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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.



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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.


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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. 


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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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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

It was, for the most part, a pretty mediocre summer movie season. All the proposed blockbusters were either artistic or critical busts (with one major exception) while smaller films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Descent snuck up on audiences and proved far more inventive and satisfying. Four months ago everyone was talking about the impact The Da Vinci Code would have, as well as the potential domination of Superman Returns over the rest of the popcorn film landscape. Now, as September slowly arrives, we’re questioning New Line’s ‘Net-only strategy regarding Snakes on a Plane and wondering if Monster House would have done better as a Halloween release. Yes, there were a few legitimate lessons to be learned amidst all the hype and hoopla: Will Ferrell showed that if Larry the Cable Guy ever decides to retire, the former SNL-er may have a viable career as a NASCAR comic; M. Night Shyamalan completed the fall from grace every fanboy has been expecting since Unbreakable‘s last five minutes; prestige performer Meryl Streep may be a summer movie’s biggest secret weapon; and CGI continues to cannibalize itself.


Indeed, from the mundane machismo of Michael Mann’s reimagined Miami Vice to the feel good fizzle of World Trade Center, the Summer of 2006 continued to illustrate the incredibly sad fact that original ideas are scarce, star power means very little in light of a bad script and sloppy execution, and superheroes in the wrong hands aren’t quite so ‘super’. Still, there were a few releases worth cheering for, movies that managed to not only entertain, but exemplify the new niche oriented approach to motion picture subject and salability. Gone are the days when one film completely dominates the pop culture consciousness (again, with one major exception). In its place are dozens of offerings, each one speaking to a specific individual audience. So, without further ado, SE&L presents its picks for the Top 5 films of Summer 2006:


5. Cars
Say what you want about Pixar’s latest anthropomorphic epic, but no other animation company working today has such a consistent track record in pushing the artistic and emotional limits of CGI. While many felt that this was one of the rare occasions where technology and technical skill got the better of the storytelling, there is still something awe inspiring and adventurous about this tale of an egotistical race car that learns friendship and humility among the automotive residents of a forgotten Route 66 city. Granted, the wistful appeal of the open road contributed a great deal to the film’s considerable scope, but it was the voice acting work of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Michael Keaton and Bonnie Hunt that gave this film it’s poignancy and heart.



PopMatters Review


4. Monster House
Perhaps the biggest snafu that occurred this summer was the decision to release this brisk fall snap of a picture in the middle of one the muggiest, most humid seasons on record. Using the motion capture technique advanced during the creation of The Polar Express, Executive Producer Robert Zemeckis, along with old pal Steven Spielberg, found the perfect combination of story and filmmaker (first timer Gil Kenan) to realize their vision of real life recreated in a remarkable animated fashion. The result was a Goonies for the post-millennial masses, a smart, intelligent adventure that avoided many of the artforms more obvious clichés (pop culture references, stunt voice casting) to forge a generally exciting, incredibly inventive film.



3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
As a sequel to one of the biggest hits from 2004, this revisit of Pirate’s mainstream mystique had a lot to live up to. Many were concerned that Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow, so memorable in the first film, would grow old and stale the second time around. Some wondered if new villain Davy Jones would match Capt. Barbossa in the all important areas of evil and cunning. From a broader perspective, a few fans questioned why another film needed to be made at all. While the overall critical consensus was mixed, Dead Man’s Chest has become the biggest box office hit of 2006, and continues to bode well for the final installment of this proposed buccaneer trilogy (tentatively entitled At World’s End) to be released NEXT summer.


PopMatters Review


2. Clerks II
Who would have thought that Kevin Smith could revisit his initial success as a filmmaker and make it fresh, ingenious and undeniably hilarious? Of all the movies to arrive at the Cineplex this summer, Clerks II was the most consistently enjoyable. It gave fans a chance to reconnect with their favorite New Jersey slacker duo, introduced a couple of brand new characters that instantly took their place in the pantheon of Smith originals, and proved that nothing is more cinematically fulfilling than great dialogue, expertly delivered. Even more miraculous, a significant amount of emotional resonance was unearthed, giving depth and direction to all the dirty jokes and donkey show antics. What could have been a regular ‘K-Mart’ of a comedy turned out to be one of the season’s most unexpected gems.



PopMatters Review


1. Snakes on a Plane
While it’s easy to argue about the film’s failings as a thriller, a campy cult phenomenon or an Internet marketed misstep, there is one undeniable fact – Snakes on a Plane is a great deal of genre fun. A complete throwback to the blockbusters of the ‘70s (It’s like Airport mixed with a drive-in delight like The Day of the Animals) this unapologetically entertaining film makes no bones about being gratuitous or goofy. With the entire cast in on the joke, and the filmmaking free to explore all the plausible parameters of the title, we end up with a real rollercoaster ride that wraps its anarchic action in a blanket of pure b-movie mania. While it may not have been the perfect summer 2006 film, Snakes did the best job of reminding audiences of just how special the season can be. It was the only film that actually FELT like a blockbuster.


PopMatters Review


In Thursday’s Short Ends & Leader Blog: The Five Worst Films of Summer 2006.


 


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