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by Bill Gibron

1 Sep 2008


In general, it will be known as the ‘Summer of the Bat’. Christopher Nolan brought the Caped Crusader back for another crime epic experience, and walked away with nearly a BILLION dollars worldwide as a result. At $500 million (and counting) The Dark Knight was clearly 2008’s big box office winner - and it was also the Superhero Season’s most critically acclaimed effort as well. Indeed, amidst all the Hulks and Hancocks, raging red demons and literal jet setting playboys, Hollywood stuck to the standard formulas - sort of. While there was the typical animated averageness, two clever cartoons pushed the boundaries of the artform. Names like Apatow and Argento strived to score audience appreciation, while the Wachowskis walked away with the award for most misunderstood movie of the year.

Of the 53 films SE&L sat through this summer – and we did miss a couple along the way (sorry American Teen, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, and The House Bunny) – finding 10 worthy of making the grade was actually fairly tough, especially this year. There were so many picks that practically begged to be mentioned. In general, the determination for inclusion in based on the ‘carry over’ syndrome. If a movie moved us, touched us, intrigued us, inspired us, entertained us, angered us, or surprised us in such a way that we ‘carried over’ that sentiment for days, sometimes weeks after seeing a film, it’s passed an important test.

A critic can view up to a dozen movies in a week, and differentiating between them all can sometimes be as simple (or better yet, simplistic) as a gut or kneejerk reaction. But when they remain in your mind, when you constantly find yourself replaying scenes and revisiting ideas that the storyline or characters inspired, it’s an omen that can’t be ignored. They function as mental place cards in a mind overflowing with performances, images, and words. So when SE&L began it’s basic backwards glancing, we remembered the experiences we had during these hot, humid days, and the ones still stationed in our brains got the call up.

For the 10 films selected here, more than a couple are going to cause an uproar. Populist opinion – something we tend to sidestep in favor of actual film analysis – has confirmed that our choices chaffs the average mainstream member of the audience in ways that demand unreasonable retribution. Granted, you may feel free to take umbrage with anything we champion or chide, but this is not some kind of last word consensus on creative spark or motion picture ingenuity. It’s just opinion, albeit one based on a perspective of decades, not mere years, and several thousand, not a couple dozen, film going experiences. You may not agree, and that’s fine. But to quote Monty Python, the automatic nay-saying of someone else’s point is not an argument.

In the meantime, here’s SE&L’s choices for the Best Films of the Summer of 2008:

#10 Mother of Tears
Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the possibility of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.

#9 Kung Fu Panda
If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda  would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics. Glorious to look at and exhilarating to experience, this is the best that such genre-defying efforts have to offer. Far surpassing the pleasant but paltry visuals presented by such stale 3D showcases as Shrek and Ice Age, this combination of anime, action, and ancient Chinese scrollwork is captivating from the opening dream sequence. We also get clever character design, a true depth of field, and a phenomenal attention to detail. Then directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson up the Asian ante, meticulously recreating the carefully choreographed fight scenes that make martial arts movies so addictive.

#8 The Pineapple Express
For some reason, the stoner fails to get the same cinematic respect as other substance abusing characters. The alcoholic and the heroin addict are usually wrapped in semi-seriousness, while the pot head gets demoted to pharmaceutical comic relief. Granted, it’s hard to take the personality type seriously when incessant giggling, non-stop gluttony, and a lack of world perspective follows their wake and bake activities. From Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar, the standard strategies apply - toke, smoke, and joke. But not in the latest entry from the Apatow factory. Pineapple Express wants to take the blunt into some uncharted cinematic territory. And thanks to some sensational performances, and an interesting perspective behind the camera, it more than succeeds.

#7 Tropic Thunder
Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. Still the movie mines enough outrageousness from its attacks on actor arrogance, studio stupidity, production snafus, and a few choice inappropriate targets. Even the moments that misfire have a satisfying self-referential quality - kind of like a satire of a slightly shoddy spoof.

#6 Wanted
Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With the release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible vision.

#5 Iron Man
Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more. And if all that sounds like unhealthy hyperbole, this is the rare film that actually earns it. In an era where summer films tend to aim for opening weekend supremacy (and little else), this is an epic for the ages. Director Jon Favreau fills in the last missing element in his resume by creating a certified crowd pleaser, a F/X driven spectacle that mandates character count as much as CGI. Just deep enough to avoid superficiality, so ‘whiz bang wow’ that there’s no chance of boredom, two decades of motion picture allegiance to the Marvel/DC universes is rewarded with an epic that wears it’s intentions proudly.

#4 Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result.

#3 Wall-E
By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.

#2 Speed Racer
Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie.

#1 The Dark Knight
Duality is the nature of man. We all have good and evil inside us. Which side we choose to embrace earmarks our very existence, putting us on a path toward redemption…or damnation. Christopher Nolan understands the very humanness of his characters. The split personality within all of us has become this filmmaker’s aesthetic playground. When he first revamped the Batman mythos for his 2005 blockbuster, fans were worried that future installments in the series would be more psychological than spectacle. Add to that the death of his choice for The Joker, and The Dark Knight seemed destined to succumb to ridiculous expectations. Instead, it instantly becomes one of the best films of 2008, if not the current reigning champion at the top.


**********

The Worst
And now, the bottom of the barrel, the cinematic scrapings that reek of lame scripts, poor direction, bad acting, ill-conceived conceptualizing, and all around motion picture mediocrity. While there are a few films missing from this list (like the latest shoddy spoof Disaster Movie…how prophetic), the ten titles here are representative of the filmic funk that soiled the Cineplex this season:

#10 Sex and the City: The Movie
A shrill celebration of materialism, sluttiness, and all around bad behavior. Feminists and confirmed ‘cougars’ should sue.

*****

#9 The Strangers
Two troubled lovers are terrorized by a trio of faceless killers. The lack of frights is only matched by lack of explanations or motives.

*****

#8 Meet Dave
Eddie Murphy plays a human sized starship (and its captain). A member of Mystery Science Theater 3000 wrote the script. Clearly, these comic world’s couldn’t collide.

*****

#7 Star Wars: The Clone Wars
George Lucas proves that he’s lost touch with everything that made his once formidable franchise famous. Even apologists had a hard time with this one.

*****

#6 Fly Me to the Moon 3D
Bugs stowaway on the historic Apollo mission. While the effects were interesting, the lack of any real entertainment value destroys the diversion.

*****

#5 Space Chimps
Another species, another trip into the cosmos. This time, simians battle an egomaniacal despot turning his citizens into statues via a fallen US satellite. Really.

*****

#4 The Mummy: Curse of the Dragon Emperor
This crime against popcorn entertainment committed one of the biggest cinematic sins ever - it wasted the talents of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh.


*****

#3 Babylon A.D.
A movie so bad, everyone except its star disowned it. This failed future shock is so uninvolving, even the characters seem lost in a cloud of unbelievable dystopian boredom.


*****

#1 The Happening
M. Night Shaymalan actually believes that this is one of the scariest movies ever made. Sadly, his delusion is more frightening than anything in this pissed off plants hokum.


*****

#1The Love Guru
Mike Myers successfully killed his career with this horrendously unfunny comedy. It was so bad that even the planned protests couldn’t attract curiosity seekers.

 

 

 

by Bill Gibron

31 Aug 2008


It’s the annual end of Summer holiday. Time to reflect on the final week of the popcorn moviegoing experience, the upcoming end of the year awards anarchy, and all things Fall. Of course, no Labor Day would be complete without a visit from the genius himself, Jerry Lewis. Here is our tribute to the comic titan from last September. Enjoy!

Depth of Field: Jerry Lewis - GENIUS!

by Bill Gibron

31 Aug 2008


Someone once said that all men live lives of quiet desperation. For those in middle management, said anxiety can be anything but silent. It’s never the big picture issues - the purpose of their productivity, their place within the larger corporate scheme. Instead, it’s the smaller things - petty differences, personality clashes, bumbling bureaucracy - that carry the biggest impact. So advancement is typically based on how well you maneuver the various minor concerns. Make a mistake, and it will cost you. Traverse it all successfully, and you still have to battle nepotism, the omniscient cronies, and the notion of being locked in something more or less dead end for the rest of your days. A movie like The Promotion understands this problem all too well. Too bad it doesn’t deliver the message in a consistently droll manner.

Donaldson’s Supermarket is about to open a new store in suburban Chicago, and longtime assistant manager Doug Stauber really wants the top job. While his current boss considers him a shoo-in, a recent transfer from Canada named Richard Welhner also seems up for the position. Initially, Doug’s not too concerned about the competition. He feels he has the inside track. But soon, Richard is working the coveted inside position, taking over important contacts like Pepsi. Doug, on the other hand, is dealing with the lot, and the gang of local thugs who intimidate and ridicule the customers. Corporate is not pleased with either candidate, and gives them time to shape up or ship out. Naturally, the men begin to instinctually undermine each other, doing whatever it takes to please their family and land that promotion. 

The Promotion (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is the very definition of a human comedy. Again, it’s not uproariously funny, or even laugh out loud clever most of the time. It doesn’t dial into the new “anything for a giggle” movie mystique, nor does it try to deliver mirth with over the top antics and outsized caricature. Instead, Steven Conrad’s likeable little film falls somewhere between heartfelt and hopeless. Thematically following the foibles of two men who’ve allowed their job to define their purpose, what we wind up with is an inconsistent entertainment that never ceases to stumble over moments that should simply just soar.

Some of the sequences (the abusive gang members harassing the customers) are clearly played for stock shock value. Others try to find that ironic insight that all post-millennial movies must now strive to attain. But thanks to the acting, and some interesting narrative choices, we wind up championing most of what happens. It’s not like The Promotion is out to trick us, or provide some manner of plot point misdirection. Conrad’s approach is clear - take tiny little moments, slices of every workaday existence and link them together to tell a recognizable story.

In what is rapidly becoming a New Age film genre, we are once again confronted with the ‘male alone” syndrome. Locked in a somber situation of their own making, and unable to let their partners or friends make up the difference, we get several scenes of leads Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly staring pensively off into the distance. Realizing that it’s no longer a man’s world, but forced into an instinctual need to hunt, gather, bring home the bacon, and increase their professional power, they are lost and forlorn. Even when they try to connect among each other, the pheromone scented posturing prevents any kind of asexual intimacy.

Like Fight Club predicted nearly a decade ago, the new male is really a dude, a dumb animal offshoot that tends to crap where it eats, and likes it quite a bit. Most of The Promotion is taken up with this kind of testicular one-upmanship, Doug digging Richard as he plots to put him down. We never really understand the internal motivation for such a circumstance - both men are genuinely decent and likeable - but the lure of Donaldson’s managership (and the accompanying cash) seems to drive both to distraction. While their battles make for some amusing sidebars, they never really seem to contemplate the consequences. All the brown nosing and butt kissing can’t overcome a failed drug test, or a dreaded inter-store complaint.

Part of the problem with The Promotion (and the facet that also keeps it from failing outright) is Conrad’s skill at observation. He understands the world of work, how people function as colleagues and employees. The stand offs with the Board (featuring a soulless Gil Bellows as the corporate speak executive) have a realistic ring, and when Scott and onscreen spouse Jenna Fisher discuss their privacy free apartment dwelling, we instantly recognize the repartee. But then there are times when Conrad’s scrutiny goes cheap, as when he has Reilly asking a Hispanic female cashier about her “p*ssy” sauce (it’s all part of a stock boy set up). Similarly, the gay banjo player interrupting Seann and Jenna’s closeness seems lifted from a bad SNL sketch. 

Luckily, the first time director (noted for his screenplays The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness) has that wonderful cast to keep him afloat. As a matter of fact, it’s something he acknowledges as part of the DVD’s intriguing audio commentary. Seann William Scott is truly emerging as a sharp leading man. While some of his American Pie posturing is still intact, he comes across as far less mannered here. Additionally, Fisher finds the right note as the more than willing to compromise spouse. But Reilly is the real revelation here. So internally tortured and pent up that he seems permanently constipated, his about to crack Canadian provides a uniquely engaging side to the actor. We are used to seeing him blustery and befuddled. Here, he seems to be living every mistake he ever made over and over again in his mind.

Elsewhere, the extras argue for the limited budget Conrad had to work with. While this does not excuse the film’s shrunken scope, it does explain why we don’t see more of its Midwest locale. Indeed, The Promotion is a small film, and as such, warrants equally limited expectations. If you base your potential response on what Scott and Reilly have done in the past, you’ll be bored before the first moment of comic clarity. But if you recognize that this movie wants to say something rather significant about the human experience, to showcase how some men are born to faux greatness while others are continually beaten to the professional punch, you’ll enjoy the 90 minute ride. Work may not truly define us, but it tends to make the most of its first impression. The Promotion suggests that, somewhere between exaggeration and exactness lies the reason for our desperation - quiet or otherwise. 

by Bill Gibron

29 Aug 2008


It’s the final week of Summer 2008, and believe it or not, not a single tentpole release (Babylon A.D.) or fringe title (College, Disaster Movie) was screened for the press. Still, there are a few films we can focus on for 29 August, including:

Sukiyaki Western Django [rating: 8]

Sukiyaki Western Django is Sergio Leone on LSD. It’s every ‘60s/‘70s revisionist western riff supersaturated in stylized bombast and a purposed perversion of the motion picture mannerism.

Some forty years later, the spaghetti western remains one of the most unique subgenres in all of film. As a reflection of America as seen through the eyes of the world (and the US media), it stands in startling contrast to the conservative oaters that inspired it. But even more intriguing, the multicultural facets of the format provide insight into the shared heritage and history of each creating nation. A perfect example of how this all comes together can be found in Takashi Miike’s astonishing Sukiyaki Western Django. While it may sound like nothing more than a love letter to a certain Mediterranean country and its inventive horse operatics, the infamous filmmaker’s broadened approach brings in everything from Shakespeare to standard samurai tradition. The results are ridiculously fun.  read full review…

Hamlet 2 [rating: 4]

Let’s just call Hamlet 2 Waiting for Guffaws, and be done with it. Sadly, said laughter rarely comes, if at all

There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest. read full review…

Transsiberian [rating: 7]

This is not to say that Transsiberian is wall-to-wall dread. Once it gets going…it delivers enough electricity to keep us right near, if not completely on, the edge of our seats.

The little lie begins the deceit. Soon, the lack of truth clouds everything - from love to legality. Within days, loyalties which once seemed firm are tested, while newfound friendships provide the catalyst for even more distrust. All the while, the deception cuts as deeply as the Siberian cold, the temperature unable to freeze out the feeling of isolation or the need to be insincere. Soon, there is nothing left but a mountain of fabrication, its uneasy equilibrium waiting for one loose element to cause it all to come crashing down. That uncertain fragment is Jessie, the wife of rightly religious hardware store owner Roy. While her troubled past is now a faint memory, what she will do presently along the couple’s Transsiberian train trip will call into question everything she ever was - or wanted to be. read full review…

Mirrors [rating: 5]

Mirrors is a minor success, meaning it’s a pretty big failure as well.


If we weren’t already aware of Hollywood’s brain dead inability to fashion such a conspiracy, one would swear that Tinsel Town was out to destroy horror once and for all. Their weapon of choice? The J-Horror remake. Their intended targets? Foreign filmmakers who’ve proven they can master macabre with a diligent, dread-induced professionalism. In the last year alone we’ve seen the talented combo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, responsible for the terrific thriller Ils, helm the horrible Jessica Alba vehicle The Eye. Now, Alexandre Aja, fresh from proving he could take on even the most tired material (in his case, the Wes Craven quasi-classic The Hills Have Eyes), is given the god awful task of updating the Korean creeper Into the Mirror. That he almost succeeds suggests that an untapped talent that no studio suit can truly stop. read full review…

Rain of Madness [rating: 6]

Combining the best of the mock doc format while finding a way to incorporate some obvious outtakes, Rain of Madness pushes the absolute limits of Tropic Thunder‘s original premise.


Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. The same could be said for the latest offshoot from the Thunder-dome: a mock documentary fashioned after the fabled Apocalypse Now memoir Hearts of Darkness. Entitled Rain of Madness, this spoof of a making-of of a lampoon is wonderfully wicked - and sadly, too short. read full review…

by Bill Gibron

29 Aug 2008


Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. The same could be said for the latest offshoot from the Thunder-dome: a mock documentary fashioned after the fabled Apocalypse Now memoir Hearts of Darkness. Entitled Rain of Madness, this spoof of a making-of of a lampoon is wonderfully wicked - and sadly, too short.

For German born director Jan Jürgen, the notion of war and its various horrors is not as interesting as the realities of making a movie about said combat. So he decides to follow filmmaker Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) as he prepares to shoot the cinematic adaptation of “Four Leaf” Tayback’s (Nick Nolte) Vietnam chronicle, Tropic Thunder. From the casting of all the leads - Australian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), crude comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) - to the troubled situations onset, Jürgen deconstructs the overblown Hollywood hatchet job. Placing the blame squarely on prima donna performers and an inexperienced director, previously unknown facets of the film are disclosed, including the shocking final footage shot by Cockburn…before he and his cast vanished!

Combining the best of the mock doc format while finding a way to incorporate some obvious outtakes, Rain of Madness pushes the absolute limits of Tropic Thunder‘s original premise. Making a fake film about another phony production practically screams cheek, and for that reason alone this movie is worth the free ITunes download. But don’t expect to be bowled over by new material. Some of the stuff here is clearly linked to improvised scenes, cut comedy bits, and purposely bogus EPK interviews with the cast and crew in character. Almost everyone involved here is goofing it up before the camera - some more than others. Downey Jr. has an amazing sequence when he meets up with his character’s “real life” Texas family. His meltdown is memorable indeed. Similarly, the endless mugging for “MTV” by Jackson’s Chino is priceless. Black is less involved, as is Stiller, but Baruchel continues to be Thunder‘s undervalued VIP. His scenes as the sole participant in Cockburn’s pre-filming boot camp are classic. 

Equally entertaining are Coogan’s newer moments in front of the lens. Rather marginalized in the movie itself (he’s literally gone in a flash), Cockburn is seen as much more of a screw up during Rain, his limited knowledge of movie making logistics really adding up when it comes to controlling his hack-tors. While it would have been nice to see more of Tom Cruise or Matthew McConaughey, there absence is clearly the result of location, not personal limits. Since much of the material was filmed on Thunder‘s Hawaiian sets, it seems illogical to expect two extended cameos to take part in this public-private lark. Still, there is a lot of fun to be had here, especially when Jürgen does his best Werner Herzog for a last act look at Cockburn’s death scene (ala Grizzly Man, we don’t see it, just Jürgen’s reaction - over and over again).

At only 30 minutes, Rain of Madness does feel awfully short. Maybe it’s the amount of material Coogan and co-writer Justin Theroux had to work with. Perhaps the running time is connected to the willingness of the A-list cast to participate. Certainly, the format itself limits the amount of opportunities, along with obvious fears of overstaying one’s welcome. Still, as part of the big picture putdown of the business called show, Rain makes a wonderful companion piece to Thunder. While you may want to wait for the inevitable DVD release (ITunes is a tad proprietary), this short is still a lot of fun. It’s always a joy to peer into the specious soul of Hollywood’s own horror show to see the Satan underneath.

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