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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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Friday, Aug 25, 2006


Clint Eastwood as the “master director” is sort of a new concept thanks, largely, to his recent box-office and award-circuit triumphs with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. While Eastwood’s first major critical success came with 1992’s unlikely Oscar winner Unforgiven, the veteran Hollywood star’s 1988 gem, Bird is the film in his canon that best represents the scope of his talents.


Charlie Parker was one of our greatest musicians. “Yardbird” was one of the true jazz pioneers, blending vision, skill and creativity perfectly. Unfortunately, he was plagued by a terrible drug habit, bad business decisions and bleeding ulcers. Eastwood explores the mind of a creator, which is fascinating considering the director’s own gifts and his love of jazz, and it is obvious he can relate to the struggle of having to be the best, even when you don’t feel like it. When the possibility of electric shock therapy is tossed around as a possibly cure for the musician’s ailments, it is just as quickly dismissed. No matter the demons involved, changing the mind and chemistry of a great artist is always detrimental.


What we then witness is a thrilling, career-best performance from Forest Whitaker, a turn which took the male acting prize at Cannes that year. He not only captures the grandeur of a music firebrand working with a heavy heart, he somehow also finds the kindness, the wit and the humanity inside the fast living man. The actor is fearless: he doesn’t go for cheap sentimentality and plays Parker as incredibly flawed, to the point of being incapacitated by his own bad behavior. He expects those that surround him to blindly tolerate his addictions without really thinking through the consequences. While Whitaker blazes through the narrative with an unlikable abandon, one of my favorite is also one of the most simple. After playing wherever he could, to little or no acclaim, Bird visits Paris and is welcomed with open, adoring arms. After a particularly intense performance he is rewarded with a hail of accolades and a storm of roses thrown at the stage. It is a glorious moment, especially when one views Whitaker’s reaction. His gratitude, his humbleness and his pure happiness at seeing his real love connect in the way he wants it to is startling.


Bird also intimately examines the performer’s partnership with dancer Chan Parker (played with vigor by Diane Venora). The scenes between the concerned common-law spouse and her disturbed, creative partner crackle with a rare energy and sharpness. Venora delivers an unexpected performance, in every sense. It may be “the thankless wife” role, but Venora elevates her character above the rut most women who play the quietly supportive type fall into. Chan is sublimely devoted to her husband, to his music and his creativity. She is tolerant of his habits, sometimes despite the welfare of their children. She sees his problems as being intertwined with his gifts and allows him to continue on his path with little interruption, even if it means she will eventually lose him to the grip of these vices. She deals with the tricky subject of being romantically affiliated with a black man and having his children - which in itself was a pioneering effort in those times - with a sense of pride and love that is a refreshing twist on the relatively stock role. The film is in fact based on the memoirs of Parker’s widow and Eastwood managed to not only gain her blessing on the venture, but also received access to a slew of unreleased recordings that were previously locked in a bank vault thanks to her involvement.


Eastwood manages to lift his tidy little story into another dimension by putting the music at the forefront, something that is clumsily absent from the slew of recent films with similar topics. While musician bios like Ray and Walk the Line seem like elaborate showcases for rising talent to posture about, imitating their subjects, Bird is a more artistic and more thoughtful effort. It lets its actors’ characterizations unfold at a sumptuous, un-rushed pace around the music. Though Bird’s physical struggles and his relationship with those closest to him are intrinsic plot elements, the vigorous musical sequences (where Whitaker avoids a stock imitation, meticulously re-creating not only the artist’s techniques, but also his inner fire) are the real draw, proving Eastwood can’t really be placed in a box when it comes to his directorial choices


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Thursday, Aug 24, 2006

As the summer blockbuster carnival slowly “slithers” away from your local Multiplex, the major pay cable channels think its award season circa 2005. Two of the four offerings premiering this week were considered shoe-ins for Oscar nods once the nominations hit in February. They were even bolstered by some helpful pre-Academy nods. Not surprisingly, they were left wanting when the names were finally read. This doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out, though. As a matter of fact, compared to the action-oriented dreck one channel is passing off as entertainment, and the dearth of new titles elsewhere, this pair of potential prestige pictures may be your best bet for a little Saturday night small screen fun. Here’s what’s on tap for the weekend of 25, August:


HBOIn Her Shoes

*
When is a chick flick not your typical chick flick? When it’s directed by LA Confidential helmer Curtis Hanson. Sure, there are formulaic elements to this odd couple sister combo, but Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette manage to move beyond the archetype, turning what could have been a conventional comedy into more of a carefully realized character study. With the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as a disgruntle grandmother who holds some secrets of her own, this is not your typical Lifetime-like melodrama. Thanks to Hanson and his cast, the syrupy saccharine levels are kept to a manageable minimum. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxThe Transporter 2

It’s more bare-chested and knuckled fun for everyone’s favorite UK himbo, Jason Statham. In this sequel to the famously unclothed one’s previous action packed DVD hit from 2002, Statham’s Frank Martin is in Miami, and implicated in a kidnapping. Naturally, this means he’s must kick ass, take names, and strip down to his skivvies every now and again to clear his name. As the stunt work and set pieces practice their physics-defying magic, our only choice is to turn off our brains and enjoy the superficial thrills and antihero chills. Otherwise, the logic leaps and lapses become far too obvious to ignore. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzRent

Why it took so long to bring Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award winning musical to the silver screen, especially with the cinematic conceit of employing the original cast, is anyone’s guest. Why it failed to fulfill the promise of this rock show remix of La Boheme is a little more self-evident. Director Chris Columbus may be a lot of things, but a filmmaker in tune with the mandates of the song and dance format he is not. Also, the narrative’s AIDS oriented storyline is definitely dated, particularly in light of our current sense of empowerment over the disease. Still, the music and the performances remind us of the power inherent in the wholly American artform. Too bad the translation failed to capture it correctly. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 9:00pm EST).



PopMatters Review


ShowtimeThe Passion of the Christ

*
While he waits the frightening fall out from his undeniably Anti-Semitic remarks, here’s a chance to see Mel Gibson practice what he apparently preaches. This is a gorgeous, visually stunning film, despite its splatter/snuff reputation and heavy headed religiosity. While the Jews definitely get it in the far too literal Bible belting, it’s the Romans that actually come across as slobbering, sadistic animals. Carrying too much personal baggage to exist exclusively as iconography, what we have here is still an evocative and inflammatory motion picture. (Saturday 26 August, 10pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


Turner Classic Movies: August: Summer Under the Stars Month

Leave it to the classic film channel to find novel ways of constantly recycling its catalog of amazing Tinsel Town artifacts. In August, the station will salute several celebrated names from Hollywood’s Golden Age upward, using each daylong promotion as an excuse to screen numerous offerings from the specific star’s catalog. A few of the highlights for the week of 25 August to 31 August are:



26 August – Cary Grant

No one, before or since, matched his delicate air of suave sophistication. Sadly, many thought such a style came naturally and never gave him the acting credit he so richly deserved. Let the performance reevaluation begin with these fine films:


6:00 AM Monkey Business (1952)* 
7:45 AM She Done Him Wrong (1933)* 
9:00 AM Cary Grant: A Class Apart (2004)* 
10:30 AM Operation Petticoat (1959) 
12:45 PM Bachelor And The Bobby-Soxer, The (1947) 
2:30 PM Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)* 
4:15 PM Dream Wife (1953) 
6:00 PM Father Goose (1964)* 
8:00 PM Gunga Din (1939)* 
10:00 PM Arsenic And Old Lace (1944)* 
12:15 AM North By Northwest (1959)* 
2:45 AM Suspicion (1941)* 
4:30 AM Every Girl Should Be Married (1949) 


29 August – Ingrid Bergman

While she may always be remembered as fragile femme fatale alongside Bogart’s magnificent ex-pat machismo in Casablanca, there was much more to this Swedish beauty than her ravishing looks and a scandalous affair with director Roberto Rossellini. Here’s proof:


6:00 AM Rage In Heaven (1941) 
8:00 AM Stromboli (1950)* 
10:00 AM Europa ‘51 (1952) 
12:00 PM Yellow Rolls-Royce, The (1964) 
2:15 PM Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1941)* 
4:15 PM Gaslight (1944)* 
6:15 PM Casablanca (1942)* 
8:00 PM For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943)* 
11:00 PM Cactus Flower (1969)* 
1:00 AM Adam Had Four Sons (1941) 
3:00 AM Saratoga Trunk (1945) 


30 August – Sidney Poitier

In an era when racial divides were unrelenting in both their cruelty and illogic, he towered above them, both in talent and tolerance. As the first performer of color ever to win the Oscar for Best Actor, here’s several reasons why he’s remembered as much for his acting as his activism: 


6:00 AM Blackboard Jungle (1955)*
8:00 AM Patch Of Blue, A (1965) * 
10:00 AM Edge of the City (1957) 
11:30 AM Red Ball Express (1952) 
1:00 PM Defiant Ones, The (1958) * 
2:45 PM Band Of Angels (1957) 
5:00 PM Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light (2000) 
6:00 PM Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) * 
8:00 PM For Love of Ivy (1968) 
10:00 PM In The Heat Of The Night (1967) * 
12:00 AM They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) 
2:00 AM Wilby Conspiracy, The (1975) 
4:00 AM Something Of Value (1957) 


* = PopMatters Picks


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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2006



As the Internet continues to buzz, albeit moderately, about the so-called “failure” of Snakes on a Plane, one issue seems to be getting all the attention – New Line’s decision to bow to web pressure and change Snakes rating from a kid friendly PG-13 to a far harder R. For those unfamiliar with the story, SoaP was originally going by the title Pacific Air 121, purposefully toning down the violence, and hemming in star Sam Jackson’s tendency to break out in badass expletives. When the geek squad got a hold of this information, they promised rebellion. They convinced New Line to ditch the dopey name and unleash Jackson’s inner epithet. But it wasn’t until the film was finished and the PG-13 version was screened, that all involved knew that such a youth-oriented rating was about to doom the film. So following Internet suggestions, the violence was amped up and the entire tone driven darker, and less dopey.


Naturally, once the less than spectacular box office returns were announced, people started looking for scapegoats. As with most Tinsel Town missteps, the rating became the prime suspect. So-called insiders argued that a PG-13 guaranteed a wider demographic, and allowed the most dollar-oriented film fans, the 14 to 17 years olds to freely attend the film. Parents chimed in, stating that it was a “shame” that their bratlings couldn’t attend a movie that they had been interested in since it first became infamous on the web. Unfortunately, all of this fails to address the primary reason Snakes sunk – New Line got stingy and relied on tech dorks to market its movie. Here’s betting the brainiac who thought that up is clearing out his or her desk right now.


But the whole PG-13 issue raises a much larger, much broader concern, one that Hollywood doesn’t want to really address, outright. In many ways, the studios are practicing a kind of cultural ageism. They figure if you’re over 20, single, or married without yet spawning children, and want to see genre offerings like action, horror and thrillers, you better be prepared to sit at the cinematic kids’ table. They have no intention of providing adult entertainment for adults – they assume that if you don’t want to be part of the juvenile crowd, you can simply buy or rent the DVD a few months down the line. The film biz is more or less convinced that giving everything a PG-13 is the panacea that cures all of the industries box office ills. After all, teens don’t have taste – they wait for one of the many style conscious entities (MTV, YouTube) to tell them what’s cool, and then they flock to it like proverbial, profit-margin sheep.


Now this is all well and good for the bottom line, but the truth is that such a greenback oriented mentality is corrupting, and even killing, the movie-going experience. More than the emerging technology in home theater, the ADD addled outlook of your average “got to have my Blackberry” film fan, or the sequel/remake strategy that has the weekly premieres feeling like a bad case of déja vu (starring Densel Washington, apparently), this stopgap rating is ruining the integrity of the cinematic aesthetic. The argument is simple to understand – it’s kind of like entertainment utilitarianism. Filmmakers are being forced to bend their ideas and vision to provide the greatest marketing good for the greatest number of filmgoers. And aside from the pre and tween set (who aren’t prohibited outright, and get a healthy does of hackneyed CGI every few weeks, anyway) PG-13 delivers such a bland universality.


Well, kind of. In essence, PG-13 is as useless as the X. All it really does is tell anyone who’s interested that the film they are about to see is not quite an “R”. It doesn’t define limits the way the original G/PG/R system suggested, and in reality, confused the concept of what content satisfied the “Parental Guidance” standard. Before the arrival of the censorship stopgap, films with a PG rating frequently featured nudity, violence and foul language. Even films like Beetlejuice and Big had the notorious “F” word as part of their almost all-ages aspects. While it’s true that time and temperament affects the MPAA as much as actual material (Clerks II barely batted a rating’s board eye toward its easy R, while the original got smacked with a still stinging NC-17), the fine line between what mandates the addition of a ‘13’ is so subjective that it’s hard to get a handle on.


The Supreme Court calls this “The Chilling Effect” – the moment where speech of any kind is so hindered by outrageous or ambiguous restriction that the only safe path is none at all. While they’ve denied it for years, the media has so glorified the importance of the MPAA’s approval that newspapers won’t print ads for film’s featuring too much sex and/or violence, and trailers/movie posters aren’t permitted for general audience consumption until the board has had their say. Even worse, theaters and other entertainment outlets (read: national chain video stores) will fail to offer certain films if their rating goes against these moralized marketing strategies. While they make it very clear that no film has to follow its suggestions, the MPAA system is set up in such a way that to ignore them is to commit a kind of professional seppuku. If direct and indirect advertising bans and the inability to book play dates aren’t outright suppression, they’re pretty damn close.


So most movies and makers contractually pre-determine a rating, using their crack business acumen and any other form of glorified guessing to determine an appropriate approach to a project. Genre usually helps define the parameters, with drama being the most open ended and animation the most closed. In between are conflicting categories, from the always in flux comedy to the growing ever stricter horror film. Yet the cold fact is that most films don’t strive for a PG-13: they usually backdoor their way into it. They film the material they want, create the effects and the imagery that they believe works within the context of their movie, and then toss the entire enterprise at the MPAA like a compulsive gambler hoping to avoid another ‘snake eyes’ washout – and by doing so, they begin the process of amusement micromanagement.


With the buffer of a PG-13, and it’s perceived bankability, a kind of cinematic bait and switch beings. As stated before, it occurs with the most frequency in horror films. Unless a hard R is agreed upon and accepted (Hostel, Saw, Silent Hill), most movie macabre is purposefully fashioned to give the ratings system ample editing fodder. Scares are left intact and gore remains plentiful, all in full knowledge that they will be snipped and clipped out of existence later on. The goal is simple – get that 13. A regular PG, once a sign of some amiable adult content, now argues for the random fart joke. It’s been Disney-fied and declassified. R, of course, is a no-no, especially in our responsibility shirking society that wants to prevent anyone from understanding the truth about the real world.


No, PG-13 is the ultimate stopgap, a financial safety net that allows for a film to open to the broadest possible audience – and in some manner of backwards logic – to create the quickest connection to a target fanbase. Yet this fails to take into consideration two important elements (1) the needs of the moviegoer and (2) the needs of the genre. Horror cannot survive without the visceral and textural aspects of terror. Eradicating them to fit a non-standardized score robs the genre of its real reason for being. Some say, “No, PG-13 can be just as frightening as an R”. Bollocks! By this argument, The Exorcist would be a much better movie without all the probable NC-17 level vileness it offers.  Or even better, if we could just clean up the original Night of the Living Dead (and it’s sensational sequels) or Tobe Hooper’s initial Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we’d have UNIVERSALLY appreciated mainstream classics.


Huh? Gearing material to a specific set of individuals is understandable, but not very intelligent. What if your dream teen demographic is uninterested in vampire/werewolf wars, or the ongoing haunting of a curse-riddled home? Does shaving the story of its more potent scares really make it more acceptable to the disconnected and the inattentive? And worse, what does it do to the film itself? Could we even tolerate the new The Hills Have Eyes had the narrative not wandered over into the nauseating nuclear village sequence, or do we really prefer The Fog remake approach to terror, with all the killings either quick-cut, or occurring off camera to guarantee the MPAA’s incredibly mixed blessing. Granted, both sides have valid reasons for why they do what they do, but does using a score as the source of inspiration really help the internal structure of your story - and, doesn’t it question outright the capacity of your audience?


Seems like Snakes on a Plane may be more important than anyone on the ‘Net even imagined. Aside from all the web log marketing snafus and peer-to-peer pressure, it has laid the seeds of a debate that has been simmering for a while. There are many who feel that the PG-13 rating is a parental godsend, the kind of sage second-handed advice that makes raising kids in the post-millennial mêlée of the nu-media that much less impossible. Others, naturally, despise the notion of art being altered for the sake of a perceived payday. Whatever the rationale, the reality is actually a corrupt combination of the two. The MPAA’s PG-13 is a demographic determinate. Sadly, it censures as much as it suggests, pushing us closer and closer to a homogenized version of the cinematic arts. There may come a day when every film is a probable PG-13, whether they began that way or not. Unfortunately, we appear to be closer to that manner of filmic future shock than we care to admit.


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