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Monday, Sep 29, 2008

He was classic Hollywood for the counterculture generation, a throwback to the days of good looks and gifted talent transformed into idealism, allure, and myth, He legitimized the word ‘legend’ proving that a mere mortal could carry the tag with dignity and distinction. He had the face of an angel, the ethic of a saint, and the passions of a sinner. Together with his deliberate career choices and professional admonitions, he forged a cinematic canon unmatched by his fellow fame seekers. Even outside the industry for many years, the rumors of Paul Newman’s life threatening cancer gave everybody in his business and his formidable fanbase pause. The 83 year old seemed so ageless, so timeless, that to think that something simple as disease could destroy him appeared impossible. Sadly, he succumbed to mere mortality on 26 September. It was more than just the end of an era. It was the end of an entire motion picture principle.


Of course, such greatness had to start from humble beginnings. As a youth, Paul Leonard Newman, showed a keen interest in acting. His father ran a small sporting goods store. His mother, a Christian Scientist, fostered his love of theater. By the time he graduated from Shaker Heights High School in his hometown, he was set to pursue a degree at Ohio University at Athens. He was later kicked out for bad behavior. With little options available, Newman entered the military and spent three years as a naval radioman during the Pacific campaigns in World War II. After the service, he completed his studies at Kenyon College, went on to Yale to work on his dramatic skills, and was accepted to Lee Strasberg’s prestigious Actor’s Studio.


Getting his start onstage, where he cut his teeth on such Great White Way smashes as Picnic, The Desperate Hours, and later Sweet Bird of Youth, Newman would also find roles in the fledgling format of live TV drama. It was a wonderful proving ground for the still green thespian. After seeing his theatrical turns, Warners offered him a contract, and a part in the Roman costume epic The Silver Chalice introduced the actor to movie audiences. Sadly, the film was so awful that it nearly ended Newman’s fledgling career. But with Somebody Up There Likes Me, he found a perfect fit. As real life boxer Rocky Graziano, Newman established an onscreen persona that would carry him through the next several decades - the well intentioned outsider who battles the system to salvage his own humanity.


After starring in a pair of Tennessee Williams potboilers - The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Newman ushered in the ‘60s with a film that would end up looming large in his legend. As “Fast” Eddie Felson, he costarred alongside Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott in the definitive pool hall parable The Hustler. The film showed that, even with his natural good looks, Newman could portray a morally complex (and occasionally, bankrupt) character. It was something he would carry on through signature turns in such now classics as Hud, Harper, and the messianic message picture Cool Hand Luke. By the end of the era, Newman was the biggest box office draw in Tinsel Town. In 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid continued his counterculture significance and mainstream value.


It also established one of his great lifetime friend and partnerships. At the time he was hired to play the brooding gunslinger with a luminous name, Robert Redford was an up and coming star. Newman championed the younger man, and together they formed a creative combination that would carry over for the next few years. By celebrating the anti-hero and deflating the influence and power of the “Establishment” Butch Cassidy clicked with late ‘60s audiences, and it wasn’t long before the duo were the most bankable actors in Hollywood. Their fantastic follow-up together, The Sting, would become an instant classic and winner of Best Picture at the 1973 Academy Awards. Newman took his new clout to the bank, making disaster films for Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, When Time Ran Out) and branching out into all manner of movies, from sports comedies (Slap Shot) to experimental fare with famed director Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Quintet).


By the ‘80s, a middle aged Newman was ready to play elder superstar statesmen. The parts he chose continued to challenge his abilities (a down and drunken lawyer in The Verdict) and expand his range (the cartoonish Louisiana Governor Earl Long in Blaze). But one thing continued to elude the actor. Even after being nominated seven previous times, Newman had yet to win the Oscar. It would take Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, and some character karma in the form of a return to “Fast” Eddie to gain his little gold man. Color of Money showed that, while his façade may have aged, there was nothing ‘old’ about this longtime leading man. Today, his intense and insular performance makes the work of his younger costar seem overly simplistic by comparison.


With said persistent professional obstacle removed, Newman entered into a phase of semi-retirement. He only made five movies in the ‘90s, and of those, only Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (from Merchant/Ivory) and the Coen Brothers corporate screwball classic The Hudsucker Proxy stood out. He became even more reclusive in the new millennium, working with Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition, and voicing the amiable Doc Hudson for Pixar’s animated effort Cars. During his now abundant downtime, he continued several important passions from his far more famous days. Newman loved racing, and he indulged in the sport from the moment he completed work on 1969’s Winning. Charity was also important to the man. Having lost his only son to drug addiction in 1978, he was a supporter for rehabilitation. He also sponsored camps for children with cancer, and used his love of food to begin Newman’s Own, a culinary label that, to date, has contributed hundreds of millions to various non-profit causes.


For such a handsome, hunky lead, Newman was only married twice. His first marriage to Jackie Newman lasted a little over eight years. He met fellow performer Joanne Woodward while they were understudies on Picnic. After begging his first wife for a divorce, the icon and his new leading lady were married a week after the court’s decree was final. It was a relationship that lasted for the next 50 years. Newman often worked with his lady love, directing her in such films as Rachel, Rachel, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, and The Glass Menagerie. Theirs was a partnership that bucked the Tinsel Town trend. Normally, two incredibly successful and important stars would have a hard time sharing the spotlight professionally, let alone personally. But Newman argued that Woodward kept him grounded, and she the same.


Looking back at his illustrious career, it’s clear that this was a man who understood his influence within popular cultural and the social dynamic. His choices often reflected his politics, and during the ‘60s, he stayed close to his idealistic roots. By the ‘70s, it was time to expand the oeuvre, to experiment as part of the post-modern movement. The ‘80s was all about product, about sealing the legacy and retaining a bit of dignity. And up until his death a few days ago, the rest of his creative life was a balance between doing what he wanted and what he needed to in order to maintain his majesty. In between, he took on challenges that would undermine a mere mortal, his stature only growing as the years trailed by.


Sure, there was talk of a Newman/Redford reteam. There was even a 2004 interview where the two twinkled mischievously at the thought of making another movie together. There was also the change of heart, the actor announcing that Hudsucker would be his last film ever - before turning around and performing again. He was a foil to late night TV guru David Letterman, and was known - within limits - to poke fun at his own persona (as in Mel Brooks’ demented Silent Movie). But what’s certain about Paul Newman, and his lasting reputation, is the notion of true super stardom. He looked the part, played it perfectly, and never allowed fame to influence his abilities or beliefs. Newman never phoned it in, or traded his talent for a paycheck. Somehow, he knew his importance - beyond the good looks and classic features - to those in the audience. He never let them down, not in life, and not in death. Paul Newman was everyman’s idol. He was truly an icon for every generation, and deservedly so.


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Monday, Sep 29, 2008

For now, a picture says it all:





Read our complete tribute to Paul Newman in tomorrow’s blog post.


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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

Sometimes, we get so bogged down with titles here at SE&L that we can’t imagine ever getting through them all. Be it a summer weekend stuffed with possible blockbuster fare, or an awards season schedule that can frequently see as many as eight to ten screenings in a single work week, we do find ourselves overwhelmed and understaffed (isn’t that always the case). Still, in order to keep on top of the ever-changing media market, there will be times when we have to put in the extra effort, to go above and beyond a simple blurb banquet. Indeed, it appears it’s time for what will probably be a regular feature here at the PopMatters Film Blog - the Review-a-thon. 


Over the next few days, we’re going to suck it up, put on our critical thinking cap, and bang out a bunch of opinions. Between now and Sunday, we will tackle Michael Moore’s new documentary, visit a classic rock icon as he showcases a forgotten album, take on another Dragon Dynasty martial arts epic, and maybe even experience an unnecessary sequel or two - and this on top of the films in focus for this week (26 September). With no real schedule for when the latest installment of this endurance test will arrive, you’ll need to check back regularly to see if we indeed make it. The list is ambitious, and a tad unwieldy. Still, as a test of mental mantle, we believe we’re up to the task.


In no particular order, here are the cinematic obstacles that await us:


In Theaters - Nights in Rodanthe  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Eagle Eye (The IMAX Experience)  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Miracle at St. Anna  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Choke
Available Online - Slacker Uprising
On DVD - Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (1996)  (Now Available)
On DVD - War/Dance (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Lou Reed’s Berlin (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Pulse 2 (2008)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Plan 9 from Syracuse (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - The Rebel (2006)  (Now Available)


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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

When one considers Asian cinema, certain countries instantly command our attention. China (and its Hong Kong companion), Thailand, Japan, and South Korea typically lead the conversation, names like John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Yuen Wo-ping monopolizing all meaningful discourse. With its history of colonial conflict and Domino Theory demonizing, Vietnam rarely gets a mention. For decades, the US ‘defeat’ in the region relegated anything associated with the tiny nation to a sour, shunned status. But over the last decade, we’ve warmed to the work of the former enemy of the state, celebrating everything from its food to its films. Now, the definitive Dragon Dynasty Collection is releasing the highest grossing film in Vietnamese history to DVD, and with its mix of history, culture, and martial artistry, The Rebel reveals a great deal about its sovereign source.


After failing to thwart yet another assassination, double agent Le Van Cuong begins to question his dedication to the French. In Colonial Vietnam during the 1920s, our hero lives the easy life - that is, as long as he plays ball with the ruling elite. But when a rebel girl captures his heart, he decides to give up his life of undercover work and regain his sense of national pride. Naturally, this makes his associate Sy very angry. Pressured by high ranking government officials to stop the freedom fighters or die trying, he soon finds himself tracking his fellow spy through the countryside. Of course, over the course of their journey, Thanh Van Ngo begins to question Cuong’s loyalties. Is he really interested in helping her famed father and his resistance, or is this all a trap, a chance for a well-placed mole to infiltrate her trust. With Sy hot on their tracks, it all becomes a question of faith and allegiance to one’s traditions and heritage.


On the outside, The Rebel is nothing more than a pretty period piece with lots of historical high points and potboiler plotting. It’s the kind of sweeping epic with a doomed love affair at the center and several fringe social statements that sustained Hollywood for several decades. With its attention to detail and feeling of fictional authenticity, director Truc Nguyen clearly understands the needs of the genre. There is nary a false step along the always enticing way. But since this is also a martial arts movie, albeit one draped in the kind of free wheeling fighting one rarely gets a chance to see, everything is amplified. Abruptly, the drama becomes even more serious, the threats and various double crosses that much more damaging. That the director can balance both elements speaks volumes for his talent and vision.


Luckily, he has a cast that’s quite capable of carrying out his various intentions. In the lead, Johnny Tri Nguyen cuts a very charismatic swath. Playing both sides of the situation until the last setpiece, he creates an enigmatic lead, one which we question throughout the entire storyline. Cuong is supposed to be the best at what he does, and we definitely see that in the beginning of the film. The opening assassination is handled with deft cinematic skill. And because of the actor’s suave persona, we believe he could be fooling his newfound rebel liaison. As the lady in his sights, pop star Veronica Ngo is absolutely amazing. Beautiful, but able to kick butt with genre authority, she’s a real find. Her scenes with Tri Nguyen certainly sizzle, and there’s chemistry to spare.


But the real revelation here is former 21 Jump Street star Dustin Tri Nguyen. Playing his first bad guy in nearly 20 years in the business, he handles the part with pure evil panache. Sy is so wicked, so lost in his own unhinged world of anger and hate (mostly aimed at his French advisors) that we sense he would do anything to rid himself of what haunts him. That makes his actions even more frightening, especially when he matches Tri Nguyen roundhouse kick for kick. It has to be mentioned that all the actors truly excel at what could best be described as a very gymnastic style of kung fu. Many attacks start out as cartwheels and flips, and when body blows are delivered, the victims fly through the air with incredible power and authority. Our director perfectly paces the moments of marital fisticuffs. They seem to flow naturally out of the body of the narrative. Even the last act train attack seems logical and within the limits of the story.


As they do with all their releases, Dragon Dynasty (a division of Genus Products and the Weinstein Group) overstuffs this two DVD set with mountains of added content - the most important being the full length audio commentary found on Disc One. Led by the consistent presence of Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, our three leads show up to explain how such a sweeping piece of cinema was made on a ultra-low ($1.6 million US) budget. From the iron mine set to a horrific village massacre, the actors discuss location difficulties, the endless fight training, and the sense of history within the production itself. It’s a wonderful conversation, and truly supplements the source. Similarly, the interviews and featurettes found on Disc Two - while repeating some of what we already know - gives us a chance to understand these actors and the struggles they’ve had to overcome to be part of this effective film.


While it sometimes is too luxurious for all the violence it propagates, and frequently fails to flesh out subplots (Cuong’s opium addicted dad, Sy’s prostitute mother) that could have added even more to the movie, The Rebel is still a wonderful and exciting experience. It shows us a nation struggling for an identity, even before the Americans came in with their napalm and supposedly noble intentions. As a condemnation of colonialism, it’s rather insightful. As an example of amazing physical skill, it’s a stunner. It’s easy to understand why this movie was such a monster hit. Rarely does a country get a love letter as broad and cinematically sweeping as this. The Rebel reveals a Vietnam ready to take its Asian filmmaking fraternity head on. Here’s hoping Dragon Dynasty continues to cull more titles from all areas of this fascinating foreign canon.


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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

Beware of Big Brother…blah, blah, blah. You can’t pick up a publication nowadays, or listen to any number of broadcast pundits, and not hear about how the Bush Administration is violating rights and the privilege of privacy for the sake of some metaphoric act of patriotism. Granted, the Constitution may indeed be jeopardized in the name of non-provable levels of safety (call it the “tiger rock” syndrome), but Americans are more than willing to buy into the scheme to avoid another 9/11. This fuels Hollywood’s already perverse sense of paranoia, as it has since Nixon went Watergate-boarding. Disturbia director D. J. Caruso has tapped into such technological fear mongering with his latest big screen suspense thriller, Eagle Eye. While not perfect, if you ignore a major plot twist and/or hole along the way, you’re sure to have an edge of your seat good time.


On the day that he buries his twin brother, Jerry Shaw suddenly finds himself engulfed in a world of trouble. His grubby Chicago apartment is suddenly overrun with terrorism paraphernalia - weapons, instruction manuals, and bomb making materials - and from his cellphone, a mysterious female voice tells him to flee. Before long, Jerry is in FBI custody, with Agent Thomas Morgan on his case. Joined by Air Force investigator Zoe Perez, the officials hope to stop this potential disaster before it occurs.


In the meantime, single mother Rachel Holloman is informed that her son, traveling to Washington DC on a school band trip, is in danger. Unless she agrees to help the mysterious female voice on the other end of the line, she’ll lose everything. Turns out, Jerry is her proposed partner in potential crime. The pair become pawns in what appears to be a deadly assault on the United States. These reluctant radicals have to follow the instructions of their unseen tormentor, or die trying. Of course, the source of the threats might just be someone - or something - inside the government itself.


Bristling along on one amazing narrative convolution after another, and fueled by fascinating gung ho performances from everyone involved, Eagle Eye is a jovial serving of cinematic junk food. It’s frightfully filling without being intellectually challenging, and appears put together by professionals who know a thing or two about maintaining an audience’s interest. For those looking for mandatory movie references, this is nothing more than Wargames, Enemy of the State, North by Northwest and another famous ‘odyssey’ all rolled into one. To reveal the name of the last cinematic masterpiece riffed on would spoil the secret to the film’s villainy. Suffice it to say that any motion picture from the last four decades, especially ones dealing with spying, science gone sinister, and massive governmental conspiracies, finds a hokey, hackneyed home here. Some just overstay their welcome, becoming the storyline’s sole raison d’etra.


As with his homage to Rear Window, director Caruso casts messageboard separator Shia LeBeouf as his everyman, and for someone so hated by a good percentage of geek nation, the actor is very good here. He’s not required to do much - a great deal of this movie is mechanics and manipulations to a deadly denouement - but in the quieter scenes, he shows subtly and nuance. This is not quite the grown-up role the pseudo-star needs - Jerry is still carved out of post-millennial slacker shortcuts - but as the innocent mark turned reluctant hero, he holds things together quite well. Michelle Monaghan is another issue all together. Her overwrought mother is horribly underwritten, complaining about her bastard ex-husband and her lousy paralegal’s paycheck…and that’s about it.


Thankfully, costars Billy Bob Thorton and Rosario Dawson pick up the slack. He’s a manic FBI agent not sure which side of Jerry’s story he believes. She’s the Air Force attaché who uncovers a key piece of evidence explaining the forces behind the threat. One has to say that, if you buy the premise and the antagonist involved, Eagle Eye takes on a sly, almost mischievous sense of social commentary. Positioned directly in the War on Terror times we live in, the film’s obvious jabs at the current White House and the incomplete intelligence that led us to invasion offer waves of wiseass recognition. If anything, Caruso appears to be anarchic in his advocacy. His position gives “We the People” a whole new meaning.


On the small screen, the frenetic action scenes and hand-held hysterics would clearly get lost. The editing typically takes a mashed up moment and amplifies it unnecessarily. But blown up 70mm on an IMAX screen, Eagle Eye becomes a crackerjack nailbiter. The car chases have a real logic and flow, and the foot races reveal both clever choreography and a true sense of space. Chicago looks luminous during the various aerial shots, and when CG takes over to establish the “omnipresence” of the Federal bureaus, the graphics look great. Like Beowulf inside the 3D domain, Eagle Eye needs to be experienced in the larger theatrical format. The detail in the image helps make up for some of the tried and true tricks the director uses to create breakneck cinematic chaos.


Even with its occasional lapses into illogical miscalculation (like the ability to control elements like electrical lines???), Eagle Eye is a great, goofball thrill. It’s the kind of film you can get lost in, forgetting the fallacies streaming across your subconscious as you sit back and savor another sequence of veiled threat and vehicular mayhem. Certainly, the story is not meant to mean more than the basics of the genre, and any references to masters past remain securely on the side of the alluded to auteurs. But D. J. Caruso and Shia LeBeouf prove a potent combination, especially in the realm of easy to swallow suspense films. If you go in expecting The Conversation meshed with a sideways Manchurian Candidate, you’ll be easily underwhelmed. But not every entertainment needs to engage the brain to guarantee success. Check your head at the ticket counter and you’ll enjoy this wickedly wild ride - especially in IMAX.


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