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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008

It’s time to get back on track as Hollywood continues to unveil its weekly array of tent pole titles. For 11 July, here are the films in focus:


Hellboy 2: The Golden Army [rating: 10]


This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy.

Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result. read full review…



Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D [rating: 6]


As it chugs along like a novice marathon runner aware of its inability to win the race, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D does nothing to dissuade us from its earnest need to entertain.


There is nothing wrong with being generic. There is no crime in staying standard and formulaic. Sure, it signals a kind of creative malaise on the part of the product being discussed, but when it comes right down to it, if something achieves the basic goals of its medium or market, why should it be punished for doing so in a solid and efficient way. This issue seems especially important when considering the latest update of the Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. Though this new film obviously believes it offers a unique twist on the storied adventure romp, it’s really just a standard spectacle wrapped up in a technological gimmick that more or less salvages its existence.  read full review…



In Brief


Meet Dave [rating: 4]


Meet Dave. Dave is a spaceship. He comes from the planet Nil with a scheme to drain all the world’s oceans. Dave is piloted by a collection of Central Casting clichés, the most telling of which is star Eddie Murphy as the Captain, channeling Patrick Stewart by way of the School of Bad British Accents. Our former funnyman is also the ship itself, a silent movie slapstick mugging plot device that never works beyond a basic kid vid mentality. Somehow scripted by MST3K‘s Bill Corbett (in collaboration with TV scribe Rob Greenberg), this middling misfire can’t decide what it wants to be. At any given moment, it’s part speculative sci-fi, part retarded family film, with just a little regressive romance and pop culture discomfort to really mix things up. For something supposedly so future shock, this entire project feels derivative and dated. Granted, it’s not the race-baiting hate crime known as Norbit, but with the same subpar director behind the camera (Brian Robbins needs his DGA card revoked, pronto), we get gay stereotypes battling incomplete ideas for lead lameness. Naturally, nobody wins. At one time, Murphy represented the cutting edge of comedy. Now, high concept paydays like Meet Dave prove he’s only in it for the money, no matter how mediocre the means of achieving said cash may be.


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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008

Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result.


Long ago, when the Earth was green, mankind and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could complete their directive. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections.  Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.


In a summer already overloaded with brash, bravado cinematic turns, Hellboy 2 has got to be one of the biggest and ballsiest. Stamped with a kind of genius rare in today’s Tinsel Town terrain, Mexican madman Guillermo Del Toro has fashioned a kind of supersonic spectacle, an intensely engaging epic that finds a way to keep both its scope and entertainment value legitimate and yet larger than life. Loosely based on the Mike Mignola comics, and clearly the product of its director’s outsized originality, we are treated to two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.


Del Toro has always been a geek, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling at his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.


Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film. 


Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.


There is a clever, almost kitschy way in which Hellboy 2: The Golden Army delivers its delights. It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat. When Hellboy battles a massive earth Elemental, it’s Cloverfield conceived as an old fashioned serial cliffhanger, imperiled infant and all. Indeed, Del Toro keeps the riff references and homages coming, touching on the entire history of horror and fantasy in just under two hours of spellbinding cinema. And we sense the director continuously building on his legend, opening the door for a brain melting final installment/trequel sometime after he completes his trip through Tolkein.


And frankly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more knowledgeable guy. It’s rare when Hollywood gives the eccentric and iconoclastic a chance to shine, let along a second one. One misstep and you’re usually sitting in entertainment exile, wondering where your creative cache went. In this case, through a sheer force of will and an unreal amount of invention, Guillermo Del Toro has rewritten the rulebook. All that post-Pan Oscar cred didn’t hurt, but there’s got to be some substance to support a repeat performance. Apparently, this filmmaker has more than enough on his plate to feed an imagery-starved fanbase. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army may say ‘Hell-friggin’-yes’ to another excess time and time again, but when the meal is this ridiculously rich and refined, we’ll gladly indulge. In a summer soaked in spectacle, this dish is just divine.


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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008

There is nothing wrong with being generic. There is no crime in staying standard and formulaic. Sure, it signals a kind of creative malaise on the part of the product being discussed, but when it comes right down to it, if something achieves the basic goals of its medium or market, why should it be punished for doing so in a solid and efficient way. This issue seems especially important when considering the latest update of the Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. Though this new film obviously believes it offers a unique twist on the storied adventure romp, it’s really just a standard spectacle wrapped up in a technological gimmick that more or less salvages its existence.


Having lost his brother ten years earlier, Professor Trevor Anderson still wonders what happened to him that fatal day. He gets a chance to rekindle his curiosity when nephew Sean shows up for a family visit. The boy brings with him a box of memorabilia, including his dad’s copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth. While looking it over, Trevor discovers some notations that seem to support his own scientific research. Hoping to discover the truth, the duo takes an impromptu trip to Iceland. There they meet up with Hannah Ásgeirsson, a mountain guide familiar with the situation as well as the local terrain. One botched hike later, and the trio is falling down into the core of the planet. There, they discover that Trevor’s brother may have unlocked the secret to Verne’s novel…and that it may have all been based on fact.


As it chugs along like a novice marathon runner aware of its inability to win the race, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D does nothing to dissuade us from its earnest need to entertain. In a long line of limited projects that propose to do little more than meet a certain commercial ends, there is nothing inherently bad here. The acting is good, the plotting perfunctory but built to serve an uncomplicated cinematic strategy. Like a theme park ride, former F/X wiz turned director Eric Brevig keeps the action moving, giving us one minor movie magic moment after another. By the end, when our hero has saved the day, captured the girl, and reclaimed his professional dignity, we feel satisfied, if not completely overwhelmed with well-earned entertainment value.


Thanks to Brendan Fraser, who has that rare ability to turn even the most hackneyed dialogue into something almost resembling wit, there is no major void at the center of the storyline. Carrying the entire production on his Mummy mounted shoulders, he does a nice job of being both fatherly and flashy, a hero in everyday dude attire. Sadly, the rest of the cast can’t match him. Child star Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, Bridge to Terabithia) is locked down in whiny brat turned superman mode. His eventual change of heart, when it comes, never resonates as anything other than a script mandated shift. As the easy on the eye candy female facet, The Tudor‘s Anita Briem is mere beauty baggage. Again, Fraser is functioning on a whole other level. His costars can’t find said audience friendly/pandering wavelength. 


That just leaves Brevig and his technologically updated ‘50s filmmaking gimmick to get us over the humps, and for the most part, both succeed. Don’t be fooled by notices that claim this film can be enjoyed sans the optical ballyhoo. Without the 3D, this movie would be a lame, tired TV vacuity with little redeeming value. Granted, there are a few to many ‘gotcha’ tricks, times when objects fly at the audience for no other reason than the polarized glasses on their face. Yet no matter what visuals are employed to render the threats real and the spectacle epic, the lack of dimension and depth almost undermines the movie’s imperfect appeal. For his feature film debut, Brevig shows some cinematic skill. He doesn’t understand the nuances inherent in the language of film, but give him some giant piranha or a collection of man eating plants and he’s perfectly happy.


Those looking for a revisionist “twist” on this material will have to settle for Journey‘s sole sense of invention - the notion that Verne may have based his books on actual fact. We learn of a secret society devoted to his writings, a group that believes in the validity of his speculative science. During the narrative, allusions are drawn to major elements in the novel - the fossilized mega-mushrooms, the prehistoric creatures - and the book plays a key role in uncovering the potential escape route. Sure, liberties are taken, but with any old story, some contemporizing needs to take place. After all, post-millennial wee ones aren’t going to sit still as scholars and scientists debate, using dialogue meant to disguise enlightenment and education. They want a rock ‘em, sock ‘em rollercoaster ride, that’s it.


Those of us who grew up in the Chicago area during the ‘60 and ‘70s will never forget Frasier Thomas and his Family Classics’ devotion to the delightful James Mason/Pat Boone take on this material. While it can never top the nostalgic version from 1959, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D is not offensive or irritating in its pre-planned revisionism. Instead, it guarantees a good time and never strives to go anywhere beyond that. In this day and age where everything needs to be bigger, brighter, and bathed in a clever marketing conceit, this action adventure throwback is definitely engaging. If you don’t anticipate too much, your expectations will be measured out and easily met. Go in expecting gangbusters, and you’ll see the lack of dimension - goofy glasses or not.


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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008
The appeal of the secondhand / vintage shop is spreading to the arena of video games.

If you’ve looked at the PopMatters front page recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the recent (and ongoing) set of features dealing with the world of secondhand books.  If you haven’t seen them, go look at them, because each and every one of them thus far is an interesting, absorbing look into either an individual store or the culture of the used bookstore in general.


Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first video game love.

Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first
video game love.


Perhaps because of the increasing age of the average gamer, or perhaps simply because there are enough different games out there to support it, we are starting to see a similar sort of phenomenon in video games—that is, more and more of the so-called “mom ‘n pop” stores that deal in games are bringing in lots of business dealing in vintage.


Being based in Buffalo, I didn’t really see this happening until recently—not until the last couple of weeks did I even realize that a shop dealing in vintage games even existed in this city, given that most of the web hotspots for locating such things (the Cheap Ass Gamer forums, the AtariAge forums, and so on) seem to leave a gaping hole where Buffalo should be in terms of shops in which to buy my old Nintendo / Dreamcast / Genesis / etc. games.  As such, any travel to another town is an immediate excuse to look up the possible vintage gaming destinations.  A trip to Columbus this past month revealed a number of potential hotspots, most notably a place called “BuyBacks”.


Now, BuyBacks isn’t your typical mom ‘n pop shop; at least one of their locations looks more like a competitor to Best Buy from the outside than anything else, though the Ohio State location was at least commingling with the rest of the shops in town.  Even so…wow, is it a rush to have an alternative to the GameStop / GameCrazy block that I’m used to. 


This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.

This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.


I popped in to a few other shops in Columbus, and came back with a treasure trove of stuff…Metal Gear Solid for the PS1, Qix Neo for the PS1, Sneak King for the Xbox (hey, it was $1.99 and I didn’t even have to give my money to Burger King), Faxanadu for the NES…it felt like everything I’d been missing in Buffalo.  There’s something beautifully tactile about walking into a vintage games shop and being able to see what’s there; there’s a certain smell in the air when there’s that much beat-up plastic in the room.  Sure, I could get pretty much everything on eBay or Craigslist or even used on Amazon, but online browsing tends to be so search-based that who’s to say I wouldn’t miss out on some little secret treasure?  Did I even know that Qix Neo existed?  Goodness no.  Would I ever have remembered the joy of Faxanadu if I didn’t see it on a shelf between Ice Hockey and Gotcha!?  Not likely.


Vintage shops are where we can indulge in a minor case of arrested development and recapture the joy of walking into the toy store and seeing, say, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link up there on the shelf in all its golden glory.  Even better, Zelda II won’t even cost you $69.99 (+ tax!) anymore.


Vintage gaming also invites us to remember a time whenbox art had something in common with Harlequin novels.

Vintage gaming also invites us to
remember a time when box art had something
in common with Harlequin romance novels.


Vintage game shops will likely never approach the notoriety or the popularity of the best secondhand book stores, if only because unlike a book, the appeal of a vintage game is limited to a shrinking few who might have a console that can still play the game.  There just aren’t all that many people floating around who have working Intellivision systems anymore, meaning that a store that chooses to stock Intellivision games is severely limiting the number of people who might have any interest in buying something off that section of not-all-that-cheap shelf space.  The only time you see a similar issue with books is through language disparities; the truth is, most people who frequent a bookstore will at least be able to read almost anything on that bookstore’s shelves.  The same can’t be said for the game shop.


Still, more and more aging gamers (such as myself) are finding joy in playing, in the most pure way possible, the games of their youth, and discovering games that they may have missed all those years ago.


Retrogaming fans might want to check out the excellent newsletters at Retrogaming Times Monthly for some good reading that’ll bring you back.  Or, you could join The Brainy Gamer’s newly established (and highly informal) Vintage Game Club, if you actually want to participate in the discussion.  Me, I’m off to scratch the itch at a Buffalo-based shop that copious Googling eventually uncovered.  Hopefully, it’s worth the search.


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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008

Anthropologist Grant McCracken points to this New York Times article by David Carr about former Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller and makes an interesting point about the ideological effects of the celebrity-gossip tabloid Fuller pioneered.


The [article’s] most illuminated observation comes from Janice Min…. Here’s how Min explains Fuller’s success. “She is able to almost distill the id of the reader.  She channels them in a way few others do, and what she heard is: ‘I don’t care about your acting method in your last movie. I just want to know what workout you used to get that fabulous body.’ “
This suggests that there has been a shift in the celebrity culture, a movement from admiration to imitation. Fans now treat the star less as a god and more as a set of transformational pointers. Celebrities by this reckoning are better than us but not different from us.
This is a very big change. Among other things, it marks the democratization of celebrity and the rise of a culture in which everyone imagines themselves a star, or at least transform themselves with a star’s effort and care.


 
This seems right. We don’t particularly admire the celebrities in these gossip magazines at all; they are more like mirrors for our self-admiration.


The essence of Us always seemed to me to be the “Stars—they’re just like us!” page, which sets up the rest of the magazine, which is advice couched as gossip. And it helps explain why the people famous for doing nothing—Paris Hilton, for example—are the magazines’ prime attractions. These are the people who invite the strongest identification in readers, the most vicarious appeal, because their lack of talent seems to confirm our own fantasies of becoming famous merely for existing. In a society in which there is a lot of attention apparently waiting to be spent, it’s not such a far-fetched dream.


What’s strange is that people now seem to believe that it is better, more significant, to have fame than talent. A species of anti-intellectualism seems to be at work. Talented people stand out from the mass, marking themselves as de facto elitists. The merely famous, though, give hope to us all.


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