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Monday, Jun 11, 2007


June is typically touted – both in song and maxim - as busting out all over, but when it comes to digital product headed to your local brick and mortar, this month is shaping up to be simply a bust. The release pattern appears to consist of one or two name titles per week, followed by dozens of unknown efforts and unnecessary double dips. Take this upcoming Tuesday. We get an intriguing thriller, a wannabe popcorn blockbuster, and a bunch of lesser offerings. That’s it. In fact, if it weren’t for the independent distributors and outsider creations, we’d have a real dearth of DVDs on the market. And it’s not getting better anytime soon. The next 20 days will see some intriguing titles from Criterion, and another few mainstream hits, but that’s about it. So mark your calendars well – every release date will be very similar to 12 June. Here’s hoping July turns the tide:


Breach


Flying in under the radar this past February (just in time for 300 to steal all the box office fire) this intriguing real life story of international intrigue and Cold War espionage deserved better. Featuring fine performances from Ryan Phillippe and Laura Linney, as well as an award worthy turn by Chris Cooper as the rogue FBI agent selling secrets to the Russians, what should have been a sleeper hit was unceremoniously dumped into cinema’s supposed dead zone – a.k.a. the spring. There, it languished, receiving excellent reviews and good word of mouth. Yet for some reason, it failed to become a substantive hit. Now, thanks to a rapid turnaround on DVD, fans of tense, taut thrillers can enjoy this intriguing effort from screenwriter (Flightplan, Suspect Zero) and director (Shattered Glass) Billy Ray. His is a career behind the camera worth following.

Other Titles of Interest


Charly’s Aunt


Successful radio (and then TV) talent Jack Benny never seemed to get a handle on big screen stardom. In this, the sixth adaptation of Brandon Thomas’s celebrated cross dressing stage play, the comedian plays the title character, a student in drag helping out his buddies in the chaperon department. Naturally, hilarious hi-jinx ensure in what ends up being one of Benny’s most well known and triumphant cinematic jaunts.

52 Pick Up


It’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel. It was directed by the always intriguing John Frankenheimer. It stars Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret in some of their best work ever. So why isn’t this film heralded as a mid ‘80s classic? Well, for one thing, the era was too high concept for such an old fashioned noir. Second, the lack of a legitimate DVD release limited its appreciation – until now.

Ghost Rider: Extended Edition


While not the worst comic book hero movie ever made, this take on the Devil’s diabolical bounty hunter is highly reminiscent of the recent string of studio-hindering hackwork that the genre has become known for. Star Nicholas Cage and writer/director Mark Steven Johnson obviously wanted to impart some quirk into the character, but the suits needed to satisfy the bean counters. Thus we have this amazing looking movie that’s lacking a serious superhero soul.

Primeval


It was promoted as a serial killer flick. Turned out, the title terror was a rogue crocodile eating people in South Africa. What a gyp! Anyway, critics weren’t confused by what they saw unfold onscreen. Many called it a below average ‘when animals attack’ effort with too little story and too much blood. That seems to sum it up quite well. For lovers of the creature feature end of the genre only.

Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girl


Continuing his commercial cottage industry sans his amazing Medea character, raconteur Tyler Perry delivers this interesting take on single parenthood and cultural class standing. Without the whacked out mother figure at the center of the story, the humor is more subtle and based around the interaction with children. Some will find its heart in the right place. Others will lament the lack of a delirious drag dimension.



And Now for Something Completely Different
Sex Hex


While horror is constantly harangued for offering nothing but the same old thing, it’s actually the softcore sex romp that deserves said detrimental delineation. While the fright flick tries to use the genre basics to deliver differing fear factors, it’s nothing but nudity and naughtiness in these fake fornication fests. Sex Hex hopes to shake things up by adding Airplane! style spoofing to the mix, as well as keeping all the gratuity strictly girl/girl. When an erotic succubus strikes a California company, Carl the Cable Guy turns into a fearless vampire hunter to catch her. The result is a very silly, very Sapphic slice of pseudo-porn. While the actresses are a little on the plastic fantastic side of attractiveness, they sure do enjoy their lesbian loving. The result is a DVD bound to tickle much more than just your funny bone.

 


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Monday, Jun 4, 2007


It’s another odd week for the home video aficionado. On the one hand, you’ve got a true celluloid auteur getting the digital admiration he so richly deserves. On the other hand, you’ve got the clear frontrunner for Worst Movie of 2007 – maybe of all the ‘Naughts’. There’s a new take on the same old moldy J-Horror, an even older Oliver Stone effort, an imaginative take on a silent classic, and a callous cash grab for fans of a certain comic book foursome. When you add in the completely gratuitous sex comedy from the late ‘70s, and the rest of the aluminum disc dregs, the payout potential is limited at best. But it’s a weak Friday for first run films (your choice – another Ocean’s sequel or more Eli Roth ‘gorno’) and Lord knows what the pay cable channels are about to cough up. So do yourself a favor, stick with the rock solid SE&L pick and kiss the rest goodbye. It will make your 5 June all the more productive:


The Sergio Leone Anthology


Drop whatever you’re currently doing, grab your cash card, and head out to the local B&M the minute it opens and plunk down your pennies for this amazing spaghetti western box set. Featuring the entire Man with No Name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) along with Leone rarity Duck, You Sucker! , all four films are given a Special Edition treatment that is long overdue. That means you get a quartet of Italian gunslinging goodness, eight DVDs, and lots of cinematic supplements for a minor monetary outlay. And if you want to add a copy of the director’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, to your shopping cart along the way, no one will complain. Long considered a filmmaking genius, Leone’s legacy has only grown in the DVD era. Perhaps it’s because the format fits his wide open epics so well, giving them room to breathe and grow. Or maybe it’s his amazing artistry. Either way, it’s film fans who win.

Other Titles of Interest


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


This is either a really creative idea or cinematic sacrilege. Using modern technology and the original film’s inventive Expressionistic designs, writer/director David Lee Fisher scanned the original sets into a computer and then digitally inserted his modern actors. The story’s the same, and in this version, the characters speak for themselves. Think of it as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow mixed with the classic silent film and you get the idea.

Fantastic Four: Extended Edition


How do you make a mediocre movie a little less lame (and a lot more profitable)? Simple - revamp the narrative with added scenes, reconfigure the film for DVD, and sell it just as the real sequel is about to hit theaters. That’s the case with this rushed to retail redux of the mangled Marvel mess. Initial reviews claim the changes are for the better. Considering the source, that’s not saying much.

The Messengers


The Pang Brothers, Hong Kong’s premiere horror maestros, come to America at the very end of the Asian angst fad and proceed to sink the final nail in the slick subgenre’s coffin. Aside from the fact that they’re three years too late, the subtle scares of the whole ghost world spook show have long since been decried and dismissed. Not the best showcase for a pair of foreign fright film icons.

Norbit


Oh Lord, this is BEYOND bad. Everything you’ve heard is true – this is a ridiculous, racist mess, the kind of unbelievably bigoted filmmaking that should set the cause of African American pride back 400 years. Eddie Murphy is awful, desecrating geeks, the obese, and Chinese people everywhere. This entire film feels like the beginning of a mean-spirited gag that never discovers its punchline. Sadly, the joke appears to be on us. 

Seizure


Here’s an intriguing title finally arriving on the digital domain. It stars Dark Shadow’s Jonathan Frid and Fantasy Island favorite Hervé Villechaize, and was co-written and directed by a young maverick named Oliver Stone. The plot sounds like the ‘Old Dark House’ married to a proto-slasher feast. Could be good. Could be garbage. Whatever the case, it could make for an interesting night of early auteur nostalgia.


And Now for Something Completely Different
H.O.T.S.


This film always tried to position itself as the modern female equivalent of Animal House. Part of the problem of course is that the National Lampoon classic was more concerned with satire and less with skin. All this film has going for it is boobs, boobs, and more boobs – that and some very gratuitous Danny Bonaduce (who actually looks halfway human here). The title sorority – the name is taken from the four main girls (Honey, O’Hara, Terri, and Sam) in the club – is the bane of Fairenville University, or F.U.’s, existence. There’s a crusty old dean, some snobbish villains, and a last act game of strip touch football.  Along the way, our gals discover sex, self-esteem…and umm, more sex. Indeed, softcore eros is the point behind this collegiate comedy. If you’re looking for story, move along. If all you’re interested in is curvaceous pre-‘80s flesh, then step right up. This so-so silliness will be your cup of carnal tea. 

 


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Monday, May 28, 2007


Ouch! It’s a bad week for first run DVD product. Wanna know just how awful it is? After sifting through several lists, SE&L had to suggest two titles on the current Tuesday breakdown that it knows, for sure, are absolute cinematic dogs. Naturally, they’re both half-baked horror movies, one of which purports to explain how a certain cannibalistic doctor became a flesh feasting madman. Right, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning successfully did the same thing for some guy in a skin mask. In truth, there are a couple of tantalizing choices here – a chopsocky epic based on an idea from kung fu icon Bruce Lee, a double dose of Asian adolescent atrocities, and an insightful look at one of the UK’s most infamous artists. But with summer officially starting and the local Cineplex rocking with popcorn possibilities, home theater has no hope of keeping up – not as long as they keep their release schedule as underwhelming as the one for 29 May:


Hannibal Rising


Let’s settle this once and for all – prequels DO NOT WORK! Ask Butch and Sundance. Ask Leatherface and his brood. Heck, ask the king of craptacular prologues, George Lucas. There is just something inherently impossible about matching a previously well known character’s present persona with the manner in which it was formulated. Now Thomas Harris destroys all lingering literary prestige (what little he had) with this undeniably awful Lecter illogic. Helmed with a lack of filmmaking flair by Peter Webber, we learn early on that this will not be our standard slasher endeavor. Trying desperately to make young Hannibal’s lot mirror the devastation of Europe at the hands of the Nazis, this self-important slop can’t decide if it’s a character study or a craven carve up. The answer is obvious. It’s neither. It’s the continued milking of an already tapped out horror movie franchise. How this concept went from Oscar to ungodly stands as a clear case of Hollywood hubris.

Other Titles of Interest


Battle Royale I & II


No other nation expresses its inner fears and sense of social confusion better than the Japanese. Here, out of control teens are placed on a deserted island and given a simple mandate – kill each other via any means necessary. Bloody, brave and quite brash, this clear commentary on the death of tradition stands as one of Kinji Fukasaka’s best cinematic statements.

Circle of Iron


Before his untimely death at age 33, Bruce Lee dreamed of bringing this epic meditation on Zen and the Art of Butt Kicking to the big screen. Five years posthumous, friends and well wishers more or less realized his goals. Those used to the lightning fast concepts of post-Matrix wire-fu may be unimpressed by the martial artistry on display, but there is more to this movie than flying fists and roundhouse kicks.

Heavy Petting: Special Edition


Back before DVD made such items of interest available to the general public, comic compilations like these brought the world of weird educational films to wistful film fans everywhere. The focus this time is on sex and personal hygiene, elements that go together to confuse and corrupt the youth of a nation. With guest commentators like ex-Talking Head David Byrne and musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson.

The Katharine Hepburn Collection


Not exactly the greatest compilation of this actresses’ fine work, you’ll still find a couple of concrete gems (Morning Glory, Sylvia Scarlett) amongst the other unknown entities present. The real rarity, however, is Ms. Hepburn’s 1979 TV turn as a determined teacher in The Corn is Green. It argued for the voracious viability of this legend’s terrific talent, even some 60 years after her initial start in show business

The Naked Civil Servant


John Hurt is Quentin Crisp, the famed gay writer and ebullient bon vivant in this, the author’s own eccentric autobiography. Though never fully appreciated in his lifetime, the elder statesman of British homosexuality consistently challenged convention as he tried to navigate his way through a world filled with prejudice and intolerance. This is a funny, sad, and very moving film. 


And Now for Something Completely Different
Drive Thru


Fast Food may indeed be the work of the Devil, but once you’ve sat through Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn’s ode to refusing fries with that, you’ll definitely reconsider your trans-fat tendencies. Apparently, the owner of a local California snack shack franchise known as Hella-Burger has a problem on his hands – his goofball mascot, something called “Horny the Clown”, has turned into a sinister serial killer. Oddly enough, he is targeting the offspring of the ‘70s teens who accidentally murdered his son. Sound familiar? That’s because our filmmakers shot their wad on making Horny into something truly terrifying. As a result, they had to borrow plot points from better movie macabre. This makes everything else here seem redundant and ridiculous. Unless you need to experience every variation on the slice and dice genre ever conceived, your best bet is to skip this unhappy meal.

 


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Monday, May 21, 2007


Aren’t you sick of the Summer Movie Season already? Granted, it’s only been three weeks, but with its rollercoaster conceit of overly hyped/underwhelming tre-quels and box office browbeating over whose unnecessary retreat will reign supreme, it seems like the next three months will be one massive misfire after another. And it’s already getting very old. While there is some legitimate relief on the way in the guise of Judd Apatow’s amazing Knocked Up (more on that in future sections), anyone hoping for a little artistry among the artifice is barking up the wrong bush. Still, there’s always the digital domain to save us from Hollywood’s annual hog and phony show, and this week’s offerings are consistently excellent (with one shockingly lame farcical flop excluded). So save yourself a trip to the Cineplex and revel in one of the many memorable picks for 22 May, including SE&L‘s solid selection:


Apocalypto


Had stumbling superstar Mel Gibson not ruined his reputation by giving in to his inner racist ideals, he would probably have had another massive mainstream hit on his hands with this incredibly adept period piece. As much about the setting as the stunt work, Gibson turned an ancient Mayan civilization with its rituals and superstitions into a kind of organic science fiction. He drops us directly into the middle of a mesmerizing, slightly surreal locale and then leaves us with very little that is recognizable or real. Instead, we must piece together the reigning realities like fragments of an ancient puzzle. With its direct from digital glow (Gibson avoided film for cost considerations) and sublime art direction, we never once doubt the authenticity or accuracy of the tale (though scholars have frowned on some of the historical errors). Besides, it’s one of the best movies ever to attempt the lo-tech action genre.

Other Titles of Interest


Epic Movie


Someone forgot to tell the makers of these meaningless spoof movies that the comedy only works when the target has become a part of the legitimate pop cultural lexicon, not merely some flash in the pan fad that’s here today and forgotten a fortnight from now. Whatever the case, as long as there are ADD addled audiences willing to support such drivel, Tinsel Town will keep churning them out.

Prince of the City: Special Edition


Some consider this to be Sidney Lumet’s last great film (with the occasionally manipulative The Verdict riding in a close second), and in some ways, they’re right. It was the last time Lumet would let his material do the talking, permitting this story of police corruption and the officer/whistleblower who risked his career – and life - to reveal it, develop organically without contrivance. Thanks to a terrific turn by lead Treat Williams, it remains a forgotten gem.

Sansho the Bailiff: The Criterion Collection


Japanese cinema doesn’t get more beautiful or heartbreaking than this stellar drama from Ugetsu director Kenji Mizoguchi. In a career that spanned nearly 50 years (he began making silent films in 1923), this tale of an exiled governor and the family desperate to reunite with him is considered a creative crowning achievement. Thanks to those experts at Criterion, the proof is there for all to see.

The Third Man: The Criterion Collection


Carol Reed’s signature film is also his most unabashedly brilliant work. Mixing a flawlessly crafted combination of acting, story, setting and subtext, what starts out as a standard thriller becomes an existential exercise in identity and duty. If you don’t already own a copy (shame on you), now’s your chance to get the latest treasure trove treatment from DVDs’ best preservationists. Apparently, modern director Steven Soderbergh is on hand to deliver a definitive commentary.

Venus


It’s sad, when you think about it. Longtime Oscar bridesmaid Peter O’Toole was practically guaranteed an Academy Award for this supposed swansong performance as an aging actor who falls for a troubled gal 50 years his younger. No one could deny the grand thespian’s presence, but when placed alongside work from Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, and eventual winner Forest Whitaker, he just couldn’t compete. Not the brightest way to end a stellar cinematic career.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Straight Time


It seems like an odd combination at first: intense New York actor Dustin Hoffman playing a recently paroled LA ex-con looking to change his life and mend his ways. But thanks to the impressive artistic approach taken by experimental director Ulu Grosbard – call it ‘languid legitimacy’ – what we end up with is one of the two time Oscar winner’s strongest performances. Naturally, Hoffman’s Max Dembo is a tormented man who can’t stay out of crime’s way (thanks in part to a power mad probation officer played by M. Emmet Walsh) and he’s soon on a rampage to repay society for having such unflinching faith in its penal system. Long forgotten by supporters of ‘70s cinema, this new to DVD release should function as a way of rediscovering this legitimate motion picture classic.

 


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Monday, May 14, 2007


Saddle up shoppers – this is going to be one confusing (and cash draining) DVD roundup. On top of the titles chosen by SE&L as representing the releases to look out for, there are dozens of previously available offerings (Goodfellas, Natural Born Killers, The Omega Man) making a reappearance on the medium for absolutely no good reason. In fact, we can’t tell if these are merely re-priced reprints looking for a little budget buying power, or barebones versions of still available special editions. Whatever the case, make sure you’re paying attention as you pick through the digital doggies waiting to be corralled. Indeed, you might wind up with a busted bronco instead of a magnificent mustang. Of course, you can avoid all the confusion and simply stick with this week’s prize pony, an overlooked masterwork that deserves to be the premium pick of 15 May:


The Fountain


Darren Aronofsky deserves SO much better. When he first pitched this time travel love story five years ago, he had Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and a $70 million budget ready to realize his dream. Come 2006, he had to settle for a magnificent Hugh Jackman, an equally radiant Rachel Weisz, and a clear critical and commercial conundrum. More or less dismissed during its theatrical release, what most audience members saw as self-indulgent and confusing was actually the makings of a post-modern masterpiece. There have been lots of cinematic stories about death and the loss of a loved one, but nothing has done a better job of tapping into the internal struggle over the acceptance of same than this fascinating film. Aronosfky’s decision to go as lo-tech as possible with his F/X gives the entire production an earthy, natural glow, and the passion between his characters is palpable. Ignore it if you must, but decades from now it will be listed among the medium’s greats. Guaranteed.

Other Titles of Interest


Becket


It contains a cast of British acting heavyweights – Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud – and a story of substantive historical significance. But when it came time for the 1965 Academy to divvy up trophies, its 12 nominations could only manage a single screenplay win. So what beat this otherwise exceptional period drama – why, the lightweight musical mediocrity known as My Fair Lady.

Bill


Okay, this was a TV movie, so we’re sort of violating our own ‘theatrical only’ rules. But Mickey Rooney was just so good as a mentally handicapped man finally escaping his life under institutional control. With a VERY young Dennis Quaid as the documentary filmmaker that helps Bill out, it remains a weeper that definitely earns its emotions. The sequel was equally satisfying.

The Dead Girl


A lot has been written about this under the radar indie drama – and almost all of it has been better than good. Using the identity of the title entity as a means of tying many divergent characters and storylines together, actress Karen Moncrieff’s second full length feature crackles with a complexity and collection of perfect performances that few Hollywood efforts just can’t achieve.

Pan’s Labyrinth


The left over Oscar argument from 2007 will always be whether Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others deserved to win the award for Best Foreign Film over this clear fan favorite. After revisiting it recently on home video, it is obvious that Guillermo Del Toro’s adult fairytale about war and sacrifice is a stellar motion picture. In fact, its timeless nature will keep it considered long after Lives is forgotten.

Stomp the Yard


The black college tradition of stepping definitely deserves more than this hackneyed formula film, especially given director Sylvain White’s remarkable way with a camera. He brings an energy and a vitality to the ‘dance’ sequences, experimenting with shot selection and post-production optics to tweak convention. Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Tex Avery’s Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection


Finally! Every other half-baked animated creature seems to be getting a major DVD release these days, and yet Tex Avery’s dour hound dog always gets left behind. It’s hard to describe what makes Droopy so incredible – his hurdy gurdy nerdy voice, the intensely violent physical comedy that forms his humor, or the hyper-stylized way Avery and his crew realized his pen and ink personality. Whatever the reasons, this two disc set – offering 24 theatrical shorts and a bevy of added content – promises to make fans of the zany animator and his prized pooch happy indeed. We here at SE&L are smiling all the way to the brick and mortar. Now, if they could only find a way to bring the complete Screwy Squirrel to the digital medium.

 


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