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Sunday, Sep 10, 2006


No, you’re not seeing things. That’s John Travolta in full drag as Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of John Waters’ Hairspray, set for release in 2007. Frankly, SE&L isn’t shocked by the casting. Travolta is a true musical comedy actor, and can definitely pull off the role originated by the late, great Divine. Besides, we’re more curious to see how Christopher Walken holds up has “her” husband, Wilbur. Not that’s a concept worth getting worked up over.


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Saturday, Sep 9, 2006


When Tim Burton tackles a cinematic subject, you know the results are going to be artistically anarchic. From his fascinating short films Vincent and Frankenweenie, to his big budget takes on Batman and the Planet of the Apes, this iconic filmmaker finds the idiosyncratic soul in almost all the material he approaches. The results are always visually inspiring, quirky, arcane, and wholly original. So it’s a shame that his 1996 epic Mars Attacks! Never reached a wider audience. In an odd twist of fate, the film had the unfortunate luck of following Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s more serious interstellar invasion film Independence Day to the Cineplex. Indeed, after seeing the world decimated by pissed off extraterrestrials, Burton’s subtle apocalyptic satire just didn’t seem quite as funny, and audiences stayed away in droves. By doing so, they missed a sensationally subversive sci-fi comedy. Based on a controversial Topps trading card set from the ‘50s and ‘60s, Mars Attacks was an EC Comics approach to the mainstream popcorn extravaganza. It combined riffs from the seminal ‘70s disaster films with lifts from the likes of Stanley Kubrick (Jack Nicholson’s Peter Sellers-like dual roles) to the blaxpolitation classics of the era (complete with Pam Grier and Jim Brown in prominent roles).


But it’s the Martians that make the biggest impression here. Utilizing an early version of CGI, and the extensive physical effects his films are known for, Burton gave what could have been your standard alien bad guys a distinct dimension all their own. Aside from looking exactly like their cartoon counterparts, these slapstick spacemen with the corpse-like demeanor were a constant source of sensational sight gags. In fact, instead of purely playing the villainous antagonists that the cards conveyed, Burton’s ridiculous rogues were a gleeful Greek chorus, mocking the Earthlings in all their human faults and foibles. The Martians manage to play on each and every one of mankind’s sinful slights, from the military’s unreasonable arrogance (as expertly exemplified by the late great Rod Steiger) to the shady sexual secrets inside the corridors of power. Indeed, with the latter, Martin Short gets a chance to shine as a Presidential Aide who attempts to bed a decidedly dim hooker who’s actually an alien in disguise. With its irreverent approach and stellar production design, Mars Attacks! is a marvel. It remains one of Burton’s most slick, satisfying efforts.


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Friday, Sep 8, 2006


Generally, when I think of Diane Keaton, I think of a “modern woman”. Leave it to 1984’s Mrs. Soffel to ship the performer off to the turn of the century, take away her usual contemporary manners and tics, and in the process show off an important and unique side of her capabilities as an actress, talents that extend far beyond the ability to make people laugh.


Over the course of her fascinating film career, Keaton has garnered Oscar nominations in each of the decades since the 1970s. She also has one win for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), a role that made her an American icon. She has exemplified the ideal of a woman living in contemporary society: funny, brainy and naturally sexy (she’s even a L’oreal spokes-model now, at age 60!). In each of these roles, her innate likeability comes across easily, and her particular charms seem to be tailored to fit current times. For me, Keaton is reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn, down to the offbeat manner in which she dresses. Her icon status, her technical skill, and her ability to get consistently interesting work for over four decades makes the comparison even clearer.


At the dawn of the ‘80s, Keaton scored with one of her best roles, yet oddly it wasn’t in the more celebrated yin of Reds or the yang of the for-then very raw divorce drama Shoot the Moon. It the follow-up to these critical successes, Mrs. Soffel, which showcased her most nuanced performance to date; free of all of the modern conventions that had peppered her other work.


Keaton manages a complete immersion into time and character. The sets, costumes and cinematography all conspire to paint a very grim, foggy portrait of Pittsburgh during 1900. Director Gillian Armstrong gets the technical stuff down without being overly showy, and she conveys a really nice sense of era through her color choices. Using washed out blues, grays and other subdued, fuzzy tones, she filters the film through this particular prism, creating an appropriate backdrop for a film set in a prison. Keaton plays a warden’s wife in this true-life tale, a woman who wants to help two convicted killers (Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) escape death row by utilizing the guise of teaching them the bible.


She falls under Gibson’s romantic spell and throws away everything she has to join the fleeing criminals. Keaton is breathtaking, moving easily from frail to hot-and-bothered, from naive to furious all within a matter of scenes (a tricky high-wire act for a performer that is so often associated with wacky physical comedies). It is such unexpected turn that the “Diane Keaton” everyone knows so well just vanishes as Mrs. Soffel is finally freed of her repressed existence. In truth, Keaton is again playing a liberated woman, someone ahead of her time in every way. This time, however, she is able to effortlessly separate herself from her far more famous off-screen persona.


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Thursday, Sep 7, 2006

Heaven help the person looking for a little above board entertainment via their pay TV provider this weekend. The movies the big four premium channels are providing appear so bereft of clear pleasure principles that its hard to imagine anyone getting anything other than frustrated from such flummoxing choices. Sure, the Jet Li movie is a nice riff on the routine fight film, and Starz’s sullen entry does try to create another variation on the ‘adultery is killer’ thriller. But when Jessica Simpson and her whole-assed awfulness is the highlight of the schedule, perhaps its time to consider reading a book. Heck, even Showtime has split the scene, at least temporarily, showing a marathon of its suburban pot drama Weeds instead. So, if you enjoy slightly average action, below average acting and even more mediocre moviemaking acumen, you’ll feel right at home with at least two of the movies premiering on Saturday. Specifically, one will be suffering through the following filmic flotsam:


HBOUnleashed

*
Why does Hollywood have such a hard time figuring out what to do with Jet Li. He’s charismatic, graceful, athletic and charming. He always comes across as considered and commanding. Just because English is his subsidiary language doesn’t mean he can’t have a meaningful mainstream movie career. Yet Tinsel Town is torn as to how best to utilize his sizeable skills. In the meantime, he returns to his homeland to churn out classics like Hero and this fall’s Fearless. Here, paired with the Transporter duo of Luc Besson (script), and Louis Leterrier (director), we have a far more effective actioner than previous Li efforts. Combining fabulous fight scenes with just the slightest twists on its melodramatic conventions, we end up with something more satisfying than stagnant. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxThe Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

Ouch! Here’s a film so painfully pathetic that SE&L has a hard time even THINKING about it, let alone discussing it. Marketed to make money by trading on Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass fanbase, as well as Jessica Simpson’s dumbass personality, the end result was a one note novelty that proved the potential of the adolescent male demographic to show up for almost anything. Following this formula, it won’t be long before someone supes up Nanny and the Professor with the Pussycat Dolls as a determined group of barely dressed babysitters, and Bam Margera as the lonely widower teacher desperate for help raising his wee ones. Now just add Li’l Jon as the nutty next-door neighbor and you’ve got another hap-Hazzard style payday. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzDerailed

What’s worse than a movie starring Jennifer Aniston? How about a film matching her with the enormously talented Clive Owen. Since showing some decent performance chops in 2002’s The Good Girl, the artist formerly known as a Friends haircut has had an incredibly difficult time translating her ‘talent’ to the big screen. This Fatal Attraction styled thriller is no different. While many critics praised the narrative’s no frills attempt at showing relationships in decline, and affairs as a kind of interpersonal poultice, the minute blackmailer Vincent Cassel enters the fray as the tripwire terror, the plot follows the film’s title. Not even a last minute twist (totally telegraphed along the way) can save this sloppy, ineffective flop. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 9:00pm EST).



PopMatters Review


Showtime ShowcaseJules et Jim*

Why not avoid all the Tinsel Town tripe being forwarded this weekend and settle in with something REALLY special. Critic turned filmmaker François Truffaut used the growing French New Wave mandate (break all the rules of cinema) to create a masterful celebration of the medium’s many possibilities. At the center is an unconventional love story between two friends and the flighty femme that would control them both. Everything about this film defies expectation, taunts tradition and redefines the motion picture language. Like all great experiments, it has its flaws. Like all tests of talent, it’s astounding. As much of a challenge to an audience as an entertainment, there are very few films like this post-modern masterpiece. (Saturday 9 September, 8:00pm 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 9 September through 15 September:


IFC


Magnolia (1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson delivers his ultimate ode to Robert Altman with this evocative Short Cuts like look at lives in apocalyptic disarray
(Saturday 9 September, 7:15pm EST)


Black Sunday (1960)
It’s the title that marked Italy’s ascension to movie macabre prominence. Mario Bava directs the ethereal Barbara Steele in a story of witches, possession and blood! 
(Tuesday 12 September, 6:25pm EST)


Human Nature (2001)
The last time director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charles Kaufman got together, they delivered Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This film’s ALMOST as good.
(Wednesday 13 September, 9:00pm EST)


Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton’s love letter to the oddball icon behind Plan 9 from Outer Space, this smart little film is still looking for the respect it deserved 12 year ago.
(Thursday 14 September, 5:45pm EST)


Sundance Channel


Decline of Western Civilization: Part 2 – The Metal Years (1988)
Wanna see something really scary? Director Penelope Spheeris delivers the shocks in this documentary on ‘80s hair metal, with all its decadent, self-deluded dimensions.
(Sunday, 10 September, 10:00pm EST)


11’09"01 - September 11 (2002)
A group of foreign filmmakers try to find cinematic answers to the events that happened in lower Manhattan that fateful fall day, and illustrate its affect on the world.
(Monday, 11 September, 11:00pm EST)


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Martin Scorsese takes on Catholicism and the Bible in this remarkable adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel. A true misunderstood masterpiece
(Thursday, 14 September, 10:00pm EST)


Monster in a Box
The late, great Spaulding Gray discusses his mother’s insanity, and the creation of his novel, the “monster” known as Impossible Vacation, in this amazing monologue.
(Friday, 15 September, 4:15pm EST)


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Tuesday, Sep 5, 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 6: Umrao Jaan
1981, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Muzaffir Ali


Perhaps the most successful commercial art film Bollywood ever made. Think of it as India’s answer to Memoirs of a Geisha coupled with the raw power of Jane Campion’s The Piano. It has it all—exquisite period costumes and sets, nuanced performances from classically trained actors, and a hauntingly beautiful score. Based on the fictional memoir of a 19th century tawayaf (prostitute or public woman) of Lucknow, Umrao Jaan chronicles the life of its title character, the most celebrated courtesan of her day, from her childhood up until the British invasion of Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Rather than simply vilify men for their treatment of women, the movie celebrates the resilience of women who are able to succeed within these patriarchal restrictions. Director Muzaffir Ali’s attention to detail in recreating the heady atmosphere of 19th century Lucknow is so precise you feel like you’re watching documentary footage. But the strength of Umrao Jaan lies in Rekha’s blessedly controlled and intelligent performance in the title role.


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