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Sunday, Dec 3, 2006


If it were possible for one filmmaker to represent both the best and the worst that film has to offer, if one director can be both an artist and a hack, brilliant and unbelievably bad, that man would be Bob Clark. For nearly four decades, this amiable auteur (or faux-teur, depending on your interpretation of his canon) has made both exemplary examples of cinematic excellent and movies so mind-bogglingly poor that Ed Wood and Dr. Uwe Boll should sue for bad film copyright infringement. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider, especially if you believe in the notion that talent trumps ancillary elements like acting, scripting and viability of material. Even in the course of his stumbles, Stephen Spielberg’s unmistakable style notoriously shows through. But in Clark’s case, his efforts are like motion picture multiple personality disorder. You never know which version of the man - talented or intolerable – you’re going to get.


So, the real issue becomes - is Clark a good filmmaker occasionally falling into an abyss of artistic atrocity, or a major league motion picture bungler who turns luckily lucid on occasion. It’s a comparison that’s fraught with several sizable creative caveats. You see, aside from his 1983 take of Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (reconfigured and retitled A Christmas Story), Clark’s recent legacy is overwhelmingly negative, from remarkably mediocre efforts like Turk 182, Now and Forever and It Runs in the Family to out and out outrages like Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and the squalid Baby Geniuses films. There’s also the belief of time tempering critical consideration – both pro and con. Clark’s Porky’s, seen by many as a likeable lowbrow coming of age comedy upon its initial release (1982) now gets mentioned along with other known examples of excrement like The Karate Dog. On the opposite end, a one off exploitation effort like She-Man (1967) has found a new life (and respect) thanks to grindhouse preservationists Something Weird Video.


Black Christmas is a perfect example of this two-pronged dilemma. In 1974, no one was quite ready for a holiday-themed slasher film where an unseen killer stalks and slays a group of sorority girls, all the while spewing insane, schizophrenic ramblings. Dark, sinister and incredibly disturbed, Clark’s Christmas remains the natural link between Michael and Roberta Findlay’s slice and dice sex films (highlighted by the fabulous Flesh trilogy) and John Carpenter’s genre rejuvenating Halloween. Yet thanks to a marketing campaign that made the movie look like a blasphemous spree-killing First Noel sleazefest (the narrative occurs over the holiday season, but that’s where the Yuletide significance ends) and the lack of significant star power (John Saxon and Margot Kidder where the film’s known names), Christmas came and went without much more consideration.


Now, three decades later, it is finally acknowledged as a pure post-modern masterpiece, a weird and wicked exercise in terror by a man who (believe it or not) made his initial cinematic splash in the horror genre. Unlike the hippies vs. zombies zip of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, or the Monkey’s Paw via Vietnam thrills of Deathdream, Clark’s clever Xmas creature feature fascinates the notoriously picky macabre fan because of everything it fails to do. After decades under the splatter spell of Freddy, Jason, Michael and others, it’s hard to imagine this sort of film without an identifiable killer at the center of the story. But Clark purposefully eschews showing us “Billy”, the babbling bad guy with no internal monologue whatsoever. Using an inventive, first-person POV whenever Bill is up to his life-taking tricks, the director keeps his villain invisible. All we see – or better yet, hear – are the horrific imaginary confrontations occurring in Billy’s head. Sometimes spoken out loud (in truly terrifying obscene phone calls to the sorority girls) and sometimes reserved for our killer’s demented thoughts, there is more inherent fear in this aspect of the film than in a dozen, derivative deaths.


But Clark doesn’t stop there. By providing no clear motive or connect to the victims, and never resolving the issue of identity, even at the end, Black Christmas balks at being an open and shut scare film. Instead, it uses the purposeful happenstance of Billy’s “arrival” at the sorority (it is just a random place to hide from a previous, perverted crime) and the indiscriminate way in which life is tripped up and taken to deliver unheard of suspense in a mid-70s movie. In many ways, Christmas stands right along side such well-known terror titles as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carpenter’s Hitchcock homage. Yet because of his incredibly uneven track record, Clark and Black Christmas can’t get the respect they deserve. Instead, a seemingly unending stream of subpar efforts blot out the occasional positives in the man’s varied oeuvre.


Indeed, just like a massive pendulum, Clark’s critical favor always seems to do a deserved about face, moving from ‘easily celebrated’ to ‘undeniably shitty’. Loose Cannons illustrates just how low his reputation can go. Much worse than the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton pariah Rhinestone (which could have never worked, considering the casting and the concept – singer must turn cabby into crooner) and easily usurping the intelligent infant idiocy of the Baby Geniuses films, Cannons is cause for concern from the minute the movie announces its premise. In this dim crime comedy, Hitler made a porn film and it has fallen into the hands of some underground nogoodnicks. Two detectives – Gene Hackman and Dan Ackryroyd - must buddy up and figure out the shady pseudo-pornographic doings before the 90 minute running time expires. Oh, and Danny boy suffers from a surreal psychological disorder which causes him to impersonate famous characters from cartoons and TV shows. 


Yes, it’s as baffling - and BAD - as it sounds, which is shocking when you consider that the screenplay was written by the Mathesons – famed father Richard (I am Legend) and his son Richard Christian. Obviously formulated as a starring vehicle for the rapidly receding power of the former SNLer, Cannons can’t decide if its plot, or its peculiar idea of comedy (Ackryroyd ad-libbing and riffing through a painful parade of “alternate” personalities) is its most important element. It’s literally a movie making up its cinematic rules as it goes along. Oscar winner Hackman seems flummoxed by everything around him, from Danny’s vile voices to Dom Deluise as the most sexually suspect flesh peddler in the entire adult industry. Even worse, the whole Fuhrer f*ck film angle is so shockingly out of character for the narrative – Cannon‘s constantly positions itself as a simple cop/buddy actioner – that its justifiably jarring, and along with the uncompromising amount of onscreen violence, Clark seems to forget the first rule of film – consistent tone is everything.


In fact, that appears to be the problem with many of the man’s movies. When a supposed family film about super smart bratlings hangs the majority of its so-called humor on the suggestion of severe child endangerment, when the schmaltz of a heavyweight Hollywood melodrama – in this case, the legendary Jack Lemmon weeper Tribute – gets lost in a journeymen like lack of staging and emotional substance, overall atmosphere begins messing with your movie. In something like Deathdream, or Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark finds ways to invest his fear with infrequent funny stuff, yet he never once undermines the general mood. But in uneven efforts like From the Hip or the Porky’s films, Clark’s concept of continuity appears to be set on ‘random’. He will introduce uncomfortable sexuality one moment, absolutely uncalled-for slapstick another.


Yet none of this addresses the question of why Clark’s career is so sporadic. It doesn’t explain Black Christmas (or his sensational Sherlock Holmes effort, Murder by Decree), or unravel the mysteries of Rhinestone‘s repugnance. It would be easy to say that Clark is a “personal” filmmaker and be done with it, suggesting that he succeeds when he’s personally interested in a project, and tapers off when his dedication wanes. Maybe there is something to the whole ‘source material’ argument. After all, how could a movie about Nazi nudie films possibly be good? Truth be told, when one pays close attention to Clark’s career, he really is just a lucky stiff whose many missteps fail to fully destroy his irregular reputation. Heck, even A Christmas Story was initially dismissed as a soft, silly seasonal effort and more or less failed at the box office. It took a few years away from the spotlight, and millions of reruns on Ted Turner’s cable networks, to reestablish the film’s family classic stance.


What’s clear from all this filmic archeology is that Bob Clark makes bad movies. His 40 years in the business are riddled with them. Fortunately, he’s also delivered a couple of major (and minor) masterworks. Instead of viewing him like a series of peaks and valleys, it’s best to imagine him as lying in an endless ravine of rot, floundering around like a wayward cinematic soul, only capable of occasionally seeing the light of legitimacy. Time will not rescue him. It is hard to imagine that, decades from now, people will be comparing Loose Cannons or Baby Geniuses to other important artifacts. In fact, it’s safe to say that Clark will be less heralded, and more hated, for his numerous works of noxious nausea. But oh those amazing mountains. It is clear that many a genre maven would gladly trade a gargantuan gorge of Porky’s just to view the summit of something like Black Christmas one more time. Perhaps this justifies Clark’s entertainment existence. Or maybe it makes it that much more confusing. One thing’s for sure – such a puzzling quandary will definitely be Bob Clark’s true lasting legacy. 


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Saturday, Dec 2, 2006


The whitest man in the world (he’s an albino—get it?) sets up shop in his super sweet high tech van (complete with quadraphonic stereo and self destruct button) on the outskirts of an original Stuckey’s rest stop, Canyontownville BFE. After listening to a kick ass eight track of “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group (because he’s an albino—get it?), he proceeds to poison the hillbillys’ drinking water with a vial of Nickelodeon gak. The minute the retarded residents imbibe the brackish brew, they turn all green (and it ain’t from envy). Feeling the need to spread destruction and mayhem, these rejects from the Dr. Seuss’ sequel Bartholomew, the Oobleck and an Uzi set about stabbing, shooting, and scaring the pathetic population of the small town.


The sheriff is too constipated to do anything but lurch about in intestinal distress, and his deputy dog daughter is a floundering reject from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. So as the marauding maniacs render their victims pale with terror (because he’s an ALBINO!!!—UNDERSTAND!?! …oh wait…), it’s up to a runaway cop, a whizzed off lawyer, and his halter top challenged wife (who learns that experimental nerve tonic and silicone just don’t mix) to save this Podunk paradise from a Nightmare at Noon, or maybe 12:23. But if they don’t hurry up and figure this fracas out, our pasty purveyor of all this panic will get away squeaky clean (because he’s an alb…oh, forget it).


Nightmare at Noon, the delightfully deranged action thriller from Nico Mastorakis and Omega Entertainment, is out to do two things and two things only. Mind you, they do both of them very well, but there is not even an attempt at any other aspect to modern moviemaking. They do not create believable characters or craft a clever, tight sci-fi screenplay. They just can’t provide scenes of complex action or dire suspense. And no, there’s not a chance in Chaucer they will manufacture believable zombie killers or authentic high tech gadgets. No, you see, Nightmare at Noon is all about SHOOTING GUNS and BLOWING STUFF UP! YEEEHAAAW!!! That’s right folks! Break out your Anarchist’s Cookbook and dust off that membership to the NRA, because this lunchtime lunacy is a mindless celebration of the meat and potatoes joy of discharging gunpowder. MASSIVE QUANTITES of gunpowder.


If the Chinese could have imagined, a few hundred centuries ago, that the mixing of saltpeter with charcoal and sulphur would result in such a saleable commodity (especially to the effects stunt crew on Nightmare), they would have hopped their hinders down to the local patent office for a trademark on the mayhem maker, in perpetuity. This is one completely wigged out motion picture that, honestly, wants nothing more than to celebrate the explosion, be it from a rifle, a car gas tank, or George Kennedy (another kind of methane reservoir altogether). When last we left Greek director Nico Mastorakis, we were wiping the layer of sleaze off our corneas after being subjected to his cinematic cesspool known as Island of Death. Obviously attempting a kind of direct to video atonement for his previous misdeed, he decided to cut out the emotional middleman and offer the action fan what they truly crave. THAT’S RIGHT—DANG BLASTED GUNS GOING OFF AND GOBS AND GOBS OF STUFF BLOWING UP!!! WHOO BUDDY!!!


There are actually a couple of high quality moments in what is basically a love letter to Alfred Nobel and his superfly TNT. There is a sequence where Kennedy, his daffy daughter, that oddly monikered Wings Hauser, and Little Peep’s Daddy Bo Hopkins walk down main street, Western style, watching as all manner of murderous pandemonium detonates around them. Daddy’s little deputy also has a nice scene where she chases down a murderous mother tormenting her should-have-been-Newt baby girl with a bloody butcher knife. And both the drive-in showdown and the helicopter chase at the end have a decent action aggression to them.


But really this is just a “hope they rent it” retail product, devoid of even the smallest amount of cinematic sense. Logic leaps out the window like Michael Jackson’s progeny, as the tiny western enclave at the center of all this silliness possesses that most wonderful of all narrative non-realities: guns that never need reloading. Characters in this film uncork several trillion rounds of metal projectiles, and magically (obviously with the help of Second Amendment zealot pixies) they can simply squeeze the trigger and always find more. Canyontownvillecity is also the home of the arsonists’ ultimate amusement, the volatile inflammable victim. Every time someone crashes a car, falls to the earth, or is thrown from their motorcycle, they are accompanied by a huge fireball, like the umlauts on a German verb. It’s all part of the film’s fixation with conflagration and shrapnel. Some lover of mindless government conspiracy sci-fi sprinkled quasi Dawn of the Dead-head air rifle ridiculousness may get off on the bad script, worse performances, and lack of narrative closure. But if you simply sit back and let the chemical bombasts pontificate, you will get your C-4 rocks off.


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Friday, Dec 1, 2006


There is no more miserable a miser than Ebenezer Scrooge. Proprietor of Scrooge and Marley moneylenders, practically every merchant in London owes a debt—not of gratitude but of usury—to this horrible old goat. While Scrooge seems to hate all of life in general, there is no more wretched a time for him than Christmas, a season of good cheer and generosity. Owning neither of those aforementioned emotions, but imbued with a substantial wealth of wickedness, the terrible tyrant dismisses his nephew’s holiday invitation, bullies those collecting for charity, and hollers at his hapless employee, the humble Bob Cratchit. Indeed, Scrooge considers the entire celebration a load of “humbug,” and can’t be bothered with its benevolence.


However, things will not be quite so normal this Christmas Eve. Scrooge is shocked to find himself visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, who warns the villain of his vainglorious ways. Marley further condemns Scrooge to be visited by three other spirits—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Be—to show Ebenezer that only by allowing the festiveness of the feast into his soul will he be able to avoid a horrible fate, both in this world and in the hereafter. It will be a journey both enlightening and frightening as a standard Christmas carol turns into the portents of doom for one Ebenezer Scrooge.


Perhaps better at capturing the spirit of Dickens’s beloved Christmas classic than the exact particulars of the plot, Scrooge is still a potent, powerful Yuletide treat. Made in 1970 near the end of the musical’s prominence at, and dominance of, the box office (Oliver! was a universal smash—and Oscar winner—just two years before), this recasting of A Christmas Carol and the tightfisted Ebenezer Scrooge was the brainchild of legendary lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Famed for his partnership with Anthony Newley (the two were responsible for such time-honored favorites as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Stop the World! I Want to Get Off, as well as some well-remembered duds like the original Doctor Doolittle), Bricusse decided to go it on his own in this, his second solo outing providing both words and music. The results are something splendid indeed, a mix of Old World Victorian sentiment with traditional big-budget musical splendor, creating a sumptuous figgy pudding of a film.


Granted, Bricusse is not blessed with Newley’s gift for instantly hummable melody (only the rousing “Thank You Very Much” and “I Like Life” tend to stay with you after the final credits roll). But thanks to the daring, dynamic direction of Roland Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, Hopscotch), the superficial tenets of the tunes are replaced by a real feeling of lushness and depth. Neame gives us a London circa 1860 that we can really sense and experience.


There is an amazing sequence toward the beginning of the film—as Bob Cratchit buys his family’s Christmas feast—where the class system in English society is clearly and cleverly delineated (Cratchit buys the same items as the rich patrons do, with either side of the street representing the chasm in financial standing and means). From the gloomy expanse of Scrooge’s creepy mansion to the iconic elements that we expect from A Christmas Carol (the boisterous Spirit of Christmas Present, the cadaverous Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be), Neame’s eye for detail and design land us squarely in the time and place of this striking, sensational vista.


One of the main reasons why this version of Dickens’s classic is so potent is that Scrooge does a very nice job of rounding out the title character. Usually portrayed as a strange, psychotic skinflint who needs to be bombarded by glad tidings and fear factors before he repents, there is almost always a kind of whiplash schizophrenia to the character as he’s been personified over the years. But in Albert Finney’s case (with additional thanks to Michael Medwin’s wonderful script), this Scrooge is a bastard to be sure, yet one with a heart once much softer, but now hardened by the hardships of life in general. Allowing us a chance, through vignette and song, to learn how Ebenezer Scrooge was abandoned as a boy, unloved as a child, and confused as an adolescent youth, the buildup of personality layers make the parsimonious prig more pitiable than vile. Surely, he says things that stink of sadism and scorn, but there is also a hint of sadness and sorrow in those terrible tirades.


At only 34 years of age, Albert Finney is absolutely brilliant in this film, giving perhaps one of his best Method performances. Some could confuse the occasional theatrics and desire to be even more direct with the role as over-the-top histrionics. But remember what was just said before—Finney was only thirty-four at the time he made this movie, and never once do we doubt Scrooge’s position, age, or resentment. Indeed, when we see the older and younger Ebenezer together during a Christmas Past flashback, we are taken aback for a moment by how startling the actor’s transformation is. Hunchbacked, barking his orders in bitter bon mots, and contorting his face in an attempt to hide all the hidden pain he is feeling, Finney is fabulous, the main reason why any fan of A Christmas Carol would want to visit this song-filled retelling. With a remaining cast that is equally adept at playing both the seriousness and the celebration of the story, you will probably not find a better performed version of this tale anywhere.


Another plus for Scrooge is its attention to terror. Other versions of the Dickens tale forget that it is supposed to be a ghost story, a spook show in which ethereal elements conspire to convert a penny-pinching soul. Instead of serving the spiritual aspects to heighten the horror, many of these miscues downplay the phantasms for a more syrupy, saccharine take. Thankfully, Scrooge avoids this silly soft soap to give their take on A Christmas Carol some spectral teeth. As the ghost of Jacob Marley, Alec Guinness is brilliant, bringing a resigned evil to the role of the messenger of the macabre. His Marley even manages to survive a forgettable song to guide the scared but surly grouch through a whirlwind of creepy spooks (the effects are very good for pre-CGI creations). Though the last act journey to Hell seems a tad out of place (obviously used to really get the message across about Scrooge’s afterlife fate), it is this decision to heighten, not hide, the horror that makes Scrooge such a sweet, substantive seasonal treat.


And don’t be put off by thoughts that this is a musical; indeed, it plays more like an operetta than a song and dance production. Finney is in fine voice (perfectly matching his character’s crotchety conceits), and the compositions all have a mostly downbeat tone, lending the sentiments that much more seriousness. Certainly, the penultimate number “Thank You Very Much” is carved out of the same West End wood as, say, “Consider Yourself,” “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” or “Every Sperm is Sacred” (with the Pythons’ lifting some of Scrooge‘s staging for this wacky Meaning of Life sing-along), but when Scrooge and his lady love Isabel share their romantic intentions, it is with a little set of sonnets, each intermingling into the other to perfectly capture the mood and melancholy of their doomed relationship. Too bad Bricusse couldn’t find the same sort of salient melodic cue for his other heart-tugging number, Tiny Tim’s “The Beautiful Day.” Though achingly rendered by boy soprano surprise Richard Beaumont, the tune is so minor, so tossed off and over with before it can settle in and have an impact, that we almost forget it is supposed to be Tim’s signature internal joy.


Indeed, most of the music in Scrooge is equally evasive. Bricusse’s desire to downplay the showstopper for a more muted, emotional scoring leaves the audience a little bewildered as to why the harmonious moments need to be included at all. The “Christmas Children” number gets annoying by the 15th or 16th inclusion of the word “Christmas,” and “December the 25th” is just an excuse to run the “-ith” rhymes into the ground. While the finale, in which Scrooge experiences his change of heart and gives presents to everyone in town, does a nice job of wrapping up the aural attractions by reprising almost every song sung, what Scrooge really needed was a sonorous end number, something like “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, or “Being Alive” from Company. Though it’s rather nitpicky to intone the lack of dynamics in the soundtrack, the truth is that for any and all of its minor flaws, Scrooge simply “feels” right, presenting the Dickens favorite in a totally fresh and yet completely familiar light


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Thursday, Nov 30, 2006


Here’s something to ponder as your perusing the listings of the latest pay channel premieres – who in their right mind invented eggnog? There are some that argue that Europe is responsible, but they already can lay claim to Nazism and techno, so it’s unfair to pile on so. Others point to the unusual name and take linguistic pot shots at the derivation of the second syllable. Nog could mean ‘noggin’, a little wooden cup. It could also come from ‘grog’, an alcoholic treat taken internally by those with a wish to party holiday hearty. In either case, we here at SE&L can suggest a dozen other drinks to go with a Saturday night of mindless movie watching that are preferable to uncooked eggs laden with liquor. How about warm apple cider loaded with mulling spices and a smart shot of brandy. Or better yet, for the teetotalers in the house, a piping hot mug of Dr. Pepper with a snappy cinnamon stick as garnish. If you like your beverages a little more meaningful, a stout like Guinness could do the trick. But perhaps the best libation this holiday season is a timeless classic – a fluted glass loaded with vintage champagne. Whatever you choose to chug over the 2 December weekend, here are the accompanying cinematic chasers:


HBOA History of Violence*

One of last years’ best films came from one of the industry’s most unusual cinematic sources – Canadian horror hero David Cronenberg. Who would have thought that the man behind such philosophical splatter fests as Rabid , Scanners and Videodrome would take some graphic novel source material and turn out a searing crime drama featuring fascinating performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Maria Bello. This is a movie that’s as brutal in its emotions as it is in its title bloodshed, with secrets revealed, true selves unmasked and homespun wholesomeness soiled and sullied. Though never as flashy or flamboyant as his work in films like The Fly , eXistenZ , or his adaptation of William Burroughs’ classic novel Naked Lunch , Cronenberg’s camera is still stellar, painting a near perfect portrait of the potential evil lurching inside the heart of Middle America. (Saturday 2 December, 8pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxKing Kong (2005)*

Now that it has had almost a year to reconfigure its relevance in the realm of cinema, Peter Jackson’s drop dead brilliant reimagining of the Giant Ape epic can finally demand the respect it so richly deserves. The small screen may not be the perfect place to appreciate the epic scope of this undertaking (SE&L still remembers the massive case of vertigo it got during the climactic battle atop the Empire State Building) but it’s hard to deny Jackson’s way with action and adventure. Some may still feel that this geek freak filmmaker let his love of the subject matter overwhelm his ambitions, providing this relatively simply story with way too much cinematic pomp and circumstance, but for our scratch, no one makes mega-blockbusters like this confirmed Kiwi genius. Our main man did this massive monkey proud.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzEight Below

Frank Marshall, famous for his collaborations with a certain Steven Spielberg (a trip over to IMDb confirms his connections – and stature) has made a few movies of his own over the last two decades. Unfortunately, they have names like Alive , Congo and Arachnophobia . Here he’s dealing with the semi-true story of a group of sled dogs forced to fend for themselves in the frozen tundra of Antarctica. Naturally, the inherent cuteness of the mutts is balanced out by the potential life and death struggle – at least, at first. Then Marshall realizes that kids will probably cry, A LOT , if something horrible happens to these loveable curs. So he cuts back on the action and inserts more unnecessary subplots involving human ‘hero’ Paul Walker. Really nothing more than family friendly filler for a wired wee one’s weekend eve.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowCaseSuspect Zero

Now here’s a movie with a far more interesting backstory than the actual narrative up on the screen. Screenwriter Zak Penn saw his serial killing serial killer story get bumped around from studio to studio/superstar to superstar for over seven years. Frustrated by the rejection he was even more dejected when Suspect Zero finally saw the light of day. What was supposed to redefine the genre came out sloppy and silly. Audiences obviously agreed, as this so-called thriller came and went with little or no fanfare. Two years post-release and many still see it as a Silence of the Se7en Lambs rip-off. Not even the outlandish cinematic flare of director E. Elias Merhige (of Begotten and Shadow of the Vampire fame) could infuse this flop with the necessary stylized suspense. (Saturday 2 December, 10:05pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 1/2 December, the late, great Vincent Price is featured in:


The Conqueror Worm
Price gives one of his best, most commanding performances as a traveling prosecutor of witches in 17th Century England.
(2am EST)


The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Campy but cruel, Price is incredibly effective as the title terror, an disfigured physician seeking revenge on those he believes are responsible for his wife’s death.
(3:30am EST)


 


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year , right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 2 December are:



White Christmas
(Turner Classic Movies, 1 December, 11:30AM EST)
Actually, this is the SECOND time the seminal seasonal song by Irving Berlin was featured in a Yuletide movie starring Bing Crosby. The first? Holiday Inn , of course.


Santa Claus: The Movie
(ABC Family Channel, 2 December, 11:30AM EST)
Featuring death, greed and undersized British actors as elves, this holiday horror is so bloated on its own brazen belief in self that it has to be seen to be appreciated.


The Polar Express
(ABC Family Channel, 8 December, 11:30AM EST)
Sure, the 3-D animation renders all the humans in the film robotic and creepy, but there is still something quite endearing about this Robert Zemeckis effort.


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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2006

As the end of 2006 rolls around, studios are spiking the usual Tuesday DVD release schedule with several high profile releases. Here are three of the summer’s biggest - if not necessarily best - angling for your attention in the next two weeks:


Superman Returns
In the lexicon of comic book movies, it’s not as good as Sam Raimi’s Spidey series and both Burton and Nolan’s Batman can rest comfortably in their place along the cinematic superhero hall of fame. But Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is good – damn good. It’s just not great. As a matter of fact, it misses greatness by a margin measured in just a few filmic fractions. Yet these flaws are still large enough to occasionally sidetrack what is, for the most part, a faithful fulfillment of the decades long struggle to bring the Man of Steel back to the screen. Like Hulk, which tended to take itself too seriously for its own good, this latest incarnation of the speeding bullet/bird-plane personage repeatedly dances around decent ideas without ever landing smack dab in the center of them. In addition, Bryan Singer still doesn’t impress me as a director with a future outside a certain style of film (more on this in a moment). However, it is safe to say that with this highly entertaining experience, our undeniable icon to truth, justice and the American way is back with a viable vengeance.


Certainly, Singer makes his mistakes. Using the original films as a guide was an idea goofier than bringing dinosaurs back from the dead, and the constant referencing of those mid-70s blockbusters bogs down the narrative. Several times during the film, one finds themselves wondering what the rumored re-imaginings of the man and his material (Kevin Smith, Brett Ratner, McG, Tim Burton, JJ Abrams) could have come up with. Certainly something more original than giving Superman a son could have been considered for the reintroduction of this classic comic character. While bringing back Lex Luthor worked out well (Kevin Spacey adds a slimy, sinister edge to the role that Gene Hackman failed to find) and the nods to the first film’s origin story are sensational, Returns often feels like the middle act in an already running series. In fact, Singer and his screenwriters spend so much time on those touchy feely parts of the plot (the whole romantic angle with Lois’s new love interest is unexceptional) that they lose a lot of their movie’s direction and drive. Along with the dumb decision to cast Kate Bosworth as the Pulitzer Prize winning (!?!?) journalist (she is simply out of her league here), the emotional side of Superman slows down the spectacle.


What does work, though, are the reasons that movies are made. The airplane sequence is brilliantly realized, a terrific tour de force for the F/X crews as well as a brazen bright spot in Singer’s otherwise sedentary style. Unlike Spielberg or Jackson, this director seems to slack off the minute the main action scenes are over. The sections where Superman saves Metropolis are superb, as is the final confrontation with Luthor. But all the stuff inside the Daily Planet, all the material between Lois and her lover, just sits there without any strength or cinematic sizzle. They seem like rest stops between set pieces. In addition, Singer needed a stronger editorial hand in shaping this story. We meander into time-consuming tangents quite frequently, left with dangling elements (the whole Pulitzer business, the cannibal dog) that never really pay off. Still, the center is solid with Brandon Routh owning the role of Clark Kent/Superman. Though a questionable choice at first, he is incredibly magnetic onscreen, capable of delivering the many sides of the Man of Steel with grace, genuineness, and more than a little wit. This is indeed a very funny film, with lots of clever repartee between characters. Thankfully, the humor doesn’t overpower the heroics, as we are definitely left wanting more – more Routh, more feats of derring-do, more Superman.


Perhaps this is the best way to judge a blockbuster; determining if there’s material worth a second (or third, or fourth) look. The answer is an emphatic “yes”. The Fortress of Solitude sequence is atmospheric and compelling, while Luthor’s ultimate plan is realized in brilliant bit map authenticity. The CGI is never intrusive, the cityscapes of Metropolis are spectacular and Superman’s flying capabilities come across smoother and more valid than in any other super hero movie. It will be interesting to see where the sequel takes us. Like Burton’s first Batman, there are a lot of obvious safeguards in place here, studio-mandated moments that keep the film feeling frequently hemmed in and overly controlled. Perhaps, if it’s successful enough, Warners will turn Singer loose, letting him deliver a definitive take on the subject of Superman without all the nods to fanboy mandates and test audience tendencies. Ranking right up there with the summer’s other entertainment highlights, Superman Returns is one comic book movie that gets it more or less right.


Pirates of the Carribean
There is more of everything in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie: more spectacle; more exotic locales; more convoluted story contrivances. Anyone who thought the first film was teeming with plot and particulars will find their narrative tolerances tweaked toward overload by this sensational sequel. Between the introduction of two new villains, the addition of a new “quest” and the held-over elements from the first good-natured go round, there’s nary a moment of breathing room in this wonderfully effective popcorn entertainment. Granted, the POTC movies aren’t out to make grand statements about loyalty, the sea, or the shrinking sense of the world. Instead, they merely want to amuse, to provide 150 minutes of escapist fun in their swordplay, slapstick, and sensational special effects. George Lucas and his dire digital space operas be damned – Gore Verbinski and his capable cast of eye candy actors are on course to deliver the landlubber version of what the Star Wars series originally promised it would be.


After the living dead skeletal pirates of the first film, Dead Man’s Chest had its wildly imaginative work cut out for it. After all, those undead outlaws were incredibly inventive and handled with stellar CGI flare. Amazingly enough, the sequel delivers, rendering head horror Davy Jones and his scallywag band of buccaneers as remarkable combinations of sea creatures and humans. From half-man hammerheads to cutthroats with crustaceans crafted to their faces, the overall look of the movie’s fiends is simply remarkable. Jones himself is a squid-festooned dandy with huge lobster claws and an excess of tentacles that makes Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa look like a minor league monster by comparison. Equally unsettling is Naomie Harris as voodoo priestess Tia Dalma. Eyes accented with harrowing contacts, and smiling through a mouth of vile, blackened teeth, her otherworldly turn is terrific. In fact, all the actors acquit themselves admirably, expanding on their original roles to add subtle shading to what are, basically, creative cartoon characters.


Aside from the spectacle, Johnny Depp deserves a great deal of credit for turning Capt. Jack Sparrow into a fully rounded rascal. In the first film, the accent and demeanor mask a truly conflicted individual. Now, with an entire performance under his belt, Depp loosens up, making Jack a scoundrel as lost in his sea-faring situation as Jones or Barboosa. It will be interesting to see where he takes Sparrow in the final film, tentatively entitled At World’s End. There is so much this incredible actor can do with this dapper delight that every scene becomes a breathless anticipation of something special. And, as always, Depp doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s safe to say that this long time industry eccentric has probably found the breakout series that will change the very scope of his future career. Unlike Ewan McGregor, or the horrid Hayden Christensen from Lucas’s lamentable sequels, Depp’s Sparrow will be seen as a stepping stone, not an infamous coffin nail, in his bankable big screen persona. Even as he continues to choose daring, difficult films, newfound fans will support him. Sparrow is that kind of indelible icon.


Additional praise must also go to Gore Verbinski, proving that he has a directorial mantle similar to that of Peter Jackson’s – at least when it comes to handling the multi-faceted epic. Juggling several different storylines at once, Verbinski always seems to find the linking material to keep us engaged and intrigued. He is also becoming an expert at big canvas set piece action. The opening escape from a cannibal island is amazing, and the finale, featuring a huge rotating water wheel and a full fledged onslaught by Davy Jones’ beasties is unbelievable in its scale and effectiveness. There are dozens of equally memorable moments strewn throughout – the arrival of the Flying Dutchman, as well as an equally unbelievable dive into the briny deep – and the computer-generated Kraken instills fear and foreboding with its vividly rendered CGI size. It’s rare today when a movie can make people immediately want to see it again. Dead Man’s Chest demands multiple viewings. It’s truly one of the season’s cinematic highlights.


Miami Vice
Miami Vice is an expressionist crime drama. Writer/director Michael Mann purposely moves a million light years away from the fashion and artifice of his infamous ‘80s zeitgeist to deliver a movie with many of its details missing. This is not necessarily a bad thing – as a visualist, he is more than capable of allowing his images to paint in the particulars. But when you are working from a premise that involves undercover drug deals, back stabbing middlemen, random white supremacists, and the mingling of personal and professional feelings, little things like never properly introducing the rest of the Vice squadron do come back to haunt you – especially when you are relying on them to bolster much of the last act’s action. Beautiful to look at and difficult to embrace, this is a movie of moments, not of overall narrative force. The brand new versions of Crockett and Tubbs are acceptable – Foxx is all super serious, while Farrell puts on his oiliest wise ass persona. They may be nothing more than icons in a film loaded with such symbolic cues, but we gladly accept their ‘by the book’ bravado and believe them as the ‘70s throwback super cops that they are – nothing more or less.


Once again employing the fascinating film/digital aesthetic that he used in Collateral, Mann’s version of Vice is like Heat without the interesting middle act. That previous look at life on both sides of the law had Al Pacino, Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro to bolster its occasional lapses. Our leads here are flashy fluff compared to that titanic trio. Still, Mann manages to make it work – sort of. The nightclub set up, which is never explained in relationship to the rest of the film, gets us started with an atmospheric bang. Suggesting more than showing, the first few deaths are designed to peak our interest (a pair of legs in a pool of blood, a spray of gore along a busy Broward county highway) while the last 45 minutes offers the kind of suspense ridden double crossing denouement we’ve come to expect from the genre. Even the grue is cranked up a couple of notches as limbs are blown off and heads become riddled with holes as bullets blaze in an expertly helmed firefight. Thankfully, these surrounding elements are strong enough to save the sloppy, unexceptional center. Gong Li, trying out her English (and not always succeeding), is an attractive love interest for Crockett, but she’s not very engaging. We want more than steely business sense and the ability to make cow eyes at decidedly unctuous Farrell. When they’re together onscreen, the result is sluggishness, not sparks.


During these dull interludes, Mann really pours on the visual poetry. There are several sensational sequences where a lone speedboat blazes toward a seemingly endless horizon. We are also entranced by an amazing aerial shot of a gorgeous South American waterfall, which reveals itself as part of a high ranking cartel overlord’s backyard. It’s not difficult to get swept up in the epic elements of Miami Vice, since Mann lingers on them, hoping that they help us understand the vastness of the international drug trade. But this means something has to suffer, and in this case, it’s the characters. There is honestly not a single three dimensional personality in the entire picture. Foxx is so stodgily even-keeled that when a fellow officer is mortally wounded, his sudden concern seems completely out of place. Farrell also turns up the mixed emotion waterworks when he has to make one of those clichéd sacrifices that all lawmen in his cinematic position are required to do. Yet neither scene connects with us. Even with aspects of life and death at play, we are sadly detached from the personal side of this story.


In fact, Miami Vice is much more interesting in its approach to the crime thriller than in its desire to dig deep into the world of illegal drugs. The unbelievable influx of technology – cell phones, GPS, laptops, tracking devices - makes for an initially disorienting experience. When an FBI official asks Crockett how they can discuss such delicate issues over an open, non-secure line, he bluntly blurts back “this is how I got the information, so let’s deal with it.” Indeed, the ready access to information worldwide makes the undercover element all the more intriguing. With smugglers able to immediately access your (phony) dossier from anywhere on the planet, Crockett and Tubbs always seem moments away from being discovered. Yet even this can’t make the movie a kinetic actioner or a simmering neo-noir. Instead, Michael Mann appears to be retrofitting the routine of cop dramas past into a sci-fi space of rap video level luxury and post-modern machismo. While it may occasionally have you thinking of another South Florida cinematic spree featuring a Cuban exile, a mountain of coke, his sister complex and a mega-weapon known as his “li’l friend”, Miami Vice is no Scarface. It’s more serious, and less sensational. Too bad it’s not as entertaining.


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