Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 21, 2008

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. 


In a future overflowing with poverty and violence, the prison based demolition derby Death Race is the most popular online entertainment extravaganza. Run by warden Hennessey and starring masked prisoner Frankenstein, the web event draws millions of viewers - and dollars - for the private penitentiary corporation. When a mishap threatens the spectacle, the stern female steward turns to new inmate - and convicted wife killer - Jensen Ames as her new driver. Once he meets up with chief mechanic Coach, and his main competition Machine Gun Joe, he discovers that there is more to his incarceration than crime. Seems this ex-race car jockey turned steel worker may have been set up specifically to save the three day competition - with no hope of he, or anyone else, making it out alive.


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. It’s all noise, bluster, and torque-testing horsepower. When it moves, it travels at unlimited overcranked rpms. When it stops to focus on exposition and depth, it’s like listening to the set-up for a very bad, very superficial pulp novel. That Paul W.S. Anderson, film geek scourge that he is, could find a way to make both elements work is surprising enough. That he winds up delivering one of the summer’s shockingly guilty pleasures is indeed ‘fuel’ for thought.


All those with fond memories of the Roger Corman cult classic from the ‘70s take heed - there is very little here to remind you of that cheesy schlock stunt piece. Paul Bartel’s even if effective direction is nowhere to be found. In its place is a style reminiscent of a poorly designed carnival ride, one where you can anticipate the thrills by the logistics of the layout. When the narrative announces that there will be three stages to the title competition, you’re already aware of when Anderson will turn up the adrenalin. And since the trailer more or less gives away all the possible plot twists, what happens during each and every race is fairly obvious.


Also, at many times during this otherwise engaging Farm Film Reportage, Anderson gets in his own way. You can sense he was striving for something more serious, a speculative fiction that says something about our love of violence, corporate greed, morbid curiosity, and outright love of velocity. In its place however is the satisfying crunch of metal and an equally rewarding sense of mindless mayhem. All the action centers around explosions and bullets, revved up hunks of machinery destroying each other in all manner of logic defying permutations. Characters who we barely know are killed in massive sprays of body parts and blood, and everything is soaked in a sinister despotic aura that demands redress.


Naturally, it’s up to human adrenal gland Jason Statham to supply the permanent five o’clock shadow musk. Making a living out of being buff, unshaven, and incredibly surly, the British thesp provides his accustomed glower power, if little else. He’s always an appealing anti-hero, but this time around his vacant Jensen Ames appears inane. Sure, there’s his baby daughter’s salvation to be considered, and his desire for outright revenge, but none of these motives resonate. Instead, Anderson offers Statham as emaciated male musculature, ripples replacing anything remotely resembling characterization or a rooting interest.


Equally out of place, for a different reason, is Joan Allen. Yes, the Oscar nominated lady gets to put on her F-you bitch bomb pumps and play baddie, all in the name of authoritarianism and conglomerate insatiability. With a single personality beat - “make dat mon-ey” - and a sexless disposition, she’s villainess as placeholder, a fashion plate prop waiting for a better menace to take her position. Do we cheer when its comeuppance time? Sure. Do we really understand the reasoning behind her choice of chump (Statham) and destruction of all that he held dear? Huh? She at least fairs better than Tyrese Gibson and Natalie Martinez, both reduced to obligatory eye candy for the requisite sides of the gender aisle.


Anderson, who is often marginalized by a fanbase that has seen him turn some of their favorite geek obsessions (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) into mindless mainstream mush, does a decent, journeyman job here. He doesn’t strive for some kind of dystopic dream state or visual allegory. Instead, it’s all screeching engines, smoking lightning and heavy pedal to the metal thunder. As someone who still manages a paycheck for what he accomplishes behind the lens, Anderson remains an enigmatic cinematic shoulder shrug. But nothing he does in Death Race convinces you that his detractors are wrong…or that his employers think outside a very small, very specific financial box.


That most of these major quibbles drift away in a cloud of oil smoke and exhaust will stand as this last gasp popcorn pitch’s only hope. In a critical community that rightly targets the mindless and aimless as celluloid sputum, Death Race sure smells like something spoilt. But after a season of angst-ridden superheroes whose complex character complaints drive even bigger narrative ambitions, its good to simply sit back and feel your brain cells systematically shut down. This doesn’t make this unnecessary ‘reimagining’ good, merely tolerable. If you want some real kicks, head back to the original. It’s far more enjoyable. But in a Summer of ‘seriousness’, Death Race refuses to take itself so - and sometimes, that’s all that’s required. 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 21, 2008

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. 


Just as his ‘80s hair band, Vesuvius, is poised to hit the big time, flamboyant drummer Robert “Fish” Fishman is unceremoniously fired. Twenty years later, his former group is headed to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while he’s living like a load in his sister’s attic. One day, his nephew Matt comes to him with a problem. Seems the drummer for his high school combo has been grounded by his mom, and the trio needs a fourth to play the prom. Reluctantly, Fish agrees to fill in. Soon, he’s back to his previously debauched ways, including practicing nude over a network hook-up.


A clip of said ‘performance’ winds up on YouTube, and before they know it, ADD (Matt’s group) is a web hit. Soon, record companies are courting them, offering record deals and the chance to tour. But popularity causes concern for leader/songwriter Curtis, his mom Kim, and all the other parents - especially when Fish thinks its time for a return to the days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It will take some tough love to make sure the band doesn’t implode before it has a chance at any kind of lasting fame.


The Rocker is built on so many movie musical clichés that the rock and roll backdrop ends up appearing like a creative con. This is really nothing more than 42nd Street with Dio’s devil horns, the standard narrative pipe dream fashioned into a harbinger of happiness and headbanging. We never once believe the viability of this band, or the talent of those we’re told produce this radio-ready clamor, and there’s never an attempt at making their rise realistic or tough. Instead, it’s everything upturned on a solid silver platter, the fable like story strictly keeping within the ‘adversity meets accomplishment’ plot mechanics.


Though he may have the distinction of being part of a hit TV series, Rainn Wilson is not necessarily star vehicle material. He seems to work better in second banana mode, as anyone familiar with his place in The Office will attest. But here, given the opportunity to shine as the center of this storyline, his hollow, almost invisible influence really shows through. You never once understand how the teens look up to Fish (he’s more infantile than immature) and his hand sign throwing decadence seems lifted out of Keith Moon’s cousin’s How-To manual. From the lack of chemistry with co-star Christina Applegate - who makes a much more effective ex-rocker, by the way - to his strange, off-kilter look, Wilson was not the right choice here.


Oddly enough, the rest of the cast is perfectly fine. While he’s sunk struggling through the awkward fat kid dynamic, Josh Gad continues to show his way with a punchline, and similarly saddled with the Jonas Brothers Band appeal, Teddy Geiger offers far more depth than Tiger Beatness. Perhaps the best performance here is given by Emma Stone, as ADD’s bashful bass player. Combining smarts with a vulnerability that hints at her hots for Geiger’s Curtis, she continues to improve on her solid turn in Superbad. Also worth another mention is Applegate, especially in light of recent personal events. Coming across like a combination of Nancy Wilson and Belinda Carlise, her concern for her son is equally matched by her energy as a character. She carries every scene she is in, and provides a necessary counterpoint to Wilson’s aimless antics.


Perhaps the most shocking name associated with this production is director Peter Cattaneo. The UK filmmaker, Oscar buzzkilled for his work on The Full Monty, has clearly spent the last 11 years whizzing away his Academy cred. After two improbable and little seen efforts, many may view this as a return to form. But with its constant borrowing from the genre’s mandates (lots of live concert scenes and unnecessary musical montages), he fails to interject anything new or novel. We know that these good natured kids aren’t going to lose - at least, not in traditional terms - and the last act stand off with Vesuvius would be satisfying if it wasn’t so slapdash and somewhat predictable.


Indeed, much of The Rocker feels like the rehearsal for a much better, much more likeable film. Every time the young actors get into a rhythm, providing the kind of breezy excitement we expect from the material, something comes along to counterattack their charms. Sometimes, it’s Wilson. At other moments, it’s obvious comedy stupidity spewed by a hip hop yakking Will Arnet. Cattaneo can do little except sit back and let it all play out, his lack of control costing the film greatly in the genuineness and joy divisions. In fact, one can easily see the editorial changes that would make this movie function much, much better. In essence, they mandate removing Wilson, making Applegate the star, and turning it all into an exploration of ‘90s riot grrrl reverence.


Instead, The Rocker plays right to the boy band crowd, its innocuous ear candy soundtrack going down like a K-Tel collection from Lou Pearlman. It’s as heavy as a Hannah Montana episode and as metal as said literal lead balloon. It will go down easy with audiences who don’t mind their pop served up with a side order of saccharine, and when it occasionally catches fire, its out of place star is always around to put it out. It’s hard to know if this concept could ever really work, given the sodden nature of the premise and potential. Sadly, such speculation may be far more fun than anything offered here.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
Words and pictures by Thomas Hauner.

I’m not sure what moment in a singer’s development triggers the jettisoning of one’s inbred voice for a contrived, crossbred, and assumed vocal style. They pretend to sing like someone they’re not. Or do they? Maybe they’re actually just conjuring up a past life or an endured yet unsettling emotion that’s inexpressible in their current method of singing and must be articulated. You can probably guess that Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson is this type of songwriter. In the style of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, Robinson eschews perfect pitch and lacquered tones for an earnestly distraught and wounded sound. And the informal setting of Joe’s Pub provided an intimate setting to absorb his distinctly raw playing.


Robinson’s recent eponymous release was partially overshadowed by collaborators Chris Taylor and Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. But this set—debuting his new backup band “The Family Robinson”—was entirely his own. Carrying a dejected inertia, “Buriedfed” was sullen but with hints of revival while “There Will Be Mud” was the most rousing of the night. Despite his youthful appearance and exuberance onstage (he warned the audience that the new band was certain to fuck up) his weathered voice exudes age. Only “Someday” sounded lyrically adolescent, though Robinson did seem a bit scatterbrained, taking hours to get set and switch guitars between songs. But his uncanny synthesis of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Langhorne Slim, and Josh Ritter by being at once familiar and new is intriguing—regardless of his downtrodden vocal source.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 21, 2008

Finding just the right opening sentence for a book is a challenge for any novelist.  As much as a book’s cover, the opening line is the place for snap judgements about whether to give a book your time.  Make an impression with a few well-chosen words and the reader is yours—at least until the dull patch around page 50 where they decide that they have better things to do.


In Camus’ The Plague, the character Joseph Grand agonises endlessly over his novel’s first sentence (“One fine morning in the month of May…”) hoping to make an editor exclaim “Hats off, gentlemen!”  He probably should have been content to avoid the fate of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.


Despite such contributions to the English language as “the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”, Lord Lytton has been immortalised as the creator of the worst opening sentence ever.


To be fair, “It was a dark and stormy night” (from Paul Clifford) isn’t all that bad—and Lytton isn’t to blame for the cliché it’s become.  But a byword for bad writing it is, with San Jose State University’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Prize for worst opening sentence in an imaginary novel recently announced for 2008.


At least this prize is made-up, unlike the true brutality of Auberon Waugh’s Bad Sex Award—which exists to bring down actual writers.  This is a prize to stretch the imagination—and apparently we can imagine some truly awful first sentences.  What the rest of the novels would be like had they existed is best not considered.


The winning sentence (from Garrison Spik of Washington DC) is priceless:


Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”


The full list of notable entries is overwhelming and full of horrendous metaphors, similies and even the occasional single entendre:


She had the kind of body that made a man want to have sex with her. (Barry J. Drucker, Bentonville, AR)


There’s a true art in creating something so atrocious and it can only make you wonder what these writers generate when writing “properly”.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
Friends...Tatooinians...Countrymen - Lend me your Yoda ears. I have not come to praise Star Wars, but to bury it, once and for all.

It’s never fun to bury a friend, especially one you’ve watched wither away and die right before your eyes. Harder still is the realization that, for many, this onetime companion continues to live on, bigger and brighter than ever. Two decades ago, a perfect little trilogy was formed, a series of science fiction films that took the genre into worlds of unbelievable imagination and action-oriented invention. Spawned from this matinee mannered speculation was a fanbase so devoted, so affected by what creator George Lucas had wrought that they supported each and every facet of its growing legacy. Even horrific examples of capitalization like the Wookie-ccentric Christmas Special held a special place in the hearts of the devoted.


But now it can be said with some certainty - Star Wars is dead. No, not literally. As long as there are novices, unaware of the backstory that began in the year of the Bicentennial, the cash flush franchise will continue to live long and prosper (to borrow a superior series’ sentiment). Yet in my eyes at least, the beloved story of Luke Skywalker, his Dark Lord father Darth Vader, and the rise and fall of the Republic/Empire ceased to exist last week. True, the motion picture monopoly had been on life support ever since the cancer that was the prequels reared their ill-conceived incompetence. And at the moment the horrible Hayden Christiansen became the black man-machine menace, screaming a sophomoric “NO!” over his fate, Wars was, in my view, clutching for breath.


But with the arrival of the kid-friendly flotsam known as The Clone Wars, the last vestiges of the original trilogy have been officially purged from the myth’s creative corpse. It’s not just the grade school age focus of the new animated movie (and eventual TV series), or the poorly rendered cartooning that turns adored characters into cake decoration versions of their former selves. In fact, one could argue that the very reason Clone killed the original Wars was due to an overabundance of ambitions. In an attempt to broaden the concept’s appeal, and pull in even more fans to the fray, Lucas and his Skywalker Ranch regulars have figured out a way to alienate the very individuals who gave him his dollar-driven dynasty in the first place.


We need to get a few things out of the way right up front. I admit that I have been very harsh on Lucas and his Hutt goitered grandstanding ever since he made it perfectly clear that his old fans need not apply to the prequel’s Jar-Jar jive. His love of money and the million ways he can successfully shill his sparse space operatics have given rise to many a rant - and often over-pitched ridiculousness. But as someone who stood in line for nearly seven hours to see the original Star Wars - sans Special Edition tweaks - upon release, and then went on to sit through it seven more times (a personal record for the ‘70s) I believed I earned the right to vent. 


Of course, no one could have anticipated the diabolical double cross that was the updated digital versions of the classic Wars triptych. In retrospect, an artist has every right to tweak his creations to fit his final designs, and Lucas does own everything in that galaxy far, far away. But his early attitude - the original films would NEVER again be seen in their un-doctored state - indicated a despotic delusion and disinterest. Not just with those who supported him through the tough times, but for the very artform he was working in. Say what you want about the Special Editions (good, bad, indifferent, what?) but the flash free version of Episode IV was actually nominated for an Oscar. Imagine the uproar if someone, say Steven Spielberg, took Jaws and added a digital shark. You get the idea.


Yet it was the moment the prequels were announced that the fanbase took sides. Some wondered why it took Lucas so long to realize his original aims (he had announced an eventual series of nine films to fill out the franchise), while others smelled a revisionist rat. Fast forward several years, and the foul stench of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and the highly over-praised Revenge of the Sith continues to permeate the Star Wars universe. While the films have their champions, most consider them pale comparisons to the movies that first fired their intense motion picture passions.


So how exactly does The Clone Wars obliterate the last remaining vestiges of the old Wars world? Easy - it treats it like it doesn’t exist. Clone is the first film in the entire Lucas legacy that feels like it was made out of something different. Maybe it’s the technology, or the introduction of random new characters that will NEVER be referenced again in any other Star Wars storyline (that is, until the new ‘Ultra Special Editions’ come out, right?). Perhaps it’s the general dumbing down of everything to fit a Saturday Morning cartoon mentality. It could be the unnecessary nature of the project, considering that Lucas had already commission material like this from animator Genndy Tartakovsky and his Cartoon Network crew.


Whatever it is, Clone Wars plays like someone’s bad interpretation of what Star Wars should be. From the infantile way the new padawan, Ashoka is portrayed (critical comparisons to Hannah Montana are not that far off) to the shocking pseudo hate crime that is Ziro the Hutt, everything here in rendered is regressive, aggressively adolescent tones. Sure, we see some interesting space battles, including a vertical assault that really captures the thrills of old, but when tempered by Jabba’s drag queen Uncle and his equally annoying son (a baby slug lovingly referred to as “Stinky”), the visuals dim and then disappear.


Indeed, the moment Ziro opened his Truman Capote piehole (a voice mandate from Master George himself, so the story goes), I felt my affection for Star Wars finally die. I recognized that I had been a fool for falling for Lucas’ line time and time again. I remembered my dismay at the way he handled the romance between Anakin and Padme. I re-winced at dialogue that sounded like badly written middle school mush notes. As with every other piece of this seemingly infinite creation, I tried to process it and put it into perspective. I could argue for its comic value - if only barely - but as the performance continued, the flamboyance fostered nothing but rage. And then grief.


Over at Ain’t It Cool News, Drew McWeeny - aka Moriarity - has decided to stop writing about Star Wars forever. His decision comes from a combination of things: an issue over embargo dates; his ongoing distrust of Lucas’ intentions; the rabid response to his opinions on messageboards and comment lists; a personal ‘enough is enough’. Yet one imagines that, like me, he’s sick of figuring out ways to defend his fandom, especially in light of what’s going on now. As Clone ramps up for a Fall premiere, and a live action TV series scouts locations in Australia, it’s clear that the old guard aficionados who kept the franchise afloat between bouts of sequel/prequel/trequel-itis are no longer important to Wars’ world. In that regard, more than any other, it’s time for us to return the favor.


Call it a eulogy or a grand kiss off, but I’m done. Star Wars is dead, at least to me. Somehow, it doesn’t seem all that surprising. Or sad.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.