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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007


Spring has sprung – so get out and live your life. Take some time. Stop and smell the flowers. Do anything and everything you can, but whatever you do, DON’T WATCH THE PREMIUM CABLE MOVIE CHANNELS THIS WEEKEND. All four films being offered, including one made exclusively for the coaxial market, are absolutely lame. They lack sufficient cinematic and artistic cred, and consistently undermine the individuals responsible for their creation. Where once the arrival of winter’s thaw marked the dog days at the local Multiplex, it appears pay TV is the new landfill for lost motion picture prattle. If you insist upon cranking up the cable box and bothering with any of these offerings, SE&L can only sell you on one – and the pitch is pretty weak. In fact, this may be a good time to explore other options in Saturday evening adventure. Here’s what’s waiting on 10 March:


Premiere Pick
Stay Alive


You know the pickings are exceptionally slim when SE&L goes about recommending a rather under-baked video game styled horror film as its premium channel pick – especially one as slipshod as this one. Tripping lightly into Silent Hill territory, with just a smidgen of Final Destination to add to the illogic, what starts off interesting (including a nice bit of immersive 3D animation) ends up inert as old legends come back to life for absolutely no good reason. The cast is comprised of unimpressive actors, each one looking lost in what is essentially a slasher film with microchips instead of machetes. With an overblown ending and more than its fair share of plotholes, the only entertainment you’ll get from this failed horror hackwork will come from second guessing the characters. Sadly, you will probably overestimate their intelligence every single time. (3 March, Starz, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Life Support


It’s more issue-oriented fare for the Emmy winning network as Queen Latifah stars in this based on a true story drama. Her character is an urban activist, a former junkie now infected with AIDS who wants to help others avoid her physical fate. In addition, there’s an older daughter whose overflowing with bitterness regarding her upbringing, and various stoic subplots that take attention away from the main narrative. For all its noble intentions, this is nothing more than a mediocre made for TV weeper. (10 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (10 March, Cinemax, 9PM EST)


The Pink Panther


Steve Martin should be ashamed. Shawn Levy should also hang his head in collaborative guilt. Together, these two supposedly talented men shit all over the legacy of Peter Sellers and his slapstick collaborations with the brilliant Blake Edwards. And rumor has it that a sequel may be in the works. Apparently, audiences enjoyed this update on the modern Inspector Clouseau character enough to warrant a return to the well. Here’s hoping all involved drown. (10 March, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
O’ Brother Where Art Thou?


After The Big Lebowski failed to make them mainstream heroes, the Coen Brothers decided to step back and regroup. Fargo Oscars in hand, the boys called on some odd source material (Homer’s The Odyssey) to forge their next effort, a rustic riot that stands as one of their best films ever. George Clooney, in the Clark Gable part, leads thick-witted associates Delmar and Pete through a sticky Alabama backwater, all in an attempt to locate a tantalizing treasure that may or may not exist. Aside from the amazing performances and pitch perfect casting (including Brother favorites John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and John Turturro), the movie featured a Grammy winning soundtrack of classic country and bluegrass songs. Indeed, thanks to that T-Bone Burnett produced collection, more people were exposed to the Coen’s creative conceits than ever before. (11 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Human Nature


Back before they were both big names, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry delivered this quirky romantic comedy. Or is it really a science fiction fantasy. The premise has scientist Tim Robbins and his hirsute girlfriend Patricia Arquette (she has a biological condition that produces excess body hair) discovering a real ape man – that is, a feral human raised in the wild. The result is some surreal interpersonal problems and a lot of strophic sexuality. (10 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Jesus Christ, Superstar


While not quite as controversial as Martin Scorsese’s take on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Norman Jewison still fielded a lot of public grief from bringing this blasphemous rock opera to the big screen. Even worse, he filled his cast with clear counterculture types, turning the hit musical into a statement about the National disconnect over the Vietnam War. It remains a wonderful version, with some stellar turns both vocally and acting-wise. (15 March, Sundance, 7PM EST)

Fahrenheit 451


It remains a minor glitch in a true cinematic giant’s substantive resume. By the end of filming, both actor and director couldn’t stand each other. And as book to film adaptations go, it stands as a solid, if slight, effort. For François Truffaut, there would be other triumphs. But fans of author Ray Bradbury still wonder why no one has picked up the remake mantle on this classic tale of totalitarianism run amuck. (12 March, Sundance, 6AM EST)

Outsider Option
Dawn of the Dead (2004)


It shouldn’t have worked. When zombie king George Romero delivered his sequel to the stellar Night of the Living Dead in 1978, he had to do so without a rating. The material was so horrifying, and the amount of gore so generous, that the MPAA would never approve the picture. Fast forward 26 years, and first time filmmaker Zack Snyder decided to helm this remake, complete with as much arterial spray as possible. Thanks to a clever update from genre genius James Gunn (the first ten minutes alone are refreshingly frightening) and a decision to turn the living dead into fast moving monsters, what could have been a disaster ended up one of 2004’s certified smashes. Now, as Synder’s sword and sandal epic 300 prepares to hit theaters, revisit this filmmaker’s fascinating vision with this unholy look at a world gone horrific – and hungry. (10 March, Starz, 11:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
I Bury the Living


After more than a month off, TCM brings back its Underground series, and horror host Rob Zombie. This time out, we get an Albert Band classic, a grisly little tale of a cemetery worker whose casual placement of pins on a graveyard map causes the death of said plot owner. With a terrific performance by Richard Boone, and a last act twist that helps up the ick factor, this is old fashioned fright filmmaking at its finest. (9 March, Tuner Classic Movies, 7:30PM EST)

Blue Sky


While it may seem like she fell off the face of the Earth since this, her last major Oscar nominated performance (which she won for, by the way), Jessica Lange has actual been featured in nearly 20 projects over the last 13 years. Still, how she moved from the A-list to an afterthought remains a motion picture mystery, especially considering her remarkable work in this period drama. Sadly, this was also the last film for the award winning Tony Richardson.(12 March, Movieplex, 9PM EST)

Blue Thunder


A perfect example of ‘80s high concept action and adventure, this clever retrofitting of the chase/conspiracy picture found Roy Scheider behind the controls of an experimental helicopter. Thanks to a sly little script by Dan “Alien” O’Bannon and definitive direction from genre master John Badham, this technological take on the standard morality tale was a surprise hit that still manages to hold up, even under today’s F/X fancying demands. (13 March, Flix, 10PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Mar 7, 2007


It’s time to take a step back, to get our motion picture priorities in order. We need to move away from extremes, accept certain elements and ideas as a given, and return to the basics of standard cinematic criticism. In the case of a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, this may seem like an analytic impossibility. After all, this was the movie that many considered to be one of the funniest of all time. It was an example of those rare lightning in a bottle entertainment explosions that had individuals on both sides of the phenomenon shoring up their positions and pissing off the opposition. You still have those who recklessly defend the meandering mock documentary as the greatest satire in the last 20 years, while others find nothing remotely funny about a man making jokes at the expense of innocent people’s privacy and personal points of view.


Still, Sacha Baron Cohen touched a nerve, tapping into a zealous zeitgeist that obviously couldn’t wait to see the self-righteous and the self-absorbed reduced to stuttering piles of inarticulate smugness. This undeterred demographic, anxious for the smallest amount of scandal, and hungry for proud non-PC pronouncements absorbed everything this British comic was dishing out, and like a motherly mocking bird, regurgitated it to those they felt would react the same way. The result was the best kind of product publicity, a literal word of mouth that propelled the finished product into the ticket sales stratosphere. While some could argue that Cohen’s appearance in Talladega Nights, or his cult comedy series on HBO Da Ali G Show, were natural stepping stones toward Borat‘s success, it was the ambush antics of the title character that resonated further than any of the comedian’s previous foundational facets.


Similarly, those against the movie and its made-up mannerisms tried to refocused the frequently blurred line between ruse and reality. They leapt on the news of angry lawsuits, and supported anyone who felt used by Cohen and his con artist cinema verite approach. For them, Borat is a miserable excuse for entertainment, a slapdash production that can’t even get its attitude adjusted properly. Instead of making everyone the butt of his jokes, critics point out Cohen’s proclivity for picking on the obvious (white people) and the odious (…umm, white people?). Minorities are made out to be tolerant (the group of African American men shooting crap in Atlanta) or somehow saintly (the actress turned pretend prostitute Luenell). Even its own self-imposed intolerance is pitched so perfectly over the top that the slanderous stereotyping doesn’t really hurt.


So, some six months later, after all the praise and the panic, the backlash and the false Academy bravado, what have we got?  What is Borat, in the end? In truth, what one winds up with is a really well done fish out of water comedy that goes wildly off course after about 45 minutes and never regains its footing. Right around the time of the infamous naked brawl, shortly after the title character has pissed off a posh dinner party by insulting the guests and inviting a prostitute to be his escort, Borat goes bad. Why? Well, it’s hard to say, really. Nothing much changes. We do lose the amazing Ken Davitian as our lead’s producer and sidekick Azamat Bagatov, and the nonsensical narrative involving Pamela Anderson starts to dominate the direction of the film. Then there is that horrendous sequence where Borat coerces a bunch of drunken fratboys into doing what they do best – sticking their inebriated asses directly into each other’s mouths. Maybe it’s the incredibly false moment where our hero is “healed” during a “been there, seen that” revival meeting filled with crazed Christians.


Whatever the case, the chief reason why most viewers are probably experiencing motion picture morning after regret is that, in general, Borat isn’t the second coming of comedy. It barely breaches the tenets of tenacity needed to make such a statement stand up. Over the last two decades, TV shows like South Park and The Simpsons have managed just as much mean-spirited social commentary without having to resort to Howard Stern/Stuttering John or Jackass like antics.  Indeed, it can be said that a well written and performed observation is always better than one captured, piecemeal, out amongst the amiable if awkward public. Any documentary filmmaker will tell you – stick a camera in someone’s face and watch them make a fool of themselves. But in Borat‘s case, the joke is jaundiced by an underhanded conceit that forces foolishness where such stupidity may not exist. Baiting someone into bigotry is one thing. Trying to turn it into an innocent discovery of a deep seeded hatred is another.


Oh, make no doubt about it – America is a racist hole. We live in a vacuum of self-subjective import where “love it or leave it” is supposed to sound friendly, not fascist. We smile politely and wear our shallow sensitivity happily along our heart heavy and diverse shirtsleeves. So when Cohen gets a Texas good old boy to lambaste the Middle East, or finds the desire for a return to slavery in the mind of a misguided South Carolina college student, he’s not really telling us anything we don’t already know. In many ways, Borat is aimed at the viewer more or less blind to the realities of the US of Asses. For said generation, feminism is funny on face value, since dames ain’t supposed to be sniveling over their rights. Anything revolving around sex is equally hilarious, since the ongoing battle between morality and reality has resulted in a definite demonization of said basic biological function. On the one hand, this is a movie that plays perfectly to those without a smidgen of big picture perspective. It’s satire – if there is any – exists only in the small, not the substantive. Besides, Cohen is not that coarse. You can see him striving for more than that throughout Borat‘s beginning arc.


Indeed, had he simply stayed with a SCRIPTED look at his Kazakhstani homeland, expanding the characters, his job as a reporter, and the obvious hatred for gypsies and the surrounding former Soviet territories, we’d have an amazing motion picture. Indeed, even if the decision was made to move the lampoon over to our shores, a carefully crafted script which allows for both the shock AND the solution would have served this material much better. There could have also been room for some improvised bits. An excellent example is the bed and breakfast segment. Even with all its anti-Jewish jibes, the joke ends up being on Cohen and Davitian, not the kindly couple. It’s their reactions, not the horribly derogatory things they are saying, that drives the humor. As it stands, Borat is sporadic and sly, cutting when it wants to be, and lazy when the situation requires. You can see it during the opening ride in the subway. The minute Cohen is confronted by a couple “takin’ no shit” city folk, he cowers like a little school girl and shuts up. On the other hand, when the target is in on the ruse – namely Pam Anderson and her peeps – we get the takedown, the tackle and the use of excessive force.


To make matters worst, the recent DVD release offers up several deleted scenes which prove that, when it comes to pushing buttons, even the filmmakers recognize the need for a reality check. A sequence where Borat proposes to adopt a puppy (which he then proclaims he will have sex with and then eat) is so incredibly crass that it’s not funny or informative. Similarly, a moment where a naked Cohen continually mounts a hotel masseuse loses its entire lunatic luster when, for once, the targeted party merely goes along with the goof. From the many missing scenes provided, it is clear that the final version of Borat is a carefully cut together post-production invention. Indeed, one could argue that Cohen and collaborator Larry Charles (director of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) began this project with a collection of stolen moment skits (the interview material) and then mapped a movie around it.


But all of this still doesn’t answer the basic question – is Borat a good or bad movie? In the final analysis, “neither” seems to be the best response. To call it good, or even great, is to find material inside this movie that just doesn’t exist. To dismiss it outright is to underestimate the power in many of the sequences (like Woody Allen before, Cohen is the new king of hilarious self-mocking Anti-Semitism). And no matter how many times it’s mentioned, the notion of collecting gypsy tears to prevent AIDS just SOUNDS funny. No, in the end, Borat is two thirds of a terrific motion picture. Unfortunately, it’s that last fraction that forces it out of any conversation about its long-term legacy. At least one thing is clear. Cohen better enjoy this time as a cultural talking point. His ship has set sail, and a Roberto Benigni style barrier reef is looming, dead ahead. 


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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007


It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work. Lots of late nights. Way too many cups of coffee. Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged.


Beginning in December of 1968 and ending in October of 1969, an unknown perpetrator terrorized the Northern region of the state of California, centering most of his activity in and around the San Francisco area. His were motiveless, random crimes – one couple would be shot while they parked, another would be stabbed as they picnicked near Lake Berryessa. As the investigations began, police and the newspapers started receiving letters from the fiend, along with elaborate ciphers that supposedly explained his rationales. It’s these heinous crimes that make up the basis for this film’s storyline, which also follows the involvement of reporter Paul Avery, cartoonist David Graysmith and police Inspectors William Armstrong and David Toschi.


In the hands of any other filmmaker, someone incapable of placing the darkness of the subject matter directly into every scene he or she puts on celluloid, this would be a magnified TV mini-series. We’d get the snippets of nastiness at the start, the fading film star taking on the daring lead role, and anticipate those little forced fade-outs announcing the next commercial break. But in the skilled cinematic grasp of the amazing David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), a case that pales in comparison to California’s other notorious Peace decade murder maelstrom - Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter spree – turns into a concrete reflection of its tenuous times. It uncovers the flaws in pre-technology crime solving while celebrating those willing to sacrifice their mental lives to overcome these investigative chasms.


The first thing Fincher does right is purely aesthetic. He so perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1960s/‘70s setting that you feel completely immersed in the time period’s patina and gloom. And it’s not just the details – the TNT 8 Track player, the viewmaster sitting on an old fashioned counsel television. No, what Fincher finds in the era between analog and digital, footwork and laptops, is the last legitimate signs of a post-War America. Sure, San Francisco is an amazing city, the backdrop for a hundred well-remembered movies. But here, the city’s not so much a character but a stand-in, a metropolitan mock-up waiting for the inevitable evil to start seeping in. From the first senseless killing (the aforementioned couple parked near an overpass) to the last crime we actually see (a cabbie being shot at point blank rage) death is the disease that begins the process of unraveling our slipshod social fabric.


Similarly, Fincher casts the film flawlessly. Looking – and indeed acting – like a young Chris Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo leaves behind an inconsequential career canon to deliver a true star making turn as Inspector David Toschi. With his hair piled into two shoddily parted slabs and a wardrobe that feels slept and perspired in, he’s the symbolic face of the law. He’s concerned. He’s confident. He’s sure that regular old police work will lead to a suspect – and the lack of one is eating him up inside. Every time Ruffalo delivers a line, it’s a lesson in multi-layered performance. No sentence is simple, each statement covered in concerns, fears and undeniable guilt. Also amazing is Robert Downey, Jr., playing the kind of cavalier jock journalist that would come to personify the decade’s Fourth Estate eminence. He’s the sort of reporter who does as much drinking and disagreeing as he does writing. He’s the first indirect victim of the story, a man made and unmade by what he knows – and by the pieces of evidence he doesn’t have.


Then there are the ancillary turns – takes on famous faces (Brian Cox’s brilliant Melvin Belli, a more or less forgotten name in the world of limelight legal personalities) and hardworking underdogs. All throughout Zodiac, Fincher features performers who meld seamlessly, never once coming across as too contemporaneous or outside the era. He’s working off iconography – providing as many human as thematic symbols to illustrate his ideas. Toward the end, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Charles Fleischer shows up as a potential suspect, his one time comedic craziness makes a perfect starting point for what ends up being one of the more sinister performances in the entire film. Fincher gets a lot of legitimizing specificity out of these smallish, insignificant roles. They keep Zodiac from slipping into standard, by the book docudrama.


But the real work is put in by Jake Gyllenhaal. His is indeed the hardest part to play. At first, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith is nothing more than a fly on an already filthy wall. He wants desperately to be part of the editorial process, to add what little knowledge he has to the overall reportage of the case. But as an outsider looking in, he is kept at a distance, and this is a risky move for both actor and auteur. For Gyllenhaal, it makes his third act transformation into a sort of ersatz private eye (Graysmith actually existed, and wrote two books upon which the movie is based) a tricky twist to sell. As for Fincher, it needs to feel liquid and inevitable. Such a shift in personal point of view is always difficult for a director, but in the case of Zodiac, we are dealing with a cold case, no real substantive suspects, and a previous path strewn with equally concerned casualties. Turning a hanger-on into a hero is a tough task to accomplish, but Fincher finds a way to make it work. As a matter of fact, the last half of the film is far creepier than the blood and body scattered opening.


This is indeed a directorial tour de force for the moviemaking maverick, a perfect combination of engaging storyline and intriguing style. Fincher loves to look at life through a distorted, twisted lens, and he employs his signature visual variety here. There are certain shots that just bowl you over with their beauty (a tracking shot which follows a cab on its fateful fare, a look at Gyllenhaal’s car crossing the Golden Gate Bridge) while others announce their intention with obvious conceptualization (the time-lapsed construction of the Transamerica Pyramid to mark the passage of time). Still, it’s the way he handles specific scenes that are the most impressive. When the police finally narrow their focus to a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, his interrogation in a factory’s employee break room absolutely sizzles with squalid suspense. Indeed, much of Zodiac crackles with a kind of corrupt electricity, an overriding feeling of discomfort that makes even the conversations between couples ache with an aura of unease. Even at more than 158 minutes, the movie still feels rushed and ready, always on the brink of breaking under its own sustained stress.


There will be those who bemoan said run time, who recognize the non-ending ending the movie manufactures (we wind up with a theory, but no real closure) and simply shout “sell out!”, but that would really be missing the point. Zodiac was never designed as a whodunit. The clues are not clear enough, and the facts more faded than the memories of the people who survived the killer’s slapdash attacks. Fincher never intends a conclusion. Instead, Zodiac is a clever commentary, a look back at how careless and confounding the criminal justice system could be. A modern audience may scoff at how Toschi’s partner William Armstrong (an extremely solid Anthony Edwards) must maneuver through four different jurisdictions and his own internal red tape just to coordinate the evidence, but that’s the way it was back then. Crime was considered local, and even the most celebrated cases played more importantly to the surrounding constituency. It’s also the reason why they call serial killers the first post-modern murderers. It requires contemporary thinking – and techniques – to stop their reign of terror.


But as Fincher so masterfully reminds us, there was no snarky CSI to save us back then. Convictions were built from the circumstantial inward. Even before the closing credits, the film lets us know that certain facts that we feel are incontrovertible have been placed in substantial doubt by computer matching and DNA testing. But since Fincher’s not trying to find the killer, we really don’t care. Instead, we are mesmerized by a movie that takes its time explaining the impact that fear and frustration have on those assigned to bringing the bad guys to justice. When Ruffalo walks away after his final meeting with Gyllenhaal, the look of peace on his face is genuine. Similarly, when Graysmith finds Allen, all he wants is to keep a promise he made to himself and his wife. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK, that hoped to unravel the contradictory conclusion of the Warren Commission to suggest another theory on the assassination of the President, Fincher is fine with Zodiac remaining an enigma. Besides WHAT he was had more of an impact on everyone involved than who he was.


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Monday, Mar 5, 2007


It’s legitimate release limbo out there right now, with most of the big name studio titles taking only tentative steps toward becoming honest to goodness retail fodder. It seems that most major DVD distributors are holding off on delivering the “A” picture goods, waiting for summer to hurry up and re-ignite the interest in motion picture mediocrity. So while we wait for the rest of the Oscar nominated efforts to find their place upon the B&M shelves (only The Queen and Letters to Iwo Jima are left) and wonder what special features will be added to films like The Fountain and Pan’s Labyrinth, here’s an overview of the available entertainment options for 6 March, all just a debit card decision away:


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan


We here at SE&L wish we’d have come up with the comparison, but we’ll give columnist Joe Queenan his due. Make no doubt about it – Sacha Baron Cohen is the new Roberto Benigni, and this so-called ground breaking comedy is the Life is Beautiful of 2006. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this almost instantaneous backlash – it didn’t require a remake of a children’s fairytale to instigate it. No, people who were bowled over by this manipulative mock doc have started crying foul, and once this emperor dropped trou, nothing seemed so satiric anymore. True, there are elements here that remain clever – the Kazakhstan backdrop with its hyper-horrible social stigmas, the world’s first glimpse of man to man ass wrestling – but the ambush aspect of the jokes has definitely turned tepid. This is still a very funny film – thankfully, the ship has sunk on its status as a classic.

Other Titles of Interest


Cinderella Liberty


Made in an era when character alone could drive a narrative, this insightful effort, following a hooker and the sailor who falls for her wounded charms, are high water marks in the careers of James Caan and Marsha Mason. If you can overcome the bleakness of its mid-‘70s vision, you will be rewarded with amazing performances and lots of emotional truth.

Fast Food Nation


You really don’t want to know what goes on behind the counter at your favorite nationally recognized hamburger chain – at least, that’s what author Eric Schlosser and director Richard Linklater are counting on. Using the scribe’s scandalous factual exposé about the industry as the basis for their fictional story, the duo drive a stake directly into the heart of America’s obsession with convenience cuisine.

Let’s Go to Prison


Want to fully understand the state of big screen comedy? Take a gander at this amazingly unappealing so-called send-up. Granted, jail is a regular jokefest, especially when you consider the multiple variations on “don’t drop the soap” that are available. Taking individualistic idiotic irony to its most painful extremes, there is not a single significant snicker to be found in this magnificently mediocre movie.

The Manitou


When Jaws mania turned William Girdler’s wildlife rip-off Grizzly into boffo box office, the exploitationeer parlayed that popularity into this attempted mainstream macabre. Starring Tony Curtis and Stella Stevens, Mr. Day of the Animals devised a surreal storyline involving a psychic, his glam gal pal, and a growth on her back that just might be the reincarnation of a demonic Native American spirit. As weird as it sounds.

Peter Pan: Platinum Edition


Though they haven’t done a lot right recently, there was a time when Disney drilled animated takes on classic kid fare like this right out of the cinematic stadium. Watching this movie a half-century later, it’s easy to see why. Instead of concentrating all its efforts on micromanaging a movie to fit every demographic, the original House of Mouse just wanted to entertain. They do so magnificently here.


And Now for Something Completely Different
King Kong Fu


Okay, here’s another clear case of a title telling the entire story – or at least, indicating SE&L‘s interest in this relatively unknown release. To read the write-up for this 1976 stinker, a Chinese gorilla skilled in the marital arts (aren’t all apes so gifted???) runs ramshackle over an overwhelmed Wichita, Kansas community. He eventually kidnaps Rae Fay and climbs the highest building in the city – a Holiday Inn. Are you laughing yet? If it sounds like one of those classic So-BIG efforts (a movie “so bad, it’s good”), a few unlucky critics have some sobering news for you. One considers it so awful, it requires immediate cinematic vivisection. Others lament the lack of any discernible talent among cast or crew. Whatever the case may be, there is still something absolutely adorable about that name. And the cover art kicks butt, too.

 


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Sunday, Mar 4, 2007


We Americans apparently love our crap. Give us cinematic Sauvignon and we’d rather swill sickly blockbuster Boone’s Farm. Case in point – the repugnant Wild Hogs, a movie made for a common denominator lower than the lowest one on record. This midlife crisis suburbanite biker garbage raked in $38 million big ones over the 2 March weekend. It bested the police procedural perfection of David Fincher’s Zodiac and took new boy on the block Craig Brewer back to the sophomore slump woodshed with his exploitation attempt, Black Snake Moan. Yes, when offered filet, or at least something that closely resembles some manner of non-processed animal by product, we immediately queue up for the aesthetic-clogging junk.


Just look back over the last month or so. Everyone had Eddie Murphy pegged as the next Denzel Washington, ready to finally find some Oscar love at the end of his rollercoaster career (and personal life) rainbow. Then an unfunny hemorrhoid named Norbit came crashing into your local Cineplex, dragging the comedian’s Academy chances down to the level of the film’s toilet-based wit. While some can argue that the site of a nominee dressed up as a culture’s worst ethnic nightmares had no affect on his Best Supporting Actor chances, it couldn’t have helped. Even as Mr. Murphy stormed out of the Kodak Theater (allegedly), he had his massive bank account (aided by the film’s $75 million take), not the annual victor’s party, to laugh – and fume - all the way to.


It’s hard to see why the comic should care. Everyone should be as lucky as to have his audience appeal. His Teflon talents are apparently so non-stick that he can send the cause of racism back 275 years and still walk away a bankable star. All an Oscar can do is turn him into Cuba Gooding and/or Lou Gossett, Jr. Besides, he knows that his demographic prefers Velveeta to Gruyere. Shrek, Dr. Doolittle, and Daddy Day Care prove that fact. So there’s no reason to worry about a lack of professional legitimacy. As long as the money keeps pouring in, the child support payments will be met and all will be right in the materialistic Murphy universe.


Similarly, Nicholas Cage can calm down as well. His long festering comic book caper Ghost Rider has been trying to deflect a dozen months of bad buzz on its way to an early Spring opening (or what many in Hollywood used to consider the scheduling equivalent of the kiss of death). Even the confirmed geeks over at Ain’t It Cool News couldn’t drum up the usual “be there, cause you’re square” kind of support for this graphic novel nonsense. But thanks to an omnipresent trailer that seemed to be playing constantly since Tom Brady last won a Super Bowl, and clips that focused on Cage’s “good old boy, American Chopper-lite” persona, the satellites surrounding NASCAR nation turned out in droves. 


Actually, that’s not fair. It was cellphone-addicted adolescent retards that drove both of these films. As a matter of fact, it’s teens in general, not film lovers or cinema snobs, that drive the movie business’ heavily insured SUV. Want to know why the unreasonably reviled Titanic still sits among the top grossing films of all time? Just ask your hormonally hopped up wannabe fame whore. Though she will probably admit to the passing fancy – just like her previous worshipping of boy bands…and personal integrity – it was indeed her allowance dollars that crowned James Cameron king. It’s the same with the pleasant Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Girls get to swoon over Johnny Depp’s dark eyeliner and Orlando Bloom’s blushing baby face, while the boys can tap their testosterone with either energetic swordplay, or Keira Knightley.


Oh, and we can’t forget families – those nasty little nuclear units that still believe fruit leather is part of the reconfigured food group pyramid (next to Lunchables, right?). They REALLY love a fat laden filmic repast. When reviewing the highest grossing movies of 2006, over 50% are geared toward the tots. There was Cars ($244 million), Night at the Museum ($205 million), Ice Age: The Meltdown ($195 million), the $190 million Oscar winner Happy Feet (take that, better CGI entries) and Over the Hedge ($155 million). Even more interesting, when looking over #s 11 through 20, not a single kiddie flick can be found. So the answer is obvious – if you want a few more greenbacks in your commercial coffers, make sure the wee ones are part of your production design.


By catering almost exclusively to the two demographics that support the vast majority of moviemaking profits, the studios feel empowered. The gamble of manufacturing a motion picture gets a little less risky, and returns can be almost guaranteed when buffered by DVD and merchandising tie-ins. Certainly there are examples that buck this carefully micromanaged trend (Lucas’ Star Wars romps, Jackson’s magnificent Lord of the Rings films), and art can frequently find a place on the standard motion picture menu (The Departed, for example). But by in large, the mega-multinational monoliths who overshadow the rest of the media landscape prefer to pay their bills by delivering prepackaged product that goes down easily and leaves no biting or bitter creative aftertaste.


Thus we have a 2007 movie season looming with retreads, sequels and more examples of Wild Hogs harmless hamburger helper. There is nothing wrong with embracing a mindless mid-life crisis picture featuring actors who have all done, and really should all know better, but just like restaurants, Tinsel Town can’t thrive on gourmet fare only. If all you gave the people was Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Prestige, they may be better nourished, aesthetically. But McDonald’s has been around more than half a century for a reason. We apparently want, nay CRAVE, the entertainment equivalent of comfort foods. The Fountain may seem like substantive cinematic sustenance, but all the populace really requires is a tempting Talladega Nights taco or two.


In his recent book on the movie biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet argues that audiences today love mediocrity – indeed, prefer it to artistry or innovation. “The very vacuousness of these films is reassuring”, he states, going on to argue that such shared disappointment creates a kind of communal bond. It’s the same with our varying tastes in vittles. We will occasionally venture out into the world of fiery foreign (film) foodstuffs, or indulge in a bit of eclectic (indie) fare. Yet if there were movie Mac and cheese being served up at our favorite burger joint/Bijou, we’d rather have a super-sized serving of same.


Call it the concept of the collective consciousness experience (people still argue that any genre of film – horror, comedy, actioner – is better when seen with a crowd) or a desire to follow along with the rest of the fad gadget front (can’t be left out of what your fellow filmgoers feel is a cash-worthy creation), but it adds up to one clear conceit – American audiences readily prefer a diet high in saturated stupidity and sugar-laced silliness. They fancy it over a banquet featuring intelligence, wit or authentic emotion. And since it’s impossible to completely cleanse one’s personal preference palate, we will continue to see junk like Wild Hogs (or, perhaps, the upcoming Blades of Glory) dominating the top of the charts.


And what about the more rarified offerings? All one can say is bon voyage, bon appetite.


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