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Friday, Sep 1, 2006
“Family film” has become such an ugly term for me lately: most of these Disney-endorsed flicks are barely passable as entertaining morality plays. Instead, they seem to offer up wiseacre kids trying to act like adults while their unfortunate parents dither about incompetently. The saccharine, phony nature of this present-day PG-fare seems to frequently be accompanied by some sort of rock and roll performance set piece in which young and old either share the mic in a duet, or exchange loving glances while playing guitar. It seems that in all of the commotion and emo, they forgot to include something important: the actual FAMILY. Lucky for us, we can be transported back to a time where this genre was actually embraced and celebrated with an offbeat, often unsympathetic take on the “family values” feature: Martin Ritt’s Sounder.

The world this celebrated director conjures up is about as far as you can get from traditional or contemporary, what with the story centering bravely on the trials and tribulations of the Morgan’s, a family of sharecroppers overcoming impossible bad luck during the Great Depression. It’s a tale full of rough edges, no-holds-barred sadness, and a complete lack of pity. The often unsympathetic tone the film takes is a bit shocking at times (no stranger would dare hit a child they didn’t know today, not without severe consequences), but is still dependable and accurate. Sounder preaches its morals and values in a subversive, non-offensive way that is never false or cloying. The story watches eldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks, in an introspective film debut) grow into a man while learning the hardest life lessons from his wise, yet misguided parents Rebecca and Nathan Lee (Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield; the first African-American man and woman to be simultaneously nominated for acting Oscars). His parents see the spark in the young man’s mind and they push him into a life of education rather than work. The journey of the young man stays at the center of the film, letting the viewer peek into a world long past, exposing all of its cracks in a believable way.


Sounder deals with some very heavy issues (including the horrifying, inhumane and unfair physical and emotionally cruelties most black people of the time were expected to silently tolerate) without becoming bogged down with cliché-riddled sermonizing. Feeding your hungry family during hard times, working hard labor jobs at a young age, and love in the most dour of circumstances are some of the universal themes Ritt and his great cast touch on. They remain equally relevant to families today, more than thirty years later. At the core, the film is a story about the love and loyalty shared between parents and children and the ties that bond a family together – a closeness that often requires great sacrifice and strength. Rebecca, for example, must learn to let go of her son as he readies to leave the nest. Selfishly, she wonders aloud “who will help me around the house? Who will help me out in the field?” while he looks on with disappointment.


Tyson, as a flawed (but fundamentally wholesome) mother of three, shies away from playing her character for cheap sympathy or dignified suffering: Rebecca is scared for her family’s well-being, and must endure long days of back-breaking work to be the sole provider once her husband is arrested for stealing meat to feed them. She is strong without being overbearing, sensual, and wise without being particularly sophisticated. Her pride is visible when scolding two racist officers who will not allow her to speak with her imprisoned husband (classily tossing off the barb “You got yourself a real low-life job, Mr. Sheriff”; an offense that in is very daring given the potential consequences). Winfield too creates an indelible character: sometimes selfish, other times brutish. As Nathan Lee, he imparts wisdom to his son; but also makes sure to tell him that he is loved: something that is conveyed imaginatively with dialogue and nuance rather than through present-day neuroses or an uninspired musical extravaganza. It’s Sounder‘s strongest selling point.



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Thursday, Aug 31, 2006

It’s September, and that means a new month, a new page on the desktop calendar, and a new slate of movies for your perusal on all four premium cable channels. Actually, that final bit is not quite true. A couple of decades ago, when the coaxial held equal footing in the home video market for the available audience attention span, pay TV networks would dump the previous 30 days worth of titles, loading up the preceding four weeks with all manner of ‘new’ motion picture product. Granted, the schedule was shamefully similar to what had been offered before – forgotten films, made for cable schlock, your basic b-movies – yet as long as it was “different” enough, they felt they were fulfilling their promise.


Nowadays, with DVD dominating the demographic, the premiums have wised up. They rotate their stock like the commercial crops that they represent, always feeding the merchandising machine that keeps their subscriptions active and their customers calm. Then once a week, typically on a Saturday, the latest big name ‘blockbuster’ drops, like a carrot in front of an overtired mainstream mule. The arrivals this week – 2, September - are an interesting combination, representing some of 2005’s best and more baffling efforts. They include:


HBOWallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

*
After the smashing critical success of Chicken Run, the geniuses over at Aardman decided to give their seminal twosome their own big screen epic. Using the painstaking art of stop motion animation, and setting their tale within the unlikely genre of horror, the result was one of ‘05’s best efforts. As characters, Wallace (absent minded inventor) and Gromit (faithful canine companion) represent a perfect combination of the clever (dog) and the clueless (man). Given Aardman’s acknowledged skill and craftsmanship, it’s no big surprise that this delightful duo easily make a transition from short film prominence to full-length feature masterpiece. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 8:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


CinemaxCinderella Man

*
Always seen as the blockbuster/Oscar contender that never was, Ron Howard’s look at Depression era boxing champion Jim Braddock was probably the victim of too many expectations and too much exterior baggage. It didn’t help matters that star Russell Crowe was going through one of his more “uncomfortable” fame phases, and that the brain trust behind the final release date decided to premiere this prestige picture in the middle of the Summer’s celebration of superficiality. Add in the typical Hollywood whitewashing of anything remotely controversial and you have the standard story of the human spirit overcoming social adversity. If you didn’t already catch it on sister station HBO, now’s your chance to judge its mixed merits for yourself. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 10:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


StarzThe Greatest Game Ever Played

*
Actor Bill Paxton’s (Aliens, A Simple Plan) directorial follow-up to his 2001 creeper Frailty couldn’t be more dissimilar. Combining your standard underdog sports drama with a turn of the century period piece, Paxton presents the true story of a 20 year old linkster who actually defeated the reigning 1913 US Open champion Harry Vardon. While golf films in general don’t inspire a lot of entertainment confidence (The Legend of Baggar Vance anyone?) Paxton plays up the populist angle in the material, giving the entire enterprise a nice, nuanced feel good gloss. Even more amazing, this project was scripted, and based on a non-fiction tome by none of than Twin Peaks scribe Mark Frost. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 9:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


ShowtimeThe Woodsman

*
Though he seems to be better known for that slightly clever ‘six degrees of separation’ game than his recent movie roles, the truth is that Kevin Bacon has been making some brave choices as of late when it comes to his career. Take this terrific 2004 drama in which the former Footloose star plays a just-paroled pedophile trying to regain a sense of normalcy in a world unready and unwilling to forgive his past. Not only does Bacon basically implode his former friendly frat boy image, but he also redefines his future as a sly, subtle and serious actor. Though the subject matter may seem shocking, it is nothing compared to the astonishing work done here by this unfairly underrated performer. (Saturday 12 August, 8pm EST)


PopMatters Review


* = PopMatters Picks


 


Indie Film Focus: September 2006

Last month, Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to supply us with 30 days of star driven righteousness to keep the small screen film finds freely flowing. With the network back to it’s rather hit or miss programming, SE&L has decided to focus on another facet of the cinematic canon – the Independent film. Thanks to IFC, otherwise known as The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel, there is currently a 24 hour a day supply of outsider excellence. Some of the movie suggestions here will seem obvious. Others will reflect the divergent nature of the art form’s overall approach. Whatever the case, these are the highlights for the week of 2 September through 8 September:


IFC



Bamboozled (2000)
Spike Lee’s modern minstrel show loses its way toward the end, but while it’s working, it is one devastating denouncement of the media and its approach to race.
(Saturday 2 September, 11:00pm EST)


American Movie (1999)
All Mark Borschardt ever wanted to be was a filmmaker. Thanks to documentarian Chris Smith, he became something more – a symbol of irrepressible Indie dedication.
(Sunday 3 September, 5:00pm EST)


City of God (2002)
Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund didn’t invent the gangster film, but thanks to their efforts behind this stellar cinematic masterpiece, it sure feels like they did.
(Tuesday 5 September, 10:45pm EST)


Run Lola Run (1998)
While he’s never lived up to the promise he showed here, German director Tom Tykwer still deserves a place in foreign film history for this kinetic crime thriller.
(Wednesday 6 September, 5:45pm EST)


Sundance Channel



Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Remember when Guy Ritchie made GOOD movies NOT starring his shapeshifting dance diva wife? That’s okay, this British take on the mob movie will remind you.
(Saturday, 2 September, 7:00pm EST)


DiG! (2004)
Without question, the definitive rock and roll documentary. Ondi Timoner uncovers the insanity both inside and outside the music biz, and it’s not a very pretty sight.
(Monday, 4 September, 7:00pm EST)


Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973)
Controversial at the time (holy hippies?), Norman Jewison’s adaptation of this revered rock opera still plays as vital and as volatile as it did three decades ago.
(Wednesday, 6 September, 7:00pm EST)


Fellini’s Casanova (1976)
Always known for his cinematic excesses, this is considered by many to be the Italian maestro’s overkill breaking point. Tune in for yourself and see if it’s true.
(Thursday, 7 September, 7:00pm EST)


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Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

If you believe the experts, the Summer of 2006 was a disaster of epic proportions. From the opening salvo of the less than winning Mission: Impossible III to the final fizzle of Snakes on a Plane, what should have been a fairly consistent season of quality fare became a quagmire of stagnant, sloppy entertainment. Granted, some still found their fun where they could: the supposedly inventive fear factors of The Descent; the sexy superficiality of Miami Vice‘s calculated crime thriller; Adam Sandler’s spiral into Frank Capra Click mode. Even among the perceived slips, the offerings that failed to live up to their hyperbolized potential, there were moments of magic: Hammy’s supersonic bullet-time trip through an entire backyard in Over the Hedge; Superman’s shuttle save; the fall of many an X-Men mutant, including an especially cruel comeuppance for every fanboy’s favorite shapeshifter; Jack Black’s naïve Nacho finding solace, and stretchy pants, among the much admired luchadore. In fact, the Summer of 2006 can best be described as a season of moments – movies that failed to completely coalescence into the blockbusters of old, but still delivered their own meaningful measures of pleasure.


And then there was the real rubbish – the kind of cinematic cesspools that make your filings ache, your brain bubble, and your ass shift painfully in its supposed seat of stadium-level comfort. They are the reasons audiences rebuff the Cineplex and await an eventual rental. They cause seismic shifts in the entertainment continuum and foster the near universal belief in a certain industry’s lack of originality or ethos. All five of the failures sited by SE&L as the noxious nadir of the artform were created by the so-called major studios. One even featured the most consistent box office draw of the last decade. The list includes one unfunny comedy, two thrill-free adventure yarns, an incredibly artificial “bedtime story” and a near shot-for-shot remake of a macabre classic. All together, they form a pentacle of paltriness, a shining symbol of ideas poorly executed and money mindboggling wasted. Hollywood ponied up nearly a half a BILLION dollars ($449 million to be exact) to bring these strident stink bombs to the screen. And you thought the Federal Government was the only out of control entity that could waste hard earned dinero like that, huh? So, with little fanfare or flourish, SE&L offers up the Worst Movies of Summer 2006.


5. Lady in the Water
Call it his long anticipated fall from grace, or a clear case of ego overdrive, but somewhere buried inside this incredibly dopey faux fairy tale is a pretty intriguing idea, actually. Indeed, the notion of otherworldly spirit guides attempting connections with those they are destined to direct has a nice sense of internal awe. Unfortunately, that substrata Spielberg, otherwise known as M. Night Shyamalan, decided to muck up such a fragile flight of fancy with his annoying preoccupation with foreshadowing. From the moment we see the residents living inside the Paul Giamatti-supervised apartment complex, we see the ‘signs’ of future narrative manipulation. Then Shyamalan tries to pull a last act fast one, changing the character dynamic in a final ditch effort at inventiveness. It fails, as does most of this flop of fancy.



PopMatters Review


4. The Da Vinci Code
So this is what the wait was all about? This was the thriller that satisfied a trillion airline passengers and created a cottage industry out of opinions both pro and con? Indeed, if this was the result of all the hype, all the history, and all the hissy fits, Ron Howard and his cinematic partner in mind crime known as Akiva Goldsman shouldn’t have bothered. By the time of its release, everyone knew the essential secret at the center of Dan Brown’s undeniably popular novel. Even avoiding the book’s fictional facets, your average film fan knew that all plotlines pointed to Jesus, Mary and a less than ‘Immaculate’ conception. All that was left was the big screen interpretation of such intrigue. And what we got was a near literal translation of Brown’s boring prose amplified by Goldsman’s lack of compelling characterization. How anticlimactic.


PopMatters Review


3. Poseidon
Somewhere, in the great cinematic beyond, Irwin Allen is wearing the afterlife’s biggest shit-eating grin. All the respect and critical praise he craved during his tenure as a multimedia laughing stock finally arrived on the heals of this misguided remake of his 1972 capsized cruise ship classic. Wolfgang Peterson, continuing his obsession with CGI water, concocts a heartless stunt show overflowing with Rube Goldberg-esque escapes and hollow human beings. Word is that Warner Brothers demanded over a half hour of cuts – almost all dealing with personal backstory and conflict between the players - after several unsuccessful test screenings. Many demanded that the film simply “get on with the disaster”. Never before in the history of cinema has a studio satisfied the mandates of its focus groups this effectively. Poseidon is the catastrophe they craved. 


PopMatters Review


2. The Omen 2006
Barely losing (beating) out to the number one entry on the SE&L list, this pointless remake of a ‘70s horror heavyweight did something many thought impossible – it made the Devil seem dull. From it’s crackpot casting that had infantile performers playing parts at least a decade beyond their birthdate, and a David Setzer script that more or less mimicked his original 1976 version (he wrote both movies), the sense of demonic déjà vu was intense. Unfortunately, it was the only powerful thing in this Laguna Beach level update. But perhaps the biggest mistake made here was turning tiny Damien, spawn of Satan, into a smug, smiling villain. Originally, the Antichrist was evil in an innocent’s garb. Here he’s just a standard scare tactic.


PopMatters Review


1. Little Man
Has there ever been a bigger waste of theoretical talent than the Wayans Brothers? When In Living Color stands as the capper to your entire creative career, it’s difficult to debate such a declaration. In this horribly unfunny film, using modern technology to recreate decades-old Our Gang/Bugs Bunny shorts, siblings Shawn and Marlon set the cause of black cinema back 40 eons and a mule with this stupefying shuck and jive. It’s not just that this story of a dwarf criminal who passes as a baby to regain a stolen gemstone lacks any real semblance of logic (we’re talking about a grown up, with easily identifiable, if arguably miniaturized, man-parts here). No, Little Man‘s biggest offense is the determined belittlement of one entire race – called “the human”. 



PopMatters Review


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Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 5: Sholay (“Flames”)
1975, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Ramesh Sippy
The best masala movie ever made. A masala movie is a subgenre of Indian cinema created by enterprising producers to cater to all the diverse tastes of an audience in a single film. Masala is Hindi for “spice,” and refers to a blend of multiple flavors (as in “curry” powder). In movie terms, this translates to a musical romantic-comedy/action-adventure that offers everything - fights, laughs, love scenes, dance numbers, and family melodrama - all in the course of three-and-a-half hours.  Warning: First-time viewers may find the masala movie slightly indigestible—a cinematic sensory overload. But if you want to get a taste of the most popular type of movie in Indian commercial cinema, start here: two conmen on the run are recruited by a village landowner to hunt down and capture the ruthless bandit that murdered his sons. In essence it’s a musical spaghetti western set in rural India. The movie made a star out of its hero, Amitabh Bachan, who is so beloved even today, that when he was hospitalized a few months ago, hundreds of Indians flocked to the temples to pray and light candles. Watching Sholay, you can’t help but wallow in its elemental pleasures: the joyous chemistry between the two male leads, Bachan and 70s matinee-idol, Dharmendra and their uproariously bad-ass behavior (like the scene where they help the village-belle gather mangos by flippantly shooting them off a tree with their pistols), the sassy, Jean Harlow slapstick of Hema Malini’s village-belle, and the delicious satisfaction we feel at the demise of the bloodthirsty villain, Gabbar Singh (played with sadistic panache by character actor Amjad Khan). Sholay is an unpretentious classic. It reminds us of why we go to the movies in the first place: to be entertained.


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Monday, Aug 28, 2006

Believe it or not, there are only 90 days before Thanksgiving, and start of the holiday gift giving season. It’s important to remember this when considering the upcoming DVD releases for the week of 29, August. Many distributors are purposefully holding back on key titles, waiting for the arrival of the pomp and commercialized circumstance associated with Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Others are opting to save certain discs to coincide with anniversaries, fall theatrical films, or the proper consumer-oriented environment. Whatever the rationale, we have another mixed bag at the brick and mortar, examples of Independent excellence sitting snuggly between innocuous major studio fare. There’s even another version of Peter Jackson’s Oscar winning triumph up for grabs. The discs that have caught SE&L’s eye for this installment of Who’s Minding the Store are:


Akeelah and the Bee*
Following hot on the heels of 2005’s similarly styled Bee Season, this uplifting story of a young spelling savant and her many personal travails continued the curious trend of films based on the new found novelty of an old fashioned educational competition. With quality performances from Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett, and some smart things to say about how racial and class divisions impact intelligence and/or the perception of same, the unbridled underdog formula gets a fresh coat of social significance here. While it may be a bit maudlin, this is still a solid feel-good effort.



PopMatters Review


Brother Bear 2
Never one to miss an opportunity at pilfering their previous efforts, Disney delivers an unnecessary sequel to a film no one really cared about in the first place. It remains a media mystery why a company that, until recently, turned its back on traditional animation would continue to forward pointless pen and ink revamps of their past catalog. About the only recommendable element in this Native American nature retread is the return of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as moose versions of their Bob and Doug MacKenzie characters. Otherwise, it’s just more callous cartooning.



Friends with Money*
With previous Indie gems Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing under her belt, writer/director Nicole Holofcener explores the day-to-day dilemmas of the well to do and privileged. Using Jennifer Aniston as her poor, problem-plagued guide, and the by now accepted theory that money only adds to issues, Holofcener creates a character study that’s as insightful as it is inspired. Thanks to stellar turns by Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusak, we really don’t mind that nothing gets solved in the end. Yet the feeling of understanding and empathy between this collection of companions seems stronger than ever.



PopMatters Review


Let’s Scare Jessica to Death*
It looks like standard scare fodder – a recently released mental patient named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) moves into a spooky old house with her husband and friend. She wants to turn her failed life around and become stronger. Sadly, someone also wants to put the film’s title tenet to the test. This longtime MIA release from Paramount promises to be nothing more than a bare bones DVD presentation (meaning no significant bonus features whatsoever), but when you’ve got an inventive, nightmare vision of horror as sound as that created by co-writer/director John D. Hancock, who needs a bunch of digital bells and whistles.



Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World
In a perfect world, a new Albert Brooks comedy would be a cause for humor hurrahs. Even more anticipated would be this surreal stand-up’s second attempt at the imaginative mockumentary format (the first being 1979’s Real Life). Sadly, this ineffectual effort seems forced, failing to fully tap into Brooks’ breakneck brazenness. While the idea holds a great deal of promise – Brooks is sent by the US Government to gain a better understanding of the Muslim people via their sense of humor – almost nothing here works. This could be the reason why his most recent efforts were met with caution, not celebration. Consistency may not be Brooks’ strong point.


 


PopMatters Review


The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Limited Edition*
Okay – this is somewhat of a cheat. There have already been two separate releases for each film in this spectacular series, including stand-alone theatrical packages and mammoth, four disc extended edition extravaganzas. So why put this latest triple dip on the weekly SE&L update? Well, quite frankly, no filmmaker has successfully fulfilled his promise as a vital new visionary better than Peter Jackson. With both versions of each film available on these two disc sets, and new documentaries to boot, there is no longer any excuse to avoid owning what is arguably the definitive cinematic trilogy.



Seduced and Abandoned: Criterion Collection
After the success of his cultural comedy Divorce, Italian Style Italian auteur Pietro Germi presented this second savvy marital satire. Dealing directly with subjects significant to the Mediterranean maverick, including duty, honor, tradition and male machismo, the result was a mirror on the confounding contradictions inside Sicilian society. Utilizing a brash, almost cartoonish approach to his narrative, this fine forgotten film finally gets the lavish treatment from Criterion that it genuinely deserves. With a magnificent monochrome transfer and a wealth of added content, this DVD, and the movie it contains, definitely deserve a second chance to shine.



And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 29, August:


Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 10*
Granted, this is a four disc collection of one of the greatest TV shows ever created, but since the central premise involves a test subject and his robot friends making fun of bad movies, we at SE&L feel it easily fits into the “film only” dictates of the Blog. Included here for the first time are a sensational slice of Toho goodness (Godzilla vs. Megalon), an example of Bill Rebane’s addled approach to film (The Giant Spider Invasion), a Roger Corman release he’d probably rather forget (Swamp Diamonds) and a mangled murder mystery (Teen-Age Strangler). Together they present an outstanding overview of the MST3K universe, and how weirdly, wickedly funny it is. Anyone who wonders why this series is so beloved need only look here for the obvious answer.


 


*=PopMatters Picks


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