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Tuesday, Aug 8, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 2: Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”)
1955, B&W, Bengali.
Dir: Satyajit Ray


If Raj Kapoor is the master of Indian commercial cinema, India’s art-house maestro is Satyajit Ray.  Lionized in the last fifteen years by critics and filmmakers like Pauline Kael, Louis Malle and Martin Scorsese, Ray is India’s most well known director in the West.  See Pather Panchali, Ray’s first film, and you’ll understand why.  Ray takes the story of a young boy, Apu, and his family in a remote village and elevates it into an epic narrative of loss and survival.  The grainy realism of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, served as an inspiration for Ray’s filmmaking style. But, his unique visual documentation of the character’s environment, the dense, sultry jungle of rural West Bengal, its tranquility, its rain, its heat, remains the most palpable experience of the film. The shot of Apu’s sister playing in the midst of the monsoon rains, twirling round and round in delirious excitement, her long hair flying across her face, her drenched sari clinging to her wiry body, is one of the most painterly visions ever put on film. But Pather Panchali is a story about poverty, and Ray understands that nature, for all its beauty, is equivocal. The Apu Trilogy—Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu—unfolds like a Greek saga, where each of the three phases of Apu’s life, boyhood, adolescence, adulthood, is marked by the death of a loved one, a woman.  After each stage we see him struggle, harden, and ultimately, accept what life has left him. In a country that clings to the concept of karma, Ray’s films resonate with haunting clarity and sadness.


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Tuesday, Aug 8, 2006

It’s definitely the dog days of DVD summer this Tuesday. Unless you are interested in failed TV shows, outsider genre offerings (with less than tantalizing titles like Back Woods, The Tooth Fairy and Electric Zombies—UGH!) or various permutations of the rock and roll vanity project (video collection concert performance, etc) there’s very little in the way of legitimate mainstream motion picture fare. While this means that those few identifiable releases are guaranteed a bigger slice of the consumer pie, such a selection won’t necessarily drive patrons to the old brick and mortar. After all, will you be going out of your weekly way for the gay comedy Adam and Steve? Or some butchered box set of Westerns/Mysteries/Horror offerings? So take the following list with a healthy dose of skeptic’s salt. PopMatters isn’t necessarily recommending them—“recognizing’ may be a better term. The selections that grabbed SE&L’s attention for August 8 are, in alphabetical order:



Brick
Beginning like a typical teen thriller, then slowly sinking into a prickly post-modern noir, this third film from director Rian Johnson is a real Indie gem. Featuring a clockwork script, impressive acting, and enough twists to keep you guessing right up until the end, this throwback to the days when men were macho, women were cheap and crime never paid (it just loaned out its joys for reimbursement later) can be a little bracing at first. After all, we aren’t used to high school students talking like pulp private dicks. Yet once it discovers its own particular rhythms and settles into its unfolding puzzle box story, the result is something unique indeed.
PopMatters Review


The Hidden Blade
As much a revisionist look at the samurai film as a staunch follower of same, Blade represents writer-director Yoji Yamada’s second installment in his trilogy based on a series of novels by Shuuhei Fujisawa. In a career that’s spanned 41 years and 77 films, Yamada was mostly known for his Toro-san films—all 48 of them. But with 2002’s superb The Twilight Samurai, Yamada garnered a great deal of critical attention. Twilight was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and walked away with 13 Japanese Academy Awards. Word is that Blade is just as good as it’s predecessor. If true, this bodes well for this DVD release—and the upcoming Bushi no ichibun, the final installment in the triad.


Inside Man
Spike Lee spices up the heist film with his own unique brand of urban angst, and brings Tinsel Town A-teamers Denzel Washington, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen along for the ride. He ended up with the biggest box office hit of his career, and an outpouring of critical affection almost unheard of in this auteur’s 20-plus years behind the lens. While some felt the ending was unsatisfying, especially in light of all that came before it, this is still one of the most entertaining and engaging films in the director’s diverse career. It offers a maturity and an intelligence that argues for a new phase in the filmmaker’s always contentious canon. 
PopMatters Review


The Jayne Mansfield Collection
Consisting of three of Mansfield’s more memorable movie turns (The Girl Can’t Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw), this is one compendium overloaded with both cinematic and camp value. Loads of DVD extras (commentaries, documentaries, featurettes) and pristine transfers help disprove the theory that Mansfield was nothing more than a low rent Marilyn Monroe. Though she never really got a chance to stretch as an actress, this is one sex symbol that was more than an over-inflated chest—at least, for a short while. 


Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector
While utilizing the human personification of the New South NASCAR numbskull, this member of the Blue Collar Comedy tour takes fat, drunk and stupid to whole new levels with his first feature film. What a man with questionable hygiene would know about wellness and cleanliness must be one of those Tinsel Town issues resolved by that cinematic catch-all, the suspension of disbelief. With the late great Jim Varney unable to rise from the dead and pump out another Ernest P. Worrell extravaganza, we’ll just have to settle for this entertainer whose more catchphrase than comic. 


Manderlay
As the second film in Danish director Lars Von Trier’s proposed trilogy on the United States (entitled “USA – Land of Opportunity), Manderlay lost its original lead (Dogville‘s Nicole Kidman) and gained a potential young talent in The Village‘s Bryce Dallas Howard. This, and other casting changes didn’t bother critics as much as the storyline’s suggestion that right minded liberals may not always have the best interest of “the races” at heart. Sure, all of the first film’s tricks (bare stages, chalk mark “buildings”) are present and accounted for in this plantation potboiler, but no one can successfully mesh art with outrage like Von Trier. Sadly, this may be the filmmaker’s final word on such a provocative subject. The final film (Wasington) is currently on ‘indefinite hold’.
PopMatters Review


Shinbone Alley
Image offers up its own digital version of this 1971 rarity, a crazy cartoon featuring music by George Kleinsinger, a script by Mel Brooks and Joe Darion, and all based on a Broadway show compiled from the stories by Don Marquis (noted New York newspaper columnist and short story writer). This tale of Archy the author who’s reincarnated as a cockroach, only to fall in love with a fickle feline named Mehitabel, has long been hailed as either a work of visionary pen and ink grandeur, or a minor effort in the otherwise bloated world of ‘70s serious animation. With a tagline that shouts “It’s sophisticated enough for kids, simple enough for adults!”, it’s kind of hard to tell which side is right.


And Now for Something Completely Different

In a new weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 8 August:


Ghost in the Teeny Bikini
Ever wonder what porn stars do in their off hours. Why, they make low budget softcore sex romps. The fearless Fred Olen Ray, responsible for such hack classics as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Invisible Mom, and Teenage Cavegirl, is on hand to tell the story of an actress named… Muffin Baker, who returns to her hometown to attend the reading of her dead Uncle’s will. Of course, all kinds of spooky and sexy hi-jinx ensue. With Method meat puppet Evan Stone along for the ‘ride’ and enough sin and skin to keep an adolescent boy ‘engaged’ for hours, this sort of self-effacing schlock has been Ray’s bread and bodkin butter for decades now. Apparently someone likes what he does.



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Monday, Aug 7, 2006


On paper, Little Miss Sunshine plays like a joke with a punch line no one wants to hear. What do you get when you take a failed inspirational speaker, a suicidal Proust scholar, a heroin addicted grandfather, a depressed teenager, and a driven to the edge mother and her daughter, pack them all in a Volkswagen van, and send them traveling to California for a beauty pageant? Well, in anyone else’s hands, a formulaic, predictable film in which life lessons are learned and everything is wrapped up in a neat, little bow. However, in the hands of husband and wife directors, Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, using a first time script by Michael Arndt, the result is a moving, hilarious and raw examination of family who can’t stand each other, but need each other all the same.


Blessed with an astonishing ensemble performance by a cast that includes Steve Carell (who steps comfortably into a dramatic role without the baggage that someone like Robin Williams brings to similar endeavors), Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine is ostensibly about a wacky trip to a beauty pageant for six and seven year olds. But in taking us there, it tackles with honesty and clarity the dreams that sustain these characters, as well as the lies they tell themselves to keep going, avoid reality and dodge the pain of failure. Dayton and Faris get all the details, big and small, with a bull’s-eye precision. From an opening scene at the dinner table, in which mismatched plates and cups are set out for a take-out fried chicken dinner, to a remarkably touching sequence in a diner in which the family convinces a weight concerned, potential beautiful queen, to eat her ice cream, the directors keep the film from slipping into contrived emotions or obvious showdowns.


Little Miss Sunshine offers the kind of movie experience that is extremely rare at the summer multiplex. It traverses its territory and treats its audience with intelligence and caring, offering huge laughs and equally sized tears. You will leave the theatre fulfilled, not because these characters all meet happy endings, but because sometimes life is complicated, shitty, hilarious and unpredictable—something that Dayton and Faris got completely right.


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Sunday, Aug 6, 2006


As Colonel Kurtz whispered, “The horror…the horror…”


Just for the record:


Leno gave THUMBS UP to:


Talladega Nights
Little Miss Sunshine
Shadowboxer
The Night Listener


Leno gave THUMBS DOWN to:


Miami Vice (reason? It wasn’t enough like the ‘80s show.)


Hmmm…


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Sunday, Aug 6, 2006

For a little over 10 years, Canada’s Fantasia International Film Festival has been on the cutting edge of up and coming genre greatness. They discovered such macabre masters as Takashi Miike and introduced J-Horror and other world shock cinema to a desperate for something different Western mentality. Offering the unusual, the brazen, and the unique, the festival specializes in both full-length features and an amazing array of short films. At last year’s (2005) celebration alone, over 100 of these truncated talent showcases were presented. Now, in conjunction with Synapse Films, the festival is offering up Small Gauge Trauma, a collection of its most novel and creative contributions. And believe it or not, it’s one of the best film packages of the year.


The 14 titles present on the single DVD presentation vary from minor (Tomoya Sato’s study of suicide, L’ilya) to the masterful (a pair of brave entries from Britain—Robert Morgan’s stop-animation The Separation, Sam Walker’s human abattoir comedy Tea Break). All take the notion of the short form narrative very seriously, and strive to make the most out of the limited time frame. In several cases, the results are astounding. In three particular instances, the movies made are better than most of their long form brethren. Director Salvador Sanz uses a drawing style reminiscent of anime mixed with socialist poster art to tell his tale of a pop band that becomes those mythological snake-haired monsters of Greek lore. Gorgonas is great, not just because of the mixture of martial artistry and the macabre, but because Sanz allows the unlimited palette of pen and ink to fully realize his repugnant aims.


Similarly, Miguel Ángel Vivas breathes new life into a hackneyed horror ideal—the zombie film—with his wickedly perverse I’ll See You In My Dreams. Like a Sam Raimi/Coen Brothers take on Lucio Fulci, this lively living dead thriller is so smartly scripted and masterfully directed that you barely miss the blood and guts. Thankfully, Vivas doesn’t skimp on the sluice. The most interesting entry, however, has nothing to do with monsters and menace. Imagine Trainspotting with show tunes, or Requiem for a Dream with its own melodious narrative breaks and you’ve got some idea of director Diego Abad’s amazingly mischievous music video Ruta Destroy!. The story is rather simple – a group of junkie friends looking for thrills… and pills—but the execution is out of this world, with Abad allowing his mostly tone-deaf actors to sing-speak their songs. The result is as hilarious as it is harrowing.


There are other moments of cinematic brilliance here—Phillip John’s nunnery sick joke Sister Lulu, Dennison Ramalho’s demonic possession tone poem Love from Mother Only, the Dario Argento inspired directorial flair of Chambre Jaune‘s Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Occasionally, a misguided moment like Tenkwaku Naniwa’s Miss Greeny (nothing more than a green blob pouring down a canvas) takes away from the overall presentation. But astounding efforts like Paco Plaza’s Abuelitos—about a surreal nursing home where elderly patients are kept alive via a very gruesome diet—more than make up for the occasional artistic overreaching. For anyone looking for something completely out of the ordinary, DVD distributor Synapse Films has a compilation treat for you. Here’s hoping the efforts of the Fantasia International Film Festival—and the wonderful works they represent—find the audience they so desperately deserve.


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