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Sunday, Jul 6, 2008

It’s not just iTunes or Amazon that are driving music stores out of Manhattan, it’s also the housing market which looks to squeeze astronomical amounts of money from every business there so that only nationwide chains can afford it (though even Starbucks is having trouble doing that nowadays).  The latest example is Downtown Music Gallery, a veritable Gotham institution that’s facing insane rate hikes.  Here’s a WNBC video about the story though DMG itself notes that the rent is going up to $20,000 a month (!!!), which is double the amount that the note in the story. 


What’s also kind of surprising (and somewhat depressing) is that they also note that the Times Square Virgin Megastore will be gone soon too- that’s sad not only because there’s now less reason to mill around the area but also because the store itself seemed to have the right idea by diversifying what they sold (including videos, games, clothing) to keep on top of the game.  If even that strategy doesn’t work for them, you gotta fear for other smaller music stores who are trying the same thing to stay open.


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Saturday, Jul 5, 2008

In general, there are two crucial elements to a successful spoof. One is the source material. Something has to be part of the pop culture consciousness before it can become potential lampoon material. Cult entities can’t cut it, while the overexposed tend to ridicule themselves. The balance is not perfect, but it must be maintained. And then there is the humor itself. No one is knocking the lowbrow and the scatological, but a send-up must have some modicum of wit less it wallow in mindless unfunny business. The best benchmark for such a stricture is the 1980 farce Airplane! Directed by Jim Abrahams, and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, this comedy classic found the perfect combination of material and mirth to become a prime example of parody perfection.


Since then, however, the genre has died a thousand Scary Movie inspired deaths. Specifically, a pair of sadly untalented writers named Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have become the de factor frauds in charge of the post-post modern movement in so-called take-offs. Their string of cinematic abominations includes all four of the horror-inspired joke-a-thons, as well as Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and the upcoming Disaster Movie. How they avoided getting their dumbed down, derivative fingerprints on Superhero Movie (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Dimension Films division) is a minor miracle. Sure, this bumbling burlesque is only a tad more competent than the Friedberg/Seltzer sputum purporting to be comedy, but you can tell that the people behind the scenes at least have an idea of what spoofing is all about.


Craig Mazin is an alumnus from the Scary franchises (he helped out with numbers three and four) and with the help of original parody pro David Zucker as producer, some of that incomparable ZAZ spark has found its way into the desperately DOA format. The storyline is the spitting image of Spider-man. Rick Riker, on a field trip to a science lab, gets bitten by a genetically altered dragonfly. Soon, he’s taking on the characteristics of the bug, and exploring his newfound powers while pining away for sexy next door neighbor Jill Johnson. In the meantime, dying industrialist Lou Landers partakes in a radical experiment that turns him into a kind of vampire - he must kill someone everyday in order to live. As the Dragonfly becomes a celebrated crimefighter, Landers assumes the identity of the Hourglass, and uses his insane arch-villainy to try and live forever.


Right up front, you can see the main difference between Superhero and any of the other “Movies” mentioned. This film actually has a plot, a quasi-coherent clothesline upon which all number of timely and already dated riffs can be assembled and presented. We actually get something similar to a three part story arc, Rick going through the necessary origin motions before taking on his inadvertent nemesis. In between, there are takes on Batman Begins, X-Men, comic book culture, and everything that made Sam Raimi’s blockbuster a glorified geek classic. Sure, the sexually oriented material with Happy Day‘s Marion Ross and the way to aged Leslie Nielsen barely works, more uncomfortable than comic, and the random cameos from Brent Spiner and Jeffrey Tambor are more irritating than enjoyable, but overall, the performances are part of Superhero Movies limited positives.


Another is Drake Bell. While his partners it pre-teen Nickelodeon crime - The Amanda Show‘s Ms. Bynes and Drake and Josh‘s Mr. Peck - have both gone on to major motion picture careers, the music minded 22 year old has been stuck in big screen second banana mode. Superhero Movie won’t change that status for now, but Bell is very genial as Rick Riker. He does dopey slapstick well, and his expressions offer the perfect combination of cluelessness and self-referential irony. Without Bell, this film would be an even bigger dud. That he manages to keep us engaged even as fake animals are fornicating with his leg (as well as other body parts) indicates the inherently endearing quality he brings to the role.


As part of the DVD extras, we are treated to a full length audio commentary featuring Mazin and producers Zucker and Robert K. Weiss (best known for his work on the entire Police Squad series) along with some unnecessary deleted scenes (jokes that really misfire), an alternative ending (similar to what was eventually seen, if only smaller in scope), and a collection of cast and crew featurettes. Perhaps the most interesting element here is the notion that many recognize the reputation the genre has garnered, as well as how desperate they are to keep Superhero Movie from facing the same fate. Mazin and Zucker argue over how to approach parody, while Bell describes some of the pitfalls of being an on screen action star.


Certainly there are facets of this farce that just do not work. Christopher McDonald is way too manic to be anything other than a scenery chewing goof, and the random arrival of Pamela Anderson, Tracey Morgan, Simon Rex, and Regina Hall make about as much sense as the shout outs to Barry Bonds, Facebook, and Dr. Stephen Hawking. And anyone with fond memories of real send-up masters like Mel Brooks and such ZAZ masterworks as Top Secret! will wince at any comparable comparison. For what it’s worth, Superhero Movie is just a tad less inventive than the Star Wars workout Spaceballs, while not quite as shabby as other non- Friedberg/Seltzer stupidity like The Comebacks. While the entire comedic category may still be on life support, at least Mazin and crew aren’t contributing to its demise. Instead, Superhero Movie may suggest there’s life in the old filmic format after all.


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Friday, Jul 4, 2008

Mmmm… Sociology…: In one episode of The Simpsons, an establishing shot of the Springfield Public Library reveals a desperate sign reading, “We have books about TV.” If not for the potential for cosmological implosion, many of those books would be about The Simpsons, which, after almost two decades on the air, is such a cultural phenomenon that it now informs our sociological experience as much as the other way around. The funny little badly drawn cartoon show has, in many ways, become a barometer of our collective lives, and cultural observers and academics have built a cottage industry from analyzing the show’s impact and deeper meanings.


The latest entry to plumb the rich history of The Simpsons is Tim Delaney’s Simpsonology: There’s a Little Bit of Springfield in All of Us (Prometheus Books, 2008). Delaney, a sociology professor at SUNY Oswego, is a self-described Simpsons fanatic and draws widely and meticulously from the first 400 (!) episodes of the show to illustrate concepts in sociology, a sort of guide for the uninitiated using the microcosm of Matt Groening’s universe to show how we study and understand the collective behavior of human beings. Using exhaustive examples and snatches of dialogue from the show, Delaney demonstrates how the Simpsons and their neighbors relate to each other in the home, the school, the workplace, and the larger communities of religion, sports, politics, friendship, and romance.


At first glance, the book reads rather simply, and one wonders if Delaney is only in it to wax excitedly about what a fan he is, but as the book delves more deeply into larger sociological spheres, the reader will find himself or herself internalizing the concepts without realizing it, like reading a textbook in cartoon camouflage. Delaney’s mission to achieve crystal clarity often comes across as overly simplistic or condescending—in a book written for Simpsons fans, one needn’t explain the jokes—but neither is it dry or laced with academese like other treatments of the subject have been. Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation (Perseus Books, 2005) and Mark I. Pinsky’s The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) are better, but Delaney’s Simpsonology is a fine volume for anyone intent on an in-depth study of America’s favorite freakish yellow nuclear family.


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Friday, Jul 4, 2008


With the bottle rocket’s red glare, and the cherry bombs bursting in air (at least, in those places where said celebration ammunition remains quasi-legal), the first half of the Summer Movie Season circa 2008 is officially over. Nine weeks, dozens of films, and lots of critical complaining has made this annual parade of popcorn movies a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, Marvel has come out swinging, taking over creative control of its character canon and delivering two excellent examples of superhero hype. On the other hand, the season’s sole sequels (so far) have proved that sometimes, you can go back to the well one too many times. Comedy continues its battle for non-Apatow oriented relevance, and in a turn of events that will make Luddites lose their lunch, CGI has delivered three of the Summer’s best efforts.


Of course, the next two months bring on even more delights. Will Smith’s Hancock is already generating debate among fans and critics alike, while Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II promises to finally elevate the Mexican maverick into the Peter Jackson/Stephen Spielberg category (where he truly belongs, frankly). Christopher Nolan will uncork his latest revisionist Batman draft, while August promises two unusual takes - The Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder - on the old laugh fest routine. Who will wind up #1? It all depends. To put things in perspective, SE&L has gone back over the 16 major releases it experienced since a certain Marvel metalhead arrived in theaters, and has ranked them from best to worst. Review links have also been provided in case you’d like to read more. Enjoy!


Speed Racer


It is destined to go down as the Summer of 2008’s biggest flop. Too bad it’s also the season’s most ambitious and brilliant film. The brothers Wachowski, still smarting from one too many dashed Matrix expectations, embraced the original series’ anime origins and delivered a live action cartoon brimming with imagination and pizzazz. Why audiences have avoided it remains a solid mystery.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


WALL*E


When they finally fall, when they finally create a movie that makes the general public yawn instead of jump for joy, Pixar will have a long way to go before hitting rock bottom. This masterful sci-fi allegory continues the company’s incomparable hot streak, and once again raises the bar on a genre that they seem to constantly refashion with each new release.




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Wanted


In a close tie with the film following it, Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov’s US debut is nothing short of breath-taking. Sure, it borrows liberally from both The Matrix and Fight Club, and avoids most of the mythology created by the narrative’s graphic novel origins, but when the action is as amazing - and stylish - as what’s offered here, how it got there is not that important.


 

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Iron Man


Jon Favreau has always been a fascinating filmmaker, but this excellent adaptation of the second-tier comic hero finally announces his ascension into the big leagues. Blockbusters don’t get more vital than this terrific take on the saga of Tony Stark and his transformation from weapons dealer to crime fighter. With Robert Downey Jr.‘s revelatory performance in the title role, a new franchise is born.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Kung Fu Panda


Amazing - two excellent CGI efforts in less than two months. Pixar’s place was more or less a given, but who knew Dreamworks could up their game this way. Relying more on the Shaw Brothers and the entire martial arts genre than overly cute comic characters and pathetic pop culture references, this delightful adventure is one of the best kung fu films of all time - animated or not.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


After 16 years, there were a few cobwebs. And George Lucas’ manipulative future marketing stratagem is smeared all over the screenplay (less Marion - more MUTT!). Yet thanks to the always reliable skills of one Stephen Spielberg, and the man’s limitless sense of wonder, everything here works. While circumstances are set up to continue the franchise, let’s hope this is Dr. Jones’ last adventure.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


The Incredible Hulk


If you’re counting dollars, this revamp of Marvel’s big green monster man is doing as well (or slightly less gangbusters) than Ang Lee’s 2003 version. But fans are far happier with Louis Leterrier’s take on the tale of Dr. Bruce Banner and his out of control cellular structure, and that’s all that matters.  Oddly enough, Edward Norton makes a good popcorn protagonist.




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


You Don’t Mess with the Zohan


Another summer disappointment - another misunderstood gem. Adam Sandler’s misguided Middle Eastern character may be too inside for mainstream moviegoers (reportedly, Israelis LOVE it), but the invention offered here puts other examples of so-called big screen comedy to shame. Besides, any movie that can re-sexualize Lainie Kazan (oh so smokin’ hot in the ‘60s/‘70s) deserves a special reward.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian


There’s a lot of blame going around both within and outside the Narnia camp. This film failed to match its predecessor’s box office figures, and everyone has a theory as to why it didn’t deliver. Here’s a possible answer - the movie was subpar Lord of the Rings flash fantasy. With a plan to make the remaining five films still a go, here’s hoping things improve dramatically.




+ PopMatters Review


Get Smart


Producers, pay attention. Steve Carrel may just be the next big office draw. So far, in two summers, he’s elevated a pair of miserable, mindless comedies into turnstile twists. While no one will trumpet Evan Almighty‘s cost benefit ratio, Smart will sit pretty as a sizeable hit - and for no other reason than The Office actor’s graduated good will. The movie’s awful, after all. 




+ PopMatters Review
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The Strangers


Dull, derivative, and never as inventive as it thinks it is, the only thing terrifying about this home invasion hooey is the number of people who actually declare it a legitimate thrill ride. Fear is like humor - everyone has their own tolerance/preference level. Clearly, some people are scared by this formulaic fright. As genre efforts go, it’s all bark and no bite.




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Sex and the City: The Movie


This movie may just signal the next phase in moviemaking and marketing. Take a show with limited appeal, make sure you keep the fanbase clued in on a possible big screen reunion, advertise the update as the second coming of sophisticated urban girl power, and watch the receipts roll in. No need for broader audience appeal. Playing to an underserved demo will overcome the weakest of cinematic elements.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


What Happens in Vegas


If the RomCom is really dead, it’s a movie like this that is dancing all over its freshly dug grave. Cameron Diaz continues her decent into Meg Ryan’s career, and Ashton Kutcher elevates his smug smarm attack into something akin to inverse cool. Together, they play mismatched mercenaries trying to outwit each other for a million dollar jackpot. Turns out they’re unarmed, wit wise. 



+ PopMatters Review


The Happening


Hello hubris! This is either the biggest joke ever perpetrated by a one time rising filmmaker on a gullible fanbase, or a really large b-movie turd. Either way, this supposedly scary R-rated thriller about plants paying humans back for their lack of environmental focus is just plain dumb. Nothing about it works, and by the end, it just gives up. 




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


The Love Guru


It’s been six years since Mike Myers brought his particular brand of live action comedy to the screen, and it now feels as dated as a mean spirited minstrel show. Everything here is pitched to a lack of audience sophistication, and in an era where Judd Apatow’s slacker farces find undeniable hilarity in the horrors of real life, this crotch level cleverness is dated…and disgusting.




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008
by Robin Cook

Originally, this was going to be an interview with just Mr. Bonebrake, but then Billy Zoom turned up. Two X members for the price of one. What luck! And what can I say about this band that hasn’t been said before? Well, for one thing, Billy Zoom is an amazing guitarist, and it’s great to see him playing again after a decade away from music. And DJ Bonebrake is a phenomenal drummer whose contributions to the band are usually overlooked. And finally, it’s an honor to interview them.—Robin Cook



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