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

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Tuesday, Jun 5, 2007


The great debate among Godzilla fanatics goes a little something like this. On the one side are the purists, the people who scoff with sour indignation at the very idea of this venerable Japanese kaiju having to suffer through poor English dubbings, badly mangled prints, and edits mandated to make Western audiences more comfortable with the genre. For them, it’s pure untouched Toho or nothing at all. And then there are those on the side of the Saturday matinee, the generations who grew up with the whole man-in-suit ideal and embraced it as a combination of camp and cross culture craziness. In their mind, the mismatched voices and mediocre miniatures give anything Godzilla a true kitsch quality that definitely gets lost when you return to the source material. Unfortunately, DVD has only made the problem worse. Due to its inherent nature as a preservationists medium, the lovers of the original giant lizard have bemoaned the consistent release of poorly framed, faded versions of their favorite movie monster’s oeuvre.


So, how does one appease the persnickety while indulging the memories of those lost in front of a 19” ‘60s TV screen, bag of Cheetos clutched to their chest? Well, if you’re Genius Entertainment and Classic Media, you pow wow with the holders of the Japanese rights, make a deal to deliver the best Godzilla product possible, and come up with a combination disc that holds both the original Toho release as well as the mangled Americanized efforts. Making their first appearance on the digital medium as part of the heralded Master Collection, the fifth and sixth films in the Gojira franchise – Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Astro-Monster (later renamed Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) - show the scaly reptile with a prehistoric penchant for kicking creature keister as feisty as ever. They also argue for a clearly defined formulaic approach to this type of monster movie that would, initially, keep audiences clamoring for more. Eventually, such sloppy storytelling would drive the series to ridicule and ruin.


In Ghidorah, the story picks up just after the events of Mothra vs. Godzilla. The larval offspring of the giant insect have defeated our Hellbent hero and have slinked back to Infant Island, Lilliputian tenders (the then famous Japanese singing duo The Peanuts) in tow. A massive meteor shower brings a big interstellar bolder to a mountainous region outside Tokyo. A new beast named King Ghidorah springs forth, determined to wreck his own special brand of three headed menace on the populace. The cosmic anomaly also takes its toll on a potential political assassination. The Princess of some far off fictional country is almost assassinated. She is saved by the spirit of a spaceman from the planet Venus and arrives in time to warn the world about the upcoming creature chaos. Sure enough, Godzilla and Rodan are roused from their slumber, and with the help of the minute minders of Mothra, everyone gangs up to send the nasty newbie back from whence it came.


As for Invasion of the Astro-Monster, a joint American/Japanese space program discovers a new satellite traveling around Jupiter – Planet X. The two man crew of Glen and Fuji go off to explore, and soon find themselves face to face with the sunglass wearing, underground dwelling residents of this weird world. Technologically superior, the aliens have a big problem for which they require the Earthlings help. They are terrorized by an entity known as Monster Zero (actually King Ghidorah given a mistaken extraterrestrial moniker), and want help destroying it. Their plan? They will trade the ability to cure cancer (?) for Godzilla and Rodan. Seems like a win/win situation for all involved. But soon the swindled Earth men learn the truth – the X-men are actually evil, and want to use all three beasts to destroy mankind and take over their terrestrial territories. And without another supersized beastie to battle on their behalf, everyone’s doomed.


Clearly benefiting from the bigger budgets that international popularity can provide, both Ghidorah and Astro-Monster offer up the two major components of successful Godzilla films – surreal storylines and lots of special effects. To many of the uninformed, a cursory explanation of the kaiju film usually states “giant monster is awakened and goes on a destructive rampage”. But the truth is, by this time in the series, the concept of nonstop spectacle was no longer an option. Indeed, almost all the Godzilla films are parables, using current political or social problems to highlight Japan’s inner anxieties and post-war identity crisis. The first film was a clear allegory to the horrors of nuclear technology run amok. The Mothra film that predated these was linked to a heavy handed environmental message. Ghidorah has an unusual combination of peace and politics. By placing the endangered member of an unknown nation’s royal family into the role of chief spokesman for the planet, her predicament and its pro-life focus is even more severe.


Astro-Monster, on the other hand, is all about invasion. It’s the Godzilla series answer to war, about a desire to work with - not against - America this time around and defeat an enemy greater than our own. The Planet X types are pure fashionista fascists, the kind of sinister slicks who easily sway and betray. Their desire to use might (Godzilla, Rodan and Ghidorah) instead of their remarkable scientific advances (why not work those tractor beams over a few nuclear silos, guys?) plays directly into the fear of technology failing in its ultimate goal to protect and serve us, while the underlining subplot involving the inventor who has the potential defensive weapon right under his nerdy nose is another parallel to the ultimate value of knowledge and skill over power and heft. Part of the reason that film fans respond to these movies with such ardent attraction are the rather obvious themes at play. Similar to how horror defines a society and its approach to art, these films are like windows into the uneasy world of ‘50s – ‘70s Asia.


Of course, the fabulous old school rubber and balsa wood F/X are a heck of a lot of fun as well. More money meant more attention to detail, and master craftsman Eiji Tsuburaya really outdoes himself here. While campy and kind of crude, the spaceships and Planet X interiors present in Astro-Monster are pure pop art poetry. In addition, King Ghidorah is an equally impressive creation, its flailing heads looking like death-dealing chaos personified. There will be those who giggle at the model tank/plane/car/truck/ dynamic at play in the action scenes, and our creatures do possess some very odd voices (King G’s is nothing more than vibrating notes on a Hammond organ). But when you consider the near flawless recreations of the surrounding landscape, the massive explosions of dirt and debris, the relatively realistic use of water and other natural elements, the Toho kaiju films are very impressive. So what if the buildings blow apart like badly set up Lincoln logs. The combination of filmmaking and finesse more than compensate for such quibbles.


Even purists can breathe easy thanks to the relative respect these movies are given via these delightful DVDs. Preserved in their original aspect ratios with as close to a pristine print as possible, we are treated to wonderful widescreen images, vibrant colors, crystal clear detail and the original Japanese language soundtracks. In addition, a wealth of entertaining and informative extras is provided, including commentaries, biographies and original trailers. When you consider you get both versions of the title along with all the other goodies, there should be very little to kvetch about.


One would also be remiss for failing to mention what an important undertaking this is. DVDs’ lasting legacy appears to be rescuing marginalized movies from the pigeonholing chasms of popular culture. Prior to embarking on this remastered retrospective, Godzilla and his ilk (Gamera et. al.) were relegated to a kind of entertainment exile, deemed either too infantile for adults or too oddball for the wee ones. As a result, our humungous heroes have been cast aside as a dated dimension of an equally antiquated cinematic aesthetic. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When viewed through the veil of their original creators’ intentions, when comparable to their effervescent US counterparts, when contextualized by individuals who spent their lives trying to decipher the many layers of meaning buried within these oversized metaphors, any previous discrediting seems petty at best.


Still, the battle wages on. With the help of these amazing digital dossiers, perhaps one day a peace can be brokered. It will be difficult, but not as tough as trying to change 40 years of drive-in b-movie madness. Godzilla in all his forms was always much more than a science fiction schlock jockey. Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Space Monster is definitive proof of that.


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Monday, Jun 4, 2007


It’s another odd week for the home video aficionado. On the one hand, you’ve got a true celluloid auteur getting the digital admiration he so richly deserves. On the other hand, you’ve got the clear frontrunner for Worst Movie of 2007 – maybe of all the ‘Naughts’. There’s a new take on the same old moldy J-Horror, an even older Oliver Stone effort, an imaginative take on a silent classic, and a callous cash grab for fans of a certain comic book foursome. When you add in the completely gratuitous sex comedy from the late ‘70s, and the rest of the aluminum disc dregs, the payout potential is limited at best. But it’s a weak Friday for first run films (your choice – another Ocean’s sequel or more Eli Roth ‘gorno’) and Lord knows what the pay cable channels are about to cough up. So do yourself a favor, stick with the rock solid SE&L pick and kiss the rest goodbye. It will make your 5 June all the more productive:


The Sergio Leone Anthology


Drop whatever you’re currently doing, grab your cash card, and head out to the local B&M the minute it opens and plunk down your pennies for this amazing spaghetti western box set. Featuring the entire Man with No Name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) along with Leone rarity Duck, You Sucker! , all four films are given a Special Edition treatment that is long overdue. That means you get a quartet of Italian gunslinging goodness, eight DVDs, and lots of cinematic supplements for a minor monetary outlay. And if you want to add a copy of the director’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, to your shopping cart along the way, no one will complain. Long considered a filmmaking genius, Leone’s legacy has only grown in the DVD era. Perhaps it’s because the format fits his wide open epics so well, giving them room to breathe and grow. Or maybe it’s his amazing artistry. Either way, it’s film fans who win.

Other Titles of Interest


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


This is either a really creative idea or cinematic sacrilege. Using modern technology and the original film’s inventive Expressionistic designs, writer/director David Lee Fisher scanned the original sets into a computer and then digitally inserted his modern actors. The story’s the same, and in this version, the characters speak for themselves. Think of it as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow mixed with the classic silent film and you get the idea.

Fantastic Four: Extended Edition


How do you make a mediocre movie a little less lame (and a lot more profitable)? Simple - revamp the narrative with added scenes, reconfigure the film for DVD, and sell it just as the real sequel is about to hit theaters. That’s the case with this rushed to retail redux of the mangled Marvel mess. Initial reviews claim the changes are for the better. Considering the source, that’s not saying much.

The Messengers


The Pang Brothers, Hong Kong’s premiere horror maestros, come to America at the very end of the Asian angst fad and proceed to sink the final nail in the slick subgenre’s coffin. Aside from the fact that they’re three years too late, the subtle scares of the whole ghost world spook show have long since been decried and dismissed. Not the best showcase for a pair of foreign fright film icons.

Norbit


Oh Lord, this is BEYOND bad. Everything you’ve heard is true – this is a ridiculous, racist mess, the kind of unbelievably bigoted filmmaking that should set the cause of African American pride back 400 years. Eddie Murphy is awful, desecrating geeks, the obese, and Chinese people everywhere. This entire film feels like the beginning of a mean-spirited gag that never discovers its punchline. Sadly, the joke appears to be on us. 

Seizure


Here’s an intriguing title finally arriving on the digital domain. It stars Dark Shadow’s Jonathan Frid and Fantasy Island favorite Hervé Villechaize, and was co-written and directed by a young maverick named Oliver Stone. The plot sounds like the ‘Old Dark House’ married to a proto-slasher feast. Could be good. Could be garbage. Whatever the case, it could make for an interesting night of early auteur nostalgia.


And Now for Something Completely Different
H.O.T.S.


This film always tried to position itself as the modern female equivalent of Animal House. Part of the problem of course is that the National Lampoon classic was more concerned with satire and less with skin. All this film has going for it is boobs, boobs, and more boobs – that and some very gratuitous Danny Bonaduce (who actually looks halfway human here). The title sorority – the name is taken from the four main girls (Honey, O’Hara, Terri, and Sam) in the club – is the bane of Fairenville University, or F.U.’s, existence. There’s a crusty old dean, some snobbish villains, and a last act game of strip touch football.  Along the way, our gals discover sex, self-esteem…and umm, more sex. Indeed, softcore eros is the point behind this collegiate comedy. If you’re looking for story, move along. If all you’re interested in is curvaceous pre-‘80s flesh, then step right up. This so-so silliness will be your cup of carnal tea. 

 


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Sunday, Jun 3, 2007


That’s it. Mark it on a calendar. 2007 is the year where we officially no longer matter. Film critics, that is. Where once we set the standard for discussion on film, we’ve been marginalized by a medium that believes us to be out of touch, self important and far too fanatical in our devotion to quality over quantity. Newspapers are dropping us for generalized wire service hype. Messageboards are alight with conversations and condemnations of our efforts. Even fellow members of the Fourth Estate are tearing us a new class hole. David Poland, former film festival director and currently owner of industry information source Movie City News recently ripped into reviewers who loved Judd Apatow’s latest comedy classic Knocked Up. He did so with a joke that marginalized anyone adoring the film into a “middle-aged person who is so tired of studio movies that you will desperately overpraise a so-so film”. As Allison Porchnik once said, you gotta love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.


This is what film criticism has been condensed into—personal attacks/obsessions passing as viable cinematic analysis. It’s prevalent. Someone hates Mel Gibson for the horrendously racist things he said last August, and said writer translates that anger into a complete dismissal of the actor/director’s inventive action film Apocalypto. Then there are those so-called journalists who can’t make up their own minds. These supposed writers scan fan forums and other analytic websites to get ‘impressions’ of what the average man and/or woman is thinking about a specific film. They then roll all those thoughts into pure populist pap and pawn it off as well considered conclusions. Perhaps the worse example of this trend remains the film fetishists. To them, everything they love is legitimate, from the best example of Hollywood’s Golden era to a wonky little horror film that no one has ever heard of. In both cases, however, their overdone praise moves from meaningful to sickeningly sexual in its depth of desire.


Part of this is in response to the new found community of self-described know-it-alls called the Internet. In a realm where everyone has a forum, it logically figures that everything would be legitimized. There are six billion potential pundits in this world, meaning that all entertainment genres, from mystery to science fiction, action to heartbreaking drama will definitely find their champions. Taking it even further, within each subset will be people who love/hate a particular product with as much sense/insanity as they enjoy/despise something else. It’s an inferred universe without consensus, a place where even a one time motion picture masterpiece—say Citizen Kane—will eventually find an entire website devoted to how overrated and unremarkable it really is. And since there is no true guiding aesthetic (this is everyone out for themselves, remember), nothing is held in particular esteem. That means everyone is right. It also means that everyone is wrong. It’s merely a matter of perspective.


Take last year’s amazing movie The Fountain. Critics couldn’t handle its intertwining storylines and emotional reach. So instead of meeting it somewhere around the middle, they declared Darren Aronofsky the latest Emperor auteur and helped the viewing public rent his brand new cinematic skivvies. Similarly, Zak Snyder’s 300 burst onto movie screens back in March with a wave of invention that few films in the last few decades have managed to muster. But since the narrative was mired in old world machismo and dotted with homoerotic leanings, the proud carriers of the pro-PC banner took the movie to task. Some even disregarded it as being too action/aggression oriented. Last time anyone looked, the movie was about a battle between badly outnumbered Spartans and invading Persian hordes. So where, exactly, is the subtlety supposed to go? There are weekly examples of this kind of critical contradiction. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End will be both vilified as an overstuffed example of Hollywood hubris while simultaneously being celebrated by those who believe it to be a throwback to the original ‘70s blockbuster.


Because of the number of outlets for so-called legitimate cinematic reportage, because of the lack of an ongoing critical accord on what constitutes art and what equals artifice, because we can no longer sit idly by and watch geeks give us the metaphysical finger, we’ve decided to bite back. And the wound is now fully festering and gone gangrenous. We currently exist in a freakish film industry time when Grindhouse, a well received revamp of the exploitation film earning an 81% overview rating on Rotten Tomatoes (a database for storing critic scores), is considered a massive flop, while two atrocious titles from the same time—Norbit and Wild Hogs can earn a 9% and 16% rating respectively and still be massive mainstream hits. Some would call such movies ‘critic proof’, but there’s more to it than that. Bad is bad, but somehow, that message is not translating to the public.


And those who argue that it shouldn’t matter do indeed have a point. Movie reviewers, by their very nature, are product testers. They sample the motion picture wares coming out each and every week and let you know how their particular tastes reacted to it. From then on, the next step is wholly your own move. You don’t have to agree, and you may go into a screening and have the exact opposite reaction. But in the end, all the writer is providing you is an opinion. Sure, it may be steeped in a great knowledge of the medium or a singular joy for cinema, but these are not Gospel conclusions. They are—for the most part—the genuine reactions of a film fan. So Norbit should not live or die by what 123 critics from around the globe say it is. If you go to the theater and enjoy it, more power to you. And it’s that previous statement that sets up a potentially dangerous precedent.


While it may have at one time been about creativity, 2007 Tinsel Town is definitely a cash and carry conglomerate, period. Dollars are the determinative factor in why many films are made. Sure, we can see occasional gambles (the aforementioned 300, Apatow’s previous hit The 40 Year Old Virgin), but the major motion picture studios have the profit margin down to a slick hard sell science. They don’t go into a Little Man believing in failure. Indeed, they view certain production plans (horror sequels/prequels, comic book characters franchising) as money making its way to the bank. So when Disney greenlights two more Pirates movies on the back of the first one’s success, they are counting on a pair of separate yet simultaneous situations: (1) that the eventual release on home theater will continue to whet your appetite for more and (2) that their experience in repeated past successes is astute enough to get them through this risk.


Thus a critic proof film is not really able to avoid a journalistic smear campaign. No, what the film is truly protected from is any negative impact from the audience. What Hollywood has gotten dead brilliant at is marketing movies in such a way that, even if your best friends told you it was the biggest stinker this side of Waterworld, you’d still get in line on opening weekend to see for yourself. And this of course ties in directly to the Internet ideal. Since the number of websites catering to criticism have skyrocketed in the last few years, as well as the availability of high profile portals (blogs, myspace pages, YouTube) for opinion placement, the mainstream media no longer holds any sway. Norbit may hold a less than 10% approval rating from regular reviewers, but on a place like The Internet Movie Database, the score goes up to over 30. Such a strident difference empowers the audience and leads them to believe that their own conclusions are valid—even more so – than the person who makes viewing film their career.


Are there pompous scribes who ruin it for everyone? Absolutely. Are there people in the film fussing trade so out of touch that they can actually champion something like Are We Done Yet? over David Fincher’s fabulous Zodiac. Definitely. Is there someone already chomping at the bit, ready to scream that both films deserve to be dumped in the nearest cesspool as examples of cinema at its most stagnant? You know it. But something odd has happened over the last couple of months. The loudest voices are not only being heard, they are drowning each other out, creating a weird wall of sound that turns off everyone who comes in contact with it. Mr. Poland himself is one of those individuals who likes to say “it sucks, because I said so” and then tosses in a few rationales for his rejection before moving on to his next insider tip about the future of film.


Again, what’s missing is context, the notion that cinema is not a disposable commodity easily interchangeable with any other kind of pulp product. Disregarding critics is similar to stating that superficial summer paperbacks represent literature as its most artful. Popularity does not equal perspective. Instead it’s a sign of mere mass acceptance. Independence Day is not a great science fiction film, just a well liked one. Similarly, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a fixture on Best Of lists because individuals with a wealth of experience in the medium recognize its inherent value. Sometimes, a movie can combine the two (Pulp Fiction, for example). But without a voice outside the din discussing the difference between the two, the result is a watered down aesthetic—and the current state of mainstream moviemaking.


You think endless sequels and slight summer blockbusters are seen as proud accomplishments by the studios? No, they represent the fast food of the business, the guaranteed dosh makers that allow them the luxury of jeopardizing their revenue on a few prestige pictures come Awards season. They want you to believe a critic doesn’t know what he or she is talking about because it protects their investment and leads to greater returns come opening weekend. Thus the continuing decline in preview press screenings. Of course, they don’t mind turning around and using contextually suspect blurbs to support their hype machine, and they love to tout the number of Year End lists their movies appear on. Talk about your hate/tolerate kind of relationship.


When you boil it down to its basics, criticism is suffering because, in general, it’s poorly thought out and equally illiterate. Scan the web for other reviews of Knocked Up and you will find people actually using the attractiveness of actor Seth Rogen (or repugnant lack thereof) as a means of rating the film’s comedic viability. Talk about using high school standards as a means of making adult decisions. Why not just have Paris Hilton tell the moviegoing public what’s “hot” and what’s “not”. From poor sentence structure and a self-determined desire to be cleverer than what you’re reviewing, the critical community continually shoots itself in the foot. But instead of being merely hobbled, it looks like, this time, the damage may be permanent.


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Saturday, Jun 2, 2007


Post-millennial audiences have basically forgotten how to go to the movies. The home theater experience and its myriad of personal perks (readily available bathroom breaks, unlimited snacking, selfish screening time management) have turned the average film fan into an impatient instant gratification addict. A big screen release has to deliver, and deliver quickly, or attention spans shift and butts begin to stiffen. This may explain the near 50/50 split on the viability of Gore Verbinski’s amazing old school blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Half the critical community found the film an honorable companion piece to the previous buccaneer blasts. But an equal number are not that happy at all, arguing that whatever entertainment value Parts 1 and 2 contained, this one is adrift on a sea of stunted amusements. 


Let’s start with the chief complaints against this final facet of the ‘current’ franchise (don’t worry, more movies are inevitable – Tinsel Town never kills outright this kind of cash cow). First off, there’s the grievance that, at two hours and forty-nine minutes, the narrative goes on for far too long. Well, when you’re working through an entire mythology that reaches back across two complete films, as well as a great deal of suggested storylines, you’re wrap-up is going to be gargantuan. Besides, like Roger Ebert once said, no ‘good’ motion picture is ever too long, and Pirates 3 is an amazing entertainment. The second objection rides on the so-called ‘ridiculous’ amount of characters connected to the resolution. Yes, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up here, but who would you eradicate in the process? Would you pull an Aliens3 on some of the supporting cast and kill them off during the opening credits? Perhaps put a few familiar faces in the gallows line-up that opens the film?


No, epic scope and far too many important personalities are what this incredibly accomplished send-off thrives on. For those who hated, or couldn’t handle the introduction of Davy Jones and his craven crustacean crew during Part 2, or longed for the sudden surprise of finding a Disney attraction offering that didn’t instantly suck on ice (ala Part 1), this will not be the movie for you. Instead, this journey to the ends of the Earth in search of closure – and a certain suave scallywag – is anxious to amplify the overall importance of events we’ve seen previously, while adding even more outlandish elements to the already overreaching yarn. Indeed, like the first films founded in the pure popcorn paradigm, director Verbinski is out to change the overall flavor of motion picture eye candy. No matter your issues with the overlong narrative or wealth of unnecessary characters, no one can deny the spectacle of the final pirate stand-off deep inside a whirlpooling maelstrom. It remains one of the series most sensational defining moments.


Equally impressive is the first act descent into Davy Jones’ notorious ‘locker’. Turns out the place is more like purgatory – a lonely, desolate locale where Sisyphean tasks await the unlikely visitor.  For those in the audience who’ve sat back impatiently wondering just where the Heck Johnny Depp has been hiding for the last 45 minutes, his clone-addled insanity (Capt. Jack is confronted by multiple version/visions of himself) is like a Super-Sized helping of the popular knave. Our unlikely superstar still finds ways of making this character likeable and unique, but it’s important to note that Jack will not be the sole focus here – and Depp knows it. He makes the most of his moments without overstaying his welcome. Instead, he provides the usual cinematic spice this entire series loves to thrive on.


Once we’ve move beyond Chow Yun Fat and his Hook-like seaport of Shanghai (the most unrealistic element in this entire fantasy film) we get locked into the storytelling mechanisms moving briskly by. Again, there’s no denying that the movie is plot driven, but to call it overdone or confusing is hogwash. In fact, the plot often feels like the Lucas crafted designs for Star Wars. The original 1977 blockbuster was a clever combination of recognizable genres types (the Western, the serial) with self-started and generated mythology interspersed throughout. Here, Verbinksi takes the typical high seas adventure yarn, mixes in a few post-modern references of his own, and then inserts lots of lore about ocean goddesses, afterlife debts to pay, and personal crises that must be confronted and conquered. As long as you’re attentive and open to the overall experience, you’ll easily comprehend the movie’s motivational machinery. If you’re too busy text messaging your “bff”, you’ll likely get lost.


The reference to a certain motion picture set in a ‘galaxy far, far away’ is also apropos for what Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End strives for, from an entertainment standpoint. Like the popcorn movies of old, this is an experience as much as it is a film, a chance for audiences to get lost in elements they rarely experience in life. Oddly enough, the year before Wars arrived at theaters, Universal tried to jumpstart the pirate movie with Swashbuckler. Featuring Robert Shaw, James Earl Jones and Peter Boyle, it didn’t do well at the box office, but did set the contemporary schematics for future attempts at the sea-faring saga to follow. By utilizing the ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ archetypes within a new kind of updated narrative, director James Goldstone overhauled the entire formula. Seventies audiences just weren’t ready for the retrofitting.


Something similar could be said for modern crowds. When the first Pirates hit, it’s clear that Producer Jerrry Bruckheimer felt it was the superb supernatural angle that wowed viewers. That’s why the sequel is inundated with as many CGI and make-up monster men as possible. In Part 3, all that’s been abandoned. Now we get more of the sensational swordplay and keel-hauling adventure that recalls the grand spectacles of old. In some ways, these movies are like templates, picking and choosing the homages and references they need to succeed before moving on to another character’s individual dilemma. Without the numerous personalities to contend with, the plot would become needlessly repetitive. With a merry band of important entities, every turn of the storyline screw is important.


Still, it’s not hard to see fans giving up on this entire enterprise. They’ve been fed a failed bill of goods by a critical contingency that can’t make up its mind on what is acceptable and what is awful. For everyone comparing this film to the Matrix or Terminator titles, the point has some validity. Both initial movies were made as stand alone statements, lacking the open ended leanings that something similar to Spider-Man offers. To flesh them out, one had to use the original idea as ballast, while battling the demands of studio interference and fan anticipation. That something remotely entertaining comes out of such a schism is high praise indeed. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the successes far outweigh the incredibly minor quibbles - not that the present demographic is patient enough to see it for themselves. 


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Friday, Jun 1, 2007


Has any film arrived with more nonsensical – and non-cinematic – baggage as Apocalypto? Granted, Mel Gibson’s egregious gaff last August clouded its theatrical release in a totally unnecessary manner, but it was the media that made tenable the connection between his personal philosophy about his fellow man and a film focusing on South American tribes at the end of their reign as civilized societies. Like any major superstar – and for a while, no one was bigger than the slightly manic Mel – the building of a celebrity is only half the press’s process. Dragging them back down the stairway of eminence makes up the second section of fame’s cyclical nature.


Perhaps DVD can help his flagging interpersonal fortunes. Gauged solely by what’s up on the screen, Gibson shouldn’t have any issues at all. From a pure filmmaking point of view, Apocalypto is brilliant. It’s a tenacious throwback to the days when human beings handled action, not CGI and special effects. It uses it’s wonderfully simplistic storyline to pour on much welcomed buckets of atmosphere and design, and it purposely leaves the audience directly in the dark. As a result, we instantly identify with his lead character’s dilemma (protecting and/or returning to his family) and discover the wild and wooly ways this foreign world works, right along with everyone else.


Unlike the ra-ra ridiculousness of Braveheart, or the subjective snuff film reverence of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives the audience a break here, creating an excellent antidote to the plodding post-modern blockbuster. In a script that is elegant in its ease, Gibson identifies the good guys (Jaguar Paw’s jungle dwelling tribe) and names the unbelievable bad guys (the completely corrupt and de-evolving Mayans) and puts them at odds inside a beautiful, bloody epic. Argue over his skill with narrative or characterization, but no one can doubt Gibson’s gift behind the lens. Using digital cameras and advanced filmmaking technology, there is a rawness to this imagery present that’s just astounding.


There are indeed shots in Apocalypto that will literally take your breath away, moments where you wonder aloud if this is the natural beauty of a practical location, a purely computer generated spectacle, or a clever combination of the two. In particular, there’s a moment during Jaguar Paw’s last act escape where he winds up in a pit of headless corpses. Colored a dire, dreary gray by the surrounding mud, the bodies form a kind of corrupt canvas, as perfect a painting of pain and horror as the visual medium has to offer. In addition, the entire Mayan Temple scene is radiant in its crassly colorful depiction of debauchery. As part of Touchstone’s Special Edition disc, Gibson is on hand to explain how he captured every cleverly created moment. We even witness the attention to detail in the Behind the Scenes featurettes. 


As for the performances, it really is hard to challenge or criticize them. Texan Rudy Youngblood is very good in the leading role, though he tends to have less of the detailed physical maladies (bad teeth, body scars) as given to his equally impressive co-stars. Still, he never comes across as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’. Naturally, there’s a villain, and Gibson does a very smart thing when it comes to his bad guys. He divides up the evil, making main leader Zero Wolf (played by Raoul Trujillo) a far more focused heavy. He even shows a softer side, doting on his son in a way that foreshadows a fatal event that drives the Mayans to make Jaguar Paw a palpable public enemy. Snake Ink, on the other hand, is like a pre-Columbian Simon LeGree. Face forming a constant snarling smirk, actions always poised on the precipice of outright psychosis, newcomer Rodolfo Palacios seems to be channeling every old fashioned rogue in the action movie manual. Thanks to the use of an ancient language and subtitles, the personalities all seem to merge and meld into a kind of collective clan. It is only via easily remembered art design elements, and individual idiosyncrasies that we end up with certain specific types.


While it may be bereft of real emotion – as much as we like Jaguar Paw, we don’t really feel the connection between he and his pregnant mate – there is no doubting Gibson’s ability to showboat and inspire. The entire trip through the mad Mayan city, filled with touches both natural and otherworldly, creates the kind of sociological science fiction that any good period piece can provide. We want to be transported to a world we’ve never experienced, believe in the validity of the varying little details that make up the magical whole. Some have criticized the authenticity of Apocalypto’s artistic assertions, but the added context of the DVD should help to resolve some of those lingering logistical doubts. Indeed, we learn that things were much worse – read: bloodier and gorier – than depicted onscreen.


Yet it’s the nonstop action of the entire last act, a foot race that seems to cover the entire length of Central America in its lightning paced logistics and epic scope that truly amplifies our appreciation. Obviously inspired by his stint as a certain Mad Max, Gibson emulates the best of Australian auteur George Miller and strips everything down to body parts and wooded paths. Instead of just spectacle (and there’s plenty of that) we get strategizing and opportunism. While some may question the seemingly boundless energy Jaguar Paw and his pursuers maintain, we recognize the urgency in both the escape and the hunt. Our hero has to get home to his family. The villains have a horrifying superstition to follow and feed (and a little eye for an eye payback to administer). By avoiding complicated motives and obvious stunt set ups, the action in Apocalypto’s finale is a solid cinematic adrenaline rush. It argues not only for the effectiveness of the film, but for the skill stowed away in Gibson’s bag of cinematic tricks.


For all his flaws as a human being, his history as a man both married to and marred by his convictions, Mel Gibson should never be doubted as a moviemaker. Apocalypto may not be one of the all time classics of the genre, but it surely stands shoulder to shoulder with the exceptional efforts of 2006 – at least from an inventive perspective. Besides, what’s the better legacy to have hanging around your neck – an undeniably dense anger toward people of a certain persuasion, or the ability to make startling celluloid statements? While it may be possible to judge a man strictly by his actions, art is not so easily categorized. It requires a different set of perceptive standards. Here’s DVD’s chance to change some minds


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