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Thursday, May 3, 2007


This is the sound of one hand clapping, or a tree falling face first in the woods and no one around to pick up its plop. Let’s be honest – it’s all about the arachnid this weekend as Spider-Man 3 opens to less than enthusiastic reviews. Of course this means the movie will make $469 ka-trillion before all is said and done. But what it also means is that very few film fans will be sitting around at home waiting to see what HBO or Showtime has to offer. So it’s fairly brave of the major cable outlets to present such positive fare. Maybe they believe in the need for counter-programming, or perhaps they’re gambling on word of mouth being as caustic as the critics’ opinions. Whatever the case, the Saturday night selections are all pretty good (one Friend based offering excluded), including SE&L‘s selection for 5 May:


Premiere Pick
Monster House


Starz strikes paydirt for the second week in a row, offering up what was easily 2006’s best CGI flick. Reminiscent of the classic adventure tales from decades past, Executive Producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis gave director Gil Kenan free reign to reinvent the 3D animation genre, and his efforts are outstanding. Concentrating on character first, spectacle second, the first time feature filmmaker delivers a wonderfully moody and mysterious tale, a motion picture overloaded with creative concepts and inventive ideas. Sadly, it wasn’t the massive box office hit the studios look for, and lost the Academy Award to the lesser, if still lovely Happy Feet. If you’re not racing to your local B&M to pick up a copy of this classic after partaking of this weekend’s pay channel premiere, there is something definitely wrong with you. Animation doesn’t get much better than this. (5 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Break-Up


We here at SE&L have a strict anti-Jennifer Aniston policy, so it really pains us to mention this mediocre comedy from last year. Apparently, no one sent director Peyton Reed (Down With Love) the popcorn movie manifesto. He tried to turn an awkward A-list vehicle into The War of the Roses in a condo. Audiences didn’t care for either idea.  (5 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

X-Men: The Last Stand


Brett Ratner has nothing to be ashamed of. His installment of the famous comic book franchise was imminently watchable. If anything, he proved once and for all that Bryan Singer is one of the most overrated auteurs in all of cinema. What has he really done to warrant such praise? The geek fiefdoms opinion aside, Ratner’s adaptation of the material results in a solid action flick. (5 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Bad News Bears (2005)


Parlaying some of his success after School of Rock into a regular mainstream gig, Indie icon Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) decided to destroy the memory of this ‘70s sports satire. In its original form, the Walter Matthau version was a slam on sports obsessed adults living their lives through their kids. This new version is all PC potty jokes. (5 May, ShowCase, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
My Left Foot


Daniel Day Lewis was a hardworking British actor when he agreed to take on the role of Irish author Christy Brown, a choice which would win him worldwide acclaim (and a well deserved Oscar). But imagine the shock of filmgoers, used to seeing Lewis as prim and proper in your typical Merchant Ivory drama, suddenly shifting into a handicapped scribe stricken with cerebral palsy. In a brave performance that avoided pathos and schmaltz, the star discovered the inner dignity of the man, and never let that feeling go. Director Jim Sheridan surrounded his lead with amazing supporting talent, including Brenda Fricker, Fiona Shaw, and Cyril Cusack. But it’s young Hugh O’Connor that steals the show as an adolescent Christy. Lewis has often said it was the lad’s interpretation of the character that inspired his work. The results speak for themselves. (8 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Boom!


TiVo Alert! TiVo Alert! Fire up those DVRs and get ready to have your minds blown by this notorious adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Featuring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and more misguided counterculture conceits than any one film can fathom. The result is something so bad it’s ridiculous. Right up there with Jackie Gleason’s Skidoo for best camp cult crap. (6 May, Sundance, 5:45AM EST)

The Ground Truth


The debate over the War in Iraq always seems to be missing a certain voice – that of the troops who’ve already served. In this stunning documentary, they finally get a chance to have their say – and what they expose will haunt your dreams for days to come. While most came back in one piece, almost all have had their psyche scarred forever. (7 May, Sundance, 11PM EST)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch


John Cameron Mitchell is a genius at capturing both the glamour and the horror of kitsch, and his brilliant rock and roll musical is his perfect presentation of same. As the title character, the filmmaker will have you laughing, clapping and cringing – all at the same time. While some may balk at the transgender elements, the amazing score filled with memorable songs will more than cover such discomfort. (9 May, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Outsider Option
A Hard Day’s Night


The impact of the Beatles on popular culture can never be diminished. While the ‘90s saw several scholarly attempts to downplay their importance - some even going so far as to suggest that they were nothing more than the ‘60s version of a boy band (yeah…RIGHT!) - they remain a formative fixture in music. If you want proof of their importance, look no further than this amazing motion picture by former UK commercial director Richard Lester. Capturing the youth craze known as Beatlemania at the very height of its hysteria, this movie more than anything else cemented the band’s myth as amiable ambassadors of the emerging counterculture. With songs so timeless they sound fresh and inventive 40 plus years later, and attitudes that exude charm and charisma, it’s no wonder the Fab Four remain the gold standard in sonic significance. (8 May, Flix, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Born Losers


The TCM Underground strikes exploitation gold this week as Tom Laughlin introduces the world to his emotionally wounded Vietnam Vet Billy Jack as part of this standard revenge flick. Featuring a femme fatale who defines ‘asking for it’ and a lot of proselytizing about how good kids can go bad, this is one baffling biker epic. And of course, our viewing would not be complete without a little Laughlin butt-kicking. (4 May, Turner Classic Movies, 11:15PM EST)

The Christine Jorgensen Story


While it can’t compare to Let Me Die a Woman, this supposedly serious take on the world’s first publicized sex-change candidate is sufficiently surreal. Granted, Woman director Doris Wishman gave audiences actual surgical footage to seer into their brains, while this 1970 sudser is happy just to suggest and imply. John Hansen is especially good in the title role. The rest is freakish fun. (8 May, Drive-In Classics/Canada, 10:45PM EST)

The Postman


Talk about your revisionist history. Audiences and critics couldn’t ladle enough hate onto Kevin Costner’s failed follow-up to his Oscar winning turn behind the lens, Dances with Wolves. This post-Apocalyptic Western about rebuilding the US mail service as a means of jumpstarting civilization was long, boring and overrun with artistic arrogance. Now, some find it to be a forgotten masterpiece. Yikes! (10 May, TNT 1AM EST)

 


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Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.


As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas ever delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, fresh from success in the short-film arena, this is art animated, a purposefully arcane cinematic vision made meaningful and important by the way in which this skilled filmmaker positions her lens.


While many will see Sweetie as the catalyst, the crazy deluded sister whose extreme case of angry arrested adolescence leads the rest of her kin towards all kinds of dire decisions, it is actually Kay who plays the mechanism for change more times than not. Always willing to challenge her parents, but never able to find the words to express her emotions, she is all outbursts and whining, pure pain pouring out of her horribly wounded heart. While she is clearly unlike her sibling in outward appearance, inward ability or perplexed personality, she is equally adept at making the familial world revolve around her. Sweetie simply acts out, making her demands as apparent as possible. When they are met, she is only semi-satisfied. She pushes for more, and when she doesn’t get it, tends to revert right back to her spoiled square one.


Kay, on the other hand, is skilled at the silent, suffering approach to approval. She wants everyone to acknowledge her sister’s interpersonal deficiencies and wears her many tiny triumphs as mental medals to prove her priggish superiority. To argue that one or the other is the only causational component is foolish. Both are on paths of stagnant self-destruction and it will take an act outside their control to create a break that will either free them or forever lock the family in a cycle of denial.


Something is being avoided here, and all arrows point to Father, Sweetie, and some manner of unnatural attraction. That Campion doesn’t come right out and scream “child abuse” or “incest” is one of Sweetie‘s more intriguing - and irritating - elements. We don’t like our issues to be open-ended, without clear-cut indicators of side, morality, and meaning. When Kay spies her sister giving “Daddy” a bath, it is an unsettling scene. The sexual aspect is also amplified by both characters’ approach to physicality. Kay is completely cut off from her boyfriend Louis. Sweetie will sleep with anyone—including her sister’s limp lover. So it’s not hard to accept that sometime in the easily-dismissed distant past, Sweetie was a victim of some kind of unhealthy relative relationship.


But maybe that’s not true. Perhaps her overt carnality is just a recent development, a way of dealing with a life overloaded with disappointment. After all, Sweetie lives in a perpetual dream of fame and privilege, a fantasy fostered almost exclusively by her dad. So it could be that her present state of mind creates the perception of childhood trauma, while the truth is actually more complicated and less scandalous than we apparently want it to be.


There are also obvious hints of mental illness with both sisters. Kay has developed such a hatred for trees (naturally, Sweetie and Dad share many a private moment in the family tree house) that she actually attacks the poor defenseless plants with a kind of insular insanity. Her sister, on the other hand, is a “Goth girl, interrupted” mess. Fashions forged out of broken bits of cloth and cut-up dresses, eyes smeared with dark circles of black, Sweetie suggests the kind of kid who has spent decades trying to escape who she is inside. We do get a chance to see her as a youngster, and the pleasantly perky ginger we witness is a shock.


It’s as if Campion is purposefully playing with our perception of the character to keep any and all possibilities about her past in play. Indeed, Sweetie is a film that loves the notion of acuity, of how the seemingly normal can be nutty and an inviolable vice versa. Tossing in obtuse sequences where unusual imagery is intercut into the narrative, and a use of angles that often suggest something slightly askew existing just out of frame, Campion’s compositions make us aware that the images are just as important as the dialogue being delivered and the performers providing the necessary emotional truth.


The cast here is truly amazing, doing something that few films and actors even attempt. Campion has purposefully created individuals that walk the fine line between empathy and ennui, likeability and loathing, and constantly causes them to cross back and forth between the two extremes. At first, we feel this is Kay’s story, and Karen Colston does a brilliant job of getting us on her side. Of course, the minute we arrive at some manner of understanding, Kay contorts and confronts our feelings for her. Similarly, Sweetie is a cruel comic contradiction who would be pitiable if she weren’t such a sensational slag. Geneviève Lemon, required to do most of her acting with her eyes and remarkable bulk, finds the sad soul inside this spoiled sow, and manages to make us care even as Sweetie continually makes us cringe.


As a battle of will between two wounded women, Campion sets up a kind of call and response - or better yet, cause and effect - style of storytelling. The minute her mad bitch of a sibling starts going off the deep end, Kay cranks up the hurt homebody routine. The result is the film’s real theme—that within each family, love and hate become part of a tainted tug of war where nobody wins and everybody loses.


This is best highlighted in the film’s three main subplots. The girls’ parents separate, and sides are instantly drawn. Mom ventures out into the wilderness, ending up a cook for a group of Outback cowboys. Dad initially seeks Kay for help, but we soon learn that he really needs Sweetie to feel calm and complete. Bob, Sweetie’s pick-up “producer” sex partner, also represents the reality of the character’s sense of self. Looking to the obvious junkie for confirmation and affection, she literally drains him of life until he is left, flat on his back and covered in coffee, in a local diner.


Kay’s live-in lover Louis is a little trickier. An admirer of transcendental meditation and spirituality, he original hooked up with his current paramour after learning their love was fated by a fortuneteller. But his eye is constantly wandering, from a fellow TM devotee who flaunts her tantric sex manual, to Sweetie herself, who practically molests him on a trip to the beach. It is clear that both gals are starved for love, needing any manner of recognition, good, bad, or indifferent to fuel their failing sense of self.


It all rushes to a head in the final scene, a sequence that becomes a kind of metaphysical showdown between Sweetie, her parents, her past, and her sister. Kay is also clearly in confrontation mode, making everything that’s happening about her, her decisions, and her desire for change. On both sides of the battle are Dad (staunchly status quo) and Mom (ready to involve the authorities for the first time in decades). When a real outsider is tossed in—in this case, a rascally young neighbor boy named Clayton—it crosses everyone’s wires, leading to judgments that otherwise would not be made, and results that no one could easily have expected.


The ending of Sweetie is indeed odd. It seems to suggest that only one person was responsible for the familial unrest, when we know very clearly that this is not true. As a matter of fact, it even goes so far as to argue that much of the destruction foisted onto the clan could have been avoided had certain “institutional” steps been taken beforehand. Nothing seems really settled either. One character even envisions their life the way it used to be, back before things got out of hand, back when things seemed simple and pure.


By placing us in these contradictory realities, Campion creates a truly unreal atmosphere, a cinematic sense that guarantees Sweetie turns out to be a true motion-picture masterpiece. Riffing on references that she was hung up on at the time (including a closing moment lifted directly out of the David Lynch oeuvre) and purposefully framing her scenes to throw both the actors and audience off guard, the look of this movie is simply amazing. Initially, no one is seen straight on. We view shoes, the side of someone’s face, the top of a person’s head. Then, slowly, people start to creep in towards the middle of the compositions. By the time we get to the end, when anarchy rules the lives of everyone involved, Campion keeps the action centered.


There are also times when blocking provides the necessary undercurrent to an otherwise ordinary scene. While Dad is crying, Mom, Kay and Louis step out onto a vast Australian highway, and the overwhelming vista, matched against Campion’s purposeful placement of her players (Mom up front, Kay off to one side, Louis far off in the background) suggests everything we need to know about whose making the decisions here.


It’s a stunning conceit, one that works much better than a viewer initially imagines. Instead of making everything cold and distant, it allows elements from outside the sequences, as well as information and emotions we’ve experienced previously, to float in and permeate the action. When Sweetie is wrestling with Clayton, we sense something unsettling. As the visual remains off in the distance, we suddenly recall the moment where Sweetie and her father infer some inappropriate contact and the aura of such abuse makes us instantly fear for what will happen next. Similarly, when Louis learns the truth about the tree he planted at the start of the couple’s relationship, the lack of any outward arguing allows us to fill in the blanks from the preceding discussions the pair have had.


In a sense, Sweetie is made up of nothing but the vaguest of recollections, without any real reason or outright rationale for all the tension and turmoil on hand. Sure, the main character is a harried handful, the kind of girl child that will end up dead, drugged up, or deposited in a home for the rest of her restless life. But that doesn’t mean that Sweetie deserves such a fate. She simply wants to share her purpose and pain with everyone. And they too have been more than happy to channel their inner emptiness into her…just like all families seem to do.


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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Leading men in Bombay film-speak are referred to as “heroes.” The word means something different in India than it does in Hollywood, and when it’s spoken in lilting Hindi, (“heeeero”) it encompasses an entire culture’s vision of unironic idealism and reliability. The men here are not the aggressive Tough Guys of the masala action movies or the earnest Ever Guys in breezy romantic comedies. They’re the handsome matinee idols audiences long to see onscreen, reminders that male beauty is still present in a squalid, fast-paced world.

Matinee idols were a common mainstay of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the arrival of the Kapoor brothers, Raj and Shammi, signaled a new way of looking at the leading man. Influenced by the reigning Hollywood stars of the time (Clark Gable and Cary Grant) Raj Kapoor was a dapper, graceful presence onscreen. His frequent pairing with the enchanting Nargis made them the first iconic screen couple of Indian cinema. But Raj Kapoor’s real contribution was as one of the most innovative and commercially astute directors of all time. Inspired by the Chaplin’s comedic style - a melding of slapstick and the somber - Raj Kapoor directed and starred in


, a Preston Sturges-like on-the-road tale about a rakish Bombay street hustler and the idealistic schoolteacher who longs to reform him.


Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, the hits kept coming: Andaz, Awaara, and Barsaat, to name a few.  By the time Raj Kapoor retired from acting and focused solely on directing in the ‘70s, he revealed an uncanny ability to tap into the desires of the mainstream audience. He knew instinctively the kind of movies people loved to see - unrequited love stories, family melodramas of the love-against-all-odds sort - and was brilliant at making them. It’s not acknowledged as much these days, but the Bollywood of today owes a great deal to the inventiveness Raj Kapoor.  He, more than any other star or filmmaker, knew what a commercial powerhouse it could be.


Raj’s younger brother, Shammi, was a phenomenon in his own right. Few male stars in India have inspired the kind of hysteria that Shammi Kapoor induced when he’d swivel his hips and lip-sync to ‘60s Hindi pop. His Elvis pompadour, arresting attractiveness, and keen comic timing made him the reigning heartthrob of his day: part Ricky Nelson, part Rock Hudson, all verve and masala.


Dev Anand was the one of the early pensive, introspective leading men in Indian cinema. There was a Gregory Peck quality to his steady onscreen presence, particularly when he was serenading his costar with a melancholy ghazal, a controlled, lingering technique he mastered for the camera. It seems easy, but it is really quite difficult for most actors to simply look and be graceful. Dev Anand’s thoughtful performances and his inner sense of grace are rare qualities for most Indian male actors, many of whom are jaded by internalizing the day-to-day grind and hustle of living in Bombay.


Raj Kumar, like Dev Anand, made up the last of a handful of urbane, sophisticated leading men of the ‘50s. Raj Kumar reminds me so much of the great, now relatively unsung, matinee idol of the Hollywood silent era, John Gilbert. The similarities are uncanny—the chiseled, dark handsome, mustached face, the graceful sense of movement, and (in spite of the masculine presence) the almost squeaky, high-pitched voice (what finished poor Gilbert when the studios transitioned to sound). Raj Kumar is more famous now for being glorious arm candy for legendary actresses like Nargis in Mother India and Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (“Pure One”). It was his role in Pakeezah however, as the young nobleman who defies the wrath of his grandfather to defend and marry the woman he loves - a prostitute - that made him beloved to all.  It was the sort of Officer and a Gentleman type part that every sentimentalist roots for and remembers.  He was such a standard in Indian cinema that for years, from the mid ‘50s up until the early ‘70s, he epitomized the quintessential leading man.


Dharmendra was the first movie star to really exude sex appeal. It’s amazing that for the initial 50 years of Indian cinema, the popular leading men were of the elegant, sexless variety. The country’s conservatism preferred safe, reliable men, dapper in tailored kurtas who loftily recited Urdu love poetry and with quivering, feigned passion, railed about defending the family izzat (“honor”). But the by the late ‘60s, things loosened up as India joined the Sexual Revolution. Mia Farrow and The Beatles rocked out with the Maharishi, bras came off, pants fit tighter, Bollywood actresses frolicked in bikinis, and Dharamendra burst onto the movie scene with the charisma of Marlon Brando - simmering male sensuality. Physical presence aside, Dharmendra’s appeal was also that of a deft comedian, his earthy Punjabi rustic humor added playfulness and vitality to his movies, Sholay (“Flames”) and Seeta aur Geeta (“Seeta and Geeta”). Both starred his wife, Hema Malini). Even in his most conventional he-man roles, Dharmendra’s intelligence shines through to reveal a sly, vulpine knowingness behind the movie star smile.


Hrithik Roshan, one the most talented leading man of the last ten years, has been in danger of not being taken seriously simply because of his appearance—his green eyes, his lithe six-foot-something frame, his alabaster complexion and his chiseled, Greek sculpture features. He’s just too handsome to be true (He’s the real life embodiment of what Derek Zoolander deems, “really, really, ridiculously good looking”).  His debut film, the masala modern-day mythological revenge saga, Kaaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000, “Say This is Love”) stunned audiences with the presence of an actor who possessed the kind of kilowatt glamour rarely seen in most stars. On top of it all, his dancing abilities are the best of any Indian star before him.  The Fred Astaire-fluidity of his movements is so deft and graceful that Hrithik Roshan seems like a special effect, a celluloid phantom darting across the screen.


Saif Ali Khan was born into talent and glamour.  His parents represent everything rich and exciting about India: his mother, the celebrated ‘60s starlet, Sharmila Tagore, a descendant of India’s great national scribe and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and his father, “Tiger” Pataudi, a former captain of the Indian cricket team and a prince who can trace his lineage back to the Mughals. It’s easy for any child of such illustrious parentage to become intimidated or complacent, and subsumed into anonymity within the family legacy, but Saif Ali Khan has carved out a niche for himself as an interesting and intelligent actor. After several mediocre, smiling, handsome-young-man parts, he struck gold with Parineeta (2005, “The Bride”) as the wealthy, spoiled son of an industrialist growing into his own humanity. He played the sinister Iago figure in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006) with the perfect amount of sexual charisma and malice, and more recently, the reluctant heir to a Rajasthani kingdom-state who finds himself reevaluating his morals to protect his father in Eklavya (2007).


Though the actors in this group are all unequivocally good-looking and charming, none of them are predictable. They’ve resisted the banal conventionality that can come with being an attractive star by broadening their range as actors, playing villains, losers, men difficult to tolerate or forgive. The entire country looks to them as a source of unwavering heroism, so venturing into challenging acting material is a bold risk that usually means.



Raj Kapoor, ‘50s



Shammi Kapoor, ‘60s



Dev Anand, ‘50s



Dharmendra in Yaadon ki Baaraat, circa late 70s


Hrithik Roshan, circa 2000



Saif Ali Khan, Parineeta, 2005


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Monday, Apr 30, 2007


While we here at SE&L typically hate those smarmy know it alls that throw their considered opinion in your face, we’re about to be guilty of the same thing. That’s because it’s a clear “I told you so” situation this week. In preparation for war with the big summer movies, the studios are pulling out all the stops, presenting prime DVD titles to compete for your expendable cash concerns. This Tuesday alone we have two major Awards season wannabes, a pair of meaningful mainstream efforts, and one of the most anticipated box sets in the history of the medium, among many, many others. These five releases by themselves indicate that the next 16 weeks will be a windfall of hotly anticipated offerings. The only problem will be finding the time to enjoy both the big screen and home theater experience. Whatever you decide, you shouldn’t miss the SE&L selection for 1 May. It’s an incredible cinematic statement:


Little Children


Imagine the David Lynch of his Blue Velvet period without the ugly underneath, or better yet, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People reshaped as a satire, and you have an idea of this amazing slam of suburbia by In the Bedroom‘s Todd Field. This lackadaisical look at how biology blinds people to both their feelings and their flaws represents one of the most insightful examinations of the human condition ever cast upon celluloid. It was also one of 2006’s most criminally underrated films, with some considering it nothing more than a soap opera with slight social substance. But buried beneath the sequences of sex and unspoken emotions lies a narrative unable to control its simmering contempt. Using the pedophile character played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley as a catalyst, Field forms an argument against getting lost in your offspring. While he recognizes the vile nature of such a pervert, he also blasts the parents who pretend that child safety usurps everything else in a community. The result is a conflict of interests that turns into an epic battle between hysteria and hypocrisy.

Other Titles of Interest


Alpha Dog


Justin Timberlake is such an industry made star that the leap from music to movies is not so shocking as it is standard operating procedure. What is dreadful is how amazingly lame he is as an actor. His first major performance in Edison Force was universal mocked, and his work in Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan has been equally unimpressive. Oddly enough, critics had some good things to say about this kiddy crime story, including some kind words for Mr. N’Sync himself. For the sake of his career before the cameras let’s hope they’re right.

Dreamgirls


It was poised to be the blockbuster event of awards season, a surefire hit that would earn not only critical praise and commercial success, but a boatload of Oscars as well. Apparently, no one told that to the Academy, resulting in a one of three ratio. Jennifer Hudson walked away with her mandatory Supporting Actress statuette, but Eddie Murphy and the film’s trio of nominated songs were shut out. Some even saw the snub as part of Hollywood’s continuing anti-minority slant. It’s up to DVD to save this film’s reputation, or prove the pundits right. 

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky


It’s cult film Holy Grail time as Anchor Bay unleashes this sensational box set from one of cinema’s most heralded and misunderstood outsiders. Featuring Fando y Lis, The Holy Mountain, and that amazing Midnight movie El Topo, this collection will have old fans foaming and new converts convinced that Jodorowsky is some kind of visionary god. Toss in a mountain of bonus features and digital extras and you instantly have one of 2007’s best DVD releases. 

The Hitcher (2007)


It’s obvious that Hollywood is running out of ‘classic’ horror movies to remake when they choose titles like this one to revamp. The original, with Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh has its defenders, but it was more notorious than noteworthy. Now, Sean Bean and a couple of no name kids make up the tenuous trio playing cat and mouse suspense games along the open road. Don’t expect much, and you’ll enjoy this generic genre effort just fine.

Mahogany


The second to last film in Berry Gordy’s push to have then girlfriend Diana Ross become a major movie star. Unfortunately, the most memorable aspect of this tale of a ghetto gal who works her way into the world of kitschy high fashion (this is the ‘70s, remember) is the title song. Otherwise, co-stars Anthony Perkins and Billy Dee Williams are wasted here. And then there’s the completely dated clothing Ross creates. This was Gordy’s folly from beginning to end.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Illegal Aliens


Some folks just can’t die with dignity. Apparently having one’s name dragged through every civil court between LA and the Bahamas is not enough. All that speculation on the manner in which you finally merged with the infinite didn’t satisfy the scandal sheets. No, that notorious non-entity Anna Nicole Smith had to go a leave us a final film to keep her tabloid temperature raging above boiling. Feeling like an obvious knockoff of that ‘80s entry Earth Girls Are Easy (except with the gender roles reversed), this is a turgid tale of some wayward extraterrestrials that come to our planet, morph into ‘smokin’ hot babes’ (the PR’s words) and try to protect the populace from an evil cosmic force. Anna, of course, is the bumbling dumb blonde member of the crew. Some who’ve already seen this film say it’s a sad send-off for a pseudo-celebrity who deserved better. Others like the fact that, somehow, Anna’s managing to get the last laugh.

 


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Sunday, Apr 29, 2007


Every summer, critics and film fans alike love to predict the eventual box office champions. They look across the 40 or 50 flicks about to open, manufacture a formula that takes into consideration past performance, their own interest levels, the timeliness of the title and a few other subjective factors, and draw their concrete conclusions. Sometimes, this process is stiflingly simple. After all, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Shrek the Third all look like guaranteed money in the bank – and BIG money at that. Even if each one fails to fulfill its promise – either aesthetically or commercially – they will earn back their budgets via international releases, preplanned merchandising, and the eventual DVD release/TV premiere. In fact, it’s safe to say that they are doomed to succeed. There are just so many interconnected interests that it’s impossible for them to truly flop.


So what then, in this multimedia day and age, truly constitutes a bomb? How do you judge a failure in a film world bursting with recoup possibilities? Well, perception is part of it. Many people are pointing their fingers at Grindhouse, arguing that the Weinstein Company’s $70 million dollar exploitation experiment is a true disaster, barely earning $20 million in retail receipts. No matter the critical success, a lack of cash instantly seems to signal defeat. On the other side of the spectrum is something like Pathfinder. The Marcus Nispel Viking epic failed to generate any interest, even in the wake of the similarly styled (and massively successful) 300. Clearly, commercial failure is only one element in the equation. Other factors including buzz, anticipation, and artistic merit are considered as well. When sizing up any film, then, one must look at its path toward potential success, and the facets that also indicate eminent failure.


This still makes forecasting the Summer’s Stinkers difficult. As you will see below, the five films chosen all have some manner of redeeming cinematic qualities. Two are sequels, one’s aimed directly at the kiddies and another features a pair of popular comedians apparently working within the strict demands of their demographic. Toss in a potential genre sleeper, and you’ve got a group of slighty above average prospects. And yet there is also something about each of these movies that just screams debacle. Call it an aura of superfluity or a brazen big fishiness in what remains a mighty large cinematic ocean – whatever you want. These movies seem destined to die the most prominent of box office deaths. Others released between now and 31 August may be opting for a similar seasonal fate, but we here at SE&L are gambling that these projects will be remembered as 2007’s best of the worst. Let’s start with:


Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer


Let’s face it – the original wasn’t some massive megahit. It did rather nicely for its studio ($155 million), especially for a movie very few people actually liked (Rotten Tomatoes Rating – a mere 26%). And up until the sequel was announced, many in the comic book fanbase felt that this entire franchise would end up a well deserved one-off deal. Now comes the inevitable follow-up (thanks in part to the success of the film on DVD and cable TV showings) and with it, a villain guaranteed to make audiences groan. Back in the day, the Silver Surfer was a misunderstood alien dude who came to Earth to wreck some havoc, only to fall into the whole peace and love vibe of the magical ‘60s, and end up a kind of counterculture convert. Here, he’s the T-1000 on a CG boogie board. While geeks have been salivating over the possibility of this character’s arrival from the moment the original Roger Corman adaptation of the quartet was released, it remains difficult to figure out just who’s anxious to see Michael Chiklis in a bad Ben Grimm outfit again (Jessica Alba’s Susan Storm? That’s another story altogether). Indeed, everything about this cinematic series feels second rate and underdone, which translates into very little blockbuster potential.

Live Free or Die Hard


Sorry Bruce, it just won’t work this time. Over the 12 years since the last installment in this series, you’ve done a wonderful job of dispelling your ‘action hero only’ mythos, and settled into a nice rut as a talented, reliable actor. Sure, you’ve certainly stumbled along the way (The Story of Us, Perfect Stranger), and your rocky personal life didn’t help matters much, but you did a decent job of leaving John McClane and his “yippee yay kay aye-ing” in your wake. So why pick him back up after all this time? It’s not like the latest generation of film fans has been eager to see you return to the agent against the. apocalypse format, and this latest idea (a supersmart computer hacker tries to give the entire world a crippling virus) is just so Y2K. And the choice of Len Wiseman as a director? PU! Come on, this is a guy whose been making werewolf vs. vampire films for the last four years – and when he’s done with you, he’s back to the paranormal with yet another installment in the Underworld franchise (this time out, it’s a prequel). Unless the stunt setpieces redefine the concept of action, this latest series installment looks dead on arrival.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry


This is clearly a case of a high concept losing sight of what truly makes people laugh. Now, if you get a bunch of drunken frat boys in a room together and tell them a slew of homophobic jokes, you’re bound to get some beer-soaked guffaws. But in our proto-PC society, where humor has to now walk a fine line between crass and considerate, something like this sloppy same sex stupidity can’t possibly work. Adam Sandler appeared to move beyond his arrested adolescence aura with Click, and for the most part, his fanbase decided to join him. But he has long stopped being the clown prince of the college crowd, and trying to reenergize your star status by making fun of gay men seems like a tricky proposition. Certainly you’ll draw the Neanderthals and those predisposed to prejudice as pratfalls, but there is something uneasy about the whole forced machismo and ‘emotions are emasculating’ narrative undercurrent.  Rumor has it that the studio ran this film by GLAAD before approving its release. It was also true that this script sat around for years, with many famous A-listers a tad antsy about how it would play in this supposedly enlightened post-millennial age. Here’s guessing it won’t.

Underdog


Talk about your animated sacrilege! Underdog may have been many things – a rhyme obsessed goody two shoes, a blind as a bat paramour for an eager Sweet Polly Purebred, a simpleton superhero battling less than capable crooks – but he was never, ever, EVER! considered to be real. Anthropomorphized and pictured in pen and ink, but no child ever thought he was an honest to goodness pup. So what do those dunce caps over in Tinsel Town try to pull on us? They figure that they can turn this entire project into a live action kiddie action film and no one will really care. They’ll even give the title character a hip adolescent swagger, turning him from a moralizing mensch into a skaterat with a tail. Didn’t these people learn ANYTHING from the whole Itchy/Scratchy/Poochie fiasco? You don’t mess around with the classics – even if you’ve somehow managed to stumble upon the brilliant casting decision of Peter Dinklage playing villian Simon Barsinister. Belgian director Frederik Du Chau may have the proper family film credentials (he made the semi-successful Racing Stripes) but this pile of hound hashwey appears ready to crash and burn. Those who remember the old series won’t darken its big screen doors, and by this time in the season (mid-August), the wee ones are just worn out.

The Invasion


Reshoots months after a movie has wrapped are never a good sign. Reshoots helmed by a completely different director many months after a movie has wrapped is basically box office poison. Oliver Hirschbiegel, the dynamic German director behind the fabulous Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich was handpicked by Joel Silver to realize this more or less unnecessary update of the classic Body Snatchers as his first foray into big time Hollywood filmmaking. What he wasn’t prepared for was the meddling by the manic producer, an accident which sidelined one of his stars (Nicole Kidman) and the sudden Bond-ing of male lead Daniel Craig. With his cut delivered in early 2006, Silver decided to simply sit on it. Then, when V for Vendetta proved popular, he contacted director James McTeague to reform the film. He, in turn, brought along the Wachowski Brothers, and soon Hirschbiegel became a creative persona non grata. But all of this is really ancillary to Invasion‘s biggest problem – there are already three versions of this idea sitting out in the motion picture marketplace – and two out of the three are considered classics. With its tentative production rep and a legitimate legacy to live up to, this film can’t ‘replicate’ past successes.


During the first week of September, we will come back to this piece and see just how accurate our predictions were. We’ll take the blame if and when we’re wrong. But if we hit these five unnecessary nails on the head, all we can say is – we warned you.


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