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Friday, Apr 13, 2007


Coca-Colonization


With One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder confirmed what everyone already suspected about business interests abroad: that it’s espionage with fringe benefits. One, Two, Three is a movie that satirizes the great American executive lifestyle - the suited stiff glued to the phone, golf on Saturdays, the 2.5 kids, the luscious secretary.  And it does so in the unlikeliest of places – West Berlin circa 1961. To ease America’s anxieties about the spread of Communism, Hollywood producers realized they needed less stodgy suspense thrillers (The Ipcress Files), and more screwball comedies with hapless Bolshies and thwarted plots (think Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader). More reassuring was the idea of a US multinational stationed in a dangerous foreign outpost, generously doling out enticing consumer products to the starving masses. Pop culture is the most effective, insidious colonizer. Every hot-blooded anarchist eventually succumbs to its seduction in the form of Marvel comics and Wrigley’s Bubblegum. It was how America won The Cold War.


Wilder must have been thinking along these lines when he and his long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, penned One, Two, Three in the early ‘60s. Wilder, an Austrian émigré to Hollywood since the late ‘30s, was all too familiar with the hot-air pomposity of totalitarian politics. He wanted to mock Soviet pretentiousness just as his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, had done deftly in Ninotchka. But rather than mimic Lubitsch’s effervescent style of romantic comedy, Wilder stamped his own brand of cynicism onto this tale of bungled corporate intrigue.


He couldn’t have found a better star than Jimmy Cagney, who imparted all the wiry, bantam energy he brought to his famous criminal roles into this lead.  Wilder, a playful provocateur, in casting Cagney as an executive, was making a bold statement about American business—scratch a businessman, find a gangster, vice versa.  Cagney, who hadn’t made a movie since the late 40s, was called back to cinema to essay C.R. MacNamara (a wry nod to then Machiavellian Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara), a fast-talking, scheming executive for the Coca-Cola Corporation stationed in West Berlin. There, he tries to advance Coke to the neighboring Russians in East Berlin in an effort to be promoted to head of European operations, located in the glamorous London office. To MacNamara’s dismay, all headquarters back in Atlanta requires of him is to chaperone the CEO’s daughter, a perky sorority socialite, Scarlett Hazeltine, around Germany on her Grand Tour of Europe. Scarlett, played to broad comic exaggeration by the lovely Pamela Tiffin, comes across as Brittney Spears in pearls and gloves: a boozy, lascivious mess of a woman who can’t control herself around men.


To MacNamara’s worst fears, a few weeks into her stay she elopes with a hot-tempered Communist revolutionary from East Berlin, Otto Piffil. Doing what any decent surrogate father would, he concocts a plan to get Otto arrested by the East German police and away from Scarlett. Once Otto’s motorcycle whirrs through the Brandenburg Gate with large balloons emblazoned “Go Home Russkies,” the poor boy doesn’t have a chance. But before Otto can waste away in prison, Scarlett reveals she’s pregnant, and MacNamara has to not only conceive of a way of bribing the officials to release Otto, but to transform Otto from a unwashed, angry beatnik to a Brooks Brothers-suited Count (there’s nothing an American robber-baron loves more than European minor royalty) charming enough to please Scarlett’s parents.


In a veritable symphony of high-speed commands, MacNamara micro-manages every aspect of Otto’s transformation. He bribes a monocle-wearing, impoverished Count, who works as a valet in the men’s restroom of The Hotel Kempinski, to adopt Otto. He meticulously picks out tube socks and demanding ties straight off of his employees’ necks. MacNamara throws himself at the task with the kind of gusto he should be using every day at work but never gets the chance to because his corporation is such a well-oiled machine it doesn’t really need him in the first place. But he delivers in the end. MacNamara is so successful that Scarlett’s father decides that Otto is the man to head Coca-Cola’s European operations. MacNamara must settle for a vice-presidency in the Atlanta office, a city that he acidly refers to as “Siberia with mint juleps.”


One, Two, Three has never been considered one of Wilder’s best movies and it’s obvious why. It lacks the innovative twisting of genre he showed in Double Indemnity, the romantic gloss of Sabrina, or the sinister, elegiac quality of Sunset Boulevard. As far as Wilder goes, One, Two, Three, is average, with some recycled elements of his peerless screwball masterpiece, Some Like it Hot—a cross-dressing scrawny man and the men who lust after him, a jiggly buxom blond, the riotous confusion that ensues from mistaken identity. But as a political comedy, it is inventive and daring.


It pushes all the sensitive buttons of America’s complacency in foreign affairs, particularly as The Cuban Missile Crisis made everyone uneasy. The New Yorker nervously suggested Wilder had pitched his “circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery,” and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the year’s other movie about postwar Germany), thought Wilder’s movie so tasteless that he apologized for it at the Moscow Film Festival. The public’s anxiety to Wilder’s farce was not unlike the jumpy nervousness that followed our own brazen political satires, like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s underrated and quickly hidden, That’s My Bush!  But true to form and genius, Wilder couldn’t have cared less. Comedy comes with no apologies.


One, Two, Three  looks ahead to the two great black comedies of the 60s, the playfully dark and brutal Dr. Strangelove and The Producers maniacal and relentless Nazi baiting. It’s a clever movie that shows that people are seldom loyal, least of all to ideology. And the film works well for all its incessant one-line gags pulled straight from the headlines (when MacNamara cautiously warns his tailor not to tell Otto that the cufflinks he’s wearing are French “with the whole Algeria situation being what it is”). One enjoyably ridiculous moment occurs when the East German police torture Otto into confessing he’s an American spy by playing a high-pitched, squeaky version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over and over again till the young man screams to submission. One, Two, Three is full of shrewd jokes about America’s gift for exploiting its cultural power and of the eagerness of countries willing to be exploited and the futility of those who try to resist.


C.R. MacNamara’s vision of the world isn’t altogether far from the truth. No other American product has had the imperial power enjoyed by Coca-Cola. It’s everywhere. I went backpacking through Malaysia last summer and was reluctantly convinced to go boating through the dense, lush jungles of Sarawalk. It was a haunting, ethereal experience right out of Apocalypse Now.  When my friend, a hardy Peace Corps alum (the sojurn was his idea), needed to go to the bathroom, we stopped at this makeshift rest area, a wooden shack that served as a provisions shop. The shop sold only three items: broken flashlights, cigarettes, and numerous cases of lukewarm Coke. The same situation exists in India, where people who are afraid to drink the local water constantly swill bottles of Coke. Three-fourths of the world’s population suffers from tooth decay and doesn’t seem to care. Coke is the poor man’s nectar, the self-anointed elixir of democracy, and it’s taken over our planet with its rapacious corporate tentacles. Its power is an undeniable fact, and since we can’t control it, we can at least laugh about it.


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Thursday, Apr 12, 2007


Buckle up, brave cinematic souls, it’s going to be a bumpy weekend ride. On the premium pay channels alone we have a brazen battle of extremes – the graceful vs. the graceless, the timely vs. the tacky. The shift between the offerings on HBO and Cinemax alone are enough to cause anyone permanent aesthetic whiplash. Still, at least there are recommendable offerings this time around. Some Fridays it’s near impossible finding something worth suggesting. The pickings are a little slimmer in the Independent and Outsider arena. Once you get past SE&L‘s top choices, the alternates are shaky at best. Still, secure yourself in your home theater saddle and prepare to traverse at least a couple of these movies all the way to beyond the blue horizon – or at least to the end of their running time. And if you wander over to any of the other titles talked about for 14 April – well, at least you were warned:


Premiere Pick
United 93


Some still consider it the best film of 2006 – all lack of Oscar love excluded – a sparse and very authentic recreation of the doomed September 11th flight. Others argue that it remains a difficult if not next to impossible movie to enjoy, an experience that so readily places you in the situations playing out on that fateful day that something akin to “entertainment” can’t be found. But there is no denying the artistic impact this movie has had on the cinematic depiction of this American tragedy. Paul Greengrass set the benchmark for all films to follow, and as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center proved, it’s a hard standard to fulfill. Whether or not the small screen will lessen any of the narrative’s impact remains to be seen, but one thing is definitely for certain. United 93 will stand in motion picture history as one of the most honest, truest, and most touching films ever made about a horrible act of terrorism. (14 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Big Momma’s House 2


Groan…it’s Martin Lawrence doing the cash grab thing again, and audiences are wise to his ruse. There is nothing more outwardly disturbing than an African American comedian, copying another of his ethnic counterparts – in this case, Eddie Murphy – in making fun of their own race. Women of color – especially LARGE women of color – should find these scrawny screw-ups and kick their asses – immediately. (14 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Keeping Up with the Steins


Consider it a Jewish My Super Sweet 16 as the title family creates the kind of over the top bar mitzvah that is all too common nowadays. Of course, director Scott Marshall (son of filmmaker Gary) can’t leave well enough alone, having to impart his good natured comedy with as much pathos and pap as possible. He even manages to get his elderly dad to drop trou for the camera. Talk about your unnecessary rites of passage. (14 April, Starz, 9PM EST)


Capote


This is the movie that finally won Phillip Seymour Hoffman his long overdue Oscar. That’s good. It’s also the film that so completely overwhelmed the In Cold Blood zeitgeist that the equally wonderful Infamous got swept under the theatrical table. That’s bad. Offering a sensational chance to compare and contrast, this subtle Oscar bait of an effort is first up on the premium pay cable channels. (14 April, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Coffin Joe Trilogy


Jose Mojica Marins is one of the most misunderstood filmmakers in his native Brazil. A deeply religious country, many find his affronts toward the church and God to be outright blasphemy, and he has spent more time defending his work than creating more of it. Thanks to DVD, and a long growing cult of international horror fans, we have a chance to experience what the South American populace finds so scandalous. And indeed, Marins is a man courting controversy every step of the way. The three films being offered here – At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse, and Awakening of the Beast  - are considered by many to be the best of the director’s early works. They definitely do a fascinating job of establishing his onscreen alter ego – the power mad Prince of Darkness Coffin Joe. So grab a bowl of popcorn, dim all the lights, and be prepared to have this Brazilian wonder completely mesmerize you. (19 April, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Leaving Normal


Christine Laiti and Meg Tilly play less brash versions of Thelma and Louise in this girl power road pic directed by future epic helmer Edward Zwick. In fact, comparisons between the two films probably killed Normal‘s chances at the box office. Of course, the clunky script (by broad comedy scribe Ed “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” Solomon) didn’t help. Instead of compelling, this films goes cockeyed, crazy, and then cloying. (14 April, Sundance, 12PM EST)

Leaving Las Vegas


Many in his current fanbase may not know that Nicholas Cage was once a serious actor. A decade or so lost in action hero la-la land will create such artistic amnesia. Right before he sold-out for the sake of a paycheck, he provided this devastating turn as an alcoholic, self-destructive man. Planning on drinking himself to death, he brings Elizabeth Shue’s prostitute along on his depressing, downward spiral. The result is acting aces. (15 April, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Pray


It starts out like your typical kidnapping story – a desperate couple swipes a child and contacts the parents looking for ransom. That’s when they get the shattering news – said hostage has been dead for over a year! Guess its time to bring on the unsettled spirits and ghost gals covered in black stringy, spook show hair. But thanks to some psychological tension, and a nice helping of gore, we survive the stereotyping. (16 April, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Outsider Option
Coffy/Foxy Brown


It needs to be said so let’s just come right out and say it – Pam Grier is FINE! Even today, as she enters a more ‘mature’ phase of life, the lady is a looker in all the right ways. But back when she was the queen of the blaxploitation scene, she was scalding sex incarnate. Not only that, but she could kick some major bad guy booty as well. Featuring two of her most infamous roles, Turner Classic Movie’s Underground series (with or without host Rob Zombie – who knows anymore) will give modern audiences a chance to experience this first lady of fisticuffs, though it will be interesting to see what they do with the whole violence/language/nudity thing. There is a great deal of all in both. Cutting these films would be a crime, especially since their taboo-busting elements were what made them so special in the first place.  (13 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Phantasm II


With Anchor Bay celebrating Don Coscarelli’s life behind the camera in DVD form, here is one movie that won’t be making it onto the digital domain anytime soon – at least, in Region 1. Thanks to rights issues with Universal, this superior sequel to the director’s definitive fright flick remains MIA. And that’s too bad, since it’s a sensationally sick revisit to the world of Reggie and Mike – and that maniacal monster The Tall Man. (14 April, ThrillerMax, 11:50PM EST)

Electra Glide in Blue


Hail Canada! Thanks to their quirky b-movie channel, this amazing Robert Blake vehicle from 1973 is getting another North American release. Playing a motorcycle cop whose desperate to make the Homicide division, we wind up with a taut thriller couched in the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ conceit. Though many know him today as an accused killer, Blake was an amazing actor, and this able actioner more than proves it. (17 April, Drive In Classics, Canada, 11PM EST)

84 Charing Cross Road


Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins are long distance pen pals in this ersatz romance from British filmmaker David Hugh Jones. Based on a true story, this charming case of Trans Atlantic correspondence (between a NY script reader and a UK book shop owner) grows into a real primer of friendship, love and life. Those looking for a sensational “sleeper” will definitely enjoy this effort. (19 April, Indieplex, 7:15PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Apr 11, 2007


Grindhouse is not a return to the sordid salad days of drive-in b-movies. It is not a careful or accurate recreation of the original raincoat crowd experience. The name is a gimmick, a throwaway cinematic stunt purposely poised to draw in the curious as well as the converted. Sadly, it seems that both will wind up only slightly disappointed. What Grindhouse is, however, is a slam bam smash ‘em up celebration of the freedom given film by the exploitation industry. While the mainstream was sitting back, letting community standards and self-appointed censors determine what could and could not be shown on the nation’s theater screens, producers like those in the notorious business brotherhood, ‘The 40 Thieves’, were blurring the boundaries between the taboo and the marketable. If it weren’t for them, and the outrageous movies they made, the modern film works would be languishing in Eisenhower era conservatism.


You can see the adoration that these filmmakers have for the genre’s expansion of the language of cinema within every frame of this far out double feature. Since directors Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino understand that no one can recapture the actual feel of these fascinating entertainment relics, the next best thing in their mind is to make sure any tribute is terrific. For his infected human holocaust known as Planet Terror, Rodriguez reimagines the zombie film as a combination gorefest and chick flick. We spend so much time with put upon go-go gal Cherry Darling and equally tormented Dr. Dakota Block that the plentiful grue tends to trip up the ample emotional undercurrent. The same thing applies to Quentin Tarantino’s car crash thriller Death Proof. Here, we’re dealing with non-erotic female bonding, with sensational scenes of female empowerment breaking up the otherwise astounding action sequences.


It’s interesting to note that both films feature female heroines and mostly male villains. In the case of Planet Terror, cameos from Bruce Willis and QT himself bring a decidedly paternalist pall over the entire proceedings. Even with Freddy Rodriguez’s machismo man turn as Wray, it’s the girls dealing most of the death blows. Tarantino treads a little more lightly in his film, giving the ladies room to gossip and cruise before turning them against their tormentor. Perhaps even more startling, Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike is a wonderful contradiction in testosterone terms. When he’s able to torment his prey, forcing them to realize the fate that awaits them, he’s all chest-puffing bluster. But the minute he gets injured – or perhaps, a better way to say it is the second someone gets a physical advantage over him – he whines and cries like a sissified stuck pig.


It’s an interesting dynamic to explore, one you’re not used to seeing on the big screen. But this is what Grindhouse is all about – challenging convention, disrupting the status quo and pushing the envelope of acceptable cinematic content. There is a lot of gore here – more than perhaps any dozen so called horror fests could ever hope to achieve. Rodriguez especially loves to pour on the arterial spray, and there are times when torrents of red stuff shoot off across the frame in ridiculous rivers of rot. Credit has to go to all the F/X technicians and stunt people who worked on this project. Tarantino’s first act car wreck has got to be one of the most disturbing destructive images ever captured on film. You feel like you’re looking at one of those driver’s education shockers, the ones that warned you via real dead bodies posed post-catastrophe.


Even more interesting are the performances. Though many critics would have you believe that the cast of both Planet Terror and Death Proof are putting on their purposeful schlock shoes to imitate bad camp acting from the past, this is definitely not the case. Indeed, all throughout Mr. Pulp Fiction‘s flick, we are treated to some of the liveliest work any actress has offered onscreen this year. Rosario Dawson, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito are fine in their sly supporting turns. Equally effective are Zöe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double for Kill Bill), Tracie Thomas, and a fierce Sydney Poitier as the main obsession of Russell’s clever creation, Stuntman Mike. From Rodriguez’s end of the spectrum, everyone in his company is banging on ballistic cylinders. It’s great to see Michael Biehn back, as well as Jeff Fahey in a barbequing badass role. But the movie really belongs to Rose McGowen and Marley Shelton as Cherry and Dakota, respectively. They’re the yin and yang of the narrative, the pro and con of a crazy crackpot horror homage.


In fact, the filmmaking here is so stellar that it’s hard to continue referring to these films as Grindhouse features. The exploitation movie had no real artistic aspirations. It didn’t want to be a provider of great action or a bringer of substantial scare. Their movies were all about the bottom line – carefully creating a project and making sure that, even with limited returns realized, a profit would be more or less guaranteed. Here, Rodriguez wants to give you his take on the entire living dead/sci-fi shock genre, while Tarantino is remaking Vanishing Point with vixens. QT is on fire during his film, both his car chases and his conversations crackling with energy and movement. Our Sin City savant is equally adapt at creating onscreen mayhem. The attack on the hospital, and the stand-off at The Bone Shack are astounding (and let’s not even get into the splatter spectacle of the last act helicopter sequence).


And then there are the fake trailers – four in all – and each one is a hilarious joy to behold. First up is the Danny Trejo treasure Machete, a magnificent combination of Charles Bronson badness and Mexicali menace. The shot of our tattooed hero getting hot and heavy with a couple of naked babes is worth the price of admission alone. Then we’ve got Rob Zombie’s ridiculously perfect Werewolf Women of the SS. It’s so much like watching a collection of Ilsa outtakes that it’s frightening. Shaun of the Dead‘s Edgar Wright delivers his brilliant Hammer/Amicus amalgamation, Don’t, and Eli Roth revisits the ‘80s slasher film with the decidedly sick Thanksgiving. Each one of these mini-movies is magnificent, played perfectly by actors perfectly in sync with what the cinematic category demands. With the possibility of a Machete movie going direct to DVD, it appears there will be more to Grindhouse‘s legacy than a pair of amazingly entertaining movies by a couple of maverick filmmakers.


All of which begs the question – why isn’t this superior entertainment more successful? Are people really put off by all the violence? Did the Weinstein’s (the main men behind the movie) make a fatal error in not marketing the movie beyond the film geek demo? Have gals avoided what is probably the most potent girl power proclamation since The Bride battled Bill for reclamation of her life, simply because they think this is some silly slice of jock rock? Whatever the reason, individuals interested in spending three hours under the spell of some significant cinematic art would be well advised to queue up for this masterwork. Unlike the films it fancies, this Grindhouse may have a shorter theatrical engagement than anyone involved initially imaged. The reason for such a showing remains a mystery. But one things for certain – this is a resplendent reminder of why movies are magic – and the forbidden zone trooping talents that created the original pathways to said illusions. 


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Tuesday, Apr 10, 2007


Director Michel Gondry has long made a career of re-hashing his particular brand of French surrealism. He’s given us a number of mildly interesting music videos (from such cutting edge acts as The White Stripes and Bjork), as well as the intriguingly dreamlike features Human Nature (which is sorely underrated), and the surprisingly popular Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which Gondry somehow managed to take home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). The biggest problem with being a whimsical man-child (which Gondry clearly identifies with through his work) is that it permeates everything you create: every precious maneuver becomes repetitive, every fantastical sequence becomes obnoxious.


Perhaps Gondry needs to perhaps step back and re-evaluate his stock style as his current offering, The Science of Sleep, is merely another regurgitation of his boyhood dreams and fears. The director is searching for explanations that connect reality and dream life, but only offers us his own point of view (which is more akin to a 13 year-old girl’s romantic sense of love and starry graphics—I half expected a parade of glittery unicorns to spring from someone’s imagination and begin a chorus line). Unfortunately, it’s the same point of view we have been “treated” to for years.


Centering in on Stéphane (a multi-lingual, appealing Gael Garcia Bernal), The Science of Sleep wants to detail the tribulations of an artist’s turbulent mind, but actually plays out more like the fantasies of a petulant little boy (this point is driven home by the fact that Stéphane actually sleeps in his boyhood bedroom—something I found singularly irritating and cutesy). In the world of Stéphane, spending so much time alone is detrimental, and everyday objects begin to animate themselves as shadows creep around ominously. As he says “dreams are very tiring”.


He watches everything from “Stéphane TV”, the control room inside his chaotic brain that produces a cadre of bizarre images: the imaginarily heroic Stéphane sprouts gigantic hands to fight his “evil” co-workers, while in another scene, he battles an electric shaver that gives his boss long hair and a beard instead of cleaning him up. In true Freudian fashion, the filmmaker brings up a recurring dialogue with his mother (French icon Miou-Miou) that always seems to arrive at inappropriate time, much to his chagrin. In his head, Stéphane is a dynamo; in reality he is swallowed up by issues with women (notably his mother), his jealousy (professional and personal), and his own narcissistic ego.


Stéphane is given a job doing typesetting for a calendar company, a job which his mother arranged from him. The whiny young man is shocked to learn that he will not be performing creative tasks, but instead will be doing formulaic work that could be done by a machine.


As he becomes disenchanted with his job, surrealism begins to show in everything. It’s in Stéphane’s dreams (which is the only place where he realizes his artistic potential), his waking life (where he is essentially awkward), and all places in between. Perhaps what Gondry is trying to say with his audaciously colorful mise-en-scene is that the surreal isn’t all that significant; that we all experience such wildness in our dreams and in our reality all the time. It’s really no big deal. Everybody daydreams, so in this respect surrealism and dreams are quite mundane—they are perhaps vivid when happening, but they are also quite commonplace. 


That the film takes place in Paris is a grand homage to pioneering surrealist films such as Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and the concept of Dadaism. Stéphane and his new friend/paramour Stephanie (the amazing Charlotte Gainsbourg—the sole force that saves the movie from complete disgrace), actually at one point ride a giant, animated “hobby horse”, an image that pounds it’s message home like a hammer to the brain. The pair is practically engulfed in ineptly obvious bizarre imagery.


Stephanie implores Stéphane to “stop acting like a child” (an additional bit of sound advice for the unstable young man might be to also get some Prozac, ASAP), but she is really no authority on the subject: Stephanie is equally plagued by whimsy, and by the looks of it, she enjoys letting go of control over her actions every bit as much as Stéphane. She is generally reserved and quiet, but something in Stéphane brings out her dormant, girlish feelings. And the next time someone decides to cast Gainsbourg as a piano-playing singer/songwriter, they should have the good sense to incorporate her lovely compositions into the story. That was an unforgivable foible on Gondry’s part.


The inane parade of images from a film such as Entr’acte (which was fairly cutting-edge, given it was made in 1924), from the weirdly-angled shots of a ballerina twirling to the little black dolls with expanding, balloon-esque heads, are all intrinsic to Gondry’s overall purview: his body of work seems to solely rely on these sorts of silly, almost repetitive images and concepts. It’s as though the director wants the viewers of The Science of Sleep to think they are engulfed in dada, that everything happening is totally random. The opposite is true of his finished product: everything is so meticulously scripted, so neatly-packaged, and so ably tied together that the concept of happily not making any sense is thrown out the window for the banality of extreme, rigid logic.


It would be refreshing if Gondry could completely escape this stale style so deeply ingrained in his own conventions and tackle his next filmic subject with fresh eyes and more detached focus. For a director that people believe to be so cutting edge, Gondry is really just another imposter - borrowing (or should we call it stealing shamelessly?) from his predecessors. We get it; your childhood was filled with bizarre, artsy French magic and you have mommy issues. Can we finally move on to something a little more original that fulfills some of your artistic promise?


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Monday, Apr 9, 2007


OOOO – it’s a bad week for DVDs. One of the worst in recent memory. It’s hard to figure out where the problem lies. There is lots of product sitting around, big title films from 2006 and recently released underachievers that could easily overpower the marketplace this week. It’s merely a matter of tweaking the turnaround time. Similarly, a holiday like Easter should have no effect on the sell-through strategy of your typical Tinsel Town tyrant. All manner of horror, science fiction and gratuitous genre offerings swamp the equally religious Christmas season year in and year out. Maybe it’s the commercial calm before the substantial shilling storm. Whatever the case, be prepared to be massively disappointed when you head to your favorite B&M this week. Aside from a couple of compelling titles – including the solid SE&L pick – there is nothing but double dips and drek on board for 10 April:


Payback: Straight Up – The Director’s Cut


One of the beauties of DVD – among its many technical joys – is the concept of artistic appreciation. Unlike VHS, which couldn’t find a way to include the perspective with its product, or laserdisc which lost its battle for cinematic celebration thanks to limited appeal, the tiny aluminum disc has revolutionized the way films are featured and/or frozen in time. Take this unusual reissue. Back in 1999, with his career taking a necessary downturn, manic Mel Gibson decided to get good and gritty with this taut little thriller. Paramount, unhappy with the way things turned out, booted Oscar winning writer/director Brian Helgeland off the project, re-edited and rescored the film (with Gibson’s input), and released it to minor box office success. Now, the original man behind the lens gets a chance to air out his version of the movie for interested fans. The buzz has been unbelievably positive, and argues for DVD’s place as the perfect preservationist medium. Even with limited audience interest, certain films can still find fans and flourish. This is clearly the case here.

Other Titles of Interest


Bobby


Unlike JFK, which took the unsettling reality of the assassination of President Kennedy and turned it into a surreal social litmus test, Emilio Estevez’s Altman-esque approach to the death of candidate RFK is not so confrontational. Instead, it’s a reactive effort, with the events of the day reflected within its multi-character conceit. A clear critical “love it or hate it” project, there is still a brilliant movie to be made of this undeniable tragedy. Sadly, Estevez misses it by a couple of well-meaning miles.

My Father, the Genius


While it sounds like the standard indie film fodder – neglected child makes a movie about the eccentric father who failed to love her long ago – the best thing about this ditzy documentary is how balanced it is. Lucy Small is not out to vilify her dad, just understand him. And she takes us along for the revelatory ride. The result is an inside look at famed architect Glen Howard Small and the many parenting pitfalls he left behind.

Phantasm/ Phantasm III


Instead of going the Region 2 route, and offering a collection of all the Phantasm films, newly remastered and presented in a signature silver orb, Anchor Bay is applying a piecemeal approach. First up is Don Coscarelli’s initial classic, fully dressed with an anamorphic image and excellent extras. The third installment is no so lucky. It gets a packaging polish, but little else. While less than definitive, the old DVD saying of Region 1 beggars not being choosers apparently applies.


Slaughter Night (Sl8N8)


When it comes to international horror, no one is looking to the Netherlands for their genre jones. But with Slachtnacht (translation: Slaughter Night) a nation noted for its liberal policies toward drugs and sex can now safely secure a place in the pantheon of the paranormal. While not everything is original about this subterranean slasher film (it takes place in an abandoned mine) fright fans will still have a very good – and gory – time.

Survival Quest


Along with the Phantasm films, Anchor Bay continues to celebrate the directing efforts of Don Coscarelli with this little seen survivalist thriller. Starring b-movie legend Lance Henriksen as a Outward Bound-like instructor who must push his city slicking students into learning to co-existence with nature, this collision with a group of mindless militia types has some nice characterization, and a great deal of Coscarelli’s signature invention and wit.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Video Violence 1 & 2


Every once in a while, SE&L steps up and offers a motion picture PSA, a stern cinematic warning to be heeded at all creative costs. In this case, a company called Camp Motion Pictures is giving DVD a decidedly black eye. It’s releasing what can best be described as bottom of the barrel, direct to video dung circa the mid-‘80s on an unsuspecting genre fanbase. These filmic flim flam artists would have you believe that this pair of titles, nothing more than Super VHS gore goofiness from the Greed Decade, represents some manner of MIA motion picture macabre masterworks. In reality, these efforts are repugnant, the kind of amateur atrocity that the readily available 21st century technology is supposed to destroy. Don’t get caught up in the horror hype, or think that, somehow, independent director Gary Cohen has managed to create some kind of camp or kitsch classics. Instead, these awful offerings will test the terror tolerance levels of even the most devoted fan of off-title trash.

 


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