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by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2006


In an arena as thoroughly subjective as the scary movie, how does one even begin to come up with a list of the artform’s very best? In the hierarchy of horror, things change so rapidly (and frequently) that, at any given moment, one category of creepy - the Devil films of the ‘70s - will give way to an entirely new fear fad - the slasher films of the ‘80s. This means that, as the genre shifts, trends taper off and subcategories flourish, one man’s terror quickly becomes one filmmaker’s trash. It’s the same with opinions on what is and is not petrifying. Dread is indeed a personal propensity, difficult to discuss in terms of absolutes and universals. Yet whenever fans get together and share their experiences with the cinema they love the most, conversations typically turn toward the defining films that began their affair with fear in the first place. Though they may not always agree, it is clear that there are certain films that stand out amongst the throng, that argue for their place as not only good grue, but expert cinema as well.

This is what the SE&L list strives to uncover, the true masterpiece and milestones of post-modern horror. Again, there are certain caveats to this non-definitive Decalogue that should keep the obsessed and the angry in check, hopefully avoiding most call-outs and complaints to a minimum. Several sensational films from the myriad that many would consider crucial just missed the cut. They include current offerings like Silent Hill, Shaun of the Dead and Hostel, as well as deserving efforts from decades past like The Howling, Hellraiser, Prince of Darkness, Ganja and Hess and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. In addition, classics from the Golden Age – films featuring the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman – were also discounted, given their already important place in the overall history of horror. As we live in a contemporary world, a place that prides itself on rediscovering and then reconfiguring the past to fit its current concerns, the movies SE&L selected are all indicative of the era. They manipulate their ideas with various analogous elements, creating films that function as both macabre as well as a mirror on the modern world.

Some will still argue that favorite films are missing or seated too far down the roll. They will dismiss any compendium that does not contain their idea of fear flawlessness and belittle any attempt to praise some perceived hackwork over what they feel is a true shock landmark. Nonetheless, SE&L stands by its choices, using decades of film knowledge and years seated firmly in front of the TV (with VCR/DVD hook-ups providing the product) to make its final determinations. Sure, there are gaps in the analysis and forgotten efforts that missed the list based solely on their ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation, but this does not take away from the ten titles found below. Each one stands as one of the genre’s best conceived and executed expressions. Authoritative? Perhaps not. Arguable? Most definitely. Ten terrific examples of terror? There is absolutely no doubt about it. Let’s begin right at the top:

1.The Exorcist

The darkest dream of America circa 1973, a country out of control with the generations gapping so viciously it seemed almost supernatural. While the connections to other universal elements (the onset of puberty, the familial fear of separation and divorce) added heft and depth, the combination of William Peter Blatty’s narrative and William Friedkin’s irrefutably great direction creates an experience that is remarkably frightening. But more than this, The Exorcist also asks the hard spiritual questions, exploring elements of faith, love and the lack thereof. With perfect performances and F/X that still manage to chill the bones, fear doesn’t get anymore flawless than this.
Classic Moment: A late night visit to Regan’s room reveals a disturbing message.

2. Evil Dead 2

It is safe to say that Sam Raimi literally revived old fashioned horror – twice. The first time was with his original brazen Book of the Dead extravaganza. But when the tide in terror started to turn away from fright and more towards the funny, Raimi reinvented his own initial film. Presented as a sort of requel (a combination sequel and remake), Part II forever cemented his stature as one of fear’s maddest hatters. This is the one fan’s remember most – Bruce Campbell’s bumbling badass, the Three Stooges inspired severed hand fight – and with good reason. It is a benchmark in cinematic diversity and delirium. 
Classic Moment: Ash replaces his severed hand with a chainsaw – Groovy!

 

3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Thanks to the uneasy iconography of its formidable fiend – the human skin masked homunculus named Leatherface – Tobe Hooper’s original Saw story has been marginalized and mocked over time. But some 32 years after its initial release, this vile journey into the heart of a grisly American Gothic is still the most disturbing cinematic experience ever. Between the oppressive opening somewhere in the Southwestern wilderness to the dinner table standoff between actress Marilyn Burns and her cannibalistic captors, we find ourselves lost in an unrelenting world of anxiety and abomination. And then it gets worse…much worse.
Classic Moment: Leatherface’s ‘dance of death’ in the light of a Texas dawn.

4. Suspiria

Dario Argento’s fractured fairytale is an outrage-filled trip into a world where beauty is obliterated and the friendliest façade hides sharp, salivating teeth. From the moment Jessica Harper’s Suzy Bannion arrives at the creepy Austrian ballet school, the chaos of a massive thunderstorm foreshadowing the torment she’s about to be put through, we realize we are in the hands of a full blown cinematic genius. Then the first murders occur, and a whole new sense of sublimity arrives. Like a dream peppered with poison, or a nightmare dressed in lace, no one uncovers the gorgeous inside the grotesque – and visa versa - better than this able auteur.
Classic Moment: Suzy discovers the truth about the Tanzakademie.

 

5. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Reading the terrifying tea leaves of early ‘80s society – Regan in the White House, children cherished as biological trophies by ever-wayward parents, his favorite genre overrun by slice and dice silliness – horror hero Wes Craven reintroduced the monster back into the monster movie. Using a newspaper account of a boy who was “killed” by his dreams, the man responsible for Last House on the Left created a creepy cult symbol in Freddy Krueger - killer of kids both in reality and in the far more vulnerable world of their dreams. Though later reduced to a cloying comedian, this is Mr. Finger Knives coming out – and its unforgettably frightening. 
Classic Moment: Freddy reminding us just who ‘God” is.

 

6. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The master of the modern zombie film finds yet another novel way of mixing scares with social commentary as he investigates America’s growing consumerism while upping the atrocity ante. This time, everyone’s favorite suburban cathedral – the shopping mall – is transformed into the setting for a strange lesson in situational sociology. It’s a battle between the haves (the survivors), the have nots (the roaming biker gang), and the flesh-craving caretakers of a land slowly subsumed by both sides inability to work together. Add in Tom Savini’s autopsy-level make-up work and you have one of the most memorable visions of internalized Apocalypse ever created.
Classic Moment: Flyboy ‘returns’.

 

7. Halloween

John Carpenter was not setting out to start a trend. As a huge fan of both Hitchcock and Argento, the filmmaker wanted to fashion a tribute to the suspense epics he adored as a young film student. The result was the beginning of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s slasher age for genre cinema, and the rebirth of the yearly calendar call of ‘Trick or Treat’ into a night of unspeakable evil. While both this fine first feature and its creator have fallen on hackneyed hard times of late (the numerous lame sequels haven’t helped the frequently floundering franchise) no one can deny the precision and potency of Carpenter’s original vision.
Classic Moment: Michael Myers stands in awe of his horrifying handiwork.

8. The Fly (1986)

How Canadian auteur David Cronenberg pulled this off is still one of the movies’ most powerful mysteries. Given the task of revamping the hoary old creepshow standard from the ‘50s – the human transformed into insect – he instead created a combination geek show and love story. Along with stellar performances by a cast who took the horror as seriously as the more heartfelt material, he managed a masterpiece that gave astonishing depth to the entire palette of fear. When a filmmaker can have you weeping at the end of his creative creature feature, you know there is more going on here besides your standard scares.
Classic Moment: Brundlefly requests to be put out of his misery.

 

9. The Thing (1981)

Looking for a way to reinvent himself (his post-Halloween efforts had been more or less ignored) John Carpenter again traded on his past, and his love for the 1951 ‘classic’, to craft this claustrophobic paean to paranoia. Mercilessly slammed by critics as being nothing more than an offal-spewing orgy of special effects and grue, time has definitely tempered opinions. Along with Kurt Russell’s sensational star turn, what once was seen as a technical triumph without a lick of cinematic soul now stands as one of this director’s trio – along with Halloween and Prince of Darkness - of undeniable triumphs.
Classic Moment: The Thing makes itself known inside the camp’s dog kennel.

10. The Other

As the primer for all the ‘twist’ ending experiences that would fill the latter part of the ‘90s this amazing 1972 movie is a tone poem to terror. Using the stuffy standard revolving around twins (one evil, one easygoing) and hints about hidden horrors within the fragile family unit, actor turned novelist turned screenwriter Tom Tyron mapped out a nostalgia laced vision of countrified calm, and then exposed the menace lying below the surface. With amazingly natural performances from the Udvarnoky brothers and scenery chewing choices by acting legend Uta Hagen, this is a fright flick as noted for its mood as its ghastliness.
Classic Moment: We finally learn what Holland “did” with the baby.

by Bill Gibron

24 Oct 2006


Whenever the calendar rolls over to a certain 31 October, fright fans break out their bountiful opinions and wax poetic and prosaic about the best and worst horror films ever made. While it may seem like nothing more than a rabid fanboy pastime, that fact is it’s not that easy a task. Like comedy, terror is in the heart of the beholder, too personal to be easily agreed upon. What some find frightening gives others a case of the uncontrollable giggles and its rare when fear can be universally applied. It’s just too individualized. As a result, making any list of yeas and nays allows for lots of second guessing and subjective stipulations – especially in the arena of b-a-d. Many can’t get past the numerous nonsensical sequels that endlessly pour out of the studio system, pointing to franchises gone god-awful as their primary examples of tepid terror. For others, it’s the offerings of the past, the low budget efforts of dollar driven distributors that did little except waste 80 minutes of the drive-in owners or matinee movie audience’s running time.

As a result, SE&L is taking a slightly different approach toward prioritizing the legacy of fear. This will not be your typical ‘worst of’ horror movie list. SE&L did not consider the lengthy, and rather lamentable, legacy of ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Roger Corman and his many mediocre monster mash-ups will find no careful consideration here, nor will any effort involving giant insects, radioactive non/humans or other examples of backwater b-moviemaking. Nor did we delve into the plethora of pathetic product that arrived in video stores once the VCR became the principal source of home entertainment. Picking through the sludge put out during that age of analog abominations would be similar to shooting undead fish in a broad-based barrel. No, the approach taken here is far more mainstream. By avoided the usual spastic spook subjects (Ed Wood, Manos: The Hands of Fate, anything featuring Arch Hall, Jr.) SE&L circumvented the whole ‘crap vs. kitsch’ debate. Instead, the focus now will be on those real films that actually thought they’d end up as some manner of frightmare myths.

The main element here is that each entry on this list THOUGHT it was going to be some kind of horror classic. They positioned themselves as remaking, reimagining or revisiting ideas that had been very successful in the past. Certainly a couple could be called out and out cash grabs, chances to bilk the box office out a few more dollars before pushing straight to cable. But it’s clear that, for the most part, these were serious, straight motion pictures designed to play as accomplished companion pieces to the rest of the genre. Naturally, they failed so miserably that their collapse becomes celebrated and over time, cemented their position as one of the cinema’s outstanding stumbles. After much deep thought and soured soul searching, these are the efforts that SE&L feels best exemplifie the worst that post-modern horror has to offer. Without further ado, here are the Top 10 Worst Horror Films of All Time, beginning with the biggest bumble of them all:

1. Exorcist II: The Heretic
Buried somewhere inside this absolutely pointless sequel to horror’s preeminent fright fest is a decent idea. Following up Regan’s irregular path into adolescence while the church investigates Father Merrin’s death is a parallel scenario that has a wealth of worthwhile possibilities. Sadly, director John Boorman decided to concentrate on the more psychobabble claptrap concepts inherent in the screenplay. Throw in some random locusts, a lot of Studio 54 style strobe lights and you’ve got cinema’s most stupefyingly bad scary movie.

 

2. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
As irritatingly incomprehensible as the first film was (too much cursing combined with nausea-inducing POV camerawork) this scripted follow up was much, much worse. Though famed documentary director Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) would argue that excessive studio interference would ruin his original vision, it is hard to imagine how any initial ideas could make this movie work. It seems purposely lost inside it own insular devices. On the plus side, this completely crappy follow-up more of less killed the Witch franchise for good. Thank heaven for small miracles.

 

3. House of Wax (2005)
A group of grating plot contrivances discovers a ghost town made mostly out of dumb ideas…oh yeah, and paraffin. Lots of bad movie clichés ensue. While this incredibly amateur movie has its fans, most macabre mavens simply sniffed the aroma of Paris Hilton’s stunt casting and realized the awaiting repugnance. Granted the original material was no great spook shakes, but even Charles Bronson’s wooden acting in the 1953 feature was miles ahead of a certain spoiled socialite’s braindeath as bravado turn. Even the meltdown finale couldn’t save this stool-scented slop.

4. House of the Dead
Based on a popular video game, featuring those familiar scarefest sacrificial lambs (the zombie) and helmed by that talentless Teutonic hack, Dr. Uwe Boll, what could have been a semi-competent cult effort turned out to be one of the genre’s most mindless missteps. With sequences that seem stolen from a hyperactive TRL‘s monster music video and poorly conceived creatures that look like Cirque du Soleil artists gone gamy, Boll manages to set the entire undead film back decades with his poisonous pacing, directorial dumbness and overall lack of thrills.

5. Maximum Overdrive
We all know how misbegotten the original idea was (Stephen King as fright writer ≠ Stephen King, filmmaker) but few have really remembered just how horrendous this mess of a movie really was. It’s not that the Master of Horror is utterly and hopelessly incompetent behind the camera – in fact, his opening montage of machines going gonzo is pretty well realized. No, it’s everything after technology starts attacking that begins to fester and, ultimately, fail. A wailing Yeardley Smith provides the final nail in the klutzy King adaptation coffin.

6. Nightbreed
Legend has it that Clive Barker conceived his second feature film, based on his intriguing novella Cabal, as “the Star Wars of horror movies”. What it ended up being was an unqualified disaster, with substantial studio meddling and massive budget problems contributing to the world’s first eerie ipecac. Unable to decide if it’s a monster movie, an ambitious piece of beast-based mythos, or simply a slice and dice serial killer film, Barker braves all three. The ridiculous results, including the horrendous performances by all involved, speak for themselves.

 

7. The Fly 2
David Cronenberg’s first Fly was such a memorable masterpiece, a perfect marriage of material and maker that only a Hollywood halfwit could think that a sequel would succeed. Even worse, they decided to junk everything that made the original so special – concepts like script, emotion, intelligence and characterization – and replaced them with Eric Stoltz and a mutant puppy dog. Right. Only a Chevy-sized can of DDT (or a second sex scene with Daphne Zuniga) could have killed the creature feature franchise more expertly than this deadly drone.

 

8. Amityville 3-D
Sometime between 1982 and 1983, the geniuses behind Tinsel Town’s beans decided that that old warhorse from the ‘50s – 3-D – was ready for its motion picture comeback. As one of the several multidimensional efforts to make use of the tired cinematic turd, this third look at the Lutz house got even stupider and more incomprehensible. Nothing more than a lot of camera pranks perpetrated on an already blasé audience, the lack of any authentic connection to the so-called “real” events that occurred in the notorious locale made the film all the more laughable.

9. Van Helsing
How do you undermine the legacy of all the classic Universal monsters? Why, you give unlikely blockbuster director Stephen Summers a Mummy‘s worth of money and enough CGI to choke a ghoul. Then you let him raid your catalog of timeless terror icons and retrofit them into some stupid adventure yarn starring everyone’s favorite Downunder dude Hugh Jackman. While many consider this confused combination of the Gothic and the groan-inducing as merely a faux horror film, the dread one experiences while watching this carton creature creation is real enough.

 

10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
Otherwise known as how Sheriff Hoyt got his perverted groove on. You know you’re in trouble when a prequel (Strike 1), setting out to reshape and redefine one of horror’s premiere figures (Strike 2), instead spends all its time presenting the tale of how some ancillary character became a gun-toting goon. (Strike 3). When Marcus Nispel took on the daunting task of remaking the Tobe Hooper original, he brought as much artistic and narrative invention to the mix as possible. All this dreadful retread offers is pathetic, predictable pointlessness passing itself off as dread.

by Bill Gibron

24 Sep 2006


He was more of a fashion accessory than a celebrity, a chiseled example of Hungarian beefcake perfectly complementing his wife’s over-sexualized cheese. But there was more to Mickey Hargitay than as brawn to Jayne Mansfield’s buxom beauty. While together they may have resembled biology gone baroque, individually, Hargitay and his much more famous bride were athletics and oranges. She was a considered caricature of the era’s leading visage of sensual beauty. Her talent was never measured in performances, but in appearance. For the rest of her tragically short life, Jayne Mansfield would fight against her summarization as a sex object, trying to avoid being championed solely on her chest. For her foreign born husband however, physicality was all he had.

Born into an athletic family (the Hargitay’s frequently preformed as an acrobatic troupe in their native Hungary), bodybuilding was not young Miklos’ first passion. He was a championship ice skater, and skilled at soccer. It wasn’t until he came to America in the 1940s to escape his country’s compulsory military service that he discovered the joys of muscle training and toning. Considered by most to be an odd, even perverted obsession with the human form, there was very little fame, or fortune, in being a muscleman. Yet the minute he discovered the joys of the gym, Hargitay proved he was a natural at the fledging sport and it wasn’t long before he was winning titles long dominated by Americans. In 1955, Hargitay was crowned Mr. Universe, matching the accomplishment of his inspiration and idol, Steve Reeves.

The surrounding recognition finally placed him within the flickering cultural spotlight. The saucy old school actress and nightclub personality Mae West – never one to pass up a well-built body – immediately hired Hargitay to be part of her revue in New York City. Suddenly, the untrained 30 year old was appearing before cosmopolitan crowds, the leering butt of West’s wicked wordplay and entendres. One night, reigning Broadway novelty Jayne Mansfield came to the Latin Quarter club to catch West’s act. The legend goes that, when asked what she was interested in that evening, Mansfield cooed “I’ll have a steak…and that man on the left”. Soon, Hargitay and his newfound heartthrob were inseparable.

They married in 1958. Hargitay went on to take a few small roles in Mansfield’s movies, including the triumphant big screen translation of her Great White Way hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He even got to mimic his inspiration Reeves by portraying the mythic strongman in 1960’s The Loves of Hercules. It wasn’t long though before the novelty of both Hargitay and his honey started wearing off. After his stint hosting a TV exercise program and her string of unsuccessful starring roles, the couple soon found themselves working within the ridiculed realm of exploitation. In 1963, Mansfield bared all for the camera with Promises! Promises!, and 1964 saw Primitive Love, a sort of sex comedy spoof on the Mondo movie craze sweeping cinema.

Like all pairings that seem more aesthetically than interpersonally pleasing, Hargitay and Mansfield grew apart, then divorced. Taking custody of the three kids (including future Emmy winner and Law and Order star Mariska) and attempting to find a place in the unforgiving realm of fame, the more or less lost 41 year old wasn’t prepared for the shocking news of his ex-wife’s gruesome death in 1967. Reduced to performing a puerile, tacky club act overloaded with insinuation and kitsch, Mansfield was traveling between shows when her car was hit, head on, by a semi-tractor trailer truck. Killed almost instantly, the resulting carnage was brutal, becoming a media milestone in the still developing realm of tabloid journalism. The grindhouse gang even utilized the ghastly accident scene photos for an incredibly distasteful “documentary” on the actress entitled The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. Of course, a grieving Hargitay and his children were featured in all their devastated sorrow. 

Now totally on his own, celebrity wise, Hargitay tried. He played a sadistic figure of vengeance in the Eurotrash classic The Bloody Pit of Horror, and starred in a few low budget Italian genre efforts. Yet by the mid 70s, his uniqueness had all but worn off. Mission: Impossible had given Peter Lupus (another noted bodybuilder) a shot at stardom, and he had proven much more versatile. Besides, another Eastern European was establishing his muscle man credentials on the circuit, and by the time of Hargitay’s final film role in 1973’s Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on his way to his third straight Mr. Olympia title – and future superstardom. By the ‘80s, Hargitay was nothing more than a footnote, a forgotten figure in the life of an equally lapsed “love goddess”. In one of those ironies that only show business can support, a 1980 biopic of Mansfield featured Schwarzenegger as Jayne’s buff better half.

His latter years were not empty. Hargitay had remarried in 1967, and new wife Ellen would be his last life partner, remaining by his side until his death from multiple myeloma at age 80 on 14, September of this year. Hargitay had also been successful in business, and Schwarzenegger often pointed to him as the role model by which he modeled his professional and athletic career. Daughter Mariska slowly built her resume in Hollywood, and now stands as one of TV’s dramatic powerhouses. And thanks to the archival aspect of the new home video revolution, much of his and Mansfield’s dismissed work has enjoyed a kind of kitschy, cornball nostalgia. Yet lost within all this retro revisionism and show business scavenging is a wholly forgotten fact. Hargitay and Mansfield represented the beginnings of the body objectification that the present day pop culture lives by.

Unlike Marilyn Monroe, or the more obvious examples of sexual stardom to come, Jayne Mansfield was a classic cartoon, carnal in only the way an over-inflated dish like she could be. And in the world of corporeal synchronicity, she required a man large enough to fit her copious and unapologetic feminine fertility. Hargitay, all tight skin sculpting and Greek god idolatry, was the perfect personal accompaniment. He was considered male model of machismo - a manlier Steve Reeves, a less militant Jack La Lanne. Better yet, he proved that a few hours in the gym and some minor consideration for the way one looked could and would land you the sex siren straight out of the pages of those newfangled “men’s” magazines. They were the Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson of the Eisenhower era, the Nick and Jessica of the pre-Camelot crowd. In a world not ready for outright discussions of lust and physical love, Mansfield and Hargitay represented the possibility, and the problems, associated with same.

Sadly, with his passing, Hargitay takes with him the last vestiges of that time. The couple’s infamous ‘Pink Palace’ – a cheesy mansion complete with a heart-shaped swimming pool – has long been raised by the current owner, and the seemingly outrageous physical forms that the couple carried have been usurped by individuals buying completely into the omnipresent plastic surgery concept of personal success. In a time where overweight businessmen accompanied their haggard housefrau wives to the local hot spot for a few potent potables and a little so-called sophisticated entertainment, Mansfield and Hargitay were said ideal’s illustrated Id. Now, they are just forgotten facets of a pre-revolution sexuality.

by Bill Gibron

13 Sep 2006


Famed French filmmaker Luc Besson announced Monday 11, September that, after the release of his latest directorial effort, the live action and CG animated Arthur and the Minimoys (set for a 12 January release in the U.S.), he is leaving the industry to concentrate on “charity” work. It’s a semi-stunning announcement from a fairly prolific artist. Aside from the ten films he’s helmed over his career (which he lovingly refers to as his “babies”) Besson has been a major figure in International cinema. He has written scripts for such high profile action series as the Taxi films, the Transporter and it’s sequel, and two of Jet Li’s most popular efforts, Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Danny the Dog (2005) – later retitled Unleashed. Yet its as a producer where the 46 year old has truly thrived, guiding dozens of films through their creation. Without him, such efforts as District B13 (2004), Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005) and the stellar slasher update Haute Tension (2003) may never have been made.

Now this announcement is really nothing new. As a matter of fact, it was sort of expected. Besson has been very vocal in interviews and comments about leaving the director’s chair after his 10th film, and apparently he is holding steadfast in this decision. Still, he does have his creative fingers in many motion picture pies. So unless this retirement includes his efforts behind a typewriter or managing a production’s bottom line, Besson will remain a very viable force behind the scenes of modern moviemaking. With that settled, the concern then becomes what we as an audience will fail to see with his departure. In essence the issue becomes what has Besson really given cinema that will be missed once he’s gone. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like very much, at least upon a fleeting first glance.

With rare exceptions, Besson’s films exist in a weird world made up of stunt work, speculation, and shootouts. Of the ten ‘children’ born in the 25 years of creating his filmic family, only three - The Big Blue, Atlantis and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - could be classified as defying the Besson basics. Two (Blue, Atlantis) are clearly based in his childhood love of the sea (Besson was raised by scuba diving instructor parents). The last, his interpretation of Saint Joan, was a far more personal undertaking for his then wife Milla Jovovich. The rest of his films – The Last Battle (1983), Subway (1985), Le Femme Nikita (1990), Leon/The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Angel-A (2005) and next year’s Arthur – all maintain an awkward balance between fantasy and reality, using clear genre ideals to modify standard human stories. Some of these yarns - Element, in particular – were written while he was still a teenager, and often show their obvious adolescent ideas about heroism, love and the pathway to progress. 

There is one thing that’s certain, however; all of Besson’s films have a strong visual component. You can’t look at something like Le Femme Nikita or Leon and not be startled by the way in which this director’s camera moves. Sure, he can be too tricky and twee (Angel-A and Subway suffer from some of his more obvious cinematic tricks) and he frequently overloads the frame with more compositional elements than are necessary for the narrative. Sure, it’s an amazing looking moment when Jovovich’s character in Element stands on the ledge of a building overlooking a frighteningly futuristic New York City, but the density of the visuals actually detract from the moment. It’s hard to appreciate the scope of something when you’ve purposely rendered it infinite. Similarly, Besson believes in a primordial kind of plotting, a storyline that strongly follows a good vs. evil dynamic while sprinkling in a little eccentricity and character quirks along the way. There are always heroes and villains in a Besson film, though sometimes who’s who can be confusing and unclear. Yet thanks to their pure kinetic power, their daunting desire to light up the screen with their spectacle, a movie by Luc Besson gets a lot of logistical leeway. We appreciate the effort more than the effect.

But the fact of the matter remains, will anyone other than the Besson nation really care if this French fantasist hangs up his chapeau – at least for the time being? If Stephen Spielberg had stopped creating after a mere ten films, we would never have had Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Munich. In the case of Martin Scorsese, we’d have never seen The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas or Casino. Perhaps it’s a clear case of a filmmaker knowing his limits. Besson must sense his stylistic and substantive aspects are restricted by his areas of interest, and there’s no branching out into other forms of filmmaking. He’s become known for his hyperactive action set pieces and frequently ingenious flights of fancy. After conquering the family film (the trailer for Arthur looks interesting, to say the least) Besson must believe there is nothing left to try. And as long as he can add to the steady stream of writing/producing credits, he will almost always be around.

So don’t mourn the loss of another “visionary” filmmaker – celebrate the fact that Besson knew better than to overstay his already waning welcome. Angel-A barely got distribution in the US, and without the standard CGI stunt casting (Snoop Dogg, David Bowie and Madonna are part of the English-speaking cast) it’s hard to know if the Weinstein Company would have picked up the Minimoys film for US distribution. When filmgoers are demanding remastered DVD versions of your earlier films over the delivery of something new – as is the case with Element and Leon – perhaps its time to pack your bags. Whether or not he ever really does focus on community work with kids as he says, Besson will best be remembered as a French firebrand who carved a special niche out of a tired Tinsel Town tenet. In this case, parting is not such sweet sorrow – it seems like the logical thing to do.

by Bill Gibron

10 Sep 2006


No, you’re not seeing things. That’s John Travolta in full drag as Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of John Waters’ Hairspray, set for release in 2007. Frankly, SE&L isn’t shocked by the casting. Travolta is a true musical comedy actor, and can definitely pull off the role originated by the late, great Divine. Besides, we’re more curious to see how Christopher Walken holds up has “her” husband, Wilbur. Not that’s a concept worth getting worked up over.

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