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

 
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Friday, Aug 18, 2006


No one explores the seemingly uninteresting nooks and crannies of the US quite like director John Sayles. One of the veteran indie director’s signatures is the intriguing way in which he singles out region-specific communities, documenting life in small towns the world over. It is a formula that has worked for the auteur for years and this gimmick yields a high payoff that remains timely and fresh, but often a tad macho. In 1992’s Passion Fish, Sayles tries a more feminine approach and proves again that he can still speak volumes with a simple, straight-forward character-driven piece accompanied by an amazing natural setting (the geographic location this time out is the sometimes treacherous, lush bayou and swamp country of Louisiana; photographed with love). The parish in question plays out like any other aspect of the film and Sayles incorporates the mythology of his characters into that of the land. We get to see the interaction between “Cajun” and “Yankee”, healthy and disabled, and man and woman.


The film follows two women: May-Alice and Chantal (Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard) are from wildly opposite ends of the socio-economic scales. Mary-Alice is a bitchy, self-involved soap opera actress passed her prime who is randomly hit by a taxicab and rendered paraplegic. She is an acidly bitter character: drinking to calm her pain and acting like a maniacal shrew to anyone who gets close enough for her to yell at (A hilarious montage shows a series of home care workers in various states of craziness being dispatched by the lady of the house, in fits of hysterical self-destructiveness). The sequence brings us to Chantal, a former nurse who comes to take care of May-Alice. She badly needs the job and puts up with the rebellious, reprehensible behavior of her employer every day out of sheer desperation. Chantal’s story is every bit as intriguing as May-Alice’s: she is a former drug user trying to regain custody of her daughter.


The pairing is lyrical, though each performer’s style couldn’t be any more different. They play off of one another to hilarious, moving effect; each bringing in a wicked sense of humor along with their open hearts. The transition from a starchy employer/employee relationship into a cautiously friendly one is then matched by something much more interesting: they become dependant on one another, creating palpable honesty and an intimacy as actors and as their characters. McDonnell has some awesome moments: her alcoholic rants, her bitterness over being paralyzed, and her challenging scenes of physical rehabilitation all play out with equal ease. In the less flashy part, Woodard’s calm, casual demeanor and her guarded mind are what make Chantal so engrossing. Even with her very sad past, Woodard never overplays or gets overly-sentimental. Chantal makes it clear she is not a victim and is perfectly in control. It is a rare treat to be able to see two richly-drawn female characters such as these unfold at the leisurely pace they do.


Passion Fish is an elegant and simple tale that is only highlighted by Sayles’ vivid writing techniques: we get to know the land and its inhabitants again through their pain, as they retreat to the soothing country to heal. This is a constant theme throughout Sayles’ body of work, but here the ladies endow their story with a sweetness that is missing from the director’s other more tense, masculine films. The film is a more modern throwback to the “woman’s picture” era when movies about the fairer sex overcoming life’s obstacles were actually box-office successes and celebrated by the masses. Though Sayles is operating, ironically, in the world of “soap operas”, he thankfully spares us the schmaltz and high drama, preferring to remain ardently true to his characters - two women dealt a bad hand coping the best way they know how: by relying on the kindness of strangers.


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Thursday, Aug 17, 2006

It’s fairly hit and miss this weekend at your favorite pay TV premium channels. Frankly, the fact that there’s anything decent during what is typically viewed as the graveyard shift of the television season is surprising. HBO has a horrible entry, a misfire by two usually gifted big screen performers, while Showtime is repeating Tyler Perry’s first filmed “gospel play”. Then again, Cinemax is premiering its exclusive run of the already aired comic book classic from 2005, centering on that infamous man who loved bat dancing, while Starz delivers a much maligned masterwork from Elf director Jon Favreau. Depending on your particular motion picture bent, it’s either feast of famine over the next few days. Our money is on the fanciful and the fantastic, versus the mediocre and the near-minstrel. Specifically, here’s what you have to look forward to:


HBOTwo for the Money

Bombs Away! It’s August, and yet Home Box Office insists upon serving us turkey. This lackluster gambling thriller from last year featured a decent Matthew McConaughey, a plaster peeling Pacino, and lots of shots of men staring at televised sports. Director D.J. Caruso, a somewhat successful TV helmer, had a minor hit with the Angelina Jolie serial killer film Taking Lives in 2004. This, apparently, gave him the clout to create a rambling, routine story of innocence, and wagers, lost. There is probably a good story about the sins of betting somewhere in this misguided mess. Maybe cable is the perfect place to try and find it. Good luck. (Premieres Saturday 19 August, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxBatman Begins*

Though it’s already premiered on sister station HBO, there’s no time like the present to get acquainted – or for fans, reacquainted – with Christopher Nolan’s exceptional reimagining of the Dark Knight saga. Featuring near perfect casting (something that the just announced sequel seems to be already lacking) and a more psychologically dense interpretation of the Bat/Bruce character, what Tim Burton’s mid-‘80s jumpstart promised, Nolan and Christian Bale definitely delivered. In fact, the former American Psycho might just be the best actor ever to take on the superhero challenge. While Spidey still holds the prize for overall comic creativity (thanks to a certain Mr. Raimi), this is one reborn franchise that definitely deserves to live on. (Premieres Saturday 19 August, 10:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


Starz Zathura*

One of the most misunderstood and unjustly underrated films of last year, Zathura suffered from something called “The Jumanji Syndrome”. Both marketers and critics decided to buzzword this exceptional fantasy to death, making the connection between Jon Favreau’s fine sci-fi adventure and that long ago excuse for some post-Jurassic CGI more meaningful than it was. True, author Chris Van Allsburg was responsible for the books both were based on (he also write The Polar Express), but that’s where the similarities end. Jumanji was an over hyped Robin Williams vehicle with significant narrative flaws. Zathura, on the other hand, is a new classic. (Premieres Saturday 19 August, 9:00pm EST)



PopMatters Review


Showtime Too Diary of a Mad Black Woman

A lot of critics despise Tyler Perry and his “chitlin’ circuit” efforts, but this critic finds him a deeply compelling, occasionally inventive performer. While Diary doesn’t do his crazed comic character, the gun-toting, pot smoking out of control Grandma Mabel “Madea” Simmons justice (only the stage plays prove her amazing mantle), this racially specific dramedy deserves some respect for reaching out to a demographic not usually in tune with what Tinsel Town has to offer. If you take the entire experience with a huge grain of cinematic salt (yes, you saw right - that is a man playing an elderly woman) you’ll more than likely be able to find the meaning inside this mess. Besides, you have to admit it; Perry is pretty funny, sometimes. (Saturday 19 August, 7pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


Turner Classic Movies: August: Summer Under the Stars Month

Leave it to the classic film channel to find novel ways of constantly recycling its catalog of amazing Tinsel Town artifacts. In August, the station will salute several celebrated names from Hollywood’s Golden Age upward, using each daylong promotion as an excuse to screen numerous offerings from the specific star’s catalog. A few of the highlights for the week of 19 August to 25 August are:



19 August – Audrey Hepburn

She was sophistication and urbanity in an era pushing for more realism and Method alienation. That this elegant lady survived to become an icon to both fashion and fame is a testament to her talent, and her radiant charms. Enjoy the following line-up of loveliness:
6:00 am Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)*
7:30 am Children’s Hour, The (1961)* 
9:30 am Charade (1963)* 
11:45 am Love In The Afternoon (1957) 
2:00 pm Sabrina (1954)* 
4:00 pm Always (1989) 
6:00 pm Funny Face (1957)
8:00 pm My Fair Lady (1964)* 
11:00 pm Nun’s Story, The (1959) 
2:00 am Wait Until Dark (1967)* 
4:00 am Green Mansions (1959) 


22 August – Rita Hayworth

To many, she remains a mere pinup, a glamour gal whose far more remembered for being a part of every WWII GI’s barracks (and a certain Shawshank prisoner’s wall) than for any performance she ever gave. But this raven-haired honey made an impact on the silver screen, with a sexual potency prevalent in many of the following features:
6:00 am Rita (2003)* 
7:00 am Renegade Ranger (1938) 
8:30 am Susan And God (1940) 
10:30 am Strawberry Blonde, The (1941) 
12:30 pm Pal Joey (1957)* 
2:30 pm Money Trap, The (1966) 
4:30 pm Only Angels Have Wings (1939) 
6:45 pm Music in My Heart (1940)* 
8:00 pm Loves of Carmen, The (1948)* 
10:00 pm Gilda (1946)* 
12:00 am Lady From Shanghai, The (1948)*
1:30 am Rita (2003) 
2:30 am Affectionately Yours (1941) 
4:00 am Wrath Of God, The (1972) 


25 August – Jimmy Stewart

He’s everyman and no one, a symbol of something beyond our concept of humanity and decency, and yet a performer so slippery he could play almost any kind of character and make it believable. Though the dearth of Hitckcock here is disturbing, the rest of this day’s celebration is sensational, including:
6:00 am After The Thin Man (1936) 
8:00 am Of Human Hearts (1938) 
9:45 am Shopworn Angel, The (1938) 
11:15 am Shop Around The Corner, The (1940)* 
1:00 pm Malaya (1949) 
2:45 pm Far Country, The (1955) 
4:30 pm Night Passage (1957)* 
6:15 pm Naked Spur, The (1953) 
8:00 pm Shenandoah (1965)* 
10:00 pm Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)* 
12:15 am Stratton Story, The (1949) 
2:15 am Bell, Book and Candle (1959)* 
4:15 am No Time For Comedy (1940) 


* = PopMatters Picks


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Wednesday, Aug 16, 2006
We mentioned it in Monday’s Front Page Round-Up of Fringe Films of the Fall that we at Short Ends and Leader are interested in. Now you can view the seizure-inducing trailer for yourself in glorious Quicktime. Make sure you’ve had your medication, though. This is one smash/jump-cut happy ride.


The Marine Trailer


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Wednesday, Aug 16, 2006


Bruno Kirby’s career was made up of mostly supporting roles. He was almost never the lead, nor did he ever have to carry an entire motion picture on his spry Italian shoulders. Instead, he was the perfect partner, a flashy fireplug who used his passion and his presence to match up flawlessly with his usually more famous co-stars. His death on 14, August 2006 at a mere 57 years of age (after a battle with leukemia) marked the end of a still strong, still vital acting career. Easily moving between crazy comedy and intense drama, Kirby’s credits were varied, and always interesting. It argued for his versatility as a performer, as well as his no nonsense upbringing – a philosophy that emphasized the work, not the size of the dressing room or the number of lines.


Born 28 April, 1949 in New York City, Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu Jr. was the son of famed character actor Bruce Kirby. His childhood on the outskirts of the greatest city in the world left a lasting impression on both his personality and his voice. Gifted with that hilarious honk that highlighted a certain ethnicity and spirit, Bruno would parlay his heritage into an amazingly diverse creative canon. Starting out while in his early 20’s Bruno made notable appearances in TV shows like MASH, and in movies like Cinderella Liberty. While on the set of the 1972 sitcom The Super, Bruno would become friends with co-star Richard S. Costello. It was an auspicious combination, as the rotund Italian American character actor was just about to become famous as Clemenza, Vito Corleone’s right hand muscle in that year’s masterpiece The Godfather. When Francis Ford Coppola was looking for someone to play the larger than life figure as a young man, thoughts immediately turned to Bruno, and soon, the relative novice found himself working alongside eventual Oscar winner (for his supporting work as the young Vito) Robert DeNiro in the equally epic sequel.


It was a sign of good things to come. Bruno parlayed the part into a series of sensational supporting turns. He was Marty Lewis, the fictitious version of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner opposite Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980). He was Albert Brooks’ best friend in Modern Romance (1981) and was extremely memorable as the Frank Sinatra loving chauffer mandated to drive the unappreciative Spinal Tap around in that famous 1984 mockumentary. As he got older, he started splitting his time between comedy, and more serious, dramatic fare. He was the by the book antagonist to Robin Williams free-spirited DJ in Good Morning, Vietnam, and costarred as the cynical pal of Billy Crystal in two extremely popular mainstream comedies – 1989’s When Harry Met Sally and 1991’s City Slickers. He even reconnected with his Godfather roots, starring opposite the legendary Marlon Brando in the mobster spoof The Freshman (1990).


Throughout the ‘90s, Bruno continued to excel in parts that combined his Mediterranean heritage with his genial, almost goofy, good nature. From Nicky (opposite another Corleone, Al Pacino) in Donnie Brasco to a pair of performances as leading attorneys in two of the nation’s most famous landmark trials - he was Barry Sheck of OJ fame in 2000’s American Tragedy, and Vince Bugliosi in the 2004 remake of Helter Skelter  - he remained ever sharp, always careful to be both true and interpretive of the people he was playing. Most recently, he was part of the exciting ensemble that makes Entourage one of HBO’s most popular satiric series. Unfortunately, he was already aware of his circumstances. When he learned of his illness a few months ago, Bruno swore he would battle until the end. Sadly, the conclusion came far too soon for such a tremendously talented man. While his career may have been made up of moments, it will be the overall oeuvre that forever defines the amazing Bruno Kirby.


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Tuesday, Aug 15, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 3: Mother India
1957, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Mehboob Khan


Mother India is Pather Panchali’s commercial counterpart: a sweeping epic about a poor, beautiful village woman struggling to raise her crops and feed her family. A box-office blockbuster in its day. Mother India is a mélange of Sounder and The Grapes of Wrath. The movie, an ode to the hordes of rural laborers who make up the backbone of the economy, was a matter of pride for post-Independence-Nehru India and became the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. The film’s socialist director, Mehboob Khan, used the narrative as a platform to advocate the central beliefs of his party. Forty years later, in an India fat with success, the leftist ideals of Mother India seem dated. But only ten years before its release, the partition of Pakistan sparked a series of devastating communal riots across the subcontinent, leading to the murder of thousands of Hindus and Muslims. It seemed that in a country obsessed with belief, the only way for its disparate peoples to survive alongside one another was without religion - organized religion, that is.  Faith as a primal vehicle for life and ritual is very much alive in Mother India, and the visual symbols and references to Hindu mythology and practice is what gives the film its raw, emotional power: the eternal wheel of life echoed in the roll of the plough from the beleaguered oxen, as well as the film’s title, the nation embodied as Mother, the pagan sacred goddess of life and death, articulated with quivering intensity by the film’s radiant star, Nargis.


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