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by Bill Gibron

25 Apr 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.



by D.M. Edwards

25 Apr 2008

Stillby Robb KendrickUniversity of Texas PressFebruary 2008, 232 pages. $50.00

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.

by Terry Sawyer

25 Apr 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.

by PopMatters Staff

25 Apr 2008

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 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.

by Bill Gibron

24 Apr 2008

For the weekend beginning 25 April, here are the films in focus:

In Brief

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay [rating: 5]

Is it possible to make a stoner comedy without actually showing your heroes wake and bake? Can a keen political satire be crafted out of obvious takes on the War on Terror and government incompetency? Both questions come up frequently in this relatively successful sequel to the 2004 pot party. This time around, our title characters are on their way to Amsterdam when their bong is mistaken for a bomb. They end up entering, and then fleeing from the infamous Cuban prison, hoping that a highly placed pal in Texas can bail them out. Kumar also wants to stop his ex-girlfriend from marrying this conservative cad. With the usually dependable Rob Corddry ruining every scene he’s in, and a great deal of inappropriate race baiting, first time directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who also wrote both films) use the “insult everyone equally” approach to avoid controversy. Still, when a sidesplitting smoke out only offers one real take on the toke (it arrives when our duo meet up with an equally Chronic prone George W. Bush), when it doesn’t have the nerve to argue the very policies it parodies, then we are dealing with some very cowardly comedy. Still, there are enough laughs - and stars John Pho and Kel Penn are more than winning - to sustain us through this uneven second helping. 

Baby Mama [rating: 2]

It’s about time someone stood up and told Hollywood the truth - children are not the creative cure-all a character needs. Giving a demanding, type-A personality a toddler will not instantly turn a control freak shrew into an Earth goddess. This applies to all zygote phase formulas as well. While many may see the names Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the marquee and think comic gold, Baby Mama is instead a loaded Pampers full of fetus poo. While the talent pool it’s drawing from is marginal at best (who still thinks Steve Martin is cutting edge?), there is no excuse for such unfunny business. Using caricature instead of personality (Fey is the square-glasses wearing dork, Poehler is the Big Gulp slurping stooge) and forcing everything through a sieve of ‘babies are adorable’ drek, we wind up with 90 minutes whinier than the population at a Day Care. Co-stars Greg Kinnear and Dax Shephard are clearly present to give men both sides of the bad name (wuss/asshole) and pop culture references have to pass for satire (yo, hip-hop is def!). While Fey had no control over the content (the crappy writing and directing are courtesy of Michael McCullers), she should have better career management. A film like Baby Mama could land you on the artistic adoption list forever.

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