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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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Friday, Apr 25, 2008

Since this has been the year where many indie music magazines have gone to their grave (Harp, Devil in the Woods, Resonance, No Depression), and with them, much long form criticism.You would think that the corporately decentralized blogosphere might increase the importance of the critic’s perspective by virtue of freeing writers from the passive aggressive extortion of working in a medium where the financial success of your venture is directly tied to the people you’re supposed to be critiquing. Unlike other forms of Academy-ensconced criticism (literary, cultural), music criticism reeked of its financial backend so much so that it was fairly easy to dismiss Rolling Stone’s praise of the latest Hootie and the Blowfish album. But nothing even close to a resurrection of the critical high form has emerged on the internet in any but a precious few sites who still consider cultural analysis a worthy pursuit (PopMatters, Pitchfork, Idolator, and incredible MP3 sites like 20jazzfunkgreats.


Most of the MP3 sites I read are quite simply diary dumps of links with dreary anecdotes that even their friends must find tedious. This absorption of music criticism into a peripheral adjunct of Facebook narcissism is particularly troubling if the medium has any hope of producing greatness. The usual entry goes as follows: I went to a party the other night, my boyfriend broke up with me, here’s ten unauthorized songs to download. That’s a defamation of the tangent and about as critically astute as the iPod shuffle. Perhaps the incestuous bond between criticism and commerce was so thorough that their downward fate was duly entwined. It could also be that a review that aspires to be no more than a description makes little sense in a technological environment where individuals can instantly access the actual sound over second hand adjectives and analogies.  I can’t help but wonder if this is simply connected to the death of larger cultural figures of achievement (with the exception of Spencer and Heidi from The Hills).


Lester Bangs, Jim Derogatis, David Fricke, they all seem like part of a dying breed of critic that believed in music criticism as an intensive study of history, politics and exhaustive rock genealogies. I can easily see myself throwing the Sasha Frere-Jones gauntlet down, blaming the blogosphere for a coarsening retardation of culture or for not being black enough, but I’m really just curious about why people seem less interested in theorizing, critiquing and following ideas beyond a faint flicker and a halfwit’s retort. I’m in no way suggesting that I am spending my greatness inheritance; more likely, I’m mourning the fact that it is inexplicably out of my grasp.


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Friday, Apr 25, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Denmark's Fashion has been around since 2003, but the group only recently made their North American debut at SXSW this past March. Look for their US debut record this summer on Epic Records. You can check out a preview EP on iTunes now.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Tough one, but I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the last one that really got to me.


2. The fictional character most like you?
The nameless narrator of the book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Obviously, it later on became a Hollowood box office hit movie. So, if you´re too lazy for the book just watch the movie, because it still hits a sore spot in almost everyone. A clver way of sticking it to “the man” and I am all for that.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Live After Death by Iron Maiden, a concert recording from Los Angeles at the peak of their carrer in ´85 with a bunch of songs from a brilliant back catalogue. That album always takes me back.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars for sure. I am an official memeber of the Hyper Space community at StarWars.com so I am almost religious about that. My apartment is overflowing with Star Wars gear. I used to play Star Wars Trivial Pursuit once a week a few years back. We stopped because we all knew all the questions by heart.


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