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Monday, Dec 25, 2006


Ouch! Not so loud! SE&L is still nursing a massive holiday hangover, a pain perpetrated from processing all the potential titles one could count on to bolster their gift giving acumen this festive fake-out. Not only that, but we’re also trying to decide what to do with the iridescent blue tie, the Rocky Balboa party mug, and the “World’s Greatest Weblog” statuette we got as part of our Christmas swag. While the thought of returning such fine, thoughtful gifts would never cross our mind, it’s interesting to note how the crack commercial distributors have held back on three big summer releases for just that very reason. Don’t like the matching potholders your aunt insisted would perk up your kitchen? Horrified by the pair of plaid wool socks your spouse thought would make your season bright? Bewildered over how to respond to the ‘Fat, Bald and Sexy’ t-shirt your kids gave you? Easy, trade in said tacky trinkets and head on over to your local brick and mortar for a little digital healing. Nothing says self-satisfaction better than a DVD you picked out for yourself. So wake up early, get in line, and contemplate these 26 December releases. It will help make the lack of legitimate customer service that much more bearable: 


The Black Dahlia

Brian DePalma, once a Hollywood heavyweight with his Hitchcock homage style, has fallen on some substantial hard times as of late. Going back to 1984’s Body Double, his career has been loaded with fine, if flawed, efforts (Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way) and outright cinematic stool samples (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Femme Fatale). Resting somewhere right in the middle is this LA Confidential retread, a routine reading of James Ellroy’s novel about the mysterious murder of a Hollywood starlet. The true story is so riveting, so loaded with ominous ideas of death and dismemberment (the ‘Dahlia’ was found cut in half, face lacerated from ear to ear) that to have it take a backseat to more ‘good cop/bad cop’ showboating seems silly. But that’s exactly what this movie does. The Dahlia murder is more or less an after thought, thrown in randomly and resolved in one of the kookiest, over the top denouement’s ever filmed. Not a total waste of time…nor a return to form.


PopMatters Review


The Descent


Like Borat a while back, SE&L just doesn’t see what the rest of the movie going public perceive about this Neil Marshall mess. The storyline has potential – a group of friends decide to explore a series of mysterious caves – and the set up has some startling notions about friendship and loss. But once our heroines go spelunking, the narrative literarly falls apart, moving through a series of false scares, claustrophobic contrivance, and attacks by creatures that are as unispired as they are hard to see. Marshall obviously believes in the Spielberg theory of shocks – he barely lets us witness any of the terror we’re supposed to experience. Instead, this is a creature feature as shell game, a one dimensional diversion that’s neither as scary as the hype projected, or as inventive as many fright fans have claimed. It’s just a routine thriller disguised as something more daring. About the only truly masterful element of the entire movie is the stunning soundtrack by David Julyan.


   


PopMatters Review


Jackass Number 2

*
It’s more stunt silliness from the incredibly successful MTV madmen. Taking his inspiration from Tom and Jerry cartoons, and the adventures of one Wile E. Coyote, Johnny Knoxville has once again abandoned the Hollywood mainstream to attempt more scatological silliness for the extreme skate rat demographic. While the execution remains the same, some elements originally intended are missing here. Prior to his arrest on pedophilic-like charges during a Colorado appearance, Don Vito, Bam Margera’s etiquette impaired butterball of an uncle, was heavily featured in several set piece skits as part of this financially mandated sequel. Now, his scenes may or may not be part of this DVD release. In addition, so much footage was shot for the redux that a direct-to-digital offering or another big screen presentation is being considered. It just goes to show you that people can’t get enough of guys acting inappropriate and showering their private parts with potentially deadly ideas. Toilet humor was never so entertaining.



PopMatters Review


Last Kiss

The reigning prince of post-modern male ennui, Zach Braff, stars in this tale of a mid-life crisis sped up by twenty years. Facing the fact that this longtime girlfriend is now pregnant (presumably with their child), Braff’s architect decides the best way to face his pending responsibility is via a roll in the hay with a local co-ed. He now must deal with the quandary such a triangle creates – baby or booty, biology or the dirty boogie. In the less than capable hands of actor turned director Tony Goldwyn, what wants to be incisive and deep ends up being intolerable and dreary. It’s not bad enough that Braff is having these growing pains so late/soon in life (it’s a human hissy fit usually reserved for the 15/45 year old demographic); no, he must whine about them incessantly in the kind of Paul Haggis scripted screeds that make you want to slap some sense into the character. Spending two hours with such a wuss is not worth anyone’s time.



PopMatters Review


The Legend of Boggy Creek*
For many a kid growing up in the ‘70s, this was one exploitation creepfest that really sent the spine into massive shivers. Drive-in moviemaker Charles B. Pierce crafted a docu-drama doozy out of an Arkansas style Bigfoot and a lot of bayou atmosphere, telling the tale of the notorious Fouke Monster and his skunk ape spree among the residents of a blinkered backwater burg. Perhaps the most effective element of the movie, the various shots of the Sulfur River swampland where the beast typically treads are accented by a supposed beastie bellow that’s so unsettling, it still makes the hairs stand up straight on the back of one’s neck. Over the years, this movie has fallen out of favor with fear fans, many dismissing it as another example of Pierce’s problematic oeuvre (he’s also responsible for The Town that Dreaded Sundown and The Norseman). But there is something unnerving about the way in which he handles this material, making schlock turn to shock with undeniable effectiveness.



Monarch of the Moon/Destination Mars*
Setting itself up, Lost Skeleton of Cadavra style, as a recently discovered lost remnant of the 1940’s cinematic serial scene, this dandy Dark Horse production has its issues, but actually does a bang up job of recreating the episodic feel of the long lost genre. Sure, some of the jokes are obvious – the Yellow Jacket character appears to be spewing speeches lifted directly from a certain George W.‘s jingoism – and there are moments when the lampoon looses its focus and disintegrates, but like a recent release from Tempe Entertainment – the terrific World War II superhero homage Project: ValkyrieMonarch makes its devotion to the past both sincere and symbolic. Sure, all the “undiscovered artifact” advertising can grow a bit tiresome (some of us are still smarting from all the Blair Witch bullspit), and no one can accurately recapture the look and feel of films made over 70 years ago, but the effort put into this pleasant production more than makes up for the publicity propaganda.


What Alice Found
Borrowing elements of the Dogma ‘95 school of filmmaking with the seedy story of a lost woman forced into a life of truck stop prostitution, A. Dean Bell’s independent effort is all the more impressive for the cinematic standards it fails to embrace. With subject matter this tawdry, one would expect a scatological softcore sleazefest overloaded with crudeness, corruption and carnality. Instead, thanks to lead actress Emily Grace’s braveness, and her title character’s dogged determination, it’s all more dramatic than dirty. Through the use of digital video and a series of found locations, Bell brings a coarse realism to his tale, an authenticity that many movies of this sort more or less miss. While some have complained about the length of scenes and Alice’s inherent naiveté, what remains most effective is the sense of hopelessness and despair among the characters. Even the individuals responsible for Alice’s awful lot in life have issues that make them both disgusting and desperate.



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 26 December:


Scratch*
The cover art says it all – and it has to, since it’s near impossible to find any information on this film either on the Internet Movie Database or the World Wide Web in general. One source confirms that this is a tale about a desperate couple searching for a mad scientist responsible for the creation of some mutant mice. Cool! Indeed, how can you resist a DVD that offers a large, menacing rodent head, a beady evil eye, and the caption “The New Sound of Terror”. In general, most killer animal movies are awful, more campy than creepy and overloaded with amateurish acting and derivative directing. Scratch could be guilty of all these filmic flaws and many, many more. Still, the notion of reprobate rodents getting their gory groove on has a genuine genre jive to it. So lock up the wee ones, break out the popcorn, and cuddle up on the coach – this will either be a horrifying hit, or a hilarious hoot. Here’s betting on the latter.


 


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Friday, Dec 22, 2006


You may be asking, how does the winner of the 1981 Oscar for Best Picture warrant classification as a Forgotten Gem? The answer is quite simple. When you’ve beaten both Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and David Lynch’s Elephant Man for the accolade, you are destined to be diminished in the eyes of many angry film fans. Indeed, along with Dances with Wolves, American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love, Ordinary People regularly gets ridiculed as being one of the worst Academy Award winners of all time. It’s a title not borne out of reality – this fragile family drama is certainly a motion picture masterpiece – it’s just that, when placed up against an American maestro and a mainstream curio from one of our most gifted, idiosyncratic directors, being great is just not enough.


There was minor controversy surrounding the film when it first opened, almost all of it centering on America’s sitcom sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore, being cast as the cold hearted, manipulative matriarch of the Jarrett household, Beth. Not known for playing characters that were distant, angry, bitter and inaccessible, audiences weren’t expecting much from her performance. And indeed, initial reviews were less than supportive of Moore’s attempt to break out of her goody two shoes stereotype. But thanks to the brilliant work of Donald Sutherland (who deserved an Oscar, though his competition – Robert DeNiro and his career defining turn as Jake LaMotta in Bull – made that all but impossible) and impressive debut of Jim Hutton’s son Timothy, Moore easily melded into the ensemble, eventually shining as a parent whose put all her emotion and love into her personal pride and joy – a now dead son named Buck.


For anyone living in the Midwest, especially in the Chicago suburbs where People is set, first time director Robert Redford gets all the white picket fence and wholesome details just right. The characters all live in dollhouse like mansions, rooms furnished in tactful, traditional styles. Dressed in plain sweaters and simple accessories, the dynamic is lifted almost directly from an episode of Leave it to Beaver – albeit, a very special installment of same. Within this backward bastion of wealth and security, Redford explores the chaotic underpinnings of Judith Guest’s amazing novel, showing how even the most seemingly functional clan can come apart over something as simple as death, guilt and forgiveness. Two decades ago, relatives didn’t discuss or disclose their interpersonal problems. People was one of the first films to explore the notion of familial disintegration within the closed context of an isolated, insular tragedy.


In the storyline, which deals with youngest son Conrad’s suicide attempt, hospitalization, and after care therapy, the Jarret’s attempt to reconfigure their life. But the two way street of devotion between Beth and Buck was such a major force in the household that its absence leaves an unavoidable deficiency. Sadly, it’s a chasm that no one can replenish. But instead of trying to make a new approach work, Mother turns on her troubled son, husband feels resentment toward the angry spouse, and all the boy can see is blame. One of the most moving moments in the entire film comes when Conrad, under the care of Judd Hirsch’s genial Dr. Tyrone Berger, confronts his lingering remorse. Burdened with taking both the death of his brother and the fragmenting of his family to heart, it’s a moment of catharsis that few films even attempt to achieve, let alone realize. Hutton’s performance at this point is so powerful, so overloaded with passion and purity that we can’t help but exhale and exalt right along with him.


Yet this revelation does not suture the scar in the Jarret household. Perhaps no other actress could convey the sense of normalcy knocked asunder as Moore does. Her Beth is not a bitch - she’s a cheerleader that’s lost her champion, a doting, devoted parent who didn’t plan on being stripped of the sole focus of her adult joy. Buck, seen in a couple of telling flashbacks, is a shining star, an obvious athletic BMOC who entertains his mother with extracurricular exploits that no normal kid would be allowed to discuss. But since he is the first born, the golden boy, he’s pardoned. Even when the truth of the sailing accident is revealed, and her hero is shown as mortal, more bluster than bravery, Beth cannot except it. During her final scene, Moore manages one of those rare acting moments that rocket right to the heart of her character’s problem. Allowing herself to slip, just momentarily, Beth unleashes a strangled sob so devastating, we’re glad she manages to pull it back in. Otherwise, the fallout could be lethal.


Told in a fashion that keeps all its divergent elements alive and important, Redford routinely discovers facts of the narrative that keep his insights up front and fresh. Conrad’s attempts to connect with friends – from the hospital (a mentally melting Dinah Manoff) and from school (an endearing Elizabeth McGovern) come back to play important parts in his journey, and a holiday visit with family finds Beth and her husband slowly breaking apart. This is not a splashy, stylistic turn behind the camera. Redford even keeps the film’s fatal flashback in a tight, telling two shot. One could easily envision Buck’s death as a major action sequence, especially in our CGI oriented idea of how such a spectacle is realized. But Redford realizes that it’s the individuals, not the event, that’s the most important. He devises a way of capturing the horror, and the humanity, concurrently.


In one of those unlucky happenstances that seem to befall certain films, Raging Bull didn’t get the accolade acknowledgement it deserved, and film fans pretend that People should be passed over for better early ‘80s efforts. Sadly, such thinking is incredibly narrow-minded. Scorcese’s ethical biopic may be the better artistic statement, but there is just as much beauty and grace in Ordinary People. Even a quarter century later, it’s power remains right on the surface, easily tapped into by even the most jaded cinephile. Usually, a domestic drama about dysfunctional relatives looses its edge after years, what with other efforts commenting on and challenging it. But this staggering statement of a nuclear family’s final freefall still holds up in all its painful, irreproachable sadness. Maybe it didn’t deserve the Oscar, but no one should forget what a fine, formidable film this really is. 


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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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