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

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Friday, Jul 27, 2007


With August right around the corner, summer seems to be winding down the way it began – not with a solid cinematic scream, but a minor motion picture whimper. The premium pay cable channels have done little to alleviate the dull, depressing malaise, playing a hopelessly outdated hit and miss game of blockbuster vs. disaster week in and week out. Sure, those disconnected from the rest of the post-modern multimedia machine will be happy just to have said lackluster first run features filling up their coaxial line. But with so many outlets for potential entertainment in the amusement arena, continuing to champion garbage does little to elevate one’s aesthetic position. And it’s a shame. Once pay TV was seen as the hope for home theater enthusiasts. Now it’s a bastion of bad byproduct mixed with the occasional filmic find. The final weekend in July is a perfect example of this ideal. The choices for the 28th do a good job of mirroring the overall options – for good, and definitely for bad:


Premiere Pick
Jet Li’s Fearless


Marketed as action star Jet Li’s last “martial arts” movie, the promoters of this firebrand period piece were actually fibbing, if only a bit. Li has no intention of giving up the well choreographed fighting moves that made him an international superstar. No, this fascinating look at Chinese Master Huo Yuanjia, the founder and spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation, will be the last ‘wushu’ effort the actor attempts. A subgenre of the standard kung fu category, this epic stands as a deeply personal and very powerful work by a man devoted to the subject’s teachings and philosophical perspective. Many have praised this film for its attention to detail, as well as its inclusion of as many different styles of human combat as possible. Thanks to the enigmatic efforts of Ronny Yu behind the camera, Li exemplifies the charisma and the athletic prowess that’s made him a legend. A must-see movie for fans of old school stunt work and pure visual opulence.  (27 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Inside Man


Spike Lee proves he can make mainstream movies just like the rest of Hollywood, resulting in a career rebirth – at least from a commercial standpoint. Featuring excellent performances from Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen, this is big budget, A-list thriller entertainment at its most fresh and ferocious. Along with his work on the amazing Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, 2006 stands as a banner year for the enigmatic director. (27 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Covenant


Where do one time famous filmmakers go when their careers fade into obsolesce and/or oblivion? Apparently, the answer is the hack teen horror genre. This is where you’ll find Renny Harlin, the man behind Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s hard to sink much lower than a movie about male witches, but this occult OC finds the onetime action king treading tenuous waters at best. (27 July, Starz, 9PM EST)


Mad Hot Ballroom


Little kids learning a mature mannerism – a guaranteed documentary crowdpleaser. In this case, we have a program that teaches underprivileged urchins in the toughest sections of New York City the social and disciplinary benefits of professional dancing. Of course, it all ends up centering on a competition to see who’s best, but the journey is more enjoyable – and enlightening - than the final showdown. (27 July, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Cry-Baby


After hitting critical – and commercial – paydirt with his ode to Baltimore circa the early ‘60s (the drop dead brilliant Hairspray), bad taste guru John Waters went back another decade to deliver this, a reimagined juvenile delinquency musical. With rising superstar Johnny Depp in tow, and a clever cast including Iggy Pop, Susan Tyrell, Rikki Lake, Patty Hearst, and notorious porn goddess Traci Lords, the devious director juxtaposed the bohemia brazenness of greaser chic with the uptight terrors of suburban conformity. Stylistic, electrifying, and filled with fabulous music, the film proved that Waters could work within the confines of Hollywood wholesomeness and still deliver an acerbic, witty satire. Now, like its pre-Peace generation counterpart, Broadway is adapting this stellar spoof for the stage. While it can never match the original, more money – and recognition – headed Waters way is an aesthetic plus, anyway you look at it. (31 July, Sundance Channel, 12:00AM EST)

Additional Choices
The Nomi Song


He was the most unusual figure floating around the edges of the New York post punk scene. Yet with his alien appearance and operatic vocals, Klaus Nomi was less a novelty and more an endearing eccentric. Part personal escape, part rock and roll performance art, his undeniable uniqueness meshed with a tragic personal trajectory makes for a monumental cinematic experience. (30 July, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

The Agronomist


Jonathan Demme’s career has always been filled with contradictions. For every serious Hollywood movie he makes – Beloved, Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs – he steps outside the system to direct deeply personal, highly topical documentaries. In the case of this intriguing tale, the filmmaker explains the life and tragic times of Haitian radio personality and human rights activist Jean Dominique. Few knew of this man in his lifetime. After seeing this devastating movie, even less will forget him.  (31 July, IFC, 7:25PM EST)

Quiet Cool


It’s amazing how time tempers even the most caustic opinions. Back in its day, this b-movie action film was considered an off title treat at best, a lame excuse for Tinsel Town thrills at worst. Fast forward twenty years, and it’s now a lost example of independent excellence. James Remar plays a cop who gets in too deep after agreeing to help an old flame. Not the greatest movie ever made, it’s still a fine example of genre experimentation.  (01 August, IFC, 7:45PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dr. Phibes Rises Again


After the shocking success of the 1971 original, star Vincent Price was asked to reprise the title role, a heavily scarred surgeon who, in the first film, sought revenge on the doctors he felt contributed to his wife’s death. Now, with some ancient Egyptian scrolls in tow (and a bigger budget to work with) the sequel ups the camp factor and tones down the supposed terror. The story is basically the same – Phibes is again wronged and wants payback on those who’ve harmed him. But with its wildly imaginative sets and sense of outsized outrageousness, what could have been an ongoing supernatural series ends up exhausting all its ideas at once. Still, one can’t escape the endearing delights of Price in his twilight prime, an actor so filled with good natured gravitas that he could make even the most mediocre material come alive. He proves it here, elevating a routine redux into something quite special.  (29, Drive-In Classics Canada, 10:15PM EST)

Additional Choices
A Bucket of Blood/The Terror


It’s a Roger Corman double feature as Dick Miller plays an artist who discovers the value of “life like” models, while Jack Nicholson gets creeped out at Boris Karloff’s eerie cliff side castle. Both movies are examples of the bottom line oriented producer at his most forward thinking and fun. And when you consider the talent he had both behind and in front of the camera, it’s clear why he’s a legitimate legend even today. (20 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Idolmaker


The ‘50s fascination with the talentless teen idol remains a powerful backdrop for a major motion picture, and yet few have found the creative calling to venture into said Svengali-like territory. In his first major motion picture, Taylor Hackford used the life of rock promoter Bob Marucci as the premise for a gripping tale of stardom unearned, and dreams dashed. It remains one of the best explorations of the era’s exploitation ever captured. (02 August, Indieplex, 6:55PM EST)

Headspace


There’s a clear conundrum awaiting audiences of this unusual horror hybrid. The critical community has been very kind to this tale of a young man whose ever increasing mental capacities begin making his life a literal living hell (complete with demons). Fans who’ve found the film based on said reviews have declared it a useless piece of inappropriately praised junk. Guess audiences at home, intrigued by the premise, will have to decide for themselves. (02 August, The Movie Channel, 1:20AM EST)

 


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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007


You’re gonna hear a lot of talk in the next few days about The Simpsons Movie - and not all of it will focus on the film itself. Some of it will center on Fox’s failed strategy to keep the movie away from critics, and the clandestine, last minute appeals that saw the press finally viewing the finished product the night before it officially opened. Others will question the legitimacy of an effort that flaunts the fact that, as an audience, you are paying for the privilege of seeing something that the boob tube provides for free. Heck, Homer even makes a joke about it. There will be a few who frown on the lax language issue, their favorite family using the mildest of profanities to express some of their concerns. And a couple may complain about the abomination which is animated genitalia.


Well, you can tell all these wannabe experts and misguided moral watchdogs to eat your ever lovin’ shorts. After 18 years on the air and nearly 400 amazing episodes, The Simpsons Movie delivers the entertainment equivalent of a 90 minute greatest hits package. Jam packed with jokes, insider references, unique cameos and characters, and just a smidgen of sentiment and heart, this is the kind of stone cold genius creation old school fans have been longing for and demanding since around Season Four. Indeed, the most striking thing about this luminous bit of social satire is how fully realized and completely linear it is. Most episodes of the series, especially in the last few years, are tangential, vignette oriented, and elliptical. A weird event will trigger another oddball happenstance before the whole things blows back and up in Homer’s fat face. Here, we begin with a basic storyline, and the jokes grow organically and effortlessly from its finely honed foundation.


It all begins with that current crisis du jour – our volatile environment. In typical surreal Simpsons fashion, Homer adopts a pig. When he can’t figure out what to do with his new pet’s “leavings” (to quote wife Marge), he decides to dump an entire silo full of feces in local Lake Springfield. Coincidentally, daughter Lisa has been protesting the continued polluting of this body of water (with the help of her new Irish boy buddy Colin), and the town has placed a moratorium on further befouling, afraid of a horrible natural disaster. Of course, our favorite bald buffoon doesn’t listen to them, and soon, things are at a crisis point. The EPA – under the direction of Chairman Russ Cargill (a hilarious Albert Brooks) and President Schwarzenegger – finally comes up with a plan. It will dome the town, trapping everyone inside forever. Then when things get too bad, they’ll bomb the city. In the meantime, Springfield has driven the Simpsons away, and they begin life anew in Alaska. Yet, even with all the hard feelings, the family can’t resist the urge to return and help save their threatened town.


And just to keep things frisky, there are a couple of clever subplots involving Barts’ growing affection for the Flanders, Grandpa’s religious hissy fit, and Homer’s interaction with the native Inuit peoples of America’s 49th State. Yet instead of distracting us from the main plotline, these asides help us appreciate the level of intelligence and wit the show’s creators carry over into the film. They even add in a very touching moment where Marge speaks from her heart. To any fan of the wonderful voice acting the cast produces on a weekly basis, this heart-rendering reading by Julie Kavner will all but unhinge you. It’s very, very powerful. The rest of the actors are also uniformly excellent, managing to make us care about the outcome of certain situations that, within a cinematic fantasy paradigm aimed directly at the PG-13 demographic, are more or less predetermined from the start. In fact, the script (credited to 15 of the show’s most inspired scribes) does a great job of poking fun at the whole doomsday action adventure genre.


It wouldn’t be The Simpsons without the goofy asides and borderline crude cracks, and leave it to the brains behind the scenes to keep things as imbecilic as possible. Homer doesn’t suddenly grow smarter, or stumble onto the truth after several sincere conversations. Instead, he remains regressive and childlike, amiably screwing things up with a sense of wide-eyed wonder that’s a sidesplitting joy to behold. Similarly, both Bart and Lisa are toned down here, each one getting a solid sequence of their own before giving in to the needs of the narrative. There will be a decided outcry from fringe favoring fans about the lack of extended scenes of Apu, Krusty, Principal Skinner, Mrs. Crabapple, and many others. Indeed, aside from Kent Brockman and the brazen bumpkin Cletus, the rest of Springfield’s citizenry are reduced to perfectly honed cameos – introduced and exploited as needed and necessary. The family members are the real focus.


Are there things here that don’t work? Not really. Hans Zimmer’s score barely stands out above the comedic din, his mundane music cues doing very little until the final confrontation with fate. Similarly, the animation takes a bit of getting used to at first. Fans familiar with Futurama will instantly appreciate the combination of 3D CGI and standard pen an ink cartooning. But it’s still odd to see the Simpsons home swallowed up, Poltergeist style, or a massive deep focus mob containing possibly every character ever conceived for the show. And of course, the continuity police will be up in arms over how Marge and Homer’s marriage has, once again, been reimagined into a familiar formal setting (they eloped, as all true Simpsons savants remember). Yet none of this really matters. In fact, any quibbles over content or approach are incredibly minor when compared to how effortlessly this movie delivers its many, many delights.


On par with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in the way in which a beloved TV series can be broadened and deepened by the cinematic experience, The Simpsons Movie is a major triumph – and that’s saying a lot considering its stance as a creative enterprise overflowing with consistent genius. The direction (by David Silverman) has a decided artistic bent, several shots announcing their compositional and framing freshness with major impact (this happens frequently during the last act). The Inuit dream sequence is especially impressive, riffing on symbolic ideas fans will remember from past character interactions with the cosmic. Perhaps the best thing this fine film does however is treat its audience with intelligence and respect. It doesn’t try to cheapen our yellow-tinged icons by making them into a sloppy, saccharine example of kid vid corniness. All The Simpsons Movie emotion is earned honestly, and all its humor is unforced and very, very funny.


So let them all talk. It may not be a return to the glory days of phenomenon formation, when the series finally found the courage to take the show outside the boundaries of your typical animated TV experience, but The Simpsons Movie argues that there’s plenty of life left in this clever collection of characters. Whether Fox decides to keep renewing the series, or simply allowing film to fill in the future blanks, one thing is certain – The Simpsons remain one of the classic comic creations ever. Their big screen debut may have taken over a decade to arrive, but it was well worth the wait. Here’s hoping one family member’s statement over the closing credits comes to fruition - the sooner, the better.


(PS: Make sure you stay until the very end – the writers have some extra rib-ticklers as a reward for those who don’t just jump up and leave.)


 



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Wednesday, Jul 25, 2007


When one thinks of martial arts, and specifically movies centering around the ancient skill set, the graceful and powerful moves of the actors remain primary in one’s mind. Indeed, as the years have only increased the profile and proficiency of these films, the intricacy of the movement and the visual opulence achieved through same have elevated the genre to a Zen-like zenith. But fans often forget that there’s more to cool kung fu fighting than roundhouse kicks and the touch of death. Indeed, weaponry is as important to a combatant as his or her own discipline. Yet we rarely get to see our champions defined solely by such a talent. Unless you look at period pieces where feudal times demand more swordplay than side sandal action, it stays all swipes and blocks. Thanks to two new DVDs from Magnolia Home Entertainment, however, we can witness a more diverse version of Asian action daring do. In Dynamite Warrior, a well meaning vigilante uses rockets, gunpowder and other forms of explosives to destroy a local despot. In Yo Yo Girl Cop, a favorite Japanese heroine is reinvented, her trusty armored child’s toy ready to wreak some excellent post-modern havoc.



When he was a young monk, Jone Bang Fai saw his family killed by a water buffalo rustler named Sing. Ever since that fateful night, he’s sworn to seek out the criminal and kill him. Fast forward a few years and local Lord Waeng has frittered away his money on a collection of steam-driven tractors. He wants peasants to abandon their beasts of burden and buy his pricey technological marvel. When they refuse, he hires a ruthless band of thieves lead by a crazed cannibal giant to force the issue. A grown Jone, on the other hand, has been doing his own bit of ‘stealing’. He takes herds of missing livestock and returns them to the poor villagers. When Waeng discovers this, he wants the rural Robin Hood stopped. When he learns that Sing plans on reporting his deal with the criminals to government authorities, he also wants the mythic mobster destroyed. When all discover that Sing is blessed with magical powers, it seems like a lost cause. But then Waeng comes up with a plan. He will discover Sing’s weakness (thanks to an old ‘demonic’ friend) and send Jone after him. If the secret won’t stopped him, maybe the hero’s many rockets and bombs will. Seems Jone has mastered the art of gunpowder, and it will take all his skills as a Dynamite Warrior to stop Sing, Waeng, and the evil wizard once and for all.


From its stellar opening sequence to its incredibly accomplished finale, Dynamite Warrior (the Westernized name for Kon fai bin or “Flying Man of Fire”) is a brilliant Thai take on the standard martial arts movie. Featuring a noble hero, a hissable villain, a populace put down and oppressed, and a modicum of magic (both white and black), the sensational saga of vengeance and honor sweeps you up in its epic ideals and never once lets you down. Thanks in part to the visual opulence offered by director Chalerm Wongpim and the imaginative staging of fight choreographer Somjai Junmoontree, what could be a collection of cardboard characters in search of some wire fu histrionics is at times goofy, grandiose and almost giddy in its sense of spectacle. Fans of full fisted, no nonsense kung fu fighting, the kind that’s almost balletic in style and explosive in its force, will probably find this Siamese bump and thump to be a little too tame for their liking. Indeed, most of the time, star Dan Chupong (from Born to Fight fame) is shown in slow motion, knees and elbows attacking an opponent’s shoulders and torso. Indeed, such sequences lack the movie musical feel most devotees seem to enjoy. But buried inside all the arch athletic prowess is a real story of ancient curses, pissed off demons, fey overlords, and one humongous (and hungry) paid assassin.

Wongpim obviously owes a debt to Kung Fu Hustle’s Stephen Chow, especially for how he mixes the cartoonish and the mystical into this narrative. When Jone Bang Fai is chased by two of Nai Hoi Sing’s henchman, one acting as a monkey, the other acting as a tiger, the direction accentuates their otherworldly abilities in brilliant fashion. Similarly, when Sing and his nemesis, the evil Black Wizard, begin their supernatural showdown, the pantomime punches and pratfalls that shouldn’t work actually do. Granted, there is some substandard CGI here, especially whenever our hero has to employ rockets to win the day, but there are also sequences of real resonance, as when we follow Jone Bang Fai during his explosive’s training. With pitch perfect performances that walk the always fine line between reasonable and ridiculous, and a plot that’s heavy on the alchemy and anarchy, Dynamite Warrior may seem like safe chop sockey lite, but it’s a wholesome and hearty trip nonetheless. It’s safe to say that audiences who wouldn’t normally find themselves perusing the martial arts section for a movie night’s viewing would be delighted to stumble across this excellent example of excess. After all, it isn’t everyday that your cinematic champion rides his own makeshift missile to save the day, or requires the menstrual blood of a virgin to aid in his success. It’s the little tweaks like these that make this movie so much fun.



When one of their secret agents dies in the middle of a crowded crosswalk from a bomb strapped to her body, the Japanese government becomes concerned that another terrorist attack is imminent. They’ve been following a website code named ‘Enola Gay’ (get it?), and have linked it to a local high school. Unfortunately, the case is going nowhere. They need someone to report from the inside. That’s where “K” comes in. Brought back to the East from the streets of New York, she’s blackmailed into assuming the identity of Yo Yo Girl Cop Saki Asamiya, and discovering the truth behind the anarchy inside Seisen Academy. She soon finds that an enigmatic Internet leader named Romeo has the student body preparing for a massive meeting – and one explosive self-destructive protest. And there seems to be a connection to a depressed girl named Tae and a snobby sect dominated by mean bitch Reika Akiyama. Of course, it could all be a smokescreen for something much bigger – and it’s up to our heroine, and her metallic toy – to save the day.


Imagine La Femme Nikita as a delinquent Japanese schoolgirl taken in to do the government’s undercover bidding and you’ve got the basic idea surrounding the immensely popular Sukeban Deka manga series. With a yo-yo as her weapon and a code name of Saki Asamiya, her job is to infiltrate those bastions of Asian bad behavior – the typical high school – and disclose the undesirable/criminal element within. For nearly three decades (with just a sort stint outside the public eye in the late ‘90s), this archetypal avenging character was a popular comic, anime, and film subject. Now, Yo Yo Girl Cop introduces the latest actress incarnation (Aya Matsuura) and hopes to jumpstart the series for a picky, post-millennial crowd. Directed by Battle Royale screenwriter (and sequel director) Kenta Fukasaku, this lively, lurid tale of an academy filled with suicide bombers and the enigmatic computer hacker who may be brainwashing them into an act of mass murder, is a merry mishmash of styles and cinematic references. When our heroine is being interrogated/bribed to partake in the secret project, there is a surreal Saw vibe to the situation and surroundings. Similarly, when Saki prepares to standoff against “Romeo” and his band of hired thugs, it’s like every Hollywood actioner you’ve ever seen given over to the Ginza.

 


Because of the history here, and the full blown mythological subtext the subject matter incorporates, newcomers to the Deka narrative may be lost at first. Unless you know the character, her first meeting with nasty rival Reika Akiyama will appear rather disconnected and strange. Similarly, only those familiar with the television adaptation of the material will understand the significance of Yuki Saito playing the mother. Still, this is not some kind of unfathomable franchise. J-Horror has introduced us to the clique-oriented nastiness of Eastern education, and the continuing fixation with Hong Kong crime films gives the stunt work a sense of balance and place. It’s odd, though, to see two attractive Japanese pop stars turned actresses going at each other with yo-yos, and the toys seem to be such ineffectual weapons (save for an example with retractable knife blades) that you wonder why they were chosen. Of course, symbolism and iconography has a lot to do with the visual decisions made – school girl innocence, represented by the uniform, technology run amuck as shown by the everpresent cellphones/laptops – yet the elements of friendship and loneliness remain universal. And with the terrorist angle bringing the stories right up to date, whatever old fashioned fantasy fodder these films provided seems distant and lost. An excellent example of breathing life into a creatively idle concept, Yo Yo Girl Cop is a certified cult phenomenon just waiting for international fans to find it. When they do, they won’t be disappointed. 


So you see, there is an element beyond fisticuffs when it comes to Asian action. Certainly, the skill and stamina required to forge a believable mano-y-mano match up with nothing more than your own physicality is worth celebrating and mythologizing. But just like the unusual individual who ends up the master of the Flying Guillotine, or the drunken old coot who turns out to be an expert at wielding a samurai sword with exquisite ability, a weapon remains a legitimate – and sometimes, legendary – foundation for fighting. Dynamite Warrior and Yo Yo Girl Cop are perfect illustrations of this kind of inventive kung fu fun. They stick to formulas founded on decades of good vs. evil combat, but tweak the particulars toward ideas outside the standard stuntman on stuntman showdown. As they broaden the horizons of the genre, they continuously harken back to the basics that made the cinematic category great in the first place. Meshing old with the new, classic with the creative, both movies argue for the effectiveness, and the energy, in the martial arts medium. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, films like these disprove that adage. No matter the tradition, these excellent releases make it all seem brand new.


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Tuesday, Jul 24, 2007

After the big screen musical went the way of other motion picture dinosaurs (around the time of Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz), critics started complaining that the only viable source of cinematic song and dance left was animated kid films. With Disney inserting tunes into everything they could, and fiscally minded mimics (Fox, Warner Brothers) following suit, the only place to find legitimate Broadway style show biz was in the soundtrack of cartoon cavalcade. Of course, the House of Mouse saved face, bringing in real life tunesmiths like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice to reinvent the genre. But now, a few decades removed, it seems like the fantasy format of characters vocalizing their inner feelings has, again, gone the way of the do-do. In fact, Pixar (Mickey’s latest production partner) has consistently avoided the crooning creature ideal. So where does that leave the pen and ink production? By the look of the selections in this second installment of SE&L”s Surround Sound, it appears the genre is tired and treading water. Two of the three highlighted choices this time represent the most routine – and in one case, shameless – substitute for actual artistic accomplishment available. And then once again, it’s the stellar CGI of one company’s amiable aesthetic that wins out over everyone else.


The Simpsons Movie [rating: 6]


By now, most fans know the sad and confusing fact that neither Danny Elfman (who concocted the series’ signature theme) nor Alf Clausen (the man behind the music for 17 years) are involved with the sonic situation in the new Simpsons Movie. Instead, that Tinsel Town tunesmith Hans Zimmer was pegged to provide an aural backdrop to the big screen adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. An Oscar winner (for The Lion King) and five time nominee, there is nothing inherently wrong with said choice. The German born composer has been on a summer blockbuster role as of late, having worked on the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films as well as Batman Begins and The Da Vinci Code. But like asking an outsider to partake in a massive and extremely insular family reunion, Zimmer arrives unfamiliar with the ways of America’s favorite family. As a result, he turns in a decent, if derivative score that owes as much to the men he replaces as it does anything remotely original. It’s tough to get a handle on just what doesn’t work – especially in light of the music’s inherent quality and sparkle. But it’s clear that, without the context of the film around it and the specific sequences illustrating its tone, the auditory concepts here just don’t gel. Instead, they end up resembling disconnected sketches, ideas never coming together under a common theme or mood.


It’s clear that Elfman and Clausen were Zimmer’s main inspiration. Several of the tracks here - “Trapped Like Carrots”, “What’s an Epiphany?”, “Thank You Boob Lady” – are nothing more than extended symphonic tweaks tagged to variations on the main Simpsons’ theme. While the notes aren’t always in the exact same place, you can instantly recognize the series sassy trademark each and every time. In other instances, elements that Clausen excels at (stylistic mimicry, sonic stereotyping) are also attempted by Zimmer. Yet the results, like the ersatz spy jazz of “Release the Hounds” or the Busby Berkley gone batty of “Bart’s Doodle” have a less pointed, satiric quality. Still, there are moments of ambient excellence throughout – “You Doomed Us All…Again” is a massive musical statement that goes from delicate to demonstrative with perfect action/adventure vibe, as do “…Lead, Not to Read” and “World’s Fattest Fertilizer Salesman”. We also experience a weird kind of Aaron Copeland hoedown déjà vu during “Why Does Everything I Whip Leave Me?”, the track resembling that famous beef council commercial rewritten and inverted. The score can get syrupy at times, and when Zimmer is stuck for inspiration, her reverts back to Elfman, or a joke from the film (in this case, the overblown choral version of “Spider Pig”) to save the day.  Like any new writer or artist coming to The Simpsons, fitting in is half the battle. Zimmer more or less succeeds, but not without an awkward adjustment period.


Ratatouille [rating: 9]


Unlike the Simpons score, there is a solid synchronicity between Michael Giacchino and his remarkable work for Pixar’s latest animated pearl, Ratatouille. Almost every cue contained on this 24 track collection reminds one of the amazing adventures of the rat Remy and his desire to be a great Parisian chef. The composer – a long time JJ Abrams associate, having worked on Lost, Alias and Mission Impossible III – is no stranger to the animation/family film game. He helped Brad Bird’s other 3D masterwork, The Incredibles, roar to sonic life and put the aural polish to several Muppet titles. Here, Giacchino had quite a massive musical mountain to climb. Dealing with a modern France filtered through the city’s noted old world charm and aura, the score for Ratatouille needed to be instantly recognizable while incorporating as much of the cosmopolitan European flair the narrative needed as possible. It’s a balancing act that he manages brilliantly, turning this score into a reference heavy collection of waltzes, tangos, slow groove jazz, and ‘50s/’60s metropolitan cool motifs. When combined with the other odd inclusions – random Hawaiian guitar and harmonica –, the idiosyncratic ethnic choices (gypsy?), and the occasional callbacks to his own Mediterranean culture, Giancchino delivers a delightful aural stew, perfectly seasoned and ready to consume.


With some tracks lasting less than a minute, and others pushing close to ten, the Ratatouille score has a very traditional flavor and feel. There are snippets of big band swing and the typical sidetracks you’d find in a foreign set storyline. As this is France, wandering accordion and saccharine string trills are mandatory, and Giancchino doesn’t shy away from them. Yet he also tries to anthropomorphize the soundtrack, tossing in aural allusions to mice, a chaotic kitchen, or a robust city street. This is a composer who understands the inherent ingredient a good musical backdrop needs in order to stand on its own – a fully realized ‘personality’, one easily identifiable and separate from the movie itself. In addition, all throughout the collection of tracks – “Souped Up”, “Remy Drives a Linguini”, and “Kiss and Vinegar” for example – we find ourselves swept away into an ephemeral world where one’s imagination starts painting in the particulars.  Like the movie it supports, the Ratatouille soundtrack melds classic and contemporary ideas into something that should be routine and familiar – an animated movie – into a stunning work of art.


What’s Cooking? Songs Inspired by Disney’s/Pixar’s Ratatouille [rating: 4]


Leave it to the House of Mouse to find a way to dull this Pixar production’s decided twinkle. Presented as a collection of songs ‘inspired’ by the film, but really nothing more than an excuse to make more merchandising oriented cash, What’s Cooking? utilizes the theme of food as a way of tying together 12 mindlessly mundane tunes. Most are originals from composer/conductor Fred Mollin and his Blue Sea Band, while others are corny covers. Sounding like something you’d experience in one of Uncle Walt’s theme parks, the slick overproduced feel of this collection is kind of creepy. You can hear every over-earnest nod to minority music styles in this hodgepodge of jumping jive and swamp boogie slink. It’s supposed to be toe tapping and finger snapping, but it ends up soul sapping most of the time. Like the recipes included in the liner notes (for fabulously perfunctory dishes like “Oven-Baked French Fries” and “Eiffel Tower Cookie Sundaes”) this is broad, unimaginative pap barely capable of providing true aesthetic sustenance. While there may be a few fans out there who see this release as a way of extending their Ratatouille pleasure – or cynically, introducing their impressionable children to the world of musical diversity – there’s nothing here that demands attention or approval. This is the kind of listening experience available every morning as part of TLC’s family programming. All that’s missing are Raffi and someone dressed up like a monkey.


Complete with fake applause and crowd noise that will continue throughout the entire 36 minute running time, What’s Cooking? starts off with “Cheese Please”, a goofball jaunt that uses rhyming as its reason to exist. We are supposed to get a kick out of the various culinary quips, but the whole song smacks of a rejected Madison Avenue dairy jingle. Next is a classic track, “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, and with its blaring horns and thumping bass, it’s a perfect illustration of what this compendium strives to be. For a while, the call and response nature of the tune is infectious. But soon, all the goodwill garnered by this anthology is destroyed by a doping rap remix/remake of the Gerardo hit (huh???) “Rico Suave”. Entitled “Taco Grande”, this soggy sonic satire makes you want to grab something and destroy your CD player. Even when followed by the safe and superficial beats of “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza”, and “One Meatball”, the stench of such a sloppy selection lingers. Luckily, the classic clip of “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” (one of the oddest swing numbers ever) and the Louis Prima penned “Banana Split for My Baby” almost save the day. Without the original artists providing the performance however, the rescue is only half realized. Indeed, most of What’s Cooking? could be considered a semi-success. Of course, this also means that it’s mostly a failure as well.



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Monday, Jul 23, 2007


Hope you’ve been saving your money. Here’s praying that, during those weeks of downtime when SE&L couldn’t be bothered to mention the derivative DVD junk hitting your favorite B&M, you squirreled your available ducats away for a rainy entertainment day. The reason is simple – Hollywood is about to ‘make it rain’ at your favorite retailer, turning this Tuesday into a veritable nonstop spending spree. Among the seven titles mentioned below, other noteworthy offerings include The Host (South Korean monster movie), Raise the Red Lantern (reissue of Yimou Zhang epic), Les Enfants Terrible (the Meville masterwork) and Last Hurrah of Chivalry (one of two John Woo efforts). Indeed, finding a way to stretch that hard earned buck is going to take some serious consumer concentration (and consternation). Even the choices provided herein make 24 July a bank account draining day of digital infamy. At the very least, you have to pick up:


Zodiac


With David Fincher behind the lens and the most notorious unsolved serial killer case in California’s history in his sites, how could this film be bad? In fact, it wasn’t. It remains one of 2007’s best, a three part symphony of personal obsession, police procedural, and public pandemonium. After dispensing with the crimes early on, the man responsible for Se7en and Panic Room plays cat and mouse with the audience, daring them to decipher the seemingly clueless crimes along with the cops. We are also introduced to two sides of the same journalistic coin – a flamboyant beat reporter played brilliantly by Robert Downey, Jr. and a nerdy cartoonist with insight into the murderer. As essayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Graysmith (whose books formed the basis of the narrative) finds himself drawn to the investigation, and he almost loses himself in the process. A strong cinematic effort from a man noted for same, here’s hoping DVD revives this film’s fortunes. It didn’t thrive at the box office as it should have.

Other Titles of Interest


Hard Boiled


Of the two films that really cemented John Woo’s legacy among Western audiences (The Killer being the other), this tale of an undercover cop working with a no nonsense government agent to take down a ruthless mobster and his men is considered his best. Both balletic and brazen, showing violence as both glamorous and grotesque, it remains a definitive action thriller statement. This new Dragon Dynasty version should satisfy those longing for Criterion’s long OOP edition.

Ivan’s Childhood: The Criterion Collection


The debut film from Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (who would later go on to helm Solaris), this straightforward story of a orphan boy who works as a messenger during the war is intriguing for the conflicting stances it takes. On one side, it seems to be aggressively anti-war. On the other, it’s clearly posited as pro-Soviet propaganda. No matter the meaning, Criterion cranks out another must-own foreign film classic.

The Monster Squad


Like those holy grail titles that keep messageboards and blog entries pumping for years, this coming of age horror comedy from the 1980s is finally finding its way onto the digital medium. Unforgettable only to those for whom this film was a vaunted VCR rite of passage, the story of a group of kids who interact with real life versions of classic Universal creatures has its moments. It’s more memory than memorable, however.

The Number 23


Jim Carrey gets all metaphysical on us as he essays the role of a morose public servant who becomes obsessed with a novel he swears is mimicking his life. Even worse, he discovers the Discordian ideology surrounding the title integer. Before we know it, Mr. Comedy is going bonkers and director Joel Schumacher is once again pushing the boundaries of believability. Some actually liked this mannered movie. Most didn’t.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer


Tom Tykwer, best known for his amazing international hit Run, Lola Run, goes the way of the period piece to present a captivating tale about a young perfumer’s apprentice. His obsession with finding the perfect feminine smell leads to death and destruction. Stanley Kubrick once considered the story unfilmable. That Tykwer succeeds at all – and he does – bodes well for this surreal cinematic experience.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Renaissance


If you married Blade Runner to Sin City, and then let their motion picture offspring inbreed with the aid of a computer, this fascinating animated film from France would probably be its bastard seed. Novel in its visual style, yet wholly derivative in its narrative, this thinly disguised film noir is more private dick lit than full blown speculative fiction. Some of the sequences seem lifted directly out of the Fritz Lang German Expressionism playbook (think Metropolis as a pen and ink parable). Others mimic Ridley Scott’s sci-fi whodunit right down to the formulaic plot beats. Still, the film feels fresh, and the desire by director Christian Volckman to literally avoid any and all shades of gray gives the design a stunningly stark quality. In one of the rare cases where the English dub betters the original French soundtrack, this is a film that’s light on character and heavy on creativity. Luckily, the overpowering optical splendor employed here helps to overcome some of the storyline weaknesses.

 


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