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Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

If you believe the experts, the Summer of 2006 was a disaster of epic proportions. From the opening salvo of the less than winning Mission: Impossible III to the final fizzle of Snakes on a Plane, what should have been a fairly consistent season of quality fare became a quagmire of stagnant, sloppy entertainment. Granted, some still found their fun where they could: the supposedly inventive fear factors of The Descent; the sexy superficiality of Miami Vice‘s calculated crime thriller; Adam Sandler’s spiral into Frank Capra Click mode. Even among the perceived slips, the offerings that failed to live up to their hyperbolized potential, there were moments of magic: Hammy’s supersonic bullet-time trip through an entire backyard in Over the Hedge; Superman’s shuttle save; the fall of many an X-Men mutant, including an especially cruel comeuppance for every fanboy’s favorite shapeshifter; Jack Black’s naïve Nacho finding solace, and stretchy pants, among the much admired luchadore. In fact, the Summer of 2006 can best be described as a season of moments – movies that failed to completely coalescence into the blockbusters of old, but still delivered their own meaningful measures of pleasure.


And then there was the real rubbish – the kind of cinematic cesspools that make your filings ache, your brain bubble, and your ass shift painfully in its supposed seat of stadium-level comfort. They are the reasons audiences rebuff the Cineplex and await an eventual rental. They cause seismic shifts in the entertainment continuum and foster the near universal belief in a certain industry’s lack of originality or ethos. All five of the failures sited by SE&L as the noxious nadir of the artform were created by the so-called major studios. One even featured the most consistent box office draw of the last decade. The list includes one unfunny comedy, two thrill-free adventure yarns, an incredibly artificial “bedtime story” and a near shot-for-shot remake of a macabre classic. All together, they form a pentacle of paltriness, a shining symbol of ideas poorly executed and money mindboggling wasted. Hollywood ponied up nearly a half a BILLION dollars ($449 million to be exact) to bring these strident stink bombs to the screen. And you thought the Federal Government was the only out of control entity that could waste hard earned dinero like that, huh? So, with little fanfare or flourish, SE&L offers up the Worst Movies of Summer 2006.


5. Lady in the Water
Call it his long anticipated fall from grace, or a clear case of ego overdrive, but somewhere buried inside this incredibly dopey faux fairy tale is a pretty intriguing idea, actually. Indeed, the notion of otherworldly spirit guides attempting connections with those they are destined to direct has a nice sense of internal awe. Unfortunately, that substrata Spielberg, otherwise known as M. Night Shyamalan, decided to muck up such a fragile flight of fancy with his annoying preoccupation with foreshadowing. From the moment we see the residents living inside the Paul Giamatti-supervised apartment complex, we see the ‘signs’ of future narrative manipulation. Then Shyamalan tries to pull a last act fast one, changing the character dynamic in a final ditch effort at inventiveness. It fails, as does most of this flop of fancy.



PopMatters Review


4. The Da Vinci Code
So this is what the wait was all about? This was the thriller that satisfied a trillion airline passengers and created a cottage industry out of opinions both pro and con? Indeed, if this was the result of all the hype, all the history, and all the hissy fits, Ron Howard and his cinematic partner in mind crime known as Akiva Goldsman shouldn’t have bothered. By the time of its release, everyone knew the essential secret at the center of Dan Brown’s undeniably popular novel. Even avoiding the book’s fictional facets, your average film fan knew that all plotlines pointed to Jesus, Mary and a less than ‘Immaculate’ conception. All that was left was the big screen interpretation of such intrigue. And what we got was a near literal translation of Brown’s boring prose amplified by Goldsman’s lack of compelling characterization. How anticlimactic.


PopMatters Review


3. Poseidon
Somewhere, in the great cinematic beyond, Irwin Allen is wearing the afterlife’s biggest shit-eating grin. All the respect and critical praise he craved during his tenure as a multimedia laughing stock finally arrived on the heals of this misguided remake of his 1972 capsized cruise ship classic. Wolfgang Peterson, continuing his obsession with CGI water, concocts a heartless stunt show overflowing with Rube Goldberg-esque escapes and hollow human beings. Word is that Warner Brothers demanded over a half hour of cuts – almost all dealing with personal backstory and conflict between the players - after several unsuccessful test screenings. Many demanded that the film simply “get on with the disaster”. Never before in the history of cinema has a studio satisfied the mandates of its focus groups this effectively. Poseidon is the catastrophe they craved. 


PopMatters Review


2. The Omen 2006
Barely losing (beating) out to the number one entry on the SE&L list, this pointless remake of a ‘70s horror heavyweight did something many thought impossible – it made the Devil seem dull. From it’s crackpot casting that had infantile performers playing parts at least a decade beyond their birthdate, and a David Setzer script that more or less mimicked his original 1976 version (he wrote both movies), the sense of demonic déjà vu was intense. Unfortunately, it was the only powerful thing in this Laguna Beach level update. But perhaps the biggest mistake made here was turning tiny Damien, spawn of Satan, into a smug, smiling villain. Originally, the Antichrist was evil in an innocent’s garb. Here he’s just a standard scare tactic.


PopMatters Review


1. Little Man
Has there ever been a bigger waste of theoretical talent than the Wayans Brothers? When In Living Color stands as the capper to your entire creative career, it’s difficult to debate such a declaration. In this horribly unfunny film, using modern technology to recreate decades-old Our Gang/Bugs Bunny shorts, siblings Shawn and Marlon set the cause of black cinema back 40 eons and a mule with this stupefying shuck and jive. It’s not just that this story of a dwarf criminal who passes as a baby to regain a stolen gemstone lacks any real semblance of logic (we’re talking about a grown up, with easily identifiable, if arguably miniaturized, man-parts here). No, Little Man‘s biggest offense is the determined belittlement of one entire race – called “the human”. 



PopMatters Review


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Tuesday, Aug 29, 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 fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 5: Sholay (“Flames”)
1975, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Ramesh Sippy
The best masala movie ever made. A masala movie is a subgenre of Indian cinema created by enterprising producers to cater to all the diverse tastes of an audience in a single film. Masala is Hindi for “spice,” and refers to a blend of multiple flavors (as in “curry” powder). In movie terms, this translates to a musical romantic-comedy/action-adventure that offers everything - fights, laughs, love scenes, dance numbers, and family melodrama - all in the course of three-and-a-half hours.  Warning: First-time viewers may find the masala movie slightly indigestible—a cinematic sensory overload. But if you want to get a taste of the most popular type of movie in Indian commercial cinema, start here: two conmen on the run are recruited by a village landowner to hunt down and capture the ruthless bandit that murdered his sons. In essence it’s a musical spaghetti western set in rural India. The movie made a star out of its hero, Amitabh Bachan, who is so beloved even today, that when he was hospitalized a few months ago, hundreds of Indians flocked to the temples to pray and light candles. Watching Sholay, you can’t help but wallow in its elemental pleasures: the joyous chemistry between the two male leads, Bachan and 70s matinee-idol, Dharmendra and their uproariously bad-ass behavior (like the scene where they help the village-belle gather mangos by flippantly shooting them off a tree with their pistols), the sassy, Jean Harlow slapstick of Hema Malini’s village-belle, and the delicious satisfaction we feel at the demise of the bloodthirsty villain, Gabbar Singh (played with sadistic panache by character actor Amjad Khan). Sholay is an unpretentious classic. It reminds us of why we go to the movies in the first place: to be entertained.


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Monday, Aug 28, 2006

Believe it or not, there are only 90 days before Thanksgiving, and start of the holiday gift giving season. It’s important to remember this when considering the upcoming DVD releases for the week of 29, August. Many distributors are purposefully holding back on key titles, waiting for the arrival of the pomp and commercialized circumstance associated with Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Others are opting to save certain discs to coincide with anniversaries, fall theatrical films, or the proper consumer-oriented environment. Whatever the rationale, we have another mixed bag at the brick and mortar, examples of Independent excellence sitting snuggly between innocuous major studio fare. There’s even another version of Peter Jackson’s Oscar winning triumph up for grabs. The discs that have caught SE&L’s eye for this installment of Who’s Minding the Store are:


Akeelah and the Bee*
Following hot on the heels of 2005’s similarly styled Bee Season, this uplifting story of a young spelling savant and her many personal travails continued the curious trend of films based on the new found novelty of an old fashioned educational competition. With quality performances from Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett, and some smart things to say about how racial and class divisions impact intelligence and/or the perception of same, the unbridled underdog formula gets a fresh coat of social significance here. While it may be a bit maudlin, this is still a solid feel-good effort.



PopMatters Review


Brother Bear 2
Never one to miss an opportunity at pilfering their previous efforts, Disney delivers an unnecessary sequel to a film no one really cared about in the first place. It remains a media mystery why a company that, until recently, turned its back on traditional animation would continue to forward pointless pen and ink revamps of their past catalog. About the only recommendable element in this Native American nature retread is the return of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as moose versions of their Bob and Doug MacKenzie characters. Otherwise, it’s just more callous cartooning.



Friends with Money*
With previous Indie gems Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing under her belt, writer/director Nicole Holofcener explores the day-to-day dilemmas of the well to do and privileged. Using Jennifer Aniston as her poor, problem-plagued guide, and the by now accepted theory that money only adds to issues, Holofcener creates a character study that’s as insightful as it is inspired. Thanks to stellar turns by Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusak, we really don’t mind that nothing gets solved in the end. Yet the feeling of understanding and empathy between this collection of companions seems stronger than ever.



PopMatters Review


Let’s Scare Jessica to Death*
It looks like standard scare fodder – a recently released mental patient named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) moves into a spooky old house with her husband and friend. She wants to turn her failed life around and become stronger. Sadly, someone also wants to put the film’s title tenet to the test. This longtime MIA release from Paramount promises to be nothing more than a bare bones DVD presentation (meaning no significant bonus features whatsoever), but when you’ve got an inventive, nightmare vision of horror as sound as that created by co-writer/director John D. Hancock, who needs a bunch of digital bells and whistles.



Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World
In a perfect world, a new Albert Brooks comedy would be a cause for humor hurrahs. Even more anticipated would be this surreal stand-up’s second attempt at the imaginative mockumentary format (the first being 1979’s Real Life). Sadly, this ineffectual effort seems forced, failing to fully tap into Brooks’ breakneck brazenness. While the idea holds a great deal of promise – Brooks is sent by the US Government to gain a better understanding of the Muslim people via their sense of humor – almost nothing here works. This could be the reason why his most recent efforts were met with caution, not celebration. Consistency may not be Brooks’ strong point.


 


PopMatters Review


The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Limited Edition*
Okay – this is somewhat of a cheat. There have already been two separate releases for each film in this spectacular series, including stand-alone theatrical packages and mammoth, four disc extended edition extravaganzas. So why put this latest triple dip on the weekly SE&L update? Well, quite frankly, no filmmaker has successfully fulfilled his promise as a vital new visionary better than Peter Jackson. With both versions of each film available on these two disc sets, and new documentaries to boot, there is no longer any excuse to avoid owning what is arguably the definitive cinematic trilogy.



Seduced and Abandoned: Criterion Collection
After the success of his cultural comedy Divorce, Italian Style Italian auteur Pietro Germi presented this second savvy marital satire. Dealing directly with subjects significant to the Mediterranean maverick, including duty, honor, tradition and male machismo, the result was a mirror on the confounding contradictions inside Sicilian society. Utilizing a brash, almost cartoonish approach to his narrative, this fine forgotten film finally gets the lavish treatment from Criterion that it genuinely deserves. With a magnificent monochrome transfer and a wealth of added content, this DVD, and the movie it contains, definitely deserve a second chance to shine.



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 29, August:


Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 10*
Granted, this is a four disc collection of one of the greatest TV shows ever created, but since the central premise involves a test subject and his robot friends making fun of bad movies, we at SE&L feel it easily fits into the “film only” dictates of the Blog. Included here for the first time are a sensational slice of Toho goodness (Godzilla vs. Megalon), an example of Bill Rebane’s addled approach to film (The Giant Spider Invasion), a Roger Corman release he’d probably rather forget (Swamp Diamonds) and a mangled murder mystery (Teen-Age Strangler). Together they present an outstanding overview of the MST3K universe, and how weirdly, wickedly funny it is. Anyone who wonders why this series is so beloved need only look here for the obvious answer.


 


*=PopMatters Picks


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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

It was, for the most part, a pretty mediocre summer movie season. All the proposed blockbusters were either artistic or critical busts (with one major exception) while smaller films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Descent snuck up on audiences and proved far more inventive and satisfying. Four months ago everyone was talking about the impact The Da Vinci Code would have, as well as the potential domination of Superman Returns over the rest of the popcorn film landscape. Now, as September slowly arrives, we’re questioning New Line’s ‘Net-only strategy regarding Snakes on a Plane and wondering if Monster House would have done better as a Halloween release. Yes, there were a few legitimate lessons to be learned amidst all the hype and hoopla: Will Ferrell showed that if Larry the Cable Guy ever decides to retire, the former SNL-er may have a viable career as a NASCAR comic; M. Night Shyamalan completed the fall from grace every fanboy has been expecting since Unbreakable‘s last five minutes; prestige performer Meryl Streep may be a summer movie’s biggest secret weapon; and CGI continues to cannibalize itself.


Indeed, from the mundane machismo of Michael Mann’s reimagined Miami Vice to the feel good fizzle of World Trade Center, the Summer of 2006 continued to illustrate the incredibly sad fact that original ideas are scarce, star power means very little in light of a bad script and sloppy execution, and superheroes in the wrong hands aren’t quite so ‘super’. Still, there were a few releases worth cheering for, movies that managed to not only entertain, but exemplify the new niche oriented approach to motion picture subject and salability. Gone are the days when one film completely dominates the pop culture consciousness (again, with one major exception). In its place are dozens of offerings, each one speaking to a specific individual audience. So, without further ado, SE&L presents its picks for the Top 5 films of Summer 2006:


5. Cars
Say what you want about Pixar’s latest anthropomorphic epic, but no other animation company working today has such a consistent track record in pushing the artistic and emotional limits of CGI. While many felt that this was one of the rare occasions where technology and technical skill got the better of the storytelling, there is still something awe inspiring and adventurous about this tale of an egotistical race car that learns friendship and humility among the automotive residents of a forgotten Route 66 city. Granted, the wistful appeal of the open road contributed a great deal to the film’s considerable scope, but it was the voice acting work of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Michael Keaton and Bonnie Hunt that gave this film it’s poignancy and heart.



PopMatters Review


4. Monster House
Perhaps the biggest snafu that occurred this summer was the decision to release this brisk fall snap of a picture in the middle of one the muggiest, most humid seasons on record. Using the motion capture technique advanced during the creation of The Polar Express, Executive Producer Robert Zemeckis, along with old pal Steven Spielberg, found the perfect combination of story and filmmaker (first timer Gil Kenan) to realize their vision of real life recreated in a remarkable animated fashion. The result was a Goonies for the post-millennial masses, a smart, intelligent adventure that avoided many of the artforms more obvious clichés (pop culture references, stunt voice casting) to forge a generally exciting, incredibly inventive film.



3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
As a sequel to one of the biggest hits from 2004, this revisit of Pirate’s mainstream mystique had a lot to live up to. Many were concerned that Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow, so memorable in the first film, would grow old and stale the second time around. Some wondered if new villain Davy Jones would match Capt. Barbossa in the all important areas of evil and cunning. From a broader perspective, a few fans questioned why another film needed to be made at all. While the overall critical consensus was mixed, Dead Man’s Chest has become the biggest box office hit of 2006, and continues to bode well for the final installment of this proposed buccaneer trilogy (tentatively entitled At World’s End) to be released NEXT summer.


PopMatters Review


2. Clerks II
Who would have thought that Kevin Smith could revisit his initial success as a filmmaker and make it fresh, ingenious and undeniably hilarious? Of all the movies to arrive at the Cineplex this summer, Clerks II was the most consistently enjoyable. It gave fans a chance to reconnect with their favorite New Jersey slacker duo, introduced a couple of brand new characters that instantly took their place in the pantheon of Smith originals, and proved that nothing is more cinematically fulfilling than great dialogue, expertly delivered. Even more miraculous, a significant amount of emotional resonance was unearthed, giving depth and direction to all the dirty jokes and donkey show antics. What could have been a regular ‘K-Mart’ of a comedy turned out to be one of the season’s most unexpected gems.



PopMatters Review


1. Snakes on a Plane
While it’s easy to argue about the film’s failings as a thriller, a campy cult phenomenon or an Internet marketed misstep, there is one undeniable fact – Snakes on a Plane is a great deal of genre fun. A complete throwback to the blockbusters of the ‘70s (It’s like Airport mixed with a drive-in delight like The Day of the Animals) this unapologetically entertaining film makes no bones about being gratuitous or goofy. With the entire cast in on the joke, and the filmmaking free to explore all the plausible parameters of the title, we end up with a real rollercoaster ride that wraps its anarchic action in a blanket of pure b-movie mania. While it may not have been the perfect summer 2006 film, Snakes did the best job of reminding audiences of just how special the season can be. It was the only film that actually FELT like a blockbuster.


PopMatters Review


In Thursday’s Short Ends & Leader Blog: The Five Worst Films of Summer 2006.


 


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Saturday, Aug 26, 2006


For anyone who thinks that all Goona Goona movies are alike, a trip through this particular Cannibal Holocaust should quiet those concerns once and for all. Far more graphic than other jungle jive, but with an actual message method to its miscreant madness, this is one of the best Italian horror films ever—all for reasons that have nothing to do with terror or the macabre. Ruggerio Deodato has made a geek show as Greek chorus, a strident social commentary on the state of the news media glossed over with gore and gratuitous animal slaughter. While it is truly tainted, sickening stuff, one does not feel as filthy as say the experience of watching the last few minutes of Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox. Both movies trade in the same sort of revolting imagery, but one film wants to play with the parameters of cinema. The other is just out for a splattery good time.


But Cannibal Holocaust isn’t just a gut-munching gross out. Though it may seem odd to say it, Cannibal Holocaust is really a disgustingly dark comedy, a savage satire on the media and the methods it would stoop to in selling a story. Deodato was way ahead of his time here, attempting a Network-like denouncement of filmmakers and journalists who would rather “create” news than simply report it. We laugh at the moments surrounding the fictional Alan Yates and his team of intrepid psychos. It is hilarious how quickly they revert to rape, murder, and disgustingly deviant behavior, all in an attempt to “go native” and have the locals provide them with some sensationalized footage. Sure, the entire last act of the film (where the Blair Witch-style material from their final “adventure” is screened by the TV executives) is laughable, a kind of perverted pantheon of over-the-top elements. But Deodato uses this approach to both condemn and codify his characters. We need villains in this kind of film, and Alan and his pals make the perfect cannibal bait.


That is why Cannibal Holocaust is a much better film than its imitators and inspiration. It is still repugnant and sordid, but most of the misguided grotesquery is in service of a very sound message. The truth is that Cannibal Holocaust is a good movie gunked up by elements that are either unnecessary (monkey brain eating? Please…) or unexplained (the way in which the natives function among themselves is left to a lot of confusing speculation), a true milestone of moviemaking that is sadly slandered for issues far outside the main purpose of the narrative. As long as you are prepared for the repugnance, you will more or less enjoy this graphic, gritty cinematic experiment. Its reputation is well deserved.


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