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Thursday, Dec 21, 2006


It’s hard to believe that, with all the massive merchandising and commercialization of the holiday season, someone hasn’t found a way to exploit Christmas Eve Eve. Tradition and religion have usurped most of the pre-Santa celebrations, but with all the companies out there looking to turn a Yuletide profit, the night before the night before Xmas would seem like a guaranteed greenback generator. In fact, they could treat it like a parent’s only party, a time when Mom and Dad can disregard the kids for a moment and have a holiday hoedown themselves. Or twist it toward the wee ones and give it a fully fleshed out anti-materialism approach. Allow otherwise ancillary figures like Rudolph, Frosty, and similar timeless characters to have their own hour in the merriment spotlight. Or maybe make the night a day of deserved rest, an oasis inside the non-stop chaos of consumption. Just don’t look to the boob tube for any entertainment relief. The movies being offered for the weekend of 23 December are examples of the absolute dregs, films that reek of recent flop sweat. So unless you want to experience the humor/horror combo of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead sequel, there is nothing to give your glad tidings great joy. To clarify, here are the efforts making an appearance on the premium channels this day before the day before Jesus’s birth:


HBODomino

The filmic fates were just not ready to smile on this sleek Tony Scott style-fest. During the pre-release publicity, it was revealed that some of the storyline here was “enhanced” (read: massively altered) to smooth over some of real life bounty hunter Domino Harvey’s less than genial cinematic traits. Then, near the end of June 2005, Harvey was found dead, the victim of an accidental overdose. Nothing ruins your otherwise routine ‘rock ‘em, sock ‘em’ action pic more than an air of unease and the purposeful avoidance of your subject’s possible personal problems. What was supposed to be a break out turn for actress Keira Knightley – a chance to move away from all the frilly dresses and dainty accents – quickly de-evolved into a contrasting creation seemingly insensitive to Harvey’s plentiful personal demons. Though turns by a newly revitalized Mickey Rourke and Delroy Lindo helped keep this superficial ship afloat, this film is a clear case of fact overpowering the forces of fiction. (Sunday 24 December, 12:30AM EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxThe Ringer

When he sticks to his Jackass style stunt work, Johnny Knoxville is a genial, jovial jerk, the kind of stupid smart aleck that gets his point across with a laugh and a lewd gesture. But place him inside a fictional setting, and he turns awkward and affected. Borrowing an idea from South Park (or visa versa), Knoxville plays a patsy who gets talked into competing in the Special Olympics as a way of making some quick money (who knew said events were so fiscally profitable). Once inside the contest, living with the rest of the handi-capable athletes, the character’s ersatz retard skills are put to the test. Naturally, lots of life lessons are learned and the mentally deficient are shown as being just as normal as you or me. But perhaps the worst part of this relatively ordinary film is how it squanders opportunities to be crude and rude. This is a PC pleasant look at a potentially tasteless topic. And nothing kills comedy quicker than tameness and tact. (Premieres Saturday 23 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzUnderworld: Evolution

It’s one of those post-modern movie industry mandates – an unnecessary sequel to a film most people didn’t like in the first place. But thanks to DVD popularity and that always forgotten facet of the international marketplace, even something this substandard gets the repeat treatment. With lead actress Kate Beckinsdale back, along with director Len Wiseman and a great deal of dopey CGI work, the centuries-old war between the Death Dealers (vampires) and the Lycans (werewolves) rages on. The only thing worse than a lame comic book movie is a similarly lamentable film without a graphic novel to back up its bullstuff. Perhaps if you’re a member of the gloomy Goth set who thinks everything associated with blood drinking and shape shifting is cool and clever, you’ll line up for more of this dross. If, on the other hand, you like your macabre scary, suspenseful and serious, this action figure oriented junk will leave you as cold as a corpse. (Premieres Saturday 23 December, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeEvil Dead II: Dead by Dawn

When he released his first film - the fright night classic The Evil Dead - in 1981, many wondered if Sam Raimi was anything more than a geek show loving film freak. A couple of decades and a definitive comic book franchise later, and his mainstream cred is more or less secured. But it was this quasi-sequel to his macabre masterpiece that really showed what Sam the Man was all about. Combining outright terror with terrific bits of black comedy and silly slapstick, Raimi reinvented the genre movie, confirming that it could combine many seemingly antithetical elements and still be a scary, savvy dread delight. Highly influential (a good drinking game can be devised from all the outright rip-offs this film inspired) and featuring the best post-modern b-movie actor ever – a.k.a. Bruce Campbell in his defining role as Ash – what Raimi does here is really astounding. He makes fear funny, and comedy creepy, and the combination a hilarious high water mark in a career filled with same. (Saturday 23 December, 9:00pm EST)


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 22/23 December, Francis Ford Coppola takes on terror in one of his first feature films:


Dementia 13
While assisting Roger Corman on a film in Ireland, a young Coppola used many of the same sets and actors to craft this creepy, old dark house saga. The eerie results speak for themselves.
(3:15am EST)


 


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 16 December are:


Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
(TBS, 22 December, 11:40PM EST)
While it’s hard to determine which holiday this inventive animation classic best serves, there’s no doubting the stop motion magic visible in every fabulous frame.


Roadhouse
(Encore, 23 December, 12:15PM EST)
How else would you celebrate a Patrick Swayze Christmas, Mystery Science Theater 3000 style? Watch, or we’ll tear your throat out and kick you in the ear!


Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas
(The Disney Channel, 24 December 8:00PM EST)
Tying together three cartoon shorts – “Donald Duck: Stuck on Christmas”, “A Very Goofy Christmas” and “Mickey and Minnie’s the Gift of the Magi” – it’s a reminder that the House of Mouse can occasionally create something very special, when it wants to.


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Wednesday, Dec 20, 2006


It’s the biggest crime in all of cinema. Bigger than Uwe Boll’s continued presence behind a camera. Bigger than the super-sized paychecks being given to shoddy screenwriters like Akiva Goldsman. Back at the beginning of the ‘70s, this astounding American ex-patriot set the stage – and the anarchic design – for the seminal sketch comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Along with the troop he helped guide their famous first film Monty Python and the Holy Grail to comedy classic status. At that moment, Terry Gilliam was a director, and from 1977’s Jabberwocky on, he has carved out a unique and artistically important oeuvre. But now it seems those days are over. Thanks to a couple of incomplete efforts, and the still lingering doubts about his moviemaking skills, Gilliam has become a kind of motion picture pariah, dismissed before he even has a chance to defend himself visually.


The most recent example of this automatic disregard came with the release of his “adult fairytale” Tideland. An adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s much talked about novel, the story centers on a young girl, Jeliza-Rose, whose parents die from their drug addictions. Left all alone to fend for herself, her grip on reality starts to fade. Soon, she’s communicating with inanimate objects and re-establishing her family ties with a pair of mysterious, menacing neighbors. When it premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, it was greeted with unanimous jeers. Many felt it to be the worst movie of the year, and Gilliam had a hard time finding wide distribution for his effort. As 2006 started, the film still had no planned release in the US, and the director took the drastic step of advertising his effort with an unusual bit of street beat publicity. Wandering around outside a taping of The Daily Show, Gilliam did a meet and greet with fans, all the while wearing a cardboard sign proclaiming “Will Direct for Food”.


Such a stunt is not the tragedy at hand. In fact, it’s an incredibly clever way for the director to drum up his fanbase while advertising the fact that, thanks to Thinkfilm, Tideland was getting a minor, limited number of play dates in America. No, the real creative calamity comes on the Oscar screener for the film. Since Tideland barely played around the country, critics groups have been sent a DVD offering the film, and a one minute intro by the director. Sullen, cloaked in a backlit monochrome setting, Gilliam defends his film, making it very clear that ‘some will love it, others will hate, and many will wonder just what the Hell is going on here’. At 66, he is reduced to an apologist and a symbol, a shill for his own work that should require no such salesmanship. In a year which saw Darren Aronofsky offer up a narratively arcane approach to the concept of mortality, and Christopher Nolan reestablish the power of storytelling twists, having to argue for one’s “difficult” film should instill audience outrage.


But that’s the point – no one cares. Tideland has not topped the box office charts. In fact, it’s come and gone from theaters so quickly that many of Gilliam’s most fervent followers never had a chance to see it. But more importantly, it continues a terrible trend in the media, one that seems to readily dismiss Gilliam the minute he steps behind the lens. Ever since Jabberwocky, which critics found to be light on Python pithiness and overflowing with grimy, gross-out gags, he has a two pronged attack to overcome. First, he is constantly being compared to what he’s done before – in particular, his groundbreaking animation work for the TV comedy classic. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he must live down a reputation for being a producer’s nightmare, a production’s problem, and a budget buster, among other things.


To hear the rumors and rumblings, Terry Gilliam is Michael Cimino without the attitude, ego or Oscar. That famous filmmaker, responsible for both the well-regarded Deer Hunter and the notorious studio killer Heaven’s Gate, has learned the very hard way that Hollywood never forgets a fiscal hand unbound. Though he tried to make up for his much publicized debacle, Cimino still sits on the outside of Tinsel Town, destined perhaps to always look in. To Gilliam’s credit, he has avoided such entertainment exile…until now. Prior to the last film in his “Age of Reason” dreamers trilogy, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the filmmaker was seen as an idiosyncratic, eccentric artist, a man uncompromising in his vision and resolute in his ability to create compelling cinema. Time Bandits was a massive hit, and Brazil broke through to critics, allowing them a chance to celebrate a man whose battle with his studio (Universal) over final cut and distribution became the stuff of legitimate legend.


But right around the time of Baron Munchausen, things started to change. A massive epic revolving around a mythical German hero, his tendency toward lies, and the grand spectacle that resulted from such fibs, it was a fairy story come to life, a chance to visit the fiery furnaces of the Underworld and to commune with the gods and goddesses of the ancients. In his behind the scenes book on the subject, Andrew Yule describes a filmmaker driven by a desire to realize his ambitious, sometimes impossible goals, a producer mired in incompetence, and a studio already nervous over reports of overspending and massive production delays. Though the final result was a masterpiece of unbridled motion picture imagination, the lingering financial fall out was the first of what would become two destructive albatrosses around Gilliam’s neck.


To his credit, the director fought back. He desperately wanted to prove his ability to make a movie on budget and on time. Taking the helm of a far more urban entity, Gilliam delivered The Fisher King. Hugely popular, respected by both the public and the film community (who nominated it for five Oscars), it was verification that, as a filmmaker, he could play by the mainstream rules. His next effort confirmed it even further. Matching up rising superstar Brad Pitt with reigning big wig Bruce Willis, Gilliam fashioned a fabulous piece of time travel trickery entitled 12 Monkeys. Though it took him four years to find a project after King’s commercial success, Monkey’s confirmed that given the proper support and subject matter, Gilliam was capable of very great things.


But it was his next gig in the director’s chair that started the downfall. When Sid and Nancy helmer Alex Cox was kicked off his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic tome Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam was brought in as a “hired gun”.  Under incredibly difficult circumstances (he only had weeks to draft a new script) and a desire to stay true to Thompson’s hallucinogenic writing style, he took actors Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro on a whirlwind ride through the adventures of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Sadly, the film was misunderstood by many, lambasted by those who found it self-indulgent and delusional, and before he knew it, Gilliam was back wearing his troublemaker tag. No matter the previous big screen success of The Fisher King or 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing repainted the man as a disaster waiting to happen.


Unfortunately, his next effort seemed to confirm it. Having long wanted to bring his take on Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra’s classic to the screen, Gilliam began The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Depp again in the lead, and famed French actor Jean Rochefort as the fabled windmill chaser. Mixing modern with ancient approaches, the movie was to be both an adaptation and a comment on Cervantes’ symbolic story. Unfortunately, it never got off the ground. Rochefort was suffering from back pain, and after only a couple of days shooting, had to be flown from the set in Spain back to Paris, where he was diagnosed with a double herniated disc. Then a flash flood wiped out most of the production. Military planes constantly marred takes, and with one of his leads out of commission, Gilliam had no choice but to close down production and hope to restart sometime in the future. That day has yet to come.


Now, all of this wouldn’t have mattered had filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe not been making a documentary on the movie’s progress. Having created a similar making-of for 12 Monkeys, Gilliam had given them free reign, allowing the duo to keep their cameras in close as problems mounted and tempers flared. The resulting tell-all, Lost in La Mancha, was viewed by many as a searing indictment of Gilliam. Everything that books and buzz had hinted at regarding the director’s somewhat demented style were visible for all to see. While praised for his openness, Gilliam was again labeled a troubled, volatile artist, and the years of rebuilding post-Munchausen were gone. Sadly, things have only gotten worse. His blatant attempt at a big studio commercial hit – the Matt Damon/ Heath Ledger starring The Brothers Grimm faced post-production fiddling from Miramax, and its steadfast studio head Harvey Weinstein. Considered a failure by many, the lack of respect for Tideland now acts like icing on a very sour and bitter cake.


Frankly, Gilliam deserves better. A lot better. As a filmmaker, he is responsible for several outstanding efforts, and his so-called flops fare much better in comparison to other infamous bad movies. Perhaps the venom of his reproach stems from such artistry. Indeed, the more ambitious they are, the harder they are humiliated. That seems to be a nice paraphrasing of the popular comeuppance maxim, and no one aims higher than Gilliam. All throughout Brazil and Baron Munchausen, his vision is unlimited, his flights of fancy so fantastic that you can’t begin to broach them in your own sense of scale. He is given over to excess, wallows in wild abandon, and never once apologizes for the lengths he goes to give himself over to the medium’s inherent art. Though some have dismissed his later works as weak in comparison to his past, a few have simply stated that Gilliam has always been an overrated rebel.


And he’s never been his own best friend, film wise. He turned down chances to director Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Enemy Mine and Forrest Gump. He’s been known to reject potential deals over the slimmest of aesthetic compromises. He is incredibly devoted to specific cast and crewmembers, and will abandon projects if they express reservations. And, let’s face it, Gilliam wants to make movies where the visual is more important than the pragmatic. That doesn’t seem unreasonable, especially in a day and age where CGI spectacle rules over the slimmest of storytelling skill. But Gilliam is an artist at heart, a man who made his living with his wits, his pens, and a piece of paper. To ask him to reign in that inner ideal is really requesting too much.


But the bigger issue is, why Gilliam? After all, Darren Aronofksy’s The Fountain won’t be clogging up the countdown of Top Ten moneymakers of 2006, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water was as incomplete an adult fairytale as one can find. The answer may be perspective. Tideland is Gilliam’s 11th film in three decades as a director. For Shyamalan, it’s seven in 14 years. Aronofsky, on the other hand, has only made three in eight. Call it the ‘old enough to know better’ or the ‘too young to completely discount’ school of thought, but Gilliam just isn’t cut the same cinematic slack as his creative youngers. Worse, aside from that misguided book project the Sixth Sense creator agreed to, neither newbie has the kind of ballyhooed baggage that Mr. Monty Python does. In essence, the great tragedy that has befallen this amazing moviemaker is that, somehow, his onscreen unpredictability has become his offscreen persona. His name should rightly be at the top of every list when studios consider filmmakers for outrageous, imaginative movies. Regrettably, it’s possible that Tideland will become his involuntary swan song. Disastrous, indeed. 


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Tuesday, Dec 19, 2006


It is the driving energy in the Universe, much more so than anger or hate, which are irreparably linked into it. It is the emotion we yearn for from the moment we are born to the second before we die. We seem incomplete without it, wondering why we are so flawed when we don’t have it and overly blessed when we do. Love may conquer all, may be what the world needs now (or frankly, it may be all you need), and it will probably tear us apart, again. But like the song also says, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. And why is that? Why is love so fleeting and fragile? Young marrieds seem to think it’s all powerful, that it will support them through unsure times and terrible crises. The newly infatuated believe so strongly in its force that they fear they shall never feel anything like it again as long as they live. And yet we label love as a mystery, an unsure emotion fraught with numerous ancillary consequences.


Love can be so tough it leads to hate, to loathing, to great grief and infinite sadness. Yet we champion its pursuit, often doing outrageous and uncharacteristic things to obtain it. In Annie Hall, a dejected Alvy Singer fears one of the prime myths of love: it fades. Or at least, it grows stale and dormant like a lump of charcoaled wood in the dying embers of a once raging fire. Or maybe it doesn’t pass. Maybe it just grows comfortable, surrounded on all sides by a cage of familiarity. In Ermanno Olmi’s simple, subtle film I Fidanzati, we witness the effect that distance and disinterest has on two people, engaged to be married, who believe they are “in love,” but may not actually be in love with each other. Is the old saying true? Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or does it merely over-romanticize its already overstated influence?


In the story, Giovanni and Luciana are a young couple who have been engaged for a very long time. Giovanni works for a petrochemical plant in Milan, in the northern part of Italy. Recently, he has been transferred to the company’s new facility in Sicily, several hundred miles to the south. While it means a promotion and better pay, the move has placed a serious strain on his relationship with Luciana. Frankly, it was somewhat tense to begin with. There is very little trust and even less communication between the committed pair. And when Giovanni tries to discuss the move with Luciana, she seems to shut down, anticipating the worst possible outcome for the entire relocation. Reluctantly, Giovanni moves to Sicily.


There he is overwhelmed by the lack of activity and the rural climate. The loneliness and the isolation begin to take its toll. He spends his days (and occasional nights) in endless toil for the company while he wastes his free time wandering the near desolate Sicilian countryside. Fellow workers who have lived in the location for longer than Giovanni reinforce the foreign, almost alien aura of the area and its people. Giovanni writes to Luciana, but she is slow to answer. When she does, it begins a chain of correspondence that seems to re-ignite their once waning passion. The stress between the two subsides. They both feel the separation has been good for their relationship. But a casual phone call one Sunday afternoon may indicate otherwise


Olmi was a self-taught filmmaker. Before he made a single fictional work he helmed dozens of factual cinematic explorations in the field of documentaries. When approaching story, he envisioned movies as an extension of real life. His canvas and paints would be the mundane everyday world around us. Inspired by and following in the footsteps of such important Italian luminaries as De Sica and Rossellini, he utilized the neo-realist approach, even though to refer to his movies in such a fashion would be to remove essential truths from them. As the director of Il Posto and E Venne Un Uomo, Olmi believed in the concept that cinema should mirror life: a film should reflect existence back to us, allowing us to study it more carefully and profoundly. This school of filmmaking, one that allows a factual camera style to capture a fictional slice of living, was seen as revolutionary when it first hit the world’s movie screens. And it’s no wonder. A planet force-fed on the Hollywood glamour ideal of life as a perfectly costumed, immaculately made up, and flawlessly executed set of formulaic problems easily supplanted by the end of the film just was not used to seeing the plain, the normal, or the ugly living their unadorned existences as onscreen entertainment. But films like The Bicycle Thief and I Fidanzati showed that there was as much power, passion, and purpose in small stories of simple people as their was in the epic struggles of the hyper-real. Olmi and his fellow directors understood that genuineness comes in all segments/classes of society.


In this exquisite, uncomplicated mediation on togetherness versus division, we experience a story of how love lingers, fades, and is reborn within the dynamic of two people, two places, and all their characteristics. Indeed, beyond the political ideology surrounding the industrialization of the rural landscape and the obvious jabs at the craziness within corporate structures (explored in more detail in Olmi’s previous film, Il Posto) is a tale of emotions on a tight wire, with commitment, caring, and comfort hanging in the balance. Olmi goes so far as to title his film “the Fiancés,” so we understand that we are dealing with that fragile time before marriage, where an arrangement is in place, but in which the final lockstep into full-blown legal obligation has yet to occur. In modern society, we love to joke about grooms with “cold feet” and brides with “buyer’s remorse.” But I Fidanzati places us in a situation far more precarious than these last minute mental anxieties. Here, our couple is committed but potentially broken. Separation threatens to provide the catalyst to a final resolution of the relationship, for good or bad. I Fidanzati challenges the very idea of togetherness. By literally moving its main characters apart from each other and focusing on them alone, we are allowed to witness the obvious distance and inner disdain they sometimes have for one another


Harlan Ellison once wrote that he had no problem being alone. It was being lonely that he disliked. Giovanni is very much a man alone, both in his life with Luciana and his move to Sicily. As in Ellison’s statement, when he is with his fiancée, he is alone. He is misunderstood and has even strayed a time or two. The excitement and desire he once felt has been masked by the foul odor of familiarity, of knowing his partner too well. So he has turned inward, become a solitary man amongst his family and friends. Once in Sicily, though, he understands just what true loneliness is. It’s isolation and disconnection, not only from loved ones but also from personal comfort and your surroundings. It’s not knowing where you are. It’s not knowing where you will live. It’s having no roots in an area that is constantly changing its traditions and patterns. Looking for a familiar dancehall, he hears music and runs into a building, only to be met with an empty coffee shop and a loudly playing radio. Hoping to find a decent apartment, he must instead accept a room within a strange, cramped boarding house as price gouging by the locals has made finding a nice place impossible. And all the while the promised “new” job and “promotion” turns out to be more of the same thing, over and over again. Being important can placate a man forlorn. But when you are just one of several transient employees showering sparks down from the factory rafters, the barren countryside and hovel like living conditions begin to oppress and unhinge you.


Not that Luciana has it any easier from her position. For her, the separation is the worst possible situation for a woman who feels the grip on her man slipping. Distance means possibilities, enticements, and freedoms. Without her watchful eye on him, the already wandering Giovanni could disconnect himself from her completely. And even if the chance of that happening appears remote, there are all the things she may never learn or know, through the grapevine or otherwise. In Luciana, we have love without its supposed reservoir, without a place to reside and hide in. Out in the open and worn coat sleeve style, the emotion becomes far more delicate and destructible. That is why she is hesitant to answer Giovanni’s letters at first. She does not want to experience what she sees as the inevitable “Dear Jane” she is sure is just around the corner. It is also why, once she discovers how Giovanni is feeling (thanks either to his singular, lonely status or his true feelings, or both), she is so ready to reach out, across the distance, and smother her lover with tributes and promises. While this emotional exchange may be totally based in honest caring for one another, I Fidanzati provides an undercurrent of desperation for both sides. Each is trying to find either a way out of the pain and malaise that surrounds their engagement, a means of reconnecting and strengthening their union or merely a way of minimizing the pain. It may be distance that makes their feelings fortify, but it may too be the haunting, horrible feeling of really being unaccompanied for the first time in their adult lives.


Connection is the other intriguing issue that Olmi focuses on in I Fidanzati: not just unions of physicality, of touching and the embrace, but the mental and symbolic associations we make in everyday life. Almost like junkies, our characters are addicted to the feeling and familiarity of love. They seem to suffer a kind of subconscious withdrawal once it is removed. Giovanni, a confident, semi-suave cocksure player turns into a reclusive, nostalgic near child in Sicily, giddy at the sight of another adolescent smoking and spending longs afternoons playing in the surf. And like any child, after a while, he grows homesick and needy. He tries to find escape in the adult pleasure of the past (drinking, carousing) but learns that the poison of love has changed his inner workings forever. Without it, he will be lost. Same with Luciana. For her, the time without emotional support has been longer, and more agonizing. Some of it she experienced even before Giovanni. The symbols of connection constantly surround them: the dancehall, where proper ladies and gentleman exchange corporal and emotional love with complete parental and social acceptance; the beach, where family and friends gather to relax; the job, where life is spent in direct agreement/conflict with others for purely financial reasons; correspondence, where individuals share their innermost thoughts through the written word; the telephone, where voices as well as passions can be broadcast. And yet even with all these tokens and repositories of bonding, they seem only able to truly mesh in the world of words. In all others, they are awkward and cold.


From this description, it seems that I Fidanzati should be a movie loaded with brilliant performances and tour de force camera work. But oddly, this is not a movie about acting or direction. Olmi’s camera has a habit of staying on the outskirts of situations, watching them the way a documentarian would, without setup or care for compositional makeup. And in his actors, whom are usually non-professionals, he demands and captures attitude and temperament only. There is no method here, just storytelling methodology. You remember his characters more for what they represent and tell you about the circumstances surrounding them than their individualism. Giovanni is not so much a character as he is a depiction, an impression of basic, normal man; a guy filled with sexual drive, misplaced machismo and fear of commitment. Luciana is all female fickleness and fright, walking the tenuous social line of physical promise with actual fulfillment. She is all women, wanting to hold on to her man but not willing to compromise her honor to do so (especially in the very moralistic, very Catholic society of Italy where a dance is considered the only satisfactory public display of affection). Carlo Cabrini and Anna Canzi are very good in this film because they are very real, and at the heart of any neo-realistic examination of life, that is the best that they and Olmi can hope for. Olmi is not obsessed with actors projecting their inner demons onto the screen to illuminate his themes. The issues here are universal. Anyone (and everyone) could play at and project them.


I Fidanzati is therefore the story of every romance, of how everyone—no matter who they are, their social status, or their experience (or lack thereof)—understands love. Those who are truly bound in destiny will feel separation anxiety and a wealth of good feelings even during the seemingly endless moments apart. Those with less than a secure relationship may also appreciate their partner anew, glossing over the bad to merely remember the good. For some, the partnership was a sham to begin with, and distance cements the finality of the need to split up. In the case of Giovanni and Luciana, storm clouds seem to be brewing up ahead. The time in Sicily has made Giovanni aware of his truly heartfelt emotion for Luciana and he wants to reconnect with that. And through letters and postcards, the expressions of love are tender and touching. But at the end of the film, when it seems like the lovers have remembered the importance of each other in their life and are committed anew, a simple phone call betrays an inherent obstacle, a thunderstorm to deluge the fires of re-ignited love. Giovanni’s face betrays the flaw.


In the ethereal world of verse and prose, where poetic and complex infatuations can be precisely and accurately thought out, the relationship between these I Fidanzati is perfect: not without bumps, but exemplary in its purity and power. But the minute a human connection is made, when voices must conduct what the pen has perpetuated all this time, nothing much happens. Luciana appears near incoherent (based on Giovanni’s side of the conversation) and her debonair, eloquent lover a frazzled and henpecked rube. For this is the final secret divulged in I Fidanzati, a clandestine concept that many never discover until it is too late. Love does indeed fade. But it also lingers and scars, leaving one changed forever. Someone once said “love hurts.” Indeed it does.


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Monday, Dec 18, 2006


Christmas crunch time, people. You really need to stop all that present-buying procrastination and, to paraphrase a line from Total Recall, get your ass to the mall. With only six full days before a certain St. Nick is supposed to show up with many material goods to illustrate just how much you love your faithful family members, consuming, not time, is of the essence. Luckily, those marketing wizards over at DVD Central have stockpiled a few first-class titles to tempt you back into the unruly shopping hordes. Of the seven featured films discussed, at least two are major must-own offerings, with another couple completely acceptable, depending on your love of football and/or failed fairytales. There definitely is some digital dung out there too, especially in the realm of romantic superhero comedies and ridiculous remakes of past horror classics. Add in an unique animated sci-fi thriller and you’ve got something for everyone on your “buy or die” list. And with less than a week, slackers can’t be choosers, right? So break out the billfold and line up like lemmings as 19 December delights you with the following prospective giftage:


Invincible

Somehow, Hollywood is stuck in a discernible cinematic rut when it comes to sports movies – even one’s supposedly “based” on a true story. There always has to be an underdog, a cause worth fighting for, and a last act contest or confrontation that challenges the mantle and make-up of the characters we’ve watched for the last 80-plus minutes. In the case of this footnote in the career of coach Dick Vermeil during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, we see bartender/team walk-on Vince Papale live out the dream of every drunken football fan in America. Anyone familiar with the tale will tell you that in the City of Brotherly Love, where Vermeil was hired to turn around a failing franchise, those open try-outs were both a blessing and a curse. The city has never forgotten that singular season where they felt really connected to the players. Sadly, it’s a sentiment all but lacking in the multimillion dollar era of the sport.



PopMatters Review


The Lady in the Water


It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now.


 


PopMatters Review


Little Miss Sunshine

*
Ever since it hit movie screens more than five months ago, this delightfully deranged comedy/road film has really been racking up the respectability. Even at this late stage in the award season game, the story of a little girl named Olive Hoover and her desire to hold the title…title is ensemble excellence at its most satiric. Sure, our plucky heroine is surrounded by one crazy, dysfunctional family, but thanks to the amazing acting by a terrific cast – included Greg Kinnear, Toni Collettte, Steven Carell and Alan Arkin – and sound direction from the famed team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, we never once view the Hoovers as anything other than your typical post-modern mob. They wear their identifiable idiosyncrasies like brazen badges of honor. Such smart filmmaking has always been the benchmark of the independent effort and Sunshine is no different. It proves that characterization more than anything else can successfully sell any storyline.



My Super Ex-Girlfriend


Most filmmakers will tell you – casting is crucial to the success of any entertainment endeavor. Someone should have reminded director Ivan Reitman of this fact when he was filling out the cast for this feeble, unfunny flop. You’d think the man who produced Animal House and helmed Ghostbusters would know better than to stick Luke Wilson in role seemingly written for a Jack Black style of actor, or to toss Rainn Wilson in as the sidekick when all the genial performer has is a one-note Office-ready routine. Granted, Uma Thurman is a natural as the anxiety-riddled super-heroine who doesn’t take getting dumped all that well, but there is no support around her. Even Brit wit Eddie Izzard, as a criminal mastermind with a personal reason for being displeased, looks more fed up than fiendish during his brief moments on screen. With more of a spotlight on the superhero angle, this could have been good. Instead, it’s desperately dull.



PopMatters Review


A Scanner Darkly*
In blending Philip K. Dick (author of the book upon which this film is based) with the stunning computer generated rotoscoping animation he used in Waking Life, director Richard Linklater has reinvented both serious science fiction and the visual viability of 2D cartooning. Relying on that time honored plot of a super-addictive drug and the people who use and abuse it, Linklater utilizes his unusual cinematic approach to completely blur the lines between fantasy and reality, making the trials and turmoil experience by our hero – undercover cop Bob Arctor – that much more compelling. With Keanu Reeves in the lead, and a supporting company including Robert Downey Jr. Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson, Linklater follows the author’s storyline to a fault, proving that even something written in the 1970s can have cultural resonance today. Along with the trippy pen and ink imagery, Scanner becomes a manipulative mindfuck, a movie adverse to giving away its secrets and requiring an audience to really think to discover its designs.



PopMatters Review


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts*
While this devastating documentary is considered a TV mini-series (it premiered on HBO), SE&L cannot avoid a mention here, since it guarantees you will not see a better fact-based film this year. Spike Lee, who worked his moviemaking magic on the story of 4 Little Girls (about the bombing of an Alabama church during the Civil Rights movement) and Jim Brown: All America, takes on the Federal Government, George W. Bush and the lack of effective emergency relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and provides a ballsy blueprint for EVERYTHING that’s wrong with America circa 2006. Moving, infuriating and loaded with unconscionable criminality (one critic said it best when they opined that, upon seeing the film, they hoped someone would be arrested), the most shocking thing about this four hour visual essay is how unfinished and open-ended it feels. Indeed, Lee has publicly stated that he intends to continually follow-up on the New Orleans story, similar to how Stephen Spielberg used Schindler’s List for the Shoah Project. This masterful movie is a sensational start.


PopMatters Review


The Wicker Man (2006)
Neil LaBute, best known for his small, ensemble dramas like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors was definitely an unlikely candidate to helm a remake of this well regarded 1973 British occult thriller. And his decision to turn the focus away from the original’s male-dominated domain to a realm overrun by women seemed like a logical revamp move at the time. But somewhere between the idea and the execution, this film got way off base. Nicholas Cage plays a cop who investigates the disappearance of a young girl in a remote island village. He soon discovers that there is more to this place than its unusual atmosphere and pagan ways. Totally lacking in anything similar to suspense and constantly undermined by a script that makes very little sense, even LaBute’s best bet – the matriarchal society – is underdeveloped and unexceptional. Considered by many to be one of the worst movies of the year, the original cult classic needn’t worry over having its cinematic mantle usurped anytime soon.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 19 December:


The Illustrated Man*
It was one of Ray Bradbury’s most intriguing creative conceits – the story of a man whose tattoos come to life, showing the unsuspecting viewer one of the author’s many inspired and imaginative tales. With Method madman Rod Steiger in the lead, and Claire Bloom as the lady responsible for the enchanted body art, what we really have here is an anthology film wrapped up in some very intriguing linking material. Bradbury’s tales told here include “The Veldt”, “The Long Rains” and “The Last Night of the World” and many find the interpretations charming, if rather routine. Indeed, it’s odd that Bradbury is not used more often in these days of CGI and advanced moviemaking technology. His works are loaded with the kind of inventive intricacy that your average F/X whiz loves to linger over. Perhaps not as powerful as it was upon its initial release, this is still an intriguing look at one man’s meaningful literary influence, and the frequently flat efforts made from it.


 


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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006


David Lynch would like you to know that Hollywood will drive you to the brink of insanity and that it certainly cannot be trusted. In fact, it could even kill you. Not exactly a subtle way of saying “up yours” to the very industry that professes to love him while still restraining him, but it’s a clever platform from which to launch his latest, most infuriatingly challenging film, Inland Empire.


Mr. Lynch would also like to share with you his penchant for eerily billowing red velvet curtains. And maybe he harbors a pervy little “thing” for lesbian kisses. The point is David Lynch is weird. At least that seems to be the popular opinion. Generally, there is a point to his eccentricity that is simultaneously elusive and obvious: take for example Lynch’s masterful juxtaposition of the benign comings and goings of denizens of a small town called Twin Peaks with the absolute evil of a supernatural force involved in the murder of a homecoming queen. He is able to mix normal with insane quite effortlessly; Lynch is able to wring suspense out of thin air it seems. Inland Empire is the most daring leap of faith Lynch has asked his cultish audience to take: the film is savagely disjointed, more so than any other offering in the maestro’s cannon. It is jam-packed with so many little tidbits of trademark Lynch-isms that after a certain point you will either just suspend your disbelief and go with the flow or you will hate it. A compelling argument could be made either way, honestly. It all depends on you, the viewer.


Beginning with a hooker and her john making a deal in an Eastern European hotel room, Inland Empire starts out vaguely disturbing almost immediately, and continues for a totally incomprehensible three hours of mind-boggling, awesome nonsense. It somehow weaves together Polish gypsies, a woman with a screwdriver protruding from her gut, and human-sized rabbits on some sort of terrifying sitcom. It’s easy to get lost in all of the bizarre-o details that sometimes don’t really add up to anything. For example, why is star Laura Dern in a hotel room watching a gaggle of whores doing a song and dance routine to “The Loco Motion”? The answer? Who cares? It’s perverse, stupid, and enthralling. You’re not going to see this at the multiplex next to the new Mel Gibson movie and you’re not going to see Reese Witherspoon puking up a torrential amount of blood in her next starring vehicle any time soon, I bet. Inland Empire doesn’t intend to reveal any promises or any explanations. It is a relentless, bleak, and uncompromising film that demands the rigorous participation of it’s viewer’s imagination.


While he might be “weird” according to most people, Lynch is the only American director who elevates the medium to this kind of art form: one that isn’t necessarily polished or beautiful (the film was shot entirely on digital video and each scene was written immediately before it was performed), and one that provokes extreme expressive reactions. He has created his own cinematic language and signature style that is unmistakable, and with Inland Empire Lynch raises the standards he helped to set. Comparisons to everything from Lynch’s own Lost Highway, to silent German cinema and classic ‘40s film noir are applicable here. True to form, Lynch returns to the struggle between good and evil forces, and their mysterious connections to his characters, only this time he manipulates the concepts of reality and identity in an aggressive, almost menacing way that he only began to touch on in 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a movie which serves as a nice companion piece to the proceedings.


While Mulholland Drive is the sort of mystery that, while inexplicable in it’s own right (and also a damning exploration of theme of Hollywood as a brutal mistress), it can be at least partially explained with plausible theories or tidy little answers, Inland Empire doesn’t really afford it’s viewer that luxury: some things just don’t connect, and you will just have deal with it.


Characters appear and disappear without much notice (and are played by such luminaries as Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irons, Mary Steenburgen, Justin Theroux, and William H. Macy). There are wild shifts in time and reality, which when you are flashing between ‘30’s Poland and the troubled emotional life of a character played by an actress in a film within a film, gets a little perplexing. There is an absurdly long sequence in which a rusty screwdriver is wielded by more than one character in a manic, murderous way. This lends an air of ominous unpredictability to the film that feels thrilling some times, exasperating others. Surely there is some sort of connection of these seemingly random events (in the mind of Lynch), but to enjoy this film, such mundane conventions must be abandoned.


What essentially glues Lynch’s jagged pieces together is Dern’s tremendous performance. In her third outing with Lynch over a period of twenty years (beginning in 1986 with Blue Velvet and their 1990 collaboration Wild at Heart), Dern’s Inland Empire work marks a turning point in her career as an actress: she is fearlessly committed to a performance that is like nothing else you will see this year. She begins the film as a sort of innocuous, prim actress named Nikki (who lives in a cold, luxurious home, and is trying to land a dream role), and ends up as someone else entirely: a character known as “Sue”, who at one point is covered in filth and blood, laying in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard screaming “I’m a whore, I’m a freak”.


When Nikki gets the part and throws herself into her character, Dern splits her dual identity into so many different personalities that it is impossible to categorize them all: is she a hooker or an actress? Who is real, the actress or the character? Soon she unable to answer that question for herself (“Look at me. Tell me if you recognize me from somewhere”, she says at one point). Co-Producer Dern is capable of navigating all of these wild shifts and nuances with such skill and depth that is impossible to think of any other actress of her generation being capable of doing such an experimental, gutsy part. This is a performance that has some outrageous demands: grotesquerie, murderous rage, romanticism, and humor are among a tiny fraction of the multitude of tasks Dern seems to breeze through in a complicated, ferociously well-thought out performance.


Dern matches Lynch measure for measure in artistry, each of them working at top form. Their collaboration here will no doubt be dismissed by a disappointing amount of people as being typical Lynch weirdness, but if it is an atypical parade of horrifying surrealism that you’re after, Inland Empire is the film for you. His images may be positively harrowing (just take, for one example, the gorgeous black and white shot of a needle skipping on a record player), and his motives may be unclear, but if you blindly trust David Lynch to take you on an emotional artistic journey, you will not be let down. This is the only film this year to be so unapologetic in its artiness and so confident in its lack of vanity, and coming from a heavy-hitter like Lynch, it packs a powerful punch. It is unquestionably a most refreshing, nasty little change from all of the boring coherence and relentless sparkle of the holiday film season’s current offerings.


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