Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Sunday, Jun 24, 2007


It’s enough to make fans of Disney’s old fashioned artistry weep openly. On 19 June, Sharon Morrill, longtime President of the company’s DisneyToons Studios, was out of a job. Throughout the course of her 13 years as head of said division, Morrill led the animation giant into one of its most profitable – and controversial – ventures ever: the reconfiguration of classic cartoon titles into cheap, easily knocked-off, direct to home video sequels. From Brother Bear II and various configurations of Lilo and Stitch to the complete bastardization of timeless treasures like Bambi, Peter Pan and Cinderella, the studios desire to maximize profitability (and trade on its Good Housekeeping Seal level of reputation) did more to destroy the marquee value of the studios most important asset – it’s heritage – than anything else in its 85 year history.


At least, that’s what John Lasseter and Ed Catmull thought. Back when Disney was courting Pixar for some manner of partnership/revenue sharing agreement, the eventual buyout of the CGI gods brought two of its chief components into brand new roles at the House of Mouse. Lasseter was named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, while Catmull was put in charge as President. Both wanted to drastically alter the direction the business was going it. Prior to their taking over, Uncle Walt’s world had just announced a decision to abandon traditional pen and ink cartoons, instead opting for the fading fad of 3D computer creations. But with the box office failings of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the new duo decided to reverse the ridiculous decision. In fact, Mickey’s kingdom made headlines earlier this year when a new 2D title, featuring the first heroine of color in any Disney cartoon, was proposed (it will be called The Princess and the Frog and is set for 2009).


Next on the agenda – the seemingly endless stream of subpar product pouring out of Morrill’s sector. Now, it has to be said that this effective executive is playing scapegoat for a series of practices that has haunted the studio since The Lion King resurrected Disney’s blockbuster realities. Previously, both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had reestablished the company’s artistic fortunes, but King’s kid friendly storyline brought in the big bucks – and the suits (including former CEO Michael Eisner) were looking for more. Along with Aladdin, the Mouse House saw a way of quickly and efficiently maximizing their returns. They would take all the left over footage created for their animated films, and make rapid turnaround sequels, striking while the interest irons were hot. Believe it or not, full length cartoons can be completely reworked between the script and drawing stage, and even more changes can occur once test screenings dictate the direction. So it was a win-win for the company. It used up some of the otherwise useless material, and extended a title’s potential payout.


With well received direct to video efforts like Return of Jafar and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, the stage was set for a whole new revenue stream. And the marketplace was more than eager to open their billfolds. Back in the mid-‘80s, when the VCR became the de facto babysitter for hundreds of blasé boomer parents, Disney was the name everyone turned to. Warners was viewed as too archaic (and violent) while other cartoon wares were dismissed as artificial and driven by commercial considerations (product tie-ins, etc.). No, Uncle Walt and his magical world was the way to go for most enlightened Moms and Dads, and with the company’s oddly effective embargo policies (a famous title would go on sale, only to be pulled from stores a few months later and mothballed for up to seven years) any additional Disney release was greeted with wide wallets. 


Thus, the vaults were unsealed, and any and all previous material was up for sequelization. Initially, no one much cared. These were offerings aimed at the wee ones, starter sets, if you will, for unformed minds. The hope was that, as the big budget theatrical releases cemented their status as unpolished gems, the direct to video films would fill in the gaps, appeasing a rabid retail demographic until the sell through hit came along. DVD threw the company a curve ball it wasn’t expecting, and it didn’t win over many fans with its decision to go with the pay-to-play technology known as DIVX. In truth, Disney badly mismanaged the transfer over to digital, and had to try and catch up with the rest of the industry throughout most the late ‘90s. The glut of releases, combined with the fading fortunes of their theatrical efforts (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range all tanked) placed the company in a precarious position.


It was Morrill and her division that kept them afloat. It was also her decisions that finally pushed matters over the edge. Since she took over in 1994, DisneyToons Studios produced almost 50 ‘original’ titles. Many took already established series (Winnie the Pooh, The Adventures of Goofy) and continued the franchise. Others were far more questionable, utilizing beloved favorites (Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, Pinocchio) as jumping off points for narratively inconsistent efforts. While it acted as a cash machine for the company, it also created an artistic impact that few could have envisioned. In essence, the direct to video offerings diluted the original films, making them feel like part of a production line process instead of individual statements of creative pride. Slowly but surely, each new Disney release was viewed through a veiled cloud of cynicism – and it was a suspicion rewarded when, less than a year later, an ‘all new’ sequel was waiting for your mindless consumption.


Granted, it was a brilliant strategy, one based on the inherent disconnect the audience had for the original sources. Kids, by their very nature, are not the most discerning consumers. They will take anything that provides 60 to 90 minutes of bright colored craziness, as long as it satisfies their sugar-rush reality. They could care less if Belle’s Magical World is based on an Oscar nominated masterpiece. They want more anthropomorphic objects and they want them now. So all Morrill did was deliver what the buyer was craving – more and more monotonous eye candy for the children to chew on while forcing Fruit Roll-ups into their craw. They even went so far as to restructure theatrical films into long running TV series – Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, Tale Spin – anything for a bit more black ink.


But not even Disney could have predicted Pixar’s eventual importance to the genre. It couldn’t have conceived the mainstream hysteria over the smugly ironic 3D offerings from Dreamworks and Fox. Suddenly, Mickey’s Manor was trailing in the artform it helped build from the ground up, and all it had was Lasseter’s computer generated gems to rely on. It tried its own hand at bitmap rendering (Dinosaurs being a decent example), but overall, Walt’s ways were viewed as old fashioned, behind the times, and perhaps worst of all, completely antithetical to the bottom line. Along with soon to be exiting Eisner, Morrill had made the once proud name of Disney into a trademark tainted by nothing but dollar signs.


The final straw was a fairy, apparently. Lasseter’s tenure as Chief Creative Officer was cutthroat from the very beginning. He restarted 2D animation, backed off the company’s CG only stance, and started dropping proposed Morrill merchandise (The Aristocats II, The Ugly Duckling Story) left and right. But it wasn’t until he saw the horrendous (and soon to be released) The Tinkerbell Story that Mr. Pixar was convinced that Morrill had to go. Taking the classic character and trying to cram her into a Bratz like girl power paradigm seemed unthinkable. In addition, this sloppy salvo was just the opening tact in an overall product strategy that seemed based on marketing research and consulting rather than creativity and artistry.


Calling it “unwatchable” Lasseter demanded a change. With pal Catmull at his side, they pulled the plug on Morrill’s tenure, and decided to take DisneyToon’s Studio in a slightly different direction. Instead of pulling from the classics catalog, the sector will now draw from the wealth of content currently available on the Playhouse Disney Channel. There will still be a few left over sequels to contractually cater to (The Little Mermaid III for one), but after that, the House of Mouse will have reformed their warping ways – and for many, it may be too little too late. While the founding father himself must be smiling over the Lasseter/Catmull hire, he has to be worried about the longevity and legacy of the company named after him. Prior to the ‘80s, Disney was known for timeless, quality family entertainment. Today, it’s sneered at, earning a tag of merchandising charlatans, whoring out their traditions for the sake of some extra sales.


But it goes far beyond that. Like many corporate entities in the last two decades, Disney decided to stop making product for the people, and instead, manufactured artifice for its bean counters. Just like Hollywood’s micromanaged motion pictures, purposefully cobbled together out of various clichés and stereotypes to be everything to every paying patron, the business plan didn’t care that its animated films were flopping. They had built in so many potential ways of recouping their costs (between direct to video, merchandising and theme parks tie-ins) that it didn’t matter. Mediocrity could be as lucrative as a masterwork. And with the trend away from 2D animation and the seemingly untouchable magic of Pixar, there was no need to push itself.


Thankfully, Lasseter and Catmull are now in charge, and while they have a long way to go toward achieving the near impossible – rebuilding the company’s creative fortunes – they’ve taken a remarkable first step. There will be those who lament not having another narrative go round with their favorite characters, and parents may wonder what they will do once the Disney cartoon conveyor belt comes to a screeching halt, but for the men behind the recent radical restructuring, protecting this cinematic symbol’s tattered and tarnished reputation seems like a wise executive decision. The House of Mouse may never go back to an impervious icon of quality and family friendly filmmaking, but it can at least reclaim some of its soul. With Morrill’s departure, the process has already begun.


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Saturday, Jun 23, 2007


When someone says they don’t make movies like they used to, they are probably referring to a title like 1408. Reviving a lost subgenre like the psychological thriller is not an easy task, and when you consider the author of the source material is none other than cinematic hit or miss Stephen King, the odds are substantially stacked against you. Even worse, the release carries a PG-13 rating, which tells most dread die-hards that the narrative they’re about to see has been sanitized for the protection of the viewing public. The final nail in the nonevent coffin is the presence of Swedish unknown Mikael Håfström behind the lens. While his native language efforts have been well received, his 2005 disaster Derailed doesn’t speak well for his ability with suspense.


Luckily, the planets were all in alignment when stars Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack decided to take on this basically two person drama, and the results more than speak for themselves. While not actually scary, 1408 is unsettling and intense, taking its own sweet time building to a truly disconcerting climax. Predating post-modern horror by a chainsaw or two, and delivering ample angst without having to resort to bloodshed or gratuity, Håfström helms the perfect antidote to all the ‘gorno’ currently claiming the creepshow mantel. His take on King’s sensational short story is a devious little mind game, an eerie examination of one man’s inner demons and how those pent up issues can do much more than haunt a human soul. They can take on an afterlife in the real world as well.


Cynical as hell and falsely heroic, Cusack is Mike Enslin, a writer of horror-themed travel guides. He visits supposedly haunted locales and writes up reviews, Michelin style, of their significant scare factors. Of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a dyed in the wool skeptic and blames desperate hotel owners for concocting – and in some cases, creating – the spook shows for the benefit of their lagging bottom line. One day, Enslin receives a postcard warning him away from the title room, a particularly evil space in New York’s old money Dolphin Hotel. Only problem is, the establishment won’t let him in. After confronting manager Gerald Olin (a smooth and suave Samuel L.) over occupancy, Enslin gets his wish – and a warning. No one has ever lasted more than an hour in the room, the result being death, or dementia. It’s the kind of challenge Enslin can’t pass up. Once he’s inside 1408, however, he realizes he should have heeded Olin’s advice.


To go any further in the plot summary would ruin 1408’s many macabre moments (though, as usual, the preview trailers have happily spoiled more than one). To his credit, Håfström doesn’t rush his prologue. We get to know Mike Enslin very well, his superstitious little quirks, the stinging sarcasm covering up for deep personal pain, and as he moves ever so steadily toward his confrontation with the name terror, we begin to build up a lot of sympathy and caring for him. True, this is your typical King protagonist – self destructive and markedly egotistic, requiring a kind of metaphysical just deserts to reset his stagnant priorities – but thanks to Cusack’s ability to humanize Enslin’s hubris, we find ourselves on the world weary writer’s side. On the other hand, Sam Jackson is not given much to do, but what he has to work with is choice. His initial meeting with Cusack is so classic in its performance potency, it’s like the Closer’s Contest pitch made by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry, Glen Ross.


While there are other famous names in the cast – Tony Shalhoub as Enslin’s publisher, Mary McCormack as his distant wife – they are more like cameos. This is Cusack’s show almost exclusively and your reactions will be wholly based on how you connect with him. He gives an amazing turn, on screen alone for minutes at a time and capturing completely a man caught off guard by circumstances he didn’t anticipate. Nothing is more deliciously enjoyable than watching a know it all proven unprepared, and the initial scenes where room 1408 starts to take on a life of its own offers the actor at his best. Later on, Cusack must turn on the waterworks and the histrionics, and for the most part, he keeps his obvious emotions in check. It’s a tour de force, and the production couldn’t have picked a better star to handle it.


On the other hand, Håfström’s work is much more subtle. There are riffs to many previous King adaptations (The Shining and The Dark Half for starters) and this Swedish cinephile understands the basic elements of suspense. There are several edge of the seat sequences in 1408, moments where we fear, along with our hero, what’s around the next corner, or waiting for us in the shadows of the ceiling vent. This is not a film that wants to quicken your pulse or send shockwaves through your spine so much as deliberately dig down just beneath the top layers of your flesh to settle in under your skin. For every set piece of rushing water, freezing interior spaces and grue-gushing walls, there are small, seemingly insignificant beats which tend to amplify the angst. There are even a couple of epic CG shots to spice up the spectacle. But by constantly keeping the film founded in the personal, Håfström’s paranormal excesses work that much better.


It has to be said that the last few decades, a time that literally redefined and reconfigured the thriller/chiller genre, will render 1408 inconsequential to some fright fans. For them, nothing says fear like flowing rivers of bodily fluids, along with the occasional misplaced organ. Others need the celluloid rollercoaster simulation – build-up/release, build-up/release – of the genres more extreme examples. But when you look at how well made and managed this movie is, when you recognize that the seemingly random scenes all have a logical reason to exist (and potentially payoff in the end) you can’t deny 1408’s effectiveness. You can mock its casual style and lack of aggressive arterial spray, but the refreshing nature of such a narrative twist will end up annoying only the most narrow-minded of macabre mavens.


For everyone else, 1408 will be a nostalgic callback to a time when films used ideas and invention to sell its scares. There is nary a moment of snuff stunt showboating or special effects sluice to be seen. In its place are tight construction, tripwire direction, superb acting, and an uncomfortable sense of the sinister. While it may not answer the near half century old debate regarding subtlety vs. splatter as the most successful fear factor, Håfström’s engaging experiment in unforced fright is well worth a look. It definitely defines the kind of movies old fashioned film fans pine for – and may even capture the imagination of the contemporary doom and gloom crowd as well.


7 out of 10


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Friday, Jun 22, 2007


When Gigi took the Best Picture Oscar in 1958, sweeping the ceremony with a startling nine wins, it signaled the end of an era. For the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli and producer, legendary MGM Svengali Arthur Freed, the movie symbolized the zenith of their professional success in a partnership that produced an array of breezy ‘50s Technicolor extravaganzas - Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, and Brigadoon; But the massive productions, complete with unfolding glittering sets and hordes of extras, were becoming too expensive for the studios to finance given the increasingly modest revenues they were generating. The Hollywood musical was losing its popularity. People were more easily bored; they became less inclined to sit through a twenty-minute interpretive dance sequence, even if Gene Kelly was its star. By the time the screen rights for Gigi were up for grabs in the early ‘50s, no studio wanted to touch it. When Paramount passed, MGM gingerly bought them, due in part to the pleadings of its musical-theater genius, Minnelli.


The trends of pop culture, like history, are cyclical. Musicals are back. Rob Marshall’s Chicago, Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, and Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls are lavish spectacles in the tradition of Freed and Minnelli. It’s a trend that began with Baz Luhrman’s irreverent, iconoclastic, Moulin Rouge, a heady blend of Minnelli, Ken Russell-rock opera (Tommy and Mahler) and plodding Gilbert and Sullivan. I think something about troubled political times makes us cling to the enchantment of musicals and its promise of escapism, whether you’re trying to cope with the memory of a devastating world war, or struggling to deal with a current one.


Gigi is not as well known today as the other Lerner and Loewe favorite that it’s compared too, My Fair Lady. Both are about eager, gauche young women who are transformed into graceful swans by a little manners, money, and the love of a shallow, but earnest, rich young man. Sounds an awful lot like the storyline to Pretty Woman. The plot is banal, and the movie is no more than an Ugly Duckling-style romantic comedy, but it’s enough. It’s not the reason why the movie is a success, or why you should watch it in the first place.


Leslie Caron plays as the adolescent girl, Gigi, who is tutored to be a courtesan by her great-aunt (Isabel Jeans) and grandmother (Hermione Gingold), but is so charmingly innocent and guileless that she winds up married to the richest, handsomest young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan).  Jourdan, arch and imperially slim, brings the appropriate hauteur to the part of this jaded dandy.  Like Rupert Everett, he has the insolent confidence and the elusive sophistication that can turn mannerisms into style. 


In between, the film is serenaded by the august Maurice Chevalier as Gaston’s worldly uncle. Chevalier’s years of experience and his love of performing come together joyously.  His easy manner recalls the atmosphere of 1920s Parisian music halls seen most recently in Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf’s biopic, La Vie en Rose - eloquent, sophisticated and unapologetic - a style of entertainment that got France through two world wars, and defined their culture through the 20th century.


Chevalier’s knowing rendition of, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung as he leeringly gazes at burgeoning young pre-adolescents in the Bois de Boulougne does not go over so well in our age as it did back then. We’re asked essentially to applaud this dirty old man, and marvel at his wit. The screen persona spawned a thousand imitations, everything from Chuck Jones’s Pépé le Pew to Lumière the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast.



But one of the basic joys of Gigi is pure escapism. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why people are drawn to movies: to marvel at the flow of moving images across the screen. The picture has a buoyancy and playfulness that few movie musicals have. The glorious saturated Technicolor of Minnelli’s images: the oxblood red of the brocade walls of Mamita’s apartment; the vivid green and purple tartan of Gigi’s dress; the sleekness of the men and women all taken from images out of Renoir’s paintings, (the stately tour of Parisian high life is like a two-hour slide show for art-history majors); Cecil Beaton’s lush costumes, all lace and crinoline (he transferred his memories of Edwardian England onto 1900s Paris); the energy and dynamism of the score, jaunty and robust in its musical depiction of fin-de-siècle Paris, which evokes Bizet and Offenbach.


There are some glorious moments: the gossip at Maxim’s sequence is a masterpiece of balletic musical theater. Minnelli with his costume designer and set consultant, artist and bon vivant, Cecil Beaton, recreate an environment of elegance and imaginary innocence. And the scene where Gaston mulls over his growing fondness for Gigi, his top-hatted silhouette against the nighttime streets and fountains of Paris as he roams disconsolately, stunned by the realization that he’s falling in love, is a beautifully laid out sequence—a late Impressionist mood-piece haunted by sketches of Toulouse-Lautrec.


Minnelli was a director primarily interested in the pictorial effect of cinema.  He connected deeply with painters and his most successful, lovingly made movies, Lust for Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, reflect his vision of a film a moving canvas.  He understood more than anyone else that the spectator’s receptiveness to film hinges on visual pleasure, and Gigi is rapturous in that respect.


*Gigi will be playing on Turner Classic Movies at 11AM, Sunday, 1 Julyt


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Thursday, Jun 21, 2007


Will this month ever end? It seems like we’ve been talking about June for at least the last four weeks, if not longer – and believe it or not, there’s another seven days left. Is the calendar purposefully creeping along or what? Let’s face it; summer is a time of entertainment overkill. The young ones are out of school and loaded down with disposable income, their parents are desperate to get them out of the house and into the marketplace, and Hollywood is working overtime to give them both as many monetary excuses as possible. The pay cable channels are no better. While Cinemax continues with its pledge of first run retreads from last blockbuster season, the rest are regurgitating fare that few should focus on. Seems they’ve given up on the audience as well, assured they will be parked in the local Cineplex waiting for Pixar or John McClane to save the cinematic day. By the looks of 23 June, they’ll be lingering there a long, long time:


Premiere Pick
The Lady in the Water


It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now. (23 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (23 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Night Listener


Robin Williams needs to stop making movies pronto. His hirsute hack stench is ruining what would otherwise be fairly intriguing titles. Take this one for example, the story of a radio talk show host haunted by a phone call from a desperate young boy. Before he knows it, the child has disappeared – though it’s possible he never really existed in the first place. Promising premise, right? Williams whizs it right down his hairy leg. (23 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


The Last Holiday


The transformation of Queen Latifah from rap icon to marginal movie star has nothing to do with her talent (and she has some) and everything to do with Hollywood’s race based mea culpa-ing. If you need further proof of such a safe strategy, look at this urbanized disease of the week waste. How the talented Wayne Wang (Smoke, Eat a Bowl of Tea) came to be associated with this drivel is a mystery for movie scholars. (23 June, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Dark Water


Perhaps you’re familiar with the remake – a decent enough effort starring Jennifer Connelly and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. But it’s the original Japanese effort, helmed by the wonderful Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Kaidan) that’s well worth looking up. One of the better J-Horror exports, the first film is far darker and more depressing than the equally evocative Hollywood revamp, but there’s just something about the long haired creepy ghost girl that the Asians have down pat. Particularly intriguing are the scenes where lead Hitomi Kuroki must react to the never ending frustrations of the Japanese legal system. She is so effective here that when she starts stumbling over into the supernatural, we believe her baffled confusion. Sure, the ending still stinks, the kind of ‘could have seen it coming’ cop out that almost ruins everything that came before, but thanks to his subtle style and way with visuals, Nakata singlehandedly saves the story. That’s the sign of a true cinematic artist. (27 June, Sundance Channel, 5:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bend It Like Beckham


He’s supposed to be coming to the US to reinvigorate the flatlining sport of professional soccer, but if he was smart, David Beckham would remain a staunchly European icon. Then, he could inspire more marvelous movies like this clash of cultures comedy from Gurinder Chadha. While it does deal with subjects more closely associated with the West Indian way of doing things, the message of self esteem is universal – just like the appeal of football around the world. (23 June, IFC, 7PM EST)

11:14


Some have called it a riotous Rashaman. A few have labeled it a comic Crash. But the five stories served up by writer/director Greg Marcks are meant to act as a commentary on small town life, and how one event (an automobile accident at the title time) can bring divergent lives together. While critics claim that Marcks is more a Tarantino wannabe than an individual talent, others have really gotten behind the filmmaker’s dark and devious way with a knotty narrative. (23 June, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Intacto


Many fans feel that the multifaceted story of separate lives in sync and destiny deconstructing us begins and ends with 21 Grams/Babel auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu. But 28 Weeks Later helmer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo would definitely have something to say about that. This 2001 effort finds the filmmaker intertwining several threads to tell of tale of how the ‘gift’ of luck creates an underground subculture of divergent personalities. (26 June, IFC, 12:50AM EST)


Outsider Option
This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!


Ah, the joys of sweet sour mash. Leave it to those solid sons of the soil, otherwise known as hillbillies, to bring moonshine and the still to the cultural forefront. In actually, no one really gives a rat’s patoot about how a redneck lubes his lifestyle, but for some reason, the makers of exploitation felt the rube was ripe for a little erotic exploration. Sure, ever since Lil’ Abner proved that Daisy Mae’s feminine wiles could make men weak, the buxom beauty from the backwoods was potent fantasy fodder. But most of these movies were cut from the same clunky cloth – way too much corn and not enough pone. At least Herschell Gordon Lewis was behind this mess. He could make a boring bootlegger comedy into something quite surreal – and he does so with this brazen bit of rot gut. SE&L suggests you sample at your own risk – too much bumpkin buffoonery could be hazardous to your health. (25 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Honeymoon Killers


In writer/director Leonard Kastle’s creative zenith, Tony LoBianco and Shirley Stoler play a mismatched couple who use death as a means of cementing their relationship. He’s an oily lothario. She’s an obese nurse who’s never known real passion. Together, they forge a bond that begins to unravel into madness and murder. Avoiding almost all the standard thriller clichés, this is a crazed character study first, a wonderful work of cinematic art second. (22 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Man With the Screaming Brain


Everyone’s favorite b-movie badass, Bruce Campbell, plays a wealthy industrialist who has his brain transplanted with that of a Russian cab driver. Of course, all kinds of horror/humor hijinx ensue. While not the classic it could have been, the presence of everyone’s favorite Evil Dead symbol makes this a lot more fun than it should be. Too bad the premise can’t match the title’s ability to inspire waves of schlock sensationalism. (23 June, Sci-Fi Channel, 9AM EST)

Little Voice


It’s movies like this one, the story of a lonely girl with a great big singing voice, that makes fans question the talents of the actors involved – in a good way. While Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine are always magnificent, who knew that Jane Horrocks (best known as Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous) had such sensational pipes. Her ability to mimic famous divas is only part of what makes this movie so fascinating. (28 June, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2007


It’s too bad that Evan Almighty is merely a fluffy summer trifle. It really wants to be something more – or at the very least, it appears to strive for something greater. And once you hear the entire backstory of the film’s production (studio wants sequel, star Jim Carrey passes, Bruce co-star Carell gets the call up, Noah’s Ark script gets the Almighty revamp) you begin to understand the dilemma. The notion of a modern, everyday man with real problems and a regular, day to day existence, suddenly getting the calling to build the Bible’s big boat, and convincing his skeptical family that he’s not a nutjob, has the makings of a meaningful cinematic statement. Toss in issues of faith, how we as a society react to questions of religion and belief, and a last act catastrophe that allows the special effects to turn the small moments into something epic, and you’d have a potential classic on your hands. It could be a grand motion picture spectacle and masterful human drama. There’s even room for comedy in the complicated mix.


But this is not the road Evan Almighty wants to travel down. Oh, you see it every once in a while – a noble look in lead Steve Carell’s electric eyes, a sequence of natural beauty as the world’s animals prepare to board - but, in general, this is a film that wants to mainstream and dumb down all of its ideas. Indeed, if you start questioning the logic of certain elements and the last act denouement, you soon realize that the entire narrative is built on the foundation of find a “reason” for the finale’s flood (this is not a spoiler, the most recent trailers and TV ads show the floating zoo navigating some rough waters). In turn, this renders most of the comedy flat and much of the emotion hollow. What we wind up with is a decent diversion that never quite gels into a clever comedy, or an Old Testament thriller. Instead, it straddles the fine line between missed opportunity and craven crowdpleaser.


This time around, smarmy news anchor Evan Baxter (Jim Carrey’s nemesis from the first film) is a newly elected Congressman from New York. He moves his doting wife and cookie cutter trio of sons to a massive DC suburb, the kind of planned community that stinks of developer corruption and government payoffs. Sure enough, Evan’s first day on the job finds him admiring his huge new office – and taking an important meeting with a senior Representative. Congressman Long (an uncomfortable John Goodman) wants Evan to support a piece of legislation that would allow our National Parks to be parceled off for – you guessed it - more planned communities. At first, Evan is on board. But then he starts having premonitions about a specific Bible verse (Genesis 6:14), and before you know it, God himself is asking this pampered politician to build his new Ark. Of course, his new objective flies directly in the face of Congressman Long’s plans, and his family’s tolerance of their ‘distant’ dad.


Part of the problem lies with the film’s tone. This is a subtle smile maker that believes it’s an uproarious farce. The script – credited to Steve Oedekerk alone – keeps giving the cast the smallest of jokes, and yet director Tom Shadyac demand his actors swing wildly at each and every one. What are really nothing more than quirky character beats are broadened into the movie’s main yucks. Similarly, the real cinematic strengths of the film (the ark building, the moments of God-like majesty) are marginalized – or worse - become fodder for mindless musical montages. As a matter of fact, you can actually see the focus group reactions to such struggles. They exist in every insert shot of crazy comedian Wanda Sykes cracking wise. So blatantly last minute in their addition that they actually function like a commentary on the film’s success as an entertainment, you can just hear the studio suits screaming “the sassy black assistant scored well. Let’s bolster her profile!”


Sadly, Sykes alone can’t save Evan Almighty’s funny business from flatlining now and then. It doesn’t help matters much that the usually ebullient John Goodman is reduced to a rotund Simon LeGree, or that Knocked Up’sJonah Hill is mandated to play creepy instead of clever.  John Michael Higgins does his best with limited material (it’s all those Chris Guest improv fests paying off) and Morgan Freeman is the coolest higher power this side of The Simpsons. But for every decent turn, there is a performance that’s particularly disturbing – and Lauren Graham just can’t stop giving it. She is horrible here, a shrew in a situation she knows nothing about, an irredeemable downer throughout the first two acts of the story. Gilmore Girls or not, her last minute conversion is cold and completely calculated. Even after her so called ‘enlightenment’, she’s the party pooper that no one really invited.


The one saving grace is Carell. Sure, he frequently flies into freak out mode when a far wittier rejoinder would have worked (his declaration of “SHEEEEEEP!” is classic, however). When he tones it down and plays to the possibilities within the story, he almost pulls the entire project off. His interactions with the animals (real and CGI) are warm and wonderful, and he does find the proper balance between cut-up and concerned toward the end. But we need Evan Baxter to be a more well-rounded personality, to have more to his individual eccentricity than a desire to cleanse his nostrils of nose hair. Indeed, the entire narrative simply races right into the God stuff, barely letting us catch our breath before the omens start overriding everything. But this is a movie that’s not intelligent enough to tell the story it should be exploring. Instead, it skirts smarts to go for the easy gag (lots of bird poop and monkey shines) and manipulative sentiment.


Of course, none of these criticisms will really matter. Evan Almighty is expertly forged to be a superficial audience friendly phenomenon, the kind of movie that has critics and the cultured scratching their heads over its continued success. It is all set up and expected payoff, with just a little ‘Go with God’ positivity to flesh out the lilting life affirmations. It’s destined to drum up box office even as word of mouth wavers between excellent and “eh?”. Modernizing the Bible’s many important parables would seem like a filmmaker’s dream – the stories are sensational and the themes strike all the right chords of righteousness. But Evan Almighty just wants to get in, get out, and leave you feeling somewhat entertained along the way. And frankly, that’s all it does.



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