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by Bill Gibron

10 May 2007

In keeping with the inherent structure of one of this week’s premieres, SE&L is going to suggest an American Idol like theme for 12 May – let’s label it “film fiascos”! Just look at the four choices being offered to you by the pay TV titans – each one a testament to poor conceptualizing, mediocre imagination, and a severe lack of tell tale talent. No matter how their merchandised or marketed, they are four examples of awful cinema. If one were prone to conspiracy theorizing, you’d swear the networks were doing it on purpose. It could even be a competition of sorts: which channel can bring out the absolute worst film of the last two years and still get audiences at home to celebrate their Saturday night bow. Our bet is on the SE&L selection – it remains one of the most audacious celluloid atrocities ever to be considered full blown family fare (right, perhaps by the Manson clan). Anyway, check you gag reflex and prepare to be pummeled by Tinsel Town at its most terrible, including:

Premiere Pick
Little Man

No, this is not a misprint, and your confusion is perfectly understandable. How can SE&L suggest 2006’s worst film as one of its weekly VDA picks, especially with the amount of vitriol and anger we’ve foisted upon it in the past 8 months? The answer is simple – misery loves company. That’s right, we want you to also suffer through what we did last year, to experience this sad, sloppy and racially insensitive stool sample for yourself. From its frightening sexualization of children, to the equally unsettling idea of a dwarf reduced to a cinematic sight gag, this mean spirited mess set back the cause of minorities in movies by much more than 40 acres and a mule. And the most depressing part – it made scads of cash at the box office, meaning that the Wayans will definitely return to cause more hackneyed hate crimes in the name of big screen humor. (12 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Omen (2006)

Here’s perfect proof that casting is EVERYTHING when making a movie. The script for this horror remake more or less mimics the original 1976 effort beat for beat, so it should work, right? Wrong! The decision to cast Julia Stiles in the Lee Remick role, and the decent Liev Schreiber in the part played by Gregory Peck turns something with potential into an object of sheer genre scorn. (12 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

American Dreamz

Bombs Away! After the success of American Pie and About a Boy, Paul Weitz wanted to make a scathing social commentary that mixed party politics with our nation’s love of all things Idol. The result was this weak kneed satire that sunk almost immediately upon hitting theaters. Instead of irony or insight, the only thing this flop could generate was irritation. (12 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Yours, Mine and Ours (2005)

To quote a famous baseball player, it’s like déjà vu all over again.. When Steve Martin brought the unnecessary remake of the big family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen to movie screens, its success sparked a search for similar properties. Bingo! – this 1968 title was tapped. While we no longer give Martin credit for career competence, shouldn’t stars Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo know better? (12 May, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)

Melvin Van Peebles contribution to popular culture is always reduced to a single, significant title – 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. And that’s a shame. Instrumental in jumpstarting the blaxploitation movement in film, there was more to this maverick’s work than generating grindhouse fare. Indeed, after 1968’s The Story of a Three Day Pass and 1970’s mainstream hit Watermelon Man, it looked like the writer/director would lead a new wave of minority moviemakers to greater prominence in the plantation-like paradigm of ‘60s/‘70s Hollywood. Instead, he was marginalized. Now, some three decades later, director Joe Angio has helmed a celebratory documentary that shows just how significant Van Peeble’s legacy is to modern artists of color. With a who’s who of contributors, and words from the cinematic madman himself, this is the perfect companion piece to son Mario’s amazing tribute, the 2003 biopic Baadasssss! (14 May, IFC, 10:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
City of God

With time, this critically acclaimed drama about youths attempting to navigate the gang-riddled ghettos of Rio de Janeiro has grown from masterful to masterpiece. Indeed, foreign filmmaking doesn’t get any fresher, or more innovative, than in this film’s shockingly straightforward cinema vétité style. Directors Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund deserve al the credit for taking something standard and giving it a unique narrative spin. (13 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

The Year of the Yao

For those unfamiliar with the subject of this sensational documentary, Yao Ming is the 7’5” center for Houston Rocket’s NBA basketball team. How this Chinese national came to be part of America’s second favorite sport forms the basic elements of Adam Del Deo and James Stern’s doc. It makes for some very compelling cross cultural observations. (14 May, Sundance, 10PM EST)

The Day of the Jackal

Thrillers don’t get any more skillful than director Frank Zinneman’s (High Noon) take on Frederick Forsythe’s classic novel. With a career defining turn by Edward Fox as the title character, an assassin charged with killing then French President Charles de Gaulle, this meticulous, step-by-step suspense saga makes the modern take at similar stories pale by comparison. (17 May, Sundance, 6:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Black Caesar/ Hell Up in Harlem

It’s interesting – the same week that a documentary on blaxploitation legend Melvin Van Peebles arrives on the small screen, TCM’s Underground offers up two examples of the genre’s best. Former football star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson stars in both, the first a ghetto-fied remake of the 1931 Edward G. Robinson vehicle. With success came a sequel, and the Hell Up quickly followed. Both efforts were written and directed by Larry Cohen, a genre giant who began in TV, but quickly made a name for himself in offbeat cinema and motion picture macabre. With their mix of violence, sex, operatic dramatics and full throttle action, these explicit entertainments changed the face of post-modern cinema. Sadly, because it was so tied to revenues, a great many of these movies never got the aesthetic appreciation they deserve. Thank God for the preservationist principles of technology. (11 May, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Two Lane Blacktop

A notorious grindhouse epic, this drag racing saga (about two men – The Driver and the Mechanic - who find themselves locked in a cross country competition) expertly illustrates the passion pit style. No frills, not fat, all fun! Sadly, problems with music licensing rights have kept it out of the public eye for decades. Here’s a perfect chance to catch this gearhead classic. (16 May, Drive In Classics – Canada, 12:45AM EST)

Ulee’s Gold

Peter Fonda was 1998’s Oscar shoe-in for Best Actor with his performance as a quite beekeeper who finds himself inexplicably mixed up in some very deadly criminal activities. He ended up losing out to Jack Nicholson’s grandstanding OCD case from As Good As It Gets. The proof over who really deserved the shiny statuette is here for all to see. (17 May, Indieplex, 5:05PM EST)

Dr. Chopper, M.D.

Every once in a while, we here at SE&L need a good old fashioned piece of cinematic schlock, a motion picture purgative to cleanse our occasionally clogged up aesthetic. And nothing spells relief faster or better than a slice and dice slasher flick. In this case, a band of vacationers run into…wait for it…a psychotic biker turned plastic surgeon. Woo-Hoo! (18 May, Starz Edge, 12:35AM EST)


by Bill Gibron

9 May 2007

It’s hard to figure out just what the Spider-Man franchise has left to accomplish. After a record breaking weekend, earning more in three days than any other film in history, and inaugurating the Summer 2007 movie season, it seems the seminal comic book series has more than done its job. That the final installment in this sequence of adventures (Sony has already announced plans for 4, 5 and 6) is also a very good popcorn entertainment should be icing on the commercial cake. And for the most part, it is. While fans have started web board wars over various elements director Sam Raimi and the gang got wrong, the mainstream moviegoer is lining up to plunk down their recreational dosh. And for the most part, they won’t be disappointed.

What they might be is dismayed. Indeed, one of the biggest quandaries that develops in this third trip into human arachnid territory is why the formula that worked so well in Spider-Man 2 fails to properly function this time around. The story more or less stays the same – Peter Parker struggles with his new found role as superhero and champion of the people; his relationship with Mary Jane Watson fluctuates between great and grave; he has moments of sage wisdom from his doddering Aunt May; and he’s still trying to disarm Harry Osborn’s seething personal vendetta over the death of his father. Toss in a villain – or in this case, two – and over the top visual stunt piece spectacles (check!) and you’ve got everything that made the 2004 epic a commercial and critical hit.

Well, not quite. For some reason, Spider-Man 3 is an ‘almost’ success. It ‘almost’ captures the wrenching emotion of the divergent character concerns. It ‘almost’ gets us to care about the plight of Flint Marco (our petty criminal/doting dad who ends up molecularized into Sandman), Peter Brock (more or less the cocky doppelganger for Peter and soon to be Venom), or new hottie Gwen Stacy (basic blonde eye candy). It ‘almost’ succeeds in tying up all the loose ends left over from Spider-Man 1 and 2 (even though Doc Ock earns just one single meaningless mention). And it ‘almost’ has us convinced that this trilogy will transcend its blockbuster necessities to mean something more – either as art, precedent, or simply a great way to spend some time at the Cineplex.

But ‘almost’ works both ways, and there are moments when Spider-Man 3 ‘almost’ falls apart completely. For example, the narrative is so fragmented and jumpy – which one would expect considering that the filmmakers are crafting an attempted trilogy out of various parts of the comic book myth – that it never settles down and sails the way Part 2 does. In addition, there is still some sloppy CGI, especially in the rendering of Brock’s space virus alter ego. Because of the character’s VERY late appearance in the story, and lack of significant screen time, we just don’t know what to expect from this being. When it starts slinging webs and acting all spider-like, we are left contemplating why we need two entities who both basically do the same thing. Aren’t there more interesting enemies in the Spider-man repertoire?

Controversy also surrounds the Second Act sequences where we are introduced to Power Mad (or as some have labeled him, Emo) Peter, including a corny “strut” montage and an equally odd dance number in a jazz club. In fact, most of the anger metered onto this movie comes from those who complain about Mary Jane’s TWO solo song spots, or the constant attention to character over chaos. It’s almost as if critics, appreciative of how Part 2 deepened the dynamic between everyone involved, said, “Enough all ready! Let’s get to the good stuff!” But anyone familiar with Raimi knows that he likes to trip up the tone of his films. As early as The Evil Dead series, he’d mix the serious with the silly, the scary with some slapstick. In preparation for what he feels will be a five handkerchief finale, a gut wrenching test of friendship and love, our director just wants to have a little fun.

Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t deliver the stirring, staggering epiphanies we’ve come to expect. The showdown with both Sandman and Venom is so straightforward (fight, stop, fight, stop) and lacking in the invention of the previous skirmishes (Spidey and the Granular One do have a great tête-à-tête amid a maze of subway cars) that it feels like middle act mayhem, designed to keep us occupied until the real conclusion comes along. Even in the initial sequence where Gwen Stacey (and a rather tall skyscraper) is threatened by an industrial crane gone crazy, there is an urgency and invention that’s lacking come showdown time. Still, you have to give Raimi credit. He certainly understands the acrobatic element of Spidey’s skills. The sequences when our hero swoops and soars across the NYC cityscape are thrilling in their sense of motion and wonder.

Another area where critics have gotten it dead wrong is in the acting department – specifically, the consistent dismissal of Tobey Maguire as nothing more than a whiny little manchild. On the contrary, he carries the entire weight of the film on his character’s post-adolescent shoulders. He is as good here as he was in Part 2, and all his emotional responses are earned honestly and specifically. Because of all the splash and fireworks, it’s hard to remember that Peter is actually inside that suit – not just some stunt or CGI element manipulated and mauled at the whim of the narrative. As a result, Maguire captures that ‘other’ aspect - the burden - allowing it to color and shade everything he does. If anything, it is Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane that deserves some straightening out. She’s gone from supportive to selfish in the blink of an eye, and her downfall seems premeditated and wrong. Besides, she agreed to a relationship with Spider-Man post reveal – shouldn’t she grow up a little?

James Franco also suffers a bit as well. His post-trauma transformation from a seething ball of rage to a dithering amnesiac with a forced smile is a real contrivance. Instead of making Harry a total head case, maneuvering the people around him to earn their trust (before destroying them), he’s just a good guy gone bad who turns into a bad guy gone good. The camaraderie element to this storyline is the film’s strongest facet (it is reminiscent of the bond shared by the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) but whole portions of the Peter/Harry/MJ triangle seem repetitive and unnecessary.

The rest of the cast is definitely driven to the very edges of the action. J.K. Simmons, so good as J. Jonah Jameson, is reduced to a couple of cameo spots, while James Cromwell (as Police Chief Stacy) is only around to provide Gwen a paternal face. As the villains, Topher Grace is wonderfully smarmy as desperate (and dangerous) Brock, while Thomas Haden Church is more concrete than complexity as Marco. Even when Raimi stops the action cold to give his Sandman room to wax about his sick little girl, the schmaltz seems totally tacked on. Indeed, why did this evildoer have to have a backstory, any way? What happened to the good old days where insane psychopaths wanted to take over the world because…well, because they are insane psychopaths. Had more time been spent on making Sandman/Flint a formidable foe, and not turning up the empathy factor, perhaps his presence as a baddie would have more impact. As a result, he’s sketchy throughout.

Overall, Spider-Man 3 drops down below the previous installment in the hierarchy. It’s shocking how shaky Raimi’s ideals appear this time around. Back at the beginning of this entire series, his storytelling scheme was unique and undeniable. He would push the maudlin and the mawkish as far as he could, then save the psychology structure by making the action supplement and strengthen the sentiment. This made everything feel complementary and complete. The balance he maintained so well over the previous two entries is really out of whack here – so much so that the moments of middling mediocrity compete to overpower the inherent greatness of his vision. In some ways, this is the way Peter Parker’s story was meant to end. As a reluctant hero, he was ill-prepared to take on the challenges of being a champion. As a big screen figure, he appears equally incapable of fully exemplifying the genre’s best aspects. Still, he ‘almost’ gets it – and that’s good enough for now…and Spider-Man 3.

by Adam Besenyodi

8 May 2007

“It seems like a big budget remake or our film.”
—Eric Zala, “Belloq” and director of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, commenting on what it’s like to watch the original Raiders of the Lost Ark today
I have been hearing about Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation for years.  (Even name checking it in a totally unrelated review I wrote a few years ago.)  Its story is now legendary in fanboy circles: In 1982, three kids from rural Mississippi become obsessed with arguably the greatest action-adventure movie of their generation, and armed with the innocence of youth and a Betamax recorder, decide to create a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Seven years later, they wrapped on the film, put it away, and moved on with their lives and apart from each other.  In 2003, on the support of such notables as director Eli Roth and Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles, the film “debuted” at the Alamo Draft House in San Antonio.  Now, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are making the rounds with their masterpiece, and a biopic is in the works to tell their story on the big screen. I had the good fortune to attend a screening and Q&A with two of the three makers of this testament to youth in a near-capacity theater on the campus of the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the movie is exactly as advertised.  All horrible sound and bad picture, the entire first stanza is awash in a yellow-green tint, but by the time Strompolos’ Indy makes his daring escape from Zala’s Belloq and the Hovitos in the opening sequence, your eyes have grown accustomed to the harsh exposure and you are rooting not for the characters, but for the kids putting on this show.  You want them to succeed and you can’t wait to see how they will pull off each subsequent shot that you know is coming next. Very few changes were made to the source material and only one scene is completely omitted, but what liberties the creators have taken are as charming as they are resourceful, like the use of a small motorboat in place of the seaplane (although Jock’s pet snake Reggie in the front of the boat in Indy’s lap remains).  The later omission of the propeller death and the fight scene that precedes it is certainly forgivable and hardly missed in this final cut. The only other change of note is the replacement of the spider monkey with Strompolos’ dog Snickers, who steals every scene he’s in, which undermines the character’s villainy, because the audience is clearly rooting for the mutt.  From his “Sieg Heil!” salute to his ultimate death (both on screen by way of “bad dates” and in real life as noted in the end credits), the dog is a star. Apart from Snickers, one of the surprisingly biggest cheers came from the stop-motion animation of the maps tracking Indy’s flights from California to Nepal, and again from Nepal to Cairo.  The cheers were accompanied by visible disbelief, awe, and head-shaking during the fight and fire sequence in Marion’s bar.  This is also the scene that garners the most attention during Q&A sessions and interviews.  Strompolos’ mom worked at WLOX-TV, where the boys were editing their masterpiece, when footage of Zala on fire was spotted by a responsible adult.  As a direct result, year two of their production summarily halted. The showstopper is most definitely the truck stunt.  You know the scene - Indy is trying to commandeer the truck in which the Nazis have loaded the Ark of the Covenant.  After Indy disposes of most everyone in and on the truck, the driver then throws Indy through the windshield and onto the hood of the moving vehicle.  The cheers are genuine as Strompolos’ Indy descends the front of the truck, but the payoff is how, intentionally or not, the boys brilliantly hold the shot from inside the back of the truck on the ground rushing out from underneath for enough extra beats to really amp up the expectations of the audience before Strompolos shoots out from under the truck.  A perfect money shot, and worthy of the shouts of approval it garners. The credits recognize Mr. Zala for transportation and Ms. Cooper’s work as seamstress, an “in memory of” note for Snickers, and finish with a Jim Morrison quote (“This is the end, my only friend, the end.”).  When asked about the soundtrack that accompanies The Adaptation, the filmmakers cop to lifting John Williams’ original score throughout, and note that their credits actually run longer than the original’s (six minutes total), so they ended up looping themes from Temple of Doom and Last Crusade before circling back to finish up with the Raiders theme in a sort of Indy mega-mix. What’s truly amazing about the boys’ efforts is that these kids worked from memory the first two or three years; there were no home-viewing VHS copies to purchase, or the Internet to find a complete working script of the film.  Raiders was re-released in 1982, which helped, but primarily they relied on collected bits of Raiders info they could gather, including magazines, comic books, long-playing records, a crappy, clandestine audio recording made at the theater, and Zala’s hand-drawn storyboarding. The resourcefulness and originality (which might seem an odd word choice considering they copied a blockbuster frame-for-frame, but trust me, it applies here) of the production itself is a marvel.  And the spirit continues in these boys-turned-men today.  Zala and Strompolos revealed in the Cleveland Q&A session that all the locations used in their movie were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  They hope to work with the governor of Mississippi to have Paramount’s proposed biopic shot in their home state to help pump some much-needed economic life back into the devastated region. Filmed over 21 consecutive days, 23 year-old Kevin Smith’s Clerks launched his career by famously maxing out his credit cards to finance the movie for $27,000 in 1994.  Twelve years earlier, three 12 year-old boys began a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It would take them seven years to complete the film, and cost them roughly $5,000.  Granted, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are not as famous as Smith is, but they just might hit it big yet.

by Bill Gibron

7 May 2007

There are a couple of noticeable trends this week, one of which is plainly obvious from the titles listed below. There are a lot of “and” pictures being released today, movies that attempt to use the bifurcating connective word as indicative of dichotomy, difference or dynamic. Unfortunately, they all don’t share a singular cinematic value. The other fad is more mercantile, and isn’t noticeable until you dig down deeper into the overall product list proper. For example, 8 May will see the release of a Dirty Dancing 20th Anniversary Special Edition, a Donnie Brasco Extended Version, and of all things, a director’s cut of Tom Hank’s That Thing You Do. Sure, this is all part of the notorious double dip, but the tactic here is also a little more subversive. By cleaning up the cutting room floor and affixing deleted content back into the print, the studio can claim it’s new and work their way into your wallet once again. So tread softly and choose wisely this tricky Tuesday – at least when considering anything other than our rock solid SE&L pick:

Deliver Us From Evil

It’s a shame that the situation with pedophilia and the priesthood has been reduced to a running gag amongst your bottom feeding stand-up comics. But the real crime remains in just how clandestine and conspiratorial the Church was in keeping these abominations from parishioners and potential underage targets. Case in point – Fr. Oliver O’Grady. At one time, he was a trusted and respected man of God. But deep down inside, he was a raging child rapist, a sick and twisted pervert who was a threat to all he came in contact with. Shockingly, he was protected, moved around from community to community to hide his horrible secret. As this scathing documentary indicates, organized religion thought it best to keep O’Grady safe, forgetting that the most important element here, the devastated victims, were the ones who really needed the help. Filmmaking doesn’t get any braver than this disturbing denouncement of everyone involved. Second only to An Inconvenient Truth in uncovering true fact-based horrors.

Other Titles of Interest

Breaking and Entering

It was supposed to be his return to certified Oscar fare after the commercial hit The Talented Mr. Ripley and the overblown dud Cold Mountain. But The English Patient‘s Anthony Minghella stumbled a bit with this class conscious offering about a London professional falling for an immigrant refugee. Based on his own screenplay, what could have been memorable ended up only middling.

Catch and Release

With what seems like unlimited commercial potential at her disposal, one has to wonder what made Jennifer Garner take on this quirky Indie romantic comedy. Must have been the chance to show her pure performance cred. First time filmmaker Susannah Grant (famed for writing Ever After and Erin Brockovich) even turned up the geek quotient by casting Kevin Smith as “the funny fat guy”. Audiences failed to respond.

David and Lisa

It has a premise that should only work in literary form (the film is based on a famous novel) – a young man afraid of being touched meets an equally unwell young woman who speaks in sing-song rhymes. Together, they try to forge a meaningful relationship. Thanks to the expressive performances by Kier Dullea and Janet Margolin, what could have been cloying has, instead, a fair amount of humanity. 

Music and Lyrics

Hugh Grant as a washed up ‘80s pop star? Drew Barrymore as a plucky lyricist who’s employed as his new writing partner? Era appropriate originals by Fountain of Wayne hit maker Adam Schlesinger? How could this miss? Apparently, writer/director Marc Two Weeks Notice Lawrence forgot to add anything fun…or memorable. Not even a Wham-esque Grant in full flashback mode was enough to save this stinker.

The Painted Veil

Representing the second period piece in a year for the otherwise thoroughly modern Edward Norton, this adaptation of the seminal W. Somerset Maugham book had a lot of healthy buzz come time for awards consideration. Then, for some inexplicable reason, it just vanished. The film has all the scope and splendor of a guaranteed critical hit, but somewhere between page and motion picture, it lost its way.

And Now for Something Completely Different

You’ve got to admire the marketing campaign currently running for this 1990 Tony Scott title. In big bold letters over a newly enhanced image of star Kevin Costner’s unshaved face, a quote from Quentin Tarantino proclaiming this movie as Scott’s “masterpiece”. It’s all but unavoidable. Whether or not this will mean anything significant to the QT contingency remains to be seen, but anyone who’s actually watched this romantic thriller gets the gist of what the Indie bad boy is talking about. Jim Harrison’s potboiler tome about infidelity and intrigue in the Mexican wilderness feels like a thick slice of South of the Border Gothic, and Scott’s stylized approach to narrative gives everything a slick, glossy glow. Costner is very good, as are the late Anthony Quinn and a radiant Madeline Stowe. While it has guilty pleasure written all over it, there is some seriously satisfying high drama to be found amongst the camp.


by Bill Gibron

6 May 2007

It used to be a pure Memorial Day kind of thing. Teens, fresh out of classes and ready to spend, would line up all over this great land of ours, celebrating the memory of those who died to keep us free by going to see a major studio popcorn pic. Like Jerry Lewis’ arrival every Labor Day, or the traditional distended credit card bill come Christmas, the Summer Blockbuster season was anticipated and planned for like the exaggerated entertainment D-Day it is. Preview ads would start popping up around mid-Fall, while a teaser would almost always arrive come Super Bowl. Then, just when the marketers thought the masses were growing tired of the title, a full blown trailer would appear, usually formulated to give away as many of the well-kept plotpoints as possible. By the time the end of May rolled around, it felt like you had already seen the overexposed hit. All that was left was to wonder what Will Smith would deliver come 4 July.

Naturally, this commercial course of action needed an accomplice, and for the most part, the co-conspirator was the horribly lackluster spring movie season. For four months (and a few weeks), audiences were expected to attend – and enjoy – studio run-off, bad buzz catastrophes, poorly timed Oscar bait (and switch), and various incarnations of crap cinema. On rare occasions, a good film would actually sneak in, making itself an amiable nuisance for those waiting on the snow and sleet to melt before they’d make their way to the Multiplex again. But more times than not, Hollywood larded its annual landfill with brazen bottom line/feeder fodder. Oddly, all that changed a few years ago. Now, among the slop and stupidity, Tinsel Town occasionally tosses film fans a big fat helping of masterful motion picture.

To be fair, the beginning of 2007 was still pretty pathetic. Ghost Rider proved that Nicholas Cage and comic book super-heroism really don’t mesh, while Oscar winner Hillary Swank battled the Apocalypse, and inner city educational malaise – either one, a daunting proposition. We got a few more horror remakes (The HitcherThe Hills Have Eyes 2Epic Movie) and some less than appealing family fare, including Arthur and the Invisibles and The Last Mimzy. Amidst all the hokum and hackwork, sophomore slumps and high concept crud, a few films actually managed to distinguish themselves. In fact, some of the Spring’s best may end up holding on to that title come the end of December – they were just that strong. And of course, with every stroke of genius, there must come an equal and opposite atrocity – and this year, there were some doozies. In fact, SE&L‘s picks for the Best and Worst of Spring 2007 expertly illustrate the massive chasm between the great and the god-awful quite well.

The Best
5. Black Snake Moan

Trying to top his breakout film about the ‘hard’ life of a pimp (2005’s Hustle and Flow) writer/director Craig Brewer tapped into the forgotten world of Tobacco Road potboilers to tell the tale of a local skank (the fabulous Christina Ricci) saved by the blues-soaked soul of a proud older man (Samuel L. Jackson). The results reminded audiences of the days when Tennessee Williams inspired hundreds of Southern Gothic copycats combined with those sleazoid drive-in delights that promised promiscuousness, but only ended up delivering tons of tease. While some critics complained over Brewer’s reach for smut style over social substance (as in his previous hip hop culture creation), he continued to prove that his is a cinematic voice worth paying attention to.

4. Grindhouse

It’s a shame that audiences didn’t cotton to this clever take on motion picture history. It remains the artform’s dirty little secret that, post Hays and pre MPAA, the exploitation game rewrote the rules on cinematic subject matter – and by indirect design, created post-modern moviemaking. It’s not like this badass ride on the wild and wicked side didn’t have entertainment appeal. Co-creators Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez delivered the gory, gratuitous goods in big fat sticky globs of fun. It was another cabal, that rabid and ready to pounce group known as the media, that destroyed this dandy double feature’s chance of gaining major mass market momentum. Years from now, revisionist history will hail this thrill and chill throwback as a masterpiece. For now, it will remain 2007’s most unfairly categorized ‘flop’.

3. 300

Talk about your testosterone laced treats! Frank Miller delivers the epic goods via Zach Snyder’s amazing CG cinematic scope, resulting in one of the biggest, brashest spectacles of the last ten years. A near perfect amalgamation of form and function, this tale of the Spartan stance against Persian insurgency circa 480 BC argues for the aesthetic benefits of technology – not only in the creation of visual splendor, but also in the realization of fiscally restrictive ideas. If Gladiator took home a misguided Oscar back in 2000, this movie should rake in the awards. As much a phenomenon as a feat of pure imagination, it may not reinvent the language of film as we know it, but it sure does provide a pristine new translation.

2. Zodiac

Nothing short of stunning. Rarely, in any period piece, does a director get both the details and the drama correct. One usually overpowers the other, leading to a substantial case of motion picture disconnect. But in taking on the still unsolved case of the ‘70s serial killer of the title, director David Fincher amplified the art of era recreation. Not only did he capture Me Decade San Francisco perfectly, he got the defeated, post-peace generation vibe down pat. Thanks to brilliant acting from Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal, and a narrative device that splits the story into three separate, equally compelling acts, we end up with is a dense deconstruction of the pre-CSI crime game, and a look at how obsession leads to loss – both familial and professional.

1. Hot Fuzz

The comedy team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg is clearly comprised of drop dead brilliance. After the magnificent horror spoof Shaun of the Dead (much more than a zombie lampoon, really), they turned their attentions toward the overwrought action blockbusters of the last three decades and came up with Spring 2007’s best film. With the equally astounding Nick Frost along for the ride, this satiric shoot-em up is so engaging, so completely and wholly entertaining, that it reminds you of how exciting a trip to the Cineplex can be. And buried inside the manic montages, the false endings, and the typical stunt sequence clichés, is a clever take on the British way of…being. Fuzz is so good, it makes the wait for whatever Wright, Pegg and Frost do next seem excruciating.

The Worst
5. Wild Hogs

Paunchy old men play biker dudes. Nothing particularly novel occurs. And in the meantime, both John Travolta and William H. Macy destroy whatever remaining star turn screen cred they had built up over the years (Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence were already treading water).  While crowds lined up to give this mediocre middle-aged comedy some unbelievable box office heft, here’s hoping cooler heads prevail come mandatory sequel time.

4. Norbit

Remember the look on Eddie Murphy’s face when the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was announced – and his name was NOT read? That’s the same reaction audiences had to this bumbling, borderline racist affair. There’s no problem trying to recapture the comic flavor and fun of the Nutty Professor films, but does it have to be done at the expense of raging stereotypes and dimensionless characterization? Apparently so.

3. Hannibal Rising

In which Thomas Harris pisses away any remaining semblance of a serious literary career. Apparently, everyone’s favorite cannibal gained his taste for flesh after seeing his sister devoured by Nazis. As if Germany didn’t have enough to be sorry for already. Now they have to take the blame for destroying this once viable horror franchise. Either them or the failed filmmaking.

2. Code Name: The Cleaner

Cedric the Entertainer doesn’t need to fire his agent – he needs to SHOOT him. Looking over the last five films he’s made (from Man of the House to that horrid remake of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners), the stench of sloppy scripting and equally atrocious approach seems to follow him everywhere. This incredibly funny man deserves better.

1.  Are We Done Yet?

Yes, Ice Cube, your career as a serious actor is pretty much finished. The irony over how one of the ‘80s most defiant rappers turned into a kid vid scapegoat is incredibly rich, but if he continues to milk these lame retreads of the same slapstick silliness, he’s bound to hit a worn out his welcome wall. This Mr. Blanding‘s bastardization may actually be it.


//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

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