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by shathley Q

16 Aug 2009

Is Superman, in many ways the paragon of American virtue, a product of being socialized in American values, or is there something innate in his character which seeks out these uplifting and humanizing values?

In this Wednesday’s Iconographies, PopMatters Comics writer C. E. McAuley explores the global role of the United States as sole remaining superpower with a close reading of Superman: Red Son.

Using the nature-vs-nurture debate as its starting point, Red Son explores the possible ramifications of expansionist policies by a global superpower.

What lengths would superpower go to, if it knew it was doing the right thing? And what lengths could be justified.

Red Son is not only a careful unpacking of the core characters of the Superman mythology, but a dissertation in the persuasiveness of ideology.

by Bill Gibron

15 Aug 2009

When David Fincher released his post-modern masterpiece Zodiac in 2007, audiences were expecting another Se7en like slide into dark, depraved inhumanity. The story of the fabled Northern California serial killer did seem like perfect subject matter for the auteur Instead, what viewers got was a wickedly insightful illustration of the differences between police procedure circa the late ‘60s, and how we view such investigations within our current CSI driven mentality. It was a stunning twist on the topic, a chance to feel the frustration of the characters while seeing how, sometimes, luck was as necessary as knowledge in solving a crime.

Another masterful example of this old school detecting vs. new world law enforcement ideal comes in the form of the BBC’s brash, bold, and thoroughly brilliant Life on Mars. Centering on the surreal adventures of millennial cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) suddenly transported back to 1973, it’s time travel taken to sly, sophisticated heights. Arriving around the time of David Bowie’s hit song (thus the title), the Detective Chief Inspector takes up with the Criminal Investigation Department of Manchester under the auspices of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). There, he works with the rest of the force to solve crimes while dealing with the differences between his time, and the past.

Over the course of sixteen sensational episodes (eight for each season), the series shows Sam’s difficulty in coping, his by-the-book approach clashing significantly with the ‘70s ‘anything for a confession’ conceit. It also explores the situation itself, suggesting that our hero may be medically incapacitated in the future (he is hit by a car at the beginning of the storyline, hinting that he is now in a coma), or truly insane. There are elements of the supernatural and suspense, as well as halting humor and the kind of fish out of water formulas that never seem to fail. When meshed with amazing acting, smart scripting, and a truly moving finale (you have to wait until Series 2 for that - sorry), we wind up with something very special indeed.

There’s just something about the British when it comes to television drama. They can take a standard storyline - say a police psychologist who uses his cunning and insight to ‘crack’ cases - and turn it into the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy (right, Robbie “Eddie Fitzgerald” Coltraine?). It’s the same with Life on Mars. Each episode uses Sam’s dilemma as a backdrop for what is, otherwise, a sometimes straightforward exploration of crime and punishment. There are individual cases to be solved, the backdrop of messages from the future, and a strange little spectral girl adding elements of intrigue to the whodunit.

It’s easy to see why this material failed when translated over to America (the ABC version ran for one season in 2008). The storylines contained in the eight episodes offered as part of the first series require concentration and a continued investment. You can’t just tune in, pick up a red herring or random clue, and feel vindicated when the bad guy is caught. No, Life on Mars is meant to be culture shock as social commentary, an attempt by creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah to expand on the typical police plotlines with elements both human and out of this world. 

The UK has always had a fondness for science fiction, with shows like Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Primeval garnering huge ratings within a contemporary reality TV dynamic. Life on Mars is different - a hybrid of sorts between grim reality (England in 1973 was no picnic) and fanciful wish fulfillment. One of the main themes that runs throughout the series is Tyler’s desire to return back to the 21st Century. Of course, there’s a complication, and her name is Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Thrust into the middle of the ‘70s concept of gender inequality, the character instantly earns Sam’s attention. Over the course of the series, she also gains something far more personal.

It’s this kind of investment - emotionally, intellectually - that makes Life on Mars so resonant. The show never excuses the era, illustrating obvious flaws like sexism and racism while celebrating the police’s ability to solve crimes under seemingly backward conditions. We see the usual suspects - armed robbers, gangsters, drug dealers - interwoven with darker, more diabolical crimes. As Sam struggles to make sense of his life, the rest of the Manchester force must confront the kind of calm, controlled detecting he brings to their male machismo methodology. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Simm and Glenister simply great as the differing DCIs.

Of course, the biggest problem with any series like this is how immersive and involving it is. Just as we get to Episode 8, and some questions appear to be answered, we are thrown back into the mix and left wanting more. That’s where DVD can really ease the pain. Acorn Media offers the first part of this amazing production on four discs loaded with added content. There are commentaries, interviews, and production featurettes, each one offering more Life on Mars goodness. Even better, there is clarity in many of these conversations, bits and pieces of plot and characterization that amplify our understanding of the show’s main narrative purpose.

Still, the wait for Series 2 will be interminable, especially for anyone without access to cable stations like BBC America (which frequently reruns these shows are part of their schedule). Unlike American dramas, which can drag out a character arc in a mad attempt to milk all the possible profit out of a project, Life on Mars works within its ever-present end game. Here, the creators determined that Sam would have two eight episode plotlines, and that’s all. So the experience of watching Life on Mars at home is a lot like seeing the first part of a movie in the theaters. There’s the satisfaction of seeing something so wonderful that you can’t wait for it to continue. There’s also the horrifying reality that you’ll have to sit tight for as long as necessary as the sequel is being prepared.

As consolation, Life on Mars Series 2 will definitely be worth the wait. While some may see the core concept as a bit “out there” and the desire to tie time and place together a little too obvious for our far more sophisticated mindset, there is no denying the whole “the more things change, the more they stay the same” subtext of the series. In Fincher’s film, we got the distinct impression that if forensic science and inter-department communication had been ever so slightly more advanced, the Zodiac killer would right now be rotting in a jail cell somewhere. Instead, the limits of the past flummoxed even the most loyal law enforcement official. Life on Mars is another example of police procedural as filtered through a far less sophisticated time. Everything else about the show, however, is thoroughly modern - and marvelous. 

by Bill Gibron

15 Aug 2009

For some filmmakers, legacy is everything. The movies they made decades before are like children - perfect if flawed, favored while sometimes passed over for others in the filmic ‘family’. As a result, directors are nothing more than daddies, driven to nurture their offspring while working within the commercial community known as show business. Wes Craven is a brilliant example of such a guardian. Ever since he stormed onto the scene with his exploitation epic The Last House on the Left, he has been careful to control almost every aspect of his oeuvre (the rare one that escaped his grasp - the classic Nightmare on Elm Street franchise). Even today, as remakes rule the macabre marketplace, he’s been at the forefront of protecting his motion picture progeny.

While Freddy Krueger and company is being fostered by someone else, Craven has kept up with the rest of his cinematic relations, okaying a decent retelling of his cannibal clan holocaust The Hills Have Eyes, as well as proposed updates of Shocker and, perhaps, Deadly Friend. But it was the announcement more than a year ago that the famous fright filmmaker would be guiding a new version of his “it’s only a movie” masterwork to the big screen. Fans originally scoffed at the notion. After all, what could top Last House‘s sleazoid notoriety? The answer, sure enough, was nothing. However, the 2009 take on the repugnant revenge thriller found a way of making its vision work - tone down the filth, slow down the story, and build up the fury.

In the Dennis Iliadis update, we meet the Collingwood family - John (a doctor), Emma (a teacher), and Mari (swimmer and all around American teenage daughter). They are still in morning over the death of their eldest son Ben, and hope a trip to their lakeside cabin will ease the pain. Instead, Mari’s sidetrack into town finds he face to face with escaped convict Krug, his psycho gal pal Sadie, his craven brother Frances and ineffectual son Justin. Doing what heartless criminals do best, our child of privilege is left for dead. A freak storm and a car accident leads the gang to the doorstep of the nearest shelter - the Collingwood’s isolated abode. And when these parents find out what these villains did to their child, blood will flow…and no one will be left alive.

While the tag line for the 2009 production asked “If someone hurt someone you love, how far would you go to get revenge?” , the real issue with The Last House on the Left is why would someone remake a movie that was considered sick, morally depraved, and unconscionable some 37 years ago. Certainly nothing new - not updated special effects, directorial flare, or cultural subtext - could change the rape and payback narrative into something novel. Yet oddly enough, Greek filmmaker Iliadis finds a way to make the material his own. By bringing the pace down to a simmer, by turning the Collingwoods into characters instead of caricatures, by never once excusing Krug and his compatriots in criminality, he ventures beyond what Craven created to make this journey a true 21st century story.

This is a movie about advantage, about bad things happening to people who perceive they are, and yet perhaps might not be, good. There is a moment, right before Mom and Dad decide to go nutzoid, when they confront the notion of killing for their fallen child. The discussion, calm and collected, argues for a couple who might actually enjoy this kind of vigilante carnage. Sure, Craven’s original storyline (swiped from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) has all the hallmarks of fate frustrated and destiny delivering. Since the action takes place so close to the Collingwood home, it only seems sensible that Krug and his clan would end up at their doorstep. But while the original argued for faux sophisticates turning into martini wielding maniacs, the new version argues for the inherent Voorhees in all of us.

The moment Emma discovers who destroyed their daughter, the girl’s nearly lifeless body washing up along the family’s property line, we see normalcy tossed aside for a pure need for blood. Granted, you could read the recent death of their son as a motivating factor, the family not ready to lose two children this quickly. But The Last House on the Left seems to argue that, once given the excuse, any parent would pull out a claw hammer and give a sadistic stranger a backdoor lobotomy. The situation does keep the Collingwoods from calling the police (storm = no land lines and limited cell access) and the horrors we’ve seen heaped on Mari makes the need for revenge that much more urgent, but the sudden shift over to violence, especially at the very end, illustrates something a tad more troubling.

So does the uncontrolled nature of our criminals. Why does Krug decide to dig himself in deeper and kidnap Mari and her friend Paige? Why does his anger later turn into sexual assault? He already has a couple of murdered cops on his latest rap sheet, why add even more demands for an eventual death penalty. We never sense the character’s desperation, never know why he was incarcerated and how Sadie and Frances managed to allude authorities, considering their batshit desire to destroy.

One of the weird bits of illogic in Last House is the rationale for Krug, needing to escape, to simply sit back and place nice. He could simply kill the Collingwoods, search out their property for a means of escape (enter the family boat), and take off for parts unknown. Unlike the original film, which had its criminals callously wallow in what they did and who they did it to (and who they are now hobnobbing with), there’s an odd, innocent bystander vibe to the last act melee. Sure, Krug more or less murdered Mari, robbing her of everything she valued. But who knew her parents would become knife wielding maniacs in the process?

Apparently, the main message of the new Last House on the Left is that human nature is hard to decipher. The Collingwoods get joy out of their blatant bloodlust because it serves a sense of justice. Even as they extend the torture way beyond the limits of human endurance, they calmly go about their judge, jury, and executioner roles. Similarly, the gang just can’t stem their bubbling criminal urges. Frances only needed to turn down his libido for a few hours and they’d be back on the lam - or even better, living in the lap of luxury while they decided their next move. Instead, the need to be nasty takes over, giving the crew away and leading to their eventual downfall. Iliadis seems to be saying that, no matter what seems rational and normal, fear and the need for retribution will always trump said sensibility.

On Blu-ray, the film has been expanded to incorporate material cut from the original theatrical release, and it really helps the overall context. The rape, disgusting to begin with, is taken to far more sickening extremes, while the murders all offer their own moments of extended gore. Iliadis also gives the characters more of a chance to interact, to build the kind of connections that will come apart later in the picture. With his determined, desaturated look, deliberate sense of dread, and completely gratuitous finale, The Last House on the Left doesn’t so much mirror the original as it expands on its ideas.

All of which argues for Craven’s creative ingenuity. It would have been easy to find some fresh faced newbie, hand them a script which basically mimics the first film’s mindless depravity, and ratchet up the special effects. Instead, as he did with Alexandre Aja and the nuke mutant magnificence of The Hills Have Eyes, Craven found a filmmaker with vision and let him run with the redux. There will be a few fanatics who will never forgive the scary movie maestro for exploiting his output like this. Others will never know he had a career prior to a certain slasher spoof. Whatever the case, The Last House on the Left stands as an interesting twist on the original grindhouse great. While it may not pass the test of time, it definitely delivers the gratuitous goods. It just takes its own sweet time doing so.

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2009

He is consistently hailed as the last great master of 2D animation, the Walt Disney of his own amazing and imaginative Japanese empire. Several of his films sit at or near the top of the list of the nation’s all time box office champions and he is considered the first director of anime ever to win an Oscar (for Spirited Away). From an early career working on adaptations of Puss and Boots and Treasure Island, to his breakout Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), he pledged to maintain a standard of quality and artistry that many in the modern movie biz can’t match. It’s a philosophy that’s followed him through other masterworks (My Neighbor Totorro) and true works of cinematic art (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle).

Now comes his latest, the fanciful fairy tale Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) and he’s actually brought the House of Mouse along with him this time. New head of cartooning, Pixar’s John Lasseter, has made it his goal to make Hayao Miyazaki a household name - and with this charming, visionary film, he just might do it. Sure, you might have to suffer through some trite English voice acting (courtesy of Miley’s Cyrus’ sister Noah and the Jonas Brothers’ sibling Frankie), but the images employed by Miyazaki and his crew defy description. This is easily one of the greatest achievements in animation - ever.


Poor little Ponyo is a fish-like creature who longs to be human. Her mother is the ancient Goddess of the Sea, her father a slave to his love of the ocean. Escaping to the surface, she comes in contact with lonely boy Sōsuke. He misses his own dad, the captain of a shipping liner. Ponyo falls instantly for her new pal. Soon recaptured, she vows to return to land and be with her new friend. Sprouting arms and legs, she uses the powers of the old ways to aid her transformation. Sadly, such spells cause the waters to swell, creating a storm and tsunami that almost consumes Sōsuke’s town. While Ponyo is happy to be with her playmate, her parents are very upset. And with the moon losing its orbit and destroying the tides, our little heroine must choose - a life as a human, or the powers that are part of the sea.


Ponyo is gorgeous, the lost art of hand drawn animation accelerated through a whirlwind vision of ecology trumped by man’s careless need for comfort. It’s a sly bit of preaching, letting images evoke the kind of emotional reactions that scientific hypotheses and philosophical rants typically produce. By using Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid as an obvious jumping off point, and instilling the narrative with a grandeur for all things ancient and mythic, Miyazaki reconfigures folklore for those who might not see the otherwise hidden agenda. By focusing on Ponyo’s desire to be human, by showing how that “selfish” act affects the entire ocean population, the movie mirrors the currently contemporary mindset. No matter how precious we think our environment is, we seem willing to undermine it for our own personal aims.

The addition of a nursing home and a group of elderly residents also plays into the theme of tradition and respect. Miyazaki uses the aged as a metaphor for what’s forgotten in times of tranquility, and what’s needed when cooler, wiser heads are mandated. The ladies may seem like Sōsuke’s most significant playmates (the kids at his school are introduced and done away with in a single short sequence) but the truth is, they will end up playing a major part in the resolution of this matter. That they are rewarded for their actions is another attempt by Miyazaki to emphasize the importance of the past. While the movie manipulates reality to play with the natural order, how he uses his characters to create symbolism and substance is one of his best moves.

Yet it’s the stunning visual set-pieces that make this film so magical. One of the most astounding occurs when Ponyo decides to defy her father and, loaded up on magical elixir, make her way back to Sōsuke. As the waters swell and the waves crest, as massive walls of ocean are metaphorically changed to huge schools of running tuna, our plucky little redhead runs the surface, her speed matching the mesmerizing backdrop the animators create. There is no CG here, no use of computers to guide or supplement (unlike other Miyazaki efforts). Instead, cell after seamless cell illustrates a tidal wave terrorizing a young mother and her son, car running roughshod over the flooded roads in order to transport them to safety. As we witness Ponyo’s resolve, we can literally witness the power of love.

Removing the Japanese voices from the film does do away with some of the movie’s indomitable spirit and magic. Just like seeing a martial arts epic stripped of its dignity, there is something about the process of Westernizing a movie like this that fails to match its inherent mystique. The movie was not made by American’s and even with Lasseter in tow as a ‘technical director’, the translation is a bit wonky at best. When seen in its native tongue Ponyo remains a classical canvas, a remarkable masterpiece of style and substance. English just doesn’t have to same power, no matter how capable the casting is. Indeed, this happens a lot in foreign filmography. A wholly unique film - Let the Right One In - can feel false and slightly pretentious when given the mandatory US mainstream make-over.

Still, it’s a credit to Miyazaki’s craft that he can overcome such marketing limits to fashion a film that’s so charismatic, so full of passion for the animated artform and all its varying disciplines that it reminds us of what came before while setting the benchmark for what will come after. In recent years, the major studios have backed away from 2D cartooning, stressing that audiences seem to prefer 3D computer graphics to the old pen and ink prototype. Clearly, few of these so-called “viewers” have truly experienced the unadulterated bliss within the medium - and if anyone can convert them, it will be Miyazaki. In a Summer of senseless mayhem and underwhelming efforts, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is majestic. It easily matches (and in many cases, surpasses) the best the genre has to offer.

by Rob Horning

14 Aug 2009

The difference between something that is well-designed and something that is merely designy seems pretty self-evident if you base the judgment on functionality. But the difference between the two is always being blurred, usually by marketers trying to gain an edge for a product that’s not essentially different from its market competitors. So we get designy bottles of dishwashing liquid, designy stainless-steel appliances, designy retro-looking appliances and other pseudo-novelties. Design improvements that allow us to consume or use a good more efficiently are conflated with improvements that shift our attention away from use to abstract contemplation—the good becomes a mirror in which we see reflected our own good taste. Designy-ness, like so many consumerist products, lets us consume ourselves.

These efforts to sell products as a vehicle for design combine to create a climate in which design for its own sake is functionality, an aesthetic end that inherently enriches the lives of those who get to handle such “beautiful” objects. Industrial designers like Apple’s Jonathan Ive get elevated to the status of artists, as if their aim was not to sell more goods but to create the Good. Consumerism is thereby transformed into a kind of democratized connoisseurship; Target (or, if you are still trying to preserve class distinction, ABC Carpet & Home) becomes a museum from which you can take home the objets d’art.

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