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Monday, Aug 27, 2007


It was, literally, a Pandora’s Box. Better yet, make that ‘boxes’. Three cardboard crates sitting on the floor of the title address, thirty years of a mother’s private recollections locked deep inside the numerous wire bound notebooks. For still grieving filmmaker Doug Block, the dilemma was severe. Desperate to remain connected to his deceased parent, he was also troubled by a sickening sense that he was, somehow, disrespecting her memory and her marriage by prying into this vault of familial secrets. Block had always suspected there was a rift between his closest kin, an unspoken secret that, for all intents and purposes, manifested itself three months after the funeral. It was during a trip to Florida that Block’s father Mike picked up the phone and informed his adult children that he was marrying his secretary, a whispered about woman named Kitty, from 30 years before. 


Thus began the wave of rumors and innuendo, siblings who thought they had a handle on their father suddenly faced a lifetime of possible lies and imagined decent…except, reality doesn’t always play out like the movies. And as he proves in his brilliant deconstruction of the unusual unit known as a family, Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street bends the rules in order to tell the truth. As a fledgling filmmaker who shoots weddings to supplement his documentary dreams, this director has seen a lot of couples come and go. He can usually predict the partnerships that will last from those that won’t make it past the reception. But he never imagined that when he turned his camera on mother Minn and father Mike for their 54th wedding anniversary, it would be for the last time as husband and wife, parent and guardian, and happy and contented couple. 


As a movie, 51 Birch Street is the creative counterpoint to Capturing the Friedmans. It’s not out to unlock legal woes or cast doubt on an accused pedophile’s guilt or innocence. Instead, this is a smaller, more focused film, a most intimate of looks at how life can throw you crater-sized curveballs just when you think you’ve got everything in focus. The rapid changes that occur in the six months between an idolized parent’s passing and some record breaking rebound nuptials are seismic in their significance. They seem to tell us, the audience, quite a bit about the Block family undercurrent. Indeed, there is a substantial subtext of unease and angst among these relatives. An older sister is startled that dad would disrespect her mother’s legacy so. The other daughter is delighted – though tentative – about her father’s newfound happiness. Caught in the middle is Doug, detached from the only meaningful male presence in his world and wondering what he’s missed.


Turns out, the Block marriage was a myth, a coming together of two totally divergent personality types that started falling apart almost immediately. Kids kept them connected, as did the prevailing post-War conservatism and restricted suburban sprawl. But one member of the coupling was secretly dying inside. This person hated their new life, and found themselves seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Initially, it came from therapy, but eventually, it required a lover. All the time no one else knew – not the other spouse, not the increasingly cognizant children, not the neighbors, friends, or casual acquaintances. Divorce was discussed, but tradition tripped up any planned separation. It just wasn’t done in those days, and partners frequently feigned happiness for the benefit of their social standing. In the end, it took actual death, and the discovery of some incredibly explicit journals, to shed light on a lifetime of pain and problems.


Who the actual sufferer was remains one of 51 Birch Street’s clandestine delights. Block obviously knew that the audience would draw one conclusion (the situation practically screams the answer), but perspective is not always perceptive, and the second act disclosures regarding adultery and fantasy frustration really throw us, and the narrative. In situations such as these, viewers enjoy playing heroes and villains, and switching sides in midstream stands as quite a trick. It speaks to Block’s ability behind the camera, his attention to detail in both his story and his overall tone. Besides, we are susceptible to the age old standards, and such suspicions are hard to shake, even in this enlightened age. As a result, this documentary does something that’s quite rare, even for the genre. It casts open our own ideas about love and fidelity, and causes us to reflect on the state of our own relationships, and the truth about those around us.


Even deeper, 51 Birch Street, asks us to take the unusual stance of looking at parents as actual people. Because of their part as our initial introduction to the world, we filter almost all our earliest experiences through the lessons and leanings of our Mom and Dad. In addition, society loves to stigmatize certain human facets, taking subjects like sex, drugs, and the suicidal loss of self directly off the table. No right minded adult would pretend to burden their offspring so. But Minn and Mike were different. They were an evolving couple that, one day, decided to simply stick with the status quo. We snicker as Doug’s sisters discuss their ‘hippie’ guardians, partaking of marijuana and contemplating wife swapping, and wonder how they managed to maintain a reasonable relationship while inside a stressful and aggressive set of individual therapies. The answer is obvious – they didn’t. But no one else in the Block family understood that fact. They continued on as if nothing was happening, oblivious to the estranged situation around them.


If there are flaws in this premise, it’s that Block as a narrator, is way too naïve for his 50-plus years. His mother, even in the minimal home video footage we see of her, is a completely measured woman, making sure her son understands that she loves her husband, but only on her terms. Watching Mike respond to his wife’s less than stellar sentiment is like seeing defeat illustrated. Similarly, the distance between father and son is an obvious outgrowth of the boy’s bond with his mother. No dad wants to be the wedge that comes between a loving parent/child connection, and so our forlorn guardian gave up. Now, some five decades into said denial, Block wants to vent, hug, and make up. He wants his dad to share in this emotional epiphany, but at 83, it’s hard to teach this tired old dog any necessitated new age tricks. A sequence with a noted PhD also goes nowhere, since Block’s befuddled questions seem more rhetorical than quizzical.


Yet thanks to the intrinsic intrigue in the slowly shifting storyline, our bond with the Blocks, and the last act denouements which clarify little but clearly bring closure – at least, for some – 51 Birch Street soars. We are touched by this remarkable saga, seeing ourselves and the people we came from in every painful recollection, remembering our own past right along with the filmmaker and his family. It won’t spoil much to say that both Minn and Mike are finally seen for who they really are, and were, by the closing moments of this movie. Similarly, the remaining Block brood size up the situations and resolve to let bygones be just that - gone. As the familiar fish out of water other woman, Kitty seems to sum things up best when she states that, until her golden years, marriage was a pressured rite of passage. She married her abusive first husband because he was blond. Now, she’s with someone who accepts her as she is – flaws and all. Had the first Block marriage began in such a fashion, this film would have never been made. Luckily for us, it didn’t


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Sunday, Aug 26, 2007


Roger Ebert is a legitimate American icon. He’s the undeniably great gold standard for old school film criticism. He’s a name so well known, so intriguingly intertwined with the medium he covers, that it’s almost impossible to consider cinema without him. His recent trials and health issues have galvanized a readership reliant on his weekly movie views, while simultaneously earning begrudging press from people who find his throwback style of journalism antithetical to the whole blog-nation dynamic. As the last acknowledged carrier of the torch transferred from previous bearers such as Pauline Kael and friend Gene Siskel, he remains a figure of prominence in a realm consistently marginalized by the current ‘anyone can do it’ market mentality. Oddly enough, he’s also the man who more or less destroyed his own revered reportage.


For those of us old enough to remember the original Sneak Previews (initially, a local Chicago PBS production done more out of respect for the two native names than any desire to change the legitimate critical landscape), said broadcast breath of fresh air provided by the onscreen pairing of the Sun-Times and Tribune beat poets was powerful. It was weekly must see TV in an era where access to films outside the local mainstream movie theater was practically non-existent. In these pre-VCR days when films were expertly managed in order to maximize their box office sustainability, the joy in hearing Siskel and Ebert dissect this competing aesthetic (art vs. artifice) was like an entertainment epiphany. Granted, it was just two guys, sitting around, talking, but their back and forth, as well as their notoriously knotty disagreements, made for brilliant small screen theater. All that was needed was a last act bit of commercial cake icing, and the deal was sealed.


Enter “the thumbs”, the benefactor – and bane – of the post modern film world. Originally conceived as a shorthanded guide (not a significant summary) for the general reaction to a work, it was a throwaway gesture, a Roman reminder of the days when the leaders of empires proclaimed their approval, or disgust, with a single, symbolic digit. Neither Siskel nor Ebert saw themselves as Nero, fiddling away on the latest Steven Spielberg opus as the rest of the motion picture domain burned. In fact, it was formulated for completely different reasons. Just as stars, popcorn kernels, film reels, and clapboards were employed (usually in a numerical grouping from zero to five), the thumbs gave those with limited time or attention spans a quick overview, relegating the rest of the review for another time, another preemptive place.


Two things changed all that. First was the arrival of recordable magnetic tape. The Beta/VHS phenomenon did something significant to the movie business – it provided an alternative means to get their product to the masses. At first, they really didn’t see it that way. Loud complaints of piracy and copyright infringement became the industry mantra, with an unreal emphasis on charging customers comparative value. Initially, blank video tapes were excessively pricey, with actual copies of first run films running into the hundreds of dollars. Yet the interest spurred in the medium by this tantalizing technological advance helped validate Siskel and Ebert’s ideals. Film could now be studied, torn apart and put back together via almost unlimited viewings. And as luck would have it, the duo already had a way of indicating to consumers what available titles were worth their time (thumbs up) and more or less invalid (thumbs down).


The second significant change to the cinematic landscape was the mounting implication of a big opening weekend at the box office. Stars saw their salaries attached to same, while mega-agencies like CAA built their entire business rep on producing titanic three day totals. Within the span of less than a decade, the blockbuster, in combination with the changing multinational face of the studios, created a new signature of success. Getting those ticket buyers to pony up during that first Friday-through-Sunday was seen as a validation of both creativity and commerciality. In fairness, it was really the prize pig purchased by enormous marketing dollars – and the recognizable thumbs of Siskel and Ebert were always placed prominently during blurb time. Even when their show moved from public television to first run syndication (and changed its name to At the Movies), the brand name take on current releases remained.


Then the duo did a decidedly smart thing. They trademarked the ‘up/down’ digits. This meant something significant. Not only were other shows prevented from pirating their simplistic signaling, but it guaranteed that, as long as the legal right remained, the increasingly popular critics could control their standing. Should a studio misquote or de-contextualize a comment from their review, the advertising albatross of “pulling the thumbs” became a well-heeded threat. For men as perceivably powerful as they, this meant a lot. No matter if it was true or not, Hollywood considered Siskel and Ebert to be very influential and widely listened to voices. In a tiger rock kind of way, the studios sought a clear commercial connection between the critics’ blessing and rentals/returns. Having convinced themselves such an uneasy alliance was necessary, the pair became opinionated superstars. Not only was their weekly show a date night directive, they traveled the talk show circuit like a classic comedy team, playing Abbot and Costello over Antonioni and Coppola.


The next phase in this discussion is a little more ambiguous. It’s clear that, at some point, the duo began to believe their own hype. They moved from mere reviewing to championing specific causes (anti-colorization, pro-new ‘adults only’ rating), and frequently used their televisual forum for lengthy discussions on such sour subjects as violence against women and the lagging support of world cinema. As they became more and more esoteric, and less and less combative (their well known antagonism was now mellowing into a calm, considered clash), the ratings began to suffer. Eventually, a little invention called the Internet would arrive, giving voice to a rising contingency of wise-ass wet blankets. For these long silenced savants, know-it-alls just waiting for an audience to appreciate their retarded rationalization, the enemy was anything mainstream. And though they long supported the obscure, the unusual, and the highly independent, Siskel and Ebert were now the Establishment.


During this slow, substantive switch, Disney had come along and purchased the show from Tribune Entertainment. It was 1986, and initially, the House of Mouse was happy to maintain the status quo. After all, they had a feather in their fleeting Buena Vista syndication cap, and a perceived inroad into the often contentious Hollywood vs. the Critical Community dynamic. Of course, the pair advocated loudly for their independence and ethics, but it seemed strange that a studio system addicted to the ‘yahs’ of various print/public prognosticators would actually underwrite individuals who were determining their product’s viability. As time became money became careers, Uncle Walt’s legacy began to, subtlety reconfigure the show. Gone was the demonstrative “Dog/Skunk of the Week”, in were VHS recommendations and, later, DVD picks. Clips began to take up more and more airtime, with partnership reduced to a couple of minutes of over generalization before rendering their ‘handy’ determinations.


The final blow came when Gene Siskel succumbed to cancer in 1999. He had been physically absent from the show for nearly a year, though he occasionally commented on films from the treatment center in the hospital. When he did die, many believed that the program was finally finished. It had been an amazing 24 year run, and with it, the coming and going of other potential partnerships (Jeffery Lyons and Neil Gabler/Michael Medved, Rex Reed and Bill Harris, etc.) and pretenders to their throne. Apparently, it was a tough decision for Ebert to continue on. He missed his longtime friend and fellow film lover, and recognized that he would never again find the chemistry that he had with his across town newspaper rival. But Disney was determined to keep the “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach intact. It didn’t want to see what was by now an accepted and expected part of the marketing machine to be lost – or even worse, usurped by some other company.


And this is the most important facet of Siskel and Ebert’s - eventually Ebert and Roeper’s - fate. Because of the continual marginalizing of the film critic’s role, thanks in large part to the “anyone can do it” availability of the web, nobody really cared what Roger and Richard had to say anymore. Instead, they wanted to cut to the decisive chase – what did the thumbs say? Two up – film must be good. Two down – a certifiable flop. One up and one down? Depends, who gave what? Oh, Ebert? He’s usually right. Roeper? God, what a shallow shill. Don’t believe what he says. As more and more showcase stunts and ancillary elements were tossed into the series, draining away the last vestiges of the considered film conversation concept, Buena Vista saw its opportunity. They fired several senior staff members, switched studios to save money, and in perhaps the most sickening ploy, used Ebert’s own battle with a terminal illness as the framework for downsizing and de-emphasizing the show’s syndication potential.


The final straw arrived last week, with Disney’s announcement that the newest season of Ebert and Roeper (with Roger still away recuperating, and Richard side saddled with a whole new crop of guest balcony warmers) would be presented sans thumbs. That’s right, after over 30 years of using the digit as a means of marking a film’s value and legitimacy, the show was going symbol-less. The reason was quite simple – remember that old trademark the original hosts secured back a couple of decades before. Contract negotiations for its use were ongoing between the studio and the series, with the House of Mouse lowballing everybody and everyone. They could see the weakening writing on the wall – Roeper, no matter who he’s paired with, was merely a placeholder. Without Ebert (who didn’t appear physically ready to return anytime soon) the premise was without purpose. Along with the continued fracturing of the fanbase, the dismissal of many print critics from the nation’s papers, and a growing wire presence throughout the media, it was obviously an end of some era.


So Ebert played his last trump card. He withheld authorization to use ‘the thumbs’. At least, that’s how Disney sees it, and what they intimated in their press release. The truth is a little more telling. The rights, still held by himself and the estate of Siskel, would no longer be part of the program - not without a new contract. Negotiations are ongoing. If - and it’s a big “if”, considering that most pundits are predicting the eventual cancellation of the series if a contract cannot be negotiated – the show returns, Roeper and his rash of interchangeable guests will be denied the right to provide an opposable ‘pass/fail’ to the movies they mention. It may seem petty, and so ingrained in the spirit of the show that it’s practically perfunctory, but Ebert is standing his ground. Frankly, at this point in his twilighting career, he has every damn right to. His Pulitzer Prize for criticism may be a tad tarnished from all the brash commercialization of his craft, and a legion of illegitimate naysayers trade on his talents every day while dismissing his importance to the profession, but as the creator of this filmic Frankenstein, he’s entitled to euthanize it any way he wants, if that’s what he wants.


It appears its now time to appreciate what we had, eulogize what we’re losing, and wonder where all this leaves the state of serious film analysis. Ebert still writes, and has turned www.atthemovies.com into a destination storehouse for every Siskel and Ebert episode ever created. Ever cognizant of his lingering legacy, he has tried to maintain a public façade while battling a crippling and energy draining disease. With or without television, with or without thumbs, as long as there are words, there will be a Roger Ebert. Few in the wildly overvalued podcast paradigm can claim as much. Sure, he may have started the downward spiral of his occupation into a slammed and sullied source of fanboy rejection, but without him, critics in general would still be seen as stuffed shirts sadly out of touch with a normal movie going crowd. Roger Ebert brought the arthouse to the Cineplex, introducing many to the luxuriant language of film. Though he rarely did it to a review in place, the inventor of ‘the thumbs’ has every right to remove them. In fact, he never really needed them in the first place.


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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece. It is also an aggravating avant-garde amalgamation of incomplete ideas. It’s a brilliant distillation of David Lynch’s career defining dream logic. It’s also a three hour exercise in excess and a brilliant argument for the switchover to digital filmmaking. As with most works by the artist/auteur, this fragmented take on “a woman in trouble” (to quote the film’s tagline) raises many more questions than it ever dares to answer, and squeezes more imagination and invention into three hours than most movie STUDIOS manage in a lifetime. Lynch is a largely lamented figure in post-modern cinema, an individual noted as being purposefully obtuse and painfully non-commercial. In fact, his last few films – Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. , and now this – have been castigated as being indirect, indulgent, and purposefully arcane. In truth, such screeds are probably badges of honor for the 61 year old provocateur.


None of these contradictory conceits make INLAND EMPIRE any less fascinating. It’s a narrative built on feeling, a storyline set inside a wildly evolving world of sound and images. Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who actually takes the language of this artform on its literal face value. For him, no movie can be too loud. In his world, no visual violates the mandate of plot continuity. Began as a series of scene sketches – experiments with his newfound camcorder – Lynch lucked into Laura Dern while in France. Soon, the two were collaborating, traveling around the world, working out sequences and suggestions, sometimes on the fly. Once the material began to speak to its inventor, an idea was born. As he points out as part of a mesmerizing 20 minute interview on the two disc DVD release of this title (new from Rhino), you can never tell when such inspiration strikes – and you can never tell where it’s going to take you. In either case, he was compelled to hop on.


To describe the storyline here would be like trying to explain color, or telling how one hears the yearnings of the human heart. This is by far the most bizarre narrative Lynch has ever come up with, and this is the guy who turned Bill Pullman into Balthazar Getty as part of a psychogenic fugue. We begin with a prostitute facing an abusive John. Within minutes, she is sitting in a dingy room, crying. On TV, a surreal sitcom starring humanoid rabbits unfolds. Suddenly, we’re in Los Angeles, at the home of struggling actress Nikki Grace. Hoping to land a new role, she is visited by a strange Slavic woman who predicts she will get the part. She also hints that there will be “murder” in this new movie. After accepting the lead, Nikki meets her costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). Together, they are informed by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) that the shoot may be cursed. Apparently, a previous production tried to helm this seedy storyline about an adulterous couple. Right before the final scenes were filmed, the performers were killed.


Things go along swimmingly at first. The history is forgotten as Nikki and Devon dive into their work. With his history of womanizing, our leading man is warned about staying away from his costar. Her husband will kill you, and then her, they state. Soon, fate steps in and it appears the pair is involved. During some late night pillow talk, however, Nikki begins to crack up. She starts seeing visions – of the film set, of her husband, of another quite different life. Running away from the pain, she is propelled into a parallel plotline. Now in Poland, Nikki is a nameless hooker hoping to hire someone to off her abusive spouse. As she spills the story to a sleazy hood, we see the entire enterprise unfold. As part of a group of girls (for sale? as strippers? as pay for love whores?), she is jaded by the lack of respect she’s given. Even worse, there’s a man called the Phantom who may or may not be hurting these wanton women. Eventually, our pained prostitute is betrayed, and revenge seems the only way to settle the score – or is it all just part of Nikki’s new movie.


Since narrative is not the most important aspect of INLAND EMPIRE, deciphering what everything means seems pointless. For those requiring a more intellectualized approach, there are two ways to interpret what happens here. Either the callgirl we see at the start of the movie is fantasizing about a life outside her flesh peddling profession (including a career as an actress which morphs into a vigilante-like pimp killer) or Laura Dern’s actress loses herself so completely in her part that the material she is using as internalized motivation (brutalized trollop, unhappy mistress) starts manifesting itself in her waking life. Anyway you look at it, we are standing firmly in standard Lynch land. Long a filmmaker who favored the feminine point of view in his films, we get a terrific tour de force performance from Dern, who’s obviously in sync with what her director is doing. Taking a production credit and appearing in almost every scene, we witness the kind of layered, dense characterization that makes this heralded actress one of the best still working in the business.


In fact, the rest of the cast is almost ancillary. Theroux, who excelled in Mulholland Dr. , is so distant he’s almost indistinct here. He’s playing aloof and lost, and said psychological suggestions come across loud and clear. Jeremy Irons, as Kingsley, is lovely in what can best be described as ‘on a lark’ mode. His interactions with sidekick Harry Dean Stanton are fantastic. Other Lynch notables include Grace Zabriskie as the sinister soothsayer, and Diane Ladd as a dirt dishing tabloid TV reporter (her single scene is marvelous). More intriguing are blink and you’ll miss them moments with William H. Macy, Julia Ormond, and an amazing turn by Mary Steenburgen. As a cast completely capable of infusing their scenes with the many moods Lynch requires, the players involved are absolutely flawless – and that includes the many participants from Poland. Having to translate his dialogue into their native tongue before they could contribute, they are seamlessly incorporated into the Tinsel Town talent pool – sometimes, even stealing scenes from them.


This results in a kind of motion picture mesmerism. Even without completely understanding everything that’s going on, INLAND EMPIRE sucks you in and holds every fiber of your being. Lynch is such a complete filmmaker – focusing on every aspect of production, from design and lightning to editing and scoring – that he provides maximum enjoyment out of a minimum of cinematic standards. We get caught up in the mystery, though we readily recognize that there will be more confusion than clues. When individuals speak in the standard Lynchian riddles, we sit back and soak in every non-sequitor. There are moments of mean spirited menace here, as well as segments of sly social commentary and justifiable gender politics. A sequence where the white slaves dance to Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” is as startling for how it arrives as for how abruptly it ends. Similarly, the big picture storyline suggests that all women are heroes, villains, whores, saints, lovers, adulterers, mothers and mistresses. While that may seem like a critical overreach, an in-depth dissection of INLAND EMPIRE’s many sequences surely backs up this appraisal.


Those hoping for insight via this new DVD will be rightly disappointed. Lynch is notoriously gun shy about clarifying his films, wanted them to be experienced, not explained. There is a wealth of deleted scenes – or as they are referred to here, “More Things That Happened”, and the aforementioned Q&A (entitled “Stories”) revolve around the production and his perspective on art. Heck, about the only solid thing we learn is that Lynch HATES most home video (watching any film on a phone or a computer is “sickening”, in his mind) and that he really enjoys a good batch of Quinoa. Other added features include a nine minute ballerina montage, a collection of trailers, a wealth of publicity and behind the scenes stills, and something referred to as “Lynch 2”. This humorous piece appears to be a backstage glimpse of the man in action, and let’s just say, he’s an ornery cuss at times.


Frankly, he has a right to be. All David Lynch really wants to do is make movies his way. He doesn’t want interference from bottom line loving studio suits, and doesn’t need to conform to the succinct scheduling a Tinsel Town supported effort would require. For him, the digital domain is the futuristic wave he’s been waiting to ride – and it has to be said, this is one amazing non-celluloid effort. Michael Mann may be the perceived reigning prince of this new motherboard medium, but INLAND EMPIRE puts the cinematography in Collateral/Miami Vice to shame. And since he can work at his own speed, spending less money while getting more “movie” in the process, this may mark a kind of renaissance for the mostly marginalized director. Indeed, it’s easy to forget how fascinating his oeuvre remains, even though he seems to take forever in between projects. Part of the problem is clearly financial. No one likes to throw dollars after indefinable art. They want sellable product, that’s all. David Lynch will always weigh the creative higher than the commercial. INLAND EMPIRE is a pristine example of these principles in action.



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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


Physical comedy is officially dead, and Rowan Atkinson killed it. Well, not the actor himself, but with his inexcusable desire to keep destroying the reputation of his resplendent Mr. Bean with all manner of mediocre motion picture incarnations. That sunny British series, with its reverence for silent film funny business, was a class act of timing and treatment, using old school slapstick to illustrate an eccentric’s uneasy way in this button down, conformist cock-up called society. Now, on celluloid, he’s nothing more than crass kid fodder, a G-rated response to the parental cries of media inappropriateness. Once he was a mean spirited plank who saw the entire world as worthy of his slightly askew scorn – yes, even women and little children. But now he’s been transformed into a gangly, goofball Gamera, friend to everyone except the sideswiped member of the audience who didn’t see such a tiresome trainwreck coming.


Helmed by British TV director Steve Bendelack (proving that the UK boob tube can match its American counterpart in producing horrible hack auteurs) and written by actor Hamish McColl (with appropriate credit to Robin Driscoll for all the original series bits being stolen) Holiday offers very little that’s new. Bean – embodied by a rapidly aging Aktinson – repeats shtick from previous so-called ‘adventures’ while proving that new ideas are few and very, very far between. The story has our hapless hero winning a trip to the French Riviera. Along the way, he prevents an important Russian director from boarding a train to Cannes, befriends the man’s smart alecky son, and disrupts the set of American moviemaker Cason Clay’s (a lost Willem Dafoe) latest epic. He eventually makes it to the big time film festival, where more mindless hijinx (and a case of mistaken kidnapping) ensues.


Back in the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, broad farce founded on the fragility of the human body was a cheap and effective means of making audiences laugh. Without the ability to used words and sounds, the visual element was crucial. That’s why writers would spend hours working up elaborate gags, recognizing that the viewer was relying on said set up and pay off for their entertainment value. In the post-Jazz Singer era however, only The Three Stooges managed to carry on the tradition. In their case, they merged recognizable types (the bully, the mensch, the idiot) and accented the byplay with equally emblematic noises (watch one of their shorts with the sound off and see how successful it is). Aktinson and Bean have none of this. At first, he was a novelty for mining this vast untouched vein of humor’s history. We laughed not only at the pratfall, but the audacity to attempt it in a post-modern media.


Blown up on a big screen, our loveable lox loses that framework. Because of the immediacy of cinema, the larger than life facets of a 50 foot tall screen, Bean’s basic stumble bum approach is lifeless. It lacks energy and verve, scuttled by Bendelack’s complete disregard for comedy basics. Examples abound, as when Mr. Bean constantly undermines a film set. The various ‘jokes’ utilized to establish the characters complete lack of regard are telegraphed so far in advance that there’s more suspense in when they’ll start than snickers once they arrive. Even more frustrating, Bean borrows a great deal from its British betters. Snippets of the classic Goon Show wit (especially circa Peter Sellers) are wedged into elements borrowed from Monty Python (silly walks, anyone). Add in some sloppy satire, including the obviously aimed at adults lampoon of pseudo-serious Hollywood dramas (personified by Dafoe’s self indulgent film) and you’ve got a grab bag of gunk.


So little works here in fact that you can actually count the effective sequences on one hand – maybe even a single finger. When our inconsiderate dope derails the young boy’s reunion with his dad, they wind up with a telephone number missing the final two digits. Bean’s solution? Call every possible combination of numbers until they find his father. These quick cut moments, various archetypal individuals answering their phones in all manner of blackout buffoonery, have a nice, nonsensical randomness that actually gets us to giggle. But then Bendelack does nothing with it. A long sequence of our hero hitchhiking goes nowhere, and when Bean arrives in Cannes, he becomes a prop in a more and more preposterous chase. Even bubbly actress Emma de Caunes is wasted as the good natured Sabine. She’s saucy Parisian pulchritude, that’s about it.


Now there will be voices vehemently opposed to such a harsh stance, arguing that this is nothing but good, clean, wholesome fun. The rarity of fare that the whole family can enjoy – or at the very least, tolerate – apparently usurps all other artistic considerations to these supporters. It’s part and parcel of the new marketing mindset, a dynamic where watchability equals worth. But even under such a lax standard, Mr. Bean’s Holiday fails. Jacques Tati, a fairly obvious influence, managed to transform his bump and scrape situations into some manner of high art, using both the material and the method of its presentation in tandem to illustrate the chuckle. Here, Bendelack believes that frequent forays into handheld digital dreariness (our dithering dimwit carries around a camcorder) will emphasize the “you are there” feeling. Unfortunately, it merely muddies an already ambiguous ideal. 


As an avant-garde notion of throwback homage, Mr. Bean’s Holiday is awfully cute. But it’s not funny or fresh. Its mixed message ideal of all ages appropriateness (the vast majority of the movie’s subtitled, oddly enough) lashed to a character that’s no longer a loveable louse renders the entire enterprise pointless. Fans of the original series will shudder at how soulless this all is, while anyone coming from the first film deserves this kind of dead-eyed sequel. Gearing everything to kids may make sense in light of the one off Mr. Bean animated show, but even those offered more imagination and sophistication that what’s offered here. And then there is Aktinson, a truly talented man who deserves much, much better. Anyone who has seen his work in Black Adder, or The Thin Blue Line can attest to that. Mr. Bean appears to be the legacy he can’t live down, an international nudge like Baldy Man or Dame Edna.


Yet none of these criticisms will matter in the end. The previous Bean outing was a huge worldwide hit, and the DVD became another in a long line of digital babysitters disconnected parents could use to safely keep the wee ones at bay. Holiday will be no different. It dives directly underneath the lowest common denominator to look for primordial approval, and even then it fails to generate much gregarious goodwill. While it’s inoffensive (unless you’re French) and even tempered (unless you’re America) it’s also dull, lifeless, and slack. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that has we critics scratching our head in ‘who demanded this’ confusion. Mr. Bean’s UK run ended more than a decade ago, and the first film came and went way back when President Clinton was still in residence at the White House (1997 to be exact). A great deal of silent era slapstick has only grown better with age. The exploits of Mr. Bean have vinegared.



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Friday, Aug 24, 2007


Though it’s still officially several weeks off, SE&L senses that fall is finally on the horizon. Sure, it’s still stifling outside, temperatures matching the amount of money your average Hollywood blockbuster rakes in, so it’s hard to get completely into that autumnal feeling. But the sad fact is that, within the next month, leaves will begin to turn and days will start getting shorter. Movies will also be transforming, shuffling away from popcorn pulp and into more awards baiting brashness. You can see the dichotomy clearer over the 25 August weekend. On Saturday night, you can see 2006’s winner for Best Picture, a highly publicized, Internet fueled horror romp, a sad scarefest, and an amazing indie experience featuring an Oscar worthy performance. In essence, it’s a lot like how September through December will look – a few amazing movies surrounded by varying degrees of cinematic support. If it’s not already part of your collection, do yourself a favor. Switch over to Cinemax on Saturday and see one of the decade’s best efforts. It’s certified SE&L sublime:


Premiere Pick
The Departed


As the illustrious LL Cool J once warned, don’t call it a comeback. Indeed, Martin Scorsese has not been hiding along the fringes of cinema, waiting for another certified gangster blockbuster to resurrect his implied lagging artistic credibility. Since his last film, The Aviator, was nominated for several Oscars, it seems silly to suggest that the certified American auteur is arriving from anywhere but the top. Besides, some of his best films – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ – have nothing to do with mean streets and goodfellas. This does not lesson the impact or import of this brilliant Boston crime drama – no one does operatic brutality better – but Scorsese is much more than movie mob boss. He doesn’t deserve such stereotyping. And besides, he finally got the industry recognition he’s so richly deserved. Comeback? More like a stand down. (25 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Snakes on a Plane


One of last year’s most debated films finally arrives on the small screen with none of its pleasures, or problems, lost. The Fourth Estate foamed over how the supposed push from the Internet failed to fulfill its blockbuster potential, but this doesn’t mean the final product is bad. In fact, this is one of the great guilty pleasures of the last two decades, a dopey action spoof with a lot of humor and a juicy amount of gore.  (25 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Grudge 2


As the fortunes of J-Horror slowly fade back into the fad gadget woodwork, here’s an opportunity to see how wrongheaded the genre can go. Trading on the first film’s archetypal narrative – ghost haunts house and causes curse – and moving headliner Sarah Michelle Gellar to cameo status, we get more of the same strictures that eventually killed the up and coming dread category. Sadly, director Takashi Shimizu has signed on for…you guessed it…The Grudge 3. (25 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Sherrybaby


In what many are calling a career defining turn, Secretary/World Trade Center star Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an ex-con trying to reconnect with her young daughter after an extended stay in prison. With the cloud of drugs and abuse constantly shadowing her efforts, the story becomes more than a mere formulaic melodrama. It actually touches on what makes people susceptible to such self-destructive situations. Thanks to her performance, Gyllenhaal finds the truth inside her character’s torment. (25 August, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
House of 1000 Corpses


It’s clear from the opening moments of this movie that Zombie recognized the rarity of being able to direct a film. Thousands dream of the chance, yet few if any ever really get it. So as his (conceivably) one and only shot at bringing his love of the horror genre to the screen, this full blown macabre obsessive was going to make every second count. That is why House is so overwhelmingly busy, teeming with ideas, and seismic in its tonal shifts. Zombie more of less filtered his fright Id through an undying love of exploitation fare and forged the kind of reference heavy homage that only equally batshit film fans would adore. From the far too clever casting to the occasional clips from classic terror titles, this is the man’s sinister scrapbook come to life. Granted, a lot of it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when our sole survivor ends up in the lair of a poorly defined Dr. Satan, but the ride is filled with exceptional individual moments.(30 August, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices


The Human Stain


We expect much more from the three people behind this middling melodrama. Robert Benton is an Oscar winning director (for Kramer vs. Kramer) and noted screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (several of the best Star Treks) had Phillip Roth’s intense novel to work from. Of course, casting can kill you, and that’s basically what happened here. Both Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins don’t work. Once you know the plot, you completely understand why. (26 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Writer of O


In the ‘60s/‘70s, The Story of O was a scandalous bestseller. It brought the fetish of sadomasochism to the forefront in a way that few factual documents had ever dared. For decades, the identity of the author remained a mystery, cloaked in a veil of ambiguity that suggested some smattering of reality inside all the highly sexualized romance. In the early ‘90s, the truth was finally revealed, and this fascinating documentary followed the fall out.  (27 August, Sundance Channel, 10:30PM EST)

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man


Though he’s never had a major hit on his own, several singers and musical pioneers have plumed his catalog for their career highlights. Now the Canadian troubadour gets a celebratory documentary on his life and times, mixing tributes from the rock and roll elite with performances in recognition of his amazing music. Some will find the juxtaposition a tad tenuous, but it’s the sonic statements that end up painting the more valid picture. (28 August, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
2010


Peter Hyams was just asking for trouble. No one takes on the mantle of Stanley Kubrick and comes out clean – just ask Steven Spielberg. Still, after the success of his High Noon in space (Outland) and the vigilante justice joke The Star Chamber, he made a sequel to the seminal 2001 his next project. Granted, original author Arthur C. Clarke had continued the epic journey of the alien monoliths in a series of books, but the cinematic statement made by the original movie seemed too monumental to overcome. Still, Hyams tried, and with the appearance of Keir Dullea as the ‘embodiment’ of missing astronaut Dave Bowman and the original voice of HAL the computer in tow, things seemed stable. Even the advances in special effects helped to sell the sometimes silly storyline. But it was one auteur’s undeniable genius that hampered this production from the get go. It remains the reason the rest of Clarke’s Odyssey books have avoided a big screen adaptation. (29 August, American Movie Classics, 12PM EST)

Additional Choices
Wild at Heart


David Lynch gives us a post-modern Wizard of Oz and then replaces all the recognizable iconography with sex and violence. The surreal story of Sailor and Lula is often heralded as one of the director’s dopier works, and if you go by the more “pharmaceutical” definition of the word, you’d be right. Laura Dern and Nicholas Cage are dynamite, and the visual flourishes used throughout sell the story’s strange designs very well indeed.  (27 August, Indieplex, 11PM EST)

The Graveyard


Yes, it’s another in a long, LONG line of stupid slasher films. Yes, it features the unfathomable premise of a cemetery sitting smack dab next to a summer camp (taxidermy must be one of the arts and crafts), and it offers the standard slack-jawed teens getting killed for reasons of randiness and retardation. So why is SE&L recommending this slop? Because, every once in a while, your aesthetic needs an enema – and this is it. (30 August, Showtime Beyond, 12AM EST)

Erika’s Hot Summer


With a tagline like “She Forced an Entire Lifetime of Passion Into One Lust Filled Summer!”, how can you resist. Back before porn was a slow dial-up connection away, the tempted took their chances on softcore shams like this. Granted, star Merci Montello makes for some damn fine eye candy, and the notion of inherent naughtiness in such a production provides some decent eros. But if you’re looking for the hard stuff, you’ll be ‘doubly’ disappointed. (31 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

 


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