Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Aug 4, 2007

Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath has won the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay award for journalism. The awards were established in 1957 to honor the third Philippine president, and are described as the “Nobel Prize of Asia.” Recognition, honor and respect are at the heart of everything Sainath does. He’s the rural affairs editor of national newspaper, The Hindu, and is its Mumbai bureau chief. He’s famed for bearing witness to the plight of India’s poor farmers, his sharp and insistent reporting giving a voice and identity to people who are usually only anonymously grouped together as statistics.



There have been around 11,500 farmer suicides in the last six years. Sainath writes movingly of the world of these farmers in a story from September of last year:


“Something very fundamental is happening. The central, driving factors behind the suicides remain the same. Rising debt, soaring input costs, plummeting output prices, a credit crunch and so on. But the outcome now adds up to more than just the sum total of these factors. After 15 years of a battering from hostile policies and governments, the world of the peasant has turned highly fragile. Problems that would not have driven many to suicide a decade ago do so now. It takes less to push farmers over the edge because their resistance is down. So fragile is their economy and equilibrium. The studies and surveys seldom account for one vital actor — the worldview of peasants. How that is changing as their links to the land erode. How their hopes of what’s possible are constantly dashed. How, losing their anchor, they drift to a frightening future. How it feels to watch your child drop out of school or college because education has become too expensive. Even as your daughter’s marriage is off, because you cannot afford it. You fail to get your ailing mother to a hospital because health is the most costly thing in your world. All this while agriculture itself is tanking. And there’s less food on the table. For too many, pessimism soaks the worldview this shapes. And despair gains ground as the coming deity.”


But he also reports on those who prepare reports on the farmers, and in the same story writes of a study carried out in the Vidarbha region.


“Teams of psychologists, revenue officials and doctors went out to Vidarbha’s villages from as early as 2004. To counsel the poor, disturbed souls. In one village, an old farmer greatly embarrassed such a team: “You’ve given us fine advice on so many things. On coping with stress, curbing our drinking, not fighting with our wives and so on. And you’ve asked us so many good questions, too. Now ask us one more. Ask us why farmers, who produce the nation’s food, are starving. Ask us why the children of those who grow your food, are starving.” The team remained silent. Some of the learned - and well-meaning - team members had been to great medical colleges. And one of the first principles they learned there is sound. “What the mind does not know, the eye cannot observe.” Very true. But the old farmer was posing a larger point before society as a whole, not just to the doctors. What the heart does not feel, the eye can never see.”


Tagged as: media
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Aug 4, 2007


Jennifer Lopez is the new Barbra Streisand. No, old Butta Babs can still act and sing rings around this entertainment wannabe. No, where J-Lo matches the Oscar winning diva is in the oversized ego department. Rumors of her self-importance have long been legendary, but no reported hubris can match the outright narcissism of El Cantante, the overwrought biopic of New York salsa king Hector Lavoe. Yes, you read that right. Somehow, a movie centering on a charismatic yet troubled Puerto Rican vocalist who helped bring Latin music to the mainstream, has somehow turned into a vanity project for the questionable talents of the ersatz artist formerly known as ‘Bennifer’. Instead of concentrating on what made Lavoe an icon amongst his people, what we end up with is a Hispanic Taming of the Shrew where the title humanizing never occurs. In fact, a better name for this movie would have been Sid and Nancita.


In one of the most awkward narrative devices possible, we meet the former Mrs. Lavoe, a firebrand biz-nitch named Puchi, during a supposed 2002 interview. She is there to tell her side of the story, about how she met a meek little talent named Hector Perez and guided him through the jaded jungles of the music industry to create a crossover superstar. Jumping around in time and from personal perspective to perspective, we learn that Hector lost his mother when he was five, and started singing to give ‘voice to his pain’, or so his father said. Lured to New York like his dead beat, drug dealing brother, the future phenomenon meets the booty dancing hot stuff one night at a club. Before you know it, the two are inseparable, smoking cigarettes and screaming at each other in Spanish. Lavoe hooks up with another popular performer, they take Manhattan by storm, and then decide fame is too much fun. So Lavoe lets his wife ruin his life, he turns to heroin, and eventually dies of AIDs.


That’s a lot of ground to cover, and director Leon Ichaso can’t handle it all. To be fair, it’s a task no filmmaker could manage. To understand the importance of Lavoe and the music he made, you have to focus on his life story, the history of Hispanic music in America, the growing tide of Latino pride in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ‘deal with the devil’ intricacies of the era’s music industry, and the psychological lure of drugs and self-destructive behavior. And then you have to add that bitter banshee on wheels, Puchi. Given the fact that Ms. Lopez and her third husband, Mr. Anthony, are in the leads, we assume more time will be spent with the couple. But Ichaso doesn’t know how to deal with them, and that’s when a certain female pop poseur takes over. The camera constantly focuses on J-Lo. When Lavoe is hurting, we get HER reactions. When Lavoe is singing, we see HER response. When Lavoe is strung out on drugs, we are awarded HER emotional unease. While it seems surreal, Hector Lavoe is actually a stranger in his own life story.


And that’s really too bad, cause if we learn anything from this lumbering biography it’s that Marc Anthony can sure carry a tune. In fact, if you find clips of Lavoe on the Web, you’ll swear the man playing him has a much better set of pipes. Selling every song with passion and power (even though Ichaso stoops to subtitling the lyrics, as if his actor’s interpretation is not enough), this is one chart topper who can actually deliver the goods. He may be rather lightweight in the dramatic moments, but we merely chalk it up to the character’s offstage persona. Sadly, El Cantante reduces Lavoe to a series of suicidal standards – addicted to dope, unhappy in life, confined in marriage – and yet when Anthony stands up to sing another song, we forgive him his collection of clichés.


Ms. Lopez, on the other hand, has no such safety net. She just goes out there on a ludicrous limb each and every time, delivering her domineering dialogue like someone crowned her queen of the she-devils. There is not a single redeeming aspect to her overdone, manipulative ‘mamacita’. In one scene, where Anthony’s Lavoe simply wants to watch his son dance, Jenny from the Block does everything she can to drive him to distraction. When he picks up the present his kid gave him and throws it to the floor, we forget the implied sentimental value of the item, and hope a shard or two lodged in Puchi’s voice-box. In many ways, she’s the Puerto Rican version of Norbit’s Rasputia – loud, crude, vindictive, and absolutely irredeemable. While the script and direction definitely drag El Cantante down, the portrait of Puchi in this film – true or false – places the final perfectly groomed and polished nails in the movie’s creative coffin.


There are other things that don’t work here, either. Throughout the first half of the film, the shady dealings of the managers and record labels behind Lavoe are hinted at and alluded to. Naturally, nothing comes of this. Similarly, the singer is described as being irresponsible, failing to show up to gigs and giving less than his all come show time. Yet every concert sequence is electrifyingly flawless, the crooner captivating his insanely loyal crowd. Even his nervous breakdown occurs off camera. Puchi discusses it, we see a brief scene of a zoned out Anthony, and then the couple is cooing over a backdrop of the Big Apple, relieved that everything is all right again. No Snake Pit freak out. No straight jacket screeching for this quickly cured basket case. In some ways, a docudrama with Lavoe’s story told via interviews, with Anthony recreating his presence on stage, would have worked a heck of a lot better than this Punch and Judy joke. If we wanted to see spouse’s spar with each other, we’d simply turn on Lifetime – or Dateline NBC.


It is clear that fans of this man and his music will have very little problem with the way they are portrayed in El Cantante. Lavoe comes across as a stained saint, and his presence on stage and in front of a microphone is solid. That just leaves Puchi as scapegoat for all the sorrow in his life – and isn’t it odd that Jennifer Lopez is left holding this particular bag. Maybe this is some kind of karmic payback for all the rotten things she’s rumored to have done over the last few years. From fiancés left in her wake,to full blown diva tantrums over insignificant petty issues, she’s singlehandedly destroyed any legitimacy she had as an artist. While one can blame the tabloids all they want, the proof of her unbridled hubris is plastered all over every frame of El Cantante. We were supposed to learn about how an earnest immigrant singer overcame obstacles to redefine salsa for the ‘70s. Instead, we discover that Jennifer Lopez is one out of control ogre – and that Marc Anthony will have a solid career, with or without her.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Aug 3, 2007


It’s been a tough week for film fans. We lost Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, French film star Michel Serrault (Albin in La Cages aux Folles), and make-up artist William Tuttle (7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Young Frankenstein). It seemed like, for a while there, every time you opened your browser and clicked on your standard Internet news page, another famous face had left us. All loss is hard, but when it comes to the passing of our cinematic stalwarts, the forced filmic perspective is especially brutal. Who, if anyone, will be stepping in to take the place of such exalted names – and if there is no one waiting in the wings, why not? Could it be that Hollywood is so busy making a buck that they can’t be bothered by art anymore? That’s possible. It could also be that we aren’t looking in the right places. There are plenty of magnificent moviemakers out there, but unless they manage some sort of commercial appeal, they get left out of the cultural mix. Maybe the premium pay cable channel offerings for 04 August will shed some light on the subject. There’s at least one amazing movie in the bunch, something that could very easily stand the test of aesthetic time:


Premiere Pick
The Prestige


Yes, it does appear that SE&L will pimp this brilliant Chris Nolan film every chance it gets, but the reason for such shilling is simple – this is one of the best movies of the last ten years. Complicated, lush, and teaming with emotional heft, this story of competing magicians and the mistake that would forever connect their lives works as a thriller, a perfect period piece, a classic whodunit, and a clever combination of eye and mind candy. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have never been better, and Nolan’s eye for detail and definition turn even the most minor moments into something significant and epic. With all its terrific twists and turns, it’s intricate character work, and brilliant basis in the weird world of magic and illusions, we wind up with something that resonates well beyond its limits as legitimate entertainment. What we have here is a masterpiece, and it’s a stunning sight to behold. (04 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Last Kiss


When Garden State arrives in theaters way back in 2004, pundits were predicting that star Zach Braff (who also wrote and directed) would wind up a genial generational guiding light. Fast forward two years and this sloppy anti-rom com has more or less robbed him of his aesthetic cred. Playing an indecisive dolt who can’t choose between his giving fiancé and a gal he used to grope in college, we wind up witnessing slacker ennui at its most aggravating. (04 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Marine


Glorified guilty pleasure alert! WWE wrestler John Sena stars as a stoic military man who makes a mistake, and finds himself all pumped up with no place to go. Luckily, his wife gets kidnapped by some escaping criminals, so all that lethal government sponsored training doesn’t go to waste. The result is a minimum of exposition and a lot of explosions. It’s not a great film, but is sure beats a Saturday night alone – sort of. (04 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


An Inconvenient Truth


Al Gore may not have won the electoral war, but he sure is making more significant global changes than the rube the Red States put in office. This Oscar winning warning about the legitimate threat from climate change challenges the conventional wisdom about nature’s resilience while offering practical solutions to save our environment. No wonder it became an indie doc phenomenon. The voting public may be persuadable, but they’re not dumb. (03 August, Showtime, 5PM EST)

Indie Pick
Half Nelson


The story sounds slightly sensational – well meaning inner city teacher reaches out and connects with his underprivileged students by day, goes home and smoke crack like an addict at night. Yet Ryan Fleck reached ridiculously splendid heights with just such a premise. Thanks in no small part to the award winning work of another same named star – the unbelievably brilliant Ryan Gosling – the outsider auteur found a happy, hopeful medium between outrageous and original. While many praised the star for his solid, skillful turn, a great deal of attention focused on Shareeka Epps, playing the inner city kid who stumbles upon her instructor’s dirty little secret. The two share a bond that’s both believable and breathtaking, making the movie more than just an examination of social status, race relations, and dire personal problems. In fact, what Fleck does better than most in his particular position is find the humanity inside the horror. If you haven’t already seen it, now’s the time to do so. (04 August, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
O’ Brother Where Art Thou?


The Coen Brothers surprised everyone, including their tuned-in fanbase, when they answered the slick pot smoke swagger of The Big Lebowski with this period piece take on Homer’s Odyssey. Even more unusual, they loaded up the soundtrack with classic country and bluegrass tunes, acting like a Greek chorus for all the shinbone alley shenanigans going on. The result was the boys’ biggest mainstream hit, and a Grammy winning soundtrack album to boot. (05 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance


Oldboy gets all the glory. Lady Vengeance gets all the geeks. But this first installment in Chan-wook Park’s Revenge Trilogy set the standards by which both its sequels function. While the narrative falls outside the mob war mandates of the standard Asian action flick, this diligent director does such a great job with his scripts that we don’t miss the mafia. In fact, Park’s proposal that all humans have an inherent need for justice speaks louder than any slow-motion gunplay. (06 August, Sundance Channel, 2:45AM EST)

Employee of the Month


Don’t get nervous – SE&L hasn’t lost its mind and decided to champion that horrible Dane Cook/Jessica Simpson comedy from last year. No, this 2004 effort focuses on an unlucky bank employee who loses his job, his fiancé, and his car all in one horrible day. Believe it or not, the following morning things only get worse. Hated by most critics when it hit theaters in a limited release, the small screen may be the place to enjoy this unusual tale. (08 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Berserk/ Trog


Ah – the sad fate of the fading Golden Era Hollywood superstar. Indeed, what are your options when the studios won’t hire you, the public no longer cares, and the lovely lifestyle you’ve been used to for the last 40 years comes back to bite you in the budget. Well, if you’re Joan Crawford, you buck the fudge up, drop the pretense of pride, and take any scritp that happens to come your way. Thus we have the fading fortunes of her otherwise legendary career – to genre jokes of undeniable goofball pleasures. The first film focuses on a circus “cursed” by a determined slasher. The second features the world’s least convincing caveman making nice with the star’s pseudo-scientist. Had TCM’s Underground included both Straight Jacket and I Saw What You Did, we’d have a quadrilogy of quirkiness that would be hard to beat. Instead, just sit back and enjoy this daffy duo. (03 August, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Hellraiser: Deader


It’s hard to figure out what’s more shocking – the fact that this is the seventh installment in the Clive Barker series, or that there remains an audience eager for this many versions of Pinhead and Company’s ‘pain is pleasure’ paradigm. Having long since dispensed with the Lament Configuration in favor of narratives that briefly touch on the Cenobites before going off on their own genre tangents, this promises to be excruciating – and not in a good way. (05 August, SciFi Channel, 3AM EST)

Deadly Snake vs. Kung Fu Killer


Okay, we admit it. We know next to NOTHING about this 1977 martial arts movie, but – come on! – check out that title! How can you not love something that celebrates its chop socky schlock value so? As a matter of fact, the actual translation of the original Chinese title (Tin loh daai poh ng hang chan) is Deadly SNAIL vs. Kung Fu Killer. It could be a load of derivative dung for all we know. Thanks to the tag, who cares? (02 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 7PM EST)

Mad Love


Another noted mix-up here at SE&L Central. We thought we’d be celebrating the delirious Peter Lorre vehicle from 1935 about a mad scientist who substitutes the hands of a gifted pianist with those of a serial killer. Instead, we get Drew Barrymore going insane, and her good natured doormat bohunk Chris O’Donnell desperate to save her. Sigh. Oh well, they say this movie has its moments. We’ll have to take their word for it.  (09 August, Indieplex, 7:20PM EST)

 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Aug 3, 2007

Punk-indie band Ted Leo and the Pharmacists continue their seemingly never-ending tour, building a strong following in the process. Formed in 1999, the band served as a solo project for Ted Leo after his last band, Chisel, broke up. In 2001, Ted Leo signed to Lookout! Records and released The Tyranny of Distance, an album receiving 4.5/5 on All Music Guide. In 2006, they left their record label, and signed with Touch and Go Records. On March 20, 2007, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists released their latest album, Living with the Living. Currently, the band is on tour, and if they are not coming to your town, they will be soon.


Cover of Since You Been Gone:


Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?:



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 2, 2007

The Summer of 2007 has been tough on the tre-quel: that seemingly final chapter in a studio mandated trilogy or continuing franchise. So far, we’ve had the excellent Pirates pic, the so-so Spider-man saga, and the dreadful stench of the latest Shrek mess. Yet if one is looking for a clear winner in the three-peat paradigm, it would be that latest attempt to reclaim his part by the amnesiac government assassin, Jason Bourne. As portrayed with Cold War cruelness by a breathtaking Matt Damon, the latest installment in the Robert Ludlum inspired series picks up six weeks after the event in the preceding chapter. Also back are the team behind Supremacy’s success—screenwriter Tony Gilroy and acclaimed director Paul Greengrass. But the maintenance of creative continuity is only one of the newly named Bourne Ultimatum’s saving graces. As with any last acts, the inevitable clash between mystery solved and said truth’s significance offers a sizeable challenge. Here, it creates a compelling and clever espionage thriller.


With his girlfriend dead and his memory intermittent, our aggressive anti-hero is still trying to figure out who he is, and why the government trained him to kill. While following up leads in Moscow, Bourne learns of a reporter who is threatening to blow the lid off some special ops project code named “Blackbriar”. Desperate to discover what he’s found—and more importantly—the source that gave him all this classified information, Bourne heads to London and contacts the journalist. Unfortunately, the CIA, lead by devious department head Noah Vosen, wants the same data. While agent Pamela Landy continues to help the troubled operative, higher ups in the bureau want both Bourne and the journalist silenced—forever. Bourne eventually finds himself in Spain, seeking a man who once supervised the entire Blackbriar project. There, he runs into another old friend, agent Nicky Parsons, who helps him track his target to Tangiers. Of course, there are hired killers everywhere, and Bourne narrowly escapes with his life. All paths lead right back to the US, and as his memory returns, so does his resolve to expose the agency’s wrongdoing once and for all.


It seems like a complicated cat and mouse exercise, but the great thing about The Bourne Ultimatum is that all the spy vs. spy intrigue is carefully controlled and eagerly explained. Greengrass knows that modern audiences, not used to thinking during their action packed stunt setpieces, need this kind of material spoon fed to them. So every once in a while, he lets his wildly erratic handheld camera settle down for a few seconds, so that important pieces of the puzzle can be fitted together. Since some have complained that the director’s ‘from the gut’ approach to cinematography can lead to a nauseating case of shaken camera syndrome, not only do these sequences aid the exposition, but they also help the queasiness pass. There is a wildly evocative ‘you are there’ approach to Greengrass’s style, and some will find it disorienting. But when you have sequences as strong as these, the artistic quirks can be forgiven.


Indeed, The Bourne Ultimatum lives and dies by its car chases and fisticuffs, and it has to be said that some of the best examples in the genre exist in this electrifying film. It is especially true of a second act situation in which Bourne follows an assassin targeting gal pal Nicky Parsons. As he leaps from rooftop to rooftop and through many a Moroccan citizen’s window, we anticipate an amazing standoff once the significant players meet. But Greengrass does away with all the glorified machismo grandstanding and simply lets two professional killers do what they do best. Like the mano-y-mano magnificence of the extended brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live, Bourne beats the ever-lovin’ snot out of a dark, mysterious murderer, skin smacking and flesh pounding with such unmitigated ferocity the audience can practically feel each blow.


Even better is the last act car chase between Bourne, the CIA and his ally Landy. As he makes the Feds look foolish, our ‘hero’ wheels a selection of vehicles through Manhattan. Careening past—and sometimes off—buildings while squealing around corners with hairpin histrionics, it’s the kind of vehicular mayhem that’s more or less missing from your typical popcorn romp. The reason is simple—Greengrass doesn’t cheat. Instead of using CGI autos to achieve his ends, he smashes real ones up, Blues Brothers style, errant parts and unpredictable chaos creating that much more of an adrenalin rush. Yet even when not trying to take on the entire collection of black ops agents (as in the opening slink through Waterloo Station), The Bourne Ultimatum understands suspense. It’s not just that we care for these characters—it’s that Greengrass follows of golden oldie formula of metering out just enough information to keep us guessing. And once our brain is engaged, the rest of our knotted nervous system is sure to follow.


Of course, none of this would work without characters and performers who can make you believe that the random images generated by a computer monitor actually mean something in the grand scheme of national security. Behind the boards, David Strathairn is undeniably nasty as the patsy pushing buttons for the big boys in the Cabinet, while Joan Allen delivers a dynamic turn as the whistleblower waiting for the goods to give her resolve. While she’s suffered from some miscasting in the past (The Omen remake) Julie Stiles is actually very good here, playing the kind of Barbie bargaining chip one would easily see the CIA recruiting for her espionage eye candy value. As Simon Ross, the reporter holding the key to Bourne’s ultimate identity, Paddy Considine has a hound dog face that just screams extended tour of duty. Though he’s not on screen for very long, his nervous need to confirm the facts make him an instant audience guide.


And then there’s Damon. As an actor, this iron-jawed good guy has always seemed one role away from finally coming into his own. Even as part of the stellar cast in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning The Departed, he tends to have a frat boy weightlessness that’s hard to overcome. But here, turning down the volume and amplifying his noted physicality, he comes across as commanding, dominating, and most importantly, deadly. You believe his Bourne is a ticking timebomb of brainwashed brutality and remorseless destruction. While he tells Stiles’ Parker that he’s haunted by the face of everyone he’s ever killed, this is a machine managing to continue on its highly lethal path with relative ease. Without an individual who can sell us on such terrifying tenacity, these movies would fall apart (imagine his buddy Ben Affleck here—hmm…). But thanks to Damon, it steamrolls over the shakier bits to deliver boffo blood and guts.


While by no means the end of the Bourne narrative (fans of the novels know this all too well), what The Bourne Ultimatum actually represents is the final phase in both Paul Greengrass and his maturing stars’ ascension into the box office big time. By consistently delivering the goods in a genre that hasn’t been relevant since Reagan regaled the Russians to “tear down this wall”, they’ve outdone a certain Mr. Bond while proving that, with the right material and the right talent behind and in front of the camera, even the hoariest old cinematic clichés can be revived and enlivened. While he may not have had the insurmountable mandate of making pirates culturally relevant again (somewhere in cinema heaven, Gore Verbinski’s table is on infinite reserve), Greengrass got this right. After all, in 2007 spies seem better suited for spoofing. Yet The Bourne Ultimatum simply does what it does best—defy convention while embracing its best bits. The result is one of the summer’s surest efforts. 



Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
PopMatters' LUCY Giveaway! in PopMatters's Hangs on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.