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Saturday, Sep 23, 2006


Granted, it’s not the smartest sci-fi action film ever made. Indeed, with Equilibrium helmer Kurt Wimmer in charge, Ultraviolet is nothing more than a surreal slice of future shock that is all approach and pure artifice. Attempting a recreate the look and feel of a comic book come to life (there’s an original idea) and utilizing the fanboys favorite faux action queen – Resident Evil‘s Milla Jovovich - Wimmer wanted to exploit the notion of vampirism without having to deal with all that hoary old mythology. Instead, he envisioned this epic as a deconstruction of health-based racism mixed with Big Brother style government malevolence and a healthy dose of swordplay. He almost succeeded. In fact, Ultraviolet may be the most ambitious, over the top and shamelessly guilty pleasure ever created. Filled with stunning and stupid action setpieces, it’s the kind of craven confection that would have Big Jim McBob and Billy Saul Hurock of SCTV‘s Farm Film Report fame stating – “it blowed up good. It blowed up real good!”


But all predominant pyrotechnics aside, a great deal of Ultraviolet‘s delight comes from the film’s flawless hyperstylized design. Wimmer is someone who believes in a new variation on that old adage, ‘less is more’. In his mind, more is never enough, and extreme excess is the only way to create plausible entertainment pleasure. Why have one villain when you can have 50? Why fire off 10 rounds of ammunition when 10,000 are so much more…ballistic? Vistas need to fill the screen, technological advances require massive amounts of CGI candy coating. True, somewhere in the middle of all this optical falderal is a slightly stupid story about a genetically engineered weapon (who turns out to be a boy) and the super-powered heroine trying to protect him. But the narrative is substantively secondary to all the bells, whistles, sleek surfaces and whiz-bang gadgetry. So sit back, turn off your brain, and let your amusement aesthetic cruise on pure pulp adrenaline. You’ll feel sorry afterwards, but as a mindless, misguide movie, Ultraviolet goes down incredibly smooth.


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Friday, Sep 22, 2006


After a series of highly ambitious, but financially unrewarding efforts – including his gross out revamp of The Thing, an adaptation of Stephen King’s classic killer car novel Christine, Starman‘s stellar sci-fi romanticism and that unique take on the martial arts comedy known as Big Trouble in Little China – John Carpenter wanted to get back to his low budget genre roots. His idea? Make a movie using both a theological and a scientific basis for the existence of evil. Mixing physics with the supernatural and arguing that Satan’s potential return to Earth for Armageddon may just be a provable mathematical theorem, we follow a group of graduate students as they try to unlock the secrets of viscous liquid swirling around in an abandoned church basement. Toss in a little unconscious bi-location, rocker Alice Cooper as the leader of a zombie-like clan of homeless people, and a smart, intelligent script, and you’ve got all the makings for a highbrow horror classic. Naturally, it bombed at the box office.


Yet brains are only part of the reason why Prince of Darkness is so special. Throwing away the typical conventions of your standard dumb monster movie, and dealing with fear and evil in engaging philosophical debates, Carpenter created as much a comment on the nature of wickedness as he does an illustration of same. In fact, the last act of the film could easily be mistaken for a standard scarefest, with the possessed servant of Satan (or his actual disembodied son) looking for minions, as well as a way to bring his dethroned Dad back to prominence. With a stellar cast including Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, Carpenter argued that there were still some major motion picture shivers left in the old shockmeister. Sadly, after the fun social satire of They Live, and the uneven if effective In the Mouth of Madness, this would be the last significant Carpenter creepfest. But it is clearly one of his best. 


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Thursday, Sep 21, 2006

As the month of September winds down, it’s a fairly routine 50/50 proposition on the premium movie channels this weekend. Granted, none of the offerings are instant classics, and if you base success on box office, only one truly triumphed (the other’s stellar fiscal performance masked a massive budget and even more monstrous marketing campaign). Still, if you’re up for a little man vs. monster brutality – complete with overreaching firepower – or a second serving of Elmore Leonard’s neo-noir, you just might be in luck. In fact, with the local Cineplex offering the kind of critically questionable vehicles that seem to slowly slog along between the blockbuster biz of Summer and the official start of awards season, you may be as equally entertained on the small screen as with a trip to the bigs. Besides, at least one of this weekend’s titles promises the kind of no holds barred brazenness that’s been missing from most mainstream comedies. So, for your consideration, here are the titles trying to grab your attention for the weekend of 22 September:


HBOWedding Crashers

In an age where ‘PG-13’ rules the Cineplex roost, and audiences apparently want their humor on the goofy or gross side, this raunchy R-rated comedy was a welcome relief from all the pro-PC platitudes stinking up the screen. With the viable chemistry between leads Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson (as men who arrive, uninvited, to other people’s ceremonies and cruise for some easily available action) and the laughably lewd hi-jinx they get into, this was one of 2005’s better efforts. While Cinemax subscribers have already had their fill of these naughty nuptial nogoodniks, it’s time for the Home Box Office crowd to get a taste of this film’s wild and wanton wackiness. (Premieres Saturday 23 September, 8:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


CinemaxDoom

Even with the rising stardom of one Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, no one except die-hard ‘Doomers’ were expected to give this adaptation of the popular title a chance. Turns out, those anonymous analysts were right. Granted, revamping a first person shooter experience noted for its horror, monsters and gore quotient into a continuous 100 minute narrative would seem like a tough enough challenge. Yet after jettisoning much of the original storyline in favor of a more Aliens-esque approach, even the loyalists felt lost. With only a single memorable POV sequence, this dull, derivative is high on body count, low on logic and proves that it’s the VERY rare game that can make the cinematic grade. (Premieres Saturday 23 September, 10:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


StarzThe Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

In an obvious bid for some Lord of the Rings style revenue, Disney teamed up with late author C.S. Lewis’s multi-volume Christian allegory, and laid on as much CGI spectacle as they could. The result was a fairly well regarded hit. But first time live action director Andrew Adamson (who helped helm the first two Shrek epics) soon learned the lessons his Kiwi better Peter Jackson had to bear as well – fans will fry you if you’re unfaithful to the source, critics will complain if you sacrifice drama for the sake of literary loyalty. Where the Rings trilogy succeeded on all levels however, this heavy, ponderous production only soared when the action trumped the traditional narrative elements. Not surprisingly, a sequel is in the works. (Premieres Saturday 23 September, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeBe Cool

Somehow, this smacks of desperation. John Travolta used the one two punch of Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty to resurrect his flagging feature film career back in 1996. Now, 10 years later, he is back as mobster turned mogul Chili Palmer, and not surprising, looking for yet another considered career boast. Not even the eccentric cast – featuring Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer and a previous named ex-wrestler – can save this sloppy, silly sequel. Moving the action from the movie to the music business may have seemed like a logical - and literary - move, but it only stands to rehash material that was tenuous to begin with. Even with the thankless artifice of Barry Sonnenfeld’s mannered direction out of the picture (F. Gary Gray is in charge here), this is still one revisit too many. (Saturday 23 September, 9pm EST)


PopMatters Review




Indie Film Focus: September 2006


Last month, Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to supply us with 30 days of star driven righteousness to keep the small screen film finds freely flowing. With the network back to it’s rather hit or miss programming, SE&L has decided to focus on another facet of the cinematic canon – the Independent film. Thanks to IFC, otherwise known as The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel, there is currently a 24 hour a day supply of outsider excellence. Some of the movie suggestions here will seem obvious. Others will reflect the divergent nature of the art form’s overall approach. Whatever the case, these are the highlights for the week of 16 September through 22 September:


IFC


Wonderland (2003)
Val Kilmer stars in this intriguing look at these infamous murders, and the possible connection to porn star John Holmes.
(Sunday 24 September, 9pm EST)


Talk To Her (2002)
Pedro Almodovar won an Oscar for his screenplay to this unusual character drama revolving around life, death, and the tenuous, comatose connections between.
(Tuesday 26 September, 9pm EST)


Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)
The Vermeer masterwork gets its own unusual cinematic explanation in this fascinating film. With Colin Firth as the artist and Scarlett Johansson as his muse.
(Wednesday 25 September, 9pm EST)


Secrets and Lies (1996)
Director Mike Leigh turns his idiosyncratic improvisational style loose on the family drama, with amazing, masterful results.
(Thursday 28 September, 5:45pm EST)


Sundance Channel


Dazed and Confused
The ultimate time warp back to the ‘70s, D&C also stands as the final statement on the joy and illogical liberty of youth.
(Saturday, 23 September, 10pm EST)


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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2006


More than ten years after a civil war that ravaged its country, Bosnia finds itself in a delicate condition. Like much of the Balkans, recovering from the wrath of Slobodan Milosevic’s reign of ethnic cleansing, Bosnia is hedged between strict cultural and economic limitations that particularly impair the prospects and desires for self-actualization of the nation’s women. Emerging Bosnian filmmaker Danijela Majstorovic addresses this crisis of women’s lives—and the troubling lack of choices—in two films which premiered at the Bosnia and Herzegovina Film Festival in New York City.


Counterpoint for Her (2004) is a short documentary that powerfully acknowledges the tragedy of sex slavery in Bosnia.  In 2003, a US House committee discovered Bosnia to be the first depot for trafficked women across Southeastern Europe, and a highly publicized investigation proved UN Peacekeepers were regular clients, committing torture and rape on girls below the age of fifteen, even purchasing women and selling them outright. The film follows the story a woman who was tricked into slavery after pursuing a job offer from a duplicitous family friend, and emphasizes how trafficking women is a seven billion dollar industry in Europe alone.  Counterpoint for Her explains the difference between prostitution and sex slavery, in which the women have no rights and make absolutely no money while being repeatedly sold to new owners at bars and brothels across Eastern and Western Europe.


In the priceless feature-length documentary A Dream Job (2005), Majstorovic approaches the world of Balkan pop-stardom with a raised eye and a tongue-in-cheek. The film pays particular attention to turbofolk music, the wildly popular musical revolution that emerged during the Milosevic ‘90s, which relies upon using women as objects, but presents a vague economic opportunity in its search for starlets.  Turbofolk, as opposed to novocomp or sevdah (also explored), revels in hypersexual aesthetics and elevates “the fast life” of wealth and conspicuous consumption. The film follows a rather un-fazed young woman from Republika Srpska as she becomes a scantily clad, lip-synching background musician in order to achieve financial freedom from her impoverished family.  A Dream Job features honest testimony from superstars Lepa Brena and Hanka Paldum, plus other luminaries and unknowns of the Balkan entertainment industry.


Bosnian documentary film has emerged as a tool to challenge and deconstruct the recent past––as well as the present and future.  At this year’s third annual Bosnia and Herzegovina Film Festival, documentaries are in no shortage, ranging from sad to sadder, and sometimes funny, such as Majstrorovic’s A Dream Job. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak with the tenacious director, whose influences include Fred Wiseman, Dusan Makavejev, Trin T. Minha-ha, about Bosnian filmmaking, her passion, and her work.


Where were you trained, or, where did you learn filmmaking?
A former English major, I got an MA in telecommunications (2001/2003) and took film classes at Ohio University. I also worked for Channel 13 PBS WNET in New York and MTV, I audited some directing classes with Milcho Manchevski, a well-known Macedonian film director, in 2002.  I also did some smaller stuff like Spinners: A San Francisco Drum ‘n’ Bass Story and some commercial video.


In your opinion, has Bosnian film developed its own aesthetic? Where is it going?
I think Bosnian filmmaking was really progressive during the early Kusturica period. [Emir Kusturica is a celebrated director of Bosnian independent cinema, b. 1954. –ed.] Now after the war, you can help it but having it all postwar-esque. Meaning, there are many stereotypes concerning the way stories are told and marketed abroad. I think it’s because foreign audience digests such stories more easily.


I am more into the society and culture, power relations that are not so visible at first, and not about finger-pointing and saying “oh my tragedy was bigger than yours.”  What I try to make is a socio-cultural critical documentary that talks about subtleties, small stories, because you can’t do grand narratives at this day and age. So, the stuff that I make is not very polished, maybe it is even more TV-like than I would want. As for now, there are many good stories that deserve to be told and that’s enough, well that’s been enough for me at the beginning.

If you want your stuff to look real good that’s going to cost you a little bit more than you can normally hope for in Bosnia, unless you are established and mainstream. Talking about a developed aesthetic would be far-fetched. I don’t really like most new Bosnian blockbusters that are now trendy. There are a lot of stereotypes in these new films and a lot of politics. Deliberate politics, and not politics in the sense that “personal is political” as I’d prefer.  But it is good that filmmaking is developing in Bosnia, and Sarajevo Film Festival is a great thing. A lot of it is in Sarajevo, and not in Mostar or Banja Luka, so the voices coming from Sarajevo are ideologically very similar because of the great tragedy that happened there. Other voices, more minor voices are not given a chance and there are many tragedies that deserve to be made into films, and you can find them on all sides. It’s a bit complicated here in the Balkans. I don’t think you can go on exploiting tragedy forever, but it seems to be working in the West.


Did you meet resistance making (or financing) Counterpoint for Her?
Financing came through a State department grant as I am a Ron Brown alumnus, a fellowship given to scholars and professionals from Central and Eastern Europe, but this ended this year.  I applied for it together with 3 other people.  We started shooting in November 2003 and finished it in April 2004.  It was difficult to find the woman who was trafficked, but after extensive search, we did it.

My initial idea was to shoot it as an ethnographic film, I wanted to cook or clean for a shelter and then meet trafficked women through getting real close to them, but at the moment there were none of them at any of the shelters I had access to. The very idea came as I went to have my hair cut some time in 1997 and the hairdresser refused to cut hair of two women who were clearly from the former SSSR because she thought they were prostitutes.  I developed the idea when I was an intern in NY, but the final outcome differed a lot from what I wanted to get. But that’s always like that. People told me I shouldn’t get more deeply involved and I am a paranoid person, but I guess that’s how you combat your own paranoia; and if such filmmaking makes you feel like you are going to change a tiny bit of the society for the better, then there you are. You keep doing it.


A Dream Job really reflects the universality of pop culture and entertainment industries.  In the film you express that a place such as Bosnia may hunger for pop and entertainment more than other places. It’s almost a morale booster. Can you comment on this?
I would not say it’s a pop starvation in the sense that it is in the West. I see it as a lack of other options especially for women. Ilinka says she could either work in a grocery store, betshop or a bar. It’s not only stars like Brena, who you have seen that are now filthy rich. It’s more like getting shitty jobs for $150 a month, and no real gratification to sing or dance, but just to hold the guitar and be a part of the decor. You just have to expose your body pretty much, and nothing else is expected from you. That’s common in Bosnia, the lack of opportunities. And the owner of the TV station in the documentary is not violating any laws.  There is no public criticism in Bosnia so it almost hurts. I mean you can say it’s all very postmodern, but it tragic. It’s where your minds are at.  I thought it would be good to explore the pop culture because it’s where you can really see the patriarchy, and corruption and women almost desperate to make the most in such a deviant society. You have seen the scene with the wings and the pacifier, when he talks about the “new night show for which the script is being worked on.”  I don’t know how well the translation worked but there are so many subtleties just in the language that’s used in Dream Job.


Both films show how easily women can be oppressed by a mix of opportunism, ignorance, malice and sometimes even good intentions. You definitely create both a local, individualized human picture and a larger global one; both films tie economics and geopolitics to self-realization.
Thanks for such an observation; you’ve summed it up here pretty much. I see that what all these women have in common is to express themselves, to be somebody, to have money and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just the more global relations that make it a risky endeavor, and if resorting to hooking or singing or fake singing are the only options, and that nobody gives a damn about it, then, wow, where do you start mending this society?


I recall the moment in Counterpoint for Her when an older woman basically states, “Some women want to be prostitutes. If it makes them happy, that’s their business and it’s up to them.”  It’s very hands-off. Is there still a lack of understanding about sex slavery in Bosnian communities?
Sex slavery supposedly finished in 2003 when [bar owner and kingpin Milorad] Milakovic and some of the bigger bosses were arrested. It’s still going on but it’s less visible, I guess; it’s more underground than it used to be. In the film, I tried to stress the difference between prostitution and sex slavery, and yet now I can see it’s a thin line. I mean how can a woman just decide one day she wants to be a prostitute? I don’t think she does, ever, it is the circumstances, and from there, it’s very, very easy to become a sex slave.


Criminal structures are closely tied with the political ones in Bosnia. You cannot really tell who is corrupted and who is not. But the public is soooo lethargic, and public opinion doesn’t exist. The most politically active group in Bosnia is the pensioners, and it’s because they have nothing to lose. They are true grassroot activists. A lot of brain drain happened, a lot of people left for whatever reason, I don’t know. I teach at University and it’s impossible that my students are more conservative than me. It’s just not possible because you would expect them to be rebellious, well read, well-traveled, progressive, and to fight for their rights. None of this happens on a larger scale because everyone is so poor and screwed by the system.


Do you plan to continue exploring women’s issues through your films?
It happened so with these two but any topic that fits into the “philosophy” of the Center for Social and Cultural Repair (and hammer is our logo) that I have established with a couple of friends is worth exploring and developing. We want to make docs for the marginalized groups and we want to at least provoke the society. Next time it can be Roma or even corrupt politicians, or gays and lesbians who are still unacceptable in Bosnia and God knows what would happen, if two guys kissed on the street.


How have your films been received in Bosnia?
I am a minor director in Bosnia, alternative if you want.  Several festivals and TV broadcasts and that’s it.


Ms. Majstorovic is currently based in the city of Banja Luka of Republika Srpska, Bosnia.


Filmography

SPINNERS: A SAN FRANCISCO DRUM ‘N’ BASS STORY (2002)
KONTRAPUNKT ZA NJU / Counterpoint for Her (2004)
POSAO SNOVA / The Dream Job (2005-work in progress)


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Tuesday, Sep 19, 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 8: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (“Something’s Happening”)
1998, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Karan Johar
Karan Johar is the boy wonder of Bollywood. He wrote and directed Kuch Kuch Hota Hai when he was only 25. It went on to become the biggest hit in Indian cinema - surpassing even DDLJ. What was the secret to the phenomenal success of this sweet musical romantic-comedy? That idyll of bourgeois pleasure and prosperity: 1960s America.  Johar, like many Indians from wealthy families, grew up reading Archie comics and watching Disney films and The Brady Bunch.  Archie and his gang of frisky teenage friends and that co-ed paradise of jocks and cheerleaders known as Riverdale High serve as the inspiration for Johar’s tale of Punjabi puppy love. Cocky playboy Rahul (Shahrukh Khan) falls for the principal’s stylish daughter, Tina (Rani Mukherji), breaking the heart of his best friend, brash tomboy, Anjali (Kajol). Tina dies shortly after childbirth leaving poor Rahul to raise their daughter alone. But through the help of Tina’s letters, Rahul and Tina’s daughter, who Tina named Anjali (a little cloying, perhaps?), reunites Rahul with his best friend and fated love, Anjali.. The appeal of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai operates largely on nostalgia—Archie, The Parent Trap, Beach Blanket Bingo, the Hollywood movies of the ‘60s that worshiped teens, mass consumption, and the wholesome nuclear family. And Johar cleverly reunited Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, two stars whose palpable on-screen chemistry was endearing and achingly tender.


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