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Thursday, Jun 3, 2010
Splice never intended to be a balls-out frightmare or gratuitous bit of bizarro inter-species exploitation. Instead, it hopes that a bevy of "Bravos" plus an ad campaign that hides the truth will trick the fanbase.

It’s known as the old bait and switch - the promise one thing but the delivery of something completely different. Carnivals used to excel at such tactics, especially the sleazier ones that would substitute medical “oddities” in jars of formaldehyde for actual sideshow freaks. Hollywood has been doing it for years - providing family films that only a brain-addled infant could love, dreaming up romantic comedies which are far from either. Genre titles seem to be the worst, however. Horror or science fiction requires a certain suspension of disbelief and when you fail to fulfill that requirement, the ideas you proffer usually go from spine-tingling to mind-numbing. But the worst crime is pretending to be something you have no intention of embracing. Nothing is more disingenuous to the fans - or the format.


Take the new fresh-from-the-film-festival-circuit favorite Splice. Co-written and directed by Vincenzo Natali (perhaps best known for the Saw-like Cube), the main premise offers envelope-pushing scientists Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) as they try to find a way to make their corporate sponsors happy. They’ve just artificially developed a profitable protein (and a new genus of beastie to supply it) and the bosses want more, more, MORE! So naturally, Clive and Elsa decide to vary from protocol and use human DNA to speed up the process. The results are a half-breed ‘horror’ nicknamed Dren (“nerd”, backwards) that’s part baby, part beast. Maturing at an accelerated rate, the mutation brings out the worst in our reluctant researchers. When the company finds out, however, things go from bad to horrifically worse.


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Monday, May 24, 2010
Call it a bias or an irrational fear of my feminine side, but Sex and the City 2 will surely live without me…and I without it.

As a film critic, you have to put up with a lot - unrealistic deadlines, stubborn studio reps, screening rats, unruly paying patrons, “blank page” syndrome, our dying importance to the medium. Between the daily reports of the latest layoff to the incessant smell of a preview loaded with popcorn, perfume, and ass, it’s livelihood as a constant struggle between belief in one’s ability and better career judgment. So when something like Sex and the City 2 comes along, it challenges the carefully crafted personal equilibrium you rely on to help you get out of bed in the morning. Like the Twilight films (which offer an equal amount of cinematic suicidal tendencies), it argues for attention while acknowledging that it will do little except aggravate and demoralize - and it’s a sequel, which under the standard laws of diminishing returns means its going to be even more mediocre. 


So in preparation for my decision NOT to return to this particular franchise, I have come up with three rationalizations (call them excuses) which, I believe, forgive me from further consideration of this material. Call it a bias or an irrational fear of my feminine side, but Sex and the City 2 will surely live without me…and I without it. As a declaration of intent, I offer this clearly male manifesto, beginning with my primary position on the whole ‘sharp dressed girls gone wild’ conceit. Let’s begin with reason number one:


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Thursday, May 20, 2010
The worst thing about the Shrek films is not their entertainment inconsistencies or lack of reach. Instead, what's most troublesome is the bellwether they set for an entire decade of derivative rip-offs.

With Dreamworks supposedly putting the last nail in the coffin of this creaky, antiquated CG dinosaur (well, ogre actually), it’s time to look back at the damage a certain big green idiot has done to a fledgling, often faltering artform. When computer animation first hit big, there were two considered standard bearers. On the one side was Pixar, careful in their approach, polished in their presentation, and seemingly flawless in the quality of work they eventually produce. Of the ten movies the current Disney subsidiary has made, all have their champions and almost all are classics. On the other hand is the Spielberg/Katezenberg crapshoot, a creative enterprise that has seen as many disasters (Madagascar, Shark Tale) as delights (Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon).


Sitting on top of the heap of half-baked entertainment is the Shrek series. Sure, the first film managed to snag the Academy Award away from Monsters Inc. (hard to believe in retrospect), but since then, the franchise has been a cinematic illustration of the law of diminishing returns. Shrek 2 was an even bigger box office success, but failed to repeat in the little gold statue department, and the less said about the awful Shrek the Third, the better. Now comes the closing riff for this encore no one asked for, a superior attempt to “reinvent” the original storyline to show what would happen if our hulking hero had never been born. Introducing the new villain Rumplestilkskin and offering a “parallel universe” version of Far Far Away where Shrek is no one special, the main aspects of this fourth installment are pretty solid.


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Monday, Nov 16, 2009

There is nothing in this world that could get me to sit through this week’s screening of The Twilight Saga: New Moon. My last experience with the faux fright franchise, a sorry excuse for turning Harlequin Romances into sappy tween terror, was so uncomfortable, so undeniably demoralizing, I never want to go through something like that again. I barely survived the experience. Forget all the studio mandates (no guests - though some in the local TV media ignored said restriction, an embargo seemingly crafted by the Department of Homeland Security) and the craptacular film itself. No, Twilight (the book, the fad, the mass merchandising uber-hype attempted phenomenon) has become a calling card of sort for all manner of lonely girls, Goth adolescents, misguided Mothers, and spinsters who’ve decided to live vicariously through literature - and they are a surly bunch.


They are known as “Twilighters”, worshipers at the pulp temple of scribe Stephanie Meyers and her less than mediocre muse (heck - even the best selling author of all time, Mr. ‘Big Mac and Fries’ himself, Stephen King, thinks she sucks!). They praise everything about the series, from its weird wish fulfillment which mandates that true love come from someone who’s undead, or a shapeshifter, to the cinematic interpretation of same. Some even subdivide themselves into ‘teams’, with Edward (the studly bloodsucker) and Bella (shallow audience surrogate) being the most popular. Trust me, said contingents were out in full force at the aforementioned sneak preview last year, shrieking like Paul McCartney and John Lennon had just walked onstage and dropped more than their mop tops. But there was something more belligerent about their vicious Vamp-mania. Indeed, nothing is worse than a throng going ga-ga over something unwarranted and unworthy.


There is no denying the franchise’s popularity. Hollywood wouldn’t be paying attention if Ms. Meyers was merely an isolated cult celeb. But an undeniable commercial response is never an appropriate gauge for critical perspective. If that were the case, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen would be this year’s runaway winner for Oscar’s Best Picture. No, success is measured in a lot of ways - with longevity being one of them. Right now, Twilight is sitting high atop a mountain forged out of clever promotion, demographic demand, and the nu-media’s ability to turn any minor conceit into a combination of mass hysteria and mob rule. It won’t last forever, but just long enough. We can’t just blame the Internet here. Everyone, from talk shows to serious news programs are jumping on the Bella bandwagon, acknowledging that with pandering comes ratings.


It’s the notion of recognized empowerment that drives the Twilighters to be tired, boorish, and dismissive. Argue with them about their fanaticism and they grow more so. Attempt to tear apart their passion and they become even more fervent. It’s as if their actual identity comes with being so betrothed to an icky idea Anne Rice had three decades ago. And now, with New Moon, we get the added idiocy of proto-hunky werewolves. That’s right; the main narrative thread has supporting player Jacob Black stepping to the fore as a lupine looker with a body so sculpted he makes gay pin-ups seem paunchy. Add in the “Volturi” a faux royalty vampire council capable of killing Edward and you’ve got a brainstorm that even Barbara Cartland would laugh at.


At this point in the process, I am already sick of New Moon. I’m tired of all the lame CG wolf transformations and ads that feature Robert Pattinson in full Robert Smith meets Morrissey pompadour pout mode. One day, a decade or so from now, when the young British thesp is a twice-rehabbed middle-aged “special guest” at a third rate Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention we’ll perhaps hear how it really feels to be the inadvertent idol of a million frustrated female’s latent fantasies. Until then, we get lots of pale-faced fawning and little else. Indeed, if the Twilight films were anything more than excuses for high school puppy love played out among the proposed cosmic consequences of a life in service of the supernatural, we’d have something more solid. As it stands, Meyers is just mimicking the lovelorn shtick from Dan Curtis’ far superior Dark Shadows - and doing a dreadful job of it at that.


Indeed, if there were any justice in this land, Barnabas Collins and Lestat de Lioncourt would rise from their own fictional coffins and drain this disaster of its crotch-moistening life force immediately. Even better, Bram Stoker and several other authors of note should take up undead arms against Ms. Meyer and teach her a thing or two about destroying the novel as an artform. While this may sound snarky, or even worse, incessantly mean, being bombarded day in and day out by PR people asking if you’d like “exclusive” access to interview and EPK material they’ve already leaked to dozens of other outlets can drive you to such fits of rage. Twilight is being sold so hard and so broadly that you can’t walk into a store of any kind nowadays and not see some symbol of its impact and influx. And again, it’s not like Twilight has tapped into something unseen before. Instead, it’s regurgitating what’s been already done - only this time with the omniscient help of Messageboard Nation to maximize the returns.


So I won’t be heading out to my local Cineplex come Wednesday to stand in line, check through security, settle into the press aisle and wait as numerous dimwits from local radio and TV outlets to work the 96% female audience into an absolute free film froth. I won’t have to listen to the lame trivia questions, the ear-splitting pleadings for one of only 50 available Twilight t-shirts, or the OMG reactions whenever someone mentions a main character’s name. Even with new director Chris Weitz behind the lens (as the man responsible for Down to Earth and The Golden Compass, he is only a middling improvement over previous helmer Catherine Hardwicke), I hold out no hope for the movie - and frankly, why should I. It’s not being made for me. It’s not being marketed to me. It’s not relying on me to show up and swoon over every literal translation from page to motion picture screen.


No, New Moon knows its audience, and knows you will come out in droves. They already have 30 Days of Night‘s David Slade turning over the next cinematic chapter - Eclipse - in the saga, and soon we will have a teaser trailer of that Summer of 2010 travesty to moan about. Even better, some theaters are showing the original Twilight the night before New Moon opens, the better to remind you of how horrid the first experience really was (and how potentially horrid this one could be). Rest assured, the Twilighters themselves couldn’t care less. They are simply ready to spend 120 minutes with their musk-soaked dreams coming to vivid Technicolor life. As with all trends and entertainment whims, it will soon be out of our lives and back in the embarrassments of a favorite now faded, where it belongs. Until them, count me out. Trust me, the makers of New Moon already have.


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Tuesday, Jul 8, 2008
Wednesday means Crap Day here at SE&L, and today we've got a doozy - a fetid fairy tale by everyone's favorite Italian irritant, Roberto Benigni

One hates to be brash about it, but just what in the hell happened to Roberto Benigni? For most Americans, their first chance to witness this one time witty whirlwind work his ferociously funny magic was in either Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law or Night on Earth (where his non-stop verbal barrage confession to a dead priest was priceless). He crafted a few foreign film feasts that Western audiences responded to with favor and fiscal approval (The Monster and Johnny Stecchino). But after a three-year hiatus, he went and did something absolutely deadly to his livelihood. He returned to the big screen with an awful piece of offal that stained the memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. This concentration camp as comedy club kiddie circus was called Life is Beautiful and as a “love it or hate it” historical hemorrhoid it should have been the final word from this overly earnest buffoon.


Unfortunately, critics and money paying people had to go and sanction his misguided vision by making it a box office hit and awarding the dork two undeserved Oscars. And as the proverbial saying goes, a monster/demon/Pandora’s box was born/unleashed/opened. Five years, $45 million dollars (that’s more umpteen billion lire than Italia has a right to spend on anything, including gelato or Prada) and an unhealthy dose of national pride later, Benigni unveiled Pinocchio, his latest cinematic cesspool, on an unsuspecting world. It’s the kind of overreaching retch inducing drivel that only a semi-competent filmmaker with carte blanche, unlimited artistic license and bocce balls the size of the Coliseum could conceive.


Never mind that, just a year before, Stephen Spielberg (with a little spiritual guidance from Stanley Kubrick) reworked the story of Pinocchio and his desire to be real into a parable about childrearing, playing God, and the responsibility and burden of love in the future shock masterpiece A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. And who cares that Disney’s 1941 cartoon classic, while not 100% on point with everything Collodi, is considered by most to be the House of Mouse’s most gripping and gorgeous production.


So even with a bionic ear probing the farthest reaches of the pop culture galaxy, it’s hard to imagine that a single sound in favor of another trip down Growing Nose Boulevard was warranted or needed. But not according to the Italian scallion. Apparently, most Mediterraneans think Uncle Walt welched on his warrants when he turned their country’s folklore into a slick, saccharine exercise in show tunes. They wanted to see the real Pinocchio. They wanted to feel Collodi’s words come alive and longed to see someone interpret his political and social satire skills in the ways only a native Neapolitan or son of Sicily could. And the boot nation took one look at the man who made the systematic slaughter of millions of undesirables look like a very special episode of The Little Rascals and said “Si!”


Indeed, it is Benigni’s intent with his new Pinocchio to do for the classic piece of Italian children’s literature what Peter Jackson did for Tolkien’s Ring trilogy, or the KBG did with most of Russian history. It wants you to forget Disney’s little animated massacre of their much-loved marionette and mandates you embrace its new reconfigured and retooled fool. On the surface, Benigni has succeeded in spades for what he set out to do. He has created a lavishly stunning, sweeping story of the little wooden doll’s many adventures on the road to boyhood and has kept integral as many of Collodi’s original ideas as possible. And that means a decided readjustment for those who are novice to the native Pinocchio.


This version of the firewood friend is not a newborn naïve simpleton open to the world experience. Instead, he is a brash and bratty blowhard, speaking first and learning the consequences later. It means that the threats, the evil possibilities and dark penalties that the original puppet had to face (catching on fire, hanging, drowning) remain intact, keeping all the grim in the non-brothers fairy tale. It’s even episodic, like the original purpose of the author’s efforts (before it became a book, it was serialized for months). But what most Pinocchio purists will applaud, aside from the literal translation and attention to detail, is the overall look of the production. Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio is a drop dead gorgeous work of dazzling art and set design that, unfortunately, acts like the proverbial sparkles on a dog flop.



Indeed, this is one retelling of the classic children’s story that feels inert, unappetizing, and downright revolting. And the saddest part about the putrid Pinocchio is that in its original Italian language version, the movie is an incredible artistic masterpiece of cinema, pure and simple. Benigni creates images, compositions, and set piece moments that surpass anything he’s filmed before or is likely to capture in the future. More than once you will literally have your breath taken away by what you see. Like those unbelievably beautiful Pageant of the Arts re-creations where actual human beings are used in combination with makeup, sets, and effects to remake the great masterworks live on stage, Pinocchio uses movie making of the highest order to bring the make believe world of the little wooden puppet to life on the silver screen.


With the creativity and skill of Cinecitta Studios to the brilliant camera and lighting work of Dante Spinotti, and the genius production design of Danilo Donati (a Fellini favorite), Benigni has done the next to impossible and created, as a filmmaker, a kind of living lithograph, both a tribute to and a technological time capsule with the look, the feel and the style of old artisan illustrators. Sequences where Pinocchio crosses the countryside to find Gepetto, wanders a wooden glen, or climbs a rock along a stormy beachhead to signal the old woodcarver are unbelievable. Even better are moments of quiet quaintness: the look of a village, the delicacy of a butterfly, and the regality of rain. From the mind-boggling lushness of the green grass to the colorful chaos of Playland, Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio is hands down one of the best looking imaginative statements as a movie ever made. Too bad then that all this luxurious trapping is for a total travesty.


For you see, in no uncertain terms, Pinocchio the film is awful. Incredibly bad. Disconcertingly terrible. The juxtaposition of unbridled beauty with offensive onscreen antics makes this film a rotten rollercoaster ride into repugnant ridiculousness. Frankly, there is only one reason why the movie does not work, cannot work, and will not work to save its sawdust. And it’s a one-word answer as well: casting. Benigni, not content to make a movie that surpasses many of the most artistic visions of his far more celebrated colleagues, expands his hyperactive hubris and hires himself and his wife to star in the movie.


Never before in the history of the word “miscasting” has a case of nonsensical narcissism and nepotism totally doomed a film. Now, some can argue that even though she looks like she’s moments away from an untimely death, the wrinkles, waddles, and bags under her eyes do not diminish (greatly) Nicolleta Braschi’s ethereal qualities. But the fact of the matter is that she’s too damned old to be the Blue Fairy. Granted, there is no age specification to play an enchanted entity, but she seems so tired, so dragged out and disheveled that she’s more like a fairy grandmother than godmother. And since her doting husband loves to hold his camera on her haggard face for long, loving close-ups, we get plenty of time to make our own inner plastic surgery suggestions (a little eye work, chin tuck, etcetera).


She’s not as decrepit as Carlo Giuffre, who plays Gepetto like he has both feet and a buttcheek already in the grave, nor is her look as hopelessly hackneyed as the hirsute mutton chopped chumps Fox and Cat. But if this were the magical entity the robotic David ended up finding at the bottom of the ocean, he’d have every right to return to Dr. Know and ask for his credits back. The bigger problem with the film, in a nutshell and case, is the aged, balding Benigni. Instead of addressing the fact that the agitated hambone only has one acting style (let’s just call it “energetic”) and he’s about as childlike as a colonoscopy, the dumbass does what his ego dictates and before you know it, the whisper thin five o’clock shadowed adult stick figure with a body that would make pre-pubescent gymnasts jealous is playing a puppet.


The minute Gepetto puts the finishing gouges on this man-sized marionette (even if his look is more Collodi correct) and Roberto’s bratty blathering starts to stream of conscious, we understand just why this movie is going to implode like a star on supernova. It’s not that he’s bad as the lying, inconsiderate selfish puppet, it’s just that he looks like a badly dressed kid’s party clown from Cirque du Soleil. The movie’s rationale for how a matured adult male can play the enigmatic wooden being is simple: like the Emperor’s New Clothes or Bush’s Foreign Policy, the film figures that the more people on screen who simply agree that he’s a load of lumber, the sooner the audience will accept it. So everyone constantly refers to Roberto as a puppet.


They recognize that he is one automatically, even though there is no attempt to make him even remotely puppetlike: no makeup wooden joints, no stiff body movements, nothing but a strange white pancake powder effect on Roberto’s face that makes him resemble an emaciated Bob Dylan on the Hard Rain tour. With his non-stop chattering and deranged dolt in a duncecap appearance, Benigni single-handedly destroys Pinocchio. He is so enraptured in what he is doing for his native mythology that he’s too blind or busy to see how incredibly irritating and irrational his performance appearance is. And it is fatal.



There are other things about Pinocchio that don’t quite work, that seem out of place and insular for something supposedly so universal. The exact nature of the Blue Fairy is never explained. She is capable of turning day into night, but seems genuinely hurt when things she could obviously control (Pinocchio’s donkey fate) cause her concern. Pinocchio’s wild mood swings and erratic decisions also grow tiresome after about ten minutes. Collodi obviously meant this as an allegory about learning to grow up responsible and trustworthy; that message is only beaten about your head and shoulders a hundred times, but we never get the feeling that Pinocchio actually grasps this idea. He’s more like Pavlov’s dog: Gepetto’s desire for a cup of milk a night has basically force labored the notions of caring and concern into the woodenhead’s higher memory functions.


It’s not just the mixed tone of tirades, mock terror, and tinsel that kill this film. We also have unnecessary moments that seem inserted only to up the manipulative melodrama factor. When Pinocchio sees the fairy’s grave and understands that it is he who killed her, the copious tears the trite Timbertoes explodes into seem more than over the top. And the last-minute donkey deathbed scene is a complete piece of calculated cry creator. There is no need for the asino to show up here, as by this time we assumed a similar fate for the jackass. From the complete waste of the Cricket character (who we don’t expect to be Jiminy, but we also don’t expect to be so stiff and dull) to the anti-climatic fish rescue, Pinocchio has the distinction of being the first lavish production that feels like it took ten years to create and ten minutes to script.


The beauty of the visuals and the complexity created in the individual’s imagination could compensate the viewer with a movie they won’t soon forget. And yet, there he would be, the only puppet client of the Hairclub for Men with prostate issues. It’s only fitting that the failure of Pinocchio falls on the sloping shoulders of its megalomaniacal mentor: it proves that, given enough film, a faux genius will hang himself every time.


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