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Sunday, Dec 31, 2006


To the discerning eye, this list is going to appear a little odd. At first, you see films that typically make most end of the year inventories – movies like The Queen and The Departed. These are the quality efforts that many critics recognize as stellar filmmaking, flawlessly executed. But about halfway through, things start to shift wildly. Before long, outright genre efforts - and even a film unseen by most of the movie-going public - are taking the place of other, overly praised efforts. This is done on purpose. Here at SE&L, we sing along to our own inner soundtrack and praise the movies that we feel best fulfilled their cinematic promise. A great film doesn’t have to meet a journalist-mandated set of standards, nor does it have to be a true fan favorite. Like humor and taste in music, what zaps a cinephile’s aesthetic is individual and unique. One man’s Trash is another man’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, so to speak.


So behold, the first ever PopMatters Film Blog Top Ten. Frankly, it was a fairly easy list to compile. Take the movies seen throughout the course of 2006, rank them in order of personal preference, and write up some blurbs. Certainly, there will be choices that people point to (Letters from Iwo Jima, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine) that aren’t represented here, and again, that’s intentional. If we enjoyed a slice and dice bit of slasher superiority from the guy who created Cabin Fever over a no nonsense reminder of 9/11 heroism, so be it. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it promotes a certain storyline featuring motherf*cking reptiles on a motherf*cking airliner. So get out your poison pens and prepare to pick apart the choices. Here are Short Ends and Leaders picks for the Best Films of 2006:


1. The Prestige
If films are supposed to make you forget your troubles, whisk you away to worlds and places unknown, and deliver the kind of insightful, absorbing entertainment that only great art can accomplish, then The Prestige is definitely cinema at its most amazing. No other movie in 2006 was as painstakingly creative and visually arresting as Christopher Nolan’s take on Christopher Priest’s battling magicians novel. Much more than The Illusionist, which couched its pretty prestidigitation in a setting of pure old fashioned romance, The Prestige played with notions of obsession, dedication and deception. It remains a dark and dazzling work of masterful manipulation with an ending more saddening than shocking.



2. The Fountain
When you tear away the artifice, when you understand the links between the three arcane storylines (Conquistador, Contemporary, Cosmic) as well as the couple at the center of this staggering drama, you realize just how deep Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain really is. A magnificent meditation on how we accept death, and our inner struggle over demands of immortality, the Requiem for a Dream helmer describes love and loss, science vs. the spiritual, and hope against horror, all in the eyes of his two desperate leads. Dismissed by most critics who couldn’t wrap their brain around the unusual narrative structure, this is a film destined to grow in stature and significance in years to come.



3. The Queen
They say that famed British actress Helen Mirren stars in this unusual docudrama on the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Unfortunately, all one witnesses in this magnificent bit of motion picture imagining is her Royal Highness herself, Queen Elizabeth II. So effective is Mirren in drawing us into the world of the socially sheltered monarchy that we never once doubt we are watching the real Windsor clan reacting to a troubling, traumatic event. Michael Sheen is equally amazing as Tony Blair, the newly elected Prime Minister forced to face off against Her Majesty when the country’s grief grows too powerful. Together they show how power blurs the edges of one’s humanity, and how hard it is to get it back.



4. The Departed
Martin Scorsese and crime seem to be synonymous, but for many, The Departed marked a transitional moment for the American auteur. While this good cop/bad cop game of double crosses contained the essence of the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs in its narrative basics, the man behind such masterpieces as Goodfellas and Raging Bull reconfigured the story into something deeply personal. All three main characters, and the actors who embodied them, come across as worn and worked over, tired of constantly having to stay one step ahead of each other. Add in a superb supporting cast, an enigmatic Boston location, and a barrel full of Scorsese’s standard directorial brilliance, and you’ve got one of the year’s best, most accomplished films.



5. Clerks II
Kevin Smith can claim a great many things, but making one of the best movies of any year is not really one of them. Oh sure, his fans in the View Askew universe recognize that anything he does is brilliant, but that doesn’t mean that the far more condemning critical community follows suit. For 2006, things have changed. By revisiting his past, Smith has expanded his generational language, doing for maturity and moving on what the first Clerks did for sublime slackerdom a decade before. With its biting dialogue, insightful humor and smidgen of open-handed heart, what we wind up with is a wonderful dissertation on arrested adolescence and adulthood.



6. Hostel
Some find Eli Roth repugnant, the founding father of the new fangled ‘horror porn’ ideal. Anyone dismissing Hostel like this obviously has no movie macabre credentials. Doing for the genre what the Texas Chain Saw Massacre did in the ‘70s, and Evil Dead did for the ‘80s, Roth reinvents the scary film, taking it to levels both extreme and easily identifiable. Many people failed to see the cynical commentary on American nationalism and even fewer missed the swipes at the softcore sex farces that made up the majority of the early home video catalog. The results are dark, disgusting and definitive. Like The Fountain before, this is one that will age well indeed.


7. Snakes on a Plane
All right, complain all you want. Declare this a clear case of Internet hype failing to fulfill its promise, but dammit, Snakes on a Plane was a blast. People constantly comment on how the web-based ballyhoo didn’t translate into massive box office dollars, but the truth is that for anyone who grew up in the 1970s, SoaP was a terrific throwback to the original concept of a blockbuster. As the missing badass cousin of the kitschy Airport films, it’s a perfect example of the Zen popcorn experience, offering as much goofball yin as cinematic yang. Sure, it barely transcends its b-movie trappings, but for pure uncomplicated entertainment, you can’t beat these sensational serpents.



8. Silent Hill
Creepy can be its own virtue, and no one did disturbing better than Brotherhood of the Wolf director Christophe Gans. Given the charge of bringing to life the popular video game, the French filmmaker turned Hill‘s horrible imagery into a metaphor for life under the threat of constant upheaval. Few cinematic sequences were more compelling this year than the moments when the town’s ‘dark’ alarm sounded off, its baneful wail reminding all who hear it of the days when US Civil Defense used the same signal to announce an imminent nuclear threat. Between the dread-inspiring creatures and the brilliant visual flair, this was one spine-tingling take on terror.


9. Apocalypto
Mel Gibson may be as mad as a hatter – and a regular racist fool – but he sure can make magnificent cinema. Using a digital set-up to increase the realism and a measured approach to both history and histrionics, this old fashioned action romp rides the fine line between period piece and sci-fi spectacle. By taking us into the tale end of a corrupt Mayan culture, and watching the weird, sometimes contemptible way in which they held onto their power, we are literally whisked away to places afar and unknown. By grounding all the gore and gratuity, this tale of a kidnapped tribesman desperate to get back to his family proves a prolonged chase can carry with it more than just filmmaking panache. There can be heart and humanity as well.



10. Idiocracy
It’s the best movie of 2006 that no one saw – and that was on purpose. Fox, feeling let down once again by Mike Judge’s slanted satirical eye, relegated this 2004 futuristic farce to a high shelf in their direct to DVD release schedule. Then, feeling considerable pressure from the filmmaker, dumped it in a few theaters during the end of the Summer, signaling their overall contempt for the title. It makes sense, once you’ve seen the film. The very demographic Fox was wagering would fill the Cineplex were the very target of Judge’s derisive skewering. A movie that makes the bold prediction that our country is getting stupider every year, here’s hoping it finds an knowing audience on home video.



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Saturday, Dec 30, 2006


Believe it or not, making worst-of lists is a heck of a lot harder than making best-of determinations. The explanation for why may seem specious at first, but follow along anyway. You see, something good stands out for numerous reasons – brilliant direction, monumental acting, a quick and brainy script, an approach to a subject that is fresh and dynamic. Even when that story seems similar and the elements reek of the routine, energy and mood, tone and treatment can all aid in a film’s final aesthetic determination. But with the bad, the facets are sadly familiar – boring execution, non-existing cinematics, lame, ludicrous writing and performances that range from problematic to pathetic. These aggravating aspects never change, they never alter their under-performing patchiness. A crappy effort is a crappy effort, each one feeling similarly unworthy and unacceptable.


So when faced with the mountain of mediocrity a DVD critic is exposed to each year, finding a mere 10 that turn your stomach is an exercise in remembrance and repulsion. Looking back means identifying works that wasted your time, revisiting filmmakers whose arrogance blinded them to their true lack of artistic acumen, and generally re-experiencing the pain of time lost, sensibilities shaken, and interest waned. Again, the same rules apply here as with the Films You’ve Never Heard Of category. The movie itself can be from any year – the digital version, however, had to arrive on the medium in the past 12 months. There are a couple of theatrical releases here, an unfathomably bad TV show, and more than a few homemade movie macabres. Between Joe Bob Briggs’ famous three “Bs” – blood, breasts and beasts” – there’s enough genre junk on hand to send horror back to its pre-Gothic roots.


So grab hold or your aesthetic and wade in cautiously. SE&L‘s 10 Worst DVDs of 2006 have been known to drown even the most adventurous cinematic swimmer:



1. Dark Reality
Dark Reality is a depressing failure, the kind of overly ambitious claptrap that originates out of every fanboy’s camcorder the minute they decide to make a horror film. The creative coupling of Christopher Hutson (whose resume includes a Penthouse video and a how-to sex guide) and three additional writers thinks its clever keeping us, as well as the characters, in the dark about their foul fate. However, it merely creates an instantaneous detachment that can only be reestablished by empathetic individuals and smart scripting. Unfortunately, Dark Reality has neither. Instead, we get a Blair Witch kind of relationship to the actors, able to tolerate them only in very small doses. The minute these grating gals open their mouths to speak, however, we immediately start rooting for the middle-aged murderer whose trapped them.




2. Live Feed
Rumor has it that the father and son team responsible for Live Feed – Canadians Roy and Ryan Nicholson – had the idea for this Asian slaughterhouse atrocity long before Eli Roth created his fright flick masterwork Hostel. If that’s the case, then Mr. Cabin Fever may have the first and only legal claim of backwards plagiarism ever experienced by a mainstream moviemaker. Wanting to be an all out gratuitous gorefest loaded with gallons of overflowing red stuff, what we get instead is a mindless waste of time and talent. The characters are craven archetypes, uninvolving and more than a little irritating, and the storyline tries to be shocking, but only winds up feeling stagnant. By the end, you wonder what you, yourself, can do to prevent this film from ever again destroying a fellow fright fans fear factors.



3. Knight of the Peeper
Somewhere between an old-fashioned exploitation film and the kind of gimpy, gratuitous softcore sagas usually helmed by Fred Olen Ray, Knight of the Peeper is about as unpleasant an entertainment experience as a non-14-year-old adolescent male can have. With a lame narrative and a dearth of feminine delights, anyone who’s not packing pre-or post puberty hormones in uncontrollable boner bushel baskets should probably steer clear of this full-frontal skin flick-a-thon—unless, of course, the thought of various New York/New Jersey strippers showing off their breast augmentation scars gets your geriatric gonads in an uproar. This is nothing more than grating grindhouse material, the kind of seedy smoker reel made by and for dudes who need to pay to know the touch of a woman.



4. Dawn
A vampire rewrite that’s so dull, so unbelievably boring, that you’ll wonder what writer/director/actor Jay Reel was aiming for when he foisted this no-budget nonsense on the film-viewing public, Dawn is tedious and talky. It’s a film overripe with narrative, and hampered by its determined anti-horror stance. By draining all the life blood out of the neckbiter genre—hunters are just mutant people who need claret, not cold cuts and cole slaw, to survive—he robs the mythology of its romanticism, its vitality… heck, of just about anything remotely interesting. In its place he finds pages and pages of dialogue, and a collection of actors who don’t understand the difference between performance and merely repeating lines.



5. Survival Island
Though the set-up would suggest that this is regular Skinemax erotica, the truth is far more fleshless. In truth, Survival Island is a sloppy combination of Dead Calm, Swept Away, and a myriad of mindless “two men and a hot chick” testosterone-fueled flops that play on an audiences’ morbid curiosity with flawed fantasy fodder. This is the kind of movie that announces its intentions right off the bat: rich couple coolly looking down at the Latino cabin boy; hot-tempered honey who throws a voodoo curse on our Hispanic hunk’s libido; the accidental if paranormally purposeful disaster at sea; the eventual arrival on a deserted island; the savage sexual tension; the laughably lame dialogue; a few fights; an unexpected death, and, of course, a cruel twist at the end.



6. H6: Diary of a Serial Killer
Hindered by a script that’s all talk and no stalk, and absent even the most elemental eeriness, H6: Diary of a Serial Killer should actually be retitled Boring Murderer with Diarrhea of the Mouth. Ever since Hannibal Lector made the gift of gab frightening, filmmakers have decided that nothing says insane spree slaughter better than a guy who just can’t shut up. Like Brad Garrett as Ed Gein, Fernando Acaso uses his banana oil slicked hairdo as a main character dimension, and runs his yap incessantly while preparing to pare up another prostitute. No matter your penchant for dread, this is the kind of movie that will cure you of your creature feature cravings once and for all.



7. Hussy
Hussy is a terrible movie. It offers little in the way of emotional or dramatic intrigue, and takes what seems like cinematic eons to get to its rather vapid points. Captured within this sorry slice of 1980s- era British celluloid is a decent performance from headlining star Helen Mirren, a zombified turn by John Shea, who is completely out of his element here, and a scene-stealing sequence from a Third Act narrative catalyst known as Paul Angelis. As a first-timer whose naiveté is palpable, obviously unskilled at motion-picture practicalities like consistency of tone and clarity of narrative purpose, writer/director Matthew Chapman clouds everything in a veil of unspoken passions and illusory personal secrets. The result is a sloppy character study that actual infers more than it reveals – including entertainment value.



8. Bazaar Bizarre
There are certain things that do not belong in a documentary about serial killers – interviews with individuals who have no direct correlation to the crimes, tentative statements about the extent of the evidence, local bands playing bad blues within a mediocre music video style setting – and yet these are the very elements that self-proclaimed avant-garde “artist” Benjamin Meade uses to tell the story of Kansas City slayer Bob Berdella. All throughout the mock/documentary Bazaar Bizarre, Meade uses the juicy commentary of author James Ellroy (LA Confidential) to provide an outside voice of reason and outrage in the discussion of this madman’s brutal crimes. But the ancillary elements – outright conjecture, songs that explain the case at hand – just sink the story.



9. One Last Thing…
One Last Thing … is unconscionable. At its core is the dim dying wish of its central character, Dylan, an aspiration that’s part symbolic, part softcore pornographic. The notion of a high school sophomore with raging cancer wanting his final days to be spent with a superhot supermodel may seem sensible but, logistically, it’s not really rational. Dylan is just asking for disappointment and Sunny Mabrey’s cynical Nikki does not fail to frustrate. As a matter of fact, the only way she can make up for 80 minutes of miserable treatment is to go jailbait on our hero. The result is an ending that smacks of stupidity and staging, never once touching on the truth of such a sick kid/dream date situation.



10. The Ron White Show
Call it a one off special or a junked attempt at a weekly TV gig, but The Ron White Show is really nothing more than 22 minutes of mindless crap comedy. Frankly, this smart, savvy stand up deserves better. His is a humor based in defeat and humiliation, 20 years of trying to break into the big time and sudden, sensationalized success. If this was the reward he was aiming for, the final prize after decades of struggling, he should have quit while he was a failure. This is a depressingly bad piece of garbage, a watered down version of what White truly stands for. Everything here is filtered through a demographic homogenizer to guarantee that all wit, cleverness and intelligence is weeded out.


 


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Friday, Dec 29, 2006


By all accounts, 2006 was a disorienting year at the movies. On the one hand, box office receipts were up, end of the year quality seemed sound, and a decent balance between horrible and honorable was maintained across the board. At least, that’s how it looked at first glance. But when you probe deeper, delving into the darkest recesses of the cinematic septic tank, the atrocious efforts of the past 12 months give off a funk so powerful that even the most seasoned cinephile would gag from the tang. You see, bad movies don’t begin abominable. Several significant factors must come into play before your typical motion picture goes malodorous. Basically, a director must become blinded to his or her own vision, the script should skip standard literary elements like logic and coherence, and the actors must merge with the flimsy filmic foundation, performing up to or below the level of the narrative’s nonsensical expectations. Toss in some lame special effects, sloppy cinematography, and an editor whose aesthetic skews toward the erratic, and you’ve got certified cinematic slop on your hands.


Or do you. Reviewing this year’s list it is clear that, in almost all the cases, the efforts being belittled are big budget Hollywood horse apples. They’re the kind of expensive, marketing masterminded redundant dreck that threatens to make every trip to your local theater a metaphysical minefield overflowing with potential time wasters. Sure, it’s easy to pick on the independent efforts that represent some film geeks glorified idea of compelling creativity, but when untold millions are being spent to support half-baked humor, insipid drama and atrophied action, it’s the worst kind of filmmaking felony. In some ways, picking the worst films of any year is much harder than pinpointing the best. For every Departed, there’s a dozen Stay Alives. For every Science of Sleep, there’s a few Super Ex-Girlfriends. Paring it down to ten can be trying, but we here at SE&L strive for analytical excellence. So after hours of concentrated consideration, here is our list of the 10 Worst Films of the year:



1. Little Man
Without a doubt, the most excruciatingly horrible experience anyone could have at a movie theater in the last few years. It’s not bad enough that the one time talented Wayans clan revert to lowest common denominator humor to sell their dwarf as a diamond thief stupidity. No, they go a step further, filling the screen with so much sophomoric sleaziness that you feel just filthy watching it. Clearly the vilest experience of 2006.



2. Omen 2006
For anyone who needs proof that bad casting can kill a potentially interesting project, this lame remake of the 1976 satanic sensation is considered confirmation. Between the misused Mia Farrow to the blank as a fart Julia Stiles, you’d think this tale of the Antichrist’s return to Earth would have exhausted all potential acting awfulness. But no, they have to drag poor Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick through the sludge as a giggly, goofy Devil doll. Ugh!



3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
When this sequel/prequel to a remake of the original power tool terror was announced, it promised to show how Leatherface (now named Thomas Hewitt) became the crazed cannibal killer that many a Goth gal gushes over. Instead, the narrative centers on the slaughter star’s Uncle, a redneck reject who uses a random roadside incident to become Sheriff Hoyt. Add in the standard batch of unwitting teens and it’s another dull, dumb splatterfest.



4. BloodRayne
Sword and sorcery doesn’t get any stupider than in this Uwe Boll directed dung. Featuring amazingly bad acting turns by Michael Madsen, Billy Zane, Ben Kingsley, and Ms. T-X herself, Kristanna Loken, this ‘based on a video game’ groaner takes motion picture mediocrity to new levels of ludicrousness. Boll recently challenged several journalists to a staged boxing match, defending himself against their critical drubbing. Too bad his fisticuffs can’t save his hideous hackwork here.



5. Employee of the Month
Just like mixing certain household cleaners, the combining of Dane Cook, Dax Shepard and Jessica Simpson turns out to be a caustic, near deadly experience. Granted, Shepard has proven capable in efforts like Zathura and Idiocracy, while Cook can claim a large myspace-based fandom. But Simpson is a slag, unable to act her way out a siliconed skin bag, and her co-stars match her witlessness for witlessness. Comedy doesn’t get much sadder than this.



6. Big Momma’s House 2
Following Eddie Murphy’s formula for failing career rehabilitation, former blue comedian Martin Lawrence dons drag once again to portray that infamous obese black woman. This time, he takes on the Mrs. Doubtfire dynamic, playing nanny to a group of kids whose daddy might be a corporate spy. With nameless villains, featureless plotting, inert performances and an overall feeling of being warmed over and repetitive, this was just a poorly concealed cash grab.



7. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Nicole Kidman – statuesque Australian beauty, porcelain in her complexion and supermodel-esque in her overall look. Diane Arbus – dark, dour New Yorker, very ethnic in her inherent Jewishness and disturbed to the point of self-destruction. How do the two match up to make a singular surreal biopic about the famed photographer’s career? Only the amazingly misguided Steven Shainberg can explain this fictional, farcical take on the troubled, talented artist.



8. Zoom
Tim Allen now holds a distinct place in the annals of sci-fi cinema. He starred in one of the genre’s greatest satires (GalaxyQuest) and, this year, he wrapped up the worst effort award as well. Playing a former superhero recruited to train a group of underage wannabes, this appalling combination of the speculative and the scatological is aimed at an IQ below the average of its single digit demographic.




9. Poseidon
With all the advances in special effects, a remake of this 1972 Irwin Allen disaster epic would seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, director Wolfgang Peterson took the whole ‘mindless’ concept seriously, and delivered an inert action movie with more plot holes than portholes. Even the CGI sucked, rendering the set piece moment when a ‘rogue wave’ capsizes the ship as pure pixilated poppycock. Not even Kurt Russell could save this ship.



10. The Da Vinci Code
Ron Howard rewrites the rules of the thriller, determining that belabored flashbacks and endless exposition are the perfect components to create suspense and intrigue. With a built in fanbase across the world, Code becomes the first megahit to be a complete and utter filmic fiasco as well. Proponents point to the meticulous recreation of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, but this literal adaptation is so overblown in its sense of self-importance that it simply implodes.



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Wednesday, Dec 13, 2006


Van Smith never won an Oscar. He was never idolized or celebrated by a vehement genre audience like Dick Smith or Tom Savini. If his chief collaborator, cinematic genius John Waters, was the ‘Pope of Puke’, Smith was his primary prophet, a pure fashion forecaster who violated the mandates of style while creating his own kitsch couture along the way. Noted for finding the ugly underneath the beautiful, and more importantly, the glamour inside the gross, the mad make-up artist/costumer designer is more famous for taking the simple drag queen elements of one Harris Glen Milstead – a.k.a. Divine – and twisting them into pop culture iconography. Through a combination of scars, blackheads, pimples and other occlusions, Smith stood fearless in the face of misunderstanding mockery. Years later, when his approach was stolen outright for the catwalks of Paris and Milan, he and his friends in Waters’ Dreamland Studios had that long awaited, hard last laugh.


When you think about it, Smith did indeed start the whole vogue/vile concept behind well done exaggerated drag. Prior to his poisoning of the standards of beauty, males masquerading as women usually strove for the slight hyperrealism of the typical suburban spouse. Waters has even been quoted as saying that before Divine came along, most gay men “wanted to look like Bess Myerson”. Smith and his symbol changed all that. Using the limited budgets that a Dreamland production would provide, a Baltimore loaded with thrift and welfare shops, a penchant for bargain basement cosmetics, untold amounts of sequins, and an aesthetic that shouted “More! More! More!” this Matisse of Maybelline redefined the notion of what was trash and what was tasteful. Basically blurring the lines between the two, and throwing in some of his own Smith secrets, he created a signature sensibility that few, if any, have been able to mimic or match to this day.


Born Walter Avant Smith Jr. in Mirianna, Florida on 17 August, 1945, the renamed Van first ran into Waters after he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1968. Living in an apartment complex inhabited by many of the future director’s antisocial company, he started hanging around the sets of Water’s early works. It wasn’t long before Smith was tapped to create Divine’s character of Babs Johnson for the seminal Midnight movie masterpiece Pink Flamingos. Designing a deranged fishtail gown, and shaving the actor’s hairline back toward the middle of his head (to make room for more make-up, Smith explained), he gave birth to a laugh out loud legendary look that has carried over for more than 35 years. It was a difficult accomplishment when you consider that Waters had little money, Divine was over 300 pounds and hard to fit, and Smith had to hand create everything, from dresses to hairpieces, fake breasts and the necessary female cheater (read: false vagina) for any nude scenes.


Yet he never let the lack of cash destroy his imagination. For his next pairing with Waters, the amazingly anarchic Female Trouble, Smith got to take Divine from teenager to tramp, lumpy housewife to scandalous supermodel. The transformations were terrific (including the use of some latex to mottle the star’s face with fake acid burns) and Smith even created outrageous outfits for co-stars Edith Massey (in particular, a laced leather item that still seems pornographic today) and Mink Stole (whose tumbled down school girl Taffy predates anything ever considered by Courtney Love or the rock band Babes in Toyland). The highpoint had to be the main character, Dawn Davenport’s, death row ensemble. Sure, her crazed cat suit with an off the shoulder strapless look and a single gloved arm leading to a connected set of razor sharp nails is amazing, but when limited to a potato sack like prison outfit, and a head completely bereft of hair, Divine’s dour, dumpy persona perfectly encapsulated the Waters/Smith ideal. The director has always stated that his make-up maven had a sense of “inner rot” and nothing shows this better than an obese drag queen being prepared for a little capital punishment.


Smith’s crowning achievement, however, is still Desperate Living. With Divine unavailable for filming (he/she was in San Francisco starring in her successful stage show) and former striptease sensation Liz Renay on tap to play a loco lipstick lesbian, Smith outdid himself. Sticking to the main theme of the movie, he took cast members like Mink Stole, Jean Hill, and Susan Lowe and magically transformed them into the hopeless citizenry of Mortville, a seedy sanctuary where criminals, vagabonds and other social misfits could come and live out there wrong footed wretched existence. The only problem was, they had to conform to the contemptible demands of the demented Queen Carlotta. While almost any talented designer can conceive of a shower curtain dress or a fluorescent green tutu for a 500 pound black woman, Smith made it all seem like part of the plot. In fact, the main element that people often forget about this amazing artist is that he never once tried to overshadow Waters’ worlds. Instead, he hoped to complement their corruptness by flawlessly visualizing their inner deceit. And he usually did.


When Waters went ‘legit’, first with Polyester, and later with Hairspray and Cry Baby, Smith was right along side, toning down his approach but never once abandoning his ethic. His work in the two trips back into Baltimore nostalgia – Hairspray centering on a ‘60s teen TV dance show, Cry Baby a cheesy chunk of ‘50s juvenile delinquency – proved that Smith could handle historically accurate and shockingly ridiculous at the same time. Continuing on with costumes only for the rest of Waters oeuvre (up to and including the man’s most recent effort, 2004’s A Dirty Shame) Smith was one of the last original Dreamlanders, a group that saw death (Divine, David Lochery) and the passage of time take away many of the merry band. When his aging mother grew ill, Smith moved back to Mirianna to take care of her. It is there where, on 5 December 2006, he had a fatal heart attack. Among fans of film, the loss was immediate and irreplaceable. Not only was Van Smith that rare individualist in a realm loaded with no name journeymen, but his vision lives on in that stronger than ever subculture of gay life.


It is clear that, from a purely symbolic standpoint, the mythos of Divine would be substantially mitigated if Van Smith had not been on hand to create her crackpot composite. It’s a look that’s so unsettlingly unique that only that rare combination of performer and packager can pull it off successfully. Smith once stated that his generic approach to Divine’s basic look was a meshing of Jayne Mansfield and Clarabelle the Clown. No doubt, the actor frequently looked sexy and sick, sinister and silly, a harlequin, a horror and a honey all rolled into one great big ball of brazenness. Many critics have pointed out that Waters seemed to lose his edge once Divine passed away in 1988. It will be interesting to see where the filmmaker goes now that his guru of gruesomeness, his trident of tastelessness, his imaginer of ick is gone as well. Waters did manage to make movies without his longtime friend and celebrated star. This, however, may be an aesthetic blow to great to completely compensate for.


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Sunday, Dec 10, 2006


When did moviegoers, including those in the so-called critical class, get so stupid? When, exactly, did they decide to turn off their brains, sitting back mindlessly and demanding that everything in an entertainment be explained to them? Was it when marketing became master of the cinematic domain, when test screenings and focus groups stole creativity out of the hands of the artist? Maybe it was during the days of the high concept, when narrative didn’t need to be deep or intricate - it just needed to connect instantly with an audience. Home video definitely drove a stake in the heart of cinematic intellectualism. Once everyone had access to the world’s wealth of film, the backseat scholarship began, and as a result, the creation of false perception.


Granted, viewing a masterpiece like 2001 on a 13” screen is not the proper way of determining Kubrick’s overall approach to science fiction, yet such an aesthetic has long since become the norm. As a result, all of these factors have fooled faux cinephiles into believing they understand the nature of movies. Unfortunately, every once in a while, they prove that, deep down inside, they’re insolent little scholars unable to think their way out of a plausible motion picture bag. Take Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, The Fountain. True, the Requiem for a Dream director fought hard to realize his vision of mortality acceptance set inside a surreal speculative fiction/period piece format. And it’s clear that, once first superstar lead Brad Pitt pulled out, Aronofsky had to substantially diminish his vision. But from the reviews being written, both in print and on the web, you’d swear the director had made his own arcane Inland Empire.


In case you missed it – and you probably have, since its flying out of theaters faster than a non-Pixar CGI cartoon – The Fountain centers on Izzy, played by Rachel Weisz, and Tommy, played by Hugh Jackman. She’s a writer. He’s a research scientist/doctor. She is dying of an inoperable brain tumor. He is experimenting with exotic plant life to find a potential cure. As their last days together become insular and unhappy, Izzy presents her husband with a present – it’s her most recent effort, an epic romance/adventure called The Fountain. In the book, a Conquistador is sent to find the Tree of Life by the Queen of Spain. She will use the existence of the mythical symbol as a way of stopping the Grand Inquisitor from usurping her throne – and condemning her to death as a heretic. Charged with his royal mission, the warrior travels abroad, where a Mayan temple supposedly holds the secret location for this holy relic.


The parallels are pretty obvious: a lady being undermined by a “cancerous” force inside her own domain; a dedicated lover intent on finding the “cure”; a battle being waged both internally and externally; faith being destroyed and reconfigured on highly personal and prophetic levels. The story within a story format is so stereotypical – and thus avoided by many modern filmmakers – that Aronofsky’s use is disconcerting at first. It therefore makes some manner of sense that overstuffed film critics, bombarded with every level of moviemaking formula in the motion picture pantheon, would react with some suspicion. Indeed, one doesn’t expect such obvious analogies in the ‘oh so clever’ current artform – and especially from Aronofsky. Even with his dedication to style over subtlety, such an apparent narrative ruse would seem beneath his talents.


As a matter of fact, it is. There is more to the ancient empire storyline than a simple metaphor for Izzy and Tommy’s trials. Clearly, these scenes are meant to forge a fascination with immortality, a question of what cheating death actually means. This is high stakes stuff, material moving at a level beyond most normal human’s hampered thinking capacity. Without going into massive spoilers, the Conquistador’s efforts expose the arrogance of battling transience. Similarly, the fate of the Queen seems certain. She can send all the soldiers she wants out into the New World, hoping to find a remedy for what ails her ‘dying’ regime. But the truth is, such solutions are many miles – and months – away. Anyone who thinks they can hold off the rollercoaster of religion for that period of time is simply foolish. In essence, the actions of the past participants in the story are predestined to fail. That’s the main message of the movie – death cannot be stopped, no matter how hard you fight against it.


So then, what’s the next step? Where does a story like this go from here? It’s at this juncture where many reviewers jumped the sensibility ship. Aranofksy does make a bold choice here – something many miss upon an initial viewing. Izzy explains to her husband that she couldn’t complete her manuscript. The last chapter has been left blank, and she gives her spouse pen and ink, telling him he must finish the story. The sentiment is crystal clear. She’s doing the hard part – dying. He has the second most challenging choice – how to respond to it. The book’s conclusion will reflect his feelings on the subject, and signal how he intends to approach her departing. When viewed in this more than likely light, the futuristic material that has thrown so many moviegoers for an illogical loop is suddenly self-evident.


Tommy is a man of science, someone constantly throwing aside the pragmatic and the emotional for complicated trials on untested treatments. He views the world in a way that most physicians/healers do – that is, they are demigods determining life and death with little interference from the spiritual. His is not a quest for inner peace. He is battling the almighty forces of nature, and he is determined to win. When he does pick up the literary mantle for his dying bride, he envisions an interstellar trip, Tree of Life in tow, to the novel’s otherworldly afterlife, a mythic realm of rebirth entitled Xibalba. There, he will cure the ailing icon, restore balance to his broken existence, and hopefully, resurrect his lost love. This is not some real time trip into another part of the galaxy, a 2001-style symbol of evolution or an A.I.-esque lesson in humanness. As much as the Conquistador material reflects the battle for life, the space bubble ride is a metaphor for the journey toward accepting death.


Since it’s presented in a continuum-tripping manner, certain sequences breathing into and breaking apparent existing scenarios, Aronofsky purposely perverts what is basically a pair of dream sequences supporting a disease of the week romance. It’s so clearly observable – the Conquistador’s tale ends like any good fable would, and the space story is the cathartic conclusion the plotline craves. Naturally, many critics have complained that, when you remove all the gloss and gimmicks, you are stuck with two rather dimensionless characters at the center, and while this may or may not be true, it strikes one as far more insightful than most of the complaints leveled against the film. A few writers have referenced Kubrick’s serious speculative masterpiece – always in an annoyingly inappropriate negative light – as a way of explaining how unexplainable The Fountain is, while others name check nonsense like Zardoz as a way of comparative contrast (frankly, the link is so tenuous as to be truly laughable).


Yet what’s obvious about most of the negative reviews is that intelligence is being systematically switched off the minute the screening starts. Part of the problem is something called CCC – cinematic catalog consciousness. Many in the film commenting community have been involved in the process for a very long time, and have seen so many movies in as many varying genres that their gray matters has been literally rewired to draw instant, often shortsighted conclusions. A music writer once opined that they could tell a hit record within the first 10 seconds of the needle hitting the vinyl. Movie reviewers suffer from something similar. Because of how their minds are bombarded with all manner of aesthetic elements, pro and con, puzzle pieces of perception start systematically falling into place from the opening frames. Many a cinematic scholar has lamented how a potentially good movie is more or less given up for dead by a mindset predetermined to instantly encode and appraise what’s being seen.


So maybe a few of these flummoxed critics gave up on The Fountain within the first five minutes, and ground their teeth until Aronofsky was through with his non-CGI sky show. But in far too many cases, it appears that usually sane cinephiles have simply missed crucial parts of the plot. Izzy makes it very clear that the characters of the Conquistador and the Queen come from her book. She mentions it at least three times, and Tommy never “sees” these scenes until he has her manuscript in hand. Anyone who argues that the period piece material is real and that the present day couple are the old ones reincarnated (or worse, made immortal by the Tree) is just plain stupid. The movie provides the clues to what these sequences represent. Not catching on is sheer cinematic laziness.


Even worse, the interpretations of the outer space material border on the retarded. Reincarnation is given another airing, while others have offered a bizarre combination of immortality and technological advancement as an explanation. One of the most outrageous examples argues that Tommy, devastated by Izzy’s passing, goes on a journey – like the Conquistador – to find the Tree. Once successful, he lives off it for 1000 years until, almost spent, he must enclose it in an interstellar vehicle and send it off to a kind of cosmic clearinghouse. There, some kind of extraterrestrial mumbo jumbo will occur, and everything will be right with the world. Of course, none of this addresses the absence of Izzy, why she only appears as a ghost-like vision during the trip, and why her disembodied voice keeps telling her husband to “Finish It”. When she gives her husband the writing set, she wants him to complete her book. The galaxy quest is that tale envisioned, nothing more or less.


After reading pieces rife with confusion, contempt and callous dismals, it’s clear that Aronofsky’s take on the Kubler-Ross conceits of death and dying did not resonate with most reviewers. And there is nothing wrong with disliking a film. People’s opinions are to be treasured, not trashed. It’s the very foundation of all criticism. But to go the extra mile and categorize The Fountain as unfathomable and incomprehensible is like rubbing salt in an undeserving wound. Is the movie creatively complicated? Yes. Does it hold on to many of its mysteries until long after the final credits have rolled and you’ve had a chance to sit back and consider them? Indeed. Is this just some motion picture masturbation about star-crossed lovers lost over three different millennia? Absolutely not. Such interpretations are proof that, when it comes to cinematic scholarship, many writers got in on their looks, not their knowledge. The reaction to Aronofsky’s The Fountain confirms what many in the movie community already believe. Film criticism is a dying art. In fact, from the looks of things, it may already be dead.


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