Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Monday, May 21, 2007


Aren’t you sick of the Summer Movie Season already? Granted, it’s only been three weeks, but with its rollercoaster conceit of overly hyped/underwhelming tre-quels and box office browbeating over whose unnecessary retreat will reign supreme, it seems like the next three months will be one massive misfire after another. And it’s already getting very old. While there is some legitimate relief on the way in the guise of Judd Apatow’s amazing Knocked Up (more on that in future sections), anyone hoping for a little artistry among the artifice is barking up the wrong bush. Still, there’s always the digital domain to save us from Hollywood’s annual hog and phony show, and this week’s offerings are consistently excellent (with one shockingly lame farcical flop excluded). So save yourself a trip to the Cineplex and revel in one of the many memorable picks for 22 May, including SE&L‘s solid selection:


Apocalypto


Had stumbling superstar Mel Gibson not ruined his reputation by giving in to his inner racist ideals, he would probably have had another massive mainstream hit on his hands with this incredibly adept period piece. As much about the setting as the stunt work, Gibson turned an ancient Mayan civilization with its rituals and superstitions into a kind of organic science fiction. He drops us directly into the middle of a mesmerizing, slightly surreal locale and then leaves us with very little that is recognizable or real. Instead, we must piece together the reigning realities like fragments of an ancient puzzle. With its direct from digital glow (Gibson avoided film for cost considerations) and sublime art direction, we never once doubt the authenticity or accuracy of the tale (though scholars have frowned on some of the historical errors). Besides, it’s one of the best movies ever to attempt the lo-tech action genre.

Other Titles of Interest


Epic Movie


Someone forgot to tell the makers of these meaningless spoof movies that the comedy only works when the target has become a part of the legitimate pop cultural lexicon, not merely some flash in the pan fad that’s here today and forgotten a fortnight from now. Whatever the case, as long as there are ADD addled audiences willing to support such drivel, Tinsel Town will keep churning them out.

Prince of the City: Special Edition


Some consider this to be Sidney Lumet’s last great film (with the occasionally manipulative The Verdict riding in a close second), and in some ways, they’re right. It was the last time Lumet would let his material do the talking, permitting this story of police corruption and the officer/whistleblower who risked his career – and life - to reveal it, develop organically without contrivance. Thanks to a terrific turn by lead Treat Williams, it remains a forgotten gem.

Sansho the Bailiff: The Criterion Collection


Japanese cinema doesn’t get more beautiful or heartbreaking than this stellar drama from Ugetsu director Kenji Mizoguchi. In a career that spanned nearly 50 years (he began making silent films in 1923), this tale of an exiled governor and the family desperate to reunite with him is considered a creative crowning achievement. Thanks to those experts at Criterion, the proof is there for all to see.

The Third Man: The Criterion Collection


Carol Reed’s signature film is also his most unabashedly brilliant work. Mixing a flawlessly crafted combination of acting, story, setting and subtext, what starts out as a standard thriller becomes an existential exercise in identity and duty. If you don’t already own a copy (shame on you), now’s your chance to get the latest treasure trove treatment from DVDs’ best preservationists. Apparently, modern director Steven Soderbergh is on hand to deliver a definitive commentary.

Venus


It’s sad, when you think about it. Longtime Oscar bridesmaid Peter O’Toole was practically guaranteed an Academy Award for this supposed swansong performance as an aging actor who falls for a troubled gal 50 years his younger. No one could deny the grand thespian’s presence, but when placed alongside work from Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, and eventual winner Forest Whitaker, he just couldn’t compete. Not the brightest way to end a stellar cinematic career.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Straight Time


It seems like an odd combination at first: intense New York actor Dustin Hoffman playing a recently paroled LA ex-con looking to change his life and mend his ways. But thanks to the impressive artistic approach taken by experimental director Ulu Grosbard – call it ‘languid legitimacy’ – what we end up with is one of the two time Oscar winner’s strongest performances. Naturally, Hoffman’s Max Dembo is a tormented man who can’t stay out of crime’s way (thanks in part to a power mad probation officer played by M. Emmet Walsh) and he’s soon on a rampage to repay society for having such unflinching faith in its penal system. Long forgotten by supporters of ‘70s cinema, this new to DVD release should function as a way of rediscovering this legitimate motion picture classic.

 


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Saturday, May 19, 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 week: Florida filmmaker William Grefe finds exploitation elements in the oddest of outdoor places.

The grindhouse was never at a loss for cash. But ideas were frequently in short supply. As it grew in popularity, exploitation entrepreneurs soon realized that almost any subject matter was ripe for the perverted picking. It didn’t matter how strange or antithetical it was to the entire raincoat concept – as long as it could be molded into money, they’d peruse it. But no one took this issue to more arcane extremes than Florida filmmaker William Grefé. In love with all things natural and outdoorsy, he originally got his start as a TV scribe. While working on his first official feature – the routine racecar flick The Checkered Flag - the director got sick, and the producer pegged him to finish it off. Bringing the movie in on budget and on time, the success of the drive-in drama bought Grefé a chance to follow his own muse.


Over the course of the next two decades, he would helm features following the dangers of the drug craze (The Hooked Generation), badass biker gangs (Wild Rebels) and the strange allure between man and animal (Stanley, Mako: Jaws of Death). But perhaps no two films were more endemic of his artistic temperament than his initial Everglades extravaganzas – Sting of Death and Death Curse of Tartu. Each used the sweet swamp boogie of the Sunshine State to focus on standard passion pit predicaments like murder, horror, sex and skin, and while one is far superior to the other, both showed that, in the hands of a capable craftsman, almost anything could be considered carnal…or commercial.


Sting of Death (1965)

Over at the Richardson residence, little Karen has just returned from college. And she’s brought along a group of hearty, partying matriculating compatriots to partake of the seemingly bottomless parental hooch. She finds her father, a rather urbane ichthyologist and his hunky, hopefully hetero assistant Dr. Hoyt working on their latest experiment. Daddy’s got a PhD in quantum jelly-fishery and he, along with Hoyt and a mangled manservant named Egon, are trying to determine why squishy Portuguese jam jockeys are so tasty in Kyoto style sushi. Karen’s friends find the physically deformed Egon amusing, in a kind of sideshow attraction carnival worker sort of way. They celebrate their superior Aryan perfection (and Egon’s dashed ego) by dancing poolside to a song about gelatinous marine blobs.


Little do our sun and fun loving youngsters know that the object of their ridicule has an invertebrate plan all his own. Egon has been following in the fish doctor’s foul and fetid finsteps and he’s discovered a way of giving new meaning to the term man o’war. He fiddles with some knobs, does the standard mad scientist thang, and right before our eyes, he becomes a half-human/half super elastic bubble plastic jellyfish creature. And naturally, the first objective on his agenda is to use his awesome Sting of Death to get a little revenge on Karen’s clan for all their peer pressure rejection.


Sting of Death was Grefé‘s first post stock car raceway experiment, and it definitely shows. With a retrograde retarded revenge premise that’s goofier than going skinny-dipping with sand fleas, and plenty of booty bumping business between the secondarily educated, you’d expect your standard b-movie monkey business. But thanks to some sequences of surreal science and a hilarious topic-specific tune by guest vocalist Neal Sedaka playing in the background, what we end up with is a real weird winner. Indeed, along with “A Heart Dies Every Minute” from Doctor Gore and “You Can’t Fart Around with Love” from Roseland, Neil’s natty “Do the Jellyfish” is one flaky, fantastic groove, a welcome addition to that ever-growing grand exploitation canon of cracked pop songstyling.


While it may not seem possible to forgive him for foisting the Captain and his mad cow matron wife Tenille on us from 1974 forward, or that “Bad Blood” barf with Sir Elton John, Neal’s “hip” factor raises the ludicrous level of several segments with his wacky ode to the floppy surf aspic. Anyone who can rhyme ‘Cinderella’ with ‘jellyfish’ (well, kinda) deserves some concrete kitsch kudos. But again, Sedaka’s backdoor braying is not the only freakishly funny thing here. Our main creature is something straight out of a homeless man’s personal wardrobe, what with its soiled scuba suit skin, hose pipe tentacles, and inflated Hefty bag head. Some crushed aluminum cans for proper accessorizing and we’d have the complete skid row ensemble.


All visual vacancy aside, Sting does manage to make us care about the characters, especially the incredibly put upon antihero Egon. Just because he’s facially scarred, with a lazy eye, and even duller sense of self worth, doesn’t mean it’s perfectly acceptable for the gang of groovy social snobs to disrespect him. And they are so mean spirited that you yourself will have Junior High School wallflower flashbacks. As an audience, we develop so much pent up vigilantism at his unnecessary berating that we can’t wait for Egon to mutate and whip a little college creep butt. And when he meets the great fishmonger in the sky, you just may weep a tiny tear…or maybe not. Sting of Death is Beauty and the Beast mixed with an order of Japanese Kurage Su to create a deliciously disturbed delight.


Death Curse of Tartu (1966)

Tartu is just your average workaday witch doctor. The fact that he is a shape-shifting member of the undead merely accentuates his multi-faceted nature. When a bunch of Everglades invaders disturb his everlasting beauty sleep, our miffed mutating madman turns into all manner of swamp beasties so he can quiet the rebel rousing and have a Sealy Posturepedic afterlife. But this won’t faze bored archeology students on Spring break. They see Tartu’s ancestral burial grounds and proceed to go-go dance all over them. So now, not only is he overtired (he gets cranky without his usual 400 years of rest), but he’s been blasphemed as well.


It isn’t long before kids start croaking at the paws, teeth, and scales of mysteriously manifesting critters. Turns out that, when visiting the Sunshine State for a little post exams debauchery, fast talking con men with video cameras and beads are not the only thing to be avoided during binge drinking fueled fun. One should look out for the animalistic antics associated with a four-century-old coffin bound party pooper, a walking corpse who is more than happy to put the Death Curse of Tartu on your book learned behind.


Death Curse of Tartu is a perfect illustration of the aforementioned anomalous approach to exploitation filmmaking. It has a proactively perverse premise - the reanimated corpse of an ancient Seminole Indian witch doctor wrecks havoc on naïve Florida tourists - and the trademark cheesy effects of a typical grade Z quagmire terror fest. But in this case, all the Roquefort in Romania can’t seem to enliven this stilted Stilton saga. Maybe it’s the fact that, as a boogeyman, Tartu doesn’t actually do a great deal. He opens his eyes, rolls over in (and around) his grave, and turns into an angry crawdad to gumbo his victims to death. After just a couple of these creature reconfigurations, we get the distinct impression that a one narrative note is about to beat its plotline pony over and over again.


Tone may also be Tartu’s unmaking. It’s awfully supercilious when it should be just silly. Instead of camp, we get camp-ing. Instead of schlock, we get stock footage leftover from Mutual of Omaha’s Mild Kingdom. It is kind of hard to get wacky enjoyment out of flesh feasting sharks, slithery snakes, and jaw chomping gators, especially when everything is handled in a matter of fact, no real suspense fashion. And who knew that zombie death murders via shape shifting spooks happen seasonally in America’s retirement capital. That’s definitely something you don’t see in the standard tourist travelogue.


About the only thing that keeps you alert during this turgid Tartu is Grefé‘s apparent fascination with the wiggling derriere. Whenever the bopping rock and roll score comes on, the middle-aged teens who are supposed to represent the future of our great land bump and grind like Shriners at a convention - and big Bill’s camera captures their hyper extending hinders in all of their rump shaking glory. If you imagined the Okefenokee Swamp as a slightly more humid Camp Crystal Lake and a dirty-bandaged ex-pool man/tennis pro as Jason Voorhees, you’d have Death Curse of Tartu, except with a lot less blood and laugh letting.


 


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Friday, May 18, 2007


Bubby is 35 years old. He has lived in a grimy bunker like apartment all his life. His only companions are a feral cat, and his fanatical mother. Dictatorial and overbearing, this supposed parent treats her son horribly, making outrageous demands and ridiculous rules. Of course, with her boy now a man, she also benefits of his “matured” sexuality. Bubby cannot escape his claustrophobic world. Mother has told him that the air outside is contaminated and if the poison doesn’t get him, Jesus will. So Bubby stays inside, waiting for the next round of reprobate behavior. One day, a stranger comes knocking at the door. It turns out to be Bubby’s long lost father. Confused and scared, Bubby’s behavior turns even more twisted, and it’s not long before he has dealt with his family issues, and is off on his own. And the world turns out to be a strange and savage place for our stifled simpleton.


You have never seen a movie quite like Bad Boy Bubby. No David Lynchian surrealscape or David Cronenberg psychosexual splatter job can compare to the stellar, sinister magic director Rolf De Heer creates in this amazing masterpiece. Borrowing from his demented brothers in arms, De Heer uses many recognizable reference points to define a unique style and vision all his own. By fashioning experimental elements into a strong focus on character and narrative, the filmmaker takes us on a literal journey from Hell to Heaven. As much a coming of age as it is a mediation on the pitfalls of maturity, this is a Thomas Pynchon novel typed onto celluloid, a complex narrative where every scene has several meanings, and differing layers diverge and reform to create something wholly original and inspired with each configuration. It may be difficult to watch at first, and does deal with subjects and people that we’d never imagine tolerating, let alone taking an interest in. But somehow, with all the vileness and the vitality on hand, De Heer and his stellar cast manage to concoct a modern classic.


Part of the reason why Bad Boy Bubby works so well is its bravery. Obviously a product of its time – 1993 – and its place – Australia (Hollywood wouldn’t have touched this script with a script doctors glove soaked in antibiotics), De Heer pushes the limits of acceptable cinematic behavior from the very first series of shots. Using nudity as a symbol for both defenselessness and perversion, and playing simultaneously with the notions of neglect and incest, it’s hard to get a handle on what the film is offering. It’s almost like a sideshow, where freaks are paraded out for our amusement and morbid curiosity. Then slowly, as the unreal situations and circumstances become more and more agonizing, De Heer sets up his first stroke of storytelling genius.


We know Bubby is a prisoner in his hovel of a home, brainwashed into believing the world beyond the front door is filled with poisoned air, and that his mother is the only solace, physical or otherwise, he will ever require. Her overbearing browbeating has lead Bubby to become a kind of human Rosetta Stone, recording and reinterpreting everything around him as it passes through his orphaned, underdeveloped mind. So by the time the long lost – but equally bullying – father reappears, we are just as desperate as Bubby. We want to see what lies beyond that massive, ironclad apartment door. And when he does, Bad Boy Bubby becomes yet another experience all together.


Bad Boy Bubby‘s second “movement” is magically aimless, a series of vignettes and experiences as seen through the eyes – and most importantly, heard through the ears – of our lead character. The symphonic analogy is quite fitting here, as De Heer relies on music so frequently, it becomes a character in the film. Gorgeous organ solos, brash, yet equally atmospheric bagpipes, or the standard sonic boom of rock and roll, all chime in like harmonic Greek Choruses to remind us of our protagonist’s naiveté and innocence. Sound literally colors the world around Bubby. He is also filled with a lot of foul ideas, facets that have to be purged and tamed like the ferocity of an undomesticated animal. Music, in the film, does have the proverbial charms to soothe this savage, and little by little, note by note, the melodiousness sinks down inside, and starts the process of reviving Bubby’s soul.


In what has to be one of the most amazing third acts ever created, Bubby’s distress and disposition finally come full circle, able to be used and employed for both beneficial, and baneful purposes. That he becomes a rock star, and a kind of spiritual medium for the physically handicapped, may seem a bit pat (both situations seem fanciful and outside Bubby’s realm of existence), but De Heer makes them work because of the fantastic foundation he’s laid before. Throughout the course of the film, we’ve wondered how Bubby will fend for himself, as well as why fate allowed him to suffer so. The answer comes in his opposing abilities. He can use his incredible rage to vent a kind of industrial, cathartic punk rock. And he can use his naive sweetness and his non-jaded nature to speak with those whose voices are lost to “normal” people. All of this adds up to a profound and deeply moving cinematic experience.


But there is more to it than simple storytelling. The reasons for Bad Boy Bubby‘s majesty are indeed many. First and foremost, the performance by Nicholas Hope is flat out extraordinary. Looking like a more mannered Hugo Weaving (or a more insane Douglas Bradley), and mimicking many of the people he meets in the movie, Bubby is a wholly original creation, an intricate and infected innocent who may be smarter - or a lot dumber - than he appears. There are moments of high comedy in Hope’s interpretation, as well as deep, deep sadness. That we can get behind and support someone like Bubby, who seems simultaneously antisocial and empathetic, is as much a commendation of De Heer’s script as it is praise for Hope’s performance. This is the very definition of a tour de force.


So is De Heer’s direction. From the ideas floating around inside, to the way in which he chooses to illustrate them, Bad Boy Bubby brims with untold imagination. This is not just a narrative centering on mental/physical/ sexual abuse and bad parenting – it is also a discussion of God, a look at celebrity, a critique on aging and a swipe at social standards. This is a dense, dissertation of a film, a multifaceted test that offers something surprising with each and every viewing. This is the kind of movie one gets lost in, mesmerized by what they see and enraptured by what they hear. From its ominous beginnings to its optimistic end, Bad Boy Bubby retains its integrity and its power. This is one of the lost gems of world cinema.


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Thursday, May 17, 2007


It’s time to get out that eye patch, warm up some scurvy, and preen your shoulder parrot as pirates rule the roost this weekend. In preparation for what promises to be one of those ‘record breaking’ stints at the Cineplex come 25 May, Starz is offering the pay cable premiere of a certain House of Mouse franchise flick. It remains one of those flummoxing cinematic flukes – Disney destroys its legacy with an attraction-based Country Bears effort and an equally awful Haunted Mansion mess, but then takes a bunch of cutthroat scallywags and an actor unknown for his box office appeal and manages to create one of the biggest cinematic cash machines EVER. And with the final (?) installment just seven short days away, you’ll be up to your ears in buccaneers for the next several media cycles. So grab your bottle of rum and work on your ‘yo ho hos’ as SE&L sums up the choices the week of 19 May in one simple soundbite – ARRRRR!:


Premiere Pick
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest


This is SE&L‘s selection for most unnecessarily maligned ‘good’ movie of 2006. Why the vast majority of writers constantly picked this film apart when it was actually an excellent throwback to the blockbusters of days gone by remains a mystery. Granted, anytime a stand-alone epic (The Matrix, Spider-Man) suddenly shifts into a multi-installment franchise, the narrative dynamic gets complicated and confused. But the amount of invention and visual innovation offered by director Gore Verbinski should be enough to overcome such plot point shimmying. And when you add in the still sensational performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, only the most cynical of self-stylized critics should complain. Now, just in time for the final film in the ‘trilogy’, Starz premieres this wonderfully engaging entertainment. Perhaps Public Enemy said it best when they warned “don’t believe the hype”. In this case, it’s a sentiment that applies equally to things labeled both bad and good. (19 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
V for Vendetta


Many predicted this pointed political commentary would fail to generate much motion picture interest, especially with Matrix makers The Wachowski Brothers behind the scenes. Surprisingly, it ended up being one of 2005’s best films. While the small screen may lessen some of the story’s sizeable impact, this visually arresting offering speaks volumes about our current social status – and the threats that lie both without, and within. (19 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

Waist Deep


It’s hard to know what to make of this movie. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with a mindless action thriller where a helpless individual (in this case, an ex-con trying to go straight) gets caught up in a crime (a carjacking) that results in a personal score to settle (the kidnapping of his son). Still, many criticized this ‘gansta’ take on the subject, pointing out its farcical, fictional facets. (19 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Mission Impossible III


A certain couch jumping Scientologist took a lot of heat for this proposed blockbuster’s saggy performance at the box office. In reality, it was the franchise, not the famous face, that needed overhauling. Mission Impossible 1 & 2 were both overdone contrivances that substituted uber-complex narratives for suspense.  Lost/Alias’ J.J. Abrams tried to inject new life into the series with a more straightforward approach. It almost worked. (19 May, ShowTOO, 7:55PM EST)

Indie Pick
Marebito


Proving he is the master of Asian creepiness, Ju-On creator Takashi Shimizu took the eight day break he earned before helming the American remake The Grudge to shoot this sly, suspenseful story about a fear obsessed free lance photographer and an unsettling urban legend about a demonic presence in the Tokyo subway system. Avoiding his usual ‘silence is scarier’ mandate, Shimizu has his lead narrate every aspect of the adventure, and there are moments of disturbing gore, another element usually missing in the J-Horror paradigm. In fact, it’s a shame how this filmmaker has been marginalized ever since he helped create the Far East horror fad. Efforts like this and the recent Reincarnation prove that there is more to Shimizu than stringy haired spooks doing the spider crawl down a set of stairs. Don’t be surprised when he ends up a formidable movie macabre force OUTSIDE of the foreign film category. (20 May, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Additional Choices
Lost Highway


David Lynch’s disjointed masterpiece remains as stunningly convoluted as ever - never mind the myriad of words written about its supposed meaning. Like a fever dream folded onto itself and then buried in battery acid, this bifurcated tale of a man charged with murder and his sudden “shift” into a mechanic making time with a mob moll is so outrageous it defies defense – that is, until you realized how mesmerized you are by what’s happening onscreen. (20 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

When We Were Kings


He remains one of sports’ most powerful symbols, and this staggering documentary about his heavyweight fight against George Forman in Zaire, Africa proves that point with crystal clarity. Mohammed Ali’s arrival for the “Rumble in the Jungle” was just the beginning of a whirlwind expression of hype, hero worship, and hope, culminating in the entire nation rallying around the champ. It set up a perfect pugilist backstory, making the bout itself that much more important. (21 May, Sundance, 10:30PM EST)

The Station Agent


The remarkable Peter Dinklage is a little person who takes the loss of his business partner quite badly. Moving into the abandoned train station he inherited from his friend, he longs to live an isolated, hermetical existence. Unfortunately, he runs into a confused couple who have their own issues to deal with. The result is one of 2003’s most genuinely affecting films. (23 May, IFC, 5:15PM EST)

Outsider Option
Duel


He was young, cocky, and out to prove himself. Luckily, the suits over at Universal were more than willing to give the young directorial novice a shot. After all, he had done some great work in their episodic series, so why not let him helm a standard suspense TV movie. Little did they know that they were about to launch the career of one of Hollywood’s true legendary commercial filmmakers. Steven Spielberg’s taut little thriller remains an amazing accomplishment when you consider his age (he was 25 at the time) and his experience. Still, many swear that the techniques he developed here are easily identifiable in his later, more mainstream triumphs. With a great performance by Dennis Weaver and lots of nail-biting road rages, this is one fun first film. (24 May, Retroplex, 11:40PM EST)

Additional Choices
Electra Glide in Blue


After showing up on Canada’s Drive-In Classics channel, its now time for this amazing Robert Blake vehicle from 1973 to get a Rob Zombie-less airing. Playing a motorcycle cop whose desperate to make the Homicide division, we wind up with a taut thriller couched in the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ conceit. Though many know him today as an accused killer, Blake was an amazing actor, and this able actioner more than proves it. (18 May, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Tom and Viv


Willem Dafoe is Tom Elliot. Miranda Richardson is his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. He ends up becoming prized poet TS Elliot. She slowly devolves into madness and delusion. Chronicling the couple’s life together, this intriguing 1994 film avoided a great many of the period piece pitfalls inherent in such a story. The Oscar nominated performances helped as well. (22 May, Indieplex, 7PM EST)

Face


The serial killer film has been floundering of late. Perhaps filmmakers could take away a few lessons from this satisfying Korean horror saga. Directed by Sang-Gon Yoo and focusing on a maniac who murders his victims and burns off their faces with acid, some find the CSI material more intriguing than the supernatural elements. But most agree that, in a genre were the redundant and the dull have ruled the day, this is a novel, noble attempt at something different. (22 May, Starz 5 Cinema, 1:15PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Before the days of DVD, when commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes were restricted to the occasional Criterion laserdisc, the only way to get the making-of scoop on your favorite troubled production or flamboyant film personality was to actually pick up a book and read. Indeed, this sort of non-fiction reportage had the specific goal to lifting the lid on major motion pictures (especially highly publicized fiascos and flops) and the people who made them, providing the insider information that studio publicity people fought so stridently to restrict. Even today, in the tell-all tabloid nature of the media, there are many untold stories, onset situations and backstage dramas that never get divulged. So it’s up to the willing journalist to smoke out the scandal and discover the real reasons why a tripwire talent implodes, or a promising production ends up causing chaos – both critically and commercially.


However, the low down dirt is not always found in a detail-oriented dissertation or an interview-laden overview. Instead, several famous faces have decided to expose themselves, giving incredible insight into the mechanics of moviemaking – the dizzying highs and the Hellish lows. Even the standard biography, crafted by someone on the outside looking in, can offer a wealth of worthwhile context. It’s just a matter of picking through the glorified love letters and pasted together products to find something that supplies both substance and spice. While the following list is far from all inclusive, it does represent the kind of benchmark these books should strive for. Indeed, after paging through any or all of these varied volumes, you’ll be a much more qualified film fanatic. Without them, you’re just a sham cinephile. Let’s begin with:


Shock Value by John Waters (1981)


The man responsible for the bad taste triumphs Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble has actually led a life as interesting – or in some cases, more so – than his famously campy trash classics. From a childhood fascination with car accidents to an ongoing obsession with crime, this collection of clever essays touches on all aspects of his career, including in-depth descriptions of his various low budget epics.

Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach (1986)


After taking home Oscar gold for his grossly overrated The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino had his heart set of making a post-modern Western revolving around a mythic range war between cattlemen and immigrant farmers. Unfortunately, his attention to obsessive detail bankrupted the production and destroyed a studio. One of the most notorious cases in all of cinema, Steven Bach’s brilliant breakdown stands as an amazing must-read.

The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco by Julie Salamon (1991)


If you want a blueprint for how a high concept adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel can go horribly, horribly wrong, look no further than this intriguing take on the Brian DePalma disaster known as Bonfire of the Vanities. Salamon doesn’t hold back, offering scathing criticism of everyone involved, saving special ire for the idiots who took Thomas Wolfe’s tome and robbed it of all its social satire.

Step Right Up!: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America by William Castle (1992)


As the king of hucksters, the bad boy of ballyhoo, William Castle turned borderline b-movie garbage into sensational cinematic schlock thanks to his various inventive promotional gimmicks. Here, in his own words, he explains his profession both behind and in support of the camera, and argues that all movies would benefit from his concrete carnival barker approach. In retrospect, he couldn’t have been more right.

Killer Instinct by Jane Hamsher (1998)


Long before the controversial film hit theaters, Natural Born Killers had a simmering scandal going on behind the scenes. Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino was livid at how director Oliver Stone had eviscerated his original vision, and he was taking it out on producers Don Murphy and Hamsher. In this wonderfully vitriolic bit of backwards glancing, we learn that Hollywood is actually ruled by two things – money, and unchecked hubris.

 


A Youth in Babylon by David F. Friedman (1998)


He is known as the Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Game, and after reading this amazing autobiography, it’s not hard to see why. A confirmed carny at heart, Friedman helped form the 40 Thieves, a band of producers who prowled the unheralded underbelly of the taboo-busting genre, and created the grindhouse ideal that’s recently become a cultural lynchpin. A great man, and an even better storyteller.

The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut by Jack Matthews (2000)


Terry Gilliam’s career has been a contentious and continuous war between artistic merits and artificial mandates – none more notorious than his confrontation with Universal head Sid Sheinberg over the director’s brilliant dsytopic fantasy. From the role played by the LA film critics to the full page ad antagonism used by Gilliam to embarrass the corporate head, this is as perplexingly personal as the film business gets.


Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga by Andrew Yule (2000)


After his less than happy experience with his previous spectacle, Terry Gilliam was hoping that this adventure romp centering on the famed Germanic fairytale legend would be smooth sailing. Instead, it turned into one of the more infamous production nightmares in moviemaking history. Everything that could go wrong did, from unseasonable weather to financing in freefall. Unlike Brazil, however, the battle was all on set.


The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan by Jimmy McDonough (2001)


He’s one of exploitation’s unsung heroes, a director who lived the psychosexual potboilers he wrote and directed. In fact, had he not been aiming at the needs of the metropolitan raincoat crowd, Milligan may be viewed today in a similar light as Kenneth Anger or The Kuchar Brothers. Instead, he is continually categorized by his association with softcore cinema. Thanks to his amazing bio, his reputation can finally be rebuilt.

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell (2002)


Somewhere, in one of the special circles of Hell, there is a place for every studio executive or foolish filmmaker who ever denied the vainglorious appeal of our man Ash. Campbell’s amusing memoirs are so self-deprecating that you wonder if he’s ever really serious. Then you read between the lines and see a savvy performer who’s more than content to pave his own way through the Tinsel Town jungle.


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