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Friday, Jan 11, 2008


Well, at least they ended the suspense before any real curiosity could be created. The Writers Guild of America, currently picketing the pleasantry out of the awards season, announced the nominees for their 2007 accolades. Divided into categories for Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Documentary (which, apparently, is considered an indirect form of writing), the organization at the center of current industry chaos took a moment off to praise their own people. With the recently truncated Critic’s Choice Awards, the all but called off Golden Globes, and threatened Oscars giving the industry pause for concern, many wondered how the striking organization would handle their own stab at trophy time. Of course, they cut out all the speculation by simultaneously announcing that their own banquet for recognizing the winners would be cancelled as well.


It wasn’t the only intriguing thing about the WGA’s nods. Since they follow the Academy mandate and recognize both original and adapted work, the writers decided to do what Oscar doesn’t and give comedy a little love. Humor was the basis for 80% of the screenwriter-created category, while drama took 20% (seriousness is the only thing featured in the book/play to film translation category). Rumors also circulating that the WGA posted its list of choices in order of winner and runners up. Even after a similar slip up was reported last year, and a supposed randomization was used to re-identify the contenders, it appears the same thing has happened again. So in the name of all that’s fair, SE&L will scramble the names in that good old statistical standby - alphabetical order. That way, a small amount of surprise is left come disclosure. Let’s begin with:


Best Original Screenplay



Diablo Cody Juno


The Oscar for Best Screenplay (Original or Adapted) is often referred to as the ‘Runner Up’ award. It is usually given to the artist or newcomer who, while outside the studio system or movie mainstream, deserves recognition for what they accomplished. It’s where the Coens, and Quentin Tarantino earned their only Academy acknowledgment. Cody should be prepared to have her name listed among this illustrious number as well.



Judd Apatow Knocked Up


In a perfect world, Apatow would be handed the keys to the cinematic kingdom. After single-handedly saving big screen comedy this year, and inspiring many to once again take up the cause of motion picture wit, some peer recognition would be nice. While Superbad got all the gross out geek love, this is the better movie - from both a performance and screenplay position.



Nancy Oliver Lars and the Real Girl


Here’s a pleasant surprise, the recognition of a truly quirky movie that seemingly got lost among Juno‘s growing grrrrl power. Critics who had problems with this film often listed Ryan Gosling’s oddball performance as the main problem. Others argued with director Craig Gillespie. No one had a bad word to say about Oliver’s solid script, however. While it probably won’t win, it’s nice to know someone was paying attention.



Tony Gilroy Michael Clayton


Of the two Guild awards earned by this film, this is the one that makes the most sense. Gilroy is not a solid director (some of his pro-actor histrionic choices mar this movie), but you can’t deny the power in his writing. In a clear case of giving some respect to an effort that might otherwise go unnoticed, this nod feels like the final payoff.



Tamara Jenkins The Savages


Here’s the nomination that really throws us. The Savages is a strange film. It’s either undermined by its performances (mainly the mannered work of Laura Linney), or it’s a victim of a poorly conceived and sloppy script. One imagines that Guild members, wary of having to take care of their own aging parents, gave Jenkins a handout. There are definitely better efforts out there.


Best Adapted Screenplay



Ronald Harwood The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


This one’s as confusing as The Savages, but for decidedly different reasons. Without a doubt, Julian Schnabel’s work is far more satisfying than Jenkins’ dour jokefest. But with so much of the material lifted directly from Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book, and the reliance on visual vs. verbal cues to tell the tale, it seems like a stretch to award the otherwise fine film for its writing.



Sean Penn Into the Wild


In one of those ‘hard to mess up’ situations, Penn’s persistence with the devastated McCandless family (and their desire to keep their son’s story sacred) guaranteed that Wild would work on some level. But matched with the actor’s newfound visual flare, and the undeniable emotion inherent in the story, this could be a case of the sum being greater than any one part - including the screenplay.



Joel and Ethan Coen No Country for Old Men


It’s interesting that the Coens are the only team of writers nominated in the screenplay category (documentary does have a trio). Of course, when they make a movie jointly, they are always listed together, even if directing is more Joel’s area of expertise. As adaptations go, this is a first rate reconfiguration of Cormac McCarthy’s dark and very dense novel. The presumptive favorite, one guesses.



Paul Thomas Anderson There Will Be Blood


Whether or not Anderson can win this award has a lot to do with what the Guild considers a successful book to screen translation. Upton Sinclair’s Oil! is definitely part of the narrative strategy, but the auteur also goes off on enough flights of personal fancy to make much of this movie his own. If strength of direction and acting were factored in, he’d definitely win.



James Vanderbilt Zodiac


Talk about your dark horse picks. When people discuss the unforgettable work done in this ‘70s throwback police procedural, few are focused on Vanderbilt. In fact, director David Fincher and his commendable cast usually get first kudos, followed quickly by anyone involved in the look and feel of the film. That someone actually recognized the difficulty in condensing this complex story into a sound, suspenseful thriller is remarkable.


Naturally, SE&L thinks there are a few overlooked or unconsidered scripts that deserved credit as well. Somehow, the WGA decided to neglect these wonderful examples of the written narrative, and choose the 10 efforts above. Any one of these would easily replace at least one (if not two) of the wonky choices provided, beginning with:



Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg Hot Fuzz


The insane minds behind Shaun of the Dead deliver the definitive lampoon of big budget action cop buddy action movies while systematically satirizing the concept of ‘being British’. It’s a work of undeniable genius from beginning to shoot ‘em up end.



Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard Gone Baby Gone


We know Affleck can write - he has his own little gold man for cranking out Good Will Hunting. This stellar thriller proves that said statuette was no fluke. While earning some cred, this film will probably end up 2007’s most unappreciated - and that’s a shame.



Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman The Darjeeling Limited


Like watching a novel unfold on screen, the work of these terrific storytellers lifted what could have been mannered and manipulative into something quite magical. This is the most human and heartfelt movie Anderson has ever made - and the scripts the reason why.



Aaron Sorkin Charlie Wilson’s War


Apparently, burning one’s bridges among the Tinsel Town talent pool means that, even when you do something substantially right, you get little recognition in response. Sorkin may be a sourpuss, but his biting work on this non-fiction adaptation deserves more than mere pat pleasantries.



Kelly Masterson Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead


The twisted turns and tricks of a complex crime story are hard enough to navigate. Now imagine being a first timer creating a Rashomon like narrative for directorial legend Sidney Lumet. But that’s what Masterson did, and the results were stellar. Her efforts deserved to be recognized.


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Thursday, Jan 10, 2008


It will be interesting to see what the press conference scheduled for 13 January brings. For the first time in many, many years, the Golden Globes, the more party/perfunctory wrap up of the annual awards season is unable to shower the deserving and the questionable (Pia Zadora?) with their tiny trophies. Thanks to the writer’s strike, and the complementary decision by the Screen Actors Guild to honor same, there will be no soirées, no foreign press corps preening, no bifurcated categories, and perhaps most importantly, no early gauge as to who and what might walk away with an Oscar come 24 February.


Film fans have had a love/loathe relationship with the blatant schmooze/shill fest since it dropped the outsider pose (with all its easily bribed and/or bought rewards) and became an Academy bookie. It used to be that the Globes played also-ran to the more formidable, formal cinematic BMOC. But by trying to legitimize itself as more critical and less comical, performers and studios have seen the event as a excellent catalyst. It’s a way of building momentum for an underdog. They’ve also used is as a way of gaining recognition for an unheralded project/person or plugging the gaps in a failing publicity campaign.


But thanks to a unionized effort to get already well paid insiders a few cents more for their services, the Golden Globes are forced to cancel this year’s ceremony. Even a proposed plan to have presenters travel to the different industry parties and hand out trophies to the winners was nixed. With Oscar nervous, and sponsor ABC jockeying to prevent a similar situation, we could be facing an awards season without the very thing that makes it attractive/aggravating - the self-serving spectacle of an overproduced, overlong, self-serving ceremony. Unlike the year where a walk out by baseball players caused the cancellation of the World Series, however, few will probably bemoan the loss of the famed black-tie blight.


The sports analogy is viable since, for many outside the Hollywood wire, the strike appears like two groups of unfathomably wealthy individuals arguing over who gets the last serving of caviar. Of course, that’s unfair and untrue, but we’re talking about the all important concept of perception here, not the clauses and subsections of a collective bargaining agreement. There is much more on the table than the money derived from the medium’s rapid digitization, but tell that to the family unable to afford a night at the movies, or the triple digit cable bill, and you’ll find little sympathy. This is not meant as a slam against workers demanding their rights. It’s just a reminder that not everyone sees this as a selfless stand.

Cancelling shows that most outside the business already dismiss may not be the best strategy. It will win a few fans - on a recent podcast, Clerks king Kevin Smith said he’d LOVE to see awards season reduced to a series of brief, by the book announcements - while others have lamented the fact that artists who’ve worked, sometimes for years, are not being allowed that additional moment in the limelight that a nomination (and potential win) provides. It’s an intriguing concept, since a statuette and a gift bag are nice. But in a realm where everything is ego, is that five minutes of mega-fame, followed by a network mandated musical cue play-off, the ultimate validation?


Think of it this way - you spend years working at crap jobs and minimal corporate positions, all in pursuit of a single, always elusive goal. You try, are turned back, and try again. You make inroads only to have the pathway ripped up and placed along some other topography. Somehow, through persistence, place, and a good deal of personal sacrifice, you make it in. You’re talent is rewarded, you never again have to sling hash or wonder if someone would like fries with that. Your friends and family finally stop thinking of you as a slightly insane pipe dreamer, and your every career wish is now just a mere pitch/contract/greenlight away.


Now, let’s go a step further. Let’s say that the fruit of your intense, lifelong labors have finally come to fruition. Success - measured in money or mentions - is here, and it feels oh so good. Then, something wonderful happens. Said triumph turns back at you, and your peers are demanding to recognize and reward you. It begins with those typically critical of your career, and then begins to bubble up from those who you directly compete with. Before long, certificates and other swag are shoved in your direction, with promises of the big party just around the corner. That’s right, the ultimate goal, the final fulfillment of all you’ve worked for…and then the door is closed. No one is invited, no one is allowed to attend.


No matter how nominal, actors and actresses, writers and directors, tech people and other production crew work damn hard for something like the Globes. For every person recognized, thousands would kill just for the off chance at replacing them. Receiving an award, like recent Emmy recipient Kathy Griffin noted, means that every time someone mentions your name, they have to preface it with “X Winner…” such and such. So forget all the George C. Scott/Marlon Brando machinations about rejecting competition among fellow artists - in a biz that will spit you out quicker than it will ever embrace you (especially in the talent interchangeable ‘00s) - reducing any award, by definition, lessens its significance.


Someone like Diablo Cody must be shifting uncomfortably in her ex-stripper pants right about now. As the out of nowhere flavor du jour in this awards season (she wrote the pop culture reference heavy script for Juno), she’s that highly touted talent who, on a yearly basis, gets both sides of the issue enflamed. Some see her as a new, novel voice in a realm where everything is predictable and pat. Others view her as Quentin Tarantino after one too many estrogen laced pixie sticks. Whatever the case, Cody has enough steam to plow through the next few months with many trophies, a fashion faux pax or two, and a three picture deal from some suckered studio.


But instead of getting to gloat over all this ‘sudden’ success, Ms. Cody gets to protect the picket lines. As numerous critics groups hand out their plaudits, she gets to sit at home and enjoy an indirect moment of satisfaction. If the Oscars should be cancelled, or truncated somehow, the biggest moment in what could be a very short career as a screenwriter will be traded for some far off monetary equilibrium. And let’s say the writers fail to win their position. Will someone like Cody appreciate the fact that her one chance at universal acknowledgement came at the expense of a losing cause? For an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis or Johnny Depp, the Golden Globes and The Academy will probably be everpresent concerns. But many first timers will feel the pinch come the time to rip open the envelope.

Of course, no one will miss the bad speeches, the political grandstanding, the numerous mentions of God, Jesus, the little people, “everyone I’m forgetting”, the bad presenter banter or horrendous ‘live’ versions of the Best Song. The spectacle of seeing your favorite film star bathed in the glory of his celebrity constituency will be lost, but so will a great deal of needless pomp and backslapping circumstance. Besides, Oscar tends to get it wrong more times than not. Do we really need to see another Shakespeare in Love/Saving Private Ryan moment, or the long lapsed recognition of someone (Spielberg, Scorsese) who should have been acknowledged decades before? Being out of touch is one thing. Having such a stance forced upon you by disgruntled employees just may be the remedy the entire system needs.


Shake up or not, it will be interesting to see what happens come Sunday. How will the media treat the marginalized moment? How much play will the Writer’s Guild get, and will their message be mired in the appearance of arrogant impropriety? Frankly, will anyone outside the obsessive really care that there’s no glitzy show biz-y banquet, that their favorite faces aren’t gussied up in red carpet accoutrement waiting for an entertainment talking head to ask them who designed their duds?


As with any ongoing issue, the strike will harm more everyday elements (favorite TV shows, upcoming movie releases) than a once a year entity of entitlement. Yet when a labor disagreement can adversely effect the most superficial of spectacle (cue Golden Globes theme song), it may be time to reconsider the structure all together. Maybe it’s time to revamp the entire awards season strategy once and for all. It’s been a long time coming. A passive approach only guarantees that someone - or something - else will end up doing it for you…and you see how that’s worked out so far.


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008


They’ve been known to predict the eventual Oscar winner close to 95% of the time. They also seem to have a handle on which films will get nominated, and which movies will be overlooked come the actual Academy Awards. The Director’s Guild of America announced its choices for 2007’s best filmmaking, and it’s an eclectic group at best. Aside from a pair of previous nominees (the Coens caught one for Fargo in 1997), everyone else on this list are first timers. Even more interesting, three aren’t necessarily known for their work behind the camera. We have an artist, an actor, and a writer who made his first foray into the world of direction. Of course, this means that none of the nominees have ever won before, which makes the accomplishment twice as rewarding.


Without actually handicapping the outcome, SE&L will step in and offer its thoughts on the choices, as well as highlighting a few names that could have been substituted for at least one individual on the list. While many feared 2007 would be a slack year, cinematically speaking, the last four months have offered up such astonishing fare that, in the end, it turned out to be one of the best ever for the artform…and the names found below are a big part of the reason why. Without their good, good work, we’d be stuck with an endless outpouring of Michael Bay megabusters. One shudders to think.


The Nominees:



Joel and Ethan Coen No Country for Old Men


It’s hard to say if the brothers really deserve an Oscar for what they do as directors. Certainly, their films are stunning realizations of pragmatic and artistic ambitions, and there are times when their technique seems in sync with the very gods themselves. But how much of this is direction, and how much is pure production acumen. They know how to write (and how!). They cast flawlessly. Their editing is always superb, and they combine music, theme, and subtext in a way few craftsman can. But it seems so, well, SMALL to call them mere ‘directors’. That’s why they probably won’t win. What they did with Cormac McCarthy’s novel was much more than mere behind the lens guidance.



Paul Thomas Anderson There Will Be Blood


Like Barack Obama in the last few weeks, praise and plaudits for this mostly unseen masterwork by the Boogie Nights auteur has been growing by leaps and bounds. Critics groups have been frothing to foist as many accolades on the film as possible, and Anderson has gone from retro-revisionist to a full blown motion picture master. Everything about Blood is a direct reflection of his vision and attention to detail. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis’ striking turn as Daniel Plainview seals the deal, but without the barren old West backdrop to play against, the performance would be nothing but Method mannerism. Thanks to Anderson, it becomes the fodder for a true epic.



Sean Penn Into the Wild


Breaking away from the no nonsense neo-realism pose his last few films have taken, Penn has lightened up as a director, and as a result, discovered a lyrical soul beneath his hardened show biz shell. Instantly recalling the more experimental end of the post-modern movement circa the ‘70s, there are moments of great joy mixed in with the inevitable sadness of Christopher McCandless’ self-imposed exile from society. With solid support from his cast, and an evocative score courtesy of pal Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam), this may be the first time Penn’s skill in front of the lens translates successfully behind it.



Tony Gilroy Michael Clayton


This remains the one odd choice out of the five. SE&L is still trying to figure out what everyone sees in this otherwise routine corrupt corporation thriller. Could be that lingering (man) crush everyone has on Clooney, who is very good in the film. Perhaps it’s Gilroy’s compensation for making Matt Damon into a believable action hero (he’s responsible for the Bourne trilogy scripts). It could be that scene where co-star Tilda Swinton is locked in a bathroom stall, fear and flop sweat staining her power suit. In a year where there were other deserving nominees (see below), this appears like a very odd, very insider choice.



Julian Schnabel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


Here’s the reason why this former painter turned filmmaker is here - he used a gimmicky, borderline obnoxious approach to the first half of his movie (we see everything from the point of view of a paralyzed magazine editor) and it didn’t drive critics crazy. Instead of being overly ambitious and smugly self conscious, it allowed audiences into the mind of a man “locked in” place. Just like an artist, Schnabel understands the value in sketching out his designs before attempting the big picture canvas. In this case, the small moments that open the film lead to some major revelations later on.


Missing, Deserving a Mention


Again, there were several sensational masterworks this year that deserve some manner of recognition. Yet, regrettably, it looks like both the Guilds and the AMPAS will be ignoring in the next two months. As a service to all cinephiles, SE&L then offers the following selection of alternate choices. Any or all deserve a place with the personalities noted before, beginning with:



Tim Burton Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


One guesses that everyone’s favorite Goth guy was left off the list because, when it comes right down to it, this artistic anarchist could direct this film in his sleep. He’s had casual daydreams scarier than the bloody and brooding masterpiece he forged out of Sondheim’s equally magnificent musical. Still, for its Victorian vomitorium vogue, Burton deserved a nod.



Danny Boyle Sunshine


If he had spent the last few years remaking Trainspotting over and over again, delivering film after film of British quirk, Boyle would probably be on the list this year. His amazing bookend to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is the first serious science fiction film not clouded by the shroud of Star Wars. That, in and of itself, deserves recognition.



David Fincher Zodiac


You gotta love the revisionist history on this title. Back in January 2006, critics were more or less lukewarm on this fabulous police procedural throwback. Eleven months later, it’s cropping up on ‘Best of’ lists everywhere, with Fincher equally feeling the love. Perhaps if journalists had owned up to how amazing this movie was beforehand, the mind behind Se7en would be part of the process, not a noted also-ran. 



Ben Affleck Gone Baby Gone


If Tony Gilroy can get a nod for his Verdict homage, why can’t the actor formerly known as ‘Bennifer’ get one for his far superior Mystic River riff. Without a doubt, this was one of the strongest, most centered thrillers of the entire year, and made the hindering histrionics of Clayton seem downright showboaty by comparison. Affleck and his artistry, deserved better.


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Tuesday, Jan 8, 2008



So, Warner Brothers is officially dropping HD-DVD for Blu-ray. Does anyone really care? Are there really people in this complex, politically unsound world really worrying about who wins the so-called format wars? Is this a battle really worth focusing on? For some websites, the victor has been crowned and all that remains is the gathering of the spoils. For others, the decision to support/not support publicly the triumph of topaz has been akin to playing pundit and announcing that Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic Nomination (how’s that predication working out, huh?). Frankly, anything that costs thousands of dollars to implement and asks fans to reconfigure their already bloated digital collection should have some manner of referee - and smug, know it all bloggers and Netheads are the wrong ones to make the call.


Clearly, HD-DVD is on the ropes. There are only three studios - Universal, Paramount, and Dreamworks - that are exclusively in their camp, and with this latest defection, the support from this trio is already fading. Rumors have these companies already looking for Blu-ray mastering houses, and events sponsored by HD-DVD champions Toshiba and Microsoft at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show have mysteriously been cancelled. Over the last couple of days, industry wannabes like The Digital Bits and Ain’t It Cool News have jumped on the premature bandwagon, perhaps trying to guarantee a steady stream of reviewable product come screener request time. Whatever the case, the race has been called before the final laps - or even before the spectators have arrived at the track.


For many outside the sphere of the cinephile or the obsessive, the clashing format fiasco has been much ado about nothing. This has always been a tech geek toss up, an unnecessary advancement into an area few are ready to broach. Sure, the government has seen fit to mandate a conversion to high definition in 2009, but with cable and satellite providing a seemingly unlimited supply of movies, sporting events, and pay per view offerings in the new medium, the need for a thousand dollar DVD upgrade seems pointless. Even worse, those who bit during recent HD specials (Wal-Mart’s $100 player, Amazon.com’s Christmas machine/movies deal) must be feeling awful foolish right now - not immediate IPhone adapter dumb, but raked over the consumer coals nonetheless.


While most people will tell you they waited on adopting one of the two formats as a cautionary move, the truth is that no one is antsy about replacing their dead VHS demanded aluminum discs. CDs stayed around for decades before something other than fancy gimmickry gave them the shaft (read: the MP3). Laserdiscs were never popular because of their bulky, blue blood aura. All the new format can offer right now is an improved picture and some title exclusives. And for a family pinching pennies, wondering if they are going to lose their home to a soft, self-destructive mortgage market and compounding credit crunch, making sure the household has the latest high tech toy seems like complete fad gadgetry. For now, HD remains an elitist conceit, a must-have item for those already dissatisfied with DVD.


Somehow, this feels like the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the home theater domain. Walk into any Best Buy or Target and you’ll see massive displays of Hi-Def televisions, the latest blockbuster or CGI kiddie fare flashing mindlessly across the impressive screens. Granted, the image doesn’t look that amazing smashed up against a dozen other examples of the concept, but early accepters have sworn by the clarity, detail, and overall feeling of theatrical recreation. Where the difference is really obvious is in the HD-TV signal. Even on a standard set, one glimpse of the brilliant picture presented on many cable and satellite services should have consumers running to the local B&M for a quick boob tube revamp.


Yet the ‘hurry hurry’ push for equally impressive home video seems like a rush to unrealistic judgment. Companies seem to forget that price and ease of adaptation are what made sell-though possible in the first place. When VCRs came out in the ‘70s, the cost prohibitive nature of the technology, and the medium (Prerecorded VHS movies cost over $100) held many back. But then the alternative nature of the device - its ability to RECORD - gave people a reason to reconsider. Then, after a decade of careful market manipulation and controls, the notion of making titles cheap and machines even cheaper guaranteed quick and all encompassing acceptance.


It was the same strategy used by DVD. Sure, initial players were expensive, and available movies limited, but after a brief period of time (and a substantial improvement in audio and video), demand drove down the price. Again, cost and improved picture quality compensated for the lack of other available bells and whistles, and the digital revolution was in full swing. HD has failed to follow suit. If the makers of the slowly sinking format really wanted to beat old Blu, it could do so at the cash register. Right now, prices hover between $299 to $799. Here’s an idea - offer a $90 machine, a $400 TV set, and $10 discs. Make the Wal-Mart shopper sit up and take notice - after all, they’re the ones who will drive this mandated switchover in the long run.


Of course, the competition has the long in development Playstation 3 on their side, guaranteeing that in many households, the whiny needs of a spoiled bratling will give Blu-ray an automatic edge. It was a strategy that almost chomped them in the bitrate when DVD was attached to the Playstation 2. Compared to the cost, many felt they were getting a second rate machine at an incredibly high end price - and with the current tech criticisms of 3’s incorporated format, it seems like lightning is striking twice. Still, the biggest barrier to a VHS to DVD style tidal wave is wealth. Asking your average shopper to casually toss out $1000 total (and in most cases, much, much more) to see a little more detail in Captain Jack Sparrow’s dreadlocks seems like a leap. And since TV sets are an uncontrollable part of the bargain, the format seems handcuffed.


In fact, the whole High Definition argument can be likened to asking lovers of McDonalds to spend three times as much at Five Brothers for what they perceive as the same thing. Granted, it’s clearly not, but to members of a rat race bleary constituent, it sure FEELS the same. Unlike DVD, which saw a must own title like The Matrix make the leap seem compulsory, HD/Blu-ray has yet to find such an offering. The problem, of course, comes outside the merchandise. If Pixar decides that Wall-E, its upcoming Summer blockbuster, should become Disney’s first Blu-ray exclusive release, it’s setting itself up for disaster. Aside from the shouting match over giving old format fans a chance at owning it, the appearance of implied elitism will turn the public off. After all, movies are still a mainstream medium, last time anyone checked.


So as of today, no one really cares that Warners is jumping the HD ship (and Paramount, supposedly, is looking to as well). Blu-ray may win the day, and the decision, for most consumers, but it will be a long, painful process before the switch over is successful (if it ever is). Microsoft, smarting from the announcement, said it really doesn’t care if HD dies - people will be using a download technology (probably an Internet adapted box on their TV) to bring the highest quality image right into their living room. Discs will be dead. Of course, someone said the same thing about CDs, and we still have their tactile pleasures. Instead of pushing technology on people, companies should really listen to what they want. Until they do, a studio switch means nothing - except to those eager to make their messageboard pronouncements. Everyone else will just wait and see.


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Monday, Jan 7, 2008



As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This time out: It’s a Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, World



When they first hit video stores in the early 1980s, people were aghast and intrigued. Could it be? Did these films really live up to their legend? Was it possible that we’d actually get to see human atrocities like autopsies and actual murders in our very own living rooms? Indeed, that was the promise offered by Faces of Death, a soon-to-be series of on-the-cheap video collections that promised vile vignettes of burn victims, police surveillance footage and occasionally “staged” sagas of people being mauled by animals or killed in accidents. Incredibly popular amongst teens who used the tapes as weekend sleepover double dare fodder, Faces spawned a set of sequels and imitators that created a cash filled coffer of bad publicity.


Sadly, all Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi could do was sit back and watch as their artistic statements about the diversity of the world were lumped together with bad dub copies of psychopaths committing suicide and catastrophe victims missing various limbs. These two Italian innovators were definitely responsible for the foundational films that started and popularized the whole “shock cinema” or “Mondo” genre, and compared to what came directly after it, Mondo Cane stands as a monumental cinematic statement. But with any success comes speculation, and no one was better at ripping off revenue streams than the exploitationers. Names like Harry Novak instantly saw the mock doc writing on the wall, and dreamed up their own globe trotting gratuity. The results were instant crap-ssics like Mondo Bizzaro, Mondo Freudo, Mondo Mod, and The Hippie Revolt.


Viewed today as both tawdry time capsules and copycat capitalization, the Mondo movies are indeed a compelling, complicated experience. Most rely on nudity to shill their swill, while others can get rather nasty (animal lovers beware - there are no ASPCA warnings here). For the most part, however, these films traded on the pre-satellite insularity of the world, exposing ‘60s citizens to things we post-millennial mooks see Anthony Bourdain do every week on No Reservations. In some ways, the Mondo movies were the first foray into understanding other parts of the world - the rites and rituals, the odd customs and even stranger traditions. They may seem silly today, but forty years ago this was eye opening stuff.


Take the first film under consideration. A great many things make up the wacky world circa 1966. Like Japanese massage parlors where, for 2000 yen, topless Geisha babes will scramble eggs on your sunken, pallid chest (gasp!). Or how about the fickle fashion fiascos of Fredrick’s of Hollywood, the only lingerie shop in America that treats the female breast like a cast iron torpedo, requiring a flamboyant metal framed clothing hanger to properly house it (eep!), Let’s not forget the odd exaltation of peeping on persons as they change clothes in an underwear store (shudder!). And who could forget the unbelievable enchantment and mystery of a bunch of suburban housewives painting nude canvas studies of a beefy black man (shock!).


Yes, all of these mischievous misdeeds and many more—like a man who collects oil paintings of naked women (the cad!), the freaked out art photographer who fancies himself a better go-go dancer than his nude model, or a scene from a play highlighting the Nazi’s interpersonal skills with a bullwhip - help to round out and explain the reckless reality of our pre-Nixon era global detente. Add to this the everyday details of a woodoo witch doctor doing the wicked watusi (ho hum), creepy kids on spring break (bad news—even in 1966 they were incoherent retards), and a real live illegal Arabian slave auction (zzzzz), and you have, as Topo Gigio would say, a true look at our way-out, wacky Mondo Bizarro, Mr. Eddie. [Bat creepy puppet eyes]


But wait - it gets better. The second feature finds old Sigmund getting his fifteen microns of post-mortem motion picture fame as we wander through a Freudian world of prolonged toplessness. We witness women bare-chested on the beaches of Malibu and nightclubs along the Sunset Strip (scandal!). Dentally challenged strippers and hookers drop shirt in merry, murky old England (bloody ‘ell!). Another round of Asian actresses unfurl their upper torso lotus leaves for a strange exotic dance/bondage show (um…), and balding, profusely sweaty businessmen eat cheese sandwiches and drink 7-Up (yum! yum!) in an “upper class restaurant” that features a revealing ladies’ linen show (hmm…). Even more foreign flesh is exposed in a sleazy Tijuana nightclub where men pay plenty pesos to sample the in-house taco.


And just to guarantee that we haven’t forgotten about the fiend factor in this trip around the unclothed universe we live in, there is a horribly blasphemous Black Mass featuring a practicing witch’s unbelievably possessed breasts (egad!) and a virgin sacrifice that is neither (huh?). Heck, they even throw in teenagers cruising the Sunset Strip ala American Graffiti (idgits!). But leave it, once again, to those international party people, the Germans, to show us a good time by having their frail fraulines slap each other like stormtroppers in a big thick pool of decidedly “blond” looking mud (yavol!). Yes, it is one crazy, prefabricated Mondo Freudo that we live in.


If those descriptions haven’t convinced you, here’s the dilemma with Mondo Bizarro, Mondo Freudo, and frankly, any of the Mondo style movies that have been made in the last 30 years. Your enjoyment of these faux photologues will be directly linked to the amount of acceptance you give them. You either buy the artifice, which means you will believe in the “behind the scenes,” “candid camera,” “people caught in the act of being perverted” approach offered, and spend several minutes in mild shock as “real” sexual sensationalism unfolds before your beleaguered eyes. Or, you could see through the setups and find the whole “actually happened” pretense hilarious, in which case you giggle along with the staged sin shows and slave auctions and wonder if the early ‘60s audience (mostly men in raincoats) took time from their personal “fiddling” to notice how boldly fake most all of these movies are.


Perhaps you will be like the majority, and find Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo exceptionally trashy and tasteless. Even without the usual standard animal mutilation and gore footage, the notion of spying on hapless women as they change clothes or poor Mexican girls (even if they are obviously off-market models) being sold into slavery looks more sleazy than spicy. As the forerunner to the far more reprehensible Faces of Death and Caught on Tape category of exploitation exposés, these innocent attempts at shirking indecency laws are like visual versions of a double dare. Here, fortunately, you only have to put up with distorted mammaries and the occasional unfortunate mouth of teeth.


Of the two, Mondo Bizarro is the better film if only because it broadens its focus to feature more “outrageous” incidents beyond women of many races exposing their tits. The aforementioned yoga master at least provides some philosophical bric-a-brac to support his sideshow geek demonstrations. And we do occasionally move beyond the boob to see a couple of male hustlers chasing tricks and critical deliberations on modern art. The overall tone of Bizarro is light and fluffy, not taking itself or its subjects too seriously. The film finally bogs down in the far too detailed description/depiction of the trials and tribulations the filmmakers experienced to capture, on camera, a supposed Middle Eastern slave auction. A close look will tell you the nearest many of these “Arabs” got to a “desert” was a sand trap at Pebble Beach. Most of these nomads are as Lebanese as Peter O’Toole.


Freudo, on the other hand, is determined to be a more serious, sensual escape behind the seemingly sanguine outer layer of society and into its reprobate nether regions. Candidly, this film is exactly like one of Uncle Siggy’s obsessive phases. It is totally taken with the teat. The female fleshbag in its many (mal) forms is showcased here so often and up close that you’d swear you were watching La Leche League: The Movie. Eventually, the film implodes under the burden of its repetitiveness, so that by the time we reach the end we feel like we’ve seen half the planet’s population in the altogether. Both Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo suffer from a strange sameness syndrome. Even vignettes proclaiming to be odd and unique have a familiar, formulaic feel to them.


Things weren’t much better for those fixated on the counterculture shock wave sweeping the US. Novak in particular decided that young people with their freedom and flowing locks needed reprimanding and pronto. So he dreamed up the one two sucker punch of Mondo Mod and The Hippie Revolt. You see, back when the moon was in the seventh house, before the Summer of Love melted into a winter of bitter discontent for the US, these two quasi-documentaries claimed to expose the fun, fads, and flaws inside the growing youth coup.


Mondo‘s various “groovy happenings” include surfing, drug use, a really terrible band called The Group and, what appears to be, the scandal of staying out late. The Hippie Revolt is told in the words of the “youth” themselves, and proves just how much brain damage hash brownies can cause. We witness love-ins, freak outs, and a visit to the Manson family’s understudies who smoke weed and blather on, philosophically, at a commune. Add some more nude body painting and a wild sex crazed hippie pot party (to make the target audience of all white middle aged Republican males happy) and you too will be waiting for Elton John and disco to hurry up and take over already.


Novak knows demographics, and both films reflect this pro-establishment, pro-skin favoritism. While the majority of the footage is exciting (and great to look at: future Academy Award winners Vilmos Zigmond and Lazlo Kovacs worked on Mod), the narrative tone is mocking, making surfing sound suicidal, karate insane, and declarations against war and racism anti-American. Nowhere is this more evident than in the several staged/real events that were supposedly being captured “as they happened.” The aforementioned orgiastic pot party is so phony it would make Holden Caulfield bleed internally.


The biker gang scenes achieve angles and actions that no “hidden” camera could ever capture. Besides, the riders look like your Uncle Gary playing dress-up with several of his more, shall we say, leather intensive friends. Oddly enough, for a film that wants to ridicule out of control young people, it’s the protest scenes in Revolt that strike the truest chord. Nothing, not the cheesy voice-overs or the incoherent drone of blissed-out bong suckers, can undermine the historical importance of these moments, no matter how hard Novak tries.


Unlike the brilliant docu-deconstructionism of Jacopetti and Prosperi, these films prove that Mondo eventually became a catch-all tag for something akin to gratuitous grindhouse anthologies. Find an unsigned rock act. Get some girls to take off their clothes. Break out the Dutch Boy and - VIOLA! - who have a filmable slice of scandalous life. Nowhere is there an attempt to contextualize the material, to argue why it’s important to understand an African tribes reliance on ancient ceremony or how sketchy sustenance like bugs and insects derived from need and endless suffering. No, Mondo meant a recognizable name, a quick buck, and the old school bait and switch. Then, there was some promise of witnessing the perversion inherent in our planet. Today, it’s nothing but smutty smoke and mirrors.


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