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Monday, Sep 25, 2006

You can tell that October is less than a week away. Like the sudden emergence of hearts and flowers come Valentines, or tinsel and trade ads near Christmas, Halloween’s arrival means just one thing to individuals in the media: time to break out the spooky stuff and give the fright fan what they want. That’s why, among the items of interest posted today as part of SE&L’s weekly DVD picks and passes, there are dozens of alternative choices, discs with titles like Dark Waters, Pet Sematary, as well as a collection of living dead epics including cult classics Burial Ground and Zombie Holocaust. As the pagan’s favorite day on the calendar draws neigh, we will be seeing more and more macabre-oriented product. It’s a boon for the creature feature aficionado – a chore for anyone looking for a cinematic choice based in recognizable reality. Still, there are a few notable non-supernatural offerings out there, including an overlooked love story, a cute kiddy cartoon, and the unnecessary sequel to an unlikely car culture hit. And if those don’t get your entertainment juices flowing, there’s always the final installment in Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance trilogy. For 26 September, the saleable suspects are:


Curious George *
Ah, two dimensional animation. The lost art of pen and ink cartooning. It’s so comforting to see the flat cell technique employed here – versus the absolute onslaught of CG-insanity currently crowding the Cineplex - that one can almost overlook the flaws in this classic kiddie series big screen adaptation…almost. Granted, Will Ferrell’s comedic physicality is more or less lost doing voice-over chores as the celebrated Man in the Yellow Hat, but Drew Barrymore is likeable as his love interest - and then there’s George. With a style reminiscent of the slapstick silliness of the past and none of the cloying pop culture ‘cleverness’ that ruins so much of today’s family fare, the magical little monkey with the impish grin and title inquisitiveness still symbolizes the way in which a child views this big, baffling world. It’s the perfect frame of reference for the pre-tween target audience, who will simply adore this spunky simian.



The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
You couldn’t enter a Multiplex this summer and not be enveloped by this film’s hideously annoying tie-in track – the Teriyaki Boys Asian atrocity “Tokyo Drift”. Oddly enough, the song lasted longer than the film. In and out as quickly as the whole cool car-racing genre unleashed by the original F&F, this meaningless revisit probably killed the floundering franchise. Dealing with the supposedly street savvy ‘sport’ of ‘drifting’ (otherwise known as purposeful fishtailing), the move to Japan merely heightened the unreality of the whole enterprise. Only in the movies can gangs of car junkies ride ramshackle through major metropolitan areas, endangering the lives of millions of innocent commuters and come out with only minor automotive damage. All lazy legal ramifications aside, that maddening multicultural rap will probably be this film’s only lasting legacy.



PopMatters Review


Lady Vengeance *
It’s no surprise that, as part of Asian culture, concepts such as honor, pride and payback are strict social and personal principles. What is shocking is how far some filmmakers will go to stress these timeless and important traditions. After the walloping one-two punch of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and 2003’s amazing Oldboy, director Chan-wook Park completes his signature series by putting the payback squarely in the hands of the so-called ‘weaker’ sex. Again focusing on the wrongly accused and imprisoned, as well as the sensational stylized set pieces that mark his auteur aesthetic, we witness another spectacle of slaughter in all its Grand Guignol grooviness. Some have been taken aback by Park’s approach to violence, claiming its geek show mentality is really antithetical to the themes he’s addressing. But when it comes to vigilante justice, one demands blood, not moralizing, and Park delivers the deluge in claret-colored spades.



The Lake House *
In a Summer full of insufferable projects, many avoided this Western remake of the Korean classic Siworae. It didn’t help matters much that it touted its time-crossed love story as the much anticipated re-teaming of Speed co-stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. With the dust now settling on said season of cinematic disappointments, The Lake House seems ready for redemption. After the baffling ballistics of a typical blockbuster effort, this slightly science fictional romance about a magical mailbox, a gorgeous glass structure, and the two lost souls who reside/resided within, was dismissed as slight and sentimental. But there is something coolly cathartic about a good old fashioned weeper, and while many critics seem to shutter at the thought of something emotional, Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti mostly avoids the maudlin. The results are perfect for a late Fall evening cuddled up with someone you love.


 


PopMatters Review


The Last Broadcast *
The Blair Witch Project got all the kudos – and the box office coin - but this far more effective mockumentary from directors Stefan Avelos and Lance Weiler was there first, and handled the strikingly similar subject matter in a less expletive-filled, Gen-X derivative fashion. Following the story of a cable access program searching for the mythic “Jersey Devil” in the legend-laced Pine Barrens, Avelos and Weiler create a moody murder mystery out of Witch‘s sense of a wilderness unknown, and an evil unleashed. Though many point to the subjective shift at the end as Broadcast‘s only drawback, the truth is that everything that Burkittsville bunkum tried to do, this effectively eerie effort actually accomplished. Witch was just a gimmick. Broadcast is a welcome and more worthwhile addition to the horror movie genre.



A Nightmare on Elm Street: Two Disc Infinifilm Edition *
Some argue that Wes Craven reinvented the movie macabre when he unleashed Scream, and all its ‘nod and a wink’ irony, on audiences in 1996. In actuality, it was the THIRD time in his career that this formidable filmmaker took on the sloppy standards of the post-modern scary movie and reconfigured its sensibilities. Like Last House on the Left in the ‘70s, A Nightmare on Elm Street offered the terror tale sanctuary from all of its ‘80s slasher silliness. It’s rare when an artist creates a timeless genre icon, but in Freddy Krueger, Craven gave actor Robert Englund the filmic foundation to shape a truly emblematic creature, one that fit perfectly in with the era’s growing concerns over children and their safety. While this version is a double dip over a previously issued DVD, the amazing amount of extras will convince you to give this title a try. It is one of the best horror films ever made.


The Notorious Bettie Page *
There is so much more to her story and significance that trying to decipher the life and times of this pre-pornography pin-up in a single ninety minute movie seems like an impossible task. Yet I Shot Andy Warhol‘s Mary Harron does a bright, breezy job of capturing the time, and the temperament, of its title figure. While Page’s still enigmatic allure is never fully explained - a visual uniqueness that stands out, significantly, alongside the other equally photographed models of the time - Harron is successful in showing how a small town Tennessee girl became an exploitation icon. Employing a carefree attitude toward the entire girlie-que industry, comfortable shooting cheesecake as well as more controversial subject matter stills, Page was a pioneer in redefining the role women would play in the post-War period. As a primer on her part in the subsequent revolutionizing of sex, this bouncy biopic is a winner.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 26 September:


Street Trash: Two Disc ‘Meltdown’ Edition *
It is, perhaps, the most unlikely subject matter for a horror film ever devised. A group of derelict homeless winos, led by an ex-Vietnam War veteran who takes his frequent combat flashbacks out on the surrounding populace in decidedly homicidal ways, begin drinking a new cheap hooch that’s hitting the street. Unfortunately, one of Tenafly Viper’s liquor-laced drawbacks is the unfortunate side effect of personal putrescence. That’s right, one sip and you start to ‘bleed’ out in a multi-colored array of bodily fluids. While a gun-ho cop tries to capture the rogue hobo, the rest of the street trash are turning into polychromatic pudding. A masterpiece made by fright film fans for fright film fans, Trash has long been unavailable on DVD. Last year, Synapse Films promised a new, fully tricked out edition would follow their orignal single disc presentation. They weren’t lying. This is, hands down, one of the best movies of the late ‘80s, given a proud post-millennial package that will be hard to top come time for year-end accolades.



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Monday, Sep 18, 2006

Finally, a week worth getting excited about. For more than a month, SE&L has watched as, with rare exceptions, DVD distributors have unleashed their seemingly endless stream of substandard fare to your local retailer. From major motion picture flops to endless reissues of titles long since technically perfected, there has been little in the way of compelling consumer goods. In fact, the selection has been scattershot to say the least. Ah, but this Tuesday is different. Again, Criterion comes through, delivering two unsung masterworks to the digital format, while a fascinating rock doc, a collection of ‘80s style movie macabre and a couple of hard driving dramas also spark our cinematic interest. Also of note is a Playstation take on terror that is probably best left for those still sold on their Sega Dreamcast. So grab your wallet and head to your favorite B&M as these are the compelling offerings for 19, September:


The Devil and Daniel Johnston*
This is the kind of documentary that invents all the eventual critical clichés. It’s masterful proof that fact is far more intriguing than fiction. It uses the thread of celebrity as a means of binding together the eccentricity of musicians, the pain of dreams deferred, and the social/interpersonal unacceptability of mental illness. Yes, Johnston comes off like an underground Brian Wilson, a naïve creator of magical pop music whose bubbling inner demons eventually damaged and destroyed his soul. But perhaps the greatest lesson we ultimately learn is that some minds are never meant to heal. In Johnston’s case, they are to be tolerated and celebrated. Thanks to gifted director Jeff Feuerzeig, we can do just that. This is definitely one of the year’s best films.


PopMatters Review 


The Elvira Movie Macabre Collection*
While she may be best known for another “body” of work, Cassandra Peterson – a.k.a. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – is also noted for continuing the late night horror host tradition started decades before by numerous noteworthy individuals, including her obvious inspiration, Vampira. Her sassy, entendre laced remarks, mixed in with some cutting commentary on the flawed films being presented, lead to a considered cult following that has only grown over the years. Now, digital archivists Shout! Factory have released six select titles from her Movie Macabre series: The Devil’s Wedding Night, Werewolf of Washington, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, Count Dracula’s Great Love, Legacy of Blood and The Doomsday Machine. Whether you crave this schlocky six pack, or are only interested in said vixen’s viable assets, these ‘80s throwbacks are a terrifically tacky treat.


 


Hard Candy*
It was only a matter of time before the Internet and the proliferation of pedophiles became the frightening fodder for the thriller genre. Thankfully screenwriter Brian Nelson and director David Slade went for subject matter more creepy and confrontational than exploitative. Turning the tables on a possible predator, young Hayley Stark (played by actress Ellen Page) is fiercely determined to exact her moralistic revenge in the most precise painful way possible, and for most people, that would be just fine. The subject matter of online deviants drives us in that direction. Then Nelson and Slade twist things up once again. Before long, you won’t know who to root for, and whom to revile. A two character, single setting drama with acting excellence to spare, this difficult, disquieting film offers not easy answers or allies. Instead, it asks us to see both sides of an incredibly controversial circumstance - and harder still, understand it.



PopMatters Review


Jigoku: The Criterion Collection*
This film tells a familiar story – a young man, involved in the accidental death of a pedestrian, faces inner torment and guilt. Yet in the hands of famed Japanese genre filmmaker Nobuo Nakagawa, this vignette heavy glimpse of Buddhism’s Eight Great Hells is like some kind of visceral visualized damnation. What begins as a conventional tale of bad decisions and karmic coincidences devolves into a pagan Pilgrim’s Progress with no shepherd to guide this sheep through the vile Valley of Death. Many have compared Nakagawa’s work here to that of José Mojica Marins, a.k.a. Brazil’s infamous Coffin Joe. Stunningly graphic, even today, with substantive amounts of evisceration and dismemberment, this is more of an experiment in terror than cold cautionary tale. Yet Nakagawa never lets us forget the humanity inside the horror, mixing imagery of reality with his revolting interpretation of the underworld.


 


The Proposition*
Gloom and doom rocker Nick Cave, not previously known for his adeptness at writing Westerns, crafted this critically divisive revamp of the Outback oater, focusing on a gang of outlaw brothers and their blood drenched adventures. Starring the almost always good Guy Pearce, and peppered with performances by Ray Winstone and Noah Taylor, this John Hillcoat helmed slice of horse opera revision definitely flummoxed most film reviewers. Some called it the best film of 2005, while others can’t quite get over Cave’s overcomplicated dialogue and cinematic shortcomings. Whatever camp you’re in – pure Wayne or pro Peckinpah, The Proposition is definitely violent. But is it brutal for the sake of shock, or is there a method to Cave’s cruelty. You be the judge…jury…and Old West executioner.


 


PopMatters Review


Spirit of the Beehive: The Criterion Collection*
Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive is the visualization of the moment when every child’s mind turns from naiveté to knowing. Combining childhood, the Spanish Civil War, the growing fascism of Franco, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village at the center as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction. It’s also rich in the symbolism of youth giving way to adulthood. Told completely through the eyes of our two young female leads, Erice creates a kind of cinematic tabula rosa. Instead of overdoing the iconography or ham-fisting his insinuations, this director just lets the narrative flow. The result is both haunting and halting. The visuals stun us as the plot purposefully evades our grasp.


Stay Alive: Director’s Cut
Granted, this is no Silent Hill. As a matter of fact, it may not even be a House of the Dead. All Dr. Uwe Boll references aside, most critics complained that this video-gamed based horror film was juvenile, illogical and incredibly ineffective – kind of like the latest release for the Xbox 360, huh? Anyway, some kids come across an illegal game (wow, how Ring-ish) that one of their friends died playing. So, naturally, they hop right in. Random garroting ensues. While the cinematic vision of the film was stuck in stupefying PG-13 land, this unrated director’s cut promises lots of excess carnage. Will the additional gore be enough to save this effort from being a Commodore 64 crapfest? Or will genre fans get their Nintendo Wii’s worth? Perhaps you need to press play and find out.



And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 19 September:


Brain Damage*
Frank Henenlotter was already famous for his ode to 42nd Street and exploitation movies when he made this follow-up to that glorified geek show, Basket Case. Using a brain sucking, if personable, talking parasite as his allegorical stand-in for drugs and addiction, this sly schlock meister got his “Just Say No” message across without having to rely on pontification or preaching. Instead, Henelotter used a considered performance by future soap star Rick Hearst and a lot of Manhattan atmosphere to show that dependency is not only harmful – it’s downright fatal to almost everyone involved. While this DVD is not as tricked out as previous versions – in fact, it’s basically bare bones – that is still not a reason to avoid this crazy cult classic. Pay close attention to the voice of the psychedelic slug “Elmer”. That’s beloved TV icon Zachary behind those sonorous tones.



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Tuesday, Sep 12, 2006

Feel that nip in the air, that sudden surge of icy cold callousness? In case you’re wondering—no, it’s not the first signs of Fall.  Instead, it’s the remnants of the reality that Hell has just frozen over. Today is the day when all the pontifications and declarations of artistic privilege, the ownership of myth and the control of motion pictures was tossed in the trash by one George Walton Lucas Jr. That’s right, today is the day when he finally makes the original versions of his Star Wars trilogy available to the public in their initial, unaltered form. No Greedo shooting first. No CGI Jabba bargaining with Han Solo. No modernized space battles. And no damn Hayden ‘Anakin Skywalker’ Christiansen substituting for Sebastian Shaw. Granted, you have to pick up copies of those disgraceful fidgeted over Special Editions to get your hands on these long sought after cinematic Holy Grails, and the tech specs supposedly leave a lot to be desired. Yet none of that matters as this is a day that will live on in entertainment infamy. All other releases scheduled might as well pack up and call it a day. Geek nation will be abuzz about these discs for at least a couple of weeks—that is, until they learn of the massive mega box set proposed for the franchise’s 30th anniversary. Oh George, you devil. Here’s the rundown on SE&L’s DVD selections of interest for 12 September:


Beavis and Butthead Do America: 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
In a clear case of a double dip that was well worth the wait, everyone’s favorite heavy metal morons finally get their only feature film perfectly pimped out. On this new edition you will find creator Mike Judge offering up his considered commentary on the brain-addled buffoons rise to stardom, the superstar-laded cast (including turns by then husband and wife Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) and his battles with Paramount over content and comedy. With his latest big screen effort, the literally discarded Idiocracy slowly fading from view, here’s a chance to see the talented writer/director successfully translate his small screen acumen to a big screen setting.



Lucky Number Slevin
It’s time for ‘90s movie mentor Quentin Tarantino to pick up another rip-off royalty check. In this supposedly slick and wholly superficial crime drama, Josh Harnett is Slevin Kelevra (yes, you read that name right) who suddenly finds himself smack dab in the middle of a mob war between bosses Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman. Yeesh! While some critics haven’t cared for the combination of purposefully dense dialogue and overstylized cinematics, those who can’t get enough of Mr. Pulp Fiction’s flailing stepchildren have cottoned to its cold, considered craftsmanship. Until QT steps up with another film, Slevin just might support your hard-boiled habit.



PopMatters Review


Stars Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope; Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back; Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
It’s gotten awfully hard to write about these films without getting incredibly miffed over the man behind their creation. It is safe to say that no other filmmaker in the blockbuster era has simultaneously sullied and solidified his legacy more stridently than George Lucas. His decision to make prequels to these beloved sci-fi films aside, his efforts behind the camera—championing advances in CGI and digital technology, his efforts at film preservation and protection—have been countered by his unswerving desire to constantly tinker with the movies that built his empire. Granted, all three of the original Star Wars films are dated, their effects marred by the limits of the era and the imagination within said restrictions.


That being said, there is something so homey about the original Star Wars films, a kind of handmade artistry that’s literally destroyed by all the post-millennial post production. What many makers of speculative fiction films fail to remember is that any futuristic fable better be rooted in some manner of recognizable reality. Thousand story buildings, ships the size of planets and unusual extraterrestrials fail to resonate because they move beyond the scope of our spatial logic and plausible perspective. That’s why the prequels feel so false—they offer up so much eye candy that our conceivability ends up diabetic.


The fact is, the real reasons fans have been clamoring for these titles has very little to do with a rejection of the reduxes, or a desire to restrict Lucas in his vision or creative capabilities. No, preserving and presenting the original Star Wars films the way they were initially released to theaters allows for the connections created previously to find a permanent home. The basis for why fans and filmmakers alike criticized the colorization of classic black and white films rests solely on this premise. In their newfangled form, the experiences one associated with those timeless monochrome movies were inalienably altered by the introduction of a formerly unknown element. Revisionism is only for rectification, not resale value. Lucas should remember it’s not about money, but memories.



Taps: Special Edition
Taps has a strange cinematic legacy. Few today remember that this was the highly tauted follow-up to Timothy Hutton’s Oscar winning turn in the still amazing Ordinary People. Fresh from said success, Hutton headlined a cast of up and comers including Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Giancarlo Esposito. Today, his work is mostly forgotten—as well as that of Onion Field/Sea of Love director Harold Becker. Here’s hoping this new Special Edition DVD release (replacing a bare bones title from four years ago) restores Hutton and Becker back to prominence. The truth is, aside from Penn, the work of all the other now known names is rather minor at best.


 


The Wild
When Disney dumped 2D animation (only to have newly installed boss John “Pixar” Lassiter insist its coming back) many wondered what the outcome would be. The House of Mouse used to excel at the anthropomorphic animal idea, but with Dreamworks’ similarly storied Madagascar hitting the theaters several months ahead of this offering, the juvenile jones for said material was already sated. Proving that no one does redundant and repetitive better than Uncle Walt’s narrative factory, The Wild borrows liberally from past animated classics like The Lion King, and the cartoon canon of Chuck Jones. Strictly for the wee ones, or the easily amused adult.



And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 12 September:


Linda Lovelace for President
Deluded into believing there was more to her stardom than a certain sexual proclivity, Linda Susan Boreman—a.k.a. Linda Lovelace—thought her fame was on the rise, when in reality it was as tenuous as the rest of the ‘70s porno chic gimmick. By the time she made this brazen bid for mainstream comedy acceptance (albeit in an R rated softcore format), the tide was already turning against the mainstreaming of XXX icons. In this pathetic political farce, Linda plays a Presidential candidate who stumps as much as she shtups along the campaign trail, running into an oddball collection of concerned citizens including Mickey Dolenz, Scatman Crothers, Marty Ingels and Joe E. Ross. Foolishly, Lovelace assumed that this movie would launch her legitimate film career. All it did was guarantee her ‘80s slide into sexual sour grapes.



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Monday, Sep 4, 2006

It’s a week of masterworks at your local brick and mortar, as the ennui infused release calendar of the summer months gives way to more honorable, high brow product. With four titles on SE&L’s select list, Criterion proves once again that no company does considered preservation better than this DVD distribution dynamo. In addition, two recent entries in 2006’s race for the year’s best argue their individual claims to such a status. Toss in a familiar giant lizard from the ‘50s and you’ve got a diverse collection of wallet emptying essentials. Indeed, over the next few weeks, your entertainment budget will be ballooning as your bank account shrinks. The digital dog days are definitely over. Time to wallow in the wonderful excesses of a media maven’s dream. The selections SE&L will be picking up this week include:


Amarcord: Criterion Collection*
Considered by many to be Fellini’s final ‘masterpiece’ (the rest of his career would be marked by several noble failures) this 1973 memoir is actually a strange combination of fact and fiction. Using his real life hometown of Rimini as a backdrop, the Italian auteur devises a ‘year in the life’ narrative centering on the Biondi family, the rise of fascism, and the never-ending human pursuit of sex. Yet unlike his previous efforts such as Satyricon or Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini tones down the visual excess, finding the perfect cinematic tone between art and artifice. The result is a kinetic crazy quilt of a memoir, a movie that mixes memory and fantasy to illustrate how the past forms and defines us.


Brazil: Criterion Collection*
Who would have thought Monty Python’s ex-pat animator would turn into one of the most gifted moviemakers of the 20th Century? Anyone who saw his agitprop approach to Orwellian future shock, that’s who. Mythic even before it’s release, director Terry Gilliam battled his studio sponsor (Universal) to get the film released. When his pleas fell of deaf bean-counter ears, he went the route of the critic. A couple of awards later, and Brazil became his breakout film. While its overloaded imagery and reliance on physical effects may put off some modern moviegoers used to CGI candy, it’s the remarkable ideas behind the visuals that mark this film’s most unforgettable facets.



District B13*
Every now and then, the action genre needs a good kick in the clichés. Leave it to French filmmaker Luc Besson (who executive produced here) to find a way of supercharging the standard gangland shtick. Borrowing a little of Escape from New York (in the future, parts of Paris are walled off to keep “undesirables” in check) and incorporating the unique ‘free running’ style of stunt work known as Parkour, this rollercoaster on rocket fuel goes for a hyperstylized energy that’s highly addictive. While its storyline may suggest one too many trips to the Scarface plot pool,  its look it so wholly original, and its setpieces so inspired, such copycat complicity is forgivable.



Gojira: Deluxe Collector’s Edition*
Forget bad dubbing into English. Forget Raymond Burr as a kind of creature feature color commentator. In fact, forget everything you know about the traditional Toho titan and check out this attempt to reclaim his original motion picture majesty. This is the timeless Japanese monster movie classic the way it was meant to be seen. Those used to Perry Mason’s appearance amongst all the Tokyo destroying mayhem will be happy to see the American version included as well. Toss in a collection of commentaries and bonus features and you’ve got a DVD presentation that forever vanquishes the film’s Saturday afternoon kid vid matinee aura. Godzilla was meant to symbolize nuclear technology run amuck, and with this release, his b-movie babysitting days may finally be over.



Playtime: Criterion Collection*
Call him France’s answer to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, or a post-modern throwback to the days of silent comedy, but no one can deny Jacques Tati’s filmmaking acumen. A stickler for detail as well as a painstaking perfectionist, his films often took years to complete. A comic consideration of modern technology, Playtime began production in 1964…and didn’t wrap until 1967! Still, many feel it is one of Tati’s greatest achievements. Focusing on his classic character, the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, and his 24 hours in Paris, this pop art poem glitters with cosmopolitan gloss and delightful urban angst. Thanks to Criterion, this forgotten master’s unique vision is preserved for future generations to marvel over. 


Seven Samurai: Criterion Collection*
Akira Kurosawa elevated Japanese cinema into a internationally recognized art form, and this is, arguably, his greatest achievement. A masterpiece of tone, detail and performance, this influential fusion of modern moralizing and typical Eastern traditions makes for a classic examination of duty and honor. Setting up layers of interaction – the samurai vs. the farmers, the collective vs. the oncoming attackers – and utilizing the inherent drama supplied via the mesmerizing monochrome cinematography, Kurosawa creates a tragedy of epic proportions, an incredibly human saga expanded out across the entire Asian horizon. And thanks to a new transfer from the classic film conservators, this director’s dynamic vision has never looked better. 


United 93*
The first, and so far best movie centering on the events of 9/11, United 93 benefits from a stellar storyline and upfront direction by Bourne Identity helmer Paul Greengrass. Instead of infusing outside elements into the narrative, or putting a particular political spin on the situation, Greengrass simply takes the circumstances that occurred on that doomed flight and lets them play out in all their undeniably nerve-wracking tension. What we end up with is a sensational, cinema vérité glimpse at what the final moments in a symbolic struggle between terror and heroism looked like. Sure, it’s depressing, the atmosphere of impending doom clouding all concerned. But there can still be catharsis in such filmic foreboding, as this memorable movie clearly demonstrates.


PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 5 September:


Shock Treatment*
It took nearly six years of Midnight Movie cult celebrity for 20th Century Fox to pursue a sequel to 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, and everything seemed right for a solid repeat success. The original was doing gangbuster business, playwright/songwriter Richard O’Brien was back to continue the pop song surreality, and director Jim Sharman was also on board, hoping to recapture the spirit of the first film. Yet instead of the continued kitsch and gender bending brazenness of the previous effort, O’Brien delivered a scathing slam on the modern media, turning Brad and Janet’s hometown of Denton into a giant TV station, and the paramours into participants/prisoners in some strange, sinister reality show. Ahead of its time in both approach and attitude, it naturally bombed. Still, the faithful have been waiting for this film’s return to the home theater fold. With the release of this 25th Anniversary DVD, it’s time for reconsideration may have finally arrived.


*=PopMatters Picks


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Monday, Aug 28, 2006

Believe it or not, there are only 90 days before Thanksgiving, and start of the holiday gift giving season. It’s important to remember this when considering the upcoming DVD releases for the week of 29, August. Many distributors are purposefully holding back on key titles, waiting for the arrival of the pomp and commercialized circumstance associated with Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Others are opting to save certain discs to coincide with anniversaries, fall theatrical films, or the proper consumer-oriented environment. Whatever the rationale, we have another mixed bag at the brick and mortar, examples of Independent excellence sitting snuggly between innocuous major studio fare. There’s even another version of Peter Jackson’s Oscar winning triumph up for grabs. The discs that have caught SE&L’s eye for this installment of Who’s Minding the Store are:


Akeelah and the Bee*
Following hot on the heels of 2005’s similarly styled Bee Season, this uplifting story of a young spelling savant and her many personal travails continued the curious trend of films based on the new found novelty of an old fashioned educational competition. With quality performances from Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett, and some smart things to say about how racial and class divisions impact intelligence and/or the perception of same, the unbridled underdog formula gets a fresh coat of social significance here. While it may be a bit maudlin, this is still a solid feel-good effort.



PopMatters Review


Brother Bear 2
Never one to miss an opportunity at pilfering their previous efforts, Disney delivers an unnecessary sequel to a film no one really cared about in the first place. It remains a media mystery why a company that, until recently, turned its back on traditional animation would continue to forward pointless pen and ink revamps of their past catalog. About the only recommendable element in this Native American nature retread is the return of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as moose versions of their Bob and Doug MacKenzie characters. Otherwise, it’s just more callous cartooning.



Friends with Money*
With previous Indie gems Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing under her belt, writer/director Nicole Holofcener explores the day-to-day dilemmas of the well to do and privileged. Using Jennifer Aniston as her poor, problem-plagued guide, and the by now accepted theory that money only adds to issues, Holofcener creates a character study that’s as insightful as it is inspired. Thanks to stellar turns by Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusak, we really don’t mind that nothing gets solved in the end. Yet the feeling of understanding and empathy between this collection of companions seems stronger than ever.



PopMatters Review


Let’s Scare Jessica to Death*
It looks like standard scare fodder – a recently released mental patient named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) moves into a spooky old house with her husband and friend. She wants to turn her failed life around and become stronger. Sadly, someone also wants to put the film’s title tenet to the test. This longtime MIA release from Paramount promises to be nothing more than a bare bones DVD presentation (meaning no significant bonus features whatsoever), but when you’ve got an inventive, nightmare vision of horror as sound as that created by co-writer/director John D. Hancock, who needs a bunch of digital bells and whistles.



Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World
In a perfect world, a new Albert Brooks comedy would be a cause for humor hurrahs. Even more anticipated would be this surreal stand-up’s second attempt at the imaginative mockumentary format (the first being 1979’s Real Life). Sadly, this ineffectual effort seems forced, failing to fully tap into Brooks’ breakneck brazenness. While the idea holds a great deal of promise – Brooks is sent by the US Government to gain a better understanding of the Muslim people via their sense of humor – almost nothing here works. This could be the reason why his most recent efforts were met with caution, not celebration. Consistency may not be Brooks’ strong point.


 


PopMatters Review


The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Limited Edition*
Okay – this is somewhat of a cheat. There have already been two separate releases for each film in this spectacular series, including stand-alone theatrical packages and mammoth, four disc extended edition extravaganzas. So why put this latest triple dip on the weekly SE&L update? Well, quite frankly, no filmmaker has successfully fulfilled his promise as a vital new visionary better than Peter Jackson. With both versions of each film available on these two disc sets, and new documentaries to boot, there is no longer any excuse to avoid owning what is arguably the definitive cinematic trilogy.



Seduced and Abandoned: Criterion Collection
After the success of his cultural comedy Divorce, Italian Style Italian auteur Pietro Germi presented this second savvy marital satire. Dealing directly with subjects significant to the Mediterranean maverick, including duty, honor, tradition and male machismo, the result was a mirror on the confounding contradictions inside Sicilian society. Utilizing a brash, almost cartoonish approach to his narrative, this fine forgotten film finally gets the lavish treatment from Criterion that it genuinely deserves. With a magnificent monochrome transfer and a wealth of added content, this DVD, and the movie it contains, definitely deserve a second chance to shine.



And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 29, August:


Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 10*
Granted, this is a four disc collection of one of the greatest TV shows ever created, but since the central premise involves a test subject and his robot friends making fun of bad movies, we at SE&L feel it easily fits into the “film only” dictates of the Blog. Included here for the first time are a sensational slice of Toho goodness (Godzilla vs. Megalon), an example of Bill Rebane’s addled approach to film (The Giant Spider Invasion), a Roger Corman release he’d probably rather forget (Swamp Diamonds) and a mangled murder mystery (Teen-Age Strangler). Together they present an outstanding overview of the MST3K universe, and how weirdly, wickedly funny it is. Anyone who wonders why this series is so beloved need only look here for the obvious answer.


 


*=PopMatters Picks


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