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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


They don’t call them ‘the formative years’ for nothing. Our past constantly crashes into the present reminding us of the many reasons we become the people we are. As a result, we love to wallow in such nostalgic glimpses of shame, frustration, and accomplishment. They seem to support our own shaky self image, and add up to a universal connection between generations and personalities. Perhaps one day, a filmmaker will come along and find a way to tap into the inherent satiric possibilities of such blissful backwards glancing. If you’re looking for a joyless, toothless mess of a comedy that tries to use individual development as a means of metering out laughs, than the sad excuse for entertainment known as Mr. Woodcock will be right up your mangled memory lane.


There is a decent idea for a movie buried somewhere in this attention span testing nightmare. It floats along the surface of what is, in essence, a very forced bit of funny business. Even the story screams stupidity. After years away, self help guru John Farley (a desperate Seann William Scott) is awarded the Golden Corn Key by his Nebraska hometown. Using a trip back as an excuse to avoid a mind numbing book tour (organized by agent as soused aggravation Amy Poehler), John reconnects with his Mom (Susan Sarandon) and discovers the shocking news. The widow has been dating again – as a matter of fact, she’s going out with her son’s sadistic gym teacher from middle school, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thorton). The news dredges up painful, problematic memories for John, reminders of being mocked and abused by the buzz cut wearing jerk. He decides to use any means necessary to stop this possible partnership, especially now that wedding bells may be about to ring.


With the proper, no holds barred approach melded with a mean-spirited, manipulative script, this could be some hilarious stuff. But because of a preemptive PG-13 mandate from the studio, and a lack of any real intelligence or insight, this potential testosterone-laced standoff ends up a panty waisted wuss-out. It’s not just that the film is painfully unfunny – it fails to even understand why its jokes don’t begin to work. For example, when John complains to Woodcock that he doesn’t want to conform to some request, the emotionless man deadpans “do what you want. This isn’t Russia”. Similarly, during a last act battle royale for some manner of interfamilial superiority, every cornball catchphrase the PE coach has pulled out over the running time is regurgitated, as if to reemphasize how one note and completely superficial his prickly personality really is. Had the movie spent more time in the setup, showing John Farley as a sad little boy in a constant war with Woodcock, any payoff would have some context. But all we get are lame ‘lame’ kid riffs, followed by more dull Wood-cockiness. 


In yet another variation of his by now stereotypical ornery, wiry SOB persona (something he popularized with similarly styled efforts like Bad Santa and The Bad News Bears remake), Thorton plays the title character like a man wearing a peanut sized jock strap. His body suggests a few stints in rehab, not a lifetime in service of the President’s Physical Fitness Program. As a star, he really only has two modes – passive and peculiar – and yet he manages neither here. There is no chemistry with co-star Sarandon (who seems to be following the Diane Keaton “do any script that comes your way” version of a late in life career change) and very little believable combativeness with Scott. Indeed, when watching him work, you’d swear that Thorton was phoning this one in – and using one of those early ‘80s shoe box sized suckers to do it with.


The story also suffers from being wildly unfocused and full of unexplored tangents. Scott is given a gal pal, apparently, to prove he’s not some manner of failed momma’s boy, yet the possible plot thread NEVER goes anywhere. Similarly, he hooks up with one of his old classmates (My Name is Earl’s Ethan Suplee) in his plot for revenge. After one stint with a video camera, and another involving a little breaking and entering, said avenue of discovery is tossed aside. Even during one of several false finales (Scott lets the town have it in a pseudo scathing, subpar speech) we feel the ethereal brakes constantly being applied, filmmakers or fixtures behind the scenes stopping the comedy from ever getting too extreme or biting. Indeed, when a raging lush like Poehler’s character can’t get her alcohol fueled groove on (she has a sad seduction sequence in a bar), we’re witnessing watered down humor at its most bland.


None of this speaks well for novice director Craig Gillespie. A creator of TV commercials for the last two decades, his idea of cinematic innovation and intrigue is to preprogram specific beats and overlong laughter pauses into the actually narrative. Thorton will let rip with one of his listless macho man maxims, and the movie will actually wait until you’re done chortling. Even worse, sight gags and slapstick are regularly stifled so that the accompanying audience appreciation can be metaphysically measured. If timing is everything in comedy, Gillespie is a broken Bulova that’s lost its quartz crystal. From the lack of any realism in the performances (though humor can be fanciful, it should have an anchor in some kind of authenticity), to the sloppy and unsatisfactory wrap up, to the various dangling plot points, this is a director who suggests that every new film will be another act of apprenticeship.


Mr. Woodcock is not really a crowd pleaser or some kind of ‘dumb as dirt’ delight. Instead, it’s an apparent attempt to reset the demarcation when determining the lowest common denominator. If you enjoy wit wrapped around the repetition of one single snicker (John has to hear the employees of a pizza parlor constantly referencing his mother’s sexual prowess with the title character), or an obvious joke name (the brain pan appreciation of Beavis and Butthead immediately comes to mind), then this cinematic sludge is your perfect escapist exercise. Finding it mindless won’t be hard, since there’s not a single slice of gray matter swimming in its spoof. Perhaps the only thing more depressing than a movie that can’t manage the opportunities it has is one that specifically ignores them to go for the crotch shot. This is the filmic version of a football to the groin – with only the plentiful pain remaining.



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Friday, Sep 14, 2007


Part of the fun of Fall is seeing the kind of creativity (thematically and/or pragmatically) that Hollywood has determined deserves awards consideration. So far, it seems like acts of gregarious violence, self-destruction, and vigilante justice are earning all the hype. Toss in takes on the Iraq war, the standard familial malaise, and a singing serial killer/barber, and it’s going to be an eccentric mix to say the least. It’s a lot like the offerings on your favorite pay cable channels this week. Mixed in with an independent comedy and some quirky rock and roll retardation, there is a decent detective flick and a horrendous kiddie fantasy adventure. For SE&L’s scratch, the best offerings remain limited to the Indie and Outsider arena. Still, as more and more Oscar bait hits the theaters, you can count on your televisual buddy to pony up the paltry, the processed, and the prepackaged. It seems to go with the seasonal territory. Whatever the case, here’s your best bet this 15 September weekend:


Premiere Pick
Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny


Though he seems like nothing more than a post-millennial anomaly, Jack Black has been around a lot longer than you think. From a minor role in Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts to a noted turn as a gung-ho soldier in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, the slightly psycho comedian has been acting, consistently since 1991. Yet it was his pairing with Kyle Gass and the creation of the Tenacious D – both as a band and HBO series – that skyrocketed him into the realm of…well, let’s just say it put his already known name definitively on the mainstream map. Since then, he’s made waves in big time blockbusters (King Kong) and his own idiosyncratic starring parts (Nacho Libre, The School of Rock). So why did this D revisit fail to ignite box office benefits? Part of the reason remains the program’s considered cult status. But it’s also clear that Black has outgrown the madman metal head persona. And audiences weren’t ready to see him revisit his past – at least, not yet.  (15 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Hollywoodland


The death of TV Superman George Reeves is still shrouded in mystery. A notorious kept man, many have ruled his apparent suicide the act of a criminal cabal hoping to remove the taint of scandal from a high profile Tinsel Town marriage. This fictional film version of the tale implies and infers a great deal. Unfortunately, aside from the excellent performances, we really gain very little legitimate insight. It ends up a standard incomplete whodunit. (15 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

Zoom


Kid cinema has earned a rather repugnant reputation as of late, and movies like this one are the readily apparent reason why. Tim Allen freefalls even further in an already dying career arc as the ex-super hero leader of a think tank desperate to bring new underage conquerors to the world of humanity saving. It’s basically Mystery Men for the tween set, with lots of toilet humor and slapstick stupidity to reinforce the falseness. (15 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

50 Pills


There is nothing more frustrating in the world of independent cinema than a filmmaker who doesn’t recognize the inherent value in the story they are striving to tell. Somewhere along the line, first-time feature helmer Theo Avgerinos got his cinematic wires crossed. Instead of taking this screenplay and cutting out all the quirky callbacks, he let the eccentricities subvert his subject, leaving us feeling overwhelmed by goofiness and angered by the lack of emotional heft. (15 September, Showtime, 12:30AM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Swingers


Eleven years ago, Jon Favreau and Doug Liman paired up with pals Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston to create this cult classic about pals putting on airs to score with the ladies. In retrospect, the combo didn’t do too bad for themselves. Liman went on to direct the first Jason Bourne film, as well as the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie romcom shoot ‘em up Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Favreau is currently in the creative hot seat, taking on comic book hero Iron Man for his long awaited big screen incarnation. And Vaughn has vaulted to the A-list of actors with his turns in Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball and the upcoming seasonal comedy Fred Claus. Yet the fun of revisiting this film more than a decade later is seeing all this talent concentrated in one small budgeted space. The movie’s mix of moxie and the moronic created a minor cultural phenomenon, with college kids calling each other “money” as a term of endearment. Nowadays, it functions as a window into the world of up and coming ‘90s icons. (20 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Siesta


Former music video director Mary Lambert made an impressive big screen debut with this surrealistic story of an amnesiac who can’t remember what she did the day before. Somewhere, in her head, she believes she may have killed someone. Overloading the noir-ish narrative with all manner of visual flair, many believed this director was destined for greatness. Sadly, she seems to have only stumbled since. (17 September, Sundance Channel, 10:50PM EST)

Project Grizzly


Troy Huturbise is fascinated by grizzly bears. Unfortunately, his desire to study them up close has lead to a problem – potential death. Viciously attack and left barely alive, it’s been his overriding goal to build an armored suit to allow for such intimate study. This documentary investigates the obsessed man’s motives, as well as the many machinations his bear-proof get up has gone through. (17 September, Sundance Channel, 11PM EST)

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels


Guy Ritchie gave gun heads something to cheer about when he combined the best of Hong Kong ammo action and Quentin Tarantino’s rapid fire resolve to create this kinetic UK crime comedy. While not as good as the near flawless Snatch, it is a perfect example of what made the moviemaker a cause celeb several years ago – and why his fading fortunes are all the more depressing. (18 September, Sundance Channel, 11:15PM EST)

Outsider Option
Intermezzo


It’s impossible to deny Ingrid Bergman’s beauty. The Swedish knock out was indeed incredibly easy on the eyes. Yet she was also a terrific actress, bringing a genuine warmth and sense of sophistication to the roles she essayed. In this, her first American feature, she plays the new piano instructor of a married violinist’s little daughter. The two adults become instantly smitten, and while on tour, their feelings grow. Yet the noted virtuoso (played expertly by Leslie Howard) realizes he still has strong ties to his wife and kids. It all gets very melodramatic and weepy (most movies in the 1930s were like that), but thanks to the stellar performances, and Gregory Ratoff’s direction, audiences left more than happy. Many will continue to claim that the original Swedish version of the story (this Intermezzo is a remake) was more powerful, but for bringing Bergman to our sunny shores, this film deserves its due. (20 September, Retroplex, 6:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Phantoms


Dean R. Koontz has consistently found himself a literary second to genuine horror maestro Stephen King. But one place where the pair of genre novelists seems to find common ground is in lame cinematic adaptations of their work. While Maine’s finest can claim more examples of bad filmmaking, Koontz’s works are also exasperatingly awful. Not even an appearance here by Ben Affleck can save this good vs. evil in a small town tripe. (20 September, Flix, 6:15PM EST)

Pinball Summer


It’s time for a little Canadian coming of age as two teenage boys chase girls and get in trouble during one memorable ‘70s sun-drenched vacation. Though the title was eventually changed to Pick-up Summer (perhaps to stress the random nudity involved), the film still feels like a routine rite of passage. So tap into your last lingering hormones and get ready to finger the flippers until the machine goes TILT! (20 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 7PM EST)

The Black Sleep


It’s the standard scare stuff – a heartbroken scientist goes mad trying to cure his wife’s brain tumor. A few dozen disturbing cranial operations later, and he’s managed to create a race of fiendish freaks. But thanks to the presence of the stellar Basil Rathbone, this TCM Underground offering promises some bold b-movie pleasures.  (21 September, Turner Classic Movies, 2:15AM EST)

 


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Thursday, Sep 13, 2007


Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty to instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.


With a title that suggests the start of an epic poem or perhaps a fairy tale, The Brave One is a startling achievement for stars Jodie Foster and Terrance Howard, and yet another notch in the growing artistic oeuvre of Neil Jordan. On its surface, it’s a standard revenge flick, the story of a young woman torn apart by violence and loss. But it’s also much more than that. It’s an excuse for empowerment in a post 9/11, Red State/Blue State, Yellow Alert existence. It’s Bernard Goetz bobbed up and beautified. It’s every bad cliché about the criminal element crammed into a single symbol of white flight disgust. Compare it to Foster’s first Oscar nominated effort or the shallowest of Charles Bronson’s deathly designs, but the final statement argues for our identification as an audience and our sense of satisfaction as a citizenry. That’s why it’s manipulative and ethically unstable. It’s also why this becomes one of the best, most deep and disarming films of the year.


At the heartbroken center of this story is Erica, a maturing Manhattan gal who spends her days “walking the city”. As part of her public radio show, our heroine captures the tantalizing tone poems that make up her frequently baffling burg, and she translates them into thoughts of endearment, of specialness, and space. She’s madly in love with her doctor boyfriend David, and the two share a kind of intimate peace that veils them in a shroud of sensed security. All of that changes one fateful evening. David is beaten to death by a nameless gang of thugs, and Erica is left in a coma. Once she awakens, she’s unable to cope with her loss. Days are spent drifting from dawn to darkness. Nights are lost in cold sweat visions of her violation. Deciding the only way to reclaim her life is via personal protection, Erica buys a gun.


Thus begins her decent into a kind of unfathomable urban madness. A freak use of the weapon creates a combination of physical unease and psychological satisfaction. Another use and Erica begins to change. Jordan’s main theme here is the notion of transformation. He uses the character to explore dozens of life altering events. Within the span of a few short weeks, our heroine loses her lover, her impending marriage, her inherited in-laws, her plans for the future, her stability within her insular world, the career she counted on (it’s still there, but in fragments), her physiological wholeness, her freedom, her faith in her fellow man, her naiveté, her understanding – and last but certainly not least – her principles. When she pulls out her handgun for the first time, it’s as if a foul force of nature has taken over. By the end of the movie, such an action becomes disturbingly instinctual.


Mirroring this fate in flux conceit is Erica’s “nemesis” – the cop on the beat who intends to take down this vigilante scourge. The tender Terrence Howard seems, at first, an odd choice for the role. He doesn’t bring his bad mother trucker game from Hustle and Flow, nor is he trying to be a basic by the book policeman. Instead, we sense a similar emptiness in him, a hollowed out place where his ex-wife, his career, and his belief in justice used to be. When he lies to Erica (they meet several times throughout the course of the narrative) he feigns a more or less mild interest in what she does. Eventually we learn he is a true fan, someone who bought into every fanciful facet of her New York as Neverland experience. In many ways, The Brave One is a film about growing up. It’s about learning that the boogeyman really exists, and that in almost every situation you can imagine, it’s impossible to completely avoid his tainting touch.


Though it sounds slightly sexist to say it, The Brave One then becomes a movie about “manning up”, about taking the responsibility for your own being on your less than established shoulders.  The reasons why the performances here are so flawless (Foster alone deserves another Oscar, especially since she’s better here than in either of her previous award winning turns) is that Jordan makes his heroes all too humble. Even when she’s sensing the building bravado of pointing a loaded pistol at a sleazy pervert, or reclaiming a small part of her past by tracking down her original assailants, Erica is not a champion. Indeed, in Foster’s fascinating way, we realize how desperate and destructive each act of reciprocal violence is. When shown, the killings are bloody and very brutal, overemphasized stylistically with amplified sound and slow motion fervor. Jordan is announcing the importance of each act, signifying how they will come to mold our lead, as well as underscore every event that comes afterword. Erica’s actions are not without consequences. Whether they’re ever linked to her is another story all together.


Howard is also looking to connect, and the lack of fairness in this – or any other – world is what binds him so solidly to these crimes. In some ways, he’s as much an enabler as someone trying to stop the spree. His conversations with Foster are filled with emotional fissures, gaping holes of humanity looking for emotional mortar to fill them. We see the union building between the pair, the sheepish grins they share in each other’s presence, the critical game of cat and mouse they play as hunter/prey and victim/vindicator. Some will miss all this subtle subtext, viewing the relationship between Erica and Mercer as a RomCon conceit without the bravery to take it to the next level. Others will see it as service to a story that doesn’t want to turn Jodie Foster into a cosmopolitan version of Henry Lee Lucas. But the fact is, we are dealing with a bond built on vicarious role reversal. Erica is doing what Mercer can’t. He’s finding the meaning his now joyless job once held. Similarly, she’s wielding the power a policeman holds. It can’t replace David, but perhaps, the sense of strength and purpose can begin to close the wound.


This is monumental, moving stuff, the kind of film that folds you into it cinematic sphere of influence and never lets go for the entire running time. Long after it’s over, the circumstances and situations keep playing over and over in your head. Indeed, if you really want to see the difference between mere professional filmmaking and a near masterwork, just check out James Wan’s journeyman take on similar subject matter, Death Sentence. There, Kevin Bacon turns into a skin-headed psycho, a man so overwhelmed with gratuitous grief (his entire family is slaughtered) that he turns to wrath as a means of marking time. But when Foster fires her weapon, and feels the release and the revitalization that occurs, we are seeing something more than just payback. We are witnessing the awakening of something dark and disturbing. Once unleashed, however, it can never be contained. Perhaps that’s why bravery is required – both to live with it, and through it.


 


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Wednesday, Sep 12, 2007

No matter the time of year or cinematic season, the film business loves to accent its mainstream titles with the occasional obscure, off the wall effort. Usually hoping to achieve a kind of ‘sleeper’ status, these fringe films are frequently geared toward a certain viewership or specific section of the seemingly endless audience. While often blatant in who they’re aiming for, the vast majority of these movies are nothing more than gambles. They’re a production company or noted distributor tossing the dice to see if sevens, or snakes eyes, comes up. Typically, the questionable returns on efforts like these would limit their merchandising possibilities. But thanks to the digital revolution, where product is practically creating itself, a soundtrack seems like an easily achievable addition. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will wade through the Summer scrapheap, looking for any and all aural gems amongst the motion picture pile. While the pickings may appear slim, there are actually a few grins amongst the garbage. 


Music from the Motion Picture Hot Rod [rating: 6]


It’s relatively easy to define eras by their aural backdrop. Put on a selection of merry Mersey Beat tunes, or a sampling of solid grunge, and the nods of ‘60s/’90s recognition (respectively) are hard to deny. Even a more perplexing epoch like the ‘70s can be summed up with a mixtape tricked out with disco, prog, or a proper balance of punk and pop (or for a clever combination of the two, The Ramones). But when it comes to the ‘80s, all bets are off. It was a time period that seamlessly embraced new wave, hair metal, adult contemporary, hip hop, and the emerging genres of techno and gansta rap. By the time Kurt Cobain primal screamed his way to the top of the charts, the decade had reset its cultural landscape several times over. So to call the soundtrack to SNL cult figure Andy Samberg’s screwhead comedy Hot Rod a paean to the Greed Decade is actually too broad a delineation. It is actually a homage to a couple of quintessential bands, accentuated with some wonderfully weird hidden beauties.


Europe is one of the groups in question, and they get four tracks on this combination music and movie dialogue disc. Actually, the inclusion of riffs from the film itself seems kind of pointless, since without the proper context, the comedy fails to resonate, even as a souvenir. But the boys from Sweden really turn up the sonic screech with such guitar power pomp as “Danger on the Track”, “Time Had Come”, “Rock the Night”, and the politically inconclusive (if not quite incorrect) “Cherokee”. For instant flashback fodder, Stacey Q shows up to coo away on the classic “Two of Hearts”, while Cutting Crew tries to glamorize the grimness of a title like “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”. But it’s the formerly unknown entries by Australian artists Moving Pictures (the amplified angst of “Never”) and John Farnham (the drop dead brilliant everyman anthem “You’re The Voice”) that really recommend this disc. They shine as brightly as anything the Norseman or incidental instrumentalist Trevor Rabin can contribute.


Bratz Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 1]


It’s a safe bet that parents who battled Barbie as an example of the repugnant pre-teen role modeling given their impressionable daughters never saw these doe eyed drama queens coming. The doll line – a sad excuse for underage fame whoring camouflaged as imaginative role play – is incredibly popular, and there have been many multimedia variations on its questionable glamour grrrl power routine. Yet unless you were preparing for puberty and Pro-Active-ing your blemishes, you probably weren’t aware that a live action kid flick was in the works. Arriving and diving near the end of the popcorn season, the infallible fashionistas as lamentable social statement were not quite the box office hit the toy manufacturers and demographically demanding marketers expected. Instead, Bratz The Movie was an unqualified disaster, raking in less hard sell scratch than the Itzy Pitzy Bratz Party Palace or the Forever Diamond Rollin’ Runway combined. The last bastion for a possible recoup remains the MTV-friendly soundtrack album. Yet its equally interchangeable nature and lack of artistic integrity dooms it to an equal sense of retail rejection.

A quick glance at the list of so-called musicians that make up this sorry excuse for a compilation immediately indicates your and the film’s, level of pop culture intuitiveness. Nonsensical names like Orianthi, Prima J, Brick & Lace and Jibbs bump sonic uglies with established ear wormers like Ashlee Simpson and Black Eyed Peas. The ratio of recognizeability to shrugged shoulders – at least to those whose biological age has finally reached double digits – is about 1 in 10. The music itself, however, is the same old manufactured dance beat drone you hear pouring out of iPods while online to make your own Teddy Bear at the mall. Nothing here stands out: not the diseased diva dumbness of “Rock Star”; not “Heartburn”‘s mid-tempo test of patience; not the ‘worship me’ waste of time “It’s All About Me”. And the rest is worse. Guardians who find the figurines an abominable social statement will not be prepared for the prepackaged push of this mindless, manufactured mess. While not a clear sign of the impending auditory Apocalypse, it’s a clear indication that the four mock rock horseman are getting ready to saddle up.


The Hottest State Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Back when his cache of youth coup stardom was still pretty full, Ethan Hawke managed to get the novel he wrote as a teen published. Entitled The Hottest State, the inward glancing effort was roasted by critics and dismissed by fans who wanted more of his Realty Bites slacker sense and less of his plain prose. Yet thanks to a latter career skirting the fringes of fame, working in highly regarded independent fare and earning an Oscar nod alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day, Hawke has gained a recognizable Renaissance stance. So it makes perfect sense in these days of camcorder creativity that the actor would revisit his semi-autobiographical turn. Putting on as many production caps as possible – actor, director, writer – Hawke delivered what many considered to be a massive improvement over his original naïve tome. While still an overwrought talk fest, it succeeded in shaking much of the misguided wonderment that hobbled his literary leanings.


Driven by the tentative lilt of acoustic guitars, much of The Hottest State’s soundtrack is reminiscent of open mic night down at the local folkie club. Well known names like Willie Nelson (“Always Seem to Get Things Wrong”) and the ethereal Emmylou Harris (the spectacular “Speed of Sound”) butt up against equally engaging work from bands like Bright Eyes (the whimsical and powerful “Big Old House”) and Rocha (who gets three tracks total). Jesse Harris, famed collaborator with Norah Jones (whose “World of Trouble” makes an appearance) was in charge of the overall score, and his finger picked instrumental pieces “There Are No Second Chances” and the accordion/trumpet tinged “Morning in a Strange City (Café)” provide a solid sense of atmosphere. Of his solo songs, “One Day the Damn Will Break” doesn’t hold the same tonal sway, while “Dear Dorothy” has a real honky tonk twist. There will be those who find his entire enterprise mopey and meandering, like a chill-out CD for the mildly depressed and only slightly socially maladjusted. But for a collection of soft country rock shuffles, accented by heartfelt performances and solid lyrics, it’s an excellent compendium. 


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Tuesday, Sep 11, 2007


They say it’s the toughest hurdle for a writer to overcome. Plot and characterization can draw on a dozen different elements, and subtext and themes usually arrive organically through the organization and creation process. But coming up with a title? Yeesh, that’s the benchmark between scribbler and scribe, talent and tool. If you’re looking for proof of such a literary reality, gaze no further than the last 10 years in George Lucas’ production career.


With the recent announcement of the new Indiana Jones IV movie moniker (more on that in a moment), Luke’s legitimate deadbeat dad is three for four in lousy cinematic handles. And if you thought nothing could compete with the serials gone South smell of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, wait until you feast your ill-prepared peepers on this newest nonsensical name. Unless it gets tweaked somewhere between the publicity and the close of production, the man in charge has hobbled pal Stephen Spielberg with the following lamentable label:


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Huh? What’s that again? Since when did this series suddenly see a new age Master of the Universe make-over? What, pray tell, does such a 1930’s name tell us about what to expect come May 2008? With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade, we at least had some idea of what was ahead – in each case, an ark, a temple, and a quest of some sort. And since each of the previous installments dealt with life or death, good vs. evil struggles, the mental movie began playing before a single section of celluloid was unspooled.


But what, exactly, is a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? At first glance it appears almost like gibberish, as if a videogame designer on a five Red Bull buzz simply typed random power words onto his laptop. Upon closer examination, part of the title entity could be a reference to the pre-Columbian myth surrounding the supposed mystical powers of 13 such carefully carved pieces of quartz. Though many of these relics are now considered to be the work of modern artisans, a legitimate claim of age suggests an ancient, spiritual spook show. Knowing Lucas, it could also be a throwback to the old comic strip hero The Phantom. Crystal skulls were used quite frequently in the masked hero’s adventures. 


So while the spy geek savants over at AICN and IGN decipher and dig into all manner of legal and questionable evidentiary sources in the neverending race for high tech scoops (they’ll figure this fiasco of a name out soon enough), it’s appropriate to pause and consider the overall state of the crappy movie title. There have been a rash of them lately - The Squid and the Whale, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. To be fair, it’s not that these monikers are meaningless. Some are taken from novels and other preexisting sources, while others reference important elements inherent to the storyline. But in many cases, simply stating the obvious doesn’t always provide the necessary understanding or knowledge – not even if you call yourself Scary Movie.


In truth, the worst film monikers are those that come as a direct result of a filmmaker’s unflappable belief in their own ideas. Others derive from studios unsure how to market the original onerous name. Then there are the cases where a foreign film arrives on these shores newly christened, all in an effort to get Westerners interested in what another part of the world has to say. When you add it all together, it’s plain that more goes into a truly terrible label than the “off the top of my head” conceits the concept suggests. Certainly arrogance, incompetence, and overreaching all play a part. But some things can’t be rationalized. After all, is there really a reasonable excuse for calling anything The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies? Didn’t think so. .


Which leads us back to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The rumor mill reports that LucasFilms actually submitted six potential titles to the MPAA and for potential copyright. For the record, they were:


Indiana Jones and the City of Gods
Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds
Indiana Jones and the Fourth Corner of the Earth
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Gold
Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Covenant


Apparently, old Georgie couldn’t decide which to choose, and threw a dart at his list. Seems his aim was pretty bad. Aside from Fourth Corner of the Earth (which really is no better than the final selection) the other four possibilities actually sound like realistic Raiders sequels. It’s not a clearly definable line – one man’s Destroyer of Worlds is another’s Quest for the Covenant - and let’s not forget that Lucas loves to create chaos where there’s calm. Before the DVD release of the original Indy trilogy, he insisted that the first film change its name to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to add “continuity” to the releases. Ugh.


And yet, this doesn’t really address the dilemma of a movie hampered by a horrible title. It’s hard to say if a lame name – or even more perplexing, a vague or uninteresting one – really affects awareness. Studios will state, unequivocally that branding is important to the successful selling of a film. But would The Wind that Shakes the Barley or The Shawshank Redemption play better to a mainstream audience if they were retitled The Anti-British Rebellion or Escape from Shawshank Prison, respectively? For that matter, could an obvious step outside the bonds of retail reason like Lust, Caution (Ang Lee’s latest, a WWII erotic espionage thriller) actual overcome both a bizarre moniker and an NC-17 rating to be anything other than an out of the way arthouse critical darling?


It will only get worse in the coming weeks. From the bland and uninspired Michael Clayton (which is really about more than the character forming the film’s identity) to Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (which is a lot like naming something after the classic HR Pufnstuf rhyme “Oranges, Poranges”) the art of summing up a film in a single, significant phrase is clearly a skill many inside the industry no longer possess. Unless it sings of the bleeding obvious, anything illustrative yet esoteric is truly beyond their grasp. It’s the main reason why every facet of a franchise and almost every segment of a series is stuck with a numerical nomenclature – Roman or regular.


All of which makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that much more depressing. It comes from a pair of talents that took American Graffiti and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and turned them into words that actually resonated with some kind of pre-release intrigue. True, both films found the majority of their classicism after they hit theaters – and the same could be said for any of the titles discussed here. But as the proposed Phantom Creeps components of the Star War prequels indicated, sometimes, a dumb name begets an even stupider movie. With its already potent feeling of “been there/done that”, and the ageism issues with the lead, here’s hoping the famed action hero archeologist’s trip to the land of glass heads it’s not a disaster in the making. While the pedigree suggests otherwise, the title tells a different story.


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