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Wednesday, Sep 13, 2006


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


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


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


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


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


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


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Tuesday, Sep 12, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 7: Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (“He Who is Brave of Heart Takes the Bride”)
1995, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Aditya Chopra
DDLJ, as it’s often abbreviated, is the masterwork of a young second-generation filmmaker, Aditya Chopra, whose father Yash is a famous director and media mogul.  The movie was a phenomenal success, running in theatres for a record time of five years. DDLJ hit a nerve amongst many Indians because of its increasingly relevant subject matter: the struggle of a NRI (Non-Resident Indian) family to make a living abroad in the West, yet still uphold the religious and cultural traditions of their ancestral homeland. The film signaled a return to ritual and relations, values that gradually eroded during the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s. By the ‘90s, the overcrowding and lack of jobs in India forced more and more people to relocate to other countries. Nearly everyone who saw DDLJ  was an NRI, or had a NRI relative and could completely identify with the characters. The story revolves around two spirited teenagers, the lovely, Simran (Kajol), the middle-class daughter of a stern, hardworking Punjabi gas-station owner in London, and Raj (Shahrukh Khan), the fast-talking, self-indulgent son of an Anglo-Indian millionaire. The two meet while traveling through Europe with their friends, discover they have nothing in common, hate each other, keep getting left behind by the others, bond, discover they have more in common than they thought, and grow to love each other. The romantic-comedy plot is painfully clichéd, but what makes DDLJ  so enduring are the earnest, doe-eyed performances from Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, who quickly became the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of Indian cinema.


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Tuesday, Sep 12, 2006

Feel that nip in the air, that sudden surge of icy cold callousness? In case you’re wondering—no, it’s not the first signs of Fall.  Instead, it’s the remnants of the reality that Hell has just frozen over. Today is the day when all the pontifications and declarations of artistic privilege, the ownership of myth and the control of motion pictures was tossed in the trash by one George Walton Lucas Jr. That’s right, today is the day when he finally makes the original versions of his Star Wars trilogy available to the public in their initial, unaltered form. No Greedo shooting first. No CGI Jabba bargaining with Han Solo. No modernized space battles. And no damn Hayden ‘Anakin Skywalker’ Christiansen substituting for Sebastian Shaw. Granted, you have to pick up copies of those disgraceful fidgeted over Special Editions to get your hands on these long sought after cinematic Holy Grails, and the tech specs supposedly leave a lot to be desired. Yet none of that matters as this is a day that will live on in entertainment infamy. All other releases scheduled might as well pack up and call it a day. Geek nation will be abuzz about these discs for at least a couple of weeks—that is, until they learn of the massive mega box set proposed for the franchise’s 30th anniversary. Oh George, you devil. Here’s the rundown on SE&L’s DVD selections of interest for 12 September:


Beavis and Butthead Do America: 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
In a clear case of a double dip that was well worth the wait, everyone’s favorite heavy metal morons finally get their only feature film perfectly pimped out. On this new edition you will find creator Mike Judge offering up his considered commentary on the brain-addled buffoons rise to stardom, the superstar-laded cast (including turns by then husband and wife Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) and his battles with Paramount over content and comedy. With his latest big screen effort, the literally discarded Idiocracy slowly fading from view, here’s a chance to see the talented writer/director successfully translate his small screen acumen to a big screen setting.



Lucky Number Slevin
It’s time for ‘90s movie mentor Quentin Tarantino to pick up another rip-off royalty check. In this supposedly slick and wholly superficial crime drama, Josh Harnett is Slevin Kelevra (yes, you read that name right) who suddenly finds himself smack dab in the middle of a mob war between bosses Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman. Yeesh! While some critics haven’t cared for the combination of purposefully dense dialogue and overstylized cinematics, those who can’t get enough of Mr. Pulp Fiction’s flailing stepchildren have cottoned to its cold, considered craftsmanship. Until QT steps up with another film, Slevin just might support your hard-boiled habit.



PopMatters Review


Stars Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope; Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back; Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
It’s gotten awfully hard to write about these films without getting incredibly miffed over the man behind their creation. It is safe to say that no other filmmaker in the blockbuster era has simultaneously sullied and solidified his legacy more stridently than George Lucas. His decision to make prequels to these beloved sci-fi films aside, his efforts behind the camera—championing advances in CGI and digital technology, his efforts at film preservation and protection—have been countered by his unswerving desire to constantly tinker with the movies that built his empire. Granted, all three of the original Star Wars films are dated, their effects marred by the limits of the era and the imagination within said restrictions.


That being said, there is something so homey about the original Star Wars films, a kind of handmade artistry that’s literally destroyed by all the post-millennial post production. What many makers of speculative fiction films fail to remember is that any futuristic fable better be rooted in some manner of recognizable reality. Thousand story buildings, ships the size of planets and unusual extraterrestrials fail to resonate because they move beyond the scope of our spatial logic and plausible perspective. That’s why the prequels feel so false—they offer up so much eye candy that our conceivability ends up diabetic.


The fact is, the real reasons fans have been clamoring for these titles has very little to do with a rejection of the reduxes, or a desire to restrict Lucas in his vision or creative capabilities. No, preserving and presenting the original Star Wars films the way they were initially released to theaters allows for the connections created previously to find a permanent home. The basis for why fans and filmmakers alike criticized the colorization of classic black and white films rests solely on this premise. In their newfangled form, the experiences one associated with those timeless monochrome movies were inalienably altered by the introduction of a formerly unknown element. Revisionism is only for rectification, not resale value. Lucas should remember it’s not about money, but memories.



Taps: Special Edition
Taps has a strange cinematic legacy. Few today remember that this was the highly tauted follow-up to Timothy Hutton’s Oscar winning turn in the still amazing Ordinary People. Fresh from said success, Hutton headlined a cast of up and comers including Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Giancarlo Esposito. Today, his work is mostly forgotten—as well as that of Onion Field/Sea of Love director Harold Becker. Here’s hoping this new Special Edition DVD release (replacing a bare bones title from four years ago) restores Hutton and Becker back to prominence. The truth is, aside from Penn, the work of all the other now known names is rather minor at best.


 


The Wild
When Disney dumped 2D animation (only to have newly installed boss John “Pixar” Lassiter insist its coming back) many wondered what the outcome would be. The House of Mouse used to excel at the anthropomorphic animal idea, but with Dreamworks’ similarly storied Madagascar hitting the theaters several months ahead of this offering, the juvenile jones for said material was already sated. Proving that no one does redundant and repetitive better than Uncle Walt’s narrative factory, The Wild borrows liberally from past animated classics like The Lion King, and the cartoon canon of Chuck Jones. Strictly for the wee ones, or the easily amused adult.



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 12 September:


Linda Lovelace for President
Deluded into believing there was more to her stardom than a certain sexual proclivity, Linda Susan Boreman—a.k.a. Linda Lovelace—thought her fame was on the rise, when in reality it was as tenuous as the rest of the ‘70s porno chic gimmick. By the time she made this brazen bid for mainstream comedy acceptance (albeit in an R rated softcore format), the tide was already turning against the mainstreaming of XXX icons. In this pathetic political farce, Linda plays a Presidential candidate who stumps as much as she shtups along the campaign trail, running into an oddball collection of concerned citizens including Mickey Dolenz, Scatman Crothers, Marty Ingels and Joe E. Ross. Foolishly, Lovelace assumed that this movie would launch her legitimate film career. All it did was guarantee her ‘80s slide into sexual sour grapes.



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Monday, Sep 11, 2006


Today marks the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and even with said time and distance, people are still wondering if it’s too soon to explore the events via the many available entertainment mediums. In the last few weeks alone, cable outlets like The Discovery and The Learning Channel have given us devastating looks inside the Twin Towers that fateful day, and all three major networks are airing specials striving to celebrate and scrutinize the tragedy. ABC has courted the most controversy, airing a miniseries on 10 and 11 September that acts like a denouncement of the Democrats as the narrative traces the Clinton Administrations dealings with Osama Bin Laden on the Path to 9/11. Cinema also responded with its own double dose of regulated reality. Oliver Stone went for the sentimental with his August release of World Trade Center, a survival story of two port authority officers at Ground Zero. Earlier, Paul Greengrass gave the final flight of United 93 the kind of docudrama authenticity that helped amplify its rock solid suspense.


Yet the question still lingers – is it too soon? Before answering, there’s a need for some clear perspective. Such an inquiry assumes a couple of communal attributes: (1) that all individuals in America were equally affected by the events of 9/11, and (2) that all require the same recovery time from their reaction. Now, there is no doubt that citizens were shaken to their very core by the sight of airplanes slamming into the side of a skyscraper. It’s an image not even the most gifted Hollywood effects house could duplicate in its potency and abruptness. It’s epic excess, the unfathomable scope of its symbolic destruction was a crucial reminder of what exists outside our considered zone of comfort. We like to think of America as the land of opportunity and unbridled freedom, a Superpower place that anyone would trade everything to be a part of. The events of 9/11 indicated that, not only was such a sentiment short sighted, but such a belief fueled a perceived arrogant disregard for the rest of the world.


And let’s face it – we’re all ostriches. We’d rather spend our days with our heads buried in the suburban sand than deal with the real world issues constantly crashing against our free and democratic shores. We’ll elect (and re-elect) a President and support his sloppy war as long as it makes us feel secure in our SWVs, and keeps the materialistic flow unencumbered. We will use the mere mantra of “supporting our troops” as a means of avoiding a real confrontation on the politics of preemption, and balk the minute a potential threat is uncovered. Instead of living in the reality of a precarious post-modern world, where technology and ideology have met to create a continuous network of possible terror, we argue over alert levels and airport security as the rest of the planet experiences daily reminders of the tenuous nature of being a citizen within this specific planetary community.


That is why it is almost never “too soon” to address a tragedy cinematically. Unless we place some manner of shared importance on a singular event, the art of motion picture making is the perfect place to explore the deeper meaning inside any calamity. Granted, the potential is always there for exploitation or disrespect, but there are no guarantees in this constantly shifting social stratagem. All of which begs the question – why, pray tell, are the events of 9/11 so off-limits, even today? If it’s a question of time and distance, no one is pitching the kind of jingoistic hissy that critics of United 93 and World Trade Center are guilty of regarding a far more devastating - and recent - event. Last month, Spike Lee delivered his four hour documentary on the rampant destruction – and lack of proper governmental response – in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. HBO’s When the Levee Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts was a mind-boggling masterpiece, far more antagonistic and conspiratorial than anything offered in either pro-patriot 9/11 motion pictures. Amid the images of bodies floating in sewage strewn water and victims piled up like prisoners in horribly inhumane and unsanitary conditions, we heard rumors of explosions (marking the purposeful destruction of the levees), the governments’ avoidance of politically unpopular peoples, ass covering taking the place of assistance. All the while, audiences couldn’t wait to see Lee stick it to the man, while simultaneously wondering aloud how anyone can tackle the tragedy that befell America on that fateful September day five years gone.


Some may say that 9/11 and Katrina are apples and oranges, and in many significant ways, that statement is true. But a hurricane wiping out most of a city, flattening millions of Gulf coast acres and destroying hundreds of thousands of lives stands as far more important, quantitatively, than a single act of terrorism that somehow finally managed to make it to our own isolationist shores. 9/11 may be more socially, and internationally significant, but Katrina will continue to be more substantive. Call it liberal cluelessness or a lack of context, but the collapse of the World Trade Center is more important for what it symbolizes (America’s indirect entry into the cause and effect world of fundamentalism) than for the resulting devastation. Now no loss of life is acceptable, but would we view the events of that day differently if, once the airplanes hit, the city of New York and the Federal Government simply sat around, waiting until the coast was clear and all the facts were in before they decided to act? Would we feel any different if the planes had hit some nameless housing projects instead of the symbols of capitalism and commerce? In Katrina’s case, the answer seems obvious.


The longer we apply the hands off approach to 9/11, the longer we foster the philosophy behind the attacks. No one is saying that radical fundamentalist Islamic extremists can be reasoned with, and no one is suggesting that a movie can make sense of such outrageous, illogical motives. But there are always lessons to be learned, elements within any tragedy that need deciphering and determination. While they were unpleasantly exploitive at times, the Discovery Channel style documentaries began the process of illustrating the horrors of what happened that day. Seeing those indelible images from the inside out – the planes approaching, the stairwells choked with smoke – gave new meaning to the loss of life that occurred. That’s the power of visualizing events. It helps provide perspective, and necessary knowledge. If we mythologize events, and ask our movies to do the same, we rob the reality of its meaning.


Film can convolute and corrupt, but when done right (United 93) and in deference to other elements (World Trade Center) the results can be disarming. We require determinations, not deifications. Arguing that it’s too soon is simply asking to avoid the truth for a little while longer. And the more time that passes, the more fact fades. If we wait too long to address the aspects of 9/11, we run the risk of losing its meaning all together. If that’s the case, the terrorists have really won. Nothing spells victory like getting your victims to forget why they were targets in the first place. Without the illustrative power of film, such absentmindedness is almost assured. So it’s not too soon. In fact, it may be too late


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Sunday, Sep 10, 2006


No, you’re not seeing things. That’s John Travolta in full drag as Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of John Waters’ Hairspray, set for release in 2007. Frankly, SE&L isn’t shocked by the casting. Travolta is a true musical comedy actor, and can definitely pull off the role originated by the late, great Divine. Besides, we’re more curious to see how Christopher Walken holds up has “her” husband, Wilbur. Not that’s a concept worth getting worked up over.


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