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True Blood 2.3 – You Scratch My Back…

When a vampire is driving down the road at an outrageous speed, there’s no other phrase you can use to describe it than “like a bat out of Hell.” Bill’s clearly still enraged over Sookie’s foolish decision to take Jessica at her word and trust that she wouldn’t approach her family, let alone attack them. But can you really blame him? It’s as I said last week: there was no way it wasn’t going to end badly. As it happens, it ended a whole lot better than it could have – like I figured, Bill glamoured them rather than dispose of them in the less savory way that most of his ilk would have – but what was most surprising about his annoyance with Sookie was how concerned he was about the fact that she undermined his authority. Is that the residual effects of having lived through the good ol’ days when women knew their place? (Just kidding, gals!) Either way, when Sookie decided to bail out of Bill’s reaming and walk home, she had a close encounter which resulted in a full-fledged “holy shit” moment.

Actually, that’s underselling it: it was a “holy shit, WTF” moment.

And it only got worse. Those claw marks were awful. Good thing Bill and Eric are pals with a highly knowledgeable physician, but even Dr. Ludwig’s wealth of information could only offer an approximation of how to treat the poison in Sookie’s wounds. (I don’t think it would be exaggerating things much to suggest that the treatment was almost worse than the wounds themselves. I didn’t fight my instinct to turn away from the TV. Ugh!) The long-lived Eric claimed to have no idea what had attacked her, either, but it’s hard to trust that guy. Still, his underlings seemed to be equally mystified.

Can someone please explain to me why the folks at Fantasia keep Ginger employed? Anything she brings to the table can’t possibly outweigh the fact her IQ is somewhere in the low double digits, as she quickly proves by letting slip in her thoughts that Lafayette is chained in the basements. Looks like you were right, Mr. Paulsen: they didn’t actually turn him after the credits rolled last week. You gotta give Sookie credit: not many people would have the either the balls or the unbridled stupidity to smack a vampire of Eric’s strength across the face. Given his reaction, however, one can’t but wonder if the maintaining of Lafayette’s human existence was something Eric did solely because he knew he could trade his life for the favor he’d been needing from Sookie. Either way, after some wheeling and dealing by both Sookie and Bill, Lafayette earns his freedom and Sookie signs up for Eric’s favor, earning a sizable cash influx in the process and providing the best exchange of the night:

Eric: Perhaps I’ll grow on you.
Sookie: I prefer cancer.

With everything going on, Jessica accidentally ends up getting left home alone, and it looks likes she’s going to get into at least as much trouble as Macaulay Culkin. I never particularly dug the song when it first came out, but I have to admit that they made good use of Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” as she strolled into Merlotte’s. What a surprise, however, when it looked as though the usually-belligerent redhead was legitimately swooning over the sweet naiveté of the gentleman who she’d intended as her night’s conquest. The moment when her fangs came out unbidden was pretty funny, her tearful reaction was even a bit sad, and I kept waiting for the guy to say, “Hey, guess what, I’m a vampire, too!” They cut it close enough to the quick that I really did think that she’d bitten him, so when Bill and Sookie broke up their coupling on the couch, I was surprised to see a notable lack of holes in the guy’s neck.

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Box office wrap-up: “Transformers” sequel blows up real good

The news this week is about as simple and unsurprising as you can get: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” has done some pretty spectacular business, netting an estimate of $201.2 million, just shy of the all-time record $203.8 million “The Dark Knight” earned on its initial five-day release. Could that $2.6 million difference be the difference between outstanding reviews and really bad ones? Nah, but I still wouldn’t be surprised to see a big drop off here, or maybe that’s wishful thinking based on my oft-repeated feelings about this particular franchise.

As per Variety, “The Proposal” came in at the #2 spot, dropping 45% from its opening for $18.5 million in its second week. And this summer’s ongoing audience and critical favorites continue to do outstanding business. “The Hangover” is thought to have taken in $17.2 million in its third week, while “Up” continues to exercise the astonishing power of the Pixar touch in the #4 spot with about $13 million in its fifth week.

This week’s only non-”Transformers” wide release, “My Sister’s Keeper” (referred to by newly rich superblogger Nikki Finke as “simpering,” but which our own Jason Zingale actually kind of liked), came in at the #5 spot with an estimated $12 million. As we mentioned last time, that’s actually a couple million more than some expected.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, It also wasn’t a bad weekend on the indie side. The critically acclaimed Iraq war action-suspense drama, “The Hurt Locker,” performed well in its four theaters on the coasts, netting about $3600 per screen. In wider release, the high pedigree prestige comedy, “Away We Go,” perhaps benefited from the TV appeal of stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, and got into the #10 spot with $1.7 million in just under 500 theaters.

Back tomorrow with more on the about to be concluded LAFF

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Sunday Movie Moment: “Thriller”

I suppose that technically rock videos aren’t really movies in the sense of being a theatrical motion picture, but “Thriller” sure feels like a mini-movie, and it’s homages to classic horror — complete with a rap of sorts by Vincent Price — are still scary, even mixed with Michael Peter’s and Michael Jackson funky choreography. Undoubtedly a still strong piece of movie making by John Landis, and one of the late Mr. Jackson’s most important efforts,

Michael Jackson |MTV Music

I’ll be back with the box office numbers later today, and I’ll be wrapping up my coverage of the Los Angeles Film Festival, which ends tonight, over the next couple of days.

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Shameless commerce with “I Sell the Dead”

I usually like my horror best when it’s well mixed with comedy. Moreover, this LAFF selection has gotten some good responses elsewhere, but I’m sorry to say that “I Sell the Dead” was my first real disappointment of the festival. It’s a fairly classic example of the kind of film where the cinematic “frosting” is sickly delightful, but where the actual movie “cake” beneath it is mostly a dud. Written, directed, and edited by Glen McQuaid on his first feature, the film is largely told in flashback as career grave robber/ghoul and alleged killer Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan, “Lost” and LOTR) is encouraged to recount his lengthy career by a fearsome but jovial cleric (geekfilm stalwart Ron Perlman).

Young Arthur (Daniel Manche) begins his profession under the tutelage of experienced corpse dealer Willie Grimes (cult/indie horror regular Larry Fessenden). Willie’s a rough sort and ready to do young Arthur in to curry favor with his fearsome main customer, an evil scientist who pays mostly in blackmail (the memorable Angus Scrimm, a.k.a., the terrifying “Tall Man” from the “Phantasm” series). But at heart he’s no murderer and the two become close friends as they eventually branch out from simple grave robbing to the commercial possibilities of dealing with the bodies of vampires, zombies, and assorted other deceased creatures, both undead and unusual. Eventually, Arthur’s ghoulishly sexy Lady MacBeth of a girlfriend (the terrific Brenda Cooney) complicates matters just a bit.

Writer/director/editor McQuaid is a designer and effects artist with a keen classic film and EC comics-inspired visual sense and a gift for horror-based humor, but the story he comes up with here is episodic at best and lacks anything resembling a spine. Moreover, while there are some wonderful gags and genuinely creepy moments starting about half-way through the film, it’s a long slog getting there and a fairly long feeling slog after.

I share McQuaid’s affection for the modestly budgeted horror/comedy/camp classics of old and “I Sell the Dead” is a nicely designed homage. However, without any clear emotional spine to the story, the director’s strong visuals and obvious enthusiasm for the genre, strong acting from the entire cast, and terrific score by composer Jeff Grace, sadly doesn’t add up to very much entertainment. Still, I know that fans of the endangered art of comic horror will want to seek this one out anyway. I hope they get more fun out of it than I did.

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More LAFF: How do you mend a “Paper Heart”?

If documentaries necessarily involve a potential for abuse, simply because the perceived reality of film is so open to manipulation through editing and other tricks of the movie trade, documentary/fiction hybrids offer the opportunity for extreme confusion and manipulation. And, boy, is that the case here.

While the actual write-ups for “Paper Heart” were vague about the premise, a fellow LAFF-goer casually told me that it involved some kind of recreation of the romance between comedian/performance artist Charlyne Yi (“Knocked Up“) and the future of comic understatement, Michael Cera. Thus, watching the film, I became convinced I was seeing some kind of fictionalized retelling of a real-life romance. I am informed, however, in David Poland’s interview and from the post film Q&A that the relationship in the film is utterly and entirely fictional, so I assumed I was wrong again and the pair don’t date and never have. But after a bit more research I have information that indicates that Yi and Cera do have a relationship, just not in the one the movie. Except that the movie deals with what are Yi’s supposedly real feelings about love and how could that not affect her real or imagined romance with Cera? Of course, that’s none of my business and that’s probably a big part of the point.

The whole layers of fiction and reality thing got even more complicated when, at the post-screening Q&A, cowriter-director Nicholas Jasenovec stated categorically that story portions of the film were fictional while the documentary portions were not. Fine, but then a pre-teen boy who appears in the film opining on romance joins the discussion and, asked about he was found for “Paper Heart,” he and Jasenovic state that he was found through a casting process to join what appears to be a conversation with more or less random school children, and he is an actor.

When Jean Luc Godard uttered his most quoted line, that cinema was truth, 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie, I think this is kind of what he was talking about. But, so what?

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What the wild & wonderful Whites won’t do (probably)

One screening I’ll be attending tomorrow for sure at LAFF is “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia,” about a rather intense West Virginia family into various forms of criminality, dysfunction and tap-dancing. I’m looking forward to it (you can see the trailer here), but below is something I won’t be expecting to see.

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“Who the hell is interupting my kung fu?!”

One side benefit of the busy, slightly weird and somewhat fouled-up time I’ve been having at the Los Angeles Film Festival is that I’ve only had time to watch films I’ve especially wanted to see. That’s prevented the joy (so far) of making an unexpected discovery, which is definitely part of the fun of film festivals. On the other hand, I’ve liked all the films I’ve seen (so far). “Black Dynamite,” a spoof of the seventies blaxsploitation genre, is one I’ve been wanting to see since the filmmakers’ commendably aggressive PR people sent me a trailer — and a very cool (but inexpensively seventies-esque) t-shirt — a couple of years back via my personal blog.

Fortunately, the wait, the slog through Hollywood traffic on the somewhat spooky evening of Michael Jackson’s death (not as bad as it could have been, actually), and even some technical problems on the first attempt to run through the film all proved to be very much worth it. Directed by Scott Sanders and co-written with actor and martial artist Michael Jai White (“Spawn,” “The Dark Knight“), this is just your basic story of a superhuman ex-CIA agent, able to take out a roomful of bad guys and satisfy a roomful of women, who sets out to avenge the death of his brother, stop the scourge of hard drugs at orphanages, and also deal with a brand of malt liquor that turns out to have a truly disturbing side effect.

The brilliance of Sanders and White’s approach here is the faithfulness they maintain to their source material while sending it up shamelessly. It happily exaggerates the cinematic flaws of actual blaxsploitation and its often unbelievable plots and absurd dialogue, taking several increasingly silly turns as the film unspools, but always with a completely straight face and an apparent complete lack of irony. The approach propels the comedy far further than less disciplined spoofs.

In a video interview conducted with writer David Poland after its debut at Sundance, Scott Sanders said he and White approached it not so much as a movie starring Michael Jai White as Black Dynamite and directed by Sanders, but a movie featuring Michael Jai White playing seventies-era ex-football player Ferante Jones playing Black Dynamite, and directed by Sanders “playing” a seventies director.

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There are two bold strokes with which “Wallander,” a BBC produced crime series, is painted that set it apart from most other TV fare. The first is its intoxicating, borderline hallucinatory photography, which will grab your attention in the opening frames. A girl pushes her way through a golden field of crops carrying a plastic container of liquid. A car, driven by Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh), speeds down the highway toward a farm. He pulls up and the farmer points to the field. “She’s out there.” He hands Wallander a pair of binoculars. “You see her?” Wallander makes his way through the dense field of yellow. The closer he gets, the more frightened the girl becomes. When he’s but a few feet from her, she opens the container and douses herself with gasoline, sets herself on fire, and explodes in a ball of flame. Wallander’s jaw hits the ground. He cannot believe what he’s just witnessed. Later on, when one of his fellow detectives suggests moving on from the suicide, since there’s no real crime involved, Wallander himself explodes, “A 15-year-old girl sets herself on fire and you don’t think it’s a crime!?” It’s something of an uncharacteristic moment for the normally subdued man, who keeps his emotions bottled up inside. Indeed, the only time his feathers ever seem to ruffle is in matters of pursuing justice.

But back to the photography. The entire opening sequence is bold and filmic, as is much of “Wallander.” The series is shot with the Red One, a digital camera with a sensor that, according to Wikipedia, “has about the same active area as a 35mm film frame masked to the 16:9 aspect ratio, allowing the same depth of field to be produced in conjunction with lenses designed for 35mm film.” In other words, this camera manages to make some damn pretty pictures – stuff you wouldn’t expect to see in a BBC produced show. It’s possible that at times the cinematographers even go a little overboard, but they probably had so much fun experimenting with the camera they should be forgiven such indulgences.

The second item of note is the fact that the show is in English. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if not for the fact that the show is set and filmed in Sweden, all of the characters are Swedish, and most noticeably, anytime any written language is shown, such as newspapers or e-mails, the words are in Swedish. But everyone in the series speaks English, and with a British accent no less. This took some time to get used to, but after a while the viewer is forced to submit to the gimmick, and it manages to somehow seem a mildly brilliant construct on the part of the producers. I kept thinking back to the early scene in “The Hunt for Red October” where all the Russians were speaking Russian until the picture subtly shifts and they all speak English; “Wallander” simply doesn’t have the shift. It’s a brave leap of faith that could easily have been avoided by tweaking the tales a bit, and simply setting them in England. Clearly the people involved in the making of this series have enormous respect for the source material, a series of hugely popular books by Henning Mankell, the “master of Swedish crime fiction” who, it turns out, is married to Ingmar Bergman’s daughter.

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Between Good & Evil: Hollywood Heavy Hitters Going Toe to Toe

There’s just something about two great actors going toe-to-toe that makes for some of the most memorable cinematic moments. Call it chemistry if you will, but these days, when you get a couple of Hollywood heavy hitters in the same room, it’s usually guaranteed to light up the screen like the Fourth of July. So when it was announced that Michael Mann had enlisted two of this generation’s greatest actors – Johnny Depp and Christian Bale – to star opposite one another in his new film, “Public Enemies,” we couldn’t help but be reminded of the many other classic face-offs starring the industry’s cream of the crop. Some are as simple as good versus evil, while others are a little more, well, complicated. Below you’ll find a list of our ten favorite match-ups (and what makes them so special), along with five more that just missed the cut.

Here’s a sample entry:

Cinematic showdowns don’t come any more highly anticipated than this. More than two decades after sharing billing (but no scenes) in “The Godfather II,” Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally had a big screen showdown in Michael Mann’s sleek, stylish 1995 crime epic. Pacino is LAPD Lt. Vincent Hanna, a true-blue cop whose dogged dedication to his job has destroyed two marriages and is on its way to wrecking a third; De Niro is Neil McCauley, a brilliant thief whose ego goads him into attempting the final score that’s supposed to finance his retirement – even though he knows Hanna’s watching him. Though the two characters share just a few of the 171 minutes that make up “Heat,” Mann makes them count, serving up a deliciously tense tête-à-tête in a coffee shop that foreshadows the final showdown between Hanna and McCauley in the film’s last act. After all that buildup, some film fans were a little let down by such an understated clash of titans, but now that we’ve seen what can happen when Pacino and De Niro spend an entire movie together (2008′s “Righteous Kill”), those seem like awfully petty complaints.

Of course, the idea of doing a feature like this without including the most famous movie match-up is kind of like eating a PB&J sandwich minus the actual peanut butter and jelly, but not all of our inclusions are quite as predictable. Head on over to Bullz-Eye to check out the rest of the best.

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Box office mini-preview, part II: Weirded out Hollywood agrees: “Transformers” sequel smashes puny humanity (updated)

In the face of the death of Michael Jackson right after the very sad news of the passing of Farrah Fawcett, it’s a weird day in Hollywood — and just a bit weirder and louder in news-chopper infested Westwood, where I happen to be, perhaps just a few thousand yards from the hospital room where Mr. Jackson was pronounced dead.

But the box office goes on, not that there’s much more to report other than the boffo, all-time record breaking $60.6 million performance of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” All this so far apparently impacted by the almost across the board negativity of critics, who, I remind you yet again, are also human beings and therefore perhaps reflective of something.

So, it’s safe to say that a new tearjerker starring Cameron Diaz and directed by Nick Cassavetes of “The Notebook” won’t be much of a threat. Even the counter-programming possibilities of “My Sister’s Keeper” seem limited by it’s mediocre Rotten Tomatoes rating of 46% “fresh.” This kind of movie attracts somewhat older filmgoers and that might actually have an impact. A film like this needs some kind of buzz behind it, and I don’t see it making much headway against the various behemoths already ensconced in our nation’s theaters. The Hollywood Reporter has it pegged for about $10 million. The title also, I think, won’t do it much good.

There is, however, a trio of films worth mentioning in the so-called “specialty market.” (Isn’t it special that there’s a market where quality might help a film’s performance?) THR thinks the timing of the Iran-set drama, “”The Stoning of Soraya M.,” might be helped by news of the upheavals from the nation. However, in an area where reviews mean something, a 45% RT rating isn’t hopeful. (And we all know who’s going to be dominating the news for the next several weeks.)

Far more promising, though opening only in four theaters in L.A. and New York, is the action drama “The Hurt Locker.” I’m not a particularly huge fan of director Kathryn Bigelow. I see what she’s trying to do, but even her best thought of pieces, like the vampire flick “Near Dark,” have never quite connected for me. However, this drama about soldiers deals with a topic that’s always been potent dramatic material: unexploded bombs. This time, of course, they are being faced by U.S. solidiers in Iraq. While this film’s only “names” are in smaller roles, this one could break out and the reviews, and that Pixar-esque 97% RT rating, are impressive. Iraq is supposed to be the kiss of death at the box office, but seeing how few people have actually liked any of the Iraq films made so far, maybe it’s not so much the topic as the particular films. [UPDATE: I should add that "Hurt Locker" was written by Mark Boal, a writer who was reportedly embedded with an actual bomb squad in Iraq. So often, when a director with a problematic filmography suddenly makes a really good or great film, it's because they've finally hooked up with a well-written screenplay. How easy it is to forget that.]

Also, as a fan of both Michelle Pfeiffer and director Stephen Frears (“The Hit,” among many, many others), I have to point out the romantic/possibly sexy period drama “Cheri.” Okay, the reviews are not great for this one, but I’d rather watch even a bad movie involving Pfeiffer and Frears than a bunch of personality-free tins cans fighting.

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