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by Bill Gibron

1 Sep 2009

It seems to get harder every year. As Tinseltown continues to micromanage the box office down to a dollars and cents science, turning out more product that pure cinematic wonder, coming up with a list of five or - god forbid - ten favorites becomes a Herculean chore. Frankly, we’d rather clean out a few stables or slay some Stymphalian birds than rack our brain making a decision. And 2009 made the situation even more of a struggle. It seemed like the entire season was either front or back loaded, greatness coming at the start or toward the end with very few offerings plodding around somewhere in the middle. Indeed, it seemed like the titles from May to August were either great, or groan-inducing - very few in between.

Still, we sorted through the nearly 50 films we tackled over the last 16 weeks and came up with something like a consensus. Certainly, we didn’t see everything (sorry Moon, Paper Heart, Big Fan, Taking Woodstock, etc.) and there were definitely movies that remained enigmas, needing another viewing (or two) before their lasting value could be calculated. As a result, the lists below feel a bit incomplete. Yes, we got to Final Destination 3D and Halloween II. No, they wouldn’t be making an appearance anywhere today (much to many readers chagrin, surely). Indeed, as with any collection of favorites, it’s all a matter of opinion. Instead of getting snippy about it, why not offer up your own choices. Perhaps your picks are just as debatable.

by Bill Gibron

16 Jul 2009

It’s a film criticism cliché - remakes suck. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, taking an already established film and “updating”/“reimagining” it, for whatever reason, routinely turns up junk. In recent years, it was Asian horror films that received some unnecessary Westernization. One Missed Call my Eye! Now, Tinsel Town is casting an even wider international net. With the announcement that Cloverfield‘s Matt Reeves is taking on the English version of the Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In, perhaps we should go back to last October and see how successful Sony’s remake of [REC] was. Wait, you never heard of [REC] ? Really? Well, that’s not surprising. For some reason (read: clear commercial competition), the studio sat on the brilliant Spanish production, giving it a lukewarm festival like release schedule before hiding it away. Clearly they were waiting until Quarantine, their take on the material, had its day in the cinematic sun.

With the release this week of [REC] on Region 1 DVD - again, held up for some unknown ($$$) reason - we can do a little compare and contrast. But first, a couple of caveats. To be on the up and up, this critic liked both films. Actually, that’s not right. He ADORED [REC] , finding it one of the creepiest films of the last few years. Oddly enough, he appreciated what Quarantine tried to do with the material. While not always successful, it definitely stands on its own. Secondly, this discussion will be inundated with spoilers. Spoilers, Spoilers, SPOILERS!!! So if you want to experience one or either of these films without knowing the many plot contrivances and twists, go check out [REC] and Quarantine first and then come back to this piece. Only then will you fully appreciate the specifics we will be dissecting, beginning with:

The Story

First, both [REC] and Quarantine make the wise decision to not “pretty up” their storylines with unnecessary subtext or pointless subplots. Each movie gives us the same set up (reporter tagging along on a routine fire call) and takes it to its logical, logistical ends. Certainly, the effectiveness of how it manages this straightforward narrative device is one of the crucial differences between the two.  While it plays like a virtual shot-for-shot recreation of [REC] , Quarantine does contain elements that try (some successfully, some not so) to expand on the original idea. One of the Spanish spook shows many delights were its menacing inferences, from the standard zombie machinations to the horrific demonic possession material at the end. Quarantine goes for (SPOILER ALERT), “mutant rabies strain”. Similarly, the remake discharges all of the original’s religious overtones to expand on the whole “animal” angle. Quarantine also adds a couple of unique kills - one featuring a video camera, another involving an infected dog. All in all, however, it’s the same basic movie. 

The Characters

The biggest difference between [REC] and Quarantine is how each film handles its cast. For directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, there was a drive toward anonymity. There was a real desire on their part to use the (mostly) unknown quality of their performers to sell the reality of what was going on. As a result, they picked individuals like Manuela Velasco - some notoriety, but not enough to stick out in her native land. Naturally, when Hollywood cranks up its remake machine, they have to pepper the personalities with recognizable (or at least quasi-recognizable) actors. That’s why our lead is played by Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter, or why the fireman she follows are Jay Hernandez (of Hostel fame) and Johnathon Schaech (perhaps best known for That Thing You Do). While they attempt to override their celebrity with some halfway decent turns, the production clearly mandates more screen time for all of them. That’s why we get elongated sequences inside the firehouse, and the budding (if quickly tossed aside) sexual advances. [REC] views its characters as fright fodder. Quarantine is looking to pad some up and comers slight resumes.

The Actors

Oddly enough, the application of real thespians into this found footage conceit does Quarantine a grand disservice. While Hernandez actually helps in the heroics department (giving us a viable victim to root for), Ms. Carpenter is so over the top and fake that we wonder how anyone would ever take her seriously. As with most horror heroines, her character substitutes fear for common sense, leading to actions that would probably get her killed within the first five minutes. Unlike Angela Vidal, her Hispanic counterpart, she falls apart almost immediately, forgetting the story and her position as a member of the press. Similarly, the residents of the American apartment complex are all vying for screen time, preening and preparing when they should just be reacting. The best part of [REC] is how authentic the obviously fake situation feels. This is because the Spanish cast was kept in the dark, limited in how much they were told about what was going to happen. Such an approach makes the original play as real, something Quarantine has to work hard at - and that’s never a good thing. 

The Direction

For John Erick Dowdle, who along with his brother Drew came up with the so-so found footage film The Poughkeepsie Tapes a few years back, Quarantine represented a substantial step up. They were helming a Hollywood film for the first time, and recreating a favored foreign fright film at that. One would expect a few novice jitters, but for the most part, Dowdle does a great job. He doesn’t abuse the hand held element, going gonzo with shaky cam chaos. He even gives his shooter some onscreen time, making the “manual” aspect to the filming that much more important. For Balagueró and Plaza, there is no such need for added affectations. Instead, they want to treat this material as up front and formal as possible. When Angela screams about securing the camera, it’s because it is there to record the truth, not add some kind of cinematic “style” to the experience. As a result, [REC] feels like a newscast gone horribly wrong. While equally effective, Quarantine does have just the slightest twinge of cinematic self-indulgence.

The Gimmick

This is where [REC] runs roughshod over its Tinsel Town twin. Even though it’s obvious that both films are trying to copy real life, only the original succeeds as a shocker. The set-ups work better, the over the shoulder reveals and diminished peripheral vision functioning better than say, random shocks and sudden looks in the lens. In fact, almost every set-piece sequence (the falling fireman, the textile factory attack, the little girl transformation, the last ditch escape to the penthouse, the discovery of what’s inside) is handled better by [REC] than in Quarantine. Most would chalk this up to the work of cinematographer Pablo Rosso who really did handle the duties as Angela Vidal’s cameraman. He understands both the overall big picture of what Balagueró and Plaza want to accomplish while seamlessly fusing into the film’s premise. Never once do we see “Pablo”, nor is he a player in this particular drama. He is merely a member of the media, doing his job and hoping not to get killed in the process. His efforts make the found footage of [REC] look flawless. Quarantine, on the other hand, suffers from being too fussy and flashy.

by Bill Gibron

7 Jul 2009

It’s been a hectic week here at SE&L, and before we climb the mountain of theatrical reviews coming this week (with Bruno, I Love You Beth Cooper, and The Hurt Locker coming, among others), we are going to take a few days off and regroup. In the meantime, may we suggest revisiting the dozen or so titles we tackled over the last seven days or so. You will probably find something you missed, or might not have known about until now. Look for our return Thursday with a take on Kathryn Bigelow’s magnificent Iraq War thriller. Until then, enjoy!


Hungry Years (2009)


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XV
Cinemad Almanac 2009 (Short Film Collection)
12 Rounds - Extreme Cut (2009): Blu-ray
Giuseppe Andrews’ Long Row to Hoe
Zabriskie Point (1970)
The Unborn: Unrated (2009)
10,000 AD: Legend of the Black Pearl (2008)
The Midnight Blue Collection: Volumes 6 & 7 - Porn Stars of the ‘80s/‘90s
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009)
Dragon Hunters (2008)
Pot Zombies (2005)

by Bill Gibron

18 Jun 2009

In theory, it’s a fantastic idea - buying your DVDs directly from a studio, a service offering even the most discerning consumer the possibility of rifling through a huge untapped vault of unreleased titles. When Warner Brothers announced its intention to create a sell-through Archive Collection, giving fans a chance to purchase movies that have never made it to the digital domain, there was celebration - as well as calls for caution. Initial information suggested sloppily created DV-Rs with little consideration for added content or technical specifications. And early reviews were less than stellar. Still, as the number of available films increased in carefully controlled “waves”, the critical tide has started to turn. Indeed, it seems that the more movies Warners makes available, the less arguments advocates have over the transfer quality or lack of extras.

Make no mistake about it, this is a pure cash cow for the studio. They make it very clear on the website that these are not special edition and carefully remastered versions of their films. Instead, like a pirate operation in the backroom of some major Metropolitan mob hideout, Warners is “burning” discs for you, asking $19.95 in return for a bit of entertainment nostalgia. The reason that some of these movies have never made it to DVD is clear - they are unknown niche offerings from eras so bygone that only historians and arftform geeks recognize the names. But there are lost treasures to be found among the ruins, offerings like Freebie and the Bean and Solider in the Rain that, while dated, deliver the kind of unquestionable quality that will keep the Archive Collection in business - at least for now.

For those unfamiliar with either film, SE&L sampled what Warners has to offer, and the results are definitely worth a recommendation. In the case of Freebie and the Bean, we are instantly transported back to the post-peace malaise of the early ‘70s. In Soldier, the beginning of the ‘60s stands in sharp satiric contrast to the suburban Conservative stance of the previous decade. Together, both argue against conformity and for bucking the trend. In the case of the Gleason/McQueen military spoof, such unconventionality pays poor dividends. For Freebie and his Mexican partner “The Bean” however, lawlessness and bigotry are just part of parceling out justice in the big city. Our Caucasian cop steals from those he is supposed to serve and protect. For his Hispanic other half, towing the American Dream has led to worry, panic, and a sneaking suspicion that his wife is having an affair.

For all of its “in your face” derring-do, however, Freebie and the Bean has not aged well. That’s not to say that time has completely tarnished the original bad cop buddy film. Far from it. But for those who’ve heard of Richard Rush’s legendary controversial comedy, a movie made up of exciting action scenes, a complicated crime drama plot, and enough racial slurs to make the KKK proud, this film will be a revelation - and not necessarily in a good way. The plot has our amiable anti-heroes working to nail numbers racketeer Red Meyers. After they find a piece of evidence in the mobster’s garbage can, they think they have the case sewn up. Too bad the dictatorial DA thinks otherwise. When an informant tells them that Meyers may not be long for this world (the Detroit mob has put a contract out on him), it’s up to the duo to protect their prize defendant.

As an example of old school A-list acting, Freebie definitely has its moments. Sure, James Caan is in full blown scandalous superstar mode, mocking every ethnicity he can while carrying over the cache he earned from Brian’s Song, The Godfather, and Cinderella Liberty, while Alan Arkin is fleshing out the fame he found in Catch-22, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and Little Murders. These are two men at the top of their given game, and when you add in cult director/maverick Rush, who runs ramshackle over ‘70s movie convention, you should have something subversive, and wildly entertaining. Sure, the rebelliousness is obvious, but in light of a 35 year advance in cultural dialogue, Polish Jokes and casually thrown epithets just don’t seem that shocking - or funny.

In fact, Freebie and the Bean is far more enjoyable as a work of old school stunt coordination than anything else. It’s clear from the number of automotive crackups here that John Landis studied this film over and over again before he destroyed half of Chicago in The Blues Brothers. Set in San Francisco, Rush turns the entire town into a sight gag, from a three story plunge into an old couple’s dilapidated bedroom, to a disrupted art fair where a giant domino display delivers on its precarious set-up shtick. All the while, professionals both behind and in front of the wheel make us believe in the reality of what is happening, mechanical threat without the sometimes noticeable CG sheen of the current action trade. Naturally, if you look hard enough, you will see Caan and Arkin’s stand-ins doing most of the dangerous heavy horsepower lifting, but just like similarly styled films (Bullitt, The French Connection), we can equally appreciate their contributions to the experience.

The rest of Freebie and the Bean will be a little tougher going. Caan and Arkin are given free reign by Rush to mimic Robert Altman and his overlapping dialogue routine. Jokes - or what passes as humor - frequently get lost in the actor’s desire to improve and adlib. Similarly, the whole ‘supercop’ approach is so middling Me Decade. Caan earns his nickname by basically flimflamming and scamming the constituency into giving him stuff (clothes, cars, cash) for nothing. Today, we would call that obvious corruption and graft. Then, it was part and parcel of cleaning up the mean streets of our decaying urban landscape. And let’s not forget the outright brutality - Freebie and the Bean beat up more potential witnesses than they ever interview, and when a possible criminal comes into their felonious frame of reference, it’s all Tarantino-ready gun battles and firepower.

Soldier in the Rain stands in stark contrast to the cops and robbers routine of Freebie, and yet there are many similarities in both perspective and attitude. In this 1963 lark, Steve McQueen is Sgt. Eustis Clay. In less than a week, he will be getting out of the Army, and he wants his best buddy - and get rich quick co-conspirator M/Sgt Maxwell Slaughter - to join him. Unfortunately, the middle-aged mixer (played by Jackie Gleason) has no desire to step back into civilian life. Hoping for one last chance to lure his pal back into the real world, Clay sets Slaughter up with local “good girl” Bobbie Jo Pepperdine. Still in high school, the blond bimbette thinks the Master Sergeant is a “jellybelly fatty”. But as Clay’s time grows short, Slaughter shows that he is willing to do anything to protect his friend’s dignity, including putting his own safety on the line.

As an example of farce, Soldier in the Rain is an oddity, especially for its formidable cast. No one cites this film when referencing the work of talented stars like McQueen, Gleason, or Tuesday Weld, yet all excel in this example of armed forces irreverence. Oddly enough, it’s the rugged he-man that goes for the laughs, while The Great One is reduced to a patented pathos magnet. The entire film is based around their Frick and Frack relationship, Clay getting into all kinds of trouble and the slick Slaughter rescuing him time and again. With a script co-written by Blake Edwards (himself in the midst of a career epiphany, having directed The Days of Wine and Roses before and prepping The Pink Panther next), there is a tendency to take the whole country mouse/city mouse thing a bit too far. But thanks to the cast, any problems are conveniently overcome.

This doesn’t mean Soldier in the Rain is a masterpiece. Indeed, director Ralph Nelson seems stifled by the material and the setting. All he seems to do is show GI’s sweating, and stumbling around, and fighting. He never uses the locations as anything other than stages, places for the actors to move about it. Similarly, Slaughter’s domain is a wealth of interesting ideas (a rare air conditioner, a soda machine) and yet the novelty is never once exploited. In fact, Soldier in the Rain has more missed opportunities than taken chances, and yet the performances carry us across these pitfalls and - more often than not - into something equally successful. Truth be told, this is a fine forgotten film that misses greatness by the slimmest of margins.

And this is the beauty of the Warners Archive Collection. While something like Freebie had a long and profitable shelf-life for the studio (it was a big hit the year of its release), Solider has been relegated to also-ran in the history of several famous names. Neither disc will be winning awards for video or audio quality, but then again they are significantly better than bootlegs that never take such concepts into consideration. As they roll out more and more titles, as the merchandising element of the approach gets more popular and polished, other companies may follow suit. In fact, it’s hard to see this set-up not becoming the norm for other nominal films. Warners may be innovators when it comes to such a sell-through ideal, but it’s the movies that matter. And in the case of Freebie and the Bean/Soldier in the Rain, it’s well worth it.

by Bill Gibron

4 Jun 2009

With Land of the Lost slinking into theaters like the dying 800lb $100 million gorilla it is, the Kroffts better take stock of their entire creative canon before another high concept idea comes along to destroy their nostalgia heavy cred once and for all. An oeuvre as tenuous as the one the puppeteers crafted during the ‘60s and ‘70s can’t survive another smart-assing at the hands of Hollywood talent that believes anything coming out of their craw is uproariously irrelevant, and with the beloved psychedelic kid crack known as H. R. Pufnstuf next up on the remake/revision/reboot chopping block, there’s much more than trouble afoot. The aging brothers had better be careful, less they turn over their story of Living Island and a young flute-playing boy named Jimmy to Shawn Levy, a solo Jonas Brother, and a dragged up Eddie Murphy as Witchie-Poo.

In fact, what makes Land of the Lost such an underwhelming pile of junk could have easily been avoided had the Kroffts committed to doing something akin to their old show, only with bigger special effects and less artistic (re: budgetary) restraints. The original series relied on the innovation of Star Trek‘s David Gerrold to guide it in a more serious direction. On the big screen, it was a copy of Jokes from the Dinosaur John that seemed to inspire the screenplay. Clearly, the brothers are caught in a post-modern mainstream conundrum. Stick too close to the original material and people will think you’re merely cashing in - memory lane wise. Go too far outside the reminiscence, and you end up with a flailing funny man, an overused character comedian, and a nubile young Englishwoman running around with a mini-sasquatch acting like an extra from VH1’s Tool Academy - Paleolithic Edition.

So we here at SE&L have decided to do the right thing, and give the Kroffts our unsolicited, and probably unneeded, advice on where to take the remaining items in their catalog. We have purposefully avoided a few shows (let’s face it - nothing could save Dr. Shrinker) and avoided what could best be called the duo’s Love Boat Lite franchises - aka shoddy celeb-athons Lost Saucer and Far Out Space Nuts. No, the best material for a cinematic jumpstart remains the more fantastical shows they forged. Land of the Lost may have tapped into a growing underage fascination with all things…um…Jurassic Park, but for our money, nothing spells mega-bucks like singing animals, talking head gear, and a slimy creature from the deep blue sea bunking with a couple of hormonally uneasy California teens. Cue Johnny Whittaker… 

The Bugaloos

Billed as “The British Monkees” at the time - which is odd, considering what the Pre-Fab Four were marketed as during their brief TV tenure - this tale about talented insects doing battle with a fame-whoring battleaxe who lives in a giant jukebox seems perfect for today’s Hannah High School Camp Rock Musical crowd. Even better, the filmmakers can hand pick a uniformly unknown cast, raise ‘em up Disney style, and the market the crap out of them until puberty - or the lawsuit - hits. For the Kroffts, it could/would their own pre-teen cash machine. For the role of superstar wannabe Benita Bizarre, a failing one time beauty who is desperate to have a few more moments in the limelight, we say stick with what works - Janice Dickenson, or perhaps another certified plastic surgery disaster, Cher.


This will be a tough one, but follow us here. First off, whoever tackles this project will have to clean up the horribly un-PC elements involved in the original series. After all, these living chapeaus used to mimic the kind of stereotypes one expected to wear them, leading to goombah fedoras, hayseed straw hats, and worst of all, a cigar story “injun” stove pipe model. After that, it’s smooth sailing. Do a little motion capture, get an up and coming child star to fill the shoes so ably accessed by one Butch Patrick, and turn this story of a boy trapped in a magician’s hat (and the land of talking toppers within) into a full blown F/X extravaganza. Of course, no Krofft production would be complete without a certified star turn as villain. And who does SE&L suggest for HooDoo, the ‘flamboyant’ evil prestidigitator? John Travolta - he’s great at fey wickedness.

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters

This is the biggest no brainer of the bunch. A young boy keeping an ocean creature as a pet has been all over the Multiplex as of late, what with The Water Horse and…well, The Water Horse vying for quality kid vid attention. In this case, one could skew the material a little older, and go for a couple of Friends of Apatow in the leads - say Michael Cera as Johnny and Jonah Hill as Scott. Grab another Superbad alum - Emma Stone - as the hottie down the street who our hero pines away for (complete with pimply pop love songs) and a gaggle of celebrity voices for the all important roles of CG sea monsters Sigmund, Big Momma, Big Daddy, and brothers Burp and Slurp, and one can’t imagine the cash not rolling in. Perhaps the most important element - no small humans in suits. We were dumb in the 70s. We’d believe anything. But post-millennial moviegoers can sense a little person in a costume a mile away.


Let’s face it - Lindsay Lohan’s stock and trade in Tinsel Town is at an all time low. She’s so last week that she can’t even get arrested for getting arrested. What better way to start the slow and painful road trip toward entertainment rehabilitation than co-starring in this blatant Love Bug rip-off about a car with a mind of its own. Sure, she’d have to share the set-up with adolescent male buddies Barry and C.C., but she needs to get used to such subpar billing. Of course, as with any animated vehicle…vehicle, Wonderbug and his normative alter-ego Schlepcar would have to be state of the art. Maybe the Kroffts could convince the Wachowskis to step in and handle the directing duties. They probably have a warehouse of Speed Racer leftovers they could retrofit for this project (it’s not like anyone’s calling for a sequel to that notorious, non-starter, right?).

ElectraWoman and DynaGirl

Sincerely, of all the semi-serious ideas being tossed around here, the notion of a big screen Dark Knight like look at two fetching female super heroines has the feeling of Thelma and Louise with less whining and more Electra-powers. By days, these babes work as journalists. By night, they are spandex wearing, take no prisoner bad-asses, cleaning up the violent city streets and looking fab-u-lous in the process. With Hollywood currently going ga-ga over any under 30 waif with a non-existent waistline and an even smaller resume, this would be the perfect vehicle for a pair of our more ‘seasoned’ sexpot performers. Give Quentin Tarantino the greenlight, let him hire his dream duo, and get ready for the real grindhouse experience, comic book Kill Bill style…or something like that.

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