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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 9: Dil Chata Hai (“The Heart Wants…”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Farhan Akhtar
It was India’s first yuppie movie. Dil Chata Hai was so hip and “modern” that audiences referred to it as a Hollywood movie dubbed in Hindi. The influence of Doug Liman’s Swingers and the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s pervades Farhan Akhtar’s coming of age story about three wealthy Bombayites fresh out of college and experiencing love for the first time. Akash (Aamir Khan), Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) and Siddharth (Akshaye Khanna), who have been friends since childhood, find their relationship threatened by Siddharth’s attraction to a lovely, but emotionally damaged divorcee.  The three guys finally find romance, and each has an accompanying musical number according to true Bollywood fashion. The attractive leads and the beautiful locations in Goa and Sydney aside, the songs are the high point of Dil Chata Hai. Buoyant, catchy, sophisticated, they prove that long-time screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar (Farhan’s dad), a staple the ‘70s and ‘80s, only got better with age. One particular song, “Woh Ladki Hai Kahan” (“Where is That Girl”), is a rare delight. Sameer takes his new girlfriend Pooja to the movies and as the film starts they envision themselves as the leads in the movie they’re watching, dancing through time, tap-dancing on a black and white soundstage, twisting on a beach, and frolicking along a picturesque mountainside like the famous heroes and heroines of past Hindi movies. It’s one of those glorious musical numbers where everything, the song, the chemistry between the dancers, the timing, is perfect. Dil Chata Hai was a refreshing aberration from more traditional, ritual-laced family fare to more stylish, progressive movies for upper-middle class audiences.


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Monday, Sep 25, 2006

You can tell that October is less than a week away. Like the sudden emergence of hearts and flowers come Valentines, or tinsel and trade ads near Christmas, Halloween’s arrival means just one thing to individuals in the media: time to break out the spooky stuff and give the fright fan what they want. That’s why, among the items of interest posted today as part of SE&L’s weekly DVD picks and passes, there are dozens of alternative choices, discs with titles like Dark Waters, Pet Sematary, as well as a collection of living dead epics including cult classics Burial Ground and Zombie Holocaust. As the pagan’s favorite day on the calendar draws neigh, we will be seeing more and more macabre-oriented product. It’s a boon for the creature feature aficionado – a chore for anyone looking for a cinematic choice based in recognizable reality. Still, there are a few notable non-supernatural offerings out there, including an overlooked love story, a cute kiddy cartoon, and the unnecessary sequel to an unlikely car culture hit. And if those don’t get your entertainment juices flowing, there’s always the final installment in Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance trilogy. For 26 September, the saleable suspects are:


Curious George *
Ah, two dimensional animation. The lost art of pen and ink cartooning. It’s so comforting to see the flat cell technique employed here – versus the absolute onslaught of CG-insanity currently crowding the Cineplex - that one can almost overlook the flaws in this classic kiddie series big screen adaptation…almost. Granted, Will Ferrell’s comedic physicality is more or less lost doing voice-over chores as the celebrated Man in the Yellow Hat, but Drew Barrymore is likeable as his love interest - and then there’s George. With a style reminiscent of the slapstick silliness of the past and none of the cloying pop culture ‘cleverness’ that ruins so much of today’s family fare, the magical little monkey with the impish grin and title inquisitiveness still symbolizes the way in which a child views this big, baffling world. It’s the perfect frame of reference for the pre-tween target audience, who will simply adore this spunky simian.



The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
You couldn’t enter a Multiplex this summer and not be enveloped by this film’s hideously annoying tie-in track – the Teriyaki Boys Asian atrocity “Tokyo Drift”. Oddly enough, the song lasted longer than the film. In and out as quickly as the whole cool car-racing genre unleashed by the original F&F, this meaningless revisit probably killed the floundering franchise. Dealing with the supposedly street savvy ‘sport’ of ‘drifting’ (otherwise known as purposeful fishtailing), the move to Japan merely heightened the unreality of the whole enterprise. Only in the movies can gangs of car junkies ride ramshackle through major metropolitan areas, endangering the lives of millions of innocent commuters and come out with only minor automotive damage. All lazy legal ramifications aside, that maddening multicultural rap will probably be this film’s only lasting legacy.



PopMatters Review


Lady Vengeance *
It’s no surprise that, as part of Asian culture, concepts such as honor, pride and payback are strict social and personal principles. What is shocking is how far some filmmakers will go to stress these timeless and important traditions. After the walloping one-two punch of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and 2003’s amazing Oldboy, director Chan-wook Park completes his signature series by putting the payback squarely in the hands of the so-called ‘weaker’ sex. Again focusing on the wrongly accused and imprisoned, as well as the sensational stylized set pieces that mark his auteur aesthetic, we witness another spectacle of slaughter in all its Grand Guignol grooviness. Some have been taken aback by Park’s approach to violence, claiming its geek show mentality is really antithetical to the themes he’s addressing. But when it comes to vigilante justice, one demands blood, not moralizing, and Park delivers the deluge in claret-colored spades.



The Lake House *
In a Summer full of insufferable projects, many avoided this Western remake of the Korean classic Siworae. It didn’t help matters much that it touted its time-crossed love story as the much anticipated re-teaming of Speed co-stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. With the dust now settling on said season of cinematic disappointments, The Lake House seems ready for redemption. After the baffling ballistics of a typical blockbuster effort, this slightly science fictional romance about a magical mailbox, a gorgeous glass structure, and the two lost souls who reside/resided within, was dismissed as slight and sentimental. But there is something coolly cathartic about a good old fashioned weeper, and while many critics seem to shutter at the thought of something emotional, Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti mostly avoids the maudlin. The results are perfect for a late Fall evening cuddled up with someone you love.


 


PopMatters Review


The Last Broadcast *
The Blair Witch Project got all the kudos – and the box office coin - but this far more effective mockumentary from directors Stefan Avelos and Lance Weiler was there first, and handled the strikingly similar subject matter in a less expletive-filled, Gen-X derivative fashion. Following the story of a cable access program searching for the mythic “Jersey Devil” in the legend-laced Pine Barrens, Avelos and Weiler create a moody murder mystery out of Witch‘s sense of a wilderness unknown, and an evil unleashed. Though many point to the subjective shift at the end as Broadcast‘s only drawback, the truth is that everything that Burkittsville bunkum tried to do, this effectively eerie effort actually accomplished. Witch was just a gimmick. Broadcast is a welcome and more worthwhile addition to the horror movie genre.



A Nightmare on Elm Street: Two Disc Infinifilm Edition *
Some argue that Wes Craven reinvented the movie macabre when he unleashed Scream, and all its ‘nod and a wink’ irony, on audiences in 1996. In actuality, it was the THIRD time in his career that this formidable filmmaker took on the sloppy standards of the post-modern scary movie and reconfigured its sensibilities. Like Last House on the Left in the ‘70s, A Nightmare on Elm Street offered the terror tale sanctuary from all of its ‘80s slasher silliness. It’s rare when an artist creates a timeless genre icon, but in Freddy Krueger, Craven gave actor Robert Englund the filmic foundation to shape a truly emblematic creature, one that fit perfectly in with the era’s growing concerns over children and their safety. While this version is a double dip over a previously issued DVD, the amazing amount of extras will convince you to give this title a try. It is one of the best horror films ever made.


The Notorious Bettie Page *
There is so much more to her story and significance that trying to decipher the life and times of this pre-pornography pin-up in a single ninety minute movie seems like an impossible task. Yet I Shot Andy Warhol‘s Mary Harron does a bright, breezy job of capturing the time, and the temperament, of its title figure. While Page’s still enigmatic allure is never fully explained - a visual uniqueness that stands out, significantly, alongside the other equally photographed models of the time - Harron is successful in showing how a small town Tennessee girl became an exploitation icon. Employing a carefree attitude toward the entire girlie-que industry, comfortable shooting cheesecake as well as more controversial subject matter stills, Page was a pioneer in redefining the role women would play in the post-War period. As a primer on her part in the subsequent revolutionizing of sex, this bouncy biopic is a winner.



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 26 September:


Street Trash: Two Disc ‘Meltdown’ Edition *
It is, perhaps, the most unlikely subject matter for a horror film ever devised. A group of derelict homeless winos, led by an ex-Vietnam War veteran who takes his frequent combat flashbacks out on the surrounding populace in decidedly homicidal ways, begin drinking a new cheap hooch that’s hitting the street. Unfortunately, one of Tenafly Viper’s liquor-laced drawbacks is the unfortunate side effect of personal putrescence. That’s right, one sip and you start to ‘bleed’ out in a multi-colored array of bodily fluids. While a gun-ho cop tries to capture the rogue hobo, the rest of the street trash are turning into polychromatic pudding. A masterpiece made by fright film fans for fright film fans, Trash has long been unavailable on DVD. Last year, Synapse Films promised a new, fully tricked out edition would follow their orignal single disc presentation. They weren’t lying. This is, hands down, one of the best movies of the late ‘80s, given a proud post-millennial package that will be hard to top come time for year-end accolades.



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Sunday, Sep 24, 2006


He was more of a fashion accessory than a celebrity, a chiseled example of Hungarian beefcake perfectly complementing his wife’s over-sexualized cheese. But there was more to Mickey Hargitay than as brawn to Jayne Mansfield’s buxom beauty. While together they may have resembled biology gone baroque, individually, Hargitay and his much more famous bride were athletics and oranges. She was a considered caricature of the era’s leading visage of sensual beauty. Her talent was never measured in performances, but in appearance. For the rest of her tragically short life, Jayne Mansfield would fight against her summarization as a sex object, trying to avoid being championed solely on her chest. For her foreign born husband however, physicality was all he had.


Born into an athletic family (the Hargitay’s frequently preformed as an acrobatic troupe in their native Hungary), bodybuilding was not young Miklos’ first passion. He was a championship ice skater, and skilled at soccer. It wasn’t until he came to America in the 1940s to escape his country’s compulsory military service that he discovered the joys of muscle training and toning. Considered by most to be an odd, even perverted obsession with the human form, there was very little fame, or fortune, in being a muscleman. Yet the minute he discovered the joys of the gym, Hargitay proved he was a natural at the fledging sport and it wasn’t long before he was winning titles long dominated by Americans. In 1955, Hargitay was crowned Mr. Universe, matching the accomplishment of his inspiration and idol, Steve Reeves.


The surrounding recognition finally placed him within the flickering cultural spotlight. The saucy old school actress and nightclub personality Mae West – never one to pass up a well-built body – immediately hired Hargitay to be part of her revue in New York City. Suddenly, the untrained 30 year old was appearing before cosmopolitan crowds, the leering butt of West’s wicked wordplay and entendres. One night, reigning Broadway novelty Jayne Mansfield came to the Latin Quarter club to catch West’s act. The legend goes that, when asked what she was interested in that evening, Mansfield cooed “I’ll have a steak…and that man on the left”. Soon, Hargitay and his newfound heartthrob were inseparable.


They married in 1958. Hargitay went on to take a few small roles in Mansfield’s movies, including the triumphant big screen translation of her Great White Way hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He even got to mimic his inspiration Reeves by portraying the mythic strongman in 1960’s The Loves of Hercules. It wasn’t long though before the novelty of both Hargitay and his honey started wearing off. After his stint hosting a TV exercise program and her string of unsuccessful starring roles, the couple soon found themselves working within the ridiculed realm of exploitation. In 1963, Mansfield bared all for the camera with Promises! Promises!, and 1964 saw Primitive Love, a sort of sex comedy spoof on the Mondo movie craze sweeping cinema.


Like all pairings that seem more aesthetically than interpersonally pleasing, Hargitay and Mansfield grew apart, then divorced. Taking custody of the three kids (including future Emmy winner and Law and Order star Mariska) and attempting to find a place in the unforgiving realm of fame, the more or less lost 41 year old wasn’t prepared for the shocking news of his ex-wife’s gruesome death in 1967. Reduced to performing a puerile, tacky club act overloaded with insinuation and kitsch, Mansfield was traveling between shows when her car was hit, head on, by a semi-tractor trailer truck. Killed almost instantly, the resulting carnage was brutal, becoming a media milestone in the still developing realm of tabloid journalism. The grindhouse gang even utilized the ghastly accident scene photos for an incredibly distasteful “documentary” on the actress entitled The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. Of course, a grieving Hargitay and his children were featured in all their devastated sorrow. 


Now totally on his own, celebrity wise, Hargitay tried. He played a sadistic figure of vengeance in the Eurotrash classic The Bloody Pit of Horror, and starred in a few low budget Italian genre efforts. Yet by the mid 70s, his uniqueness had all but worn off. Mission: Impossible had given Peter Lupus (another noted bodybuilder) a shot at stardom, and he had proven much more versatile. Besides, another Eastern European was establishing his muscle man credentials on the circuit, and by the time of Hargitay’s final film role in 1973’s Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on his way to his third straight Mr. Olympia title – and future superstardom. By the ‘80s, Hargitay was nothing more than a footnote, a forgotten figure in the life of an equally lapsed “love goddess”. In one of those ironies that only show business can support, a 1980 biopic of Mansfield featured Schwarzenegger as Jayne’s buff better half.

His latter years were not empty. Hargitay had remarried in 1967, and new wife Ellen would be his last life partner, remaining by his side until his death from multiple myeloma at age 80 on 14, September of this year. Hargitay had also been successful in business, and Schwarzenegger often pointed to him as the role model by which he modeled his professional and athletic career. Daughter Mariska slowly built her resume in Hollywood, and now stands as one of TV’s dramatic powerhouses. And thanks to the archival aspect of the new home video revolution, much of his and Mansfield’s dismissed work has enjoyed a kind of kitschy, cornball nostalgia. Yet lost within all this retro revisionism and show business scavenging is a wholly forgotten fact. Hargitay and Mansfield represented the beginnings of the body objectification that the present day pop culture lives by.


Unlike Marilyn Monroe, or the more obvious examples of sexual stardom to come, Jayne Mansfield was a classic cartoon, carnal in only the way an over-inflated dish like she could be. And in the world of corporeal synchronicity, she required a man large enough to fit her copious and unapologetic feminine fertility. Hargitay, all tight skin sculpting and Greek god idolatry, was the perfect personal accompaniment. He was considered male model of machismo - a manlier Steve Reeves, a less militant Jack La Lanne. Better yet, he proved that a few hours in the gym and some minor consideration for the way one looked could and would land you the sex siren straight out of the pages of those newfangled “men’s” magazines. They were the Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson of the Eisenhower era, the Nick and Jessica of the pre-Camelot crowd. In a world not ready for outright discussions of lust and physical love, Mansfield and Hargitay represented the possibility, and the problems, associated with same.


Sadly, with his passing, Hargitay takes with him the last vestiges of that time. The couple’s infamous ‘Pink Palace’ – a cheesy mansion complete with a heart-shaped swimming pool – has long been raised by the current owner, and the seemingly outrageous physical forms that the couple carried have been usurped by individuals buying completely into the omnipresent plastic surgery concept of personal success. In a time where overweight businessmen accompanied their haggard housefrau wives to the local hot spot for a few potent potables and a little so-called sophisticated entertainment, Mansfield and Hargitay were said ideal’s illustrated Id. Now, they are just forgotten facets of a pre-revolution sexuality.


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Saturday, Sep 23, 2006


Granted, it’s not the smartest sci-fi action film ever made. Indeed, with Equilibrium helmer Kurt Wimmer in charge, Ultraviolet is nothing more than a surreal slice of future shock that is all approach and pure artifice. Attempting a recreate the look and feel of a comic book come to life (there’s an original idea) and utilizing the fanboys favorite faux action queen – Resident Evil‘s Milla Jovovich - Wimmer wanted to exploit the notion of vampirism without having to deal with all that hoary old mythology. Instead, he envisioned this epic as a deconstruction of health-based racism mixed with Big Brother style government malevolence and a healthy dose of swordplay. He almost succeeded. In fact, Ultraviolet may be the most ambitious, over the top and shamelessly guilty pleasure ever created. Filled with stunning and stupid action setpieces, it’s the kind of craven confection that would have Big Jim McBob and Billy Saul Hurock of SCTV‘s Farm Film Report fame stating – “it blowed up good. It blowed up real good!”


But all predominant pyrotechnics aside, a great deal of Ultraviolet‘s delight comes from the film’s flawless hyperstylized design. Wimmer is someone who believes in a new variation on that old adage, ‘less is more’. In his mind, more is never enough, and extreme excess is the only way to create plausible entertainment pleasure. Why have one villain when you can have 50? Why fire off 10 rounds of ammunition when 10,000 are so much more…ballistic? Vistas need to fill the screen, technological advances require massive amounts of CGI candy coating. True, somewhere in the middle of all this optical falderal is a slightly stupid story about a genetically engineered weapon (who turns out to be a boy) and the super-powered heroine trying to protect him. But the narrative is substantively secondary to all the bells, whistles, sleek surfaces and whiz-bang gadgetry. So sit back, turn off your brain, and let your amusement aesthetic cruise on pure pulp adrenaline. You’ll feel sorry afterwards, but as a mindless, misguide movie, Ultraviolet goes down incredibly smooth.


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Friday, Sep 22, 2006


After a series of highly ambitious, but financially unrewarding efforts – including his gross out revamp of The Thing, an adaptation of Stephen King’s classic killer car novel Christine, Starman‘s stellar sci-fi romanticism and that unique take on the martial arts comedy known as Big Trouble in Little China – John Carpenter wanted to get back to his low budget genre roots. His idea? Make a movie using both a theological and a scientific basis for the existence of evil. Mixing physics with the supernatural and arguing that Satan’s potential return to Earth for Armageddon may just be a provable mathematical theorem, we follow a group of graduate students as they try to unlock the secrets of viscous liquid swirling around in an abandoned church basement. Toss in a little unconscious bi-location, rocker Alice Cooper as the leader of a zombie-like clan of homeless people, and a smart, intelligent script, and you’ve got all the makings for a highbrow horror classic. Naturally, it bombed at the box office.


Yet brains are only part of the reason why Prince of Darkness is so special. Throwing away the typical conventions of your standard dumb monster movie, and dealing with fear and evil in engaging philosophical debates, Carpenter created as much a comment on the nature of wickedness as he does an illustration of same. In fact, the last act of the film could easily be mistaken for a standard scarefest, with the possessed servant of Satan (or his actual disembodied son) looking for minions, as well as a way to bring his dethroned Dad back to prominence. With a stellar cast including Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, Carpenter argued that there were still some major motion picture shivers left in the old shockmeister. Sadly, after the fun social satire of They Live, and the uneven if effective In the Mouth of Madness, this would be the last significant Carpenter creepfest. But it is clearly one of his best. 


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