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Friday, Dec 12, 2008
LittleBigPlanet (PlayStation 3) - Sony Computer Entertainment [$59.99]

Platform games aren’t quite as popular as they used to be. So Media Molecule and Sony have come up with LittleBigPlanet, a game that allows you to make your own. Charming throughout, the toolbox that LittleBigPlanet gives players allows them not only to be creative with their own original levels, but also to easily hop online and play other people’s creations as well. It’s almost like having a box of digital Legos to play with, and you can collaborate on your masterpieces with friends in real time. LittleBigPlanet is recommended for anyone interested in a on online experience that encourages creativity and sharing over running and gunning.


LittleBigPlanet


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Friday, Dec 12, 2008
Mazur + 1,000 Women from the Entertainment Industry + Lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria = Heaven

This is a huge week for film awards. The Broadcast Film Critics have just announced their Critic’s Choice awards nominations, as has the Hollywood Foreign Press with their Golden Globes. Both the Los Angeles and New York film critics have weighed in, too. In between all of this exciting news, I took off wandering down Park Avenue in New York City in search of the legendary Waldorf-Astoria hotel.


Why? You might ask…


PopMatters was cordially invited to the 28th annual New York Women in Film and Television Muse Awards luncheon, which took place on Tuesday, December 9th at the opulent Gotham institution. This was my first actual awards ceremony, and hopefully the first of many.


The city was customarily alive with twinkling pre-celebration lights and verve, while Holiday carols could be heard at every corner. In the air, there was definitely a distinct feeling of that special kind of NYC Christmas good cheer and the spirit of generosity extended into the glittering grand ballroom of the Waldorf, where charity and goodwill abounded, in the form of about a thousand dedicated ladies who were nestled comfortably amongst the frescoed ceilings and luminous mirrored crystal chandeliers.


Previous Muse honorees include Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Barbara Walters, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard and Dianne Wiest, and the group’s Honorary Board includes renowned women such as Gena Rowlands, Liv Ullmann and Glenn Close, but what makes the Muse Awards so special isn’t it’s star power (though it doesn’t hurt). The biggest draw of the organization is that it is specifically geared towards supporting the advancement of women in the entertainment industry and offers scholarships, jobs, funding, and awards in equal measure to achieve this goal (two of their pet projects, The Museum of Modern Art’s Women in Film Archive and the Film Finishing Project are particularly awesome). “Last year only five of the top 60 films had major roles for women,” said Muse Award recipient Cynthia Nixon. “And only 15 percent of the top directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors are female. And that is why the New York Women in Film and Television is so important.”


“We need to support each other and fight for each other. We all need to be in there pitching for ourselves and for each other,” said Nixon, showing a nice pro-feminism flair. “As an actress, I need women executives who are going to develop and green light those movies where women’s roles that amount to more than a single, two-dimensional wife or girlfriend.” Parity for women in the business is, of course, a subject near and dear to my heart as the role of gender in film is both my passion and my area of academic interest. The ceremony was a synergistically perfect fit of writer and subject, really, and a terrific initiation into the netherworld of the mythic “awards ceremony”.


Honoring actresses Laura Linney (recent Oscar nominee for The Savages) and Nixon (Sex and the City), as well as executives Linda Kaplan Thaler (CEO of Kaplan Thaler Group advertising and entertainment), and Cyma Zarghami (President of the Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group since 2006), for their continued championing of women in the business, the Muse Awards proved to be antonymous to the proper, stuffy surroundings. The annual luncheon, emceed by the versatile, funny Nancy Giles (CBS News Sunday Morning) was a swanky affair that brought out some of the most powerful, influential women in NYC, but managed somehow to stay lively and fun, with whip-smart speeches abounding and thoughtful tributes from the dais (although repeatedly pointing out how bad the economy is while eating lunch at the Waldorf seemed a little misplaced and gauche). “Women appeal to everyone. Even vampires” quipped President Laverne Berry, alluding to the box office behemoth Twilight. “It’s simple: Give. Women. More. Money.”


Inside the chatter-filled ballroom, there were a lot of tall heels, little black dresses, facelifts, and, Peta-be-damned, furs. Face-lifted or not, everyone looked sharp, plus there was an open bar, which always makes people happier. The energy at a mainly-girl event such as The Muse awards is contagious and being one of the few dudes in attendance afforded me the ultimate journalistic privilege – I was able to act as a fly on the wall, privy to the secrets of all of these interesting, enthusiastic women. In other words, my version of heaven. Well, that is if “heaven” was filled with a core voracious, obnoxious photographers, as I suspect it might actually be. As the photogs were jockeying and fighting for positions in the press room, I stood calmly behind them; glad that photography remained, for me, a hobby.


When Linney entered the room, the photographers all briefly spazzed out. Let’s talk about Laura Linney, what she is like in person, for just a second: she is glowing, amazing perfection incarnate. She looked nearly incandescent. Though she graciously posed and smiled for the piranhas, she did not talk to the press, prompting one lumpy middle-aged man with hair coming out of his ears to cackle and grouse “what a bitch”. At an awards ceremony celebrating women, no less! Is nothing sacred? Later, a paparazzi photographer came over to me, showed me a pic he had snapped, and barked “who is this?!” It was, funny enough, Linney, one of the major honorees, and one of the most respected, celebrated actresses of our time. “I’m very, very lucky to have grown up in New York City,” she said. “It gave me a spirit of independence that has followed me here to this day. I also grew up with theater where there is such comradery among artists that I wasn’t aware of sexism until I started working in Hollywood. It was a shock. And at times, it is still a shock. ”


After Linney, a beaming Nixon bounced into the room, and was both accommodating and radiant. “I think women are really very communicative,” she explained to me when asked what the best thing about working with other gals was. “I have a lot of experience, certainly on Sex and the City and in other things that I’ve done, where I feel like other women really stand up for you. It’s fun to have girlfriends that are on the set or backstage.” Talking to the actress felt more intimidating than any other interview I have done – mainly because of the million disorienting flashbulbs that were popping off as I was trying to center myself. Everyone in the room was hanging on her every move and this sort of laser-like focus served as a reminder of just how poised big league actors must be at all times at events like this because all eyes truly are on them. To see a mini-media circus unfold in front of you as you are shaking the hand of Miranda Hobbes is disorienting, at the very least.


“This has been an interesting year to be a woman, in politics, in entertainment, and in the world,” said Nixon. “We have taken some big steps forward this year, but there have also been reminders that glass ceilings remain and that backlash inevitably seems to accompany our advancement. [Sex and the City] had an opening weekend of 57 million dollars. The highest grossing debut, ever, for a movie starring women, and women over 40. But you can’t imagine how beat up all of us got in the midst of our success. Movie critics, the vast majority of whom are men, gave us such a reaming in the press, they sounded more like they were indicting an ex-girlfriend than evaluating a movie. It really felt angry and personal. Many civilian males acted similarly. I was walking down the street, not very long ago, when a guy yelled at me, out of a truck, ‘your movie sucked’.


“One of the main reasons it took so long to actually make the film in the first place was that the people who were in charge of green lighting it were skeptical that it could make any money,” Nixon explained in her acceptance speech. “Now, while I don’t think that female executives are infallible, I do think that if we had more women making the decision about what gets made, this would not have been the case. Women executives would not have to have it explained to them that women are not a special interest group, but are, in fact, more than half the population, and if you build us a movie, we will come.”


After a good lunch, dessert, and two delicious glasses of Pinot Grigio, I sailed back down Park Avenue in my strappy Gucci ankle boots and tight little black APC suit with a girly Lifetime Television for Women gift bag, complete with silver lame accents, displayed for the world to see, unashamed. In fact, I felt proud to be a man who unabashedly supports the endeavors of women in entertainment and look forward to doing it for a long time. If that means I have to occasionally schlep an uber-feminine gift bag through Midtown Manhattan, or eat lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria with Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney, than so be it.


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Thursday, Dec 11, 2008

Over the next three weeks, no more than 25 films will be opening, all vying for that coveted year-end awards season certificate of approval…and SE&L will be there trying to tackle each and every one. For 12 December, here are just some of the films in focus:


Doubt [rating: 8]


Doubt is not the first “meta” motion picture, but it’s a safe bet that it’s the only one that takes its name, it’s internal conflict, and the resolution of both as a literal fact.

Faith is a very tricky thing. Belief without a foundation in fact, or the possibility of proving either, gives religion its raison d’être, and skeptics their fodder for a hundred careful criticisms. Of course, no one takes into consideration the believer’s side of the situation. On the one hand, there’s the certainty of their conviction. They have no question about the existence of a God, the sacrifice of His son for our sins, and the ongoing presence of both in their daily life. Yet there are also moments of disbelief, times when dogma fails to offer up an explanation or rationale. It is this inherent element of conviction that stands at the center of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, and oddly enough, it’s also a part of the overall experience for the viewer as well.read full review…


The Reader [rating: 5]


(E)verything Schlink was trying to accomplish with his (book) is cast aside for more shots of Kate Winslet naked.

When you turn a book into a movie, context is usually the first creative facet to be sacrificed. Film is so obsessed with movement and plotting and situational conflict that, items such as explanation and rationalization are left to inference and suggestion. Then, it’s up to actors and filmmakers to find the right unspoken subtext.  When law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink wrote his international bestseller, The Reader, back in 1995, he used illiteracy and one character’s growing wealth of knowledge as a means of reflecting on the post-modern ignorance about the Holocaust. It remains a potent literary metaphor. Sadly, the big screen adaption of the novel by The Hours director Stephen Daldry casts aside the symbolism to focus on a mannered May/December romance. The result is a movie so unfocused and forced that we don’t care about any of the characters or their motivational malaise.read full review…


Milk [rating: 9]


So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness.

Harvey Milk was more than a politician. He was more than a grass roots illustration of San Francisco’s struggling gay rights movement and underrepresented population. He was much more than a cultural icon, much more than a martyred victim of a senseless and still slightly unbelievable crime. What Harvey Milk represents is truly present in Gus Van Sant’s stellar telling of the last years of his life. While Milk never excuses the man’s sexuality, or makes it the sole reason for his rise and untimely fall, it does argue that his outrageous outsider status gave him a unique perspective on the role of the government and its people in a democracy. It’s a lesson we could all re-learn today.read full review…


Encounters at the End of the World [rating: 8]


The marketing tagline suggests we “Go Somewhere Cool”. As long as we can go with Herzog, the latter part of that sentiment is a guarantee.

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works in two distinct arenas. The first can be categorized as ‘man vs. his inherent nature’, the struggles of a being against his or her own psychological and biological predispositions. This is seen most clearly in such important films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo. The second is ‘man vs. nature’ itself. Unlike many directors who stay comfortably in the fictional zone, Herzog loves to explore the real world around him, focusing on such unusual subjects as handicaps (The Land of Silence and Darkness), heroism (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and human frailty (Grizzly Man). Now comes his amazing exploration of Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. But unlike most travelogues, Herzog is more interested in the people than the place..read full review…


 


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Thursday, Dec 11, 2008

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works in two distinct arenas. The first can be categorized as ‘man vs. his inherent nature’, the struggles of a being against his or her own psychological and biological predispositions. This is seen most clearly in such important films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo. The second is ‘man vs. nature’ itself. Unlike many directors who stay comfortably in the fictional zone, Herzog loves to explore the real world around him, focusing on such unusual subjects as handicaps (The Land of Silence and Darkness), heroism (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and human frailty (Grizzly Man). Now comes his amazing exploration of Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. But unlike most travelogues, Herzog is more interested in the people than the place.


After seeing some astonishing footage of divers under the massive ice flows of the South Pole, filmmaker/provocateur Werner Herzog decides to visit the desolate continent to see the wonders of Antarctica firsthand. He soon discovers that the pristine mountains and overwhelming snow banks house an eclectic group of drifters, scientists, and individuals simply looking to escape from the so-called civilized world. There’s the former businessman who now drives a huge transport bus. There’s the biologist making his last dive ever. There’s the linguist whose PhD was destroyed when superstition literally forced the language he was studying to become extinct, and the researcher whose spent most of her life hitchhiker around the planet. In between we get breathtaking looks at the Antarctic vistas, an insider guide to McMurdo Station, and enough classic Herzog philosophizing to put everything in ethereal perspective.


Leave it to Werner Herzog to take the mainstream memory most have of the wintery landscape of Antarctica and purposely piss all over it. As part of his remarkable motion picture, Encounters at the End of the World, the aggressive auteur finds a hermetic penguin expert and proceeds to deconstruction the entire March of the Happy Feet myth. “Are there gay penguins?” he asks, curious if these loveable little family film icons are “depraved” and “amoral” at heart. When the scientist sits back, stunned, he jumps into another line of attack. “Are there insane penguins?” he chides, some future footage suggesting that a few of these birds go off their nut and chase imaginary oceans far away from their breeding and feeding grounds. This is typical of Encounters. As with most of what he does, Herzog takes his title quite literally.


It’s the same when he meets a journeyman maintenance man who proclaims his Aztec/Incan heritage, his elongated rib cage and oddly matching middle and index fingers providing the proof of lineage. Instead of focusing on his job as part of the continent’s community, he simply lets the man marvel at his possible regal heredity. Elsewhere, a former prisoner from “behind the Iron Curtain” shows off his combination adventure/survival kit. Weighing no more than 20 kilos, it contains everything from food, a tent, and a sleeping bag, to an inflatable raft and a paddle. “I am always prepared,” he claims, asking Herzog to stop filming so he can get his pack back together before he’s “called” off on another incredible journey.


With its focus firmly on the individuals inhabiting this massive slab of ice and frozen soil, many may think that Herzog misses the point of Antarctica’s inherent grandeur. But all throughout Encounters at the End of the World, the filmmaker finds images that actually reflect back on the people we meet, and help us make the connection between their apparent eccentricities and the reasons they stay so far from the rest of civilization. During the final dive of a noted researcher, we see a stunning alien underworld, ocean floor riddled with sci-fi sea life and other jaw-dropping discoveries. Discussions of a nearby glacier also prove awe-inspiring, as the sheer size and scope of the flow confounds common thought.


This is not new terrain for Herzog. He is the king of taking private passions and obsessions and juxtaposing them against the actual elements the characters inhabit. Here, a pair of scientists celebrate a major discovery by playing blues-based rock-n-roll at maximum volume, their outdoor concert sweeping across the vast flat white locale. Yet when a group of visitors are forced into a two day survival camp to test their wilderness mantle, we see them struggle to complete the most basic backwoods techniques. Herzog argues in the film that it’s a crime for places like Antarctica and Mt. Everest to be stained by human interaction. To him, some places in nature deserve to stay untouched, though he also acknowledges that, nowadays, that’s next to impossible.


So in some ways, Encounters at the End of the World is Herzog’s time capsule for a continent rapidly changing. While exploration and education are still the area’s leading lures, many are now trying out their South sea legs in a mad gasp to see those fuzzy flightless birds that made their Animal Planet viewing so satisfying. “Global Warming exists” argues one particular interview subject, the serious look on their face ready to circumvent any argument from Northern Hemisphere blowhards. As a document to a land pre-exploitation and the people vowing to preserve - or at the very least, understand it, this is yet another definitive documentary in Herzog’s infamously feathered cinematic cap. As with much of his work, he takes an unconventional approach to get the obvious last word on a subject. The marketing tagline suggests we “Go Somewhere Cool”. As long as we can go with Herzog, the latter part of that sentiment is a guarantee.


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Thursday, Dec 11, 2008

When you turn a book into a movie, context is usually the first creative facet to be sacrificed. Film is so obsessed with movement and plotting and situational conflict that, items such as explanation and rationalization are left to inference and suggestion. Then, it’s up to actors and filmmakers to find the right unspoken subtext.  When law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink wrote his international bestseller, The Reader, back in 1995, he used illiteracy and one character’s growing wealth of knowledge as a means of reflecting on the post-modern ignorance about the Holocaust. It remains a potent literary metaphor. Sadly, the big screen adaption of the novel by The Hours director Stephen Daldry casts aside the symbolism to focus on a mannered May/December romance. The result is a movie so unfocused and forced that we don’t care about any of the characters or their motivational malaise.


When he’s stricken with Scarlett Fever, 15 year old Michael Berg is inadvertently helped by an unassuming German woman who works as a conductor on the streetcar. As he mends, he slowly becomes obsessed with his memories of the enigmatic lady. It’s not long before he’s spying on her, skipping school to visit her apartment. Michael and Hanna soon begin an affair, their 21 year difference is age meaning very little to their passion. After a summer of lust and literature, she disappears, leaving her young lover heartbroken. All Michael has left is his memories of lazy afternoons in Hanna’s flat, she asking to be read to before they can fulfill their carnal desires.


Years later, while in law school, Michael attends a series of War Crime Tribunals, and there he learns that Hannah is a defendant. Seems she was one of several prison guards who selected victims for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The woman he slept with was an integral part of the Final Solution. Destroyed by the revelation, Michael must face a serious crisis of conscience. He has information that could actually help Hanna’s case. But his former paramour is unapologetic in her confession, and considering the monstrosity of her acts, Michael assumes his silence is more than justified.


In an awards season that has suddenly embraced the Shoah as a selling point, The Reader is not really interested in the extermination of the Jews. Sure, the film focuses on Hanna Schmidt’s ‘only following orders’ admissions, the rampant carnality of her character early on suddenly tainted with the blood of an entire ethnicity later on. In author Schlink’s own words, he wanted Hanna’s earthy sexuality to stand in direct contradiction to her concentration camp cruelty. But somewhere along the line, director Daldry and screenwriter David Hare lost this concept. Indeed, all throughout their version of The Reader, important storytelling elements inherent in the book’s magic are all but missing. Without getting into detail, everything Schlink was trying to accomplish with his approach is cast aside for more shots of Kate Winslet naked.


Aside from the fact that she’s a mother of two, there is no longer anything “brave” about this actress bearing all for a movie role. Ever since she dropped blou for co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the accomplished British thesp has had a hard time keeping her knickers on. Here, her Hanna is a quasi-pedophile who sees a strapping young lad hopped up and happy to oblige, and she immediately takes him to bed. Only later, once his adolescent hormones are good and engorged does her true tact become clear. Hanna needs Michael as a conduit to the written world. As someone who cannot read and write, she will gladly trade sex for an oral workout of a decidedly different kind. While David Kross does his best messed-up horndog hero, the duo’s love scenes have a static, unsympathetic aura.


By following Schlink’s strategies (the book is divided into three distinct parts), Daldry also runs the risk of making one section more important than the others. And with the number of nude scenes we see up front, it’s clear where his motion picture proclivities lie. The bedroom romps take up so much time here that, when we see Hanna is on trial for being a “model employee” of the Reich, the film has to rush through the realities. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the crimes committed, but all we see of the horrors is Michael’s solitary walk through of a closed camp. Even worse, the entire courtroom drama is dispensed with post haste, the quicker to get to Ralph Fiennes and the mandatory montages of moping about and recording books for an imprisoned Hanna to listen to.


The last act of The Reader is perhaps the biggest overall disappointment. In the book, Hanna becomes aware on her own, using Michael’s tape recorder and cassettes as a means of learning to read. After running through a litany of survivor literature, she realizes her place in history - and how truly terrible it is. In Daldry’s world however, this gray haired old lady spends time revisiting the classics she loved during her summer of love with Michael. There is no real measure of contrition, no acknowledgment of blame or long lasting culpability on her part. Her fate seems silly, almost tossed off as an after thought. Everything thereafter is clouded by a similar lack of clarity. Even Fiennes’ last act mea culpa with a woefully unexplained Lena Olin plays like a PC postscript for a viewership unaware of the whole Nazi/Jew “thing”.


In fact, much of The Reader misinterprets Schlink’s motives for trying to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Instead of concentrating on what current generations think, the film wants to focus on young passion and the suffering that comes from secrets. Winslet and Fiennes both acquit themselves admirably (though she actually deserves more praise for her clothed role in Revolutionary Road than anything she does here), and Daldry does an excellent job with tone, time period, and details. On its own, however, The Reader doesn’t make much sense. As a drama, it’s dull. As a reflection of the original source material, it’s a sadly mistake miscalculation.


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