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Sunday, Aug 19, 2007
by Barry Koltnow [The Orange County Register (MCT)]

Selling your soul to the devil is not as easy as it looks.


Believe me, I tried to sell my soul a few weeks ago, and failed miserably.


I had always assumed that if I ever did decide to jump to the dark side, it would be a snap. Doing the wrong thing seemed so much simpler than doing the right thing.


But I was mistaken.


For years, I refused to give in to the temptation. Whenever a movie studio asked me if I’d like to contribute a quote for one of those movie ads, I politely declined.


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Saturday, Aug 18, 2007


We critics love to throw around terms like “revisionist” and “deconstruction”. We do it mostly out of a lack of appropriate adjectives. When something comes along that defies easy description, that takes an established genre or film type and turns it on its celluloid skull, we become instantly devoid of ways to explain it. The above motion picture modifiers are merely short cuts, buzz words we’ve built along the road toward reviewing. They don’t always accurately reflect the situation we’re extolling, but then again, it’s better than being at a loss for any words. So when you read that the latest TV cartoon to make the jump to the big screen – Adult Swim’s sensational Aqua Teen Hunger Force – is a deconstruction of standard animation and a revisionist view of what a movie is actually comprised of, it’s time to take out that shaker of sensibleness salt. 


To try and clarify the purpose and plot of this insanely surreal pen and ink performance art, you really have to understand and fully appreciate the actual series. Crafted by former staff members of the incredibly popular Space Ghost Coast to Coast as kind of a Saturday morning superhero spoof, the Aqua Teens are a mystery solving service consisting of three anthropomorphized fast food fixtures - an arrogant dairy product (known as Master Shake), an intelligent order of French fried potatoes (called Frylock), and a slightly dopey ball of beef (who goes by the handle Meatwad). Though their origins are inconsistent at best, (there’s something to do with a time traveling evil Abe Lincoln), they’ve now found themselves renting a house in South New Jersey. There, they make neighbor Carl Brutananadilewski’s life a living Hell while warding off the uninspired extraterrestrial villainy of the Mooninites (Ignignokt and Err) and the Plutonians (Oglethorpe and Emory). Initially the Force made their way as ersatz crimefighters, taking on such bottom rung cases as Internet scamming leprechauns and diet pill pyramid schemer (and substandard rapper) MC Pee Pants.


For the big screen, little has changed. Carl buys an InsanoFlex home gym at a yard sale, which Shake steals almost immediately. Unable to assemble the device, the giant beverage uses it as a laundry rack. Frylock finally figures out the complicated instructions, and once put together, the Force allows their annoyed neighbor first shot at a workout. Turns out, the machine is actually a complicated alien apparatus bent on taking over the world. It traps Carl in an endless cycle of exercise while systematically destroying the Earth. Naturally, this draws the attention of the opportunistic Mooninites and the braindead Plutonians. Apparently, the prophetic Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past (a previous Force foe) wants the space spuds to steal the gadget, though its motives are ambiguous at best. In the meantime, Frylock is convinced this entire matter has something to do with the Aqua Teen’s birth, and they travel back to the lab of Dr. Weird and his assistant Steve (regulars from the first two seasons of the show) to get some answers. Oh, and they try to stop the InsanoFlex as well.


Did any of that make sense? Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to. The best thing about Aqua Teen Hunger Force is its ‘anything for a laugh’ approach to humor. This is a true comedic casserole, a jaunty junk food amalgamation of satire, slapstick, gross out, farce, spoof, lampoon, scatology, and the droll. Characters combine both the best and worst elements of individual eccentricity, juxtaposing the amoral and the amiable into a frequently indecipherable stew of deranged dopiness. All three main members of the Force are funny in their own right, but its Shake and Meatwad who frequently steal the show. Our ball of minced flesh is a shapeshifting retard, capable of occasional insights, but mostly wallowing in his own single digit IQ-uity. On the other hand, Shake is sensationally selfish, pushed beyond the boundaries of arrogance and entitlement to the point of ridiculous egotism. He believes all the Aqua Teen hype, though he’s completely incapable of living up to any realistic reputation.


It’s a credit to creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro (and voice actors Casey Means and Dana Snyder) that such out of bounds oddness never fully blows a fuse. Oh sure, the Aqua Teen series can occasionally be so whacked out and insular that only the most devoted of fans can follow it, but there is never a lack of laughs. Similarly, the movie begins with a bang (a fantastic send up of the “Let’s All Go the Lobby” animation from years past) and never really lets up. It’s like Airplane! without the disaster movie premise, or a Farrelly Brothers film without the grating reliance on the vile. Granted, it can be very crude (Carl’s single minded focus on females and sex) and lacking substance or subtlety (excessive violence is often used to underscore a standard slapstick gag), but the men behind this mania have managed to forge a wholly unique and complete universe, one where their brazen disregard for the standards of storytelling doesn’t really matter. It’s a fractured mindset that carries over to the film’s Hellsapoppin’ approach, and the recently released two disc DVD.


Which brings us back to those two tentative words – deconstruction and revisionist. Almost dadaesque in their view of entertainment, it is safe to say that the overall idea expressed by the series, as filtered through Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD, is as close to post-modern art as talking foodstuffs can get. It’s a reflective conceit, one that touches individual audience members differently. Some can see Shake as a misunderstood hero while others cringe at his “me first” meanness. Carl can come across as a libidinous tool, but he’s actually a genius representation of the stodgy sub-urban male. Frylock frequently changes mannerism (and sexual gender), simply as a way of illustrating intelligence’s endless ability to cope with the crackpot. And Meatwad is every mother’s son, a baby born without a lot of smarts or common sense, but when need be, he will literally modify his makeup to save the day…sort of.


Such randomness requires a viewer willing to let the movie work on its own terms. If forced into a formulaic hole, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters comes off as indecipherable and incongruous. Several sequences make little or no sense, and the sudden appearance of characters who disappear within a matter of a few scenes are nothing more than shout-outs to the long time devotee. Newcomers will feel overwhelmed, unable to comprehend what makes this hapless Happy Meal so supposedly clever. But as with any TV to movie transition, context is crucial. Anyone who has been with the series since the beginning, or picked it up before the big screen bow, will definitely get more out of this than someone seeking a mere Saturday night rental. While patience can be rewarded, persistence pays off in much larger deranged dividends. But this is not a fan’s only release. Instead, it’s a challenge to anyone who’s sick and tired of traditional animated anarchy.


While not as salient as The Simpsons or South Park, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force and its Colon Movie Film for Theaters is a bright, baffling companion piece to our equally infuriating times. Real life makes absolutely no sense, and like a clairvoyant cousin cackling in the background, Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad mock your lack of vision. They’ve seen the situation, the shoddy manner in which existence doles out drama like inconsiderate service industry workers, and have decided to deal with its absurdity and surreality. It may be nothing more than an insightful peek into the mind of a messed up 13 year old, or the most clever cartoon satire ever. That’s the great thing about Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters. It’s everything and nothing, clever and/or crap. It doesn’t demand either one. It let’s you make such a decision.



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Saturday, Aug 18, 2007


In the world of monsters, the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were nothing more than second class zombies. While the undead slaughtered thousands out of an instinctual and insatiable bloodlust, the amiable alien replicants simply wanted to take over the planet, one sleeping citizen at a time. Interesting enough, both fear franchises have provided ample political allegories and numerous sequels/remakes/revamps. The original version of Jack Finney’s novel was a mighty metaphor for McCarthyism. The 1978 adaptation illustrated the disaffection and distrust of a post-Watergate nation. Even Abel Ferrara’s 1993 take tried to argue for the corrupting and catastrophic affects of conformity. Apparently two and a half times through the ringer is all this premise could maintain. With 2007’s oft-delayed The Invasion, there is simply no more symbolic juice left.


Granted, not all of this is the movie’s fault. The rumor mill has been buzzing about this project for over two years, ever since the 45 day shoot completed in late 2005. Originally planned as a straight reworking, screenwriter Dave Kajganich eventually delivered his own reinterpretation on the story, and Warner Brothers was happy enough to start distancing itself from the source. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, hot off his controversial Hitler drama Downfall, vowed to keep the story as real as possible, and avoided any F/X spectacle, opting instead for good old fashioned tension and suspense. Naturally, preview audiences hated it, and focus groups eviscerated the subtle, serious approach. Enter script doctors Andy and Larry Wachowski, and new director James McTeague (who had just completed V for Vendetta together). Over a year after production wrapped, The Invasion was literally reconfigured, reshoots changing the premise and finale of the film.


No wonder the plot feels so piecemeal. After a major disaster involving NASA, the Centers for Disease Control discover an alien spore on some space wreckage. Within days, America is plunged into a “flu-like illness” pandemic. As the rest of the world reports a similar spreading disease, Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) begins to notice small changes around her Washington DC offices. Commuters become calmer and less rushed on their way to work, while patients complain of loved ones who no longer act like their “real” selves. She notices the same thing in her ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam), a top level Presidential advisor. After a night of Halloween trick or treating turns up a strange, sticky substance, Bennell asks her boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) to work up the sample. Turns out, it’s some manner of foreign agent that replicates human DNA while merging it with some extraterrestrial entity. It is taking over the population, during the REM sleep phase, and it is up to Bennell to save her son if there is any hope for humanity to survive. Of course, he’s inconveniently been left with his odd acting father.


Playing like a mystery missing most of its first act, The Invasion hits the ground running (literally, since the first thing we see is a space shuttle disintegrating and plummeting to Earth) and refuses to let up from there. Now, if this was in service of some kind of slam bang action movie where such momentum needs to be maintained, we could understand the urgency. But after producing a premise, the story stumbles around, providing nothing we can use for future fear factors. Kidman, doing coy and confused for all its worth, spends a lot of the opening hour as an outside observer the action happening to everyone and everything around her. This creates a kind of distance between her character and the audience that doesn’t help with the crucial cinematic elements of empathy and identification. We don’t really understand Dr. Bennell. She’s hyper sensitive over her small boy Oliver, and yet she allows him to become a prop in a perplexing game of ex-spouse supremacy.


It doesn’t help that she’s stuck in “friend” mode with best beau Driscoll. Craig, looking worse than he has in any film in recent memory, makes a poor paramour, the kind of drawn out doormat whose willing to put up with a hot chick’s quirks because he still sees some sexual light at the end of the tunnel. He’s too passive to be a participant in a worldwide catastrophe, and the last act switch into pseudo savior mode doesn’t jibe either. There are several other throwaway roles here – Jeffrey Wright as a doctor specializing in exposition, Roger Rees who only gets a single scene to play a sour Russian diplomat, Veronica Cartwright (a bow to Phillip Kaufman’s ‘70s version) as a desperate and deluded housewife. None of them build to any sort of unified theme or idea. And as our primary villain, Northam is nominal. He’s like a weak willed version of an infomercial host – and the only thing he’s selling, sadly, is a total lack of bad guy believability.


Then there is the direction. It is clear from watching this cobbled together version of the narrative that Hirschbiegel intended to get his anti-American rant on. In the background of most initial sequences are news reports from Iraq, veiled condemnations of our failed foreign policy. Similarly, Rees’ only scene is a backhanded rebuke of the US as a solid superpower. If there was to be a parallel in this particular film, it was the ineffectual nature of the Red White and Blue response to crisis, versus the aggressive attack mode of the rest of the world. But since he was carted off the project, much of this material is buried, blurred from our vision and shuttled off to a scarce sonic backdrop. Add to this the preposterous stylistic decision to visualize events as the actors describe them, and then using an edited version of the images to represent reality. It’s awkward at first, and when you’re looking to build suspense, situation, or story, such a jagged concept kills all three.


Still, there is an inherent sci-fi fascination in this subject that stimulates our interest. We can practically write our own movie in our head, taking elements that either Hirschbiegel or McTeague thought worked well and reinventing our own version of them. The concept of conventionality, of running with the pack and braying with the sheep still has a lot of potential strength. America is more conformist now than it’s ever been, a nation numbed by a lack of external interests and a swelling arrogance. Riffing on that while providing some enticing alien F/X would have worked wonderfully. Even better, use the current War on Terror as a starting point and push the post-9/11 malaise directly into our faces. You can’t make a palpable parable without taking risks. The Invasion’s conceit is so laidback that it actually takes a while to realize the world is going to Hell. While this may have been the idea all along, it really does get lost in the translation here.


And so we are left with bits and pieces of two divergent movies. One film wants to find the horror in everyday life. The other looks at any incursion, alien or otherwise, as a means to some manufactured, manipulative ends. For its part, The Invasion does scoot along capably. You don’t care about the characters, but your natural curiosity as to how it will all end is definitely triggered. To call the conclusion anticlimactic would be giving it a value it fails to earn organically. It’s a series of setups missing a major league punchline. For fans of simplistic speculation that’s only capable of going through the motions, this movie will satisfy a basic need. But as past presentations of the subject have suggested, there is more to these particular human duplicates than meets the eye. Unfortunately, the fourth time was the harm, not the charm here.


The Invasion - Trailer



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Friday, Aug 17, 2007


One of the reasons that I came to Paris this time was to attend professional meetings. These meetings were held at the UNESCO headquarters, within sight of Invalides to the north and the Eiffel Tower to the west.


It is an education being at UNESCO (which makes perfect sense, since it is an educational institution—well, duh!). The first thing one learns is that there is no smoking on its premises—which can be eye-opening, since it turns out that so many people in the world (not to mention, France!) smoke. As a result, there are a lot of doors propped open, leading out to verandas where UNESCO employees and visitors are furtively sneaking cigarettes.


The next thing that is eye-opening at UNESCO is the food. Since every meal we were served there would, by any objective standard, have had to be placed under the heading of hors d’oeuvres, what we really were offered didn’t qualify so much as “food” as it did “whimsy” or “suggestion” or “a hint of culinary expression”.


Without opening one’s eyes


really w i d e

, one would surely have missed it. Those little fluffs of taste. Mighty delicious - that handful of rarified UNESCO air—just now being spirited away on that empty silver platter.


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Friday, Aug 17, 2007


In two weeks, it will all be over. The summer hype machine will finally close down, and the weary motion picture audience will have a chance to catch its breath before the next barrage of implausible propaganda comes hurtling down the production pipeline. After all, award season is just a mere three month away. Argh! Anyway, there’s an opportunity to catch up with one of last year’s best efforts this week, a truly remarkable movie that just lost to Germany’s The Lives of Others for Oscar’s Best Foreign Film (and considering how amazing that film was, that’s quite an accomplishment). Sadly, the rest of the pay cable channels are serving up nothing but chum, regurgitated comedies and unnecessary sci-fi silliness. Unless you look beyond the Big Four to alternate networks, you’re stuck sucking on the proverbial Tinsel Town teat. And with the latest popcorn pictures providing nothing but ever hardening husks, there will be little silver screen relief. So relish the SE&L selection for 18 August. It is truly a motion picture masterpiece:


Premiere Pick
Pan’s Labyrinth


Up until now, it’s been relatively easy to dismiss Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. Oh, he’s just a glorified genre director, some might say, pointing to his initial forays into fear with such works as Cronos and Mimic. Others look directly to his comic book efforts, from the only decent installment in the Blade series (#2) to his magnificent makeover of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and deny his inherent ability. Even his defiant history lesson from 2001, The Devil’s Backbone is viewed as more of a ghost story than a grand artistic statement. But with the release of this amazing film, and the surrounding critical clamor, Del Toro is finally finding the respect that he deserves. And there’s a good reason for all the accolades. Without modifying his cinematic approach, and staying true to his vibrant vision of a world constantly weakened by elements both fantastical and fatal, this fascinating fable of a little girl’s hellish existence amongst the Post-war Fascists of Franco’s Spain is simply stunning. It’s a testament to human will and the power of the mind to make substitutes and sacrifices for the horrors all around us. (18 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Beerfest


Who, exactly, are Broken Lizard, and more importantly, why do they keep getting chances to make movies? Artist like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch have to struggle to finance their films, and yet this so-called comedy troupe has had three flaccid projects greenlit – Super Troopers, Club Dread, and this inconsistent alcohol comedy. The plot has a pair of brothers competing in a German Fight Club style drinking competition. Sounds like a subpar Simpsons episode gone even more sophomoric. (18 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

Scary Movie 4


The spoof, as a comedy genre, is officially dead – and the reason rests in this horrendous fourth installment in the already weak faux fear franchise. Gone is any semblance of the R rated foundation that started this stale series. In its place are tame takes on War of the Worlds, The Grudge, and (of all things) Brokeback Mountain. Featuring Leslie Nielsen as a bumbling President who makes our current Commander in Chief look like a savant. (18 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Aeon Flux


What do you do with all that newly gained Academy Award clout? Well, if you’re Monster’s Charlize Theron, you sign up for a quick cash grab and make a stupid sci-fi action film based on a mediocre MTV cartoon. Fans of the original Liquid Television series were startled to see the liberties taken with this revamp. But the most troubling element is our lead, a truly talented woman who deserves better. (18 August, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Garage Days


For filmmaker Alex Proyas, it looked like a future filled with speculative fiction fare. He had successfully overcome the horrible death of Brandon Lee to complete The Crow, and his Dark City set the stage for all that Matrix mania. But instead of continuing on the high tech road, the audacious auteur delved into Australia’s music scene (he’s a Downunder native) to produce this bittersweet comedy. Returning to his MTV roots (he got his start directing videos), we get the standard story of an unsigned band hoping to make it big. Loaded with obligatory montages and lots of Proyas’ patented visual vibrance, we also get the behind the scenes drama, the kind of backstage instability that tears friends and fellow musicians apart. While he would return to the shape of things to come with the middling Will Smith vehicle I, Robot, this will mark the moment when Proyas proved his true moviemaking mantle. (23 August, IFC, 1:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Marebito


Proving he is the master of Asian creepiness, Ju-On creator Takashi Shimizu took the eight day break he earned before helming the American remake The Grudge to shoot this sly, suspenseful story about a fear obsessed free lance photographer and an unsettling urban legend about a demonic presence in the Tokyo subway system. Efforts like this and the recent Reincarnation prove that there is more to Shimizu than stringy haired spooks doing the spider crawl down a set of stairs. (19 August, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

The Dancer Upstairs


Though the title suggests something completely different, this John Malkovich directed drama actually centers around a South American police officer’s search for a suspected revolutionary. Featuring a sensational cast that includes Javier Bardem, the film tries to balance the political elements essential to the narrative’s drive with the interpersonal concepts that create character. Most critics found it less than successful, but the small screen can often change a movie’s entertainment dynamic. It will be up to viewers to decide. (20 August, IFC, 6:35PM EST)

The Celebration


A product of the radical cinematic style known as Dogma ’95, this dysfunctional family melodrama is a real piece of work. Every member of this corrupt clan has so many skeletons in their closet that could start their own medical research business. Thanks to the no frills filmmaking approach, and the commanding performances, the over the top human histrionics are kept in check. The results are as powerful as they are preposterous. (22 August, Sundance Channel, 11:45PM EST)

Outsider Option
The Frighteners


The Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s lost masterpiece, an important cinematic cog linking his genre work of the past with the monumental achievements in fantasy filmmaking he would attain with the Lord of the Rings. Coming right after the personal, praised Heavenly Creatures, Jackson had wanted to make a more mainstream film. Robert Zemeckis stepped in and offered the director a chance to make a full-blown Hollywood hit. With longtime partner Fran Walsh, Jackson had been kicking around the idea of a Ghostbusters-style psychic who conned people out of money by pretending to purge spirits from their home. Though it failed to become the blockbuster everyone had hoped for, The Frighteners still functioned as a real stepping-stone in its creator’s canon. Beyond its import to his career, Jackson’s film is also important in the ongoing evolution of CGI. While Jurassic Park will always be seen as a monumental step forward, this forgotten gem was a formidable attempt at the seamless incorporation of motherboard rendered visuals into a narrative. (21 August, USA Network, 12PM EST)

Additional Choices
Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die


Mike Connors is an American spy sent down South to Rio by the sea-o to prevent a madman from launching a sterility inducing satellite. Terry Thomas is a proper British valet, and Dorothy Provine is an equally snooty secret agent. Rushed into theaters to beat the ultra-hyped James Bond parody, Casino Royale, this glorified goof has earned some interesting support over the years. Supposedly Hollywood hero Quentin Tarantino is a big, big fan. (21 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 11PM EST)

The Public Eye


Though it was supposedly based on the life of infamous tabloid newspaper photographer Weegee, this 1992 period piece is more fiction than fact. Joe Pesci makes a fine ‘40s shutterbug, mouth stuffed with an ever present cigar, but the tacked on subplots and lack of any real notorious names leaves the story feeling superficial and slight. By the time our lead lumbers over into hero mode, we’ve long since stopped caring about his snapshot situations. (23 August, Indieplex, 7:20PM EST)

Arachnia


Big bugs gobbling up gratuitous goofballs? How can any schlock fan resist? Apparently, the answer rests in writer/director Brent Piper’s complete lack of cinematic competence. Responsible for such past puke as A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell and Drainiac! , this giant spider invasion was to be as hilarious as it is horrifying. Sadly, it’s just another waste of a potentially worthwhile terror treasure trove. (23 August, Starz Edge, 12:30AM EST)

 


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