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Saturday, Jun 2, 2007

It wasn’t just the BBC but also ABC World News Tonight and hundreds of other news outlets that reminded the masses that the Beatles released a little album four decades ago.  After a 1988 full-on cover of the whole thing by the likes of the Fall, Sonic Youth and XTC, there’s now news that some of the top UK acts are going to record their own version of it.  How many albums are going to get toasted years after the fact like that?  Very few, no doubt.  It’s obvious that Sgt Pepper’s has its place in music history but how vaunted should it really be?


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Friday, Jun 1, 2007


Has any film arrived with more nonsensical – and non-cinematic – baggage as Apocalypto? Granted, Mel Gibson’s egregious gaff last August clouded its theatrical release in a totally unnecessary manner, but it was the media that made tenable the connection between his personal philosophy about his fellow man and a film focusing on South American tribes at the end of their reign as civilized societies. Like any major superstar – and for a while, no one was bigger than the slightly manic Mel – the building of a celebrity is only half the press’s process. Dragging them back down the stairway of eminence makes up the second section of fame’s cyclical nature.


Perhaps DVD can help his flagging interpersonal fortunes. Gauged solely by what’s up on the screen, Gibson shouldn’t have any issues at all. From a pure filmmaking point of view, Apocalypto is brilliant. It’s a tenacious throwback to the days when human beings handled action, not CGI and special effects. It uses it’s wonderfully simplistic storyline to pour on much welcomed buckets of atmosphere and design, and it purposely leaves the audience directly in the dark. As a result, we instantly identify with his lead character’s dilemma (protecting and/or returning to his family) and discover the wild and wooly ways this foreign world works, right along with everyone else.


Unlike the ra-ra ridiculousness of Braveheart, or the subjective snuff film reverence of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives the audience a break here, creating an excellent antidote to the plodding post-modern blockbuster. In a script that is elegant in its ease, Gibson identifies the good guys (Jaguar Paw’s jungle dwelling tribe) and names the unbelievable bad guys (the completely corrupt and de-evolving Mayans) and puts them at odds inside a beautiful, bloody epic. Argue over his skill with narrative or characterization, but no one can doubt Gibson’s gift behind the lens. Using digital cameras and advanced filmmaking technology, there is a rawness to this imagery present that’s just astounding.


There are indeed shots in Apocalypto that will literally take your breath away, moments where you wonder aloud if this is the natural beauty of a practical location, a purely computer generated spectacle, or a clever combination of the two. In particular, there’s a moment during Jaguar Paw’s last act escape where he winds up in a pit of headless corpses. Colored a dire, dreary gray by the surrounding mud, the bodies form a kind of corrupt canvas, as perfect a painting of pain and horror as the visual medium has to offer. In addition, the entire Mayan Temple scene is radiant in its crassly colorful depiction of debauchery. As part of Touchstone’s Special Edition disc, Gibson is on hand to explain how he captured every cleverly created moment. We even witness the attention to detail in the Behind the Scenes featurettes. 


As for the performances, it really is hard to challenge or criticize them. Texan Rudy Youngblood is very good in the leading role, though he tends to have less of the detailed physical maladies (bad teeth, body scars) as given to his equally impressive co-stars. Still, he never comes across as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’. Naturally, there’s a villain, and Gibson does a very smart thing when it comes to his bad guys. He divides up the evil, making main leader Zero Wolf (played by Raoul Trujillo) a far more focused heavy. He even shows a softer side, doting on his son in a way that foreshadows a fatal event that drives the Mayans to make Jaguar Paw a palpable public enemy. Snake Ink, on the other hand, is like a pre-Columbian Simon LeGree. Face forming a constant snarling smirk, actions always poised on the precipice of outright psychosis, newcomer Rodolfo Palacios seems to be channeling every old fashioned rogue in the action movie manual. Thanks to the use of an ancient language and subtitles, the personalities all seem to merge and meld into a kind of collective clan. It is only via easily remembered art design elements, and individual idiosyncrasies that we end up with certain specific types.


While it may be bereft of real emotion – as much as we like Jaguar Paw, we don’t really feel the connection between he and his pregnant mate – there is no doubting Gibson’s ability to showboat and inspire. The entire trip through the mad Mayan city, filled with touches both natural and otherworldly, creates the kind of sociological science fiction that any good period piece can provide. We want to be transported to a world we’ve never experienced, believe in the validity of the varying little details that make up the magical whole. Some have criticized the authenticity of Apocalypto’s artistic assertions, but the added context of the DVD should help to resolve some of those lingering logistical doubts. Indeed, we learn that things were much worse – read: bloodier and gorier – than depicted onscreen.


Yet it’s the nonstop action of the entire last act, a foot race that seems to cover the entire length of Central America in its lightning paced logistics and epic scope that truly amplifies our appreciation. Obviously inspired by his stint as a certain Mad Max, Gibson emulates the best of Australian auteur George Miller and strips everything down to body parts and wooded paths. Instead of just spectacle (and there’s plenty of that) we get strategizing and opportunism. While some may question the seemingly boundless energy Jaguar Paw and his pursuers maintain, we recognize the urgency in both the escape and the hunt. Our hero has to get home to his family. The villains have a horrifying superstition to follow and feed (and a little eye for an eye payback to administer). By avoiding complicated motives and obvious stunt set ups, the action in Apocalypto’s finale is a solid cinematic adrenaline rush. It argues not only for the effectiveness of the film, but for the skill stowed away in Gibson’s bag of cinematic tricks.


For all his flaws as a human being, his history as a man both married to and marred by his convictions, Mel Gibson should never be doubted as a moviemaker. Apocalypto may not be one of the all time classics of the genre, but it surely stands shoulder to shoulder with the exceptional efforts of 2006 – at least from an inventive perspective. Besides, what’s the better legacy to have hanging around your neck – an undeniably dense anger toward people of a certain persuasion, or the ability to make startling celluloid statements? While it may be possible to judge a man strictly by his actions, art is not so easily categorized. It requires a different set of perceptive standards. Here’s DVD’s chance to change some minds


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Friday, Jun 1, 2007

Geek
Issue 2, 96 pages, $5.99


Geek is cool. No, really—in an “I’m so uncool I’m cool” kind of way. It doesn’t take an avid gamer or Harry Potter fanatic to appreciate Geek’s passion for comic books and robots, and I found it easy for even a person as nerd-ignorant as myself to flip through Geek’s pages.


Based on the website geekmonthly.com, which houses more articles and geek-related news than the magazine itself, Geek has its roots appropriately fixed in technology. Offering podcasts, blogs, reviews, and sneak peeks at Geek magazine content, the website addresses the same nerdy pastimes via an even nerdier medium. But unlike the sparse, simple website, the print version of Geek is colorful and well-organized, aiming for visual appeal in ways that the website does not. Others might argue that it’s the perfectly symmetrical face of Kristen Bell, star of television hit Veronica Mars, that gives Issue 2 its allure. Either way, the point is clear: get it in print.


Tagged as: geek, magazines
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Thursday, May 31, 2007




I know that this is a column about travel, but you know from being such faithful readers that voyages of the body, the soul, the mind . . . they all qualify. Still, even by that liberal definitional standard, this entry will be a stretch, since this entry is about journeys of a moral kind. It is a topic that came up recently over here in Japan (where my peripatetic feet generally roost) and I hope you agree it’s worth consideration, at least for a paragraph or three.







If you haven’t heard, a “baby drop box” was put into operation May 10 by a Roman Catholic hospital in Kumamoto. It was designed for unwanted infants however it made the front page of newspapers when a father dropped off a preschool-aged child on the service’s first day.


This abandonment aside, Kumamoto’s so-called “konotori no yurikago” (stork cradle) plan has generated both praise and criticism. Is this an example of social engineering noble and visionary, or of a society dissipated and retrograde? Is this a human community committed to the principle of “no child left behind” or, rather, of any child potentially tossed by the wayside?


 


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Thursday, May 31, 2007


Don’t you hate the feeling? That dull, throbbing pain in your cinematic proclivities provided by what can best be described as a popcorn movie hangover. So far, the month of May has given us a trio of tre-quels, and another look at some very British non-zombies. It was the entertainment equivalent of binge drinking. As June begins busting out all over, the theatrical choices are becoming a little less bombastic – and if you’re not already in line to see Judd Apatow’s brilliant Knocked Up, there is something really wrong with you. The pay cable channels, on the other hand, are weeding through the remainder of last year’s lesser offerings. For anyone whose seen the ads, Cinemax and HBO are promising a big fat blockbuster couple of months. Too bad they choose to avoid that approach this week. Similarly, Starz has been on a roll of sorts the last few Saturdays. This time though, the sacrilege hits the fan. We here at SE&L are still going to suggest it, even though it represents the worst of Tinsel Town’s thriller tendencies. You have been warned:


Premiere Pick
The Da Vinci Code


Buried inside Dan Brown’s purposefully provocative premise is actually a pretty strong story idea. After all, the Church has been a notorious secret keeper for eons, and to think it would resort to violence to protect the fact of Jesus’ secular reality is not so incredibly far fetched. But then he had to go and muck it all up by turning the entire tale into one big oversized cryptogram with way too many loose ends and obvious clues. All director Ron Howard did was emphasize the sloppy code busting. In addition, Tom Hanks is horribly miscast, unable to loose his average Joe vibe to play a dorkwad Harvard scholar. Toss in the lack of legitimate surprise (the media had long ruined Brown’s chartbuster hook), some scenes of incredibly ponderous exposition, and you’ve got a massive mainstream hit that plays like a lame History Channel reenactment.  (02 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
John Tucker Must Die


The teen comedy has suffered significantly over the last few decades. Basically, the kind of material masquerading as coming of age fodder has been usurped by sitcoms and cable cartoon shows. While the premise of this relationship/revenge spoof sounds novel, it ends up derivative and dopey – sort of like your typical high school student, right? No amount of ‘you go girl power’ can save this sloppy satire. (02 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Accepted


It must be matriculation night over at the HBO/Cinemax studios. When it was released last August, many felt this college jokefest could be a modern day Animal House. It ended up being another unappetizing installment of the overly ironic post-millennial excuse for a laugh-a-thon. While the notion of a student run school for partying is not a new one, the PG-13 rating which reduced every gag to something tepid and tame is. (02 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


Strangers with Candy


Before her position was usurped by Sarah Silverman, Amy Sedaris was the go-to gal for confrontational wit and wisdom. Perhaps that’s why this big screen makeover of her Comedy Central hit felt so desperate and dated. It was just so 1997. Hyped as the second coming of funny, it flopped so massively at the box office that even die-hard fans couldn’t find a screening. Thanks to endless repeats on cable, they should now have no such viewing problems. Let the reconsideration commence. (02 June, ShowTOO, 10:30PM EST)

Indie Pick
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life


Before the death of founding member Graham Chapman, the members of Britain’s undeniably brilliant sketch comedy company delivered their final motion picture masterwork – a vignette oriented comic cornucopia on the purpose of existence. While many found the film too fractured and fragmented, it plays today like a strong litany of lessons lifted directly from humanity’s metaphysical playbook. Taking on birth, war, death, and dismemberment, along with a collection of musical numbers that each rival Oliver! in their “I’m All Right Jack” Englishness, the troupe fashioned a seminal work of cinematic comedy that few, if any, could ever dare match. Sadly, it would be their final group effort, but it continues to argue for the talented men’s position as kings of skewering satire. (07 June, Sundance Channel, 7PM EST)

Additional Choices
Kinsey


Overlooked when it arrived in theaters, Bill Condon’s witty exposé remains a work of quiet genius. Well past due for a big screen biopic, the story of America’s preeminent sex researcher was watered down a little for mainstream consumption (meaning a limited glance at the subject’s rumored festishes and bi-sexuality). But the wonderful performances by Liam Neeson and Laura Linney more than compensate.  (02 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Fried Green Tomatoes


Fannie Flagg was, at one time, the hillbilly Harlequin romancer, a novelist using standard sentimentality of the chick flick as a basis for her country cousin yucks. This story of female empowerment and under-ripe love apples stands as her most popular paean to gals abandoning men in favor of their own overriding womanliness. Thanks to marvelous turns by the entire cast and a nice feel of nostalgia, it remains a well loved lament. (05 June, Sundance Channel, 6:45PM EST)

The Sleeping Dictionary


Before she became a full blown erotic eye candy pin up, Jessica Alba actually attempted to be an actress. Proof is this unusual 2003 drama in which the future male fantasy fodder played the title character, a native girl used by turn of the century British bureaucrats to learn the language and customs of their colonies. While not perfect, it remains a lovely movie overflowing with stunning vistas and fine performances. (05 June, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Outsider Option
Head


If the Monkees were indeed the exact artistic opposite of the Beatles, then it makes perfect sense that the Prefab Four would create a film diametrically opposed to the Liverpool boys’ own joyful saccharine romps. Head is hard to decipher at first, a social commentary without anything new or significant to say, a work of warped brilliance bathed in a slack self-effacing paradox that wouldn’t be popular for another 25 years. At its heart, thought, it remains a fascinating deconstruction of the entire Monkees myth, from the lighthearted screwball slapstick of their hit TV show to the notorious disposability of their music. It remains a movie so ahead of its time that it’s still waiting for said era to arrive. This is a brave pick for TCM’s Underground, especially when you consider that they’ve been bringing us reruns and bottom of the barrel b-movies for quite a while now. (01 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Grand Canyon


Back before he fell from cinematic grace, Lawrence Kasdan delivered this Crash like take on life in early ‘90s Los Angeles, and critics couldn’t’ get enough. While clearly loaded with more social observations than story (the characters here do love their long conversations), the writer/director’s intelligent insights really drive the drama. Add in some pitch perfect performances and you have one of the era’s best. (02 June, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

Satan’s Cheerleaders


Like every great grindhouse classic, this movie has a better title than truth. A Satanic janitor looking for virgin meat to sacrifice gets the local pep squad in Dutch with his fellow Devil devotees. Unfortunately, the jokes on him, in mores ways than one. Featuring a completely out of place Yvonne DeCarlo and a classic John Ireland, the drive-in once delighted in such dementia. Now you can too. (02 June, Drive In Classics, Canada, 9PM EST)

Mean Girls


Quick - when someone says dirty drunken slut, what’s the first two words that come to mind? If you said Lindsay Lohan, you deserve a double martini and a pair of crotchless panties. If, on the other hand, you named anyone else, then you might want to check out the cable channel premiere of the former ingénue’s mainstream comedy hit. There’s enough wit here to almost make you forget a certain actresses antics. ALMOST. (07 June, TNT, 8PM EST)

 


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