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Sunday, Sep 17, 2006

Going back to the days when Beta battled VHS for market dominance, film fans have had a veritable love/hate relationship with the concept of home video. At first, machines were sold on their ability to record. In an era of limited broadcast options and inadequate cable coverage, the notion of being able to ‘tape’ and then playback a favorite program or sporting event held an overpowering mystique. Audiences accustomed to suffering through the summer subjected to untold reruns and failed replacement series could now rummage through their own collection and create their own entertainment experience. In fact, most of the original video retailers used the “why let others tell you what to watch when you can choose your own viewing” ideal to interest buyers. It was hailed as a revolution. Thirty years later, it’s had a far more regressive, radical effect.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, this is not going to be yet another rant about how watching films in the comfort of your home has ruined the in theater experience. You won’t find links being made to the leisurely, living room approach to entertainment and the frequent social slip-ups that fill up the local Cineplex. Granted, home video has forged a lax sense of acceptable behavior, especially from children who are used to the television playing the role of chief babysitter, friend, sidekick, etiquette instructor and background noise. So naturally they transfer their jittery juvenile energy to the stadium seat experience. We shouldn’t be surprised when kids clamor for attention, run up and down the aisles and treat the cinema as their home. For most, there is no difference – except for the lowered lights and gathering of unidentifiable strangers. It’s the reason restaurants once “discouraged” family dining and pointed to protocol as their explanation. Children are still learning the proper decorum.

Does this excuse the adults who talk during the significant plot points, field cell phone calls during the drama and basically conduct all manner of interpersonal and professional business as the rest of the audience adjusts, or simply joins in? Is that really home theater’s fault? In truth, the answer is no. Blame other technology - in fact, we should be afraid of such scientific shunts in our necessary social interaction. For eons, the main reason people went to the movies was to mingle with their fellow film fans and experience something communal; to connect with the outside by sharing something with like minded individuals. Now, while it’s true that the VCR put a dent in such a design (more on this in a moment), it’s the computer age that really flummoxed such a mutual mission.

For ages, only doctors and important business types demanded unqualified access to communication. They needed to be and required being in touch with their employment or office not out of convenience, but out of necessity. A missed call and a patient could be hospitalized or deceased, a deal dying or dead. So limited access to entertainment events became part of the job. You suffered through a concert knowing that your oversized beeper would go off at any moment, and purposefully avoided situations – like sold out showings of the recent hit film – out of courtesy for others, and consideration for your career. But not today. People are married to their personal contact devices, divorcing themselves from reality as they text-message a random thought during the second act denouement, complete with an attached camera-phone image to prove they really are “at the movies”. In the realm of viscous cycling, the wireless industry has the world brainwashed. You didn’t need a pocket organizer with Internet access until they said you did, and now you’ve become so reliant on it’s level of novel interactivity, you can’t be without it.

No, if you want to point an appropriate finger at the home video craze and lionize it for some adverse effect on the art of cinema, the accusation is painfully simple: the VCR created a nation of amateur film scholars and critics. In fact, it’s so hard to remember what it was like even at the outset of the video revolution that many would laugh at such a sentiment. Yet the truth is evident from the current culture of the web. As recently as the 1970’s film was considered an artform, right up there with the novel, music and the rest of the humanities. In order to study it though, to really get to know it, you had to do what most people do to gain such knowledge – you had to go to school. Most people prior to VHS didn’t have revival houses in their neighborhood, and almost all were exposed to classic films during the Late Late Movie, weekend afternoons and the occasional network television premiere. No one saw original edits of their favorites – they witnessed censored prints cut for time and subject matter.

Cable was the first alternative to change the viewing dynamic of the public. Via a pay channel, you could see Hollywood films the way they were presented in the theater. You could consider the violence, explore the erotica and hear all the expletives that the FCC and MPAA tried to protect you from. But better yet, you got a chance to revisit a favorite title without the burden of waiting for the actual moviemaking business to reintroduce it to you. Through the wonder of a coaxial wire – and then a plastic cassette loaded with magnetic tape – you could start your own curriculum in film appreciation. While it was slow going at first (many titles were not released for purchase, but for rental), the windfall derived from the sell-through model of home video marketing meant that, a scant few months after you saw something on the big screen, you could purchase a quasi-permanent version of it for yourself.

Better yet, once the first run film market was saturated, studios went back into their vaults and released all manner of material. Some was classic. Some was crap. But it represented the kind of exposure to cinema that many before the ‘80s seldom received, even in college. In essence, decades of research and study could be repeated in a matter of months, as long as you had a TV, a VCR, and a decent video rental/retailer in your area. Thus, the amateur training began. Masterworks only read about were optioned and absorbed. Cult films were finally found, and confirmed as true kitsch or misguided camp. Genres were fleshed out and reformed, while previously uncelebrated talent was placed into the pantheon of cinematic history. In essence, the entire legacy of film was opened up to the public – and with that, naturally, came the public opinion.

Harlan Ellison once wrote that people aren’t entitled to their opinion, just their own learned one, and the same is true about film. It is literally impossible to absorb the whole of cinema via a steady diet of videocassettes (and today, DVDs). Even the most dedicated student can’t digest the whole of motion picture making – a concept that runs from silents to moderns, familiar to foreign and all places in between. Yet the exposure to the technology of home video over the last three decades has made experts out of mere fans, and archivists out of the most casual of viewer. One surf of the Internet confirms this concept. YouTube is loaded with would be Eberts, pontificating in poorly scripted and presented clips about the recent releases. MySpace is packed with ‘best of’ lists and pages devoted exclusively to some of the most obscure filmic efforts ever created. Even worse, such resources are viewed as authoritative by fans looking for instant feedback, empowering an entire generation to avoid conventional thinking and determine their own Wikipedia fed aesthetic fate.

Now, this seems like a good idea, until you realize its substantial downside. Without consensus, nothing can be truly considered archetypal. By its very definition, something is representative because it holds the majority of the meaningful opinions. But in this focus group/test screening/Ain’t It Cool News-ing of cinema, everyone believes their belief actually matters – not counts, MATTERS. It’s the message they’ve been fed, and have self proscribed, since the VCR showed them how good/bad Ed Wood’s Plan 9 really was, or how brave/boring Kubrick’s 2001 could be. Over the decades, audiences have been brainwashed into believing that experience is the same as expertise. They know about film because they’ve seen so many. But without accompanying context, without thinking and analyzing and revising, perception is perverted. Response is not the same as consideration. Entertainment – or the lack thereof – is only part of a film’s facets, or flaws.

Yet that’s the mob mentality monster we’ve created. Aided by the sudden surge in box office performance, especially over the initial weekend (something also contributable to home video’s volatility as an indicator) and the studio’s persistent desire to endlessly fine tune a project via public opinion, the movies have moved in the direction the technology first dictated. Except, in this case, instead of telling the audience what to watch – as cinema did from it’s infancy through the ‘80s – it’s the public pushing the buttons. So before you blame Hollywood for the latest hack job, or curse a director for dropping the ball on a long beloved project, just remember this: you asked for it. Maybe not directly, but vicariously through home video. Your superficial study of film has led an entire industry to cater to your self-supported whims. It may be worse now that the Internet has upped the profile, but don’t ever forget its simple seeds. A while back, someone thought a private video taping system was a good idea. Unfortunately, the post-millennial cinematic stasis was the outcome. 

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Saturday, Sep 16, 2006

Something is dangerously wrong with filmmaker Damon Packard. Just clicking on his official website leads to a plea for financial help and a list of purchasable cinematic oddities, all accompanied by an eerily reverberating version of The Carpenter’s “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Lost somewhere within his own unsettled mind and a fatalistic love of the ‘70s, Packard has produced dozens of short films, motion picture experiments and long form features. Perhaps his most notorious – for reasons both artistic and legal – is Reflections of Evil. In it’s original format, this stream of crackpot consciousness masterwork used found footage, bootlegged film clips, material recorded off television and a healthy homage to the ABC Movie of the Week to craft a totally surreal supernatural mystery. Unfortunately, when Go-Kart Films tried to release a DVD version of Packard’s perturbed vision, massive edits had to be made. The result was an equally brilliant, if substantially different look at one man’s battle for persona, and professional redemption.

The narrative – if there is one to mention – centers on an angry, morbidly obese street vendor (played by Packard) who’s haunted by the death of his sister. Roaming the sidewalks of LA, screaming at himself in animalist grunts, Packard’s camera catches real people panicked over his obvious psychotic ranting. His curse-laden tirades seem aimed more at the cosmos, however than the surrounding modern world. Buried in between these slapdash sideshow antics are reenactments of Steven Spielberg shooting the genre gem Something Evil, sequences from the Universal Studios tour, and ethereal inserts featuring a near perfect capturing of the slow motion depiction of television terror. But this is just part of the story. Behind the scenes, after completing the project, Packard made more than 20,000 DVD copies. He proceeded to distribute them all, free of charge. He left them around the city (in stores and at ATMs) and mailed many directly to celebrities. He got the occasional response (several messages, both good and very bad, have been catalogued on Packard’s Web site), and found a champion in Sylvester Stallone’s son Sage. But most of the response was vile and hateful.

Of course, for this decidedly disturbed director, such rejection was a sign of the social significance in his work. Packard perceives Hollywood, and those bound to its influences, as a disease overloaded with conspiracy and cabals. To him, modern movies are forged out of a Free Mason sense of secrecy with the studios purposefully setting out to subvert the efforts of those wanting to make a difference. Reflections of Evil is a stuttering shock treatment approach to understanding this indecipherable design, a movie masquerading as a madman’s mission statement. No one said the truth would be comfortable or easy. No one said the past was pain-free. Packard understands this all too well, and just like his motion picture protagonist, he also suffers with the obvious oppression of everyday life. This is an amazing cinematic shriek, a primal scream in the face of aesthetic helplessness. It is also one of the finest experimental films ever made.

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Friday, Sep 15, 2006

I think that, in this day and age, you must have more than just a simple pair of good performances in order to make a movie. Georgia, however, represents, for me one of the best examples of how two unique, totally left-field performances manage to carry an innately weak film and create a completely character-driven drama that succeeds wholly because of the work of the actors involved. Clearly a labor of love for those who made it, the narrative harkens back to the days when movies were made as an exploration of people’s lives rather than as an exhibition of their super-powers or their privileged internships for big, bad magazine editors (or any other big-budget, high concept extravaganza is gracing your local cinema each summer).

Jennifer Jason Leigh (the most under-appreciated actress of her generation) plays Sadie Flood, a dirty loser who has a single dream: to be a famous singer. She has the ambition. She has the desire. She even gets some gigs. The most important thing that she is missing, though, is huge: she cannot sing to save her life. Sadie is so deluded into believing that she’s talented that her drive and blind ambition lead her into a host of really weird places. She’s managed by a junkie-creep and sings backup for with a volatile blues singer while also sleeping with him. Add Sadie’s problem with drinking and heroin into the tragic reality of her lack of vocal skills and what you have is the slow-burning saga of a young woman sliding into a devastating downward spiral. Sadie never learns from her mistakes and this makes her a danger to herself and everyone else who knows her.

Another large problem that figures into the story is the title character Georgia. She’s a famous folk singer, who just so happens to be Sadie’s sister (much to her talentless sibling’s chagrin). Played with subtlety and grace by Mare Winningham in a soft, motherly tour-de-force, Georgia is a marvelous creation. Where Sadie is fire mixed with bare, grating nerves, Georgia is ice and calmness personified. She is a working mother who never really had the aspirations of her desperate sister, a star who handles her fame coolly. Winningham’s gentle, canny performance compliments Leigh’s less subtle turn perfectly and she uses her natural musical skills to great effect.

The film explores the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship believably and totally. The burden of having such a train wreck for a relative, of having to watch out for her and bail her out constantly, wears on Georgia. Naturally, jealousy is Sadie’s main problem with her sister. What the actresses end up creating is a dynamic portrait of familial devotion that is heartbreaking, frustrating and true. One of the film’s best scenes involves a benefit concert, in which Georgia has arranged a spot for Sadie to sing: Sadie, who uses her time pre-show to get sloshed, stumbles onstage and pummels her way through a Van Morrison song for eight very hard minutes. This scene shows why Leigh is among the best actors of her generation. She conveys Sadie’s desperation, her hunger for love and fame, her raw ambition, her devotion to her sister, and her own personal confusion all in one fell swoop. Another thing that’s painfully evident is that Sadie is truly untalented. Her singing is astoundingly bad and very hard to watch. It’s a dynamic sequence that by the end has the horrified Georgia coming out onstage to bail her sister out yet again.

The film is based on Leigh’s real life experiences with her own sister’s substance abuse problems, and I believe putting herself into her shoes is a brave and special form of flattery. There is also no doubt that the great deal of her own private grief is expressed expertly in Winningham’s touching performance. Georgia was written by Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, which makes it even more obvious that the film was made with care and love.

Leigh (who in real life is married to The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, and will star opposite Nicole Kidman in his next film), had a miraculous run of interesting character parts in the early to mid nineties: some of her most stellar work during this period includes playing legendary wit Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; two vastly different hookers with hearts of gold in Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn; two outings with Robert Altman (Short Cuts and Kansas City) and shows up as “the roommate from hell” opposite Bridget Fonda in Single White Female. The actresses’ work in Georgia only cements her as inventive, courageous and fiercely committed. Hopefully, her upcoming collaboration with her husband will put her back on the mainstream map.

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Thursday, Sep 14, 2006

September is starting to become the month of mediocrity on your favorite premium cable channels. This week alone offers one average box office hit, two ‘one week and out’ theatrical bombs, and a ‘could have been a cult contender’ urban comedy. When you put them all together, they make for a quartet of questionable entertainment offerings. As a matter of fact, you’d be better served heading over to Turner Classic Movies on 16 Saturday and catching the classic Casablanca at 6:00pm EST, and then Paper Moon at midnight, rather than scanning through the atrophying amusement on hand here. Still, if you must get your pay TV money’s worth this week, you’re going to have to lower your cinematic standards a series of significant notches. Honestly SE&L and PopMatters can’t recommend any of the offerings making their premiere this week. For those still interested in what’s available, here’s the rundown on 16 September:

HBOFantastic Four

When it was originally release in 1994, the Roger Corman production of this classic Marvel title was done purely as a legal maneuver. When purchasing the title, a deal was struck. Unless a film was made of this potential property within a given time frame, the rights would revert back to the original owners. Never one to let a missed monetary opportunity pass him by, the famed b-movie maverick rushed out this sloppy, stupid spectacle. So here’s the question – what was 20th Century Fox’s excuse? They had time, talent and an eager comic geek audience on their side. Granted, this story of astronauts bombarded by space radiation, rendering them suddenly gifted with superpowers, has its fans and made enough of a box office splash to warrant a sequel, but its still substandard on many moviemaking levels. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 8:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

CinemaxThe Ice Harvest

Second only to a failed horror film in cinematic sadness is the lax dark comedy. This one should have been better. It had lots of noted names behind the scenes (director Harold Ramis, screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton) and a more than competent cast (Billy Bob Thorton, John Cusack, Oliver Platt). Yet this crime caper, part cynical seasonal struggle, part overly clever caper, suffers from an unsure tone, careless plotting and a less than satisfying conclusion. While some critics enjoyed the combination of Cusack and Thorton, and forgave the film its scattered sensibility, audiences obviously didn’t agree. Barely making back half of its $18 million budget, this frozen funny business got a clear cold shoulder from the majority of movie mavens. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 10:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

StarzAn Unfinished Life

Like Madonna before her, Jennifer Lopez has been riding on the success of her first few film roles – Selena, Out of Sight, The Cell – for far too long now. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that this Empress has no cinematic clothes. Recent efforts like Angel Eyes, Enough, Maid in Manhattan and The Wedding Planner have been hits, but not necessarily because Ms. Cullo Grande has anything to offer as an actress. A clear example of this concept comes to us via this resoundingly rejected weeper about family and fathers. Taking on the role of J-Lo’s pop is the ethnically unbelievable Robert Redford (???) who spends a lot of time with his best pal Morgan Freeman. Talk about diversity in action. Sadly, not even the racial mix can make this movie work. It’s a slow slog through an equally muddy motion picture bog. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 9:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

ShowtimeSoul Plane

Here’s a lesson for first time feature filmmaker Jessy Terrero – never promise a crude, rude urban comedy when you have absolutely no desire to deliver one. Soul Plane stumbles, and finally stinks, for reasons that are so obvious that race plays little part in the pathetic nature of this nonsense. With a cast that combines ultra cool rappers (Snoop Dogg, Method Man), sensationally gifted stand-ups (Mo’Nique, Loni Love, D.L. Hughley) and a few off the radar has-beens (Tom Arnold), what should have been a combination of Airplane! and Dolemite ends up being a boring, bewildering, unfunny farce. When you can’t even get a pimp joke right, when your flatulence riffs are just repugnant, you don’t deserve your wit wings. (Saturday 16 September, 8pm EST)

PopMatters Review


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 16 September through 22 September:


Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Woody Allen’s love letter to his favorite musical artform, this genuinely jazzy fictional biopic has Sean Penn delivering yet another of his definitive bravura performances.
(Saturday 16 September, 9:35pm EST)

Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The best movie of the ‘90s, bare none. The Coen Brothers borrow the crime genre from all its motion picture practitioners and make it wholly their own.
(Sunday 17 September, 6:25pm EST)

Auto Focus (2002)
The life and times of Bob Crane has always cried out for a brazen biography. Thankfully, Paul Schrader delivers a devastating look at the doomed TV icon.
(Tuesday 19 September, 11:15pm EST)

Female Trouble (1974)
John Water’s second certifiable masterpiece is also his most accessible. If you don’t mind being offended by blatant bad taste, you’ll love this loony laugh-a-thon.
(Wednesday 20 September, 10:35pm EST)

Sundance Channel

Fearless Freaks (2005)
Though considered part of the fringe facets of the music biz, the Flaming Lips get the regular royal treatment in this fascinating documentary look at their crazy career. 
(Sunday, 17 September, 7:15pm EST)

The Beguiled (1971)
Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel delivered more than just cowboys and cops with their collaborations. This Civil War thriller is proof of their rich cinematic range.
(Monday, 18 September, 12:00pm EST)

Ju-On (2000)
No one does J-Horror better than the Japanese. Witness Takashi Shimizu’s original Grudge fest, a wonderfully wicked look at secrets and their sinister consequences.
(Thursday, 19 September, 12:30am EST)

Topsy Turvy (1999)
Mike Leigh usually doesn’t do historical figures as part of his improvisational output. But this look at Gilbert and Sullivan is a sensational and effective period piece.
(Friday, 21 September, 10:00pm EST)

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Wednesday, Sep 13, 2006

Famed French filmmaker Luc Besson announced Monday 11, September that, after the release of his latest directorial effort, the live action and CG animated Arthur and the Minimoys (set for a 12 January release in the U.S.), he is leaving the industry to concentrate on “charity” work. It’s a semi-stunning announcement from a fairly prolific artist. Aside from the ten films he’s helmed over his career (which he lovingly refers to as his “babies”) Besson has been a major figure in International cinema. He has written scripts for such high profile action series as the Taxi films, the Transporter and it’s sequel, and two of Jet Li’s most popular efforts, Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Danny the Dog (2005) – later retitled Unleashed. Yet its as a producer where the 46 year old has truly thrived, guiding dozens of films through their creation. Without him, such efforts as District B13 (2004), Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005) and the stellar slasher update Haute Tension (2003) may never have been made.

Now this announcement is really nothing new. As a matter of fact, it was sort of expected. Besson has been very vocal in interviews and comments about leaving the director’s chair after his 10th film, and apparently he is holding steadfast in this decision. Still, he does have his creative fingers in many motion picture pies. So unless this retirement includes his efforts behind a typewriter or managing a production’s bottom line, Besson will remain a very viable force behind the scenes of modern moviemaking. With that settled, the concern then becomes what we as an audience will fail to see with his departure. In essence the issue becomes what has Besson really given cinema that will be missed once he’s gone. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like very much, at least upon a fleeting first glance.

With rare exceptions, Besson’s films exist in a weird world made up of stunt work, speculation, and shootouts. Of the ten ‘children’ born in the 25 years of creating his filmic family, only three - The Big Blue, Atlantis and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - could be classified as defying the Besson basics. Two (Blue, Atlantis) are clearly based in his childhood love of the sea (Besson was raised by scuba diving instructor parents). The last, his interpretation of Saint Joan, was a far more personal undertaking for his then wife Milla Jovovich. The rest of his films – The Last Battle (1983), Subway (1985), Le Femme Nikita (1990), Leon/The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Angel-A (2005) and next year’s Arthur – all maintain an awkward balance between fantasy and reality, using clear genre ideals to modify standard human stories. Some of these yarns - Element, in particular – were written while he was still a teenager, and often show their obvious adolescent ideas about heroism, love and the pathway to progress. 

There is one thing that’s certain, however; all of Besson’s films have a strong visual component. You can’t look at something like Le Femme Nikita or Leon and not be startled by the way in which this director’s camera moves. Sure, he can be too tricky and twee (Angel-A and Subway suffer from some of his more obvious cinematic tricks) and he frequently overloads the frame with more compositional elements than are necessary for the narrative. Sure, it’s an amazing looking moment when Jovovich’s character in Element stands on the ledge of a building overlooking a frighteningly futuristic New York City, but the density of the visuals actually detract from the moment. It’s hard to appreciate the scope of something when you’ve purposely rendered it infinite. Similarly, Besson believes in a primordial kind of plotting, a storyline that strongly follows a good vs. evil dynamic while sprinkling in a little eccentricity and character quirks along the way. There are always heroes and villains in a Besson film, though sometimes who’s who can be confusing and unclear. Yet thanks to their pure kinetic power, their daunting desire to light up the screen with their spectacle, a movie by Luc Besson gets a lot of logistical leeway. We appreciate the effort more than the effect.

But the fact of the matter remains, will anyone other than the Besson nation really care if this French fantasist hangs up his chapeau – at least for the time being? If Stephen Spielberg had stopped creating after a mere ten films, we would never have had Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Munich. In the case of Martin Scorsese, we’d have never seen The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas or Casino. Perhaps it’s a clear case of a filmmaker knowing his limits. Besson must sense his stylistic and substantive aspects are restricted by his areas of interest, and there’s no branching out into other forms of filmmaking. He’s become known for his hyperactive action set pieces and frequently ingenious flights of fancy. After conquering the family film (the trailer for Arthur looks interesting, to say the least) Besson must believe there is nothing left to try. And as long as he can add to the steady stream of writing/producing credits, he will almost always be around.

So don’t mourn the loss of another “visionary” filmmaker – celebrate the fact that Besson knew better than to overstay his already waning welcome. Angel-A barely got distribution in the US, and without the standard CGI stunt casting (Snoop Dogg, David Bowie and Madonna are part of the English-speaking cast) it’s hard to know if the Weinstein Company would have picked up the Minimoys film for US distribution. When filmgoers are demanding remastered DVD versions of your earlier films over the delivery of something new – as is the case with Element and Leon – perhaps its time to pack your bags. Whether or not he ever really does focus on community work with kids as he says, Besson will best be remembered as a French firebrand who carved a special niche out of a tired Tinsel Town tenet. In this case, parting is not such sweet sorrow – it seems like the logical thing to do.

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