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Monday, Aug 28, 2006

Believe it or not, there are only 90 days before Thanksgiving, and start of the holiday gift giving season. It’s important to remember this when considering the upcoming DVD releases for the week of 29, August. Many distributors are purposefully holding back on key titles, waiting for the arrival of the pomp and commercialized circumstance associated with Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Others are opting to save certain discs to coincide with anniversaries, fall theatrical films, or the proper consumer-oriented environment. Whatever the rationale, we have another mixed bag at the brick and mortar, examples of Independent excellence sitting snuggly between innocuous major studio fare. There’s even another version of Peter Jackson’s Oscar winning triumph up for grabs. The discs that have caught SE&L’s eye for this installment of Who’s Minding the Store are:


Akeelah and the Bee*
Following hot on the heels of 2005’s similarly styled Bee Season, this uplifting story of a young spelling savant and her many personal travails continued the curious trend of films based on the new found novelty of an old fashioned educational competition. With quality performances from Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett, and some smart things to say about how racial and class divisions impact intelligence and/or the perception of same, the unbridled underdog formula gets a fresh coat of social significance here. While it may be a bit maudlin, this is still a solid feel-good effort.



PopMatters Review


Brother Bear 2
Never one to miss an opportunity at pilfering their previous efforts, Disney delivers an unnecessary sequel to a film no one really cared about in the first place. It remains a media mystery why a company that, until recently, turned its back on traditional animation would continue to forward pointless pen and ink revamps of their past catalog. About the only recommendable element in this Native American nature retread is the return of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as moose versions of their Bob and Doug MacKenzie characters. Otherwise, it’s just more callous cartooning.



Friends with Money*
With previous Indie gems Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing under her belt, writer/director Nicole Holofcener explores the day-to-day dilemmas of the well to do and privileged. Using Jennifer Aniston as her poor, problem-plagued guide, and the by now accepted theory that money only adds to issues, Holofcener creates a character study that’s as insightful as it is inspired. Thanks to stellar turns by Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusak, we really don’t mind that nothing gets solved in the end. Yet the feeling of understanding and empathy between this collection of companions seems stronger than ever.



PopMatters Review


Let’s Scare Jessica to Death*
It looks like standard scare fodder – a recently released mental patient named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) moves into a spooky old house with her husband and friend. She wants to turn her failed life around and become stronger. Sadly, someone also wants to put the film’s title tenet to the test. This longtime MIA release from Paramount promises to be nothing more than a bare bones DVD presentation (meaning no significant bonus features whatsoever), but when you’ve got an inventive, nightmare vision of horror as sound as that created by co-writer/director John D. Hancock, who needs a bunch of digital bells and whistles.



Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World
In a perfect world, a new Albert Brooks comedy would be a cause for humor hurrahs. Even more anticipated would be this surreal stand-up’s second attempt at the imaginative mockumentary format (the first being 1979’s Real Life). Sadly, this ineffectual effort seems forced, failing to fully tap into Brooks’ breakneck brazenness. While the idea holds a great deal of promise – Brooks is sent by the US Government to gain a better understanding of the Muslim people via their sense of humor – almost nothing here works. This could be the reason why his most recent efforts were met with caution, not celebration. Consistency may not be Brooks’ strong point.


 


PopMatters Review


The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Limited Edition*
Okay – this is somewhat of a cheat. There have already been two separate releases for each film in this spectacular series, including stand-alone theatrical packages and mammoth, four disc extended edition extravaganzas. So why put this latest triple dip on the weekly SE&L update? Well, quite frankly, no filmmaker has successfully fulfilled his promise as a vital new visionary better than Peter Jackson. With both versions of each film available on these two disc sets, and new documentaries to boot, there is no longer any excuse to avoid owning what is arguably the definitive cinematic trilogy.



Seduced and Abandoned: Criterion Collection
After the success of his cultural comedy Divorce, Italian Style Italian auteur Pietro Germi presented this second savvy marital satire. Dealing directly with subjects significant to the Mediterranean maverick, including duty, honor, tradition and male machismo, the result was a mirror on the confounding contradictions inside Sicilian society. Utilizing a brash, almost cartoonish approach to his narrative, this fine forgotten film finally gets the lavish treatment from Criterion that it genuinely deserves. With a magnificent monochrome transfer and a wealth of added content, this DVD, and the movie it contains, definitely deserve a second chance to shine.



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 29, August:


Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 10*
Granted, this is a four disc collection of one of the greatest TV shows ever created, but since the central premise involves a test subject and his robot friends making fun of bad movies, we at SE&L feel it easily fits into the “film only” dictates of the Blog. Included here for the first time are a sensational slice of Toho goodness (Godzilla vs. Megalon), an example of Bill Rebane’s addled approach to film (The Giant Spider Invasion), a Roger Corman release he’d probably rather forget (Swamp Diamonds) and a mangled murder mystery (Teen-Age Strangler). Together they present an outstanding overview of the MST3K universe, and how weirdly, wickedly funny it is. Anyone who wonders why this series is so beloved need only look here for the obvious answer.


 


*=PopMatters Picks


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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

It was, for the most part, a pretty mediocre summer movie season. All the proposed blockbusters were either artistic or critical busts (with one major exception) while smaller films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Descent snuck up on audiences and proved far more inventive and satisfying. Four months ago everyone was talking about the impact The Da Vinci Code would have, as well as the potential domination of Superman Returns over the rest of the popcorn film landscape. Now, as September slowly arrives, we’re questioning New Line’s ‘Net-only strategy regarding Snakes on a Plane and wondering if Monster House would have done better as a Halloween release. Yes, there were a few legitimate lessons to be learned amidst all the hype and hoopla: Will Ferrell showed that if Larry the Cable Guy ever decides to retire, the former SNL-er may have a viable career as a NASCAR comic; M. Night Shyamalan completed the fall from grace every fanboy has been expecting since Unbreakable‘s last five minutes; prestige performer Meryl Streep may be a summer movie’s biggest secret weapon; and CGI continues to cannibalize itself.


Indeed, from the mundane machismo of Michael Mann’s reimagined Miami Vice to the feel good fizzle of World Trade Center, the Summer of 2006 continued to illustrate the incredibly sad fact that original ideas are scarce, star power means very little in light of a bad script and sloppy execution, and superheroes in the wrong hands aren’t quite so ‘super’. Still, there were a few releases worth cheering for, movies that managed to not only entertain, but exemplify the new niche oriented approach to motion picture subject and salability. Gone are the days when one film completely dominates the pop culture consciousness (again, with one major exception). In its place are dozens of offerings, each one speaking to a specific individual audience. So, without further ado, SE&L presents its picks for the Top 5 films of Summer 2006:


5. Cars
Say what you want about Pixar’s latest anthropomorphic epic, but no other animation company working today has such a consistent track record in pushing the artistic and emotional limits of CGI. While many felt that this was one of the rare occasions where technology and technical skill got the better of the storytelling, there is still something awe inspiring and adventurous about this tale of an egotistical race car that learns friendship and humility among the automotive residents of a forgotten Route 66 city. Granted, the wistful appeal of the open road contributed a great deal to the film’s considerable scope, but it was the voice acting work of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Michael Keaton and Bonnie Hunt that gave this film it’s poignancy and heart.



PopMatters Review


4. Monster House
Perhaps the biggest snafu that occurred this summer was the decision to release this brisk fall snap of a picture in the middle of one the muggiest, most humid seasons on record. Using the motion capture technique advanced during the creation of The Polar Express, Executive Producer Robert Zemeckis, along with old pal Steven Spielberg, found the perfect combination of story and filmmaker (first timer Gil Kenan) to realize their vision of real life recreated in a remarkable animated fashion. The result was a Goonies for the post-millennial masses, a smart, intelligent adventure that avoided many of the artforms more obvious clichés (pop culture references, stunt voice casting) to forge a generally exciting, incredibly inventive film.



3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
As a sequel to one of the biggest hits from 2004, this revisit of Pirate’s mainstream mystique had a lot to live up to. Many were concerned that Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow, so memorable in the first film, would grow old and stale the second time around. Some wondered if new villain Davy Jones would match Capt. Barbossa in the all important areas of evil and cunning. From a broader perspective, a few fans questioned why another film needed to be made at all. While the overall critical consensus was mixed, Dead Man’s Chest has become the biggest box office hit of 2006, and continues to bode well for the final installment of this proposed buccaneer trilogy (tentatively entitled At World’s End) to be released NEXT summer.


PopMatters Review


2. Clerks II
Who would have thought that Kevin Smith could revisit his initial success as a filmmaker and make it fresh, ingenious and undeniably hilarious? Of all the movies to arrive at the Cineplex this summer, Clerks II was the most consistently enjoyable. It gave fans a chance to reconnect with their favorite New Jersey slacker duo, introduced a couple of brand new characters that instantly took their place in the pantheon of Smith originals, and proved that nothing is more cinematically fulfilling than great dialogue, expertly delivered. Even more miraculous, a significant amount of emotional resonance was unearthed, giving depth and direction to all the dirty jokes and donkey show antics. What could have been a regular ‘K-Mart’ of a comedy turned out to be one of the season’s most unexpected gems.



PopMatters Review


1. Snakes on a Plane
While it’s easy to argue about the film’s failings as a thriller, a campy cult phenomenon or an Internet marketed misstep, there is one undeniable fact – Snakes on a Plane is a great deal of genre fun. A complete throwback to the blockbusters of the ‘70s (It’s like Airport mixed with a drive-in delight like The Day of the Animals) this unapologetically entertaining film makes no bones about being gratuitous or goofy. With the entire cast in on the joke, and the filmmaking free to explore all the plausible parameters of the title, we end up with a real rollercoaster ride that wraps its anarchic action in a blanket of pure b-movie mania. While it may not have been the perfect summer 2006 film, Snakes did the best job of reminding audiences of just how special the season can be. It was the only film that actually FELT like a blockbuster.


PopMatters Review


In Thursday’s Short Ends & Leader Blog: The Five Worst Films of Summer 2006.


 


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Saturday, Aug 26, 2006


For anyone who thinks that all Goona Goona movies are alike, a trip through this particular Cannibal Holocaust should quiet those concerns once and for all. Far more graphic than other jungle jive, but with an actual message method to its miscreant madness, this is one of the best Italian horror films ever—all for reasons that have nothing to do with terror or the macabre. Ruggerio Deodato has made a geek show as Greek chorus, a strident social commentary on the state of the news media glossed over with gore and gratuitous animal slaughter. While it is truly tainted, sickening stuff, one does not feel as filthy as say the experience of watching the last few minutes of Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox. Both movies trade in the same sort of revolting imagery, but one film wants to play with the parameters of cinema. The other is just out for a splattery good time.


But Cannibal Holocaust isn’t just a gut-munching gross out. Though it may seem odd to say it, Cannibal Holocaust is really a disgustingly dark comedy, a savage satire on the media and the methods it would stoop to in selling a story. Deodato was way ahead of his time here, attempting a Network-like denouncement of filmmakers and journalists who would rather “create” news than simply report it. We laugh at the moments surrounding the fictional Alan Yates and his team of intrepid psychos. It is hilarious how quickly they revert to rape, murder, and disgustingly deviant behavior, all in an attempt to “go native” and have the locals provide them with some sensationalized footage. Sure, the entire last act of the film (where the Blair Witch-style material from their final “adventure” is screened by the TV executives) is laughable, a kind of perverted pantheon of over-the-top elements. But Deodato uses this approach to both condemn and codify his characters. We need villains in this kind of film, and Alan and his pals make the perfect cannibal bait.


That is why Cannibal Holocaust is a much better film than its imitators and inspiration. It is still repugnant and sordid, but most of the misguided grotesquery is in service of a very sound message. The truth is that Cannibal Holocaust is a good movie gunked up by elements that are either unnecessary (monkey brain eating? Please…) or unexplained (the way in which the natives function among themselves is left to a lot of confusing speculation), a true milestone of moviemaking that is sadly slandered for issues far outside the main purpose of the narrative. As long as you are prepared for the repugnance, you will more or less enjoy this graphic, gritty cinematic experiment. Its reputation is well deserved.


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Friday, Aug 25, 2006


Clint Eastwood as the “master director” is sort of a new concept thanks, largely, to his recent box-office and award-circuit triumphs with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. While Eastwood’s first major critical success came with 1992’s unlikely Oscar winner Unforgiven, the veteran Hollywood star’s 1988 gem, Bird is the film in his canon that best represents the scope of his talents.


Charlie Parker was one of our greatest musicians. “Yardbird” was one of the true jazz pioneers, blending vision, skill and creativity perfectly. Unfortunately, he was plagued by a terrible drug habit, bad business decisions and bleeding ulcers. Eastwood explores the mind of a creator, which is fascinating considering the director’s own gifts and his love of jazz, and it is obvious he can relate to the struggle of having to be the best, even when you don’t feel like it. When the possibility of electric shock therapy is tossed around as a possibly cure for the musician’s ailments, it is just as quickly dismissed. No matter the demons involved, changing the mind and chemistry of a great artist is always detrimental.


What we then witness is a thrilling, career-best performance from Forest Whitaker, a turn which took the male acting prize at Cannes that year. He not only captures the grandeur of a music firebrand working with a heavy heart, he somehow also finds the kindness, the wit and the humanity inside the fast living man. The actor is fearless: he doesn’t go for cheap sentimentality and plays Parker as incredibly flawed, to the point of being incapacitated by his own bad behavior. He expects those that surround him to blindly tolerate his addictions without really thinking through the consequences. While Whitaker blazes through the narrative with an unlikable abandon, one of my favorite is also one of the most simple. After playing wherever he could, to little or no acclaim, Bird visits Paris and is welcomed with open, adoring arms. After a particularly intense performance he is rewarded with a hail of accolades and a storm of roses thrown at the stage. It is a glorious moment, especially when one views Whitaker’s reaction. His gratitude, his humbleness and his pure happiness at seeing his real love connect in the way he wants it to is startling.


Bird also intimately examines the performer’s partnership with dancer Chan Parker (played with vigor by Diane Venora). The scenes between the concerned common-law spouse and her disturbed, creative partner crackle with a rare energy and sharpness. Venora delivers an unexpected performance, in every sense. It may be “the thankless wife” role, but Venora elevates her character above the rut most women who play the quietly supportive type fall into. Chan is sublimely devoted to her husband, to his music and his creativity. She is tolerant of his habits, sometimes despite the welfare of their children. She sees his problems as being intertwined with his gifts and allows him to continue on his path with little interruption, even if it means she will eventually lose him to the grip of these vices. She deals with the tricky subject of being romantically affiliated with a black man and having his children - which in itself was a pioneering effort in those times - with a sense of pride and love that is a refreshing twist on the relatively stock role. The film is in fact based on the memoirs of Parker’s widow and Eastwood managed to not only gain her blessing on the venture, but also received access to a slew of unreleased recordings that were previously locked in a bank vault thanks to her involvement.


Eastwood manages to lift his tidy little story into another dimension by putting the music at the forefront, something that is clumsily absent from the slew of recent films with similar topics. While musician bios like Ray and Walk the Line seem like elaborate showcases for rising talent to posture about, imitating their subjects, Bird is a more artistic and more thoughtful effort. It lets its actors’ characterizations unfold at a sumptuous, un-rushed pace around the music. Though Bird’s physical struggles and his relationship with those closest to him are intrinsic plot elements, the vigorous musical sequences (where Whitaker avoids a stock imitation, meticulously re-creating not only the artist’s techniques, but also his inner fire) are the real draw, proving Eastwood can’t really be placed in a box when it comes to his directorial choices


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Thursday, Aug 24, 2006

As the summer blockbuster carnival slowly “slithers” away from your local Multiplex, the major pay cable channels think its award season circa 2005. Two of the four offerings premiering this week were considered shoe-ins for Oscar nods once the nominations hit in February. They were even bolstered by some helpful pre-Academy nods. Not surprisingly, they were left wanting when the names were finally read. This doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out, though. As a matter of fact, compared to the action-oriented dreck one channel is passing off as entertainment, and the dearth of new titles elsewhere, this pair of potential prestige pictures may be your best bet for a little Saturday night small screen fun. Here’s what’s on tap for the weekend of 25, August:


HBOIn Her Shoes

*
When is a chick flick not your typical chick flick? When it’s directed by LA Confidential helmer Curtis Hanson. Sure, there are formulaic elements to this odd couple sister combo, but Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette manage to move beyond the archetype, turning what could have been a conventional comedy into more of a carefully realized character study. With the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as a disgruntle grandmother who holds some secrets of her own, this is not your typical Lifetime-like melodrama. Thanks to Hanson and his cast, the syrupy saccharine levels are kept to a manageable minimum. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxThe Transporter 2

It’s more bare-chested and knuckled fun for everyone’s favorite UK himbo, Jason Statham. In this sequel to the famously unclothed one’s previous action packed DVD hit from 2002, Statham’s Frank Martin is in Miami, and implicated in a kidnapping. Naturally, this means he’s must kick ass, take names, and strip down to his skivvies every now and again to clear his name. As the stunt work and set pieces practice their physics-defying magic, our only choice is to turn off our brains and enjoy the superficial thrills and antihero chills. Otherwise, the logic leaps and lapses become far too obvious to ignore. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzRent

Why it took so long to bring Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award winning musical to the silver screen, especially with the cinematic conceit of employing the original cast, is anyone’s guest. Why it failed to fulfill the promise of this rock show remix of La Boheme is a little more self-evident. Director Chris Columbus may be a lot of things, but a filmmaker in tune with the mandates of the song and dance format he is not. Also, the narrative’s AIDS oriented storyline is definitely dated, particularly in light of our current sense of empowerment over the disease. Still, the music and the performances remind us of the power inherent in the wholly American artform. Too bad the translation failed to capture it correctly. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 9:00pm EST).



PopMatters Review


ShowtimeThe Passion of the Christ

*
While he waits the frightening fall out from his undeniably Anti-Semitic remarks, here’s a chance to see Mel Gibson practice what he apparently preaches. This is a gorgeous, visually stunning film, despite its splatter/snuff reputation and heavy headed religiosity. While the Jews definitely get it in the far too literal Bible belting, it’s the Romans that actually come across as slobbering, sadistic animals. Carrying too much personal baggage to exist exclusively as iconography, what we have here is still an evocative and inflammatory motion picture. (Saturday 26 August, 10pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


Turner Classic Movies: August: Summer Under the Stars Month

Leave it to the classic film channel to find novel ways of constantly recycling its catalog of amazing Tinsel Town artifacts. In August, the station will salute several celebrated names from Hollywood’s Golden Age upward, using each daylong promotion as an excuse to screen numerous offerings from the specific star’s catalog. A few of the highlights for the week of 25 August to 31 August are:



26 August – Cary Grant

No one, before or since, matched his delicate air of suave sophistication. Sadly, many thought such a style came naturally and never gave him the acting credit he so richly deserved. Let the performance reevaluation begin with these fine films:


6:00 AM Monkey Business (1952)* 
7:45 AM She Done Him Wrong (1933)* 
9:00 AM Cary Grant: A Class Apart (2004)* 
10:30 AM Operation Petticoat (1959) 
12:45 PM Bachelor And The Bobby-Soxer, The (1947) 
2:30 PM Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)* 
4:15 PM Dream Wife (1953) 
6:00 PM Father Goose (1964)* 
8:00 PM Gunga Din (1939)* 
10:00 PM Arsenic And Old Lace (1944)* 
12:15 AM North By Northwest (1959)* 
2:45 AM Suspicion (1941)* 
4:30 AM Every Girl Should Be Married (1949) 


29 August – Ingrid Bergman

While she may always be remembered as fragile femme fatale alongside Bogart’s magnificent ex-pat machismo in Casablanca, there was much more to this Swedish beauty than her ravishing looks and a scandalous affair with director Roberto Rossellini. Here’s proof:


6:00 AM Rage In Heaven (1941) 
8:00 AM Stromboli (1950)* 
10:00 AM Europa ‘51 (1952) 
12:00 PM Yellow Rolls-Royce, The (1964) 
2:15 PM Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1941)* 
4:15 PM Gaslight (1944)* 
6:15 PM Casablanca (1942)* 
8:00 PM For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943)* 
11:00 PM Cactus Flower (1969)* 
1:00 AM Adam Had Four Sons (1941) 
3:00 AM Saratoga Trunk (1945) 


30 August – Sidney Poitier

In an era when racial divides were unrelenting in both their cruelty and illogic, he towered above them, both in talent and tolerance. As the first performer of color ever to win the Oscar for Best Actor, here’s several reasons why he’s remembered as much for his acting as his activism: 


6:00 AM Blackboard Jungle (1955)*
8:00 AM Patch Of Blue, A (1965) * 
10:00 AM Edge of the City (1957) 
11:30 AM Red Ball Express (1952) 
1:00 PM Defiant Ones, The (1958) * 
2:45 PM Band Of Angels (1957) 
5:00 PM Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light (2000) 
6:00 PM Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) * 
8:00 PM For Love of Ivy (1968) 
10:00 PM In The Heat Of The Night (1967) * 
12:00 AM They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) 
2:00 AM Wilby Conspiracy, The (1975) 
4:00 AM Something Of Value (1957) 


* = PopMatters Picks


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