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Sunday, Jan 28, 2007


It’s about time we faced facts as film fans. The Oscars are really out of touch. It’s not just the usual omissions and snubs – this year’s avoidance of Dreamgirls no exception – or the ‘holier than thou’ hierarchy it lords over all other awards. No, it seems that, ever since the ‘70s renaissance in cinema, the Academy has missed opportunity after opportunity to reward actual artistry. Say what you will about the last five Best Picture winners – Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago and A Beautiful Mind – but all except one will remain an aesthetic afterthought when it comes to a final filmic analysis. Indeed, looking back to Midnight Cowboy in 1970, the one time studio shill fest, designed as a kind of self-congratulatory salute to itself when it began in 1929, is starting to stink of industry insularity all over again.


When Crash defeated everyone’s odds on favorite, Brokeback Mountain, last year, people seemed to sense that all was not right with the glorified golden statue. It was rare that such a hit or miss production, a film that received as many pans as it did praise walked away with the top honors of the year. Listen to people pontificate, and they’ll point to Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, and Titanic as recent examples of the big show getting it wrong. Granted, the alternates for each one of the aforementioned is hard to delineate – it’s hard to argue that The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, or Elizabeth deserved to be in the same category as Saving Private Ryan (which Shakespeare beat for the award). No, what cinephiles fail to take into consideration when criticizing the Oscars is that many of the great films, many of them considered classics of the artform, never even make it to the nomination phase.


Take the 2002 BFI List of the Top Ten Films of All Time. Vertigo (#2), The Rules of the Game (3#), Tokyo Story (#5), 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6), Battleship Potemkin (#7) and Singing in the Rain (#10) all failed to make the Academy cut. Of the rest, The Godfather films (#4), Sunrise (#8) and 8 ½ (#9) actually won, while Citizen Kane (#1) received a Best Picture nod, but was beat by How Green Was My Valley. While its easy to argue the BFI selections, what’s obvious is that a yearly awards ceremony, especially one guided by politics, campaigning, knee-jerk pop culture reactions, and occasional outright incompetence can’t be counted on to determine the greatest movies ever made. Indeed, as stated before, it can barely get the choices from specific years correct.


This year, Dreamgirls was crowned the de facto winner by more than a couple of cinematic know it alls. As far back as October, those in the know (meaning anyone invited or privy to exclusive industry screenings) picked the Chicago wannabe as musical manna from Heaven. As the minority representative of the cinematic song and dance renaissance, those lucky enough to warrant an early glance were praising the performances and the filmmaking as if no other movie could walk in its superiorly crafted footsteps. When that joke of a journalistic organization – the Foreign Press Club – picked the late December release as its Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, the Oscar nom was signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mail that memo to the people over at Price Waterhouse. When Selma Hayek and AMPAS President Sid Ganis announced the five choices for 2006’s Best Picture, Dreamgirls didn’t make the cut.


Bill Condon and crew shouldn’t care. They are in very good company. United 93, a film debated and deconstructed since its early April release was also supposed to be a shoe-in. So was Little Children, the Todd Fields scourging of suburbia and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuoran’s amazing future shock social commentary. Sadly, they will all have to settle for vindication in the lesser categories. Then there were those complicated, occasionally misunderstood movies that made several Best of Lists – The Prestige, The Fountain, Inland Empire – that many felt really represented the best of what post-millennial moviemaking had to offer. Even Borat was bandied about as a potential Oscar choice, since the industry is always willing to reward a newcomer who brings something fresh and original to the overall dynamic.


On the flip side, almost all of the five films that finally made the cut have major detractors. Aside from The Departed, which got universally glowing reviews, and The Queen which has parlayed its pitch perfect performances by Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen into more than a little comprehensive appreciation, each potential winner has its fair share of critics. Probably the clearest two examples of contentious nominations are Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. Each one has loud detractors – the main condemnation being that each effort is cloying, scattered and lacking real narrative focus – and, oddly enough, both are now the favorites to win the award. It’s Crash all over again, except this time, there’s no agenda-oriented darling waiting to be disappointed. Indeed, with no one film making the pitch as overall favorite, Oscar has done something strangely similar to its decisions of the past – it has picked a group of nominees that tend to flatter the film that eventually wins.


In this case, if Little Miss Sunshine picks up the trophy - as it did recently at the Producers Guild of America - it will be seen as a victory for the small, independent feature, a direct slap in the face of a film like The Departed that has big budget, high profile performers filling out its artistic reality. Babel – a real example of love it or hate it histrionics - has the same A-list pedigree and when it took home the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture, it pushed its way beyond the rest of the foreign filmmaking pack. Letters of Iwo Jima remains the wild card, Clint Eastwood proving more popular among Academy members than he is elsewhere in the entertainment community. For most groups, this look at the war from the Japanese side, featuring a non-English speaking cast and dialogue delivered in subtitles, was a better Foreign film choice than Best Picture candidate.


Now there are some who contend that Oscar really reserves recognition for the year’s best in other, less prominent categories. They point to examples of wins in Best Original Screenplay (The Coen Brother’s Fargo, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) and Best Director (Ang Lee, Roman Polanski) as ways of determining artistic merit. This year appears no different. Paul Greenglass gets back for the United 93 snub here, and Children of Men finds itself fighting for recognition among the Best Adapted Screenplay throng. Even overlooked efforts like The Prestige appear in the technical awards (Art Direction and Cinematography) and some unlikely nominees– Marie Antoinette, Apocalypto, The Good German – turn up here as well. They would call it “spreading the wealth”. Most film fans would consider it avoided complete embarrassment.


It’s easy to dismiss the Academy Awards, an organization that failed to recognize the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa (and, NO, those late in life Honorary nods don’t count). And there are times when they get it right, even in spite of themselves. But as the new millennium motors along, it is becoming clearer and clearer that a Grammys style revamp is in order. If Babel or Little Miss Sunshine wins, the chasm between critics, film community, and the general public will grow wider and more antagonistic. While no one expects a more People’s Choice approach, or even a broadening of the nomination criteria, it is clear that the same issues that plagued the documentary branch (which still is less than perfect) are complicating the major motion picture picks.


By moving the awards up a couple of weeks, and avoiding the intense lobbying that went on in year’s past, Oscar is trying to remove both the predictability and the relevance from its annual love-in. While many might see this as a step in a positive direction, those whose tastes run more toward the unusual and eccentric will continue to see their choices ignored, their well-honed aesthetic substituted for a mob rule mainstream mindset. And as long as this kind of collective approach continues to dominate the Academy, their all but predestined picks will continue to fall further and further out of classics consideration.


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Sunday, Jan 21, 2007


Last week, James Cameron announced that after 10 years in post-Titanic exile (where, granted, he did produce a great many personal projects including Aliens of the Deep), he was smack dab in the middle of his next production, an ambitious sci-fi epic entitled Avatar. The storyline, rumored to center around a US solider sent to a far away planet to participate in its war, will be an ambitious undertaking, with live action elements mixing effortlessly with something the director calls “photo-realistic” CGI. In an interview with ‘Ain’t It Cool News’ honcho Harry Knowles, Cameron indicated that filming had already begun, and that he should have the initial elements wrapped up and completed by the end of this year.


Sounds like a sensational Summer of 2008 release, right? Wrong. In his talk with Knowles, Cameron went on to say that Avatar will not be arriving at your local Cineplex until sometime in 2009, if then. Apparently, the technology being used to render these amazing digital visions – extraterrestrials, space landscapes, intense battle sequences – will take that long to plan, perfect and render (they are being handled by Peter Jackson’s company Weta). Unlike other CGI, Cameron warns, the material in Avatar will be the next generation in visual effects, lifting the medium from its sloppy, Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie level leanings and more toward a successful melding of life with virtual reality. 


As the geek contingency self-flagellates over the possibilities, and the inevitable sniping starts over carefully leaked storyline and character elements, the rest of the moviegoing public will have to wait another 24 months before discovering if Cameron is the next Stanley Kubrick, or just another run of the mill George Lucas. It’s a dazzling, daunting possibility. More than anyone else, the aforementioned 2001 titan brought serious science fiction to the realm of cinematic artistry. On the other hand, Mr. Star Wars has proven that CGI can be both a boon and a burden. From using the technology to revamp his original Trilogy, to relying on it exclusively to visualize his noxious prequels, Lucas, more than anyone else (with perhaps a little help from Jackson) has illustrated the main weakness inherent in the artform.


You see, when done right, CGI is a brilliant cinematic supplement. It presses out the creative creases in complicated sequences and adds an otherworldly pizzazz that standard cinema has a hard time replicating. When used in conjunction with other elements – set design, directorial flair, narrative complexity – it can lift a film into a realm where fantasy truly meets reality and easily co-exists. But when done incorrectly, when over-utilized and brutalized for the sake of some silly desire for more, more, more (read: the Lucas technique), you end up with…well, you end up with animation. Instead of something that resembles the world around us, the artificial nature of the medium pushes us out of the experience. Our eyes and our brain know it, even if the people behind the production don’t.


One of the biggest flaws in old George’s Vader-redefining films is the reliance on digital to create all the filmic facets – sets, props, creatures, action. No matter the attention to detail provided by Industrial Light and Magic and the talented artists employed, the human mind still responds with suspicion when images look too good, when they announce their intention to trick. Take the cityscapes used throughout the prequels. They look amazing with their gravity, physics and pragmatics defying dimensions. Buildings rise miles into the air, landing platforms jutting out like impractical parking ramps. The skylines shimmer with a paradoxical presentation of awe and ambiguity. We enjoy the eye candy treat, but take very little of cinematic sustenance away. Similarly, when all manner of mind-blowing creatures are carted out over and over again, sometimes for the sake of mere variety, we feel the need to disavow the dynamic. 


That’s the problem with most current CGI efforts. From clunky beings that look worse than the earliest computer rendered experiments to obvious attempts to expand a normally nominal vista, the digital domain has turned the art of optical effects into a glorified ruse. It’s all smoke and mirrors, carefully crafted software and proprietary technology twisted into the most synthetic of cinematic styles. There are excellent examples of intricate incorporation. There are also models of meaningless modification. But the simple fact remains that a computer just cannot create the tactile, textural experience of well done physical effects.


A perfect example of a director who makes/made such an old school circumstance work, and work brilliantly, is Terry Gilliam. All throughout his breathtaking Ages Trilogy (Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) the ex-Monty Python animator and true creative genius forged fantastical wonders with puppets, perspective, miniatures, green-screen, and all manner of make-up and animatronic magic. From figuring out a way to feature star Jonathan Pryce in full atmospheric flight to rendering Python pal Eric Idle the fastest man on the planet, Gilliam conspired with his crew to create the impossible out of the practical. Students of the medium know all the tricks – the cotton matting clouds, the use of camera speed to suggest weight and heft, the application of motion control and intricate detailing to give items size and merit. In Gilliam’s talented hands, well crafted F/X aren’t fake or phony. Instead, they effortlessly merge with the overall vision the filmmaker follows, working to keep the audience locked well within the otherwise obtuse ideals.


The same goes for someone like Ridley Scott and his magnificent set of late ‘70s/early ‘80s epics; Alien, Blade Runner and Legend. As close to a perfect combination of movie and mannerisms ever created, Scott’s simple designs – to take viewers to places they’d never dreamed possible – are executed not with computers and programs, but with painstaking interaction between artists and the motion picture medium. From H. R. Giger’s definitive interstellar villain to the look of L.A. circa sometime in the far off future, the reliance on the real, not the bitmap and binary, gives these movies a richness and a realism that technology has yet to capture. Sure, Tim Curry had to go through Hell to take on the persona of The Lord of Darkness, his hours in the make-up chair challenging his patience and his health. But when the results are so resplendent as they are in Legend, when he is flawlessly lost inside the demonic dimensions of his character, it’s easy to excuse the sacrifice.


Other filmmakers like Tim Burton (with his effects style clinic called Beetlejuice) and Sam Raimi (delivering his demented Dead films without a single CGI supplement) equally established that even the cheesiest physical effect could work as long as the elements surrounding it matched the filmmaker’s motives perfectly. Even Cameron proved this with his stellar sequel Aliens. It’s impossible to imagine the movie’s climactic moment rendered digitally. It would seem silly for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character to gear up for her battle with the Queen Mother in a totally CGI robotic forklift suit. Call it reverse rejection. With physical effects, the eye sees the stunt, and starts scanning the image for imperfections. With CGI, the vision is so slick that we initially overlook its misdirection. But then the less than real aspects announce themselves, and we loose interest in the subterfuge. 


It’s the biggest problem with modern computer graphics. Unless a great deal of time and care is taken in how a sequence is staged and rendered, the difference between a cosmic clash between warring interstellar factions and a Saturday morning cartoon become almost negligible. The mind can only register so much detail before the brain is boggled and begins to turn off. Sadly, individuals in charge of today’s slick science creations forget this, and try to pack as much intricate specificity into each scene as possible. That’s why Lucas’ arguments about “improving” his original Trilogy can’t stand. We believed the films when they first arrived in theaters, their sense of optical splendor a solid emotional memory for anyone who was lucky enough to see them back then. Now, they look tinkered with, taken to unrealistic lengths by a man who believes obsessively in the power of his microprocessors.


Hopefully, Cameron won’t fall into the same self-indulgent trap. He practically wrote the book on merging the physical with the computerized in his Terminator 2 and Titanic. But with this new mandate to dump the practical and move toward the totally digital, we could be witnessing another creative crash and burn from a filmmaker who should know better. Just because audiences bought the mostly IBM made Middle Earth and all its CG creations doesn’t mean that Peter Jackson’s auteur input should be diminished. After all, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a semi-realistic rendering of sci-fi/ fantasy reality and you don’t hear fans harping over its filmmakers lack of an Oscar. No, cinematic skill needs to accompany the new tendency toward super computer creativity. The two F/X forms can live together in a kind of motion picture bliss, each one supporting and complementing the other. Maybe James Cameron is correct in taking the next two years to make sure his Avatar sets the standard for all computer graphics to come. If he fails, it will be another example of the invention usurping imagination for no good reason.


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Sunday, Jan 14, 2007


There was much more to Yvonne DeCarlo than The Munsters. There was the opera singing youth who performed at the famed Hollywood Bowl, the voluptuous B-movie actress with roles in some of the genre’s seminal efforts. There was the omnivorous sexual being, a woman who claimed 22 lovers in her scintillating autobiography, including Howard Hughes, Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor and Billy Wilder. And there was the Broadway star who gave Follies (and it’s showstopper “I’m Still Here”) its emotional heft. Last but not least, she was Lily, ghoulish wife to Frankenstein husband Herman and mother to weird wolfboy Eddie. Unfortunately, in a medium measured by a certain level of “what have you done for me lately” fame, DeCarlo was typecast for her brief stint in creature feature costuming. Though she never complained about the classification, it’s sad that one TV show more or less wiped out an entire other career before the public.


With her recent passing from natural causes at age 84 (DeCarlo died on 8 January) fans of her infamous macabre mother bit have reason to be in mourning. While Fred Gwynne gave The Munsters its manic energy, and Al Lewis enlivened the show with his embittered old bat shtick, DeCarlo was the homespun heart, the voice of reason in a realm overloaded with Gothic goofiness and juvenile joking. It was a peculiar place for the former Peggy Yvonne Middleton to be in. Born in the Canadian province of British Columbia, DeCarlo’s mother saw potential in her child from a very early age. Abandoned by her father when she was three, hers was a hard knock life of isolation, dance classes and dramatic studies. While performing provided an excellent escape from the loneliness and poverty of her single parent’s precarious circumstance, young Peggy still suffered. When she turned 15, Mom finally took her to Hollywood, hoping for instant success. Yet aside from winning Miss Venice Beach in 1938, no one was welcoming this adolescent actress. Without breaching a single studio door, the pair eventually returned to the Great White North, defeated.


Three years later, an 18 year old Peggy returned to Tinsel Town, and found steady work in chorus lines while seeking a screen test. Before long, she was working, unbilled, in several slight short films. When her turn as a bathing beauty got her noticed in 1941’s Harvard, Here I Come, the newly christened Yvonne DeCarlo (a combination of her grandfather’s last name and her middle moniker) became exotic eye candy for numerous forgettable efforts. Though a leading role in 1943’s The Deerslayer raised her profile a little, it wasn’t until 1945’s Salome - Where She Danced that DeCarlo finally got the big break she needed. She soon became known for her “sex-and-sand” epics, movies with names like Song of Scheherazade, Slave Girl, Casbah and Desert Hawk. She was equally comfortable in a Wild West setting, where her smashing good looks and ample figure helped fortify such films as Frontier Gal, Black Bart, River Lady and Calamity Jane and Sam Bass.


But it wasn’t until 1956, when noted spectacle specialist Cecil B. DeMille was looking for an actress to play Sephora, the wife of Old Testament titan Moses in The Ten Commandments that the actress finally arrived. DeCarlo won the role, and soon she was stealing glances as the faithful spouse who stood by her God guided man through all manner of trials and tribulations. Looking far more erotic than a Biblical bride should, rumor has it that costar Anne Baxter was angry that her Nefrateri had to compete with DeCarlo’s physical flower for the affections of Charleton Heston. A huge hit, Commandments lead the actress to another fine role as Amantha Starr in Band of Angels. Though today, this pre-Civil Rights look at the antebellum South screams racial (and historical) insensitivity, DeCarlo, along with Sidney Poitier and Clark Gable, gave a daring performance (she was even involved in a taboo testing interracial kiss).


As with most studio stars, the failing Hollywood system strangled the actress’s efforts to move forward. Television became a necessary repository for DeCarlo’s career goals, and she ended up co-starring on popular series like Bonanza and The Virginian. But it was the chance offer of a comedic role in a ridiculous sounding sitcom that finally secured the b-movie beauty a slice of immortality. It is said that former Car 54 costars Gwynne and Lewis did not want DeCarlo as Lily. They thought her too old (she was born in ‘22, with Lewis arriving in ‘23 and Gwynne starting off in ‘26) and saddled with a randy reputation loaded with sleazy innuendo (something Kenneth Anger chronicles in depth in his Hollywood Babylon book). This was supposed to be a family show, after all.


Once she put on the fright mask make-up and donned the ghoul’s gown, all fears were instantly alleviated. Lily became the show’s stalwart, the straight man allowing for Gwynne and Lewis’s laugh out loud craziness. As with The Addams Family, The Munsters used the comic premise to explore domestic issues and subjects usually avoided (racism, sexuality, conformity) by the standard sitcom. But just like its chief competitor, the public grew weary of the gimmick-oriented offering and The Munsters disappeared after only two seasons. Again adrift, DeCarlo tried to parlay her TV celebrity into more meaningful roles. Sadly, she seemed stuck in low budget quickies, dreary drive-in dreck, and the occasional exploitation effort. Thankfully, the Great White Way offered her a chance to shine, showing off the surprisingly strong singing voice that few in her fanbase knew she had.


In Follies, DeCarlo was Carlotta Campion, a former star reminiscing about her time in the limelight. Given a great showstopper by musical genius Stephen Sondheim, the theater proved a perfect format to fulfill DeCarlo’s lifelong dreams. The show ran for over a year, and remained an apex in the actress’s latter years. A few Munster’s reunion shows during the ‘70s and ‘80s kept her in the public eye, but by 1995, age and illness forced her into retirement.


Though she was married only once throughout the course of her career (a 13 year relationship with Bob Morgan resulted in two sons and a step-daughter) DeCarlo’s earlier after hours escapades remained salacious tabloid style scuttlebutt. Her tell-all autobiography in 1987 confirmed many of the more sensational aspects of her story, but nothing could really dissuade the public about her persona. Thanks to endless years of afternoon reruns, generations grew up loving the vampire-like matron with a strong, sensible streak, and Lily Munster’s legacy continued unabated. Even actresses who would take on the Munster mantle in various remakes and TV movies acknowledge that DeCarlo was the definitive version of the humble horror housewife.


Still, there was much more to Yvonne DeCarlo than widow’s peaks, haunted house hilarity and an untamed libido. She’s a reminder that imagery and memory are a strong combination, a recipe to reduce even the most startling female figure into a lifetime of living as the bride of the monster. Tell someone that DeCarlo was Moses’s mate and they’ll probably ask you the name of the spoof you are referencing. Hopefully, as her career is considered, newcomers to the actresses canon will discover the diversity of her talents. Sure, she will always be Lily Munster. But that’s not all Yvonne DeCarlo was. Not by a long shot.


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Sunday, Jan 7, 2007


In the last of our looks back over SE&L‘s brief time on the filmic forefront, it’s time to champion our occasional commentary pieces. Sometimes, we hit the nail right on its pointed little pop culture head. At other instances, we voice strong opinions that rub the average movie maven the wrong way. Between our first piece on hiring talk show hosts and actual directors to be film critics, to challenging the “classic comedy” stance of one of 2006’s biggest hits, the SE&L staff has never shirked its responsibility to be provocative, thoughtful and daring. The 14 pieces offered here provide clear proof of such a literary mandate.


A Critical Misstep
Parental Guidance Rejected
Plane Crash
You’re Joking
Home Video’s True Legacy
Bye Bye, Besson
Too Late?
Akiva Goldsman Must Die!
The Incredibly Inconsistent Career of Bob Clark
Is that the Fat Lady Singing?
Whorat
It’s the Year of the Yahoo!
The Tragedy of Terry Gilliam
Dim Wits - Critics and Darren Aronoksy’s The Fountain


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Tuesday, Jan 2, 2007


While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at Christmas; Naughty and Nice up and including yesterday’s unusual take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. As we prepare to unveil a few new features for 2007’s version of the blog, this is an excellent chance to see where we’ve been in the last five months. Thankfully, the road ahead is looking even more remarkable. Enjoy!


Naughty and Nice: The Top 10 Christmas Movies of All Time


The Top 10 Criterion Releases of 2006


The Top 10 Films of 2006 That You’ve Never Heard Of


The 10 Worst Films of 2006


The 10 Worst DVDs of 2006


The 10 Best Films of 2006


The 10 Best DVDs of 2006


 


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