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Friday, Sep 15, 2006


I think that, in this day and age, you must have more than just a simple pair of good performances in order to make a movie. Georgia, however, represents, for me one of the best examples of how two unique, totally left-field performances manage to carry an innately weak film and create a completely character-driven drama that succeeds wholly because of the work of the actors involved. Clearly a labor of love for those who made it, the narrative harkens back to the days when movies were made as an exploration of people’s lives rather than as an exhibition of their super-powers or their privileged internships for big, bad magazine editors (or any other big-budget, high concept extravaganza is gracing your local cinema each summer).

Jennifer Jason Leigh (the most under-appreciated actress of her generation) plays Sadie Flood, a dirty loser who has a single dream: to be a famous singer. She has the ambition. She has the desire. She even gets some gigs. The most important thing that she is missing, though, is huge: she cannot sing to save her life. Sadie is so deluded into believing that she’s talented that her drive and blind ambition lead her into a host of really weird places. She’s managed by a junkie-creep and sings backup for with a volatile blues singer while also sleeping with him. Add Sadie’s problem with drinking and heroin into the tragic reality of her lack of vocal skills and what you have is the slow-burning saga of a young woman sliding into a devastating downward spiral. Sadie never learns from her mistakes and this makes her a danger to herself and everyone else who knows her.


Another large problem that figures into the story is the title character Georgia. She’s a famous folk singer, who just so happens to be Sadie’s sister (much to her talentless sibling’s chagrin). Played with subtlety and grace by Mare Winningham in a soft, motherly tour-de-force, Georgia is a marvelous creation. Where Sadie is fire mixed with bare, grating nerves, Georgia is ice and calmness personified. She is a working mother who never really had the aspirations of her desperate sister, a star who handles her fame coolly. Winningham’s gentle, canny performance compliments Leigh’s less subtle turn perfectly and she uses her natural musical skills to great effect.


The film explores the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship believably and totally. The burden of having such a train wreck for a relative, of having to watch out for her and bail her out constantly, wears on Georgia. Naturally, jealousy is Sadie’s main problem with her sister. What the actresses end up creating is a dynamic portrait of familial devotion that is heartbreaking, frustrating and true. One of the film’s best scenes involves a benefit concert, in which Georgia has arranged a spot for Sadie to sing: Sadie, who uses her time pre-show to get sloshed, stumbles onstage and pummels her way through a Van Morrison song for eight very hard minutes. This scene shows why Leigh is among the best actors of her generation. She conveys Sadie’s desperation, her hunger for love and fame, her raw ambition, her devotion to her sister, and her own personal confusion all in one fell swoop. Another thing that’s painfully evident is that Sadie is truly untalented. Her singing is astoundingly bad and very hard to watch. It’s a dynamic sequence that by the end has the horrified Georgia coming out onstage to bail her sister out yet again.

The film is based on Leigh’s real life experiences with her own sister’s substance abuse problems, and I believe putting herself into her shoes is a brave and special form of flattery. There is also no doubt that the great deal of her own private grief is expressed expertly in Winningham’s touching performance. Georgia was written by Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, which makes it even more obvious that the film was made with care and love.


Leigh (who in real life is married to The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, and will star opposite Nicole Kidman in his next film), had a miraculous run of interesting character parts in the early to mid nineties: some of her most stellar work during this period includes playing legendary wit Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; two vastly different hookers with hearts of gold in Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn; two outings with Robert Altman (Short Cuts and Kansas City) and shows up as “the roommate from hell” opposite Bridget Fonda in Single White Female. The actresses’ work in Georgia only cements her as inventive, courageous and fiercely committed. Hopefully, her upcoming collaboration with her husband will put her back on the mainstream map.


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Thursday, Sep 14, 2006

September is starting to become the month of mediocrity on your favorite premium cable channels. This week alone offers one average box office hit, two ‘one week and out’ theatrical bombs, and a ‘could have been a cult contender’ urban comedy. When you put them all together, they make for a quartet of questionable entertainment offerings. As a matter of fact, you’d be better served heading over to Turner Classic Movies on 16 Saturday and catching the classic Casablanca at 6:00pm EST, and then Paper Moon at midnight, rather than scanning through the atrophying amusement on hand here. Still, if you must get your pay TV money’s worth this week, you’re going to have to lower your cinematic standards a series of significant notches. Honestly SE&L and PopMatters can’t recommend any of the offerings making their premiere this week. For those still interested in what’s available, here’s the rundown on 16 September:


HBOFantastic Four

When it was originally release in 1994, the Roger Corman production of this classic Marvel title was done purely as a legal maneuver. When purchasing the title, a deal was struck. Unless a film was made of this potential property within a given time frame, the rights would revert back to the original owners. Never one to let a missed monetary opportunity pass him by, the famed b-movie maverick rushed out this sloppy, stupid spectacle. So here’s the question – what was 20th Century Fox’s excuse? They had time, talent and an eager comic geek audience on their side. Granted, this story of astronauts bombarded by space radiation, rendering them suddenly gifted with superpowers, has its fans and made enough of a box office splash to warrant a sequel, but its still substandard on many moviemaking levels. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxThe Ice Harvest

Second only to a failed horror film in cinematic sadness is the lax dark comedy. This one should have been better. It had lots of noted names behind the scenes (director Harold Ramis, screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton) and a more than competent cast (Billy Bob Thorton, John Cusack, Oliver Platt). Yet this crime caper, part cynical seasonal struggle, part overly clever caper, suffers from an unsure tone, careless plotting and a less than satisfying conclusion. While some critics enjoyed the combination of Cusack and Thorton, and forgave the film its scattered sensibility, audiences obviously didn’t agree. Barely making back half of its $18 million budget, this frozen funny business got a clear cold shoulder from the majority of movie mavens. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzAn Unfinished Life

Like Madonna before her, Jennifer Lopez has been riding on the success of her first few film roles – Selena, Out of Sight, The Cell – for far too long now. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that this Empress has no cinematic clothes. Recent efforts like Angel Eyes, Enough, Maid in Manhattan and The Wedding Planner have been hits, but not necessarily because Ms. Cullo Grande has anything to offer as an actress. A clear example of this concept comes to us via this resoundingly rejected weeper about family and fathers. Taking on the role of J-Lo’s pop is the ethnically unbelievable Robert Redford (???) who spends a lot of time with his best pal Morgan Freeman. Talk about diversity in action. Sadly, not even the racial mix can make this movie work. It’s a slow slog through an equally muddy motion picture bog. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 9:00pm EST).




PopMatters Review


ShowtimeSoul Plane

Here’s a lesson for first time feature filmmaker Jessy Terrero – never promise a crude, rude urban comedy when you have absolutely no desire to deliver one. Soul Plane stumbles, and finally stinks, for reasons that are so obvious that race plays little part in the pathetic nature of this nonsense. With a cast that combines ultra cool rappers (Snoop Dogg, Method Man), sensationally gifted stand-ups (Mo’Nique, Loni Love, D.L. Hughley) and a few off the radar has-beens (Tom Arnold), what should have been a combination of Airplane! and Dolemite ends up being a boring, bewildering, unfunny farce. When you can’t even get a pimp joke right, when your flatulence riffs are just repugnant, you don’t deserve your wit wings. (Saturday 16 September, 8pm EST)



PopMatters Review


 


Indie Film Focus: September 2006

Last month, Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to supply us with 30 days of star driven righteousness to keep the small screen film finds freely flowing. With the network back to it’s rather hit or miss programming, SE&L has decided to focus on another facet of the cinematic canon – the Independent film. Thanks to IFC, otherwise known as The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel, there is currently a 24 hour a day supply of outsider excellence. Some of the movie suggestions here will seem obvious. Others will reflect the divergent nature of the art form’s overall approach. Whatever the case, these are the highlights for the week of 16 September through 22 September:


IFC



Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Woody Allen’s love letter to his favorite musical artform, this genuinely jazzy fictional biopic has Sean Penn delivering yet another of his definitive bravura performances.
(Saturday 16 September, 9:35pm EST)


Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The best movie of the ‘90s, bare none. The Coen Brothers borrow the crime genre from all its motion picture practitioners and make it wholly their own.
(Sunday 17 September, 6:25pm EST)


Auto Focus (2002)
The life and times of Bob Crane has always cried out for a brazen biography. Thankfully, Paul Schrader delivers a devastating look at the doomed TV icon.
(Tuesday 19 September, 11:15pm EST)


Female Trouble (1974)
John Water’s second certifiable masterpiece is also his most accessible. If you don’t mind being offended by blatant bad taste, you’ll love this loony laugh-a-thon.
(Wednesday 20 September, 10:35pm EST)


Sundance Channel



Fearless Freaks (2005)
Though considered part of the fringe facets of the music biz, the Flaming Lips get the regular royal treatment in this fascinating documentary look at their crazy career. 
(Sunday, 17 September, 7:15pm EST)


The Beguiled (1971)
Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel delivered more than just cowboys and cops with their collaborations. This Civil War thriller is proof of their rich cinematic range.
(Monday, 18 September, 12:00pm EST)


Ju-On (2000)
No one does J-Horror better than the Japanese. Witness Takashi Shimizu’s original Grudge fest, a wonderfully wicked look at secrets and their sinister consequences.
(Thursday, 19 September, 12:30am EST)


Topsy Turvy (1999)
Mike Leigh usually doesn’t do historical figures as part of his improvisational output. But this look at Gilbert and Sullivan is a sensational and effective period piece.
(Friday, 21 September, 10:00pm EST)


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Wednesday, Sep 13, 2006


Famed French filmmaker Luc Besson announced Monday 11, September that, after the release of his latest directorial effort, the live action and CG animated Arthur and the Minimoys (set for a 12 January release in the U.S.), he is leaving the industry to concentrate on “charity” work. It’s a semi-stunning announcement from a fairly prolific artist. Aside from the ten films he’s helmed over his career (which he lovingly refers to as his “babies”) Besson has been a major figure in International cinema. He has written scripts for such high profile action series as the Taxi films, the Transporter and it’s sequel, and two of Jet Li’s most popular efforts, Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Danny the Dog (2005) – later retitled Unleashed. Yet its as a producer where the 46 year old has truly thrived, guiding dozens of films through their creation. Without him, such efforts as District B13 (2004), Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005) and the stellar slasher update Haute Tension (2003) may never have been made.


Now this announcement is really nothing new. As a matter of fact, it was sort of expected. Besson has been very vocal in interviews and comments about leaving the director’s chair after his 10th film, and apparently he is holding steadfast in this decision. Still, he does have his creative fingers in many motion picture pies. So unless this retirement includes his efforts behind a typewriter or managing a production’s bottom line, Besson will remain a very viable force behind the scenes of modern moviemaking. With that settled, the concern then becomes what we as an audience will fail to see with his departure. In essence the issue becomes what has Besson really given cinema that will be missed once he’s gone. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like very much, at least upon a fleeting first glance.


With rare exceptions, Besson’s films exist in a weird world made up of stunt work, speculation, and shootouts. Of the ten ‘children’ born in the 25 years of creating his filmic family, only three - The Big Blue, Atlantis and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - could be classified as defying the Besson basics. Two (Blue, Atlantis) are clearly based in his childhood love of the sea (Besson was raised by scuba diving instructor parents). The last, his interpretation of Saint Joan, was a far more personal undertaking for his then wife Milla Jovovich. The rest of his films – The Last Battle (1983), Subway (1985), Le Femme Nikita (1990), Leon/The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Angel-A (2005) and next year’s Arthur – all maintain an awkward balance between fantasy and reality, using clear genre ideals to modify standard human stories. Some of these yarns - Element, in particular – were written while he was still a teenager, and often show their obvious adolescent ideas about heroism, love and the pathway to progress. 


There is one thing that’s certain, however; all of Besson’s films have a strong visual component. You can’t look at something like Le Femme Nikita or Leon and not be startled by the way in which this director’s camera moves. Sure, he can be too tricky and twee (Angel-A and Subway suffer from some of his more obvious cinematic tricks) and he frequently overloads the frame with more compositional elements than are necessary for the narrative. Sure, it’s an amazing looking moment when Jovovich’s character in Element stands on the ledge of a building overlooking a frighteningly futuristic New York City, but the density of the visuals actually detract from the moment. It’s hard to appreciate the scope of something when you’ve purposely rendered it infinite. Similarly, Besson believes in a primordial kind of plotting, a storyline that strongly follows a good vs. evil dynamic while sprinkling in a little eccentricity and character quirks along the way. There are always heroes and villains in a Besson film, though sometimes who’s who can be confusing and unclear. Yet thanks to their pure kinetic power, their daunting desire to light up the screen with their spectacle, a movie by Luc Besson gets a lot of logistical leeway. We appreciate the effort more than the effect.


But the fact of the matter remains, will anyone other than the Besson nation really care if this French fantasist hangs up his chapeau – at least for the time being? If Stephen Spielberg had stopped creating after a mere ten films, we would never have had Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Munich. In the case of Martin Scorsese, we’d have never seen The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas or Casino. Perhaps it’s a clear case of a filmmaker knowing his limits. Besson must sense his stylistic and substantive aspects are restricted by his areas of interest, and there’s no branching out into other forms of filmmaking. He’s become known for his hyperactive action set pieces and frequently ingenious flights of fancy. After conquering the family film (the trailer for Arthur looks interesting, to say the least) Besson must believe there is nothing left to try. And as long as he can add to the steady stream of writing/producing credits, he will almost always be around.


So don’t mourn the loss of another “visionary” filmmaker – celebrate the fact that Besson knew better than to overstay his already waning welcome. Angel-A barely got distribution in the US, and without the standard CGI stunt casting (Snoop Dogg, David Bowie and Madonna are part of the English-speaking cast) it’s hard to know if the Weinstein Company would have picked up the Minimoys film for US distribution. When filmgoers are demanding remastered DVD versions of your earlier films over the delivery of something new – as is the case with Element and Leon – perhaps its time to pack your bags. Whether or not he ever really does focus on community work with kids as he says, Besson will best be remembered as a French firebrand who carved a special niche out of a tired Tinsel Town tenet. In this case, parting is not such sweet sorrow – it seems like the logical thing to do.


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Tuesday, Sep 12, 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 7: Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (“He Who is Brave of Heart Takes the Bride”)
1995, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Aditya Chopra
DDLJ, as it’s often abbreviated, is the masterwork of a young second-generation filmmaker, Aditya Chopra, whose father Yash is a famous director and media mogul.  The movie was a phenomenal success, running in theatres for a record time of five years. DDLJ hit a nerve amongst many Indians because of its increasingly relevant subject matter: the struggle of a NRI (Non-Resident Indian) family to make a living abroad in the West, yet still uphold the religious and cultural traditions of their ancestral homeland. The film signaled a return to ritual and relations, values that gradually eroded during the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s. By the ‘90s, the overcrowding and lack of jobs in India forced more and more people to relocate to other countries. Nearly everyone who saw DDLJ  was an NRI, or had a NRI relative and could completely identify with the characters. The story revolves around two spirited teenagers, the lovely, Simran (Kajol), the middle-class daughter of a stern, hardworking Punjabi gas-station owner in London, and Raj (Shahrukh Khan), the fast-talking, self-indulgent son of an Anglo-Indian millionaire. The two meet while traveling through Europe with their friends, discover they have nothing in common, hate each other, keep getting left behind by the others, bond, discover they have more in common than they thought, and grow to love each other. The romantic-comedy plot is painfully clichéd, but what makes DDLJ  so enduring are the earnest, doe-eyed performances from Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, who quickly became the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of Indian cinema.


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Tuesday, Sep 12, 2006

Feel that nip in the air, that sudden surge of icy cold callousness? In case you’re wondering—no, it’s not the first signs of Fall.  Instead, it’s the remnants of the reality that Hell has just frozen over. Today is the day when all the pontifications and declarations of artistic privilege, the ownership of myth and the control of motion pictures was tossed in the trash by one George Walton Lucas Jr. That’s right, today is the day when he finally makes the original versions of his Star Wars trilogy available to the public in their initial, unaltered form. No Greedo shooting first. No CGI Jabba bargaining with Han Solo. No modernized space battles. And no damn Hayden ‘Anakin Skywalker’ Christiansen substituting for Sebastian Shaw. Granted, you have to pick up copies of those disgraceful fidgeted over Special Editions to get your hands on these long sought after cinematic Holy Grails, and the tech specs supposedly leave a lot to be desired. Yet none of that matters as this is a day that will live on in entertainment infamy. All other releases scheduled might as well pack up and call it a day. Geek nation will be abuzz about these discs for at least a couple of weeks—that is, until they learn of the massive mega box set proposed for the franchise’s 30th anniversary. Oh George, you devil. Here’s the rundown on SE&L’s DVD selections of interest for 12 September:


Beavis and Butthead Do America: 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
In a clear case of a double dip that was well worth the wait, everyone’s favorite heavy metal morons finally get their only feature film perfectly pimped out. On this new edition you will find creator Mike Judge offering up his considered commentary on the brain-addled buffoons rise to stardom, the superstar-laded cast (including turns by then husband and wife Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) and his battles with Paramount over content and comedy. With his latest big screen effort, the literally discarded Idiocracy slowly fading from view, here’s a chance to see the talented writer/director successfully translate his small screen acumen to a big screen setting.



Lucky Number Slevin
It’s time for ‘90s movie mentor Quentin Tarantino to pick up another rip-off royalty check. In this supposedly slick and wholly superficial crime drama, Josh Harnett is Slevin Kelevra (yes, you read that name right) who suddenly finds himself smack dab in the middle of a mob war between bosses Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman. Yeesh! While some critics haven’t cared for the combination of purposefully dense dialogue and overstylized cinematics, those who can’t get enough of Mr. Pulp Fiction’s flailing stepchildren have cottoned to its cold, considered craftsmanship. Until QT steps up with another film, Slevin just might support your hard-boiled habit.



PopMatters Review


Stars Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope; Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back; Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
It’s gotten awfully hard to write about these films without getting incredibly miffed over the man behind their creation. It is safe to say that no other filmmaker in the blockbuster era has simultaneously sullied and solidified his legacy more stridently than George Lucas. His decision to make prequels to these beloved sci-fi films aside, his efforts behind the camera—championing advances in CGI and digital technology, his efforts at film preservation and protection—have been countered by his unswerving desire to constantly tinker with the movies that built his empire. Granted, all three of the original Star Wars films are dated, their effects marred by the limits of the era and the imagination within said restrictions.


That being said, there is something so homey about the original Star Wars films, a kind of handmade artistry that’s literally destroyed by all the post-millennial post production. What many makers of speculative fiction films fail to remember is that any futuristic fable better be rooted in some manner of recognizable reality. Thousand story buildings, ships the size of planets and unusual extraterrestrials fail to resonate because they move beyond the scope of our spatial logic and plausible perspective. That’s why the prequels feel so false—they offer up so much eye candy that our conceivability ends up diabetic.


The fact is, the real reasons fans have been clamoring for these titles has very little to do with a rejection of the reduxes, or a desire to restrict Lucas in his vision or creative capabilities. No, preserving and presenting the original Star Wars films the way they were initially released to theaters allows for the connections created previously to find a permanent home. The basis for why fans and filmmakers alike criticized the colorization of classic black and white films rests solely on this premise. In their newfangled form, the experiences one associated with those timeless monochrome movies were inalienably altered by the introduction of a formerly unknown element. Revisionism is only for rectification, not resale value. Lucas should remember it’s not about money, but memories.



Taps: Special Edition
Taps has a strange cinematic legacy. Few today remember that this was the highly tauted follow-up to Timothy Hutton’s Oscar winning turn in the still amazing Ordinary People. Fresh from said success, Hutton headlined a cast of up and comers including Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Giancarlo Esposito. Today, his work is mostly forgotten—as well as that of Onion Field/Sea of Love director Harold Becker. Here’s hoping this new Special Edition DVD release (replacing a bare bones title from four years ago) restores Hutton and Becker back to prominence. The truth is, aside from Penn, the work of all the other now known names is rather minor at best.


 


The Wild
When Disney dumped 2D animation (only to have newly installed boss John “Pixar” Lassiter insist its coming back) many wondered what the outcome would be. The House of Mouse used to excel at the anthropomorphic animal idea, but with Dreamworks’ similarly storied Madagascar hitting the theaters several months ahead of this offering, the juvenile jones for said material was already sated. Proving that no one does redundant and repetitive better than Uncle Walt’s narrative factory, The Wild borrows liberally from past animated classics like The Lion King, and the cartoon canon of Chuck Jones. Strictly for the wee ones, or the easily amused adult.



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 12 September:


Linda Lovelace for President
Deluded into believing there was more to her stardom than a certain sexual proclivity, Linda Susan Boreman—a.k.a. Linda Lovelace—thought her fame was on the rise, when in reality it was as tenuous as the rest of the ‘70s porno chic gimmick. By the time she made this brazen bid for mainstream comedy acceptance (albeit in an R rated softcore format), the tide was already turning against the mainstreaming of XXX icons. In this pathetic political farce, Linda plays a Presidential candidate who stumps as much as she shtups along the campaign trail, running into an oddball collection of concerned citizens including Mickey Dolenz, Scatman Crothers, Marty Ingels and Joe E. Ross. Foolishly, Lovelace assumed that this movie would launch her legitimate film career. All it did was guarantee her ‘80s slide into sexual sour grapes.



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