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Thursday, Aug 10, 2006

One of the strange things about the pay cable schedule for premier movies is that it always seems to be approximately one year removed from release date reality. It used to be that channels like HBO and Showtime regularly BEAT home video to the exclusive, offering first looks at famous films before VHS could spread the cinematic wealth. Nowadays, day and date issues with DVD have more or less destroyed cable’s ability to title co-opt. For the week of 11 August, it’s more or less the Summer of 2005 all over again. Among the options offered are the following hits, miss and the typical unnecessary sequel:



HBOCharlie and the Chocolate Factory*

Criminally underrated when it hit theaters (mostly because of baby boomers lamenting the very thought of remaking the 1971 Gene Wilder “classic”), the immensely talented duo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp deliver a fractured fairy tale for the glorified geek ages. From the film’s incredible look to the emotionally satisfying backstory given to the creepy-cool character of Willy Wonka, this duo created an instant masterpiece. Take this opportunity to savor the flavor this cinematic confection offers. (Premieres Saturday 12 August, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review:
PopMatters DVD Review


CinemaxRed Eye*

In what many consider to be the better of last year’s ‘thriller on an airplane’ films (the other being Jodie Foster’s decent Flightplan) horror maestro Wes Craven proves there is more to his moviemaking mantle than ghouls and gore. With exceptional performances from Rachel McAdams and the shockingly sinister Cillian Murphy, as well as a terrifically tight script by TV scribe Carl Ellsworth (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) this clockwork bit of airborne claustrophobia was a surefire sleeper when it hit theaters. Here’s thinking it will play equally well on the small screen. (Premieres Saturday 12 August, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzThe Legend of Zorro (2005)

Add this to the category of sequels nobody wanted or needed. Seven years after the first film was an unqualified summer smash, director Martin Campbell is back and he’s brought along sword swingers Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Set ten years after the events of the previous plot, our masked hero must balance his devotion to avenging the common man with the pressures of a wife and family. Add in the standard action set pieces, a minor amount of political intrigue (Old California considers joining the rest of the “United” states) and you’ve got an overly familiar retread of the original.  (Premieres Saturday 12 August, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review
PopMatters DVD Review


Showtime Too - Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

In the free-for-all to find their own franchise, ala Harry Potter, Paramount and Dreamworks opted for a slightly darker, far dopier kid lit icon. Daniel Handler’s novels may be blithe black comedies for the grade school set, but their Gaham Wilson wannabe humor has a hard time translating to the big screen. Even with an amazing production design and stellar turns from Meryl Streep, Billy Connolly, and perhaps the perfect Count Olaf, the jaunty Jim Carrey, there is still something hollow about this scattered adaptation. While it warrants a look, it’s definitely no threat to a certain series featuring that famous boy wizard. (Saturday 12 August, 8pm EST)


PopMatters Review
PopMatters DVD 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 11 August to 18 August are:



16 August – Joseph Cotten

He worked with Welles, Hitchcock and many other premier filmmakers in his long, illustrious career. And some of the best examples are offered in this delightfully divergent celebration, including:
6:00 am From The Earth To The Moon (1958)
7:45 am Citizen Kane (1941)* 
9:45 am Magnificent Ambersons, The (1942) * 
11:15 am Orson Welles: The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice (1952) 
1:00 pm F for Fake (1973) * 
2:30 pm Jack Of Diamonds (1967) 
4:30 am White Comanche (1968) 
6:15 pm Soylent Green (1973) * 
8:00 pm Love Letters (1945) 
10:00 pm Third Man, The (1949) * 
12:00 am Abominable Dr. Phibes, The (1971) *
1:45 am Man With A Cloak, The (1951) 
3:15 am Journey Into Fear (1942) 
4:30 am Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)


18 August– Bela Lugosi


Poor Dracula – hung out to dry by a studio system that didn’t know what to do with his hammy Hungarian pride. As a result, many of the films featured here harm instead of help this horror maestro’s myth. Your choices include:
6:00 am Thirteenth Chair, The (1929)* 
7:15 am Broadminded (1931) 
8:30 am White Zombie (1932)* 
9:45 am Death Kiss, The (1933)
11:00 am Mark Of The Vampire (1935) 
12:00 pm Spooks Run Wild (1941) 
1:15 pm Ghosts on the Loose (1943) 
2:30 pm Gorilla, The (1939)
3:45 pm Zombies On Broadway (1945) 
5:00 pm Genius At Work (1947) 
6:15 pm You’ll Find Out (1940)
8:00 pm Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)*
9:30 pm Island of Lost Souls (1933)* 
11:00 pm Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) 
12:15 am Devil Bat, The (1940)*
1:30 am Body Snatcher, The (1945)
2:45 am Scared To Death (1947) 


* = PopMatters Picks


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Thursday, Aug 10, 2006



Andersson commented that her work on Through a Glass Darkly (which brought Bergman a second consecutive Academy Award in 1961) almost did not happen. She said it was the only time she considered not going to work. She was newly married with a baby when Bergman sent her the script, which asked her to play a schizophrenic. The actress turned him down flat. Bergman convinced her to visit a sanitarium and talk to doctors, figuring she might find a way into this character. She considered the notion of people who are very disturbed and sick - yet not having visible signs of same - to be a very challenging, intriguing acting prospect and quickly changed her mind, maintaining that “it’s very difficult to say ‘No’ to Ingmar Bergman”.


Cries and Whispers, the director’s 1972 masterwork, a visceral and intriguing mediation on death and afterlife, family, loyalty and feminine mystery, is widely considered by many film enthusiasts to be among the best films ever made. From the stark red, white and black art direction to cameraman Sven Nykvist’s other-worldly photographic style, all of the technical aspects of the movie blend beautifully with the intense, uncanny performances.  Playing Maria and Karin, sisters halfheartedly keeping watch over another dying sibling, Bergman greats Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin generate heated emotion and subtlety in their characters, adding to the film’s ethereal and haunting qualities. As the pained, desperate and ghostly Agnes, Andersson gives arguably the most triumphant, nuanced and fully realized performance of her distinguished career.


Clearly, Andersson’s insights into the physical and emotional preparation for playing Agnes were most incisive and detailed. She recalled, with clear fondness and sadness, that she borrowed heavily for the role of the dying woman by dredging up memories of her father, who himself suffered a slow, horrible death from cancer. She explained that watching someone she knew and loved experience such personal hardship was the basis for her entire performance. She did not diet to achieve her corpse-like look. It was actually realized more through make up than an actual physical transformation - though Andersson said that Bergman did tell her to stay up late and not get any sleep, the very opposite of his usual instructions. She said that she almost lost her lips because of the make up used to create her mouth sores. The corrosive mixture that was to go on her face even ate through the cup it was mixed in!


She went on to say that as an actor, you must have discipline in your work and remember that it is a job. It was advice that helped her get through the wrenching performance. She also said there was under pressure because funding for motion pictures was almost impossible to secure (as she put it, “who wants to see a film about three sisters, one dying, one promiscuous and one who puts glass up her ‘va-guy-na’”). She said she knew what the stakes were, and that results in a performance of easy potency.

Andersson said there was never any need to adlib with Bergman because his scripts were literally so perfect that there literally was no need for embellishment. She also said that Bergman was open to the possibility of adding things, yet usually used just the first or second takes. Andersson noted she was never surprised or shocked at the director’s sometimes incendiary narrative. During her career she had been sent a variety of scripts: one, in particular, was a Greek tragedy where, at one point in the script, the director wanted her to play a table, down on all fours, completely in the nude. She also said it was impossible for her to accept work from other countries because it’s too hard to act in another language.


She mentioned her appearance in the experimental Lars Von Trier film Dogville, where she played Gloria, cousin of Lauren Bacall’s shopkeeper Ma Ginger. Andersson said that while it was a small part, she was delighted to take it. She commented that it was very fun to work with the cast, particularly Bacall, who she said she would engage her in little fights every day on the set. Bacall would yell at her not to touch her things in the “store” and she would say “Please, can I wash the windows or sweep or something?” She praised the director’s unconventional story, and when asked if it was the most unusual film she had been a part of, she looked justifiably shocked. Anderrson did, after all, contribute notable acting to some of the most iconic and remarkable European films of all time.


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Wednesday, Aug 9, 2006



Film lovers of the world rarely get to bask in the glow of first-hand recollections from a long time principal performer of one of world cinema’s treasured directors. Arriving at the 56th annual Berlinale International Film Festival, it was immensely pleasing to see that master Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s legendary performer Harriet Andersson appearing. She was there to introduce a restored print of Bergman’s 1952 classic Sommaren mit Monika (The Summer with Monika), as well as taking part in a panel discussion on women in film.


On the first night of the festival, Andersson introduced a print of Bergman’s 1952 work, an adaptation that launched her acting career and made her an international sex symbol. Andersson would later become the object of carnal inspiration for filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard and Woody Allen, both of whom cite Andersson’s sly, raw performance as a seminal growing up experience. This qualified Andersson to be part of the “Traumfrauen” (dream girls) series of the festival, to which she jokingly claimed was quite impossible as she simply didn’t enjoy getting up at 4 or 5 AM to sit in the make up and hairdresser’s chairs like the other women included (among them Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardener and Audrey Hepburn). “Too much work to look like that”, she said modestly, making it quite clear that she started her career without the intention of being a style icon.


Monika is a very basic story about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who takes up with a nice guy. Of course he doesn’t see how immature and manipulative she really is. Though obviously still a fledgling auteur at the time, Bergman, brings many small flourishes to the film that would become a staple of his later works. Starting with his stark, almost brutal photography of the natural elements (such as the sea) and continuing onto his quite renowned confrontational “close-up” technique, Monika showed a stylistic flair that Bergman would improve and perfect in his subsequent years. Andersson discussed the importance of this film, how it redefining Sweden in the world’s eyes from a medieval place filled with Vikings and ice to a sexy, lush paradise where beautiful landscapes were as abundant as the beautiful Swedes.


The director and actress embarked on a short-lived sexual affair following the filming, but Andersson claimed the infamous director “terrified” her, despite also teaching her more than anyone in her entire career. Andersson also noted that he was “evil” and liked to “beat” performances out of actors, which brought the house down with laughter. She also spoke about her infamous nude scenes, which were initially cut from the original American release (they were later restored). She dismissed the idea that nudity should be sensational, calling the scenes natural, not in any way obscene, jokingly telling the capacity crowd to “enjoy my boobs”.


Unfortunately, “the boobs” were about the only things that were enjoyable about this dry, dated examination of Swedish youth culture. Without having Andersson’s essential commentary prior to the screening, it is likely the audience would have either fallen asleep or perhaps left the theater. The spark of a fruitful artistic collaboration was apparent, though excruciating to sit through in this fledgling stage.


The following night, on the eve of her 75th birthday, Andersson, looking sprightly in flashy gold sneakers and fur, sat down with a devoted crowd at the Berlin Film Museum to talk about her career, her affiliation with Bergman and what she has learned as an actress.



End of Part 1


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Tuesday, Aug 8, 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 2: Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”)
1955, B&W, Bengali.
Dir: Satyajit Ray


If Raj Kapoor is the master of Indian commercial cinema, India’s art-house maestro is Satyajit Ray.  Lionized in the last fifteen years by critics and filmmakers like Pauline Kael, Louis Malle and Martin Scorsese, Ray is India’s most well known director in the West.  See Pather Panchali, Ray’s first film, and you’ll understand why.  Ray takes the story of a young boy, Apu, and his family in a remote village and elevates it into an epic narrative of loss and survival.  The grainy realism of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, served as an inspiration for Ray’s filmmaking style. But, his unique visual documentation of the character’s environment, the dense, sultry jungle of rural West Bengal, its tranquility, its rain, its heat, remains the most palpable experience of the film. The shot of Apu’s sister playing in the midst of the monsoon rains, twirling round and round in delirious excitement, her long hair flying across her face, her drenched sari clinging to her wiry body, is one of the most painterly visions ever put on film. But Pather Panchali is a story about poverty, and Ray understands that nature, for all its beauty, is equivocal. The Apu Trilogy—Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu—unfolds like a Greek saga, where each of the three phases of Apu’s life, boyhood, adolescence, adulthood, is marked by the death of a loved one, a woman.  After each stage we see him struggle, harden, and ultimately, accept what life has left him. In a country that clings to the concept of karma, Ray’s films resonate with haunting clarity and sadness.


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Monday, Aug 7, 2006

It’s definitely the dog days of DVD summer this Tuesday. Unless you are interested in failed TV shows, outsider genre offerings (with less than tantalizing titles like Back Woods, The Tooth Fairy and Electric Zombies—UGH!) or various permutations of the rock and roll vanity project (video collection concert performance, etc) there’s very little in the way of legitimate mainstream motion picture fare. While this means that those few identifiable releases are guaranteed a bigger slice of the consumer pie, such a selection won’t necessarily drive patrons to the old brick and mortar. After all, will you be going out of your weekly way for the gay comedy Adam and Steve? Or some butchered box set of Westerns/Mysteries/Horror offerings? So take the following list with a healthy dose of skeptic’s salt. PopMatters isn’t necessarily recommending them—“recognizing’ may be a better term. The selections that grabbed SE&L’s attention for August 8 are, in alphabetical order:



Brick
Beginning like a typical teen thriller, then slowly sinking into a prickly post-modern noir, this third film from director Rian Johnson is a real Indie gem. Featuring a clockwork script, impressive acting, and enough twists to keep you guessing right up until the end, this throwback to the days when men were macho, women were cheap and crime never paid (it just loaned out its joys for reimbursement later) can be a little bracing at first. After all, we aren’t used to high school students talking like pulp private dicks. Yet once it discovers its own particular rhythms and settles into its unfolding puzzle box story, the result is something unique indeed.
PopMatters Review


The Hidden Blade
As much a revisionist look at the samurai film as a staunch follower of same, Blade represents writer-director Yoji Yamada’s second installment in his trilogy based on a series of novels by Shuuhei Fujisawa. In a career that’s spanned 41 years and 77 films, Yamada was mostly known for his Toro-san films—all 48 of them. But with 2002’s superb The Twilight Samurai, Yamada garnered a great deal of critical attention. Twilight was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and walked away with 13 Japanese Academy Awards. Word is that Blade is just as good as it’s predecessor. If true, this bodes well for this DVD release—and the upcoming Bushi no ichibun, the final installment in the triad.


Inside Man
Spike Lee spices up the heist film with his own unique brand of urban angst, and brings Tinsel Town A-teamers Denzel Washington, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen along for the ride. He ended up with the biggest box office hit of his career, and an outpouring of critical affection almost unheard of in this auteur’s 20-plus years behind the lens. While some felt the ending was unsatisfying, especially in light of all that came before it, this is still one of the most entertaining and engaging films in the director’s diverse career. It offers a maturity and an intelligence that argues for a new phase in the filmmaker’s always contentious canon. 
PopMatters Review


The Jayne Mansfield Collection
Consisting of three of Mansfield’s more memorable movie turns (The Girl Can’t Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw), this is one compendium overloaded with both cinematic and camp value. Loads of DVD extras (commentaries, documentaries, featurettes) and pristine transfers help disprove the theory that Mansfield was nothing more than a low rent Marilyn Monroe. Though she never really got a chance to stretch as an actress, this is one sex symbol that was more than an over-inflated chest—at least, for a short while. 


Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector
While utilizing the human personification of the New South NASCAR numbskull, this member of the Blue Collar Comedy tour takes fat, drunk and stupid to whole new levels with his first feature film. What a man with questionable hygiene would know about wellness and cleanliness must be one of those Tinsel Town issues resolved by that cinematic catch-all, the suspension of disbelief. With the late great Jim Varney unable to rise from the dead and pump out another Ernest P. Worrell extravaganza, we’ll just have to settle for this entertainer whose more catchphrase than comic. 


Manderlay
As the second film in Danish director Lars Von Trier’s proposed trilogy on the United States (entitled “USA – Land of Opportunity), Manderlay lost its original lead (Dogville‘s Nicole Kidman) and gained a potential young talent in The Village‘s Bryce Dallas Howard. This, and other casting changes didn’t bother critics as much as the storyline’s suggestion that right minded liberals may not always have the best interest of “the races” at heart. Sure, all of the first film’s tricks (bare stages, chalk mark “buildings”) are present and accounted for in this plantation potboiler, but no one can successfully mesh art with outrage like Von Trier. Sadly, this may be the filmmaker’s final word on such a provocative subject. The final film (Wasington) is currently on ‘indefinite hold’.
PopMatters Review


Shinbone Alley
Image offers up its own digital version of this 1971 rarity, a crazy cartoon featuring music by George Kleinsinger, a script by Mel Brooks and Joe Darion, and all based on a Broadway show compiled from the stories by Don Marquis (noted New York newspaper columnist and short story writer). This tale of Archy the author who’s reincarnated as a cockroach, only to fall in love with a fickle feline named Mehitabel, has long been hailed as either a work of visionary pen and ink grandeur, or a minor effort in the otherwise bloated world of ‘70s serious animation. With a tagline that shouts “It’s sophisticated enough for kids, simple enough for adults!”, it’s kind of hard to tell which side is right.


And Now for Something Completely Different

In a new weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 8 August:


Ghost in the Teeny Bikini
Ever wonder what porn stars do in their off hours. Why, they make low budget softcore sex romps. The fearless Fred Olen Ray, responsible for such hack classics as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Invisible Mom, and Teenage Cavegirl, is on hand to tell the story of an actress named… Muffin Baker, who returns to her hometown to attend the reading of her dead Uncle’s will. Of course, all kinds of spooky and sexy hi-jinx ensue. With Method meat puppet Evan Stone along for the ‘ride’ and enough sin and skin to keep an adolescent boy ‘engaged’ for hours, this sort of self-effacing schlock has been Ray’s bread and bodkin butter for decades now. Apparently someone likes what he does.



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