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Saturday, Aug 23, 2008

Can context really change your opinion? Can the changing cultural or political tide turn one set judgment, especially when the item being discussed seems irretrievably linked to said shifts? Morgan Spurlock must think so. When he offered his intriguing if incomplete dissertation on the Middle East and the so-called War on Terror a few months back, it seemed like a silly slapstick take on a very serious subject. Now, in light of an election which seems poised to be decided on issues other than our commitment in Iraq and threats from Islamic fundamentalists, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? appears much more lucid and likeable. 


The DVD release (from Genus Products and The Weinstein Company) of the title bares this out, especially when looking at the bonus material offered. Spurlock adds a few supporting snippets, including an insightful interview with Shimon Peres. The Israeli President makes it very clear that peace can be brokered, but as with any negotiation, it’s a matter of compromise. And when one side sees itself as totally marginalized within the process (as is the case with the Palestinians), there’s little desire to do anything except fight back. In light of his words, the entire foundation of this film changes. Sure, it’s still a goofy journey through world politics accented by Spurlock’s sunny slacker stance. But one cannot deny the connection to our own Western worries.


It’s clear in the main set-up the movie offers. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. Young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. Again, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead this is what Spurlock learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one.


By using the impending birth of this first child as a catalyst for cutting through the political rhetoric and the international posturing, we see the personal concern and connection and though premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span. It does its job remarkably well, and is eye opening in ways both important and superfluous. But just as he did with his attack on McDonalds, Super Size Me (and to a lesser extent, his otherwise excellent 30 Days series for FX), Spurlock stuffs the cinematic ballot box. He hedges his bets, going for the obvious score vs. the insightful if complicated underpinning.


It happens almost immediately upon entering Egypt (the film is built around a multi-country tour with our grinning guide playing a terrorist-trailing Tony Bourdain). Whenever he comes upon a disgruntled group of citizens, the message is repeated like a mantra - we don’t HATE the people of the US, just their horrific, misguided, and totally out of touch government. Over and over again it is repeated: we love you, we despise your failed foreign policy. Even in occupied territories outside Israel, where the aforementioned Palestinian refugees suffer unusual and horrid hardships, few are fuming at Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. Aside from one or two obvious militants, the same sentiment is voiced over and over - population good, president bad! 


Yet there is more to Spurlock’s madness than just delivering this one note communication. Unlike so many news reports that want to cast Muslims as one big bearded bunch of Islamic radicals, Where in the World… gives faces to this decidedly foreign issue. They are no longer villains in veils and headdress. Instead, they are actual human beings (Shock! Horror!) who just want schools, drinking water, financial help - oh, and some minor sovereign recognition and democratic rights would be great as well. The whole Jihad angle is substantially downplayed, the interviewees more than willing to rag on their radicalized brethren as not “representative” of the Middle East. As stated before, this is far from a revelation.


Still, there are times when even these comments seem contradictory. As part of the bonus features, three Saudi girls discuss their concept of freedom within a segregated, paternalistic theocracy. They argue that they have choice (they choose to conform) and they suggest they could drop the Muslim mandated rituals whenever they wanted. When pressed, they admit that the trouble to do so may not warrant the reward. The lack of follow-up remains one of this film’s few stumbles. Spurlock rarely gets to the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes question. Most of the time he offers nothing but passive aggressive acceptance.


Most of the time, he doesn’t even try to contradict or add context. He just lets jerks be jerks and moves on. Both sides get it good, from party line toting students to Hasidic Jews giving the people of Israel an equally bad name. Similarly, one senses that all these pro-peace pronouncements could be easily countermanded by a look at the cutting room floor - at least beyond the limited extras offered on this DVD. Like the director he’s most often compared to - Michael Moore - Spurlock clearly has an agenda. He’s more interested in fact flagging than finding. The viewpoint he puts out in Where in the World… may indeed be his overall experience, but it’s clearly one filtered through careful editing and a specific unbalanced viewpoint.


As the magnificent strains of Elvis Costello’s reading of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” start up, as the credits roll and the people we’ve met smile kindly for the camera (even the radicals), something strange happens. Beyond all the ADD inspired graphics, the video game grandstanding, the Charlie Daniels on Demerol theme song, and the overall reliance on generics, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden becomes a very effective film. It’s as if the music (and now the DVD) makes the points that Spurlock avoids, questioning and commenting on the tenets he tries to expose. There was never a chance he would find the fiery fundamentalist. Yet somehow, Spurlock still found the truth - or at least part of it.


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Friday, Aug 22, 2008

“I’m Sheila Heti, and I’m going to be reading a story called “The Princess and the Plumber” while having sex with my boyfriend ... Do you mind if we have sex while I read this? We’ll just do it ... slowly.”


And then Heti’s boyfriend proceeds to become cutely inflamed that his girlfriend has thrown away his sour dough. An argument breaks out: He was gonna eat it… She’ll buy him some more… It was perfectly good, he checked it this morning…


Do they end up having sex to the plumber story? You’ll have to buy the CD to find out. I might have to, too. Sex and a good book? That actually sound like my idea of pre-lights off bliss.


Can I say only at McSweeney’s? The upscale literary firm continues to change the way we look at and listen to our stories with its second audio collection, this one titled “Sweet Nothings and Essential Slow Jams”. This time, McSweeney’s authors including Heti, Ben Ehrenreich, Tony DeSouza, Chris Bachelder, and Pia Ehrhardt read stories featuring tales of best first dates.


Don’t expect, though, these stories to rival Danielle Steel with lusty grabs and longing dialogue. DeSouza writes about man-tree love, Heti’s story features talking frogs, and Ehrenreich’s is, so says the press release, a “post-apocalyptic love triangle between a man, a woman, and a giant squid”.


The stories are available in MP3 format from eMusic.com.


 


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008

One more week, and it will all be over. Another tent pole, another bit of Monday money bragging, and Summer 2008 will be history. Before that, here’s the films in focus for 22 August:


[REC] [rating: 9]


[REC] is ridiculously good. It’s a show-stopping terror trip through something that really shouldn’t work all that well.

It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does, it truly is cause for celebration. The horror genre has been so blatantly mismanaged by Hollywood, reduced to a series of unnecessary remakes, forced franchise fodder, independent null sets, and Westernized takes of better foreign frights, that when a solid movie macabre comes your way, you really do have to stop and settle the shivers. And it’s more than the dread onscreen working your frazzled nerves. No, when something as remarkably effective and downright scary as [REC] arrives on your plain, PG-13 doorstep, you have to seriously contemplate the reasons why - and wonder just when America is going to show its dearth of creativity and cannibalize the thing. read full review…


Death Race (2008) [rating: 6]


Like big steaming chunks of charred animal flesh, or a fleeting glimpse of a gal’s ample cleavage, Death Race taps into something very primal (and very male) about the action movie experience.

Remakes are like those proverbial Tribbles in the classic Trek episode. Give them a creative inch - or in the case of Hollywood, a recognizable box office return - and they’ll overrun your aesthetic starship, and last time anyone checked, Tinsel Town was plowing through them at warp speed. In a clear case of ‘the new generation needs its own version’, everything from the last three decades is now being updated to appeal to a tween, PG-13 demo. A rare exception is Death Race, an ‘update’ of Roger Corman’s action spoof that’s been given a gritty, grimy, hard-R polish. Gone are the cross country premise and “people-as-points” fun. In their place is a Rollerball meets ridiculousness ideal that’s, oddly earnest if ultimately empty goofiness.  read full review…


The Rocker [rating: 5]


Sadly, The Rocker is so rife with formula that a pre-school could wet nurse on it indefinitely and still never go hungry. 

Rock stardom is a standard personal fantasy. It represents two very elusive elements - the power that music has over all of us and the godlike fixation we have on those who make it. The notion of moving the masses in such a way, to produce the beautiful noise that brings sense and sensibility together, remains a wonderful daydream of wanton wish fulfillment. So when a movie proposes to take on said topic, to show how a fleeting glimpse of recognition ruins a man’s life, it should have a relatively easy time of getting our already primed attention. Sadly, The Rocker is so rife with formula that a pre-school could wet nurse on it indefinitely and still never go hungry.  read full review…


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, Israel Vibration's vision -- and sound -- was fully formed when they entered the studio.

Walking the Streets of Glory: Israel Vibration’s The Same Song


The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.


The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).


Israel Vibration

Israel Vibration


And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).


Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.


They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008

It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does, it truly is cause for celebration. The horror genre has been so blatantly mismanaged by Hollywood, reduced to a series of unnecessary remakes, forced franchise fodder, independent null sets, and Westernized takes of better foreign frights, that when a solid movie macabre comes your way, you really do have to stop and settle the shivers. And it’s more than the dread onscreen working your frazzled nerves. No, when something as remarkably effective and downright scary as [REC] arrives on your plain, PG-13 doorstep, you have to seriously contemplate the reasons why - and wonder just when America is going to show its dearth of creativity and cannibalize the thing.


It’s a typical night for reporter Angela Vidal. She’s on location doing another of her insightful “While You’re Asleep” segments. This time, she intends to follow a group of firefighters as they go about their evening routine. While she hopes for an alarm, the journalist recognizes the dead end elements of her assignment. Without warning, the company is called to a local apartment building. Seems an old woman was heard screaming - that is, before she went quiet. As they investigate, they notice the nervous nature of the other tenants. Sure enough, there is reason to be anxious. The lady isn’t dead. As a matter of fact, she may be something much, much worse. Soon, the government is quarantining the building, trapping Angela, her cameraman, and several unsuspecting victims. They all appear to be the potential targets of a biological plague that may have a more suspicious, supernatural source.


[REC] is ridiculously good. It’s a show-stopping terror trip through something that really shouldn’t work all that well. Employing the by now tired first person POV perspective (everything is captured through a cameraman’s omniscient lens) tied to a ‘happening in real time’ panic strategy, this exercise in style cries out to be complained about. On the negative side, we do see little characterization. Our heroine seems perky enough, but everyone else is just bloody bite fodder. True, the narrative is more inferential that assertive, giving off hints and possibilities without coming up with clear, concrete answers. And since it trades in something standard within the always overworked horror dynamic (innocents against the monsters), we openly doubt if it will have anything original or clever to add.


The answer, happily, is a big fat “YES”. [REC] routinely argues that good ideas will always trump a lack of flawless execution. There’s no way this film could work within a typical creature feature mise-en-scene. By the time the apartment dwellers started dropping like flies, we’d grow incredibly blasé and bored. But thanks to the talent of directors Jaume Balagueró (the main man in charge) and Paco Plaza (our witness with the handycam), the visceral nature of the approach avoids any such lulls. Framing can really help a fright film, our inability to see what’s going on within a composition adding to our sense of unease. These Spanish scare masters rely on this device time and time again, images lagging in the background as our players interact, their movement slowly making their menace known. Even more impressive is the filmmaker’s dedication to the all important ‘anyone can die’ ideal. Nothing emphasizes a potential threat better than a truly random danger. 


Something new to the otherwise familiar fright works however, is the concept of hopeless indestructibility. All throughout [REC] , we wonder why the standard kill methods don’t work. These ‘things’ are shot, stabbed, and smashed, and yet they continue to come - angrier and more aggressive than before. There is never a moment when we figure all is safe. Instead, Balagueró and Plaza play continuous mind games with our sense of safety. Sometimes, the threat is all too real. At other instances, it’s merely the figment of some adrenalized individual’s highly over-stimulated and susceptible imagination. Make no mistake, however - anything can spell disaster here, from a small child to an ‘abandoned’ penthouse. [REC] never plays fair with its fear, and that’s why it’s so wonderful.


Equally interesting is the stunning display of old school Blair Witch-ery. Back when the found footage ideal was indeed unique, some felt the gimmick would eventually run its one note course. Instead, contemporary filmmakers have found interesting and inventive ways of making it viable, from the zombie zeal of George Romero’s Diary of the Dead to the Godzilla on growth hormones of Cloverfield. Here, Balagueró and Plaza don’t try to impose structure on what is filmed, sticking to a recognizable storyline. There are never moments when the camera is somewhere it shouldn’t or couldn’t be. In fact, where this film triumphs over the original Burkittsville ballyhoo is in the notion of purpose. Unlike the improvised idiocy of that film’s scareless downtime, [REC] just keeps the creeps coming.


The result is a return to those glory days of audience angst and edge of your seat shocks. Like gore for the lover of sluice or tension for those desperate for a helping of Hitchcock, [REC] gives hope to a demo frequently capable of giving almost any genre jive the benefit of the doubt. It’s a wonderfully evocative, thoroughly engaging experience, the kind of jump jolt joy ride that instantly satiates your panic proclivities…and then some. The last few minutes will truly mess with your mind, sticking with you long after the credits roll. While Balagueró has been celebrated in his native land, he’s relatively unknown on our side of the Atlantic. A film like [REC] would likely offer said ramp up in recognition - that is, if US studio suits weren’t already ready to release their own remake of the title.


Yep, come this October 2008, Screen Gems (responsible for upcoming cash grab revamps like Silent Night, Deadly Night and The Stepfather) has Quarantine ready and waiting. Starring Dexter‘s Jennifer Carpenter and employing the same hand held cinematography, it will be interesting to see if this red, white, and blue construal will have the same gut level effect. One senses the translation will be less than successful. Hopefully, that means that more disillusioned fans will flock to their local B&M once the tie-in DVD is released. [REC] truly deserves to become a fright film classic. It represents one of those rare instances when concept, construction, and completion all work to make a memorable, horrific experience. It really is a reason to rejoice.


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