Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Thursday, Apr 10, 2008


A comment from an official in charge of Alabama’s prison population says it all - the treatment of criminals in America has slowly shifted from rehabilitation and reclamation into society to pure, unadulterated punishment. It’s a waste, a warehousing mentality, the direct result of a sentencing guideline given where life without the possibility of parole is handed out with startling regularity…without consideration of the consequences or repercussions. Inmates don’t need care. They need caging.


Into this unstable fray, a world where law and order don’t mix as much as mitigate each others’ existence, comes the Vipassana, a rigorous 10 day course of meditation and self discovery. It’s one of the toughest disciplines in all of enlightenment. For the inmates of Donaldson Correctional Facility in the very rural South, the chance to apply the teachings of Buddha provides some optimism for their otherwise hopeless lives. For the residents surrounding the imposing facility, including the conservative Christian community, such Eastern promise smacks of leniency - something these convicts don’t require.


An intriguing film about the practice from three first time documentarians, The Dhamma Brothers, delves deep into the battle of wills between hardened criminals, a reluctant administration, an uncaring society, and a pair of wide-eyed teachers whose only desire is to see men change through individual illumination. In some ways, the story is simple. We quickly learn that the secret of Vipassana is the acceptance of personal responsibility. During the ordeal, where for nine days the prisoners cannot speak to or communicate with each other, their crimes and catastrophic past become burdens they have to acknowledge and manage through quiet contemplation and chanting.


For the basic bleeding heart, it’s a humane way of dealing with the long considered barely human. For the jingoistic jail proponent, it’s all part of the “fake it ‘til you make it’ mentality of inmate con jobbing. There’s an incredible sequence about a third of the way in where locals are given a chance to comment on the prison’s decision. One calls Buddhism “witchcraft”, while another stresses that these men lost any chance at compassion when they killed/robbed/raped who they did. It’s both sides of a single compelling argument, one that The Dhamma Brothers never fully addresses, or puts to rest. 


This is especially true when the mandatory denouement occurs. It’s not a case of recidivism or criminal chicanery. Instead, the State of Alabama listens to the pleas of several concerned religious organizations, and determines that the Vipassana, as well as the ability for these inmates to meet on a daily basis for medication, constitutes a “preaching” of a particular belief system. As such, it violates the long established “Go with Jesus” gerrymander. It’s a stupid sentiment, but it works. By the time the program returns four years later, its original removal is chalked up to politics played as usual.


While the personal angle really sells the film, these outer issues really are important to understanding The Dhamma Brothers’ dilemma. We see that the process really does provide some manner of rehabilitation for even the most unapologetic lifer, but to argue that it violates religious freedom when the Courts have constantly held such a preference quasi-Constitutional paints Alabama in a bad light. At least the directors - Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, and Anne Marie Stein - don’t demonize the prison staff. Everyone, from the warden to the guards, is given a chance to question the practice…and then offer their indirect apologies when the convicts disprove their apprehension. 


Still, what many will remember about this otherwise informative film is the way in which we get to know these men. Grady Bankhead, inside for murder, tells of how his mother took he and his brother to an abandoned farmhouse when they were very young, kissed them on the forehead, told them to be good, and simply left them there to die. It’s a astonishing revelation, as are many of the personal stories and memories offered. Perhaps even more stunning is how open and honest these men eventually become. Vipassana has forced them to confront their darkest fears and recollections. The act of mental attrition, of drawing into oneself and meditating on the horrors within, has emboldened each and every one.


It’s a feeling that flows even through the more stereotypical aspects of the narrative. As a talking heads piece, the actual Buddhist rituals requiring isolation (and therefore, no filming) to be effective, we get little insight into the process. It would be nice to see some hidden camera footage of the men interacting, of how a typical day plays out for them. Much of the Vipassana is left unexplained, as if the teachers want the technique protected out of reverence - or maybe something more mercenary. Yet it’s hard to imply anything truly sinister to what we see here. There is so much good being done that finding fault is next to impossible.


The Dhamma Brothers does, however, lack one element that’s mandatory for a great documentary. Call it an entertainment epiphany, or a moment of cinematic transcendence, but we never feel lifted outside the experience at Donaldson to see a bigger cosmic, or karmic, picture. Instead, stories play out, men learn from the experience, and while some slip, others like Bankhead or confirmed convert Rick Smith successfully pitch and preach. In the end, we recognize the value and vital importance of such a program, and we wonder why other institutions haven’t employed the technique instead of simply using captivity for their collection of ‘animals’.


If anything, Vipassana suggests that, once a man gets to truly know himself, and has the opportunity to regularly explore such a domain, he’ll find his place within the civilized social order. It may not forgive him for what he’s done, and oddly enough, few feel the need for such clemency. Instead, all they want is the chance to investigate themselves further, to use the techniques taught to moderate internally what they couldn’t while out in the world. The sooner the penal system accepts that, the quicker collections like The Dhamma Brothers can spring up around the country. It seems like the only sensible solution in a realm replete with tired old tendencies - and abject failures.



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Thursday, Apr 10, 2008


By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered.


When we first meet Sorowitsch, he is gambling in a Monte Carlo casino. As he places a bet, his mind wanders back to pre-War Berlin. The Nazi party is making life impossible for members of his faith, but he feels invincible—after all, he’s the best phony paper pusher in the country. Unfortunately, he is captured, and sent to a concentration camp. There, his unique talents are championed by Lagerkommandanten Herzog. In charge of Hitler’s plan to undermine the British and US economy, he wants Sorowitsch to counterfeit the pound sterling. If he’s successful, America’s dollar is next. Among his group of well cared for inmates is a Communist print master named Adolph Burger. He wants nothing to do with the scheme and hopes to rise up against his captures. But Sorowitsch is only out for himself, no matter how selfish that sounds.


There are times when you want The Counterfeiters to be great, to stand up and recognize the inherently intriguing tale it has to tell and do so magnificently. You want it to stop meandering about, to cease giving unnecessary time to Burger and his tired whining and posturing, and instead really explore the dynamic of turning rags and inks into top quality currency. This is a film that hints at the process, but never digs deeper. But it’s impossible to deny the quantitative curiosity factor present, or the unusual way writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky tells the tale. Applying a Dogma ‘95 like technique, scenes are lit naturally, scenes playing out amongst minimal sets. All the Holocaust horrors remain indirect, experienced through sound cues, suggestion, and the occasional half-glimpsed moment of gore. This is not just Sorowitsch’s story, yet who he is remains the center of the situation at hand.


It’s a weird dilemma for the criminal. In one way, he is helping his persecutor undermine his potential liberator. He understands the rules of survival and how to bend them just enough to get what he wants. He’s surrounded by accomplices and antagonists, men willing to play along with the Nazi plan and those already defeated by their torturous treatment. In essence, Ruzowitzky needs the battle of wills between Sorowitsch and Burger, letting each one have a pro/con position before turning the evidence against them. Logic argues for our hero’s stance. He does what he’s told in hopes it will save his life. His chief antagonist is more interested in the soul. He can’t see aiding and abetting a bunch of demons, no matter the protection it provides.


In the middle are the rest of the counterfeiting crew, and one of the film’s few weaknesses is its treatment of these people. They come across as clichés, the supplicant and the surly, each one trying their best to find a way to deal with the death around them. Rozowitzky wisely keeps them off to the side, decided to focus on Sorowitsch, Burger, and Herzog instead. The camp commandant is an interesting character, unlike any we’ve seen in recent Holocaust recreations. He’s compassionate without being kind, ruthless without taking out his agenda on the prisoners. He demands results and doesn’t mind using intimidation and anger as a way of getting them. But there is also a surreal side to his personality, something that intimates a kind of caring for those he’s exploiting.


A good way of seeing this dichotomy arrives when Sorowitsch is invited to the Commandant’s house for an important meeting. In a short, savvy montage, the director offers the officer’s shrewish wife, a perfect Aryan fright with a smiling face that barely covers her genocidal disgust. Though it flashes by in a few seconds, it says a great deal about why Herzog is not really a villain. He’s bad—a last act event will definitely underline this—but he’s also the picture perfect illustration of the mind “merely taking orders”. Just to be safe, Rozowitzky gives us a couple of jackbooted Sturmbannführers so as not to lose sight of the real issues involved—that is, the extermination of an entire people.


Indeed, what’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era—the deplorable conditions, the inhuman suffering, the random violence—are reduced to a filmic footnote. In its place is another kind of abomination, one that rests solely on morality and how people will subvert their will and principles for the sake of saving their skin. It’s not just that Sorowitsch and his crew are willing to help the Nazi’s undermine the Allies—it’s that they actually succeed. In one of the few cases where a German plan managed to achieve its evil ends, England was flooded with millions in bogus currency.


Still, it’s the subtler moments that resonate the fullest: Sorowitsch’s tireless struggles to defeat the dollar; the arrival of a ping pong table; the realization that their dressier clothes have comes from other camp victims; the fate of the ‘new shoe’ gang. It all adds up to a powerful, if rather predicable vision. We know where most of this story is going (after all, it’s being told in flashback). But the journey toward such a revelation is rife with engaging ideas and unforgettable performances. The Counterfeiters may represent a heretofore unknown aspect of Hitler’s reign of terror, but it remains a story well worth telling.



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Wednesday, Apr 9, 2008


At first, the headlines were so bizarre as to be hilarious. The German government, or more specifically, the department in charge of the nation’s motion picture production approvals and locations, was refusing to let Tom Cruise make his new movie, Valkyrie, in their country. It had nothing to do with the storyline—a failed WWII plot among Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though still a slightly tenuous subject, the German people have become less sensitive on the subject.


No, the stated rationale was that Cruise, as a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, was a prominent member of a ‘dangerous cult’. The country would have no part in his presence. The firestorm surrounding the decision caused the standard back peddling, and within days, Valkyrie was welcomed with open arms. Oddly enough, if the nation wanted a more legitimate reason for banning the movie, they need look no further than the director in charge.


And apparently, such a sentiment has born the bitterest of motion picture fruit. While it was originally set for a Summer 2008 release, Valkyrie was pushed back to Fall in what many saw as a bid for awards season cred. Now, word has come down that the almost completed picture will wait until Spring of 2009 to debut…you know, those notorious cinematic dog days of January through April (13 February to be exact). Like being given the death sentence, such play date exile signals one obvious sentiment - the movie is a bust. But when you consider the name behind the lens, that’s really not too surprising.


That’s because Bryan Singer is a hack. In a flummoxing fanboy realm where every movie he’s helmed has been deemed an instant classic, he’s barely better than a dozen far more despised directors. What, for example, makes Singer better than Mark Steven Johnson? Both have overseen half-baked comic book movies, and yet everything Mr. Ghost Rider and Daredevil does is condemned. The same lame characterization and average action sequences also appear regularly in Singer’s sloppy oeuvre.


For that matter, why does our X-Man get labeled a true devotee of the funny book artform when Sam Raimi holds a similar Spidey stature? Could it be that Singer fails to own an Evil Dead like cult constantly circling its unwelcome wagons around its maker’s many moves? Indeed, you’d think Raimi would rate higher than this wannabe auteur, and yet so many give big Bry a pass that you’d swear they were on his personal payroll.


Looking back over the six full length features he’s helmed—and discounting the independent effort Public Access for now—it is clear that Singer lucked into a situation that, once it occurred, he found almost impossible to repeat. Said circumstance was the happenstance of buddying up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. A high school friend, the two budding filmmakers collaborated on a pair of projects, one of which would go on to skyrocket the duo to instant Tinsel Town fame.


Its name was The Usual Suspects, and thanks to a critical community desperate for something different in the standard crime/caper genre, the talky, showboating cinematic stunt became a sleeper hit. It also gained the pair unexpected Hollywood clout, thanks to many appearances on year-end lists and a pair of Oscars (neither for Singer).


Yet the next step for both seemed highly unusual. McQuarrie, who actually owned one of those two Academy Awards, worked on a failed television pilot (something called The Underworld) while Singer took over the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s beloved Different Seasons stories, Apt Pupil. In fact, he had long wanted to tackle the project, and sent the famed horror author a copy of Suspects as kind of an audition reel.


Bringing in another childhood buddy—Brandon Boyce—to write the script, Singer made sure to walk as carefully to the edge of the story’s controversial narrative (a young boy discovers a nasty Nazi war criminal in his neighborhood, and picks up his violent mantel) without ruining his mainstream mandate. Unfortunately, a specific artistic choice got the entire production in hot water (Singer filmed a non-sexual shower sequence featuring several unclothed male minors), and in the end, the movie was only mildly successful.


All the while, another friend named Tom DeSanto was planting the seeds for the filmmaker’s first mega-success. A lifelong comic book geek, the production executive desperately wanted Singer to take on the big screen adaptation of the fabled Marvel characters, the X-Men. With its obvious undercurrents of racism and intolerance, it was a project that intrigued the director. Numerous scripts were floating around, many of which were quite faithful to the characters origins and attitudes.


Singer, however, wanted to somehow bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds, and he imposed changes on the property to ‘modernize’ its approach. Devotees of the characters were instantly up in arms (Issue #1—the new black ‘Batman’ like suits) and many feared Singer couldn’t appreciate the importance of this long delayed adaptation.


It was clear that, in the end, he really didn’t. X-Men stands as the sloppiest of big screen comic book movies, a leap in artistic logic that believes in manipulating material to fit both the demographic and business model the film is forged within. Thanks to advances in special effects, the various mutant powers owned by the characters are convincingly realized, but Singer fails to find actual personalities within each supposed hero and/or villain.


In fact, he seems to think that backstory (Magneto as Holocaust survivor) and the stench of abject racism (the narrative revolves around a politician who wants to expose the mutant population as a possible threat to society) will fill in the obvious blanks. Suffering from average action scenes, an excess of explanatory exposition, and way too many players to properly manage, the movie remains an ineffectual mess. While there are those who find it almost flawless (especially compared to the plethora of similarly styled movies that it spawned), it’s really nothing more than a magnified misfire.


Still, money talks in the BS world of moviemaking, and with nearly $300 million at the box office, X-Men was viewed as an unqualified success. Singer was heralded as the new voice of comic book cinema (soon to be overtaken by others more deserving, including Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro) and he tried to parlay that professional delineation into his next few creative choices. But Hollywood loves to lock artists into previous payoffs, making sure that their triumphs are owned outright and reliably repeatable.


Contractually obligated to make X-Men 2, Singer had to drop out of a couple of high profile projects in order to accommodate the studio’s sequel needs. Wanting to take a more ‘human approach’—i.e., focusing on the reactions of society against the unusual and the different—the director drew up a new motion picture battle plan. Of course, he ran directly into the suits desire for more of the same, and it wasn’t long before X2 (as the newest installment was called) arrived, easily following the dollar-based directive.


While a step up artistically, especially in the epic scope and size of the storyline (an almost unlimited budget will do that for you), X2 shows that Singer still has no idea how to combine heroics with emotion. The main characters remain icons, unable to break out of the special skills that more or less define who they are, and without Ian McKellan as prime villain Magneto and Patrick Stewart as good guy Dr. Charles Xavier, the central conflict of the film would have no performance power or potency.


Actresses Halle Berry and Famke Janssen lobbied hard for more significant screen time, and the balance between male and female mutants frequently feels shifted based on star quality, not storyline needs. With the action only slightly improved from the first film, and an inconclusive finale that simply sets up the next installment in the series, X2 was a preachy, arrogant attention whore. Naturally, the viewing public ate it up, twisting the turnstiles to the tune of nearly $400 million.


It’s at this point where Singer starts throwing his movie franchise muscle around. In 2004, his TV medical drama House, M.D. , found a home at Fox. Later that year, negotiations began for X-Men 3. But Warner Brothers, desperate to get back into the superhero game, were looking for someone to helm their Superman revamp. A long dormant disaster, everyone from Kevin Smith to Tim Burton had taken a swipe at reviving the Man of Steel, and with moneymen behind the mutants balking at Singer’s latest demands, Kal-El’s keepers saw a chance to get one of the two main names in the genre (Raimi, the auteur behind the ridiculously popular Spider-man series being the other). Singer jumped at the chance to reimagine Kyrpton’s last son, and Fox responded by handing over the reigns of X-Men: The Last Stand, to the Rush Hour reject, Brett Ratner.


Though slightly hurt, Singer couldn’t have cared less. He had Clark Kent’s alter ego to deal with, and the problems were paramount. The project had little believability or bearing and the graphic novel basis for much of the jumpstart was forged out of publicity ploys (the Death of Superman) and Dark Knight style stunts. Looking over the character’s cinematic arc, Singer proposed something radical.


He would forget everything and anything that came after Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s ‘70s interpretation of the material, and make a movie that picked up where Superman 2 left off. While fans were flummoxed, Warners was sold. The new direction was approved and casting commenced. Chalk one up for Singer’s sense of what would sell. Unfortunately, it would be the last cognizant decision he would make as director.


His first significant stumble came with his choice of actors. No, Brandon Routh would turn out to be a wonderful choice (he’s a great Man of Steel), and old pal Kevin Spacey (who won one of his two Oscars under Singer’s guidance in The Usual Suspects) was an obvious - and rather easy - Lex Luthor. But Kate Bosworth is a hideous Lois Lane, incapable of bringing anything remotely realistic to her portrayal of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She’s a lousy damsel in distress and an even worse example of self-sufficiency. In this post-modern, post-feminist world, she crumbles the minute danger rears its routine head. She is supposed to illustrate the broken dream of Superman’s disappearance, but she’s really nothing more than an un-pretty pie face playing with the big boys.


Then there is the overall art design. Somewhere along the line, Singer fell in love with the notion of tweaking the image as far over into the blue spectrum of color as possible. Noticeable even to the untrained eye, the azure tint to everything from cars to clothes is oddly unsettling. Perhaps he thought it would give the entire production a more comic panel feel. Instead, it frequently feels like someone has purposefully fiddled with your retina’s rods and cones.


As for the action, the opening space shuttle crash is wonderfully executed, and when the Daily Planet’s trademark globe is dislodged from the top of the skyscraper, Superman’s rescue of said object is powerful in its impact. But the rest of the movie is undermined by a real lack of focus—specifically, in what Lex Luthor plans on doing with his newfound appreciation for crystals and kryptonite.


From a sloppy haired super offspring (who looks about as threatening as a Little Rascal’s waif) to a finale that’s all spectacle and no substance, Superman Returns was not the pinnacle of Singer’s production powers. Indeed, it once again highlighted all of his inherent flaws. Unlike Raimi, who perfectly balanced emotion with excess in Spider-man 2, or Nolan, who found a flawless combination of psychological and physical conflict in Batman Begins, Singer’s characters are all flash.


They appear to be reaching for depth, but unless they are capable of seeing beneath the surface (like Routh did for his turn as Superman), they end up coming across as flat and totally dimensionless. Even the heroes he chose to highlight in the X-Men series—Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm—are more outer shells than insular individuals, defined almost exclusively by their special skills. The intriguing thing about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne is that, at least in their current cinematic incarnation, they are people first, pillars of super heroism second.


This is why Singer sucks. He’s all about the surface, his constant concerns about subtext all smoke and unskilled mirrors. Outside the genre, he’s had limited direct success (Suspects was McQuarrie and Spacey’s baby, the vast majority of House is helmed by others) and so few people have seen his Sundance winner Public Access that it really doesn’t count. Any other filmmaker would be called a wounded one trick pony, especially since the X-Men have now been largely overshadowed by other, better comic book movies.


This doesn’t mean that we should write off Bryan Singer for the near future. It merely indicates that, as some kind of savior, as a go to guy for every epic idea that comes down the pipeline, he should have to wait in line like dozens of derivative others. He’s not the greatest director of kinetic eye candy, and his films can’t compare to the efforts of those who’ve followed.


Valkyrie could have changed all that, but now it looks like it won’t get a chance (not that it deserves one, obviously). Of course, if it does manage to resonate with audiences, it won’t be a solo Singer success. He will once again have a lot of significant help. McQuarrie is back penning the script, and Cruise still holds some clout, even if his pre-War of the Worlds/Mission Impossible III antics cost him some demographic percentage points. But having the German government diss you before a single frame a film is shot (granted, it now seems like a massive miscommunication) and now having a studio shuttle you off the box office main stage is not the most promising of possible omens.


And yet, when Bryan Singer is involved in a project, it seems that something has to be slightly askew. It helps explain his ineffectualness come opening day, providing a built in excuse where something more personal is definitely the issue. How this translates into his status as an A-list director is still astounding. He’s no different than a dozen mediocre moviemakers (Tim Story, are you listening?) who get lucky tapping into an uninformed audience zeitgeist. He not special—he’s substandard. This makes his continued ascension into the ranks of motion picture powerhouses as puzzling as ever.


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Tuesday, Apr 8, 2008


Nothing makes you feel like less of a professional than being purposefully “uninvited” from a potential press screening. Baby Mama, the new Tina Fey comedy coming out later this month, will have a 7:30pm showing today (Wednesday 8 April) and only “legitimate” members of the Fourth Estate are being allowed to attend. Now, such a delineation is perhaps a complete fabrication of my competitive brain. My studio rep, who typically hounds me on all other preview opportunities, politely failed to mention this event to me. When asked, she listed potential PUBLIC screening dates sometime closer to the film’s release.


Yet I know the score. I’m in the know. I have a friend who works for a print publication, and he told me that the studio mandates were crystal and clear - no online critics, period. Why Fey’s latest would require such an extreme limiting of pre-release exposure will have to wait until sometime later in the month. But the fact that studios still see the journalistic community as divided into print and pariah is very disheartening, especially when you view the statistics.


A writer who creates content for a standard newspaper may see a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. His or her content is usually guided by an editorial staff determining the most newsworthy item or the “hot” commodity. Translate that into reality, and you’ll find that a typical daily publication fails to offer continuous coverage of film. They will reserve reviews to Friday, sometimes even placing them in a special circular or section. Anyone failing to subscribe, or who doesn’t buy that day’s paper, misses the chance to catch up on the latest releases. Sometimes, blurbs and grades are give in Weekend editions, but for the most part, print criticism is a once a week, 24 hour and over experience. 


Online, on the other hand, is forever. For the non-professional, a preview screening is an invitation to a quick turnaround and a release date defying scoop. For those outside the blogsphere however, it’s a chance to have their voice heard by more than just a handful of the local population. When PopMatters reviews a film, there is the potential for anyone to see it at any time. Anyone. In the entire world. As long as they have access to the Internet. That means that, if this site gathers two MILLION hits a month, with an equally impressive number of unique views, that’s a reach far beyond any hometown tabloid. When a look at Leatherheads or a subverting of Shine a Light appears on the web, its possible audience is almost incalculable.


As with any Johnny Come Lately - and Technically - to the party, it’s easy to see why print takes it personally. Many major newspapers are dropping their full time critics, buying out contracts, offering early retirement, and turning over their fading Friday fortunes to syndicated news services and the occasional freelance deal. Many have even resorted to using actual audience members, plied with free tickets and a chance to have their opinion published, as a means of updating their approach. Of course, none of this addresses the backlash against the online community, which has been its own worst enemy at times. But is does question the logic of limiting exposure to an already marginalized medium. Print is apparently dying…or destined to be reborn in another manner. Online is the future now.


It goes without saying that the web has wasted as many opportunities as it has belittled or just plain blown. With an unlimited access to information, a community that’s passionate about its viewpoint, the ability to achieve rapid (if also restrictive) consensus, and an outright capacity to leave the traditional media in the dust, it should be the bell weather for a new wave of criticism. Unfortunately, the fanboy tends to take over, allowing unrealistic expectations and a blinkered devotion to one’s own insights to win out. Now, some might say the same about Pauline Kael, or Roger Ebert. After all, film reviewing is founded in personal judgment more than any other factor. But the online critic often fails to take into consideration two other important elements - context and perspective.


It’s all part of the home theater explosion, the notion that all film is available to all people, and therefore, capable of being comprehended and compartmentalized by every and anyone. Naturally, that’s not true. In fact, the founding of such a format has not brought out the best in the medium. Indeed, film has become more mainstreamed and marginalized since VCRs opened Grandma’s gates of perception. Granted, more availability has given otherwise forgotten gems a second chance, and there is a dedicated few who take the job of analyzing film seriously. But for the most part, the web is best known for championing ‘80s items like The Monster Squad over in-depth overviews of Godard.


In some ways, the Internet is like the pop art explosion of the early ‘60s. It consistently crumbles the ivory tower and takes on age old truisms by staking out claims to competitive beliefs. It’s a fount of fabulous variety. It’s also a din that delivers so little of its potential and promise that it’s like listening to your local weatherman as he predicts rain while it remains sunny and warm outside. Organizations such as the Online Film Critics Society try to champion those who work within this ethereal environ, but there’s also a mercenary element of “I, Me, Mine” to the structure. Most critics do their job for the love of it. But there is a core who couldn’t fathom filling column space without a few free perks - and that includes a screening.


It’s worse in the realm of DVD. No one takes on the latest digital release over the joy of words. Instead, it’s the lure of product, the possibility of getting that special feature laden box set or special edition that drives many to pursue a gig as an online reviewer. It’s the kind of professional whoring that would have Harlan Ellison headed for another quadruple bypass. Sites who specialize in catering to the studios survive on this kind of sell out snuggling. It’s the nature of the beast - at least, for now. One day, once website’s wise up and realize the publicity power they really carry, the PR people will be supplicating themselves in an attempt to cater to their needs. For now, no one wants to bite the hand that keeps them from a weekly trip to Best Buy.


Clearly, it’s the combination of personal prostitution and off the cuff contemplation that demeans the reputation of the online critic. But there is another, less obvious element at play. Call it wanton wishful thinking, or out of sight, out of danger, but many in the print community would like to believe that writers working on the web will one day be put back in their electronic cells and simply forgotten. They stand under the outdated idea that the news hungry will always go to them for their daily dose of information. It doesn’t matter that the current post-post-modern mind wants their data updated hourly. Nor do they consider the rapidly changing demographic for their product. As the so-called Baby Boomers age, a new science savvy generation will replace them, a group that would rather have their film facts broadcast over their IPhone. How does a piece of fish wrap serve their short attention span needs?


One day, it will all work out. The decision makers will stop treating the Internet as a sore spot, and instead, will embrace its ability to be a harbinger of choice and opposing options. It will stop trying to turn reviewing into an old boy’s club, complete with arcane membership and rituals, and instead open the doors to all comers. Mark Cuban learned this the hard way when he banned bloggers from the Dallas Mavericks locker room, claiming that it was difficult to draw a line between the actual media and the online community. Huh? Is such a distinction even possible, especially when the ultimate goal seems to be the distribution of ideas? We use the ‘Net for so many things - medical diagnosis, legal advice, bar bet answers - that to say it can’t be a source of a new cinematic renaissance is ridiculous. The weaker elements will eventually fall by the wayside, but to discount everyone outside of a certain status quo will only make the transition that much harder.


Of course, none of this addresses my inability to see Baby Mama - at least, not today. I will have to wait with the rest of the rabble, sitting in the press area and absorbing the dirty looks from those longing for my spot. It won’t affect my take on the film, especially with my aesthetic expectations already set so low. But the studios better wise up to one thing - many in the online community aren’t as bonafide as I am. They want to make enemies, and will do so in spite of such boycotts and embargos. And when the war is over, there will only be one winner - and it won’t be the last remaining print personnel. Progress can’t be stopped. The sooner the major movie companies learn that, the better off it will be for the entire critical community. Until then, let the selective processing (and pandering) continue.


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008


It is 1978, over two years since a conflict between China and Russia resulted in the release of bio-chemical weapons that have destroyed almost the entire population of the planet. We meet the apparent sole survivor, a scientist named Robert Neville who injected himself with a vaccine before the destruction came. He is now immune and stuck spending his days in the never-ending chores of survival. When it’s light, he forages for food and seeks signs of other life. He also hunts for the headquarters of The Family, a dark loving group of disease-altered mutants who want to kill Neville. Their leader, the crazy, charismatic Matthias, sees Neville as a personification of the technological evil that led the world to destroy itself. He wants to be the one who wipes out this “human plague” once and for all. Their battles of weapons and wills consume their lives.


That is, until Neville runs into Lisa and Dutch, two additional survivors who are caring for a group of kids. Unlike Neville, they are all infected with the germ. But they have not changed as quickly as The Family, meaning there is still time for Neville to find a cure. As he battles to find a way to keep Lisa’s brother Ritchie from “turning,” the mutants up their campaign against their mortal enemy. But not everyone can survive the terrors, the torment, and the treachery of being the last one left on Earth. Someone will be The Omega Man.


Since it was first published in 1954, Richard Matheson’s grim story of the last man on earth and his battle to survive has become a prized cinematic commodity. Back in 2002, Ridley Scott was developing I Am Legend to star a pumped up Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sets were designed and effects prepared. Fans couldn’t wait to see the Blade Runner visionary’s take on the material. Eventually, the plans for that version of the novel were scuttled, and Will Smith pegged Constantine director Francis Lawrence to jerryrig his own schizophrenic adaptation of the tome. Luckily, there are still two other movies out there, both with their own set of motion picture setbacks. Each one tried to capture Matheson’s sense of isolation and menace, and for the most part, each one more or less succeeded.


Vincent Price starred in the Italian-made The Last Man on Earth, a decent little B-movie from 1964 that sought to stick to as many of the epic notions that the novel envisioned without bankrupting the budget. And then there was 1971’s The Omega Man, the Charlton Heston sci-fi vehicle that marked the A-list superstar’s second foray into the realm of future shock (with 1968’s Planet of the Apes behind him and 1973’s Soylent Green looming ahead). Given a name symbolizing its place in the Greek alphabet (Omega is the 24th and last letter) and modifying Matheson’s story of vampires out for blood to a more socially consciousness, anti-war, and proliferation statement, this effective, if occasionally eccentric, take on the material has long been a cult favorite. Some buy the changes in the story and find the new, idealistic enemies threatening indeed. Others simply shake their head and wonder when someone will give the gifted Matheson his due.


The Omega Man does so many things right that when the two things it gets completely wrong rear their ugly, ill-considered heads it’s almost enough to destroy the entire film. Director Boris Sagal, a veteran of television, does one of the better jobs of conveying a post-Armageddon environment for his characters to function in. It is rare when his abandoned streets and empty shops feel like back lots or sound stages. There is an attention to detail (the beginning of vegetation overgrowth, masses of intertwined cobwebs) that really sells the isolation and desertion. Never once is the spell broken. And then he finds an actor who seems to purposefully carry the weight and fate of the world on his broad, beefy shoulders.


Heston is a very physical actor, a presence that’s not model attractive or body builder perfect, but does resonate a strong, heroic determination. Frankly, if the risk had been taken to simply let Chuck be the last ACTUAL person on the planet, he could pull it off brilliantly. Even reduced to stagy sequences of externalized internal monologues, he sells the silly characteristic very well. Heston is often accused of over the top scenery chewing, and anyone who remembers the ending of Green or the “damn dirty ape” histrionics of Planet will tend to agree.


But in The Omega Man, we see a much more subtle, subdued protagonist, a man battling the outer threat of the gang of mutants known as “The Family” as well as the personal demons of loneliness and dogged preparedness. It requires him to turn the bravura down several notches and still remain powerful and potent. And Heston rises to the occasion flawlessly.


It’s just too bad, then, that the flaws in the film are so near fatal. Some people argue that, while not novel specific, the fiendish force of The Family makes the perfect frightening foil for Heston’s Robert Neville. But aside from the times when they mock him, calling his name out in childlike singsong from the shadows, the overall effect of these diseased drones is campy, not creepy. It’s like being trapped in a cult full of giggly albino Earth-First luddites.


As their leader, Anthony Zerbe gives both Charles Manson (who seems to have been an obvious model) and the Rev. Jim Jones a run for their rhetoric with his “back to the basics” balderdash. His and his clan’s motivation (no more science or technology, including the wheel!) seems stupid, self-righteous, and downright suicidal, and their stark lack of skin pigmentation will probably only scare those people who find clowns, or Edgar Winter, unnerving. If they didn’t try to stab or set fire to Heston, the only thing he would have to fear from them is being pontificated to death.


The other weak link is Ritchie, the young black boy saved from “the plague” by Neville’s scientific discoveries (and, to some extent, his sister Lisa). Their presence in Chuck’s life seems superfluous to all that is going on, as if to add a humanizing and womanizing angle to Neville’s non-stop battle for survival. Indeed, time and The Family’s terrorizing of Heston seems to stop so he can treat the child and do a little repopulating with Lisa. The fact that they are associated with Dutch, a hippie ex-medical student biker who harbors, “Christ-like,” a group of orphaned children, shows the sanctimonious tone that undermines the potential thrill and chills to be had. When it’s lean and mean, The Omega Man is an effective and evocative thriller. When it’s heavy handed and preachy, it’s stifling.


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