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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007

If you’re looking for the culmination of the last two decades in filmmaking, if you need a movie that provides nothing but hair trigger pop shots, if your standard action movie is just too slack paced and remedial for your Red Bulled synapses, Michael Davis’s deconstructionist marvel will fuel inject your fun factors in quick order.

Welcome to the world of adrenaline amping gun porn. Maybe a better term for it would be “ammunition oriented erotica”. While there is technically nothing sexy about the arterial spray and wonder weaponry of Michael Davis’ demented actioner Shoot ‘Em Up, one does get the distinct impression of watching a XXX title where handguns substitute for hardcore. Grooving on its gratuity to the point of plentiful premature climaxes, and referencing the John Woo School of snail-paced mayhem to the point of stalker status, this demented director, previously known for nothing very much, has created the first freak geek manifesto. He has made a movie that does away with unnecessary cinematic standards like dimensional characterization, narrative clarity, physical logic, and any sense of subtlety. In its place are never-ending firefights, cut to the chase action sequences, bullet ballet, and a weird obsession with breast milk. Seriously.


The plot, when we finally find one, is an intriguing amalgamation of exploitation excess and Jackass level joke. While sitting on a street corner, minding his own business, the illusive Mr. Smith (a marvelous Clive Owen) sees a pregnant woman being chased by a murderous mob. Stepping in to protect her, he ends up with her newborn child, and a mob of angry hitmen on his tail. Led by the lecherous, leering Mr. Hertz (the brilliant Paul Giamatti), this craven crew has been given strict orders to destroy the kid at all costs. Hoping to find a substitute mom, Smith seeks the aid of prostitute pal DQ (Monica Bellucci as rather dandy eye candy). Initially rejecting his request, she relents, and suddenly, the faux family is on the run and looking for an escape. But they’ll have to get past a presidential candidate, an influential weapons manufacturer, the Second Amendment, the anti-gun lobby, and about 9000 members of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight before uncovering the truth and foiling Hertz’s fatal plot once and for all.


There’s no rationalizing a movie like Shoot ‘Em Up. There’s no way to excuse its excesses or validate its unavoidable volatilities. Instead, one simply has to sit back and enjoy the highlight reel histrionics of the action, the pure visual pleasure of watching choreographed actors exchange pot shots like gun toting gladiators. While really nothing more than a glorified game of one-upmanship where Smith and Wesson replace sword and saber, and everyone has a vendetta driving their designs, director Davis should be commended for making all of this negligible nonsense work. He takes what is, in essence, a Six Shooter Territory Wild West stunt show gone Gotham and turns it into a magical motion picture experience that borders on the epic. Granted, he doesn’t have the added Asian ideals of honor, duty, and loyalty down yet, and his characters tend to talk in blurbs from the back of old pulp novels, but viable action is an art. From what we see here, Davis is a punch-drunk Picasso.


It’s hard to hate this movie, try as it might to tweak your PC sensibilities. This is the kind of craziness that offers necrophilia as an offhand snicker, uses an infant as a precarious prop, and proposes that the entire world is run by corrupt corporate and government entities that pat each other on the back before planting a 9mm round in it. Emotions are for dames and dunce caps, and wit revolves around how successful you are in rearming your pistol before your opponent airs out your entrails. Sure, it’s all so hyper-stylized and mannered that it’s similar to hallucinating anime after a peyote and Pixie stick binge. Or maybe a better way of putting it would be to say that Shoot ‘Em Up is the naughtiest non-nudity the NRA ever fantasized over.  The well staged sequences of unbridled mayhem may help us to forget the overall lack of substance, but there’s no denying the high spirits hangover we feel once it’s done. 


Making matters even more complicated is the outstanding acting job by the two main leads. Clive Owen has crafted a nice little niche as the day saving action hero with the hobbled heart of a human being. As he did in Sin City, and again in Children of Men, he’s a capable champion made even more valiant by our obvious rooting interest in his success. Sure, he’s responsible for the death of hundreds, but who could hold a grudge with that cool and calculated chin butt. Similarly, Paul Giamatti gives a new meaning to the term “hygienically challenged” with his scraggly faced, sweat stained Mr. Hertz. Given lots of juicy lines to work with, and a character dimension that has his unstoppable anger deriving from a horrible home life (this mobster is the most henpecked hitman in the history of organized crime). Together, they form the core of some brilliant byplay, a cool for cat and mouse that adds an element of sly substance to what is basically kids playing cops and criminals.


There are a few elements here that will try your motion picture patience. Since its budget was obviously limited to the lower end of the financial scale, some subpar CGI had to be used to realize a couple of the stunts (one involves a classic moment between Owen, Giamatti, a couple of cars, and an infant in the middle of the road). Similarly, Davis does indulge his technicians a few too many rapid cutting conceits. When you watch a John Woo film, the last thing you notice is the editing. It’s easy to fall into an MTV style stance when dealing with this type of material, but for the most part, the director keeps it under control. And then there’s the lack of estrogen. Granted, Bellucci’s around to look fetching and fertile, but the lack of other female facets here is more than noticeable. When they’re not being gutted or gunned down, they’re part of the periphery, nothing more. Frankly, it would have been nice to see a long legged counterpart to our pair of provocateurs. It would have really pushed this project over the top.


Still, you gotta love the primal potency of Shoot ‘Em Up. It’s been a long time since any movie has made such a strong connection to our cave dweller cravings. This is hunter/gatherer grandness, the sort of symphonic splatter statement that turns ordinary people into obsessives. Though it all feels so superficial and slight, even with all the corpses piling up, the undeniable attraction to orgiastic violence provides enough entertainment heft to leave us spent and satisfied. Certainly this movie will rub some the wrong way, questioning the glorification of gunpowder as yet another scar on the already mottled match-up between the media and society. Even worse, they will point to adolescents, already ripe with retrograde notions of right and wrong via videogames, and vilify both the messenger and the missive. But sometimes, all we ADULTS want is cinematic junk food, and Shoot ‘Em Up is definitely more filling than equal entries like Smokin’ Aces, The Marine, or Crank.


In fact, if you’re looking for the culmination of the last two decades in filmmaking, if you need a movie that provides nothing but hair trigger pop shots, if your standard action movie is just too slack paced and remedial for your Red Bulled synapses, Michael Davis’s deconstructionist marvel will fuel inject your fun factors in quick order. It’s rare when a movie can elevate both your blood pressure and belief in the artform, but Shoot ‘Em Up definitely deserves such recognition. It’s not a full blown masterpiece, or something that will stand the test of time, but for what audiences are looking for in 2007, it will fit the bill with ballistics to spare.



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Friday, Sep 7, 2007


Instead of ranting and raving about the upcoming week in premium pay cable movie premieres, let’s just meditate on Autumn, SE&L’s favorite time of year. Here’s a picture to aid in your calmative contemplation:



Okay – enough multicolored foliage. Now, on to the choices for 8 September, including a rather timely world premiere:


Premiere Pick
World Trade Center


It’s so strange to think that this movie was made by the same man who redefined Vietnam, took on the JFK conspiracy, and supported several causes considered ‘anti-American’ by conservative commentators. For decades, Oliver Stone has been an aggressive agent provocateur, not a flag-waving jingoist. Yet here he is, the man responsible for calling into question almost every political power within the last three decades doing a nice, noble job of telling the true story of two Port Authority police officers during 9/11. In Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena, Stone found two actors capable of carrying off their scenes while buried under tons of art department rubble, and the initial scenes of the terrorist attack, all suggestion and subtle shifts in personnel and perspective, are expertly done. Towards the end, when the trapped men’s families start freaking out, the movie looses a little of its bearing, but overall, Stone taps into the national nightmare of that fateful day, and delivers a devastating drama. (08 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Superman Returns


Bryan Singer’s bloated, overdone homage to Richard Donner didn’t deserve all the geek squad accolades it received. Even a year after its release, the flaws are all too obvious. Kate Bosworth remains a poor choice for Lois Lane, and the whole Super-boy angle is underplayed to the point of implausibility. For every good thing this restart does – Brandon Routh is excellent as the superhero, and Kevin Spacey gives good Lex Luthor – Singer stumbles. (08 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Return


You’d figure that after The Grudge, Sarah Michelle Gellar would try and move as far away from the J-Horror film fad as possible, less she wind up typecast. Sadly, she instead embraced the format, starring in this Asian terror knock off from British moviemaker Asif Kapadia. Unlike his first film, the feudal India themed The Warrior, this has Ju-On juice spread all over it. Fans of more subtle scares should look elsewhere for their fear factors. (08 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Open Season


Though the look of this animated ordinariness is unusual (lots of odd angles and stylized characterization), we wind up with the same old CGI stumbles. Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher are a bear and a mule deer, respectively, that must rally the other woodland creatures in time to prepare for the title event, and the onslaught of hunters that will follow soon thereafter. Though the humor is forced and the film forgettable, the kiddies couldn’t care less. (08 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Breathless (1956)


Perhaps the biggest misconception about the French New Wave that swept through cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s was that the entire movement was an attack on Hollywood and its mainstream brand of moviemaking. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, all directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard wanted to do was expand the possibilities of film, and the only way they could accomplish this was by blowing up the formulas and deconstructing the various elements. Then, they put them back together in ways contrary/complimentary to the works that they loved, thereby creating and commenting via a new form of expression. This, Godard’s 1960 masterpiece, is a perfect example of the stratagem. The storyline is simplistic – a young girl hooks up with a murderous criminal – but it’s the presentation that sets the new standards. With its handheld cameras, jarring jump cuts, breaking of various ‘walls’, and self-conscious rebellion, it functions as one of the artform’s most important and radical works. (12 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Tout Va Bien


Over a decade after he redefined the language of film, Jean-Luc Godard teamed up with fellow filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin to make this aggressively avant-garde look at relationships, politics, and the strictures of cinema. Featuring fine performances from Yves Montand and a fresh from Klute Jane Fonda, the result is supremely frustrating with sprinklings of electric genius. While not upfront about all their ideas, Godard/Gorin still get most of their point across. (09 September, Sundance Channel, 7:15PM EST)

Igby Goes Down


Celebrated as a post-modern Catcher in the Rye as well as one of the first films to adopt the digital approach to filmmaking, this Burr Steers’ effort has its charms. Macaulay’s brother Kiernan Culkin does an excellent job in the lead role, and he gets good supporting turns from Bill Pullman and Susan Sarandon. While not quite on par with Salinger, this is still a smart and substantive coming of age saga. (12 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Steal This Movie


The Yippie movement, best exemplified by Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden remains a potent source of motion picture material. Sadly, nothing has successfully tapped into such subject matter, including this well intentioned biopic from documentarian Robert Greenwald. Vincent D’Onofrio does a fine job as Hoffman, and Janeane Garofalo is good as his wife, Anita. But the narrative never finds a focus. (14 September, IFC, 11:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
The Prime Time


Before he became the Godfather of Gore (with his classic terror triptych Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red), Herschell Gordon Lewis was the king of the nudie cutie. Working with partner and mighty monarch of the exploitation film, David F. Friedman, the former advertising employee cranked out Florida based flesh feasts dealing with subject both scandalous and silly. In this case, we have the typical little girl lost scenario. Jean is desperate for kicks (the ‘50s/’60s substitute word for illegal fun) and she ends up getting involved in drugs and nude modeling. Perhaps most notorious for Karen Black’s appearance (or lack thereof – she sued to be removed from the film) and the lack of Lewis regulars (it was his first film as a director, after all), it still stands as a slyly suggestive treat. (11 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 1AM EST)

Additional Choices
Twice the Price - Again


Our main man Vincent is back again for another double dose of delirium at the hands of TCM’s Underground series. This time around, we witness a late in life insignificance of Madhouse, followed by the more successful Italian take on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (here called The Last Man on Earth). No matter the movie, Price was a gem. He remains a very enigmatic and elusive screen star. (14 September, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

The Piano


New Zealand director Jane Campion went from cult creator to mainstream moviemaker – at least in the eyes of Western audiences – with this intriguing take on the bodice ripping romance. Holly Hunter, Sam, Neil and Harvey Keitel give brave, bravura performances in a narrative that, while arch and a tad tawdry, really gets to the heart of obsession, compassion, and loss. (10 September, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

House on Haunted Hill (1995)


While William Castle purists will balk at the suggestion, the remakes of his classic films have been pretty good – considering the campy and kitsch nature of the originals. This offering is not as good as 13 Ghosts (a more imaginative take on the material), but still offers enough gory thrills and unexpected chills to send more than a few shivers up and down your spine. (11 September, ThrillerMax, 11:50PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

The death of the western as a viable film genre remains, even to this day, a perplexing motion picture issue. It could be argued that the glut of horse opera product that flooded the pop culture market between 1940 and 1980 extinguished any artistic or commercial viability the category had left. Indeed, Hollywood loved to spread the oater’s morality play mandates as thinly as possible. Part of the reason was popularity. Until political correctness condemned its conceits, kids played Cowboys and Indians and the pioneers were looked upon as great land emancipators, not the catalysts for cruel, cutthroat genocide. How the mythos went from machismo to mass murder is definitely a topic for another time. But it does help explain why the sagebrush saga has seen better days. Along with a draught of compelling creativity, post-modern audiences just aren’t eager to revisit our country’s more primeval past.


Perhaps that’s why James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma is so strict in its storyline dynamics. This second version of Elmore Leonard’s short story (the first, in 1957, featured Glen Ford and Van Heflin) revolves around a simple rancher who, in a desperate act for much needed money, decides to escort a rogue outlaw to the title train, an express that leads to prison, and eventually, the gallows. Actors such as Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were originally considered for the project, but Mangold managed to score a box office bonanza when he cast Christian Bale (Batman himself) as Civil War veteran Dan Evans and Russell Crowe as suave train robber and ruthless killer Ben Wade. Rounding out the supporting parts with Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Gretchen Mol, and Alan Tudyk, he had performers worthy of pulling off the impossible—making this manner of film compelling to a consumed-by-CGI audience.


For the most part, he succeeds in spades. 3:10 to Yuma has its off moments, and its unexplored potential, but for the vast majority of its running time, this is an excellently made and superbly acted throwback. Mangold is not out to deconstruct the genre ala Unforgiven, nor is he trying to contemporize or reimagine his homage ala The Quick and the Dead. Instead, this is the kind of mild mannered, if action packed, movie that the Italians targeted with their spectacular splatter spaghetti updates. After an exciting opening stagecoach hold up, the narrative becomes a series of metaphysical standoffs waiting for some glorified gunplay to forward the momentum. This is a good looking film, one that captures an Old West authenticity that’s unique among its motion picture peers. This is a grubbier, dustier western, a movie that frequently mentions the hardship and the horror of eking out an existence on the fringes of a still-forming nation. 


In that regard, one has to stop and mention the magnificent work of Christian Bale. Playing a Northern veteran of the War Between the States (with his own humiliating past to protect), there’s a real desperation in his performance, a quiet helplessness that carries over to his gaunt face and hobbled physicality. Missing a foot and more considered than confrontational, Evans makes for an unusual hero. Not only do we need him to buffer Wade’s craven cult of personality, but we hope he will find his inner strength as well. The combination creates real tension, and gives Bale lots of room to play. In turn, he’s both pathetic and powerful, a presence that demands attention even if all it results in is nothing more than mockery. With a scraggly beard and sullen eyes, we witness the kind of alienation and angst we’d expect in a post-modern movie. But thanks to his amazingly accomplished acting, it all becomes part of a much more meaningful whole.


Crowe, on the other hand, is quite the quandary. He’s supposed to be larger than life, a charmer who’d enjoy conning you as much as killing you. Instead of delving deep into his character’s psychosis, or the rationale behind his antisocial stance, the actor merely grandstands. You can practically hear him having too good of a time, a leprechaun-ish lilt in his voice almost mocking everything the movie stands for. It’s a brave creative choice, since it could easily alienate the audience. After all, Wade will go through a last act change that pushes our perspective of him into fairly uncharted territory. One can indeed question whether Crowe actually prepares us for this possibility. When he turns on the intensity, he’s as grave as they come. But in the lighter moments, when he’s joking and jesting, we’re stuck stewing over the man. His rogue routine raises enough questions to turn his character into quicksand—substantive at first, but with some rather shaky foundations underneath.


The rest of the company is crafty and first class, with Ben Forster literally stealing the film as Wade’s trusty and treacherous sidekick Charlie. He’s evil personified, a man metering out his own idea of justice one blazing six-shooter at a time. When he appears onscreen, all bets are automatically off, especially during the opening/closing action sequences. He’s ruthless, with just a touch of feyness to render every act doubly despicable. He’s unpredictable and yet totally calculated, a lethal combination indeed. He acts as a counterweight to the cavalier tone taken during some of the movie’s more trite moments. Similarly, Alan Tudyk’s venerable veterinarian is a wonderful reminder of the definite dangers involved. Whether it’s repairing bullet wounds or reminding the posse of their purpose, he’s a wonderful voice of reason. Add in Peter Fonda’s grizzled grimness (including a rather nasty backstory) and a real flair for bullet bravado, and you’ve got a really fine cinematic sentiment.


There are a couple of minor misgivings however. The entire subplot with the son, an ungrateful little knave that eventually comes around to his dad’s way of thinking, asks too much of an already perplexed viewer. Why this kid loves the outlaw life and vicarious violence is only suggested, though it appears to be derived from a love of dime novels and press puffery. He’s worked back into the overall tone about halfway through, even if we’re not sure why he’s around. Then there’s the Civil War angle. Bale wears his service literally, the war wound haunting and hobbling him. Yet other characters who mention their part in the conflict do so without a lick of significance, as if their conscription in the nation-defining event was similar to going down to the local saloon for a snort. It’s confusing, and lacks closure. Still, 3:10 to Yuma does a direct job of both bending and blending archetypes. Luckily, the narrative avoids most of the standard stock personas, even if Crowe ends up bedding one of the cleanest looking whores in all of Arizona.


Most of the praise goes to Mangold, however. He keeps things lively, and never forgets that a contemporary audience likes their wicked weaponry in full muffle blast mode. The gunfights are staged in a highly kinetic manner, the participants constantly plotting and moving in an attempt to avoid that hot kiss of lead. The finale is probably the best two on twenty showdown in the history of the genre, made even more effective by the emotional bond we feel with these characters. Even better, this director lays out the basics for a possible genre rebirth. All that’s required is a simple story, capable stars, an acknowledgement of the current medium trends, and a filmmaker that’s capable of meshing them all together. The results can only hope to be as effective as 3:10 to Yuma. In the realm of remakes, this one surpasses its still significant sources.



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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007


For fright fans, Dario Argento’s career as a movie macabre master started going downhill right after the release of his spectacle splattefest Opera. With the advent of videotape, and the steady release of his past efforts onto the format, a whole new audience was appreciating his work, and Hollywood was starting to take notice. Invited to America to continue his career, he made the interesting anthology entry based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes, and helmed a US based thriller entitled Trauma. Neither film was a hit, and Argento was angered by issues of studio interference and MPAA censorship. He had been burned back in the ‘70s when companies such as Paramount and Fox decided to distribute truncated versions of classics like Suspiria. Now, he needed a project to propel him back into the good graces of his always agreeable European constituency – and a book by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini seemed to hold the answer.


Dealing with a subject described as “art enchantment” - a surreal fugue state where individuals feel emotionally overwhelmed and personally connected to paintings, sculptures, and other aesthetic works – this ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ seemed to be the perfect idea for a film. Of course, it would take some tricky special effects to realize his goal, and Argento needed an actress he could trust to take on the grueling, slightly gratuitous lead. He envisioned a woman who was young enough to play the ingénue, sturdy enough to pass for a cop, and complex enough to handle the several personality changes that occurred throughout. Even worse, this performer would have to lay herself bare during a trio of tawdry rape scenes. With an air of oddness that only Freud could successfully decipher, Argento flummoxed convention and hired his 21 year old daughter Asia. Long a fixture in the film world, this would be her most demanding role to date.


And thus cameras rolled on the icon’s big creepshow comeback, a psychological thriller that took both parts of that label all too seriously. A strange combination of police procedural (Asia is Anna Manni, a policewoman on the trail of a serial rapist), character study (after suffering at the hands of her subject, Anna starts to slowly unravel), and exercise in exploitation (women are brutalized and butchered by this maniacal blond sadist), the results divided even the most ardent aficionados. Some saw it as a return to past glories. Others argued that, while decent, it forewarned of worse things to come. Indeed, in the next decade, Argento would release four more career confusing efforts – his overdone and sexualized Phantom of the Opera take, a good giallo called I Can’t Sleep, the static CSI statement The Card Player, and a weird homage to a long time idol entitled Do You Like Hitchcock? So oddly enough, The Standhal Syndrome appears as his last legitimate offering, a movie mythologized all the more by its odd home video treatment.


Somehow, Troma got a hold of this film, and released it way back near the beginning of DVD. The 1996 package was pretty good, containing a commentary by the director, an interview with the filmmaker, and lots of company come-ons. Fans frothed however, citing the fair to middling transfer and the overall lack of respect offered by the infamous B-movie factory. Over the last 11 years, they’ve hoped that a company like Blue Underground would salvage this forgotten film and bring it back to the state of semi-respectability it so richly (?) deserved. Well, now those prayers have been answered. The Big Blue U has indeed stepped up and delivered a brand new two disc digital package (available 25 September) that illustrates the best that the medium has to offer, while questioning the extent to which businesses will invest in context for the fans. 


If the film had been more endemic of Argento’s lush, luminous style, the lack of format support would be unconscionable. But Stendhal stands as a decidedly different effort for the director, a movie made up of particular movements, each one attempting to address a different aspect of a woman’s destructive descent into madness. Viewed in parts, we see the suggestion that rape reduces a female to a series of onerous questions. There is doubt of self, doubt of sexuality, and doubt of safety. All three of these misgivings are illustrated here, as daughter Asia goes from confident cop to psychological mess in the span of two event filled hours. The transformation is both physical and mental. At first, Anna Manni is a long haired brunette, a capable officer working a high profile case. Post attack, she cuts off her overflowing locks and takes on a more tom boyish persona. Finally, after a terrifying confrontation in a water main, our heroine becomes a femme fatale, long blond wig providing a post-modern noir nod.



Within each section, Argento hints at the horrors going on in Anna’s head. Initially, everything revolves around the title issue. The use of then new CGI to realize the symptoms of the syndrome is unique and, though dated, gives the visuals an excellent otherworldly quality. Asia also does a good job of expressing the emotional distress that surrounds the problem. When she swoons over a classical canvas, we believe the delirium. She is also a brave actress, allowing herself to be very vulnerable and physically ‘open’ during the rape scenes. Actor Thomas Kretschmann (who would later rise to notoriety in big budget films like Blade II and Peter Jackson’s King Kong) is an amazing villain – the kind of debonair demon that you can easily see as a smooth talking psychopath. The interaction with his victims is noxious, and he really helps establish the lasting effects of his horrific crimes.


The second phase takes us through a denial of femininity, as Asia goes guy to try and hide her pain. This is a very interesting segment, one where Argento pulls back on the dread to deliver some drama and dark humor. When a previous paramour makes a pass at Anna, she responds with belligerence and foul-mouthed dominance. Equally, when boxing with an old male friend as part of a workout, her love of physical brutality is obvious. All throughout the first two acts, we sense a rematch with out rapist, and long for the moment of mandatory cinematic comeuppance. As a director, Argento toys with us, leaving us guessing right until the very end as to how this confrontation will play out. Even after it’s over, we still wonder if there’s not more to the story. As with most works by the Italian maestro, a climatic moment usually triggers another tangential terror.



Which brings us to the third phase in Anna’s story. Feeling slightly more empowered, and working through the leftover trauma with her specious therapist (a real red herring if ever there was one), we see an attempted reclamation of her beauty and allure. The long headdress is initially shocking, since it tends to hide most of Anna (and Asia’s) inviting ethnicity. This is crucial in understanding where the character is headed. The color of the wig, the newfound lust and desire, the overwhelming possessiveness – all of these facets are supposed to provide subtle insight into the shifts our lead is experiencing. Since he’s a master of pacing and paradigm, Argento lets issues lie, creating tension by building on both expectation and the unanticipated. Even after the denouement, when we learn just what’s been going on in Anna’s head, our director is not done. We watch as our fractured female is swept up in a sea of men, the patriarchy once again arguing for its role as protector and provider of the species.


As a result, it’s hard to call The Stendhal Syndrome “horror”, though it definitely deals in dreadful things. This is more like a literal psychological thriller, a film that rises and falls by the sinister and sick psyche of its characters. As it moves from element to element, as it references Argento heroes (there’s a lot of Hitchcock here) and establishes its own inherent greatness, we sense the struggle inside the director. For over three decades, he was viewed as a fantasist and fabulist, someone placing the surreal inside the scary to create a kind of dream theater of nightmare novelty. But Argento got his start making standard crime films, giallos that mimicked the mean-spirited narratives of the yellow covered pulp novels the genre took its name – and inspiration - from. To be pigeonholed because of his rare artistic flourishes was unfair, and yet all throughout this film, such flashes also appear. The contradiction would soon cause his canon to crash.


Oddly enough, the DVD doesn’t go into a lot of perspective or overview. Instead, Argento appears and discusses the production – including how uncomfortable he was directing daughter Asia. The author of the book which inspired the director – psychological consultant Graziella Magherini - explains the Stendhal Syndrome while F/X guru Sergio Stivaletti talks about the confusing world of computers. We also hear from AD Luigi Cozzi and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Their anecdotal insights help us understand how hard it is for Argento to complete a project. Apparently, forces both normal and unexplainable are against him. As for the long debated technical aspects of this release, this latest DVD image is outstanding. It carries over the filmmaker’s original vision, and is presented ‘uncut and uncensored’. The clarity is amazing, and the comparison to the previous Troma release is clearly night and day. Shadowy scenes from before are now rendered in bright, anamorphic beauty.



Still, it’s hard to fully fathom where The Stendhal Syndrome resides inside Dario Argento’s reputation. Many will marvel at the avant-garde aspects of this feature and wonder why the director ditched them for a hoary old period piece (Phantom) the next time out. Some will see it as a misogynistic mess, a film that forces females into the role of subservient sickos who can’t suppress their inner whore long enough to avoid the suffering. Gore fiends will enjoy the novel kills, including the slo-mo bullet time, and Argento’s directorial flourishes still mandate attention, even within this far more realistic setting. Either as signature or stumble, art or atrocity, there is no denying that as a filmmaker, the man responsible for bringing Italian terror to the mainstream remains an important cinematic fixture. Thanks to the efforts of Blue Underground, his legacy will remain intact, if not necessarily indestructible.


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Tuesday, Sep 4, 2007


It was one of the longest summers on record, and unquestionably the most profitable. Beginning with the first weekend in May and Spider-man’s sweep into thousands of theaters, and ending on the very last day of August with the post-Halloween hissy fits, Hollywood raked in over four billion big ones the past four months, proving once and for all that the moviegoing experience is not dead. The rationale for ‘slumps’ and lazy box office returns is obvious – bad movies and their accompanying vitriolic word of mouth keep potential profits away. Maybe if Tinsel Town could see such an aesthetic forest from its individually marketed and demographically choreographed trees, there would be more imagination and innovation in the artform. Sadly, after seeing the returns reached in 2007, we should be ready for more of the same - blue humor comedies, live action cartoon updates, and sequels, tre-quels, and quadre-quels.


Of the 35 films SE&L sat through this summer – and we did miss a couple along the way (sorry Mr. Brooks, No Reservations, and War) – finding 10 worthy of making the grade was actually not that hard. Indeed, many of the picks practically begged to be mentioned. In general, the determination for inclusion in based on the ‘carry over’ syndrome. If a movie moved us, touched us, intrigued us, inspired us, entertained us, angered us, or surprised us in such a way that we ‘carried over’ that sentiment for days, sometimes weeks after seeing a film, it’s passed an important test. A critic can view up to a dozen movies in a week, and differentiating between them all can sometimes be as simple (or better yet, simplistic) as a gut or kneejerk reaction. But when they remain in your mind, when you constantly find yourself replaying scenes and revisiting ideas that the storyline or characters inspired, it’s an omen that can’t be ignored. They function as mental place cards in a mind overflowing with performances, images, and words. So when SE&L began it’s basic backwards glancing, we remembered the experiences we had during these hot, humid days, and the ones still stationed in our brains got the call up.


For the 10 films selected here, two are going to cause an uproar. Populist opinion – something we tend to sidestep in favor of actual film analysis – has confirmed that a pair of our choices chaffs the average mainstream member of the audience in ways that demand unreasonable retribution. Granted, you may feel free to take umbrage with anything we champion or chide, but this is not some kind of last word consensus on creative spark or motion picture ingenuity. It’s just opinion, albeit one based on a perspective of decades, not mere years, and several thousand, not a couple dozen, film going experiences. You may not agree, and that’s fine. But to quote Monty Python, the automatic nay-saying of someone else’s point is not an argument. It’s mere contradiction. If you disagree, put your opposition where your anonymous messageboard moxie is. Give us your Top 10. Let’s see how they match up.


In the meantime, here’s SE&L’s choices for the Best Films of the Summer of 2007:


#10 Transformers
Second only to Rob Zombie in poisonous fan boy hate, Michael Bay is not a bad director, just a soulless and scattershot one. Luckily, he finally found the proper project and a warehouse full of computing power to pull off this amazing technical tour de force. Sure, the same old Bay-isms apply: wimpy characterization; overly busy compositions and framing; a failure to connect to the audience on an emotional or esoteric level. Yet Transformers managed an amazing feat. It brought an expert level of surplus spectacle back to the big screen where it rightfully belongs.



#9 Rescue Dawn
Christian Bale is rapidly becoming the best actor in the business, as his stellar performance here definitely indicates. In a season exploding with all kinds of expensive eye candy, writer/director Werner Herzog goes directly for the throat. This is a thinking man’s Great Escape, a typical recitation of the German filmmaker’s main themes – man vs. nature vs. man and his own nature. With equally amazing turns from Steve Zahn and an unrecognizable Jeremy Davis (who definitely deserves an Oscar), and Herzog’s matter of fact filmmaking, this was a resplendent respite from all the popcorn product.



#8 The Bourne Ultimatum
Paul Greengrass does is again – proving that nothing drives high powered action better than a director with a vision. In this case, the handheld chaos created as our hero finally reconnects with his past is beyond belief. Among the many sequences that stand out, Greengrass stages a foot chase across the rooftops of Tangiers, leading to one of the greatest, most brutal fistfights in cinema history. For those who found the second film too kinetic, this one will also blow your socks off. We end up with an excellent ending to a wonderfully inventive espionage franchise.



#7 Hairspray: The Movie
Here’s perhaps the big surprise of the Summer – a mannered musical of the John Waters’ PG classic that had no business being brought back to the silver screen – and every moment of it worked brilliantly. If anyone ever doubted John Travolta’s song and dance chops (oh, what short memories we have), his last act teardown as Edna Turnblad during the final show-stopping number should be reminder enough. Add in the breakout buoyancy of newcomer Nikki Blonsky and Adam Shankman’s old school directorial style, and you’ve got the makings of some fantastic feel good fireworks.



#6 Halloween 2007
In what will be the first of two gasps from the typical movie going mentality, this reimagining of John Carpenter’s slasher epic is not the abomination the Net heads make it out to be. Instead, it’s perhaps one of the best examples of pure horror ever created. Argue over his choices for a young Michael Myers’ backstory, and complain that the slice and dice was too rapid fire and brutal, but that’s the point of this entire film. We no longer live in a slow, suspenseful world. Reality is in your face, as is this amazing movie.



#5 The Simpsons Movie
Since the Web has been predicting the demise of this show since Season 7, it’s hard not to relish in how laugh out loud classic this cinematic stop off really is. Matt Groening and the gang literally stepped up their game when bringing America’s favorite family into the celluloid domain, and the earnest ecology storyline shows that the creators have lost none of their verve. On par with South Park and Aqua Teen Hunger Force in showing how animated television can make the successful transition to a larger comic canvas.



#4 SiCKO
Michael Moore sees the big picture better than any other documentarian working today. Granted, he tends to showboat, and misses minutia for the sake of his stances, but there’s no denying the angle and authenticity of its approach. This is perhaps the most important movie he’s even made, which accounts for the impassioned potshots taken at his fact finding abilities. Just because a discussion fails to mention your particular points, or all other thoughts or theories on a subject, doesn’t make the conversation invalid. Moore is making a much larger statement here, the kind of wake up call we desperately need.



#3 Knocked Up
With this part profane, part poetic comedy masterpiece, Judd Apatow has finally arrived. He’s proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s directly tapped into the new post-millennial form of funny business, a cavalcade of cleverness that draws on any and all humor happenstance to derive its embarrassment of risible riches. But what puts this wickedly witty enterprise over the top is the solid storyline that deals in interpersonal issues and romantic perception with humanity and heart. Destined to reside near the top of the list come end of the year considerations.



#2 Sunshine
Here it is – the second sigh of disbelief from seasoned Summer film fans. As if championing the new Michael Myers wasn’t bad enough, here’s Danny Boyle’s brazen riff on 2001/Solaris via Event Horizon one step away from the top spot. The reason for such a placement can’t be proven in a small overview blurb. Instead, the Trainspotting savant puts his aesthetic prints all over a narrative that asks the season’s most important question – what would you do, personally, to save all of mankind? How you answer says a lot about your reaction to this masterpiece of a movie.



#1 Ratatouille
Along with Apatow, Brad Bird confirmed his genius status with this grown up flight of fancy. While The Iron Giant and the well named Incredibles illustrated his animated movie panache, this remarkable tale of a tiny rat and the bumbling boy chef he leads to greatness stands as the summer’s greatest achievement. Not only does the film look fantastic (Pixar, if anything has IMPROVED since Finding Nemo and Cars), but the narrative has moments of artistic bliss that simply blow you away. Destined to be a genre classic, one wonders what’s next from this potent production partnership.



**********


Worth a Mention
Here are a few other offerings that failed to make the big list proper. For whatever reason, their merits do indeed require pointing out:


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Proof that Gore Verbinski is one of the most accomplished directors working today. Love or hate these buccaneer blockbusters, but it takes a rare motion picture visionary to make this kind of cornball material work. Ignore the confusing storylines and simply enjoy its overpowering epic sweep.



*****


1408
Want subtle scares instead of bloody gorno workouts? Think all horror has to be abattoir amplified flesh feasts? This sinister Stephen King adaptation, offering an excellent performance by John Cusack, proves that dread can be accomplished even without a heaping helping of arterial spray.



*****


Hostel Part II
Probably the second most hated movie of the summer, and equally misunderstood. This non-carbon copy of the first film is everything a real sequel should be – that is, a 180 degree reset of the entire Hostel concept. The results are evocative and enthralling.



*****


Fido
Sadly, many moviegoers didn’t get a chance to see Andrew Currie’s freaked out social commentary. Using zombies as a symbol of non-conformity and change, and setting the story inside a crass, conservative ‘50s suburbia, this director delivered the allegorical goods.



*****


Superbad
This one barely missed making the Top Ten, and the reason is simple – the arrested adolescence offered by our pair of misguided policemen. The rest of the movie is magic, capturing how real teens talk in ways that should remind everyone of their own misspent youth.



**********


The Worst
And now, the bottom of the barrel, the cinematic scrapings that reek of lame scripts, poor direction, bad acting, ill-conceived conceptualizing, and all around motion picture mediocrity. While there are a few films missing from this list (like Lindsay Lohan’s I Know Who Killed Me…how prophetic), the five titles here are representative of the filmic funk that soiled the Cineplex this season:


#5 El Cantante
Jennifer Lopez screams for two hours. Unless its part of some well deserved death throws, it’s not worth it.


*****


#4 Underdog
Jason Lee does a decent dog’s voice. The rest of the movie meanders between pointless superhero stupidity and uninspired kiddie comedy.



*****


#3 Shrek the Third
Further proof that, once you anthropomorphize something, it’s bound to come back and bore you to death.



*****


#2 Mr. Bean’s Holiday
Physical comedy is almost impossible to get right. Rowan Aktinson’s take on the comic category confirms such a stance.



*****


#1I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry
Anti-gay put downs snuggle awkwardly with “can’t we all get along” language. The result is an insult to both comedy and civil rights.


 


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