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

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Sunday, Jul 15, 2007


Back in the ‘80s, when the War on Drugs was defiantly attempting to rid the US of recreational pharmaceuticals by means both laughable (rock star PSAs???) and outrageous (excessive sentencing guidelines for offenders), First Lady Nancy Reagan came up with the lamest of Prohibition era propositions. Administrations before had preached tolerance (Carter) and rehabilitation (Ford), but the new conservative movement believed that brainwashing, followed by incessant rote repetition, was all the nation’s youth needed to stay on the straight and non-narcotic narrow. Of course, the ‘Just Say No” slogan was a monumental failure, about as successful at stopping teen ‘experimentation’ as abstinence policies effect on pre-marital monkeyshines. While it remains a nice sentiment, the psychological and physiological lure of senses numbing solutions – and the resulting addiction – are just too strong.


Don’t think so? Just ask Tinsel Town. Hopelessly dependant on less and less successful cinematic stances like tre-quels, prequels, and comic book/CGI franchises, the constantly jonesing studios are always looking for new and noxious ways of increasing its strung out bottom line. Since box office returns (always up) and critical responses (consistently down) don’t seem to matter, it’s time for a Greed era intervention. Yet this revisit of the ‘Just Say No’ shout out won’t focus on the already dying trends of J-Horror, gorno, or the gross out comedy. It won’t attack the proclivity toward letting Robin Williams make (and therefore, ruin) every project he wants, or the flummoxing decision to abandon two dimensional animation for more computerized monstrosities. No, this version of the no mas mantra is meant to ward the obviously obsessed suits off their new drug of choice – hiring horribly inappropriate musical icons as potential serious actors.


Case in point – Ms. Beyoncé Knowles. Disney has just announced that it wants to go ahead with a big screen version of its Great White Way success (?) Aida. Written by Elton John and Sir Tim Rice (the team behind the ungodly popular Lion King) the recent surge in the movie musicals has spurred the House of Mouse to bring this former classical opera to mainstream audiences everywhere – and yep, they want Ms. Knowles to star in it. Granted, she’s never helmed an entire project by herself – she has always played second fiddle to other above the marquee names – but the individuals who manage Mickey’s monetary kingdom would like to see the chanteuse vamping it up, ancient Egypt style, before the end of 2008.


Now it has to be said that, as a singer/songwriter/symbol, Jay-Z’s main squeeze is mighty fine indeed. Either solo or as part of her girl power ensemble Destiny’s Child, she’s been ‘crazy’, ‘bootylicious’, and a real ‘survivor’.  Her combination of glamorous good looks, expert media manipulation, and high profile profitability has made her a formidable music biz commodity. Among the many nameless and lookalike ladies of new millennial soul, Beyoncé is the best. She is culturally compliant, easily embraced by black, white, rich, poor, and capable of generating interest beyond her tween/adolescent demographic. So naturally, the hacks over in Hollywood figured she could become a bankable actress, following in a long line of African American singers turned stars like Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and…Mariah Carrey???


Granted, those aren’t the mightiest footsteps to fill. Ross does have an Oscar nomination (for Lady Sings the Blues) and Houston has the commercial success (The Bodyguard made big money), but if you match Ms. Knowles against the canon of these formidable divas, she’d only be a single baby step away from Mariah’s unbelievable blunder (the horrendous Glitter). You see, try as she might, Beyoncé is not an actress. She may indeed be some manner of superstar – a debatable reclassification that has more to do with draw and onscreen presence than pure performance chops – but she’s unqualified at carrying a motion picture by herself, or in conjunction with far more accomplished co-stars. In some ways, she’s like a talent vacuum. Individuals who appear alongside her appear to suddenly suffer from the same lack of effectiveness as their multi-platinum participant.


A good starting point for proving this position remains the first project the wannabe thespian ever attempted – a bizarre revamp of the opus Carmen costarring Mekhi Phifer and Mos Def. Relabeled a “Hip Hopera” to draw in the MTV crowd (it was a production of the one time music video channel), this melodramatic mish mosh of rap and rewritten baroque motifs offers a lightweight and lumbering Ms. Knowles. She’s a vixen as void, a seductress as all snarl and very little substance. Since she’s a product of the post-modern music industry, a business model that values looks and appearance over talent and artistry, she can be excused for all her preening and posing. In fact, when she does that in a five minute TRL clip or interview spot, the demographic goes doughy. But in a movie, where there is more to creating a character than shaking your hips and striking a defiant stance, Beyoncé is inert.


Someone, however, thought differently, since it wasn’t long before our half-baked honey was ruining the reputation of blaxpolitation actresses everywhere with her ludicrously awful turn as Foxxy Cleopatra in the Austin Powers tre-quel, Goldmember. Now, the notion that, somehow, Ms. Knowles could match legitimate ghetto goddesses like Tamara Dobson, Teresa Graves, and the biggest, baddest mother of them all, Pam Grier, is laughable. But there she was, horrible afro covering up a lack of gumption and gravitas, trying desperately to be cool and kick ass. Unfortunately, there’s an inherent elegance and overall banal quality that keeps her from being ballsy and bodacious. Instead, Beyoncé frequently comes across as a society matron trying to ‘get down’ with the essential elements of her heritage – and it’s highly embarrassing.


It looked like her equally ineffectual turn in the universally hated Fighting Temptations (she played Lily, a blank as a fart love interest for a slumming Cuba Gooding, Jr.) would finally put a hold on any future acting options for the pop star. Most critics noted that, when she sings, there seems to be some validity to her celluloid status. But ask her to recite dialogue, or express an emotion beyond fashion plate facility and she literally disappears into the entertainment ephemera. Still, for nearly three years, no one considered Ms. Knowles for a leading part. Then, as part of the miserable and misguided Pink Panther remake, she was again forced into the role of romantic lead. Perhaps because she was situated against a decidedly asexual Steve Martin, her lack of onscreen sizzle didn’t matter.


Whatever the case, her performance (or lack thereof) paved the way for what should have been her true breakout success. After all, a woman walking in Diana Ross’ self-righteous shoes would be perfectly typecast as Deena Jones, haughty pop princess of the dynamite ‘70s showstopper Dreamgirls. While many theater fans knew that Effie was the flashier part, the character of Deena has the more substantive narrative impact. The first sign that things weren’t going to play out properly came when rumors started swirling that Beyoncé wanted a powerhouse solo piece on par with the memorable “And I am Telling You (I’m Not Going)”. Even though she was no Jennifer Holiday (who owns the song as part of her Tony winning turn), ex-American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson was supposedly so good, it was making the quintessential Queen of Pop jealous.


The next rift came when the movie was released. Buzz built quickly and convincingly, but somewhere along the line, Ms. Knowles was left out of the hype. Ms. Hudson and their male co-starts were pushed for awards (eventually Jennifer and Eddie Murphy would reap trophies) but the leading lady was – surprise, surprise - left out of the critical discussion. Even when Oscar time arrived, and the Best Song category revealed three Dreamgirls tracks in the running, Beyoncé’s lack of convincing passion proved fatal to the material’s overall chances (the film was shut out by Melissa Etheridge’s A Inconvenient Truth track). Not since Madonna mangled Stephen Sondheim did a singer subvert a talent’s chances of victory. At least Mr. Norbit had a reason for losing out on Academy gold.


Now Disney is betting that, somewhere amongst all the journalistic musings and critical pans, that outside of her rock solid turns on the concert stage, Ms. Knowles has what it takes to play the Ethiopian Princess who finds herself a slave in ancient Egypt. The John/Rice show shifts some of the story to the modern era, and many of the classic convolutions that come with opera have been smoothed out for story stifled contemporary audiences. Yet the role of Aida is the lead, something Beyoncé has never had to take on before, and she will be required to port the entire production on those nicely rounded shoulders of hers. It’s not impossible, and this could be the project that finally helps her find the movie muse, but history indicates a definite disaster in the making.


And here’s the worst part of all of this – Beyoncé was never meant to be an actress. She’s been forced into it by a media machine that wants as much cross promotion and multifaceted marketing opportunities as possible. Making matters worse, she is taking away roles from far more talented (and much less noteworthy, unfortunately) women of color. In an arena where roles for minorities are metered out like rations on a lifeboat, to have one uniquely talentless performer monopolizing the discussion is harmful to any real advances. Those who scoff at such suggestions are merely fans, incapable of seeing beyond Beyoncé’s music video iconography. Place her against Angela Bassett or Jada Pinkett Smith and there’s really no comparison. Still, the weak minded over at Uncle Walt’s world are gambling that more audience members buy Ms. Knowles publicity than her paltry silver screen talents.


This is why Disney should just say NO! Since Aida has no real name value beyond the cultured and considered (the musical closed in 2004 after a 1,852 performance run) it will be interesting to see how they sell it. Obviously, the former child of destiny will be a big part of the push, and when the rest of the casting is announced, another bombardment of big names will hit the headlines. But if the House of Mouse learned anything from its pro-PC production of Cinderella (featuring Ms. Knowles Jr. in the form of all but forgotten R&B brat Brandy), it should be that musicians can mess up even the most well intentioned productions. While they may be able to sell a song, they can’t be guaranteed to provide a performance. This ongoing addiction is not doing anyone any good. 


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Saturday, Jul 14, 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: The powerful partnership of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman dissolves, resulting in two groundbreaking grindhouse classics.


The Defilers/ Scum of the Earth



“All you kids…MAKE ME SICK!”


Carl and Jameison are two bored brats who can’t seem to settle into their growing adult responsibilities. While the later would like to get on with his life, the former is fierce in his aggressive anti-social stance. So when the standard kicks – alcohol, cheap dates, hot rodding - just can’t provide the necessary post-adolescent relief, the boys concoct a sure-fire plan of amoral action. They decide to use an abandoned warehouse as their own private sex club. Then, they will kidnap less than willing wenches to be their own personal porn sluts. They will rape and beat them, whip and degrade them, all in the name of aimless, alienated thrills. When they happen upon the demure Jane Collins, a beautiful blond who is eros incarnate, the debauched dudes spin into overdrive. But as the games become more and more violent, Jameison has second thoughts. He doesn’t want to be one of The Defilers anymore, but Carl will stop at nothing – including death – to get his repugnant rocks off.


Meanwhile, little Kim Sherwood is desperate to get into modeling. She hears there are lots of opportunities over at Mr. Harmon’s studio, but when she arrives, she is stunned to find a ‘dirty pictures’ operation. Yep, our photographer is a closet smut peddler, working for the nefarious Mr. Lang, a local mobster. He needs the sexy snapshots to keep his juvenile delinquent picture pushers in available product. At first, Kim acquiesces, believing that she will be protected from any sin or exploitation. Besides, Harmon appears nice enough. But as she gets in deeper, our heroine soon learns that no one is looking out for her best interests, and when she wants to quit, Mr. Lang harangues her into further ruination. Besides, if she doesn’t give in, the hood’s goon squad will step in and show her whose boss. It’s a foul fate worse than death for this inexperienced babe in the woods. When she started, she was just a dumb kid. Now, she’s part of the Scum of the Earth.


If exploitation had a pair of founding fathers, individuals almost exclusively responsible for the fate of the entire film genre, it would be David F. Friedman and his partner in perversion, the amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis. Together, they traipsed through all manner of original grindhouse fodder. They worked within the nudist colony romp and offered up their own take on its offshoot, the nudie cutie. They more or less invented the gonzo gore film with their bold Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red), and formed the foundation for the combination of the carnal and the craven known as the ‘roughie’. Their affiliation ended over an issue fairly typical in the skin and sin business (read; $$$) and by the time the rest of the cinematic artform were catching up with their efforts, the two were off making movies separately.


Friedman had the most immediate success, his 1965’s The Defilers acting as the kind of wanton wake-up call the industry definitely needed. Lewis would go on to explore the outer reaches of the splatter film, eventually turning his back on all things celluloid for a stint as a successful marketing consultant. Still, his 1963 Scum of the Earth stands as a benchmark for the merging of the sexual and the sick. Without this look at sleazy stag photography, other filmmakers (like Friedman find Lee Frost) wouldn’t have envisioned a meshing of the arousing with the atrocious.



The Defilers remains the definitive statement on such subgenres, with the wicked works of mid-‘60s Doris Wishman a very close second. Like a prototypical profiler for future serial killers, this incredibly twisted take on the bored adolescent ideal takes seediness to a whole new level. As our lead lothario, the unbelievably abusive Bryon Mabe actually makes you uncomfortable, what with his mealy-mouthed manhandling and tendency toward misogynistic rants. This is one incredibly cracked dirtbag, a human hormone strung out on his own sense of inconsequential power. Obviously, Friedman felt that the soft and sensual side of sex had been amply explored inside the exploitation arena, and thought that men now wanted to see a more domination-oriented angle.


Always fond of whippings and hostility, he personally wrote the repugnant script, amplifying everything taboo and tawdry for the growing depraved demographic. There are scenes in this otherwise average drama that are awfully distressing, especially for today’s placated PC audiences. Scandinavian sex bomb Mia Jannson is a far too convincing victim – so demoralized and traumatized that you half believe she’s really being beaten. It’s no wonder then that the rumor mill has her leaving a possible film career shortly after appearing here. Far nastier than it is naughty, The Defilers defines the limits producers would go to reach the raincoat crowd. It also signaled the beginning of the end for the entire drive-in dynamic of filmmaking. 



Every finale has to have a starting point, and in retrospect, Scum of the Earth is as good as any. Lewis, never one to ride trends, was already growing tired of the gore fest when he was approached for this project. In his typical hired gun happenstance, the director promised a picture based on a distributor’s demand, and along with pal Friedman, fleshed out a tale centering on the controversial concept of naked photography. With the Supreme Court still a decade away from declaring that nudity was not in and of itself obscene, anyone taking on such a tabloid style exposé of said subject was asking for trouble. That’s why the various photo shoots of topless talent are so incredibly tame by today’s standards. But insinuation could be as crude as necessary, and Scum of the Earth gives great allusion.


There are hints of horror behind the backdrop, suggestions of prostitution, promiscuousness and pain. Even the characters get into the act, with the most famous example being actor Laurence Aberwood’s famous “dirty, dirty!” speech. Forming the basis for Something Weird Video’s standard product title montage, our deranged doughy guy with a mouth full of metal crowns spits out a venomous tirade at a helpless young lass, his assertion that reality is “a fire sale, and (she’s) damaged goods” becoming a readily quotable classic. But within the context of the film, it fits perfectly. Lewis and Friedman were suggesting that anyone who’d disrobe for dollars was obviously suffering from some misguided perception of propriety.


It was a radical stance for exploitation, one destined to destroy the cinematic category from the inside out. For the longest time, flesh filmmakers fought to give their movies a modicum of legitimacy, in hopes it would keep the censors and self-ascribed moralists at bay. But as the variations on vice grew more and more hackneyed, new naughtiness had to be explored. Soon, pseudo-sex movies were merging with every genre conceivable, yet audiences were less than impressed. But when violence was added to the mix, receipts went through the roof. What that says about the average exploitation fan is something for scholars and psychiatrists to debate. But the bottom line doesn’t lie, and all throughout the rest of the ‘60s, the ‘roughie’ became the new pulchritude paradigm. Eventually, the whole concept would mutate into the ‘ghoulie’, and then the ‘grossie’, but by then hardcore was already knocking at the door. While it’s true that Friedman and Lewis didn’t start the whole vice and violence movement, they definitely helped cemented its significance. The Defilers and Scum of the Earth are proof of their endearing importance.


In today’s world of ‘anything for a dollar’ dirtiness, it seems like girls AND guys will willingly degrade themselves for a buck. It doesn’t matter if there’s a fanbase for it – post-modern smut peddlers simply assume that there is. But back in exploitation’s heyday, producers actually catered to the nauseating needs of their very vocal clientele. One need look no further than the roughie, and its premiere examples of The Defilers/Scum of the Earth to support such sentiments.


 


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Friday, Jul 13, 2007


Call it geek chic or designer dorkiness, but nerds have become quite the pop culture cause celeb. Perhaps it has something to do with our growing tech savvy demographic, or the PC pronouncements against being cliquish, bullying or superior. Indeed, in a world where everyone is considered equal, smarts offset by social awkwardness is one of the few ways to significantly stand out. Thanks in large part to the cult phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite and its quintessential quote heavy narrative, the uber dweeb has spread his and/or her entertainment possibilities worldwide. Even far off and secluded New Zealand has come up with their own cinematic celebration of the communal outsider. Unfortunately, while quite engaging, the enigmatically named Eagle vs. Shark forgets a couple of the key rules for navigating the weirdo waters.


Our story centers around two misguided losers. Lily works at a greasy spoon burger joint, her attempts to fit in constantly thwarted by the blond hair and buxom set. But everyday, around noon, she stops pouting and perks up. You see, Jarrod from down the local media palace enjoys taking his lunch at Lily’s place of employment, and she’s desperate to catch his eye. Naturally, he’s oblivious. However, an invitation to his animal costume party provides our heroine her in. Over the course of the affair, the two fall for each other as only the insular and sheltered can – over a Mortal Combat like video game – and before we know it, they are off on an adventure to Jarrod’s hometown. Seems Mr. Misfit has been training to get revenge on the bully who picked on him all throughout high school. Thanks to Lily – and her brother’s available car – the couple can kill two confrontations with one trip. The first being Jarrod’s tormentor. The second is his dramatically dysfunctional family.


All of this might sound like fodder for some sort of hilarious comedy of mis-manners, but the truth is far more telling. Eagle vs. Shark is more interested in whimsy than wit, and when it comes to milking its characters for a little goofball charm, we are stuck with mostly peculiarities vs. personalities. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Movies that comprehend the difference between bringing dimension and merely mocking its principles usually end up winning the quirkiness war. But in the case of Eagle vs. Shark, the people behind the production just don’t know when to quit. Unlike our leads, who seem purposefully oblique and ambiguous, the rest of the surrounding support is overwritten to the point of near distraction. It’s as if the script (touted as workshopped at the exclusive Sundance Director’s and Screenwriter’s Labs) was purposefully fused over to add more than the average daily requirement of eccentricities.


Oddly enough, it’s not a novice mistake. Writer/director Taika Cohen was nominated in 2005 for a Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar (for his love in a pub Two Cars, One Night) and even though Eagle vs. Shark is his first feature, he’s someone assured of his style and overall approach. He’s also a filmmaker that wears his influences obviously and proudly. Michel Gondry gets a visual shout out via some slyly compelling stop motion sequences, and Jared Hess’s flat plane symmetry is present in abundance. You can even see snatches of the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson among the frequent flights of originality. Granted, all of this works in Cohen’s favor, fostering an optical richness and filmic texture that is hard to deny. Doubt its occupants, but we can sense – and sometimes smell - the environment these outcasts exist in.


This doesn’t mean however that Cohen gets everything right. There are a couple of minor missteps in Eagle vs. Shark, elements both internal and external that prevent us from completely enjoying the joke. On the inside is actor Jermaine Clement. One of two leads in the highly publicized HBO Summer series Flight of the Conchords, this part-Maori performer is very irritating as Jarrod. It’s not just his behavior - a good way to describe him would be as a glorified gasbag – it’s his entire tact. Jarrod has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He is jealous, petty, spiteful, arrogant, deluded, dull, and incapable of any real human emotion. And the sad thing is, Cohen never once tries to redeem him. As a matter of fact, this is another instance where you can feel the filmmaker pushing the material further and further into the extreme. When Jarrod finally faces his bully, the joke may be rather obvious, but the follow-up is borderline cruel.


Which leads to the other outer element. If Napoleon Dynamite is indeed part of Cohen’s blueprint for this project, he forgot to take into account one of Jared Hess’ greatest gifts – comedic context. All the characters in the 2004 title are not desperate or disposable. No, part of the joy in said film was the fact that Napoleon and his family/friends were blissfully unaware of their loser status. They never once acted like the dregs of humanity’s pecking order. In fact, they stood proud and defiant in the face of constant rejection and ridicule. In Eagle vs. Shark, everyone is sour and dour, ready to wallow in enormous vats of self-pity for the sake of their own selfish designs. Kip and Napoleon fight because they believe each is better than the other. Jarrod lives like a lox in his dead brother’s shadow, convinced he can never be as good as him. Naturally, his equally depressed family only aids and abets his misery.


By this point you must be wondering, is there any reason to visit this frequently funny pity party. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes – and her name is Loren Horsley. With a face always screwed up like she’s afraid to breath, and an accent so thick its like listening to the countryside speak, her Lily is a light in what is sometimes a very dark and disturbed arena. True, she herself is a mess of issues, but she’s also hopelessly optimistic, and when cheerfulness won’t do, she perseveres with the best of them. Her role is key to whatever success Eagle vs. Shark generates, mostly because we find ourselves identifying with and rooting for her happiness. Even when we see that the ultimate end may be as part of Jarrod’s jaundiced existence, we still have hope that Lily is the one that can turn him around. While it’s rare for a single performer or performance to save an entire movie, Ms. Horsley does so – with a little help from a few of the stalwart supporting cast.


And again, she’s enough to get us over some of the film’s more problematic gaffs. In fact, in the battle between the Eagle (Jarrod’s favorite animal) and Shark (Lily’s power creature), the Discovery Channel’s favorite man eater wins every time. This is really a chick flick redesign of the Napoleon Dynamite formula, a movie that many will find far more satisfying and deep than the mannered adventures of Pedro’s mop topped campaign manager. But sometimes, the wrong tone can completely undermine a well meaning movie, and in conjunction with an aggravating male lead, Taika Cohen may have found a real recipe for rejection. But thanks to a delicate little flower who believes herself to be a ‘dangerous person’, there is more to love than loathe about this New Zealand zaniness. And feebs of the world will have a new geek goddess to worship.


 


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Thursday, Jul 12, 2007


Man it’s hot. To paraphrase Ms. Lulu Fortune, it’s more blistering than Georgia asphalt. The whole country has been gripped by that most uncomfortable of seasonal slights – the heat wave – and while the North can expect a respite come September, those of us in the more temperate part of the nation will be sweating like overweight businessmen well into November. Add on the yet to begin hurricane season and it feels like Summer is just getting…warmed up (Sorry). Anyway, here’s a good way to beat the sun’s incessant rays – take in a film. If you don’t’ have adequate air conditioning (or the means to afford it), the Cineplex is usually ice cold and loaded down with some nifty blockbuster quaffs. If, on the other hand, your central system can manage the triple digit temperatures – well, it might be good to get out after all. The premium movie channels are back in the doldrums this week, tossing out a few off-title treats that more or less died at the box office. But if you’re stuck inside this 14 July, you may be able to find some relief – environmentally and entertainment wise – from these rather slim pickings:


Premiere Pick
My Super Ex-Girlfriend


Uma Thurman should be a superstar. Not that she isn’t already, but it seems odd that the woman behind pivotal roles in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill would still be slugging away in under-developed dreck like this. At the core of this film is a very interesting idea – how would a superhero live amongst real people (in this case, already jaded New Yorkers) and deal with her depressing love life. Unfortunately, director Ivan Reitman, a one time comic genius, decided to bring the horribly miscast Luke Wilson along for the answer. The results are some of the least funny moments in a recent Tinsel Town laughfest. While she retains most of her dignity, Thurman is also lost, relying on quirks and tics to take the place of actually character development. And the storyline is so sloppy – we are introduced to a villain (played by a lax Eddie Izzard) and yet the good vs. evil dynamic fades into more romantic ridiculousness. As spectacle, it’s stunted. As entertainment, it’s even worse. (14 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Beerfest


Who, exactly, are Broken Lizard, and more importantly, why do they keep getting chances to make movies? Artist like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch have to struggle to finance their films, and yet this so-called comedy troupe has had three flaccid projects greenlit – Super Troopers, Club Dread and this inconsistent alcohol comedy. The plot has a pair of brothers competing in a German Fight Club style drinking competition. Sounds like a subpar Simpsons episode gone even more sophomoric. (14 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

All The King’s Men


For a long time, it was poised as guaranteed Oscar bait. Even with its remake status, no one could imagine Arthur Penn Warren’s political drama being bad. But somehow, Steve Zaillian found a way to reduce the narrative into a series of grandstanding stunts. Sean Penn is pretty good as Willy Stark, but the rest of his co-stars seem blindsided by the Louisiana heat. They’re so under-baked it’s like watching dough deliver dialogue. The best advice is to enter at your own risk. (14 July, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


In the Mix


Here’s a horrible idea done just as ineffectually. R&B star Usher is a DJ (big stretch) who inadvertently helps a young woman one night. Turns out she’s a mobster’s daughter, and he’s repaid for the favor by becoming her bodyguard. Huh? Anyway, this lame rom com is further proof of director Ron Underwood’s (City Slickers) fall from grace. Guess helming The Adventures of Pluto Nash will do that to you. (14 July, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Gerry


As the first installment of what would later be dubbed ‘The Death Trilogy’ (along with the Columbine inspired Elephant and the Kurt Cobain fantasy biopic Last Days), Hollywood heavyweight Gus Van Zant tried to reconnect to his indie roots with this luminous two person drama. Casey Affleck and Matt Damon are pals out on a desert hike, wandering aimlessly like a couple of post-modern Godot watchers. Unfortunately, neither one brought any food or water, and as the elements start to take their toll, the duo must improvise ways of dealing with the harsh habitat that is swallowing them whole. Before long, fatigue sets in, and the pair is faced with very hard, very human choices. Such a shocking change of pace from his trite Tinsel Town efforts (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, the Psycho remake), this is the Van Zant that critics first fell in love with – beautiful, demanding, abstract and incredibly powerful. (18 July, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Who Gets to Call It Art?


Ever wonder how modern art, with its convention breaking canvases and radical aesthetic ideas, got its start? Oddly enough, almost all major inroads lead to Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler. During the ‘60s, New York’s fledgling bohemian scene was expanding in dozens of different directions – and Geldzahler was there to chronicle it all. Perhaps no other person did more to legitimize the many differing styles and conceits. He remains a crucial link in non-traditional technique’s eventual acceptance. (16 July, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

CSA: The Confederate States of America


Here’s a great bit of speculative satire – what if the South, not the North, had won the Civil War? What would America look like today with an antebellum administration in place? Filmmaker Kevin Willmott concocted this brash mock documentary, a Ken Burns like ‘what if” that examines the aftereffects of a Dixie victory. Of course, there is still slavery. And the horrifyingly racist products presented actually derive from our own real history. (16 July, IFC, 11PM EST)

Darwin’s Nightmare


Brought to Africa in the ‘40s and ‘50s to help wipe out hunger, the Nile Perch has created quite the opposite – a major natural disaster. It destroyed all other native species, and yet European markets have only increased demand. The local residents are left with nothing – no financial windfall, no fish, no natural resources to rely on. This brutal documentary, laying the blame at the feet of many, pulls no punches as it examines the horrendous exploitation of the region. (17July, Sundance Channel, 9:35PM EST)

Outsider Option
200 Motels


Frank Zappa was never what one would call a conventional musician, so its only right that his motion picture output would be equally unusual. Take this bizarre quasi-performance piece. While on tour with the Mothers of Invention in the early ‘70s, the madman virtuoso decided to chronicle life on the road. Of course, he decided to channel it via his own unique perspective and filter it through the last dying vestiges of the imploding counterculture.  The end result is a surreal stream of consciousness loaded with sex, drugs, and Zappa’s own brand of usual rock and roll. The narrative – the band’s search to get paid and laid – is secondary to all the hallucinatory visuals, wild casting choices (Keith Moon? Ringo Starr? Theodore Bickel?), and overall feeling of excessive experimentation. Not usually listed among the essential music-based movies of all time, the decades have helped temper many of the late luminary’s movie’s more outrageous aspects. Some, believe it or not, are now quite quaint. (15 July, Drive In Classics Canada, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula/ Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter


Whoever concocted the idea of a Western melded with a crappy creature feature deserves a motion picture medal – or a good beating. Actually, William “One Shot” Beaudine was behind this ditzy double feature, the last in a very long line of fringe films. Neither is very good, either as horse opera or horror, but the truth is that the inherent wackiness of the premises helps pull the audience along – if only barely. (13 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Friday the 13th Part III


Among all the Jason Voorhees inspired sequels, this third journey into the murderous Camp Crystal Lake featured a novelty outside the standard slice and dice narrative – 3D! That’s right, the original theatrical release relied on that old ‘50s cinematic stunt to lure audiences. It made for some obvious camera tricks (items zooming directly toward the lens) and a few nasty innovations (can you say flying eyeball?). (14 July, American Movie Classics, 12:15AM EST)

Broadway Danny Rose


It’s perhaps the last pure comedy American auteur Woody Allen ever created, a fully realized vision of awkward acts, tacky talent agents, and the mafia connections floating between the two. While Mr. Annie Hall is excellent as the nebbish artist’s representative, it’s former flame Mia Farrow who really shines as a gum-smacking moll with a soft spot for lifelong losers. (18 July, Indieplex, 7:30PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007

India is a massive, crowded country of hustle and grind.  With so many people, competitive drive isn’t just inevitable, it’s admirable.  Indian audiences look up to stars who they believe exemplify the rugged warrior virtues that spell success: lithe, statuesque Amitabh Bachan, brawny Sanjay Dutt, or Salman Khan.  It’s rare that someone comes along who represents the average Indian, and is loved for it.  India doesn’t usually have the wistful admiration for the reticent, yearning everyman. But if the country had their own versions of Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, they’d probably be very close to Dilip Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah, and Shahrukh Khan.


For connoisseurs of Indian cinema, in terms of acting, there’s B.D.K. and A.D.K. - before Dilip Kumar, and after Dilip Kumar.  In 1949, he gave an intense, anguished breakthrough performance as the unrelenting love interest of Nargis in Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz.  Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was one of the leading stars, and the only one who was respected for his genuine acting talent. In character and career path, Kumar resembles Laurence Olivier, an urbane tragedian with an occasional penchant for light comedy, as well as Humphrey Bogart—someone wounded by life, cynical, but still rising to the occasion.  His greatest performance, as the defiant prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam (1960), brought together his fascination with history, his theatrical desire to inhabit a great historical character, and his nuanced, vitalizing performance. It is one of the greatest Indian movies with the archetypal dilemma of all Indian heroes at the center - the choice of pride vs. duty.


Naseeruddin Shah is the great maverick of Indian stars. He’s so off-beat and unconventional in his choices, that he’s not even your traditional star.  Sharp-eyed and wiry, he resembles Jack Lemmon in the ‘60s, full of nervy energy and mordant wit.  He’s best known to international audiences as the resilient patriarch of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001).  In the ‘70s he collaborated with art film directors like Shyam Benegal, Shekhar Kapur, and Muzzaffir Ali in contemplative pieces, like Junoon (1978), Masoom (1983), and Umrao Jaan (1981).  In Umrao Jaan, Shah proved his sublime gift for character-acting by taking a minor role, that of a brothel-madam’s son and indolent pimp, Gauhar Mirza, and transforming him into an unforgettable comic portrait of ineffectual dandyism (the scene where he tries to pass off Umrao Jaan’s poetry is his own is marvelous in its feigned pomposity).  Shah continues to show off his skill year after year in films like The Great New Wonderful (2005), director Danny Leiner’s bittersweet series of vignettes about New Yorkers coping with their lives in the wake of 9/11, and in an enigmatic portrayal of a shady Bihari politician in Vishal Bhardwaj’s take on Othello, Omkara (2007).


Shahrukh Khan’s reputation precedes him. He’s huge. His celebrity is at level with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor at the time of their Andy Warhol silkscreen portraits: movie actor as cultural icon. Swarms of people gather at his shows, his movies, and whenever he is hosting an event.  How did someone whose appeal is that he’s an accessible, everyguy grow into a superstar? Something similar happened to Tom Hanks, yet few people want to mob him when he’s in public.  People have to be literally restrained when Shahrukh walks by, and not just teens, but middle-aged women and men as well. Shahrukh’s movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had him as an awkward, yearning teen.  Early on he showed great range in playing both heroes and villains.  His relentless stalker in Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993) was a disarmingly poignant portrayal of a morally repugnant character, not unlike Peter Lorre’s child-murderer in M


His affability and gift for musical performance shot him up the ranks to being one of the most versatile, bankable actors. In 1998, two movies made him the most popular star in Indian commercial cinema, the deliriously inane, but wildly popular Badshaah and Karan Johar’s endearingly schmaltzy Parent Trap send-up, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. His popularity grew, and in recent years he’s shown a gift for nuanced acting in films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), Swades (2004) and Don (2005). He’s one of India’s most well-rounded stars, a thoughtful actor as well as a great dancer and performer, but most important, he’s someone Indians identify with intimately; he could be the teasing neighbor, or the winsome cousin, or a protective brother. Watching him talk to his awe-struck fans on the game show he hosts on his off-season from making movies, Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? ) is really quite amazing: he’s unusually giving and open for someone so famous, and the audience responds with unabashed enthusiasm and gratitude. In spite of all Shahrukh’s celebrity, he’s never forgotten from where he came.



Dilip Kumar, early ‘50s



Naseeruddin Shah



Shahrukh Khan in Swades, 2004


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