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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet
Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet, releasing 20 May on Nettwerk Records [Streaming]
Video [Strange]


Flight of the Conchords
Ladies of the World [MP3]
     


Amy LaVere
That Beat (Sun Studio Sessions series) [Video]


Jef Stott
Lamaset (Miami Mix) [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


Sleepercar
Stumble In [MP3]
     


Thalia Zedek Band
Lower Allston [MP3]
     


Eric Avery
All Remote and No Control [MP3]
     



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Sunday, Apr 27, 2008


With the faux infighting of Baby Mama and Harold and Kumar 2 making the 25 April weekend as anticlimactic, cinematically speaking, as possible, it’s time to take a look back at the movies that made the last four months a Bataan Death March of motion picture torture. Of course, bad is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes, it’s impossible to deny the dearth of imagination and originality cascading off the screen. Frequently, we chalk it up to needing a paycheck. In other instances, it’s the marketing minds that determine retardation, and that redundancy equals receipts. Of course we, the audience, are somewhat culpable. We claim to hate how Hollywood throws us the same old slop every year, and yet we turn out in droves for the carbon copy comic book movie, or the indistinguishable slacker comedy.


Yet looking over this quintet of crap, this fivesome of flotsam, it’s clear that some studios aren’t even paying attention. Even worse, the mindbending mediocrity of some of these choices seems to indicate that highly paid industry bosses think we’re drooling, dunderheaded morons. How else would you explain giving Uwe Boll more production value, offering up yet another J-Horror remake from a pair of Frenchmen? Does Larry the Cable Guy really need more beer and chew money, and could someone please stop the terrible, tedious lampoons before the genre sees fit to actually eat itself? Of course nothing could save us from the Spring’s worst endeavor, a purposeful slap in the face by a foreign filmmaker who believes the West loves movie violence a bit too much. Nothing like fighting fire with foolishness.


So here they are, SE&L‘s selections for the titles that made the first quarter of 2008 such a trying theatrical experience. And don’t think we forgot about you 88 Minutes, Doomsday, Untraceable, or Jumper. It’s just that, with only so much bile to go around, it’s better to reserve one’s jaded judgment for a future feature than to come out shooting blanks. Let’s begin with number five:



# 5 - In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale dir. Uwe Boll


Dr. Uwe Boll. What more needs to be said, really? True, his past motion picture output has more or less destined him to take over Ed Wood as the worst director who ever lived, but there were actually people who pointed to this production (and his summer stool sample, Postal) and argued that he has the potential to make good movies. Apparently, he’s reserving that ability for sometime in the future. When you consider his cast here is made up of Jason Statham, Leelee Sobieski, Ron Pearlman, and Ray Liotta, the omens of awfulness seem rather slight. Then Burt Reynolds shows up as the title ruler and any artistic authenticity gets flushed down the toilet.

But the acting is not the only oddball element in this Lord of the Rings redux-ulousness. The CGI is sloppy, to say the least, and the narrative lacks the kind of creative context that keeps us wondering about the next plot point. Instead, we are merely dropped in the middle of this Dungeons Without Dragons dreck and asked to buy every unconvincing moment of it. The pacing is schizophrenic, the editing clearly from the “meanwhile, in another part of the film” school of cutting. In fact, while there are some improvements shown along the way, it’s clear that Boll is only getting worse when it comes to mastering the language of film.



#4 - The Eye dire. David Moreau and Xavier Palud


Beyond disheartening, this was just plain abysmal. Anyone lucky enough to see David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s brilliant Ils (released in the US as Them) knows that this French filmmaking duo can really deliver the shivers. Their simple set-up, involving a secluded Romanian estate and a couple victimized by some unseen invaders was a stark, suspenseful romp. It literally rekindled one’s faith in the subtler forms of the horror genre. This rancid remake re-killed it. Granted, the mere presence of Jessica Alba in the lead guarantees a groan inducing time (Sin City aside), but our directors also seem to suffer from some kind of cinematic amnesia. They seem to have forgotten everything that made Ils so wonderful.

Instead, we get the standard J-Horror junk…unseen phantoms, lots of spooky noises, scenery that shifts between the supernatural and the just plain stupid realms. Even worse, Moreau and Palud rely on gimmicky cinematic stunts to sell this story of a blind musician who ends up with the corneas of a rural clairvoyant. While the narrative mirrors its Asian counterpart rather closely, the usual cultural inconsistencies occur. Americans like to think of themselves as much less superstitious than some other world citizens. Sadly, this is the kind of movie that relies on such made-up mumbo jumbo to work.



#3 - Witless Protection dir. Charles Robert Carner


It’s time to put this sleeve-less, malapropism prone menace out of our misery once and for all. This is by far the worst film the former Blue Collar Comedy tour titan has ever made - and that includes the despicable Delta Farce and the disposable Larry the Cable Guy - Health Inspector. Sure, NASCAR nation can’t get enough of his cornfed cornball cracker-isms, a combination of the Ku Klux Klan and observational humor. But that doesn’t mean it translates successfully into a 90 minute movie. Unfortunately, this cesspool extends said running time by another 7!

The truth be told, there is nothing really wrong with pandering to a narrow demographic. Tyler Perry does it all the time, and his movies literally print their own payouts. But for some reason - maybe it’s the melting pot make-up of the human race - such blinkered bullspit doesn’t wind up being universally hilarious. Sure, there are moments when a chuckle may unexpectedly pass from your lips, but it could be yourself you are laughing at. After all, just think about it - you paid $10 to see this Gomer geek show, and you ain’t ever getting that money (or those brain cells) back.



#2 - Meet the Spartans dir. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer


Gene Siskel once said that the greatest sin a big screen comedy can commit is not being funny. Actually, the late great critic was wrong. A pointless parody positioned as an all out laughfest is the true Hitler of humor. One would assume that after Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie (and most recently, Superhero Movie), all genre in-joking would be covered. Apparently, the homo-erotic spectacle of 300 needed tweaking as well. Enter the talentless twaddle that passes as ability from screenwriters/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. These guys seem capable of taking any current pop culture trend and turn it into the most tired of token takes.


Indeed, hack burlesque comedians are more witty and inventive than this dung - and referring to half-naked musclemen as closeted gays is not the height of satire. Nothing here works - not the timing, not the acting, not the all-important cinematic spoofs. Instead, the pair’s poisonous grab bag approach makes sure that no one subject survives unscathed. Oh, but it is unfunny. Very unfunny indeed. As a matter of fact, rumor has it that the motion picture category of comedy itself has filed a restraining order against these two spoof stalkers.



#1 - Funny Games dir. Michael Haneke


There is nothing worse than an ex-girlfriend who hates you so much that she becomes obsessed with you (it happens with ex-boyfriends too, so no gender baiting, okay?). In that regard, Austrian director Michael Haneke is such a jilted lover. You see, he clearly was enraptured by American moviemaking at some point in his career, but as with most foreign entrants into the industry’s boudoir, he was rejected. So what does he do in return? He takes all of his anger and aggression out on his former paramour with a little experiment in shite called Funny Games. This is supposed to be a deconstruction of the deconstruction of the standard serial killer thriller. Instead, it’s garbage.


By augmenting the very confines of cinema, but subverting our expectations out of a clear egomaniacal drive to make a point, Haneke’s hate permeates every frame. Like arguing that abuse is unhealthy by beating someone over the head, this movie wallows in the very genre excesses that the filmmaker wants to foil. Even worse, he purposefully insults the audience, asking them to accept his treatise as truth even when he doesn’t have the balls or backbone to support his stance. There have been few films as irredeemable as Funny Games. It’s not only one of this year’s worst - it’s a worthy competitor to the “all time” title.


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Saturday, Apr 26, 2008


It was the final nail in his financial coffin, the epic that would eventually close his by now infamous Spanish studios. After the troubled production surrounding his last epic, 55 Days at Peking, many believed producer Samuel Bronston would exercise some manner of restraint. But in true visionary form, he actually tore down his original Rome sets when actor Charleton Heston (who had appeared in El Cid) expressed interest in the Chinese spectacle. When the famous star eventually rejected a role in Fall, Bronston hired Stephen Boyd, and then rebuilt the entire Forum and most of the ancient city across 55 sprawling acres. Budgeted at $20 million (in 1964 dollars), Fall flopped, and even with its high profile cast, it couldn’t save the producer’s professional reputation.


That’s the great thing about DVD. It can help reestablish an unfairly maligned career. It can also argue for filmmaking facets that contributed to an already predetermined downfall. Both elements are present in the The Weinstein Company’s gorgeous restoration of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Presented over three discs and supplemented with a wealth of explanatory material, we get a chance to see Bronston’s vision the way he intended it (sans the 70mm Ultra Panavision Cinerama, that is). We also get an opportunity to witness the hubris that believed audiences would enjoy a scattered, three hour dramatization of the decline of the famed civilization. With the usual international casting conceit, and lots of expansive sets, director Anthony Mann was given a simple mandate - make it big. He frequently went further, making it boring as well.


While fighting Germanic forces north of his empire, Marcus Aurelius is poisoned by conspirators. Unable to name his beloved friend General Gaius Livius as his intended successor, the role of emperor falls on the ruler’s ineffectual son, Commodus. After marrying off his sister - and Livius’ lover - Lucilla to an Armenia king, he begins his reign. Believing that the road to peace is best paved with war and taxes, he causes rebellion amongst many of the outlying regions. In the meantime, Livius brokers a truce with the North, and uses his connection to Aurelius’ adviser Timonides to get the Roman Senate to endorse it. Of course, Commodus disapproves. As the leader’s hubris grows, his control on the empire wanes. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Lucilla is sentenced to death. She is joined by Livius, who has been set up by his own men. A final gladiatorial battle for the fate of Rome awaits our two competing conquerors.


Over the years, some have argued that Gladiator glommed on and stole most of the meaning from this overstuffed production, yet what’s most clear about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that it is a movie at odds with itself. On the one hand, director Anthony Mann and his fine group of actors - Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren - do a wonderful job of bringing out the personal interplay and individual strife that would lead to the collapse of the mighty civilization from the inside out. We believe in the dynamic between the cast, and see how the fate of men (and one woman) could lead to the undermining and the misery of half the world. It’s not a new story - absolute power corrupts absolutely, in a nutshell - but Mann does indeed make it come alive.


On the opposite end is Bronston’s desire for more: more sets; more battle sequences; more extras. What we witness onscreen does indeed look impressive. While many marveled at Ridley Scott’s CGI version of the famed Italian city, Rome and its fantastic Forum look so much more real here. Of course, the tactile effect of a real practical backdrop does help. But there are other elements that are just as successful - the Temple of Jupiter (with the head of Commodus), the winter camp of Marcus Aurelius, the sweeping battlefields. Yet they seem to exist outside of the more intimate material at hand. The Fall of the Roman Empire can frequently feel like a character study played out amongst the very planets themselves. Scope and scale frequently countermand narrative and nuance.


Of course, that was the point. Bronston never thought that a non-spectacle would fill seats. The cinema was still battling TV for the all-important entertainment soul of the American public, and without something sensational to sell, the small screen’s convenience and novelty continued to win out. In many ways, such massive bombast was indeed revolutionary. It was mimicked as recently as the late ‘80s/early’90s, when the VCR and home video threatened to make movie-going obsolete. The studios responded with special effects laden efforts. To paraphrase the position - the viewer never starves when there’s eye candy around.


It was the same four decades ago. Of course, the sweets have soured a little since then. Much of Fall feels forced, pageantry played to the hilt simply because it can be. Plummer is wonderful as the egomaniacal brat, and Mason literally makes the movie. Of course, there are performers like Guinness who appear to be putting in the miles without delivering much of the necessary effort, and Loren was still in iconic beauty mode. She was much better back when she was battling Heston (off screen) during El Cid. Yet the optical wonder provided here, the sheer opulence of Mann’s moviemaking and Bronston’s approach give The Fall of the Roman Empire just enough to keep us going. It may be a tough road to hoe sometime, but the overall effect is impressive.


Equally extraordinary is this new DVD edition. Named after the Weinstein’s mother Miriam, the sheer wealth of added content here should make even the most amateur film historian weep with delight. The movie itself contains a commentary by Bronston’s son Bill and his biographer Mel Martin. While a tad too self-congratulatory (after all, they aren’t really going to criticize the man), it’s still a remarkable discussion. Disc Two trots out the Making-Ofs and the Behind the Scenes featurettes. One of the best highlights the “fact vs. fiction” way in which history is manipulated by Hollywood to fit its dramatic needs. Finally, a third DVD delivers a series of short films, commissioned by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which offers a classroom like take on Roman History (this material is only available as part of the limited edition package).


Frankly, anyone coming to this film hoping for historical accuracy should really seek some cinematic guidance. The Fall of the Roman Empire is meant to be nothing more than a sumptuous banquet of motion picture excesses served with a side dish of the slightest narrative accuracy. That Samuel Bronston saw this as the ultimate form of entertainment speaks as much for his approach as a producer as his fate as a filmmaker. It’s not surprising that he ended up going bankrupt when Fall tanked. Too much of what he was - and always would be - was wrapped up in this extremist ideal. And just like all outsized imaginations, a crash was inevitable. The Fall of the Roman Empire may not be the most notorious motion picture morass in the history of the medium, but for Samuel Bronston, it was the ultimate expression of what he was - for better and for worse.


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Friday, Apr 25, 2008


It’s almost impossible to downsize spectacle. Something that plays as awe-inspiring and epic on the big screen loses much of its luster when miniaturized to standard TV specifications. No matter the home theater set-up, the size of the screen or the complexity of the sound system, nothing matches the theatrical experience point by point, 100%. Instead, it can only marginally mimic what the movies do best - stretch the scope of a subject beyond the most tenable elements of the individual imagination. Back in January, the J.J. Abram’s produced Cloverfield used the Japanese giant monster movie formula to tell a personal story on a grand scale. Believe it or not, on DVD, the size of the saga only increases.


Young Rob Hawkins is leaving New York for a new job opportunity in Tokyo. On the night before his departure, younger brother Jason, best friend Hud, and various friends and family have gathered to celebrate. They include Jason’s fiancé Lily and the object of Hud’s obsessive affection, Marlena. The only person missing is Beth, Rob’s long time gal pal and secret love interest. Confused by something that happened between them weeks before, the trip to Japan has both questioning their commitment. During the festivities, an earthquake - or something like it - hits the city. Suddenly, the power goes out. In the panic, the partygoers head for the building’s roof. There, they see something horrifying. A section of Manhattan explodes into a massive fireball. Then there is a scream. It’s something big. It’s something angry. It’s something ready to destroy New York, block by block.


Much of the original theatrical review of this film applies, even shrunk down to the digital domain. Cloverfield is indeed a great film, a genre-defying marvel that meets or exceeds the potential inherent in the premise and the approach. In one of those creative, career defining moments, TV director Matt Reeves finds an inventive conceit that makes outrageous events play out as real, while also exploding beyond our comprehension. Via sequences of silent terror, claustrophobic suspense, and moments of big budget action set piecing, we get the completely believable story of post-modern kids, cameras and cellphones in hand, trying to make sense of some undeniably Earth shattering events. This is so much more than a mere Blair Witch Godzilla. This is a film about perspective, about how we view our world through the media’s mighty lens.

Inspired by Japan’s love of its Kaiju, and the unfathomable horrors of 9/11 - you can’t look at massive debris clouds consuming the streets, or scenes of victims covered in soot roaming aimlessly through the chaos without being reminded of that fateful day - it’s zeitgeist as a Saturday matinee, a romp through the last 40 years of b-grade schlock given a terrific technological make-over. Many have complained about the handheld ideal, arguing that it seems singularly unreasonable for anyone fleeing for their life to make the viewfinder, not their viability, the main motivation and priority. But thanks to the youth coup concept of YouTube and MySpace, such an event would seem funny if it didn’t feature such an approach. After all, when was the last time you saw a major disaster in perfectly framed and artistically composed shots?


Cloverfield clearly wants to use the unreality of the situation with the nu-reality of the portable camera to mirror this new way of seeing the world. Like the frontline battle footage from Vietnam offered nightly on the evening news during the ‘60s, the notion of being part of the action is intuitively unnerving. We know we’re not supposed to follow Rob and Hud, that Marlena, Jason, and Lily should have run for cover instead of wandering aimlessly within the city. Of course, like all good horror films, our heroes pay for their mistakes. As with all classic movie macabre, the notion that anyone can die at anytime continues to fuel our fear. Reeves and company then magnify this philosophy in a legitimately larger manner - as in any CITY can die at anytime.


Among the final thoughts on this film four months ago was the following statement - “it will be interesting to see how this film eventually plays on the small screen”. The recent DVD release answers this concern immediately and honestly. Brought down to an average family room’s size, the movie somehow works even better. Of course, those who’ve already experienced the film know the scary movie beats by heart, so some of the initial shock certainly dissipates. But this allows for a more detailed, intimate overview. We can follow the characters’ arcs more easily, discovering unseen nuances that were lost in the bedlam. There are also little moments that take on more meaning, like the post-subway attack when Marlena tries to laugh off her injuries. The F/X also stand out more, the brilliant work done in turning green-screen sets and LA locations into a replica for Manhattan more amazing than ever.


The extras also expand on this stellar work. Reeves, along with producer Abrams and many behind the scene personnel, show us, step by step how a realistic view of a destroyed NYC was built in the computer. One of the most fascinating shots discussed is also the most iconic - the head of the Statue of Liberty traveling through the skyscraper landscape. The reason for the symbol’s use and design was crucial to the film’s success. So was the attitude of the monster. The chief designer of the beast points out that he wanted the creature to act like a newborn, not angry so much as confused and cranky about the violent world it has just arrived in. Oddly enough, there is very little about the viral marketing campaign, or Ethan Haas, or the soft drink Slusho. Perhaps a future release will address these missing elements. 


As a film, there is much more to this movie than CG creatures and convention tweaking. Like Cannibal Holocaust, which used torture and reprehensible atrocities to take on the glaring, unforgiving eye of the media, Reeves reinvents the giant creature category of horror to question our perverse fixation with images. During the initial chaos, when fireballs and bridges are falling to the ground, one of the characters asks Hud why he’s still filming. His answer is matter of fact - “People are gonna want to see this. They’re gonna want to know how it went down.” That’s 2008 in a nutshell, a social sentiment that doesn’t believe anything as reported unless there’s accompanying footage taken from an up close and personal viewpoint. This is why, long after the gimmick is gone and the sequel has been set-up, Cloverfield will remain a classic - and rightfully so.


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Friday, Apr 25, 2008
Stillby Robb KendrickUniversity of Texas PressFebruary 2008, 232 pages. $50.00

Still
by Robb Kendrick
University of Texas Press
February 2008, 232 pages. $50.00


Robb Kendrick has a great passion for the tintype photographic process. In Still, he uses this process to document the lifestyle of authentic, modern American cowboys—those people who actually ride horses as part of their job, working the big cattle ranches. He has spent decades driving across the United States with his darkroom in tow and the result of his travels is a gorgeous, rich feast of portraiture. These are real working persons who span a wider range of nationalities, ethnicities, genders, languages, and ages than we were ever taught by Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West. One of the cowboys even serves the photographer a meal of lamb, an unthinkable deviation in beef country! The subtle variation in costume is also well-recorded.


My beef, though, involves Kendrick’s careful posing of his subjects so as to never reveal any trace of the modern era. There is a conspicuous lack of cell phones, pick up trucks, bulldozers, Ipods and other ubiquitous tools of 21st century life. We see the occasional pair of glasses, a bottle, rifle, or contacts. The feeling is hard to shake that much like a stage set, a measure of reality and authenticity were sacrificed for aesthetic reasons. A typical city-dwelling observer glancing through Still may be hard pressed to differentiate between Kendrick’s reverential documentation of reality and a bunch of modern guys trying out for a themed Ralph Lauren commercial. Sometimes, Still‘s photographs appear more sophisticated versions of those souvenir, sepia-toned novelty photos people bring back from vacations at the dude ranch.


The number of working cowboys is unknown, but one of the subjects in the book notes they are “kind of a dying breed”. Thus, there is a tragic feel to some of the shots, that this part of history may soon be lost entirely. Despite Kendrick’s stated efforts to capture unadorned ordinariness, the pictures do have an undeniably romantic and individualistic aura. The subjects are also almost exotic in their descriptions of the joy of being outside, being cold and hungry, or perhaps smelling something nice, as opposed to being on a couch, near a television or computer, or in an air-conditioned shopping mall.


Some of the pictures appear worn and damaged. The artist obviously knows his stuff and this begs the question of whether or not deliberate scratches and scrapes were applied to artificially distress the photographs. Perhaps the marks and imperfections occurred naturally, though, because there is no reason for Kendrick to make them look older than they really are, or to suggest to the viewer that he is a less competent technician than he is. Not to be churlish, but Kendrick’s skill in presenting the subjects in an intriguing light makes me wish that the tintype camera process were able to allow him to use his considerable technical and artistic skills to document these characters doing what they really do, in an even more realistic environment: working, not standing still.


The cowboys themselves, as revealed in their clothing, the looks in their eyes, and the descriptive essays scattered throughout the book, seem genuinely interesting people. Still makes me wonder what their modern lives are really like.


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