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

 

Latest Posts

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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”.


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.