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Wednesday, Dec 13, 2006


Van Smith never won an Oscar. He was never idolized or celebrated by a vehement genre audience like Dick Smith or Tom Savini. If his chief collaborator, cinematic genius John Waters, was the ‘Pope of Puke’, Smith was his primary prophet, a pure fashion forecaster who violated the mandates of style while creating his own kitsch couture along the way. Noted for finding the ugly underneath the beautiful, and more importantly, the glamour inside the gross, the mad make-up artist/costumer designer is more famous for taking the simple drag queen elements of one Harris Glen Milstead – a.k.a. Divine – and twisting them into pop culture iconography. Through a combination of scars, blackheads, pimples and other occlusions, Smith stood fearless in the face of misunderstanding mockery. Years later, when his approach was stolen outright for the catwalks of Paris and Milan, he and his friends in Waters’ Dreamland Studios had that long awaited, hard last laugh.


When you think about it, Smith did indeed start the whole vogue/vile concept behind well done exaggerated drag. Prior to his poisoning of the standards of beauty, males masquerading as women usually strove for the slight hyperrealism of the typical suburban spouse. Waters has even been quoted as saying that before Divine came along, most gay men “wanted to look like Bess Myerson”. Smith and his symbol changed all that. Using the limited budgets that a Dreamland production would provide, a Baltimore loaded with thrift and welfare shops, a penchant for bargain basement cosmetics, untold amounts of sequins, and an aesthetic that shouted “More! More! More!” this Matisse of Maybelline redefined the notion of what was trash and what was tasteful. Basically blurring the lines between the two, and throwing in some of his own Smith secrets, he created a signature sensibility that few, if any, have been able to mimic or match to this day.


Born Walter Avant Smith Jr. in Mirianna, Florida on 17 August, 1945, the renamed Van first ran into Waters after he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1968. Living in an apartment complex inhabited by many of the future director’s antisocial company, he started hanging around the sets of Water’s early works. It wasn’t long before Smith was tapped to create Divine’s character of Babs Johnson for the seminal Midnight movie masterpiece Pink Flamingos. Designing a deranged fishtail gown, and shaving the actor’s hairline back toward the middle of his head (to make room for more make-up, Smith explained), he gave birth to a laugh out loud legendary look that has carried over for more than 35 years. It was a difficult accomplishment when you consider that Waters had little money, Divine was over 300 pounds and hard to fit, and Smith had to hand create everything, from dresses to hairpieces, fake breasts and the necessary female cheater (read: false vagina) for any nude scenes.


Yet he never let the lack of cash destroy his imagination. For his next pairing with Waters, the amazingly anarchic Female Trouble, Smith got to take Divine from teenager to tramp, lumpy housewife to scandalous supermodel. The transformations were terrific (including the use of some latex to mottle the star’s face with fake acid burns) and Smith even created outrageous outfits for co-stars Edith Massey (in particular, a laced leather item that still seems pornographic today) and Mink Stole (whose tumbled down school girl Taffy predates anything ever considered by Courtney Love or the rock band Babes in Toyland). The highpoint had to be the main character, Dawn Davenport’s, death row ensemble. Sure, her crazed cat suit with an off the shoulder strapless look and a single gloved arm leading to a connected set of razor sharp nails is amazing, but when limited to a potato sack like prison outfit, and a head completely bereft of hair, Divine’s dour, dumpy persona perfectly encapsulated the Waters/Smith ideal. The director has always stated that his make-up maven had a sense of “inner rot” and nothing shows this better than an obese drag queen being prepared for a little capital punishment.


Smith’s crowning achievement, however, is still Desperate Living. With Divine unavailable for filming (he/she was in San Francisco starring in her successful stage show) and former striptease sensation Liz Renay on tap to play a loco lipstick lesbian, Smith outdid himself. Sticking to the main theme of the movie, he took cast members like Mink Stole, Jean Hill, and Susan Lowe and magically transformed them into the hopeless citizenry of Mortville, a seedy sanctuary where criminals, vagabonds and other social misfits could come and live out there wrong footed wretched existence. The only problem was, they had to conform to the contemptible demands of the demented Queen Carlotta. While almost any talented designer can conceive of a shower curtain dress or a fluorescent green tutu for a 500 pound black woman, Smith made it all seem like part of the plot. In fact, the main element that people often forget about this amazing artist is that he never once tried to overshadow Waters’ worlds. Instead, he hoped to complement their corruptness by flawlessly visualizing their inner deceit. And he usually did.


When Waters went ‘legit’, first with Polyester, and later with Hairspray and Cry Baby, Smith was right along side, toning down his approach but never once abandoning his ethic. His work in the two trips back into Baltimore nostalgia – Hairspray centering on a ‘60s teen TV dance show, Cry Baby a cheesy chunk of ‘50s juvenile delinquency – proved that Smith could handle historically accurate and shockingly ridiculous at the same time. Continuing on with costumes only for the rest of Waters oeuvre (up to and including the man’s most recent effort, 2004’s A Dirty Shame) Smith was one of the last original Dreamlanders, a group that saw death (Divine, David Lochery) and the passage of time take away many of the merry band. When his aging mother grew ill, Smith moved back to Mirianna to take care of her. It is there where, on 5 December 2006, he had a fatal heart attack. Among fans of film, the loss was immediate and irreplaceable. Not only was Van Smith that rare individualist in a realm loaded with no name journeymen, but his vision lives on in that stronger than ever subculture of gay life.


It is clear that, from a purely symbolic standpoint, the mythos of Divine would be substantially mitigated if Van Smith had not been on hand to create her crackpot composite. It’s a look that’s so unsettlingly unique that only that rare combination of performer and packager can pull it off successfully. Smith once stated that his generic approach to Divine’s basic look was a meshing of Jayne Mansfield and Clarabelle the Clown. No doubt, the actor frequently looked sexy and sick, sinister and silly, a harlequin, a horror and a honey all rolled into one great big ball of brazenness. Many critics have pointed out that Waters seemed to lose his edge once Divine passed away in 1988. It will be interesting to see where the filmmaker goes now that his guru of gruesomeness, his trident of tastelessness, his imaginer of ick is gone as well. Waters did manage to make movies without his longtime friend and celebrated star. This, however, may be an aesthetic blow to great to completely compensate for.


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Tuesday, Dec 12, 2006


Everybody lies. It’s a well-established part of life. Existence in the real world is just not possible without an occasional fib or an expertly timed falsehood. In most instances they are trivial little scams, excuses to get out of an obligation or to avoid a social/personal faux pas. Rarely do they escalate into animate alter egos, entities living and breathing unto themselves. Mostly, the tall tale is told, achieves its goal, and is quickly forgotten. But lies can be like weeds, creeping across an individual’s integrity like kudzu along a wooded Georgia backwoods. As our world has grown more cynical and demanding, the tendency to pass out the truth like candy to a hyperactive child becomes the standard, and pretense takes the place of real, honest interaction. Eventually, people who leave too many of these little white wounds open to fester and rot are branded liars and cheats, members of a truly delinquent order, and yet there but for the grace of truth go almost all of us. Honestly, how would you react if friends and family, co-workers and clients, discovered some of the sordid sagas you’ve glossed over in favor of a grifter’s smile and a conversational con job? You’d be mortified. Or maybe, you’d be proud of your dishonesty.


Raymond Fernandez was one such happy heal. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, he answered requests from lonely hearts club members (read: early versions of classified personal ads), promising them love, devotion, and romance. But in the end, he bilked them out of their nest eggs and self-esteem. That is, until the unhappy Martha came along. She made him pay for his duplicity. She pushed him over the edge, from simple gigolo to vile murderer. Passions and possessiveness may have held them together, but death sealed their fates forever. They were lovers. They were liars. And they became The Honeymoon Killers, the subject of a sensational movie by writer/director Leonard Kastle.


In the story, Martha is a sad, overweight head nurse at a local hospital. She channels her misery through a veil of contempt for all around her. That includes her mentally unbalanced mother and her nosy next-door neighbor/best friend Bunny. Hoping it will help her hefty heartsick pal, Bunny thinks it would be a “hoot” to have Martha join a lonely hearts club and receive letters from other forlorn folks. She signs her up, and after some initial resistance, the stern caregiver dives in full force. One day, a letter from a man named Raymond catches her eye. He is sincere and gentile. He expresses his emotions with eloquence and grace. After a series of correspondence, the two exchange photos and eventually Raymond travels to meet Martha. He is a suave Latin lover type. He instantly woos his plump paramour. But he then leaves abruptly, asking for a small loan to get him back home. Time passes and Bunny makes a frantic phone call to the initially nonplused Ray. Martha is threatening to kill herself and demands to see her lover again or take her own life. Relenting, a trip to New York finds Martha and Ray reunited.


And it’s here where Martha learns Ray’s not-so secret. He is a love ‘em and leave ‘em flimflam man who promises widows and spinsters marriage and devotion on the premise of a substantial upfront cash payment. His dozens of conquests—almost all gleaned from the lonely hearts club ads in the back of seedy pulp magazines—keep him constantly hustling for his next dollar. At first, Martha finds the whole idea disgusting. She wants Ray all for herself. But when Ray needs a means of distracting a potential mark, he introduces Martha as his “sister,” and soon the couple is traveling the country fleecing sad single women out of their life savings. But Ray’s eye tends to wander, and Martha feels betrayed every time he pays more attention to the victims than her. Things turn deadly as Martha and Ray find it more and more difficult to keep up the sham and collect the cash. Finally, in a house in upstate New York, Martha learns the true depths of Ray’s cheating and the tragic results forever brand the couple as horrible criminals, capable of the most heinous crimes against humanity, all in the name of money, love, and lies.


In the unfortunately titled The Honeymoon Killers, the psychological fallout of longing and lack of love manifests itself in acts of human depravity so shocking in their luridness, and yet so understandable in their motivation, that the film, a uniquely disturbing thriller, actually upsets us. It’s a tale of lies and deception, of how desperate individuals in need of something, be it tenderness or legal tender, will do just about anything to get one or both. And add to that the idea of interpersonal double crosses, of never knowing who is playing whom for a sucker or visa versa, and you’ve got a dark, moody motion picture that starts off brash and then slow burns its way through an ever more disquieting series of ever more disturbing events. Seen within the media frenzy glare of our new century, with its 24 hour a day “info-tainment” coverage of the most mundane of murder cases, the calm, deliberate tone of The Honeymoon Killers could be mistaken for bland, or God forbid, boring. But like a well constructed mystery where the final reveal will provide the killer’s identity and motive, this brilliantly minimal muse on the meaning and method of murder rewards those who look behind the direct exterior to dig into the deviant dirt underneath. The Honeymoon Killers is a film that relishes layered complexity, and in its characters, its direction, and its final formation, it has more to say than some pipe smoking super sleuth.


The Honeymoon Killers has the unique distinction of being one of the few cinematic examples of reverse film noir, a thriller that savors the light, not the shadows and fog of darkness. As a matter of fact, perhaps a better description for this film’s mysterious mise-en-scène would be cinema blanc. The sun and the incandescent rays it showers upon the serial killing couple illuminate all aspects of their sleazy personality, offering those about to be taken and/or killed the chance to see their evil mindset in all its warped perversion. Ray is not really shrouded in ambiguity or veiled from full view. He is upfront and obvious: a true man waiting to be kept. On the outside he appears noble and good intentioned, and in writing he is all poetry and promises. But there is a profound phoniness to this Latin lover that’s as noticeable as the dime store toupee he sports. The lothario game is just a job for Ray, one that keeps him constantly on the move and burrowing through bank accounts of unhappy unmarrieds. His promises are as empty as his heart. And yet he seems to fall for Martha, a woman whose passion is as massive as her waistline. Or maybe he just needs her. After years of wining and dining and deserting, maybe Martha with her possessive compulsiveness is the grounding foundation he needs. Or a necessary new accomplice, a new angle on his age old swindle.


For Martha, it seems a lonely life of solitude and desperation has turned her devious, warping her once devoted life of easing pain into a single minded fixation to wrap Ray around her fat fingers like biscuit dough over Vienna sausages. Her faked suicide succeeds in getting the seemingly un-catchable con man to stop and actually take a moment to care about someone for once. We hear a true voice of concern—or a well-rehearsed slick pitch—whenever Ray expresses his affection to the fat, friendless female. And apparently, genuine or not, it’s all she needs to continue believing in herself and their relationship. But as the climate of crime and the possibility of betrayal—either legal or romantic—starts to consume Martha, she resorts to slaughter as a kind of misplaced matrimonial sacrament, a way of linking Ray to her forever. The film’s centerpiece hammer murder, with its ritualistic moves and man/woman—husband/wife—bludgeoner/strangler exchange of blows, becomes a kind of weird wedding ceremony, a final reciting of the inescapable vows of complicity. There is even a sick, twisted consummation of these nauseating nuptials. As the still twitching body of the victim lies on the living room floor, Ray strips completely and walks into the bedroom. Martha asks if everything is okay. Ray says yes. He wants to make love. And thus the final bond is achieved, an irrevocable connection that can never be broken. Except by the electric chair.


It’s easy to say that Martha is the truly evil being here. Ray provides moments of pleasure and is paid for it, sometimes very well, but the atrocities Martha commits are far more primal in their intent. She commits murder as a means of obligating Ray to her, a kind of permanent taboo tattoo that no action or reaction can erase. Nothing else in our society is so automatic in its condemnation, so instantaneous in its polarization as cold-blooded killing. This authority to play God, to determine who lives and who dies frightens, and strangely tantalizes us. The concept of an ever-shifting balance of power is key to The Honeymoon Killers. It establishes an outer relationship between the lovers to complement and compete with their deep interpersonal one and it helps heighten the uneasy mood of the film. We understand implicitly that at any given point, either of these two strong egos can take over and dictate the demands of the relationship. It is more than just a battle of wills or clash of manias. It’s a war for personal acknowledgment. Ray and Martha are probably one of the few couples in screen history whose connection is based almost solely on a mutual anti-socialness. Sure, there is the glamour gun fun of Bonnie and Clyde, or the murder/suicide self abuse of Sid and Nancy, but in Martha and Ray we see such total contempt for the world and all its phony trappings that their desire to control it, to have power over its population, is not surprising. The fact that they would try and tame each other is.


Since it’s so subtle, so gradual in its genesis, a movie like The Honeymoon Killers needs a strong cast to sell its measured descent into the deranged. Tony LoBianco, a famous face for many years on screen and television, makes a convincing, sexy lover boy. With an accent so thick it’s almost racist and a manner that’s half passionate, half prestidigitation, he is a wizard of wanting and a sorcerer of the single lady. He initially doesn’t have violence inside himself so much as ill will for the rubes he fleeces. He hates their desperation. He condemns their hypocrisy. They may have started out wanting a companion, but in the end, they are willing to mortgage their financial security and everything they worked for just to be with him, a man they hardly know. Martha is the only one who sees through him, who understands the mothering and smothering the Hispanic he-man needs to stay in control. As embodied by the stocky yet sensual Shirley Stoler, a wholly under-appreciated and forgotten actress, Martha become parent and lover, confessor and condemner to Ray. Manipulative in her plump, pouty poses and constantly cocking an eyebrow to second guess the criminal cyclone encasing her, Stoler turns Martha into a role of reactions, of silently listening and plotting based on what she hears and sees. Sure, she has her loud and rash moments, but when she’s lying in bed with Ray or watching a mark make a fool of herself, you can sense that she’s several steps ahead of the game. Sadly, all she really wants is companionship. The fact that she’s willing to sacrifice her life completely for it means Martha is both pathetic and unpredictable. This kind of time bomb temperament adds another level of foreboding to The Honeymoon Killers already ominous tone.


It’s just too bad that Stoler didn’t have a bigger career in front of the camera. Aside from an occasional bizarre turn, like playing Mrs. Steve, a certain Mr. Herman’s nosy neighbor on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Shirley died without ever having achieved the kind of stardom actresses of similar stature (like Kathy Bates) get regularly. She is great in The Honeymoon Killers, giving the kind of perfect performance that today would be sought after, no matter her size.


But a much greater mystery is why writer/director Leonard Kastle has failed to work behind the lens again. As great as LoBianco and Stoler are, it’s the atmospheric ambiance and mannered storytelling structure that Kastle imposes on The Honeymoon Killers that makes the movie such a successful, psychotic thriller. Kastle, a composer by profession, understands understatement better than most directors in this genre. He has complete faith in his actors and their characters, knowing that they can be far creepier and disturbing than obtuse camera angles and heavily artistic directing flourishes. Many times, Kastle creates a simple compositional two shot and lets the players simply perform. When it comes to the brutality of the couple, Kastle also uses the “less is more” approach. Crimes are committed off screen, or out of frame, relying again on the power of performance to sell the imagined terror. And it works. When he holds the camera up close, framing only the eyes of an about-to-be victim, he understands instinctively the disturbing qualities of not knowing what is going on out of shot. For a first time feature maker, Kastle shows an incredible skill and stylized visual flair. Why he never made another film is just plain difficult to comprehend.


As a true crime testament, The Honeymoon Killers more than holds its own with far more famous brethren like In Cold Blood and Badlands. Over the years, the seedy tale of Martha and Ray’s murderous crime spree has mistakenly been mis-categorized as an exploitation film, probably because of the tawdry title (it was originally written as “Dear Martha…”) and an ad campaign that featured Stoler and LoBianco in their underwear sharing a sensual embrace on top of a steamer trunk, which just so happens to have an arm sticking out of it. True, in its independent, single-minded desire to showcase a famous couple of homicidal maniacs, The Honeymoon Killers does share its heritage with several other examples of motion picture extremism, but this is also a film that moves carefully and quietly through its torrid, tangled web of lies and deceit, something that most genre exercises shied away from. By presenting death as the ultimate and final act of love’s desperation and by utilizing a gradual buildup of dread and suspense, The Honeymoon Killers becomes the very definition of a psychological thriller, one that couches its thrills in the truly disturbed actions of the human mind. It offers us a chance to look inside the warped world of its demented lovers and tries to illustrate the destructive power of their mutual and individual lies. If the truth shall set you free, The Honeymoon Killers shows, very clearly, that lies will condemn and enslave you.


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Monday, Dec 11, 2006


Slim, slim pickings this week. Unlike other release dates this holiday season, it’s mostly pointless past flops, lots of repackaged TV series, and just a couple of commendable titles on tap to turn your gift-giving head. Believe it or not, it was hard to find seven movies worth mentioning this week, what with all the reissues, double dips, and peculiar pairings. Things pick up a little next week – the last Tuesday before that jolly old elf makes with the philanthropic all nighter – but its clear that most of the good stuff, DVD wise, has already hit the teeming marketplace. Perhaps the best advice we here at SE&L can give you is to go back over past versions of “Who’s Minding the Store”, break out the pen and ink, and make your own list of what titles are naughty, and those that would be nice, especially sitting under the delightfully decorated artificial tree. If you’re still concerned about what awaits your slowly deteriorating dollars this 12 December, here’s the lean loot available:


Barnyard: The Original Party Animals

For starters – what’s up with the udders? Male cows do not have such suckling items, and their inclusion marks just how completely clueless this stale CGI mess really is. The product of the mangled mind of one Steve Oedekerk (responsible for the repugnant Kung Pow: Enter the Fist and those routinely dumb Thumb parodies), this lazy look at farm critters “after dark” is stylistically reminiscent of the man’s other computer generated venture – the far superior Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. What gets lost here amongst all the stunt casting, pop culture referencing rot is anything that would make this 3D effort stand out from the dozens of derivative efforts that seem to arrive in theaters every other month. While extremely young kids might find something to like – or nap over - during the film’s overlong 90 minute running time, adults will groan at yet another example of a newfound artform cannibalizing itself.



The Chronicles of Narnia: Extended Edition


As if the initial release wasn’t bad enough. When it arrived in theaters last year, Narnia did everything it could to poise itself as the next Lord of the Rings. Sadly, except for truly dedicated fans of the C. S. Lewis serial, the response was more tepid than titanic. Still, a sequel is in the works, and now, in full Peter Jackson form, Disney is dropping a holiday-timed “extended edition” of the film, complete with added footage and a ton of supplementary content. Does this make the otherwise earnest epic any better? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Can Disney count on a LOTR‘s like return on their digital investment? Oddly enough, the answer is probably yes. Fans love to look at differing versions of a favorite title, while the uninitiated may use such an opportunity to finally seek out this effort. Either way, DVDs will be flying off shelves, and for the House of Mouse, the bottom line is all that really matters (see below).


 


PopMatters Review


The Devil Wears Prada

*
It was Summer 2006’s most unlikely blockbuster, a satiric character comedy that put lots of repeat business butts in the seats week in and week out. While other major releases had their three days (or less) in the sun before slowly slinking off into that promotional abyss known as quick turnaround land, this adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s book had the acting chops to hold out and hang on. Part of Devil‘s success sits directly on the relationship between Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs and the magnificent Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Anyone who thought this was pure chick flick territory obviously didn’t know the story’s underpinnings, and while much of the movie is a coming to terms between a New York neophyte and a big shot bitter design magazine diva, there is much more here than heart and chutzpah. Thanks to the perfect performances, and David Frankel’s nuanced direction, what appeared rather obvious actually ended up being very multifaceted and multi-layered.



PopMatters Review


The Doors: 15th Anniversary Edition

*
It was an incredibly odd project for director Oliver Stone. In between the antiwar vitriol of Born on the Fourth of July (which won the filmmaker his second Academy Award) and the monumental conspiracy theory screed of that epic masterpiece known as JFK, the controversial artist took on the story of one of rock’s most enigmatic offerings. With the inspired casting of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison – he maintains the perfect combination of animal magnetism and self-destruction insensitivity – and Stone’s typical way with historic recreation, the late ‘60s on the Sunset Strip come to vivid, visionary life. No one except for Scorsese and Tarantino handles music as well as Stone, and the recreations of famous moments in the Doors’ legacy are superb. Only Meg Ryan sticks out as a far too post-modern mate for Morrison. Otherwise, this is a lost gem from a director who seems destined to constantly create same.



The Fox and the Hound 2
As mentioned before, Uncle Walt’s world definitely understands how to market its mythos – mostly to its own detriment. Recognized by many animation lovers as low rent cartooning to begin with, the original Fox and the Hound didn’t really require any more attention other than the dismal box office and middling home video viability it managed. Never one to pass by a chance to cash in on someone’s love of their legacy however, the Mickey merchandising machine has churned out yet another unnecessary sequel, a lamentable effort poised to join other dreary double dips like Return to Neverland and Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp’s Adventure. That collective groan you hear is the united consumer consciousness turning off to these obvious money making ploys. The other noise you’ll recognize – it’s parents ponying up for another digital babysitter for their entertainment starved wee ones.



Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby*
It’s funny…at one point in time, it looked like this film would be best remembered for its numbskulled NASCAR humor only (talk about shooting redneck fish in a barrel). Then a little film named Borat hit movie theaters, and suddenly everyone remembered that Sacha Baron Cohen also appeared here as the French racecar driver Jean Girard. Now, that’s all you see in the ads hyping the DVD release – star Will Ferrell and Cohen going toe to toe, trading trackside insults. While this second tier comedy from a fourth level SNLer was winning enough for most, it is clear that those in publicity recognized that a little Kazakhstan karma never hurt anyone. Oddly enough, as Cohen’s star is rising, Farrell failed to capture a comparative audience for his recent semi-serious outing, Stranger than Fiction. Even if his fans argue that such subtlety is not the comedian’s funny business forte, it’s possible that this may be Ferrell’s last legitimate hit for quite some time.


PopMatters Review


World Trade Center: Two Disc Commemorative Edition*
It’s so strange to think that this movie was made by the same man described in the Doors’ discussion above. For decades, Oliver Stone has been an aggressive agent provocateur, not a flag-waving jingoist. Yet here he is, the man responsible for calling into question almost every political power within the last three decades doing a nice, noble job of telling the true story of two Port Authority police officers during 9/11. In Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena, Stone found two actors capable of carrying off their scenes while buried under tons of art department rubble, and the initial scenes of the terrorist attack, all suggestion and subtle shifts in personnel and perspective, are expertly done. Towards the end, when the trapped men’s families start freaking out, the movie looses a little of its bearing, but overall, Stone taps into the national nightmare of that fateful day, and delivers a devastating drama.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to “Who’s Minding the Store”, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 5 December:


Babette/ Monique, My Love*
There is something incredibly surreal about smut when it tries to be serious. And no one understood the oddity of earnest Eros better than Roberta Findlay. While her husband concentrated on his perverted slasher storylines, movies mixing sexiness with sadism in ever harsher helpings, the Missus made softcore sagas involving women discovering their long lost inner lesbian. Both Babette and Monique feature Linda Boyce as an overly verbose narrator explaining – and exposing – the seedy underworld of New York’s numerous secret societies. Thanks to incredibly arcane descriptions that would have gloomy Goth girl poets blushing from an overabundance of flowery prose pleasantries, and your standard late ‘60s selection of barmaids, hippies and artist models, what we end up with is a men’s magazine come to life. If you like your fake fornication brazen, bawdy, and in black and white, this December release from Something Weird Video will definitely stir your subdued Sapphic sentiments.


 


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Sunday, Dec 10, 2006


When did moviegoers, including those in the so-called critical class, get so stupid? When, exactly, did they decide to turn off their brains, sitting back mindlessly and demanding that everything in an entertainment be explained to them? Was it when marketing became master of the cinematic domain, when test screenings and focus groups stole creativity out of the hands of the artist? Maybe it was during the days of the high concept, when narrative didn’t need to be deep or intricate - it just needed to connect instantly with an audience. Home video definitely drove a stake in the heart of cinematic intellectualism. Once everyone had access to the world’s wealth of film, the backseat scholarship began, and as a result, the creation of false perception.


Granted, viewing a masterpiece like 2001 on a 13” screen is not the proper way of determining Kubrick’s overall approach to science fiction, yet such an aesthetic has long since become the norm. As a result, all of these factors have fooled faux cinephiles into believing they understand the nature of movies. Unfortunately, every once in a while, they prove that, deep down inside, they’re insolent little scholars unable to think their way out of a plausible motion picture bag. Take Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, The Fountain. True, the Requiem for a Dream director fought hard to realize his vision of mortality acceptance set inside a surreal speculative fiction/period piece format. And it’s clear that, once first superstar lead Brad Pitt pulled out, Aronofsky had to substantially diminish his vision. But from the reviews being written, both in print and on the web, you’d swear the director had made his own arcane Inland Empire.


In case you missed it – and you probably have, since its flying out of theaters faster than a non-Pixar CGI cartoon – The Fountain centers on Izzy, played by Rachel Weisz, and Tommy, played by Hugh Jackman. She’s a writer. He’s a research scientist/doctor. She is dying of an inoperable brain tumor. He is experimenting with exotic plant life to find a potential cure. As their last days together become insular and unhappy, Izzy presents her husband with a present – it’s her most recent effort, an epic romance/adventure called The Fountain. In the book, a Conquistador is sent to find the Tree of Life by the Queen of Spain. She will use the existence of the mythical symbol as a way of stopping the Grand Inquisitor from usurping her throne – and condemning her to death as a heretic. Charged with his royal mission, the warrior travels abroad, where a Mayan temple supposedly holds the secret location for this holy relic.


The parallels are pretty obvious: a lady being undermined by a “cancerous” force inside her own domain; a dedicated lover intent on finding the “cure”; a battle being waged both internally and externally; faith being destroyed and reconfigured on highly personal and prophetic levels. The story within a story format is so stereotypical – and thus avoided by many modern filmmakers – that Aronofsky’s use is disconcerting at first. It therefore makes some manner of sense that overstuffed film critics, bombarded with every level of moviemaking formula in the motion picture pantheon, would react with some suspicion. Indeed, one doesn’t expect such obvious analogies in the ‘oh so clever’ current artform – and especially from Aronofsky. Even with his dedication to style over subtlety, such an apparent narrative ruse would seem beneath his talents.


As a matter of fact, it is. There is more to the ancient empire storyline than a simple metaphor for Izzy and Tommy’s trials. Clearly, these scenes are meant to forge a fascination with immortality, a question of what cheating death actually means. This is high stakes stuff, material moving at a level beyond most normal human’s hampered thinking capacity. Without going into massive spoilers, the Conquistador’s efforts expose the arrogance of battling transience. Similarly, the fate of the Queen seems certain. She can send all the soldiers she wants out into the New World, hoping to find a remedy for what ails her ‘dying’ regime. But the truth is, such solutions are many miles – and months – away. Anyone who thinks they can hold off the rollercoaster of religion for that period of time is simply foolish. In essence, the actions of the past participants in the story are predestined to fail. That’s the main message of the movie – death cannot be stopped, no matter how hard you fight against it.


So then, what’s the next step? Where does a story like this go from here? It’s at this juncture where many reviewers jumped the sensibility ship. Aranofksy does make a bold choice here – something many miss upon an initial viewing. Izzy explains to her husband that she couldn’t complete her manuscript. The last chapter has been left blank, and she gives her spouse pen and ink, telling him he must finish the story. The sentiment is crystal clear. She’s doing the hard part – dying. He has the second most challenging choice – how to respond to it. The book’s conclusion will reflect his feelings on the subject, and signal how he intends to approach her departing. When viewed in this more than likely light, the futuristic material that has thrown so many moviegoers for an illogical loop is suddenly self-evident.


Tommy is a man of science, someone constantly throwing aside the pragmatic and the emotional for complicated trials on untested treatments. He views the world in a way that most physicians/healers do – that is, they are demigods determining life and death with little interference from the spiritual. His is not a quest for inner peace. He is battling the almighty forces of nature, and he is determined to win. When he does pick up the literary mantle for his dying bride, he envisions an interstellar trip, Tree of Life in tow, to the novel’s otherworldly afterlife, a mythic realm of rebirth entitled Xibalba. There, he will cure the ailing icon, restore balance to his broken existence, and hopefully, resurrect his lost love. This is not some real time trip into another part of the galaxy, a 2001-style symbol of evolution or an A.I.-esque lesson in humanness. As much as the Conquistador material reflects the battle for life, the space bubble ride is a metaphor for the journey toward accepting death.


Since it’s presented in a continuum-tripping manner, certain sequences breathing into and breaking apparent existing scenarios, Aronofsky purposely perverts what is basically a pair of dream sequences supporting a disease of the week romance. It’s so clearly observable – the Conquistador’s tale ends like any good fable would, and the space story is the cathartic conclusion the plotline craves. Naturally, many critics have complained that, when you remove all the gloss and gimmicks, you are stuck with two rather dimensionless characters at the center, and while this may or may not be true, it strikes one as far more insightful than most of the complaints leveled against the film. A few writers have referenced Kubrick’s serious speculative masterpiece – always in an annoyingly inappropriate negative light – as a way of explaining how unexplainable The Fountain is, while others name check nonsense like Zardoz as a way of comparative contrast (frankly, the link is so tenuous as to be truly laughable).


Yet what’s obvious about most of the negative reviews is that intelligence is being systematically switched off the minute the screening starts. Part of the problem is something called CCC – cinematic catalog consciousness. Many in the film commenting community have been involved in the process for a very long time, and have seen so many movies in as many varying genres that their gray matters has been literally rewired to draw instant, often shortsighted conclusions. A music writer once opined that they could tell a hit record within the first 10 seconds of the needle hitting the vinyl. Movie reviewers suffer from something similar. Because of how their minds are bombarded with all manner of aesthetic elements, pro and con, puzzle pieces of perception start systematically falling into place from the opening frames. Many a cinematic scholar has lamented how a potentially good movie is more or less given up for dead by a mindset predetermined to instantly encode and appraise what’s being seen.


So maybe a few of these flummoxed critics gave up on The Fountain within the first five minutes, and ground their teeth until Aronofsky was through with his non-CGI sky show. But in far too many cases, it appears that usually sane cinephiles have simply missed crucial parts of the plot. Izzy makes it very clear that the characters of the Conquistador and the Queen come from her book. She mentions it at least three times, and Tommy never “sees” these scenes until he has her manuscript in hand. Anyone who argues that the period piece material is real and that the present day couple are the old ones reincarnated (or worse, made immortal by the Tree) is just plain stupid. The movie provides the clues to what these sequences represent. Not catching on is sheer cinematic laziness.


Even worse, the interpretations of the outer space material border on the retarded. Reincarnation is given another airing, while others have offered a bizarre combination of immortality and technological advancement as an explanation. One of the most outrageous examples argues that Tommy, devastated by Izzy’s passing, goes on a journey – like the Conquistador – to find the Tree. Once successful, he lives off it for 1000 years until, almost spent, he must enclose it in an interstellar vehicle and send it off to a kind of cosmic clearinghouse. There, some kind of extraterrestrial mumbo jumbo will occur, and everything will be right with the world. Of course, none of this addresses the absence of Izzy, why she only appears as a ghost-like vision during the trip, and why her disembodied voice keeps telling her husband to “Finish It”. When she gives her husband the writing set, she wants him to complete her book. The galaxy quest is that tale envisioned, nothing more or less.


After reading pieces rife with confusion, contempt and callous dismals, it’s clear that Aronofsky’s take on the Kubler-Ross conceits of death and dying did not resonate with most reviewers. And there is nothing wrong with disliking a film. People’s opinions are to be treasured, not trashed. It’s the very foundation of all criticism. But to go the extra mile and categorize The Fountain as unfathomable and incomprehensible is like rubbing salt in an undeserving wound. Is the movie creatively complicated? Yes. Does it hold on to many of its mysteries until long after the final credits have rolled and you’ve had a chance to sit back and consider them? Indeed. Is this just some motion picture masturbation about star-crossed lovers lost over three different millennia? Absolutely not. Such interpretations are proof that, when it comes to cinematic scholarship, many writers got in on their looks, not their knowledge. The reaction to Aronofsky’s The Fountain confirms what many in the movie community already believe. Film criticism is a dying art. In fact, from the looks of things, it may already be dead.


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Saturday, Dec 9, 2006


Harlan Hollis is known world wide as The Junkman, a humble business bloke turned fabulously wealthy multi-media mogul on the back of his scrap auto business. He makes movies, owns diamond mines and oil wells, and lives a jet setting eccentric lifestyle. A widower whose wife was killed by a drunk driver, he divides his time between his mega-buck empire and his teenage daughter. While readying his latest stunt filled film, he makes time to celebrate his child’s birthday, attend a James Dean festival that he has sponsored, and arrange the world premiere of his near completed masterwork. But gathering forces outside his insular life want Hollis dead, and they send a band of highly trained assassins out in cars and planes to kill the trash heap Trump once and for all. Will our high living, fast driving hero make it to the festival on time? Will he ever get to see his child again? More importantly, will his latest cinematic experiment have a boffo box office weekend? Or is it possible that this will be the time that The Junkman joins the rest of the metal in his yard?


Taken at face value, all one can say is - WOW! Junkman is one weird mamma-jamma of a movie. This möbius film strip motion picture functions like an Escher print come to life, cross and direct referencing itself and its makers so many times, and skittering in and out of reality so often it threatens to turn into Ouroboros and consume itself. It’s a true story told as fiction with most of the real people playing themselves. It’s a car crash fiesta formulated as a Citizen Kane style send-up of filmmaker and stuntman H.B. Halicki. The reference to Welles 1941 classic is not co-incidental. Halicki, here as Hollis, uses the same multi-media style (stills, news reports, flashbacks, and interviews) to tell the pseudo story of his life, except in this case, Rosebud is a tricked out Cadillac Eldorado running a supped up V-8 engine under its shiny hood. And unlike W.R. Hearst’s worst nightmare, the future salesman for Paul Mason wines didn’t load his narrative with an extended 45 minute car chase.


That’s right, forty-five minutes of automobile anarchy: chases, crashes, stunts, and impossible moments. Basically divided into four separate sections, kind of like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons except with larger insurance premiums, we get ten or fifteen minutes of fact filled narrative and set-up and then the pedal and the bumpers start hitting the metal as elaborate vehicular feats are hurled relentlessly at the camera for the sake of excitement. This movie is reportedly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most destroyed modes of transportation (planes, trucks, and cars) than any other movie in history. And while it seems hard to believe it in light of past (The Blues Brothers) and present (Speed) examples of the genre, one thing is for sure—The Junkman sure does have a lot of Detroit’s finest ramming into each other over and over again.


In some ways, Junkman reminds the viewer of Richard Rush’s exercise in inversion, the classic black Hollywood come-tramedy The Stunt Man. Similar in structure (with the “is it a movie or is it real?” ideal in full flower), it differs in that there are no performers the like of Peter O’Toole or Steve Railsback to sell the satire. Instead, Halicki casts himself in the lead, and then wisely as both director and writer, gives most of the dialogue and emoting to the one or two professionals (Hoyt Axton, Christopher Stone) in the cast. Still, there is nothing wrong with the amateur acting antics of the mostly playing themselves persons. Indeed, the natural charm and realistic line readings create an aura of authenticity that helps save The Junkman from sinking under the weight of its lofty ambitions. Sure, Halicki is interested in featuring metal on engine block action, but he also wants to work myth, murder and intrigue into the mix. Frankly, from what we see of Halicki/Hollis real life, a biopic of the eccentric entrepreneur would be an equally intriguing cinematic prospect. In love with all cars, he owned a huge warehouse “office” (the size of a football field) where he housed his mad collection. He also loved toys and had hundreds of thousands of rare and vintage examples.


He was also responsible for the drive-in cult classic, the original 1974 Gone in Sixty Seconds. And he truly started life in the junk business. And yet all of this takes a colorful backseat to the non-stop, no special effects stunt driving and crashing that makes up the vast majority of this movie. And while said action footage is first rate in a kind of late ‘70s early ‘80s shot as it happened fashion, adding more of the bizarre business life of Halicki/Hollis would have moved the entire movie beyond its B-movie roots into something a little more special. But as it stands, The Junkman is unlike any car crash movie you’ve ever experienced. It has to be seen to be believed.


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