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

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Mar 21, 2008


Sometimes, a filmmaker needs to be dragged out of his or her comfort zone. It’s not because what they do is so dull or derivative. Far from it. However, in the ‘what have you done for me now’ world of Hollywood, repeating oneself can be akin to career suicide. For Frank Darabont, such a situation is actually a double edged sword. An admired master at adapting Stephen King’s sometimes difficult literary works into solid big screen efforts, he’s taken three of the bestselling author’s works - The Women in the Room, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile - and turned them into solid cinematic statements.


But for a man who got his start crafting several genre scripts for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Blob remake, and the Fly sequel, he’s never directed a straight horror film himself. So when it was announced that Darabont would next take on the much beloved novella, The Mist, the reaction was definitely mixed. Many felt that, once again, Darabont was treading down totally familiar territory. The fear faithful, however, were anticipating something special. Even when less than impressive casting and the director’s decision to go ‘low budget’ were announced, the geeks were prepared for macabre manna…and it was well worth the wait. The Mist is destined to go down as a modern horror classic. The DVD release (from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Company) furthers the film’s spell.


When a powerful Nor’easter tears through a tiny Maine town, movie poster artist and family man David Drayton discovers that a massive branch has torn through his studio, and a stubborn neighbor’s dead tree has destroyed his beautiful boathouse. After heading into town to buy supplies, he is stunned to see a local man running into the store, screaming. He claims that there is something in the oncoming mist, and as the patrons watch the fog roll over the parking lot, the screams of those stuck outside suggest that there may indeed be a presence there. Some think it’s a joke. That includes the big city lawyer Brent Norton and local yokel Jim Grondin. On the other side of the situation is bitchy Bible thumper Mrs. Carmody. She’s convinced its Judgment Day, and suggests the shoppers use a blood sacrifice - expiation - to appease a vengeful God. Between Drayton, who believes in truth, and Carmody, whose stirring up dissent, clear sides are drawn. About the only level headed individual is store clerk OIlie – that is, until the monsters actually arrive.



It needs to be repeated, just in case you missed it the first time - Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of determined fright flick that few in the industry know how to make - or even comprehend. Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. There’s even a nice amount of gore and some unexpected darkness. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant.


There are times when you can literally see the director ducking the likely to lunge over into the unpredictable. In the audio commentary that accompanies the two disc collector’s edition, Darabont admits that he did everything he could to avoid the carefully controlled compositions and framing of his previous films. He used two cameras simultaneously, moving fluidly throughout the grocery store set. There is no music used during the first 80 minutes, and a real lack of sonic cues when the terror is about the strike. In his script, which follows King’s story very faithfully, Darabont also lets its character’s core elements overstay their welcome. Good guys are almost too noble, baddies belligerent in their shocking psychotic cravenness.


Take Thomas Jane’s David Drayton. He’s the perfect hypocritical hero. Out of one side of his mouth comes a calming, ‘let’s work together’ sort of spiel. On the other hand, he gets his ‘followers’ together to horde food and plan an escape. Similarly, he warns others about apparent acts of altruistic sacrifice. Yet he’s typically the first to volunteer for any suicide mission. Though he’s more a b-list personality than a real blockbuster anchor, Jane is very good here. He balances both sides of his protagonist with Darabont-intended ease.



Sitting on the other end of the situational scale is outright horror Marcia Gay Harden. Her Jesus loving Mrs. Carmody is not just some Gospel spewing shrew. She’s a manipulative cow, the perfect embodiment of the Jim Jones type of cult killer that King used originally to formulate the story. There are moments where you literally want to reach up from your seat and wring her self-righteous neck. That’s either great writing, great directing, great acting, or a combination of all three.


Indeed, what happens between people is far more important and terrifying than the various chaotic creature sequences in the film. When King described them in his novella, they were a perfect mind’s eye payoff, gifts for the reader still rapidly turning pages. In the film version of The Mist, they are the inevitable catalysts, the reasons for the characters challenging – and in some cases, harming – each other. Without them, we wouldn’t have the standoff between Drayton and Andre Braugher’s Norton. There wouldn’t be the reunion between young lovers Sally and AWOL GI Wayne…or the fatal finish to their relationship. We wouldn’t have the preaching, the plotting, the gun waving anarchy, or the fear-based fisticuffs.


Thanks to Greg Nicotero and the tireless efforts of KNB F/X, the featured fiends have a wonderful computer generated junkiness. They are definitely derived from the ‘50s schlock cinema which originally inspired King. During the commentary, we learn that this was all part of Darabont’s plan. He wanted to make a throwback kind of movie, a drive-in delight for the home theater crowd. The featurettes on Disc Two discuss this concept, and there’s even a black and white version of the entire film (with an into by the director). It’s all aimed at capturing that certain post-War passion pit feel of a Burt I. Gordon or Ray Kellogg.



And then there is the ending. Much has been written about Darabont straying rather significantly from King’s original conclusion, but there’s a reason for that. During his discussion, the director points out that you can’t have an ambiguous send-off after 90 minutes of purposefully paced realism. Imagine if the characters that you’ve followed for nearly two hours simply got in a vehicle, plotted a course, and headed on down the highway. Fade out. Roll credits. There’d be much more fervor over such an anticlimactic moment than the angst being aimed at Darabont’s decision.


Logic states that a bleak and rationality based narrative demands an equally dour and grim finish. Is it painful and purposefully harsh? Yes. Does it ruin the experience overall? Only if you’re the kind of person who can’t stare the truth in its desperate and ill-prepared face. In an included Making-of, King embraces the choice. As a matter of fact, he likes it so much that he would have used it himself, had he thought of it at the time. Oddly enough, Darabont quotes lines from the novella showing where his inspiration came from. Clearly, the literary master of horror wasn’t so far from this finale after all. 


When it comes right down to it,The Mist is not a movie about semi-super human men challenging the forces of darkness like invincible immortals. This is not the kind of film where antagonists heed the pleas of those wanting compromise or the reckless reel in their hasty reactions. Darabont has used King’s creative premise as the outline for a dissection of panic – how people react to it, and how our very humanity helps to fuel it. What we are witnessing is not really a horror movie, but a mock doc depiction of how man is more menacing than some interstellar interlopers. It’s an uncomfortable lesson to learn, but as Ollie the clerk says, humans as a species are fundamentally insane. Put two of them in a room and they’ll pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Frank Darabont may by now be a cliché, the first filmmaking name associated with the most successful genre author ever. But there is nothing formulaic, or false here. The Mist is magnificent.


 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Mar 21, 2008

Lots of people think renting is for suckers. Part of this is because of landlords, widely reputed to be deadbeats who collect rent for doing nothing. But rent is just another way of consuming the necessary good called shelter; homeownership is simply an alternative that masks the consumption process as depreciation and mortgage payments. For some reason people don’t mind paying bankers rent in the form of interest payments on the money they borrow to buy housing, perhaps because of the tax breaks on this expense. But mostly it is because people fetishize ownership and misconstrue homes as investment instead of consumption. This list of five home ownership myths (via Ezra Klein) makes this point very succinctly.


The reality is that housing is not an investment. It’s shelter. That is all housing has ever been. Self-serving organizations like the National Association of Realtors like to tell people that buying a home is a good way to build long-term wealth, but this statement couldn’t be further from the truth.
Although home prices can go up (and down), the rate of appreciation on housing does not surpass inflation levels over the long-term. Between 1890 and 2004, the real return on housing was a pathetic 0.4 percent per year over the last 100 years, according to Robert Shiller, a housing expert and Yale economist.
Real estate investments aren’t that much better over the short-term. The gain in new home prices over the last 20 years has been a mere fraction of the Dow’s gain. The average person investing in stocks between 1987 and 2007 would have made more money than the average person who bought a new home in 1987.


The homebuying frenzy sustained a lot of people in the parasitical industries that surround the fiendishly complicated process of real estate sales, but that doesn’t mean it was necessarily any good for the people making the purchases. Those now in negative equity are probably finding that out, and I wonder how much solace they have in the fact that they are making mortgage payments and not “throwing their money away” on rent.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Mar 21, 2008

North Carolina students win Battle of the Books
Wow, I wish we had these kinds of comps at my school. What could be better than winning a medal for reading? The Lincoln Tribune reports:


West Lincoln Middle School students recently competed in the “Battle of the Books” at the district level and took top honors.
The team will compete at the Regional Level on Monday, April 21st at Imaginon in Charlotte.


The students had to answer questions on 26 books of varied genres. This article also discusses the history of the NC competition.


Borders in trouble
So writes the Telegraph: “Borders, which has racked up losses of more than $300m in the past two years, has appointed JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch to find a buyer or strategic investor.”


Digital music stores, illegal downloading, and discount book retailers are apparently the problem, with Borders not the only store hit. Barnes and Noble has also taken a dive, particularly its music department.


This Guardian article tells us Borders’ chief executive George Jones “blamed competition from cut-price megastores such as Wal-Mart and CostCo for eating into book sales.”


Revisiting Bret Easton Ellis
The LA Times looks back on “he onetime enfant terrible”:


To some, he’s a kind of Duran Duran of the literary world: fashionable once, but now a footnote. Or at best something that comes back for periodic rediscovery but remains a relic, like the skinny tie.


Article includes excerpts from Ellis’s work.


Asbury Park resident annoyed over library fines
This one hits a bit close to home. Let’s see if I can make sense of it. So, Ted Koch borrowed some library books and forgot to take them back. Now, he owes the Ocean County Library $55, which the library wants him to pay ASAP or they’ll turn the debt over to collectors. Koch is quoted:


I came back from Florida, I got lazy, I didn’t go online to renew. Now they’re going to turn it over to a collection agency and it’s going to go on my record and endanger my ability to get a mortgage or a credit card? Do they realize how ludicrous this is, ruining my credit over a library fine? It’s like killing a fly with a howitzer ... Next thing I know Tony Soprano is sending two leg-breakers to my house to collect the $55.


Okay, so that last bit is an overreaction. I’d say it’s just a business wanting their damn stuff back. Should a library be considered a business? Of course it should. It provides a service, and when it cannot adequately provide that service because of someone’s admitted laziness, there’s a problem. The best way to solve such problems? By charging that lazy person a fine. Isn’t is public knowledge now that libraries charge fines for late books, or is Mr. Koch just that far out of the loop?


I can identify with Ocean County Library director, Ellen McConnell, who discusses the range of frustrating excuses library patrons will give for their books coming back late. Reasons, I can guess, they use to excuse them from the fining process. I work at a major chain DVD rental store, so I feel Ms. McConnell’s pain. Do I ever, in fact. You feel sometimes like a fourth-grade teacher listening to excuses about lost homework: I forgot, my dog ate it, I lent it to a friend who said they’d returned it. And while Mr. Koch complains about $55, I can stand at my counter and argue myself black and blue with customers over fines ranging from .75 cents to thousands of dollars. Some people just don’t want to pay.


You might think, too, that your fine is outrageous. But you’re not the only one holding onto stock. If libraries just let people willy-nilly do what they want, well, what kind of service would that become? For the people who use it properly?


I wonder what it is about libraries that gives the patron or customer this sense that they need not take the best care possible to uphold correct borrowing procedures? I often have customers bringing in late movies who will tell me they couldn’t get in the night before, so is that okay, can I waive their fines? Um, no. You think Avis will waive your fine if you bring their rent-a-car back a day late?


At least, like Ms. McConnell we have the ability to work with the customer, to assist those who have genuine issues about returning products. Went into labor? Yeah, maybe I can look at pardoning a fee. Pay your fines on time and never give anyone any hassle? I can help you out, for sure. Avis, I tell you right now, won’t do that.


It’s even worse that Koch is all, “Yeah, I was lazy”. So everyone else misses out. Koch says he’s raised money for the library, he’s a library fan. Well, he of all people should understand the library’s position instead of publicly ridiculing its procedures.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Mar 21, 2008

Obviously the publishing companies are getting jealous of the major labels as they’re pushing their own scheme to destroy the industry.  The issue is royalties for webcasts and this has been haunting Internet radio stations for the past few years as the rate is set to sky-rocket.  The end result has been a disaster- Internet radio firms say royalties limiting choices.  Many stations have already shut down and many more will be gone soon too, even some of the bigger ones (Pandora, Live365).  The royalty costs are just too much for them to stay in business.  So then, web users will have one less legally-sanctioned way to experience music online and where do you think they’ll probably flock to then?  Songwriters and publishers should get fair money for their work but when the end result is that the groups representing them (SoundExchange) destroy an industry that would ideally support and promote their work, who wins in that deal?  It’s monumental stupidity and yet another example of the music industry killing itself.  Publishing houses and songwriters should pressure SoundExchange to come up with a fairer scheme so that these stations can stay in business and the writers get paid fairly.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Mar 20, 2008


Is it fair to judge a comedy as a failure if it doesn’t make you laugh? That’s not really a rhetorical question. Indeed, it is meant to be more reflective than anything else. If an action spoof satisfies genre requirements without ever making you giggle, is it an outright failure, or something more complicated. It’s the issue that arises when discussing Drillbit Taylor, the newest offering from the Apatow et. al. inspired humor conglomerate. On the one hand, screenwriters Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown (based on a story by none other than John “Breakfast Club” Hughes) do a wonderful job of recreating the awkward freshman dorkdom of early adolescence. But as an intended riotous rib tickler, there is barely a belly laugh to be found.


For skinny, geeky Wade and chubby, curly haired Ryan, the first day of high school is supposed to begin their ascension into cool. Unfortunately, after sticking up for the wussed out, braces wearing idiot Emmit, they become the ongoing target of big time bully Filkins and his ferocious flunky Ronnie. Hoping to find some personal protection, the trio decides to hire a bodyguard. Into their life walks Drillbit Taylor, self-proclaimed Army Ranger and master of martial arts. For a fee, he will guard the boys and help them avoid any further humiliation. What they don’t know is that Taylor is a con man, a beach dwelling homeless bum who needs some quick cash for a planned exile to Canada. Wade, Ryan and Emmit are hoping for a miracle. They get a messed up proto-hobo instead.


Bereft of jokes while overloaded with keenly observed individual moments, Drillbit Taylor can best be described as an almost success. This also means it’s a figurative failure. Like Superbad without the potty mouth, or any number of Apatow-inspired efforts sans the sexual obsession, what could be a bright and breezy coming of age effort gets bogged down in an unnecessary desire to be clever and cutting. Unfortunately, by staying within the confines of a PG-13 rating while pushing the very envelopes of such a standard, Taylor gets equally confused. Instead, it accurately recreates how teens talk and act while failing to illicit a single snicker from the adaptation.


Part of the problem is the now familiar ‘skinny and fatty’ set up to the friendship. It’s becoming an archetypal Apatow trademark. Wade and Ryan are nothing more than surrogates for other symbols from the writer/director’s cinematic setup. One gets the characteristic nerd voice (in this case, a love of magic) while the other is a frat boy without the grain alcohol gimpiness. Nate Hartley and Troy Gentile are winning enough, but since each is doing little more than extending an already formulaic routine, they aren’t offered much room to explore. And things are even worse for Ring boy David Dorfman. His Emmit is a missed opportunity, a Broadway musical loving loser who gets more mugging time than Jerry Lewis during the Labor Day Telethon. But we sense there are other facets to his character than the endless flashing of his metalled mouth.


Yet the biggest letdown comes from Owen Wilson as our so-called adult hero. Smacking of later day Hughes - think Dutch, Uncle Buck, or any number of his substitute parental surrogates - Drillbit possesses a bumbling oaf quality that no longer seems endearing. In fact, it can grow grating at times. And just like almost every movie the Sixteen Candles man has been involved in since Home Alone, burglary is an important plot point. Thankfully, director Stephen Brill doesn’t turn the heist into a slapstick set piece. It happens organically, without any cartoon histrionics. That Wilson waltzes through most of the movie like the sour smell emitted from a pair of rank gym socks is one thing. But his motiveless maneuvering (he doesn’t raise a fist against the bullies because…they’re underage?) and lack of comic bravado deadens his impact.


Indeed, it’s up to the boys to carry this film, and for a while, they do. Brill doesn’t do much more than provide the kind of snapshot touchstone montages that recall Reader’s Digest condescended memories of high school life, and the times when he turns things down (Wade’s crush on an Asian gal named Brooke), the drama barely breathes. In fact, Drillbit Taylor manages to feel like two separate and wholly incompatible movies tossed together and forced to make nice. Instead, they constantly pick at each other like unsettled siblings in the backseat of a long cross country car trip. Eventually, it’s the audience that gets nauseous and needs a rest stop to pull over.


By the time we get to the big showdown, the standoff between the unfathomably evil bully and our newly gonad-ed guys, there’s not much more to do than cheer on the fisticuffs. Drillbit Taylor even allows both kids and adults to get their own special brand of comeuppance. Since entertainment is subjective, and comedy specifically is the most personal of all genres for responses, it’s clear that this film cannot really be universally judged. It comes down to a person-by-person response, a case-by-case reaction to misfired jokes, unexplored cleverness, and a constantly competing sense that a simple, My Bodyguard like story would have worked much better. In the end, Drillbit Taylor is not an awful film. It simply fails to deliver in one obvious way while providing some unexpected insights. Not the greatest recommendation for an all out laughfest, huh?



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.