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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2006


“The sun shines forever through a child’s eyes…”
—Bananarama


What, exactly, is innocence? Granted, it literally means the freedom from guilt or, on a far more metaphysical level, the freedom from culpable consideration, but what, in the actual realm of the real world, does innocence actually propose? We should really consider its consequences before showering it on individuals who either don’t deserve it or can’t appreciate its potential. Consider children. We look at their fresh-faced, wide-eyed stares, their quick-witted curiosity and unfiltered honesty, and instantly recognize them as innocent. Yet what exactly are we absolving them of? As with all humans, experience begins to mold us from the moment we draw cognizance and every action, every emotion, every triumph, and every defeat chip away at our raw, unformed mantle. By a still-tender age we have personality traits in place, fears and loathing almost locked in, and philosophies and flaws already forming. All that’s required is a single step, a catalytic individual or incident that forever closes the gate on purity, tipping the scales toward perception and maturity.


For young Ana, that event is a screening of Frankenstein in her small Spanish town. Instantly captivated by the monster and its interaction with a young child, this impressionable six-year-old suddenly sees the world in a much darker, more definitive manner. For adults, it’s just a troubling scene in a Hollywood horror movie, but in the mind of a so-called innocent, it’s the fuel to light a thousand inner fires. In many significant ways, that singular moment will transform Ana. She will no longer be just a little girl. Instead, she will become The Spirit of the Beehive—the closed-off environment which is her harried home life.


Suddenly obsessed with death, the concept of spirits, and the ability to control both, she asks her sister how she can contact the creature she’s just seen. As luck would have it, Isabel claims to know where it lives. In an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a dried-up and desolate field, Isabel claims she’s spoken to the “spirit.” Ana is quickly consumed with the place, visiting it often, constantly on the lookout for her fiend. Then one day, she discovers someone. It’s a moment that will have a profound effect on her life, her family, and her town. It will break the beehive-like isolation everyone experiences, while simultaneously rebuilding the barriers created by the country’s newfound flirtation with fascism.


If one had to sum up Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive in one single sentiment, it would probably go something like this—the moment in every child’s mind when naiveté turns to knowing. Perhaps a better way of explaining it is as maturity’s first exploratory steps into the juvenile arena. It’s imagination giving way to certainty, possibility undermined by actuality. Combining memories from childhood, the grave ghost of the Spanish Civil War, the ferocious growing fascism of Franco, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive is like a young girl’s diary dissected and displayed for all to see. It plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction after years of domestic struggle. It’s also rich in the symbolism of youth giving way to adulthood, from learning how the body works via a classroom effigy, to the discovery of the distinction between reality and filmed fantasy. Told completely through the eyes of, and the available information within, 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. It sometimes swirls in place like a whirlpool, while in other instances it seeks out and fills in the smallest of creative crevices. The result is both haunting and halting. The visuals stun us as the plot purposefully evades our grasp.


Therefore this is not an instantly “likeable” film. Erice’s use of this very confusing format almost destroys his narrative. Purposefully making sure that no element is officially explained, he lets scenes sputter, focusing away from the action at times, and allows tone to take over where exposition should be. The result is like scanning a watercolor for plot points or listening to the sound of a faraway train for clarifying character description. Beehive is actually more of a painting than a motion picture, a collection of carefully controlled canvases that, when linked together, reveal a submerged storyline full of vexing visual ideas and mixed metaphoric messages. Audiences used to being spoonfed their filmic information will languish behind as Erice continuously forges forward. He is disinterested in clarity and could care less if you understand his undertaking.


For him this is a personal proclamation, an attempt to recapture the country that was taken away from him by war, corruption, and despotism. Staying strictly within the perception of a child and never once allowing adult ideology or inferences to influence the tale, the directorial decisiveness on display here is overwhelming in its arrogance and power. Shots of our little leading ladies miniaturized against a vast, vacant landscape shores up the symbolism of isolation and disconnect, but there is more to such a vista than loneliness. It’s actually a true-to-life look at how people interact with the planet and how humans are frequently humbled by the natural elements around them.


Frankly, Erice could deliver two hours of such astounding pictorials and we would happily drink in each and every one. The Spirit of the Beehive wants to get you drunk of such optical wonders, preparing us for the more troubling elements to be delivered. If explained, the struggles of the individuals in this film would be not so much simplistic as readily recognizable. The father, Fernando, is trying to design a better beehive, so to speak, creating a glass honeycomb with clockwork agitation that’s supposed to stimulate production. Instead, it seems to turn the insects into an angrier, less effective swarm. The link to the authoritarian state is obvious, but Erice is subtle enough to leave the comparison purposefully open-ended. Similarly, Teresa the mother has her secret desires and usual attributes as well. Writing letters of devotion to men off at war, turning the heads of every gentleman she passes, there are hints of adultery, dissatisfaction, and wanderlust in her sad, sullen eyes. We can see that she loves her children (there is a sweet scene between herself and Ana that speaks volumes), but spends relatively little time with them. In fact, she’s a guardian in name only. Neither she nor her husband are ever around when the girls need guidance or affection. Instead, these children are left to fend for themselves and each other. Naturally, such internalization leads to longing, curiosity, and the need for satisfaction.


As for our leads, Ana and Isabel represent the two-pronged approach to discovery that most children typically mix and match. Though she initially seems like the far more levelheaded and learned child, Isabel is actually starting to toughen. Life without her parents has piqued her interest in subjects like life, death, fear, and control. She enjoys terrorizing her little sister, faking a fall or filling her head with pre-bedtime bad thoughts. There is one scene in particular between the child and her pet cat that sums up the situation perfectly. Though we love to call children complete innocents, the truth is that they are nothing but pure learning machines. Psychologists tell us that personality and proclivity are determined through a constant process of learning and rewarding. We experiment with ideas and actions, gauging the feedback and using said data as the mortar for our very makeup. In this case, Isabel pushes the limits of cruelty to see how she responds to such a situation. It’s shocking, but not all that surprising. She’s testing, using trials and their corollaries to guide her future decisions. In the end, Isabel becomes the forgotten child, left to her own occasionally wicked whims and bereft of the importance within the family that Ana will have. Unlike her little sister, she’s by now developed her personal patterns and very little can change her already-forming future.


Ana, on the other hand, is the movie’s main concern. Erice obviously understands how vital she is, since he constantly focuses on actress Ana Torrent’s amazing five-year-old face. Wise beyond its years, wearing epochs of emotion where none should technically exist, Torrent becomes very important as a tool for this filmmaker. Since he is unwavering in making sure that his narrative is realized through the eyes and perception of a child, he needs the perfect juvenile filter. Torrent is that flawless facet. She gives a performance so striking, so lost in complete belief in the subject matter and storyline that it’s almost documentary-like in its realism. Ana’s reaction to Frankenstein is the film’s key conceit—her discovery of death, the link between childhood and loss, and the overwhelming desire to make a similarly-styled connection calls forth all manner of mysterious elements. It raises questions as callous as why would this child need to know mortality this soon in life? What has happened around her to pique such interest? Is she genuinely questioning, or just caught up in a psychological cyclone that’s leading her down a too-dark path? Watching Erice suggestively address each and every issue is one of Beehive‘s many masterful delights. In fact, the overall effect is like the manufacturing of a masterpiece directly into the mind’s eye.


Erice received a great deal of praise for this film and it is easy to see why. Many moviemakers don’t purposely play with perspective, eliminate necessary dialogue, or keep the content clearly limited to that available to a single set of characters. Such restrictions would otherwise hobble a skillful cinematic exploration. But Erice is clearly an artist, able to draw out meaning from the most mundane of images. Something as stereotypical as children playing with fire takes on portents of ominous evil in this director’s approach to such a sequence. Similarly, Isabel’s supposed fall is extended and explored in such a manner as to constantly build both suspense and suspicion. From village streets that look decades removed from life or living to a constant honey-colored cloud that hovers over everything that happens, the use of specific visual cues and obvious signs (the honeycomb-stained glass that covers every window in the girl’s home) draw us purposefully into the world of The Spirit of the Beehive. Thanks to the performances and plot particulars, we are more than happy to settle in and stay. Some may view Erice’s efforts as slightly indulgent, as purposefully perplexing as his fellow Spanish cinematic icon Luis Buñuel. Yet unlike said satiric surrealist, Erice is concerned with the nuances and necessities of narrative. He is out to tell a story, not just pretty up the screen with strange, evocative images.


That’s why one needs a little preparation before taking on The Spirit of the Beehive. If you realize that what you are about to witness is a clever, considered look at how children see the world, process its problems, and respond to its challenges, you’ll quickly sync up with the story and become entranced. This is not a movie you can fight. You can’t pigeonhole it into some manner of recognizable Hollywood archetype. It unravels at a luxuriant, leisurely pace, slowly divulging its secrets and its statements. Though made in the early ‘70s, there is also something startlingly contemporary in the filmmaking. It’s experimental but emotion-driven, David Lynch-like in its approach to visual juxtaposition but more like a fairytale than a harrowing history lesson (the movie actually starts with the words, “Once upon a time…”). Like another classic Spanish artist—the amazing master Pablo Picasso—Victor Erice has delivered a stunning study of youth caged and corrupted in a manner unlike any other individual working within his medium. The Spirit of the Beehive is a remarkable look at the most important time in the life of a child. We all have those moments where existence starts to click over the tumblers toward adulthood. While we can’t hold them off forever, we can remember what it was like prior to their detection. The Spirit of the Beehive provides such a signature souvenir. It is a work of staggering genius.


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Monday, Nov 27, 2006


It’s coming down to the wire, people. Christmas - or for those of a multi-cultural or diversity-oriented persuasion, winter holiday gift giving time – is just around the corner. Time to shore up your purchases, recalibrate your shopping list, and make that final push toward providing your loved ones with the materialistic means of showing how much you love them. The summer of 2006 continues to come home to roost, with four of the presented picks representing the best, the worst, and the least of the sunny season’s selections. For SE&L‘s scratch, nothing beats a double dose of Silent Bob’s brand of intellectualized idiocy (including a second serving of the man’s manic lecture series) and Criterion comes calling again with another mandatory motion picture for fans of pre-sound cinema. Still, there is a lot to look into this week, including numerous box sets and collections – none perhaps as intriguing as the Ultimate Collector’s Edition compendium of Krypton’s favorite son. All five feature films, an earlier George Reeves effort, 14 discs, a documentary and a chance to see Richard Donner’s original version of Superman II. For purists and completists, it’s a treasure trove of material. For everyone else, the optional offerings clamoring for your credit card on 28 November are:


The Ant Bully


In CGI’s continuing effort to eat itself whole, yet another summer flop arrives on DVD, just in time to give your bitmap weary children another reason to whine aimlessly when you visit the nearest video store. Though its premise sounds perfectly potty – a group of insects miniaturize a young boy to teach him a lesson in responsibility and consideration – many critics complimented the film on its imagination and narrative invention. Still, the same stagnant issues that are destroying the animation category are abundant here – silly stunt casting (Julia Roberts, Nicholas Cage), far too many pop culture references, a hyperstylized approach to keeping the frame full of activity - and with the recently released Pixar prize Cars poised for rediscovery, this may be a title best left for a rental, not a purchase.



PopMatters Review


Clerks II

*
One of 2006’s best finally bows on DVD, and it still shocks SE&L that more film fans aren’t salivating over Kevin Smith’s superb sequel. For anyone who thinks this is just more of the original’s intellectually realized dialogue laced with lewd and crude gross out humor – well, you may have a point. But the truth is, Smith has something significant to say about aging and expectations here, and he does so in a way that resonates long after the donkey show jokes and the profanity peppered tirades. Besides, Clerks II contains one of the most uplifting moments of the entire year – a sensational sequence where series newcomer Rosario Dawson leads the gang in a glorious celebration of life set to the Jackson 5’s “ABC”.



PopMatters Review


Monster in a Box

*
Before his untimely death by suicide in 2004, Spalding Gray was seen as an iconic, idiosyncratic performance artist who worked wonderfully within the lost art of communication. A monologist by trade, and an actor on the side, he first came to the fore with his brilliant deconstruction of life, Swimming to Cambodia. This follow-up, focusing on his attempts to write a novel and deal with the memories of his mentally unsound mother, is a little less focused, but just as powerful. Perhaps the most shocking thing, in retrospect, about this presentation is how sound and secure Gray appeared to be. Who knew that the same demons driving him to masterful expressions and considerations of existence were also leading down a path of eventual self-destruction. His is a voice that is truly missed.



Pandora’s Box: The Criterion Collection

*
Criterion uncovers yet another gem with the release of this legendary Louis Brooks vehicle. The tragic story of a prostitute and performer named Lulu, this is the film that made Miss Brooks a star, and the toast of the jumping jive jazz age. Director Georg Wilhelm Pabst combined his acclaimed insight into actors with the inherent artistry of German Expressionism to forge an epic dissection of the human spirit. With many of Hollywood’s silent stars forgotten or forced into post-modern pigeonholes, it’s important for preservationists like Criterion to keep their true memory alive. And nothing guarantees immortality better than a perfect DVD package providing the proper balance between entertainment and context. As they do with all their products, Criterion proves the possibilities – and the pleasures – that can be achieved within the digital medium.


 


See No Evil
Be warned – though it may seem like every other horror film from the ‘70s is being remade today, this is not a new version of the 1971 shocker starring Mia Farrow as a hapless blind woman being stalked by a deranged psychopath. No, this is further proof that WW(F)E founder Vince McMahon has too much disposable cash on hand. Having proven that people will watch just about anything with his seemingly never-ending homoerotic grapple-a-thon, otherwise known as professional wrestling, he’s now trying to apply his demographically deft touch to making movies, in this case, subpar slasher efforts. Featuring singlet superstar Kane as the resident evil of a rotting hotel and a group of interchangeable Hollywood hopefuls as the delinquents sentenced to clean the place (and play victims), neither hi-jinx, nor horror, ensues.



PopMatters Review


Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut*
Decades from now, when DVD is remembered fondly as the medium which introduced the notion of “alternate versions” as viable motion picture marketability, a disc like this one will be the historical precedent. Many fans of the series were unaware that Donner, the original director of the Christopher Reeve Superman, was hired to helm TWO films. Created concurrently, the filmmaker was later dropped by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind who, apparently, objected to his fiscal freewheeling. Salkind friend Richard Lester was brought in to complete the project, even though Donner had shot over 75% of the sequel. For ages, the “Donner Version” was more or less an urban legend. Now, with Warners Brothers’ full permission, the fired filmmaker gets a chance to have his original vision seen by the viewing public. Talk about your digital redemptions.


Superman Returns*
This post-millennial update by the shockingly overrated Bryan Singer has two strikes against it going in – it decides to follow-up on events derived directly from Richard Donner’s original film, and it features an abysmally out of place Kate Bosworth as the lamest Lois Lane in history. Surprisingly, Brandon Routh makes an excellent Man of Steel. While a little young (the entire cast suffers from some surreal age issues throughout), he is commanding and compassionate, the perfect superhero for an era undecided on the whole “truth, justice and the American way” of doing things. While the action sequences are sensational – especially a mid-air rescue of a crashing space shuttle - the quieter moments between our champion, his ex-flame, and their ‘married with children’ complications just don’t work. Singer’s signed up for a sequel. Here’s hoping he keeps the pizzazz and ditches the personal.



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 28 November:


A Polish Vampire in Burbank*
For a long time, Marc Piro’s 1985 home movie got by on its terrifically tacky title alone. Consumers craving something unusual during their weekly trip to the Mom and Pop consistently rented this retardation based on its nifty name along. Little did they know they were headed toward an evening in the company of a crappy Super 8mm spoof. Granted, this is a Hell of a lot better than Mel Brooks’ completely awful vampire vileness, 1985’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but neither is a match for 1974’s Vampira, which was later re-labeled Old Dracula to trade on the Borsht Belt comedian’s classic Young Frankenstein. In any case, Piro plays a reluctant neckbiter who falls for his first victim. Featuring a ‘queerwolf” and gratuitous Eddie Deezan this is either a classic, or crap, depending on your bad movie acumen.


 


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Sunday, Nov 26, 2006


Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is the luckiest untalented son of a bitch in all of Hollywood. Don’t believe it? Well, Sony has just ponied up $4 million large to let this hack hammer away on a Da Vinci Code sequel. That’s right, the one element that critics almost universally pointed out as being the Dan Brown thriller’s atrocious Achilles’ Heel - well, maybe second only to the casting – is being rewarded with another go round, and a shockingly healthy paycheck for the responsible putz. Along with the recent news that Goldsman would be behind the much-delayed take of Richard Matheson’s classic end of the world creeper I Am Legend, film fans definitely have a right to be despondent. It seems like, whenever Tinsel Town wants to totally screw up something, they turn to the man with the Goldsman touch.


And before you think that this highly paid nimrod is just some blessed bastard who always happens to be in the right place at the right time, let’s revisit exactly what his onerous efforts have wrought. Indeed, his creative canon holds many reasons why this insipid, routine writer should be hurt, not hired. Associated with more triumphs than tragedies, there is an entire school of thought that proposes that Goldsman gives great purposeful patchiness. Indeed, his scripts are so scatter shot and sloppy that they allow actors, directors and other important film people to fill in the bewildering blanks. There are others, though, who want Akiva to get all the credit. Success is always subjective, but it seems that someone has stuck a bug in Tinsel Town’s ear, convincing them that Goldsman, not any other element in the wide range of explanations for a film’s potential payoff, is almost single-handedly responsible for the erasing of red ink.


Take his first big screen credit – The Client - co-written with Robert Getchell, who himself had previously penned the amazing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the kitsch classic Mommy Dearest. Guided more by director Joel Schumacher and bestselling boob John Grisham, the ultimate triumph of the film had much more to do with the novelist’s reputation and placement on the best seller’s list, along with the wise decision to cast Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the leads than Goldsman’s minor contributions. Obviously doing the doctoring for an already formed film script, to consider this a Goldsman solo feat is downright foolish. Still, he did manage to claim a sucker – sorry, supporter – in Schumacher, and the two continued their association with the G-man aiding and abetting in his killing of the ‘80s Batman series. He provided parts of the script for Batman Returns (along with several others), and then slammed the coffin lid shut with his solo work on the abysmal Batman and Robin.


With that last abomination alone, Goldsman should have suffered more than just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. One imagines a ball peen hammer to the privates wouldn’t be painful enough. Yet, somehow, he got positioned as the go to guy for blockbuster material (maybe someone misunderstood the concept behind the term “entertainment”) and was again commissioned by Schumacher to give another Grisham legal brief - A Time to Kill – the old Goldsman approach. The combination of racial screeds and arch dramatics seemed to suit the scribe well, and before you knew it, box office receipts where heading skyward. Again, the reason behind the “Kill-ing” was simple – John Grisham was, at the time, the most popular writer in the world. He could produce a description of his own bowel movements (actually, he did, it was called The Chamber) and a rapid, slightly retarded reading public would buy it up like literary Soylent Green.


Yet enough of A Time to Kill‘s gratuitous glitter seemed to land on Goldsman so that, soon, he was pegged to produce an update for the Irwin Allen cult classic Lost in Space. A long simmering effort for New Line, it was all systems go once Goldsman turned in his draft, and it appeared that the company could envision a big boffo weekend payoff followed by a long term stay at the Cineplex. Yet despite some stellar special effects and intriguing casting choices (Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith!!!) something wasn’t right. As a matter of fact, something stunk outright – and it was Goldsman’s grossly ineffective screenplay. Overloaded with leaps in logic so vast that no trip to through the space-time continuum could bring them any closer together, and his usual inept way with dialogue and characterization, the movie actually appeared hollow inside, lacking a single significant “sci-fi” moment. Someone should have reminded Goldsman that, when you’re working on a flight of fancy, it’s a good idea to have items like imagination and intelligence as part of your narrative arsenal.


But there was a bigger scourge set in motion by this remake. Goldsman was given a production credit, the Hollywood equivalent of a first date hickey. Since the title carries a notion of power and importance, the failure of Space washed off the scribbling scrotum like dimensions of his player’s personalities. Luckily, his magic witch malarkey Practical Magic was already bought, sold and staged before the Robinsons found themselves forever misplaced in the marketplace. Panned, but not enough to stick to the suddenly Teflon typist, Goldsman decided to drop out of the business for a while. He didn’t write again until the beginning of the new millennium, his most significant contribution to the culture being as one of the many chiefs on Renny Harlin’s hilarious Jaws jaw-dropper, the super smart shark epic Deep Blue Sea.


Since it was painfully evident that the one time pairing of Goldy and Schu was on the outs (probably over the whole “nipples on the Batsuit” thing), our hackwork hooker required another pimp to make sure his screenplay services would satisfy a few studio Johns. The answer arrived in former child star turned semi-decent director Ron Howard. Attempting to turn the life story of Nobel Prize winning (and mentally troubled) economist John Nash into a biopic, the older Opie saw something in Goldsman that few today can find with an electron microscope and a gross of radioactive dye. Employing a gimmicky twist that was supposed to shake the audience to its core (you mean, EVERYONE he talks to is fake? A figment of his imagination? No shit?) Goldsman gave Nash a heroic façade that was blatantly false. While no one goes into a Tinsel Town biography for its accurate depiction of history, many of the more “troubling” facets of Nash’s life were whitewashed by Goldsman’s feel good foolishness.


And then Oscar had to go and give the man a statue. In a year that saw the first film in the fabulous Lord of the Rings trilogy, Terry Zwigoff’s take on Daniel Clowe’s Ghost World, and the intense, introspective In The Bedroom. Goldsman beat out much better material – not to mention writing – to garner his permanent foothold in Hollywood’s unimaginative heart. Granted, not every Academy Award guarantees a studio or agent will pick up the phone (just ask the two juniors – Louis Gossett and Cuba Gooding), but in the case of Goldsman, it seemed to indicate that all the critics were wrong. No, his scripts didn’t suck the moldering feces out of a dead corpse’s butt. No, he didn’t sacrifice cinematic requirements like cohesion and vision for the obvious and stereotypical. Sure, he had his fair share of flops, but this was vindication of his inherent artistry. Along with the trophy for Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind and its soulless screenplay remain two of Oscar’s most indefensible wins.


Thankfully, things haven’t gotten worse – at least, not yet. Goldsman’s grasp of Isaac Asimov was about as strong as I, Robot‘s approach to automatons (I know, let’s make our androids look like ceramic poseable artist’s models), but Will Smith was around to get jiggy with it all. While Goldy’s contribution again felt like a trip to Tinsel Town’s economic era, there are still moments where you can actually see the man messing with the movie. He avoids the obvious ethical debates – paying them the merest of lame lip service – so that there’s more time for chase scenes and flashbacks. Like the overwhelming drive to explain everything in The Da Vinci Code, Goldsman believes that ‘more’ makes a movie. In his case, however, he can’t convince us that excessive exposition – or in the case of The Fresh Prince’s ‘droid story, lots of lame CGI candy – can make for compelling cinema.


Since Howard and his personal plotter appear attached at the hip (Ronny has only made one movie – The Missing - without a floppy Goldsman foundation in the last five years) and the less than successful returns of Cinderella Man more or less failing to stick to anyone in particular (with A Good Year now tanking nicely, Russell Crowe better grab a phone receiver and watch his back) it’s no surprise this witless writer has signed on to decipher another Dan Brown brow-beater. Angels and Demons, the first of the Code-oriented tomes to feature symbologist Robert Langdon, was like a walkthrough for Da Vinci‘s more outlandishly muddled mysteries, and if Goldsman’s treatment of that multi-million seller is any indication of how this film will flow, be prepared for more asides, allusions and illustrations as every single significant and insignificant facet of the plot is trotted out for the uninitiated. It will then be over-explained and then re-referenced, just to make sure you’re along for the ride.


Still no one seems to understand that The Da Vinci Code made money because it was based on an international monster of a book, featured arguably the world’s most popular and beloved actor in the lead, and had one of these inherently controversial storylines that people just wanted to see made into a movie. Sadly, the film that resulted is as turgid and uninspired as the overall casting choices. With all those false positives in its portfolio, Code tapped into its fanbase, sucked up some significant bucks before the rest of the summer season snuffed it out, and ended up being an artistically awful financial success. So who gets the humungous paycheck? The man whose main contribution was making Brown’s page-turner into an exercise in inertia. How typical. 


Goldsman must be dependable and professional, keeping his promises and meeting his deadlines with genial good grace and a fruit basket on the side. There must be something about his work ethic and ability to acquiesce to those above and around him that makes his presence a necessary evil – like craft services, or Teamsters. His writing is indeed horrid, but it doesn’t differ too much from the massively mediocre excuses for entertainment that are released onto theater screens before making a mandatory beeline to the DVD den of iniquity. Yet somehow, Goldsman is the pariah, and it is time he was punished. Making him watch his movies won’t be enough. Like smelling your own farts, some people’s personal offensiveness doesn’t phase them in the least. No, a great crime deserves some mega-time. That’s why Akiva Goldsman must die.


No, not murdered. Not dead in the literal use of the word. No, Goldsman must loose his luster, shave off his indirect successes, and man up to the reality that he’s nothing more than a fortunate friggin’ pawn in Tinsel Town’s never-ending pursuit of the putrid. Ever since the ‘70s (and a few flash years in the ‘90s) the movie business has bastardized itself over and over, repeating and reinventing only the most profitable and franchisable. He is not an Oscar worthy writer. He was never responsible for the accomplishment of a single film he’s been involved in. The Writer’s Guild of America should revoke his credentials and actually let him try to reestablish his $4 million meaningfulness. Of course we all know that he can’t, and that when Angels and Demons makes another confused killing, Goldsman’s price will skyrocket again. As the reports from the set of I Am Legend confirm that Matheson’s material will once again be compromised for the sake of commerciality, it seems that nothing changes in the post-millennial movie biz except the size of the paychecks. Definitely not the pissants getting paid.


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Saturday, Nov 25, 2006


The year is 2176. The United States has become a dreary, desolate wasteland. A freak magnetic storm has wiped out all history. A team of scientists is instructed to take a time machine back into the past, to 1776 specifically, to re-discover the principles upon which the once mighty nation was founded. So Adam-11, Chanel-6, and Heinz-57, three hapless temporal explorers make the leap. But a computer glitch lands them in 1976, not quite the year of the Declaration of Independence. A Fifth of Beethoven, yes. As luck would have it, Chris Johnson and Tommy Sears, two California potheads, discover these futuristic fish out of water.


Our bong buddies agree to help the discoverers with their mission to find the true America. But a know-it-all nerd named Rodney Snodgrass threatens to ruin everything by sticking his conspiracy theory, alien obsessive nose into the drug duo’s business. With only twelve hours to obtain pertinent artifacts and a copy of the Constitution, our intrepid trio experiences everything that this enigmatic epoch has to offer: gas lines, recreational pharmaceuticals, and “The Hustle.” But it will take a group effort to avoid Rodney, his seedy brother Eddie, and a couple of bumbling CIA agents if our confused crew is ever going to return to the future to spread The Spirit of ‘76.


From its surrounding show business lineage, one could imagine that The Spirit of ‘76 is either a raucous yet sophisticated comedy (thanks to daddy Carl) or a modern, polished piece of nostalgia from deep inside the Hollywood hit machine (thanks to brother Rob). But Lucas Reiner, he also of the famed last name, tracks his touching take on the Me Decade directly down the middle of both roads, offering broad lampoon style humor with tender tweaks at that most retro of eras to create a gentle, genial farce. This is a very well observed satire, from the little moments (mood rings, space food sticks) to the outrageous fashion trends (it’s a polyester-palooza) and philosophical ideals (the EST like “Be” seminars). While the targets may seem obvious today, in this post That ‘70s Show / Austin Powers flashback media mentality, when conceived in 1989, The Spirit of ‘76 was (and still is) a fresh, friendly look at a much maligned epoch in US cultural history.


This is not a subtle slice of life like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (the inherent truth of that film and its carefully constructed look at a certain people and place make it more documentary than fiction) or an attempt at an actual recreation. It’s just a silly dumb spoof with some nice things to say about freedom. With a wink and a nod to the public’s perception of the entire leisure suit circumstances, The Spirit of ‘76 functions as both a comedy and a comment, presenting the Have A Nice Day dreamscape of 1976 as an enlightened, if decidedly lame, time frame.


One of the reasons The Spirit of ‘76 stands out, aside from its potent visual sense, is its eccentric casting. At first, there is an obviousness to the stars playing the lead roles. After all, what movie exploiting pop culture fads would avoid using ex-teen idols like Leif Garrett (as the hilariously sleazy Eddie Trojan) and David Cassidy (as time traveler Adam-11)? But scattered throughout Spirit are particularly obtuse choices as well. Steve and Jeff MacDonald from the superb rock group Redd Kross (whose brand of electrified pop is highly influenced by the ‘70s) are absolutely hilarious as the valley boy stoners Chris and Tommy. The members of Devo show up as officials of the future government, and other icons of the era (Tommy Chong, Rob “Meathead” Reiner) are matched with unusual cult figures (Earth Girls Are Easy‘s Julie Brown, The Kipper Kids) to flavor the film with an offbeat bouquet. Even regular “actor” Olivia D’Abo and circus clown Geoff Hoyle fit right in.


But a platoon of peculiar players would be nothing without a capable director to guide them, and youngest son/brother Lucas shows that, when it comes to helming hilarious motion pictures, there is something special in those Reiner genes. With an incredibly small budget and no major studio support, Lucas manages to create alternative realities, both past and futuristic, without the benefit of special effects or elaborate props. The homemade, thrift store conceit adds a real authenticity to this film. Instead of looking like a bunch of current actors running around in studio-sewn fashions, the lived-in feel of the clothing and sets make The Spirit of ‘76 seem that much more genuine. Reiner is to be commended for finding a way to make the financial limitations work. While not an all-out laugh riot, The Spirit of ‘76 is a well-made, well-conceived comic tribute to flared trousers and puka beads.


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Friday, Nov 24, 2006


Jack Peterson is a pretty great guy. He has a job that he loves (he builds birdhouses), a best friend (a larger-than-life lothario named Alan) who thinks the world of him, and a nice little townhouse in a sleepy North Carolina city. The only thing Jack doesn’t have is…a wiener. A nurse accidentally cut off his woody when he was an infant, and ever since then, Jack has had to live sans schlong. And boy, oh boy, does Jack long for a replacement skin flute. He dreams about it, fantasies regularly over stroking and fondling his newfound noodle. He has tried plastic surgeons and every possible medical professional, but the best they can offer is a faux phallus made out of fat from his arm and stomach. But Jack doesn’t want a belly-based boner. He wants a real life lizard of his very own, and has more or less given up on ever having one.


Then, Alan gives him some good advice. A private doctor in town offers the chance at a new, experimental tool transplant. When a perfect donor is found, Jack will be reconstructed, made more or less normal above the nutsack. Naturally, the anticipation of a new lease on life, thanks to someone else’s surgically grafted groinage, becomes overwhelming. Jack is giddy for some girth. He is hyper for a hard-on. He even starts to date, hooking up with his nice neighbor Jenny. But as he waits for his new knob and starts to consider all the problems and possibilities, Jack starts to have second thoughts. Maybe he doesn’t want a pubic pole after all. Maybe life is just fine the way it is. After all, aside from sex, Jack’s existence has been pretty sweet, even if it has also been Ding-a-ling-Less.


Sounding like a dirty joke taken to a tacky extreme, but actually ending up rather resplendent and very funny, Ding-a-ling-Less marks a substantial turn of events for its writer-director Onur Tukel. Having previously helmed the horrible Drawing Blood (a vampire horror-comedy that was really none of the aforementioned) and the less than successful House of Pancakes (a tired tale of some housemates from Hell), Tukel finally hits a homerun with his third feature film offering, this slightly skewed romantic comedy about a dude in search of his missing manhood. Initially, it takes a little time to get into Tukel’s mannerisms and mindset here. The filmmaker loads his script with dozens of disgusting and dirty ways to describe a dong and the actions that such an appendage can be used for. Indeed, everyone in this fable-like fantasyland of a small town seems to sympathize with Jack and gives him equally course and vulgar advice. These crudity-laced sentiments are a little off-putting at first, but once you get used to their existence, Ding-a-ling-Less begins to fulfill its promise.


Ding-a-ling-Less also marks a turn in the acting fortunes for its lead, Kirk Wilson. Having been unfortunate enough to star in Tukel’s other failures, this film signifies the perfect role for Wilson’s usually forced forlorn wistfulness. Wilson is very adept at playing pathetic, and during the first half of the film, he really gets us sympathizing with Jack’s dilemma. Then, as the narrative continues and issues arise with the upcoming surgery, Wilson makes the change of heart seem natural and viable. There is never an awkward or arch moment in his performance, and it is excellent in its subtlety and sensitivity. Equally impressive in a far less friendly role is Robert Longstreet, as Jack’s womanizing pal Alan. Kind of like a combination of Hank Azaria and Chris Cooper, Longstreet gets the chance to chew a little scenery as he puts on the boyish bravado and tries to walk his buddy through the world of wang. We also get to see a different side of Alan when he describes to Jack what it’s like to have sex with a woman. Longstreet also gets an excellent speech in the final sequence before the surgery. Along with an ensemble of actors that really believes in this project and its premise, Ding-a-ling-Less turns from a juvenile joke into a thoughtful, complicated comedy right before our delighted eyes.


As he has done before, Tukel experiments with the film medium, augmenting his story with asides, blackouts, visual cleverness, and a style that recalls both vintage Woody Allen and modern indie cinema. Though working with a shoestring budget and limited resources, Tukel makes the most of his North Carolina setting, giving us a real feel for the small town location of his film. The director has also cleaned up his compositional act, framing his scenes in artistically interesting fashion. When Alan and Jack have a conversation in the middle of an alley, the actors are perfectly positioned in a long shot that takes in both the buildings in the background and the somber horizon above, creating an interesting canvas in which to have a conversation. Along with a serious message about meaningless sex and the value of human interaction, Ding-a-ling-Less gives us an unusual, unique take on the malady of the modern male. Indeed, most men at one time or another have felt unfulfilled, and wonder what life would be like if they were better endowed. Using this concept to craft a combination of “Jokes from the John” and insightful allegory, this movie marks Onur Tukel’s arrival as an effective filmmaker. All his other films aside, Ding-a-ling-Less is a wonderful, witty movie with good heart buried inside all the dick quips.


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