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Tuesday, Sep 4, 2007


It was one of the longest summers on record, and unquestionably the most profitable. Beginning with the first weekend in May and Spider-man’s sweep into thousands of theaters, and ending on the very last day of August with the post-Halloween hissy fits, Hollywood raked in over four billion big ones the past four months, proving once and for all that the moviegoing experience is not dead. The rationale for ‘slumps’ and lazy box office returns is obvious – bad movies and their accompanying vitriolic word of mouth keep potential profits away. Maybe if Tinsel Town could see such an aesthetic forest from its individually marketed and demographically choreographed trees, there would be more imagination and innovation in the artform. Sadly, after seeing the returns reached in 2007, we should be ready for more of the same - blue humor comedies, live action cartoon updates, and sequels, tre-quels, and quadre-quels.


Of the 35 films SE&L sat through this summer – and we did miss a couple along the way (sorry Mr. Brooks, No Reservations, and War) – finding 10 worthy of making the grade was actually not that hard. Indeed, many of the picks 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, two are going to cause an uproar. Populist opinion – something we tend to sidestep in favor of actual film analysis – has confirmed that a pair of 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. It’s mere contradiction. If you disagree, put your opposition where your anonymous messageboard moxie is. Give us your Top 10. Let’s see how they match up.


In the meantime, here’s SE&L’s choices for the Best Films of the Summer of 2007:


#10 Transformers
Second only to Rob Zombie in poisonous fan boy hate, Michael Bay is not a bad director, just a soulless and scattershot one. Luckily, he finally found the proper project and a warehouse full of computing power to pull off this amazing technical tour de force. Sure, the same old Bay-isms apply: wimpy characterization; overly busy compositions and framing; a failure to connect to the audience on an emotional or esoteric level. Yet Transformers managed an amazing feat. It brought an expert level of surplus spectacle back to the big screen where it rightfully belongs.



#9 Rescue Dawn
Christian Bale is rapidly becoming the best actor in the business, as his stellar performance here definitely indicates. In a season exploding with all kinds of expensive eye candy, writer/director Werner Herzog goes directly for the throat. This is a thinking man’s Great Escape, a typical recitation of the German filmmaker’s main themes – man vs. nature vs. man and his own nature. With equally amazing turns from Steve Zahn and an unrecognizable Jeremy Davis (who definitely deserves an Oscar), and Herzog’s matter of fact filmmaking, this was a resplendent respite from all the popcorn product.



#8 The Bourne Ultimatum
Paul Greengrass does is again – proving that nothing drives high powered action better than a director with a vision. In this case, the handheld chaos created as our hero finally reconnects with his past is beyond belief. Among the many sequences that stand out, Greengrass stages a foot chase across the rooftops of Tangiers, leading to one of the greatest, most brutal fistfights in cinema history. For those who found the second film too kinetic, this one will also blow your socks off. We end up with an excellent ending to a wonderfully inventive espionage franchise.



#7 Hairspray: The Movie
Here’s perhaps the big surprise of the Summer – a mannered musical of the John Waters’ PG classic that had no business being brought back to the silver screen – and every moment of it worked brilliantly. If anyone ever doubted John Travolta’s song and dance chops (oh, what short memories we have), his last act teardown as Edna Turnblad during the final show-stopping number should be reminder enough. Add in the breakout buoyancy of newcomer Nikki Blonsky and Adam Shankman’s old school directorial style, and you’ve got the makings of some fantastic feel good fireworks.



#6 Halloween 2007
In what will be the first of two gasps from the typical movie going mentality, this reimagining of John Carpenter’s slasher epic is not the abomination the Net heads make it out to be. Instead, it’s perhaps one of the best examples of pure horror ever created. Argue over his choices for a young Michael Myers’ backstory, and complain that the slice and dice was too rapid fire and brutal, but that’s the point of this entire film. We no longer live in a slow, suspenseful world. Reality is in your face, as is this amazing movie.



#5 The Simpsons Movie
Since the Web has been predicting the demise of this show since Season 7, it’s hard not to relish in how laugh out loud classic this cinematic stop off really is. Matt Groening and the gang literally stepped up their game when bringing America’s favorite family into the celluloid domain, and the earnest ecology storyline shows that the creators have lost none of their verve. On par with South Park and Aqua Teen Hunger Force in showing how animated television can make the successful transition to a larger comic canvas.



#4 SiCKO
Michael Moore sees the big picture better than any other documentarian working today. Granted, he tends to showboat, and misses minutia for the sake of his stances, but there’s no denying the angle and authenticity of its approach. This is perhaps the most important movie he’s even made, which accounts for the impassioned potshots taken at his fact finding abilities. Just because a discussion fails to mention your particular points, or all other thoughts or theories on a subject, doesn’t make the conversation invalid. Moore is making a much larger statement here, the kind of wake up call we desperately need.



#3 Knocked Up
With this part profane, part poetic comedy masterpiece, Judd Apatow has finally arrived. He’s proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s directly tapped into the new post-millennial form of funny business, a cavalcade of cleverness that draws on any and all humor happenstance to derive its embarrassment of risible riches. But what puts this wickedly witty enterprise over the top is the solid storyline that deals in interpersonal issues and romantic perception with humanity and heart. Destined to reside near the top of the list come end of the year considerations.



#2 Sunshine
Here it is – the second sigh of disbelief from seasoned Summer film fans. As if championing the new Michael Myers wasn’t bad enough, here’s Danny Boyle’s brazen riff on 2001/Solaris via Event Horizon one step away from the top spot. The reason for such a placement can’t be proven in a small overview blurb. Instead, the Trainspotting savant puts his aesthetic prints all over a narrative that asks the season’s most important question – what would you do, personally, to save all of mankind? How you answer says a lot about your reaction to this masterpiece of a movie.



#1 Ratatouille
Along with Apatow, Brad Bird confirmed his genius status with this grown up flight of fancy. While The Iron Giant and the well named Incredibles illustrated his animated movie panache, this remarkable tale of a tiny rat and the bumbling boy chef he leads to greatness stands as the summer’s greatest achievement. Not only does the film look fantastic (Pixar, if anything has IMPROVED since Finding Nemo and Cars), but the narrative has moments of artistic bliss that simply blow you away. Destined to be a genre classic, one wonders what’s next from this potent production partnership.



**********


Worth a Mention
Here are a few other offerings that failed to make the big list proper. For whatever reason, their merits do indeed require pointing out:


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Proof that Gore Verbinski is one of the most accomplished directors working today. Love or hate these buccaneer blockbusters, but it takes a rare motion picture visionary to make this kind of cornball material work. Ignore the confusing storylines and simply enjoy its overpowering epic sweep.



*****


1408
Want subtle scares instead of bloody gorno workouts? Think all horror has to be abattoir amplified flesh feasts? This sinister Stephen King adaptation, offering an excellent performance by John Cusack, proves that dread can be accomplished even without a heaping helping of arterial spray.



*****


Hostel Part II
Probably the second most hated movie of the summer, and equally misunderstood. This non-carbon copy of the first film is everything a real sequel should be – that is, a 180 degree reset of the entire Hostel concept. The results are evocative and enthralling.



*****


Fido
Sadly, many moviegoers didn’t get a chance to see Andrew Currie’s freaked out social commentary. Using zombies as a symbol of non-conformity and change, and setting the story inside a crass, conservative ‘50s suburbia, this director delivered the allegorical goods.



*****


Superbad
This one barely missed making the Top Ten, and the reason is simple – the arrested adolescence offered by our pair of misguided policemen. The rest of the movie is magic, capturing how real teens talk in ways that should remind everyone of their own misspent youth.



**********


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 Lindsay Lohan’s I Know Who Killed Me…how prophetic), the five titles here are representative of the filmic funk that soiled the Cineplex this season:


#5 El Cantante
Jennifer Lopez screams for two hours. Unless its part of some well deserved death throws, it’s not worth it.


*****


#4 Underdog
Jason Lee does a decent dog’s voice. The rest of the movie meanders between pointless superhero stupidity and uninspired kiddie comedy.



*****


#3 Shrek the Third
Further proof that, once you anthropomorphize something, it’s bound to come back and bore you to death.



*****


#2 Mr. Bean’s Holiday
Physical comedy is almost impossible to get right. Rowan Aktinson’s take on the comic category confirms such a stance.



*****


#1I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry
Anti-gay put downs snuggle awkwardly with “can’t we all get along” language. The result is an insult to both comedy and civil rights.


 


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Monday, Sep 3, 2007


Okay, we’re ready. The bib is in place and the rising bile has been settled. We’re prepared for our plate of humble pie, and can’t wait to gobble down that big steaming bowl of crow. Unlike other film sites that strive to be all knowing and omniscient, we’re capable of admitting when we’re wrong. We try to read the tea leaves Tinsel Town tosses us, but the heady aroma can occasionally intoxicate our sensibilities. At the beginning of the Summer, SE&L predicted that the following five films would be the season’s most specious – Live Free or Die Hard, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Underdog, and The Invasion. In the realm of uncovering crud, it was a glorified gamble – especially when you consider that Summer in general is a time for just such predicable popcorn pabulum. Still, we gave it a shot, and are ready to take our misguided medicine. 


In retrospect, we did fairly well. Based on an overall tally of critical and commercial accounting, we were four out of five. Only Live Free managed to be a straightforward success. Now, before you get into a snit and start spouting statistics and box office returns, there is more to a flop than mere finances. No, a movie can be artistically bankrupt, or so slight that it warrants very little cinematic consideration or merit. By taking into consideration consensus, plus perspective, it’s clear that our helping of humility will be on the decidedly small size. Granted, the one we missed was about as big a bungle as one’s motion picture savvy can take, yet the remaining rejects argued for our crackerjack clairvoyance. And remember – this is not a rundown of the season’s best/worst. That will be coming later. So save your Spider-man venom and Halloween hate for another couple days.


Instead, let’s revisit each choice individually, to see how psychic – or stupid – we were:


Live Free or Die Hard
Box Office Returns: $134 million domestic/ $354 million worldwide
Rotten Tomato Rating: 80%
SE&L’s Prediction – Off by a Couple Million Miles


We got this wrong. Dead wrong. And in retrospect, there was really no excuse for our lack of insight. We bought the buzz. We drank the messageboard Kool-aid on the PG-13 parameters, the poorly realized script, and the lack of faith in Len Underworld Wiseman. And we got punked. Hosed. Hoisted onto our own prophetic petard. At the end of the day, this may not have been the old school actioner everyone hoped for, but it was a dazzling update on the franchise, and a stellar selection of stunt set-pieces. Heck, even Kevin Smith was good. In some ways, this rock-‘em sock-‘em reinvention could be the beginning of Die Hard 2.0. If Willis is willing, it would be interesting to see other directors take on the Mclane vs. Mayhem formula.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Box Office Returns: $131 million domestic/ $274 million worldwide
Rotten Tomato Rating: 36%
SE&L’s Prediction – Bordering between exaggerated and exact.


If ever a series was saved by the introduction of a novel new character, it would be this sloppy sequel to the equally unimaginative F4 original. Nothing about this retake corrected the problems of the past – Reed Richards’ abilities still look CGI fake, Johnny Storm is just a jerk, his sister Sue is a cipher, and The Thing resembles a bad amusement park character. But thanks to the T-100 tendencies of the title entity, we wind up with a film that’s almost half good, instead of all bad. We predicted a catastrophe, and instead, only got a genial piece of junk, watchable, and not a complete waste of time. Audience and critics seemed to disagree with such an assessment, however. Still, here’s hoping the Surfer only project sees the light of day.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry
Box Office Returns: $115 million domestic/ $123 million worldwide
Rotten Tomato Rating: 14%
SE&L’s Prediction – Right on the Mediocre Money


God, how AWFUL was this abortive pretend comedy? How smug and stupidly misguided. Even if it wasn’t based on some crappy Paul Hogan hokum (guess the courts may end up deciding that) it sure feels like something ripped out of Crocodile Dundee’s derrière. Don’t let the appearance of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s name on the screenplay fool you. Rumor has it their script was flushed by Sandler and his staff in favor of more anti-gay slurs. If Mel Brooks taught us anything with film’s like Blazing Saddles, it’s that you can be crass and politically incorrect, as long as you’re smart and satiric in the process. Here, all we have is deplorable dopiness. Even though it barely breached the $100 million mark, that’s no indication of actual success. We believed it would embarrass, and humiliate it did.

Underdog
Box Office Returns: $37 million domestic only
Rotten Tomato Rating: 13%
SE&L’s Prediction – Accurate, if not exactly fair


It’s clear that after a month in theaters, families aren’t flocking to see this misguided update of the cartoon cur – and the reasons are rather obvious. Disney does its usual toothless job of trying to jerryrig this one note joke into a clever superhero spoof. Even worse, they decided to desecrate the good name of the original animated show along the way. Frankly, the film’s not THAT bad. It’s soulless and silly, but the Jason Lee voiced beagle is actually kind of cute. The House of Mouse could have made their own take on the subject matter, scuttled all the Underdog referencing, and come out with a decent little diversion. Instead, they were hoping to corral some of that dwindling Baby Boomer cash by tapping into some manner of negligible nostalgia. SE&L smelled a dog – and we were more or less right.

The Invasion
Box Office Returns: $12 million domestic/ $13 million worldwide
Rotten Tomato Rating: 20%
SE&L’s Prediction – Right on the Mediocre Money


It’s never a good sign when a movie is retooled by reshoots. Adding insult to obvious injury, the original director of this dung didn’t get to foster the fixes. Such a bifurcated approach, accented by a dismal take on some otherwise potent allegory fodder, resulted in one lax, lumbering movie. Nicole Kidman is completely wrong for the role of agitated outsider. She’s more ice queen than activist. Daniel Craig is relegated to playing possum, and the rest of the cast is practically non-existent. Even worse, there’s no real villainy here. The aliens don’t have a master plan beyond rendering everyone on Earth benign. After that, their motives are meaningless. So loss of emotion is our clash catalyst. Not the greatest reason for a war of the worlds. Figuring this would fail was obvious – by how much is still amazing.


Sorry We Didn’t Warn You
Looking back, especially with the tentative 20/20 vision of such hindsight, SE&L slipped up and forgot to mention a few apparent atrocities in the making. While we apologize for failing in our early warning ways, we can still step up and do a little backseat driving. Had we been in our right mind, and remembered that entire list of Summer’s specials, we might have had these half-baked hunks of cinematic sludge as part of our previous piece. But again, we dropped the ball, so kindly give us a break. This trio of tripe should have been part of the prognostication:


Rush Hour 3


Perhaps we gave Jackie Chan too much credit. Maybe Chris Tucker’s cultural disappearing act clouded our memory of his motor-mouthed mediocrity. It could also be a case of Brett Ratner redeeming himself with decent efforts like Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand. Whatever it is, SE&L let this one slip under the radar, and we’re the worse for wear because of it. This atrociously unfunny effort has officially killed the buddy pic.


Shrek The Third


Maybe we missed the memo, but when was it announced that the Shrek franchise was about to become the Lord of the Rings of the retarded. This never ending series is starting to show some major wear, and this uninspired middle act is a perfect illustration of such slippage. Lacking anything close to context, it’s just a bunch of riffs and pop culture references tossed together, treading water until Part 4 comes along.


El Cantante


If she hadn’t done so before, Jennifer Lopez has formally destroyed her remaining box office credibility. This misguided biopic of salsa superstar Hector Lavoe decides to forego its central subject to focus almost exclusively on the musician’s manic wife, played in full shrew mode by you know who. Lopez is so stifling, so prickly and problematic that you wish it was her character that was doomed to die. Marc Anthony was actually good. His supposed better half proved poisonous.


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Sunday, Sep 2, 2007


Jerry Lewis remains an elusive cinematic figure. For most, he’s a joke, the punchline to a slam on the foolish French, or the kooky caricature of a nerd screeching “HEY LAAAAADY!” at the top of their nasal voice. Others have a more proper perspective, recognizing both his work with former partner Dean Martin (they remain the biggest phenomenon and unquantifiable gold standard in the now dead art of night club entertainment) and his tireless efforts on behalf of muscular dystrophy (summed up by this weekend’s telethon). But when it comes to film, especially those he’s personally written and directed, he stays a fool, a jester as jerk de-evovling the artform into nothing more than senseless silly slapstick. It doesn’t matter that Lewis authored one of the standard textbooks on the craft (The Total Film-Maker, 1971), or conceived technical innovations that revolutionized the production process.


Few see that he’s actually a bridge between the old fashioned chuckles of Hollywood’s Golden Era and the more experimental, existential humor of the post-modern period. Instead, he seems forever fated to be the dopey dude who takes the pratfall and pulls his face like putty – that’s all. Sadly, such a sentiment diminishes a great deal of very good work. While it’s true that Lewis lacks contextual sophistication – especially when it comes to subject matter and storyline – he is a procedural and visionary marvel. Thanks to a famous collaboration with Warner Brothers animator turned director Frank Tashlin (who’s really the aesthetic lynchpin for the look of most Lewis films) and his own turns in the creator’s chair, we can witness the rise, fall, and unjust dismissal of an amazing artist.


We begin by ignoring his first two solo efforts – the oddly dark The Delicate Delinquent (nothing more than a Martin and Lewis project gone sour) and the military farce The Sad Sack (good, but not quite there). After that, we can trace his talent, his tenacity, and his tendency toward self-indulgence. Hopefully, this will paint a better, more believable portrait of Jerry Lewis, an image beyond the frog-mouthed braying and the pantomime typewriter routines. For all his flaws, his hubris and his ego, the man could really make movies. The proof lies in the following list of legitimate cinematic statements, starting with:


Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For many this stands as the first ‘legitimate’ Jerry Lewis film. It’s not a leftover from his partnership with Martin, and marks the moment when Tashlin’s cartoon conceit steps in. It becomes the standard for most of the comedian’s work for the next two decades. While sappy and saccharine, it’s also the start of greater things to come.


The Geisha Boy (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
While far from politically correct (watch out for lots of slant eyed Asian awkwardness) and hitting, again, on the “Lewis with a foundling” formula that would guide his initial output, this otherwise ordinary film represents something miserable, not memorable.


The Bellboy (1960)
After the routine returns of Don’t Give Up the Ship and Visit to a Small Planet, Lewis was looking for a way to express himself without the interference of studio stooges who didn’t understand his style. In the meantime, Paramount wanted to save his upcoming Cinderfella for the Fall. So during a nightclub appearance in Miami, he made an agreement with the studio to create this on the fly homage to silent slapstick comedy. It became Lewis’s breakthrough. It also marks the introduction of ‘video assist’ – the use of video playback to allow a director to test how a scene plays and how the compositions work. Yes, Lewis is credited for creating the now-obligatory tool.


Cinderfella (1960) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Tashlin’s take on the classic fairytale is so weepy and maudlin that it’s hard to believe that anyone thought it would be a sizeable hit. But because of his stature as a legitimate solo superstar (eclipsing his previous partner many times over), Lewis’s career in front of the camera was now secured. His next effort would establish his prowess behind the lens as well.


The Ladies Man (1961)
It remains a monumental achievement in set design and art direction. Throwing his weight around as a box office behemoth, Lewis demanded and received an entire Paramount soundstage to create what is, essentially, an entire four story house complete with grand concourse, spiral staircases, open walled bedrooms, and an old fashioned elevator running up the side. It was a massive masterpiece of a playset, and Lewis made the most of it. Visually, Man is amazing. Unfortunately, the comedy is a tad forced, relying more on small moments than the epic environment created.


The Errand Boy (1961)
As a love letter to the studio that stood by him, Lewis made this simplistic silliness. Standing as one of his true classic comedies, this skewering of Hollywood hubris in combination with the filmmaker’s fleet footed physical shtick resulted in a creative combination that would underscore his next few films. Tinsel Town never took such a well-intentioned tweaking.


It’$ Only Money (1962) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Relatively forgotten, even among Lewis fans, this oddball detective farce – Lewis is a TV repairman and alongside a shifty private dick, get caught up in the search for a rich family’s missing heir – is one of the funnyman’s forgotten gems. Tashlin really amplifies his anarchic style, and Lewis looses himself in the relatively low key role. Instead of playing to the audience, he’s playing FOR them.


The Nutty Professor (1963)
Without a doubt, this stands as one of comedy’s major cinematic milestones. By riffing on his relationship with ex-partner Martin (who Buddy Love is obviously mirrored after) and putting to use every kind of cleverness imaginable, we get a wonderful whirlwind of dopiness and deftness. Lewis actually plays CHARACTERS here, not just weird variations of his own stick boy persona, and the emotional underpinning of the relationship with Stella Purdy is heartfelt and very human. Granted, this satiric Jekyll and Hyde has its slack sequences, but if you wonder what keeps Lewis part of the motion picture equation, even four decades later, this fantastic film is the answer.


Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) (with director Frank Tashlin)
After Professor, another go round with Tashlin seemed like a step backward. Still, Store is fun, using the premise (Lewis is a clerk put through the ringer by an owner who doesn’t want him marrying her daughter) to explore some major spectacle set pieces. It’s hit or miss, but there’s more to love than loathe in the end. 


The Patsy (1964)
Often cited as one of Lewis’s more cynical films, this droll look at celebrity and the shallowness of fame is, in reality, on par with Professor as a certifiable sensation. A dynamite combination of silent film gags, pop culture spoof (see Ed Sullivan mock himself!), and insightful evisceration into the cult of personality, it’s a brilliant, brazen farce.


The Disorderly Orderly (1964) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For his last film with Tashlin, Lewis resorts to stereotyping – that is, merely playing a version of the klutzy character he perfected in The Bellboy and The Errand Boy. Still, Disorderly is a surreal bit of insanity. It’s a cookie-cutter confection that only wants to entertain. And it definitely does so in small, sublime doses.


The Family Jewels (1965)
Marking the end of an era in more ways than one, this unfunny flop would represent the last time Lewis worked within such a cartoonish carelessness. Playing seven separate roles (the film focuses on a butler – Lewis – looking to place an orphaned girl with one of six specious Uncles – again, all Lewis). Some may marvel at the extensive use of split screen, and the attempt to distinguish the ridiculous relatives by outrageous make-up and costume conceits, but by going back to the days of fostering wee ones, Lewis seemed to suggest that he needed such a crutch to remain relevant.


Three on a Couch (1966)
Attempting to make the leap into more ‘adult oriented fare’, many feel Lewis succeeded with this sincere psychobabble. Again playing multiple roles (the plot has the clown wooing the man-hating patients of his psychiatrist fiancé so the pair can vacation in Paris), we get the battle of the sexes circa the swinging ‘60s. Unfortunately, the envelope pushing concepts of gender politics and free love are nowhere to be found. In many ways, this film’s view of relationships is so conservative it would make ‘50s suburbanites smile.


The Big Mouth (1967)
Here it is - the last straw in the lumbering Lewis legacy. After the failure of two films made without his direct input – the sci-fi stupidity of Way…Way Out! and the British bunk Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River – Lewis retook the reigns of his motion picture product. The result was this horrendous, mean-spirited mess. Overstuffed with stereotypes (including more mandatory Oriental awfulness) and painfully unfunny, it signaled the final nail on the comedian’s almost closed creative coffin.


Which Way to the Front? (1970)
After once again failing to connect both as an actor (in the mediocre Hook, Line and Sinker) and director for hire (the Peter Lawford,/Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle One More Time), Lewis was desperate to revive his cinematic fortunes. With such war-oriented comedies as The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Start the Revolution Without Me creating significant buzz, Lewis jumped into the genre with both feet. The plot involved a rich army reject desperate to battle Hitler’s Nazi nogoodniks, and there’s a lot of attempted anarchy here. Most of the movie is inert, however.


Hardly Working (1980)
After his attempt at a semi-serious Holocaust drama was sidetracked by funding issues and a creative concern for the actual material (more on this in a moment), Lewis left filmmaking. He claimed he was angered when he saw one of his films playing on a double bill with the then popular porn film Deep Throat, and announced he was no longer “in tune” with the crass concerns of the industry. After a decade out of the moviemaking limelight, Lewis released this ‘comeback’ effort, a collection of cobbled together vignettes centering on a schlub who just can’t stay employed. Varying wildly between good and grating, the result was deemed a dud by a savvier motion picture marketplace. Lewis again blamed everyone but himself, and regrouped. He still had one more aged Ace up his sleeve.


Cracking Up (1983)
Though he would spend the rest of his career playing character parts (and quite well – his work in both Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and the TV series Wiseguy were performance epiphanies), Lewis longed to be a big screen buffoon once again. Hoping to avoid the flaws of Working, he brought in old script collaborator Bill Richmond (who had worked with the actor on several of his seminal hits). The result was a weirdly uneven effort that still manages to be uproariously funny. Though he was about as old as the material he was mining, Lewis proved that no one understood this kind of craziness better than he. Sadly, physical limitations and demographic denial prevented any further films.


The Day the Clown Cried (Unfinished)
For a long time, this rumored fiasco acted as an artistic albatross around Lewis’s neck – and with good reason. As Roberto Benigni proved with his painfully insulting Holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful, some subjects can’t stand up to dimwitted dopiness. Clearly, the killing of six million Jews by Hitler during World War II is one of them. Still, Lewis believed he had stumbled onto something substantive when he discovered Joan O’Brien’s novel about an imprisoned clown employed by the Nazi’s to entertain little children as they were sent off to the gas chambers. True, there is a queasy quality of tastelessness when matched up against Lewis’s love of all things overdone and overbroad, but it’s quite possible that he could have pulled this off. Naturally, those who’ve seen a rough cut have argued for its awfulness, but if a stunted Italian gimmick can get audiences to appreciate his jesting snuff stuff, why couldn’t Lewis? Sadly, it appears this will merely remain fodder for further mythologizing, nothing more. 


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Saturday, Sep 1, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This time out: Texas auteur Larry Buchanan fuels his true crime conspiracy theories with a pair of perplexing efforts.


What if Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t died at the handgun of Jack Ruby? What if the assassin in one of the most defining moments in US history actually stood trial for his crime, before a jury of his peers? Would the evidence persuade you to convict? Or would you find him not guilty or even more so, innocent by reason of insanity? That is the provocative proposition offered by director and conspiracy theory expert Larry Buchanan as he gives the most infamous killer in American memory his day in court in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Gone are the “grassy knoll” and “military industrial complex” rantings of Olive Stone and in its place are stark, cold facts. For 90 minutes, we hear a string of witnesses for the prosecution and defense, circumstantial evidence versus a plea of psychosis. Then we, the audience as jury, are given the charge and hear impassioned closing remarks from both sides. Was Oswald the President’s killer? Or was he an insane schizoid who failed to know right from wrong?



Having deflated one myth, Buchanan moves onto another, the notorious crime spree of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Using newspaper accounts, the still living eyewitness reports, and personal recollections from the family of Texas lawman Frank Hamer, we get the standard slaughter and sin narrative about this deadly duo. Personal details are revealed and sleazy tabloid gossip is fostered. All along, the efforts of Hamer to bring the two to justice are documented in near superhero revelry. It is only at the end, when we witness the death scene and autopsy photos of the craven couple, that we get a sense that these murderous monsters were even close to being human. And Buchanan jacks up the controversy factor further by giving former Barrow boy Floyd Hamilton a polygraph test—onscreen—to debunk some of the folklore surrounding the couple. Gruesome, gripping, and egregious at times, thanks to Buchanan’s digging, displaying, and reenactments, we truly experience The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde.


True Crime titles are probably the most forgotten exploitation genre, along with monster myth bashing (Bigfoot, Loch Ness) and the search for ancient astronauts (the name Sun International Pictures alone will make many a person who grew up in the ‘70s cringe with recognition). Probably no other director within this exclusive arena had more passion for the subject than Texas titan Larry Buchanan. From the assassination of JFK to the death of Marilyn Monroe and rock legends Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Buchanan has carved a niche out for himself presenting fact based dramatizations and documentaries attempting to get to the truth of some of the great urban legends of our times.



Of the two films mentioned here, The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde is probably the most cinematically interesting. Utilizing a style that would later be adopted by almost all fact film creators, Buchanan mixes modern interviews, press clippings, dramatic readings, old photos, recreations, scrapbook items, props, and stock footage to paint a low-budget Ken Burns look at rural American crime in the early 1930s. Mostly a pro-police response to the glorification of violence in Arthur Penn’s seminal Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway drama Bonnie and Clyde, The Other Side focuses on Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, picturing him as a tireless proponent of justice who wouldn’t rest until these abhorrent human abominations faced the wrath of moral society. A good percentage of the time is spent highlighting Hamer’s career and accolades, and it almost overwhelms the real focus of the film. But Bonnie and Clyde are such oddly compelling criminals (he of minimal stature and bisexual tastes, she of near dwarf proportions) that they can’t help but become anti-heroic icons. Buchanan brings a lot of new material to the table (the gay angle, the injury to Bonnie in a fire that left her crippled), but the main reason for this film is the final few minutes. Here we see vintage movie footage of the dead duo in their death car, some rather morbid morgue photos, and, most compelling, a lie detector test interview with an ex-member of the Barrow gang. Under the polygraph’s watchful needle, we learn new (and supposedly) true facts about these criminals and their crimes. The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde delivers on its title’s promise and will linger in your imagination for days.



The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, on the other hand, is a rather dry, non-dramatic courtroom recreation of an imaginary trial of the dead assassin of President Kennedy. So close to the event that it caused a stir upon first release, this movie supports the “single killer” theory forwarded by the Warren Commission and makes a fairly convincing case for Oswald’s lone involvement in the crime. Using actors as witnesses (many of who read their “testimony” off cue cards or lap notes), we get a standard prosecution of the case, complete with all the evidence that we have heard debated and berated for the last forty years: the rifle ordered by Oswald, the FBI marksman who recreated the killer’s rapid fire assault on the President with similar timing and accuracy, the Marxist agenda, and the hatred for Kennedy’s Cuba policy. Missing are any references to a second assassin, the grassy knoll, the Zapruder film (there is a mention of a “movie” to be placed into evidence, but it is quickly dismissed and we move on), or any Oswald/Ruby connection. It’s fairly clear that Oswald would have had a hard time defending himself against the mountain of circumstantial evidence and we really learn nothing new. And oddly, there is very little fire in this film about the greatest tragedy (after the 9/11 attack) to befall this nation. Except for the final moments where we get the closing arguments and a few words from the technical consultant on the film, the rest of the film is interesting, if not very compelling or exciting. Like most real life courtroom dramas, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is a rote retelling of somewhat compelling facts and that is all.


Though biased and skewed and definitely lacking in gore or girlies, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde are still wonderfully sensational stories of crime and punishment. History (or at least one version of history) comes alive thanks to Larry Buchanan’s passion for their truth (or at least his concept of it).


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Saturday, Sep 1, 2007


In a society spinning out of control, vigilantism is the public’s panacea. It provides control – no matter how corrupt – within a schism of moral decay, and offers that most fleeting cure-alls - self-described justice and decency. Those without perspective tend to question the police’s problem with citizens taking the law into their own hands, yet what these action apologists tend to forget is that it’s rules and regulations that keep a community contained. Allow those boundaries to be dismissed, or ever controverted, and the result is chaos, the exact opposite of the crime and punishment paradigm you seek to establish with your vengeance. It’s a burden carried by Kevin Bacon in his latest film, Death Sentence. Based on a novel by Death Wish author Brian Garfield, it explores the notion of going numb over the seemingly endless cycle of criminality endured as part of everyday existence, and how it turns one man into a monster.


Nick Hume (Bacon) leads a rather idyllic life. His eldest boy Brendan is a talented high school hokey star with dreams of attending college in Canada. His youngest, Lucas, is the exact opposite – bright and sensitive, and slightly out of place in the family dynamic. Nick loves his wife Helen (Kelly Preston), adores his kids, and sees himself as a happy, settled man. All of that is shattered one night when a gang initiation brings death to the Humes. Grief stricken, Nick hopes the legal system will provide the punishment he seeks. But when he learns that lawyers are merely mechanisms in a quasi-corrupt system more interested in plea deals than maximum prison time, our devastated Dad decides to take matters into his own hands. What he doesn’t know is that his intended victim is part of the deadly Darley gang. Papa Bones (John Goodman) sells illegal guns, while oldest Billy brews dope in an abandoned asylum. They’re the kind of clan that don’t take kindly to having one of their own pushing up the daises. Because of his actions, Nick now faces a Death Sentence from these ruthless murderers.


Death Sentence is a wonderfully tight little thriller, the kind of statement cinema an up and coming filmmaker needs to establish his overall eagerness to achieve. It’s clear that, after only three films, Saw savant James Wan is becoming a compelling cinematic presence. While the gimmicks of his now seminal first film still stand out, the controlled visual splendor he showed in the horribly underrated Dead Silence shows up here as well. If Saw was a film soaked in slimy greens, and Silence shades of gray, then Sentence is steeped in gritty urban blues. Even the bloodshed – and there is plenty – is toned down, tweaked to maintain an aura of desperation and dread. Wan wants to establish his own aesthetic goals, reasons why his movies matter more than other game genre selections. While there are those who dismiss practically everything he does, this is one novice filmmaker who has made finding his way a compelling cinematic exercise.


As with any story of revenge, everything rests of the reaction of the victim and the reasons for retribution. This means our characters must be clear and the acting on target. Luckily, Death Sentence contains both. Nick Hume, while slightly self-absorbed, does come across as a sympathetic subject. He’s helpful at work – though a little to concerned about balance and “everything lining up” in perfect little rows – and loving to his family. While he does miss the disconnected dimension in youngest boy Lucas, he’s a fine father figure. Kevin Bacon, whose been expanding his range as of recently, deserves a lot of credit for bringing Nick to life, and for being so vulnerable onscreen. While he’s stoic throughout most of the set-up, there are several sequences post-premise where he’s devastating. Ghostly white (again, part of Wan’s weird paradigm) and gaunt, he’s a stick of drained domesticated dynamite just waiting for the proper fuse to set him off.


Enter the Darley Gang. Filled with archetypes instead of actual characters (the doubter, the wisenheimer, the bad ass black dude, etc.) and an inconclusive criminal intent (while the initial act is part of an initiation, everything else they do seems open to conjecture), they’re nothing but manufactured evil. The notion that such blatant, bullish hoods actually exist in a world filled with sting operations, neighborhood watches, and politically mandated task forces is not totally far fetched, but it does cause one to question the competency of the movie’s example of law enforcement. Aisha Tyler is Detective Wallis, a woman who seemingly knows everything the Darleys do, but apparently doesn’t bother to prosecute them. It’s a plot hole that’s never filled. The confrontation between Bacon and the direct DA is also a little forced. While it is a State mandate to settle criminal cases vs. taking them to trial, they’d never be so open about their strategy to a grieving victim.


Since the need for payback is obvious, but the attending consequences unclear, it’s up to the performances and the presentation to get us over the narrative divides. Thankfully, Wan wastes no time in establishing main bad boy Billy as an unfiltered psychopath, a chip off of the old engine block (John Goodman is great as an elephantine ‘boss’) who needs putting in his place. His relentless pursuit of Bacon in one of the film’s signature action scenes - a wonderful return to the days of the foot chase – easily illustrates his demented drive and fury. Later, in a sinister sequence with his father, we understand what made this gangbanger turn to crime. The point where things become mega-personal, where the back and forth kills stop being about retribution and start sounding a little specious (almost as if this was a game where corpses count as wins) may test a viewer’s sense of logic, but Death Sentence isn’t really concerned about being rational. It’s way too wrapped up in parenthood’s precariousness and our own helplessness within the world to consider its creative purity.


Oddly enough, where the movie loses some of its moxie is in the otherwise outstanding finale. Bacon, loaded for bear and – through the magic of the movies – completely capable of conning and killing off a band of seasoned slayers, is far too mechanical in his manslaughter. All the emotion he showed before simply vanishes. Never once do we believe he will balk. Certainly, one of his targets may take him out, but it won’t be because our now inhuman hero will panic. No, Nick Hume turns into The Terminator somewhere around the 70 minute mark, and he never really turns back. The final shot, a smile of self-satisfaction plastered on a mangled and melting mug, is like the robotic response of someone who is dead inside. Perhaps it’s supposed to resonate the same way that Travis Bickel’s bloody finger did in Taxi Driver, but Wan isn’t out to make some metaphysical point. Death Sentence is about brute force and blame. It’s not out to address the morals or mindsets involved.


Still, this is a significant movie, a clear indication that Wan will remain a fixture in film for the time being. Granted, he’s yet to be great, though Saw’s continuing influence and success suggests otherwise, and it would be nice to see him work within a genre that doesn’t demand stunts, splatter, or suspense. But in a realm where made for cable drek stands as the mainstream movie standard, Death Sentence gives good gonzo. It consists of some less than airtight plotting, and tends to understate the obvious, but perhaps that’s better than some regressive Rambo of the suburbs stance. It definitely resides in the realm of flights of fancy and fiction, though it really wants to represent some measure of truth. Unfortunately, the lure of vigilantism is too strong – and too socially acceptable – to avoid…or dismiss.



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