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

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Tuesday, Aug 1, 2006

Another Tuesday. Another influx of new releases eager to drain away your hard earned dollars. Summer is usually slow for major DVD titles, since local theaters are still delivering the popcorn fodder that ordinarily defines the season. Still, along with the myriad of typical fare being offered, including the original Yours, Mine and Ours (with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball doing the Brady Bunch mixed family thing), the 2006 revamp of The Shaggy Dog (leave it to Disney to remake even its lamest live action titles) and yet another digital dip for the mythic Magnificent Seven (making it a fifth release for this Seven Samurai remake) there are some celebrated discs worth considering. Earning the S.E.A.L. Seal of Approval for 1, August 2006 are the following DVDs that PopMatters readers might be interested in. In alphabetical order, they are:

Beavis and Butthead: The Mike Judge Collection Volume 3

– the final 40 episodes in creator Judge’s juggling of the Beavis and Butthead legacy, these music video-less vignettes are just not as effective without their pop culture commentaries. Still, for fans who’ve longed to see these delinquent dorks take “Woodshop”, battle “Head Lice” and consistently fail in their efforts to ‘score’, this last installment of the DVD series is well worth a look.

The Mr. Moto Collection: Volume 1

– as odd as it sounds to our current cultural sensitivity, Golden Age Hollywood had no problem letting a Hungarian character actor play a Japanese detective in a series of racially dubious mysteries. When the performer in question is the captivating Peter Lorre, however, some minor ethnic stereotyping can be tolerated. While never quite as popular as their cinematic cousins featuring Charlie Chan, the Moto movies remain fascinating curios to Tinsel Towns treatment of Asian culture, and one of its more intriguing artists.

Olivier’s Shakespeare (Criterion Collection)

– though his versions of the Bard’s classics may no longer be definitive (a certain Mr. Branagh could challenge his claim to such a statement) Laurence Olivier was definitely instrumental in bringing Shakespeare’s plays to a wider mainstream audience. Included here are his Oscar winning turns as Hamlet (1948), along with his nominated work in Henry V (1944) and Richard III (1955). As with all titles bearing the Criterion tag, the prints are perfect and the supplemental material divine.

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

– the unquestioned king of comedy delivers the definitive standup experience in this 1979 live performance. If you believe Dave Chappelle is the unwitting master of race-based humor, or deem that no one can out curse Chris Rock, here’s your chance to see the true titan of scandalous social criticism master his definitive domain. Forget his occasionally sloppy acting performances. This is the Pryor that built the legend.

Rude Boy

– the Clash, in all their slapdash DIY glory, costar in the quasi-fictional film about a roadie who takes up with the seminal punk band as they tour a socially strapped 1980s England. Though much of the drama is hackneyed and forced, there is no denying the group’s power as a live act. It may not be as effective as 2000’s masterful documentary Westway to the World, this is still a must see souvenir for anyone with found memories of the ‘only band that mattered’.

PopMatters DVD Review: Click HERE

V for Vendetta

– it seems like now, more than ever, we need a movie that advocates a people’s power to infiltrate and influence their government. Creator Alan Moore may be mad at the less than successful adaptation of his comic – sorry, GRAPHIC novel - and whine over how his ‘80s allegory has no significance in a post-2000 world, but with a script by those weird Wachowski Brothers and direction by Matrix alum James McTeigue, there is as much visual as political spectacle here.

PopMatters Film Review: Click HERE

What the ‘Bleep’ Do We Know: Down the Rabbit Hole Quantum Edition

– promising a more complex and interaction approach to the polarizing docu-drama-mentary, this three DVD set offers brand new material meant to further supplement (and complicate) an already contentious presentation. Many still find this film’s mixing of metaphysics and science more nonsensically New Age than educationally enlightening, but any film that tries to address some of the big picture issues that the cultural conversation seems to neglect is definitely worth consideration.

PopMatters Film Review:Click HERE

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Monday, Jul 31, 2006

The early press on Edmond has focused largely on the screenplay’s racial and violent content, but very little on its actual themes. Scripted by David Mamet and based on his 1982 play written in the wake of a divorce, the film’s politically incorrect language and bursts of bloodshed are merely asides to a darkly brilliant exploration into how men define their masculinity.

Edmond Burke, in yet another fantastic performance by William H. Macy, decides one day to leave his wife. He no longer loves her, he’s bored, he’s wasted his life. That’s it. Where another film would’ve spent another half hour carefully outlining all the reasoning, Edmond throws its audience, along with it’s titular lead character, into a single night in which he will try to wrest some control from a life he feels he no longer directs. Feeling completely emasculated, he ventures into New York City’s underbelly to find something that will make him feel like a man again.

Edmond’s journey finds him trying to assert himself sexually, violently, financially and otherwise with results that are shocking, hilarious and disturbing, sometimes all at the same time. The morally corrupted schemers and lowlifes that are usually the focus of Mamet’s work are merely catalysts here for Edmond’s rite of passage. And though written in the ‘80s, it thematically not only addresses masculinity but simply how we communicate in society that values capitalism over personal relationships.

The film itself is very good, with some wonderful supporting roles—particularly by Joe Mantegna and Mena Suvari. However, Edmond misses being great due to merely competent direction. Helmed by Stuart Gordon, best known for his ‘80s cult hit Re-Animator, his over-the-top, distracting gore and unsure hand with some of the dramatic scenes (particularly the sequence involving Macy and Suvari) are disappointing. Even Macy’s makeup for the final act of the film elicited laughter from the audience, and it’s unfortunate, because the closing scenes bring the Edmond and its themes to an astonishing close. One wonders at the masterpiece Edmond could’ve been in the hands of a more seasoned dramatic director, or in those of Mamet himself.

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Monday, Jul 31, 2006

Jay Leno may be a lot of things—a middling talk show host, a rabid car collector—but the one thing he is most definitely not is a film critic. The same goes for writer/director Kevin Smith. Certainly, his View Askew universe is comprised of a fanboy fascination with the ins and outs of everything movies, but the creator of Clerks and Chasing Amy is not, by trade, a critic. So it comes as something of a surprise that both men will substitute for Roger Ebert on his long running movie review series while the famed journalist continues to recover from complications centering around his recent cancer surgery. Ever since his relapse a few weeks ago, speculation has been rampant about what Touchstone will do with that aging ‘At the Movies’ artifact. With Richard Roeper safely stuck in the second seat, a decision was recently reached—a revolving set of guest hosts will sit in for Ebert on the weekly TV show. Leno will appear 4, August, while Smith fills in on the 11th.

Now, the notion of non-professionals taking up the challenge of cinematic deconstruction may raise a few eyebrows, but it’s really not all that unusual—especially with our current perception of post-modern journalism. Big name papers like the LA and New York Times have been lamenting the “blogging” of cinema scholarship as of late, arguing that it downgrades the ‘legitimate’ (read: print) media. Besides, non-insiders like Henry Rollins have used this tactic to deliver outsider takes on the artform. As part of his original IFC talk show, he brought on individuals like Rob Zombie, or a guy who occasionally works on his plumbing, and after some minor chitchat, the duo would get down to discussing the flaws in the latest Hollywood or Indie release. Always passionate, Rollins’ insights were passable at best. With an Internet overflowing with such similarly fervent recreational academics, an implied level of acceptable amateurism has been reached.

But there’s a flaw in this ‘anyone can do it’ concept, something that, not surprisingly few outside the field feel the need to address. Film fandom does not necessarily translate into film knowledge. Just because you enjoy movies doesn’t mean you have the contextual wherewithal to comment upon them. Sure, ever since Gene Siskel left for the big box office in the sky, the duo’s original concept has been reduced to a trademarked stamp of pure consumer advocacy. But when did a lowest common denominator approach (which Leno surely represents) become the appropriate substitute for a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who’s poured his life into his craft? Seems rather disingenuous to both the writer and his readership. 

Even worse, a clear commercial conflict on interest should surely be avoided at all costs. Nothing destroys the sense of fairness quicker than the appearance of an agenda-based impropriety. Inviting Smith on to discuss the Superman debacle would be wise. He’s an insider (he worked on one of the many Man of Steel projects along the way) and he’s great at turning anecdotes and observations into big picture pronouncements. But is it fair to allow him to rag on, or recommend, a competitor’s product? Wouldn’t it be like asking an ABC spokesman to review NBC’s fall lineup? More importantly, do filmmakers that Smith stomped on get an on-air chance to retaliate? If, hypothetically, he dismisses World Trade Center, does Oliver Stone get the opportunity for rebuttal, and is Smith’s entire oeuvre up for grabs at that point?

Perhaps for the outsider, the audience member looking in, all of this seems like smoke from a foundationless fire. After all, a public pissing match between so-called professionals is usually a scandalous slice of schadenfreude fun. But with the legitimate media downplaying the importance of online journalism at every turn, do we really need famous faces fighting among themselves to further denigrate the importance of real film criticism?

Sure, some critics—even famous, respected ones—can be self-important snobs who tend to treat each movie like an opportunity to show how well they studied their thesaurus, and many are so disconnected from the concept of actual entertainment that they miss the populace appeal of standard popcorn fare. But buffering a bad situation (here’s hoping Ebert a speedy and full recovery) with what amounts to stunt casting seems antithetical to the needs of the medium, the message and most importantly, the messenger. Certainly it will spike ratings (who isn’t interested in seeing Smith put the smackdown on the regularly rote Roeper) and act as a stopgap until a long-term solution is found—if and when one is deemed necessary. In our ‘hurry up and gimme’ culture of instant gratification and access to information, there may technically no longer be a need for such in-depth analysis of motion pictures. But something about this decision feels like the final nail in criticism’s coffin.

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Sunday, Jul 30, 2006

Ever since the Lumiere Brothers mystified audiences with their amazing “moving images”, film has been a confounding, creative force in modern entertainment. The visuals contained inside that bright light emanating from the little window in the back of the theater have frightened and freed us, saddened and saved us. They provide the comedy and choreography that help us escape in times of trouble, while dramatizing issues and events that keep reality and its innumerable variables in proper perspective. Cinema has been so influential, defining our sense of fashion and romance, our concept of thrills and pageantry that it’s no longer a diversion, but a deciding factor in everyday life. And it’s not just a Western conceit—movies literally make the world go round, from the fascinating frenzy of India’s Bollywood to Asia’s current cultural focus on horror, crime, and violence.

PopMatters wants its new blog, Short Ends and Leader, to act as a daily dialogue on the role film plays in our personal and pragmatic existence. Relying on our staff of astute contributors, we hope to offer unique perspectives on the industry—in our Front Page news and Hollywood Babylon gossip sections—movies as art—via the Depth of Field think piece section and our take on classic films, Past Perfect—as well as a glimpse into elements outside the mainstream featured in The Other. In addition, our regular Short Cuts section will highlight theatrical films that you may have missed, forgotten gems that deserve another look, and those horribly addictive guilty pleasures that satisfy something primordial in our otherwise ‘astute’ approach to amusement. Add in weekly guides to what’s new on DVD (Who’s Minding the Store), and films worth catching on the small screen (Viewer Discretion Advised) and you have a comprehensive forum for the discussion, and dissection, of movies and their meaning.

This conversation is not exclusive however, and strives to include as many divergent voices and opinions as possible. The Short Ends and Leader blog will always be open to input—from sources inside the magazine, the business of show and amongst our readership as well. Let us know what you think, what interests or bothers you, what aspects of film are over considered and/or under appreciated. After all, a dialogue is only effective when both sides are communicating. Short Ends and Leader will always be more than happy to start things off. The rest will be up to you.

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