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by Bill Gibron

30 Aug 2009

If we are to believe the ecologists and global warming doomsayers, Planet Earth is living on very borrowed time indeed. It seems like, every other day, a new portent of possible Armageddon comes screeching down the mass media pipeline. While there’s no doubt we live in perilous times, our selfish sense of entitlement resulting in the systematic destruction of our natural resources, the opposition argues that nature is resilient. With lumbering heart attack logic, they figure what doesn’t kill it will only make it stronger. Sadly, that’s just not the case, as the brilliant BBC documentary on the subject clearly demonstrated. Repackaged by Disneynature into a dazzling 90 minute motion picture microcosm, the images argue for what’s at stake, and why we’re foolish to believe it can fend for itself.

Earth attempts to give narrative structure to what was, originally, a sprawling epic adventure. It takes the story of a mother polar bear and her two cubs, a pack of elephants, and a baby humpback whale and her parent, and places them with a setting of substantial wildlife wonder. There are sequences here that will shock you with their beauty. There are also moments that will move you with their blatantly manipulative tug. This is not to say that Earth purposely plays on our sympathies to gain our attention, but there’s no denying the impact of seeing an animal suffer, or watching as a predator picks out and takes down its prey. Some of the images are burned into out collective memory, a cheetah chasing a gazelle part of any natural order lexicon. But thanks to the usual approaches taken by the BBC photographers, what could have been rote becomes undeniable brilliant.

Up front, it has to be said that “streamlining” the storylines here to serve a March with the Penguins like purpose feels a bit disingenuous, but Disneynature definitely knows how to tap into an audience’s inner guilt. With James Earl Jones intoning the narratives often dire consequences (he replaced Patrick Stewart who gave the UK version its gravitas) we instantly sympathize with the various everyday events that occur as part of basic animal instinct. Thanks to the awe-inspiring visuals, including aerial footage unmatched in the history of the genre, we get God’s own point of view on the proceeds, a presence lording over the landscape while creation does its difficult, often deadly dance.

The mere scope of Earth is without measure - and it was purposefully planned that way. In the interesting extras that come with the new Blu-ray release, we learn that this was a mammoth undertaking. It was more than four years in the filming with literally hundreds of cameramen and videographers roaming every continent on the planet. As the extent to which some shots were achieved - swimming in whale-filled waters, circling packs of caribou in a two person hot air balloon - is explained and illustrated, we recognize the magnitude of such an endeavor. Indeed, even in this truncated form, Earth offers a sensational summary of our interstellar home that ridiculous in its rarity and refinement. As a result, the cloying sense to some of the storytelling is all but forgiven.

In a work with dozens of defining moments, a few still stand out - the bears making their way, semi-successfully, across a quickly thawing ice field, flocks of birds blanketing the sky with their immense numbers, lions attacking a big bull elephant, monkeys making their way through a shallow rain forest bayou. Indeed, at every turn, Earth finds a way to stun you with the ways of wildlife. Sure, there are some horrific sights as well, especially when a group of sea lions are set upon by a pack of ravenous sharks, but with the help of Jones and a relatively blood free framework, our well founded fears are calmed.

If Earth has a downside, and it rarely does from a feature standpoint, its size. No, not the immensity of the enterprise or the breadth of material covered. When you come to learn that this is merely the cinematic tip of the iceberg, and hour and a half of a more than a dozen hours of material, you yearn for what’s missing. You wonder what other elements directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield had in store and which one’s Disneynature sought to exploit. As for the company’s continuing concern in the area, Earth Day 2010 will see them release Oceans, a similarly styled effort about the bodies that take up over 75% of the planet’s surface. Helmed by French filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud it promises to open our eyes to the unseen world sitting just below the water’s welcoming surface.

Borrowed or not, contrived or completely organic, Earth still manages to inspire. It takes the standard visuals that have defined our view of Mother Nature and reinvigorates them with new technology and fresh perspectives. The Blu-ray is absolutely jaw-dropping, the 1080p 1.78:1 high definition transfer capturing the flawlessly executed pictures perfectly. In fact, it looks so faultless that you have to remind yourself you’re watching a movie, and not just gazing out of some celestial window, watching the world go by.

Though it may be much for little kids and will give parents pause over the amount of “realism” involved, Earth remains a powerful, highly recommended experience. As entertaining as it is alarming, this defining documentary will have you wondering about the fate of this complex third rock from the sun. It would be a shame to lose something as undeniable special as this.

by PopMatters Staff

30 Aug 2009

Jack White and pals played a tune off Horehound on Jimmy Kimmel’s show Friday night.

by Bill Gibron

30 Aug 2009

Clichés work. Granted, they are stock, trite, and cheap, but if they didn’t provide the kind of guaranteed instantaneous success a writer or filmmaker is looking for, they wouldn’t be considered a narrative chestnut, now would they? These stereotypes often contain a nugget of truth but approach such revelations in the most shorthanded, shortsighted way possible. Using them can be lazy or legitimate, depending on the outcome.  All of which highlights the pros - and obvious cons - of Bring It On: Fight to the Finish. Representing the fifth (that’s right FIFTH) effort in this loosely linked franchise, there’s nothing but formula and forced archetypes here. Along with what seems like a never-ending supply of ‘dope’ dance sequences, what we wind up with is something pat and predictable, but fairly fun anyway.

Her royal chica-ness, Lina Cruz, is all discombobulated. Her waitress mom has just remarried, landing a very rich Malibu hubby, and she’s about to leave her East LA hood. Naturally, the mama-sitas that make up her main cheer crew - Gloria and Treyvonetta - are muy p.o.‘ed. Before she knows it, she’s a snarky self-important fish in a pond filled with arrogant Caucasian witches. While stepsister Skyler tries to teach her the ropes of her new exclusive high school, Lina just wants to pout and hook back up with her homies. Not even the interested eye of basketball jock Evan can turn her haughty head. Under duress, she agrees to join the sorry school cheerleading squad, where she remains mostly unmotivated until she runs into Avery - reigning queen bee and Spirit Competition champion. Desperate to beat the biz-nitch, she calls on her old friends to bring her new team to life, with the hope of being good enough to enter the upcoming cheerleading contest.

Funny, fresh, and incredibly forced, Bring It On: Fight to the Finish should make many a daydreaming tween/teen happy. While parents will be perturbed by the suggestion that school is merely a conduit for excessive amounts of rump shaking, adolescents will probably adore this contrived combination of wish fulfillment, upward mobility, and pure punk’d retribution. Yes, everything builds to a final dance off with the good guys giving the over the top baddies a run for their routines. Yes, the whole “suddenly rich” angle reeks of dishonesty and race-based class struggling. Certainly actress Christina Milan was hired because she’s got snake-like hips and a likeable street cred cuteness. But none of this makes the movie inventive or exciting. You simply have to go with its mechanical flow and hope that the makers don’t muck things up. 

Luckily, director Bille Woodruff puts his music video training to good use as he swings the camera around the otherwise uninspired choreography. Unlike the real cheerleading squads who offer nothing but precision, presence, and perfect synchronization, the cast here can’t quite “bring it” all together. If you look closely in the crowd, you’ll see dance literate extras who clearly graduated sometime in the Clinton Administration. They help the leads look good, if not completely competent. Equally decent is the script from Elana Song (Bring It On: In It to Win It) and Alyson Fouse (both In It to Win It and Bring It On: All or Nothing). They understand this material and pepper the dialogue with lots of clever cut downs. There is a tad too much ham-fisted hookiness, and the cheesy “cheer” lingo gets old quickly, but at least they keep things moving.

Of course, Bring It On: Fight to the Finish is not the kind of movie you come looking to for logic. After all, Lina gets her across the tracks pals into the Malibu school so easily that you’re certain it will come back to bite the babe (it does). Similarly, the last act “revelation” that anybody can be a member of an All Star team makes the middle section histrionics all the more pointless. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the film is wicked washout Avery. She is the very definition of one dimensional, never given more to her mean girl personality than a squint and a finger snap. Actress Rachele Brooke Smith tries to bring something deeper to the role, but it never arrives. At least she could relish being odious. Instead, you imagine a single well placed criticism would have her caving like a member of the chess club.

Still, you have to appreciate the attempted energy. For a film that runs a whopping 103 minutes (did we really need the street party, the Rodeo Drive dance, AND the Boys/Girls Club music montage???) there is never a truly dull moment. Granted, we never buy the Lina-Evan hook-up, especially since Cody Longo has little chemistry with Ms. Milian and that makes their snuggle scenes a tad tiring and the wannabe “wigger” jokes are offensive. As long as Woodruff works his magic and keeps the music slammin’, something about this otherwise routine film finds a way to work (the DVD dishes some backstage dirt and a few deleted scenes, but nothing mandatory).

Since there is no need to connect each sequel to each other, or to the original film from nine years ago, the Bring It On series can continue on ad infinitum. Hollywood is always churning out the attempted teen idol type, doe-eyed talent failing to realize their revolving door flash in the pan status. As long as said machine keeps cranking out the film fodder, agreeable attempts like Bring It On: Fight to the Finish will discover a direct to DVD lifeline. And while it may seem like they’ve uncovered every last one of those hoary old tried and true axioms Bring It On needn’t worry. There are certainly hundreds of clichés and racial/social stereotypes left to explore - and here’s guessing they’ll try to tap into each and every one of them.

by Rob Horning

30 Aug 2009

I’ve been on vacation the past week in Wildwood, New Jersey, (North Wildwood to be precise) which is down the shore about 30 miles south of Atlantic City, near the southern tip of the state’s coastline. It’s long had a reputation as a working-class beach town for immigrants from Philadelphia, and it’s still not uncommon to see houses down there with the Italian and Irish flags flying from the awnings alongside the U.S. flag. Like its North Jersey equivalent, Seaside Heights, Wildwood has an extensive boardwalk that retains a carnivalesque atmosphere, where scams and bad bargains of all sorts are made to seem innocuous and where the water-gun-game barkers and snake-handling carneys and iron-on T-shirt makers seem like artisan practitioners of threatened traditional crafts.

I played lots of skee-ball to win tickets (my high-risk, high-reward strategy—always shoot for the 100s), which I could then trade in for plastic army men, balsa-wood propeller planes, and off-brand candy. I also rode an old wooden coaster that may have concussed me; I got off and wandered the amusement pier punch drunk, in search of place to sit and fortify myself with a lime ricky.

The upper middle classes from the Philadelphia area tend to eschew Wildwood in favor of Ocean City and Cape May, Avalon and Long Beach Island—similar places by and large that have somehow managed to manufacture class distinction for themselves. The aspirational towns tend to push a contrived family-friendliness and institute measures like charging a fee to use the beach to seem exclusive. Thanks to their protected reputations, real estate values rose dramatically during the bubble years in these towns, which meant that much of the earlier generations of buildings (the boarding houses and one-story “shit shacks”) have all been razed in favor of generic aluminum-sided, triple-decker condos and elaborate second-home mansions.

by Chris Barsanti

30 Aug 2009

Unlike the claims made by interviewees in many documentaries about a single, allegedly fascinating personality, there is one particularly grandiose one spouted off early in Ondi Timoner’s rough-cut but fascinating We Live in Public that actually seems to be true. Speaking of online media entrepreneur Josh Harris, one person refers to him as “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” While the film that follows does a crack job of making this case, it doesn’t much bother trying to convince viewers that they’ve necessarily missed out on anything by this omission.

Harris made himself millions by founding and selling a couple brilliantly-conceived businesses right at the dawn of the Internet, and went on to sell his soul for a shot at fame—before claiming that it was all just “performance art.” One business, Jupiter Communications, made him wealthy simply by collecting and selling online market research to people before most anybody else thought of it. His next venture, Pseudo, was even more forward-thinking. Never mind that it was the mid-1990s and online video involving watching a few seconds of movement on a tiny RealPlayer screen, in between long bouts of herky-jerky movement and flashing “Buffering” signs. Harris set up the first online television network, with channels on multiple subjects (hip-hop, art), all swaddled in a glittery blanket of Silicon Alley cool. Blinded by the light (and the sneaking possibility that nobody was really watching), investors snapped up the stock and Harris rode off with yet more millions.

Which is where Timoner’s film gets interesting. Flush with bubble money, in 1999 Harris dumped $2 million of it into building a multi-level underground stage for an art project of heretofore unseen scope. Called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” it was a giant stage completely wired for video and sound, where a hundred people would live in total surveillance. There was free food at a long banquet table, a bar with free drinks, a clear-sided public shower stall, long rows of cubicle-hotel sleeping racks, a heavily-stocked firing range, and (just for kicks) Stasi-like interrogation sessions. Most importantly, though: everything wasn’t just being recorded on film, all the participants could watch themselves and each other while it unfolded. It was an exhibitionist’s wet dream.

Harris would later try to claim in a 2008 communiqué that Pseudo (a hot-air enterprise which burned through millions before getting sucked down the sinkhole of the dot.com crash) was “a fake company” and just “the linchpin of a long form piece of conceptual art,” not a critical misreading of the public’s online desires. “We Live in Public,” however, certainly fulfilled the definition of conceptual art (that, or a very expensive game of rats-in-a-cage, played by a cold-hearted sociopath who just wanted to turn humans into his own personal TV actors).

The astounding footage that Timoner—who was one of Harris’ willing internees—includes makes the whole thing look like the Stanford Prison Experiment spliced with some hellish eternal loft party, all booze, tears, glitter, and mind games. Packed with free-loading performance artists, rave kids, and the whole orbit of hangers-on spun off from the decade’s IPO-flush party scene (and shut down by the NYPD on January 1, 2000), the whole thing seems the perfect capper to a particularly narcissistic period in the history of a famously self-obsessed city.

And that was before Harris launched his next project: wiring every nook and cranny of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, for online broadcast.  While his exhibitionist bunker show presaged reality TV with the kind of visionary brio that made him so wealthy (Survivor and Big Brother premiered just months later in the summer of 2000), it was this next phase that truly managed to predict just where society was going.

It’s definitely disturbing to watch the scene Timoner includes where Harris and Corrin have a blow-out fight and then split off to their respective corners to check what people are saying in the online chat rooms. But one would be hard-pressed to say how different this scene is from a very common one from 2009: a couple sitting together in a restaurant and not talking, just plicking away at their respective PDAs.

It wasn’t for nothing that Harris was referred to as the “Warhol of the Web.” Self-indulgent or not, the creepily self-referential and airless digitized worlds he created were like flares being sent up from the not-so-distant past, lighting up the path that was taking us toward the anti-private, everybody’s-a-star world of today.

We Live in Public is nowhere near the film it could be. Although there’s a light dusting of criticism here and there, Timoner’s relationship with Harris (the two have been working on the film since 1999) seems too intertwined for her work to truly open the book on a man whose badly-timed brilliance seems almost matched by his eerie, clinically detached voyeurism and bratty quest for fame at all costs.

But then, most people who worked with Warhol seemed to take his similarly alien quietude in stride, as well. Of course, Warhol at least occasionally bothered to tell his painted or filmed subjects that they were fabulous, Harris (currently flogging another venture in look-at-me! Entertainment hucksterism, Wired City) just seems to be looking for the next IPO.

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