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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


He was the original Pa Kent, giving an infant from the planet Krypton a home here on earth. He was also the original Mr. Eddie’s father, looking for love while trying to raise his son solo. From his early days as a Columbia contract player, to his heroic service in World War II (where he helped build safe houses in France) Glenn Ford remained wholly original. His death at age 90 on 30, August 2006 was not so much a shock as a reminder of how much his presence in film was missed. Having long since retired from acting (his last onscreen role was in 1991) and in relatively poor health in recent years, Ford’s recognizable fame had more or less faded. But even without a current high profile celebrity, no one could match this amazing man’s considered career.


He was born in Canada, and came to the US when he was eight. Fresh out of high school, he was scouted by Tom Moore, a representative of 20th Century Fox. When the war arrived in the early ‘40s Ford took a break from his occasional bit parts to fight for his adopted country. After marrying fellow star Eleanor Powell in 1943, he returned from service to pick up his career. But it wasn’t until Bette Davis gave him a break in 1946 (with a role in A Stolen Life) that Ford found his footing. That same year, an appearance alongside Rita Hayworth in Gilda (they would go on to make six films together) shot him to superstardom. Thanks to his talent, Ford never again had to look back. He parlayed that success into roles in classic Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and crime thrillers like The Big Heat (1953).


By the mid ‘50s, Ford was viewed as a Hollywood stalwart, a level-headed leading man who came across as decent and determined. But with his 1956 turn as the inner city schoolteacher fighting delinquency in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), the actor became a kind of subtle symbol for the growing problems between the generations…and the races. Thanks to the film’s youth appeal, and the Bill Haley and the Comet’s theme of “Rock Around the Clock”, Ford found himself in even bigger demand. He would go on to make Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Experiment in Terror (1962) and the forgotten gem Rage (1966), among many, many others. He even dabbled in television, starring in the series Cade’s County (1971) and The Family Holvak (1975). But time was slowly catching up with Ford. After playing Superman’s dad in the original 1978 big screen adaptation, and a sinister psychiatrist in the silly slasher film Happy Birthday to Me (1981), he watched his star stock drop. Between ‘81 and ‘91, he only made six more films.


Though his marriage to Powell produced a son (Peter), it didn’t last. Ford never found the right person to share his life with, all three of his marriages after his divorce from Powell being short lived (none more than three years) and, sadly, childless. Ford adored children, and was said to spend most of his retirement playing with his grandkids. Over the years, he appeared in documentaries on Hollywood’s Golden Age, but continued complications with respiratory and heart ailments, as well as a series of strokes, left him frail and faltering. On the occasion of his 90th birthday in May of this year, he was scheduled to attend a 70th anniversary revival of a newly remastered print of Gilda. Regrettably, his ill health prevented his appearance. It would have been nice for this former Tinsel Town icon to have one last shot at the public adoration he so richly deserved. No matter what the current culture thinks, he was never forgettable. That’s because, no matter the role, Ford was always an original. 


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Saturday, Sep 2, 2006


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


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


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

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


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


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



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Thursday, Aug 31, 2006

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


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


HBOWallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

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



PopMatters Review


CinemaxCinderella Man

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



PopMatters Review


StarzThe Greatest Game Ever Played

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



PopMatters Review


ShowtimeThe Woodsman

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


PopMatters Review


* = PopMatters Picks


 


Indie Film Focus: September 2006

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


IFC



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


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


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


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


Sundance Channel



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


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


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


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


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Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

If you believe the experts, the Summer of 2006 was a disaster of epic proportions. From the opening salvo of the less than winning Mission: Impossible III to the final fizzle of Snakes on a Plane, what should have been a fairly consistent season of quality fare became a quagmire of stagnant, sloppy entertainment. Granted, some still found their fun where they could: the supposedly inventive fear factors of The Descent; the sexy superficiality of Miami Vice‘s calculated crime thriller; Adam Sandler’s spiral into Frank Capra Click mode. Even among the perceived slips, the offerings that failed to live up to their hyperbolized potential, there were moments of magic: Hammy’s supersonic bullet-time trip through an entire backyard in Over the Hedge; Superman’s shuttle save; the fall of many an X-Men mutant, including an especially cruel comeuppance for every fanboy’s favorite shapeshifter; Jack Black’s naïve Nacho finding solace, and stretchy pants, among the much admired luchadore. In fact, the Summer of 2006 can best be described as a season of moments – movies that failed to completely coalescence into the blockbusters of old, but still delivered their own meaningful measures of pleasure.


And then there was the real rubbish – the kind of cinematic cesspools that make your filings ache, your brain bubble, and your ass shift painfully in its supposed seat of stadium-level comfort. They are the reasons audiences rebuff the Cineplex and await an eventual rental. They cause seismic shifts in the entertainment continuum and foster the near universal belief in a certain industry’s lack of originality or ethos. All five of the failures sited by SE&L as the noxious nadir of the artform were created by the so-called major studios. One even featured the most consistent box office draw of the last decade. The list includes one unfunny comedy, two thrill-free adventure yarns, an incredibly artificial “bedtime story” and a near shot-for-shot remake of a macabre classic. All together, they form a pentacle of paltriness, a shining symbol of ideas poorly executed and money mindboggling wasted. Hollywood ponied up nearly a half a BILLION dollars ($449 million to be exact) to bring these strident stink bombs to the screen. And you thought the Federal Government was the only out of control entity that could waste hard earned dinero like that, huh? So, with little fanfare or flourish, SE&L offers up the Worst Movies of Summer 2006.


5. Lady in the Water
Call it his long anticipated fall from grace, or a clear case of ego overdrive, but somewhere buried inside this incredibly dopey faux fairy tale is a pretty intriguing idea, actually. Indeed, the notion of otherworldly spirit guides attempting connections with those they are destined to direct has a nice sense of internal awe. Unfortunately, that substrata Spielberg, otherwise known as M. Night Shyamalan, decided to muck up such a fragile flight of fancy with his annoying preoccupation with foreshadowing. From the moment we see the residents living inside the Paul Giamatti-supervised apartment complex, we see the ‘signs’ of future narrative manipulation. Then Shyamalan tries to pull a last act fast one, changing the character dynamic in a final ditch effort at inventiveness. It fails, as does most of this flop of fancy.



PopMatters Review


4. The Da Vinci Code
So this is what the wait was all about? This was the thriller that satisfied a trillion airline passengers and created a cottage industry out of opinions both pro and con? Indeed, if this was the result of all the hype, all the history, and all the hissy fits, Ron Howard and his cinematic partner in mind crime known as Akiva Goldsman shouldn’t have bothered. By the time of its release, everyone knew the essential secret at the center of Dan Brown’s undeniably popular novel. Even avoiding the book’s fictional facets, your average film fan knew that all plotlines pointed to Jesus, Mary and a less than ‘Immaculate’ conception. All that was left was the big screen interpretation of such intrigue. And what we got was a near literal translation of Brown’s boring prose amplified by Goldsman’s lack of compelling characterization. How anticlimactic.


PopMatters Review


3. Poseidon
Somewhere, in the great cinematic beyond, Irwin Allen is wearing the afterlife’s biggest shit-eating grin. All the respect and critical praise he craved during his tenure as a multimedia laughing stock finally arrived on the heals of this misguided remake of his 1972 capsized cruise ship classic. Wolfgang Peterson, continuing his obsession with CGI water, concocts a heartless stunt show overflowing with Rube Goldberg-esque escapes and hollow human beings. Word is that Warner Brothers demanded over a half hour of cuts – almost all dealing with personal backstory and conflict between the players - after several unsuccessful test screenings. Many demanded that the film simply “get on with the disaster”. Never before in the history of cinema has a studio satisfied the mandates of its focus groups this effectively. Poseidon is the catastrophe they craved. 


PopMatters Review


2. The Omen 2006
Barely losing (beating) out to the number one entry on the SE&L list, this pointless remake of a ‘70s horror heavyweight did something many thought impossible – it made the Devil seem dull. From it’s crackpot casting that had infantile performers playing parts at least a decade beyond their birthdate, and a David Setzer script that more or less mimicked his original 1976 version (he wrote both movies), the sense of demonic déjà vu was intense. Unfortunately, it was the only powerful thing in this Laguna Beach level update. But perhaps the biggest mistake made here was turning tiny Damien, spawn of Satan, into a smug, smiling villain. Originally, the Antichrist was evil in an innocent’s garb. Here he’s just a standard scare tactic.


PopMatters Review


1. Little Man
Has there ever been a bigger waste of theoretical talent than the Wayans Brothers? When In Living Color stands as the capper to your entire creative career, it’s difficult to debate such a declaration. In this horribly unfunny film, using modern technology to recreate decades-old Our Gang/Bugs Bunny shorts, siblings Shawn and Marlon set the cause of black cinema back 40 eons and a mule with this stupefying shuck and jive. It’s not just that this story of a dwarf criminal who passes as a baby to regain a stolen gemstone lacks any real semblance of logic (we’re talking about a grown up, with easily identifiable, if arguably miniaturized, man-parts here). No, Little Man‘s biggest offense is the determined belittlement of one entire race – called “the human”. 



PopMatters Review


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