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Friday, Sep 8, 2006


Generally, when I think of Diane Keaton, I think of a “modern woman”. Leave it to 1984’s Mrs. Soffel to ship the performer off to the turn of the century, take away her usual contemporary manners and tics, and in the process show off an important and unique side of her capabilities as an actress, talents that extend far beyond the ability to make people laugh.


Over the course of her fascinating film career, Keaton has garnered Oscar nominations in each of the decades since the 1970s. She also has one win for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), a role that made her an American icon. She has exemplified the ideal of a woman living in contemporary society: funny, brainy and naturally sexy (she’s even a L’oreal spokes-model now, at age 60!). In each of these roles, her innate likeability comes across easily, and her particular charms seem to be tailored to fit current times. For me, Keaton is reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn, down to the offbeat manner in which she dresses. Her icon status, her technical skill, and her ability to get consistently interesting work for over four decades makes the comparison even clearer.


At the dawn of the ‘80s, Keaton scored with one of her best roles, yet oddly it wasn’t in the more celebrated yin of Reds or the yang of the for-then very raw divorce drama Shoot the Moon. It the follow-up to these critical successes, Mrs. Soffel, which showcased her most nuanced performance to date; free of all of the modern conventions that had peppered her other work.


Keaton manages a complete immersion into time and character. The sets, costumes and cinematography all conspire to paint a very grim, foggy portrait of Pittsburgh during 1900. Director Gillian Armstrong gets the technical stuff down without being overly showy, and she conveys a really nice sense of era through her color choices. Using washed out blues, grays and other subdued, fuzzy tones, she filters the film through this particular prism, creating an appropriate backdrop for a film set in a prison. Keaton plays a warden’s wife in this true-life tale, a woman who wants to help two convicted killers (Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) escape death row by utilizing the guise of teaching them the bible.


She falls under Gibson’s romantic spell and throws away everything she has to join the fleeing criminals. Keaton is breathtaking, moving easily from frail to hot-and-bothered, from naive to furious all within a matter of scenes (a tricky high-wire act for a performer that is so often associated with wacky physical comedies). It is such unexpected turn that the “Diane Keaton” everyone knows so well just vanishes as Mrs. Soffel is finally freed of her repressed existence. In truth, Keaton is again playing a liberated woman, someone ahead of her time in every way. This time, however, she is able to effortlessly separate herself from her far more famous off-screen persona.


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Thursday, Sep 7, 2006

Heaven help the person looking for a little above board entertainment via their pay TV provider this weekend. The movies the big four premium channels are providing appear so bereft of clear pleasure principles that its hard to imagine anyone getting anything other than frustrated from such flummoxing choices. Sure, the Jet Li movie is a nice riff on the routine fight film, and Starz’s sullen entry does try to create another variation on the ‘adultery is killer’ thriller. But when Jessica Simpson and her whole-assed awfulness is the highlight of the schedule, perhaps its time to consider reading a book. Heck, even Showtime has split the scene, at least temporarily, showing a marathon of its suburban pot drama Weeds instead. So, if you enjoy slightly average action, below average acting and even more mediocre moviemaking acumen, you’ll feel right at home with at least two of the movies premiering on Saturday. Specifically, one will be suffering through the following filmic flotsam:


HBOUnleashed

*
Why does Hollywood have such a hard time figuring out what to do with Jet Li. He’s charismatic, graceful, athletic and charming. He always comes across as considered and commanding. Just because English is his subsidiary language doesn’t mean he can’t have a meaningful mainstream movie career. Yet Tinsel Town is torn as to how best to utilize his sizeable skills. In the meantime, he returns to his homeland to churn out classics like Hero and this fall’s Fearless. Here, paired with the Transporter duo of Luc Besson (script), and Louis Leterrier (director), we have a far more effective actioner than previous Li efforts. Combining fabulous fight scenes with just the slightest twists on its melodramatic conventions, we end up with something more satisfying than stagnant. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxThe Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

Ouch! Here’s a film so painfully pathetic that SE&L has a hard time even THINKING about it, let alone discussing it. Marketed to make money by trading on Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass fanbase, as well as Jessica Simpson’s dumbass personality, the end result was a one note novelty that proved the potential of the adolescent male demographic to show up for almost anything. Following this formula, it won’t be long before someone supes up Nanny and the Professor with the Pussycat Dolls as a determined group of barely dressed babysitters, and Bam Margera as the lonely widower teacher desperate for help raising his wee ones. Now just add Li’l Jon as the nutty next-door neighbor and you’ve got another hap-Hazzard style payday. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzDerailed

What’s worse than a movie starring Jennifer Aniston? How about a film matching her with the enormously talented Clive Owen. Since showing some decent performance chops in 2002’s The Good Girl, the artist formerly known as a Friends haircut has had an incredibly difficult time translating her ‘talent’ to the big screen. This Fatal Attraction styled thriller is no different. While many critics praised the narrative’s no frills attempt at showing relationships in decline, and affairs as a kind of interpersonal poultice, the minute blackmailer Vincent Cassel enters the fray as the tripwire terror, the plot follows the film’s title. Not even a last minute twist (totally telegraphed along the way) can save this sloppy, ineffective flop. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 9:00pm EST).



PopMatters Review


Showtime ShowcaseJules et Jim*

Why not avoid all the Tinsel Town tripe being forwarded this weekend and settle in with something REALLY special. Critic turned filmmaker François Truffaut used the growing French New Wave mandate (break all the rules of cinema) to create a masterful celebration of the medium’s many possibilities. At the center is an unconventional love story between two friends and the flighty femme that would control them both. Everything about this film defies expectation, taunts tradition and redefines the motion picture language. Like all great experiments, it has its flaws. Like all tests of talent, it’s astounding. As much of a challenge to an audience as an entertainment, there are very few films like this post-modern masterpiece. (Saturday 9 September, 8:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


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 9 September through 15 September:


IFC


Magnolia (1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson delivers his ultimate ode to Robert Altman with this evocative Short Cuts like look at lives in apocalyptic disarray
(Saturday 9 September, 7:15pm EST)


Black Sunday (1960)
It’s the title that marked Italy’s ascension to movie macabre prominence. Mario Bava directs the ethereal Barbara Steele in a story of witches, possession and blood! 
(Tuesday 12 September, 6:25pm EST)


Human Nature (2001)
The last time director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charles Kaufman got together, they delivered Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This film’s ALMOST as good.
(Wednesday 13 September, 9:00pm EST)


Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton’s love letter to the oddball icon behind Plan 9 from Outer Space, this smart little film is still looking for the respect it deserved 12 year ago.
(Thursday 14 September, 5:45pm EST)


Sundance Channel


Decline of Western Civilization: Part 2 – The Metal Years (1988)
Wanna see something really scary? Director Penelope Spheeris delivers the shocks in this documentary on ‘80s hair metal, with all its decadent, self-deluded dimensions.
(Sunday, 10 September, 10:00pm EST)


11’09"01 - September 11 (2002)
A group of foreign filmmakers try to find cinematic answers to the events that happened in lower Manhattan that fateful fall day, and illustrate its affect on the world.
(Monday, 11 September, 11:00pm EST)


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Martin Scorsese takes on Catholicism and the Bible in this remarkable adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel. A true misunderstood masterpiece
(Thursday, 14 September, 10:00pm EST)


Monster in a Box
The late, great Spaulding Gray discusses his mother’s insanity, and the creation of his novel, the “monster” known as Impossible Vacation, in this amazing monologue.
(Friday, 15 September, 4:15pm EST)


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Tuesday, Sep 5, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 6: Umrao Jaan
1981, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Muzaffir Ali


Perhaps the most successful commercial art film Bollywood ever made. Think of it as India’s answer to Memoirs of a Geisha coupled with the raw power of Jane Campion’s The Piano. It has it all—exquisite period costumes and sets, nuanced performances from classically trained actors, and a hauntingly beautiful score. Based on the fictional memoir of a 19th century tawayaf (prostitute or public woman) of Lucknow, Umrao Jaan chronicles the life of its title character, the most celebrated courtesan of her day, from her childhood up until the British invasion of Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Rather than simply vilify men for their treatment of women, the movie celebrates the resilience of women who are able to succeed within these patriarchal restrictions. Director Muzaffir Ali’s attention to detail in recreating the heady atmosphere of 19th century Lucknow is so precise you feel like you’re watching documentary footage. But the strength of Umrao Jaan lies in Rekha’s blessedly controlled and intelligent performance in the title role.


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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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