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Thursday, Nov 30, 2006


Here’s something to ponder as your perusing the listings of the latest pay channel premieres – who in their right mind invented eggnog? There are some that argue that Europe is responsible, but they already can lay claim to Nazism and techno, so it’s unfair to pile on so. Others point to the unusual name and take linguistic pot shots at the derivation of the second syllable. Nog could mean ‘noggin’, a little wooden cup. It could also come from ‘grog’, an alcoholic treat taken internally by those with a wish to party holiday hearty. In either case, we here at SE&L can suggest a dozen other drinks to go with a Saturday night of mindless movie watching that are preferable to uncooked eggs laden with liquor. How about warm apple cider loaded with mulling spices and a smart shot of brandy. Or better yet, for the teetotalers in the house, a piping hot mug of Dr. Pepper with a snappy cinnamon stick as garnish. If you like your beverages a little more meaningful, a stout like Guinness could do the trick. But perhaps the best libation this holiday season is a timeless classic – a fluted glass loaded with vintage champagne. Whatever you choose to chug over the 2 December weekend, here are the accompanying cinematic chasers:


HBOA History of Violence*

One of last years’ best films came from one of the industry’s most unusual cinematic sources – Canadian horror hero David Cronenberg. Who would have thought that the man behind such philosophical splatter fests as Rabid , Scanners and Videodrome would take some graphic novel source material and turn out a searing crime drama featuring fascinating performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Maria Bello. This is a movie that’s as brutal in its emotions as it is in its title bloodshed, with secrets revealed, true selves unmasked and homespun wholesomeness soiled and sullied. Though never as flashy or flamboyant as his work in films like The Fly , eXistenZ , or his adaptation of William Burroughs’ classic novel Naked Lunch , Cronenberg’s camera is still stellar, painting a near perfect portrait of the potential evil lurching inside the heart of Middle America. (Saturday 2 December, 8pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxKing Kong (2005)*

Now that it has had almost a year to reconfigure its relevance in the realm of cinema, Peter Jackson’s drop dead brilliant reimagining of the Giant Ape epic can finally demand the respect it so richly deserves. The small screen may not be the perfect place to appreciate the epic scope of this undertaking (SE&L still remembers the massive case of vertigo it got during the climactic battle atop the Empire State Building) but it’s hard to deny Jackson’s way with action and adventure. Some may still feel that this geek freak filmmaker let his love of the subject matter overwhelm his ambitions, providing this relatively simply story with way too much cinematic pomp and circumstance, but for our scratch, no one makes mega-blockbusters like this confirmed Kiwi genius. Our main man did this massive monkey proud.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzEight Below

Frank Marshall, famous for his collaborations with a certain Steven Spielberg (a trip over to IMDb confirms his connections – and stature) has made a few movies of his own over the last two decades. Unfortunately, they have names like Alive , Congo and Arachnophobia . Here he’s dealing with the semi-true story of a group of sled dogs forced to fend for themselves in the frozen tundra of Antarctica. Naturally, the inherent cuteness of the mutts is balanced out by the potential life and death struggle – at least, at first. Then Marshall realizes that kids will probably cry, A LOT , if something horrible happens to these loveable curs. So he cuts back on the action and inserts more unnecessary subplots involving human ‘hero’ Paul Walker. Really nothing more than family friendly filler for a wired wee one’s weekend eve.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowCaseSuspect Zero

Now here’s a movie with a far more interesting backstory than the actual narrative up on the screen. Screenwriter Zak Penn saw his serial killing serial killer story get bumped around from studio to studio/superstar to superstar for over seven years. Frustrated by the rejection he was even more dejected when Suspect Zero finally saw the light of day. What was supposed to redefine the genre came out sloppy and silly. Audiences obviously agreed, as this so-called thriller came and went with little or no fanfare. Two years post-release and many still see it as a Silence of the Se7en Lambs rip-off. Not even the outlandish cinematic flare of director E. Elias Merhige (of Begotten and Shadow of the Vampire fame) could infuse this flop with the necessary stylized suspense. (Saturday 2 December, 10:05pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 1/2 December, the late, great Vincent Price is featured in:


The Conqueror Worm
Price gives one of his best, most commanding performances as a traveling prosecutor of witches in 17th Century England.
(2am EST)


The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Campy but cruel, Price is incredibly effective as the title terror, an disfigured physician seeking revenge on those he believes are responsible for his wife’s death.
(3:30am EST)


 


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year , right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 2 December are:



White Christmas
(Turner Classic Movies, 1 December, 11:30AM EST)
Actually, this is the SECOND time the seminal seasonal song by Irving Berlin was featured in a Yuletide movie starring Bing Crosby. The first? Holiday Inn , of course.


Santa Claus: The Movie
(ABC Family Channel, 2 December, 11:30AM EST)
Featuring death, greed and undersized British actors as elves, this holiday horror is so bloated on its own brazen belief in self that it has to be seen to be appreciated.


The Polar Express
(ABC Family Channel, 8 December, 11:30AM EST)
Sure, the 3-D animation renders all the humans in the film robotic and creepy, but there is still something quite endearing about this Robert Zemeckis effort.


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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2006

As the end of 2006 rolls around, studios are spiking the usual Tuesday DVD release schedule with several high profile releases. Here are three of the summer’s biggest - if not necessarily best - angling for your attention in the next two weeks:


Superman Returns
In the lexicon of comic book movies, it’s not as good as Sam Raimi’s Spidey series and both Burton and Nolan’s Batman can rest comfortably in their place along the cinematic superhero hall of fame. But Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is good – damn good. It’s just not great. As a matter of fact, it misses greatness by a margin measured in just a few filmic fractions. Yet these flaws are still large enough to occasionally sidetrack what is, for the most part, a faithful fulfillment of the decades long struggle to bring the Man of Steel back to the screen. Like Hulk, which tended to take itself too seriously for its own good, this latest incarnation of the speeding bullet/bird-plane personage repeatedly dances around decent ideas without ever landing smack dab in the center of them. In addition, Bryan Singer still doesn’t impress me as a director with a future outside a certain style of film (more on this in a moment). However, it is safe to say that with this highly entertaining experience, our undeniable icon to truth, justice and the American way is back with a viable vengeance.


Certainly, Singer makes his mistakes. Using the original films as a guide was an idea goofier than bringing dinosaurs back from the dead, and the constant referencing of those mid-70s blockbusters bogs down the narrative. Several times during the film, one finds themselves wondering what the rumored re-imaginings of the man and his material (Kevin Smith, Brett Ratner, McG, Tim Burton, JJ Abrams) could have come up with. Certainly something more original than giving Superman a son could have been considered for the reintroduction of this classic comic character. While bringing back Lex Luthor worked out well (Kevin Spacey adds a slimy, sinister edge to the role that Gene Hackman failed to find) and the nods to the first film’s origin story are sensational, Returns often feels like the middle act in an already running series. In fact, Singer and his screenwriters spend so much time on those touchy feely parts of the plot (the whole romantic angle with Lois’s new love interest is unexceptional) that they lose a lot of their movie’s direction and drive. Along with the dumb decision to cast Kate Bosworth as the Pulitzer Prize winning (!?!?) journalist (she is simply out of her league here), the emotional side of Superman slows down the spectacle.


What does work, though, are the reasons that movies are made. The airplane sequence is brilliantly realized, a terrific tour de force for the F/X crews as well as a brazen bright spot in Singer’s otherwise sedentary style. Unlike Spielberg or Jackson, this director seems to slack off the minute the main action scenes are over. The sections where Superman saves Metropolis are superb, as is the final confrontation with Luthor. But all the stuff inside the Daily Planet, all the material between Lois and her lover, just sits there without any strength or cinematic sizzle. They seem like rest stops between set pieces. In addition, Singer needed a stronger editorial hand in shaping this story. We meander into time-consuming tangents quite frequently, left with dangling elements (the whole Pulitzer business, the cannibal dog) that never really pay off. Still, the center is solid with Brandon Routh owning the role of Clark Kent/Superman. Though a questionable choice at first, he is incredibly magnetic onscreen, capable of delivering the many sides of the Man of Steel with grace, genuineness, and more than a little wit. This is indeed a very funny film, with lots of clever repartee between characters. Thankfully, the humor doesn’t overpower the heroics, as we are definitely left wanting more – more Routh, more feats of derring-do, more Superman.


Perhaps this is the best way to judge a blockbuster; determining if there’s material worth a second (or third, or fourth) look. The answer is an emphatic “yes”. The Fortress of Solitude sequence is atmospheric and compelling, while Luthor’s ultimate plan is realized in brilliant bit map authenticity. The CGI is never intrusive, the cityscapes of Metropolis are spectacular and Superman’s flying capabilities come across smoother and more valid than in any other super hero movie. It will be interesting to see where the sequel takes us. Like Burton’s first Batman, there are a lot of obvious safeguards in place here, studio-mandated moments that keep the film feeling frequently hemmed in and overly controlled. Perhaps, if it’s successful enough, Warners will turn Singer loose, letting him deliver a definitive take on the subject of Superman without all the nods to fanboy mandates and test audience tendencies. Ranking right up there with the summer’s other entertainment highlights, Superman Returns is one comic book movie that gets it more or less right.


Pirates of the Carribean
There is more of everything in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie: more spectacle; more exotic locales; more convoluted story contrivances. Anyone who thought the first film was teeming with plot and particulars will find their narrative tolerances tweaked toward overload by this sensational sequel. Between the introduction of two new villains, the addition of a new “quest” and the held-over elements from the first good-natured go round, there’s nary a moment of breathing room in this wonderfully effective popcorn entertainment. Granted, the POTC movies aren’t out to make grand statements about loyalty, the sea, or the shrinking sense of the world. Instead, they merely want to amuse, to provide 150 minutes of escapist fun in their swordplay, slapstick, and sensational special effects. George Lucas and his dire digital space operas be damned – Gore Verbinski and his capable cast of eye candy actors are on course to deliver the landlubber version of what the Star Wars series originally promised it would be.


After the living dead skeletal pirates of the first film, Dead Man’s Chest had its wildly imaginative work cut out for it. After all, those undead outlaws were incredibly inventive and handled with stellar CGI flare. Amazingly enough, the sequel delivers, rendering head horror Davy Jones and his scallywag band of buccaneers as remarkable combinations of sea creatures and humans. From half-man hammerheads to cutthroats with crustaceans crafted to their faces, the overall look of the movie’s fiends is simply remarkable. Jones himself is a squid-festooned dandy with huge lobster claws and an excess of tentacles that makes Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa look like a minor league monster by comparison. Equally unsettling is Naomie Harris as voodoo priestess Tia Dalma. Eyes accented with harrowing contacts, and smiling through a mouth of vile, blackened teeth, her otherworldly turn is terrific. In fact, all the actors acquit themselves admirably, expanding on their original roles to add subtle shading to what are, basically, creative cartoon characters.


Aside from the spectacle, Johnny Depp deserves a great deal of credit for turning Capt. Jack Sparrow into a fully rounded rascal. In the first film, the accent and demeanor mask a truly conflicted individual. Now, with an entire performance under his belt, Depp loosens up, making Jack a scoundrel as lost in his sea-faring situation as Jones or Barboosa. It will be interesting to see where he takes Sparrow in the final film, tentatively entitled At World’s End. There is so much this incredible actor can do with this dapper delight that every scene becomes a breathless anticipation of something special. And, as always, Depp doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s safe to say that this long time industry eccentric has probably found the breakout series that will change the very scope of his future career. Unlike Ewan McGregor, or the horrid Hayden Christensen from Lucas’s lamentable sequels, Depp’s Sparrow will be seen as a stepping stone, not an infamous coffin nail, in his bankable big screen persona. Even as he continues to choose daring, difficult films, newfound fans will support him. Sparrow is that kind of indelible icon.


Additional praise must also go to Gore Verbinski, proving that he has a directorial mantle similar to that of Peter Jackson’s – at least when it comes to handling the multi-faceted epic. Juggling several different storylines at once, Verbinski always seems to find the linking material to keep us engaged and intrigued. He is also becoming an expert at big canvas set piece action. The opening escape from a cannibal island is amazing, and the finale, featuring a huge rotating water wheel and a full fledged onslaught by Davy Jones’ beasties is unbelievable in its scale and effectiveness. There are dozens of equally memorable moments strewn throughout – the arrival of the Flying Dutchman, as well as an equally unbelievable dive into the briny deep – and the computer-generated Kraken instills fear and foreboding with its vividly rendered CGI size. It’s rare today when a movie can make people immediately want to see it again. Dead Man’s Chest demands multiple viewings. It’s truly one of the season’s cinematic highlights.


Miami Vice
Miami Vice is an expressionist crime drama. Writer/director Michael Mann purposely moves a million light years away from the fashion and artifice of his infamous ‘80s zeitgeist to deliver a movie with many of its details missing. This is not necessarily a bad thing – as a visualist, he is more than capable of allowing his images to paint in the particulars. But when you are working from a premise that involves undercover drug deals, back stabbing middlemen, random white supremacists, and the mingling of personal and professional feelings, little things like never properly introducing the rest of the Vice squadron do come back to haunt you – especially when you are relying on them to bolster much of the last act’s action. Beautiful to look at and difficult to embrace, this is a movie of moments, not of overall narrative force. The brand new versions of Crockett and Tubbs are acceptable – Foxx is all super serious, while Farrell puts on his oiliest wise ass persona. They may be nothing more than icons in a film loaded with such symbolic cues, but we gladly accept their ‘by the book’ bravado and believe them as the ‘70s throwback super cops that they are – nothing more or less.


Once again employing the fascinating film/digital aesthetic that he used in Collateral, Mann’s version of Vice is like Heat without the interesting middle act. That previous look at life on both sides of the law had Al Pacino, Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro to bolster its occasional lapses. Our leads here are flashy fluff compared to that titanic trio. Still, Mann manages to make it work – sort of. The nightclub set up, which is never explained in relationship to the rest of the film, gets us started with an atmospheric bang. Suggesting more than showing, the first few deaths are designed to peak our interest (a pair of legs in a pool of blood, a spray of gore along a busy Broward county highway) while the last 45 minutes offers the kind of suspense ridden double crossing denouement we’ve come to expect from the genre. Even the grue is cranked up a couple of notches as limbs are blown off and heads become riddled with holes as bullets blaze in an expertly helmed firefight. Thankfully, these surrounding elements are strong enough to save the sloppy, unexceptional center. Gong Li, trying out her English (and not always succeeding), is an attractive love interest for Crockett, but she’s not very engaging. We want more than steely business sense and the ability to make cow eyes at decidedly unctuous Farrell. When they’re together onscreen, the result is sluggishness, not sparks.


During these dull interludes, Mann really pours on the visual poetry. There are several sensational sequences where a lone speedboat blazes toward a seemingly endless horizon. We are also entranced by an amazing aerial shot of a gorgeous South American waterfall, which reveals itself as part of a high ranking cartel overlord’s backyard. It’s not difficult to get swept up in the epic elements of Miami Vice, since Mann lingers on them, hoping that they help us understand the vastness of the international drug trade. But this means something has to suffer, and in this case, it’s the characters. There is honestly not a single three dimensional personality in the entire picture. Foxx is so stodgily even-keeled that when a fellow officer is mortally wounded, his sudden concern seems completely out of place. Farrell also turns up the mixed emotion waterworks when he has to make one of those clichéd sacrifices that all lawmen in his cinematic position are required to do. Yet neither scene connects with us. Even with aspects of life and death at play, we are sadly detached from the personal side of this story.


In fact, Miami Vice is much more interesting in its approach to the crime thriller than in its desire to dig deep into the world of illegal drugs. The unbelievable influx of technology – cell phones, GPS, laptops, tracking devices - makes for an initially disorienting experience. When an FBI official asks Crockett how they can discuss such delicate issues over an open, non-secure line, he bluntly blurts back “this is how I got the information, so let’s deal with it.” Indeed, the ready access to information worldwide makes the undercover element all the more intriguing. With smugglers able to immediately access your (phony) dossier from anywhere on the planet, Crockett and Tubbs always seem moments away from being discovered. Yet even this can’t make the movie a kinetic actioner or a simmering neo-noir. Instead, Michael Mann appears to be retrofitting the routine of cop dramas past into a sci-fi space of rap video level luxury and post-modern machismo. While it may occasionally have you thinking of another South Florida cinematic spree featuring a Cuban exile, a mountain of coke, his sister complex and a mega-weapon known as his “li’l friend”, Miami Vice is no Scarface. It’s more serious, and less sensational. Too bad it’s not as entertaining.


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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2006


“The sun shines forever through a child’s eyes…”
—Bananarama


What, exactly, is innocence? Granted, it literally means the freedom from guilt or, on a far more metaphysical level, the freedom from culpable consideration, but what, in the actual realm of the real world, does innocence actually propose? We should really consider its consequences before showering it on individuals who either don’t deserve it or can’t appreciate its potential. Consider children. We look at their fresh-faced, wide-eyed stares, their quick-witted curiosity and unfiltered honesty, and instantly recognize them as innocent. Yet what exactly are we absolving them of? As with all humans, experience begins to mold us from the moment we draw cognizance and every action, every emotion, every triumph, and every defeat chip away at our raw, unformed mantle. By a still-tender age we have personality traits in place, fears and loathing almost locked in, and philosophies and flaws already forming. All that’s required is a single step, a catalytic individual or incident that forever closes the gate on purity, tipping the scales toward perception and maturity.


For young Ana, that event is a screening of Frankenstein in her small Spanish town. Instantly captivated by the monster and its interaction with a young child, this impressionable six-year-old suddenly sees the world in a much darker, more definitive manner. For adults, it’s just a troubling scene in a Hollywood horror movie, but in the mind of a so-called innocent, it’s the fuel to light a thousand inner fires. In many significant ways, that singular moment will transform Ana. She will no longer be just a little girl. Instead, she will become The Spirit of the Beehive—the closed-off environment which is her harried home life.


Suddenly obsessed with death, the concept of spirits, and the ability to control both, she asks her sister how she can contact the creature she’s just seen. As luck would have it, Isabel claims to know where it lives. In an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a dried-up and desolate field, Isabel claims she’s spoken to the “spirit.” Ana is quickly consumed with the place, visiting it often, constantly on the lookout for her fiend. Then one day, she discovers someone. It’s a moment that will have a profound effect on her life, her family, and her town. It will break the beehive-like isolation everyone experiences, while simultaneously rebuilding the barriers created by the country’s newfound flirtation with fascism.


If one had to sum up Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive in one single sentiment, it would probably go something like this—the moment in every child’s mind when naiveté turns to knowing. Perhaps a better way of explaining it is as maturity’s first exploratory steps into the juvenile arena. It’s imagination giving way to certainty, possibility undermined by actuality. Combining memories from childhood, the grave ghost of the Spanish Civil War, the ferocious growing fascism of Franco, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive is like a young girl’s diary dissected and displayed for all to see. It plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction after years of domestic struggle. It’s also rich in the symbolism of youth giving way to adulthood, from learning how the body works via a classroom effigy, to the discovery of the distinction between reality and filmed fantasy. Told completely through the eyes of, and the available information within, our two young female leads, Erice creates a kind of cinematic tabula rosa. Instead of overdoing the iconography or ham-fisting his insinuations, this director just lets the narrative flow. It sometimes swirls in place like a whirlpool, while in other instances it seeks out and fills in the smallest of creative crevices. The result is both haunting and halting. The visuals stun us as the plot purposefully evades our grasp.


Therefore this is not an instantly “likeable” film. Erice’s use of this very confusing format almost destroys his narrative. Purposefully making sure that no element is officially explained, he lets scenes sputter, focusing away from the action at times, and allows tone to take over where exposition should be. The result is like scanning a watercolor for plot points or listening to the sound of a faraway train for clarifying character description. Beehive is actually more of a painting than a motion picture, a collection of carefully controlled canvases that, when linked together, reveal a submerged storyline full of vexing visual ideas and mixed metaphoric messages. Audiences used to being spoonfed their filmic information will languish behind as Erice continuously forges forward. He is disinterested in clarity and could care less if you understand his undertaking.


For him this is a personal proclamation, an attempt to recapture the country that was taken away from him by war, corruption, and despotism. Staying strictly within the perception of a child and never once allowing adult ideology or inferences to influence the tale, the directorial decisiveness on display here is overwhelming in its arrogance and power. Shots of our little leading ladies miniaturized against a vast, vacant landscape shores up the symbolism of isolation and disconnect, but there is more to such a vista than loneliness. It’s actually a true-to-life look at how people interact with the planet and how humans are frequently humbled by the natural elements around them.


Frankly, Erice could deliver two hours of such astounding pictorials and we would happily drink in each and every one. The Spirit of the Beehive wants to get you drunk of such optical wonders, preparing us for the more troubling elements to be delivered. If explained, the struggles of the individuals in this film would be not so much simplistic as readily recognizable. The father, Fernando, is trying to design a better beehive, so to speak, creating a glass honeycomb with clockwork agitation that’s supposed to stimulate production. Instead, it seems to turn the insects into an angrier, less effective swarm. The link to the authoritarian state is obvious, but Erice is subtle enough to leave the comparison purposefully open-ended. Similarly, Teresa the mother has her secret desires and usual attributes as well. Writing letters of devotion to men off at war, turning the heads of every gentleman she passes, there are hints of adultery, dissatisfaction, and wanderlust in her sad, sullen eyes. We can see that she loves her children (there is a sweet scene between herself and Ana that speaks volumes), but spends relatively little time with them. In fact, she’s a guardian in name only. Neither she nor her husband are ever around when the girls need guidance or affection. Instead, these children are left to fend for themselves and each other. Naturally, such internalization leads to longing, curiosity, and the need for satisfaction.


As for our leads, Ana and Isabel represent the two-pronged approach to discovery that most children typically mix and match. Though she initially seems like the far more levelheaded and learned child, Isabel is actually starting to toughen. Life without her parents has piqued her interest in subjects like life, death, fear, and control. She enjoys terrorizing her little sister, faking a fall or filling her head with pre-bedtime bad thoughts. There is one scene in particular between the child and her pet cat that sums up the situation perfectly. Though we love to call children complete innocents, the truth is that they are nothing but pure learning machines. Psychologists tell us that personality and proclivity are determined through a constant process of learning and rewarding. We experiment with ideas and actions, gauging the feedback and using said data as the mortar for our very makeup. In this case, Isabel pushes the limits of cruelty to see how she responds to such a situation. It’s shocking, but not all that surprising. She’s testing, using trials and their corollaries to guide her future decisions. In the end, Isabel becomes the forgotten child, left to her own occasionally wicked whims and bereft of the importance within the family that Ana will have. Unlike her little sister, she’s by now developed her personal patterns and very little can change her already-forming future.


Ana, on the other hand, is the movie’s main concern. Erice obviously understands how vital she is, since he constantly focuses on actress Ana Torrent’s amazing five-year-old face. Wise beyond its years, wearing epochs of emotion where none should technically exist, Torrent becomes very important as a tool for this filmmaker. Since he is unwavering in making sure that his narrative is realized through the eyes and perception of a child, he needs the perfect juvenile filter. Torrent is that flawless facet. She gives a performance so striking, so lost in complete belief in the subject matter and storyline that it’s almost documentary-like in its realism. Ana’s reaction to Frankenstein is the film’s key conceit—her discovery of death, the link between childhood and loss, and the overwhelming desire to make a similarly-styled connection calls forth all manner of mysterious elements. It raises questions as callous as why would this child need to know mortality this soon in life? What has happened around her to pique such interest? Is she genuinely questioning, or just caught up in a psychological cyclone that’s leading her down a too-dark path? Watching Erice suggestively address each and every issue is one of Beehive‘s many masterful delights. In fact, the overall effect is like the manufacturing of a masterpiece directly into the mind’s eye.


Erice received a great deal of praise for this film and it is easy to see why. Many moviemakers don’t purposely play with perspective, eliminate necessary dialogue, or keep the content clearly limited to that available to a single set of characters. Such restrictions would otherwise hobble a skillful cinematic exploration. But Erice is clearly an artist, able to draw out meaning from the most mundane of images. Something as stereotypical as children playing with fire takes on portents of ominous evil in this director’s approach to such a sequence. Similarly, Isabel’s supposed fall is extended and explored in such a manner as to constantly build both suspense and suspicion. From village streets that look decades removed from life or living to a constant honey-colored cloud that hovers over everything that happens, the use of specific visual cues and obvious signs (the honeycomb-stained glass that covers every window in the girl’s home) draw us purposefully into the world of The Spirit of the Beehive. Thanks to the performances and plot particulars, we are more than happy to settle in and stay. Some may view Erice’s efforts as slightly indulgent, as purposefully perplexing as his fellow Spanish cinematic icon Luis Buñuel. Yet unlike said satiric surrealist, Erice is concerned with the nuances and necessities of narrative. He is out to tell a story, not just pretty up the screen with strange, evocative images.


That’s why one needs a little preparation before taking on The Spirit of the Beehive. If you realize that what you are about to witness is a clever, considered look at how children see the world, process its problems, and respond to its challenges, you’ll quickly sync up with the story and become entranced. This is not a movie you can fight. You can’t pigeonhole it into some manner of recognizable Hollywood archetype. It unravels at a luxuriant, leisurely pace, slowly divulging its secrets and its statements. Though made in the early ‘70s, there is also something startlingly contemporary in the filmmaking. It’s experimental but emotion-driven, David Lynch-like in its approach to visual juxtaposition but more like a fairytale than a harrowing history lesson (the movie actually starts with the words, “Once upon a time…”). Like another classic Spanish artist—the amazing master Pablo Picasso—Victor Erice has delivered a stunning study of youth caged and corrupted in a manner unlike any other individual working within his medium. The Spirit of the Beehive is a remarkable look at the most important time in the life of a child. We all have those moments where existence starts to click over the tumblers toward adulthood. While we can’t hold them off forever, we can remember what it was like prior to their detection. The Spirit of the Beehive provides such a signature souvenir. It is a work of staggering genius.


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Monday, Nov 27, 2006


It’s coming down to the wire, people. Christmas - or for those of a multi-cultural or diversity-oriented persuasion, winter holiday gift giving time – is just around the corner. Time to shore up your purchases, recalibrate your shopping list, and make that final push toward providing your loved ones with the materialistic means of showing how much you love them. The summer of 2006 continues to come home to roost, with four of the presented picks representing the best, the worst, and the least of the sunny season’s selections. For SE&L‘s scratch, nothing beats a double dose of Silent Bob’s brand of intellectualized idiocy (including a second serving of the man’s manic lecture series) and Criterion comes calling again with another mandatory motion picture for fans of pre-sound cinema. Still, there is a lot to look into this week, including numerous box sets and collections – none perhaps as intriguing as the Ultimate Collector’s Edition compendium of Krypton’s favorite son. All five feature films, an earlier George Reeves effort, 14 discs, a documentary and a chance to see Richard Donner’s original version of Superman II. For purists and completists, it’s a treasure trove of material. For everyone else, the optional offerings clamoring for your credit card on 28 November are:


The Ant Bully


In CGI’s continuing effort to eat itself whole, yet another summer flop arrives on DVD, just in time to give your bitmap weary children another reason to whine aimlessly when you visit the nearest video store. Though its premise sounds perfectly potty – a group of insects miniaturize a young boy to teach him a lesson in responsibility and consideration – many critics complimented the film on its imagination and narrative invention. Still, the same stagnant issues that are destroying the animation category are abundant here – silly stunt casting (Julia Roberts, Nicholas Cage), far too many pop culture references, a hyperstylized approach to keeping the frame full of activity - and with the recently released Pixar prize Cars poised for rediscovery, this may be a title best left for a rental, not a purchase.



PopMatters Review


Clerks II

*
One of 2006’s best finally bows on DVD, and it still shocks SE&L that more film fans aren’t salivating over Kevin Smith’s superb sequel. For anyone who thinks this is just more of the original’s intellectually realized dialogue laced with lewd and crude gross out humor – well, you may have a point. But the truth is, Smith has something significant to say about aging and expectations here, and he does so in a way that resonates long after the donkey show jokes and the profanity peppered tirades. Besides, Clerks II contains one of the most uplifting moments of the entire year – a sensational sequence where series newcomer Rosario Dawson leads the gang in a glorious celebration of life set to the Jackson 5’s “ABC”.



PopMatters Review


Monster in a Box

*
Before his untimely death by suicide in 2004, Spalding Gray was seen as an iconic, idiosyncratic performance artist who worked wonderfully within the lost art of communication. A monologist by trade, and an actor on the side, he first came to the fore with his brilliant deconstruction of life, Swimming to Cambodia. This follow-up, focusing on his attempts to write a novel and deal with the memories of his mentally unsound mother, is a little less focused, but just as powerful. Perhaps the most shocking thing, in retrospect, about this presentation is how sound and secure Gray appeared to be. Who knew that the same demons driving him to masterful expressions and considerations of existence were also leading down a path of eventual self-destruction. His is a voice that is truly missed.



Pandora’s Box: The Criterion Collection

*
Criterion uncovers yet another gem with the release of this legendary Louis Brooks vehicle. The tragic story of a prostitute and performer named Lulu, this is the film that made Miss Brooks a star, and the toast of the jumping jive jazz age. Director Georg Wilhelm Pabst combined his acclaimed insight into actors with the inherent artistry of German Expressionism to forge an epic dissection of the human spirit. With many of Hollywood’s silent stars forgotten or forced into post-modern pigeonholes, it’s important for preservationists like Criterion to keep their true memory alive. And nothing guarantees immortality better than a perfect DVD package providing the proper balance between entertainment and context. As they do with all their products, Criterion proves the possibilities – and the pleasures – that can be achieved within the digital medium.


 


See No Evil
Be warned – though it may seem like every other horror film from the ‘70s is being remade today, this is not a new version of the 1971 shocker starring Mia Farrow as a hapless blind woman being stalked by a deranged psychopath. No, this is further proof that WW(F)E founder Vince McMahon has too much disposable cash on hand. Having proven that people will watch just about anything with his seemingly never-ending homoerotic grapple-a-thon, otherwise known as professional wrestling, he’s now trying to apply his demographically deft touch to making movies, in this case, subpar slasher efforts. Featuring singlet superstar Kane as the resident evil of a rotting hotel and a group of interchangeable Hollywood hopefuls as the delinquents sentenced to clean the place (and play victims), neither hi-jinx, nor horror, ensues.



PopMatters Review


Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut*
Decades from now, when DVD is remembered fondly as the medium which introduced the notion of “alternate versions” as viable motion picture marketability, a disc like this one will be the historical precedent. Many fans of the series were unaware that Donner, the original director of the Christopher Reeve Superman, was hired to helm TWO films. Created concurrently, the filmmaker was later dropped by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind who, apparently, objected to his fiscal freewheeling. Salkind friend Richard Lester was brought in to complete the project, even though Donner had shot over 75% of the sequel. For ages, the “Donner Version” was more or less an urban legend. Now, with Warners Brothers’ full permission, the fired filmmaker gets a chance to have his original vision seen by the viewing public. Talk about your digital redemptions.


Superman Returns*
This post-millennial update by the shockingly overrated Bryan Singer has two strikes against it going in – it decides to follow-up on events derived directly from Richard Donner’s original film, and it features an abysmally out of place Kate Bosworth as the lamest Lois Lane in history. Surprisingly, Brandon Routh makes an excellent Man of Steel. While a little young (the entire cast suffers from some surreal age issues throughout), he is commanding and compassionate, the perfect superhero for an era undecided on the whole “truth, justice and the American way” of doing things. While the action sequences are sensational – especially a mid-air rescue of a crashing space shuttle - the quieter moments between our champion, his ex-flame, and their ‘married with children’ complications just don’t work. Singer’s signed up for a sequel. Here’s hoping he keeps the pizzazz and ditches the personal.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 28 November:


A Polish Vampire in Burbank*
For a long time, Marc Piro’s 1985 home movie got by on its terrifically tacky title alone. Consumers craving something unusual during their weekly trip to the Mom and Pop consistently rented this retardation based on its nifty name along. Little did they know they were headed toward an evening in the company of a crappy Super 8mm spoof. Granted, this is a Hell of a lot better than Mel Brooks’ completely awful vampire vileness, 1985’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but neither is a match for 1974’s Vampira, which was later re-labeled Old Dracula to trade on the Borsht Belt comedian’s classic Young Frankenstein. In any case, Piro plays a reluctant neckbiter who falls for his first victim. Featuring a ‘queerwolf” and gratuitous Eddie Deezan this is either a classic, or crap, depending on your bad movie acumen.


 


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Sunday, Nov 26, 2006


Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is the luckiest untalented son of a bitch in all of Hollywood. Don’t believe it? Well, Sony has just ponied up $4 million large to let this hack hammer away on a Da Vinci Code sequel. That’s right, the one element that critics almost universally pointed out as being the Dan Brown thriller’s atrocious Achilles’ Heel - well, maybe second only to the casting – is being rewarded with another go round, and a shockingly healthy paycheck for the responsible putz. Along with the recent news that Goldsman would be behind the much-delayed take of Richard Matheson’s classic end of the world creeper I Am Legend, film fans definitely have a right to be despondent. It seems like, whenever Tinsel Town wants to totally screw up something, they turn to the man with the Goldsman touch.


And before you think that this highly paid nimrod is just some blessed bastard who always happens to be in the right place at the right time, let’s revisit exactly what his onerous efforts have wrought. Indeed, his creative canon holds many reasons why this insipid, routine writer should be hurt, not hired. Associated with more triumphs than tragedies, there is an entire school of thought that proposes that Goldsman gives great purposeful patchiness. Indeed, his scripts are so scatter shot and sloppy that they allow actors, directors and other important film people to fill in the bewildering blanks. There are others, though, who want Akiva to get all the credit. Success is always subjective, but it seems that someone has stuck a bug in Tinsel Town’s ear, convincing them that Goldsman, not any other element in the wide range of explanations for a film’s potential payoff, is almost single-handedly responsible for the erasing of red ink.


Take his first big screen credit – The Client - co-written with Robert Getchell, who himself had previously penned the amazing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the kitsch classic Mommy Dearest. Guided more by director Joel Schumacher and bestselling boob John Grisham, the ultimate triumph of the film had much more to do with the novelist’s reputation and placement on the best seller’s list, along with the wise decision to cast Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the leads than Goldsman’s minor contributions. Obviously doing the doctoring for an already formed film script, to consider this a Goldsman solo feat is downright foolish. Still, he did manage to claim a sucker – sorry, supporter – in Schumacher, and the two continued their association with the G-man aiding and abetting in his killing of the ‘80s Batman series. He provided parts of the script for Batman Returns (along with several others), and then slammed the coffin lid shut with his solo work on the abysmal Batman and Robin.


With that last abomination alone, Goldsman should have suffered more than just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. One imagines a ball peen hammer to the privates wouldn’t be painful enough. Yet, somehow, he got positioned as the go to guy for blockbuster material (maybe someone misunderstood the concept behind the term “entertainment”) and was again commissioned by Schumacher to give another Grisham legal brief - A Time to Kill – the old Goldsman approach. The combination of racial screeds and arch dramatics seemed to suit the scribe well, and before you knew it, box office receipts where heading skyward. Again, the reason behind the “Kill-ing” was simple – John Grisham was, at the time, the most popular writer in the world. He could produce a description of his own bowel movements (actually, he did, it was called The Chamber) and a rapid, slightly retarded reading public would buy it up like literary Soylent Green.


Yet enough of A Time to Kill‘s gratuitous glitter seemed to land on Goldsman so that, soon, he was pegged to produce an update for the Irwin Allen cult classic Lost in Space. A long simmering effort for New Line, it was all systems go once Goldsman turned in his draft, and it appeared that the company could envision a big boffo weekend payoff followed by a long term stay at the Cineplex. Yet despite some stellar special effects and intriguing casting choices (Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith!!!) something wasn’t right. As a matter of fact, something stunk outright – and it was Goldsman’s grossly ineffective screenplay. Overloaded with leaps in logic so vast that no trip to through the space-time continuum could bring them any closer together, and his usual inept way with dialogue and characterization, the movie actually appeared hollow inside, lacking a single significant “sci-fi” moment. Someone should have reminded Goldsman that, when you’re working on a flight of fancy, it’s a good idea to have items like imagination and intelligence as part of your narrative arsenal.


But there was a bigger scourge set in motion by this remake. Goldsman was given a production credit, the Hollywood equivalent of a first date hickey. Since the title carries a notion of power and importance, the failure of Space washed off the scribbling scrotum like dimensions of his player’s personalities. Luckily, his magic witch malarkey Practical Magic was already bought, sold and staged before the Robinsons found themselves forever misplaced in the marketplace. Panned, but not enough to stick to the suddenly Teflon typist, Goldsman decided to drop out of the business for a while. He didn’t write again until the beginning of the new millennium, his most significant contribution to the culture being as one of the many chiefs on Renny Harlin’s hilarious Jaws jaw-dropper, the super smart shark epic Deep Blue Sea.


Since it was painfully evident that the one time pairing of Goldy and Schu was on the outs (probably over the whole “nipples on the Batsuit” thing), our hackwork hooker required another pimp to make sure his screenplay services would satisfy a few studio Johns. The answer arrived in former child star turned semi-decent director Ron Howard. Attempting to turn the life story of Nobel Prize winning (and mentally troubled) economist John Nash into a biopic, the older Opie saw something in Goldsman that few today can find with an electron microscope and a gross of radioactive dye. Employing a gimmicky twist that was supposed to shake the audience to its core (you mean, EVERYONE he talks to is fake? A figment of his imagination? No shit?) Goldsman gave Nash a heroic façade that was blatantly false. While no one goes into a Tinsel Town biography for its accurate depiction of history, many of the more “troubling” facets of Nash’s life were whitewashed by Goldsman’s feel good foolishness.


And then Oscar had to go and give the man a statue. In a year that saw the first film in the fabulous Lord of the Rings trilogy, Terry Zwigoff’s take on Daniel Clowe’s Ghost World, and the intense, introspective In The Bedroom. Goldsman beat out much better material – not to mention writing – to garner his permanent foothold in Hollywood’s unimaginative heart. Granted, not every Academy Award guarantees a studio or agent will pick up the phone (just ask the two juniors – Louis Gossett and Cuba Gooding), but in the case of Goldsman, it seemed to indicate that all the critics were wrong. No, his scripts didn’t suck the moldering feces out of a dead corpse’s butt. No, he didn’t sacrifice cinematic requirements like cohesion and vision for the obvious and stereotypical. Sure, he had his fair share of flops, but this was vindication of his inherent artistry. Along with the trophy for Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind and its soulless screenplay remain two of Oscar’s most indefensible wins.


Thankfully, things haven’t gotten worse – at least, not yet. Goldsman’s grasp of Isaac Asimov was about as strong as I, Robot‘s approach to automatons (I know, let’s make our androids look like ceramic poseable artist’s models), but Will Smith was around to get jiggy with it all. While Goldy’s contribution again felt like a trip to Tinsel Town’s economic era, there are still moments where you can actually see the man messing with the movie. He avoids the obvious ethical debates – paying them the merest of lame lip service – so that there’s more time for chase scenes and flashbacks. Like the overwhelming drive to explain everything in The Da Vinci Code, Goldsman believes that ‘more’ makes a movie. In his case, however, he can’t convince us that excessive exposition – or in the case of The Fresh Prince’s ‘droid story, lots of lame CGI candy – can make for compelling cinema.


Since Howard and his personal plotter appear attached at the hip (Ronny has only made one movie – The Missing - without a floppy Goldsman foundation in the last five years) and the less than successful returns of Cinderella Man more or less failing to stick to anyone in particular (with A Good Year now tanking nicely, Russell Crowe better grab a phone receiver and watch his back) it’s no surprise this witless writer has signed on to decipher another Dan Brown brow-beater. Angels and Demons, the first of the Code-oriented tomes to feature symbologist Robert Langdon, was like a walkthrough for Da Vinci‘s more outlandishly muddled mysteries, and if Goldsman’s treatment of that multi-million seller is any indication of how this film will flow, be prepared for more asides, allusions and illustrations as every single significant and insignificant facet of the plot is trotted out for the uninitiated. It will then be over-explained and then re-referenced, just to make sure you’re along for the ride.


Still no one seems to understand that The Da Vinci Code made money because it was based on an international monster of a book, featured arguably the world’s most popular and beloved actor in the lead, and had one of these inherently controversial storylines that people just wanted to see made into a movie. Sadly, the film that resulted is as turgid and uninspired as the overall casting choices. With all those false positives in its portfolio, Code tapped into its fanbase, sucked up some significant bucks before the rest of the summer season snuffed it out, and ended up being an artistically awful financial success. So who gets the humungous paycheck? The man whose main contribution was making Brown’s page-turner into an exercise in inertia. How typical. 


Goldsman must be dependable and professional, keeping his promises and meeting his deadlines with genial good grace and a fruit basket on the side. There must be something about his work ethic and ability to acquiesce to those above and around him that makes his presence a necessary evil – like craft services, or Teamsters. His writing is indeed horrid, but it doesn’t differ too much from the massively mediocre excuses for entertainment that are released onto theater screens before making a mandatory beeline to the DVD den of iniquity. Yet somehow, Goldsman is the pariah, and it is time he was punished. Making him watch his movies won’t be enough. Like smelling your own farts, some people’s personal offensiveness doesn’t phase them in the least. No, a great crime deserves some mega-time. That’s why Akiva Goldsman must die.


No, not murdered. Not dead in the literal use of the word. No, Goldsman must loose his luster, shave off his indirect successes, and man up to the reality that he’s nothing more than a fortunate friggin’ pawn in Tinsel Town’s never-ending pursuit of the putrid. Ever since the ‘70s (and a few flash years in the ‘90s) the movie business has bastardized itself over and over, repeating and reinventing only the most profitable and franchisable. He is not an Oscar worthy writer. He was never responsible for the accomplishment of a single film he’s been involved in. The Writer’s Guild of America should revoke his credentials and actually let him try to reestablish his $4 million meaningfulness. Of course we all know that he can’t, and that when Angels and Demons makes another confused killing, Goldsman’s price will skyrocket again. As the reports from the set of I Am Legend confirm that Matheson’s material will once again be compromised for the sake of commerciality, it seems that nothing changes in the post-millennial movie biz except the size of the paychecks. Definitely not the pissants getting paid.


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