Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, May 25, 2008


In the world of weak analogies, Steven Spielberg is the Beatles of blockbuster movies. He literally invented the genre, reconstructed it when it went wonky, and continues to leave a legacy of legitimate popcorn art with every passing decade. This is the man responsible for some of the greatest cinematic entertainments of all time. The list simply boggles the mind: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Jurassic Park, Minority Report. Even his so-called failures - 1941, Hook, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence - contain moments of celluloid splendor.


Yet the Fab meta-phor is appropriate since the 62 year old director went through a similar critical reconsideration in the ‘90s, and the consensus was not pretty. As John, Paul, George, and Ringo were marginalized as nothing more than a “boy band” or “pop phenomenon”, reducing their relevance to a Britney Spears video, Spielberg was called overrated, low brow, and mired in the mainstream. His success was his albatross, his talent his very reason for an over-generalized dismissal. Naturally, all of his serious work was left out of the conversation, substantive masterworks like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, or Schindler’s List limited to the flukes formulated by an Oscar desperate hack.


Of course, just like everything else on the Internet, Spielberg’s reputation has started to rebound, and with good reason. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. As his latest offering, yet another installment in the formerly finished Indiana Jones Trilogy, rakes in another box office bundle, it’s time to look back at what this amazing director does best - creating indelible images that transcend time to celebrate cinema in its purest, most potent form. While these ten examples are just the tip of the iconic iceberg, they prove why Spielberg is the best. Few can match his manipulation of the language of film. Let’s begin with:


Jaws (1975) - The Underwater “Discovery”
So much of this movie is engrained in our entertainment subconscious that almost any scene could be picked for inclusion here. But there is one moment in particular, not part of the original Peter Benchley novel, that marks the moment Spielberg announced his intention of being a serious filmmaker. He wasn’t playing around anymore. The combination of techniques - set-up, shot selection, shock value - brings the total terror of what Chief Brody and Matt Hooper are facing directly to the fore. Learning that it was all created in a crewmember’s swimming pool is the sweetest part of its moviemaking mythology.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - The Home Invasion
Some would point to the arrival of the alien mothership as this film’s iconic moment, a sequence where spectacle merged with significance to etch an indelible image into our collective cultural scrapbook. But the better, more powerful scene comes halfway through, when unknown forces attack the country home of Gillian Guiler. Even more frightening, they appear to be after only one thing - her tiny son Barry. Using inference and suggestion to brilliant effect, we arrive at the moment when watching the sky was not just a suggestion - it was a warning worth taking seriously.


1941 (1979) - The Ferris Wheel Fiasco
It was the movie that argued for Spielberg’s retreat from wunderkind status, a big brawling mess of a comedy that was more unfocused funny business than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World War II. Still, there are a couple of striking sequences, with the last act attack on the tiny California suburb one of the best. Of particular note is a scene in which a seaside Ferris Wheel, perched dangerously close to the pier, is suddenly switched on. Without warning, a mortar shell loosens the attraction from its bearings. In pure blockbuster style, it careens down the dock and into the water. Classic.


Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - The Bar Fight
In a film made up of amazing sequences, many overlook this opening takedown between Indiana Jones, a recently introduced Marion Ravenwood, and a bunch of Nazi-led nasties. Proving once and for all that Spielberg is the king of carefully choreographed chaos, the pieces of this barroom brawl fall naturally into place, each swing of a fist or plonk with a whisky bottle adding another accent to the action. Toss in the natural chemistry between stars Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, and it’s clear that a legendary bond would be formed, one that would finally be explored three decades later. 


ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982) - The Suburban Bike Race
The late night arrival. The meeting in the backyard. The agents’ flashlights chasing our title creature through the underbrush. The flight past the moon. “I’ll Be Right Here”. There’s a reason this fragile fairytale remained the number one box office draw for years. Spielberg poured all his imagination and vision into this quiet story of a boy and his visiting alien, successfully marrying emotion with event to craft a timeless wonder. Yet for anyone looking for a how-to on intricate chase dynamics, ET‘s escape to the forest via a band of two wheelers is the pulse pounding primer.


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) - The Mining Car Chase
In a much maligned movie that many site as the series’ worst, Spielberg steps up and does what he does best - combine amazing F/X with brilliant mise-en-scene to forge a heartstopping, breathtaking literal rollercoaster ride. There are so many jawdropping gags here, references to everything from modern amusement parks to the films of Buster Keaton (and his Civil War classic The General, in particular), that it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. By the time Spielberg introduces the stunt work element, a whole new realm of action is achieved…and this is coming from the man who redefined it just three years before.


Hook (1991) - The Pan Discovers How to Fly…Again
In what many think is the director’s weakest film (it gets more vitriol than 1941, but then again, it does star Robin Williams), the story of the little boy who supposedly never grew up gets a surreal, slightly Yuppified sheen. From a fantasyland that looks like a skate park gone gruff to a lead who appears 40 pounds to heavy to play an impish sprite, Hook has its problems…many, many problems. But it also contains one classic moment where Pan, attempting to recapture his happy thought, remembers being a Dad for the first time. Suddenly, he takes flight, and for one magical moment, the movie works effortlessly.


Jurassic Park (1993) - The T-Rex Attack
Anyone who questions the overreliance on CGI needs look no further than this remarkable sequence from the director’s return to blockbuster glory. Thanks to Stan Winston’s miraculous practical creatures, and the seamless integration of the computer generated material, we totally believe in the primitive smackdown occurring before our eyes. Of course, Spielberg’s creative craftsmanship and shot selection add to the scene’s overall power. While the raptor attack would end the film on a suspense-filled high note, the first time we see this massive prehistoric beast lumbering across the landscape still sends the gooseflesh across your arms and the shivers up your spine.


AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) - The Robots Discover A Submerged New York
Near the end of the Spielberg interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s last project, a pair of humanoid automatons travel to the mythical island of Manhattan to seek out the Blue Fairy. Upon arriving, however, they come across a metropolis semi-submerged in water. As skyscrapers spew overflow and other buildings decay and collapse, the duo tries to locate the last important clue in their quest. Where the movie goes from here has caused lots of online debate, but there’s no denying the impact of seeing the Big Apple literally drowning from nature’s wrath. It’s a stellar moment in a criminally underrated film.


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) - The Nuclear Age is Born
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Spielberg and crew when asked to revisit this franchise some 16 years after it officially ended was to bring the character and his age-based situation up to date. Sure, Harrison Ford looks and acts older, and he’s surrounded by characters who constantly remind him of his senior citizen status. But leave it to a genius filmmaker to find a single image that instantly captures the essence of this dynamic. Having survived the initial blast, Indy lands outside Ground Zero, and as he climbs a nearby hill, a massive mushroom cloud provides a perfect backdrop. Welcome to the ‘50s, ‘30s serial hero!


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, May 25, 2008


It’s hard for any film to bring something new to the standard dysfunctional family dynamic. Cinema has seen it all - disgruntled adolescents, adults in full midlife crisis mode, infidelity, divorce, the struggles of step-relations, and any number of psychological and emotional traumas. Thanks to the independent film, a category that feeds on the notion that anyone’s personal kinfolk catastrophe makes for riveting (and cheap) drama, along with the changing social status of the irradiated nuclear brood, the subject no longer resonates. Instead, most relative-oriented efforts come off as whiny, self-indulgent statements of the filmmaker’s failing maturity, nothing more.


Not so with writer/director Sion Sono. After an infamous life of booze and baffling behavior, the celebrated Japanese artist has used the international success of 2002’s bravura Suicide Club to jumpstart his lagging reputation. That prior effort, a surreal horror statement that focused on the self-destruction of 54 schoolgirls, all of whom jump in front of a rush hour train, was a schizophrenic free-for-all, an attempted cultural commentary lashed to the normal splatter spookshow. Now, Sono revisits the events of that fateful day with Noriko’s Dinner Table (new to DVD from Facets Video), enclosing the story with a unique look at parent/child problems and the typical teen angst. In the process, he manages to create a stunning post-modern masterpiece.


Poor Noriko feels lost in her house. Her father is distant, her mother loving but cold. Sister Yuka simply laughs at her disquiet, not yet old enough to feel a similar sense of interpersonal disconnect. One day, Noriko discovers a website and a messageboard where like minded girls come and discuss their problems. One screen name in particular - Ueno Station 54 - offers sympathy and support, and soon our unsettled girl runs away to Tokyo. There, she meets the person behind the postings. She’s Kumiko, in her mid ‘20s, and running an odd talent agency. Seems she hires on individuals she meets online, and then trains them to be family members ‘for hire’. Noriko signs up, and eventually, Yuka joins her, leaving their reporter father to wonder what’s happened to his children.


Like a novel written by David Lynch in celluloid sentences instead of scribbles, a meditation on what makes us care about those we call our nearest and dearest, Noriko’s Dinner Table is spellbinding. It takes a deliberate, detailed approach to some very unusual and in-depth material, and manages to make even the most mundane sequences reverberate with subtle suggestion. Narrated from several different vantage points, and illustrated in a straightforward, unaffected manner, director Sono delivers the kind of devastating personal insight that movies like Ordinary People and The Squid and the Whale can only hint at. By applying the typical coming of age anxiety, and meshing it with the totally distinctive “relatives for rent” idea, we get something substantive and symbolic, capable of the most universal truths and scene-specific revelations.

First and foremost, Sono wants to understand what makes a family. Is it simply biology, or can it be bought? We see several instances of Kumiko’s company in action, elderly folks ecstatic for a visit from their ‘loved ones’, desperate fathers hoping to reconnect with the daughters that fate has unfairly taken from them. During these scenes, which really aren’t explained at first, we hear Noriko’s insightful justifications. Because she comes from an unhappy home, because she finds her father a selfish and hateful man, the happiness evoked inside these faked scenarios fills her heart with hope. Eventually, she will lose herself in the job, forgetting all together about the domestic situation she left in the Japanese countryside.


Kumiko’s story is equally intriguing. Found in a locker at a train station, she has grown up hating the mother who abandoned her. Years later, when a reconciliation is attempted, the bitter child merely hires on the parent as part of her business. Kumiko is seen as an integral part of the Suicide Club, present when the girls take their lives, and often delivering other sacrificial victims to murderous clients. If Noriko’s Dinner Table has a villain, it would be this impish little witch. But we see something similar in her, something that makes Noriko’s rash decisions and whiny weakness seem understandable. Kumiko is just as lost as the people she patronizes, eagerly falling into the role of wife, child, parent, or partner. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to keep the ever-blurring line between fantasy and reality clear.


It’s a theme that Sono restates over and over. Noriko tells one version of her life at home. Yuka both supports and subverts her interpretation. Father, who indeed plays the most ambiguous role in the triangle, is an unclear combination of faults and fears - some true, some as fictional as the characters his daughters are hired to essay. He’s simultaneously the most and least sympathetic individual in the film, clearly detached from the needs of his wife and children, and yet devastated when they disappear one by one. Sono seems to be suggesting that all of Japan is trapped in a work ethic that ignores the needs of the person for the benefit of production. It’s part of the rationale behind the series of suicides acting as a subtext, as well as the reason Kumiko’s company is thriving.


All of this plays out in deliberate steps (or “chapters”, as Sono calls them), meant to reflect both the differing perspectives of the main characters as well as the actual novel the director wrote after Suicide Club‘s success. The movie frequently feels like a book, loaded with little details that build up over time to create a complex, mesmerizing narrative. There will be those who see the two hour and thirty-five minute running time and balk at such storytelling excess. Others, like this critic, will drink in every moment and wish for more. As he did with Suicide Club, Sono leaves more questions unanswered than addressed, and the ending is so ambiguous that anything could literally happen next.


Though rumor has it that the director will revisit this material for another sequel, the interview included as part of the bonus features on the DVD seems to suggest otherwise. Indeed, Sono says he may address the mysteries of the Club itself, but Noriko’s story is more or less complete - which again is odd, considering that we really don’t know much more than what’s implied by a final firm statement offered by our hapless heroine. Yet even inside such an inference, Sono discovers volumes of meaning. Noriko’s Dinner Table may represent a family finally finding itself, or the inevitable disintegration brought on by adulthood and aging. Whatever the case, this amazing movie delivers its deconstruction in ways that are both shocking and stellar. It singlehandedly reinvigorates a dying cinematic genre of relative dysfunction. It’s personal pain as art, pure and simple.




FILM:



DVD:



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, May 24, 2008


When you think of motion picture taboo busting, the glorious efforts of the exploitation era instantly come to mind. No other film genre took the time, and the risk, of bringing the most forbidden of film subjects to the silver screen. Oddly enough, the results of these cinematic impresarios did not go unnoticed around the world. Take 1972’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. The idea of kung fu lesbian prostitutes within an old world wuxia setting set tongues wagging when it was released in Hong Kong. The Shaw Brothers, infamous for pushing the envelopes within the martial arts movie, outdid themselves this time with a scandalous slice of sex, swordplay, and classic blood splattered slaughter.


When Ainu is kidnapped and brought to the brothel run by Madame Chun, she immediately becomes a problem. Belligerent and angry, she fights her captors and refuses to eat. Eventually, a mute jailer befriends her, and Ainu learns that she can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Soon, she wins Chun’s favor, and begins a systematic process of revenge on those who deflowered her when she first arrived. Killing the men one by one, she is pursued by police chief Ji, new to the area and unsure of how things work. Ainu knows she is protected by the local authorities, and brazenly admits to her crimes. Of course, once she’s finished with the former customers, it’s on to the individual who enslaved her in the first place.


It goes without saying that Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (a mouthful of a title - the original was simply the main character’s name, Ai Nu) is one of the most surreal kung fu epics ever, a literal bodice ripper that’s a potent butt kicker as well. Though the fight scenes are limited to a couple of spectacular set pieces, they really add an aura of mystery to what is, in general, a standard revenge flick. Our heroine is out to right the wrongs committed against her, and we couldn’t be happier. Star Lily Ho, perhaps best known for her early work with the Shaws, delivers a knockout performance. She’s both seductress and slayer, capable of working her way into your heart with a stare or a saber, whatever the case may be. Her action moves are flawless, arms swinging with an authority unmatched by even the most skilled male stars.

She is complemented effortlessly by Betty Pei Ti. Madame Chun is a complex character, a woman whose life in service of sex is marred by a hatred of men and a desire for power. Her lesbianism is more of a leaning than a lifestyle, a way of keeping the constant barrage of testosterone away from herself and her girls. She is more than capable of killing when she has to (she carries the classic body piercing ‘yin yang hands’), yet reserves such fatal flourishes for the very last moments of a conflict. As beautiful as Ho, perhaps even more so, Pei Ti is indeed a perfect counterpart to her costar. She’s just as rebellious as her potential lover, just not as outwardly or awkwardly so.


It’s no surprise then that the male leads of Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan are rather thin. It’s bad enough that the Shaws were dealing with the unheard of subject of homosexuality, so the standard cads and cavaliers are present and accounted for. Even Yueh Hua’s police chief Ji is constantly emasculated by Chun and Ainu. He is seen as ineffectual and unable to handle the women’s cunning and conniving. Elsewhere, brutish scoundrels bid on bodies and flaunt their failing libidos. There is a lot of dangerous gender politics in this film, something that surely gave journeyman director Yuen Chor pause for concern.


Yet Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is one of the filmmaker’s best, a clever combination of faked Hollywood backdrops and sumptuous character costuming. Chor was new to the wuxia genre, having made his first such effort in 1970 (Cold Blade). It was said film that brought him to the attention of the Shaws. He fits perfectly within the Brothers’ brazen dynamic. He has a wonderful way with action, capturing the aerial elements with authenticity and flare. But he’s just as good with the intimate scenes, especially in a post-flogging embrace when Chun literally kisses Aiun’s wounds to make them ‘all better.’


Image’s DVD release of this long requested title captures the color saturated charms of the Shaw’s product in pristine picture reproduction. As they did with Killer Snakes, they retain the original aspect ratio and Mandarin soundtrack, providing excellent English subtitles for those of us from the West. The only bonus feature of value is a short documentary entitled “Intimate Confessions of Three Shaw Girls”. While Lily Ho (who retired from film in 1974) and Betty Pei Ti (now a singer) are not present, a trio of recognizable names from the studio take time to discuss the impact Ainu’s lesbianism had on the Chinese community, as well as the reaction in the actresses’ native Taiwan. It’s an interesting addition to the oral history of the prominent production company.


It has been said that Clarence Fok Yiu-leung based his brilliant 1992 thriller Naked Killer on Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, and it’s not hard to see the resemblance. Both movies use sexual desire and splatterific gore to tell a basic tale of pride and payback. Chor even remade the movie himself in 1984 with Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan. With its combination of erotica and violence, glamour and gall, nothing can beat the original. Had it not borne the Shaws recognizable label, grindhouse fans might swear this was a Harry Novak or Bob Cresse import. Indeed, exploitation loved to challenge convention while it served the salacious needs of its horndog audiences. Everything about this Hong Kong classic screams prurient and perverted - and devotees wouldn’t want it any other way.


FILM:



DVD:



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, May 23, 2008
Little Dragon - Test

Little Dragon’s 2007 album never quite garnered the momentum it deserved despite the blogosphere hype that’s launched a hundred lesser careers and artists.  Singer, Yukimi Nagano, has a crystalline R&B timbre to her voice, like Erykah Badu re-tooled for one of those Nordic lounges constructed from cloudless ice sheets.  Almost every Little Dragon song (except the ultra-infectious “Forever”) doesn’t have the smacking immediacy of contemporary American R&B.  Their ballads are glacial and complex; their upticked tracks too whimsical and devoid of posture and cliché. 


For me, this video represents the charming details of making a lo-fi visual representation of a song.  It’s almost as if the video is a constant series of in jokes, like the washed-out pastel t-shirts that look as if they were suggested by someone’s mother so that everyone would “match”.  But there are other subtleties that can be visually arresting.  When Nagano skillfully taps out a rhythm on a tambourine, it’s actually sexy.  That’s hard to imagine in a genre where sexy usually involves butt floss swimwear dripping with off-brand corn oil.  Even the dirty mop-topped back-up dancers seem like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the arbitrary surrealism that passes for serious artistry in many videos.  I’ve also come to appreciate videos that eschew coldly angular choreography for something more spontaneous and individualized (or at least the appearance of individuality and spontaneity).  “Test” looks like it was a fun video to make; you can see it in the tamped down grins that crack through the faux serious faces they wear as they clumsily mime their way through the shrug dance of the Robert Palmer girls.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, May 23, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Marcia Ball
Live at the Highline Ballroom [Video]


Part 1:


Part 2:


Beck
Chemtrails [Streaming]


Luke Doucet
The Day Rick Danko Died [MP3]
     


Darker My Love
The Fool [MP3]
     


Dappled Cities
Green Door (Gogi Grant cover) [MP3]
     


Cut Copy
Hearts on Fire [Video]


Band of Horses
No One’s Gonna Love You [Video]



Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

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

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.