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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.



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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.




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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
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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.



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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.



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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.



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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.




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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.



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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.




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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. 




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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.




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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.



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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. 



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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. 




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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.




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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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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008
Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever. It isn’t. It’s better.

Part One
HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos


Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.


Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.


The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.


(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)


Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.


Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…


This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.


Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.


“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.


We come with our culture to enlighten the world…


Any questions?


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Wednesday, Jul 2, 2008

It’s been nearly six solid months of agony and waiting, speculation leading to momentary bouts of joy and sullen disbelief. With reliable information a rarity, fans had to use every ounce of their cautious constitution not to overreact. Then, suddenly, patience paid off. The announcement came - the gang at Cinematic Titanic were back, and they’ve brought along a real hackwork howler to foist upon us unsuspecting bad movie buffs. For those who don’t remember the origins of this Mystery Science Theater 3000-styled clone, here’s the scoop. Touted last winter as a welcome return to in-theater commentary comedy, Joel Hodgson reteamed with pals J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu. With the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff, their goal was to update the original concept and bring the fine art of mediocre movie ridicule back to the masses.


Along with Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy who carry on the defunct series’ traditions via their Rifftrax and Film Crew DVDs, this was the first time many in this group had participated in the format in over a decade. And after half a year, they have finally fashioned a follow-up. Devotees of the collective’s first direct to disc effort, the Al Adamson atrocity The Oozing Skull, wondered how the group would top that celluloid stinker. The answer? The Doomsday Machine, a reconfigured 1967 sci-fi slop job that has the bold faced filmmaking audacity to offer 75 minutes of Bobby Van, Denny Miller, Grant Williams, Ruta Lee, Mala Powers, and Henry Wilcoxon, only to disintegrate into footage shot four years later with none of the original cast.


See, the producers were clearly planning a major speculative epic, an end of the world wonder featuring the destruction of Earth, a hazardous journey into deep space, and an eventual colonization of Venus. Very much of the era - drive-in or otherwise. In the end, a lack of money meant they could only realize a small percentage of their goals. Stock footage replaced the planned F/X and corners were cut toward inventing the film’s future shock vision. Or maybe directors Lee Sholem and Harry Hope were just cheap, unimaginative bastards after all. The film frequently reeks of the Ed Wood School of incomprehensible narratives, the plot quickly de-evolving from a political crisis Apocalypse to an outer space swingers’ party in the blink of a cinema-schlock eye.


It’s 1976, and the world is on the brink of destruction. It seems the Chinese have developed a ‘Doomsday Machine’ located 700 miles below the planet’s surface. At the slightest provocation - which eventually arrives, though we never learn how or why - the Asian Reds will jumpstart the Earth’s core, causing the entire sphere to spontaneously combust. Of course, once the US and Russia get a whiff of this info, they decide to hijack a planned NASA mission to Venus and replace three of the more expendable astronauts with a few fetching astro-babes. Naturally, this goes over like gangbusters with everyone on the crew, except for the highly strung Major Kurt Mason. One look at skirt and he goes from persnickety pain in the ass to psycho-pseudo rapist.


The rest of the motley crew, including foxy flight surgeon Marion Turner, Russian space queen Georgiana Bronski, slightly unhinged meteorologist (and Mason victim) Katie, wisecracking New “Yawker” Danny, and surfer stud boy Colonel Don Price take their part in the procreation quite well. They don’t mind being passengers on this knotty Noah’s Ark, even if the tempers are flaring as often as the hormones. Eventually, people die, analog computer calculations are made, sacrifices are discussed, and one of those Planet of the Apes trick endings is attempted. No, it wasn’t all a simulation or an intricate NASA experiment. It turns out that if Soviet scientists had paid a bit more attention to the previous failed missions to the second closest planet to the sun, they may have discovered a few ‘collective consciousness’ warning signs along the way.


A long time staple of the breast-ically endowed Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, The Doomsday Machine is a miserable bit of motion picture sickness. Its mood swings are so rampant - serious space saga to stale soap operatics to mean-spirited misogyny - that teen girls are jealous of its irritability. Any film that feels Bobby “Mr. Elaine Joyce” Van and Ruta “HSN Diet Spray” Lee can sell its tech spec sketchiness is definitely dunderheaded. To make matters worse, the four years in the making finale, clearly fashioned out of whatever Sholem and Hope had lying around, has the cajones to recast the important players. As a result, there is at least 15 minutes of pointless stasis as well hidden extras with non-compatible voices try fervently to connect the material and make everything seem meaningful and deep. It ends up rendering the already retarded movie even more insipid.


For the Cinematic Titanic collective, The Doomsday Machine marks a MST3K Season 4 level challenge. At one point, Frank Conniff states exasperatedly that this experience is like “watching someone else watching Manos: The Hands of Fate”.  There is an instance when the cast completely clams up, the inability to quip on the inanity they’re witnessing overwhelming even their own masterful mirth making. The rest of the time, their material is spot on, joke after joke hitting the painful plotholes and destitute acting dead on. Hodgson is rather quiet this time around, letting Weinstein, Beaulieu, and Pehl do a lot of the heavy humor lifting. There is one classic moment when Mary Jo stops the film (a developing CT gimmick) to discuss the crisis fallback plan should the group have to decide on who lives and who dies, but overall, there is little of the skit-oriented filler that accented the previous series.


We do get a little more insight into the whole Cinematic Titanic protocol, however. At the very opening of the presentation, two workers discuss the upcoming installment with the cast. We discover that the plan is for the individuals present to record these episodes for “posterity” depositing the final results in a ‘time tube’ for future generations to enjoy. Oddly similar to the Film Crew conceit (adding commentary to all the movies known to man, even the horrible ones), it opens up the entire experience to limitless possibilities. One assumes that, after they get a handle on how to successfully market and maximize their self-sales and distribution network, Cinematic Titanic will become a regular cult commodity.


And as long as they deliver stellar satire like the kind found in The Doomsday Machine, there’s no reason to worry. Fans familiar with the group’s retro-revisionism will find nothing but treasure here, while those new to the whole MST/CT situation should be instantly won over. Way back in the ‘80s, when Hodgson teamed up with Murphy and producer Jim Mallon to produce some local UHF programming for Minneapolis, Minnesota television, they could have never envisioned two decades of celluloid send-ups. While purists wait for the day when all camps make nice and come up with a combined effort to bring everyone back into a single spoofing whole, we’ll have to settle for segmented brilliance. And with Cinematic Titanic, this cast of creative geniuses is back in big style. 


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