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Monday, Nov 13, 2006


It should, perhaps, be added to the list of the certain signs of seasonal change: days getting shorter; leaves turning colors and finally falling; DVD companies retrofitting previous releases and turning them into those dreaded double dip “special editions”. This week at the old B&M, the vast majority of the pickings are pimped out titles that have already been available on the digital domain in standard, sell-through form. But with the holiday buying avalanche just a few short shopping days away, studios sense a need to positively position themselves with potential gift givers – and in their mind, the best way to do that is slap on some heretofore unavailable extras on an already desirable disc. There are still a few interesting first time efforts out there, including a weird sci-fi experiment from one of cinema’s more daring auteurs, and a mediocre thriller based on one of the biggest bestsellers of all time. Still, if you need to know what happens in the extra 13 minutes added into Peter Jackson’s already elephantine remake of a known great ape classic, or what Chan-wook Park thinks of the attention his seminal revenge flick received around the world, then the second times the added content charm. In general, the possible rewards desperate for your dosh on 14 November are:


49 Up

*
The latest installment in Michael Apted’s brilliant five decades old documentary series proves that a good idea can survive shifts in personal and cultural climes to make a universal statement about the real nature of human beings. Some suggest that class and privilege have as much to do with the shocking individual transformations as inner elements like drive and determination, and of course they have a point. But this also doesn’t explain away the effect that years have on hopes, dreams, and perspective. One of the most telling attributes of all the Up films is highlighting how that age old missive “don’t dream it, be it” really doesn’t apply. Resolve can only take you so far, especially when a camera comes along every seven years and measures out your progress. With 12 of the 14 original subjects still participating, and middle age ebbing toward the twilight years, it will be interesting to see where 56 finds the cast. The paths seem awful dark right about now.



The Da Vinci Code: 2 Disc Special Edition

There are those who defend this dull, derivative cat and mouse mess as a fairly faithful adaptation of Dan Brown’s religion tweaking title. But in SE&L‘s opinion, that’s like arguing that a perfume that accurately recreates the smell of dog feces is aesthetically successful. Thanks to Ron Howard’s routine, journeyman direction, Akiva Goldsman’s atrocity of a script (someone, please stop this man before he scribes again) and the complete lack of capable characterization from leads Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, what could have been a capable thriller with a scandalous secret at the center became a vapid visualization of an already ponderous pulp novel. Let’s face it – any movie that must resort to using the excellent Ian McKellan as a guest lecturer on the obvious expositional elements of the plot is gasping for every last entertainment breath. Toss in the staid action scenes, the lack of any real surprise (the heralded “twist” was talked to death before the film even opened) and you’ve got a major misfire. For devotees and the self-flagellating only.



PopMatters Review


Forbidden Planet: 2 Disc Special Edition

*
Poised precariously between sci-fi and silliness, this imaginative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is often considered one of speculative fiction’s cinematic classics. Featuring a stellar old school cast – Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Richard Anderson and Earl Holliman – and the still impressive presence of one Robbie the Robot, the narrative weight given the project by director Fred Wilcox more than makes up for the limited success of the ‘50s era effects. Besides, the fabulous set designs and inventive electronic musical score helps sell the otherworldly elements exceptionally well. While previous DVD editions have been faulted for their lack of visual clarity, added context or just plain respect for the project, this new multi-disc package promises to provide a wealth of extra goodies. You will find deleted scenes, a documentary about the science fiction genre, and a featurette on the film’s creation. It’s enough to make even the most strident film geek jump for joy.



The Green Mile: 2 Disc Special Edition

*
Many felt that Frank Darabont stumbled a bit with this, his third adaptation of material by celebrated author Stephen King (his first two attempts being The Woman in the Room and the universally adored The Shawshank Redemption). But the truth is that the detail-oriented director got everything just right in this story of fate, faith, and fulfillment. Michael Clark Duncan, rejected as being reduced to a racially insensitive stereotype as the hulking black healer at the center of the story, actually gives an amazingly nuanced performance, providing the powerful center to what could have been a ponderous prison allegory. Add in the talented turns by Tom Hanks, David Morse, James Cromwell and Sam Rockwell and you’ve got a great ensemble cast successfully selling a truly remarkable movie. Fans have been waiting a long time for this supplement loaded DVD, with Darabont present and accounted for, ready to argue his decisions as a director in a full length audio commentary. Hurray!


 


PopMatters Review


King Kong: Extended Edition*
Now that it has had almost a year to reconfigure its relevance in the realm of cinema, Peter Jackson’s drop dead brilliant reimagining of the Giant Ape epic finally gets the full blown LOTR‘s treatment the filmmaker is famous for. While you can opt for the full blown Collector’s Edition, complete with a reproduction statue of Kong climbing the Empire State Building, this new version has so many captivating bells and whistles that fans will be hard pressed to pass this by. They include 13 minutes of new footage, including an intriguingly described “Skull Island underwater creature attack” (!), another 38 minutes of deleted scenes, and an always compelling commentary from the director himself. Some may still feel that Jackson let his love of the movie overwhelm his ambitions, providing this relatively simply story with way too much cinematic pomp and circumstance, but for SE&L’s scratch, no one makes mega-blockbusters like this confirmed Kiwi genius. Our main man did this massive monkey proud.



PopMatters Review


Maniac Cop*
Frequently dismissed as derivative of the arch ‘80s ideal of terror, William Lustig’s ode to a crazed killer peace officer is actually one of the best b-movies the era ever produced. Thanks to a stellar script by genre giant Larry “It’s Alive” Cohen, and fine performances by a cast including Robert Z’Dar, Tom Akins, Sheree North, Laurene Landon, William Smith and a baby-faced Bruce Campbell, what starts out like a standard revenge motivated slasher film becomes an intriguing thriller with plot twists and action scenes o’plenty. Making the most out of his limited locations, and a budget that keeps things on the low end of the cinematic spectacle, Lustig still gets a great deal of mileage out of this material. If you originally dismissed this movie as nothing more than another sloppy slice and dice, now’s your chance to give it another try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how solid it really is.


The Wild Blue Yonder*
Leave it to German auteur Werner Herzog to create a science fiction fantasy out of actual empirical fact. Combining found footage with a personally propagated narrative, the fascinating filmmaker is trying something completely new and experimental with this specious speculative mock up. As much about the poetry and beauty of nature as the mystery and wonder of the unexplored realms of the universe, Herzog’s message is one of inner as well as external examination. Taking NASA training films and combining them with underwater images from beneath the Antarctic ice flows, and an arcane sci-fi monologue from actor Brad Dourif (as a failed, fatalistic alien), this director hopes to combine the fantastical with the pragmatic to envision a spectacle with nothing but known quantities before the camera. For Herzog, the ocean floor is an extraterrestrial plane loaded with undiscovered delights, while the image of man conquering nature to send astronauts into orbit is as astounding an achievement as the vastness of the universe itself.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 14 November:


Christmas Evil*
Sometimes, a sensational movie gets overlooked because of its lack of distribution. Other times, it’s the perceived problems inherent in the subject matter that causes eventual audience ignorance. Thus is the case with Lewis Jackson’s minor masterpiece, You Better Watch Out. Audiences were stunned when they learned this holiday horror film – later re-titled with the far more lurid Christmas Evil label – featured an unstable man who took the notion of “playing” Santa to uncomfortable extremes. Already angry at the mixing of the festive with the frightening, the seedy subtext involving children and random carnage made even the most magnanimous macabre fan a tad queasy. Too bad, since their ready dismissal prevented them from appreciating a truly remarkable movie. More a character study than a standard slice and dice, Jackson’s journey into the mind of a morally misguided man is an unusual artistic triumph. Besides, it’s John Waters’ favorite holiday film. You can’t ask for a better vote of creative confidence than that.



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Monday, Nov 13, 2006

Mark Thoma and Ezra Klein both link to this article by Christopher Hayes about what one learns in University of Chicago introductory economics class. Chicago, of course, is the spawning ground for anti-Keynesian ultra-free-market “neoclassical” perspectives, epitomized by Milton Friedman, that gained political currency in America in the 1980s. The article basically delineates what Tom Slee, in his book No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (a misleading title, as the attitude it expresses is what it critiques; Chris Dillow reviews it here), calls MarketThink: the belief that the free market aggregates individual choices to reveal what society prefers while affording a medium within which an individual can make choices that reveal her preferences. In other words, the belief that individual choice is always sovereign in the marketplace and yields desired outcomes, and thus the world we currently live with is the people’s choice, and to go against it is an elitist or totalitarian impulse. The competitive market is presumed to solve all social problems meritoriously, and if problems persist, it’s because competition remainds regrettably imperfect. Slee’s book uses staples from political science and game theory—the prisoner’s dilemma, the tragedy of the commons, the free-rider problem, the collective action problem—to expose the oversimplification of this worldview without tossing it out altogether. He turns its precepts against itself.


Hayes is up to something different; he is concerned that intro economics courses normalize MarketThink and present it as objective truth, as apolitical rather than the inherently conservative tool it often is (it typically rationalizes arangements that see public goods falter while private wealth accumulates in the hands of a few who increasingly monopolize power). He exposes how the seemingly commonsense models of basic economics have vast explanatory power and how they allow one to marvel at the seeming obfuscations partisan commentators make to muddle the picture. And he gives a sense of the economist’s knee-jerk contrarianism (what Hirschmann dubs the “perversity argument” in The Rhetoric of Reaction). Hayes seems especially inspired by the way the class rises up against the professor when the professor’s free-trade enthusiasm carries him into more overt propagandizing but laments that students are perhaps skeptical only in cases where professors seem to excited—that they are knee-jerk cynics. Hayes suggests that if you can present your partisan spin with centrist equinamity, no one will bother to question it; that tone rather than substance is all-important. They don’t see “moderateness” as a position but as some average that equals the truth. Thes tudents skepticism of unmitigated enthusiasm for a position marked it as a weak position to them; hence the ironic presentation of information in the Daily Show era—the sideways presentation of political ideas marks them with a cool that doubles as credibility; it too dissudes questions that dissolve in the all-encompassing presentation of attitude.


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Sunday, Nov 12, 2006


PopMatters review of Borat by Cynthia Fuchs


Just how gullible are we? As Sacha Baron Cohen’s pig and pony show continues to rake in the disposable income of an indiscriminate North American demographic ($67 million and counting), the critical community is having a literal laudatory filled field day. Rarely has the supposed scholarship of the journalistic branch been so unified in its praise. Some point to Cohen as the new Peter Sellers or the next Monty Python, others push for the British comic as a clear Oscar front runner, while others suggest that his movie is a kind of comedy revolution, a Blair Witch/Pulp Fiction like genre bender that merges reality with the ridiculous to form a new kind of radical reinterpretation of filmmaking.


But what, exactly, has Cohen done? Where is the invention in showcasing the readily apparent racism buried right on the surface of the United States social structure? Why is his ambush style approach to interviews and interaction so celebrated? It is really nothing new within the media framework. Howard Stern used to manage various foils (Stuttering John, Gary the Retard, etc.) to take the piss out of pompous, self-important individuals and the recent Jackass phenomenon argued that senseless stunt work in the name of self-serving slapstick can be intensely popular. And yet Borat seems to suggest something more than this to the rabid members of the fanbase. For them, this movie is much more than a cobbled together mock documentary. It’s a striking cinematic call to arms.


But would it surprise you to learn that this new Eastern European emperor has no clothes (his infamous nude wrestling/fight scene in the film aside)? Would you be shocked to learn that many of the movies more infamous moments were scripted and staged for the cameras? Recently both MTV and the New York Post have ‘outed’ various aspects of the Borat production, from which characters are really actors (Borat’s prostitute date) to the reality behind the various threats, skirmishes and fights featured (there were arrests, and a few ugly confrontations). While not meant to undermine what is obviously a growing phenomenon, these reports bring into perspective the power of film, and the credulity of individuals desperate to find something new and unique in an otherwise routine motion picture industry. 


Primary amongst the revelations was Pamela Anderson’s willing participation in the project, including her full cooperation in the film’s infamous finale. For anyone not instantly jacked into the entire Borat experience, this last act confrontation between the buxom Baywatch beauty and the swarthy stalker-like reporter is a seemingly blatant buzzkill. What starts out as a standard photo op meet and greet with her fans turns into a full blown, storewide chase, ending with Cohen and his co-star grappling openly in a store parking lot. For many, it’s the prankster piece de resistance, a pristine melding of Borat’s naiveté with celebrity’s harsh realities to form an intellectualized version of a Kutcher punk.


Except, none of it is real. Not a single moment. Though she claims to be “sworn to secrecy” Anderson’s camp makes it clear that the actress has a long standing relationship with Cohen (they have worked together before) and reports indicate that the two conspired together to stage the assault in front of a pair of unknowing security guards. Even more intriguing are hints that scripted elements were used, along with professional camerawork, all in an effort to make sure the scene went off perfectly. Now, for a movie that is selling itself as an off the cuff altercation between acceptable social standards and human values, doesn’t having your target in on the ruse destroy the subtext? Is comedy by entrapment still funny once you learn the victim is as complicit as the attacker?


Even worse, there are troubling reports about the factual material in the movie as well. Members of the feminist group that Cohen interviews/insults argue that they were not fully informed about the purpose and point of their conversations with the actor, and when you think about it, they actually couldn’t have been. Had they been told that a UK comedian, playing a bigoted foreign journalist, was going to sit down and ask them questions that attack the very foundation of their group’s gender-based agenda and that, even better, this material was going to be used as part of the big screen comedy in which the whole point is to deflate those with a self-important (or shockingly misguided) approach to their beliefs, how many would have said yes?


This goes to the very heart of this surreal sub-genre, an entertainment category with its roots firmly in the success of nu-reality television. Unlike Survivor, where a competition supposedly separates the winner from the losers, or MTV’s The Real World which claims to capture authentic young people in the act of being buffoons, nu-reality walks a fine line between fact and fiction, making up material as part of, and in direct response to, how certain individuals and situations respond to their surroundings. Structured like an old fashioned suspense sequence in which certain people are in on the joke (the audience, members of the cast), and arguing that what you are seeing is an accurate reflection of the truth, the nu-reality experience pretends to play fair while relying on a foundation of falsehood to get its results.


It’s a lot like entertainment entrapment, especially since in Borat Cohen is coercing the indignation and indignity out of his unsuspecting victims. The law makes it clear that individuals cannot be held liable for crimes they were more or less forced or cajoled into committing and it’s the same with Borat’s comedy. It gets bigots to expose their hatred, idiots to emphasize their cluelessness and the psychotic to show their terrifying true colors through the humor equivalent of a well-rehearsed show business sting operation. But how clever is it really, and indeed, how successful overall? Is it funny to find out that a redneck country bumpkin thinks that Jews are evil? Does it make it more hilarious that Cohen’s character totally agrees, and even amplifies the anti-Semitism?


Some will argue that none of this matters. No matter how he got the audience reaction during his butchering of the National Anthem, or how ‘staged and scripted’ certain scenes are, the reactions are the reason behind the film’s import as a shocking, scatological satire. But doesn’t that argument beg the manner in which they were achieved – and more importantly, the truth behind said responses? Would the Anthem scene work if you knew that the jeers and boos were added in later during post-production, or that the collapsing horse was merely a happy accident, not the result of Cohen’s performance? Would you care that some of the targets appear in on the joke (the driving instructor, the antiques’ dealer) and would that, then affect your subjective viewpoint on the film’s success?


In many ways, Borat is the kind of experience that demands the support of subterfuge for as long as possible. Like the Blair Witch, which tried to get pre-screening audiences to believe that it was the real final footage of a doomed documentary crew, the success of this comedy rests solely on the level of believability you have in the prank. Had Cohen merely made a frazzled foreign farce about a Kazakhstan reporter leaving his hilarious hometown for the first time, the reaction would probably be minimal, not massive. In fact, it’s the same fate the comic’s first film based on one of his well known small screen characters faced. Ali G Indahouse went straight to DVD in America, its distributor sensing that, without the crazy confrontational antics that made the TV show a success, the film faced an uphill battle at the box office. And they were right.


Like learning the trick behind a magician’s mindblowing performance, or getting step by step instructions on how a certain sensational special effect was accomplished, discovering that Borat has as much manipulated as genuine material as part of its production acts as a buffer to much of the movies’ heralded genius. Even more distressing, recent reports suggest that the people of Glod, an impoverished Romanian village with no running water or sewage, were paid a mere ₤3 each to be portrayed as abortionists, rapists, and sexual deviants in the film’s opening sequence. Tricking people who should know better is one thing. Fooling folks who have nothing is the height of moral bankruptcy.


The true brilliance behind Borat and Sacha Baron Cohen is not the resulting film. It is merely a fresh, friendly experience marred by occasional gross outs and delusions of social commentary grandeur. It is not the funniest thing to ever hit cinema, nor is it the shape of things to come – one hopes. No, the real genius here is getting people to pay for the privilege of being part of the gag itself. In the end, Borat‘s biggest success is fooling the audience into thinking that the movie is more meaningful than it is. What started out as the second coming of comedy has ended up being an expertly controlled extended shock jock joke. When all is said and done, the only ones who’ll be left laughing are Cohen and his cohorts – and you can guarantee their giggles will resonate all the way to the nearest bank.


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Sunday, Nov 12, 2006
by PopMatters Staff



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Sunday, Nov 12, 2006

Just to follow-up on my previous posting about tips for the new Congress, there’s a recent CNET article covering some of the same ground, making me think of two other areas to include.


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