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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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Sunday, Aug 20, 2006


Thank you, Snakes on a Plane. Thank you for proving what many in the print media and critical circles have long ago known and voiced concern over. Though it is currently the most powerful information and communication source on the planet, the Internet just can’t open a film. Unless you’re first name is Blair, and your last name is Witch, the Web has once again proven that it can’t put filmgoer butts into empty Cineplex seats. Now, there are a lot of factors involved in Snakes less than spectacular $15 million box office weekend bow. There’s the movie itself, a perhaps too ironic stab at a self-created schlock spectacle. There’s the piss poor timing – released right as the core audience (teens and college kids) are heading back to class. And there’s the genre elements themselves: in general, horror and thrillers are the least bankable of all the cinematic styles.


But none of that was supposed to matter. Why? Because Snakes had the power of the technology geek behind it. From the moment the title was made public, and the talent coups of Samuel L. Jackson and director Ronny Freddy vs. Jason Yu were announced, the ‘80s nerd and his post-Gen X cousins were all in a cross-posting lather. Raised on a vast VHS collection of crappy monster movies made by companies like Full Moon and Empire, and distributed by names such as Vestron and New Concord, this seemingly routine creature feature suddenly took on the air of a retro reminder of Saturday nights perusing your local Mom and Pop video store. Even When Yu dropped out (the first sign of the upcoming anticlimactic apocalypse) and Final Destination 2 director David R. Ellis stepped in, the web journal junkies smelled undeniable direct to video fodder, and gladly got onboard.


It is important to remember though just who the real DSL demographic truly is. It’s claimed that over 60 to 65 million homes in the USA have Internet access of some kind, with the mean age for the actual user somewhere between 26 and 33, depending on the survey you select. While computers are constantly sited as the dominion of the young, teenagers spend significantly less time in media oriented arenas or serious surfing, instead preferring to use the web for communication, interrelation, entertainment (downloading) and – in rare instances – education. Most of the people browsing the vast array of sites are not part of MySpace, could care less about YouTube, and would never spend hours creating their own trailers or photoshopping poster art. Therefore, logic dictates that anyone pimping an upcoming film, from Harry Knowles over at Ain’t It Cool News or Garth Franklin at Dark Horizons, is speaking for a very small group of people outside of the typical broadband user. And, more times than not, they are preaching to the already converted.


A perfect analogy to this situation is talk radio. On any given day, millions of people tune in to hear Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, or any number of local variations on their chat fest theme. Of that number, only a very small fraction would ever consider calling in and voicing an opinion or asking question, with even fewer actually picking up the phone and dialing. Therefore, the voices you hear as part of the ballyhoo represent only the smallest portion of the overall public. In general, we are not an extroverted lot. Even with the anonymity of the ‘Net, we tend to let others do the showboating for us. In the case of Snakes of a Plane, there was no true communal surge in interest. No, even with numerous magazine articles, TV feature spots and endless marketing hype, the film itself was only talking to a very small, very vocal pre-tuned in audience. And while they were cheering, the rest of the possible fan base was jeering, or just paying no attention at all. 


Truthfully, this should be nothing new to studios that have relied on the web as a source of that all important word of mouth advertising to lengthen the “legs” of their film. Just two weeks ago, The Descent opened to some of the best reviews of the year. Critics called it a masterpiece, one of the best horror films of the decade. Even with a Region 2 DVD release available for months prior, speculation across the ‘Net was that this Indie fright fest would make a killing at the box office. In its first weekend, it barely made $9 million. True, it was up against the good old boy goofiness of Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights, but conventional wisdom argued that all this blog-based goodwill should have translated into Cineplex receipts. It didn’t happen.


It used to be that studios more or less shunned buzz, either because of the expectations it built or the fatalistic foreshadowing it created. On occasion, they would ride the coattails of positive speculation, using it almost exclusively as a Madison Avenue money saving device. Yet right after Artisan scored a knock out with its Blair Witch Project website campaign (used to create a false sense of reality in this otherwise fictional macabre mockumentary), the Internet became the unproven false idol being worshipped by those desperate to make a dent in the media morass. It was the dot.com revolution all over again, except this time, the World Wide Web was being used for promotion and propaganda only. No one remembered that ONE extreme example does not set the standard. Without a track record, the ‘Net is a more or less untested gamble, and one that rarely pays off. 


It’s no wonder then that Snakes on a Plane was a fluke. It was destined to fail based on the entire technological bent of the hype, and even then, there was just a title, an actor, and a promise at the center of it all. Success can’t be measured by a kitschy name and an A-list celebrity. If that’s the case, non-existent pitches for product like Zombie Strippers Against the All Nude Apocalypse starring George Clooney or Robot Drug Lords featuring Angelina Jolie would be going great greenlit guns right about now. In time, when all the Monday morning quarterbacking is over, and the studios have sorted out what went wrong, the conclusion will be clear. As much as they like to believe that they are, the messageboard masses do not speak for the mainstream. They are their own loud, loyal constituency. Getting them involved guarantees a palpable amount of free publicity – but that’s it. The day the blog brigade can generate a true blockbuster opening will represent a landmark occasion in the ‘Net’s ongoing maturation process. As for now, said opportunity has again slithered away.


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Wednesday, Aug 16, 2006


Bruno Kirby’s career was made up of mostly supporting roles. He was almost never the lead, nor did he ever have to carry an entire motion picture on his spry Italian shoulders. Instead, he was the perfect partner, a flashy fireplug who used his passion and his presence to match up flawlessly with his usually more famous co-stars. His death on 14, August 2006 at a mere 57 years of age (after a battle with leukemia) marked the end of a still strong, still vital acting career. Easily moving between crazy comedy and intense drama, Kirby’s credits were varied, and always interesting. It argued for his versatility as a performer, as well as his no nonsense upbringing – a philosophy that emphasized the work, not the size of the dressing room or the number of lines.


Born 28 April, 1949 in New York City, Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu Jr. was the son of famed character actor Bruce Kirby. His childhood on the outskirts of the greatest city in the world left a lasting impression on both his personality and his voice. Gifted with that hilarious honk that highlighted a certain ethnicity and spirit, Bruno would parlay his heritage into an amazingly diverse creative canon. Starting out while in his early 20’s Bruno made notable appearances in TV shows like MASH, and in movies like Cinderella Liberty. While on the set of the 1972 sitcom The Super, Bruno would become friends with co-star Richard S. Costello. It was an auspicious combination, as the rotund Italian American character actor was just about to become famous as Clemenza, Vito Corleone’s right hand muscle in that year’s masterpiece The Godfather. When Francis Ford Coppola was looking for someone to play the larger than life figure as a young man, thoughts immediately turned to Bruno, and soon, the relative novice found himself working alongside eventual Oscar winner (for his supporting work as the young Vito) Robert DeNiro in the equally epic sequel.


It was a sign of good things to come. Bruno parlayed the part into a series of sensational supporting turns. He was Marty Lewis, the fictitious version of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner opposite Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980). He was Albert Brooks’ best friend in Modern Romance (1981) and was extremely memorable as the Frank Sinatra loving chauffer mandated to drive the unappreciative Spinal Tap around in that famous 1984 mockumentary. As he got older, he started splitting his time between comedy, and more serious, dramatic fare. He was the by the book antagonist to Robin Williams free-spirited DJ in Good Morning, Vietnam, and costarred as the cynical pal of Billy Crystal in two extremely popular mainstream comedies – 1989’s When Harry Met Sally and 1991’s City Slickers. He even reconnected with his Godfather roots, starring opposite the legendary Marlon Brando in the mobster spoof The Freshman (1990).


Throughout the ‘90s, Bruno continued to excel in parts that combined his Mediterranean heritage with his genial, almost goofy, good nature. From Nicky (opposite another Corleone, Al Pacino) in Donnie Brasco to a pair of performances as leading attorneys in two of the nation’s most famous landmark trials - he was Barry Sheck of OJ fame in 2000’s American Tragedy, and Vince Bugliosi in the 2004 remake of Helter Skelter  - he remained ever sharp, always careful to be both true and interpretive of the people he was playing. Most recently, he was part of the exciting ensemble that makes Entourage one of HBO’s most popular satiric series. Unfortunately, he was already aware of his circumstances. When he learned of his illness a few months ago, Bruno swore he would battle until the end. Sadly, the conclusion came far too soon for such a tremendously talented man. While his career may have been made up of moments, it will be the overall oeuvre that forever defines the amazing Bruno Kirby.


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Monday, Aug 14, 2006

From what we hear, Kevin Smith acquitted himself nicely during his stint as Roger Ebert’s film critic subsitute. Until we can get some more information, here’s a look at the promotion clip run during the week of Smith’s appearance. Big thanks to YouTube for the clip.


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Sunday, Aug 13, 2006


As the summer film season slowly starts to fade in the still humid days of August, SE&L turns its attention to the upcoming fall parade of possible releases. Some of these titles aren’t 100% confirmed, and there is always the possibility that a studio or distributor can change their mind and pull the picture before it opens. And SE&L is not concerned with the obvious choices. You won’t find entries for Scorsese’s The Departed, Aronofsky’s The Fountain, Nolan’s The Prestige or Sean Penn in the long delayed remake of All The King’s Men. Those are standard filmgoer gimmes. No, we at PopMatters are looking for the unknown quantity, the borderline movie or moviemaker who can and will quite possibly deliver something decidedly different come autumn. So, without further ado, here is a list of the 10 films that will have our attention during the last four months of 2006:


This Film Is Not Yet Rated (1 September—NY/LA)
Ever wonder who, exactly, makes up the membership of the MPAA, those guardians of cinematic right and wrong and purveyors of the patented rating system for films? Well, so did documentarian Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith). Hoping to out the actual people behind the pronouncements, Dick lays on the standard industry thesis—violence gets a pass while nudity gets the axe—yet there is more here than just a missive about misguided values and the basic breakdown of how the Association works. Dick is also saying something about the way in which entertainment formulates social philosophy and visa versa. It’s a lesson that’s long overdue. 


Science of Sleep (22 September—Limited)
With the imaginative and idiosyncratic Michel Gondry behind the camera and rising international superstar Gael García Bernal in front, this looks like—pardon the pun—a real sleeper. In this fairytale comedy about a dreamer who loses his fantasy/reality filter when he falls for a new neighbor, the standard Gondry guarantees are present—impressive visuals, joking juxtapositions and deep emotional resonance. How audiences will react to the famed filmmaker working without a Charlie Kaufman script for once (the pair previously collaborated on 2001’s Human Nature and the masterful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) will be interesting. We at SE&L can hardly wait


Renaissance (22 September—Limited)
While some would like to call this a Parisian Sin City rip off, SE&L believes there is room enough in the cinematic universe for two black and white animated crime thrillers. While it will have a long way to go to top Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s endlessly fascinating fake film noir from last year, Renaissance appears ready to do battle. Granted, the plot sounds a little convoluted (there’s a ominous genetic engineering company at the center) with lots of speculative fiction facets, but the cartooning is indeed quite impressing. As a matter of fact, in some ways it puts the humans as drawings dynamic at work in Sin City to shame. 


Infamous (13 October—Limited)
No, it’s not deja-vu all over again, or a quickie remake of a recent triumph. The story goes that writer/director Doug McGrath (Emma) was working on this version of the backstory behind In Cold Blood—based on a George Plympton book—when Capote came along. Suddenly, actors were dropping out and Oscar nominations (and awards) were being won. Now, it’s nearly a year later, and if the trailer is any indication of the overall quality, the Academy may find itself in the odd position of giving out TWO Best Actor trophies to different performers playing the same person. Toby Jones is terrific as Tru - both evil and elfin all rolled into one - and the supporting cast looks excellent. Here’s hoping for a dynamic double play.


The Queen (6 October—Limited)
How’s this for casting: Helen Mirren as the reigning Queen Elizabeth, James Cromwell as her disconnected spouse, Prince Phillip, and Underworld’s Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. With such a group of actors on board, occasional genius Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) has more than enough performance power to pull off this story of the UK government’s struggles while trying to find an appropriate response to the death of Princess Diana. Such meaty behind the scenes exposés usually make for good clean catty fun. Here’s hoping that Frears and his fellow Brits cut through the sermonizing and idolatry and get down to the sensitive subjects at hand—specifically the still lingering tensions between Her Majesty and the famous former daughter-in-law. 


The Marine (13 October—Wide)
With a trailer so overloaded with jump cuts you’d swear the editors were suffering from epilepsy when they crafted it, The Marine marks Vince McMahon and the WWE’s entry into so-called ‘legitimate” filmmaking (along with this past May’s sloppy slasher film See No Evil). Taking a simple story—a war vet seeks revenge on the criminals who’ve kidnapped his wife—and cramming it full of as much action, gunplay and fisticuffs as possible, SE&L senses an adolescent action epic in the making. So why is such an obvious attention getter featured as part of this list. Well, even we film snobs enjoy a little escapist popcorn schlock now and then, and this one looks nice and cheesy.


Fuck (10 November—NY/LA)
What’s better than a documentary about the MPAA? How about one destined to give said designators of decency a series of substantive conniption fits. Using a format similar to the hilariously vulgar The Aristocrats, first time fact filmmaker Steve Anderson gathers together a formidable group of celebrities, everyday citizens comedians, and scholars to discuss why the F-word is so used, abused and confused. While the answers seem kind of obvious, Anderson and his interesting collection of voices promise more than just a tawdry tour through the scatological and the shocking. We can hardly f*cking wait!


For Your Consideration (17 November—Limited)
Christopher Guest is back, and this time, he’s taking on awards season itself as the focus of this promising mockumentary. Featuring the usual cast of Guest regulars (Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer) and a few very familiar new faces (including the UK Office‘s own Ricky Gervais) the film already has impressive credentials. Add in the Oscar-like environment and this look at how the ballyhoo surrounding the yearly rush for recognition affects three unknown actors could be classic. Considering Guests previous track record, odds are that this one is equally silly—and satisfying.


Black Christmas (25 December—Wide)
There’s no better way to celebrate the yuletide with its festive sentiments of peace on earth and goodwill toward men than with a good old fashioned genre workout. While die-hards are probably foaming at the mouth over yet another horror movie update (in a true touch of irony, A Christmas Story’s Bob Clark directed the first film), Glen Morgan, the mastermind behind the fantastic Willard update from 2003 is on board. That means that, no matter the spirit of the season, we fright fans could be in for a nice, gory gift under the X-mas tree. Besides, original cast member (and SCTV alum) Andrea Martin is back—after 32 years.!


Pan’s Labyrinth (29 December—Limited)
Following in the same sensational footsteps as his previous look at war as a child’s nightmare—2001’s The Devil’s Backbone—many have called Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro’s latest frightening fairytale his masterpiece. The preview images are astounding and the international trailer argues for an artistry not typically seen on the big screen. If anyone can pull off the complicated tonal shifts and the merging of magic with reality, it’s Del Toro. From his criminally underrated Hellboy to the best Blade of the franchise, this is one director who appears to be a single breakout film away from major commercial and critical adoration. This just may be the one.


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