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Thursday, May 29, 2008


We’re two months in, and yet the Summer season continues on. For 30 May, here are the films in focus:


Son of Rambow [rating: 7]


Wistful and a little wonky, playfully recreating a fanciful early ‘80s UK summer, Son of Rambow definitely feels like someone’s personal experiences reinterpreted for public consumption.

It’s clear that, if music provides the soundtrack to our lives, movies make up the mental scrapbook. While we are a far more aural than visual race, we do tend to take certain films at face value. We’ll shiver at the thought of a shower after Psycho, or become the wariest of beach goers after Spielberg bares his Jaws. Yet we don’t typically take the actual image with us. Instead, a motion picture is filed away as a feeling in our cultural cabinet, lovingly recalled whenever a similar scene or sequence pops up. For the young boys of a small English town, Sylvester Stallone’s unhinged Vietnam vet with a personal vendetta and a wondrous way with weaponry becomes a symbol of their social coming of age. The reverence and need for a remake forms the basis for Son of Rambow, an effervescent look back at one director’s post-punk past.read full review…




The Strangers [rating: 4]


The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making.

The art of suspense is dead, or at the very least, dying. Few in post-modern filmmaking know how to establish dread without drowning it in gore or just boring us to death. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the basic bloodless thriller must be. It has to work on the psychological, as well as the physiological and pragmatic levels. As Hitchcock accurately stated, the viewer must be invariably linked to the fate of characters they just met, and may know more than. It’s all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment.  read full review…
 
 

Other Releases—In Brief


Sex and the City: The Movie [rating: 4]


For fans of the long running HBO rom-comedy, a Sex and the City movie seemed like a no brainer. Leave it to salary disputes to make the inevitable suddenly span four long years. In that time, it’s clear that nothing new has been invested toward this Cinderella on stilettos nightmare, a collection of irredeemable behaviors masked as post-modern feministic fizz. For this unnecessary revisit, Carrie gets engaged to her BFF as ATM, Mr. Big, Miranda systematically alienates and then disowns her unfaithful spouse, Samantha screws and shops, and Charlotte blandly plays the perfect mommy. It’s all so contemporary…so couture…so calculated. Like a greatest hits package without a single hummable tune, this drawn out, dystopic fairytale hits on every facet of the series the fanbase demands without offering the uninitiated a single reason to care. The fashion porn the demographic digs feels equally unexceptional, the same old labels being flaunted as fabulous when they’re really yesterday’s Elsa Klench feature. This is a comedy with permanent PMS - it’s bloated, moody, and purely a ‘gal thang’. Men - and true film fans - are not welcome, and frankly, both groups should take that as a blessing.


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Thursday, May 29, 2008

It’s clear that, if music provides the soundtrack to our lives, movies make up the mental scrapbook. While we are a far more aural than visual race, we do tend to take certain films at face value. We’ll shiver at the thought of a shower after Psycho, or become the wariest of beach goers after Spielberg bares his Jaws. Yet we don’t typically take the actual image with us. Instead, a motion picture is filed away as a feeling in our cultural cabinet, lovingly recalled whenever a similar scene or sequence pops up. For the young boys of a small English town, Sylvester Stallone’s unhinged Vietnam vet with a personal vendetta and a wondrous way with weaponry becomes a symbol of their social coming of age. The reverence and need for a remake forms the basis for Son of Rambow, an effervescent look back at one director’s post-punk past.


Will Proudfoot lives a very sheltered life. As a member of the Plymouth Brethren religious sect, he is not allowed to watch TV, listen to modern music, or befriend his classmates. Quite by accident, he makes the acquaintance of school bad boy Lee Carter. Initially, the relationship is very one sided. Lee takes advantage of Will, and Will is too inexperienced to know any better. The duo begins work on a homemade movie, inspired by the recent release of First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone. Entitled “Son of Rambow”, it incorporates many of Will’s wildest fantasies, mostly concerning the recent death of his father. As the boys make their mini action epic, they draw the attention of a French exchange student named Didier. He also wants to star in the film. On a far more serious note, Will’s work outside the order gets the attention of the elders. They warn the Proudfoots - end this association, or face expulsion.


Wistful and a little wonky, playfully recreating a fanciful early ‘80s UK summer, Son of Rambow definitely feels like someone’s personal experiences reinterpreted for public consumption. Writer/director Garth Jennings, last heard from helming the underappreciated big screen version of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, takes snapshots from his childhood, mixes them with some intriguing local color, and paints a glorious canvas of an era unsure of itself, punk plowing into pop without a Blitz kid’s concern for style or substance. There are sequences of sumptuous reminiscence here, times when we literally get lost in the unique time and place that Jennings is portraying. At other instances, things become so pat and predictable that the forewarning undermines the wistfulness at play.


It goes without saying that the stars of this particular piece are the young actors at the center of the story. As the irascible Lee Carter, Will Poulter seems pulled directly out of a primer on purposefully angry young lads. He’s Butch from Our Gang given a slightly cockney bent, and he’s totally believable, even when slightly schizophrenic in his motivations and mannerisms. We may not believe in his ability as a future filmmaker, but we do get the impression that he’s dedicated, and when personal push comes to shove, quite loyal. Of the duo, young Bill Milner definitely has the harder role. His perplexed Will Proudfoot is walking, talking fundamentalist naiveté, desperate to break out of his religious restrictions, but unable to achieve the proper perspective. For him, the world is one big animated adventure just waiting to be had. Gullibility is hard to sell, especially in these all-knowing ‘naughts’. But Milner makes us believe, even if his ideas are a bit babyish.


Indeed, the whole moviemaking subtext steals some of Son of Rambow‘s potency. When Will and Lee are recreating overly aggressive action scenes and steroided stunts, we instantly anticipate the physical comedy. It may be rote shtick, but it is mostly satisfying. Where the film really flies is in its mix tape mapping of the early ‘80s. Sure, the song selection is all over the Top of the Pops terrain (“I Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode never shared chart time with Sioxsie and the Banshee’s “Peek a Boo”), and the fashions scream of the broadest epoch generalization, but Jennings does a jolly job of capturing a moment when the dour depression of before seemed to open into an optimist, anything goes giddiness. It’s nostalgia, but its knowing, not knotty.


Perhaps the most intriguing material is left more or less unexplored. The Plymouth Brethren may appear like any other sect, starved of rationality as they use the Bible as the basis for every one of their often unconscionable decisions. And there is an interesting plotpoint when Will’s mother lets slip her secret love of a certain 45 rpm record. But we don’t get much more than mean-spirited reprimands and a leader who clearly lusts for the passive Proudfoot widow. Not much is made out of the missing father either - he is dead, but the details appear shrouded in a lack of clarity that makes his absence lack the standard cinematic impact. We want more of this material, to really understand the last act decision made by the family. But Son of Rambow is not interested in intricacy. It’s satisfied with a more slapdash approach.


Not that we as an audience mind, really. This is clearly a movie where the sum of all parts transcends the individual problems with each particular narrative thread. When mixed together with Didier’s pseudo stash, Plastic Bertrand panache (he’s an odd addition to this story, to be sure), Lee Carter’s old folks home front, Will’s wonderfully cartoonish flights of fancy, and the Monty Python meets misery of our heroes’ school situation, the manic movie making really zings. Certainly this is an incomplete effort, leaving more questions than clear cut conclusions, and the required wrap seems too easy given all that’s gone before. But there is also a bubbly exuberance that really reminds one of their youth and all its awkward awakening glory. This is one Son that any source could be proud of. 



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Thursday, May 29, 2008

The art of suspense is dead, or at the very least, dying. Few in post-modern filmmaking know how to establish dread without drowning it in gore or just boring us to death. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the basic bloodless thriller must be. It has to work on the psychological, as well as the physiological and pragmatic levels. As Hitchcock accurately stated, the viewer must be invariably linked to the fate of characters they just met, and may know more than. It’s all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment.


It’s one that the new so-called shocker The Strangers strives for, over and over again. It’s so desperate to drag us through a tense little exercise in creepy cat and mouse that it all but misses the reason these movies succeed. After an especially hard night of romance and rejection, young couple James Hoyt and Kristen McKay retreat to his isolated family vacation home. As they regroup, they sense something is amiss. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. Even though it’s four o’clock in the morning, they answer the door. There, in the darkness, a young girl asks if ‘Tamara’ is home. Slightly belligerent, she barely takes “No” for an answer. Without warning, the house is suddenly besieged by a trio of masked assailants. Their purpose seems simply enough - torture and kill the panicked pair.


The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making. Outwardly, this movie can’t help but compare unfavorably to the brilliant French thriller from last year, Ils (otherwise known as Them to American audiences). So similar story-wise as to almost be exact, and utilizing a far more interesting set-up and payoff, filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud really delivered the goods. We cared about the characters in that eerie little experiment in ambient noises and unseen threats. Even if the ending went a bit gonzo, we still enjoyed every spine tingling, bone chilling moment of the ride.


The second factor is completely within writer/director Bryan Bertino’s control. Instead of starting the movie off inauspiciously, allowing the tale of our crumbling couple to organically meld into the stark and subtle serial killer material to come, The Strangers shoots itself in the foot by following a lame-brained Texas Chainsaw Massacre style preamble. As our super serious voice over narrator drones on, we are told of the terror to come.  Even worse, Bertino then starts the narrative at the end, giving us horrific, hint filled glimpses of what will occur. A more successful conceit would have been to remove the first five minutes and give us nothing more than the effective shot of stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in silent sadness, tears streaming down their faces. Advanced warning of their fate turns everything stale.


Not that there’s much to go on once the Manson Family by way of The Town That Dreaded Sundown shows up. Dressed in slightly unsettling costumes that conceal their identity, our mindless murderers are purposefully given no backstory or motive. The most we learn is that James and Kristen have been chosen because “they were home”. It’s a wonderfully evocative line, but Bertino does nothing with it. Similarly, the house in question is never established as a place of shelter, or safety, or scares. Ils at least let its brooding Romanian estate be as much a surprise of escape opportunities and fatalistic dead ends as a cinematic backdrop. In The Strangers, all we get is a barn, a backyard, and a ranch style design right out of the ‘70s.


In addition, Bertino completely misunderstands the use of sound as a way of securing shivers. Our couple has some of the oddest taste in music ever established in a horror film. They seem to enjoy a combination of Lester Roadhog Moran and His Cadillac Cowboys, The Shaggs, and a diseased Little Jimmy Dickens. The atonal drone of the cracked country music that plays during the fright sequences is so annoying as to cause outright anger - and nothing destroys suspense quicker than a rising urge to kill the record player. Also, Bertino misses a golden opportunity to add some ambience to his efforts. The wooded exterior should have provided some ample unexplained angst. Instead, even the aural cues are obvious.


As for the acting, Tyler and Speedman are given little to do, instantly moving from morose to victim mode in the span of a few seconds. They never provide a sense of individual urgency, capable of anything to make sure they survive. Instead, they huddle into corners and whine, whimper, and wince. We never develop any real sympathy for them, so as a result, we don’t care if they live or die. Our killers are another conundrum all together. Purposefully oblique, they come across as deadly dolls without a single sinister bone in their persistent hunter horror personas. Even when Bertino unmasks them and offers his downbeat denouement, the performances never play into genre ideals.


Of course, The Strangers is the kind of film that would welcome such unpredictability. You can just see some suit reading the script and thinking “Wow, this sure beats all that bloody torture porn being pushed right now.” Sadly, an alternative is not necessarily a salve, or in extremes, a salvation. Just because John Carpenter changed the movie macabre dynamic with his slasher homage to the Master of Suspense doesn’t mean that 2008 is looking for the same cinematic redeemer. Bryan Bertino may believe he is onto one Hell of a shouting-back-at-the-screen audience participation thrill ride. All easily frightened fans aside, The Strangers is destined to be mildly favored and then forgotten. It doesn’t have enough heft to warrant macabre staying power.   


 


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Thursday, May 29, 2008
This is a write-up about an extremely short (1-2 minutes) experiment game called Execution. The experiment will not have much effect if you read the write-up before trying it yourself.

I found this game via Brenda Brathwaite at her blog Applied Game Design and it proposes an interesting take on how to generate moral dilemmas in games. One of the major dilemmas with pushing games into more complex experiences and art forms is that games don’t necessarily generate any kind of consequences. Unlike shooting someone in real life, which leads to both moral and literal consequences, in a video game it either doesn’t matter or can be undone. If I accidentally say something awful to someone in Mass Effect and we get into a fight, I can just load my game. Few people are going to allow something like making a mistake impair their enjoyment of a game experience. They want the best items, the ‘best’ ending, and for things to generally work in their favor. So even games that do feature choices just inevitably devolve into asking someone to make a choice and then letting them keep answering until they get the right response.


There are two solutions in games to this problem. You can make the plot entirely linear, in which case the player isn’t responsible for the consequences anyways. Or you can make either choice a valid one. Although that’s an interesting solution for a morally grey scenario, it becomes problematic when we get back to the fight in Mass Effect. Sometimes what the player did was wrong, there are serious consequences to such actions, and they should be punished for them. And the only real way to do that is to take away the save game feature.


As the commenters at Brathwaite’s blog note, part of what makes the player reaction so interesting is how much they dislike the decision forced on them. Either quit the game or shoot the victim. You know shooting is bad, the game clearly warns you that there will be consequences, and then it forces them by making the little man be dead even after you restart the game. Some players just re-installed the game and made the “correct” choice and others denounced the entire process. Despite the wisdom of ‘War Games’, most people aren’t really inclined to consider quitting the game a valid choice.


This isn’t the first time a game has attempted the “Quit or Do the Wrong Thing” game design. The brilliant Immortal Defense offers a similar dilemma towards the final levels and tends to produce the same mixed-results from the player. Would it be better if the game gave me two wrong choices? Would it be better if I made the wrong choice but later on I was able to redeem myself? Whatever the game design people come up with to create consequences and morality, the greater issue almost seems to be directed at the players themselves. If we are prepared to allow a game to teach us a moral, what kind of game designs are we going to have to accept that create the consequences needed for such a lesson?


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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why are oil prices so high? The obvious answer would seem to be because we are running out of it. Peak-oil enthusiasts have argued this for years, but the idea is creeping closer to the mainstream. In the New York Times Paul Krugman argued that prices were based on fundamentals of supply and demand in this column from a week ago. He was responding to the idea that commodity speculators are wreaking havoc on the natural play of economic forces, an argument that fund manager Michael Masters recently presented at a Senate committee hearing. He blames “index speculators” among institutional investors, whose demand for oil futures rivals China:


According to the DOE, annual Chinese demand for petroleum has increased over the last five years from 1.88 billion barrels to 2.8 billion barrels, an increase of 920 million barrels.8 Over the same five-year period, Index Speculators’ demand for petroleum futures has increased by 848 million barrels. The increase in demand from Index Speculators is almost equal to the increase in demand from China!



At his blog, Steve Waldman takes an elaborate look at Masters’s view and asks this pertinent question: “But what if the price-setting speculators are not momentum-driven index funds, but ‘traditional speculators’, correctly predicting that prices are below long-term fundamentals? Then limiting commodity speculation would prolong the mispricing, and cause us to waste resources that are kept artificially cheap.” In other words, we would keep wasting fuel because regulators would be keeping its price artificially stabilized (kind of like they do in Venezuela and Indonesia).


Of course, there are high political stakes in this argument: if it’s speculation and not peak oil that’s driving prices, then we needn’t worry so much about conservation or build any expectation of permanently higher fuel prices into our economic decisionmaking. That would make American automakers happy, at least, and supply political demagogues with an easy target as Americans suffer through “the summer driving season” paying prices at the pump ($4+ a gallon) that they have never dealt with before. As Krugman points out,


Traditionally, denunciations of speculators come from the left of the political spectrum. In the case of oil prices, however, the most vociferous proponents of the view that it’s all the speculators’ fault have been conservatives — people whom you wouldn’t normally expect to see warning about the nefarious activities of investment banks and hedge funds.


Why? Because the conservatives want to pretend America, in its glorious exceptionalism, need not change a thing about its wasteful behavior.


The surprising shift Krugman notes could actually be seen as the return of the old alignment of economic liberalism with political liberalism on one side, and economic conservatism and government intervention on the other, as it was before the Industrial Revolution, when society’s elites (if you accept Polanyi’s thesis in The Great Transformation) attempted to forestall the market’s overwhelming society and all its established mores. In this sociopolitical configuration, conservatism is not about guaranteeing a free market but about preserving the existing distribution of power. For a while, a free market served that end, but conservatives have never cared about freedom per se. Our coming energy problems may make then more than abundantly clear.


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