Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007


It is, without a doubt, the hardest bit of analysis a film critic must consider. Lists are always a little loopy, suffering from a lack of personal perspective and decidedly one sided context. As a result, trying to boil a life’s worth of fandom (or professionalism) into a single set of ten titles is next to impossible. You always forget something along the way, regret not having room for favorites you feel fall right outside the glorified Decalogue, and anger some overly aggressive aficionado who can’t believe you left off their obvious film/director/decade obsession. For those preparing to complain once the final tally is presented, simply remember this – all determinations are made by actual human beings. We may play know-it-alls for the sake of our writing, but we fall within the same categories of fun/fascination factors as anyone else.


So what does this Top Ten List of All Time represent for readers of Short Ends and Leader? Clearly, it’s the guiding dynamic of the blog’s editor and chief, a roadmap if you will to the films that made a significant impact either as entertainment, extravaganza, or both. Clearly certain calling card entries – The Godfather films, Casablanca, La Dolce Vita – are missing from the ultimate countdown, and with good reason. In the case of at least two of these movies, constant repetition within the digital cable era has diluted their dimensions, making them ‘feel’ smaller than they actually are. In addition, other offerings – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Evil Dead 2, Suspiria – didn’t quite make the grade either. It’s not because of their lack of inherent worth (all three are indeed amazing motion pictures). No, the problem is more personal, meaning that their recognized limited appeal prevents a kind of universal appraisal. 


In the end then, how does one find their final ten? A lot of guess work, some faith, and a mind full of celluloid memories. Think of it this way - these symbolize SE&L’s desert island titles, the kind of classic films you can imagine watching over and over again without ever having to worry that they’ll grow dull or derivative. They would stand the test of time, and then please someone who happened upon them long after you were gone. You may not have to agree with all the choices, but you definitely have to respect them. Movies may be a personal preference, but certain examples of the medium mandate a consideration of abject timelessness. In our opinion, these sure do, beginning with:


10 - Fight Club (1999)

If ever a movie clearly defined its era, this David Fincher deconstruction of Chuck Palahnuik’s punch drunk novel sums up the ‘90s quite nicely, thank you. Through the dueling personalities of Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s rough trade icon Tyler Durden, the baffling and bifurcated state of men in America is brilliantly and unabashedly deciphered, resulting in the darkest of black comedies and the coolest of sociological dramatics. At the heart of this fascinating film remains a message about the corrosion of conformity and the instability of individuality. Together, they help define what’s very, very wrong, and very, very right, about the whole of humanity.


9 - GoodFellas (1990)

More energetic than Coppola’s monumental Godfather saga (and less overexposed) this remains Martin Scorsese’s definitive take on the mob myth. Set up like a symphony with different “acts” mandating varying directorial styles, each movement here is a masterpiece of crime as an elitist urban calling card – and a one way ticket to self-destruction. With amazing performances from a stellar cast, and a storyline soaked in the kind of racketeering Chianti we’ve come to expect from the genre, the results are electric, dynamic, and fabulously profane. While others will taut the original mafia movies as the place where bad guys became baroque, this is the truest example of its operatic powers. 


8 - The Adventures of Baron Muchausen (1988)

When critics champion Terry Gilliam, they usually pick Brazil or 12 Monkey as his best effort. But if you’re looking for a movie manipulating each and every element of cinema into a pure flight of fancy, this amazing tall tale is your ticket to another wondrous world. Styled by the ex-pat Python as the final phase in his loosely formed “Ageism” trilogy (with Time Bandits and the aforementioned future shocker), this story of a fabled German liar and his exaggerated yarns of superhuman escapades uses every trick in the moviemaker’s handbook – and then Gilliam invents a few more, just to keep us interested. A truly timeless work of celluloid art.


7 - Mulholland Dr. (2001)

How David Lynch managed to salvage a failed television pilot and turn it into his ultimate night terror masterpiece remains a question for film scholars to decipher – especially in light of other startling accomplishments like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway. Yet by taking on the very entity – Hollywood – that’s refused to embrace him for all these years, and perverting the 42nd Street formula (small town gal makes good) into same sex surrealism with a sinister undercurrent, he fashioned his own demented Day of the Locusts. Even mainstream cynics who’ve dismissed the man as difficult and problematic embraced this fascinating parable.


6 - 3 Women (1977)

With its basis in a dream, and its lack of inherent interpretation, Robert Altman proves that storylines don’t need self-imposed arcs to have solid dramatic resonance. As much a feminist manifesto written in reverse as a calculatedly crazy character study, the amazing American maestro uses his title trio to manifest the seminal stages in a gal’s ungainly life. And when you consider that this is the same man who rocked the film world with his work in M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park, to call this his best must mean its something very, very special. Indeed it is.


5 - The Rules of the Game (1939)

As important to the formation of true modern moviemaking as any other movie from its era, Jean Renoir’s tragicomedy of manners remains a stellar work of celluloid sumptuousness. Like Jules et Jim 23 years later, the son of famous painter Pierre Auguste used every possible trick in the reel to reel routine to realize his perceptibly allegorical denouncement of the French upper crust, who Renoir blamed for the onset of World War II. From its narrative complexity and optical richness, to the last act party which places everything – both spoken and unsaid – into perspective, this complete motion picture master really did determine the way post-silent cinema would work.


4 - Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may today be the punchline to an Indie item’s fad gadget dismissal, but no one can deny the power of this near-perfect film. Like a shot of aesthetic adrenaline placed directly into the motion picture pleasure centers of your brain, the ex-video store clerk turned cultural lynchpin took your standard cops and robbers routine, subtracted the law, and let his amazing way with dialogue drown everything in couplets of quotable splendor. Sure, there’s a geek dweeb dimension to his homages, the kind of insular cleverness that always keeps the audience guessing, but the results are so resplendent we’re happy to wait until later to figure it all out. 


3 - Miller’s Crossing (1990)

The Coen Brothers have always been motion picture archaeologists, mining Tinsel Town’s past for their perfectionist post-modern means. But they managed something even more shocking with this celebration of fast talking, gun totting hoods – they discovered the art buried deep inside the artifice. The plot is nothing special; a series of double crosses leading to a final determination of loyalty and ‘ethics’, but the siblings’ bravura writing, their impeccable way with actors, their knowledge of visual potency, and their overall way with a camera makes for an intensely entertaining experience. Like all legitimate classics, it draws its own conclusions and leaves you breathless in the process.


2 - Citizen Kane (1941)

Just try to ignore or marginalize this benchmark in Hollywood’s formative stage, an experimental epiphany that forged the standards for decades of craftsmen to come. Sure, it’s gimmicky and overloaded with stylistic stunts, but when dealing with a story this sensational, this grandiose in scope and speculation, the size is more than warranted. Wunderkind Orson Welles may have ended up a wine shilling joke, but his feature film debut remains a motion picture monument. If you really want to understand its impact on the artform, just ask yourself the following question – what would today’s cinema be like without his inventive, evocative ‘vanity project’? Case closed.


1 - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick was never afraid to use his films to speak to the big picture issues – and here, he addresses the most massive one of all: man’s place in the entire cosmic order. Originally planned as an attempt at “serious science fiction”, this collaboration with forward thinking author Arthur C. Clarke went through many significant stages, from pure thriller to unmanageable mindf*ck. With his meticulous post-production pliability, and a wealth of intriguing footage to work with, Kubrick confounded expectations and delivered the first interstellar treatise on humanity and its purpose in the universe. From evolution to extraterrestrials, he never deviated from his goal. The results continue to resonate among the stars.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Jul 8, 2007


While it’s never wise to rape an entire generation’s childhood memories for your own self-centered means, Hollywood still wants to be the biggest motion picture pedophile on the block. Name a cartoon and/or kiddie series – He-Man, GI Joe, The Care Bears - and somewhere, in a studio bungalow, an overpaid hack is trying to come to grips with how to re-imagine the title’s otherwise limited appeal. Perhaps no other form of filmic laziness – sequels, prequels, spin-offs – has resulted in such finite returns as live action cartoon updates. Examples like the live action Rocky and Bullwinkle fiasco, the horrendous Garfield films, and the horribly mismanaged Flintstones films have proven that – all Transformers aside – when it comes to bringing juvenilia to the silver screen, Tinsel Town is still in the zygote stages.


Now comes the most noxious example of this movie molestation yet – Underdog. Disney, not known for the gentile handling of kid vid past (Inspector Gadget), has decided to stop whoring out its own past masterworks and, instead, violate the innocent joys of the W. Watts Biggers’ television series. A staple of Saturday mornings for the majority of the ‘60s, the beloved superhero hound and his unique blend of wit and wackiness remains the perfect symbolic stepping stone between preschool entertainment and tween level treats. Putting it another way, the adventures of Shoeshine Boy, Sweet Polly Purebred, and the rest of the Underdog domain (including offshoots like Tennessee Tuxedo, Klondike Kat, and the great Go Go Gophers) helped wee ones make the transition from passive to active viewers. Biggers created characters and situations kids could invest themselves in, with just enough subtle satire to keep the parents pleased. There were even principled morals thrown in for good measure.


Of course, the best way for the House of Mouse and its corrupt creative staff to deal with updating this clear cult favorite is to literally toss out everything that made the original show stellar. However, in order to understand such a major misfire, the initial Underdog mythos must be explored. In the animated series, Shoeshine Boy was an anthropomorphic pup, working in a city of human beings as a benevolent boot black. His girlfriend was canine TV personality Sweet Polly Purebred, and together they maintained a kind of pleasing platonic romance. Whenever trouble loomed for the metropolitan citizenry, and Polly in particular, Underdog took his Super Energy Vitamin Pill and transforms into the title character. Then he would confront one of several recurring villains, including dwarf mastermind Simon Barsinister and wolf gangster Riff Raff. Speaking in rhyme and expressing a truth and justice mantra, our furry champion always saved the day – even if it took a few serialized installments to achieve victory.


In addition, each half hour episode contained supporting segments, little mini movies featuring ersatz educational and instructive messages. Granted, most of the material was couched in classic animated slapstick, the goofy comings and goings of talking penguins, Native American rodents, and – of all things – a senile geographical explorer. This helped divide up the typical Underdog adventure into several cliffhanger sections, while developing a whole new array of memorable characters for the show to profit from. None of this was done out of artistic nobility, mind you. Biggers worked as an advertising executive for General Mills, makers of fine sugar coated breakfast treats preferred by pre-adolescent appetites. All he wanted was pen and ink salesmen. But thanks to artist Joe Harris and creative team Chet Stover and Tread Covington, along with the amazing voiceover work of actor Wally Cox (a definitive turn), Underdog was much more than a cereal shill.     


So how did the geniuses over in Walt’s world decide to deal with this classic character? Did they intend to bring him back in pure 2D cell animation form, forgoing all the possible pointless pop culture updates to deliver unfettered Underdog? No, they decided to go the live action route (strike one) and make the cur champion a real dog (strike two). They then revamped his origins, removing the power pill (strike three) to forge some kind of X-Men/Hulk happenstance (dog ends up in nuclear reactor thingamajiggy – strike four?). Polly is now a pooch as well (strike…oh, who cares anymore) and our supposed hero has a human owner (grrrrrrrr!) to keep him in line. Voiced by Jason Lee (huh?) and costarring little person powerhouse Peter Dinklage as Barsinister (the only genius move in this entire gagfest), we end up with something looking like Superman with fleas, a generic action film dumbed down substantially to keep the bratlings at bay (oh, and did we mention that Riff Raff is now a Rottweiler, and apparently a rival for Polly’s affections – NOOOO!!!)


The numerous numbskull moves made by the people behind the production are nothing compared to who is helming this atrocity in the making. Thanks to a script credited to three individuals – newbies Craig A. Williams and Joe Piscatella, along with industry fixture Alan (Zoom) Rifkin – but probably touched by a dozen or so illiterate cinematic scribblers, and the dim directorial flair of Racing Stripes’ Frederik Du Chau, there is a wonderful aroma of predicated failure wafting off of this turkey. The trailer plays like every animal-oriented cliché ever conceived (jokes about gas, pee, and butt sniffing are plentiful) and the blatant CGI used to capture the critters makes the movements appear stiffer than the original cartoon’s dynamic. Like the awful robotic baby in the equally abysmal Son of the Mask, the incredibly complex movements of your basic beagle seem to baffle the multiple motherboards of the F/X techs tools.


Now, there is nothing wrong with creating your own canine superhero, giving him human qualities thanks to a freak experiment, and building an entire film out of his amiable adventures. Or simply stay with the notion of a parallel universe where animals easily coexist and speak perfect English. Oh wait, didn’t they already make that movie and call it Cats and Dogs? And didn’t it die at the box office? Granted, Disney isn’t aiming this movie at fans of the original TV show. In fact, they have obviously avoided anything that would remind viewers of their childhood chum. No, this is Underdog designed for the post-millennial age, an entity only betrothed to its own disposability, calculated to make a fast potential franchise buck before living out life in DVD stud. While the House of Mouse is downplaying future animation sequels, there’s no such mandate on live action direct to video features. That means that even if it bombs, our tick-ridden friend will be back in Underdog 2: Curse of the Choke Chain and Underdog Returns: Puppy Power!


Listen, no one is faulting Disney for trying. The business of show is a cutthroat world. Everyone is anxious to exploit product awareness, create commercial interest, and manufacture new revenue streams. Digging into the past for present day projects is nothing new (just ask one Cecil B. DeMille, who more or less remade every silent movie he ever produced), but it’s the reinvention trump card that has fans and film aficionados up in arms. See, a studio can’t just take an old icon – say Alvin and the Chipmunks – and deal directly with what made the original so memorable. No, they have to add ridiculous contemporary characteristics – how about a splash of hip hop – to mesh with the fad gadget mindset, and pray that the potential fallout and backlash doesn’t keep parents from partaking of their cinematic babysitting services (by the way, the Chipmunks dig – it’s headed to theaters this December…no kidding).


There is clearly something more to Underdog than just interchangeable super hero elements. Fansites devoted to the dog love to mention his honor, compassion and lack of ego. They enjoy the true love longings of Polly Purebred, and feast on the hissable evil of Simon Barsinister and the original Riff Raff. One woman, Suzanne Muldowney, even went so far as to turn her passion for the crime fighter into performance art. Known as the Underdog Lady, she’s made numerous appearances on Howard Stern, and even has a documentary on her life in the works. Let’s face it – people really love the original, and for Disney to dump all over it this way seems like an act of artificial arrogance. From a creative standpoint, you know they don’t enjoy this kind of commercialization, but it’s been the corporate bottom line too long to back out now. Art has long given way to cash.


So get ready for the mid-August media blitz, the pathetic promotional campaigns, the none too clever Madison Avenue tie-ins (New from the makers of Snausages – Pure Polly Sweatbreads). Star Jason Lee will joke that he made the movie for “his kids”, while messageboards will conspire to consider Scientology as the reason for his continually weak big screen choices (next up – that aforementioned Chipmunks crap). Someone will Q&A the dog, and the original cartoon will get a fleeting mention before the talking heads reset the situation by adding in carefully worded exclamations like “new”, “improved” and the most tragic of all – “update”. If ever an animated hero needed no modernizing, it’s this classic champion of the cartoon people. Bad ideas love to breed in Tinsel Town, however. And with Underdog, the cinematic sodomy continues. 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 3, 2007


With the bottle rocket’s red glare, and the cherry bombs bursting in air (at least, in those places where said celebration ammunition remains quasi-legal), the first half of the Summer Movie Season circa 2007 is officially over. Nine weeks, dozens of films, and lots of critical complaining, has made this annual parade of popcorn movies a little less exciting (theme for the season so far– the Year of the Underwhelming Disappointments). No one movie has broken out from the pack, becoming the “must see” event the warmer months typically demand, and while a few films have struck a chord of universal acclaim, audiences aren’t responding with the usual fiscal fall out. Instead, it looks like a kind of entertainment ennui has set in, viewers responding to the lack of legitimized excitement by satisfying themselves with a single viewing –- or even worse -– not showing up to the Cineplex at all.


It’s unclear whether the next nine weeks will change any of this. Michael Bay’s megawatt Transformers will give it a fiery Fourth try, but the deeply divided sentiments among reviewers won’t help the bottom line. Harry Potter is back for a fifth cinematic fling, but age –- and the soon to be released, spoiler filled final installment in the literary series –- may derail its popularity and profitability. The Simpsons could jumpstart (albeit belatedly) a nice turnstile tidal wave, but those who are banking on Hairspray to save the cinematic day could be overplaying the musical genre’s heft. After that, it’s one of the less impressive Augusts on record. To put things in perspective, SE&L has gone back over the 13 films it experienced since a certain webslinger arrived in theaters, and has ranked them from best to worst. Review links have also been provided in case you’d like to read more. Enjoy!


Ratatouille


Easily the winner when it comes to major releases. Brad Bird’s unbelievably dense narrative, combined with Pixar’s pristine animation, makes for one amazing visual journey. As we follow a wannabe rodent on his quest for culinary recognition, the artists and designers responsible for the film’s fascinating look constantly surprise us. But it’s the emotional elements in the narrative that truly astound.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


SiCKO


The know-it-alls like to beat up on Michael Moore for not getting every single solitary nuance of the facts 100% aligned with their particular view of things. This doesn’t mean that his latest documentary is a failure. In fact, it may just be the most potent piece of filmmaking the director has ever done.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Knocked Up


Finally! A comedy that’s actually funny! Judd Apatow deserves some sort of special place in the current industry hierarchy for delivering audiences from the scourge of humorless half-baked fare. In its place, the 40 Year Old Virgin auteur fashions a callous chick flick where geeks, gals and the occasional gross out gag can live in harmonious hilarity.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End


Somewhere between the decision to turn the Disney attraction into a feature film, and the concept of increasing the franchise to fill up a supposed trilogy, critics bailed on this set of stellar action/adventure romps. Destined to be viewed with new appreciation decades from now, this last installment truly represents the pinnacle of old fashioned blockbuster moviemaking.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Fido


Believe it or not, zombies actually make a wonderful metaphor for the corrosion of conformity that was the 1950s, but not because they represent the mindless mob mentality. No, they are the perfect mirror for Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie’s clever take on intolerance and fear. The undead are only acting on instinct. It’s the corporate controlled suburbanites that pose the real threat.

+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Live Free or Die Hard


We know, we know; we picked this fading franchise to deliver one of Summer 2007’s biggest bombs. We may have been misguided. While not up to the level of the previous installments in this once influential action series, star Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman still deliver spectacular stunt set pieces and enough bad ass machismo to satisfy filmgoers.

+ PopMatters Review


Hostel Part II


Don’t believe the agenda-based hype. Eli Roth’s return to the former Eastern Bloc is not the original film reconfigured with babes, or the most violent atrocity against the female species ever put on film. Instead, it’s a completely unique sequel, a revisit that totally rewrites everything about the initial ‘gorno’ classic… and finds equally effective fear factors.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


1408


It’s the antidote for the blood and guts gratuity of post-millennial horror, as well as a stunning tour de force by actor John Cusack. More an old fashioned thriller than a modern movie macabre, this delightful journey into dread proves that Stephen King is not cinematic poison. Instead, in the hands of the right creative team, he remains a formidable fright force.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Spider-man 3


The list of complaints is long, and the sense of disappointment palpable, but it seems silly to think that Sam Raimi and the rest of the Spidey set could repeat the bravura brilliance of Spider-man 2. While the villains are more than viable, and the new black suit mojo cleverly illustrated, the movie still feels scattered and strained.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


28 Weeks Later


Danny Boyle’s original was more about deconstructing society than rewriting the rules of zombie lore (all right, they’re NOT the living dead). But in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s take on the material, it’s the US military that takes it on the chin – over and over again. The result is a fractured sense of fear, with the humans packing more precariousness than the Rage-infected horde.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Evan Almighty


Why this genial family comedy is not a bigger hit says more about the movie going habits of the general public than what the film itself has to offer. Sure, it’s cloying and incredibly mannered, the filmmakers avoid anything remotely serious or sacrilegious, but there is still enough here to easily entertain those so inclined. A truly perplexing commercial conundrum.

+ PopMatters Review


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer


Aimed at the kiddies yet barely capable of sustaining such creative overreaching, director Tim Story once again argues for his place as the worst interpreter of comic book material out there. This time around, the title heroes are hampered by a cosmic planet killer, his slick metallic messenger…and tabloid fame. Oddly enough, the press comes across as the most threatening.

+ PopMatters Review


Shrek the Third


Like an old sitcom that just won’t die, this ongoing CG stupidity argues for its lack of viable funny business as well as the eventual death of 3D animation. Horribly dull and equally uninspired, what once seemed novel and ironic now feels like an extended advertisement for yet another installment (and it worked –- number four is in the works. Groan).

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Jun 30, 2007


Aileen “Lee” Wuronos, on paper, is an almost offensively shameless Oscar-begging character: a serial killer/prostitute/lesbian. Add in a few extra points for this actually being a real person. Compounding matters considerably is the fact that, impossibly, the glacially beautiful South African-born Charlize Theron would be playing this downtrodden woman, who, let’s just say knew her way around the block (and had for many years). Fortunately, what could have descended into a camp nightmare of gigantic proportions instead provided a showcase for one of the most original star turns of the new cinematic millennium; one that actually ended up working.


Wuronos was executed on 9 October, 2002, about one year before the film was made. Her ashes were taken back to her native Michigan by her long-time confidante (and my former next door neighbor!) Dawn Botkins, who provided Jenkins and Theron with much of the original source material that, would become the foundation for this tremendous feat of acting.


Theron’s high-wire act could be compared to the theatrical, operatically over-the-top, and gimmicky antics of women like Faye Dunaway (as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest), Nicole Kidman (as Virginia Woolf in The Hours), and Annette Bening (as Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty)—all Oscar nominees (the former two winners); it is a level of commitment that is ferocious when combined with the actresses’ blend of tightly-controlled animal magnetism and star presence. The performances are very aware, very controlled, and aided in each case by a very specific “look” that the actress relies on to help get her point across. These are performances that veer dangerously toward the brink of caricature and could easily be seen as skirting camp disaster. Each of these actresses portraying a variety of damaged women, though, is able to rely on her own particular skill to pull it all together. Theron is the best example of this, in this writer’s humble opinion.


This is the kind of performance that rarely gets rewarded, something that comes along every so often and reminds you of what exactly actors are capable of accomplishing and capturing through good-old fashioned physical transformation (including 30 pounds gained by the leading lady and an array of prostheses). Justly, Theron’s phenomenal work as “Lee” took the Academy Award for Best Actress of 2003 (on 29 February—Wuronos’ real-life birthday), in first time director Patty Jenkins’ compellingly bleak character study, Monster.


The sequence that opens Monster provides the viewer with a brief and startling view of Lee’s life history. After these informative, shocking images, accompanied by words that bombard us with decades of details in mere minutes, we are transported into the bitter, somber reality of a grown-up Lee’s world. She is sitting beneath a dirty underpass on the side of a Florida highway, in the rain. Through the grit and despair, we see a figure holding a gun and contemplating the end. This is Lee; an unrecognizable Theron. Even her eyes look profoundly soulless and tragic (thanks to almost black, reptilian contact lenses). Lee is vaguely inhuman: lumpy, sketched out, wild-haired. She is a liar, a con-woman. Theron’s immersion into this character is done not as a blatant copycat act; she also employs a different, gravelly voice and a Midwestern cadence, haggard make-up on her skin, and tough body language. The actresses’ control over these restraints is a testament to her strength and range as a performer.


Lee (who has some obvious mental health issues) decides that she’d rather not kill herself with five bucks in her pocket - she rationalizes that she probably performed a sexual favor for it, and that would be akin to working for free. She figures that she should at least try and spend it before pulling the trigger. She wanders into a nearby lesbian bar where she has her first encounter with Selby (Christina Ricci). After a rough beginning the two begin to hit it off. That Lee gives the confused young woman a chance at all adds a dramatic dimension that is moving—there is a palpable connection between the two that makes the homeless, bruised hooker a more relatable, human character. This action is revelatory for someone who has been desperate to make a connection (to no avail) for so long. Their affair is doomed and implausible from the start, and it reeks of pathos. It makes the violence looming in the story’s distance more significant.


Humanity is oft-discussed when talking about filmed acting. The intricate psychology of Theron’s Lee is one of the best examples of this I can think of. The actress and the filmmaker sincerely take into account the confused sexuality of their lead character, providing an experimental portrait of sexual awakening that never degrades its subject. When talking with Tom (Bruce Dern), she realizes that she is talking romantically about a woman and quickly switches her pronouns. Up until this point, she didn’t identify with being a lesbian. Lee, high on new prospects readies for a date with Selby.


Ricci, in a solid supporting turn, is equally daring as a cipher lacking any clear personality of her own; somewhat excited to assume someone else’s. Selby is an amalgamation of real-life (Lee’s actual lover, Tyria Moore could not be depicted for legal reasons) and dramatic license (“Selby’s age, appearance, and history were all changed for the film). Selby is living in Florida on her strict, religious father’s orders, with equally staunch family acquaintances. She is equally as desperate as Lee, in other ways; and also struggling with her sexuality. This set-up allows for two highly original performances to be showcased in the film. Ricci’s performance has been maligned by critics as much as it has been praised, many times overlooked in the wrecking ball wake of Theron’s praise. The filmmakers’ bold choice to mix fact with fiction (while still remaining lovingly attached to the emotional truths of the story), and the pairing of these two women about to hit the bottom of their own downward spirals is assured.


The sadness comes back, and any optimism that may have been built up for the new and in love couple quickly flies out the window when the scenes of Lee hustling johns shows the hopelessness of her situation. There aren’t any realistic dreams of a sweet future, only fantasies. This all happens in the film’s first fifteen minutes or so. Monster hits like a truck.


That Lee is involved in a murder, while trying to raise money for a rendezvous with her would-be new love adds another heartbreaking layer to the proceedings. It becomes very clear that the life of a hooker is much different than what the film-going public has been treated to in the past: Lee isn’t Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. While some of her intentions seem to be pure, she definitely does not have a heart of gold and no billionaire playboy is going to take her out of this despair. Lee must constantly be on her guard, looking over her shoulder. Perhaps it is out of self-defense she kills her first trick after a “date” turns into a horror-show of rape and sexual torture that is genuinely appalling to watch, but it also highlights the dangers of Lee’s everyday life. This is the moment in the film in which Lee seems to break with reality—her primal scream after the killing will raise the hairs on your neck.


Strutting around, looking at her own blood-spattered and naked body in the mirror with a mix of disdain and curiosity before making love to Selby for the first time, may seem like an insignificant detail, but for me, it shows a level of commitment to every gesture that is missing from a great deal of modern screen acting. This is not a “natural” performance at all; it is otherworldly and manufactured, like the real woman. Lee begins to go on a murder spree to support Selby and work towards their dream of living in a small house in the keys. How does she become a murderer? Was she, as Lee claimed, victimized by all of the johns to a degree?


The scene in which Lee convinces Selby to stay with her for one week rather than return to Ohio (“You’ll never meet someone like me again”, she cagily barks) takes place immediately after the first killing. It is obvious that in this case, Lee realizes after the heat of the moment that what she did was wrong. She won’t recover from this crime, it’s almost as though Lee knows she will be going to jail forever. Perhaps in this is the moment of realization she constructs the elaborate fantasy future filled with domestic bliss with Selby where she assumes a macho, traditionally-male persona that dictates she protect and care for her “little woman”. After killing a man, Theron is shot lit from behind, enjoying a cigarette, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. As the camera retracts sluggishly, and she disappears into the blackness, you get the feeling that this signifies the woman’s confusion and her lack of control; that this is her final descent.


Lee actually still thinks that quitting hooking is a plausible thing. She thinks she wants to be a vet (“I fucking love animals”), or a “business person”. A series of humiliating job interviews (including one to be a legal secretary where she is degraded in a horrible way), in which a desperate Lee is inspired by her human connection to Selby to live life on the straight and narrow. This brief, unrealistic period lets Lee slip into the only place she has ever felt comfortable: in her romantic, delusional ideals of the perfect life. Monster really showcases the cycle of poverty, and abuse and shows how commonplace it is to become utterly stuck in it.


Unfortunately for Lee, this cycle began when she was raped as a child and never ended. That Lee never really had a chance and her inability to cope with the injustices committed against her is mournful. The scene in which she recounts pathetically to a john the tales of her childhood sexual abuse with disturbing candor or the shot of her begging for change are among the examples of Theron’s dedication to fully-fleshing out her character’s truth. The actress doesn’t stand in judgment, and balances all of these elements flawlessly. She keeps on killing and telling herself that she is the prey, that she is an avenging angel. It becomes hard for her to kill her final victim; she is snapped back into the reality of her life, except it is much too late to stop at this point. She has to kill the man to save herself from being caught.


Lee sends Selby back to Ohio to spare her from prison. The scene at the bus station is one of the most affecting in the film that features Lee, once so tough and confident, as a grief-stricken and raw tangle of nerves. She is filled with regret and sobs for help and forgiveness. Selby repays Lee’s loyalty and love by turning her in; accepting no blame for anything that happened while they were together, though she was well-aware of the killings. She tricks her former lover into taking all of the heat. This is Lee’s act of heroism: she takes the blame so Selby can have a life. The final scenes of Lee getting handed the death penalty, where Lee is used and tired are made even more haunting by Theron’s final haunting gaze directly into the camera being juxtaposed with hokey sayings about hope and love. The terror in her eyes shows that her fate has broken her.


Though Theron’s performance is very seductive, and her character is lethally charming, Jenkins keeps the film from ever fully surrendering to the whims of the killer. There is always a gently-placed hand of judgment placed between the audience and Aileen. It keeps us acutely aware of the horrors of her crimes—even though at times it might be easy to acquit her because of her circumstances. The film never excuses her behavior.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Jun 22, 2007


When Gigi took the Best Picture Oscar in 1958, sweeping the ceremony with a startling nine wins, it signaled the end of an era. For the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli and producer, legendary MGM Svengali Arthur Freed, the movie symbolized the zenith of their professional success in a partnership that produced an array of breezy ‘50s Technicolor extravaganzas - Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, and Brigadoon; But the massive productions, complete with unfolding glittering sets and hordes of extras, were becoming too expensive for the studios to finance given the increasingly modest revenues they were generating. The Hollywood musical was losing its popularity. People were more easily bored; they became less inclined to sit through a twenty-minute interpretive dance sequence, even if Gene Kelly was its star. By the time the screen rights for Gigi were up for grabs in the early ‘50s, no studio wanted to touch it. When Paramount passed, MGM gingerly bought them, due in part to the pleadings of its musical-theater genius, Minnelli.


The trends of pop culture, like history, are cyclical. Musicals are back. Rob Marshall’s Chicago, Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, and Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls are lavish spectacles in the tradition of Freed and Minnelli. It’s a trend that began with Baz Luhrman’s irreverent, iconoclastic, Moulin Rouge, a heady blend of Minnelli, Ken Russell-rock opera (Tommy and Mahler) and plodding Gilbert and Sullivan. I think something about troubled political times makes us cling to the enchantment of musicals and its promise of escapism, whether you’re trying to cope with the memory of a devastating world war, or struggling to deal with a current one.


Gigi is not as well known today as the other Lerner and Loewe favorite that it’s compared too, My Fair Lady. Both are about eager, gauche young women who are transformed into graceful swans by a little manners, money, and the love of a shallow, but earnest, rich young man. Sounds an awful lot like the storyline to Pretty Woman. The plot is banal, and the movie is no more than an Ugly Duckling-style romantic comedy, but it’s enough. It’s not the reason why the movie is a success, or why you should watch it in the first place.


Leslie Caron plays as the adolescent girl, Gigi, who is tutored to be a courtesan by her great-aunt (Isabel Jeans) and grandmother (Hermione Gingold), but is so charmingly innocent and guileless that she winds up married to the richest, handsomest young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan).  Jourdan, arch and imperially slim, brings the appropriate hauteur to the part of this jaded dandy.  Like Rupert Everett, he has the insolent confidence and the elusive sophistication that can turn mannerisms into style. 


In between, the film is serenaded by the august Maurice Chevalier as Gaston’s worldly uncle. Chevalier’s years of experience and his love of performing come together joyously.  His easy manner recalls the atmosphere of 1920s Parisian music halls seen most recently in Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf’s biopic, La Vie en Rose - eloquent, sophisticated and unapologetic - a style of entertainment that got France through two world wars, and defined their culture through the 20th century.


Chevalier’s knowing rendition of, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung as he leeringly gazes at burgeoning young pre-adolescents in the Bois de Boulougne does not go over so well in our age as it did back then. We’re asked essentially to applaud this dirty old man, and marvel at his wit. The screen persona spawned a thousand imitations, everything from Chuck Jones’s Pépé le Pew to Lumière the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast.



But one of the basic joys of Gigi is pure escapism. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why people are drawn to movies: to marvel at the flow of moving images across the screen. The picture has a buoyancy and playfulness that few movie musicals have. The glorious saturated Technicolor of Minnelli’s images: the oxblood red of the brocade walls of Mamita’s apartment; the vivid green and purple tartan of Gigi’s dress; the sleekness of the men and women all taken from images out of Renoir’s paintings, (the stately tour of Parisian high life is like a two-hour slide show for art-history majors); Cecil Beaton’s lush costumes, all lace and crinoline (he transferred his memories of Edwardian England onto 1900s Paris); the energy and dynamism of the score, jaunty and robust in its musical depiction of fin-de-siècle Paris, which evokes Bizet and Offenbach.


There are some glorious moments: the gossip at Maxim’s sequence is a masterpiece of balletic musical theater. Minnelli with his costume designer and set consultant, artist and bon vivant, Cecil Beaton, recreate an environment of elegance and imaginary innocence. And the scene where Gaston mulls over his growing fondness for Gigi, his top-hatted silhouette against the nighttime streets and fountains of Paris as he roams disconsolately, stunned by the realization that he’s falling in love, is a beautifully laid out sequence—a late Impressionist mood-piece haunted by sketches of Toulouse-Lautrec.


Minnelli was a director primarily interested in the pictorial effect of cinema.  He connected deeply with painters and his most successful, lovingly made movies, Lust for Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, reflect his vision of a film a moving canvas.  He understood more than anyone else that the spectator’s receptiveness to film hinges on visual pleasure, and Gigi is rapturous in that respect.


*Gigi will be playing on Turner Classic Movies at 11AM, Sunday, 1 Julyt


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.