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Monday, Aug 21, 2006

When studios and filmmakers grouse over the effect DVD has on the box office, it’s usually day and date that they argue over. Back in the days of VHS, a major mainstream movie would wait several months before finding its way onto videotape – and even then, it was typically in a rental-only format. Sell-through didn’t arrive until much later, and with it came the death of such delays. But now, fans want titles as soon as possible, and for many in the industry, the faster a title arrives on the digital format, the lesser the likelihood an audience will visit the Cineplex to seek it out. This ‘wait and see…it at home’ principle has been blamed for the 2005 slump, and the diminishing returns for some high profile releases. This week, we have a clear example of this perplexing paradigm. A certified bomb from May makes its DVD debut a mere 12 weeks after it flopped in theaters. The question becomes, will the digital presentation be a hit, or will the film’s obvious flaws guarantee and equally fast exit from the brick and mortar. And what will it mean to day and date? We will just have to wait and see. Joining the cinematic shipwreck is a diverse collection of movies, including:


Double Indemnity: Special Edition*
For many, it’s one of the last DVD Holy Grails, a classic Billy Wilder film noir unconscionably left off the digital domain for far too long. But the fact of the matter is, Image Entertainment released a version of the seminal crime thriller back in 1998. This time around though, Universal does the title right, tossing in a pair of commentaries, a documentary, and even a TV movie version from 1973. Whatever the presentation parameters, this is one timeless example of Hollywood’s heyday that deserves to be on every film fans shelf.



Kicking and Screaming: The Criterion Collection*
Perhaps in preparation for a future visit to his critically acclaimed The Squid and the Whale, writer/director Noah Baumbach sees his first film, a story about disaffected college buddies who can’t quite commit to the responsibility of the real world, get the full blown Criterion Collection treatment. Witty, insightful, and just a little too in love with the notion of the campus as the last bastion of full blown freedom, Baumbach and his capable cast manage to make these pseudo-slackers symbols of the mid-90s malaise that swept over America.



Phat Girlz
There’s no denying the fact that, as a stand-up comedian, Mo’Nique Imes is talented. She is crude without being gross, cutting without resorting to racial slurs. Sadly, the same can’t be said for her movie career, which spans bit parts in Baby Boy, Soul Plane, and Domino and leading roles in Hair Show and this latest offering from April 2006. Using her plus size physique as the foundation for a film about love and acceptance, Phat Girlz tries to deliver a sincere message about the media’s role in shaping female body image. Too bad it’s trapped inside this lame, laugh-less excuse for entertainment.



PopMatters Review


Poseidon: 2 Disc Special Edition
It was the crappy capsizing heard round the cinematic world. Who would have thought that Wolfgang Peterson, responsible for the excellent actioners In the Line of Fire and Air Force One could screw up this remake of the beloved Irwin Allen disaster epic of the ‘70s. Sadly, with casting only The Love Boat could appreciate, and an overabundance of unconvincing CGI, what should have been a summer blockbuster slamdunk for Warner Brothers is now appearing a mere 12 weeks after the film opened in theaters. Even on DVD, it’s still a waterlogged waste of time.



PopMatters Review


Silent Hill*
Forget what you’ve heard about this film – that it’s merely a big screen translation of a far more frightening video game, that it’s The Descent without the claustrophobic cave setting – and settle back for a creature feature for the ages. Brotherhood of the Wolf director Christophe Gans outdoes himself in the mood and mystery department, taking the Playstation platform title and making it his very own. Featuring stellar performances and unnerving effects, Silent Hill represents the pinnacle of creepy, atmospheric horror. It is the most satisfying movie macabre in a very long time, and coming in a year when Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes redefined the genre, that’s saying a lot.



PopMatters Review


State of the Union*
A true forgotten gem from the oeuvre of three of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters – Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and filmmaker Frank Capra – this timely political allegory about the difference between one’s personal and public persona couldn’t be more timely, especially in our 24 hour a day media coverage mentality. Though Universal fails to flesh out this release with significant contextual bells and whistles, this DVD is still worth owning if only for the moment when Tracy tries to address the nation while a drunken Hepburn lashes out at “the other woman”. Talk about feeling ripped from today’s headlines.



The Wizard
Far be it from Short Ends & Leader to deny the retro resplendence of this love letter to Ninetendo and its Super Mario Brothers. Indeed, The Wizard represents a veritable right of passage for anyone who grew up under the hypnotizing influence of the NES game system and those crazy, mushroom stomping plumbers. With a young Fred Savage as the older brother of Jimmy “The Wizard” Woods and more nods to arcade culture than a weekend at E3, this simplistic plot about familial appreciation and a video game championship predated our current Xbox/Game Cube standard. Back then, professional gaming seemed asinine. Today, it’s every adolescent’s dream job.




And Now for Something Completely Different

In a new weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 22, August:


Tromeo and Juliet: 10th Anniversary Edition*
Marking the second DVD go-round for this beloved Troma title, the Bard’s basic story of star-crossed lovers is fused with a scatological punk rock sensibility to create the first ever gross out version of a Shakespeare play. Perhaps more amazing than the awkward performances, plentiful gore, and abundant nudity is the number of unknown actors and crewmembers who went on to become famous fixtures in both Hollywood and the Indie film scene. They include screenwriter James Gunn (Scooby-Doo, Dawn of the Dead) Will Keenan (Operation Midnight Climax) and current reigning b-movie scream queen Debbie Rochon.


*=PopMatters Picks


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Sunday, Aug 20, 2006


Thank you, Snakes on a Plane. Thank you for proving what many in the print media and critical circles have long ago known and voiced concern over. Though it is currently the most powerful information and communication source on the planet, the Internet just can’t open a film. Unless you’re first name is Blair, and your last name is Witch, the Web has once again proven that it can’t put filmgoer butts into empty Cineplex seats. Now, there are a lot of factors involved in Snakes less than spectacular $15 million box office weekend bow. There’s the movie itself, a perhaps too ironic stab at a self-created schlock spectacle. There’s the piss poor timing – released right as the core audience (teens and college kids) are heading back to class. And there’s the genre elements themselves: in general, horror and thrillers are the least bankable of all the cinematic styles.


But none of that was supposed to matter. Why? Because Snakes had the power of the technology geek behind it. From the moment the title was made public, and the talent coups of Samuel L. Jackson and director Ronny Freddy vs. Jason Yu were announced, the ‘80s nerd and his post-Gen X cousins were all in a cross-posting lather. Raised on a vast VHS collection of crappy monster movies made by companies like Full Moon and Empire, and distributed by names such as Vestron and New Concord, this seemingly routine creature feature suddenly took on the air of a retro reminder of Saturday nights perusing your local Mom and Pop video store. Even When Yu dropped out (the first sign of the upcoming anticlimactic apocalypse) and Final Destination 2 director David R. Ellis stepped in, the web journal junkies smelled undeniable direct to video fodder, and gladly got onboard.


It is important to remember though just who the real DSL demographic truly is. It’s claimed that over 60 to 65 million homes in the USA have Internet access of some kind, with the mean age for the actual user somewhere between 26 and 33, depending on the survey you select. While computers are constantly sited as the dominion of the young, teenagers spend significantly less time in media oriented arenas or serious surfing, instead preferring to use the web for communication, interrelation, entertainment (downloading) and – in rare instances – education. Most of the people browsing the vast array of sites are not part of MySpace, could care less about YouTube, and would never spend hours creating their own trailers or photoshopping poster art. Therefore, logic dictates that anyone pimping an upcoming film, from Harry Knowles over at Ain’t It Cool News or Garth Franklin at Dark Horizons, is speaking for a very small group of people outside of the typical broadband user. And, more times than not, they are preaching to the already converted.


A perfect analogy to this situation is talk radio. On any given day, millions of people tune in to hear Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, or any number of local variations on their chat fest theme. Of that number, only a very small fraction would ever consider calling in and voicing an opinion or asking question, with even fewer actually picking up the phone and dialing. Therefore, the voices you hear as part of the ballyhoo represent only the smallest portion of the overall public. In general, we are not an extroverted lot. Even with the anonymity of the ‘Net, we tend to let others do the showboating for us. In the case of Snakes of a Plane, there was no true communal surge in interest. No, even with numerous magazine articles, TV feature spots and endless marketing hype, the film itself was only talking to a very small, very vocal pre-tuned in audience. And while they were cheering, the rest of the possible fan base was jeering, or just paying no attention at all. 


Truthfully, this should be nothing new to studios that have relied on the web as a source of that all important word of mouth advertising to lengthen the “legs” of their film. Just two weeks ago, The Descent opened to some of the best reviews of the year. Critics called it a masterpiece, one of the best horror films of the decade. Even with a Region 2 DVD release available for months prior, speculation across the ‘Net was that this Indie fright fest would make a killing at the box office. In its first weekend, it barely made $9 million. True, it was up against the good old boy goofiness of Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights, but conventional wisdom argued that all this blog-based goodwill should have translated into Cineplex receipts. It didn’t happen.


It used to be that studios more or less shunned buzz, either because of the expectations it built or the fatalistic foreshadowing it created. On occasion, they would ride the coattails of positive speculation, using it almost exclusively as a Madison Avenue money saving device. Yet right after Artisan scored a knock out with its Blair Witch Project website campaign (used to create a false sense of reality in this otherwise fictional macabre mockumentary), the Internet became the unproven false idol being worshipped by those desperate to make a dent in the media morass. It was the dot.com revolution all over again, except this time, the World Wide Web was being used for promotion and propaganda only. No one remembered that ONE extreme example does not set the standard. Without a track record, the ‘Net is a more or less untested gamble, and one that rarely pays off. 


It’s no wonder then that Snakes on a Plane was a fluke. It was destined to fail based on the entire technological bent of the hype, and even then, there was just a title, an actor, and a promise at the center of it all. Success can’t be measured by a kitschy name and an A-list celebrity. If that’s the case, non-existent pitches for product like Zombie Strippers Against the All Nude Apocalypse starring George Clooney or Robot Drug Lords featuring Angelina Jolie would be going great greenlit guns right about now. In time, when all the Monday morning quarterbacking is over, and the studios have sorted out what went wrong, the conclusion will be clear. As much as they like to believe that they are, the messageboard masses do not speak for the mainstream. They are their own loud, loyal constituency. Getting them involved guarantees a palpable amount of free publicity – but that’s it. The day the blog brigade can generate a true blockbuster opening will represent a landmark occasion in the ‘Net’s ongoing maturation process. As for now, said opportunity has again slithered away.


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Saturday, Aug 19, 2006


What is it about this deliriously dopey 1990 comedy that makes it so endearing? Is it the saccharine statements about child rearing, the touchy feely subtext which suggests that biology and procreation cures all marital ills? Is it the simple story of a misunderstood orphan who finds love and compassion with a kindhearted couple? Perhaps it’s the third act switcheroo that tosses aside the difficult youngster at the center of the story for a bizarre turn by Seinfeld‘s Michael Richards as the world’s silliest serial killer? Maybe it’s the sloppy, stupid slapstick or adolescent level gags. Whatever the case, the reason Problem Child truly holds such a staggeringly sweet spot in all our culpable cinematic consciousness is because of its star, the unbelievably obtuse child actor, Michael Oliver. Never before in the history of underage thespianism has one kid crammed so much staggering badness into a single perplexing performance. From his razor wire voice that’s a combination of ventriloquist dummy and flu-ravaged coloratura, to his cardboard as character trait stiffness, and you’ve got the perfect remedy for the precocious, stage mothered bratling that’s typically featured in such hackneyed family fare.


Oliver’s illogical iconography, honed from haphazard hardwood that’s just as flexible, was a perfect contrast to the late John Ritter’s warm geniality, Amy Yazbeck’s harpy haughtiness, and Jack Warden’s walking fart joke. Together, they melded into the kind of crack comic company that could take a page of dialogue and actually infuse it with energy and excitement. Otherwise, this was a sitcom without the shrewdness, which is all the more odd when you consider that it was scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the pair who wrote the wonderful Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon (granted, they also penned the pathetic Agent Cody Banks and the unnecessary That Darn Cat remake). Even actor turned director Dennis Dugan can’t fully be blamed for the baffling incongruities here, as he went on to helm the amazing Marx Brothers/Three Stooges redux, Brain Donors. No, it’s all Oliver, his penguin in a pottiness shining above and beyond all the other rancid elements in this hair brained humoresque. While the inevitable sequel went for the gross-out, stay with the original Problem paradigm. It offers the most addled thrills for your comedy cache.


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Friday, Aug 18, 2006


No one explores the seemingly uninteresting nooks and crannies of the US quite like director John Sayles. One of the veteran indie director’s signatures is the intriguing way in which he singles out region-specific communities, documenting life in small towns the world over. It is a formula that has worked for the auteur for years and this gimmick yields a high payoff that remains timely and fresh, but often a tad macho. In 1992’s Passion Fish, Sayles tries a more feminine approach and proves again that he can still speak volumes with a simple, straight-forward character-driven piece accompanied by an amazing natural setting (the geographic location this time out is the sometimes treacherous, lush bayou and swamp country of Louisiana; photographed with love). The parish in question plays out like any other aspect of the film and Sayles incorporates the mythology of his characters into that of the land. We get to see the interaction between “Cajun” and “Yankee”, healthy and disabled, and man and woman.


The film follows two women: May-Alice and Chantal (Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard) are from wildly opposite ends of the socio-economic scales. Mary-Alice is a bitchy, self-involved soap opera actress passed her prime who is randomly hit by a taxicab and rendered paraplegic. She is an acidly bitter character: drinking to calm her pain and acting like a maniacal shrew to anyone who gets close enough for her to yell at (A hilarious montage shows a series of home care workers in various states of craziness being dispatched by the lady of the house, in fits of hysterical self-destructiveness). The sequence brings us to Chantal, a former nurse who comes to take care of May-Alice. She badly needs the job and puts up with the rebellious, reprehensible behavior of her employer every day out of sheer desperation. Chantal’s story is every bit as intriguing as May-Alice’s: she is a former drug user trying to regain custody of her daughter.


The pairing is lyrical, though each performer’s style couldn’t be any more different. They play off of one another to hilarious, moving effect; each bringing in a wicked sense of humor along with their open hearts. The transition from a starchy employer/employee relationship into a cautiously friendly one is then matched by something much more interesting: they become dependant on one another, creating palpable honesty and an intimacy as actors and as their characters. McDonnell has some awesome moments: her alcoholic rants, her bitterness over being paralyzed, and her challenging scenes of physical rehabilitation all play out with equal ease. In the less flashy part, Woodard’s calm, casual demeanor and her guarded mind are what make Chantal so engrossing. Even with her very sad past, Woodard never overplays or gets overly-sentimental. Chantal makes it clear she is not a victim and is perfectly in control. It is a rare treat to be able to see two richly-drawn female characters such as these unfold at the leisurely pace they do.


Passion Fish is an elegant and simple tale that is only highlighted by Sayles’ vivid writing techniques: we get to know the land and its inhabitants again through their pain, as they retreat to the soothing country to heal. This is a constant theme throughout Sayles’ body of work, but here the ladies endow their story with a sweetness that is missing from the director’s other more tense, masculine films. The film is a more modern throwback to the “woman’s picture” era when movies about the fairer sex overcoming life’s obstacles were actually box-office successes and celebrated by the masses. Though Sayles is operating, ironically, in the world of “soap operas”, he thankfully spares us the schmaltz and high drama, preferring to remain ardently true to his characters - two women dealt a bad hand coping the best way they know how: by relying on the kindness of strangers.


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Thursday, Aug 17, 2006

It’s fairly hit and miss this weekend at your favorite pay TV premium channels. Frankly, the fact that there’s anything decent during what is typically viewed as the graveyard shift of the television season is surprising. HBO has a horrible entry, a misfire by two usually gifted big screen performers, while Showtime is repeating Tyler Perry’s first filmed “gospel play”. Then again, Cinemax is premiering its exclusive run of the already aired comic book classic from 2005, centering on that infamous man who loved bat dancing, while Starz delivers a much maligned masterwork from Elf director Jon Favreau. Depending on your particular motion picture bent, it’s either feast of famine over the next few days. Our money is on the fanciful and the fantastic, versus the mediocre and the near-minstrel. Specifically, here’s what you have to look forward to:


HBOTwo for the Money

Bombs Away! It’s August, and yet Home Box Office insists upon serving us turkey. This lackluster gambling thriller from last year featured a decent Matthew McConaughey, a plaster peeling Pacino, and lots of shots of men staring at televised sports. Director D.J. Caruso, a somewhat successful TV helmer, had a minor hit with the Angelina Jolie serial killer film Taking Lives in 2004. This, apparently, gave him the clout to create a rambling, routine story of innocence, and wagers, lost. There is probably a good story about the sins of betting somewhere in this misguided mess. Maybe cable is the perfect place to try and find it. Good luck. (Premieres Saturday 19 August, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxBatman Begins*

Though it’s already premiered on sister station HBO, there’s no time like the present to get acquainted – or for fans, reacquainted – with Christopher Nolan’s exceptional reimagining of the Dark Knight saga. Featuring near perfect casting (something that the just announced sequel seems to be already lacking) and a more psychologically dense interpretation of the Bat/Bruce character, what Tim Burton’s mid-‘80s jumpstart promised, Nolan and Christian Bale definitely delivered. In fact, the former American Psycho might just be the best actor ever to take on the superhero challenge. While Spidey still holds the prize for overall comic creativity (thanks to a certain Mr. Raimi), this is one reborn franchise that definitely deserves to live on. (Premieres Saturday 19 August, 10:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


Starz Zathura*

One of the most misunderstood and unjustly underrated films of last year, Zathura suffered from something called “The Jumanji Syndrome”. Both marketers and critics decided to buzzword this exceptional fantasy to death, making the connection between Jon Favreau’s fine sci-fi adventure and that long ago excuse for some post-Jurassic CGI more meaningful than it was. True, author Chris Van Allsburg was responsible for the books both were based on (he also write The Polar Express), but that’s where the similarities end. Jumanji was an over hyped Robin Williams vehicle with significant narrative flaws. Zathura, on the other hand, is a new classic. (Premieres Saturday 19 August, 9:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


Showtime Too Diary of a Mad Black Woman

A lot of critics despise Tyler Perry and his “chitlin’ circuit” efforts, but this critic finds him a deeply compelling, occasionally inventive performer. While Diary doesn’t do his crazed comic character, the gun-toting, pot smoking out of control Grandma Mabel “Madea” Simmons justice (only the stage plays prove her amazing mantle), this racially specific dramedy deserves some respect for reaching out to a demographic not usually in tune with what Tinsel Town has to offer. If you take the entire experience with a huge grain of cinematic salt (yes, you saw right - that is a man playing an elderly woman) you’ll more than likely be able to find the meaning inside this mess. Besides, you have to admit it; Perry is pretty funny, sometimes. (Saturday 19 August, 7pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


Turner Classic Movies: August: Summer Under the Stars Month

Leave it to the classic film channel to find novel ways of constantly recycling its catalog of amazing Tinsel Town artifacts. In August, the station will salute several celebrated names from Hollywood’s Golden Age upward, using each daylong promotion as an excuse to screen numerous offerings from the specific star’s catalog. A few of the highlights for the week of 19 August to 25 August are:



19 August – Audrey Hepburn

She was sophistication and urbanity in an era pushing for more realism and Method alienation. That this elegant lady survived to become an icon to both fashion and fame is a testament to her talent, and her radiant charms. Enjoy the following line-up of loveliness:
6:00 am Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)*
7:30 am Children’s Hour, The (1961)* 
9:30 am Charade (1963)* 
11:45 am Love In The Afternoon (1957) 
2:00 pm Sabrina (1954)* 
4:00 pm Always (1989) 
6:00 pm Funny Face (1957)
8:00 pm My Fair Lady (1964)* 
11:00 pm Nun’s Story, The (1959) 
2:00 am Wait Until Dark (1967)* 
4:00 am Green Mansions (1959) 


22 August – Rita Hayworth

To many, she remains a mere pinup, a glamour gal whose far more remembered for being a part of every WWII GI’s barracks (and a certain Shawshank prisoner’s wall) than for any performance she ever gave. But this raven-haired honey made an impact on the silver screen, with a sexual potency prevalent in many of the following features:
6:00 am Rita (2003)* 
7:00 am Renegade Ranger (1938) 
8:30 am Susan And God (1940) 
10:30 am Strawberry Blonde, The (1941) 
12:30 pm Pal Joey (1957)* 
2:30 pm Money Trap, The (1966) 
4:30 pm Only Angels Have Wings (1939) 
6:45 pm Music in My Heart (1940)* 
8:00 pm Loves of Carmen, The (1948)* 
10:00 pm Gilda (1946)* 
12:00 am Lady From Shanghai, The (1948)*
1:30 am Rita (2003) 
2:30 am Affectionately Yours (1941) 
4:00 am Wrath Of God, The (1972) 


25 August – Jimmy Stewart

He’s everyman and no one, a symbol of something beyond our concept of humanity and decency, and yet a performer so slippery he could play almost any kind of character and make it believable. Though the dearth of Hitckcock here is disturbing, the rest of this day’s celebration is sensational, including:
6:00 am After The Thin Man (1936) 
8:00 am Of Human Hearts (1938) 
9:45 am Shopworn Angel, The (1938) 
11:15 am Shop Around The Corner, The (1940)* 
1:00 pm Malaya (1949) 
2:45 pm Far Country, The (1955) 
4:30 pm Night Passage (1957)* 
6:15 pm Naked Spur, The (1953) 
8:00 pm Shenandoah (1965)* 
10:00 pm Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)* 
12:15 am Stratton Story, The (1949) 
2:15 am Bell, Book and Candle (1959)* 
4:15 am No Time For Comedy (1940) 


* = PopMatters Picks


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