also loved toys and had hundreds of thousands of rare and vintage examples.


He was also responsible for the drive-in cult classic, the original 1974 Gone in Sixty Seconds. And he truly started life in the junk business. And yet all of this takes a colorful backseat to the non-stop, no special effects stunt driving and crashing that makes up the vast majority of this movie. And while said action footage is first rate in a kind of late ‘70s early ‘80s shot as it happened fashion, adding more of the bizarre business life of Halicki/Hollis would have moved the entire movie beyond its B-movie roots into something a little more special. But as it stands, The Junkman is unlike any car crash movie you’ve ever experienced. It has to be seen to be believed.


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Friday, Dec 8, 2006


Film has always been a visual medium. In the days before sound, the image was all we had. It told our story, established our characters, and accentuated the drama or comedy. Visual flair is as old as movies themselves, and yet so few directors today seem to rely on and relish in the imaginative or outrageous. Since the early ‘60s, Hollywood and its filmmakers have de-evolved style in a vicious cycle real world recreation for the hyper-stylized universe of the big screen, exploiting small events to find the hidden theatrics. Instead of broad canvases of color or rich, dense imagery, we witness the mundane or maudlin. Even those epic dreamscapes woven by complex computers and deranged art designers usually have one foot firmly planted in the easy to recognize and rationalize. But not The City of Lost Children. It harkens back to a more old-fashioned pictographic mindset. In many significant and indirect ways, the wild world of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet is art come to life. As in their previous film together, 1991’s Delicatessen, it is a fairy tale presentation of pure unbridled, wonderfully wicked imagination. It’s the Brothers Grimm as envisioned by Salvador Dali and filmed by Fritz Lang.


This is a lost classic, a film not often discussed when visionary works of imaginative cinema are mentioned. Part of this may be due to its foreign film roots. Or perhaps, for many, the film is too dark, not your typical sweet Saturday morning matinee. There are very disturbing subtexts to City that do not exist in other flights of fancy. The children here are indeed lost, either captured and tormented by a character known as Krank, or forced into a life of juvenile crime by the manipulative twins who run an orphanage. We do not see mothers or fathers. There are no caregivers or guardians, nor do we see orphans or outcasts longing for them. This lack of unconditional love creates youths who are vastly more mature, discussing subjects like love and fear with ferocious intensity and sly maturity. The strongman known as One is the closest we have to any type of parental figure, and even he is not really the older, bigger brother. “No parents” does not equal “no worries” in City. This is also a film that wallows in the subtle beauty of the grotesque, amplifying ugliness to illustrate unbridled absurdity. From Jean Paul Gautier’s Marquis de Sade meets Moby Dick fashion statements to the walleyed, demon-like faces of the child-napping zealot Cyclops, the film takes the long lost look of the circus sideshow and melds it to a nightmarish world of technological and emotional freaks.


Jean-Pierre and Marc are obviously obsessed with the carnival. The entire color scheme seems lifted from a tattooed man’s body illustrations. Like Fellini’s La Strada, which sought to tell a simple tale of love and the human spirit within the unreal realm of the circus, the filmmakers use the fantastical festival setting as a means of expressing their themes. Within its pandemonium pallet are the purity of youth, the pain of age, the wickedness of greed, and the comfort of love. There are also religious philosophies at play, battles with God both figuratively and literally. Krank and his army of clones fight and argue amongst themselves, all in the hope that, one day, the Creator will return to right his genetic missteps. The twins lord over their orphan charges like devils at the seat of Satan’s cloven hoof, waiting for instruction and brimstone beatitudes. Even the Cyclops proclaim their undying faith by blinding themselves, hoping that God will see that through both their devotion and their evangelism how truly gifted with sight (both internal and external) they are. Just like the wistful notion of running off to join the traveling show, The City of Lost Children is a chance not taken, a place where the oppression of maturity, of the stark reality of mortality and responsibility turn adults into monsters, and children into commodities.


The viewer can see many divergent ideals and inspirations at work here. But the most interesting influence to wind its way throughout the entire film is American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg. Goldberg’s ingenious drawings illustrated incredibly complicated and multi-stepped procedures to achieve the most basic of results. Several set pieces in the film apply his principles and influences, and there is a giddy joy when their cause and effect logic draws to its ultimate conclusion. One sequence, involving the animal kingdom and a call to arms, is as beautiful as it is ridiculously complex. Like all other special, unnerving aspects of this movie, from the twisted fable at the core of its narrative, to the subtle pronouncements on love and family, The City of Lost Children is indeed like one of Goldberg’s wildest inventions. It’s a film that hitches its humor to the stinger of a flea, rides it on the heads of circus strongmen, and brings its heartfelt conclusion to rest in the bubbling tank of a talking, sarcastic brain. Yet the movie never gets lost itself. There is a perverse logic in its over symbolic and stylized storytelling.


No discussion of City would be complete without a word or two about the film’s music and its wonderful performances. As he has done in so many other films for auteurs like David Lynch and Paul Schrader, Angelo Badalamenti creates the perfect score, adding the clarion call of the calliope and the lonesome moan of the strings to underscore the strangeness and the sadness. This is a town under fire from within (the gangs of mercenary urchins) and without (the abductions), and Badalamenti creates a theme and an aural presence for every ideal. Sonically, The City of Lost Children is a near seamless matching of music to moving image. As for the actors, Ron Perlman has always seemed like a stunt waiting to be cast. Usually unrecognizable in face altering or obliterating make-up, he normally essays roles as unreal as the location in this film. But interestingly enough, he is the very human core of the film, a strong, faithful muscleman whose basic needs match his simpleton intellect. His is a perfectly modulated, understated performance. Among the child actors, little Judith Vittet stands out as Miette, a child who carries an incredible amount of adult soul and beauty within her delicate, French bisque features. And as usual, Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon applies his elastic facial features to the creation of six distinct characters, all out of minimal dialogue and elegant pantomime.


A movie like The City of Lost Children doesn’t really want to show us where the secrets of youth are hidden. It buries its message of adulthood and its perils in elaborate sets and visually arresting images. It symbolizes the dead end of avarice, the importance of familial bonds, and the painful loss of innocence through dreams in wonderful, paint box strokes. But it still leaves us wondering if such a place actually exists. For some, the manufactured wonders of Disney World or Universal Studios theme parks offer a glimpse into the sacred village of eternal childhood. Still others find it in the magic of their offspring at play, in their riotous laughter. Many see it in the eyes of their son or daughter as they light up in loving response. And there are those who, no matter how hard they try or how long they look, will never find the City. It will pass them by, or they will look over or through it in pursuit of a more complicated, unimportant goal. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro have at least provided a roadmap to the mythological place in their film La Cité des Enfants Perdus. Just turn right at your dreams, be on the lookout for your heartstrings, and ride your imagination all the way to where the sea meets the sky.


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Thursday, Dec 7, 2006


Three weeks and counting. Pressure is really on now. Family and friends you hoped would forget the annual card (and thus, requiring a reciprocal response) have actually sent you a gift this year, and you drew the boss as your “secret Santa” recipient. The kids have finally learned that not one but TWO new video game systems have hit the market, and have made your life a living Heck by demanding to own both. So while your stuck on eBay bidding away on overpriced technology, perhaps you can take a moment or two and experience the less than spectacular offerings on your favorite premium pay movie channel. Just don’t expect a quartet of considered masterpieces and you’ll be just fine. In fact, three of the four films presented are pretty pathetic – even the so-called smash starring a favored Daily Show dude. No, your best bet for some manner of retail relief this holiday maelstrom is a zippy zombie pic from some koala-loving fright fans. Like fake familial intimacy and gift certificates to stationary stores, nothing spells Christmas better than a living dead epic. And what if reanimated corpses don’t float your Noel boat? Here’s the other choices arriving the weekend of 9 December:


HBOThe 40 Year Old Virgin

This may be going against the commonly held opinion of this so called ‘classic’, but SE&L just didn’t get this unrealistic look at a middle-aged man whose intact virtue supposedly makes him hilarious. All minor laughs aside, the biggest problem with the slightly surreal story is how unrealistic it is. Steve Carell lives like the ultimate dork (call him Pee Wee Herman with better career goals) and has more support than anyone lacking a sex life should. That he manages, through the typical series of setpiece sequences, to discover the reasons behind his rejection and finally find an outlet for his libido makes the story even more shallow. Basically, Virgin argues that individuality only works when karma carves out a soul mate for you – not necessarily the most apropos foundation for funny.


PopMatters Review


CinemaxDate Movie

It’s time to declare an obligatory moratorium on all these loathsome spoof films. Airplane! got it right. Top Secret took it to another level of laughs. And the Naked Gun movies made Leslie Nielsen commercially and cinematically relevant again. But ever since the Wayans worthless Scary Movie, the notion of directly ripping off current pop culture elements has lost all its invention. Instead, these motion picture crapshoots usually result in one or two laughs followed by long periods of shoulder shrugging obviousness. This version is no different, attempting takes on Meet the Parents, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and dozens of other routine rom coms. Under the auspices of Aaron Seltzer, a veteran of all the “X Movie” mediocrities, there is nothing new, novel or nice about this abysmally bad excuse for humor.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


StarzAnnapolis

We here at SE&L actually liked this movie much better when it starred Richard Gere and was called An Officer and a Gentleman. Actually, we take that back – we weren’t too hyped on that saccharine ‘80s romance either. In this version of the ‘kid from the wrong side of the tracks’ tale, the Naval Academy’s boxing team becomes the refuge for a welder who dreams of a career in the military. Naturally, he overcomes all kinds of social prejudice and winds up in the big intramural fight competition. Talk about dull and derivative. Anyway, director Justin Lin, responsible for the excellent Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) seems a tad out of his element here, looking for the epic in a very insular environment. Sadly, he gets little help from his leads (James Franco and Donnie Walhberg). (Premieres Saturday 9 December, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeUndead*

You know you’re in trouble when the best film for a cold December weekend is an incredibly inventive zombie film from a couple of Down Under directors. Brothers Michael and Peter Spierig used Kiwi icon Peter Jackson (and his hilarious Bad Taste/Brain Dead films) as their inspiration and came up with a clever tale of a quaint fishing village overrun by meteorites – and eventually, ravenous flesh eaters. Thanks to some ingenious special effects and the unusual Australian locale, what could have been your typical cannibal corpse creepshow becomes an extraordinary combination of fear and funny business. Sure, some of the homemade CGI is sloppy, and a bigger budget would have meant a more meaty overall presentation, but nothing thwarts holiday tradition better than a few dozen buckets of blood. So forget the figgy pudding and feast on this grinchy gorefest. (Saturday 9 December, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 8/9 December, an unsung minor masterpiece is featured:


The Honeymoon Killers
In writer/director Leonard Kastle’s creative zenith, Tony LoBianco and Shirley Stoler play a mismatched couple who use murder as a means of cementing their relationship. A cult classic that should be better known.
(2am EST)


 


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 9 December are:


Scrooged
(ABC Family Channel, 10 December, 2:00PM EST)
Hated when it first hit movie screens two decades ago, Bill Murray shines in what is today considered an excellent deconstruction of the Charles Dickens classic.


Elf
(USA Network, 12 December, 9:00PM EST)
Jon Favreau’s new family favorite features Will Ferrell as a human accidentally raised by Santa’s helpers. His journey back to his roots makes for hilarious Yuletide fun.


A Christmas Story
(Turner Classic Movies, 15 December, 8:00PM EST)
And thus it begins – the endless repeating of Bob Clark’s unusually cynical holiday gem. A flop upon its original release, now no Xmas would seem complete without it.


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