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Monday, Jan 29, 2007


If you’re into cinematic cheese, this week brings a heady combination of campy cheddar and goofy Gruyere. Even our SE&L pick is one of the Fall’s least anticipated films (though we here at the blog dug its ADD inspired trailer), while the alternate title is one of horror’s most repugnant offerings. In between, you’ll find failed jingoism, lame lampooning, sobering science fiction, and one of the most misguided action films ever helmed. It’s enough to make you save your disposable income for next week’s stellar line-up. In any case, here are the selections for 30 January:


The Marine


Every once in a while, even the most considered film fan needs a cleansing motion picture purgative. A few weeks back, the Jason Statham epic Crank was the entertainment ipecac du jour. This time around, Vince McMahon and his WWE-based film division give John Sena his own ‘80s throwback action film. Presenting the simplest of stories – a former jarhead must save his wife from wisecracking jewel thieves – and lots of explosions (no, make that LOTS of EXPLOSIONS!!!) first time filmmaker John Bonito shows great adeptness at creating cinematic fireworks. An extended chase scene along a busy highway crackles with kinetic energy, and the many fight scenes rely heavily on Cena’s ‘boytoy as bruiser’ abilities. If you want big, dumb and loud, this is your E-ticket to excess.

Other Titles of Interest


The Arrangement


Based on his own novel, Elia Kazan’s story of second chances is one of the director’s least remembered efforts. Featuring Kirk Douglas, a very young Faye Dunaway and Deborah Kerr, the tale of a rich man looking for happiness after a near death experience is a dense, performance-based piece from a man known for eliciting amazing acting turns. 

Farce of the Penguins


On paper, it should work. Comic Bob Saget sends up March of the Penguins, dragging famous ‘voices’ Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Alexander, Lewis Black, and Gilbert Gottfried in for the South Pole satire. Unfortunately, nature footage supplemented with silly jokes is just not that funny. Some may find the combination clever. Most will prefer the original doc.


Flyboys


Dean Devlin, famous for strident summer blockbusters like Independence Day and Stargate lends his producing cred (and rumor has it, own money) to this superficial story about American flyers who volunteered to help the French before America entered World War I. Nothing more than an old fashioned ‘why we fight’ effort loaded with up to date technology.

Gymkata


After his success in International Gymnastics, it was hoped that Kurt Thomas could translate his athleticism into the action hero genre. The result was this loony movie, a strange story of a small country, it’s militarily strategic land, and a weird competition called The Game. Add in the title talent and you’ve got an amazingly misguided mess.

Looker


Before he was known for his mega-blockbusters like Jurassic Park (and on TV, ER) Michael Crichton tried to make serious sci-fi in the face of the growing Star War-ing of the genre. Ahead of its time, this bit of plastic surgery speculation offers Albert Finney, James Coburn, and a terrifying take on the ‘anything for beauty’ ideal.


And Now for Something Completely Different


Maniac


Boy, did this movie cause a fright film firestorm when it was first released. Featuring a sleazy sexploitation vibe, and autopsy like make-up effects by noted terror technician Tom Savini, this seedy addition to the slasher genre found filmmaker William Lustig delivering a dark and disgusting take on the new slice and dice fad. About as far removed from Halloween and Friday the 13th as you can get, what we have here is a disturbing story of a man (Joe Spinelli) who kills and mutilates women to compensate for the abuse he experienced as a child. Placing their freshly shorn scalps on mannequins, he hopes to quell his pain and anger. Considered horribly misogynistic at the time, the decades have not really lessened its grotesque grindhouse impact.

 


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Monday, Jan 29, 2007

Even though it borders on imbecilic, I have long been a fan of the song “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company. I used to think this was because the song resisted any kind of interpretation, and thus hearkened back to a time before the pain of metaphor, which is always a way of inscribing absence. Consider the lyrics:


I’d like to play a game
That is so much fun,
And it’s not so very hard to do,
The name of the game is Simple Simon says,
And I would like for you to play it too.


Put your hands in the air, Simple Simon says,
Shake them all about, Simple Simon says,
Do it when Simon says, Simple Simon says,
And you will never be out.


Now that you have learnt
To play this game with me,
You can see its not so hard to do,
Lets try it once again,
This time more carefully,
And I hope the winner will be you.


Lots of bubblegum songs employ pretty obvious double entrendre: “Chewy, Chewy” and “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”; “Wig Wam Bam” and “Little Willie”—even prepubescents can probably decode these. But as far as I can tell, Simple Simon is not a metaphor for anything; the song is just about playing Simple Simon, and it gives you the directions. I used to marvel at the restraint the studio musicians who made up this band must have exercised to adhere to such a risible premise and how this restraint translated into a high formalist art—“Simple Simon” as a pop-music Rothko. But now that friends of mine are having babies, I realize that all music made for infants exercises this kind of literalist restraint, so there must be something more that makes “Simple Simon” stand apart from, say, the songs Barney the purple dinosaur sings. Perhaps it is this: by avoiding any kind of metaphoric possibility, “Simple Simon” wants to absolve you of any ambiguity, any chance of misinterpretation. There is no space between desire and action for anxiety to develop. This suits the subject matter of the song perfectly, as it’s about a game that glorifies the art of taking orders, that rewards blind obediance to authority, that structures one’s actions as someone else’s desire, thus resolving us of responsibility. It promises a world of perfect order, in which one’s responses can be completely controlled, in which nothing is involuntary. “Simple Simon” then is about that simple pleasure of total submission, which makes it far kinkier than “I’ve got love in my tummy.” Deleuze would perhaps note the fact that the winner of “Simon Says” is the person who submits most perfectly, not the person issuing the orders, who in this arrangement is deprived of all possibility for joy and reduced to performing rote bureaucratic functions. “Do it when SImon says and you willl never be out”—does this extend the promise of jouissance to the perfect masochist? Perhaps I need to rethink “1, 2, 3 Red Light” along these lines as well….


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Sunday, Jan 28, 2007


It’s about time we faced facts as film fans. The Oscars are really out of touch. It’s not just the usual omissions and snubs – this year’s avoidance of Dreamgirls no exception – or the ‘holier than thou’ hierarchy it lords over all other awards. No, it seems that, ever since the ‘70s renaissance in cinema, the Academy has missed opportunity after opportunity to reward actual artistry. Say what you will about the last five Best Picture winners – Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago and A Beautiful Mind – but all except one will remain an aesthetic afterthought when it comes to a final filmic analysis. Indeed, looking back to Midnight Cowboy in 1970, the one time studio shill fest, designed as a kind of self-congratulatory salute to itself when it began in 1929, is starting to stink of industry insularity all over again.


When Crash defeated everyone’s odds on favorite, Brokeback Mountain, last year, people seemed to sense that all was not right with the glorified golden statue. It was rare that such a hit or miss production, a film that received as many pans as it did praise walked away with the top honors of the year. Listen to people pontificate, and they’ll point to Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, and Titanic as recent examples of the big show getting it wrong. Granted, the alternates for each one of the aforementioned is hard to delineate – it’s hard to argue that The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, or Elizabeth deserved to be in the same category as Saving Private Ryan (which Shakespeare beat for the award). No, what cinephiles fail to take into consideration when criticizing the Oscars is that many of the great films, many of them considered classics of the artform, never even make it to the nomination phase.


Take the 2002 BFI List of the Top Ten Films of All Time. Vertigo (#2), The Rules of the Game (3#), Tokyo Story (#5), 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6), Battleship Potemkin (#7) and Singing in the Rain (#10) all failed to make the Academy cut. Of the rest, The Godfather films (#4), Sunrise (#8) and 8 ½ (#9) actually won, while Citizen Kane (#1) received a Best Picture nod, but was beat by How Green Was My Valley. While its easy to argue the BFI selections, what’s obvious is that a yearly awards ceremony, especially one guided by politics, campaigning, knee-jerk pop culture reactions, and occasional outright incompetence can’t be counted on to determine the greatest movies ever made. Indeed, as stated before, it can barely get the choices from specific years correct.


This year, Dreamgirls was crowned the de facto winner by more than a couple of cinematic know it alls. As far back as October, those in the know (meaning anyone invited or privy to exclusive industry screenings) picked the Chicago wannabe as musical manna from Heaven. As the minority representative of the cinematic song and dance renaissance, those lucky enough to warrant an early glance were praising the performances and the filmmaking as if no other movie could walk in its superiorly crafted footsteps. When that joke of a journalistic organization – the Foreign Press Club – picked the late December release as its Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, the Oscar nom was signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mail that memo to the people over at Price Waterhouse. When Selma Hayek and AMPAS President Sid Ganis announced the five choices for 2006’s Best Picture, Dreamgirls didn’t make the cut.


Bill Condon and crew shouldn’t care. They are in very good company. United 93, a film debated and deconstructed since its early April release was also supposed to be a shoe-in. So was Little Children, the Todd Fields scourging of suburbia and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuoran’s amazing future shock social commentary. Sadly, they will all have to settle for vindication in the lesser categories. Then there were those complicated, occasionally misunderstood movies that made several Best of Lists – The Prestige, The Fountain, Inland Empire – that many felt really represented the best of what post-millennial moviemaking had to offer. Even Borat was bandied about as a potential Oscar choice, since the industry is always willing to reward a newcomer who brings something fresh and original to the overall dynamic.


On the flip side, almost all of the five films that finally made the cut have major detractors. Aside from The Departed, which got universally glowing reviews, and The Queen which has parlayed its pitch perfect performances by Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen into more than a little comprehensive appreciation, each potential winner has its fair share of critics. Probably the clearest two examples of contentious nominations are Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. Each one has loud detractors – the main condemnation being that each effort is cloying, scattered and lacking real narrative focus – and, oddly enough, both are now the favorites to win the award. It’s Crash all over again, except this time, there’s no agenda-oriented darling waiting to be disappointed. Indeed, with no one film making the pitch as overall favorite, Oscar has done something strangely similar to its decisions of the past – it has picked a group of nominees that tend to flatter the film that eventually wins.


In this case, if Little Miss Sunshine picks up the trophy - as it did recently at the Producers Guild of America - it will be seen as a victory for the small, independent feature, a direct slap in the face of a film like The Departed that has big budget, high profile performers filling out its artistic reality. Babel – a real example of love it or hate it histrionics - has the same A-list pedigree and when it took home the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture, it pushed its way beyond the rest of the foreign filmmaking pack. Letters of Iwo Jima remains the wild card, Clint Eastwood proving more popular among Academy members than he is elsewhere in the entertainment community. For most groups, this look at the war from the Japanese side, featuring a non-English speaking cast and dialogue delivered in subtitles, was a better Foreign film choice than Best Picture candidate.


Now there are some who contend that Oscar really reserves recognition for the year’s best in other, less prominent categories. They point to examples of wins in Best Original Screenplay (The Coen Brother’s Fargo, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) and Best Director (Ang Lee, Roman Polanski) as ways of determining artistic merit. This year appears no different. Paul Greenglass gets back for the United 93 snub here, and Children of Men finds itself fighting for recognition among the Best Adapted Screenplay throng. Even overlooked efforts like The Prestige appear in the technical awards (Art Direction and Cinematography) and some unlikely nominees– Marie Antoinette, Apocalypto, The Good German – turn up here as well. They would call it “spreading the wealth”. Most film fans would consider it avoided complete embarrassment.


It’s easy to dismiss the Academy Awards, an organization that failed to recognize the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa (and, NO, those late in life Honorary nods don’t count). And there are times when they get it right, even in spite of themselves. But as the new millennium motors along, it is becoming clearer and clearer that a Grammys style revamp is in order. If Babel or Little Miss Sunshine wins, the chasm between critics, film community, and the general public will grow wider and more antagonistic. While no one expects a more People’s Choice approach, or even a broadening of the nomination criteria, it is clear that the same issues that plagued the documentary branch (which still is less than perfect) are complicating the major motion picture picks.


By moving the awards up a couple of weeks, and avoiding the intense lobbying that went on in year’s past, Oscar is trying to remove both the predictability and the relevance from its annual love-in. While many might see this as a step in a positive direction, those whose tastes run more toward the unusual and eccentric will continue to see their choices ignored, their well-honed aesthetic substituted for a mob rule mainstream mindset. And as long as this kind of collective approach continues to dominate the Academy, their all but predestined picks will continue to fall further and further out of classics consideration.


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Sunday, Jan 28, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Mach Pelican—“She’s a Mod”


The Postmarks
Goodbye [MP3]


Pela
Lost to the Lonesome (Cassettes Won’t Listen to This Remix) [MP3]


El-P
Smithereens [MP3]


Alice Smith
Woodstock [MP3]


Robert Gomez
Closer Still [MP3]


The Gray Kid
Eh Man [MP3]


 


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Sunday, Jan 28, 2007

Matthew Ingram, the Globe and Mail technical writer, has a good article on his website: Should I Be Paid Based on Trafffic.  Here he talks about the recent incentive program where some publications are paying writers a bonus if their columns get more web traffic.  “Newspapers already promote writers who draw a large readership,” he reasons but he also worries about “pandering for page views” (writing sensationalized articles just to get more readers) and if that will dictate what kind of writing we see on the web.  It’s a good issue to ponder.  Hopefully, editors will be vigilent about this system as it gets used (and abused) in the future.  In the meantime, if you see some unusally over-the-top articles at your favorite publication, you’ll know one reason why that’s happening.  Of course, all of us at PopMatters would never approve of such practices and splash SEX and items about WILD GIRLS or CELEBRITY GOSSIP or anything like that (editor, please note my web traffic spike, which will no doubt start now…).


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