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by Bill Gibron

5 Jul 2008

In general, there are two crucial elements to a successful spoof. One is the source material. Something has to be part of the pop culture consciousness before it can become potential lampoon material. Cult entities can’t cut it, while the overexposed tend to ridicule themselves. The balance is not perfect, but it must be maintained. And then there is the humor itself. No one is knocking the lowbrow and the scatological, but a send-up must have some modicum of wit less it wallow in mindless unfunny business. The best benchmark for such a stricture is the 1980 farce Airplane! Directed by Jim Abrahams, and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, this comedy classic found the perfect combination of material and mirth to become a prime example of parody perfection.

Since then, however, the genre has died a thousand Scary Movie inspired deaths. Specifically, a pair of sadly untalented writers named Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have become the de factor frauds in charge of the post-post modern movement in so-called take-offs. Their string of cinematic abominations includes all four of the horror-inspired joke-a-thons, as well as Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and the upcoming Disaster Movie. How they avoided getting their dumbed down, derivative fingerprints on Superhero Movie (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Dimension Films division) is a minor miracle. Sure, this bumbling burlesque is only a tad more competent than the Friedberg/Seltzer sputum purporting to be comedy, but you can tell that the people behind the scenes at least have an idea of what spoofing is all about.

Craig Mazin is an alumnus from the Scary franchises (he helped out with numbers three and four) and with the help of original parody pro David Zucker as producer, some of that incomparable ZAZ spark has found its way into the desperately DOA format. The storyline is the spitting image of Spider-man. Rick Riker, on a field trip to a science lab, gets bitten by a genetically altered dragonfly. Soon, he’s taking on the characteristics of the bug, and exploring his newfound powers while pining away for sexy next door neighbor Jill Johnson. In the meantime, dying industrialist Lou Landers partakes in a radical experiment that turns him into a kind of vampire - he must kill someone everyday in order to live. As the Dragonfly becomes a celebrated crimefighter, Landers assumes the identity of the Hourglass, and uses his insane arch-villainy to try and live forever.

Right up front, you can see the main difference between Superhero and any of the other “Movies” mentioned. This film actually has a plot, a quasi-coherent clothesline upon which all number of timely and already dated riffs can be assembled and presented. We actually get something similar to a three part story arc, Rick going through the necessary origin motions before taking on his inadvertent nemesis. In between, there are takes on Batman Begins, X-Men, comic book culture, and everything that made Sam Raimi’s blockbuster a glorified geek classic. Sure, the sexually oriented material with Happy Day‘s Marion Ross and the way to aged Leslie Nielsen barely works, more uncomfortable than comic, and the random cameos from Brent Spiner and Jeffrey Tambor are more irritating than enjoyable, but overall, the performances are part of Superhero Movies limited positives.

Another is Drake Bell. While his partners it pre-teen Nickelodeon crime - The Amanda Show‘s Ms. Bynes and Drake and Josh‘s Mr. Peck - have both gone on to major motion picture careers, the music minded 22 year old has been stuck in big screen second banana mode. Superhero Movie won’t change that status for now, but Bell is very genial as Rick Riker. He does dopey slapstick well, and his expressions offer the perfect combination of cluelessness and self-referential irony. Without Bell, this film would be an even bigger dud. That he manages to keep us engaged even as fake animals are fornicating with his leg (as well as other body parts) indicates the inherently endearing quality he brings to the role.

As part of the DVD extras, we are treated to a full length audio commentary featuring Mazin and producers Zucker and Robert K. Weiss (best known for his work on the entire Police Squad series) along with some unnecessary deleted scenes (jokes that really misfire), an alternative ending (similar to what was eventually seen, if only smaller in scope), and a collection of cast and crew featurettes. Perhaps the most interesting element here is the notion that many recognize the reputation the genre has garnered, as well as how desperate they are to keep Superhero Movie from facing the same fate. Mazin and Zucker argue over how to approach parody, while Bell describes some of the pitfalls of being an on screen action star.

Certainly there are facets of this farce that just do not work. Christopher McDonald is way too manic to be anything other than a scenery chewing goof, and the random arrival of Pamela Anderson, Tracey Morgan, Simon Rex, and Regina Hall make about as much sense as the shout outs to Barry Bonds, Facebook, and Dr. Stephen Hawking. And anyone with fond memories of real send-up masters like Mel Brooks and such ZAZ masterworks as Top Secret! will wince at any comparable comparison. For what it’s worth, Superhero Movie is just a tad less inventive than the Star Wars workout Spaceballs, while not quite as shabby as other non- Friedberg/Seltzer stupidity like The Comebacks. While the entire comedic category may still be on life support, at least Mazin and crew aren’t contributing to its demise. Instead, Superhero Movie may suggest there’s life in the old filmic format after all.

by John G. Nettles

4 Jul 2008

Mmmm… Sociology…: In one episode of The Simpsons, an establishing shot of the Springfield Public Library reveals a desperate sign reading, “We have books about TV.” If not for the potential for cosmological implosion, many of those books would be about The Simpsons, which, after almost two decades on the air, is such a cultural phenomenon that it now informs our sociological experience as much as the other way around. The funny little badly drawn cartoon show has, in many ways, become a barometer of our collective lives, and cultural observers and academics have built a cottage industry from analyzing the show’s impact and deeper meanings.

The latest entry to plumb the rich history of The Simpsons is Tim Delaney’s Simpsonology: There’s a Little Bit of Springfield in All of Us (Prometheus Books, 2008). Delaney, a sociology professor at SUNY Oswego, is a self-described Simpsons fanatic and draws widely and meticulously from the first 400 (!) episodes of the show to illustrate concepts in sociology, a sort of guide for the uninitiated using the microcosm of Matt Groening’s universe to show how we study and understand the collective behavior of human beings. Using exhaustive examples and snatches of dialogue from the show, Delaney demonstrates how the Simpsons and their neighbors relate to each other in the home, the school, the workplace, and the larger communities of religion, sports, politics, friendship, and romance.

At first glance, the book reads rather simply, and one wonders if Delaney is only in it to wax excitedly about what a fan he is, but as the book delves more deeply into larger sociological spheres, the reader will find himself or herself internalizing the concepts without realizing it, like reading a textbook in cartoon camouflage. Delaney’s mission to achieve crystal clarity often comes across as overly simplistic or condescending—in a book written for Simpsons fans, one needn’t explain the jokes—but neither is it dry or laced with academese like other treatments of the subject have been. Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation (Perseus Books, 2005) and Mark I. Pinsky’s The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) are better, but Delaney’s Simpsonology is a fine volume for anyone intent on an in-depth study of America’s favorite freakish yellow nuclear family.

by Bill Gibron

4 Jul 2008

With the bottle rocket’s red glare, and the cherry bombs bursting in air (at least, in those places where said celebration ammunition remains quasi-legal), the first half of the Summer Movie Season circa 2008 is officially over. Nine weeks, dozens of films, and lots of critical complaining has made this annual parade of popcorn movies a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, Marvel has come out swinging, taking over creative control of its character canon and delivering two excellent examples of superhero hype. On the other hand, the season’s sole sequels (so far) have proved that sometimes, you can go back to the well one too many times. Comedy continues its battle for non-Apatow oriented relevance, and in a turn of events that will make Luddites lose their lunch, CGI has delivered three of the Summer’s best efforts.

Of course, the next two months bring on even more delights. Will Smith’s Hancock is already generating debate among fans and critics alike, while Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II promises to finally elevate the Mexican maverick into the Peter Jackson/Stephen Spielberg category (where he truly belongs, frankly). Christopher Nolan will uncork his latest revisionist Batman draft, while August promises two unusual takes - The Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder - on the old laugh fest routine. Who will wind up #1? It all depends. To put things in perspective, SE&L has gone back over the 16 major releases it experienced since a certain Marvel metalhead arrived in theaters, and has ranked them from best to worst. Review links have also been provided in case you’d like to read more. Enjoy!

Speed Racer

It is destined to go down as the Summer of 2008’s biggest flop. Too bad it’s also the season’s most ambitious and brilliant film. The brothers Wachowski, still smarting from one too many dashed Matrix expectations, embraced the original series’ anime origins and delivered a live action cartoon brimming with imagination and pizzazz. Why audiences have avoided it remains a solid mystery.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

WALL*E

When they finally fall, when they finally create a movie that makes the general public yawn instead of jump for joy, Pixar will have a long way to go before hitting rock bottom. This masterful sci-fi allegory continues the company’s incomparable hot streak, and once again raises the bar on a genre that they seem to constantly refashion with each new release.




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

Wanted

In a close tie with the film following it, Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov’s US debut is nothing short of breath-taking. Sure, it borrows liberally from both The Matrix and Fight Club, and avoids most of the mythology created by the narrative’s graphic novel origins, but when the action is as amazing - and stylish - as what’s offered here, how it got there is not that important.


 

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

Iron Man

Jon Favreau has always been a fascinating filmmaker, but this excellent adaptation of the second-tier comic hero finally announces his ascension into the big leagues. Blockbusters don’t get more vital than this terrific take on the saga of Tony Stark and his transformation from weapons dealer to crime fighter. With Robert Downey Jr.‘s revelatory performance in the title role, a new franchise is born.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

Kung Fu Panda

Amazing - two excellent CGI efforts in less than two months. Pixar’s place was more or less a given, but who knew Dreamworks could up their game this way. Relying more on the Shaw Brothers and the entire martial arts genre than overly cute comic characters and pathetic pop culture references, this delightful adventure is one of the best kung fu films of all time - animated or not.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

After 16 years, there were a few cobwebs. And George Lucas’ manipulative future marketing stratagem is smeared all over the screenplay (less Marion - more MUTT!). Yet thanks to the always reliable skills of one Stephen Spielberg, and the man’s limitless sense of wonder, everything here works. While circumstances are set up to continue the franchise, let’s hope this is Dr. Jones’ last adventure.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

The Incredible Hulk

If you’re counting dollars, this revamp of Marvel’s big green monster man is doing as well (or slightly less gangbusters) than Ang Lee’s 2003 version. But fans are far happier with Louis Leterrier’s take on the tale of Dr. Bruce Banner and his out of control cellular structure, and that’s all that matters.  Oddly enough, Edward Norton makes a good popcorn protagonist.




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan

Another summer disappointment - another misunderstood gem. Adam Sandler’s misguided Middle Eastern character may be too inside for mainstream moviegoers (reportedly, Israelis LOVE it), but the invention offered here puts other examples of so-called big screen comedy to shame. Besides, any movie that can re-sexualize Lainie Kazan (oh so smokin’ hot in the ‘60s/‘70s) deserves a special reward.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

There’s a lot of blame going around both within and outside the Narnia camp. This film failed to match its predecessor’s box office figures, and everyone has a theory as to why it didn’t deliver. Here’s a possible answer - the movie was subpar Lord of the Rings flash fantasy. With a plan to make the remaining five films still a go, here’s hoping things improve dramatically.




+ PopMatters Review

Get Smart

Producers, pay attention. Steve Carrel may just be the next big office draw. So far, in two summers, he’s elevated a pair of miserable, mindless comedies into turnstile twists. While no one will trumpet Evan Almighty‘s cost benefit ratio, Smart will sit pretty as a sizeable hit - and for no other reason than The Office actor’s graduated good will. The movie’s awful, after all. 




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

The Strangers

Dull, derivative, and never as inventive as it thinks it is, the only thing terrifying about this home invasion hooey is the number of people who actually declare it a legitimate thrill ride. Fear is like humor - everyone has their own tolerance/preference level. Clearly, some people are scared by this formulaic fright. As genre efforts go, it’s all bark and no bite.




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

Sex and the City: The Movie

This movie may just signal the next phase in moviemaking and marketing. Take a show with limited appeal, make sure you keep the fanbase clued in on a possible big screen reunion, advertise the update as the second coming of sophisticated urban girl power, and watch the receipts roll in. No need for broader audience appeal. Playing to an underserved demo will overcome the weakest of cinematic elements.



+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

What Happens in Vegas

If the RomCom is really dead, it’s a movie like this that is dancing all over its freshly dug grave. Cameron Diaz continues her decent into Meg Ryan’s career, and Ashton Kutcher elevates his smug smarm attack into something akin to inverse cool. Together, they play mismatched mercenaries trying to outwit each other for a million dollar jackpot. Turns out they’re unarmed, wit wise. 



+ PopMatters Review

The Happening

Hello hubris! This is either the biggest joke ever perpetrated by a one time rising filmmaker on a gullible fanbase, or a really large b-movie turd. Either way, this supposedly scary R-rated thriller about plants paying humans back for their lack of environmental focus is just plain dumb. Nothing about it works, and by the end, it just gives up. 




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

The Love Guru

It’s been six years since Mike Myers brought his particular brand of live action comedy to the screen, and it now feels as dated as a mean spirited minstrel show. Everything here is pitched to a lack of audience sophistication, and in an era where Judd Apatow’s slacker farces find undeniable hilarity in the horrors of real life, this crotch level cleverness is dated…and disgusting.




+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review

by Robin Cook

3 Jul 2008

Originally, this was going to be an interview with just Mr. Bonebrake, but then Billy Zoom turned up. Two X members for the price of one. What luck! And what can I say about this band that hasn’t been said before? Well, for one thing, Billy Zoom is an amazing guitarist, and it’s great to see him playing again after a decade away from music. And DJ Bonebrake is a phenomenal drummer whose contributions to the band are usually overlooked. And finally, it’s an honor to interview them.—Robin Cook

by Sean Murphy

3 Jul 2008

Part One
HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.

(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)

Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.

Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…

This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.

Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.

“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

We come with our culture to enlighten the world…

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