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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007


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


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


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


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



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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007

Do we really have to wait That long???


 


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Monday, Feb 19, 2007


Can you sense that Oscar is just around the corner. Last week, The Departed made its bow on home video. This week, another Academy effort and a far better film that should be up for Best Picture consideration, make their way onto the digital domain as well. But there is even more cinematic specialness to be had, including another amazing Criterion release, a wonderful anti-censorship documentary, and a substantial sampling of Christopher Guest’s own unique approach to wit. Add in a decent animated film and a strange bit of fear funny business and you have just a small example of the excellent fare waiting at your local B&M. But by far one singular selection for 20 February marks SE&L’s choice for movie of the year:


The Prestige


The undeniably best film of 2006 arrives on DVD with scarcely enough bonus features to make the shift to the digital medium worth the effort. Everyone knows by now that Christopher Nolan’s amazing motion picture puzzle box was beaten by The Illusionist in the public popularity sweepstakes (romance always seems to trump intelligence), but for sheer cinematic artistry, for the ability to take a complicated multi-layered narrative and make it sing with emotional and aesthetic resonance, this film is flawless. The movie may suffer from lofty ambitions, and more than one unexpected plot twist, but the truth is, no other motion picture in this otherwise interesting year found the proper balance of character and circumstance. With amazing performances and sheer directorial skill, Nolan has delivered a timeless masterpiece, destined to live far beyond this brief, befuddling moment in mainstream moviemaking.

Other Titles of Interest


49th Parallel: Criterion Collection


The brilliant British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were pressured into service for their homeland once the UK fell into World War II. With this film about a Nazi U2 Boat, made in Canada, the duo introduced characters who argued for the United State’s involvement in the still mostly European conflict. Criterion now gives it the necessary preservationist’s polish.

Babel


What is it with the year’s cinematic best arriving on the digital format with nary a contextual feature to be found? Paramount is probably gambling on a Crash like win come Oscar time before fleshing out this feature (in either case, one should except a double dip sometime this summer). This incredibly dense effort definitely deserves better.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing


The amazing story of how one of country’s commercial darlings became political pariahs forms the center of Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s brave backstage documentary. The “Red State” reaction to singer Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush remarks seems ridiculous, especially in today’s President bashing atmosphere. But we soon learn that censorship and sexism played a bigger role in the controversy than an off the cuff remark.

Flushed Away


It was the great CGI experiment that ended up voiding an entire creative contract. Aardman Animation, famous for their work on Wallace and Gromit, teamed up with Dreamworks (Shrek) to bring their idiosyncratic style to the realm of 3D cartooning. The result was this uneven effort, a film that flopped so badly that the Americans showed the Brits the door only three films into their five picture deal.

For Your Consideration


Christopher Guest pushes the mock documentary comedy style aside for the time being to focus on a fictional look at awards season, and how small independent efforts can get caught up inside the massive media hype. In this case, a tiny production entitled Home for Purim generates a lot of year end buzz, bringing its journeyman cast face to face with celebrity for perhaps the first time. Naturally, unheard of hijinx ensue.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Night of the Living Dorks


Leave it to the Germans to combine the cornball ‘80s sex comedy with the benchmarks of your basic zombie horror film to create a clever, if occasionally uneven, terror treat. The story is your standard nerds vs. jocks smackdown, with the added element of some goofy Goth kids experimenting with voodoo on the side. A ritual goes wrong, and suddenly, the geeks are getting even with the bullies who made their life a living - make that now an ‘undead’ – Hell. With lots of silly CGI slapstick and some incredibly underdone sequences (a huge beer bash goes…nowhere), the movie does tend to lose its approach two thirds of the way through. Indeed, the DVD contains an alternate ending that’s just as ineffective as the actual one offered. If you don’t mind your macabre mixed with a little middling mirth, you’ll really dig this scary satire.

 


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Sunday, Feb 18, 2007


All right, all right…it is the worst crime in all of cinema. Worse than Alfred Hitchcock never handling directorial Oscar gold. More appalling than Stanley Kubrick’s 1 for 13 Academy batting average (he received one for 2001‘s special effects???). Over the course of his highly praised career, Martin Scorsese, a true American auteur, has never won the big prize. Granted, he’s still considered a filmmaking genius. But for many, that’s not good enough. Instead of letting him rest on his considerable laurels, fans and faux well wishers want him to walk down that red carpet and pick up the industry’s biggest reward. It won’t affect his status as a legitimate legend (just ask Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, or any other renowned director who had to wait around for “honorary” recognition). But for many, it would be vindication after decades of being purposefully passed over.


Some of his slights have been pretty heinous. For the record, Scorsese has been nominated six times for Best Director, all for films made after 1980, none for anything prior to Raging Bull. He also has two screenplay nods as well. Of the movies he’s been recognized for, two are hailed as modern masterworks – 1980’s Bull and 1990’s Goodfellas. How ironic is it then that both efforts lost to first time directors (Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, respectively) both of who were superstar actors first, distinguished filmmakers a far distant second (quick, name another noteworthy film either has made since). One of the strongest arguments defenders make about Scorsese’s snubs is that, in a system which quickly rushes to celebrate the flavor of the moment, the Academy often fails to look at the bigger motion picture picture. And Marty is that man out of time.


No one would argue that Ordinary People (Redford’s still amazing movie) is better than Bull. It’s merely a matter of artistic degrees. Similarly, it’s a shame that the overblown reach of Costner’s pro-PC Western Dances With Wolves became the cause celeb of its otherwise mediocre movie season (let’s face it – Ghost, Awakenings and The Godfather Part III were Best Picture candidates that year as well). In both cases, Scorsese made the better film, the more timeless entertainment, the surest cinematic statement. But because of Hollywood happenstance, the power of the publicity machine, or the overall jealousy of an industry less enamored of his efforts than the critical community, Scorsese remains the Academy outsider, looking in. His latest nomination for the brilliant crime thriller The Departed promises to finally end his losing streak. But the fact remains that, in an amazingly creative career, it comes as far too little, way too late.


Indeed, there are at least five other films that Scorsese should have been acknowledged for, efforts that usually don’t get mentioned along with Mean Streets or Taxi Driver (remember – Oscar didn’t start to take notice until a decade after these definitive efforts). When you consider that two of his recent nods have been for less than successful works - no one would compare Gangs of New York or The Aviator to his finest – the indignity becomes even richer. One of America’s premiere talents has had to endure the nagging question of whether he will ever be the beneficiary of Academy recognition. Once you see the list of movies that haven’t made the cut, along with the few that did, you realize how rhetorical said query really is. Scorsese’s body of work is just phenomenal. His lack of AMPAS recognition is just ridiculous. Proof of point – the motion pictures listed below, beginning with:


1974 – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Not Nominated)
After the aesthetic epiphany that was Mean Streets (remember, Scorsese was an unknown whose only major filmmaking fame was as one of Roger Corman’s b-movie journeymen) many weren’t prepared for this road movie cum character study. Substituting the stark Southwestern desert for the overcrowded streets of New York, Scorsese deconstructed feminism, showing how paternalism dominates both the personal (Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson) and professional (Vic Tayback) landscape. With Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn in the driver’s seat, and stellar supporting work from Diane Ladd, girl power was still prevalent. It’s interesting to note the absolute lack of directing tricks in this surprisingly immediate film. Utilizing handheld cameras and found locations, there is a decided documentary feel to this film that Scorsese would rarely revisit throughout the course of his career. It’s a sensational, slightly surreal cinema véritié approach that proves there is more to this man’s body of work than carefully choreographed compositions and meticulous tracking shots.


1983 – King of Comedy (Not Nominated)
With the monumental achievement of Raging Bull, the critical question became: what would Scorsese and his acknowledged acting collaborator Robert De Niro do for an encore. The answer, oddly enough, was one of the ‘80s bitterest satires. Predating the prevalence of fame whores by at least 15 years, this wholly New York look at celebrity and shallowness remains one of the filmmaker’s unappreciated classics. Like a brutal response to Network‘s previous clarion call, Scorsese took screenwriter Paul Zimmerman’s burlesque Travis Bickle, and with the help of an amazing performance from his partner, fashioned the oblivious Rupert Pupkin into the entertainment equivalent of Gordon Gecko. With its talk show as social signpost symbolism and unusual approach to romance, King was a delightful denunciation of every hack who ever believed him or herself capable of stardom. Featuring Jerry Lewis in one of his few dour, dramatic roles and a remarkable turn by stand-up comic Sandra Bernhard, the film remains a tremendously cynical cinematic statement.


1988 – The Last Temptation of Christ (Nominated, Lost to Barry Levinson for Rainman)
Talk about throwing a scandalized dog a bone. When it was discovered that Scorsese was bringing Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel to the silver screen, the newly empowered Religious Right got their representational rocks ready for a good old-fashioned stoning. Fast forward almost 20 years, and a famous Hollywood superstar (pre-Anti Semitic rant) decides to do an equally contentious take on the Messiah, and he’s embraced as a motion picture prophet. Must have something to do with the public’s willingness to accept abject violence (Passion‘s snuff film scourging) vs. a question of theoretical enticement (Christ’s crucifixion based fantasy about a secular life with Mary Magdalene). Anyone interested in the psychological and dogmatic underpinning of faith deserve to see Scorsese’s overlooked epic. While Gibson may have received the fundamentalist stamp of approval with his picture, Scorsese delivered the real scholarly take, and was given a token nomination as a reward (the film’s only Oscar acknowledgment).


1995 – Casino (Not Nominated)
Poor Casino. When placed alongside Mean Streets and Goodfellas, it becomes the bastard stepchild of Scorsese’s mob movies, an also ran in a dynamic dominated by acknowledged artwork. But it takes real creative chutzpah to focus on the grime under the glitz of Las Vegas and come out with anything remotely original. Thanks to the unique storyline (following real life gambling boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, here renamed Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein), stunning visual setting, and incredibly gifted cast (yes, EVEN Sharon Stone), Scorsese turned the crime drama on its ear. Instead of making the violence the most visceral part of his exposé (and there is some incredibly brutal material here), the accomplished auteur brought backstage bravado – and more than a little directorial pizzazz – to the everyday workings of a high rolling gambling establishment. Sure, the film loses its way toward the end, but in a year that saw Braveheart’s Gibson take the prize, this film deserved much, much better.


2005 – No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Out of Oscar Consideration)
Hopefully, the lunkhead over at PBS who kept this stellar documentary from getting a well deserved theatrical release is currently looking for a new place of employment. Of all the ‘60s icons, Dylan remains the most fascinating, and frustrating. At one time a true folk traditionalist, his transition into a potent political voice was an elusive aesthetic turn. The best thing Scorsese accomplishes with what is essentially a talking head retrospective is the complete contextualization of Dylan’s social and musical importance. He draws distinct parallels between the rising tide of unrest in the country and the simultaneous seismic shifts in the various entertainment mediums. He even stretches out beyond the scope of a standard biography to explore the importance of Dylan’s initial purist position, and why so many felt betrayed by his decision to “go electric” in 1965. And the worst part of all of it? It didn’t even win an Emmy. Scorsese lost the award to Baghdad ER.


All together, the man has made 21 major first run features. Of that number, 16 (give or take two or three) are considered by most film fans to be good or great. That’s quite a high percentage. It’s truly sad then that Oscar has failed to recognize his brilliance until now. But here’s guessing this is one filmmaker who would take his track record over a little gold statue any day. His lack of recognition from the Academy is dreadful. His work behind the camera remains definitive.


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Saturday, Feb 17, 2007


Coy “Cannonball” Buckman is an ex-stock car champion with a very shady past. Wrongfully incarcerated for the death of a young woman during a race, he’s recently been released from prison and is looking to reclaim his good name. Along with his best friend Zippo, Cannonball decides to compete in the highly illegal, underground car rally known as the Trans-American Outlaw Road Race. But he faces stiff competition for the $100,000 first prize. There is country singer Perman Waters, who hopes to use the contest as a way of publicizing his career. There is Wolfe Messer, a German Grand Prix driver who hopes to show up the Americans with his souped-up European automobile. Jim and Maryann are two surfers who hope to win the cash so that they can buy a beach house in Hawaii. And Sandy Harris has brought two of her waitress friends along for the get-rich-quick ride.


Even though Cannonball is the favorite to win, two conflicting elements conspire to keep the bold Buckman down. One is longtime nemesis Cade Redman, who wants Cannonball out of the race…at any cost. And the other, oddly enough, is Coy’s brother, Benny, who’s in debt up to his cement shoes with the mafia. If Cannonball doesn’t win, the entire Buckman family stands to lose…permanently. It’s a demolition derby between good and evil, life and death, as lean, mean automotive machines traverse the highways and byways of this great land of ours, hoping to be the next bicoastal racing champion.


Like a cool breeze blowing across a summer’s evening at the local drive-in, Cannonball is pure, unadulterated B-movie magic. Part cornball chase picture, part idiosyncratic comedy, this sequel of sorts to Death Race 2000 (the same creative team is involved, though the story is markedly different) is a randy reminder of why certain staid formulas seem to always work so well. No matter the premise (illegal race across the country) or personalities involved (hard-bitten ex-cons, hillbilly hick singer), a good old-fashioned land-speed story is entertainment at its most primal.


Call it male machismo moviemaking or a well-honed tapping into of America’s love affair with the automobile, but whenever you pit vehicle against vehicle in an all-out contest to the end/prize/death/revenge, the results are resplendent. Some films have forged their entire identity on such horsepower hijinx—The Blues Brothers, The Junkman, Gone in 60 Seconds—while others have traded on the epic pavement power struggle to underline their larger point (Bullitt, The French Connection, and Ronin are good examples of this supplementary ploy). But for some reason, Cannonball careens off the top of the pleasure dome to resonate with a combination of craziness and craftiness to circumvent all possible pitfalls—not to mention plot potholes. Certainly, this is a low-rent actioner with a budget to match its less than broad scope, and you’ve probably seen better bumper-to-bumper ballistics in modern TV cop shows. But there is a special sublime quality to this high-octane oddity that really gets down deep in your merriment manifolds, producing untold RPMs of rejoicing.


It all begins in the setup. David Carradine, fresh from Kung Fu and Death Race 2000, is the washed-up, recently paroled from prison stock car champion who hides a secret sin that burdens his hardened soul. Winning this cross-country grand prix will offer him redemption and a less tarnished reputation—especially with his correctional officer girlfriend (essayed by the beautiful Veronica Hamel). Naturally, there is a mechanic sidekick—with the great name of Zippo—who idolizes and worships the very seat Dave sits on, and the black cloud of doom hovering over this wide-eyed worshiper is so thick it’s like the near-solid sludge in a frozen crankcase. Add the no-good brother (Corman main man Dick Miller, as brilliant as ever) who’s in hock up to his hemorrhoids with the mob, and the insane maniac bad guy (genre giant Bill McKinney, Deliverance, She Freak) who wants to get back at Carradine for reasons that seem more crackpot than concrete, and the basic cornerstones of car crash bedlam are in place.


But the wonderful thing that director Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raoul) does with his retro road race is flesh out the subplots with conspicuous eccentricities. Indeed, it is the ancillary characters, the oddballs off to the side that really sell Cannonball as something more than a low-rent Smokey and the Bandit. While there is no one here as instantly memorable as Jackie Gleason’s foul-mouthed fussbudget Buford T. Justice, Bartel still gives us the Cole Porter–obsessed Mafioso, the atonal, quasi-talented country bumpkin singer (Gerrit Graham), the self-righteous Euro-trash champion (James Keach) and dozens of delightful cameos. Indeed, throughout the course of Cannonball, be on the lookout for such AIP stalwarts as Martin Scorsese, Sylvester Stallone, Joe Dante, Don Simpson, Mary Woronov, and the low-budget legend himself, Roger Corman.


Still, for all the acting chops and prickly personalities therein, a film like Cannonball is really a director’s medium. How well you respond to its road rage comes in direct proportion to how successful Bartel is in anchoring the action. Thankfully, the man’s skill with a camera is considerable, and while you’ve probably seen better highway histrionics in big-budget stunt flicks, you’ve never experienced the high-speed chase in quite the same way as he delivers it here. Bartel enjoys positioning the camera at or near street level, accenting the feel and flow of the road beneath the wheels. He then cross-cuts to aerial shots of the vehicles in strategic circumstances, allowing the curve of the concrete or the upcoming landscape to dictate the dynamics and suspense.


Certainly, the action sequence has exploded in the nearly 30 years since Cannonball was made (the superhighway surrealism of The Matrix Reloaded‘s freeway fracas comes to mind). But as an example of nuts-and-bolts, no-CGI engine block stunt work, including a couple of absolutely incredible sequences (the gap jump and the pileup), Cannonball has a nice revved-up reality. Sure, it is an over-the-top tapestry of spark plug parameters that pushes the envelope of believability as it roars toward the finish line. But within its muscle car madness breathes a true escapist delight. And what more do you want on a sultry August evening at the neighborhood passion pit than a mindless exercise in gearbox gratuity? While it is the lesser of Bartel’s street beat ballyhoo (Death Race 2000 is just a fantastic bit of futuristic foolishness), Cannonball still delivers the appropriate axle greasing.


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