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Monday, Dec 4, 2006


Wallet worn out yet? Credit card crying “Uncle” under the strain of your increasing personal penury? Well, too friggin’ bad! Tinsel Town is not done delivering potential materialistic mandates for your ever-growing list of compulsory consumer purchases. After all, with a pair of the summer’s biggest titles just now hitting B&M shelves (and many more on the way before 25 December) and a non-stop barrage of catalog and reissue content, your cash is guaranteed to be strapped for weeks to come. Hoping you believe in the otherwise noble sentiment that ‘giving is better than getting’, marketers are making it harder and harder to avoid the digital domain as a potential gift category. Even when the titles are less than tantalizing, the presentation and packaging can boost a forgettable effort into a full-blown blind buy. Here’s something to ponder, however. If it really is the thought that counts, what does it say about you when a loved one unwraps the collector’s edition of Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. You better have your excuses ready in advance. The other choices chasing your checkbook this 5 December include:


1900: Special Collector’s Edition

*
Bernardo Bertolucci’s follow-up to his international hit Last Tango in Paris turned out to be a five hour and eighteen minute epic spanning 45 years in a small Italian town. Centering on the rise of fascism and the role communism played within the populace, the Mediterranean maestro cast Frenchman Gerard Depardieu and American Robert DeNiro as his heroes and filled with screen with images both beautiful and baneful. Some of the content pushed the limits previously set by Tango even further, and to this day, several sequences involving young boys have never been shown in the United States. While more than a few film fans find it all rather rough going – it is a very long 318 minutes – there is no denying Bertolucci’s connection to the material – or his inherent artistry.



Grey Gardens/ The Beales of Grey Gardens: Criterion Collection

*
Documentaries don’t get more spellbinding than this look at wealth in decay and the lives of two women, both lost within their own insular universe of privilege and pain. Brothers Albert and David Maysles struck subject matter gold when they discovered Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale (cousins of famed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) living in reclusive squalor in the title estate on the Hamptons. Eager for the attention they once held as members of high society, the pair were happy to “perform” for the directors, letting down their guard just enough to see the substantial sadness inside. The 1975 masterpiece is now supplemented with an amazing contemporary companion piece, arguing for the timelessness of both the Maysles moviemaking prowess and the Beale’s quiet desperation.



PopMatters Review


How to Eat Fried Worms


Based on Tom Rockwell’s classic kids novel, this story of bullies belittled and invertebrate guts digested should have been a fun family classic. But somewhere along the line, director Bob Dolman (whose only other credit, 2002’s The Banger Sisters, does not bode well for his filmmaking acumen) loses the lessons and overdoes the gross outs. Granted, in this post-millennial maelstrom of mixed juvenile messages – parents push safety while allowing questionable content to guide their wee ones – such an entertainment approach may be defendable. But silliness always needs to be balanced with substance, less the whole endeavor grow unruly. Dolman does have a good eye for underage talent, and there will be certain kids who could care less about a message. They’ll just want more of the sticky, slimy stuff. For them, the title tutorial will be sickeningly satisfying.



PopMatters Review


Idlewild


As Big Boi and Andre 3000 of Outkast went from multi-platinum recording sensations to disgruntled bandmates on the brink of imploding, the announcement that their next effort would be an old fashioned movie musical sent many of their fans reeling. How would these hip hop heavies, responsible for reinventing the genre with their style defying indifference to the rules, actually match up against the song and dance classics of Hollywood’s Golden era? The answer was…confusing. Idlewild‘s over the top flights of fancy, loaded with visual finesse and pop art poetry lacked the cohesive narrative that drives most song and dance showcases, and the aural element provided by the duo definitely lacks the sonic internalizing of a Broadway effort. But writer/director Bryan Barber, creator of many of the group’s classic videos, proves himself a fine filmmaker. He saves something that otherwise feels slightly self-indulgent.


 


PopMatters Review


Miami Vice*
It was an interesting idea on the part of writer/director Michael Mann: take his seminal TV series that seemed to define the ‘80s and strip it of every last iconic element. Then mix in heavy doses of star power (in the form of Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx), modern technology (cellphones, laptops) and illustrate the new 21st century version of the undying drug trade. The results should be realism reinvigorated. The only factor he left out was the fun. This is a deadly serious, almost expressionistic thriller, a movie where tone takes precedent over almost everything else on the big wide screen. Filmed in digital video for that Collateral-like look, and loaded with breathtaking imagery, there’s no denying that Mann has a flare for the epic. Sadly, the rest of the movie feels underdeveloped and superficial.



PopMatters Review


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest*
It’s hard to fathom why critics ganged up on this wonderful follow-up to the original seafaring adventure. It had so much more of everything that made the first movie great – more Johnny Depp, more insanely inventive villains, more tantalizing thespian eye candy (Mr. Bloom for the gals, Ms. Knightly for the guys). Still, reviewers treated it as some reprehensible pretender to the scallywag throne, condemning it to walk the pedestrian plank. We here at SE&L couldn’t disagree more. For us, this second portion of POTC is the reason why we anticipate the summer season year in and year out. It perfectly encompasses the best that blockbusters have to offer especially in this overly ironic age. Is it overlong, narratively convenient and piled high with occasionally contradictory concepts? Absolutely – and we wouldn’t want it any other way.


PopMatters Review


Pulse (2006)
Signaling the exact moment when the J-horror fad died in America, this reimagining of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2002 masterpiece Kairo forgets the first rule of any adaptation – try to keep what made the original so compelling in the first place. Instead, screenwriters Ray Wright and Wes Craven give filmmaking novice Jim Sonzero very little to work with outside the standard “technology is evil” idea (a minor part of Kurosawa’s creative conceit). Filmed in a manner that desaturates all the colors out of what is already a dour setting, this is the motion picture equivalent of mildew. Instead of mimicking the first film’s snowball approach, where small moments gather and build toward an apocalyptic ending avalanche, we get typical teens trapped in a sloppy spook show. While it can be visually arresting, Pulse pales in comparison to its source.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 5 December:


Bleak Future*
As a standard maxim, certain cinematic elements just don’t mix. Perhaps the most obvious example is any attempt at mixing science fiction with comedy. It’s like oil and water. Luckily, Brian S. O’Malley never listened to this routine rule of thumb. If he had, we wouldn’t be blessed with the remarkably engaging, absolutely hilarious end of the world insanity known as Bleak Future. Like George Miller mashed with Peter Jackson, this satirical shape of things to come is simultaneously smart and stupid, realistic and retarded, inspired and insipid, wholly original and a complete and utter rip off. It is also one of the oddest, most endearing entertainments to come out of the outsider arena in quite a while. It’s a gangly geek fest just waiting for the right collection of nerf herders to embrace its cool cult craziness.


 


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Sunday, Dec 3, 2006


If it were possible for one filmmaker to represent both the best and the worst that film has to offer, if one director can be both an artist and a hack, brilliant and unbelievably bad, that man would be Bob Clark. For nearly four decades, this amiable auteur (or faux-teur, depending on your interpretation of his canon) has made both exemplary examples of cinematic excellent and movies so mind-bogglingly poor that Ed Wood and Dr. Uwe Boll should sue for bad film copyright infringement. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider, especially if you believe in the notion that talent trumps ancillary elements like acting, scripting and viability of material. Even in the course of his stumbles, Stephen Spielberg’s unmistakable style notoriously shows through. But in Clark’s case, his efforts are like motion picture multiple personality disorder. You never know which version of the man - talented or intolerable – you’re going to get.


So, the real issue becomes - is Clark a good filmmaker occasionally falling into an abyss of artistic atrocity, or a major league motion picture bungler who turns luckily lucid on occasion. It’s a comparison that’s fraught with several sizable creative caveats. You see, aside from his 1983 take of Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (reconfigured and retitled A Christmas Story), Clark’s recent legacy is overwhelmingly negative, from remarkably mediocre efforts like Turk 182, Now and Forever and It Runs in the Family to out and out outrages like Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and the squalid Baby Geniuses films. There’s also the belief of time tempering critical consideration – both pro and con. Clark’s Porky’s, seen by many as a likeable lowbrow coming of age comedy upon its initial release (1982) now gets mentioned along with other known examples of excrement like The Karate Dog. On the opposite end, a one off exploitation effort like She-Man (1967) has found a new life (and respect) thanks to grindhouse preservationists Something Weird Video.


Black Christmas is a perfect example of this two-pronged dilemma. In 1974, no one was quite ready for a holiday-themed slasher film where an unseen killer stalks and slays a group of sorority girls, all the while spewing insane, schizophrenic ramblings. Dark, sinister and incredibly disturbed, Clark’s Christmas remains the natural link between Michael and Roberta Findlay’s slice and dice sex films (highlighted by the fabulous Flesh trilogy) and John Carpenter’s genre rejuvenating Halloween. Yet thanks to a marketing campaign that made the movie look like a blasphemous spree-killing First Noel sleazefest (the narrative occurs over the holiday season, but that’s where the Yuletide significance ends) and the lack of significant star power (John Saxon and Margot Kidder where the film’s known names), Christmas came and went without much more consideration.


Now, three decades later, it is finally acknowledged as a pure post-modern masterpiece, a weird and wicked exercise in terror by a man who (believe it or not) made his initial cinematic splash in the horror genre. Unlike the hippies vs. zombies zip of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, or the Monkey’s Paw via Vietnam thrills of Deathdream, Clark’s clever Xmas creature feature fascinates the notoriously picky macabre fan because of everything it fails to do. After decades under the splatter spell of Freddy, Jason, Michael and others, it’s hard to imagine this sort of film without an identifiable killer at the center of the story. But Clark purposefully eschews showing us “Billy”, the babbling bad guy with no internal monologue whatsoever. Using an inventive, first-person POV whenever Bill is up to his life-taking tricks, the director keeps his villain invisible. All we see – or better yet, hear – are the horrific imaginary confrontations occurring in Billy’s head. Sometimes spoken out loud (in truly terrifying obscene phone calls to the sorority girls) and sometimes reserved for our killer’s demented thoughts, there is more inherent fear in this aspect of the film than in a dozen, derivative deaths.


But Clark doesn’t stop there. By providing no clear motive or connect to the victims, and never resolving the issue of identity, even at the end, Black Christmas balks at being an open and shut scare film. Instead, it uses the purposeful happenstance of Billy’s “arrival” at the sorority (it is just a random place to hide from a previous, perverted crime) and the indiscriminate way in which life is tripped up and taken to deliver unheard of suspense in a mid-70s movie. In many ways, Christmas stands right along side such well-known terror titles as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carpenter’s Hitchcock homage. Yet because of his incredibly uneven track record, Clark and Black Christmas can’t get the respect they deserve. Instead, a seemingly unending stream of subpar efforts blot out the occasional positives in the man’s varied oeuvre.


Indeed, just like a massive pendulum, Clark’s critical favor always seems to do a deserved about face, moving from ‘easily celebrated’ to ‘undeniably shitty’. Loose Cannons illustrates just how low his reputation can go. Much worse than the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton pariah Rhinestone (which could have never worked, considering the casting and the concept – singer must turn cabby into crooner) and easily usurping the intelligent infant idiocy of the Baby Geniuses films, Cannons is cause for concern from the minute the movie announces its premise. In this dim crime comedy, Hitler made a porn film and it has fallen into the hands of some underground nogoodnicks. Two detectives – Gene Hackman and Dan Ackryroyd - must buddy up and figure out the shady pseudo-pornographic doings before the 90 minute running time expires. Oh, and Danny boy suffers from a surreal psychological disorder which causes him to impersonate famous characters from cartoons and TV shows. 


Yes, it’s as baffling - and BAD - as it sounds, which is shocking when you consider that the screenplay was written by the Mathesons – famed father Richard (I am Legend) and his son Richard Christian. Obviously formulated as a starring vehicle for the rapidly receding power of the former SNLer, Cannons can’t decide if its plot, or its peculiar idea of comedy (Ackryroyd ad-libbing and riffing through a painful parade of “alternate” personalities) is its most important element. It’s literally a movie making up its cinematic rules as it goes along. Oscar winner Hackman seems flummoxed by everything around him, from Danny’s vile voices to Dom Deluise as the most sexually suspect flesh peddler in the entire adult industry. Even worse, the whole Fuhrer f*ck film angle is so shockingly out of character for the narrative – Cannon‘s constantly positions itself as a simple cop/buddy actioner – that its justifiably jarring, and along with the uncompromising amount of onscreen violence, Clark seems to forget the first rule of film – consistent tone is everything.


In fact, that appears to be the problem with many of the man’s movies. When a supposed family film about super smart bratlings hangs the majority of its so-called humor on the suggestion of severe child endangerment, when the schmaltz of a heavyweight Hollywood melodrama – in this case, the legendary Jack Lemmon weeper Tribute – gets lost in a journeymen like lack of staging and emotional substance, overall atmosphere begins messing with your movie. In something like Deathdream, or Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark finds ways to invest his fear with infrequent funny stuff, yet he never once undermines the general mood. But in uneven efforts like From the Hip or the Porky’s films, Clark’s concept of continuity appears to be set on ‘random’. He will introduce uncomfortable sexuality one moment, absolutely uncalled-for slapstick another.


Yet none of this addresses the question of why Clark’s career is so sporadic. It doesn’t explain Black Christmas (or his sensational Sherlock Holmes effort, Murder by Decree), or unravel the mysteries of Rhinestone‘s repugnance. It would be easy to say that Clark is a “personal” filmmaker and be done with it, suggesting that he succeeds when he’s personally interested in a project, and tapers off when his dedication wanes. Maybe there is something to the whole ‘source material’ argument. After all, how could a movie about Nazi nudie films possibly be good? Truth be told, when one pays close attention to Clark’s career, he really is just a lucky stiff whose many missteps fail to fully destroy his irregular reputation. Heck, even A Christmas Story was initially dismissed as a soft, silly seasonal effort and more or less failed at the box office. It took a few years away from the spotlight, and millions of reruns on Ted Turner’s cable networks, to reestablish the film’s family classic stance.


What’s clear from all this filmic archeology is that Bob Clark makes bad movies. His 40 years in the business are riddled with them. Fortunately, he’s also delivered a couple of major (and minor) masterworks. Instead of viewing him like a series of peaks and valleys, it’s best to imagine him as lying in an endless ravine of rot, floundering around like a wayward cinematic soul, only capable of occasionally seeing the light of legitimacy. Time will not rescue him. It is hard to imagine that, decades from now, people will be comparing Loose Cannons or Baby Geniuses to other important artifacts. In fact, it’s safe to say that Clark will be less heralded, and more hated, for his numerous works of noxious nausea. But oh those amazing mountains. It is clear that many a genre maven would gladly trade a gargantuan gorge of Porky’s just to view the summit of something like Black Christmas one more time. Perhaps this justifies Clark’s entertainment existence. Or maybe it makes it that much more confusing. One thing’s for sure – such a puzzling quandary will definitely be Bob Clark’s true lasting legacy. 


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Saturday, Dec 2, 2006


The whitest man in the world (he’s an albino—get it?) sets up shop in his super sweet high tech van (complete with quadraphonic stereo and self destruct button) on the outskirts of an original Stuckey’s rest stop, Canyontownville BFE. After listening to a kick ass eight track of “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group (because he’s an albino—get it?), he proceeds to poison the hillbillys’ drinking water with a vial of Nickelodeon gak. The minute the retarded residents imbibe the brackish brew, they turn all green (and it ain’t from envy). Feeling the need to spread destruction and mayhem, these rejects from the Dr. Seuss’ sequel Bartholomew, the Oobleck and an Uzi set about stabbing, shooting, and scaring the pathetic population of the small town.


The sheriff is too constipated to do anything but lurch about in intestinal distress, and his deputy dog daughter is a floundering reject from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. So as the marauding maniacs render their victims pale with terror (because he’s an ALBINO!!!—UNDERSTAND!?! …oh wait…), it’s up to a runaway cop, a whizzed off lawyer, and his halter top challenged wife (who learns that experimental nerve tonic and silicone just don’t mix) to save this Podunk paradise from a Nightmare at Noon, or maybe 12:23. But if they don’t hurry up and figure this fracas out, our pasty purveyor of all this panic will get away squeaky clean (because he’s an alb…oh, forget it).


Nightmare at Noon, the delightfully deranged action thriller from Nico Mastorakis and Omega Entertainment, is out to do two things and two things only. Mind you, they do both of them very well, but there is not even an attempt at any other aspect to modern moviemaking. They do not create believable characters or craft a clever, tight sci-fi screenplay. They just can’t provide scenes of complex action or dire suspense. And no, there’s not a chance in Chaucer they will manufacture believable zombie killers or authentic high tech gadgets. No, you see, Nightmare at Noon is all about SHOOTING GUNS and BLOWING STUFF UP! YEEEHAAAW!!! That’s right folks! Break out your Anarchist’s Cookbook and dust off that membership to the NRA, because this lunchtime lunacy is a mindless celebration of the meat and potatoes joy of discharging gunpowder. MASSIVE QUANTITES of gunpowder.


If the Chinese could have imagined, a few hundred centuries ago, that the mixing of saltpeter with charcoal and sulphur would result in such a saleable commodity (especially to the effects stunt crew on Nightmare), they would have hopped their hinders down to the local patent office for a trademark on the mayhem maker, in perpetuity. This is one completely wigged out motion picture that, honestly, wants nothing more than to celebrate the explosion, be it from a rifle, a car gas tank, or George Kennedy (another kind of methane reservoir altogether). When last we left Greek director Nico Mastorakis, we were wiping the layer of sleaze off our corneas after being subjected to his cinematic cesspool known as Island of Death. Obviously attempting a kind of direct to video atonement for his previous misdeed, he decided to cut out the emotional middleman and offer the action fan what they truly crave. THAT’S RIGHT—DANG BLASTED GUNS GOING OFF AND GOBS AND GOBS OF STUFF BLOWING UP!!! WHOO BUDDY!!!


There are actually a couple of high quality moments in what is basically a love letter to Alfred Nobel and his superfly TNT. There is a sequence where Kennedy, his daffy daughter, that oddly monikered Wings Hauser, and Little Peep’s Daddy Bo Hopkins walk down main street, Western style, watching as all manner of murderous pandemonium detonates around them. Daddy’s little deputy also has a nice scene where she chases down a murderous mother tormenting her should-have-been-Newt baby girl with a bloody butcher knife. And both the drive-in showdown and the helicopter chase at the end have a decent action aggression to them.


But really this is just a “hope they rent it” retail product, devoid of even the smallest amount of cinematic sense. Logic leaps out the window like Michael Jackson’s progeny, as the tiny western enclave at the center of all this silliness possesses that most wonderful of all narrative non-realities: guns that never need reloading. Characters in this film uncork several trillion rounds of metal projectiles, and magically (obviously with the help of Second Amendment zealot pixies) they can simply squeeze the trigger and always find more. Canyontownvillecity is also the home of the arsonists’ ultimate amusement, the volatile inflammable victim. Every time someone crashes a car, falls to the earth, or is thrown from their motorcycle, they are accompanied by a huge fireball, like the umlauts on a German verb. It’s all part of the film’s fixation with conflagration and shrapnel. Some lover of mindless government conspiracy sci-fi sprinkled quasi Dawn of the Dead-head air rifle ridiculousness may get off on the bad script, worse performances, and lack of narrative closure. But if you simply sit back and let the chemical bombasts pontificate, you will get your C-4 rocks off.


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Friday, Dec 1, 2006


There is no more miserable a miser than Ebenezer Scrooge. Proprietor of Scrooge and Marley moneylenders, practically every merchant in London owes a debt—not of gratitude but of usury—to this horrible old goat. While Scrooge seems to hate all of life in general, there is no more wretched a time for him than Christmas, a season of good cheer and generosity. Owning neither of those aforementioned emotions, but imbued with a substantial wealth of wickedness, the terrible tyrant dismisses his nephew’s holiday invitation, bullies those collecting for charity, and hollers at his hapless employee, the humble Bob Cratchit. Indeed, Scrooge considers the entire celebration a load of “humbug,” and can’t be bothered with its benevolence.


However, things will not be quite so normal this Christmas Eve. Scrooge is shocked to find himself visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, who warns the villain of his vainglorious ways. Marley further condemns Scrooge to be visited by three other spirits—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Be—to show Ebenezer that only by allowing the festiveness of the feast into his soul will he be able to avoid a horrible fate, both in this world and in the hereafter. It will be a journey both enlightening and frightening as a standard Christmas carol turns into the portents of doom for one Ebenezer Scrooge.


Perhaps better at capturing the spirit of Dickens’s beloved Christmas classic than the exact particulars of the plot, Scrooge is still a potent, powerful Yuletide treat. Made in 1970 near the end of the musical’s prominence at, and dominance of, the box office (Oliver! was a universal smash—and Oscar winner—just two years before), this recasting of A Christmas Carol and the tightfisted Ebenezer Scrooge was the brainchild of legendary lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Famed for his partnership with Anthony Newley (the two were responsible for such time-honored favorites as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Stop the World! I Want to Get Off, as well as some well-remembered duds like the original Doctor Doolittle), Bricusse decided to go it on his own in this, his second solo outing providing both words and music. The results are something splendid indeed, a mix of Old World Victorian sentiment with traditional big-budget musical splendor, creating a sumptuous figgy pudding of a film.


Granted, Bricusse is not blessed with Newley’s gift for instantly hummable melody (only the rousing “Thank You Very Much” and “I Like Life” tend to stay with you after the final credits roll). But thanks to the daring, dynamic direction of Roland Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, Hopscotch), the superficial tenets of the tunes are replaced by a real feeling of lushness and depth. Neame gives us a London circa 1860 that we can really sense and experience.


There is an amazing sequence toward the beginning of the film—as Bob Cratchit buys his family’s Christmas feast—where the class system in English society is clearly and cleverly delineated (Cratchit buys the same items as the rich patrons do, with either side of the street representing the chasm in financial standing and means). From the gloomy expanse of Scrooge’s creepy mansion to the iconic elements that we expect from A Christmas Carol (the boisterous Spirit of Christmas Present, the cadaverous Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be), Neame’s eye for detail and design land us squarely in the time and place of this striking, sensational vista.


One of the main reasons why this version of Dickens’s classic is so potent is that Scrooge does a very nice job of rounding out the title character. Usually portrayed as a strange, psychotic skinflint who needs to be bombarded by glad tidings and fear factors before he repents, there is almost always a kind of whiplash schizophrenia to the character as he’s been personified over the years. But in Albert Finney’s case (with additional thanks to Michael Medwin’s wonderful script), this Scrooge is a bastard to be sure, yet one with a heart once much softer, but now hardened by the hardships of life in general. Allowing us a chance, through vignette and song, to learn how Ebenezer Scrooge was abandoned as a boy, unloved as a child, and confused as an adolescent youth, the buildup of personality layers make the parsimonious prig more pitiable than vile. Surely, he says things that stink of sadism and scorn, but there is also a hint of sadness and sorrow in those terrible tirades.


At only 34 years of age, Albert Finney is absolutely brilliant in this film, giving perhaps one of his best Method performances. Some could confuse the occasional theatrics and desire to be even more direct with the role as over-the-top histrionics. But remember what was just said before—Finney was only thirty-four at the time he made this movie, and never once do we doubt Scrooge’s position, age, or resentment. Indeed, when we see the older and younger Ebenezer together during a Christmas Past flashback, we are taken aback for a moment by how startling the actor’s transformation is. Hunchbacked, barking his orders in bitter bon mots, and contorting his face in an attempt to hide all the hidden pain he is feeling, Finney is fabulous, the main reason why any fan of A Christmas Carol would want to visit this song-filled retelling. With a remaining cast that is equally adept at playing both the seriousness and the celebration of the story, you will probably not find a better performed version of this tale anywhere.


Another plus for Scrooge is its attention to terror. Other versions of the Dickens tale forget that it is supposed to be a ghost story, a spook show in which ethereal elements conspire to convert a penny-pinching soul. Instead of serving the spiritual aspects to heighten the horror, many of these miscues downplay the phantasms for a more syrupy, saccharine take. Thankfully, Scrooge avoids this silly soft soap to give their take on A Christmas Carol some spectral teeth. As the ghost of Jacob Marley, Alec Guinness is brilliant, bringing a resigned evil to the role of the messenger of the macabre. His Marley even manages to survive a forgettable song to guide the scared but surly grouch through a whirlwind of creepy spooks (the effects are very good for pre-CGI creations). Though the last act journey to Hell seems a tad out of place (obviously used to really get the message across about Scrooge’s afterlife fate), it is this decision to heighten, not hide, the horror that makes Scrooge such a sweet, substantive seasonal treat.


And don’t be put off by thoughts that this is a musical; indeed, it plays more like an operetta than a song and dance production. Finney is in fine voice (perfectly matching his character’s crotchety conceits), and the compositions all have a mostly downbeat tone, lending the sentiments that much more seriousness. Certainly, the penultimate number “Thank You Very Much” is carved out of the same West End wood as, say, “Consider Yourself,” “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” or “Every Sperm is Sacred” (with the Pythons’ lifting some of Scrooge‘s staging for this wacky Meaning of Life sing-along), but when Scrooge and his lady love Isabel share their romantic intentions, it is with a little set of sonnets, each intermingling into the other to perfectly capture the mood and melancholy of their doomed relationship. Too bad Bricusse couldn’t find the same sort of salient melodic cue for his other heart-tugging number, Tiny Tim’s “The Beautiful Day.” Though achingly rendered by boy soprano surprise Richard Beaumont, the tune is so minor, so tossed off and over with before it can settle in and have an impact, that we almost forget it is supposed to be Tim’s signature internal joy.


Indeed, most of the music in Scrooge is equally evasive. Bricusse’s desire to downplay the showstopper for a more muted, emotional scoring leaves the audience a little bewildered as to why the harmonious moments need to be included at all. The “Christmas Children” number gets annoying by the 15th or 16th inclusion of the word “Christmas,” and “December the 25th” is just an excuse to run the “-ith” rhymes into the ground. While the finale, in which Scrooge experiences his change of heart and gives presents to everyone in town, does a nice job of wrapping up the aural attractions by reprising almost every song sung, what Scrooge really needed was a sonorous end number, something like “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, or “Being Alive” from Company. Though it’s rather nitpicky to intone the lack of dynamics in the soundtrack, the truth is that for any and all of its minor flaws, Scrooge simply “feels” right, presenting the Dickens favorite in a totally fresh and yet completely familiar light


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Thursday, Nov 30, 2006


Here’s something to ponder as your perusing the listings of the latest pay channel premieres – who in their right mind invented eggnog? There are some that argue that Europe is responsible, but they already can lay claim to Nazism and techno, so it’s unfair to pile on so. Others point to the unusual name and take linguistic pot shots at the derivation of the second syllable. Nog could mean ‘noggin’, a little wooden cup. It could also come from ‘grog’, an alcoholic treat taken internally by those with a wish to party holiday hearty. In either case, we here at SE&L can suggest a dozen other drinks to go with a Saturday night of mindless movie watching that are preferable to uncooked eggs laden with liquor. How about warm apple cider loaded with mulling spices and a smart shot of brandy. Or better yet, for the teetotalers in the house, a piping hot mug of Dr. Pepper with a snappy cinnamon stick as garnish. If you like your beverages a little more meaningful, a stout like Guinness could do the trick. But perhaps the best libation this holiday season is a timeless classic – a fluted glass loaded with vintage champagne. Whatever you choose to chug over the 2 December weekend, here are the accompanying cinematic chasers:


HBOA History of Violence*

One of last years’ best films came from one of the industry’s most unusual cinematic sources – Canadian horror hero David Cronenberg. Who would have thought that the man behind such philosophical splatter fests as Rabid , Scanners and Videodrome would take some graphic novel source material and turn out a searing crime drama featuring fascinating performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Maria Bello. This is a movie that’s as brutal in its emotions as it is in its title bloodshed, with secrets revealed, true selves unmasked and homespun wholesomeness soiled and sullied. Though never as flashy or flamboyant as his work in films like The Fly , eXistenZ , or his adaptation of William Burroughs’ classic novel Naked Lunch , Cronenberg’s camera is still stellar, painting a near perfect portrait of the potential evil lurching inside the heart of Middle America. (Saturday 2 December, 8pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxKing Kong (2005)*

Now that it has had almost a year to reconfigure its relevance in the realm of cinema, Peter Jackson’s drop dead brilliant reimagining of the Giant Ape epic can finally demand the respect it so richly deserves. The small screen may not be the perfect place to appreciate the epic scope of this undertaking (SE&L still remembers the massive case of vertigo it got during the climactic battle atop the Empire State Building) but it’s hard to deny Jackson’s way with action and adventure. Some may still feel that this geek freak filmmaker let his love of the subject matter overwhelm his ambitions, providing this relatively simply story with way too much cinematic pomp and circumstance, but for our scratch, no one makes mega-blockbusters like this confirmed Kiwi genius. Our main man did this massive monkey proud.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


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StarzEight Below

Frank Marshall, famous for his collaborations with a certain Steven Spielberg (a trip over to IMDb confirms his connections – and stature) has made a few movies of his own over the last two decades. Unfortunately, they have names like Alive , Congo and Arachnophobia . Here he’s dealing with the semi-true story of a group of sled dogs forced to fend for themselves in the frozen tundra of Antarctica. Naturally, the inherent cuteness of the mutts is balanced out by the potential life and death struggle – at least, at first. Then Marshall realizes that kids will probably cry, A LOT , if something horrible happens to these loveable curs. So he cuts back on the action and inserts more unnecessary subplots involving human ‘hero’ Paul Walker. Really nothing more than family friendly filler for a wired wee one’s weekend eve.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 9pm EST).


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ShowCaseSuspect Zero

Now here’s a movie with a far more interesting backstory than the actual narrative up on the screen. Screenwriter Zak Penn saw his serial killing serial killer story get bumped around from studio to studio/superstar to superstar for over seven years. Frustrated by the rejection he was even more dejected when Suspect Zero finally saw the light of day. What was supposed to redefine the genre came out sloppy and silly. Audiences obviously agreed, as this so-called thriller came and went with little or no fanfare. Two years post-release and many still see it as a Silence of the Se7en Lambs rip-off. Not even the outlandish cinematic flare of director E. Elias Merhige (of Begotten and Shadow of the Vampire fame) could infuse this flop with the necessary stylized suspense. (Saturday 2 December, 10:05pm EST)


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ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 1/2 December, the late, great Vincent Price is featured in:


The Conqueror Worm
Price gives one of his best, most commanding performances as a traveling prosecutor of witches in 17th Century England.
(2am EST)


The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Campy but cruel, Price is incredibly effective as the title terror, an disfigured physician seeking revenge on those he believes are responsible for his wife’s death.
(3:30am EST)


 


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year , right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 2 December are:



White Christmas
(Turner Classic Movies, 1 December, 11:30AM EST)
Actually, this is the SECOND time the seminal seasonal song by Irving Berlin was featured in a Yuletide movie starring Bing Crosby. The first? Holiday Inn , of course.


Santa Claus: The Movie
(ABC Family Channel, 2 December, 11:30AM EST)
Featuring death, greed and undersized British actors as elves, this holiday horror is so bloated on its own brazen belief in self that it has to be seen to be appreciated.


The Polar Express
(ABC Family Channel, 8 December, 11:30AM EST)
Sure, the 3-D animation renders all the humans in the film robotic and creepy, but there is still something quite endearing about this Robert Zemeckis effort.


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