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Monday, Sep 4, 2006

It’s a week of masterworks at your local brick and mortar, as the ennui infused release calendar of the summer months gives way to more honorable, high brow product. With four titles on SE&L’s select list, Criterion proves once again that no company does considered preservation better than this DVD distribution dynamo. In addition, two recent entries in 2006’s race for the year’s best argue their individual claims to such a status. Toss in a familiar giant lizard from the ‘50s and you’ve got a diverse collection of wallet emptying essentials. Indeed, over the next few weeks, your entertainment budget will be ballooning as your bank account shrinks. The digital dog days are definitely over. Time to wallow in the wonderful excesses of a media maven’s dream. The selections SE&L will be picking up this week include:


Amarcord: Criterion Collection*
Considered by many to be Fellini’s final ‘masterpiece’ (the rest of his career would be marked by several noble failures) this 1973 memoir is actually a strange combination of fact and fiction. Using his real life hometown of Rimini as a backdrop, the Italian auteur devises a ‘year in the life’ narrative centering on the Biondi family, the rise of fascism, and the never-ending human pursuit of sex. Yet unlike his previous efforts such as Satyricon or Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini tones down the visual excess, finding the perfect cinematic tone between art and artifice. The result is a kinetic crazy quilt of a memoir, a movie that mixes memory and fantasy to illustrate how the past forms and defines us.


Brazil: Criterion Collection*
Who would have thought Monty Python’s ex-pat animator would turn into one of the most gifted moviemakers of the 20th Century? Anyone who saw his agitprop approach to Orwellian future shock, that’s who. Mythic even before it’s release, director Terry Gilliam battled his studio sponsor (Universal) to get the film released. When his pleas fell of deaf bean-counter ears, he went the route of the critic. A couple of awards later, and Brazil became his breakout film. While its overloaded imagery and reliance on physical effects may put off some modern moviegoers used to CGI candy, it’s the remarkable ideas behind the visuals that mark this film’s most unforgettable facets.



District B13*
Every now and then, the action genre needs a good kick in the clichés. Leave it to French filmmaker Luc Besson (who executive produced here) to find a way of supercharging the standard gangland shtick. Borrowing a little of Escape from New York (in the future, parts of Paris are walled off to keep “undesirables” in check) and incorporating the unique ‘free running’ style of stunt work known as Parkour, this rollercoaster on rocket fuel goes for a hyperstylized energy that’s highly addictive. While its storyline may suggest one too many trips to the Scarface plot pool,  its look it so wholly original, and its setpieces so inspired, such copycat complicity is forgivable.



Gojira: Deluxe Collector’s Edition*
Forget bad dubbing into English. Forget Raymond Burr as a kind of creature feature color commentator. In fact, forget everything you know about the traditional Toho titan and check out this attempt to reclaim his original motion picture majesty. This is the timeless Japanese monster movie classic the way it was meant to be seen. Those used to Perry Mason’s appearance amongst all the Tokyo destroying mayhem will be happy to see the American version included as well. Toss in a collection of commentaries and bonus features and you’ve got a DVD presentation that forever vanquishes the film’s Saturday afternoon kid vid matinee aura. Godzilla was meant to symbolize nuclear technology run amuck, and with this release, his b-movie babysitting days may finally be over.



Playtime: Criterion Collection*
Call him France’s answer to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, or a post-modern throwback to the days of silent comedy, but no one can deny Jacques Tati’s filmmaking acumen. A stickler for detail as well as a painstaking perfectionist, his films often took years to complete. A comic consideration of modern technology, Playtime began production in 1964…and didn’t wrap until 1967! Still, many feel it is one of Tati’s greatest achievements. Focusing on his classic character, the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, and his 24 hours in Paris, this pop art poem glitters with cosmopolitan gloss and delightful urban angst. Thanks to Criterion, this forgotten master’s unique vision is preserved for future generations to marvel over. 


Seven Samurai: Criterion Collection*
Akira Kurosawa elevated Japanese cinema into a internationally recognized art form, and this is, arguably, his greatest achievement. A masterpiece of tone, detail and performance, this influential fusion of modern moralizing and typical Eastern traditions makes for a classic examination of duty and honor. Setting up layers of interaction – the samurai vs. the farmers, the collective vs. the oncoming attackers – and utilizing the inherent drama supplied via the mesmerizing monochrome cinematography, Kurosawa creates a tragedy of epic proportions, an incredibly human saga expanded out across the entire Asian horizon. And thanks to a new transfer from the classic film conservators, this director’s dynamic vision has never looked better. 


United 93*
The first, and so far best movie centering on the events of 9/11, United 93 benefits from a stellar storyline and upfront direction by Bourne Identity helmer Paul Greengrass. Instead of infusing outside elements into the narrative, or putting a particular political spin on the situation, Greengrass simply takes the circumstances that occurred on that doomed flight and lets them play out in all their undeniably nerve-wracking tension. What we end up with is a sensational, cinema vérité glimpse at what the final moments in a symbolic struggle between terror and heroism looked like. Sure, it’s depressing, the atmosphere of impending doom clouding all concerned. But there can still be catharsis in such filmic foreboding, as this memorable movie clearly demonstrates.


PopMatters Review


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 5 September:


Shock Treatment*
It took nearly six years of Midnight Movie cult celebrity for 20th Century Fox to pursue a sequel to 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, and everything seemed right for a solid repeat success. The original was doing gangbuster business, playwright/songwriter Richard O’Brien was back to continue the pop song surreality, and director Jim Sharman was also on board, hoping to recapture the spirit of the first film. Yet instead of the continued kitsch and gender bending brazenness of the previous effort, O’Brien delivered a scathing slam on the modern media, turning Brad and Janet’s hometown of Denton into a giant TV station, and the paramours into participants/prisoners in some strange, sinister reality show. Ahead of its time in both approach and attitude, it naturally bombed. Still, the faithful have been waiting for this film’s return to the home theater fold. With the release of this 25th Anniversary DVD, it’s time for reconsideration may have finally arrived.


*=PopMatters Picks


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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


To call Joseph Stefano’s writing credits varied is like arguing that his one time collaborator, the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock, had an ‘interesting’ way with the camera. Brought onto the director’s dynamic Psycho after James P; Cavanaugh’s script was rejected, Stefano seemed an odd choice to adapt a murder mystery. After all, his first few scripts had focused solely on his ethnic Italian heritage - most notable in the 1958 Sophia Loren/Anthony Quinn melodrama The Black Orchid. He had also created an award winning Playhouse 90 piece about racial prejudice in the military (1959’s Made in Japan). But when his agent asked him who he’d like to work with next, Stefano provided a list of names. Hitchcock’s was right near the top. When, shockingly, the famous auteur responded, it was with a copy of the famous low budget slasher film’s screenplay in hand.


With his passing on 25, August, 2006 the legacy of Norman Bates lost its central guiding light. Yet it would be his adaptation of Robert Bloch’s seminal story of an out of the way motel, an unusual desk clerk, and his domineering “mother”, that would also point the scribe in the direction of genre fiction over the next three decades. Though already established, the overwhelming success of Psycho led Stefano to other opportunities. An old friend, Leslie Stevens, asked Stefano to become a supervisory writer and a producer on the seminal speculative series The Outer Limits. Contributing stories and scripts for some of season one’s most memorable episodes (including the creepy “Zanti Misfits”) he helped lay the foundation for Limits’ claim as one of the best sci-fi shows on television.


After rejecting a chance to return to Hitchcock’s fold for The Birds – he supposedly found the idea laughable – Stefano went on to make strides in made for television movies, including A Death of Innocence (a 1971 murder mystery starring Shelley Winters) Home for the Holidays (a 1972 thriller about a husband who fears his wife is poisoning him) and the oddball Live Again, Die Again (Donna Mills is frozen and brought back 30 years later in this 1974 sci-fi effort). After 1977’s Snowbeast (another of the era’s Bigfoot movies), he had grown jaded and cynical. He took the 1980 death of his friend Hitchcock hard. He also hated how Norman Bates (a character he more or less created, avoiding Bloch’s decidedly drunken original) had been marginalized by the two sequels that eventually followed.


In 1991, audiences saw him contribute to the hack horror film The Kindred (1987), and he did do some work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Swamp Thing TV series. He would visit his ethnic past once again for the Al Pacino weeper Two Bits (1995), and even returned to the Norman Bates legacy with his prequel effort Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). Near the end of his career, Stefano was also the unfortunate beneficiary of Hollywood’s remake fever. His “Feasibility Study” (based on a 1964 episode) was redone for the modern update of Outer Limits in 1997, and Gus Van Zant committed the ultimate redux sin, creating a near shot for shot remake of Psycho from Stefano’s original script. After that 1998 fiasco, Stefano turned his back on Tinsel Town, convinced it was bankrupt of originality and ideas. He would stay in the shadows until his death from a heart attack. Yet it is safe to say that no writer had more of an impact on the post-modern horror genre than Joseph Stefano. He helped popularize and legitimize the genre of slice and dice cinema. Yet he should be remembered for much more than Norman’s shower savagery. While iconic, it was not endemic of Stefano’s incredible talents.


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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


He was the original Pa Kent, giving an infant from the planet Krypton a home here on earth. He was also the original Mr. Eddie’s father, looking for love while trying to raise his son solo. From his early days as a Columbia contract player, to his heroic service in World War II (where he helped build safe houses in France) Glenn Ford remained wholly original. His death at age 90 on 30, August 2006 was not so much a shock as a reminder of how much his presence in film was missed. Having long since retired from acting (his last onscreen role was in 1991) and in relatively poor health in recent years, Ford’s recognizable fame had more or less faded. But even without a current high profile celebrity, no one could match this amazing man’s considered career.


He was born in Canada, and came to the US when he was eight. Fresh out of high school, he was scouted by Tom Moore, a representative of 20th Century Fox. When the war arrived in the early ‘40s Ford took a break from his occasional bit parts to fight for his adopted country. After marrying fellow star Eleanor Powell in 1943, he returned from service to pick up his career. But it wasn’t until Bette Davis gave him a break in 1946 (with a role in A Stolen Life) that Ford found his footing. That same year, an appearance alongside Rita Hayworth in Gilda (they would go on to make six films together) shot him to superstardom. Thanks to his talent, Ford never again had to look back. He parlayed that success into roles in classic Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and crime thrillers like The Big Heat (1953).


By the mid ‘50s, Ford was viewed as a Hollywood stalwart, a level-headed leading man who came across as decent and determined. But with his 1956 turn as the inner city schoolteacher fighting delinquency in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), the actor became a kind of subtle symbol for the growing problems between the generations…and the races. Thanks to the film’s youth appeal, and the Bill Haley and the Comet’s theme of “Rock Around the Clock”, Ford found himself in even bigger demand. He would go on to make Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Experiment in Terror (1962) and the forgotten gem Rage (1966), among many, many others. He even dabbled in television, starring in the series Cade’s County (1971) and The Family Holvak (1975). But time was slowly catching up with Ford. After playing Superman’s dad in the original 1978 big screen adaptation, and a sinister psychiatrist in the silly slasher film Happy Birthday to Me (1981), he watched his star stock drop. Between ‘81 and ‘91, he only made six more films.


Though his marriage to Powell produced a son (Peter), it didn’t last. Ford never found the right person to share his life with, all three of his marriages after his divorce from Powell being short lived (none more than three years) and, sadly, childless. Ford adored children, and was said to spend most of his retirement playing with his grandkids. Over the years, he appeared in documentaries on Hollywood’s Golden Age, but continued complications with respiratory and heart ailments, as well as a series of strokes, left him frail and faltering. On the occasion of his 90th birthday in May of this year, he was scheduled to attend a 70th anniversary revival of a newly remastered print of Gilda. Regrettably, his ill health prevented his appearance. It would have been nice for this former Tinsel Town icon to have one last shot at the public adoration he so richly deserved. No matter what the current culture thinks, he was never forgettable. That’s because, no matter the role, Ford was always an original. 


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Saturday, Sep 2, 2006


It’s sad that Jerry Lewis has become the punchline to an endless array of farcical French jokes. Buried beneath all the old school mugging and silent slapstick schtick is a truly gifted filmmaker whose inventive ideas behind the camera didn’t always translate to guaranteed hilarity in front of it. Want proof? Take the crazed comic’s 1961 forgotten masterwork, the bachelor boychick as maid to a mass of Misses entitled The Ladies Man. Certainly, the clothesline premise seems too disjointed to be potent. It was only Lewis’s second film as a director and it had, at its center, one of the largest and most expensive sets ever constructed for a feature film. Lewis demanded and got a full size, scale model dollhouse-like home built inside one of Paramount’s soundstages, an amazing monstrosity containing four separate stories, a grand concourse, several open-walled bedrooms, a series of serpentine staircases, and an old-fashioned elevator running up the side. Shown in several severe long shots by Lewis (who is obviously proud of the perspective it gives the film), this art department masterpiece is stunning to behold.


Just like David Fincher’s desire to have an entire Brownstone mock-up to work within for Panic Room, Lewis uses this amazing effigy very effectively. Anyone wondering why he is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker’s dexterity. Lewis’s lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale feel. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value. Naturally, any movie runs the risk of being overshadowed by such a substantive stunt. It would take a larger than life star to survive within the labyrinthine layout. Lewis is, of course, that more than sizeable superstar. Thankfully, he avoids the obvious love affair possibilities to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something sincere and silly - and undeniably Lewis.


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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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