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Monday, May 7, 2007


There are a couple of noticeable trends this week, one of which is plainly obvious from the titles listed below. There are a lot of “and” pictures being released today, movies that attempt to use the bifurcating connective word as indicative of dichotomy, difference or dynamic. Unfortunately, they all don’t share a singular cinematic value. The other fad is more mercantile, and isn’t noticeable until you dig down deeper into the overall product list proper. For example, 8 May will see the release of a Dirty Dancing 20th Anniversary Special Edition, a Donnie Brasco Extended Version, and of all things, a director’s cut of Tom Hank’s That Thing You Do. Sure, this is all part of the notorious double dip, but the tactic here is also a little more subversive. By cleaning up the cutting room floor and affixing deleted content back into the print, the studio can claim it’s new and work their way into your wallet once again. So tread softly and choose wisely this tricky Tuesday – at least when considering anything other than our rock solid SE&L pick:


Deliver Us From Evil


It’s a shame that the situation with pedophilia and the priesthood has been reduced to a running gag amongst your bottom feeding stand-up comics. But the real crime remains in just how clandestine and conspiratorial the Church was in keeping these abominations from parishioners and potential underage targets. Case in point – Fr. Oliver O’Grady. At one time, he was a trusted and respected man of God. But deep down inside, he was a raging child rapist, a sick and twisted pervert who was a threat to all he came in contact with. Shockingly, he was protected, moved around from community to community to hide his horrible secret. As this scathing documentary indicates, organized religion thought it best to keep O’Grady safe, forgetting that the most important element here, the devastated victims, were the ones who really needed the help. Filmmaking doesn’t get any braver than this disturbing denouncement of everyone involved. Second only to An Inconvenient Truth in uncovering true fact-based horrors.

Other Titles of Interest


Breaking and Entering


It was supposed to be his return to certified Oscar fare after the commercial hit The Talented Mr. Ripley and the overblown dud Cold Mountain. But The English Patient‘s Anthony Minghella stumbled a bit with this class conscious offering about a London professional falling for an immigrant refugee. Based on his own screenplay, what could have been memorable ended up only middling.

Catch and Release


With what seems like unlimited commercial potential at her disposal, one has to wonder what made Jennifer Garner take on this quirky Indie romantic comedy. Must have been the chance to show her pure performance cred. First time filmmaker Susannah Grant (famed for writing Ever After and Erin Brockovich) even turned up the geek quotient by casting Kevin Smith as “the funny fat guy”. Audiences failed to respond.

David and Lisa


It has a premise that should only work in literary form (the film is based on a famous novel) – a young man afraid of being touched meets an equally unwell young woman who speaks in sing-song rhymes. Together, they try to forge a meaningful relationship. Thanks to the expressive performances by Kier Dullea and Janet Margolin, what could have been cloying has, instead, a fair amount of humanity. 

Music and Lyrics


Hugh Grant as a washed up ‘80s pop star? Drew Barrymore as a plucky lyricist who’s employed as his new writing partner? Era appropriate originals by Fountain of Wayne hit maker Adam Schlesinger? How could this miss? Apparently, writer/director Marc Two Weeks Notice Lawrence forgot to add anything fun…or memorable. Not even a Wham-esque Grant in full flashback mode was enough to save this stinker.

The Painted Veil


Representing the second period piece in a year for the otherwise thoroughly modern Edward Norton, this adaptation of the seminal W. Somerset Maugham book had a lot of healthy buzz come time for awards consideration. Then, for some inexplicable reason, it just vanished. The film has all the scope and splendor of a guaranteed critical hit, but somewhere between page and motion picture, it lost its way.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Revenge


You’ve got to admire the marketing campaign currently running for this 1990 Tony Scott title. In big bold letters over a newly enhanced image of star Kevin Costner’s unshaved face, a quote from Quentin Tarantino proclaiming this movie as Scott’s “masterpiece”. It’s all but unavoidable. Whether or not this will mean anything significant to the QT contingency remains to be seen, but anyone who’s actually watched this romantic thriller gets the gist of what the Indie bad boy is talking about. Jim Harrison’s potboiler tome about infidelity and intrigue in the Mexican wilderness feels like a thick slice of South of the Border Gothic, and Scott’s stylized approach to narrative gives everything a slick, glossy glow. Costner is very good, as are the late Anthony Quinn and a radiant Madeline Stowe. While it has guilty pleasure written all over it, there is some seriously satisfying high drama to be found amongst the camp.

 


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Monday, Apr 30, 2007


While we here at SE&L typically hate those smarmy know it alls that throw their considered opinion in your face, we’re about to be guilty of the same thing. That’s because it’s a clear “I told you so” situation this week. In preparation for war with the big summer movies, the studios are pulling out all the stops, presenting prime DVD titles to compete for your expendable cash concerns. This Tuesday alone we have two major Awards season wannabes, a pair of meaningful mainstream efforts, and one of the most anticipated box sets in the history of the medium, among many, many others. These five releases by themselves indicate that the next 16 weeks will be a windfall of hotly anticipated offerings. The only problem will be finding the time to enjoy both the big screen and home theater experience. Whatever you decide, you shouldn’t miss the SE&L selection for 1 May. It’s an incredible cinematic statement:


Little Children


Imagine the David Lynch of his Blue Velvet period without the ugly underneath, or better yet, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People reshaped as a satire, and you have an idea of this amazing slam of suburbia by In the Bedroom‘s Todd Field. This lackadaisical look at how biology blinds people to both their feelings and their flaws represents one of the most insightful examinations of the human condition ever cast upon celluloid. It was also one of 2006’s most criminally underrated films, with some considering it nothing more than a soap opera with slight social substance. But buried beneath the sequences of sex and unspoken emotions lies a narrative unable to control its simmering contempt. Using the pedophile character played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley as a catalyst, Field forms an argument against getting lost in your offspring. While he recognizes the vile nature of such a pervert, he also blasts the parents who pretend that child safety usurps everything else in a community. The result is a conflict of interests that turns into an epic battle between hysteria and hypocrisy.

Other Titles of Interest


Alpha Dog


Justin Timberlake is such an industry made star that the leap from music to movies is not so shocking as it is standard operating procedure. What is dreadful is how amazingly lame he is as an actor. His first major performance in Edison Force was universal mocked, and his work in Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan has been equally unimpressive. Oddly enough, critics had some good things to say about this kiddy crime story, including some kind words for Mr. N’Sync himself. For the sake of his career before the cameras let’s hope they’re right.

Dreamgirls


It was poised to be the blockbuster event of awards season, a surefire hit that would earn not only critical praise and commercial success, but a boatload of Oscars as well. Apparently, no one told that to the Academy, resulting in a one of three ratio. Jennifer Hudson walked away with her mandatory Supporting Actress statuette, but Eddie Murphy and the film’s trio of nominated songs were shut out. Some even saw the snub as part of Hollywood’s continuing anti-minority slant. It’s up to DVD to save this film’s reputation, or prove the pundits right. 

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky


It’s cult film Holy Grail time as Anchor Bay unleashes this sensational box set from one of cinema’s most heralded and misunderstood outsiders. Featuring Fando y Lis, The Holy Mountain, and that amazing Midnight movie El Topo, this collection will have old fans foaming and new converts convinced that Jodorowsky is some kind of visionary god. Toss in a mountain of bonus features and digital extras and you instantly have one of 2007’s best DVD releases. 

The Hitcher (2007)


It’s obvious that Hollywood is running out of ‘classic’ horror movies to remake when they choose titles like this one to revamp. The original, with Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh has its defenders, but it was more notorious than noteworthy. Now, Sean Bean and a couple of no name kids make up the tenuous trio playing cat and mouse suspense games along the open road. Don’t expect much, and you’ll enjoy this generic genre effort just fine.

Mahogany


The second to last film in Berry Gordy’s push to have then girlfriend Diana Ross become a major movie star. Unfortunately, the most memorable aspect of this tale of a ghetto gal who works her way into the world of kitschy high fashion (this is the ‘70s, remember) is the title song. Otherwise, co-stars Anthony Perkins and Billy Dee Williams are wasted here. And then there’s the completely dated clothing Ross creates. This was Gordy’s folly from beginning to end.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Illegal Aliens


Some folks just can’t die with dignity. Apparently having one’s name dragged through every civil court between LA and the Bahamas is not enough. All that speculation on the manner in which you finally merged with the infinite didn’t satisfy the scandal sheets. No, that notorious non-entity Anna Nicole Smith had to go a leave us a final film to keep her tabloid temperature raging above boiling. Feeling like an obvious knockoff of that ‘80s entry Earth Girls Are Easy (except with the gender roles reversed), this is a turgid tale of some wayward extraterrestrials that come to our planet, morph into ‘smokin’ hot babes’ (the PR’s words) and try to protect the populace from an evil cosmic force. Anna, of course, is the bumbling dumb blonde member of the crew. Some who’ve already seen this film say it’s a sad send-off for a pseudo-celebrity who deserved better. Others like the fact that, somehow, Anna’s managing to get the last laugh.

 


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Monday, Apr 23, 2007


Get ready for a little merchandising back and forth this week as studios and distributors strike at us with a combination of classics and crap. Inside the positive paradigm are one of 2006’s best films, a decent slice of speculation from a noted African American superstar, and a pair of pleasant box sets from two of foreign filmmaking’s greatest auteurs. The negatives of note include another clueless comedy, a crackpot kid flick and a very unnecessary CGI trip to a completely unentertaining museum. There’s also a lot of off title product hitting the marketplace as well, oddball offerings with names like China Doll (a Victor Mature war sudser) Von Richthofen and Brown (Roger Corman’s WWI flying epic) and Blood Orgy of the She Devils (trademark Ted V. Mikels miscreance). Unless you’re willing to experiment with your entertainment, your best bet is to stick with SE&L‘s rock solid pick, a film that makes the 24 April date worth noting:


The Queen


Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Stephen Frears’ Oscar nominated nod to the days preceding the death of Princess Diana is how emotionally astute it is. The natural reaction to anyone outside of the Prime Minister of Britain and the title icon would be unbridled devastation. That’s in fact what the world expressed upon her passing. But Elizabeth II and Tony Blair needed to manage a nation, not just their own feelings, and such a weighty proposition gives this amazing movie much of its drive, and its daring. Though it doesn’t pretend to offer factual insights into how Her Majesty and the Man from Number Ten Downing Street actually responded, Peter Morgan’s amazing script does a genius job of guessing. No matter if it’s false or forced, the responses just feel right, and help us see the exhaustive burden of power that follows every leader. Of course Helen Mirren deserved her Academy Award. The movie – and the men who made it - deserved a couple of those little gold men as well.

Other Titles of Interest


Code Name: The Cleaner


Don Imus gets fired for a horribly insensitive racial slur, and yet no one in Hollywood suffers one lick for continuing this borderline racist funny business formula. Cedric the Entertainer is the sad recipient of the Mantan Moreland treatment, playing a janitor who loses his memory and believes he’s a government agent. Sigh. That anyone thought this was viable mainstream entertainment is one thing. But to constantly cast talented black performers as the butt of bumbling jokes is a real crime.

Deja Vu


For some reason, Denzel Washington and genre efforts just don’t mesh. With a tenuous track record that includes Virtuosity, Fallen and The Bone Collector, it would seem silly to keep placing this titanic talent in a scary/sci-fi settings. In this time travel tale, built around the title premise, Washington is an ATF allowed to go back into the past and prevent an act of flagrant terrorism. Thanks to his considerable acting chops, we almost believe it.

The Documentaries of Louis Malle: Eclipse Series 2


As part of their new line of DVDs, Criterion introduces film fans to the non-fiction works of one of the medium’s great artists. Offering six works spanning subject matters as diverse as his native France and post-colonial India, this unusual compendium proves that there was more to Malle than gut wrenching humanism and a deep understanding of the flawed individual. Indeed, he had a keen eye for the drama of everyday existence as well.

The Jean Renoir Collection


Three discs. Seven films. One of SE&L‘s all time favorite filmmakers. So why aren’t we more ecstatic? Well, for one thing, Lionsgate is handling this release, and one has to question their stance as practiced preservationists. Second, most of these movies predate his masterpiece phase, the period between The Lower Depths (1936) and Rules of the Game (1939). Still, it’s Renoir, so you can definitely count us interested, if not exactly in.

A Night at the Museum


Do you miss those halcyon days of big budget, high concept movies that basically got by on imagery and mass hysteria. Well, look no further than this faceless, unfunny excuse for special effects. Ben Stiller trades his comic irony for kid friendly fluff and gets a massive points paycheck in the process. Unless the film’s main conceit grabs you – the displays in a local museum come to life after dark – there’s no need to visit this arch artifact from a lesser period of motion picture production.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Harry and the Hendersons: Special Edition


Wow, were we GULLIBLE in the ‘80s. William Dear, a director responsible for helping invent the music video format with MTV mentor Michael Nesmith (the pair produced the mythic Elephant Parts VHS ‘album’), used Rick Baker’s eccentric makeup to tell a slightly silly tale of a man who befriends a Bigfoot. That’s right, John Lithgow is along to overact as the harried dad who brings the legendary beast back home after his family has a car to creature mishap. All kinds of skunk ape hijinx ensue. Even though the premise is basically ET in a monkey suit, and the supporting cast of Don Ameche, Lainie Kazan and Melinda Dillon are top notch, the film tends to float away on its own internal emptiness. Even with a wealth of added content (commentaries, deleted scenes) its hard to imagine that this new DVD release will resonate with modern wee ones.

 


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Monday, Apr 16, 2007


Jackpot! Finally, a week where any one of the seven selected titles would make a fine addition to your own personal DVD collection. These situations are rare, so they demand celebrating. Better yet, there are several other titles – Overlord: Criterion Collection, Freedom Writers, The History Boys – that have their positives and negatives as well. Sure, some are better than others, with one offering in particular clearly meant as fodder for a future sequel release (say, around 4 May???), but with previous Tuesdays providing a paltry selection of acceptable, let alone good releases, you won’t hear SE&L complaining. In fact, picking the disc to highlight was a difficult if not next to impossible process. In the end, it came down to interest and popularity over art and added content. Still, you won’t be disappointed with any of the digital presentations available on 17, April, beginning with:


Spider-Man 2.1


Okay, it’s an obvious cash grab, a chance for Sony to milk the fanbase out of a few more bucks before they role out Part 3 the first weekend in May. Still, even with its cynical status as a marketing ploy, you can’t deny the power in Sam Raimi’s perfectly balanced comic book adventure yarn. Alfred Molina is an excellent Dr. Octopus, bringing the right amount of horror and humor to his villainous role. Similarly, the rest of the cast continue to push the boundaries of their characters’ core, including Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, a young man having a hard time dealing with his newfound import. Granted, this new DVD fleshes out the fight scenes, adding bits and pieces here and there to warrant the revamp. And we do get a couple of conversations that help explain away some of the movie’s more muddled motivations. While purists may balk at this non-directorial cut, and completists will plotz at the wealth of new added content, this remains an unnecessary double dip of a really great fantasy film.

Other Titles of Interest


Brute Force: The Criterion Collection


It’s time for another installment of moral men behind bars as the preservation experts over at C2 give this 1947 melodrama a thorough DVD workout. Director Jules Dassin, who would go on to helm the unusual noir Naked City and the truck driving thriller Thieves’ Highway, does a similarly startling job here, giving a young Burt Lancaster the fascinating role of a concerned convict up against a corrupt guard.

La Haine: The Criterion Collection


Race and its overriding social issues is not just an American quandary. In 1995, young filmmaker Matthieu Kassovitz decided to illustrate the strife and unrest growing in the French suburbs via a story of police brutality and friendship avenged. Playing like a documentary, thanks in part of the director’s decision to film cinema verite style, what we end up with is a universal statement on human intolerance and dignity destroyed.

The Last King of Scotland


Forest Whittaker took home his first Oscar for this portrayal of Ugandan madman Idi Amin in what is otherwise a very average motion picture. But no matter the flaws in the dramatization and fictionalization of the main character, a Scottish doctor who soon becomes Amin’s private physician and confidant – there is no denying Whittaker’s powerhouse performance. It will stand as a personal triumph long after the film itself has fallen out of favor.

Notes on a Scandal


It sounds like a tawdry tabloid tale – a young teacher seduces one of her male students. To make matters worse, a dowdy old spinster discovers the tryst and blackmails the naïve instructor. Of course, motives are never exactly what they seem, and with Judy Dench and Cate Blachette in the leads, what could become clichéd ends up playing as very powerful and rather personal. Not given enough respect come Awards time, DVD provides the perfect opportunity to catch up with this tripwire title.

Smokin’ Aces


Stylized action has its advocates. Both Quentin Tarantino and his Hong Kong counterpart, John Woo, have fashioned an entire career out of making violence and gunplay seem practically poetic. Now Narc‘s Joe Carnahan wants to try his hand at over the top mayhem, and the results are rather mixed. He gets the firefights and attitude right, but somewhere in between his affinity for stunt casting and a lack of clear characterization, a potentially great film finds itself marginalized.


And Now for Something Completely Different
True Confessions


The reteaming of Godfather aces Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall seemed like a match made in movie heaven. Fresh off his work in Raging Bull, and still carrying a bit of weight, Mr. Method decided to take on the role of a corrupt priest trying to hide a horrible murder from his detective brother – the aforementioned Corleone counselari. Using bits of the famed Black Dahlia murder, and lots of distinctive LA period set pieces, director Ulu Grosbard laid on the atmosphere in thick, moody slices. It was quite a chance of pace for the famed Hollywood rebel, a man whose previous films had been experimental and almost neo-realistic in style. Some found the pacing slow and the plot overly complicated. But with fine work from the stars, and a single sequence of awful implied violence, this anti-noir became a minor masterwork.

 


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Monday, Apr 9, 2007


OOOO – it’s a bad week for DVDs. One of the worst in recent memory. It’s hard to figure out where the problem lies. There is lots of product sitting around, big title films from 2006 and recently released underachievers that could easily overpower the marketplace this week. It’s merely a matter of tweaking the turnaround time. Similarly, a holiday like Easter should have no effect on the sell-through strategy of your typical Tinsel Town tyrant. All manner of horror, science fiction and gratuitous genre offerings swamp the equally religious Christmas season year in and year out. Maybe it’s the commercial calm before the substantial shilling storm. Whatever the case, be prepared to be massively disappointed when you head to your favorite B&M this week. Aside from a couple of compelling titles – including the solid SE&L pick – there is nothing but double dips and drek on board for 10 April:


Payback: Straight Up – The Director’s Cut


One of the beauties of DVD – among its many technical joys – is the concept of artistic appreciation. Unlike VHS, which couldn’t find a way to include the perspective with its product, or laserdisc which lost its battle for cinematic celebration thanks to limited appeal, the tiny aluminum disc has revolutionized the way films are featured and/or frozen in time. Take this unusual reissue. Back in 1999, with his career taking a necessary downturn, manic Mel Gibson decided to get good and gritty with this taut little thriller. Paramount, unhappy with the way things turned out, booted Oscar winning writer/director Brian Helgeland off the project, re-edited and rescored the film (with Gibson’s input), and released it to minor box office success. Now, the original man behind the lens gets a chance to air out his version of the movie for interested fans. The buzz has been unbelievably positive, and argues for DVD’s place as the perfect preservationist medium. Even with limited audience interest, certain films can still find fans and flourish. This is clearly the case here.

Other Titles of Interest


Bobby


Unlike JFK, which took the unsettling reality of the assassination of President Kennedy and turned it into a surreal social litmus test, Emilio Estevez’s Altman-esque approach to the death of candidate RFK is not so confrontational. Instead, it’s a reactive effort, with the events of the day reflected within its multi-character conceit. A clear critical “love it or hate it” project, there is still a brilliant movie to be made of this undeniable tragedy. Sadly, Estevez misses it by a couple of well-meaning miles.

My Father, the Genius


While it sounds like the standard indie film fodder – neglected child makes a movie about the eccentric father who failed to love her long ago – the best thing about this ditzy documentary is how balanced it is. Lucy Small is not out to vilify her dad, just understand him. And she takes us along for the revelatory ride. The result is an inside look at famed architect Glen Howard Small and the many parenting pitfalls he left behind.

Phantasm/ Phantasm III


Instead of going the Region 2 route, and offering a collection of all the Phantasm films, newly remastered and presented in a signature silver orb, Anchor Bay is applying a piecemeal approach. First up is Don Coscarelli’s initial classic, fully dressed with an anamorphic image and excellent extras. The third installment is no so lucky. It gets a packaging polish, but little else. While less than definitive, the old DVD saying of Region 1 beggars not being choosers apparently applies.


Slaughter Night (Sl8N8)


When it comes to international horror, no one is looking to the Netherlands for their genre jones. But with Slachtnacht (translation: Slaughter Night) a nation noted for its liberal policies toward drugs and sex can now safely secure a place in the pantheon of the paranormal. While not everything is original about this subterranean slasher film (it takes place in an abandoned mine) fright fans will still have a very good – and gory – time.

Survival Quest


Along with the Phantasm films, Anchor Bay continues to celebrate the directing efforts of Don Coscarelli with this little seen survivalist thriller. Starring b-movie legend Lance Henriksen as a Outward Bound-like instructor who must push his city slicking students into learning to co-existence with nature, this collision with a group of mindless militia types has some nice characterization, and a great deal of Coscarelli’s signature invention and wit.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Video Violence 1 & 2


Every once in a while, SE&L steps up and offers a motion picture PSA, a stern cinematic warning to be heeded at all creative costs. In this case, a company called Camp Motion Pictures is giving DVD a decidedly black eye. It’s releasing what can best be described as bottom of the barrel, direct to video dung circa the mid-‘80s on an unsuspecting genre fanbase. These filmic flim flam artists would have you believe that this pair of titles, nothing more than Super VHS gore goofiness from the Greed Decade, represents some manner of MIA motion picture macabre masterworks. In reality, these efforts are repugnant, the kind of amateur atrocity that the readily available 21st century technology is supposed to destroy. Don’t get caught up in the horror hype, or think that, somehow, independent director Gary Cohen has managed to create some kind of camp or kitsch classics. Instead, these awful offerings will test the terror tolerance levels of even the most devoted fan of off-title trash.

 


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