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by Bill Gibron

3 Sep 2007


Okay, we’re ready. The bib is in place and the rising bile has been settled. We’re prepared for our plate of humble pie, and can’t wait to gobble down that big steaming bowl of crow. Unlike other film sites that strive to be all knowing and omniscient, we’re capable of admitting when we’re wrong. We try to read the tea leaves Tinsel Town tosses us, but the heady aroma can occasionally intoxicate our sensibilities. At the beginning of the Summer, SE&L predicted that the following five films would be the season’s most specious – Live Free or Die Hard, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Underdog, and The Invasion. In the realm of uncovering crud, it was a glorified gamble – especially when you consider that Summer in general is a time for just such predicable popcorn pabulum. Still, we gave it a shot, and are ready to take our misguided medicine. 

In retrospect, we did fairly well. Based on an overall tally of critical and commercial accounting, we were four out of five. Only Live Free managed to be a straightforward success. Now, before you get into a snit and start spouting statistics and box office returns, there is more to a flop than mere finances. No, a movie can be artistically bankrupt, or so slight that it warrants very little cinematic consideration or merit. By taking into consideration consensus, plus perspective, it’s clear that our helping of humility will be on the decidedly small size. Granted, the one we missed was about as big a bungle as one’s motion picture savvy can take, yet the remaining rejects argued for our crackerjack clairvoyance. And remember – this is not a rundown of the season’s best/worst. That will be coming later. So save your Spider-man venom and Halloween hate for another couple days.

Instead, let’s revisit each choice individually, to see how psychic – or stupid – we were:

Live Free or Die Hard
Box Office Returns: $134 million domestic/ $354 million worldwide
Rotten Tomato Rating: 80%
SE&L’s Prediction – Off by a Couple Million Miles

We got this wrong. Dead wrong. And in retrospect, there was really no excuse for our lack of insight. We bought the buzz. We drank the messageboard Kool-aid on the PG-13 parameters, the poorly realized script, and the lack of faith in Len Underworld Wiseman. And we got punked. Hosed. Hoisted onto our own prophetic petard. At the end of the day, this may not have been the old school actioner everyone hoped for, but it was a dazzling update on the franchise, and a stellar selection of stunt set-pieces. Heck, even Kevin Smith was good. In some ways, this rock-‘em sock-‘em reinvention could be the beginning of Die Hard 2.0. If Willis is willing, it would be interesting to see other directors take on the Mclane vs. Mayhem formula.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Box Office Returns: $131 million domestic/ $274 million worldwide
Rotten Tomato Rating: 36%
SE&L’s Prediction – Bordering between exaggerated and exact.

If ever a series was saved by the introduction of a novel new character, it would be this sloppy sequel to the equally unimaginative F4 original. Nothing about this retake corrected the problems of the past – Reed Richards’ abilities still look CGI fake, Johnny Storm is just a jerk, his sister Sue is a cipher, and The Thing resembles a bad amusement park character. But thanks to the T-100 tendencies of the title entity, we wind up with a film that’s almost half good, instead of all bad. We predicted a catastrophe, and instead, only got a genial piece of junk, watchable, and not a complete waste of time. Audience and critics seemed to disagree with such an assessment, however. Still, here’s hoping the Surfer only project sees the light of day.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry
Box Office Returns: $115 million domestic/ $123 million worldwide
Rotten Tomato Rating: 14%
SE&L’s Prediction – Right on the Mediocre Money

God, how AWFUL was this abortive pretend comedy? How smug and stupidly misguided. Even if it wasn’t based on some crappy Paul Hogan hokum (guess the courts may end up deciding that) it sure feels like something ripped out of Crocodile Dundee’s derrière. Don’t let the appearance of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s name on the screenplay fool you. Rumor has it their script was flushed by Sandler and his staff in favor of more anti-gay slurs. If Mel Brooks taught us anything with film’s like Blazing Saddles, it’s that you can be crass and politically incorrect, as long as you’re smart and satiric in the process. Here, all we have is deplorable dopiness. Even though it barely breached the $100 million mark, that’s no indication of actual success. We believed it would embarrass, and humiliate it did.

Underdog
Box Office Returns: $37 million domestic only
Rotten Tomato Rating: 13%
SE&L’s Prediction – Accurate, if not exactly fair

It’s clear that after a month in theaters, families aren’t flocking to see this misguided update of the cartoon cur – and the reasons are rather obvious. Disney does its usual toothless job of trying to jerryrig this one note joke into a clever superhero spoof. Even worse, they decided to desecrate the good name of the original animated show along the way. Frankly, the film’s not THAT bad. It’s soulless and silly, but the Jason Lee voiced beagle is actually kind of cute. The House of Mouse could have made their own take on the subject matter, scuttled all the Underdog referencing, and come out with a decent little diversion. Instead, they were hoping to corral some of that dwindling Baby Boomer cash by tapping into some manner of negligible nostalgia. SE&L smelled a dog – and we were more or less right.

The Invasion
Box Office Returns: $12 million domestic/ $13 million worldwide
Rotten Tomato Rating: 20%
SE&L’s Prediction – Right on the Mediocre Money

It’s never a good sign when a movie is retooled by reshoots. Adding insult to obvious injury, the original director of this dung didn’t get to foster the fixes. Such a bifurcated approach, accented by a dismal take on some otherwise potent allegory fodder, resulted in one lax, lumbering movie. Nicole Kidman is completely wrong for the role of agitated outsider. She’s more ice queen than activist. Daniel Craig is relegated to playing possum, and the rest of the cast is practically non-existent. Even worse, there’s no real villainy here. The aliens don’t have a master plan beyond rendering everyone on Earth benign. After that, their motives are meaningless. So loss of emotion is our clash catalyst. Not the greatest reason for a war of the worlds. Figuring this would fail was obvious – by how much is still amazing.

Sorry We Didn’t Warn You
Looking back, especially with the tentative 20/20 vision of such hindsight, SE&L slipped up and forgot to mention a few apparent atrocities in the making. While we apologize for failing in our early warning ways, we can still step up and do a little backseat driving. Had we been in our right mind, and remembered that entire list of Summer’s specials, we might have had these half-baked hunks of cinematic sludge as part of our previous piece. But again, we dropped the ball, so kindly give us a break. This trio of tripe should have been part of the prognostication:

Rush Hour 3

Perhaps we gave Jackie Chan too much credit. Maybe Chris Tucker’s cultural disappearing act clouded our memory of his motor-mouthed mediocrity. It could also be a case of Brett Ratner redeeming himself with decent efforts like Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand. Whatever it is, SE&L let this one slip under the radar, and we’re the worse for wear because of it. This atrociously unfunny effort has officially killed the buddy pic.

Shrek The Third

Maybe we missed the memo, but when was it announced that the Shrek franchise was about to become the Lord of the Rings of the retarded. This never ending series is starting to show some major wear, and this uninspired middle act is a perfect illustration of such slippage. Lacking anything close to context, it’s just a bunch of riffs and pop culture references tossed together, treading water until Part 4 comes along.

El Cantante

If she hadn’t done so before, Jennifer Lopez has formally destroyed her remaining box office credibility. This misguided biopic of salsa superstar Hector Lavoe decides to forego its central subject to focus almost exclusively on the musician’s manic wife, played in full shrew mode by you know who. Lopez is so stifling, so prickly and problematic that you wish it was her character that was doomed to die. Marc Anthony was actually good. His supposed better half proved poisonous.

by Bill Gibron

2 Sep 2007


Jerry Lewis remains an elusive cinematic figure. For most, he’s a joke, the punchline to a slam on the foolish French, or the kooky caricature of a nerd screeching “HEY LAAAAADY!” at the top of their nasal voice. Others have a more proper perspective, recognizing both his work with former partner Dean Martin (they remain the biggest phenomenon and unquantifiable gold standard in the now dead art of night club entertainment) and his tireless efforts on behalf of muscular dystrophy (summed up by this weekend’s telethon). But when it comes to film, especially those he’s personally written and directed, he stays a fool, a jester as jerk de-evovling the artform into nothing more than senseless silly slapstick. It doesn’t matter that Lewis authored one of the standard textbooks on the craft (The Total Film-Maker, 1971), or conceived technical innovations that revolutionized the production process.

Few see that he’s actually a bridge between the old fashioned chuckles of Hollywood’s Golden Era and the more experimental, existential humor of the post-modern period. Instead, he seems forever fated to be the dopey dude who takes the pratfall and pulls his face like putty – that’s all. Sadly, such a sentiment diminishes a great deal of very good work. While it’s true that Lewis lacks contextual sophistication – especially when it comes to subject matter and storyline – he is a procedural and visionary marvel. Thanks to a famous collaboration with Warner Brothers animator turned director Frank Tashlin (who’s really the aesthetic lynchpin for the look of most Lewis films) and his own turns in the creator’s chair, we can witness the rise, fall, and unjust dismissal of an amazing artist.

We begin by ignoring his first two solo efforts – the oddly dark The Delicate Delinquent (nothing more than a Martin and Lewis project gone sour) and the military farce The Sad Sack (good, but not quite there). After that, we can trace his talent, his tenacity, and his tendency toward self-indulgence. Hopefully, this will paint a better, more believable portrait of Jerry Lewis, an image beyond the frog-mouthed braying and the pantomime typewriter routines. For all his flaws, his hubris and his ego, the man could really make movies. The proof lies in the following list of legitimate cinematic statements, starting with:

Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For many this stands as the first ‘legitimate’ Jerry Lewis film. It’s not a leftover from his partnership with Martin, and marks the moment when Tashlin’s cartoon conceit steps in. It becomes the standard for most of the comedian’s work for the next two decades. While sappy and saccharine, it’s also the start of greater things to come.

The Geisha Boy (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
While far from politically correct (watch out for lots of slant eyed Asian awkwardness) and hitting, again, on the “Lewis with a foundling” formula that would guide his initial output, this otherwise ordinary film represents something miserable, not memorable.

The Bellboy (1960)
After the routine returns of Don’t Give Up the Ship and Visit to a Small Planet, Lewis was looking for a way to express himself without the interference of studio stooges who didn’t understand his style. In the meantime, Paramount wanted to save his upcoming Cinderfella for the Fall. So during a nightclub appearance in Miami, he made an agreement with the studio to create this on the fly homage to silent slapstick comedy. It became Lewis’s breakthrough. It also marks the introduction of ‘video assist’ – the use of video playback to allow a director to test how a scene plays and how the compositions work. Yes, Lewis is credited for creating the now-obligatory tool.

Cinderfella (1960) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Tashlin’s take on the classic fairytale is so weepy and maudlin that it’s hard to believe that anyone thought it would be a sizeable hit. But because of his stature as a legitimate solo superstar (eclipsing his previous partner many times over), Lewis’s career in front of the camera was now secured. His next effort would establish his prowess behind the lens as well.

The Ladies Man (1961)
It remains a monumental achievement in set design and art direction. Throwing his weight around as a box office behemoth, Lewis demanded and received an entire Paramount soundstage to create what is, essentially, an entire four story house complete with grand concourse, spiral staircases, open walled bedrooms, and an old fashioned elevator running up the side. It was a massive masterpiece of a playset, and Lewis made the most of it. Visually, Man is amazing. Unfortunately, the comedy is a tad forced, relying more on small moments than the epic environment created.

The Errand Boy (1961)
As a love letter to the studio that stood by him, Lewis made this simplistic silliness. Standing as one of his true classic comedies, this skewering of Hollywood hubris in combination with the filmmaker’s fleet footed physical shtick resulted in a creative combination that would underscore his next few films. Tinsel Town never took such a well-intentioned tweaking.

It’$ Only Money (1962) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Relatively forgotten, even among Lewis fans, this oddball detective farce – Lewis is a TV repairman and alongside a shifty private dick, get caught up in the search for a rich family’s missing heir – is one of the funnyman’s forgotten gems. Tashlin really amplifies his anarchic style, and Lewis looses himself in the relatively low key role. Instead of playing to the audience, he’s playing FOR them.

The Nutty Professor (1963)
Without a doubt, this stands as one of comedy’s major cinematic milestones. By riffing on his relationship with ex-partner Martin (who Buddy Love is obviously mirrored after) and putting to use every kind of cleverness imaginable, we get a wonderful whirlwind of dopiness and deftness. Lewis actually plays CHARACTERS here, not just weird variations of his own stick boy persona, and the emotional underpinning of the relationship with Stella Purdy is heartfelt and very human. Granted, this satiric Jekyll and Hyde has its slack sequences, but if you wonder what keeps Lewis part of the motion picture equation, even four decades later, this fantastic film is the answer.

Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) (with director Frank Tashlin)
After Professor, another go round with Tashlin seemed like a step backward. Still, Store is fun, using the premise (Lewis is a clerk put through the ringer by an owner who doesn’t want him marrying her daughter) to explore some major spectacle set pieces. It’s hit or miss, but there’s more to love than loathe in the end. 

The Patsy (1964)
Often cited as one of Lewis’s more cynical films, this droll look at celebrity and the shallowness of fame is, in reality, on par with Professor as a certifiable sensation. A dynamite combination of silent film gags, pop culture spoof (see Ed Sullivan mock himself!), and insightful evisceration into the cult of personality, it’s a brilliant, brazen farce.

The Disorderly Orderly (1964) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For his last film with Tashlin, Lewis resorts to stereotyping – that is, merely playing a version of the klutzy character he perfected in The Bellboy and The Errand Boy. Still, Disorderly is a surreal bit of insanity. It’s a cookie-cutter confection that only wants to entertain. And it definitely does so in small, sublime doses.

The Family Jewels (1965)
Marking the end of an era in more ways than one, this unfunny flop would represent the last time Lewis worked within such a cartoonish carelessness. Playing seven separate roles (the film focuses on a butler – Lewis – looking to place an orphaned girl with one of six specious Uncles – again, all Lewis). Some may marvel at the extensive use of split screen, and the attempt to distinguish the ridiculous relatives by outrageous make-up and costume conceits, but by going back to the days of fostering wee ones, Lewis seemed to suggest that he needed such a crutch to remain relevant.

Three on a Couch (1966)
Attempting to make the leap into more ‘adult oriented fare’, many feel Lewis succeeded with this sincere psychobabble. Again playing multiple roles (the plot has the clown wooing the man-hating patients of his psychiatrist fiancé so the pair can vacation in Paris), we get the battle of the sexes circa the swinging ‘60s. Unfortunately, the envelope pushing concepts of gender politics and free love are nowhere to be found. In many ways, this film’s view of relationships is so conservative it would make ‘50s suburbanites smile.

The Big Mouth (1967)
Here it is - the last straw in the lumbering Lewis legacy. After the failure of two films made without his direct input – the sci-fi stupidity of Way…Way Out! and the British bunk Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River – Lewis retook the reigns of his motion picture product. The result was this horrendous, mean-spirited mess. Overstuffed with stereotypes (including more mandatory Oriental awfulness) and painfully unfunny, it signaled the final nail on the comedian’s almost closed creative coffin.

Which Way to the Front? (1970)
After once again failing to connect both as an actor (in the mediocre Hook, Line and Sinker) and director for hire (the Peter Lawford,/Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle One More Time), Lewis was desperate to revive his cinematic fortunes. With such war-oriented comedies as The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Start the Revolution Without Me creating significant buzz, Lewis jumped into the genre with both feet. The plot involved a rich army reject desperate to battle Hitler’s Nazi nogoodniks, and there’s a lot of attempted anarchy here. Most of the movie is inert, however.

Hardly Working (1980)
After his attempt at a semi-serious Holocaust drama was sidetracked by funding issues and a creative concern for the actual material (more on this in a moment), Lewis left filmmaking. He claimed he was angered when he saw one of his films playing on a double bill with the then popular porn film Deep Throat, and announced he was no longer “in tune” with the crass concerns of the industry. After a decade out of the moviemaking limelight, Lewis released this ‘comeback’ effort, a collection of cobbled together vignettes centering on a schlub who just can’t stay employed. Varying wildly between good and grating, the result was deemed a dud by a savvier motion picture marketplace. Lewis again blamed everyone but himself, and regrouped. He still had one more aged Ace up his sleeve.

Cracking Up (1983)
Though he would spend the rest of his career playing character parts (and quite well – his work in both Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and the TV series Wiseguy were performance epiphanies), Lewis longed to be a big screen buffoon once again. Hoping to avoid the flaws of Working, he brought in old script collaborator Bill Richmond (who had worked with the actor on several of his seminal hits). The result was a weirdly uneven effort that still manages to be uproariously funny. Though he was about as old as the material he was mining, Lewis proved that no one understood this kind of craziness better than he. Sadly, physical limitations and demographic denial prevented any further films.

The Day the Clown Cried (Unfinished)
For a long time, this rumored fiasco acted as an artistic albatross around Lewis’s neck – and with good reason. As Roberto Benigni proved with his painfully insulting Holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful, some subjects can’t stand up to dimwitted dopiness. Clearly, the killing of six million Jews by Hitler during World War II is one of them. Still, Lewis believed he had stumbled onto something substantive when he discovered Joan O’Brien’s novel about an imprisoned clown employed by the Nazi’s to entertain little children as they were sent off to the gas chambers. True, there is a queasy quality of tastelessness when matched up against Lewis’s love of all things overdone and overbroad, but it’s quite possible that he could have pulled this off. Naturally, those who’ve seen a rough cut have argued for its awfulness, but if a stunted Italian gimmick can get audiences to appreciate his jesting snuff stuff, why couldn’t Lewis? Sadly, it appears this will merely remain fodder for further mythologizing, nothing more. 

by Bill Gibron

1 Sep 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.

This time out: Texas auteur Larry Buchanan fuels his true crime conspiracy theories with a pair of perplexing efforts.

What if Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t died at the handgun of Jack Ruby? What if the assassin in one of the most defining moments in US history actually stood trial for his crime, before a jury of his peers? Would the evidence persuade you to convict? Or would you find him not guilty or even more so, innocent by reason of insanity? That is the provocative proposition offered by director and conspiracy theory expert Larry Buchanan as he gives the most infamous killer in American memory his day in court in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Gone are the “grassy knoll” and “military industrial complex” rantings of Olive Stone and in its place are stark, cold facts. For 90 minutes, we hear a string of witnesses for the prosecution and defense, circumstantial evidence versus a plea of psychosis. Then we, the audience as jury, are given the charge and hear impassioned closing remarks from both sides. Was Oswald the President’s killer? Or was he an insane schizoid who failed to know right from wrong?

Having deflated one myth, Buchanan moves onto another, the notorious crime spree of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Using newspaper accounts, the still living eyewitness reports, and personal recollections from the family of Texas lawman Frank Hamer, we get the standard slaughter and sin narrative about this deadly duo. Personal details are revealed and sleazy tabloid gossip is fostered. All along, the efforts of Hamer to bring the two to justice are documented in near superhero revelry. It is only at the end, when we witness the death scene and autopsy photos of the craven couple, that we get a sense that these murderous monsters were even close to being human. And Buchanan jacks up the controversy factor further by giving former Barrow boy Floyd Hamilton a polygraph test—onscreen—to debunk some of the folklore surrounding the couple. Gruesome, gripping, and egregious at times, thanks to Buchanan’s digging, displaying, and reenactments, we truly experience The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde.

True Crime titles are probably the most forgotten exploitation genre, along with monster myth bashing (Bigfoot, Loch Ness) and the search for ancient astronauts (the name Sun International Pictures alone will make many a person who grew up in the ‘70s cringe with recognition). Probably no other director within this exclusive arena had more passion for the subject than Texas titan Larry Buchanan. From the assassination of JFK to the death of Marilyn Monroe and rock legends Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Buchanan has carved a niche out for himself presenting fact based dramatizations and documentaries attempting to get to the truth of some of the great urban legends of our times.

Of the two films mentioned here, The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde is probably the most cinematically interesting. Utilizing a style that would later be adopted by almost all fact film creators, Buchanan mixes modern interviews, press clippings, dramatic readings, old photos, recreations, scrapbook items, props, and stock footage to paint a low-budget Ken Burns look at rural American crime in the early 1930s. Mostly a pro-police response to the glorification of violence in Arthur Penn’s seminal Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway drama Bonnie and Clyde, The Other Side focuses on Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, picturing him as a tireless proponent of justice who wouldn’t rest until these abhorrent human abominations faced the wrath of moral society. A good percentage of the time is spent highlighting Hamer’s career and accolades, and it almost overwhelms the real focus of the film. But Bonnie and Clyde are such oddly compelling criminals (he of minimal stature and bisexual tastes, she of near dwarf proportions) that they can’t help but become anti-heroic icons. Buchanan brings a lot of new material to the table (the gay angle, the injury to Bonnie in a fire that left her crippled), but the main reason for this film is the final few minutes. Here we see vintage movie footage of the dead duo in their death car, some rather morbid morgue photos, and, most compelling, a lie detector test interview with an ex-member of the Barrow gang. Under the polygraph’s watchful needle, we learn new (and supposedly) true facts about these criminals and their crimes. The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde delivers on its title’s promise and will linger in your imagination for days.

The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, on the other hand, is a rather dry, non-dramatic courtroom recreation of an imaginary trial of the dead assassin of President Kennedy. So close to the event that it caused a stir upon first release, this movie supports the “single killer” theory forwarded by the Warren Commission and makes a fairly convincing case for Oswald’s lone involvement in the crime. Using actors as witnesses (many of who read their “testimony” off cue cards or lap notes), we get a standard prosecution of the case, complete with all the evidence that we have heard debated and berated for the last forty years: the rifle ordered by Oswald, the FBI marksman who recreated the killer’s rapid fire assault on the President with similar timing and accuracy, the Marxist agenda, and the hatred for Kennedy’s Cuba policy. Missing are any references to a second assassin, the grassy knoll, the Zapruder film (there is a mention of a “movie” to be placed into evidence, but it is quickly dismissed and we move on), or any Oswald/Ruby connection. It’s fairly clear that Oswald would have had a hard time defending himself against the mountain of circumstantial evidence and we really learn nothing new. And oddly, there is very little fire in this film about the greatest tragedy (after the 9/11 attack) to befall this nation. Except for the final moments where we get the closing arguments and a few words from the technical consultant on the film, the rest of the film is interesting, if not very compelling or exciting. Like most real life courtroom dramas, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is a rote retelling of somewhat compelling facts and that is all.

Though biased and skewed and definitely lacking in gore or girlies, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde are still wonderfully sensational stories of crime and punishment. History (or at least one version of history) comes alive thanks to Larry Buchanan’s passion for their truth (or at least his concept of it).

by Bill Gibron

1 Sep 2007


In a society spinning out of control, vigilantism is the public’s panacea. It provides control – no matter how corrupt – within a schism of moral decay, and offers that most fleeting cure-alls - self-described justice and decency. Those without perspective tend to question the police’s problem with citizens taking the law into their own hands, yet what these action apologists tend to forget is that it’s rules and regulations that keep a community contained. Allow those boundaries to be dismissed, or ever controverted, and the result is chaos, the exact opposite of the crime and punishment paradigm you seek to establish with your vengeance. It’s a burden carried by Kevin Bacon in his latest film, Death Sentence. Based on a novel by Death Wish author Brian Garfield, it explores the notion of going numb over the seemingly endless cycle of criminality endured as part of everyday existence, and how it turns one man into a monster.

Nick Hume (Bacon) leads a rather idyllic life. His eldest boy Brendan is a talented high school hokey star with dreams of attending college in Canada. His youngest, Lucas, is the exact opposite – bright and sensitive, and slightly out of place in the family dynamic. Nick loves his wife Helen (Kelly Preston), adores his kids, and sees himself as a happy, settled man. All of that is shattered one night when a gang initiation brings death to the Humes. Grief stricken, Nick hopes the legal system will provide the punishment he seeks. But when he learns that lawyers are merely mechanisms in a quasi-corrupt system more interested in plea deals than maximum prison time, our devastated Dad decides to take matters into his own hands. What he doesn’t know is that his intended victim is part of the deadly Darley gang. Papa Bones (John Goodman) sells illegal guns, while oldest Billy brews dope in an abandoned asylum. They’re the kind of clan that don’t take kindly to having one of their own pushing up the daises. Because of his actions, Nick now faces a Death Sentence from these ruthless murderers.

Death Sentence is a wonderfully tight little thriller, the kind of statement cinema an up and coming filmmaker needs to establish his overall eagerness to achieve. It’s clear that, after only three films, Saw savant James Wan is becoming a compelling cinematic presence. While the gimmicks of his now seminal first film still stand out, the controlled visual splendor he showed in the horribly underrated Dead Silence shows up here as well. If Saw was a film soaked in slimy greens, and Silence shades of gray, then Sentence is steeped in gritty urban blues. Even the bloodshed – and there is plenty – is toned down, tweaked to maintain an aura of desperation and dread. Wan wants to establish his own aesthetic goals, reasons why his movies matter more than other game genre selections. While there are those who dismiss practically everything he does, this is one novice filmmaker who has made finding his way a compelling cinematic exercise.

As with any story of revenge, everything rests of the reaction of the victim and the reasons for retribution. This means our characters must be clear and the acting on target. Luckily, Death Sentence contains both. Nick Hume, while slightly self-absorbed, does come across as a sympathetic subject. He’s helpful at work – though a little to concerned about balance and “everything lining up” in perfect little rows – and loving to his family. While he does miss the disconnected dimension in youngest boy Lucas, he’s a fine father figure. Kevin Bacon, whose been expanding his range as of recently, deserves a lot of credit for bringing Nick to life, and for being so vulnerable onscreen. While he’s stoic throughout most of the set-up, there are several sequences post-premise where he’s devastating. Ghostly white (again, part of Wan’s weird paradigm) and gaunt, he’s a stick of drained domesticated dynamite just waiting for the proper fuse to set him off.

Enter the Darley Gang. Filled with archetypes instead of actual characters (the doubter, the wisenheimer, the bad ass black dude, etc.) and an inconclusive criminal intent (while the initial act is part of an initiation, everything else they do seems open to conjecture), they’re nothing but manufactured evil. The notion that such blatant, bullish hoods actually exist in a world filled with sting operations, neighborhood watches, and politically mandated task forces is not totally far fetched, but it does cause one to question the competency of the movie’s example of law enforcement. Aisha Tyler is Detective Wallis, a woman who seemingly knows everything the Darleys do, but apparently doesn’t bother to prosecute them. It’s a plot hole that’s never filled. The confrontation between Bacon and the direct DA is also a little forced. While it is a State mandate to settle criminal cases vs. taking them to trial, they’d never be so open about their strategy to a grieving victim.

Since the need for payback is obvious, but the attending consequences unclear, it’s up to the performances and the presentation to get us over the narrative divides. Thankfully, Wan wastes no time in establishing main bad boy Billy as an unfiltered psychopath, a chip off of the old engine block (John Goodman is great as an elephantine ‘boss’) who needs putting in his place. His relentless pursuit of Bacon in one of the film’s signature action scenes - a wonderful return to the days of the foot chase – easily illustrates his demented drive and fury. Later, in a sinister sequence with his father, we understand what made this gangbanger turn to crime. The point where things become mega-personal, where the back and forth kills stop being about retribution and start sounding a little specious (almost as if this was a game where corpses count as wins) may test a viewer’s sense of logic, but Death Sentence isn’t really concerned about being rational. It’s way too wrapped up in parenthood’s precariousness and our own helplessness within the world to consider its creative purity.

Oddly enough, where the movie loses some of its moxie is in the otherwise outstanding finale. Bacon, loaded for bear and – through the magic of the movies – completely capable of conning and killing off a band of seasoned slayers, is far too mechanical in his manslaughter. All the emotion he showed before simply vanishes. Never once do we believe he will balk. Certainly, one of his targets may take him out, but it won’t be because our now inhuman hero will panic. No, Nick Hume turns into The Terminator somewhere around the 70 minute mark, and he never really turns back. The final shot, a smile of self-satisfaction plastered on a mangled and melting mug, is like the robotic response of someone who is dead inside. Perhaps it’s supposed to resonate the same way that Travis Bickel’s bloody finger did in Taxi Driver, but Wan isn’t out to make some metaphysical point. Death Sentence is about brute force and blame. It’s not out to address the morals or mindsets involved.

Still, this is a significant movie, a clear indication that Wan will remain a fixture in film for the time being. Granted, he’s yet to be great, though Saw’s continuing influence and success suggests otherwise, and it would be nice to see him work within a genre that doesn’t demand stunts, splatter, or suspense. But in a realm where made for cable drek stands as the mainstream movie standard, Death Sentence gives good gonzo. It consists of some less than airtight plotting, and tends to understate the obvious, but perhaps that’s better than some regressive Rambo of the suburbs stance. It definitely resides in the realm of flights of fancy and fiction, though it really wants to represent some measure of truth. Unfortunately, the lure of vigilantism is too strong – and too socially acceptable – to avoid…or dismiss.

by Bill Gibron

31 Aug 2007


When compiling this week’s compendium of choices, a single theme kept sticking out – “Award Winning”. In fact, looking over the list, over half the films and/or filmmakers represented have Oscar, or something similar, sitting on their inner sanctum shelves. This either argues for the Academy’s broadening acceptance of fare outside the studio system mainstream, or just a freak coincidence of programming proportions. In both cases, it makes for an interesting beginning to what promises to be an equally odd month. With school starting back, the Summer season officially finished, and families falling into their familiar routines, TV reasserts its importance as a communal comfort and fixture. So don’t be surprised to see the major pay channels rest on those laurels, at least for the time being. For SE&L’s part, we will continue to seek out the more unusual offerings to challenge your motion picture palette, including our stand up suggestion, an insane satire we felt was one of 2006’s best:

Premiere Pick
Idiocracy

It’s the best movie of 2006 that no one saw – and that was on purpose. Fox, feeling let down once again by Mike Judge’s slanted satirical eye, relegated this 2004 futuristic farce to a high shelf in their direct to DVD release schedule. Then, feeling considerable pressure from the filmmaker, dumped it in a few theaters during the end of Summer 2006, signaling their overall contempt for the title. While no one deserves to be treated so, especially not the man who made Office Space and brought Beavis and Butthead into the world, Fox’s reaction makes sense…especially once you’ve seen the film. The very demographic the studio was banking on to fill Cineplex seats were the very target of Judge’s derisive skewering. A movie that makes the bold prediction that our country is getting stupider every year, here’s hoping it finds a knowing audience on home video. (01 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
X-Men: The Last Stand

Brett Ratner has nothing to be ashamed of. His installment of the famous comic book franchise was imminently watchable. If anything, he proved once and for all that Bryan Singer is one of the most overrated auteurs in all of cinema. What has he really done to warrant such praise? The geek fiefdoms opinion aside, Ratner’s adaptation of the material results in a solid action flick.(01 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Queen

The death of Princess Diana divided Britain into two long simmering camps. The first were glad to get rid of the globe trotting, royalty ruining tabloid subject. The vast majority mourned the first real perceived “person” in Buckingham Palace. This fictionalized recreation of the events directly following her passing remains a stellar motion picture. Helen Mirrem’s much predicted Oscar was very well deserved indeed. (01 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

 

Akeelah and the Bee

2006 ended up being the year of the spelling bee, what with this film and Bee Season following up the discovery of the fascinating documentary from 2002, Spellbound. This time out, a young girl from South Central Los Angeles is taken in by a mentor and prepared for Nationals. It has all the standard feel good facets, but thanks to gritty portrayals from Keke Palmer and Laurence Fishburne, it transcends its trite trappings. (01 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Blues Brothers

There’s no real reason to go into the relative merits of this overdone SNL skit. It does represent the excess of the late ‘70s piled into the mythos created by the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. It does have the late great John Belushi in what was probably his best role. And the cameos and reliance on good old fashioned R&B for its musical numbers definitely made it an aesthetic rarity. No, the really interesting element of this movie is the massive revisionist history that has gone on over the last quarter century. This movie was a FLOP when it first hit theaters, an expensive vanity project viewed as a reason to relegate all the participants, including director John Landis, to the back of the commercial bus. It made money, but barely covered its elephantine budget. Now, in our post-millennial/messageboard mentality, it’s a comedy classic. What a difference a few years, and a million showings on cable TV, can make. (05 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sling Blade

The world first discovered the oddball pleasures of Karl Childers and his creator, writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thorton in this brilliant Deep South drama. Playing a mentally challenged man who was institutionalized after killing someone, his impending release has the head of the hospital worried. Karl is not prepared to meet the pressures of the real world. Those fears, oddly enough, are proven all too true. (01 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Far from Heaven

Hoping to channel the spirit of such Tinsel Town kitsch masters as King Vidor and Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes took his throwback retro revisionism and applied it to a scintillating melodrama dealing with interracial romance and gay love. Quite a controversial jolt for its ‘50s suburban setting. Celebrated with several Oscar nods, it remains a work of exquisite beauty and seismic social themes. (04 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Waterland

Jeremy Irons was probably hoping that this adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel would land him right back on top of the Awards season heap. Only two years after his 1990 win for Reversal of Fortune, this tale of a timid schoolteacher who uses his classroom as a confessional had all the earmarks of another strong cinematic statement. Sadly, it failed to fulfill much of its potential promise. In retrospect, it’s a decent little drama. (04 September, Sundance Channel, 11:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dead Alive, a.k.a. Braindead

Peter Jackson wasn’t always into CGI spectacle and retelling Tolkein’s literary triptych. When he started, he was a good old fashioned horror geek, and he translated his love of all things splatter into a pair of seminal scarefests – 1987’s Bad Taste and this demented zombie stomp. Beginning with a pair of star-crossed lovers, a mean spirited mother bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey, and a town’s eventual transformation into a slapstick selection of the living dead, the future Oscar winner (that has such an amazing sound to it) went all out for this blood soaked bonanza. As influential in the world of whacked out horror comedy as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 or the entire Troma catalog, the combination of gore and goofiness went over like gangbusters with fright freaks. It established the filmmaker’s ability to successfully mix genres, making him the perfect choice to bring the still amazing Lord of the Rings trilogy to life. If you want to see greatness, even in its indie embryonic stage, this is the place to start. (02 September, HD Movies, 12:15AM EST)

Additional Choices
Dementia 13/Homicidal

After a month spent celebrating the amazing movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Turner Classic Movies is back with its Underground series, and the selection this time out represents a bit of program padding. Both films have been shown before, Dementia as part of a Corman cock-up, Homicidal as a William Castle salute. Worth seeing, but not necessarily viable a second time around. (07 September, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Three Stooges Film Marathon

No, this is not a festival of their amazing shorts. Instead, these are the kid vid vehicles the aging slapstick stars helmed once TV established their rerun relevancy. Our twisted trio meets Hercules, heads off into orbit, and goes around the world in a daze. There are only three words you need to know in judging the quality of this collection of comedies – Curly Joe DeRita. That’s all. (02 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM to 1AM EST)

The Sugarland Express

During his days as a wunderkind discovery working at Universal Studios, Steven Spielberg dreamed of being a serious dramatist. Before finding himself detouring into blockbuster territory with Jaws, he delivered this action-oriented stand off between Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, and the Texas State Police. Not so much an anomaly in the proud popcorn movie papa’s canon as a sign of his amazing range and inherent directorial designs.  (06 September, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

 

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