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Wednesday, Sep 13, 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.


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Sunday, Sep 10, 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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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


To call Joseph Stefano’s writing credits varied is like arguing that his one time collaborator, the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock, had an ‘interesting’ way with the camera. Brought onto the director’s dynamic Psycho after James P; Cavanaugh’s script was rejected, Stefano seemed an odd choice to adapt a murder mystery. After all, his first few scripts had focused solely on his ethnic Italian heritage - most notable in the 1958 Sophia Loren/Anthony Quinn melodrama The Black Orchid. He had also created an award winning Playhouse 90 piece about racial prejudice in the military (1959’s Made in Japan). But when his agent asked him who he’d like to work with next, Stefano provided a list of names. Hitchcock’s was right near the top. When, shockingly, the famous auteur responded, it was with a copy of the famous low budget slasher film’s screenplay in hand.


With his passing on 25, August, 2006 the legacy of Norman Bates lost its central guiding light. Yet it would be his adaptation of Robert Bloch’s seminal story of an out of the way motel, an unusual desk clerk, and his domineering “mother”, that would also point the scribe in the direction of genre fiction over the next three decades. Though already established, the overwhelming success of Psycho led Stefano to other opportunities. An old friend, Leslie Stevens, asked Stefano to become a supervisory writer and a producer on the seminal speculative series The Outer Limits. Contributing stories and scripts for some of season one’s most memorable episodes (including the creepy “Zanti Misfits”) he helped lay the foundation for Limits’ claim as one of the best sci-fi shows on television.


After rejecting a chance to return to Hitchcock’s fold for The Birds – he supposedly found the idea laughable – Stefano went on to make strides in made for television movies, including A Death of Innocence (a 1971 murder mystery starring Shelley Winters) Home for the Holidays (a 1972 thriller about a husband who fears his wife is poisoning him) and the oddball Live Again, Die Again (Donna Mills is frozen and brought back 30 years later in this 1974 sci-fi effort). After 1977’s Snowbeast (another of the era’s Bigfoot movies), he had grown jaded and cynical. He took the 1980 death of his friend Hitchcock hard. He also hated how Norman Bates (a character he more or less created, avoiding Bloch’s decidedly drunken original) had been marginalized by the two sequels that eventually followed.


In 1991, audiences saw him contribute to the hack horror film The Kindred (1987), and he did do some work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Swamp Thing TV series. He would visit his ethnic past once again for the Al Pacino weeper Two Bits (1995), and even returned to the Norman Bates legacy with his prequel effort Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). Near the end of his career, Stefano was also the unfortunate beneficiary of Hollywood’s remake fever. His “Feasibility Study” (based on a 1964 episode) was redone for the modern update of Outer Limits in 1997, and Gus Van Zant committed the ultimate redux sin, creating a near shot for shot remake of Psycho from Stefano’s original script. After that 1998 fiasco, Stefano turned his back on Tinsel Town, convinced it was bankrupt of originality and ideas. He would stay in the shadows until his death from a heart attack. Yet it is safe to say that no writer had more of an impact on the post-modern horror genre than Joseph Stefano. He helped popularize and legitimize the genre of slice and dice cinema. Yet he should be remembered for much more than Norman’s shower savagery. While iconic, it was not endemic of Stefano’s incredible talents.


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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


He was the original Pa Kent, giving an infant from the planet Krypton a home here on earth. He was also the original Mr. Eddie’s father, looking for love while trying to raise his son solo. From his early days as a Columbia contract player, to his heroic service in World War II (where he helped build safe houses in France) Glenn Ford remained wholly original. His death at age 90 on 30, August 2006 was not so much a shock as a reminder of how much his presence in film was missed. Having long since retired from acting (his last onscreen role was in 1991) and in relatively poor health in recent years, Ford’s recognizable fame had more or less faded. But even without a current high profile celebrity, no one could match this amazing man’s considered career.


He was born in Canada, and came to the US when he was eight. Fresh out of high school, he was scouted by Tom Moore, a representative of 20th Century Fox. When the war arrived in the early ‘40s Ford took a break from his occasional bit parts to fight for his adopted country. After marrying fellow star Eleanor Powell in 1943, he returned from service to pick up his career. But it wasn’t until Bette Davis gave him a break in 1946 (with a role in A Stolen Life) that Ford found his footing. That same year, an appearance alongside Rita Hayworth in Gilda (they would go on to make six films together) shot him to superstardom. Thanks to his talent, Ford never again had to look back. He parlayed that success into roles in classic Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and crime thrillers like The Big Heat (1953).


By the mid ‘50s, Ford was viewed as a Hollywood stalwart, a level-headed leading man who came across as decent and determined. But with his 1956 turn as the inner city schoolteacher fighting delinquency in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), the actor became a kind of subtle symbol for the growing problems between the generations…and the races. Thanks to the film’s youth appeal, and the Bill Haley and the Comet’s theme of “Rock Around the Clock”, Ford found himself in even bigger demand. He would go on to make Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Experiment in Terror (1962) and the forgotten gem Rage (1966), among many, many others. He even dabbled in television, starring in the series Cade’s County (1971) and The Family Holvak (1975). But time was slowly catching up with Ford. After playing Superman’s dad in the original 1978 big screen adaptation, and a sinister psychiatrist in the silly slasher film Happy Birthday to Me (1981), he watched his star stock drop. Between ‘81 and ‘91, he only made six more films.


Though his marriage to Powell produced a son (Peter), it didn’t last. Ford never found the right person to share his life with, all three of his marriages after his divorce from Powell being short lived (none more than three years) and, sadly, childless. Ford adored children, and was said to spend most of his retirement playing with his grandkids. Over the years, he appeared in documentaries on Hollywood’s Golden Age, but continued complications with respiratory and heart ailments, as well as a series of strokes, left him frail and faltering. On the occasion of his 90th birthday in May of this year, he was scheduled to attend a 70th anniversary revival of a newly remastered print of Gilda. Regrettably, his ill health prevented his appearance. It would have been nice for this former Tinsel Town icon to have one last shot at the public adoration he so richly deserved. No matter what the current culture thinks, he was never forgettable. That’s because, no matter the role, Ford was always an original. 


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Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

If you believe the experts, the Summer of 2006 was a disaster of epic proportions. From the opening salvo of the less than winning Mission: Impossible III to the final fizzle of Snakes on a Plane, what should have been a fairly consistent season of quality fare became a quagmire of stagnant, sloppy entertainment. Granted, some still found their fun where they could: the supposedly inventive fear factors of The Descent; the sexy superficiality of Miami Vice‘s calculated crime thriller; Adam Sandler’s spiral into Frank Capra Click mode. Even among the perceived slips, the offerings that failed to live up to their hyperbolized potential, there were moments of magic: Hammy’s supersonic bullet-time trip through an entire backyard in Over the Hedge; Superman’s shuttle save; the fall of many an X-Men mutant, including an especially cruel comeuppance for every fanboy’s favorite shapeshifter; Jack Black’s naïve Nacho finding solace, and stretchy pants, among the much admired luchadore. In fact, the Summer of 2006 can best be described as a season of moments – movies that failed to completely coalescence into the blockbusters of old, but still delivered their own meaningful measures of pleasure.


And then there was the real rubbish – the kind of cinematic cesspools that make your filings ache, your brain bubble, and your ass shift painfully in its supposed seat of stadium-level comfort. They are the reasons audiences rebuff the Cineplex and await an eventual rental. They cause seismic shifts in the entertainment continuum and foster the near universal belief in a certain industry’s lack of originality or ethos. All five of the failures sited by SE&L as the noxious nadir of the artform were created by the so-called major studios. One even featured the most consistent box office draw of the last decade. The list includes one unfunny comedy, two thrill-free adventure yarns, an incredibly artificial “bedtime story” and a near shot-for-shot remake of a macabre classic. All together, they form a pentacle of paltriness, a shining symbol of ideas poorly executed and money mindboggling wasted. Hollywood ponied up nearly a half a BILLION dollars ($449 million to be exact) to bring these strident stink bombs to the screen. And you thought the Federal Government was the only out of control entity that could waste hard earned dinero like that, huh? So, with little fanfare or flourish, SE&L offers up the Worst Movies of Summer 2006.


5. Lady in the Water
Call it his long anticipated fall from grace, or a clear case of ego overdrive, but somewhere buried inside this incredibly dopey faux fairy tale is a pretty intriguing idea, actually. Indeed, the notion of otherworldly spirit guides attempting connections with those they are destined to direct has a nice sense of internal awe. Unfortunately, that substrata Spielberg, otherwise known as M. Night Shyamalan, decided to muck up such a fragile flight of fancy with his annoying preoccupation with foreshadowing. From the moment we see the residents living inside the Paul Giamatti-supervised apartment complex, we see the ‘signs’ of future narrative manipulation. Then Shyamalan tries to pull a last act fast one, changing the character dynamic in a final ditch effort at inventiveness. It fails, as does most of this flop of fancy.



PopMatters Review


4. The Da Vinci Code
So this is what the wait was all about? This was the thriller that satisfied a trillion airline passengers and created a cottage industry out of opinions both pro and con? Indeed, if this was the result of all the hype, all the history, and all the hissy fits, Ron Howard and his cinematic partner in mind crime known as Akiva Goldsman shouldn’t have bothered. By the time of its release, everyone knew the essential secret at the center of Dan Brown’s undeniably popular novel. Even avoiding the book’s fictional facets, your average film fan knew that all plotlines pointed to Jesus, Mary and a less than ‘Immaculate’ conception. All that was left was the big screen interpretation of such intrigue. And what we got was a near literal translation of Brown’s boring prose amplified by Goldsman’s lack of compelling characterization. How anticlimactic.


PopMatters Review


3. Poseidon
Somewhere, in the great cinematic beyond, Irwin Allen is wearing the afterlife’s biggest shit-eating grin. All the respect and critical praise he craved during his tenure as a multimedia laughing stock finally arrived on the heals of this misguided remake of his 1972 capsized cruise ship classic. Wolfgang Peterson, continuing his obsession with CGI water, concocts a heartless stunt show overflowing with Rube Goldberg-esque escapes and hollow human beings. Word is that Warner Brothers demanded over a half hour of cuts – almost all dealing with personal backstory and conflict between the players - after several unsuccessful test screenings. Many demanded that the film simply “get on with the disaster”. Never before in the history of cinema has a studio satisfied the mandates of its focus groups this effectively. Poseidon is the catastrophe they craved. 


PopMatters Review


2. The Omen 2006
Barely losing (beating) out to the number one entry on the SE&L list, this pointless remake of a ‘70s horror heavyweight did something many thought impossible – it made the Devil seem dull. From it’s crackpot casting that had infantile performers playing parts at least a decade beyond their birthdate, and a David Setzer script that more or less mimicked his original 1976 version (he wrote both movies), the sense of demonic déjà vu was intense. Unfortunately, it was the only powerful thing in this Laguna Beach level update. But perhaps the biggest mistake made here was turning tiny Damien, spawn of Satan, into a smug, smiling villain. Originally, the Antichrist was evil in an innocent’s garb. Here he’s just a standard scare tactic.


PopMatters Review


1. Little Man
Has there ever been a bigger waste of theoretical talent than the Wayans Brothers? When In Living Color stands as the capper to your entire creative career, it’s difficult to debate such a declaration. In this horribly unfunny film, using modern technology to recreate decades-old Our Gang/Bugs Bunny shorts, siblings Shawn and Marlon set the cause of black cinema back 40 eons and a mule with this stupefying shuck and jive. It’s not just that this story of a dwarf criminal who passes as a baby to regain a stolen gemstone lacks any real semblance of logic (we’re talking about a grown up, with easily identifiable, if arguably miniaturized, man-parts here). No, Little Man‘s biggest offense is the determined belittlement of one entire race – called “the human”. 



PopMatters Review


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