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

 
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Thursday, Jun 2, 2011
Certainly, no one is claiming that Drive Angry is art, but in a world of prepackaged high concept action ordinariness, it's something very special - and seedy, and sinful - indeed.

Gratuitous violence. Even more wanton nudity. A storyline centering on an escaped denizen of Hell, his vendetta against a psychotic Satanic cult leader, the Devil’s accountant looking to clean up the mess, and blond bombshell waitress with iron fists and a souped muscle car. If it sounds like a ‘70s exploitation classic, you’d be right…and wrong. Indeed, this is Drive Angry, a 2011 experiment in excess that argues for the viability and vitality of the drive-in dynamic in a post-modern (and millennial) world. Director Patrick Lussier, who cut his teeth with previous kings of the genre like Wes Craven (of the original sleazoid classic Last House on the Left) and startling remakes (the excellent My Bloody Valentine update) is dropping the whole monsters and mayhem shtick to go full blown balls to the wall with blood, breasts, and bombast. The end result reminds the viewer of a time when movies both pandered and took peculiar, often eccentric chances with its intended demographic.


In this case, we meet the long dead - but recently “revived” - John Milton (Nicolas Cage - no, wait…he’s actually very, very good here…), a former criminal who escaped from Hell’s Prison with a magical gun and a head full of hate. He is after Devil-worshipping DB Jonah King (Billy Burke), a fiendish false prophet who killed our hero’s daughter and husband and stole their infant child. The villain intends to use the baby at the next full moon, hoping the sacrifice will bring about the coming of the Antichrist. Along the way, Milton picks up a sweet young thing named Piper (Amber Heard). She has a chip on her shoulder and the keys to a revved up black Buick Riviera. As he pursues his prey across the American Southeast, he is followed by an equally malevolent figure known as The Accountant (William Fichtner), a sharp dressed man with an underworld contract to fulfill.


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Friday, May 27, 2011
(T)his exercise in restrained sentiment (rates) below David Lean and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve, though not far below.

In their own ways, the WWII propaganda movies of America and Britain reflect a national image. American dramas are about fighting units of democratic individuality, as expressed by various (white) ethnicities, united for a common goal. British films emphasize the stiff upper lip of little people unfussily carrying on in the face of death and destruction. The commanders are upper class types with the proper accent, while those supporting them have comic-relief working class tongues. The Way to Stars, written by Terence Rattigan and directed by Anthony Asquith, offers both types in the same movie by telling the story of an air base that in turn serves both the RAF and the USAF.


First comes the English newbie pilot (John Mills), whose commanders are Trevor Howard and Michael Redgrave. We never see what happens on their bombing missions, since we never leave the base or the village. But we hear about those who never come back, and then everyone shows great restraint and utters such lines as “Terribly sorry” and “Bad show.” To shed a tear would be indecorous and in frightfully bad taste. Then the Yanks arrive, stereotypically loud and cocky, led by the quiet Douglass Montgomery and the brash Italian Bonar Colleano Jr. There are also the women (Rosamund John, Renee Asherson) who quietly do their duty and wait for the men to pluck up the courage for a kiss. Young Jean Simmons appears to sing a lively song at a dance.


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Thursday, May 26, 2011
The motion picture marketplace rarely defends the author. In this case, the scribe wins.

There’s nothing fancy about the direction. Relative newcomer Bryan Singer would cement his status as an A-list filmmaker with the one-two bunch of X-Men, and X2. As for the acting, well, the cast was a crazy cobbled together combination of formidable foreign power (Gabriel Byrne) two soon to be Oscar winners (an almost unrecognizable Benecio Del Toro and Kevin Spacey), a ‘not Alec’ and now born-again Baldwin (Stephen) and a stand up barely holding his own (Kevin Pollak). Toss in a former Academy fave (Chazz Palminteri), a couple of recognizable character players (Dan Hedaya and Pete Postlethwaite) and one lone female for good measure (Suzy Amis) and you’ve got a crackerjack company. From the gritty NY to LA feel to the Singer’s cinematic splashes, The Usual Suspects (new to the book and Blu-ray release dynamic) is one of the best remembered films of the ‘90s.


But the real reason it continues to resonate, even after more than a decade as part of the motion picture mythos, is Chris McQuarrie’s award winning script. Intricate, inventive, and owing as much to old school dialogue as the similarly stereotyped “twist” ending, the screenplay became endemic. It sits alongside the work of Quentin Tarantino and early M. Night Shyamalan as examples of the writer guiding the artistic and aesthetic approach of the film format. Since then, some have taken this mandate to overreaching extremes, loading their works with way too many words and “aren’t we clever” convolutions. But it’s not just a question of quirky dialogue, narrative nuance, and character/circumstantial depth. In the case of The Usual Suspects, what’s not included is just as important as what is. McQuarrie doesn’t indulge in a scribe’s desire to make everything about the words. Instead, he lets his approach handle much of the magic.


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Thursday, May 26, 2011
Shakespeare once wrote that, in order to get to the truth, "the play's the thing." In the case of this otherwise effervescent bit of primary color eye candy, the writing is the least compelling - and successful - element.

Movies can never exist solely on one flawless aspect of their production. A great performance cannot compensate for shoddy direction and bad production design. Similarly, a great looking effort with amazing dialogue and flashy filmmaking can’t overcome a crap actor. Instead, amusement is a mysterious symbiosis of complementary, not competing part. In the case of Gnomeo and Juliet, Touchstone’s long gestating comedic CG take on Willy Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, there is so much to like, so many elements to drink in and adore, that when the movie’s main stumble block shows up, you’re almost reluctant to let it ruin your good time. Unfortunately, the flaw is so massive and unavoidable that, once recognized, the rest of this otherwise enjoyable piffle simply implodes.


The re-imagined narrative has lawn ornaments Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) living in separate gardens in the sunny English suburbs. Owned by Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) and Mrs. Montague (Julie Walters) respectively, their lives revolve around their friends, families, and a feud that has going on for as long as anyone can remember. Based in part on their primary coloring - blue for Gnomeo, red for Juliet - and a chief concern among the leaders, Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith) and Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), the clans are constantly at each other’s pointed hats, attempting to settle their disputes with pranks and the occasional lawn mower race. While Gnomeo’s main rival Tybalt (Jason Statham) constantly pushes the envelope of propriety, a weird balance is maintained…that is, until our porcelain star crossed lovers are discovered. Then, it’s every outdoor fixture for themselves in an all out knick knack battle royale.


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Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Here, Argento, as a director, is building his signature style out of the ashes of his previous successes and his desire to try new and inventive techniques.

It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it’s a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Such was the case with Dario Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the Animal Trilogy of giallo-style thrillers (represented by the titles, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and would later be labeled the heir to Hitchcock. 


With such an achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento’s use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, and left the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.


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