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Friday, Sep 1, 2006
“Family film” has become such an ugly term for me lately: most of these Disney-endorsed flicks are barely passable as entertaining morality plays. Instead, they seem to offer up wiseacre kids trying to act like adults while their unfortunate parents dither about incompetently. The saccharine, phony nature of this present-day PG-fare seems to frequently be accompanied by some sort of rock and roll performance set piece in which young and old either share the mic in a duet, or exchange loving glances while playing guitar. It seems that in all of the commotion and emo, they forgot to include something important: the actual FAMILY. Lucky for us, we can be transported back to a time where this genre was actually embraced and celebrated with an offbeat, often unsympathetic take on the “family values” feature: Martin Ritt’s Sounder.

The world this celebrated director conjures up is about as far as you can get from traditional or contemporary, what with the story centering bravely on the trials and tribulations of the Morgan’s, a family of sharecroppers overcoming impossible bad luck during the Great Depression. It’s a tale full of rough edges, no-holds-barred sadness, and a complete lack of pity. The often unsympathetic tone the film takes is a bit shocking at times (no stranger would dare hit a child they didn’t know today, not without severe consequences), but is still dependable and accurate. Sounder preaches its morals and values in a subversive, non-offensive way that is never false or cloying. The story watches eldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks, in an introspective film debut) grow into a man while learning the hardest life lessons from his wise, yet misguided parents Rebecca and Nathan Lee (Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield; the first African-American man and woman to be simultaneously nominated for acting Oscars). His parents see the spark in the young man’s mind and they push him into a life of education rather than work. The journey of the young man stays at the center of the film, letting the viewer peek into a world long past, exposing all of its cracks in a believable way.


Sounder deals with some very heavy issues (including the horrifying, inhumane and unfair physical and emotionally cruelties most black people of the time were expected to silently tolerate) without becoming bogged down with cliché-riddled sermonizing. Feeding your hungry family during hard times, working hard labor jobs at a young age, and love in the most dour of circumstances are some of the universal themes Ritt and his great cast touch on. They remain equally relevant to families today, more than thirty years later. At the core, the film is a story about the love and loyalty shared between parents and children and the ties that bond a family together – a closeness that often requires great sacrifice and strength. Rebecca, for example, must learn to let go of her son as he readies to leave the nest. Selfishly, she wonders aloud “who will help me around the house? Who will help me out in the field?” while he looks on with disappointment.


Tyson, as a flawed (but fundamentally wholesome) mother of three, shies away from playing her character for cheap sympathy or dignified suffering: Rebecca is scared for her family’s well-being, and must endure long days of back-breaking work to be the sole provider once her husband is arrested for stealing meat to feed them. She is strong without being overbearing, sensual, and wise without being particularly sophisticated. Her pride is visible when scolding two racist officers who will not allow her to speak with her imprisoned husband (classily tossing off the barb “You got yourself a real low-life job, Mr. Sheriff”; an offense that in is very daring given the potential consequences). Winfield too creates an indelible character: sometimes selfish, other times brutish. As Nathan Lee, he imparts wisdom to his son; but also makes sure to tell him that he is loved: something that is conveyed imaginatively with dialogue and nuance rather than through present-day neuroses or an uninspired musical extravaganza. It’s Sounder‘s strongest selling point.



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Friday, Sep 1, 2006

Via AdPulp comes this stirring elucidation of the punk rock ethos.


Within the punk rock credo of my youth were the seeds of a larger business philosophy. Ten years in a boutique design and branding firm has shown me how valuable the punk rock attitude is to a successful brand plan. The brands that consistently rise to the top have questioned everything that’s been done before. Adding “X” to a razor’s name? Just a lame attempt at buying an audience with weak, non-genuine branding. Inventing a razor for shaving heads? Totally punk rock.


John Lydon or Malcolm Mclaren couldn’t have said it better. As I’ve noted before, “punk” is primarily a branding strategy, a rough equivalent for “edgy” and “youthfully exuberant.” It’s another name for the restless, aimless energy that powers the engine of fashion. It certainly has been emptied of all its rebellious and subversive implications (it has always buttressed the “system” rather than undermine it) and smoothly integrated into the marketing machine as a way to approach a specific demographic. So we can expect to see punk breakfast cereal and punk shampoo and punk SUVs as well as punk razor blades.


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Thursday, Aug 31, 2006

It’s September, and that means a new month, a new page on the desktop calendar, and a new slate of movies for your perusal on all four premium cable channels. Actually, that final bit is not quite true. A couple of decades ago, when the coaxial held equal footing in the home video market for the available audience attention span, pay TV networks would dump the previous 30 days worth of titles, loading up the preceding four weeks with all manner of ‘new’ motion picture product. Granted, the schedule was shamefully similar to what had been offered before – forgotten films, made for cable schlock, your basic b-movies – yet as long as it was “different” enough, they felt they were fulfilling their promise.


Nowadays, with DVD dominating the demographic, the premiums have wised up. They rotate their stock like the commercial crops that they represent, always feeding the merchandising machine that keeps their subscriptions active and their customers calm. Then once a week, typically on a Saturday, the latest big name ‘blockbuster’ drops, like a carrot in front of an overtired mainstream mule. The arrivals this week – 2, September - are an interesting combination, representing some of 2005’s best and more baffling efforts. They include:


HBOWallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

*
After the smashing critical success of Chicken Run, the geniuses over at Aardman decided to give their seminal twosome their own big screen epic. Using the painstaking art of stop motion animation, and setting their tale within the unlikely genre of horror, the result was one of ‘05’s best efforts. As characters, Wallace (absent minded inventor) and Gromit (faithful canine companion) represent a perfect combination of the clever (dog) and the clueless (man). Given Aardman’s acknowledged skill and craftsmanship, it’s no big surprise that this delightful duo easily make a transition from short film prominence to full-length feature masterpiece. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 8:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


CinemaxCinderella Man

*
Always seen as the blockbuster/Oscar contender that never was, Ron Howard’s look at Depression era boxing champion Jim Braddock was probably the victim of too many expectations and too much exterior baggage. It didn’t help matters that star Russell Crowe was going through one of his more “uncomfortable” fame phases, and that the brain trust behind the final release date decided to premiere this prestige picture in the middle of the Summer’s celebration of superficiality. Add in the typical Hollywood whitewashing of anything remotely controversial and you have the standard story of the human spirit overcoming social adversity. If you didn’t already catch it on sister station HBO, now’s your chance to judge its mixed merits for yourself. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 10:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


StarzThe Greatest Game Ever Played

*
Actor Bill Paxton’s (Aliens, A Simple Plan) directorial follow-up to his 2001 creeper Frailty couldn’t be more dissimilar. Combining your standard underdog sports drama with a turn of the century period piece, Paxton presents the true story of a 20 year old linkster who actually defeated the reigning 1913 US Open champion Harry Vardon. While golf films in general don’t inspire a lot of entertainment confidence (The Legend of Baggar Vance anyone?) Paxton plays up the populist angle in the material, giving the entire enterprise a nice, nuanced feel good gloss. Even more amazing, this project was scripted, and based on a non-fiction tome by none of than Twin Peaks scribe Mark Frost. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 9:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


ShowtimeThe Woodsman

*
Though he seems to be better known for that slightly clever ‘six degrees of separation’ game than his recent movie roles, the truth is that Kevin Bacon has been making some brave choices as of late when it comes to his career. Take this terrific 2004 drama in which the former Footloose star plays a just-paroled pedophile trying to regain a sense of normalcy in a world unready and unwilling to forgive his past. Not only does Bacon basically implode his former friendly frat boy image, but he also redefines his future as a sly, subtle and serious actor. Though the subject matter may seem shocking, it is nothing compared to the astonishing work done here by this unfairly underrated performer. (Saturday 12 August, 8pm EST)


PopMatters Review


* = PopMatters Picks


 


Indie Film Focus: September 2006

Last month, Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to supply us with 30 days of star driven righteousness to keep the small screen film finds freely flowing. With the network back to it’s rather hit or miss programming, SE&L has decided to focus on another facet of the cinematic canon – the Independent film. Thanks to IFC, otherwise known as The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel, there is currently a 24 hour a day supply of outsider excellence. Some of the movie suggestions here will seem obvious. Others will reflect the divergent nature of the art form’s overall approach. Whatever the case, these are the highlights for the week of 2 September through 8 September:


IFC



Bamboozled (2000)
Spike Lee’s modern minstrel show loses its way toward the end, but while it’s working, it is one devastating denouncement of the media and its approach to race.
(Saturday 2 September, 11:00pm EST)


American Movie (1999)
All Mark Borschardt ever wanted to be was a filmmaker. Thanks to documentarian Chris Smith, he became something more – a symbol of irrepressible Indie dedication.
(Sunday 3 September, 5:00pm EST)


City of God (2002)
Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund didn’t invent the gangster film, but thanks to their efforts behind this stellar cinematic masterpiece, it sure feels like they did.
(Tuesday 5 September, 10:45pm EST)


Run Lola Run (1998)
While he’s never lived up to the promise he showed here, German director Tom Tykwer still deserves a place in foreign film history for this kinetic crime thriller.
(Wednesday 6 September, 5:45pm EST)


Sundance Channel



Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Remember when Guy Ritchie made GOOD movies NOT starring his shapeshifting dance diva wife? That’s okay, this British take on the mob movie will remind you.
(Saturday, 2 September, 7:00pm EST)


DiG! (2004)
Without question, the definitive rock and roll documentary. Ondi Timoner uncovers the insanity both inside and outside the music biz, and it’s not a very pretty sight.
(Monday, 4 September, 7:00pm EST)


Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973)
Controversial at the time (holy hippies?), Norman Jewison’s adaptation of this revered rock opera still plays as vital and as volatile as it did three decades ago.
(Wednesday, 6 September, 7:00pm EST)


Fellini’s Casanova (1976)
Always known for his cinematic excesses, this is considered by many to be the Italian maestro’s overkill breaking point. Tune in for yourself and see if it’s true.
(Thursday, 7 September, 7:00pm EST)


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Thursday, Aug 31, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

What’s opening in theaters this week
By Philip Wuntch

The Dallas Morning News
(MCT)


Opening Sept. 1:


THE WICKER MAN - This remake of the 1973 cult classic stars Nicolas Cage as a sheriff whose investigation of a missing girl leads to a neo-pagan cult. Good cast also includes Ellen Burstyn, Frances Conroy and Leelee Sobieski.


IDIOCRACY - Luke Wilson once again gets into deep trouble as the guinea pig for a government hibernation program that transports him 1,000 years into the future.


THE QUIET - Edie Falco and Martin Donovan are among the cast in this tale of a young deaf mute woman who lives with her godparents and realizes something weird is going on.


LASSIE - The ever-loving Lassie escapes her new owners and travels hundreds of miles to find her old family.


TRUST THE MAN - David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup and Maggie Gyllenhaal play New York couples whose marriages are heading south.


CROSSOVER - Two high school basketball champs take alternate routes as they reach maturity.


CRANK - A hit man seeks revenge on those who injected him with poisonous venom.



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Thursday, Aug 31, 2006

In this post at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte explains how she inadvertently affronts people with her vegetarianism: “In my day-to-day life, I try to affect a posture of apologetic humility about vegetarianism, and that gets me by very well in Austin, where vegetarianism is pretty common. But once I get out of this city, the weirdness erupts, and yeah, you get a lot of people laying a guilt trip on you for quietly eating the food you like.” She admits the sanctimony of some vegetarians, who politicize and proselytze on behalf of their pet cause and make the dining experience an excruciating exercise in guilt and recrimination rather than what we ideally want it to be—a time where people come together and share ideas along with more fundamental nourishments. Because some vegetarians spiritualize their dietary choices, they are in danger of making the dining table into a church, food items into articles of faith. Enough non-vegetarians have been scarred by these quasi-religious battles, perhaps, that they tread warily into future meals with zealous believers. Marcotte writes, “My habits are taken as a de facto criticism of anyone who doesn’t share them…. You can’t really outright say that people are entirely crazy to say this. Simply by having my reasons not to eat meat, I am, in a way, passively judging people who don’t agree with my reasons.” This seems unduly careful: I don’t think you can hold yourself responsible for “passively judging” people by virtue of believing and thinking and doing things yourself. There’s no need to assume responsibility for what other people may think in their own ignorance or insecurity, especially when there’s no reason for them not to mind their own business. But I agree that it’s hard not to feel as though one is “passively judging” and sensitivity to this, out of well-intentioned politeness, exerts a pressure to conform. This may be the most fundamental mechanism of conformity, in fact, if not a mere restatement of what the word means: to not give affront through the sheer fact of being different.


However, Ezra Klein’s attitude seems to swing too far in the other direction: “I’m not judging you. If you think I am, you probably just feel bad about eating meat, and should better reconcile yourself to your culinary choices.” I think one can feel judged even if one isn’t exorcized personally over the fate of institutionally processed animals. I think the problem comes when those “passive judgments” Marcotte mentions begin to become active inconveniences for the people you are with, when your dietary restrictions begin to dictate the course of every meal you “share”. A shared meal, it fit is truly to be shared, can be a zero-sum game when it comes to this. It’s not necessarily the vegetarian’s fault, but with restaurants/families not always supplying adequate non-meat options, the vegetarian’s preferences can end up hijacking the entire meal, which unfortunately (and unintentionally) calls attention to how the vegetarian feels the moral necessity of putting his beliefs above the collective goal of enjoying food together. This makes the vegetarian seem selfish, and often comes across as a passive-aggressive play for attention even when it is certainly not meant to be—“What, he can’t make do with what is good enough for everyone else?”—and it puts the spotlight on the presumptive moral superiority the vegetarian feels, and this inevitably alienates everyone else, putting them on the defensive, leading to obtuse and condescending questions about the vegetarian’s dietary practices: “Well, what do you do when you want to have ice cream?” “Is fish considered meat?” “That doesn’t include chicken, though, right?” “Don’t all those salads get boring?” (One way to avoid this—segregation, eat only with other vegetarians.) Parents are especially put on the defensive by it because it seems a pretty direct repudiation of their attempts to nourish their children right—when a child goes vegan, it can often seem like a middle finger to the parents and their ineffective and implicitly immoral ways of nurturing. (I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an overidentification with an animal’s vulnerability involved with Western vegetarianism. But that is another story.)


As I claimed before in this post, eating is the most basic kind of consumption, and thus perhaps it is the most constituitive of our notions of self in a consumer society. But meals are not just another arena for the individual to make “unfettered” consumer choices, even though the allure of that hegemonic ideology makes it seem as though it governs and explains all choice in American society. Meals are a virtually primordial way of expressing identity and structuring the world—a cultural experience where social boundaries are delineated. So when a man chooses to be a vegetarian it says a great deal beyond a taste preference for tofu, the same way a preference for Brahms over the Beatles is not some random preference. Because social order is reiterated in eating rituals, vegetarians are political radicals, implicitly calling for revolution whether they want to be seen that way or not. They reject existing boundaries between what is acceptable and unacceptable, what is and isn’t food. Meals are where we make the case for which needs are “natural” and which ones aren’t; meals make ideology material in a way that’s so straightforward that no one can ignore it—that’s possibly why these vegetarian-baiting incidents erupt. Vegetarianism thus seems to add momentum to the trend that will eventually have us all eating alone, in our cars or at our desks, avoiding confrontation, minimizing the meal’s anthropological significance, turning ourselves into engines craving fuel.


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