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by Bill Gibron

1 Aug 2009

In the far off, distant future, when film is no longer a question of celluloid or aluminum discs, historians will look at the Walt Disney Company with a combination of admiration and disdain. Without a doubt, no other Hollywood production dynasty has manufactured the kind of universally loved entertainment as the House of Mouse. For every minor fumble or commercial miscue, they’ve come up with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and more recently, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Their partnership with Pixar (both before and after the merger) has resulted in ten near-perfect CG cartoons and they’ve continued to mine their massive vaults as inspiration for dozens of sequels, tie-ins, and newly formed classics.

And then there is the other side of Uncle Walt’s World, a viciously capitalistic enterprise that can’t leave its legacy alone.  Sure, every other studio in town marginalizes its past by pilfering it for unnecessary remakes and reimaginings. And it’s not really fair to point to Disney as the worst of these endless recyclers. While they may be the most prevalent in looking for ways to extend their various franchises, they are perhaps the most consistent in finding fairly successful ways of doing so. Case in point: Race to Witch Mountain. Though their live action efforts have never been the company’s cure-all, it makes perfect sense to take a slighted sci-fi series from three decades before and retrofit it to the talents of human tentpole Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. While it still smacks of an accounting, not artistic decision, we really don’t mind the diversion.

The former pro wrestler plays a failed race car driver named Jack Bruno. After falling in with the wrong criminal crowd, our measured man is trying to straighten out his life. As a cabbie in Las Vegas, he is still hounded by his past, but all that changes when seemingly desperate teens Sara and Seth show up in the back of his taxi. They offer him a large sum of money to drive out into the desert. He reluctantly agrees. Thus begins what is, in essence, an extended chase where the US Government, led by the evil Henry Burke, tries to capture the kids (who are in fact, aliens), and Jack does everything in his semi-super hero power to protect them. There are crashes and explosions, special effects and lots of jokes at the expense of geeks, nerds, and anyone enamored of all things speculative and fictional. Though he’s not a brilliant director, Andy Fickman (She’s the Man, The Game Plan) keeps things moving at a genial, agreeable pace.

But this doesn’t mean that Race to Witch Mountain is memorable. Or meaningful. In fact, it’s safe to say that this is the very definition of empty celluloid calories. Since it never intends to be anything other than adolescent fodder, a means of giving the slightly more mature members of the House of Mouse demo a sound movie experience, the lack of any substance doesn’t really matter. But when taken as part of a trend, when shown to suggest nothing more than a way for an already flush filmmaking concern to continuing minting money, it can’t help but seem superficial. From its cast to its creative team, Race to Witch Mountain is not an “E” ticket experience. Instead, this is the ride you take when The Haunted Mansion line is too long and you’ve already been to The Country Bear Jamboree.

It’s not Johnson’s fault. He’s a good enough guy and is more than capable of handling the action. Sure, Jack Bruno turns from troubled ex-con to steely man of action within ten minutes of the movie starting, and we never revisit the kind of brooding self-examination the introduction suggests. But at least Mr. Rock is not Carla Gugino. Rarely has such a sexy actress had her hots turned down as harshly as they are here. Instead of playing up her attractiveness, Fickman and the gang give her a dopey hairdo and an equally annoying personality to strip any last vestiges of ‘va-va-va-voom’ from her UFO expert persona. It’s not just that Gugino is better looking than she is here - she’s smarter, more assured, and far more appealing than the whiny waste she’s forced to play.

As our alien adolescents, AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig are fine, though only the former brings anything “otherworldly” to their performance. For the most part, they are meant to look wholesome and helpless, loaded with magic extraterrestrial powers but in desperate need of an adult male to manage their journey off planet. Since the movie is nothing but derivative, it stands to reason that a Terminator-like character (known as a Siphon) would show up to mandate Bruno’s beefed-up involvement, but even that threat is contained, kept to balls of electrified fire and the occasional laser blast. As the more human villain, Irishman Ciarán Hinds is stripped of his dignity, and his accent, to play a bland bureaucrat.

Even embellished by the blu-ray experience (Disney really excels at the new home theater format), Race to Witch Mountain still feels small. It’s not meant to be epic, or broach the kind of cosmic scope that other recent sci-fi offerings like Knowing have attempted. In many ways, Fickman is making Dick and Jane’s first experience with extraterrestrials - scary without being shocking, exciting without being overwhelming. Even with the obvious nods to the ‘70s original (former child stars Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann reappear here as residents of a small California town) and the upgrade in visuals, one still gets the sense of a TV movie blown up to big screen proportions. It doesn’t undermine the efforts genial entertainment value, but hardly trying and barely succeeding are not honorable artistic badges to wear.

In some ways, it’s no longer just to court Disney as a purveyor of quality family filmmaking. Sure, they can stumble upon genius once in a while - almost always with the help of outside auteurs - but for the most part, there is very little distinction between the grist mill movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and the nominal titles taking up theatrical space in the post-millennial marketplace. Granted, Race with Witch Mountain is not Boatniks or Super Dad, but it hardly qualifies as a timeless keeper - and under the current corporate model, that suits Mr. Mickey’s men just fine. There was once a time when a ‘Walt Disney’ title suggested classicism and creative daring. Today, it’s all commerciality and accounting ink. Race with Witch Mountain is an enjoyable byproduct of such stresses. It’s as hit and miss as the minds who made it.

by PopMatters Staff

31 Jul 2009

PopMatters loved Elbow’s latest album, The Seldom Seen Kid, placing it at #9 on our top 60 album list last year. The Manchester band stopped by KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program last week to chat and play some tunes.

by Timothy Gabriele

31 Jul 2009

This one’s 14 years old as a cover, but it’s perhaps the best rendition of this song omitting possibly only the original.  Low slow the tempo to a narcotic level and milk every note for sullen strength.  An elegia to the original’s fervent howl.

by PopMatters Staff

31 Jul 2009

The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
Susquehanna
(Rock Ridge Music)
Releasing: 29 September (US)

SONG LIST
01 Bust Out
02 The Mongoose and the Snake
03 Hi and Lo
04 Blood Orange Sun
05 White Trash Toodle Oo
06 Julie Grave
07 Roseanne
08 Hammerblow
09 Tom the Lion
10 Wingtips
11 Breathe
12 The Good Things
13 Arráncate

The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
“The Mongoose and the Snake” [MP3]
     

Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
Skaboy JFK
(Rock Ridge Music)
Releasing: 29 September (US)

SONG LIST
01 Skaboy JFK
02 Hi and Lo
03 Soul Cadillac
04 Sockable Face Club
05 Slapstick
06 End of the Night
07 Pool Shark
08 Cosa Nostra
09 Don Quixote
10 Hammerblow
11 2:29
12 Say It to My Face

Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
“2:29” [MP3]
     

by Rob Horning

31 Jul 2009

Brad DeLong linked to this blog post by “Mr. Awesome” that takes apart a recent Megan McArdle post about health care. I agree with Mr. Awesome on every point he raises regarding the health-care debate but was left more in fearful awe of the comprehensiveness of his ad hominem attack on McArdle.

She belongs to an exceptionally stupid set of youngish libertarian Economist-esque pseudo-thinkers. Her “columns” mix the very best shallow diarist introspection of yuppie navel-gazing with the arrogant dead thought theatrics of a fake intellectual who operates with no standards of proofreading or fact-finding. She is a small fish in the great pond of bullshit punditry, but she’s like a clownfish, really bright and attention-grabbing — because she’s just so damn terrible. She lives in a dense tangle of white privilege anemone, which will cause a nasty rash if you touch it. There is perhaps a moray eel of intellectual accountability staring at that shiny overgrowth all bug-eyed like, “What the fuck is that?”

Though I’m usually unpersuaded by McArdle’s posts, I keep her blog in my RSS feed because she is an interesting, lively writer and because she strikes me as oddly courageous in, for lack of a less grad-schoolish way of putting it, owning up to her subject position without a kabuki show of apologetics and disclaimers. So I struggle to understand why she inspires the kind of vituperation cited above, which would be better reserved for the Sarah Palins and Thomas L. Friedmans of the world. McArdle’s writing typically reflects an agile mind moving quickly and unguardedly, something that her enemies seem to regard as the blight of privilege, prompting a burning urge to make her face consequences for some of the opinions she holds and chooses to express with a confidence that they seem to think is unearned. But by what means can one earn or deserve to be confident? Why is her intellect “fake”? It’s tempting to attribute some of the scorn to her being a woman, because really, she is not so “terrible” and disingenuous a pundit as to deserve this kind of character assassination. Anyway, whatever the cause, the disproportionate hatred she inspires ends up having the perverse effect of shielding her ideas from the critique they often deserve. Or rather, it tends to discredit the otherwise compelling critique, as with Mr. Awesome’s post.

But then again, I may be inordinately sympathetic; when I am feeling discouraged about the writing I do here, the criticism I level at myself tends to echo this:

The McArdles of the world believ[e] their own sheltered lives are a viable facsimile for anyone’s troubles or experience. They are so smart that they don’t have to conduct research before reaching conclusions; they are so wise that they require no experience to understand other people’s lives. They are so damn great and important that the petty problems and limited movement of their tiny orbits around unaccountable safety are the total motion of the world. Theirs is a nation of 300 some million, the vast majority of whom are extras and objects in their boring, whitebread existence.

That was salt in the wound of my self-pity. Often when I am writing I venture dubiously into terrain about which I am underinformed and throw out speculative ideas without compiling data to back them up or even coming up with a plan for determining what such data that would be. Am I the “spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge” that Nietzsche condemns?

If I had more academic training in the methods of social science, I’d perhaps know better then to write as I do, and would probably be even more wary and ashamed of “irresponsible” speculating, and stay quiet. But I keep blundering along anyway, partly out of the faith that there is something useful in the provocations of nonempirical speculation, in thoughts that would be otherwise lost if one hewed always to positivistic hypothesis testing. That’s to say that I think it’s worthwhile for writers to make impressionistic lunges at truth, as filtered through the consciousness of a particular, always pathetically limited person who is nonetheless trying to synthesize as much as possible that seems relevant at any given spontaneous moment of writing. It’s not merely frivolous when we try to see and point out constellations where there are only countless stars.

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