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Sunday, Feb 25, 2007


It was almost as if they did it on purpose. Two hours in, and Oscar was bucking the trend. Eddie Murphy was left standing at the altar, his all but guaranteed Best Supporting Actor award walking off with Alan Arkin. You could almost see the cloud caused by Norbit filling up the Kodak Theater. Then Dreamgirls suffered another setback when it’s 60% chance of winning the Best Song category was completely ignored. A certainly shocked Melissa Etheridge walked onto the stage to the thunderous applause of an audience already in love with everything that Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth stood for. Even the ancillary categories got into the act. A little known animated short called The Danish Poet beat out a category of competitors that each sounded like a shoe-in.


But then it all collapsed, falling apart faster than Clint Eastwood’s remarks for specially recognized recipient Ennio Morricone. Instead of continuing the snubs, instead of recognizing something other than the predicted winners, Oscar went right back to following the formula. Though it seemed like it could conceivably continue the twist ending trend - they gave the cinematography award to Pan’s Labyrinth (beating out favorite Children of Men) only to turn around and award Germany’s The Lives of Others over Guillermo Del Toro’s popular pick – the voting members decided to stick to the script. With the exception of The Departed for Best Picture, the rest of the major categories went as planned.


And in some ways, that’s how it’s meant to be. What would have been the story this manic Monday had Babel swept all the categories, or if Peter O’Toole had finally won his well deserved trophy? Would the headlines read differently had Martin Scorsese walked out of the ceremony sans the little gold man, and would anyone outside a certain cinematic fanbase really bat an eye had Helen Mirren been upset by, say, the absentee Dame Judi Dench? No, Hollywood handed the media just enough spectacle mixed with speculation to guarantee a lot of post-presentation quarterbacking. But that’s all. While it may be interesting to ponder these questions while going over the big night’s picks and pans, it doesn’t make for a satisfying celebration of film. 


It’s fairly obvious that somewhere along the line, Dreamgirls wasted all its acquired Academy Awards goodwill. Snubbed from most of the important categories (actor, actress, director and film) it could only snag an obvious victory for Jennifer Hudson. Had that predicted incident not occurred, the heavily hyped musical would have only had the Best Achievement in Sound award to its name (kind of obvious, don’t you think?). Similarly, Babel was oft cited as the Crash of 2007, a stunning possible spoiler with as many detractors as defenders. Oddly enough, it too was tripped up – multiple times. Of its seven nominations, it could only win in the Best Score category. Even Little Miss Sunshine underachieved. It’s wins for Arkin and Best Original Screenplay represent a 50% return on its four lowly nods, but for a film regularly anointed by divergent groups as the year’s best, even that number seems like an underachievement.


Then there’s poor Guillermo Del Toro. How horrid was Oscar to him? Here’s a man who made what was, arguably, one of the greatest foreign films of the last few decades, a work easily comparable to the likes of Fellini and Buñel, and yet he has to sit back and watch as his work merits three technical awards. What seemed like a sweep at the beginning of the evening turned into a kind of inverse rebuff. As a matter of fact, if you look at the awards Pan’s Labyrinth lost, you’d think the Academy had it out for him personally (two of the three losses were for his direct involvement in the film). The same could be said for Disney. Aside from a lone statue for The Pirates of the Caribbean‘s F/X work, the studio was shut out of the Best Animated Short Subject and Feature category. In all, the House of Mouse and its partner Pixar lost four potential Oscars.


Certainly there are reasons to celebrate. It was a smooth move on the part of the telecast to have Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppolla and George Lucas present the Best Director category. Though it gave conspiracy theorists fuel to fuss that the Academy Awards voting (and results) are not as secret as one thinks, it was awesome to see Scorsese take the stage to the warm embraces of the men with whom he helped shape the ‘70s – the last great decade of film. It’s great that he finally has the Academy monkey off his back. Now maybe they can recognize him when he makes one of his truly great films. Similarly, Al Gore’s victory for An Inconvenient Truth may have marked another illustration of Tinsel Town’s liberal leanings, but the piercing documentary on global warming really does deserve all the supporting accolades it can get. Even Ellen DeGeneres was warm and witty, using her dry and droll style as the perfect counterbalance to what always ends up being a sadly sloppy spectacle of self-importance.


Naturally, the Academy still can’t get its shindig technicalities together. Pointless montage tributes by the likes of Michael Mann (some random look at America in movies) were upstaged by even worse visual dance interpretations of the nominated films by the stupid shadow ballet of something called Pilobolus. While those in the theater got to witness the warm embrace that Morricone gave Eastwood after his Once Upon a Time in the West-less resume was screened prior to the awarding of his honorary Oscar, the folks at home missed the moment. Whoever was doing the directing decided that random shots of clueless stars was better than viewing a little Spaghetti Western history. Similarly, George Miller’s award for Happy Feet was another of those minor upsets that will end up being overblown by pundits come column time, but Mr. Road Warrior needs a better stylist. He looked like an Aussie barrel of petrol in a bad penguin suit.


Overall, Oscar remains a horrible waste of nearly four hours, superfluous Celine Dion included. Another big budget high profile release from a major Hollywood studio loaded with celebrated superstar talent ends up walking away with Best Picture, the pre-season awards glut tore all the tension out of the major triumphs, and Jack Nicholson was once again the self-imposed life of the party (apparently, in his next film, he’ll be channeling Rod Steiger). The artist formerly known as Dirty Harry proved he can’t improvise worth a crap and Leonardo DeCaprio has sexy stoic game face to spare. It was a night of prepared statements on folded index cards, frequent shout outs to God, and the overwhelming impression of a major awards derailment diverted. It was safe. It was static. It was Oscar.


Maybe one year the Academy will simply go for broke. It will ignore SAG and the DGA, the WGA and the Golden Globes, and decide for itself what deserves end of the cinematic season praise. It will press past the publicists eager to meter out a little more marketing mantle and avoid the studio heads who hold the fate of the film community in their baffling business minded mitts. Instead of ignoring movies like The Fountain or Children of Men, it will find room on its plate for inventive, edgy efforts. There may even be a time when comedy comes to the fore, finally taking its place alongside the drama and the musical as Best Picture mainstays. Until that day, we can be thankful for the little surprises scattered amongst the aggravating annual afterthoughts.


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Thursday, Feb 22, 2007


It’s bandwagon jumping time, and since Hollywood is about ready to hand out its own brand of bewildering backslapping, the seven month old SE&L figures it too can champion its own choices for award winners. Oscar might have the hoopla, the designer duds, and all that staggering star power, but what the newly christened SEALS have is something the Academy can never boast – artistic integrity. Granted, the gray hairs in the group sometimes get it right – can’t argue with all their choices, Shakespeare in Love aside – and it’s possible that these new prizes will clash with conventional thinking. But when it comes right down to it, if Blockbuster Video, MTV and The National Rolling (Down a Hill) Association can declare their preferences for the year’s trophy-deserving best, why can’t we?


That being said, we have to set up some guidelines. First and foremost, as joking Johnny-Come-Latelys, we will avoid the already nominated Academy entries. If it has already been pointed out by Oscar, we will let the Gold One have his glory and simply move on. After all, nothing smacks more of Tinsel Town tonsils to tushy than agreeing on who they feel deserves Best of Year recognition. Secondly, we will try to mine the ENTIRE previous 12 months in film. We won’t skip over efforts from January or March just because most of the cachet pictures wind up playing between November and December. And finally, this isn’t a competition. Other choices may be mentioned, but the SEALS don’t play the nomination game. Either you’re a winner, or you’re not.


So, without further ado, lame jokes from a PC host, or an interpretive dance number based around the choices for Best Song, here are the 2007 SEALS:


Best Film – The Prestige
This one is easy – it was SE&L’s favorite film of 2006 and remains, even with last minute entries like Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth, the greatest artistic triumph of the cinematic calendar year. Christopher Nolan may not have a lot of mantle candy to ogle when this awards season is over, and there are still those who dismiss this movie as an overcomplicated lament configuration, but here’s one filmmaker who can rest assured that, decades from now, his magician film will be a heralded motion picture masterpiece. Can any of Oscar’s current candidates claim that?


Best Director – Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men)
Here’s a head scratcher. In a medium that frequently loves to reward visionary filmmakers with aesthetics larger than their commercial counterparts, why was Cuarón’s work in Children of Men more or less marginalized? Perhaps it has something to do with the stigma of serious science fiction thrust upon this stunningly apocalyptic film. As an illustration of society in biological freefall, and a wounded allegory to the pointlessness of armed conflict/resistance, Cuarón does what all directors dealing with war typically avoid – he shows why life is more important.


Best Actor – Toby Jones (Infamous)
If Oscar had any brains, and being a small metal statue its fairly obvious that he doesn’t, it would have dropped any one of the five nominated non-entities selected and given British thespian Jones a toss. As Truman Capote – yes AGAIN, you have a problem with that??? -  dealing with his mixed motives of career vs. comfort, this version of the famed writer gets to hobnob with the spoiled and snotty while finding the sympathetic heart inside a Cold Blood-ed killer. Capote may be more serious, but Infamous and Jones are more insightful…and iconic. 


Best Actress – Jenna Fischer (Lollilove)
It’s the best film that no one has seen, and it features some of the best, most self-effacing acting in a mock documentary ever. Fisher, now famous for her role on NBC’s The Office, and her Hollywood screenwriter hubby James Gunn, brainstormed this under appreciated take on confused celebrity and their equally inept charitable causes. While the film’s format can allow for shameless mugging (right James?) it also gave Fisher a chance to play both serious and spoiled, clueless and cunning. She’s likeable and loathsome at the same time. Now that’s acting.


Best Supporting Actor – David Bowie (The Prestige)
He’s barely on screen long enough to register real potency, but there is something about Ziggy Stardust as the inventor of alternating current that seems so cosmically correct. Bowie, never one for spectacular acting turns, here seems like the grand old man of electricity, reduced to hiding from the monopoly minded Thomas Edison and his incandescent thugs. For his gorgeous accent alone, so clipped it cuts through conversations like a delicate little knife, the performance deserves rewarding.


Best Supporting Actress – Rosario Dawson (Clerks II)
How is this for an acting mission impossible? You are called in by Kevin Smith, creator of the glorified geek View Askew universe, asked to play the part of a fast food manager in love with a lumpy loser and – oh yeah – the project will be a sequel to the filmmaker’s first cinematic touchstone. That’s the requirements foisted upon this fascinating performer, and Ms. Dawson stands firm, outright stealing the movie from her wisecracking cast mates. She’s smart, funny and oh so sexy.


Best Script – Mike Judge and Etan Cohen (Idiocracy)
It takes balls the size of Branson to bite the hand that’s been signing your meal ticket for the last 15 years, but that’s exactly what Beavis and Butthead creator Judge did with this amazing social satire. One of the wickedest, most mean-spirited comedies every created – in a very good way – this story of an America dumbed down plays like an inverted 1984. Big Brother may be watching, but he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing.


Best Documentary – This Film is Not Yet Rated
Talk about your ironclad cajones! Kirby Dick more or less committed career suicide for taking on the MPAA and outing the ridiculous ratings board for the self-serving studio censorship committee they really are. Using anecdotal and empirical evidence (including a mindboggling montage of indie vs. mainstream movie edits) as well as the hiring of a private investigator to get the goods on these goons, Dick did something no other filmmaker dared. He not only challenged the board’s inferred integrity. He questioned its very reason for being.


Best Animated Film – A Scanner Darkly
Believe it or not, there was a time when animated films were geared mostly toward adults. It seems only director Richard Linklater remembers that commercial corollary. With this inventive version of the Philip K. Dick novel, and his previous computer penned pastiche, Waking Life, the man behind such stellar outsider efforts as Slacker and Dazed and Confused finds the proper balance between science fiction and technological fact, creating an alternative reality worthy of the genre’s most compelling author. Forget anthropomorphized creatures. Humans remain the most compelling cartoons.


Best Foreign Film – District B13
Leave it to the French to reinvent the action film. With the free running sport Parkour as the basis for the stunt work, and a futuristic flavor that mixes equal parts Escape from New York and the Mad Max films, first time director Pierre Morel delivers a stunning high octane treat. Certainly the acting can be a bit problematic, considering most in the cast were hired for their athleticism first and their performance chops second. But the amount of invention involved is hard to top. Apparently, it takes foreign eyes to rediscover the inherent motion picture magic in human physicality.


Best Guilty Pleasure – Crank
…and leave it to the Americans to take the genre back to its veiled post-modern video game roots. In a year that saw more than its fair share of big screen crap, no filmic feces was more ludicrously enjoyable than this cinematically steroided Grand Theft Auto attempt. With King of Tripwire Testosterone Jeremy Statham in the lead – no one does pumped up punkness better than this cauliflowered character actor from the UK – and a warts and all approach to straightforward storytelling, directing pair Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have created the first geek epic. Consider this schlock nerd more than satisfied.


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Wednesday, Feb 21, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis delivers his slasher swansong.

The Gore-Gore Girls




When a young stripper is found horribly mutilated, a local yellow journalist hires the incredibly fey Fire Island resident in transit Abraham Gentry - a kind of ambiguously asexual private eye - to solve the case. He purses his lips and hits the clue trail. As Abey Baby travels from one seedy strip club to another (all owned by the human goiter Marzdone Mobilie) he meets several suspects in training, some irate ERA feminists, and several liquid-lunching businessmen. He also sees a lot libido-deflating hooters. Nancy Weston, ace space case reporter, tags along to prove the age-old adage wrong: not every member of the fourth estate is a college graduate who can hold his or her liquor.


Several more droopy drawered dancers are hacked into little smokies by the butchering bad guy, while ulcerous Gentry battles the incompetence of the local camera-shy police, and the incontinence of the “can’t take a hint” journalist. In a last gasp effort to lure the killer to the quinine, or as a flimsy excuse to mildly entertain the almost asleep viewing audience, Mobilie and Gentry have an amateur strip night competition. After momentarily sniffing the bar’s cork coasters, a now completely inebriated Nancy takes the stage to shake her shorthand scribbler. Naturally, the killer screams “8th Amendment” and exposes his or her self (not literally).


The Gore-Gore Girls has got to be the most eccentric, bizarre gore film Herschel Gordon Lewis ever conceived or created. Looking at the insane, inspired list of actors, characters, and idiosyncrasies used to pad the storyline with comic confections, one becomes airplane glue goofy with unintentional delight. Would you believe Henny Youngman as a one-liner dropping flesh peddler? A fussy Nero Wolfe wannabe who is an ascot short of being straight? A fruit mashing ex-marine named Grout who pulverizes produce as a peacekeeping pastime? A snorting bartender who’s every word is accented with a sniffle? Or a daffy cocktail waitress who keeps Eva Gabor in wig merchandizing heaven? Together, they combine to make The Gore-Gore Girls Lewis’ funniest film. It is also one of his most brutal. In the long line of mutilations and murders Lewis has lensed, these are the bloodiest, most violent and visceral slices of carnage ever depicted.


Sure, many of the elements look faked, but Lewis lingers over them lovingly and pushes the maiming to such new disturbing heights that they evolve, becoming eerie and disgusting. Eyes are gouged out of sockets and skewered with carving forks, and then for good measure, the empty head holes are probed and pierced repeatedly with the same device. Faces are boiled in hot oil until they melt, and brains are splattered on city streets. Like many a typical slasher film, the mystery is merely the skeleton upon which the oozing hunks of human flesh are fitted, accented by Lewis’ weird wackiness. In many ways, The Gore-Gore Girls is the precursor to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. There is the same use of irreverent humor, odd camera tricks, gruesome effects, and broad characterization to produce a hilarious, hallucinatory, and horrific cinematic experience.


It’s too bad that Lewis dropped out of filmmaking after Girls (unless you count the paltry porn of his 1972 movie Black Love). He then went on to become one of the most highly sought after direct-mail consultants and a respected teacher of advertising copywriting. Still, this movie shows he was headed for another career renaissance, after The Blood Trilogy‘s success and his varying forays into numerous genre types during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Gore-Gore Girls is an irreverent slap in the face of all the copycat filmmakers who thought they could out-massacre the master. Lewis proves once and for all that while some may have done it better, or cheaper, or more realistically, no one did it with more passion or perverse pleasure.


You can sense the smile on his broad face as a victim has her nipples clipped, only to have them produce regular and chocolate milk from the wounds. You can hear his devilish laughter as the killer salts and peppers a freshly pounded female rump…roast, filled to the fiendishness with fleshy goodness. Throw in a little nudity (this is a film about a killer who targets strippers, remember), some blatantly bad jokes, some marvelous under- and over-acting by the cast, and you have a truly original, disgusting diversion. Alongside Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, this is one of the best movies Lewis ever made. It’s a shame that, over the years, it’s been forgotten like a great deal of this madcap genius’ works.


 


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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007


In much the same way he mined hip-hop culture for his acclaimed debut Hustle & Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer turns his attention to the blues for his equally musical sophomore effort Black Snake Moan. A newly slimmed down Christina Ricci plays Rae, a young, white trash tramp whose horniness possesses her like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, which leads her into the bedroom of any willing man in the county. After a particularly rough night, she is dumped on the side of a road and left for dead, only to be found and subsequently held captive by ex-bluesman and struggling Christian Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson).


Up until this point, Black Snake Moan presents a fantastic concept; a god-fearing man looking to reform someone of their wicked ways, and by force if necessary. Wrapped up in the trappings of blues mythology, it promises some intriguing developments. But Brewer’s script never finds the right tone. Both over-the-top and deadly serious, ironic and earnest, Jackson, Ricci and the rest of the talented cast give excellent performances despite writing and situations that at times are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Worse, Brewer seems to try and alleviate the problem with supporting characters and plotlines that enter and leave the picture on a whim. Rae’s relationship with her longtime boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), Lazarus’ fledgling romance with local pharmacist Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson) and Reverend R.L.’s (John Cothran Jr.) efforts to bring Lazarus back to the church are largely underdeveloped and leave more questions than answers.


If there is any bright spot in this otherwise pointless exercise in Southern exploitation melodrama, it is the music. Samuel L. Jackson’s singing, particularly his stunning version of the traditional blues cut “Stagolee”, is far more evocative here than the puerile “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” that became the center of Hustle & Flow. But like that film, Brewer addresses and even embraces African-American stereotypes but can’t transcend them. Black Snake Moan amounts to nothing more than another picture in which damaged white characters find healing in the ways of slightly off-the-radar African-Americans and their culture. That certainly isn’t to mention the film’s preoccupation with African-American male’s genitalia - a source of constant wonder for Rae.


I wish I could say Black Snake Moan was simply poorly made and inconsequential, but Brewer’s film goes a dangerous step further. Rather than turning stereotypes on their head, by the film’s truly cornball ending, he practically embraces them and tries to sell them as authentic drama. At least for myself, and the audience I was with, we weren’t buying it.



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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007

Do we really have to wait That long???


 


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