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Thursday, Apr 19, 2007


You’d never know that Spring was just around the corner – that lousy groundhog. Baseball has had several of its opening week games postponed or relocated due to snow, and a nasty Nor’easter tore through the upper half of the US, causing damage – and a few deaths – along the way. If the showers we’ve seen this April are any indication, May’s gonna be overgrown with floral facets. Perhaps we can all dry off with a weekend in front of the idiot box. There’s some fresh fare there, including a hilarious satire on a very strange subject, a dumb gearhead actioner, another failed drama from a former directorial god, and a wicked little indie effort. Toss in the typical outsider and non-Tinsel Town odds and ends and you’ve got plenty to keep you couch bound and (somewhat) happy. And before you know it, it will be time to complain about the heat. Let’s begin with the weekend of 21 April’s best bet: 


Premiere Pick
Thank You For Smoking


It’s a highly unorthodox premise - especially for a comedy. A cutthroat tobacco lobbyist – played by pseudo star Aaron Eckhart – spends his days shilling for cigarettes while trying to connect to his distant 12 year old son. Not your normal laugh riot. But it’s obvious that some small amount of funny business filmmaking rubbed off onto Jason Reitman from his famous father, Ivan. After a series of well received comic shorts, this first attempt at a feature was a clear critical success. While many will still have massive problems with the subject matter – after all, when was the last time anyone considered smoking to be socially acceptable, let alone worth joking about. But thanks to the wonderful source material (Christopher Buckley’s book remains highly regarded) and an inherent way with wit, Reitman’s debut marks the beginning of a potentially profitable stint behind the lens – both commercially and comically. (21 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


Same premise, same storyline, different locale. For this third go around in the FF franchise, our pissed off pre-adult heroes head to Japan, where drifting is all the rage. Apparently, this means kids destroy their brakes and alignment by purposefully fishtailing their back tires. Peachy! As an aside, beware of those earworm masters The Teriyaki Boys. Their hideous theme song plays throughout this derivative action pic. (21 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Find Me Guilty


Sidney Lumet wants to return to the courtroom drama with this movie about a mobster who decides to defend himself during an important trial. Sadly, he brings along a toupee sprouting Vin Diesel to play his lead. Things only grow more groan inducing from there. While many praised both the ‘Pacifier’ and his performance, this is no Verdict or Serpico. In fact, it’s barely worth comparing to Lumet’s other concrete credits. (21 April, Starz, 9PM EST)


Edmund


Turn off the Tudors marathon for a moment and switch the dial over to this William H. Macy tour de force. Playing a man who finds his life unraveling over one long, intolerance filled night, Macy is magnificent, channeling all the rage and rejection of the title character. Even more amazing is who’s behind the camera. Casting fictional horror aside for the moment, Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon steps up to deliver his own look at NYC as Hell. (21 April, ShowTOO, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
We Jam Econo: The Story of The Minutemen


Thanks to DVD, and in some small ways, the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the documentary has finally come of age as viable commercial cinema. Even better, filmmakers are finding that even the most obscure subject can reap remarkable artistic benefits. Take this amazing movie about the seminal ‘80s post-proto punk band The Minutemen. Thanks to a wealth of astonishing performance footage, some rare group interviews and present day chat ups with the remaining members, we learn how three disaffected youths from San Pedro, California became an unmatched rock and roll force. With the death of leader D. Boon hanging over every frame (he died tragically in an auto accident in ‘85), there is a meaningful melancholia attached to discovering how powerful and potent this musical maelstrom once was. Thanks to director Tim Irwin, and the magic of the digital format, his story has been perfectly preserved for generations to discover and appreciate. (23 April, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Magnolia


For his follow-up to Boogie Nights, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson forged this heartfelt homage to idol Robert Altman and his multifaceted masterpiece Short Cuts. Instead of channeling Raymond Chandler, however, PTA went biblical with his tale of several solemn individuals whose lives intersect in strange, almost spiritual ways. Featuring one of Tom Cruise’s best performances and similarly classic turns by Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Thomas regular John C. Reilly, this epic exploration of human emotion stands as one of the ‘90s great films. (21 April, IFC, 11PM EST)

Dancer in the Dark


The musical doesn’t seem like the best genre to fit within director Lars Von Trier’s Dogma ‘95 ideal, but somehow, the crazed Danish director makes it work. With Icelandic muse Bjork in the lead, this depression era drama about a foreign factory worker who thinks that America is all one big Hollywood movie mixes unbelievable hardship with sudden bursts of song. Some will find this film frustrating and obtuse. Others will simply appreciate Von Trier’s attempt to reinvent the filmic format. (23 April, IFC, 2:30PM EST)

Let’s Rock Again


With the passing of Joe Strummer from a heart attack in 2002 (he was just 50!) any hopes that the punk rock rebels The Clash would ever reunite were dashed forever. Thanks to documentarian Dick Rude, this one hour love letter to the fabled frontman catches up with his solo career, and the unbridled joy he had when performing. It’s just a shame he didn’t live to see the full impact of his legacy. Luckily, his music will remain with us forever. (26 April, Sundance, 10AM EST)

Outsider Option
Plan Nine from Outer Space/ Bride of the Monster


Ed Wood gets a bum rap these days. After years of perpetuating the myth that he is the worse director in the world (thank you very much, Medved brothers), DVD has really helped rehabilitate his status. After a double dose of Dr. Uwe Boll or a retrospective of Raja Gosnell’s crappy canon, our main man in angora looks like a flipping genius. Indeed, many mistake Wood’s wonky way with narrative and script as something to savage. But he’s so innocent in his incompetence, so fully ensconced in his errors that it comes across as visionary, not vile. Now, thanks to the random Rob Zombie-ing of TCM’s Underground, two of the masters amazing mess-terpieces are available for sampling. While Plan 9 is the more noted of the two, Bride of the Monster has its own calculated cool. Together, they tell a decidedly different story about who Ed Wood was, both as an artist and a misrepresented legend. (21 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Priest


Rife with scandal the moment it was released, this look at the hypocritical conceit that exists between religion and reality doesn’t follow the standard storyline. Instead of pedophilia, this movie mocks the traditional vow of celibacy, and how harmful it is to both individuals and their faith. The title character, a cleric torn between the Lord and his gay lover, illustrates all these points in passionate, perplexing form.  (23 April, Indieplex, 11:15PM EST)

Rope


It’s often considered one of Hitchcock’s failed experiments, a standard murder mystery made up of a series of four to ten minute “continuous takes”. Entire scenes were filmed without edits, meaning camera movement and angles had to be carefully choreographed around the acting of the cast. For this reason, many find the movie mannered and obvious. But if you can ignore the stylization, you’ll be rewarded with another of the Master of Suspense’s visionary wonders. (25 April, Retroplex, 6:35PM EST)

The Solid Gold Cadillac


Poor Judy Holiday. She was a classic city gal trading on her metropolitan moxie to bring a level of intelligence and strength to the basic dumb blond roles she was given. Sadly, her death from breast cancer at the age of 43 kept her legacy from fully developing. Still, the Tony and Oscar winning actress is very good in this corporate comedy, a typical late ‘50s laugher about bumbling big businessmen and the outrages of industry. What makes this a passion pit presentation is a real head scratcher. (26 April, Drive-In Classics, Canada, 9PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2007

No other medium is more suited for magnifying physical beauty than the cinema. Women in particular are the darlings of this particular art form. Beautiful actresses are synonymous with the movies.  The majority of the industry’s glamour is linked to starlets, so much so that the entire Academy Awards Ceremony is more of a showcase for their poise and resplendent gowns than it is for the outstanding films and performances of that year. The enchantment of the medium is the enduring memory of images, and many are of beautiful faces: Audrey Hepburn’s pixie grin as she tilts her sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Greta Garbo’s stony, enigmatic face in the closing shot of Queen Christina, Grace Kelly smiling surreptitiously behind the steering wheel in To Catch a Thief


Indian cinema’s leading ladies are a bevy of Old World beauties. India’s rich, varied history - Dravidian, Persian, Vedic, Mughal - are all etched on their faces and bearing. While the Bollywood Sex Goddesses, voluptuous curves and saucer-shaped eyes, look like they’ve stepped out of an ancient temple carving, the Bollywood Beauties look like they’ve climbed out of a Rajput miniature painting: delicate, dewy-eyed, and demure.
They each impart a graceful forbearance to their acting, allowing the audience to linger on faces with admiration and to be awed by their talent.


Nargis is the grand dame of this lot, her entire presence and persona setting the precedence for all the other stars who followed her. Emerging as the leading actress of the ‘40s, just as Indian cinema was in its early stages, steadily growing into a commercial powerhouse, Nargis stood out like a pillar of loveliness against her formidable leading man, Raj Kapoor. She would star opposite other popular stars like Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt, but it was Kapoor with whom she would make the most movies and form the most lasting relationship. Their real-life story in some ways resembles the romance of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, a prodigious, absorbing working relationship that resulted in their best performances, but was restrained by the confines of society (Kapoor was married, and divorce in the ‘40s would have ruined him as a star).


Still, Nargis’s elegance and statuesque beauty made her an icon for hundreds of women. But in the late ‘50s, Nargis made a dramatic change in her screen persona by taking on the role of the beleagured village matriarch Durga in Mehboob Khan’s salt-of-the-earth epic, Mother India. Many critics questioned the casting: could Nargis, famous for playing sophisticated socialites, take on such an unsparing role? Nargis knew it was the role of a lifetime: part Scarlett O’Hara, part Stella Dallas, it was one of those fabled, charismatic strong women parts (like resilient frontier wife, or the chipper, but hardscrabble Homefront widow) coveted by actresses at that time. And she played Durga with such quivering intensity and passion that it elevated the movie to mythic status, with Nargis as the body and soul of a country coming into its own power after Independence.


Meena Kumari and Madhubala were both masterful in period roles. Their inwardness and tempered sensuality was a throwback to the vision of Mughal princesses, adorned in jewels, shrouded in veils. Kumari shone in tragic, suffering wife or mistress roles; she was one of the few Indian actresses who could register despair without making it look contrived or artificial. Her most memorable role, Pakeezah (“The Pure One”) has her playing, like Garbo in Camille, the misunderstood courtesan, striving for the love of a nobleman who is forbidden to marry her. Shortly after Pakeezah was completed, Kumari died due to a lifelong heart condition. In her most emotionally wrenching scenes, one can’t help but marvel at her acting, and feel a tinge of sadness at the pain, both mental and physical, she must have been experiencing throughout.


Madhubala graced the screen in a number of hit films in the ‘50s, but it was her role as the willful slave girl torn between the Indian Emperor, Akbar, and his son, heir to the throne, Salim, in K. Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam that made her a part of movie legend. No one song has been sung or copied as often as Madhubala’s rendition of “Pyaar Kiya To Darnaa Kya?” (“If you’ve fallen in love, what is there to fear?”), sung in defiance to the Emperor who challenged her love for his son. It was a bold, memorable part and all of India loved her for it.


Waheeda Rahman was the cerebral darling of the ‘60s. There was a fierce intelligence to her performances that echoes some of Jodie Foster’s brittle assertiveness and some of Nicole Kidman’s wary grace in her latter day performances (The Hours, The Human Stain). She is effective in Guru Dutt masterpieces, Kaagaz ke Phool and Chaudvin ka Chand as the love-interest aware of the dangers of self-indulgence and defying societal norms, and she dazzles more recently in Rang de Basanti (2006), as the mother seeking justice for her murdered son.


Sharmila Tagore is remembered now for being a ‘60s fashion plate, the Audrey Hepburn of Indian cinema. Indeed, Sharmila seemed to take many of her visual cues from Hepburn’s late ‘50s/early ‘60s roles, playing the demure pixie who entranced the graceful leading men of the era, Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, and Shashi Kapoor. But Sharmila’s career is full of work in masterful art films from directors like Satyajit Ray and Mira Nair. From her first role at the age of 14, as the young bride in Ray’s The World of Apu to one of her most memorable recent roles, as the matriarch expelled from Uganda, who learns to accept her daughter’s independence and inter-racial romance in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala.


Preity Zinta - the bubbly actress who according to popular myth was discovered by director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, The Golden Age) when she was coming to pick up a friend who auditioned for one his movies. Now one of Bollywood’s biggest movie stars, she incites bouts of mass hysteria among Punjabis whenever she passes through Heathrow Airport. There’s a Sandra Dee quality to her sprightliness and a bit of Bette Davis in her imperious beauty. For all her onscreen energy, few directors have been able to harness it toward a captivating performance. Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chata Hai (“The Heart Wants…”) and his marvelous, underrated, Lakshya (“The Calling”), and Karan Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho (“Tomorrow May Never Come”) show Preity at her best, nonconformist, feisty, smart, witty and at the same time feminine: the modern Indian woman. More recently, Yash Chopra’s lavish Veer-Zaara shows acting Preity in Meena Kumari-mode, Old-World and elusive.


Who would have guessed what an international sensation Aishwarya Rai would be? The star of Gurinder Chada’s screwball Jane Austen spin-off, Bride and Prejudice, a member of the Grand Jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal comestics? She is the awe and envy of her peers, living proof that India has truly gone global. Starting off in pretty girlfriend parts in a string of forgettable films, Aishwarya’s raw talent, her brilliant dancing - fluid and expressive - her spirit, and her staggering good looks attracted directors who saw in her the embodiment of Old World India eroded by modernity.  Sanjay Leela Bhansali cast her in her most beloved parts in both Hum Dil De Chuke Sanaam (“Darling, You Stolen My Heart”) and Devdas. Playing traditional Indian women, clad in beautiful saris and jewels, who conceal the anguish and resentment at their confined roles, Aishwarya showed Indian audiences an aspect of women they had often overlooked. Her finest role, in Rituparno Ghose’s Choker Bali (“Sand in the Eye”) was a revelation; she gave us a portrait of a young widow in 1890s Calcutta damaged not by grief but by society’s prejudice, and how that prejudice transmogrifies her into a creature hell-bent on revenge and gratification. Only in her 30s, Aishwariya has many more chapters in her career ahead of her.


But remember, the stars in this segment are not here only because they’re beautiful. They’ve all risen above being judged by their appearance to be taken seriously as actresses. It would be clichéd to say their inner loveliness is what matters the most, but it is what makes these particular performers last in our memory. Long after their makeup and clothes have lost their trendiness, the quality of their performances will linger for us to enjoy and marvel.



Nargis, early ‘50s



Meena Kumari, Sahib bibi aur Ghulam, early ‘60s



Madhubala, Mughal-E-Azam, early ‘60s



Waheeda Rahman, Chaudvin ka Chand, ‘60s



Sharmila Tagore, An Evening in Paris, ‘60s



Preity Zinta, c. 2005



Aishwariya Rai, Choker Bali, c. 2003


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Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007


Smokin’ Aces is a movie that desperately wants to be liked. Not by your typical mainstream moviegoer, however. No, Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to his well received Narc is feverishly adamant about being adored by the frantic film geek contingent – the mélange of messageboard taste makers who determine their own individual aesthetic criteria by what Quentin Taratino determines is cool on his MySpace page. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the slightly introverted dork who walks around the high school cool kids bragging about his accomplishments and contacts. By faking and fronting, this movie hopes to grab their attention and earn an uneasy place in their crime genre lovin’ hearts.


It’s just too bad then that the director decides to win their praise by overplaying his obvious and rather obscure hand. Part of the problem is in the story itself. Smokin’ Aces (released on DVD by Universal on 17, April) rests its entire effectiveness on our desire to empathize with and/or outright despise its amoral center, a sleazy Las Vegas magician named Buddy “Aces” Israel. Brought to remarkable life by Entourage‘s Jeremy Piven, this miscreant mobster wannabe is ready to rat out the entire West Coast syndicate, and a substantial bounty has been placed on his head (and, oddly enough, his heart). Naturally, word gets out on the street that the successful assassin will earn themselves $1 million large, and before you know it, every noted nutcase with a comic book persona and a wealth of heavy artillery is headed towards Israel’s Lake Tahoe penthouse suite. Their goal? Pump this putz full of lead – and various other projectiles- before the Feds can speed him off to Witness Protection.


Thus begins the parade of peculiar cartoon characters and lean mean action movie archetypes. Carnahan is not out to manufacture realistic, three dimensional thugs. Instead, he decides that a heightened sense of stature, a caricature perhaps, would be the best way to envision his wild and wooly villains. This means we get ghetto gangbusters Georgia Sykes (a decent Alicia Keyes) and her slightly Sappho backup, Sharice. There’s also the slightly homosexual redneck retards The Tremor Brothers. Played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling, they’re like the Three Stooges on speed metal and too many episodes of Jackass. Toss in the torture expert Pasquale Acosta, the master of impersonation Lazlo Soot, and a trio of bewildered bounty hunters led by a seedy Ben Affleck, and you’ve got a considerable cast of crackpots.


On the side of good, Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta are fast talking FBI agents, their partnership so focused and single minded that they more or less finish each other’s thoughts. Their boss is Andy Garcia, a stuffed shirt hiding his bureaucratic bluster within an air of suave seriousness. There are ancillary people props as well, including a heard but not seen Alex Rocco, a Ritalin addicted brat who speaks like a rapper, and a collection of slight and sketchy human odds and ends. Everyone’s status as incomplete ideas wouldn’t be so bad if Carnahan had set them up inside one of those wonderfully impractical macho mania movie narratives. You know the kind – an impenetrable fortress, a series of video game like challenges to be met and overcome, the sense that defeat is just around the corner while victory is almost always assured. Had Smokin’ Aces been so intricate and innovation, the flat features of its cast would fit right in.


Instead, we find our attention wandering during many of the so-called set pieces. We watch Alicia Keyes’ Georgia and try to decipher how she started her life as a hired gun. As the Tremor Brothers grapple with each other and constantly fidget with their privates, we speculate on how these Deliverance style bumpkins became such in demand daredevil thugs. Even as round after round of ammunition is dumped into situations, when muzzles are flashing and sparks are spraying in eye and mind appealing slow motion, we never once feel connected to the chaos. That’s because Carnahan is merely pretending to play visionary. In truth, he’s just riffing on those filmic forefathers that created and confounded the formulas he’s fooling with, which makes the arm’s length ideal that much stronger.


This doesn’t mean that Smokin’ Aces is unwatchable. Hardly. There are specific scenes and individual moments that stand throughout as examples of the movie’s many facets – comedy, action, homage and spectacle – coming together in amazing statements of artistic clarity. When the backstory on Buddy Israel is offered, it’s many Las Vegas insider elements revealed, we feel the dizzy glitz of the city where any and all sins are meant to stay secret. Similarly, each hit man (or woman) gets a nice little illustration of their skills, and this helps to make Soto, the Tremors, and Acosta into viable evil. As the moral center of the story, Reynolds gets a couple of fantastic visual moments. One comes as he leaves the hotel, the attempt to protect Israel botched by a dozen intervening elements. As he walks into the daylight, the sun literally absorbs his outline, losing his fixture as a hero in a cloud of dazzling whiteness.


Reynolds’ second scene brings the film to a close, and after the half-baked denouement we get for all the gunplay, it’s a very dramatic and very necessary sequence. Yes, Smokin’ Aces wants to give us one of those gobsmacking, jaw-dropping twist endings, a conclusion that cancels out and changes everything we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, only the dimmest of cinematic sleuths would miss the obvious clues to the reveal, and though he intends it to be insightful, Carnahan’s finish just kind of lays there, doing very little to alter our perceptions. It’s like learning that there’s no Santa Claus, or that Dr. Pepper doesn’t contain prune juice. For all it’s attempted kinetic energy, Smokin’ Aces can’t help but resemble an urban legend that’s been left out in the public consciousness for far too long.


And the recently released DVD does little to alter that suggestion. Universal deserves credit for creating a technically sound (nice image and audio), fully supplemented package that draws us into the various facets of this film’s production. Two commentaries expertly illustrate the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the film. Carnahan and his editor Robert Frazen discuss the actual shaping of the storyline, mentioning scene by scene what was filmed and how it was tweaked in the cutting room. A second track with Carnahan and a few cast members (no one significant) is just an excuse to joke around and mock the other actors. The deleted and extended scenes clarify very little, while the “explosive alternate ending” advertised on the package is nothing more than gunshots substituting for nuance. The best material offered is a trio of backstage featurettes, all of which illustrate how determined and delighted Carnahan is to be working on this, his first major motion picture.


It’s a shame then that the results weren’t more magical. Smokin’ Aces stands somewhere between the creative crack attack of Crank, and the testosterone fueled freak out of the WWE’s The Marine. It’s not the highest octane thriller in the entire post-modern motion picture paradigm, but it sure doesn’t crackle and snap like it should. It could be a case of too many character kooks spoiling the body count broth, or a filmmaker so filled with ideas that he doesn’t know how to successfully streamline his approach. Whatever the case may be, you’ll enjoy the various overly aggressive face offs while wondering aloud just who in the heck these oddball people really are. While Buddy “Aces” Israel may be the center of a murderous maelstrom, pitting mobsters against maniacs, he remains the core enigma of an entertaining offering that just can’t fit in – not within the creative OR commercial cliques.


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Monday, Apr 16, 2007


Jackpot! Finally, a week where any one of the seven selected titles would make a fine addition to your own personal DVD collection. These situations are rare, so they demand celebrating. Better yet, there are several other titles – Overlord: Criterion Collection, Freedom Writers, The History Boys – that have their positives and negatives as well. Sure, some are better than others, with one offering in particular clearly meant as fodder for a future sequel release (say, around 4 May???), but with previous Tuesdays providing a paltry selection of acceptable, let alone good releases, you won’t hear SE&L complaining. In fact, picking the disc to highlight was a difficult if not next to impossible process. In the end, it came down to interest and popularity over art and added content. Still, you won’t be disappointed with any of the digital presentations available on 17, April, beginning with:


Spider-Man 2.1


Okay, it’s an obvious cash grab, a chance for Sony to milk the fanbase out of a few more bucks before they role out Part 3 the first weekend in May. Still, even with its cynical status as a marketing ploy, you can’t deny the power in Sam Raimi’s perfectly balanced comic book adventure yarn. Alfred Molina is an excellent Dr. Octopus, bringing the right amount of horror and humor to his villainous role. Similarly, the rest of the cast continue to push the boundaries of their characters’ core, including Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, a young man having a hard time dealing with his newfound import. Granted, this new DVD fleshes out the fight scenes, adding bits and pieces here and there to warrant the revamp. And we do get a couple of conversations that help explain away some of the movie’s more muddled motivations. While purists may balk at this non-directorial cut, and completists will plotz at the wealth of new added content, this remains an unnecessary double dip of a really great fantasy film.

Other Titles of Interest


Brute Force: The Criterion Collection


It’s time for another installment of moral men behind bars as the preservation experts over at C2 give this 1947 melodrama a thorough DVD workout. Director Jules Dassin, who would go on to helm the unusual noir Naked City and the truck driving thriller Thieves’ Highway, does a similarly startling job here, giving a young Burt Lancaster the fascinating role of a concerned convict up against a corrupt guard.

La Haine: The Criterion Collection


Race and its overriding social issues is not just an American quandary. In 1995, young filmmaker Matthieu Kassovitz decided to illustrate the strife and unrest growing in the French suburbs via a story of police brutality and friendship avenged. Playing like a documentary, thanks in part of the director’s decision to film cinema verite style, what we end up with is a universal statement on human intolerance and dignity destroyed.

The Last King of Scotland


Forest Whittaker took home his first Oscar for this portrayal of Ugandan madman Idi Amin in what is otherwise a very average motion picture. But no matter the flaws in the dramatization and fictionalization of the main character, a Scottish doctor who soon becomes Amin’s private physician and confidant – there is no denying Whittaker’s powerhouse performance. It will stand as a personal triumph long after the film itself has fallen out of favor.

Notes on a Scandal


It sounds like a tawdry tabloid tale – a young teacher seduces one of her male students. To make matters worse, a dowdy old spinster discovers the tryst and blackmails the naïve instructor. Of course, motives are never exactly what they seem, and with Judy Dench and Cate Blachette in the leads, what could become clichéd ends up playing as very powerful and rather personal. Not given enough respect come Awards time, DVD provides the perfect opportunity to catch up with this tripwire title.

Smokin’ Aces


Stylized action has its advocates. Both Quentin Tarantino and his Hong Kong counterpart, John Woo, have fashioned an entire career out of making violence and gunplay seem practically poetic. Now Narc‘s Joe Carnahan wants to try his hand at over the top mayhem, and the results are rather mixed. He gets the firefights and attitude right, but somewhere in between his affinity for stunt casting and a lack of clear characterization, a potentially great film finds itself marginalized.


And Now for Something Completely Different
True Confessions


The reteaming of Godfather aces Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall seemed like a match made in movie heaven. Fresh off his work in Raging Bull, and still carrying a bit of weight, Mr. Method decided to take on the role of a corrupt priest trying to hide a horrible murder from his detective brother – the aforementioned Corleone counselari. Using bits of the famed Black Dahlia murder, and lots of distinctive LA period set pieces, director Ulu Grosbard laid on the atmosphere in thick, moody slices. It was quite a chance of pace for the famed Hollywood rebel, a man whose previous films had been experimental and almost neo-realistic in style. Some found the pacing slow and the plot overly complicated. But with fine work from the stars, and a single sequence of awful implied violence, this anti-noir became a minor masterwork.

 


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Sunday, Apr 15, 2007


Dear Weinstein Brothers. We know things aren’t going particularly well for you right now. After severing ties with the notoriously bothersome House of Mouse and striking out on your own, you’ve found nothing but roadblocks in your Neuvo Miramax highway to success. Your recent releases have all underperformed, and now, that 2007 tent pole, the fascinating Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retrofest Grindhouse is being buried under a bounty of bad press. The entertainment community, desperate to see you fall on your flabby behinds, has come after you like sharks on a wounded whale, and the foreseen flopsweat is ripe with potential failure.  It’s gotten so bad that you’ve even been thinking of taking both movies, expanding their individual running times, and releasing them as separate cinematic experiences.


Guys….guys…guys…calm down. Grab a bottle of Artesian spring water, a couple of prescription sedatives, and rest for a while. The LAST thing you want to do here is split apart this already intriguing return to the drive-in dynamic of three decades ago. Film fans of a certain age and demographic get what you were going for and really appreciate the time, talents, and tenacity you showed in getting it released. This was never going to be an easy sell – for one thing, Tarantino and Rodriguez are Grade-A certified geek meat if ever audiences tasted same. Their projects are propelled from a dork driven place so deep down inside their idiosyncratic ideals that basement dwelling film nerds feel unworthy in their presence. If you thought you were about to make mega-bucks with these oddball directorial dweebs, you must have been smokin’ screener copies of Shakespeare in Love.


Grindhouse was destined to be a tough ticket for numerous, obvious reasons. You’re dealing with horror and other genre elements, facets that most film fans tend to kvetch over, and critics can’t understand or appreciate. Next, you’re dealing with a category of cinema that few comprehend, let alone welcome. Ask someone what they think of exploitation, and you’re likely to get the regurgitated opinion of some overly academic dickweed who doesn’t cotton to any aspect of the raincoat crowd. Add in the uneven tone, the tendency to associate the entire project with the outer fringes of major mainstream motion pictures, and the lack of genuine buzz (thank you so bloody much, 300!), and you’ve got a dead on delivery dud. Even if you gained a 100% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, audience ennui would be enough to give your business plan agita before the Friday estimates were released.


But this doesn’t mean you give up. You shouldn’t conform to a viewing going public too dumb to fathom what you’re doing. As a matter of fact, the failure of the film has nothing to do with what’s up on screen. Grindhouse remains a witty, inventive, highly satiric, and gross as all get out experience that’s practically overpowering in its artistic energy and invention. Tearing it apart and turning it into a crude competition of sorts (and between Rodriguez and Tarantino, one can almost envision where your cash is landing) will destroy everything your filmmakers fashioned. And let’s not forget the fake trailers. Those who participated in making those marvelous mock ads deserve some respect as well. Yet the question becomes, how do you solve this seemingly impossible problem. How do you make audiences interested (or in some cases, re-interested) in a title already tainted by a group of jaded journalists? The answer, oddly enough, is right in front of you.


Like the fabled producers of old, the men who made exploitation the historical hinge for all post-modern cinema, you can’t take failure as the final response. David F. Friedman, Dan Sonny, Harry Novak and Bob Cresse didn’t make mountains of money – and a ballbusting reputation - by moping around the minute the public rejected their efforts. No, they reinvented these projects, using the standard carnival barker approach of bait and switch to change the perception of their problematic productions. Sure, this SOUNDS like what you want to do, but there is a big difference between cutting your losses and trimming the fat. These men made their all important names out of never failing the public, by understanding what the people prefer, and more importantly, what they’d be willing to pay for. If a standard sexless thriller didn’t work, they’d tack on a scandalous ‘square-up’ reel to increase the erotica. If the horror wasn’t high enough, more blood drenched gore was quickly inserted. Entire films were re-edited, sequences reshoot, and plotlines changed to find the right combination of salable shuck and jerryrigged jive.


So, following this pattern, here’s what you should do. First, pull this daring double feature from the theaters before more self-styled pundits can piss all over it. Take stock in what you have already available in cutting room trimmings and existing tweak time, and get your auteurs involved. Make them part of, not the reason for, this process. Don’t dawdle over money or creative control – the ship is sinking and the rats have already ponied up and abandoned you. Look to the future – say the end of August/beginning of September – and get your accessible forces poised for war. It’s going to be a long and involved process, but in the end, you could be looking at 300 style returns at the end of the day.


In the case of Planet Terror, reinsert the “missing reel” sex scene between Rose McGowen and Freddy Rodriguez, turn the Bone Shack into a combination barbeque pit and badass biker bar, let the chopper riding rejects rumble with some good old fashioned fisticuffs, give us more of the stoic stripper storyline (including lots of shots of nubile naked torsos) and then tell Robert Rodriguez to remove a little of the freak show spectacle. Granted, no one enjoys mindless bloodletting as much as this considered critic, but fountains of grue spouting over and over again can get a tad, well, old. Instead, how about more of those amazing moments when deconstructed corpses are examined in nasty, nauseating detail. In a world awash in CGI chum, physical effects can really help you stand out. Besides, nothing will sell the fright flick facets of this production better than more shots of Fergie’s hollowed out head.


As for your main man QT, tell that diva director to turn down the chatter. The dialogue in Death Proof is amazing, the kind of potent palaver that Tarantino carries Oscar gold for. But in a film that’s a self-described “slasher flick”, what we need is more slice and less nice. Listening to girls gossip and give their unique opinions of sex and self within the context of a killer action thriller is like featuring random shots of kittens during a snuff film. Trim a few minutes of their minutia driven confabs, give Kurt Russell more lines (he is an endlessly fascinating character who we need to know more about) and provide another stellar suspense sequence like the one where the car’s characterization is proven on Rose McGowen’s unsuspecting person. Make it lean and mean and you’d have one amazing movie on your hands.


Finally, find a few more famous filmmakers willing to give you some new and novel trailers – perhaps approach members of the referenced and revered like John Carpenter or Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then tell the MPAA to go to Hell. That’s right, thwart convention. Take a stand for all lovers of cinematic extremes. Position yourselves as the artist’s advocate, and let the marketing challenge chips fall where they may. It’s going to take you a good few months to get the interest level back up again, and to purge the perception of failure from almost all elements of this movie. Again, breaking them in two won’t do that. You’ll just double the disgust, making movie fans, in their mind, choose the lesser of two unexceptional evils. To revamp awareness and create curiosity, you have to reposition everything about your concept. 


And the only way you can do that is via education. Time to teach the public what they obviously do not know – that is, that exploitation rewrote the motion picture roadmap. It created a freshness and openness that most filmmakers never even considered. Better yet, when foreign films couldn’t find a footing on American shores, the Grindhouse gang rescued these movies, exaggerated their simplistic sexual freedoms, and turned the arthouse into the cathouse. Recognize that you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining and hire someone happy to oblige – say Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, or Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon - and walk the viewers through a short lesson in the genre’s mesmerizing history. Get the remaining members of the 40 Thieves together for a series of interviews, or better yet, have IFC, Sundance, Encore, or any other cable channel that’s willing to work with you do a series of Grindhouse specials. Showing a certain style of movie once a week won’t cut it. You need constant coverage of the category with input from the people who provided the foundation for your post-millennial homage.


Then, create a documentary mini-series. Get QT and Rodriguez to go coast-to-coast, roadshowing their new versions in a day long grindhouse extravaganza. Let them position their films midway through, and then surround them both with a dawn to dusk collection of classics, cult faves and unknown gems. Toss in a few real trailers, a bunch of those clever, kitshy ads from the era, and make it a magnificently misguided marathon. Turn it into the Lollapalooza of b-movies madness, a real event that will proceed the regular theatrical showing. Of course, this is just the suggestion of someone who loves the original double feature and would hate to see it die from what appears to be a predetermined desire to see you fail. You’ve worked your magic on other minor efforts before. Here’s your chance to show the entire world that you can, and do, mean business. You can’t let audience apathy wear you down. Grindhouse is a good movie. Now it’s time to convince everyone else of that fact.


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