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Tuesday, Sep 19, 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 8: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (“Something’s Happening”)
1998, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Karan Johar
Karan Johar is the boy wonder of Bollywood. He wrote and directed Kuch Kuch Hota Hai when he was only 25. It went on to become the biggest hit in Indian cinema - surpassing even DDLJ. What was the secret to the phenomenal success of this sweet musical romantic-comedy? That idyll of bourgeois pleasure and prosperity: 1960s America.  Johar, like many Indians from wealthy families, grew up reading Archie comics and watching Disney films and The Brady Bunch.  Archie and his gang of frisky teenage friends and that co-ed paradise of jocks and cheerleaders known as Riverdale High serve as the inspiration for Johar’s tale of Punjabi puppy love. Cocky playboy Rahul (Shahrukh Khan) falls for the principal’s stylish daughter, Tina (Rani Mukherji), breaking the heart of his best friend, brash tomboy, Anjali (Kajol). Tina dies shortly after childbirth leaving poor Rahul to raise their daughter alone. But through the help of Tina’s letters, Rahul and Tina’s daughter, who Tina named Anjali (a little cloying, perhaps?), reunites Rahul with his best friend and fated love, Anjali.. The appeal of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai operates largely on nostalgia—Archie, The Parent Trap, Beach Blanket Bingo, the Hollywood movies of the ‘60s that worshiped teens, mass consumption, and the wholesome nuclear family. And Johar cleverly reunited Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, two stars whose palpable on-screen chemistry was endearing and achingly tender.


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Monday, Sep 18, 2006

Finally, a week worth getting excited about. For more than a month, SE&L has watched as, with rare exceptions, DVD distributors have unleashed their seemingly endless stream of substandard fare to your local retailer. From major motion picture flops to endless reissues of titles long since technically perfected, there has been little in the way of compelling consumer goods. In fact, the selection has been scattershot to say the least. Ah, but this Tuesday is different. Again, Criterion comes through, delivering two unsung masterworks to the digital format, while a fascinating rock doc, a collection of ‘80s style movie macabre and a couple of hard driving dramas also spark our cinematic interest. Also of note is a Playstation take on terror that is probably best left for those still sold on their Sega Dreamcast. So grab your wallet and head to your favorite B&M as these are the compelling offerings for 19, September:


The Devil and Daniel Johnston*
This is the kind of documentary that invents all the eventual critical clichés. It’s masterful proof that fact is far more intriguing than fiction. It uses the thread of celebrity as a means of binding together the eccentricity of musicians, the pain of dreams deferred, and the social/interpersonal unacceptability of mental illness. Yes, Johnston comes off like an underground Brian Wilson, a naïve creator of magical pop music whose bubbling inner demons eventually damaged and destroyed his soul. But perhaps the greatest lesson we ultimately learn is that some minds are never meant to heal. In Johnston’s case, they are to be tolerated and celebrated. Thanks to gifted director Jeff Feuerzeig, we can do just that. This is definitely one of the year’s best films.


PopMatters Review 


The Elvira Movie Macabre Collection*
While she may be best known for another “body” of work, Cassandra Peterson – a.k.a. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – is also noted for continuing the late night horror host tradition started decades before by numerous noteworthy individuals, including her obvious inspiration, Vampira. Her sassy, entendre laced remarks, mixed in with some cutting commentary on the flawed films being presented, lead to a considered cult following that has only grown over the years. Now, digital archivists Shout! Factory have released six select titles from her Movie Macabre series: The Devil’s Wedding Night, Werewolf of Washington, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, Count Dracula’s Great Love, Legacy of Blood and The Doomsday Machine. Whether you crave this schlocky six pack, or are only interested in said vixen’s viable assets, these ‘80s throwbacks are a terrifically tacky treat.


 


Hard Candy*
It was only a matter of time before the Internet and the proliferation of pedophiles became the frightening fodder for the thriller genre. Thankfully screenwriter Brian Nelson and director David Slade went for subject matter more creepy and confrontational than exploitative. Turning the tables on a possible predator, young Hayley Stark (played by actress Ellen Page) is fiercely determined to exact her moralistic revenge in the most precise painful way possible, and for most people, that would be just fine. The subject matter of online deviants drives us in that direction. Then Nelson and Slade twist things up once again. Before long, you won’t know who to root for, and whom to revile. A two character, single setting drama with acting excellence to spare, this difficult, disquieting film offers not easy answers or allies. Instead, it asks us to see both sides of an incredibly controversial circumstance - and harder still, understand it.



PopMatters Review


Jigoku: The Criterion Collection*
This film tells a familiar story – a young man, involved in the accidental death of a pedestrian, faces inner torment and guilt. Yet in the hands of famed Japanese genre filmmaker Nobuo Nakagawa, this vignette heavy glimpse of Buddhism’s Eight Great Hells is like some kind of visceral visualized damnation. What begins as a conventional tale of bad decisions and karmic coincidences devolves into a pagan Pilgrim’s Progress with no shepherd to guide this sheep through the vile Valley of Death. Many have compared Nakagawa’s work here to that of José Mojica Marins, a.k.a. Brazil’s infamous Coffin Joe. Stunningly graphic, even today, with substantive amounts of evisceration and dismemberment, this is more of an experiment in terror than cold cautionary tale. Yet Nakagawa never lets us forget the humanity inside the horror, mixing imagery of reality with his revolting interpretation of the underworld.


 


The Proposition*
Gloom and doom rocker Nick Cave, not previously known for his adeptness at writing Westerns, crafted this critically divisive revamp of the Outback oater, focusing on a gang of outlaw brothers and their blood drenched adventures. Starring the almost always good Guy Pearce, and peppered with performances by Ray Winstone and Noah Taylor, this John Hillcoat helmed slice of horse opera revision definitely flummoxed most film reviewers. Some called it the best film of 2005, while others can’t quite get over Cave’s overcomplicated dialogue and cinematic shortcomings. Whatever camp you’re in – pure Wayne or pro Peckinpah, The Proposition is definitely violent. But is it brutal for the sake of shock, or is there a method to Cave’s cruelty. You be the judge…jury…and Old West executioner.


 


PopMatters Review


Spirit of the Beehive: The Criterion Collection*
Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive is the visualization of the moment when every child’s mind turns from naiveté to knowing. Combining childhood, the Spanish Civil War, the growing fascism of Franco, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village at the center as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction. It’s also rich in the symbolism of youth giving way to adulthood. Told completely through the eyes of our two young female leads, Erice creates a kind of cinematic tabula rosa. Instead of overdoing the iconography or ham-fisting his insinuations, this director just lets the narrative flow. The result is both haunting and halting. The visuals stun us as the plot purposefully evades our grasp.


Stay Alive: Director’s Cut
Granted, this is no Silent Hill. As a matter of fact, it may not even be a House of the Dead. All Dr. Uwe Boll references aside, most critics complained that this video-gamed based horror film was juvenile, illogical and incredibly ineffective – kind of like the latest release for the Xbox 360, huh? Anyway, some kids come across an illegal game (wow, how Ring-ish) that one of their friends died playing. So, naturally, they hop right in. Random garroting ensues. While the cinematic vision of the film was stuck in stupefying PG-13 land, this unrated director’s cut promises lots of excess carnage. Will the additional gore be enough to save this effort from being a Commodore 64 crapfest? Or will genre fans get their Nintendo Wii’s worth? Perhaps you need to press play and find out.



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 19 September:


Brain Damage*
Frank Henenlotter was already famous for his ode to 42nd Street and exploitation movies when he made this follow-up to that glorified geek show, Basket Case. Using a brain sucking, if personable, talking parasite as his allegorical stand-in for drugs and addiction, this sly schlock meister got his “Just Say No” message across without having to rely on pontification or preaching. Instead, Henelotter used a considered performance by future soap star Rick Hearst and a lot of Manhattan atmosphere to show that dependency is not only harmful – it’s downright fatal to almost everyone involved. While this DVD is not as tricked out as previous versions – in fact, it’s basically bare bones – that is still not a reason to avoid this crazy cult classic. Pay close attention to the voice of the psychedelic slug “Elmer”. That’s beloved TV icon Zachary behind those sonorous tones.



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Sunday, Sep 17, 2006


Going back to the days when Beta battled VHS for market dominance, film fans have had a veritable love/hate relationship with the concept of home video. At first, machines were sold on their ability to record. In an era of limited broadcast options and inadequate cable coverage, the notion of being able to ‘tape’ and then playback a favorite program or sporting event held an overpowering mystique. Audiences accustomed to suffering through the summer subjected to untold reruns and failed replacement series could now rummage through their own collection and create their own entertainment experience. In fact, most of the original video retailers used the “why let others tell you what to watch when you can choose your own viewing” ideal to interest buyers. It was hailed as a revolution. Thirty years later, it’s had a far more regressive, radical effect.


Now, before you get the wrong idea, this is not going to be yet another rant about how watching films in the comfort of your home has ruined the in theater experience. You won’t find links being made to the leisurely, living room approach to entertainment and the frequent social slip-ups that fill up the local Cineplex. Granted, home video has forged a lax sense of acceptable behavior, especially from children who are used to the television playing the role of chief babysitter, friend, sidekick, etiquette instructor and background noise. So naturally they transfer their jittery juvenile energy to the stadium seat experience. We shouldn’t be surprised when kids clamor for attention, run up and down the aisles and treat the cinema as their home. For most, there is no difference – except for the lowered lights and gathering of unidentifiable strangers. It’s the reason restaurants once “discouraged” family dining and pointed to protocol as their explanation. Children are still learning the proper decorum.


Does this excuse the adults who talk during the significant plot points, field cell phone calls during the drama and basically conduct all manner of interpersonal and professional business as the rest of the audience adjusts, or simply joins in? Is that really home theater’s fault? In truth, the answer is no. Blame other technology - in fact, we should be afraid of such scientific shunts in our necessary social interaction. For eons, the main reason people went to the movies was to mingle with their fellow film fans and experience something communal; to connect with the outside by sharing something with like minded individuals. Now, while it’s true that the VCR put a dent in such a design (more on this in a moment), it’s the computer age that really flummoxed such a mutual mission.


For ages, only doctors and important business types demanded unqualified access to communication. They needed to be and required being in touch with their employment or office not out of convenience, but out of necessity. A missed call and a patient could be hospitalized or deceased, a deal dying or dead. So limited access to entertainment events became part of the job. You suffered through a concert knowing that your oversized beeper would go off at any moment, and purposefully avoided situations – like sold out showings of the recent hit film – out of courtesy for others, and consideration for your career. But not today. People are married to their personal contact devices, divorcing themselves from reality as they text-message a random thought during the second act denouement, complete with an attached camera-phone image to prove they really are “at the movies”. In the realm of viscous cycling, the wireless industry has the world brainwashed. You didn’t need a pocket organizer with Internet access until they said you did, and now you’ve become so reliant on it’s level of novel interactivity, you can’t be without it.


No, if you want to point an appropriate finger at the home video craze and lionize it for some adverse effect on the art of cinema, the accusation is painfully simple: the VCR created a nation of amateur film scholars and critics. In fact, it’s so hard to remember what it was like even at the outset of the video revolution that many would laugh at such a sentiment. Yet the truth is evident from the current culture of the web. As recently as the 1970’s film was considered an artform, right up there with the novel, music and the rest of the humanities. In order to study it though, to really get to know it, you had to do what most people do to gain such knowledge – you had to go to school. Most people prior to VHS didn’t have revival houses in their neighborhood, and almost all were exposed to classic films during the Late Late Movie, weekend afternoons and the occasional network television premiere. No one saw original edits of their favorites – they witnessed censored prints cut for time and subject matter.


Cable was the first alternative to change the viewing dynamic of the public. Via a pay channel, you could see Hollywood films the way they were presented in the theater. You could consider the violence, explore the erotica and hear all the expletives that the FCC and MPAA tried to protect you from. But better yet, you got a chance to revisit a favorite title without the burden of waiting for the actual moviemaking business to reintroduce it to you. Through the wonder of a coaxial wire – and then a plastic cassette loaded with magnetic tape – you could start your own curriculum in film appreciation. While it was slow going at first (many titles were not released for purchase, but for rental), the windfall derived from the sell-through model of home video marketing meant that, a scant few months after you saw something on the big screen, you could purchase a quasi-permanent version of it for yourself.


Better yet, once the first run film market was saturated, studios went back into their vaults and released all manner of material. Some was classic. Some was crap. But it represented the kind of exposure to cinema that many before the ‘80s seldom received, even in college. In essence, decades of research and study could be repeated in a matter of months, as long as you had a TV, a VCR, and a decent video rental/retailer in your area. Thus, the amateur training began. Masterworks only read about were optioned and absorbed. Cult films were finally found, and confirmed as true kitsch or misguided camp. Genres were fleshed out and reformed, while previously uncelebrated talent was placed into the pantheon of cinematic history. In essence, the entire legacy of film was opened up to the public – and with that, naturally, came the public opinion.


Harlan Ellison once wrote that people aren’t entitled to their opinion, just their own learned one, and the same is true about film. It is literally impossible to absorb the whole of cinema via a steady diet of videocassettes (and today, DVDs). Even the most dedicated student can’t digest the whole of motion picture making – a concept that runs from silents to moderns, familiar to foreign and all places in between. Yet the exposure to the technology of home video over the last three decades has made experts out of mere fans, and archivists out of the most casual of viewer. One surf of the Internet confirms this concept. YouTube is loaded with would be Eberts, pontificating in poorly scripted and presented clips about the recent releases. MySpace is packed with ‘best of’ lists and pages devoted exclusively to some of the most obscure filmic efforts ever created. Even worse, such resources are viewed as authoritative by fans looking for instant feedback, empowering an entire generation to avoid conventional thinking and determine their own Wikipedia fed aesthetic fate.


Now, this seems like a good idea, until you realize its substantial downside. Without consensus, nothing can be truly considered archetypal. By its very definition, something is representative because it holds the majority of the meaningful opinions. But in this focus group/test screening/Ain’t It Cool News-ing of cinema, everyone believes their belief actually matters – not counts, MATTERS. It’s the message they’ve been fed, and have self proscribed, since the VCR showed them how good/bad Ed Wood’s Plan 9 really was, or how brave/boring Kubrick’s 2001 could be. Over the decades, audiences have been brainwashed into believing that experience is the same as expertise. They know about film because they’ve seen so many. But without accompanying context, without thinking and analyzing and revising, perception is perverted. Response is not the same as consideration. Entertainment – or the lack thereof – is only part of a film’s facets, or flaws.


Yet that’s the mob mentality monster we’ve created. Aided by the sudden surge in box office performance, especially over the initial weekend (something also contributable to home video’s volatility as an indicator) and the studio’s persistent desire to endlessly fine tune a project via public opinion, the movies have moved in the direction the technology first dictated. Except, in this case, instead of telling the audience what to watch – as cinema did from it’s infancy through the ‘80s – it’s the public pushing the buttons. So before you blame Hollywood for the latest hack job, or curse a director for dropping the ball on a long beloved project, just remember this: you asked for it. Maybe not directly, but vicariously through home video. Your superficial study of film has led an entire industry to cater to your self-supported whims. It may be worse now that the Internet has upped the profile, but don’t ever forget its simple seeds. A while back, someone thought a private video taping system was a good idea. Unfortunately, the post-millennial cinematic stasis was the outcome. 


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Saturday, Sep 16, 2006


Something is dangerously wrong with filmmaker Damon Packard. Just clicking on his official website leads to a plea for financial help and a list of purchasable cinematic oddities, all accompanied by an eerily reverberating version of The Carpenter’s “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Lost somewhere within his own unsettled mind and a fatalistic love of the ‘70s, Packard has produced dozens of short films, motion picture experiments and long form features. Perhaps his most notorious – for reasons both artistic and legal – is Reflections of Evil. In it’s original format, this stream of crackpot consciousness masterwork used found footage, bootlegged film clips, material recorded off television and a healthy homage to the ABC Movie of the Week to craft a totally surreal supernatural mystery. Unfortunately, when Go-Kart Films tried to release a DVD version of Packard’s perturbed vision, massive edits had to be made. The result was an equally brilliant, if substantially different look at one man’s battle for persona, and professional redemption.


The narrative – if there is one to mention – centers on an angry, morbidly obese street vendor (played by Packard) who’s haunted by the death of his sister. Roaming the sidewalks of LA, screaming at himself in animalist grunts, Packard’s camera catches real people panicked over his obvious psychotic ranting. His curse-laden tirades seem aimed more at the cosmos, however than the surrounding modern world. Buried in between these slapdash sideshow antics are reenactments of Steven Spielberg shooting the genre gem Something Evil, sequences from the Universal Studios tour, and ethereal inserts featuring a near perfect capturing of the slow motion depiction of television terror. But this is just part of the story. Behind the scenes, after completing the project, Packard made more than 20,000 DVD copies. He proceeded to distribute them all, free of charge. He left them around the city (in stores and at ATMs) and mailed many directly to celebrities. He got the occasional response (several messages, both good and very bad, have been catalogued on Packard’s Web site), and found a champion in Sylvester Stallone’s son Sage. But most of the response was vile and hateful.


Of course, for this decidedly disturbed director, such rejection was a sign of the social significance in his work. Packard perceives Hollywood, and those bound to its influences, as a disease overloaded with conspiracy and cabals. To him, modern movies are forged out of a Free Mason sense of secrecy with the studios purposefully setting out to subvert the efforts of those wanting to make a difference. Reflections of Evil is a stuttering shock treatment approach to understanding this indecipherable design, a movie masquerading as a madman’s mission statement. No one said the truth would be comfortable or easy. No one said the past was pain-free. Packard understands this all too well, and just like his motion picture protagonist, he also suffers with the obvious oppression of everyday life. This is an amazing cinematic shriek, a primal scream in the face of aesthetic helplessness. It is also one of the finest experimental films ever made.


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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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