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Tuesday, Oct 3, 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 10: Lagaan (“The Tax”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Ashutosh Gowarikar
I probably wouldn’t even be writing this User’s Guide to Indian Cinema if it weren’t for LagaanLagaan initiated the era of the “cross-over movie,” Hindi films that are made and marketed for an international audience. Who would have thought that the most recognized Hindi film in the world would be an art movie about cricket? Cultural theorist Ashis Nandy sums it up perfectly, “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.” As irony would have it, the game of the oppressors is embraced and transformed by the oppressed into something new, invigorating and culturally in tune with India’s heritage. Lagaan starts off with a bet. In 1893, a remote village has continually been harassed by the local British authorities who have been extorting tax money on the village’s meager crop.  The charismatic youth, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), in a fit of rage, rashly challenges the British to a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they’ll never have to pay the back-breaking taxes.  If they lose, they’ll pay double. Unfortunately, none of the villagers know how to play cricket. Enter Lucy (Rachel Shelly), a lovely memsahib who sympathizes with the villagers—and fancies Bhuvan. She teaches the villagers, a veritable dirty dozen of hapless blokes from various religions and castes, the rules and secrets of the game. It’s a lavish period piece and a rousing sports movie. At face value, Lagaan is a typical movie about the Raj: privileged, nasty whites in regimental uniform beating ragged villagers, poor farmers wearily praying for rain so that their crops grow, the whiff of forbidden love between a white and a native.  But his gentle direction of his actors, his staging of the musical numbers and the final, pulsating cricket match, a game for survival, is what sets the movie apart as the best of Indian cinema.


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Monday, Oct 2, 2006

Though SE&L can certainly understand the anger over that crass commercial concept known as “the double dip” (read: studios endlessly re-releasing favorite films in differing DVD packages and presentations), sometimes a revamp is a clear motion picture mandate. Back when the format first arrived, several companies, clamoring for a piece of that initial product pie, put out anything they could on the digital domain, most times without concern over extras, aspect ratio or picture quality. Sure, something like Scarface has seen multiple merchandising variations, while distributors like Anchor Bay have made a mint over numerous reconfigurations of Dawn of the Dead and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. But if you look at the list of reissues clogging up this weeks pick’s for brick and mortar highlights, you will see several that deserved their major makeover. That’s not to downplay the importance of the many new releases available, but when one can own a practically pristine version of one of Hollywood’s cinematic standards, a new action hero epic seems a little lame. Anyway, here are our picks for 3, October:


Body Double: Special Edition *
Before he fell completely off track in the ‘80s, Brian DePalma delivered a pair of preeminent motion picture masterworks. Sadly, only Scarface has endured. And it’s a shame, really. Of all his Hitchcock influenced homages, Double has the most devilish combination (Vertigo meets Rear Window) of all the director’s experiments in tension. Thanks to wonderful performances by Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry and a pre-plastic surgery Melanie Griffith, and a script that stays true to most of the Master of Suspense’s subtleties, what could have been a seedy slice of copycat gratuity became a smart and savage commentary on contemporary Hollywood. Too bad a misplaced misogynist assault on the filmmaker lessened the film’s BO appeal. Thanks to this new DVD presentation – and its incredible making-of documentary – one learns of the film’s porn star beginnings, as well as how vicious the attacks on DePalma really were. Sadly, it seems they’d only be worse today.



Edmond*
William H. Macy gives another of his idiosyncratic everyman turns as the title character, a seemingly normal nebbish who is suddenly assaulted by a Dante’s Inferno like New York City. Helmed by horror master Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon and scripted by none other than Tony titan David Mamet, this adaptation of the playwright’s stage show loses little of its bite in this terrific translation. Similar in conceptualization to Martin Scorsese’s misunderstood ‘80s comedy After Hours, Mamet applies his standard slash and burn dialogue to all manner of shocking personal monologues for his lead. Indeed, some may find Edmond’s homophobic and racist rants a tad hard to take – and for those looking for some manner of redemption or understanding on Macy’s part, this is not that kind of movie.



PopMatters Review


Ganja and Hess*
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone all artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget once they’ve seen it. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive play date in the Big Apple, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut within an inch of its artistic life and re-released it as Blood Couple. Even with 30 missing minutes it did no better. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s original cut, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries, making-of documentaries and a look at Gunn’s original script, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. During a month which sees all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.



The Little Mermaid: Two Disc Special Edition*
The irony of this release is staggering. Mermaid represents Disney’s mid-‘80s effort to save its sinking animation department – a corporate entity that was recently decimated by the supposed switch to all CGI fare. And yet the House of Mouse is greeting the second DVD dip of this mini-masterpiece like a pen and ink prophecy. Granted, you can’t ask for a more effective use of the artform. Combined with Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman’s Broadway ready score and the perfect compliment of heroine and villain, this resplendent effort marked the moment when Disney realized the full power of its post-modern animation possibilities. Of course, their eventual over reliance on the facets formulated here (epic musical accompaniment, brash characterization, a winking nod to a more cynical social mindset) would bring about Pixar’s digital revolution, and the eventual decision to dump 2-D. Of course, Walt’s way of doing things mandates this package be available for “a limited time only”, so get your copy while you can.


 


Maltese Falcon: Three Disc Set *
It’s stunning when you think about it. John Huston was 35, and making his first movie ever with this definitive detective tale. He managed to wrangle a cast that consisted of a prime piece of Bogart, a sensational Sidney Greenstreet, a perfect Peter Lorre and a wholly complimentary Mary Astor. Employing a near word for word and scene by scene recreation of Dashiell Hammet’s noted novel, Huston added his own artistic touches to turn a glorified gumshoe story into some manner of metaphysical epic. Many have fawned over the feature in the years since its release, and rightfully so. This is old fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its highly polished best. This new three disc DVD, completely pimped out with commentaries, documentaries and two other versions of the Hammett classic (from 1931 and 1936) should give Falcon fans more added content than they ever imagined. When combined with the masterpiece of a movie at the center of this set, this easily becomes one of the year’s best preservationist presentations.



Point Break: Pure Adrenalin Edition
As the ‘90s attempted to take the action film in as many different directions as the box office would allow, this X-treme sports version of the typical cops and robbers routine hit a notable novel nerve with audiences. The combination of Patrick Swayze’s stealing surfer swagger and Keanu Reeves’ Valley boy FBI basics created a kind of kitschy cult chemistry, and the dude speak dialogue loaded with Zen like zaniness (“Peace through superior firepower”) still provides untold guilty pleasures - even today. While DVD versions have long been available, this new packaging promises to give us a series of deleted scenes (long a fan Holy Grail) and a collection of newly created featurettes. Sadly, Break would mark director Kathyrn Bigelow’s big budget albatross. With success came Strange Days, and her eventual fall from Tinsel Town grace.


X-Men: The Last Stand*
Okay, so Brett Ratner didn’t step in and completely destroy the mutant magic. In fact, he made Bryan Singer’s more serious minded installments look logistically lax by comparison. Sure, fans wanted to hate every frame of this final chapter in their favorite comic franchise, but Ratner just ratcheted up the action and piled on the principle characters. The result is a scattered summer blockbuster that only seems sensible when stuff is blowing up. While several of the setpieces – Jean Grey’s evil return, Magneto’s manipulation of the Golden Gate Bridge – match well against those in previous X entities, it is obvious that Last Stand‘s filmmaking was forged out of a desire to make money, not memorable motion picture mythology. Still, for the casual X-men maven, or someone not expecting a Singer level of loyalty, this is one of 2006’s better popcorn creations. And the DVD promises a collection of unused endings – just the thing to give the faithful meaningful messageboard fodder.



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 3 October:


The Blood Trilogy *
While he may not have invented the concept of gore (his inspiration, the noted Grand Guignol theater in France had been around since 1897), no one before had delivered such devastating, blood slicked scares to the silver screen. Upon realizing that nudity had more or less run its exploitation course, founding filmmakers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman were looking for another financially viable cinematic approach. Claret became the cash machine for the determined duo, beginning with their seminal scarefest Blood Feast. Revolving around an insane caterer and his desire to create a flesh buffet to the Goddess Ishtar, this vivisection-fest is rife with repugnant imagery. Wanting not to repeat themselves, Lewis and Friedman Southern-fried their next nasty novelty, 2000 Maniacs. A ballsy Brigadoon revamp featuring pissed off Confederate ghosts murdering mindless Yankee tourists, it was another hefty hit. By the time of the Bucket of Blood inspired Color Me Blood Red, however, the bloom was off the grue-covered rose. Not even the still fresh innovation of seeing copious amounts of arterial juices could save the subgenre. As the roughie returned exploitation to its raincoat crowd confines, Lewis and Friedman parted company. Their corporeal collaboration remains a benchmark in the realm of horror, and with Something Weird Video providing the digital goods, you know you’re getting pristine copies of these remarkable movies.



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Sunday, Oct 1, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the critical, clinical terror of Wes Craven



While many acknowledge his contributions to the horror film, few actually consider the influence Wes Craven has had on the genre. A viable name in all things frightening, Craven is either an original, or an opportunist, depending on the overriding scare scholarship. True, during the home video explosion of the ‘80s, Craven’s canon suffered from sloppy ideas and even more slipshod execution. Between the robot ridiculousness of Deadly Friend to the serial killer as TV signal silliness of Shocker, many thought the macabre master had lost his way. But had they been paying attention, most would have realized that Craven’s clinical look at terror required a certain social or situational element to succeed. Without a contextual base in which to function, his movies frequently appeared out of step with the rest of the mainstream movie mandates.


Yet no one can deny that, every time the genre seems stuck in a ridiculous or repetitive rut, Craven comes along and substantially shakes things up.  If one goes back to his first formative smash, 1972’s seminal Last House on the Left, it is clear that this is one director who longs to play by his own unique set of rules. Using Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring as a starting point, and inserting a critical comment on the idle youth of the post-‘60s era, this repugnant rape/revenge fantasy was in direct contradiction of the fear factors infiltrating the industry. Between Hammer’s Victorian vampire epics and the creature feature based drive-in fare, horror really had no legitimate link to the real world. Last House changed all that. Along with its individually memorable tag line (“to avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…”) it hinted that fright could come in any iconic setting – including the seemingly sedate suburban home.


Thanks to its huge cultural impact, Last House legitimized the real world approach to dread, a concept that would be embraced by both conventional (The Exorcist, The Omen) and independent (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) entertainment elements. No longer was a supernatural situation required. All you needed were the realities of life amplified through the thriller/chiller ideal and – BANG! – instant homegrown horror. It was a fresh faced facet that even Craven himself would revisit later on in the decade. Focusing again on family (a favorite thematic course) and the disintegration of the American Dream, The Hills Have Eyes pushed the notion of normalized apprehension to its limits. With its contradictory clans – one civilized, one cannibalized – and snuff like approach to onscreen killing, he anticipated the growing desire for gore years before the red riot would overwhelm scare cinema.


When the ‘80s arrived, Craven again was seen as a step behind the movie macabre trends. Halloween and Friday the 13th had made the serial killing splatter fiend a new terror icon, and while studios were busy pumping out as many slasher entries as they could, Craven was going American Gothic. Deadly Blessing, his 1981 take on religion and hypocrisy barely registered among filmgoers. It was seen as too subtle, and too old fashioned, to play to a post-modern mindset. After a stab at comic book character action (1982’s underrated Swamp Thing), Craven was at a crossroads. Either he would give up genre efforts and try his hand at the typical Tinsel Town ideal or simply stop making movies all together.


But with the razor finger scraping heard round the world in 1984, Craven created what is, perhaps, the single most recognizable horror idol since the days when Universal ruled the theaters. Not only was A Nightmare on Elm Street the practical polar opposite of the slice and dice derivativeness that plagued the ‘80s creepshow, but it was a considered social observation centered around the nation’s newfound focus on the preservation of children. Not many people remember Freddy Krueger’s original origins. He was a pervert, a child molester and murderer who used his pedophilic ploys to lure the innocent to their death. His ravaged body was the result of a populace in vigilante mode, a group of parents setting him on fire to set the scales of justice back in balance. Now a vengeful spirit, Krueger created a dream world where he was the master. Utilizing the sleep of his killer’s young ones, Freddy found a way to enact his own afterlife payback on those who he deemed undeserving.


This concept of constant uncertainty, this dichotomy between threatened kids and disaffected parents was, again, part of a realism based paradigm for Craven. Sure, the situation allowed him to play with all manner of dream imagery and fantasy fears, but the heart of A Nightmare on Elm Street was a “how could it happen here” view of the sanctity of the suburbs. Nancy and the rest of her victimized pals are seen as something sacred, the precious commodity of a community that would resort to murder to protect them. Freddy’s fiendish ploys, complete with all their ‘bad touch’ connotations, were seen as the last legitimate threat in an otherwise hermetically sealed circumstance. By trading on this newfound fear, as well as the significant social shift it represented, Craven made macabre quantifiable and successfully saved the horror film from becoming an irrelevant exercise in tacky teen mass murder. Once again, he opened up the real world for possible terror interpretation.


The many cloying comic sequels to come almost undermined everything that Nightmare‘s novelty contributed. It would also cause Craven to coast for the rest of the decade. He would revisit the horror of Hills for Part 2, take on the fact-based facets of voodoo with The Serpent and the Rainbow, and deliver that problematic pair of Deadly Friend and Shocker. By the time his political allegory The People Under the Stairs was released (1991) many saw Craven as an artifact of the past, a filmmaker more or less responsible for horror’s hackneyed elements. Part of the problem was that Freddy Krueger had transformed from a killer into a comedian, a one liner spewing specter that was no longer scary. In fact, he had become so subverted as a character of terror that merchandising made specifically for tweens was flooding the market.


While many see Scream as Craven next saving salvo in the battle to preserve the motion picture macabre, it was actually his attempt at saving his Freddy franchise, New Nightmare, that set up the self-referential concepts that the later 1996 shocker would solidify. New Nightmare tried to be a kind of of the eerie, a clever combination of fear and fear filmmaking meant to comment on the effect that Freddy and his knife fingers had on those involved with his legacy. Starring Craven, actors Robert Englund (Freddy) and Heather Langenkamp (Nancy) and a hyper literate script, it was clear that most fright aficionados weren’t ready for an experimental dissection of what made the Krueger canon so compelling – and corrupt. Instead, it was Kevin Williamson’s joke-riddled irony that captured the fan base.


Many saw Scream as the final nail in the post-modern macabre’s creaking coffin. Craven had so successfully complemented Williamson’s wacky homage to horror’s past that it seemed like no future film could top its tricky terrors. And for a while, they were right. Even as the inevitable revamps came along – each one less effective in their self-styled satirical conceits - forces outside the mainstream were giving dread a much needed make over. Thanks to advances in technology, and the relative ease of DVD distribution, every film freak worth his or her scare salt decided to stop whining and make their own damn movie. The result was a real revolution, a resurgence in horror’s hipness that left many, including Craven, scrambling in the background.


Thankfully, instead of choosing to compete, Craven just continued on. The post-millennial phase of his career has seen a sloppy werewolf flop (Cursed), a few more of his patented name-attached production gigs, and the 2005 hit Red Eye. None however, had the cultural impact of his ‘70s through ‘90s efforts. While many may now feel the time to write him off has finally arrived, Craven might just have a few more shocks up his sleeves. Besides, it’s impossible to discount a filmmaker who resurrected the horror genre more times than others have successfully applied it. Without Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street and New Nightmare/Scream, terror may not have lasted into the year 2000. Wes Craven saved the cinematic category from its desire to endlessly emulate itself. And one thing is definitely for certain – this is one filmmaker who’s not through messing with the macabre. Perhaps he’s just waiting for another creative crisis to arrive


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Saturday, Sep 30, 2006


It was meant to be the sword and sorcery equivalent of Star Wars (Jedi was about to break and finalize the trilogy), an epic fantasy that was part space opera, part Renaissance fair, and all speculative spectacle. What it ended up being was a massively hyped flop that saw more merchandising then moviegoers over the course of its limited box office run. Oddly enough, the most lasting element of this otherwise forgettable battle between good, evil and a strange circular weapon (called a “glaive”) was a video game that stormed arcades for months after the movie was more or less forgotten. Still, over the years, Krull has developed a determined following, devotees able to overlook the narrative’s nonsensical elements (Laser spears? A less than convincing Cyclops?) to enjoy the average adventure at hand. In the hands of the prolific Peter Yates (responsible for such ‘70s classics as Bullitt and Breaking Away) what should have been an epic entertainment stumbled under Lucas like expectations, poorly realized effects, and performances that seemed pitched just a tad too high for the relatively low brow material.


Featuring a “dark” beast who lives in a constantly movie fortress of blackness, a prince with the power to control “the elements”, an apprentice wizard with a reckless habit of ill-timed shapeshifting, a dainty damsel in distress, and a band of compassionate criminals lead by Liam Neeson and featuring Robbie Coltrane, Krull‘s confusing mythology left many an intended audience member scratching their adolescent head. Main characters died for relatively dopey reasons, plot points got lost inside all manner of interstellar/medieval malarkey, and the polished level of visuals that fans were used to (thanks to American companies like ILM) was all but absent in this bungled British production. Still, in its own awkward way, Krull creates a kind of amusement amalgamation, a formula for fun that argues it attributes in the following fashion: if you don’t like one particular character or circumstance, just wait - something completely different is just around the corner. Today, such an all encompassing approach is part of cinematic sensibility. But back in the early ‘80s, film wasn’t supposed to be so fractured.


As a result, Krull is the perfect pick up film – a movie you can catch in snatches while it plays on some pay cable channel. No matter what point you come in on the story, no matter what sort of scene is playing out before you, the lack of continuity and context actually allows you to take pleasure in the individual moment, and if so inclined, to stick around for another exciting sample in just a few minutes. Things do sort of come together at the end, especially when the prince and princess jointly use their love – or some other manner of emotion – to provide power to smite the beast. As the monolithic castle implodes upward, moving shard by shard into the stratosphere, we are overcome by a feeling of ridiculous resolve. Evil has been defeated, virtue has triumphed, and miniature pieces of a movie set are flying off into space. If that doesn’t sum up a typical Greed era entertainment, what does?


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006


Sean Penn is a terrific actor, but is that all it really takes to become a memorable film director?


Yes and no. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Penn has a rabid appreciation for craft, in addition to working with some of the most acclaimed thespians the world over. His understanding of the skill involved in great film acting (both his own and that of the people he directs) borders on the preternatural.


Penn’s 1995 tension filled-drama The Crossing Guard falls into some amateurish territory at times (with bizarrely maudlin and faux-artsy camera work), but when it comes to generously giving his company their respective moments, Penn excels. Each actor appearing here is able to register fully with the viewer, even when his or her screen time is brief. Case in point is Priscilla Barnes (who, at one point in her career replaced Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company), playing the emotionally bruised stripper pal of a central character. She has maybe two scenes but conveys a lifetime of hurt within them. The same goes for veteran character actors Piper Laurie and Richard Bradford, who also really pop out in their cameos. Penn, with even the slightest performance, clearly defines the role for the viewer. It is an apparent generosity that undermines his gruff, outspoken reputation and his penchant for lurid, pulpy material.


The story is simple: a man (David Morse) kills the young daughter of a jeweler and his wife in a drinking and driving accident. He goes to jail and is let out after five years. Played by former paramours Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, (who has only four scenes in the entire film, but remains a constant, strong presence. When paired against her longtime real-life love, after a huge personal scandal, her hurt and bitterness seem even more poignant), the couple goes their separate ways: she tries to better her life while he just disintegrates. He is hell bent on killing the man who killed his little girl. The actors fully explore the dark corners of guilt and rage and are able to show quite clearly all of the fractures a trauma can cause to anyone connected. I really liked that Penn chose to explore all of the possible paths that grief can lead to and how it affects everyone in such a radically different way. The parallels to Penn’s other 1995 work, Dead Man Walking, where he played a murderer on Death Row, are evident: the films have a similar tone that don’t come off preachy despite their explosive subject matter. Each film is courageous enough to let whoever watches them to make up their own mind.


In the past, I have not been the biggest fan of Nicholson’s work, which for many film lovers borders on sacrilege. I find him slightly overrated, with a few bright exceptions (Ironweed and Penn’s follow-up to The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, being two of my favorites). His hostility towards his ex-wife, himself and Morse’s character are intense and wholly realized. He packs such nuance into the most ordinary gestures here and in scenes of extreme cliché he stays grounded. I felt like this was something deeply personal for the actor to do. His range, along with the sheer truth of this emotion is staggering. What is fascinating about Nicholson, in his later career stage, is watching the actor eagerly shed his own outrageous persona and going into completely foreign territory as a performer. Like him or not, Nicholson must be given credit for his ability to make risky choices.


My favorite of the cast, by far, was Morse. When I first saw this film, I wasn’t sure how the story would work (after all, we are expected to sympathize with a very unlikable situation and man) but Morse plays everything so subtly (which is something he has done again and again as a performer, perfecting the type most notably in 2000’s Dancer in the Dark). He is so wounded by his actions and his guilt that it cripples him. For such an imposing man, he manages to cut right to the heart of this character that made a terrible error in judgment and will pay for it for the rest of his life. It’s a brilliantly thought-out, incredibly detailed performance that defines the old line “you can’t judge a book by its cover” as Morse turns in one surprise after the next.


While the cast was really shockingly good and the story serviceable, ultimately Penn as a director falls flat, as he did with his first effort The Indian Runner. He has the ability to wrest interesting performances from not only his principles but also his ancillary cast and does a really good job exploring the bare bones of the script through character; but ultimately his visual style meanders and is sort of blasé. No matter, there will always be a line at his door when he begins casting on a new movie. If all else fails, he can always fall back on his career of being a great actor himself.


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